Category Archives: Israel

Deal of the Century: Cautious Pessimism

The most pro-Israel American president in history just released the most pro-Israel American peace plan in history, and the first that doesn’t call on Israel to make “painful sacrifices” up front or expect Israeli concessions in exchange for empty words, gestures and ceremonies. Do I think it will bring real peace? Certainly not. But it leaves me cautiously pessimistic for the future (optimism in the Middle East is misplaced until the coming of Moshiach).

The negative: recognition of a Palestinian state is a bone in the throat of every Torah Jew (or should be), as is the potential loss of sovereignty over parts of the heartland of the Jewish people that G-d granted us for eternity. As one rabbi once put it, no generation has the right to compromise the boundaries of the land of Israel that were given to us by the Creator and delineated in the Torah. That land is the possession of the Jewish people for all time and no single individual, group or generation has the moral, halachic or legal right to waive that possession. This sentiment was expressed not by a Religious Zionist but in 1937, by the vociferously anti-Zionist Rav Elchanan Wasserman HY”D, in encouraging opposition to the Peel Commission’s partition plan.

The loss of Israeli territory in the Negev is especially gratuitous and irksome, especially considering the years of war and terror and hostility that the Arabs foisted on Israel. A formal place for them in Yerushalayim is similarly agonizing, even it is doesn’t change much the reality on the ground.

Secondly, the negotiations over the agreement almost presuppose a right-wing government in Israel because a left-wing government would use this basic framework – a tacit acceptance by the right-wing of a Palestinian state and the surrender of more territory – and negotiate into weakness, danger, and vulnerability. There should be no confidence that a right-wing government will rule Israel after the next election (or the one that will follow a few months later). With PM Netanyahu’s formal indictment today, just hours before the White House announcement, his prospects for heading the next government have dimmed even more. Hence the hazards ahead, which will be entrusted to less experienced politicians and leaders.

So why then is this plan not an unmitigated disaster, as has been almost every other American or Israeli peace plan going back to the Rogers plan in 1969? It is because it must be measured not against Paradise but against the status quo. The status quo has worked well for Israel in the last decade. Terror exists but has been drastically reduced, the economy is thriving, personal security and well-being have been enhanced, and the situation in the countries surrounding Israel has superseded any internal anxiety. The “Palestinians” have been marginalized by the Arab world, much less by the West. Their bad choices have finally caught up to them. They have no base of support, no passionate advocates anymore beyond the Israeli and the American Jewish left. They are thus reduced to ranting and raving, making wild threats, burning pictures of President Trump, and chanting. Their vehement opposition to this plan is one of its important selling points.

It brings to mind Abba Eban’s famous quip that that “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” There should be confidence that they will miss this opportunity as well, thus rendering moot Israel’s technical agreement to a Palestinian state and partial renunciation of sovereignty. (Indeed, Israel hasn’t formally accepted those terms; it has simply agreed to use the Trump as the framework for negotiations.) Finally, after many decades, Arab intransigence has cost them. Yes, they should have accepted the original Camp David offer of autonomy in 1978, complied with the Oslo agreement of the 1990’s, embraced the Clinton parameters of the year 2000, the Olmert plan of 2007, etc. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. They didn’t. Their leadership always fails them miserably, if indeed they are truly representative of their people. They have always implemented the game plan of rejecting offers in the hopes of getting a better one at some point, pocketing tangible concessions in exchange for words (the classic has always been “renouncing terror”) and never really conceding anything tangible of their own.

That dynamic has now been reversed, and how that must stick in the craw of the old Oslo, two-state illusion crowd. Now, Israel will within days be able to declare full sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the settlements in Judea and Samaria; a concrete and substantial achievement up front. It is the Palestinian state that has to be created over the course of next four years and only if the Arabs adhere to certain benchmarks that alone would alter the nature of Palestinian society. And if they don’t – and who really thinks they will? – Israel will have pocketed this enormous diplomatic accomplishment at absolutely no cost. That is genius, and credit goes to the diplomatic team that conjured up this strategy. The onus is on the Arabs – to accept the plan as a basis for negotiations even as it makes absolutely no reference to a return of refugees or compensation for loss of homes, and implicitly rejects both. And both of those claims, surely, if raised, would be balanced against similar and more substantive claims by Jews who were forced to flee Arab lands in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

What the Trump Plan has accomplished is force the Palestinians to confront their suicidal ideology and genocidal ambitions head on. That won’t be easy for them, and they will likely be unable to overcome their rabid Jew hatred (although giving their kleptocrats access to $50B might be irresistible enough to compel them to say the right words and open the spigots of money). Tellingly, representatives of three Arab countries were at the White House today, another indication of how the allegiances in the Middle East have shifted in the last several years even as Palestinian diplomacy, if that word can even be  used in their context, has remained stagnant. They are trapped in a time warp, the world has passed them by, and their only hope for their future is to come to terms with the new reality. Their old game plan has left them in last place. Hysteria is a poor substitute for statecraft.

