The Community

“Hillel said: do not separate from the community” (Avot 2:4).

So where is the American Jewish community on the matter of the Iran nuclear deal? In truth, better than expected, notwithstanding the noisy pockets of resistance to the eminently moral and logical opposition to US acquiescence in the creation of an Iranian nuclear threshold state. The matter can be boiled down to its simplest elements: why would the US concede – even a decade hence – the creation of an Iranian nuclear bomb, provide $150B in unfrozen assets to allow Iran to increase its support of terror around the world, agree to allow unlimited acquisition of conventional weapons, essentially rely on Iran to guarantee its compliance with the present limitations and commit to defending Iran’s nuclear program from acts of sabotage – all for a nation whose leaders routinely join public parades in which they and the masses shout “Death to America?”

Furnishing your enemies with deadly weapons in the hope that such will moderate their behavior has been tried – here in Israel – and without success. Pursuant to the Oslo Accords, Israel gave guns and rifles to the PLO – which they promptly used to murder Israelis. That was a crazy idea then; to assist your enemy in building nuclear bombs is infinitely crazier.

So where are the Jews?

The other day, I gave a talk to a group of Israelis, one of whom asked about a pending “civil war” between Jews in America over the Iran deal, about which he had read. I said, with some sadness, that there cannot be a civil war among American Jewry because war requires a battlefield, and there is not sufficient interaction between the right and the left (loosely defined) or between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox to provoke even a skirmish, much less a war.

The dark secret is that there really isn’t an American Jewish “community” as such. It is too fragmented to be a community, and if one expected that a crisis would bring everyone together, well, either a pending Iranian bomb is not a “crisis” or the proposition is untrue.

It’s untrue, and the fragmentation has worsened over the last few decades, as the rate of assimilation and disconnect from a substantive Jewish identity have escalated. For too many Jews, Jewishness is an aspect of their identity, and often one that is entirely ethnic and not at all national or religious. Add to that the skyrocketing intermarriage rate and the offspring of those marriages who have but a tenuous connection to Jewish life and we have a full-fledged crisis that will not be ameliorated even by padding the statistics of the Jewish population of the United States by counting halachic non-Jews or even anyone who claims a Jewish identity.

In principle I have never objected to those who voice disagreement with the policies of the Israeli government when warranted. I have done it myself, of course, but at least my views were always reflecting the views of a sizable segment of Israeli society and usually that of a political party. But today Israelis from right to left, the government and most of the Jewish opposition, decisively oppose the Iran deal as bad for Israel, for the United States and the free world. For American Jews to stand against that type of support is not only anti-Israel but an act of alienation from the fate of the Jewish people. In it, they cast their lot with Israel’s enemies and publicly proclaim that their primary allegiance is to Barack Obama and the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.

Placed in that context, a letter of support for the Iran deal signed by more than 300 “rabbis” is more easily digestible. Their estrangement from the Jewish people and the Torah happened long ago. Almost all the “rabbis” are not Torah observant; apparently only one Orthodox Rabbi – a known leftist and maverick – signed on. Of all the “rabbis” on the list, I would shocked if even one had a weekday Mincha/Maariv in the temple. How many wear tefillin (men, of course)? How many keep Shabbat? How many study the Talmud – not extract stories and parables for sermons, but actually study the Talmud and Codes? These are professional Jewish leftists whose primary religion is leftism, not Judaism.

A letter opposing the Iran deal has already attracted almost 400 rabbis’ signatures, and will be released shortly. But what matters more than the numbers is the message: having abandoned Torah and Mitzvot, the leftist “rabbis” have also abandoned any semblance of Jewish solidarity.

That is why it is cause for hope that several major Jewish organizations of liberal affiliation have publicly expressed their opposition to Obama’s Bad Deal. The Reform movement, caught betwixt and between, officially, publicly and thoughtfully took…no position, seeing the good (?) and the bad. Sadly, they are just immobilized by their liberal ideology. The conflict of identity must be painful. Their reticence is no great surprise, as is their irrelevance to Jewish destiny. On the matter of whether or not to allow nuclear weaponry to a genocidal enemy of the Jewish people, the Reform movement, like their hero in the White House during his legislative days, voted “present.”

But the organizational opponents, as well as senators like Chuck Schumer, deserve credit even though their rejection of the Bad Deal should be obvious. It is obvious, but that doesn’t make their breaking ranks with Obama and company any easier for them. It’s easy for me. But their world views and Obama’s are so synchronized that their rebuff to Obama, who, typically, is handling it with his usual gracelessness, pettiness, and vindictiveness, speaks well of the spark of Jewishness that remains and still animates them. Even combining their rejection of the deal with fulsome praise of Obama doesn’t make it less courageous – and even if, as some have suggested, Schumer wouldn’t have opposed it if he really thought it would not pass does not detract from his willingness to defy the White House. If Schumer would now actively whip votes against it like he regularly did for other of Obama’s harmful legislation, Schumer might even achieve “statesman” status. Hope springs eternal.

Obviously, the Obama-compliant media loves to trumpet the Jews who are supportive of the Bad Deal, being insensate to the realities of American Jewish communal life and the fragile Jewish identity of most American Jews. But they are the exceptions, unsurprising exceptions at that, with very little influence in Jewish life.

As Rabbenu Yonah comments (ibid): “When the community joins to do a mitzvah, it is a crown to the Life-giver of the universe and brings glory to His entire kingdom.” This is the mitzvah of the moment. Now is the time to take sides, and to stand up for the Jewish people, America, and lovers of freedom and combat the forces of evil, tyranny and appeasement. For many Jews, their response will be their defining act of Jewish identity, perhaps in their lives. History will judge harshly those who side with murderous tyrants against the purveyors of good, and no cover will be provided by noting the “reservations” to the Bad Deal that some supporters have.

Win or lose, nothing will be over, and the struggle will continue. May it continue with a strong, united and proud Jewish community.

Versions of Conversions

There are few things that are not politicized in Israel and none more so than the interface of religion and state. Add to that society’s tendency to see every disagreement as a tempest and every tempest as a conflagration, and the news cycle loudly trumpets every innovation or deviation, extracts from them what is necessary to further the media or various interest groups’ agendas – and then moves on.

That and more explains the controversial decision this week by a group of Religious-Zionist rabbis to initiate their own conversion program, largely aimed at averting what is perceived as the crisis of status of Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to halacha – numbering at least 300,000 people and perhaps many more. The subtext is an attempt to bypass, weaken and perhaps even replace the Chief Rabbinate and all its constituents.

As there are already a small number of independent conversion courts, why then is this one – headed by Rav David Stav – so controversial? Why is the Chief Rabbinate against it? And why have many other Religious-Zionist rabbis – luminaries such as Rav Druckman, Rav Lior, Rav Levanon, Rav Baruch Efrati and others – come out vehemently in opposition to this new Bet Din?

Parenthetically, many of the main protagonists here are personally known to me, and I respect all of them. And, granted, it is never good when rabbis argue in public (or in private, for that matter). Of course, all rabbinic disputes are conducted for the sake of Heaven, except when they are not, and sometimes “for the sake of Heaven” has to be defined somewhat loosely. So what is going on?

There is a combustible mix of personalities, hashkafa, normative v. lenient interpretations of halacha, the perceived Haredization of the Rabbinate, bitterness over election defeats and genuine concern over the status of the olim from the FSU who are not construed as full Jews. Where to begin?

Proponents of the new Bet Din announced this week that they had converted a number of children, and child conversion has always been perceived as a way out of this morass. While adult conversion requires the full acceptance of mitzvot, the conversion of a minor who cannot formally accept mitzvot is done “al daat Bet Din,” upon the authority and with the approval and guidance of the Jewish court. It is as if the Bet Din stands in loco parentis and issues its guarantee that the child will be observant when he/she comes of age and has the right to renounce the conversion done on his/her behalf.

