Category Archives: Israel

G-d’s Hand in History

(The following was published as an Op-ed in the Jewish Press, on September 11, 2015 –  RSP)

Fourteen years ago today the clenched fist of Arab-Islamic terror smashed into the United States of America, murdering almost three thousand innocent souls, devastating lives, shaking America (at least temporarily) out of its complacency and nudging the American polity into several Middle Eastern wars. Those wars have not ended well; indeed, the situation on the ground has become more violent and deadly. The desultory and reluctant conduct of these wars by the Obama administration – snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory – has left the region and the world on the verge of accommodating Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iranian hegemony over much of the Middle East.

On an individual level, the brutal and unprovoked attacks on September 11, 2001 were a vivid reminder of the fragility of life. Thousands of people at work or on their way to work rose that morning in anticipation of a normal, uneventful day, just going about their daily routines until such time as they would return to their families and loved ones. Alas, their good-byes that morning were the last ones they would extend, their lives ended in sudden acts of unimaginable horror. When the Yamim Noraim begin, we remind ourselves repeatedly of our own vulnerabilities, the tenuousness of life itself, our gratitude for the gifts and opportunities

Hashem  has bestowed upon us – each according to His will – and of our rededication to utilizing those gifts and opportunities in His service. That is the judgment of the individual that consumes most of our attention.

But there is another judgment occurring on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippurim whose stakes are even greater than the judgment of individuals, and which this anniversary of the Arab terror of 9/11 renders so palpable: the judgment of nations.

As we say in the Musaf of Rosh Hashana, in the blessing of Zichronot (“Remembrances”): “And of the nations it shall be said: Which one will merit peace, and which one the sword? Which one will suffer famine and which will enjoy plenty? And all creatures will be remembered and recorded for life or for death.” It is true that the suffering of nations is felt most in the travails that befall the individual – but it is also true that even innocent individuals can be ensnared in the tribulations of nations and suffer accordingly. We live as individuals, but we also have our fates intertwined with those of the country in which we reside and that country’s enemies and adversaries.

If we have some (emphasis, some) control over our own fates – “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the harshness of the [divine] decree” – how do we understand our almost complete helplessness in avoiding the consequences of the national judgments that also take place? Are we just pawns in history, bounced by forces beyond our control? Is it possible to understand G-d’s plan in history beyond the rough outline provided to us in the Torah and the words of the Nevi’im ? Is there a divine message that we can discern amid the murkiness and gloom of today’s global scene – in which country after country, seemingly without any end in sight, is battered by terror and war, refugees and displacement, evil and its bitterest enemy, apathy?

G-d’s ways are inscrutable, and even if the last chapter is known to us – the coming of Moshiach – the prior chapters are still being written and read. But one thing should be clear to all Jews: world events are designed to shake us out of our lethargy and embrace our divinely-ordained role in history.

The Gemara (Yevamot 63b) states that “punishment does not befall the world except on account of the Jewish people.” It is not that we bring misfortune to the world, G-d forbid, as our and G-d’s enemies are fond of saying; the exact opposite is the case. The Jewish people have brought untold blessings to mankind from the very beginning of our existence and down to our very day. The world benefits from the technological, scientific and intellectual genius of the Jewish people and is continually challenged by the moral code of conduct to which we aspire. That has been reciprocated, often and in many places still today, with hatred, overt or subtle, with physical violence and rhetorical scorn, and with persistent, baseless and scurrilous attacks on Israel’s legitimacy and/or conduct, all thinly-disguised assaults on the Jewish people.

Some wage open war on Jews across the globe. Others, especially the hostile elements in Europe and America, are still inhibited by the rancid Jew hatred of the Holocaust and so hide their contempt for all Jews behind the veneer of hatred for Israel – BDS and the like. All of this is contemptible and lamentable but little of it is new. It has accompanied us since Sinai, and the spasms of violence that erupt across the globe – so Chazal are teaching us – are on our “account.” When they fight against us, it is because they are waging war against the Jewish idea. But even when they fight each other, and bring enormous, unspeakable suffering upon themselves, at the root of their discontent is the distortion of the Jewish idea and a rejection of   G-d’s plan for mankind.