But their fallback position in times of diplomatic opportunity has always been terror, and that too engenders some cautious pessimism. Their leadership has already rejected the plan (MK Ahmed Tibi, somehow still a member of Knesset: “this is a wedding without the bride”). It would be unsurprising if missiles and rockets start to fly or if bombs start exploding in cities, r”l. Israel is naturally on high alert but perfection in these matters is difficult to sustain permanently. We will need divine mercy and the thwarting of the evil plans of our enemies.

It is clear that only Donald Trump could have produced such a plan. The deep state of the State Department must be apoplectic, and the Israel haters in the EU must be beside themselves wondering how this happened. The Arabs must be wondering how this guy ever got elected. (They are not alone!) He ran as a disrupter, and this is a characteristic disruption. After annexation of even parts of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley by Israel, the terrain – literal and diplomatic – will be significantly and perhaps even permanently altered. There is still land in Judea and Samaria (about a third) whose disposition will be frozen for four years and awaits negotiations. Time is on Israel’s side.

And it took this President to do it. Perhaps Jews will notice. Israel wins merely by improving the status quo in its favor and would certainly gain if the other side acquiesced in its existence. But that too is unnecessary in the near term. History is made through such decisions. Even if it is not all to my liking, the deal of the century represents a sea change for the region, dramatic and positive steps for Israel and a day of reckoning for the Palestinians. You can oppose a Palestinian state and a further partition of Israel and still implicitly favor this proposal. What makes it an especially good deal for Israel is that the Arabs will reject it – leaving Israel advantaged for the future in a multitude of ways that should inspire chants of “Make Israel Great Again.” Or something like that.

 

Open Season

The brutal assaults on Jews across America, incessant for more than a year but increasing now in intensity and frequency, are – after taking into account all the facts, circumstances, assortment of perpetrators and potential causes – ultimately inexplicable. There is no rational reason for it. And that should open our eyes to a new reality.

From the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh to the machete attack in the shtiebel in Monsey, and including the almost daily assaults and harassment of Jews across the metropolitan area and in Teaneck as well, Jews are wondering what the future holds and where is the support from the American political and civilian establishment?

There is some good news emerging from the spate of attacks. In Monsey, Jews resisted, fought back, and after five people were stabbed, the assailant was repulsed, fled and later apprehended. That has not always been the case. Too often, Jews have been docile and passive, punched, knocked down and pushed without any response. Such docility only encourages more attacks, as every bully knows.

It is important to mention that unlike the European persecutions of old, here the government protects us and prosecutes the attackers. That is a major distinction and one that engenders hope and security. What doesn’t is the response of the political establishment that issues florid statements advocating love and tolerance, vitriolic statements denouncing hate and intolerance, and proposes a bevy of new laws that cannot apply to past attacks and will not deter new ones. Hate crime legislation, more gun control laws, or labeling assailants of Jews “domestic terrorists” are all empty gestures; if the clearly delineated prohibitions against homicide and assault are insufficient, then new and more arcane laws will not deter anyone. But laws are the politician’s stock in trade and enable them to proclaim that they are doing “something.”

What metropolitan area politicians will not even entertain is the relaxation of the issuance of gun carry permits that will enable Jews (and others) to defend themselves against an immediate assault. The dastardly attack on the church in Texas was ended within seconds by parishioners who shot and killed the assailant, period. Had the attacker in Monsey carried a gun rather than a knife, the result would have been horrific. When will our liberal politicians wake up, show some courage and actually – strong words ahead – change their minds on something and even exercise some political courage? For all their high-sounding rhetoric and concern for Jews, as long as they continue to pander to the anti-Second Amendment lobby and deprive law-abiding Americans of their right of self-defense, the blood of future victims, G-d forbid, is partly on their hands.

Similarly, the politicians have been too reticent to expose the identity of almost all the recent perpetrators in New York and New Jersey: they have been black Americans. That point is worth noting for several reasons. Had they been white supremacists (as the Pittsburgh murderer was), we would not hear the end of the recriminations against this ugly ideology. Politicians and commentators would be contorting themselves and drawing labyrinthine diagrams trying to connect this dot and that dot until they could pin something on President Trump. The fact that the assailants are mostly black has left them tongue-tied. The ADL is as paralyzed today as it was during its shameful silence through the Crown Heights pogrom in 1991.