The operative principle is the Talmudic notion that we are allowed to confer a benefit on someone even if they are unaware it (as opposed to the assessment of a liability, which requires his knowledge and consent. The working assumption is that attaining the status of a Jew is a benefit – but (so holds the majority opinion) only if the child will be a practicing, observant Jew. To take a non-Jew, convert him, and serve him a ham sandwich renders him liable for actions that were permitted to him in his prior situation. That would be unfair to the convert.

Here’s the dilemma: if a child is born to a non-Jewish mother, or is adopted from two non-Jewish parents, and is then raised in a home that is not observant of mitzvot, can the Bet Din credibly say that the child will live as an observant Jew? On what grounds could such a presumption be made? In a centralized conversion system with defined rules, such a child might be converted only if the parents embrace fundamental mitzvot such as Shabbat, Kashrut, membership in an Orthodox shul and a commitment to send the child to yeshiva. That gives confidence to the Bet Din that the child will not only be Jewish but live and behave like a Jew.

It is an open question whether such is possible in a decentralized, independent system in which no demands are made on the parents and the motivation to convert lies outside the system of halacha and is rooted in nationalist concerns.

Thus, the other day on the radio, one of the proponents of the new Bet Din was underscoring its importance to Israeli society by engaging, unbeknownst to him, in a series of non sequiturs. He explained that leniency is required in all these conversions because there are too many people living in Israel who are not Jews but speak Hebrew, serve in the army, interact with society and marry Jews. “The rate of intermarriage is escalating!” All that might be true but is not really relevant. Hebrew speech, army service, and participation in Israeli society may define someone as an Israeli but it does not make them a Jew according to halacha. There are thousands of Sudanese children who speak Hebrew; that doesn’t make them Jews. Even the fear of intermarriage cannot be allayed by mass conversion of those ineligible, as the American experience teaches us. Frivolous conversions designed to forestall intermarriages just lead the parties to discount the necessity of conversion altogether. Becoming a Jew should require something more than becoming a member of AAA.

Some want to rely on a minority view that people with Jewish fathers (“zera Yisrael”) should have an easier route to conversion. There is some logic to that, especially when those individuals always saw themselves as Jews. They do not feel the sense of displacement of their prior lives that converts who are complete outsiders have. But the classical sources recognize only the full acceptance of mitzvot – accompanied by the requisite ritual acts – as the tickets of entry into the Jewish people. Zera Yisrael, as a mitigator of Kabbalat Hamitzvot, is something new, as it tends to undermine the conventional standard of Jewishness determined by the mother’s status.

The ease with which the radio speaker conflated Israeli-hood with Jewishness belied the reality that those two designations intersect but are not identical. The proof is that there are over one million Israelis who are not Jews. Moreover, the speaker’s contention that the conversions planned for adults will entail full “Kabbalat Hamitzvot” is also not credible; if it were, the authorized Bet Din of the Rabbanut could do (and does) the same. Obviously, then, the standards have to be reduced in order to accommodate the purported masses who wish to convert but cannot do so (only a few thousand apply to convert now annually in Israel) because they cannot or will not embrace the mitzvot.

This is not to belittle the problem, which was caused by the mass immigration of Soviet citizens under a Law of Return that employed Hitler’s standard of Jewishness (one Jewish grandparent) rather than that of the Torah. But the problem is not solved by creating a second tier of converts whose status will be disputed from generation to generation. And, as noted here repeatedly, the Knesset or Supreme Court can determine who is an Israeli. It has no authority to alter the requirements for conversion to Judaism any more than it can change Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday. Of course if the parents genuinely grow in their Torah commitment then the conversion of minors will be effective and resolve most of the problem within a generation or two.

But the solution to a Torah problem does not rest in abrogating Torah principles but in handling all cases individually and sensitively.

That is easier said than done. The Rabbanut has been plagued for quite some time by the presence of some petty bureaucrats who seem to delight in posing obstacles, fabricating demands and even challenging the acceptability of conversions from rabbis whose conversions were properly accepted – and for a long, long time. In truth, little of this is ever known by the Chief Rabbis, any more than the CEO of a manufacturing company will know whether or not the floor worker is tightening every screw. He won’t – but he will have to pick up the pieces when it is discovered that the screws were not tightened properly.

These indignities are too common. A venerable rabbi originally from North America just told me of his dismay in having a conversion of his rejected by a bureaucrat forty years younger than him who merely said “I don’t know who you are,” even if older rabbis there did know and accept him. That is disgraceful, but not as much as the rejection of the young woman who had converted as an infant, was raised fully observant and now told she had to re-convert in order to marry in Israel.

That type of “tormenting the convert,” a Torah prohibition, should invalidate any rabbinic bureaucrat from serving in that capacity, for he is less observant that the people on whom he is sitting in judgment. That too has to change, and competition in that sphere would be wonderful except for the chaos that it causes.

And chaos is would be. Rav Stav ran for Chief Rabbi, campaigning for the establishment of the very Bet Din that he has now established. But he lost, and post-election recriminations never look good. And changes are afoot even in the Rabbanut, but all bureaucracies grind slowly if they grind at all. The Chief Rabbi, Rav David Lau, is perceived as a typical Haredi by those who do not know him, but…and what if he were? If the Haredi world are the holdouts in preserving the purity of Torah law from the modernists who often yearn to shape the Torah according to the prevailing winds, then so be it. We need them.

The irony is that Rav Kook wrote that the galut was noted for its fragmentation of Jewish life whereas as we move closer to the Messianic era – including the re-establishment of the Jewish state – we would once again merit “rikuziyut,” centralization of religious function and national life. Centralization – the bane of modernists who seek the freedom to innovate and compromise without consequences – is actually an indicator of growing unity in the Jewish world that will render us amenable to the coming of Moshiach. Odd, indeed, that the so-called Haredim wish to preserve the Rabbanut (of course, I recognize that they use it largely for their own purposes and discount it when they wish…) while some of the followers of Rav Kook wish to dismantle it. Strange world!

Not every single problem can be resolved. Life is complicated, and the complicated is complicated for a reason. But individuals who genuinely want to be – or have been for decades – part of the Torah world should never be scorned, turned away or disparaged.

What cannot be gainsaid is the assault on rabbinic authority implicit in this new Bet Din (as well as others that have sprung up across the Jewish world because they have found “solutions” to intractable problems, those “solutions” simply being rejected past practices). As this Bet Din undermines the authority of the Rabbanut, so too some other group will reject the authority of the new Bet Din, as a fourth will then spurn the authority of the third. The result is anarchy and the complete collapse of any enduring sense of Jewish nationhood and the unity of Torah.

There is a better way, and it would be best if all parties stepped back from the precipice and found that better way through dialogue of the wise rather than the acts of the impatient.

Hot Season

Here in Israel, the temperatures have topped 100 degrees. Even hotter is the police blotter, which recorded the spasms of violence on back-to-back days last week that still dominates the news and street discussions and has prompted the customary search for Israel’s “lost” soul. Each act of violence – each despicable and contemptible in its own right – is not attributed to the perpetrators alone but to the group whence the perps allegedly emerged. There is something unsettling and unfair about that but it has become fairly standard in Israel. No “religious” person is ever just an individual; no Haredi or settler is ever a lone wolf. Lone wolves can only emerge from certain protected ethnic groups. As for the rest of us, any depraved or fiendish acts of one person are wielded as clubs with which to beat entire groups.

On Thursday, the Mitz’ad Hagaava (“Pride Parade”) in Yerushalayim was brutally invaded by a lone assailant in Haredi garb who randomly stabbed various participants and one police officer. One young girl has died. The photographic accounts reveal his crazed eyes, just as his writings reveal his lunatic ranting and unhinged hatred of the homosexuals and supporters who were marching.