As Rabbi Berel Wein once explained, “it’s because of us but it’s not our fault.”

The Wall Street Journal (April 3, 2015) featured a graph that noted the current population of the world’s religions and their future growth. (By 2050, the global Muslim population will almost match the global Christian population, each near 2.8 billion people.) Today, there are 2.17 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.4 billion Hindus, even 1.3 billion unaffiliated. At the very bottom of the graph – the last line – are the Jews, hovering at or above (!) zero. We are not even a rounding error in the world’s population, less than that. We are not just statistically insignificant; we are statistically improbable.

“Hashem did not desire you or choose you because of your numbers, for you are the smallest among the nations” (Devarim 7:7). Yet, history revolves around the Jewish people. We are not afforded the luxury of being bystanders but rather of being in the forefront of every major world event and discovery. Our national homeland was not placed at the end of the world – say, New Zealand – where we could safely develop our spiritual aptitudes far from the madding crowd and high above the fray but rather at the crossroads of civilization and in the middle of every conflict.

No nation in the world tries harder to do good to all – even strangers – and no nation is as despised and reviled for those efforts. What does it all mean?

It means that G-d chose us as His vehicle to bring His morality to the world and effectuate His will in history. Rav Shlomo Aviner is fond of quoting Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the famed Italian philosopher and historian who posited – three centuries ago – that whereas the histories of the nations of the world are profane (meaning secular, guided by natural and political forces), the history of the Jewish people is sacred, directed by G-d, and not at all bound by the general laws of history. What applies to other nations and what happens to other nations simply do not apply or happen to us.

It is astonishing that Vico should have recognized that; it is even more astonishing when we – the Jewish people – do not and instead go about our business as if our destiny is that of all nations.

Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook zt”l regularly expounded what he called “Masechet Yisrael,” the “Tractate of the People of Israel,” both because it was worthy of study and because it underscored G-d’s plan for us in history. He highlighted three phenomenal dimensions – wonders – of the Jewish people: the wonders of our abilities, our survival and our influence. (See, for example, Rav Aviner’s annotated edition of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook’s “Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato,” footnote 266.)

We are an extraordinarily talented people, whose contributions to mankind have transformed the lives of billions of people. We need not even mention the disproportionate share of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, a mindboggling statistic that defies rational analysis. As a nation, we have been endowed by the Creator with capabilities that are designed to facilitate mankind’s pursuit of moral perfection, the material good and the welfare of all. The former is the very purpose for which we were given the Torah and prophecy.

The wonder of our survival continues to defy comprehension. No people has ever suffered the devastation of invasion, defeat, destruction, and exile – and twice – and then remained an intact nation that reclaimed its ancient homeland after 19 centuries. It is so inexplicable in human terms that it is the source of relentless irritation to our enemies, who deny it formally but are awed by it privately.

And, despite our insignificant and paltry numbers, the influence of the people of Israel on world events is itself astounding. Scarcely a day goes by without a Jew or the Jewish people in the headlines. The preoccupation of the world – actually, the obsession of the world – with the tiny State of Israel is a constant reminder to us of the expectations that the world has for the Jewish people, our outsized impact on social trends and political movements, and the uneasiness of the world’s powers with this upstart nation that, as the boxing saying goes, punches far beyond its weight class. It has been repeatedly noted that Jews have been in the forefront of great social and intellectual movements of the last two centuries – some good, some not so good – Jews like Freud, Marx, Einstein and others. Many of the high-tech innovations that have revolutionized modern life have originated in Israel.

These are all “wonders,” but none are inherently innate to the Jewish people. They are gifts from Heaven, all intended to provide us the tools with which we can carry out G-d’s will for mankind. Occasionally, perhaps more often than that, we have used these gifts inappropriately, for our own self-aggrandizement or for mere physical gratification, and forgotten or ignored the Giver and the purposes for which it was given. At those moments in history, we are sent reminders, sometimes gentle ones and sometimes less so, that we have strayed from the proper path. The road to return then opens before us, if our eyes wish to see and our hearts are receptive to the messages.