As a result, every black assailant is just a lone wolf and they are all mentally unstable. Sure.

It must be mentioned in the current climate that these miscreants do not represent the black community and that blacks, indeed, are not generally anti-Jewish (although their rates of Jew hatred, and even animus towards Israel, do exceed that of the general population). To blame all blacks for the actions of a few would be as foolish as it is false. Only thoughtless promoters of identity politics would, in any event, pin the actions of a handful of people on the rest of that ethnic group, whichever it is. But what is troubling is the lack of response from black leaders, partly because there really is not a black “community” with its own leadership and spokesmen. There are local leaders who try to positively influence small groups of people, and there infamous race hustlers who shake down politicians for money and the media for sympathetic coverage – but no leaders.

So aside from Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President, who forcefully denounced Jew hatred, there hasn’t been a meaningful word spoken by one of the celebrity black personalities (unless I missed something). Where is Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson? Where is Cory Booker? Where is the call for soul-searching in the black community? It is not enough to just perfunctorily denounce Jew hatred; that should be obvious even as it would be welcome. But where is the heartfelt search for the answer to the question why are blacks suddenly attacking Jews in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Teaneck, Monsey and elsewhere? What currents or trends are coursing through the black community that are contributing to this environment? What can be changed in the curriculum offered in the schools, the education offered in churches, or the values being taught in homes? What is motivating these evildoers?

It is disconcerting that there has been such a tepid response from the officialdom of the black community. Contrast that with the outrage heard ‘round the world when the floundering actor Jesse Smollett falsely claimed to have been assaulted by two white, MAGA- hat wearing white supremacists who, allegedly (!) , were foolhardy enough to walk through a black neighborhood in Chicago late at night carrying a noose and kidnapping one of the most well known blacks in the city. Cory Booker, Al Sharpton, Kamala Harris, Jessie Jackson and even Michelle Obama pounced on this hoax and used it as a hammer with which to club white America, and have never retracted or apologized.

Is it too much to ask that they demonstrate some of the same distress for real attacks on real Jews by real blacks? Their silence is as deafening as it is painful to bear. Mayor de Blasio’s platitudes aside, the new bail reform law has already released Jewish attackers back on to the street hours after they arrested, prioritizing the interests of criminals over those of decent citizens. That is truly clueless and a shameful sign of the times.

Indeed, most politicians who denounce the “climate of hate” are often oblivious to the hatred emanating from their side of the aisle and the demonizing of their political opponents. That has always existed notwithstanding the hypocrisy involved. What’s worse today is the nonstop presence of a tendentious media that magnify every event and then distort its lessons through its preferred prism of understanding, and the ubiquitous social media outlets that have unleashed people’s worst instincts with very few real consequences to the offenders. Hatred today has a force multiplier that it has never had before.

What can be done? In the last seventy years, Jews hopefully have learned, from hard experience and the establishment of the State of Israel, that Jewish blood is not cheap. No Jew should stand by idly and passively watch another Jew being beaten or harassed. Of course don’t be foolish, over-aggressive, disproportionate in response, or a vigilante – but also don’t be docile. Jews should respond blow for blow – two blows for every one blow – to every unprovoked attack. It has been painful to watch videos of Jews in Brooklyn being knocked down – and the victim can’t or won’t respond.

In the current environment, Jews have to be vigilant. I dare say that Jews who are walking and talking on their cell phones are easy targets, vulnerable to assault and almost powerless to resist or retaliate. Loss of the cell phone walk and talk is a great sacrifice but an unfortunate necessity until the situation stabilizes. (It also helps you avoid walking into other people or oncoming traffic.)

The spirit of Chanuka was the capacity of a small group of Jews to rise up in righteous indignation and fight back against our oppressors. It was not all latkes and jelly doughnuts. We are not protected by organizations that pride themselves on counting the number of attacks on Jews, and actively oppose the self-defense measures that could increase our sense of security. The Torah demands that we act in our own defense, as the Jews in Monsey did several nights ago.

But we have to reckon with another phenomenon as well. The white supremacists who attacked Jews in Poway and Pittsburgh are fringe actors who enjoy no support from mainstream society. Their hatred is boundless, unassuageable, and they threaten not only Jews and blacks but American society generally.

The recent attacks against Jews that did not originate with white supremacists or neo-Nazis are inexplicable. There is no rational reason why these black Americans, random or not, should be attacking Jews. Blacks have prospered under the Trump economy as never before. Black unemployment is at an all-time low and black businesses have thrived. Black support for Trump is growing, even as the fatherlessness of the average black home remains pervasive, troubling and the cause of much mischief. None of this explains why some would therefore just attack Jews.