His actions were pure evil and the fact that he had just been released from a decade’s incarceration for committing the exact same crime is testament to a distorted soul. (It is also a staggering police failure; the accused boasted of his intentions in writing from the moment he was freed from prison, and nothing was done to thwart him.) Frankly, it is hard to rationally explain the depth of such hatred. It’s not normal, and one reason why there has been across-the-board condemnations of his vile conduct. Who stabs people because they disagree with them or even oppose their lifestyle choices? It is insane behavior, if not clinically or legally then at least as far as normal people go about their business. Even the Haredi group that was protesting the parade – and with good reason – denounced the assailant. His actions were beyond the pale and if he never again breathes fresh air as a free person, that is fine with me. What a wasted, empty life; I can only suspect that it has been filled with torments unknown to us that has brought him to such a self-destructive and violent state. Personally, I cannot fathom such hatred for anyone who has done me no harm.

There is no Torah precept and no Jewish ethic that can rationalize such bizarre, depraved conduct. (Forget the facile analogies to Pinchas; marching in a parade is not a sin.) No person can take the law into his own hands to attack people who have done nothing untoward to him, whatever their celebrations are about. That part is easy.

This is not: must the “pride” community continue to antagonize the sensibilities of denizens of the Holy City with a parade celebrating what, after all, still remains a sin? Can’t they show a modicum of respect for others? This is not to say that they provoked the violence. No one provokes violence because no human being has the right to attack another human being who poses him no threat. They could have marched anywhere, and this evil nut would have tracked them down. But can’t Yerushalayim at least be off limits – must the very source of G-d’s moral teachings be host to their trampling?

I am not disputing the legal or even civil rights of the marchers, but their judgment. Can’t there be even a little tolerance for those who adhere to a traditional morality? If a group that advocated traditional morality wished to demonstratively parade through Greenwich Village, I would feel that too is inappropriate. Why be in someone else’s face? Why seek to bother people? The “pride” community has won such major victories in the last several years across the world. Can’t it accept its victories with grace and just seek to blend into society instead of standing out? Can’t they tolerate what others regard as sacred?

Again, this is not to say that the parade in Yerushalayim provoked this monster in Haredi garb to violence. We don’t accept this notion of provocation – if anyone doesn’t like it or them, then just have a little self-control. Stay home. Shout nasty slogans from the sidelines. But stab people? Vicious, ridiculous and criminal.

Nevertheless, Yerushalayim should be different. March in Tel Aviv. It’s more welcoming there. To make the point clearer, I am sure that on some abstract level 1000 Jews have the right to march through Gaza or Tehran carrying an Israeli flag and singing Hatikvah without fear of violence, There must be some UN Conventions that protect that right. But is it prudent to insist on every right where people will be agitated by it – not agitated to violence, G-d forbid – but just agitated? It just doesn’t seem very nice.

That aside, I grieve for the dead and pray for the complete recovery of all the wounded because what was done to them should not be done to anyone.

While reeling from this news, later that evening unknown assailants torched two houses in an Arab village in Samaria. One was empty but the other was inhabited, and one infant was murdered and three other family members were injured.

That the assailants’ identity is yet unknown has not precluded wholesale and widespread denunciations of settlers, rabbis, Orthodox Jews, etc. (Today’s rumor suggested the crime resulted from an internal Arab feud, so what follows should be read with caution.) When the suspects are presumed to be from a disfavored class and the victims from a protected class, the usual inhibitions against the application of collective guilt tend to disappear.

Assuming the worst – that it was a band of young settlers taking vengeance for whatever – it should be clear that this type of murder is illegal, abhorrent, embarrassing and unbecoming a Jew. It should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but properly so, not the usual police tactic of mass arrests and leaked accusations to see what shakes out. The situation in Judea and Samaria is difficult, to say the least, but the taking of innocent life is unacceptable. To suggest that all Arabs are enemies because some, even many, are is immoral and heinous. Committed Jews do not act this way. We protect the innocent, and harass the guilty until they are subdued.

I could leave it at that – platitudinous and obvious as it is – but the full picture would thereby not be conveyed. We should understand the context, not to justify what happened but to ensure that it never happens again.

Here’s where I depart from the piling on, especially before any facts are actually known. (At this point, if the police find that Arabs were responsible for this crime, no one will believe them anyway.) We should try, as the liberals always do, to understand the milieu which can produce young people who would allegedly kill the innocent. What is that milieu? The average 20-25 year old in Judea and Samaria has grown up in homes that are situated in the heartland of Israel but territory that the world and one-third of his countrymen consider “occupied,” even as he has been taught that it is holy land given to us by G-d and worth the ultimate sacrifice. He has seen hundreds of his friends and neighbors killed or wounded, with every trip on the highway being fraught with potential danger. He has seen the murderers and attackers of his friends and neighbors arrested, convicted, incarcerated – and then released in prisoner exchanges. As such, he has contempt for the law – law that does nothing to protect his life and his home.

He has grown up hearing his country’s media blame him for the absence of peace – not just in Israel but across the Middle East and probably the world. He has witnessed numerous terrorist attacks against his friends and neighbors that are simply not reported by the media, including some 75 attacks (shootings, stoning of cars, and the occasional

firebomb) just in the last two weeks. Few in the general society even care about it. He sees the wailing and lament over the loss of any Arab life and the complete disregard over the loss of or injury to Jewish life – and he deduces the obvious: no one really cares if he is killed or maimed. He sees that the army and government are less interested in defending him that in ensuring that he doesn’t build a home next to his parents. He has seen Jewish attacks in Arabs – rare as they are – denounced as “hate crimes,” while Arab attacks on Jews deemed political, legitimate and even justified as acts of a national liberation movement.

He has lived under left-wing governments that openly wish to expel him from his home,

and right-wing governments that promise him full support during each election campaign only to immediately revoke the promises after victory, only to repeat them during the next campaign. He has grown up thinking that the whole world and many of his countrymen are unsympathetic to him and is strengthened only by his faith that he is doing G-d’s work. He trusts no one outside a small circle of like-minded people, and with good reason. As such, he has contempt for all human authority.

All of that might be true but none of that justifies the murder of innocent life. Even if – especially when – logic and emotion might suggest a ruthless response to a provocation – that is when the committed Jew is constrained by the Halacha, a Higher authority, and must rein in his baser passions, eschew all his rationalizations and stay his hand from harming the innocent. It is evident that violence breeds violence, and growing up in a climate in which violence and the fear of violence are palpable and prevalent takes it toll. The wonder is that acts of Jewish violence against the innocent are exceedingly rare, and that is a tribute to the parents, rabbis and educators who are largely successful in rearing youth who are law-abiding, passionate and dedicated to the land and people of Israel.

It’s not just that the murder of the innocent is what our enemies do, not us (as many have said in the last few days), and not just that it is a diplomatic disaster (the world

obsesses over the death of a single Arab life at the hands of a Jew far more than it does at the death of hundreds of thousands of Arabs at the hands of other Arabs); it is simply that the murder of innocent life is a moral and legal wrong, a desecration of G-d’s name and all that we hold dear, and the antithesis of the Jewish ethical ideal.

All this is warranted: acts of self-defense against an aggressor, joining the IDF, pressuring the government, punishing the guilty, etc. But the Jew who attacks the innocent just because the enemy has attacked our innocent has, indeed, sunk to their level. The disgrace is that it happened; the consolation is that it is a fringe phenomenon with attacks seldom carried out and Halacha serving as an appropriate constraint even when passions run high. One who reads only of “settler violence” in the foreign press without any reference to the far more extensive Arab violence against the settlers is

being purposely misled by those interests that are hostile to the Jewish narrative in the land of Israel. Jewish life is also precious. The murderers who killed an infant thinking they are accomplishing something worthwhile have not only perpetrated a great evil but also have endangered Jewish life as well.

This too shall pass. May the guilty be caught and punished severely, may tolerance reside even in those who think that only they are right and their antagonists are both wrong and immoral, and may the land of Israel find true peace and brotherhood under the reign of the Almighty.