The Torah we were given, Rav Avraham Kook wrote (Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato, Chapter 5) is “not the imagining of the heart, not human ethics, not just worthy desires or appropriate fantasies, not the abandonment of the material world in any of its aspects, not the rejection of the body because of its ‘impurity,’ not the renunciation of life, society, government and authority because of their lowliness, and not the repudiation of the world and its natural forces that were corrupted by sinful man – but rather the exaltation of all of the above.”

This is the future towards which we are heading, notwithstanding all the challenges we face, the incessant Jew hatred that still afflicts too much of the world, the seemingly endless terror and war that is thrust upon us and other good people, and the rebuff of the Divine idea and moral code that is at the core of mankind’s discontent and moral perversions.

“Those who rise up against Israel rise up against G-d” (Tanchuma, Beshalach 16). It is a truism of history that wars against the Jewish people are a displacement for the real adversary that confounds our enemies – their war with the Creator (see Rambam’s Epistle to Yemen). We are simply convenient targets, but attacks on the Jewish people elicit a Divine response in history, and judgment of those nations ensues.

On the annual Day of Judgment, each person is judged both as an individual and as part of a nation. We live our lives not only to perfect our souls in this world but also to advance the goals of the Creator. If our personal judgments are enigmatic, then our judgment insofar as we are part of a nation is even more impenetrable. Those are the mysteries of life and are the exclusive domain of the Judge of all mankind. We can never comprehend why some lives were snuffed out by the godless forces of evil and other lives were spared. All we can do is thank Hashem for His blessings and commit our lives and resources to living in broad, historical terms and not just in the mundane matters of daily life.

The Gemara states (Sanhedrin 97b): “Rabi Eliezer said: ‘if the Jewish people repent they will be redeemed, and if not, they will not be redeemed.’ Rabi Yehoshua said to him: ‘if they don’t repent, they won’t be redeemed? Rather the Holy One, Blessed be He, will cause a king to rise over them whose decrees are as harsh as those of Haman, and they will repent and be restored to the good.”

The king whose decrees will spur our repentance is not someone like Nimrod, Pharaoh, Nevuchadnetzar or Titus; it is someone like Haman – a Persian descendant of Amalek who harbored genocidal ambitions against the people of Israel.

Some things never change.

And some things can change. When we realize our individual vulnerabilities, the opportunities we have been given and the great stakes before us, the moment for both individual and national teshuva beckons. May we all be worthy of inscription in the book of life, and may the current turmoil and our response to it prepare us for redemption and the coming of Moshiach.

The Denial

President Obama’s insistence that he is not an “anti-Semite” may not be remembered as vividly as President Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” if only because Nixon said his just once while Obama has had to invoke this defense repeatedly in recent weeks, and to an increasingly skeptical audience. Sometimes, indeed, the Prez doth protest too much, methinks. He did state that there is “not even a smidgen of evidence for it,” but then again he once said there is “not even a smidgen of corruption” at the IRS (February 1, 2014). There must be a smidgen of something somewhere.  In any event, Jew hatred is a matter of the heart, and unknowable save through words and actions. Some of the words and most of the actions of this President do not bolster his reputation as a friend of the Jews.

Personally, I would not level such a crude accusation against the President.  I can’t see into a person’s heart, but I am inclined to quote a currently- beleaguered presidential hopeful on a matter of even greater importance: “What difference does it make?” The fact is that there were two recent presidents, Truman and Nixon, who privately expressed much ill will towards Jews, but at critical moments, each made historic decisions (Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948 and Nixon’s airlift of weapons to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973) in the face of intense pressure to do neither. So who really cares?  By the way, who exactly called him an “anti-Semite”? I haven’t seen that anywhere, from any Jew in any official or influential capacity. It makes his feigned, pained reaction seem more like an attempt to change the subject than genuine disappointment. Whether Obama is an enemy of the Jews or a friend of the Jews matters less than what he does to the Jews – and to the United States.