If it is inexplicable, then that too is teaching us something. Every galut ends. That is the first reality of Jewish history. The second reality of Jewish history is that each inhabitant of a particular galut has denied the first reality that every galut ends, until it has been too late. If this rash of violence against Jews could be attributed to a particular cause – we did X or Y and brought it on ourselves – then we would comfort ourselves by saying that if we just stop doing X or Y, then the danger will pass and this galut will continue as before.

When the aggression is inexplicable, we have to look for the source elsewhere. I am not a prophet – but I do know that this galut will end as all the others have ended. That is a simple truth of Torah. Is anyone confident that the United States ten years from now will be the same as it is today – more united, peaceful and prosperous? (The US today is relatively peaceful and prosperous but not at all united.) Will it more supportive of Jews or of Israel? Or will it be more divided, spiteful, and debt-ridden, with each group competing for tinier shares in a smaller pie of resources, with some imposing its amoral notions on all others, with growing disenchantment of those who see the America they knew slipping away from them, and with the looming day of reckoning because of the deficit that now exceeds $22 trillion and is unstoppable?

When this galut ends, it will be possible to trace back the steps that led to its decline and its inhospitability to Jews. The signs are there, as is the land of Israel that beckons all of us.

Perhaps that is the only conclusion that makes any sense. Are we ready to draw those conclusions? Or will we content ourselves with prayer vigils, politician’s clichés, barricades and security enhancements and deflecting words?

Those are the good questions that should be uppermost in the minds of Jews as we endure the current storm of weapons and words.

This President and the Jews

It should not be disputable that President Trump has been the best President that the State of Israel has ever come across, even as it is acknowledged that the job of the American president is not to serve Israel’s needs but those of the United States. Clearly, the President sees America’s interests as aligned with those of Israel to a degree unseen since Israel’s creation. No president has been more supportive and it is difficult to conjure how any president could be more supportive.

Thus, President Trump moved the American embassy to Yerushalayim, executing American law and fulfilling a campaign promise that had been made by two other presidents and then abrogated. He recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital. He cut off funding for the PA because of their tireless support for terror and terrorists and kicked out the PLO from Washington DC. He recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, leading to the founding of a new settlement there called “Trump Heights.” He shares the distinction of having an Israeli community named for him with George (Givat) Washington and Harry (Kfar) Truman. JFK only merited a forest.

Most recently he recognized the legality of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, reversing a tendentious decision of the Carter administration that had already been rejected by President George W. Bush but reinstated by President Obama. He has provided Israel with steadfast support at the United Nations, in contrast to the shameful denouement of Obama when he gleefully allowed a Security Council resolution to pass declaring Israeli settlements illegal – even denying Israel’s claim over the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount).

President Trump has coordinated with Israel over joint approaches to Iran and has facilitated Israel’s burgeoning relationship with the Arab Gulf states. He has given Israel a free hand in dealing with terror in Judea and Samaria and rockets emanating from Gaza; there are no more hollow calls for restraint, no more evenhandedness between terrorist and terror victims.

Every country has a wish list from every other country with which it has diplomatic relations. Trump has done everything for Israel except build the Third Temple, perhaps because that is not on Israel’s wish list. It is impossible to imagine what more he can do.

Domestically, he has loudly denounced Jew hatred and violence against Jews, and multiple times. (Don’t believe the false Charlottesville narrative, repeatedly debunked.) He has consoled Jews in times of grief and rejoiced with Jews in times of joy. He has filled his administration with Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, and has a comfort level with religious Jews rarely seen in the White House. He has been repaid, if that is the right word, with solid majority support in the Orthodox community – and largely been castigated, rebuked, and disparaged by non-traditional Jews, many more agitated by Trump’s pro-life commitment than his pro-Israel actions.

For sure, there are many Jews who think that his pro-Israel bias is a sham, a balloon that will someday pop and unleash his presumably pent-up anti-Jewish animus. Given his support for Jews and Israel, and the contemptible way most Jews perceive him, I could not blame him – even as I seriously doubt that would ever happen. But if it did (and it won’t) we would have only ourselves to blame, and especially the deplorable role Jews have played in assailing this most pro-Jewish president.

Simply put, the impeachment spectacle has become too Jewish for my taste. Consider: the lead inquisitor on the Intelligence Committee was Adam Schiff and his counterpart on the Judiciary is Gerald Nadler. Both are Jews. The Democrats’ lead counsel on Intelligence was Daniel Goldman; on the Judiciary, Norman Eisen. Both are Jews.