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PS   Check out this radio interview I did with Voice of Israel on morality, just hours before the criminal attack in Yerushalayim. It’s the Yishai Fleischer Show, accessible at http://www.voiceofisrael.com/trans-trends-and-other-assaults-on-morality/?t=0

Ten Years Later

Here in Israel, confrontations between the authorities and settlers of the land of Israel have again heated up this week, with scenes  of destroyed Jewish homes conjuring up painful images from the past. Ten years after the expulsion of thousands of Jews from Gaza and the northern Shomron, the destruction of their homes and the resultant vulnerability of Jews throughout most of Israel, it is hard for any reasonable person to claim that the Expulsion was not a colossal mistake, a national humiliation, and an historic blunder that political scientists will ponder for generations. The entire rationale for the Expulsion collapsed within months of its execution, and with the perspective of a decade, it is clear that none of the justifications for expelling Jews from their homes and renouncing Jewish sovereignty over part of the land of Israel were valid. None of the purported goals were achieved.

The security situation has obviously deteriorated. More Israelis have been killed in Gaza in the last ten years – without any Jews even living there – than were killed in the ten years preceding the Expulsion. Surrender of that land to a terror entity resulted – as predicted – in Gaza becoming a base for terror operations against Israel, with thousands of rockets falling on surrounding communities (and some landing as far as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport). Despite the claims made prior to the Expulsion, Israel has not been able to easily return to halt the rocket terror, to pre-empt any attacks, and to thwart terrorist acts. Israel struggles even to keep out deadlier rockets, missiles and weaponry from Gaza.

Israel has had to fight three major battles, all costlier in the number of casualties because of the difficulty of re-entry. Rather than launch its operations as it did before 2005 from the settlements and bases within Gaza, Israel has several times risked its soldiers’ lives by even venturing 100 meters into Gaza. The entire border seems to be one minefield, with booby-trapped homes, roads and buildings – not to mention the tunnels that Hamas has dug into Israel for the purpose of perpetrating terror in the future with many of those tunnels still undiscovered.

Rather than make the IDF’s job easier by shortening its defensive lines, it has complicated the task of defending Israel’s borders against the terrorists. The proof rests in the hundreds of casualties sustained to date defending southern Israel against the Gazan marauders. Just last week, General Yair Naveh (who participated in the Expulsion) opined that PM Ariel Sharon did not consult the IDF General Staff, which, he says, was largely opposed to the unilateral evacuation of Gaza. Of course, now he says he too was opposed to the Expulsion (that he oversaw) but did not wish to resign over it. He should spare us his commentary, and his revisionism. The Expulsion was a military nightmare.

Similarly, it was claimed that withdrawal from Gaza would be welcomed by the world, who would be so enamored with Israel’s magnanimity and yearning for peace that it would usher in an era of mutual respect and brotherhood. Israel would join the family of nations and be respected and esteemed for its sacrifices for peace.

That hasn’t quite worked out the way it was planned, either. The world community did celebrate Israel’s withdrawal (although, truth be told, the Bush Administration was not thrilled with it, as many foresaw a takeover of Gaza by Hamas and the creation of a new base of terror there; indeed, even ISIS has set up a regional headquarters in Gaza). But the world’s celebration of Israel’s self-inflicted wound was short-lived. Each subsequent incursion into Gaza has provoked the enmity and wrath of the putative celebrants, with persistent accusations of war crimes against any Israeli action in Gaza. The BDS movement was jump-started after the Expulsion, as were the threats of prosecution against Israel’s fighters and the continued efforts of the Palestine Authority to declare statehood through the United Nations. Israel is now perceived as less entitled to any of its land rather than more entitled by virtue of its “flexibility.” Israel is even still widely perceived as an “occupier” of Gaza! No nation has cut Israel any slack for all its sacrifices. The Expulsion was a diplomatic disaster. Those who argue that, well, Israel had to try something just to give its people and others hope are likely the same people who today support the Bad Deal with Iran, because, well, you sometimes just have to try something to give people hope.

Those who rejoiced in no longer having to patrol Gaza must find little comfort in their bomb shelters in Tel Aviv, if they make the association at all. But even that little comfort must dissipate when they reflect that as they attempt to shield themselves from Hamas missiles coming from Gaza, the world still considers Israel the aggressor! Indeed, as too many Israelis perceived Gush Katif as not really the land of Israel and as the subject of an illegal occupation, too many people across the world today have that same attitude…towards Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel, all, to them, illegally occupied land that rightfully belongs to the Palestinians. So rather than buttress Israel’s case for its sovereignty over the land of Israel, the Expulsion from Gaza undermined it, and it will take many more years to recover from that diplomatic and hashkafic debacle.

And the Expulsion was a personal disaster for everyone involved. Obviously the expellees themselves – and many others – never thought it would happen and so were ill-prepared when it did. Many never recovered and of those who did, credit goes less to the Israeli government than to the compassionate hearts of their fellow Jews who held their hands and saw to it – as best possible – that they should be able to get back on their feet.

But it is astonishing – and eerie, controversial and unsettling –to examine the fate of the individuals responsible for the Expulsion, especially the political and military leaders who perpetrated. The issue itself has engendered much discussion in Israel, although many have been aware of it for years. The strangest things have happened to those leaders, as will be detailed below.

A recent edition of the Israeli weekly Besheva discussed this state of affairs and engenders these questions: Do we believe that G-d punishes wrongdoers before our eyes to clarify for all what is right and wrong? Can we deduce from the fates of these leaders that Heaven did not support their activities? Is there Justice and is there a Judge?

Rav Dov Lior, recently retired Rav of the Holy City of Hevron, stated unequivocally that we are both allowed and mandated to draw conclusions. He cites the Rambam (Hilchot Taanit 1:3) that when troubles befall any person, he has to first examine his deeds and not attribute his travails to coincidence or randomness. “Whoever harms the settlement of Jews in the land of Israel is punished in this world,” said Rav Lior, “just like the biblical spies were.”  Strong words, for sure.

Rav David Stav, head of Tzohar, perceives this matter differently. Discerning G-d’s calculations might be true but it is also very seductive and misleading. The price to be paid for this approach is that a lack of punishment of one whom we presume to be wicked should therefore be perceived as a vindication or justification for his actions. Someone who does something and is not punished for it could then argue that what he did was right. “Shall we then intrude into G-d’s calculations?”

Which approach is correct? Both? Neither? Is the subject matter fraught with arrogance and insensitivity but also possibly with heresy and sacrilege?

Consider the fates of just some of the perpetrators of the Expulsion from Gaza, as noted in Besheva:

Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister who concocted this scheme, was felled by a stroke less than six months after the Expulsion. He never recovered, and spent the last eight years of his life in “exile,” literally suspended between heaven and earth, between the living and the dead.

Moshe Katzav, the President of Israel at the time, was soon thereafter convicted of rape and still sits in prison.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left office in disgrace after his failed leadership during the Second Lebanon War, and now stands convicted of multiple counts of bribery and fraud. He awaits his own prison term.

Omri Sharon, Sharon’s son who formulated the plan together with his father, went to prison for bribery.

Omri Bar Lev, the police commander who led the evacuation? His own house collapsed. Literally. Just collapsed.

Nisso Shacham, a police commander who was caught on camera acting in a vulgar and brutal manner as he expelled Jews from their home, rose to become the commander of the Jerusalem District and then was relieved of his post while facing accusations of multiple rapes and sexual abuse.

Moshe Karadi, Inspector-General of the Police, was dismissed for negligence and incompetence involving the investigation of an unrelated police scandal.

There are even others who participated in the dismemberment of Jews from their homes and who have suffered unusual fates. Conversely, Moshe Yaalon, who opposed the Expulsion as Chief of Staff and was not re-appointed by Sharon, today serves as Minister of Defense. One other prominent Likudnik who resigned from the Sharon government because of his (late, but nonetheless overt) opposition to the Expulsion is Binyamin Netanyahu, now in the seventh year of his second tenure as Prime Minister.