We can take him at his word, and still note that Obama has historically been intimate with a number of overt Jew haters – friends, supporters and pastors – and those Jews that he has known tend to be, if not always anti-Israel, then at least unsympathetic to Israel and halfhearted in their Jewish commitment. For sure, there have been many outright Jew haters who kept faithful Jews in their employ, from Nebuchadnezzar who had Daniel on his payroll to Ferdinand and Isabella whose finances were managed by Don Yitzchak Abravanel. And there must have been Jews then who looked at the Jewish ministers who served all those monarchs and determined that they can’t be all bad, because, after all, Jews work for them.

Of course, the President’s offense at being called by some unknown person an “anti-Semite” (“it hurts”) is just a tad treacly, especially given his interest in allowing Iran, a nation that has consistently called for the annihilation of the Jewish state, to develop nuclear weapons and the capacity to use them against Israel. (Of course, “not on his watch.”) That is certainly not the act of a Semite-phile, unless the Semites in question are Arabs, but even they are opposed to the Bad Deal. That searing emotional trauma – of having his love for the Jewish people questioned – might also be doubted by those who perceive Obama’s desire to subsidize Iran’s support of terror to the tune of $150B to be indicative of an uncaring attitude to the fate of Jews in Israel and around the world who have been the targets and victims of Iranian terror for decades, among others. Somehow, having a White House seder before Pesach and a White House Chanukah party before Chanukah are not as meaningful criteria by which to assess a person’s friendship for the Jewish people.

His protestations are also less than credible, if only because Obama habitually iterates clichés that are either demonstrably false or convincingly incredible. For example, just several days ago, he told a group of mostly gullible Jews that if Iran breaches the agreement, sanctions will “snap back” into place. That, of course, is not possible, as existing contracts would be honored, those existing contracts could sustain the Iranian economy for a decade or two, and the “international community,” which Obama purports to “lead from behind” would not go along in any case. Sanctions removed will not return, even after – especially after – Iran gets its nuclear weapon.

He also told those credulous communal leaders that “the military option is still on the table.” That is true. Unfortunately, that “table” is located in a sealed room in a locked house on a remote part of an inaccessible island, but it is on the table. The future president will not have the same military options that Obama has because Iran will be even closer to completing its nuclear program, with perhaps even more unknown sites, and with an even greater chance of the reactors all being “hot” – radioactive – with even deadlier fallout from an attack. Contrary to what Obama says, a future president will have fewer military options. But it is good to know that they will still be on the table.

Clearly, Obama never intended a military strike against Iran and did what he could to thwart Israel’s planned attack. Once Iran became aware of that hesitancy, it gained the upper hand in the negotiations and parlayed that into a stunning diplomatic success, and a humbling diplomatic defeat for the United States. Besides, Obama’s love of diplomacy and distaste for raw power (except against US allies) engenders the absurdity that negotiations are always preferable to military action up to and until the time Iran develops its weapon. Of course, once it develops its weapon it is too late to use military force because the potential Iranian retaliation serves as a deterrent. But it is comforting to know that the military option is on some table, somewhere.

It is worth recalling that during the Senate confirmation hearings of the hapless Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense (true to predictions, he had a brief and undistinguished record after he was confirmed), Hagel blurted out that US policy towards Iran was one of “containment,” i.e., to allow them a weapon and then ensure that Iran be deterred from using it much like the Soviet Union was “contained.” This was said to the horror of the sitting Senators and the consternation of his handlers, who quickly handed him a note of correction that he dutifully read into the record that America’s policy was not containment but the preclusion of the Iranian bomb.

Well, it is clear that Hagel gaffed by telling the truth. By all indications – except for the empty words that emanate from the White House – US policy is containment of the Iranian bomb as nothing will be done to prevent its development if the Bad Deal passes. Then – by which time Obama will be in retirement – the US will learn that the Soviet Union, Evil Empire though it was, was a rational actor with whom nuclear stalemate was possible, while Iran is an irrational, apocalyptic actor bent on fulfilling its demented religious vision of the future.