The lead witness proffered by the Intelligence Committee (if the great “presumer” can be called a “witness”) was Ambassador Gordon Sondland. He is Jewish. For good measure, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. The law professor who was most strident opining on Trump’s impeachability, Noah Feldman, is also a Jew. The presidential candidate who asserts that Trump is “the most corrupt president in American history” is Bernie Sanders, a Jew, who is also old enough to have served in the Senate with Warren Harding and who should certainly be familiar with LBJ. There are others. Frankly, it is just too much. Too many Jews are too visible, and for the wrong reasons.

Jews number about one-hundredth of one percent of the world’s population and far less than 2% of the United States population. So how is it that we are so prominent – to my taste, too prominent – in these sham proceedings? And how do we ensure that it is does not redound to the detriment of Jews in the United States and in Israel?

The latter question is especially disquieting because Jews run the risk of being tarred with primary responsibility for the coming impeachment, alienating half the country who are diehard supporters of Trump, realize (and even appreciate, much more than do many Jews) his support for Israel and see these Jews as ungrateful at best and malicious at worst. Perhaps it behooves Jewish supporters of Trump to raise their profile not only so that the President knows (he does) but that his faithful devotees know as well.

The former question is enlightening in nature but frightening in its implications. Our forefather Yaakov was blessed with the reality that Jews would never be bystanders to history but that we would be leaders in every nation in which we lived and prime movers of civilization. That is a gift that we should embrace.

Nonetheless, it is a mistake for Jews to be so front and center in the persecution of this (or probably any) president. It is as if we don’t realize the costs of exile and how no exile has ever ended well for Jews. Ever. One can easily project the tide of American life turning in ways that are deleterious to Jewish interests and hostile to Jews. It is apparent in the anti-Jewish (not just anti-Israel) feelings on campuses, in the escalating contempt for the Bible and its moral notions, and in the current assault on free speech and freedom of worship that is gaining currency in elitist circles as well. It is apparent in the rising number of overt Jew haters in the Democrat Party – still not chastised or censured but, instead, celebrated. If sufficient numbers of Trump supporters become enraged over what they perceive as the disproportionate number of Jews who are Trump haters, then only bad things can come from that.

As it stands now, the attacks on Jews in the United States, from both the right and the left, come from outspoken Trump haters. A discredited, widely denounced but unapologetic Jew hater is already calling the impeachment process a “Jew coup.” We would do well to lower our profile and reduce the number of public Jews suffused in impeachment mania. If Democrats are gung ho on impeaching this President because they fear he will get re-elected, and just want to damage him through this endless legal torture, then surely this land contains a sufficient number of Gentiles who can indulge those whims without involving people whose energies could better be devoted to worthy Torah pursuits.

Yes, Torah pursuits. If only…

And if not, then we risk far more than defeat of this president at the polls. Whoever succeeds him will not be as pro-Israel or pro-Jewish and we will rue that day if it comes.

Time Warp

There was a time when banning overt, unabashed Jew haters from the land of Israel would have been uncontroversial. It is now more complicated since some of those Jew haters have found residence in the Democrat Party that is reluctant to rein them in, chastise them, or otherwise distance itself from them. Thus the kerfuffle – to be over moments after this is posted – over Israel’s denial of entry visas to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, which has ignited the toxic brew of religion, politics, Jew hatred and Jewish timidity.

It used to be obvious that every nation has the fundamental right to control its borders and admit or deny admission to any person. This notion is today challenged by those Americans and Europeans who seek open borders and even a dilution of the distinction between citizen and non-citizen. Most nations still exercise that right, to the consternation of illegal immigration activists, as even the United States did in 2012, when the Obama administration refused to admit the Israeli Member of Knesset Michael ben Ari on the grounds that he said some not unkind things about an alleged terrorist group that was by then long defunct. Banning foreign parliamentarians with troubling views to the governing authorities has a long history. Israel’s President Rivlin vehemently protested this affront to Israel’s democracy, and was ignored. So let’s get real.

The ban made sense based on the Rabbinic dictum: “Who is wise? He who foresees consequences” (Masechet Tamid 32b). If the disruptive duo had come – their itinerary reported a visit only to “Palestine,” refusing even to recognize Israel’s sovereignty anywhere – and they had provoked riots at a checkpoint, bloodshed on the Temple Mount, and death, injury and mayhem wherever they went, it is certain that the same critics of Israel’s ban would be criticizing Israel’s permission to admit them. Clearly they were not traveling this long distance to enjoy Israel’s food or tourist sites or learn about the Jewish people’s inherent and eternal connection to the land or Israel’s security needs. They were coming to make trouble. The fact that Tlaib refused a humanitarian visa after pleading to see her grandmother vindicated Aryeh Deri’s career with his one tweet: “Apparently she hates Israel more than she loves her grandmother.” Indeed.