Undoubtedly, there are others who participated in the Expulsion who have not been “punished;” perhaps they have other good deeds to their credit.

How should we approach such a delicate subject? I tend to fall on Rav Stav’s side of the fence here and do not presume to understand how G-d runs His world and executes His justice, and certainly not to see cause and effect in the lives of individuals. It is dangerous, and does engender a slippery slope. It is not too distant from these speculations to concluding that someone suffered a tragedy because a Mezuzah was found to be invalid or some such other facile answer. On the other hand, how can we completely discount G-d’s hand in human affairs? That too would be heretical.

It’s a paradox. To ignore or dismiss these strange happenings is close to denying Providence; to render definitive conclusions is haughty and presumes to know G-d’s will. For sure, one who experiences suffering should first examine his own deeds (Masechet Berachot 5a), which is not the same as examining someone else’s deeds as the cause of their suffering.

In any event, it should give us pause to reflect, to think and to wonder – and to pray that the Jewish people never have to witness the forced expulsion of Jews from our ancestral homeland and the surrender of Jewish sovereignty to our enemies. The scenes this week from Bet El are discouraging. Nevertheless, may we all learn from our mistakes and together strengthen the people of Israel in the struggles ahead against real enemies.

Oren’s “Ally”

Last week, a Muslim Arab named Abdul Azeez shot and murdered five US soldiers at military recruiting centers in Tennessee on the last day of Ramadan, and the Obama administration, puzzled, will not leap to conclusions about the motive of the attacker. Of course, a ten year-child with a casual familiarity with the news could tell us what the motive was, and so the officials responsible for protecting the American people must be seeking some motive “other” than the obvious.

This ongoing flight from reality – and the dramatic changes that have been wrought to American foreign policy in the last six years – is the subtext of Michael Oren’s “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.” For those who wish to know the inside story of the deterioration of relations between the two countries since Obama became president – a willful and intentional distancing from and disrespecting of Israel and the traditional alliance and friendship between the two countries, it is a fascinating, and at times, riveting read. Oren, a New Jersey native who was Israel’s ambassador to the United States for four years of the Obama presidency, had a front row seat to the tumultuous twists and turns, and as an historian, a keen eye for both small details and the big picture.

Oren’s portrait of the life of an ambassador, at least Israel’s ambassador, is wearying in the best sense of the word. There were times when I felt tired just reading about his day. The early morning calls to and from Israel, the rowing on the Potomac for some private time, and then the lobbying, speeches, travel, embassy management, daily crises and endless cocktail parties late into the night followed by more calls to Israel, are enough to drive anyone to drink, which seems to be what people do at the nightly cocktail parties anyway. His personal story is compelling, notwithstanding the gaps in his narrative. A young oleh who becomes a lone soldier and within a relatively short time finds himself on official business in the Soviet Union and then sitting as an advisor to the Israeli mission at the UN was apparently more than an IDF paratrooper but likely involved in some clandestine work as well. His access to high government officials, long before his official posting to Washington, is unusual by the standards of the average American oleh, and his rise – which took decades – nevertheless seems meteoric. He can be excused those gaps.

By all accounts, he is immensely talented and articulate, and as a reader of both of his prior history books, I have learned that he is a perceptive historian and keen analyst. Reviews of “Ally” have extracted the sound bites, the inside baseball of who like and dislikes whom, and confirmation or refutation of certain events that were rumored to be true. Oren does rebuff some of the conventional wisdom of the last few years: in one celebrated incident, Obama allegedly dissed Netanyahu by leaving him to eat dinner with Michelle and children, disappearing for hours and leaving Netanyahu to stew in the White House alone. Oren debunks that, claiming that Michelle and the girls were not even in the White House that night and Obama merely said he was going to sleep (at 9:00 PM) and the rest of the team of Israelis and Americans worked for several hours. Of course, Oren is also reporting just what he was told and saw, and it is unclear why the sleep excuse was better than the dinner excuse – but nothing can hide the unprecedented animosity between the leaders of the two countries. Much of Oren’s work as ambassador seemed to be defusing explosives and smoothing over rough spots in the relationship. He failed, but only because the experiences, world views, value system and interests of Netanyahu and Obama are so incompatible.

Leaving aside the commonly reported anecdotes, a few points struck me about Oren’s experiences. The book focuses on the tug of war between the two identities Oren bears within him – as an American and as an Israeli, no more poignantly reported than in the book’s opening when Oren had to surrender his US passport and renounce his American citizenship at the US embassy in Tel Aviv before assuming his post in Washington. It is quite moving and the range of emotions – and tears – palpable. (His wife and children retained their US citizenship.) Yet, it is equally clear that Oren retains strong and mostly positive feelings about America, which is welcome, if only in that it sets him apart from other American olim who feel some compulsion to appear more Israeli by disparaging the land of their birth.

With that, Oren is not a typical American oleh in that he is a mostly secular Jew with a strong sense of Jewish identity. He tends to regard the religious component of Judaism (that is to say, its essence) as just one (oftentimes lamentable) aspect of the kaleidoscope of pluralism that he cherishes, and so the Orthodox, their lifestyle, the obligation of mitzvot, and even the settlement of the land of Israel are perceived more as inconveniences than they are desiderata. The cultural and national facets of Judaism animate him more than the religious, which dovetails with his upbringing, but leaves him grasping to find cogent reasons why the modern Jewish people has any claim to the land of Israel more substantive than that our forefathers once lived there.

As such, he did and does find the settlement movement to be an irritant, and if he doesn’t fully subscribe to the execrable theory that but for the settlements there would be peace, he doesn’t firmly repudiate it even if he acknowledges that they too are Israelis whose views must be considered. Similarly, he clings to the two-state solution fantasy, even if (better than the political left) he realizes that the time is not yet ripe and might never be ripe for another partition of the land of Israel. Like others of his background and temperament, he yearns for the halcyon days of Ben-Gurion, which in reality were not so peaceful but during which Israel’s international reputation was much more favorable, cushioned as it was by the detritus of the Holocaust.

Yet, Oren is also acutely aware of the unique role he was given. Secular Israelis are always a little suspicious of Americans who make aliya (who leaves a land with everything for a land of milk and honey?) and continue to perceive them as Americans. To Israelis, he remained Michael (not Mee-kha-el) and I was curious – he doesn’t say – whether Netanyahu generally conversed with him in Hebrew or in English. (He often drafted Netanyahu’s English remarks but Netanyahu also wrote his own or deviated from the text with the soaring oratory to which we have become accustomed.) Indeed, Oren’s appointment followed a Netanyahu pattern in his second tenure as Prime Minister, in selecting for prominent positions a non-rightist (Oren, Livni, Barak) so as to buy protection from a hostile media and a potentially adversarial US administration. It didn’t always work, although in fairness, it might have been (and be) worse without that moderate cover.

Read from a broad perspective, the book can be used to answer one bewildering question: if Iran is the enemy of the United States and Israel, and Israel and the US are allies, then why is the United States strengthening its enemy Iran while weakening its ally Israel?

The answer will trouble Obama’s Jews who also claim to love and support Israel. Obama has endeavored to undermine the relationship between the two countries from the very beginning of his term. It is well known that Obama sought to create daylight between the diplomatic positions of the two countries from the moment he took office, in two ways. The first was by demanding a settlement freeze, followed by an Israeli surrender of territory and the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu was resistant, although he did weaken several times – conceding the establishment of an Arab state in his Bar Ilan speech or acceding to a ten month settlement freeze in order to induce Mahmoud Abbas to negotiations. Both were coerced by an Obama administration that has never tired in its demands for shows of good faith by Israel and only Israel, and neither worked, for reasons much discussed in recent years. More importantly, notwithstanding all these concessions, Netanyahu was still blamed for the absence of peace; Abbas? Never .Indeed, Oren – like others – concludes that Obama’s hostility to Israel made Abbas’ positions even more hard-line than they otherwise would have been.