There is not a credible military option on any table in North America, sanctions are not snapping back, the inspections regime is a farce, the Iranian windfall will lead to an increase in global terror, and the embargo on conventional weapons will soon be lifted as well. Iran is the only country in the world that has an intermediate range ballistic missile capability (2000 miles) without having a nuclear weapon, and they are developing an intercontinental range ballistic missile (more than 3000 miles). What are both for, if not the obvious?

All threaten the peace and security of Israel – and America. Assuming that Obama is not an “anti-Semite,” one would be hard-pressed to perceive what policies a real “anti-Semite” would pursue that are different than the ones Obama is pursuing. And that matters more than his anguish about being called an “anti-Semite” or whether or not he really is one.

As bad as the Bad Deal is, Obama’s search-and-destroy mission against all opponents of the Bad Deal, especially Israel and the Jews, is just a sign of bad faith and maybe worse. Indeed, Obama has stated that only Israel opposes the deal and he has singled out Jewish groups – and their money – for opposing him. Note that well: notwithstanding that polls show most Americans opposed to the Bad Deal (and Jews are far less than 2% of the population) and notwithstanding that hundreds of military people and the bulk of the Republican Party are vehemently opposed, Obama chose to underscore Jewish opposition – and their money. Even liberal Jewish groups, some, of course, quite tentatively, exposed these code words for what they are: an attempt to make this a Jewish issue and stoke the flames of Jew hatred, of choosing between the President and the Prime Minister, between loyalty and dual loyalty, between patriotism and treachery, between peace and warmongering.

To date, few Democrats in Congress have had the courage to defy Obama. All have been subject to pressure and some to threats. It is simply implausible that Democrats would support this deal when so many have said for two years that they would not support a deal that acquiesced in an Iranian weapon, that did not include rigorous inspections of all facilities, in which the Iranians did not have to account for their past nuclear development or halt their support of global terror, or have the sanctions regime end not immediately but gradually. This Bad Deal does none of that, and will go down in American history as one of the sorriest examples of politicians placing party over country. There is no other way to say it but that Democrats are arming with weapons of mass destruction a nation that chants “Death to America” and has been at war with the United States since 1979. Those are the leaders of a nation with a death wish.

The Deal is Bad, the optics are bad and the words are worse. No wonder Obama has to deny constantly that he is an “anti-Semite.” Real anti-Semites have always accused the Jews of being a fifth column, of dual loyalties, of egging the world into wars, of using their money and power to manipulate politicians to do their bidding.

It is quite irrelevant whether Obama is or isn’t an “anti-Semite” but he is forced to deny that slur because he fears the severance of the umbilical cord that connects most Jews to the Democratic Party. Jews are a reliable voting bloc for Democrats, and more importantly, Jewish money, sad to say, plays an enormous role in funding the Democrat agenda. Frankly, I believe Obama’s fear is misplaced and most Jews’ ties to the Democrat Party are far stronger than their ties to Judaism or to Israel. He need not fear Jewish abandonment of the Democrats – but what those Jews need is rhetorical cover, an explicit denial of “anti-Semitism” and equally public statements of love and friendship for Israel.

For those Jews for whom liberalism is their true religion, these affirmations allow them to sleep easily at night and write checks to the Democrats by day. They too will bear part of the blame if the Bad Deal passes and they will share much of the blame when Iran gets its bomb. They will have regrets, but they will assuage their grief at community rallies and prayer vigils, and then support the next Democrat who tells them what they want to hear.

As long as the Democrat insists – swears! – that he is not an “anti-Semite” and is hurt to the core by the very accusation. And if the Democrat can shed tears while saying it, that is a bonus.

Obama’s denials of this unsourced accusation is just damage control, an attempt to mend fences with one of his parties’ main sources of support especially now that he knows that his Bad Deal is likely to pass. Will the Jews ignore this hostile act? My guess is that Iran will not necessarily get their bomb even with the deal – other events can intervene – but Obama will get his Jews back.

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.


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

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.