If either congresswomen had joined in throwing stones at Israeli soldiers – as the late, unlamented Columbia professor Edward Said did years ago – would they have been arrested? Ignored? And then what?

The broader point is what this ban says about the Democrat Party and American Jews’ long infatuation with it. For sure, President Trump has here (like in many other areas) made them crazy, veering from overreactions to slight provocations to no reactions where a strong response would have been warranted. To the latter point: the inability of the Democrats in the House to denounce Jew hatred alone without supplementing the resolution with a laundry list of professional victims groups is shameful and doesn’t bode well for the future. It is the result of a party determining its policies simply in relation to the President: whatever he supports, they are against. Whatever he is against, they support.

It is not rational, although it does give new meaning to the term “opposition party.” They indiscriminately oppose whatever Trump does.

It is equally shameful that Rep. Omar remains on the House Foreign Relations Committee, with access to classified material that can do real harm to America’s and Israel’s interests. It is known that intelligence leaks from the Obama administration to Israel’s enemies precluded several military operations. That is not how allies operate.

But Jewish Democrats who now fear repercussions have to account for the shift in their party and its attitude towards Israel. It is not the same and hasn’t been for years, but the failure to acknowledge that has made their position in the party more precarious and has led to a diminution of their influence. Support for Israel has long been touted as a bipartisan proposition, and it largely but by no means universally still is. The Dems have changed.

In the rawest analysis, the policies of the Dems do not comport with where the people of Israel are today. They can blame Obama or Netanyahu all they want – but the Israelis keep confounding Thomas Friedman and his ilk and voting in right-wing parties. That is where Israel is. That is not where the Democrats are. That is the first problem.

The second problem was already noted. President Trump is the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House – in terms of policies, advisers and appointees. It really can’t get any better than this, but the opposition party is just forced to oppose, even this. It is as if it would behoove the US to embrace failed policies – like the two-state illusion, like haggling over the embassy in Yerushalayim, like endlessly debating the annexation of the Golan Heights – just because that is where the diplomatic positions froze a decade ago. That is also senseless. The trope of several decades – “everyone knows what the final solution will look like; just do it” – turned out to be empty words that casually detonated a decade of terror. I suppose this was one final solution that Israelis rejected and for good reason.

Something else has changed over the years that Jews – never adept at reading historical trends – would do well to ponder. Much of the discussion about Jews and Democrats today reminds me of the Israel-Turkey dynamic in the last 16 years, since Erdogan became Prime Minister and then President. Too many Israelis wondered, hoped and assumed that relations between Turkey and Israel would return to their pre-Erdogan state because, after all, Turkey and Israel were longtime friends, even allies to a certain extent, and Turkey prided itself on being the only Muslim country to have diplomatic relations with Israel.
The fact that Erdogan was a rabid Jew-hater and explicit enemy of Israel and Jews was just ignored as an inconvenient fact, as if he would one day come around because, after all, Turkey long prided itself on being the only Muslim country to have diplomatic relations with Israel.
This illusion was maintained even after the Mavi Marmara debacle. It’s only in the last few years that Israel recognized that the old Turkey is not coming back as long as Erdogan is there. We would do well to remember the adage of Lord Palmerston,  a 19th century British prime minister: “There are no permanent alliances, only permanent interests.”  Things change. One might as well talk glowingly of Israel’s future relations with Iran, because, after all, the late Shah was also close to Israel.
Much has changed in the Democrat party, even if a core of traditional supporters of Israel still retains some power in Washington. Their hearts are in the right place, even if their policy preferences don’t always reflect it. But it is foolish to believe that nothing has changed and the old party is one Trump defeat away from reconstituting itself. The identity politics fetish of the modern Democrat hurts Jews, as does the constant Dem attack on the successful who, apparently, only achieve success by exploiting everyone else. The Democrat obsession with unlimited abortion rights – sad to say, the real source of its consistent Jewish support –its embrace of biblically ordained sins and immorality as cherished freedoms, concomitant with attacks on genuine religious liberty by people of faith also clash with the true Jewish value system. Its acceptance of the modern madness of gender choice and dozens of pronouns should not resonate with Jews whose Torah provides a clear and compelling insight into human relations.