The second way that Obama has impaired the US-Israeli relationship is by reorienting US foreign policy away from support for Israel (and even pro-American Sunni Muslim countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and towards Iran, as bizarre as that sounds. I can’t help thinking that the hand of Iranian-born Valerie Jarrett is behind this, but do not exclude Obama’s own radical ties as he ascended the political ladder in Chicago. Oren maintains that the key to Obama still lies in the two autobiographies he wrote, in which his radical views are delineated, but too little attention was paid to them.

Thus – in an exchange that is especially prescient these days – Oren in conversation with Henry Kissinger was incredulous that the US would allow Iran to become a nuclear power and thereby end American hegemony in the Middle East. Kissinger: “And what makes you think anybody in the White House still cares about American hegemony in the Middle East?” Indeed, and it is therefore not surprising that Obama could acquiesce in Iran’s nuclear program even as Iranian leaders and mobs shout “Death to America!”

There is something ominous in Oren’s behind-the-scenes political accounts, some of which have recently precipitated White House calls for apologies and corrections for the airing of unpleasant truths, and that is this: Obama has tried to shield himself from accusations of being anti-Israel not only by doing the obvious nice (helping extinguish the Carmel fire) and the political nice (supporting Israel at the UN) but also by surrounding himself with Jews (Emanuel, Axelrod et al) and using them as his attack dogs against Israel. In fact, the only Democratic politician who publicly stood up to Obama was the disgraced Congressman Anthony Wiener, an odd duck for several reasons including his marriage to an Arab Muslim who is a leading advisor to Hillary Clinton, a public friend of Israel but in private, as Secretary of State, as nasty to Israelis as any Obama-ite.

This fear of defying Obama – and it is a fear – will weigh heavily on Democratic and especially Jewish Democratic Congressmen in the upcoming deliberations over the Bad Deal with Iran. (It’s very American; we have had the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Square Deal and now we have the Bad Deal.) Chuck Schumer is in an unenviable position only because he is a politician. He yearns to succeed Harry Reid as Senate Democratic leader –and if he opposes Obama on Iran, it is extremely unlikely even though Obama will be gone from office. Democrats will come under intense pressure, and for supporters of Israel and a strong America, it is not enough to vote no. They have to solicit other “no” votes as well. Democrats are forced into bitter struggle between the right choice and the expedient choice.

There was also an astonishing level of personal animosity towards Israel and its elected leaders that was apparent in many ways. One stood out: in autumn 2012, Netanyahu planned a military strike against several of Iran’s nuclear facilities. He was threatened by administration officials with dire consequences if he attacked. He didn’t. A year later, those same officials ridiculed him as a coward using a common barnyard epithet. And the White House routinely publicized proposed Israeli attack mechanisms to warn Iran and remove the element of surprise. This is the Obama for whom 7 of 10 Jews voted.

It is also distressing, albeit commonplace, to recognize the politician’s knack for the redundant repetition of code words that mean little and are often utter falsehoods. Oren almost laughs recalling the incessant references of the Obama team to the US-Israeli alliance as “unbreakable and unshakeable.” Even as the administration was trying to break it and shake it, liberal Jews still loved to hear the words, which matter to them more than actual deeds. Oren doesn’t say it, but that phrase could take its place with “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” “Iran will never be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon” and “in case of violations, sanctions will snap back.”

Additionally, while on the topic of words, Oren notes that there is no greater dichotomy than the politician’s suave, dignified posture in public and the rampant vulgarity and crudity that take place off-stage.

But with all the turbulence in recent years, there still is a pervasive sense that the US-Israeli relationship is unbreakable and unshakeable, transcends even the hostility of any particular president, and can really “snap back” given effective and sympathetic leadership in the future. That is because, as Oren underscores eloquently, the intrinsic values of both countries are similar, rooted as they are (at least fundamentally) in the Torah and shared notions of human rights, personal freedom and universal morality. In that sense even the term “ally” is limiting. I once heard President Bush (II) emphasize that the Saudis are allies but the Israelis are friends – and friends share a closer bond than allies.

Oren’s Ally is a well written, engaging book, filled with trenchant analysis that clearly articulates a widely held view in Israel. Mistakes do creep in to any book and here as well. Omri Casspi plays “in”
the NBA, not “for” the NBA, and more egregiously, Senator Joe Lieberman was a candidate for Vice-President in 2000, not 2004. But even as one can take issue with certain policy conclusions and even some of his world views, Michael Oren – a dedicated servant of the Jewish people, now a Member of Knesset from Kulanu – has written a book that gives us an enthralling inside view of all the complications, complexities and vicissitudes of the relationship between the United States and Israel, a relationship that is bound to get more prickly in the coming months. For sure, the nature of that alliance will be a critical issue during the coming presidential campaign assuming that Jews finally wake up and cease casting their political fortunes with just one party, indeed, the party that is actively engaged in enabling Israel’s most implacable foe to acquire the deadliest weapons known to man.

More importantly, on a personal level, Oren’s tale is captivating – the New Jersey kid who dreams of becoming Israel’s ambassador to the United States and fulfills that dream, after making aliya alone. It is the dream of every oleh – to settle in and make a positive contribution to society – and thus both an American and an Israeli success story.

Obama is No Fool

On some level, it is not surprising that Barack Obama, son of an anti-American, anti-Western Muslim, and John Kerry, grandson of an apostate Jew, would empower the radical Islamic State of Iran with a nuclear weapons agreement that weakens the United States and the free world and endangers the very existence of the State of Israel. It was equally obvious that an agreement empowering Iran and guaranteeing its production of nuclear weapons and continued propagation of terror would be signed eventually. The only uncertainty was when, precisely, Iran would determine that it had extracted enough concessions from its interlocutors so as to declare victory.

Obama is no fool, although he does take his audience and his supporters for fools. It is hard to determine whether he believes his own rhetoric. Few – especially Iran – believe that the agreement will “prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” as Obama opined. Even fewer should believe that “every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off.” Only the willfully delusional will argue that Obama’s folly has “stopped the spread of nuclear weapons” in the Middle East. (On the contrary, it will jumpstart Saudi Arabia’s drive for a nuclear capability and perhaps even Kuwait’s and the Emirates – as none of those countries will wish to rely, and sensibly so, on America’s promises.)

Perhaps, most egregiously, is this whopper: “the international community will be able to verify that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon.” These deceptive words mask the sad reality that the agreement actually requires 24 day notice before any inspection takes place, and even then Iran has the right to refuse the inspection and refer disputes to a committee for endless discussion of the matter. Imagine, for a moment, if the police had to obtain a search warrant from a judge and then had to give 24 days’ notice to the suspects! That is ludicrous when applied to the search for contraband like illegal guns or narcotics; it is positively obscene when proposed for the search for nuclear weapons.

Add to that the sanctions relief – sanctions that will never be snapped back – and that will furnish Iran with billions of dollars and bolster the Iranian terror regime that will foment worldwide terror and murder an untold number of Jews, Americans, Westerners, Christians, non-Muslims – and many Muslims as well; the arms embargo that will be lifted sooner rather than later; and the absurd reality that Iran has violated each agreement it has signed in the past and effectively employs the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya that permits it to lie and dissemble in order to spread the jihad against all infidels – and this agreement is an epic catastrophe in the making.
So how did it happen? If Obama is not a fool, what is he? Venal? Not necessarily. Only dupes will believe that the United States negotiated from a “position of strength.” Hah – only Iran ever walked away from the negotiations, and several times, and Iran easily played an American negotiating team desperate for a deal at any price. Following the pattern of Obama’s dealings with Syria, all of his red lines vanished during the negotiations with Iran (and Syria is widely believed to still possess chemical weapons, despite its assurances). So what is it?

Oddly, Obama has never been coy about his real goals. His supporters, though, especially Jewish liberals but others as well, have intentionally blinded themselves to those goals and satisfied themselves with empty rhetoric, toothy smiles, and invitations to lame Chanuka parties and Pesach seders (some even held not on Chanuka or Pesach).

It is this: in 2008, Obama was criticized when he commented that President Reagan was a “transformational President,” violating the liberal code to which he otherwise adheres that one should never praise a Republican for anything. His critics were mistaken; Obama wasn’t praising Reagan, he was just making an observation. Reagan was a transformational President in ways that Obama disapproved but Obama saw himself in that same mode – as a president who would fundamentally transform the United States.

At the risk of subjecting myself to the same criticism, I will state the obvious: Obama has succeeded in that objective and has become a transformational President, but in so doing has grievously harmed the United States internally and externally. He has transformed the domestic scene by creating entire new classes of dependents, expanding enormously the welfare state, forcing millions (and in coming years, millions more) on to government funded health care, and subsidizing a considerable underclass of unemployed and underemployed Americans. Globally, Obama has transformed America into an unreliable ally, an adversary to longstanding friends and a follower in a world without a powerful leader. The international field has been left open for bad actors to exploit – and they have, gleefully. His projection of American power is minimalistic and antiseptic, designed to inflict enough damage to quiet those Americans who believe in the goodness and morality of the USA and are therefore supporters of a robust use of force but never enough power to actually win a war, accomplish any strategic goal or intimidate America’s traditional enemies.

Worse, while America’s friends – Israel, Britain, France and others have been disrespected and trampled upon, and America’s allies – like Saudi Arabia – disregarded and slighted, America’s enemies for generations – Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and others – have been revived, resuscitated and emboldened. Obama must believe that those countries were antagonistic to the US because of some personal pique on the part of all his predecessors, the much despised Yankee imperialism, or some other American failing. Apparently, it has not dawned on Obama that those countries were enemies of the United States because of their corrupt ideologies, depraved and repressive regimes, and the absence of any shared values or interests. All his predecessors were therefore wrong, misguided and short-sighted; hence, the unctuous absurdity that he uttered: that the Iran pact “has achieved something that decades of animosity has not,” as if the “animosity” was just imprudent and the quest to deprive Iran of nuclear weapons repugnant and jingoistic.

It is clear that the status quo was working, that sanctions were taking a toll, and that Iran was suffering. It was also clear that Obama always opposed the sanctions (he resigned himself to claiming credit for them only when Congress passed the legislation overwhelmingly) and that military action by the US against Iran was never  seriously contemplated by Obama. Indeed, a variety of Israelis have noted that Obama has been more worried about an Israeli preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program than about Iran’s nuclear program. Thus did Obama forfeit all American leverage, if he ever intended to use it.

It is crunch time for American Jews, especially liberal Democrats in Congress and their Jewish supporters. The Iran deal must be stopped, and all means of pressure from Jewish organizations, donors, individuals must be brought to bear. I don’t want to hear how Charles Schumer is Israel’s “guardian” if he votes to give a nuclear bomb to Iran, nor am I interested in Torah musings from Cory Booker. Kirsten Gillibrand must be told that this will make or break her relationship with her Jewish constituents. G-d bless NJ’s Bob Menendez who has endured great hardship and been persecuted by the Obama administration in an effort to silence him – and has remained steadfast in his opposition to this sellout. AIPAC must use all its influence and not worry about future access; future access will not matter once Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, and perhaps not even if they are given billions of dollars to foment more terror.

We should also crack down on politicians who claim to have “Israel’s back.” People are stabbed in the back by those who betray them, and everyone walks in back of a coffin. Forget the back, the clichés and the empty promises. I pray that liberal Jews will not seek face-saving measures to avoid confronting the harsh reality that is before us – the betrayal of Israel through the reversal of three decades of US policy.

But none of this is only about Israel. It has been US policy for decades to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by rogue states; for the first time, under Obama’s failed leadership, the United States is birthing and subsidizing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a rogue regime, and the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. It is time to ask the question: are Jews committed more to the Democratic Party or to their identity as Jews? It should be an easy question to answer – but I recognize that for so many, it is not.

Much has been made of the failure of the US negotiators to secure the release of four American citizens currently being held prisoner in Iran on trumped-up charges. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if they are not released within a few months – and not surprised at all if they will be used as a bargaining chip by Iran, with or without administration connivance. As in: Iran declaring next month that the four will be freed if Congress approves the agreement, thereby cynically placing the onus of their continued captivity on Congress rather than on Iran. It is an unsubtle form of blackmail.

It sounds trite to argue, as many have, that Obama is doing this for his “legacy.” Jimmy Carter also had a legacy, as did Neville Chamberlain. Indeed, we should recall now Churchill’s stirring rebuke to Chamberlain when he returned with “Herr Hitler’s” signature on that infamous piece of paper: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Recall as well Chamberlain’s pathetic excuse uttered on his deathbed: “Everything would have been all right if Hitler hadn’t lied to me.”

More than seventy-five years later, the naïve Chamberlain again walks among us. The Churchill’s of our age are being marginalized and lambasted, just like the original was. We are left with the inevitable results of a failed presidency that has remade America in a way that threatens the American dream and the stability of the world. Obama’s peculiar blend of arrogance, messianism, naiveté, and disdain for traditional American leadership has brought Iran to its feet and America to its knees.

It was all, so sadly, predictable. Can it be reversed and stopped in time? Once again, the Jewish people are alone, with the world community acquiescing in arming our most bitter enemies with genocidal weapons. If that does not serve to concentrate our minds during these Three Weeks as we commemorate the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash and other calamities in Jewish history, and doesn’t induce us to examine our behavior and repent, then what will? If we do not realize now that we are living in historic times and on the verge of great transformations, then when will we?

P.S. For a sobering view of the hubris and foibles of politicians and their grand pronouncements, see this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TcbU5jAavw

The common denominator? Wendy Sherman, lead US negotiator with Iran, also led the negotiations with North Korea.

Our Generation’s Mechitza

Has Modern Orthodoxy lost its way?

We can’t begin to answer that question without a working definition of Modern Orthodoxy, something that seems to bewilder many people. I have always embraced the definition suggested by my teacher, Rav Aharon Rakeffet, shlit”a, that a Modern Orthodox Jew is “a Torah Jew in a Western milieu.” That seems about right, because the cornerstone – the foundation – must always be the Torah. The Torah Jew in a Western milieu will encounter challenges that he simply would not meet and require applications that would not be necessary in a more cloistered environment.

To read some of the reactions of the fringe Orthodox left – if they are even still part of the Torah world – to the Supreme Court’s recognition of same sex marriage is to conclude inevitably that a certain wing of Modern Orthodoxy has fallen out of the skies. Suggestions abound that as a result of the new ruling the Torah must change, that Torah Jews must accept this decision or be adjudged guilty of some unspecified moral outrage, that failure to embrace the homosexual agenda will lead to mass defections from Torah, that this sin is different from all other sins because it is popular in the circles of elitist opinion makers, that we should abandon our propagation of the seven Noachide laws, etc.  Really? It is fair to ask: Who are these people? Do they think that they are the very first generation of Jews that ever faced a conflict between the Torah and some “modern” value? Remember that ancient Greek and ancient Roman values were quite “modern” in ancient times. Indeed, every generation has faced a divergence between Torah values and some contemporary norm, otherwise there wouldn’t be a need for the Torah and surrender to the will of G-d would be superfluous.

The grave error they make is in perceiving modernity as the anchor – the pillar around which the Torah has to be manipulated and reformed. To put it in our language, modernity to them is the ikar (essence) and the Torah is tafel (secondary), G-d forbid.  Those attitudes give Modern Orthodoxy a bad name, and any Torah Jew would be justified in rejecting it.