When it comes to Israel, the harsh truths need to be recognized. Hubert Humphrey is gone. Scoop Jackson is gone. The Dem support for Israel the last 25 years has been mainly providing military assistance through Congress while indulging Israel’s worst instincts (like Oslo), and pouting (Clinton) or protesting (Obama) when Israel acted in its own interests as a sovereign nation should. They and others have become accustomed to an Israel that is constantly surrendering and compromising and the key to “peace” lies in endless Israeli concessions.
Let’s face it. Israel has fared well or poorly under both Democrat and Republican administrations. Truman was not the greatest fan of Jews but to his credit overcame tremendous opposition and threats from within his own administration to recognize the nascent State of Israel. Eisenhower was unfriendly and perceived Israel as a nuisance or a vassal, depending on the circumstances. Kennedy was the first to sell arms to Israel (Hawk missiles); thus for the first 15 years of Israel’s existence, tenuous years of wars and constant struggles, the US provided no military aid, and didn’t even sell it. Johnson refused to enforce America’s commitment to keep open the Straits of Tiran and then threatened Israel not to strike preemptively in 1967; Israel wisely ignored him and took matters into her own hands. Nixon, even less friendly to Jews than Truman, bailed out Israel with massive weapons transfers during the darkest days of the Yom Kippur War. Ford had his reassessment when Israel didn’t concede fast enough for his taste and Carter bludgeoned Israel into concessions at Camp David.

Reagan was balanced and serves as a good contrast to the others. He was supportive of Israel, both publicly and privately, and some of his public criticisms were staged, and Israel knew it. But he sold AWACS to Saudi Arabia because he saw that as an American interest – even though Israel opposed it at the time – and it turned out to be a positive move.

Bush 1 was not friendly to Israel (overall), Clinton was better but certainly not good (his relations with Israel soured when Netanyahu stopped the concessions; no foreign leader visited the Clinton White House more than did the mass murderer Yasser Arafat), Bush 2 was better, Obama was horrible, and Trump is fantastic, to the utter horror of most Jews and Democrats.

The mainstream Dem party in Congress is still supportive of “Israel” in the abstract but supportive of the concessionary, compromising Israel they grew to love in the 1990’s, the Israel that buried thousands of terror victims and thereby evoked flowery sympathies from all.  They still cling to the “two-state delusion” and thus it is not possible to say they are supporters of a strong Israel.
Only Republicans today support that strong Israel. But wishing for the old Israel is as delusional as wishing for the old Dem party, the old Turkey or the old Iran. You can’t live in a time warp.
Of course, there is some value in maintaining the pretense that support for Israel is bipartisan. It is to some extent, but less and less and we shouldn’t deny that, blame Israel, blame Trump or blame Republicans. We should blame the Dems for abandoning their values and not renouncing the Jew haters in the midst.

Finally, we should bear in mind that just like the Dems today are not like the Dems of the past, the Jews today are not like the Jews of the past. Intermarriage is rampant in Jewish life and we not be astonished at the number of “Jews” – born of one Jewish parent – not having the same feelings towards Israel as did their fully Jewish grandparents. Do not expect them to demand that a Dem or progressive party or politician they favor also support Israel as in the past.
I can understand why other policy interests will always lead some Jews to support the Dems – but then make demands on the leadership. Don’t acquiesce to second class treatment. Don’t accept the prominence given to bigots, racists and Jew haters. Don’t let them take your votes for granted. Don’t betray your people or your principles. Don’t live in a time warp.

As the great baseball manager Sparky Anderson once said, “Don’t live in the past. There’s no future in it.”

The Rabbinate and Its Contents

If you had to choose a rabbi (and who doesn’t?), what criteria would you use? And why? Fortunately, few people would choose a rabbi who is recognized as a “tzadik!”

This was the subject of a new survey commissioned by the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics (based here in Modiin), and the results shed light on the modern rabbinate, the modern laity, and some of the differences between the Israeli and American rabbinate. As is often the case, superficial media accounts highlighted one or two points that were not really essential to the report but did accord with the biases of those outlets.

Two important issues need to be underscored. The survey questioned only those who identify as religious-Zionists and who were classified according to varying levels of observance, and thus excluded the larger Charedi community from its deliberations. The Charedi attitudes, in a number of ways, differ significantly from those of the Dati-Leumi community. By the same token, although there is a basic congruity between the religious practices and commitments of the Dati-Leumi world in Israel and what is called “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy in America, they are by no means identical or even symmetrical. Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be learned from this study even by American Jews.

The survey questioned hundreds of men and women, of all ages, even sub-dividing them into levels of observance, on issues ranging from the intensity of their connection to rabbis, the frequency of their interactions (questions or personal), and the traits that are most important to them in choosing a rabbi with whom they would consult. What follows are the main features that I extracted from the survey and my deductions.