There is another issue, however, that has drawn much attention and has emerged as the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable interpretations of Modern Orthodoxy, and that is the matter of women’s ordination. Jewish and general newspapers are inundated on a weekly basis with reports of new ordinations, new hiring, and new candidates. It is as if a PR firm recommended that advocates flood the print media as often as possible – daily? –to give the impression that this phenomenon is growing in acceptance, is normative, and opposed only by a handful of sexist troglodytes who have moved to the extreme right where they belong and are best forgotten.

Far from it.

The inadmissibility of female ordination needs no prolonged discussion. (I’ve written extensively on it, including here .) It was so obvious to Professor Shaul Lieberman z”l of the Jewish Theological Seminary that he dismissed it 35 years ago as “a joke and mockery.” Orthodox Jews across the spectrum rejected it as heretical when Reform Judaism and then Conservative Judaism introduced women rabbis a few decades ago.  The title doesn’t matter, and too much time has been wasted creating and then arguing over various acronyms that all purport to do the same thing but, to some, in more palatable ways. I prefer honesty – truth in advertising. It is what it is. Let’s deal with it.

What is truly astonishing – even eerie – are the similarities between the intramural war over women’s ordination currently on the agenda and the battles over mechitza that were waged a century and then a half-century ago. It is no coincidence that the point of controversy is exactly the same: egalitarianism. It is the contention that men and women are absolutely equal and identical, and any distinctions made by law or custom must be discarded or amended to comply with a modern and progressive world.

Consider: The abolition of mechitza won support because their advocates asserted the need for “religious equality.” The Mechitza was viciously attacked in America by a Reform rabbi who claimed that putting women in a “cage” was an affront to religious equality. There was no reason for Jewish law to treat men and women differently, he opined. The year was 1855. Even he – David Einhorn – did not contemplate a female clergy and it would take another century before the Reform movement was willing to make that leap, also on grounds of religious equality. The same holds true for the ordination of women. It is all about equality.

Consider:  The abolition of mechitza was supported by some genuine talmidei chachamim, some of whom wrote learned treatises purporting to explain how the presence of a mechitza, while preferred, is not imperative. The same holds true for the ordination of women, except for the irony that there are more sources in halachic literature that preclude women rabbis than there are that mandate a mechitza in a shul, which, in fact, is not even mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch. There were proponents of mixed seating, but their view did not prevail over time as it was a minority and unpersuasive view. No one thought to say “eilu v’eilu.”

Consider: Many wonderful Orthodox rabbis served for decades in congregations without mechitzot, and other great – even legendary – rabbis took down their mechitzot for the Yamim Noraim in order to accommodate the larger crowds in attendance. So, too, there are a few well-known rabbis who have become the advocates for female clergy. Regarding mechitza, some of those older rabbis made their peace with it, and many never did, knew what they were doing was wrong and always longed for the day when mechitzot would again grace their shuls. Why did they allow it?

Consider: The prevailing argument was that the egalitarianism of American society would never tolerate the separate seating of men and women, and it was underscored that women would widely abandon Torah Judaism and stop coming to shul if forced to sit in the aforementioned “cages.” The removal of mechitza was therefore intended to stem the tide of the alleged defection of pious women from Orthodoxy, what we would call today a kiruv move. The exact same reasoning is applied here today – the expressed fear that if women are not ordained they will take their talents to the non-Orthodox movements and the Torah world will suffer a grievous loss. That argument either depreciates the Torah commitment of the modern woman or it is positing that the target audience is influenced more by feminism than it is by the Mesorah.

Consider: There are voices proclaiming that female clergy is by now entrenched in Jewish life because there are a dozen or so ordainees, and the Torah world – even the Modern Orthodox Torah world – has to accept that reality. But in the early 1960’s, there were more than 250 shuls without mechitzot that were members of the Orthodox Union, the OU. More than a half-century later, there is (I think) but one OU shul without a mechitza (a shul “grandfathered” in, literally; “if mixed seating was good enough for my pious grandfather, it’s good enough for me”). Every new shul that applies to the OU must have a mechitza. In the early 1960’s, there were dozens of members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA, who served in shuls with mixed seating. Today there are, to my knowledge, none. (I assume there must be one or two, I just don’t know of any.) Indeed, employment in a mixed seating synagogue is a barrier to membership in the RCA. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, even RIETS dispatched its musmachim – willingly or unwillingly, above the table or beneath the table – to shuls without mechitzot, if only, technically, for brief periods of time. Today, I bet not.

In effect, this breach of Torah norms – the lack of mechitza – was effectively reversed within several decades. For example, some of those OU shuls put in mechitzot and some became members of the now-fading Conservative movement – but at least clarity was obtained and amita shel Torah preserved. It required a change in Jewish culture, a greater assertiveness and self-confidence on the part of Orthodoxy, and a recognition – undoubtedly driven in large part by the Young Israel movement and the more right-wing Torah world that burgeoned after the Holocaust – that we can adhere to Torah norms even in the face of a hostile dominant culture and even if the values of the “modern” world cause a measure of discomfort and dissonance to faithful Torah Jews. So be it. The no-mechitza culture was reversed also because, well, it didn’t work, and too many Jews who rightly perceived it as a compromise with Jewish law continued to compromise themselves completely out of Torah observance.

The same battle is underway today. The ordination of women – so obviously forbidden but deemed necessary because of modernity, egalitarianism, kiruv, compassion, or pressure – is the mechitza of our generation. The traditional Torah world – what we call the “right-wing” world – need not join the battle, except to lend its pressure from the outside, because they do not even hear the clamor. It is the Modern Orthodox world – Torah Jews in a Western milieu – that has to preserve its honor and its fidelity to halacha through a protracted, visible, public and explicit defense of the Mesorah.

That means that the same institutions that waged the battle fifty years ago must redouble their efforts and ensure that this generation of Jews remains committed to Torah. It means that the OU has to clarify to its constituent shuls that hiring women with “ordination” crosses a red line – the equivalent of tearing down the mechitza. It means that the RCA has to firmly and unambiguously renounce the notion of female clergy, and distance itself in one way or another from members who have brazenly breached these norms in their eagerness to expand the role of women in Jewish life or their devotion to Western values – and their conflation with Torah values. It means that the Roshei Yeshiva in RIETS have to impress upon the public and their disciples the gravity of the violation of Torah implicit in the institution of female ordination.

It also means that, sadly but invariably, those groups or individuals that continue to promote the legitimacy of female clergy will have excluded themselves from the Orthodox world, like their predecessors did – some of whom were also very fine people – who were passionate proponents of mixed seating.

This is not the place to discuss appropriate roles for women, something that has already been addressed at length in this forum. The issue here is focused: will the Orthodox rabbinate and lay leadership respond quickly, appropriately and forcefully to the mechitza controversy of our day, or will it wait a long fifty years – like they did with the mechitza issue itself – before regrouping and reasserting the supremacy of Torah over Western values?

If they choose silence – or silent protest, which is tantamount to passive acquiescence – then they will have validated the right-wing Orthodox world’s traditional ambivalence, even iciness, towards Modern Orthodoxy. But if they choose to act, in concert and with the full weight of Torah authority, Mesorah and myriads of ModOs alongside them, they will delineate the appropriate boundaries for the Jew in the Western world and preserve the Torah for generations to come.

My guess is that they – we – will enter the fray, clarify what is acceptable and unacceptable, and join our generation’s battle for Torah, the honor of men and women, and the perpetuation of the Modern Orthodox ideal. Already the major organizations referenced above have a consensus approaching near unanimity that female ordination is an unacceptable breach of the Mesorah and places its proponents outside the Orthodox world. I trust that the coming struggle will respect all personalities but will focus on this critical battle of ideas – ideas that will determine the course of Torah for generations to come.