Those who perceive a rabbi primarily as the source of halachic guidance will be disappointed. Almost 2/3 of the respondents never ask a halachic question (never?!) or ask roughly once a year. It is surely unsurprising that 2/3 of what can be called the Dati-Lite (liberal Religious Zionist, with “flexible” attitudes towards halachic observance) never ask a halachic question. Never!  Why this is so is not addressed, but it might relate to a reduced level of commitment (the “social Orthodox,” those who observe the mitzvot because they desire to associate with or live among other observant people, will be less likely to obsess over halachic minutiae), or to a reluctance to relate to a rabbi, or perhaps, echoing the Talmud (Masechet Yoma 75), the spiritual world appears to them as a plain, all smooth and untroubled. Or perhaps they are fortunate in avoiding the halachic scrapes that arise in the kitchen, workplace or on Shabbat.

Interestingly, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is to ask a she’elah. Almost three times as many young people (aged 16-30) ask she’elot once a week than do people over age 51, and twice as many ask at least once a month. Similarly, the more observant the individual, the more likely he or she is to ask halachic questions; this makes complete sense. In my own personal survey, I have found that 10% of the people ask 80% of the questions – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Of course, 49% of respondents said that they first turn to the Internet (!) with any halachic questions. Rabbi Google might be today the leading “posek” in the world, not so much because of reliability (questions are very fact sensitive and nuances will be lost both to the site and to the questioner) but rather because one can easily hunt for the answer that is desired. As could be anticipated, the younger the questioner, the more likely he or she will turn to the Internet as the first resort, with a full 56.7 of Jews under 30 looking on-line for G-d’s word. But note that this age cohort also asks the most questions of rabbis – so it appears that they will consult Google and then, often, a real, live rabbi as well. It is important to add that more than a third of the respondents will first turn to their permanent rabbi, as opposed to seeking answers “on the street” or randomly.

While this phenomenon is regrettable, and was the source of much hand-wringing and even mockery of the modern rabbinate in some accounts, the unbiased will recognize that the same could be said of medicine, law and almost every discipline. Some doctors will tell you that patients who diagnose themselves on the Internet frequently think they have maladies that they really don’t have – and this pseudo-knowledge hampers the doctor’s ability to properly advise the patient. People will consult their physicians asking for specific medicines they found on the Internet or refuse to take other medications because of side-effects they read about, which are often quite rare. Yet, no one would say doctors are being replaced – or lawyers, accountants, therapists, etc. The Internet is not replacing the rabbi.

More good news: over 90% of respondents said they have (53.8%) or would like to have (35.5%) a rabbi to whom they can ask halachic questions. Some of the reporting actually drew the opposite conclusion, for their own reasons. Apparently, rumors of the demise of the modern rabbinate have been greatly exaggerated.

While the above addressed halachic questions, Jews have been known to ask their rabbis all sorts of questions, relying on their guidance, intuition or something else – but that is not always a good idea. Almost 2/3 of the respondents would never ask a rabbi for business or investment advice, and just as well, assuming the rabbi has no particular expertise in the area. And even if he does, the blurring of roles can cause unnecessary discomfort. (In the Charedi world, of course, this type of consultation is much more widespread.)

Sadly, 1/3 of respondents would never turn to a rabbi for guidance in marital issues, with almost half of older people (over age 51) saying they never would, perhaps reflecting the reticence of older people to open up about personal matters, emotions, etc. By contrast, only 1/5 of younger people would be reluctant to turn to a rabbi for assistance in this area, perhaps having grown up in a world in which baring one’s deepest secrets is done routinely, and often to strangers. The most common areas of consultation – in which respondents would always consult with a rabbi (aside from matters of life and death) – are family, marriage and children’s issues. Again, only 17% of older people approach their rabbis with such matters but fully 44.2% of younger people and 34.4% of middle-aged (31-50) people do so in the first instance. Additionally, 38.3% of young people will consult a rabbi for matters of personal spiritual growth, and in general, men more than women. But both sexes were equal in their willingness to consult rabbis about familial or marital questions.

Another figure that stood out was this: 37.5% would never ask a rabbi about workplace conduct matters – not professional business matters but ethics, interpersonal relations, etc., as if they desire to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But Judaism is a holistic (and holy) system, in which the Torah has something to say about every area of life.

Finally, asked what two characteristics are most important in choosing a rabbi from whom to seek counsel, only 4% stated a “rabbi known as a tzadik,” here referring, apparently, not to personal saintliness but to his ability to perform miracles and wonders and access the mystical world in order to  effect the desired objective. (I’m afraid the figure is actually higher, and clearly is higher in other parts of the Torah world.)  So what then are people looking for in their rabbinical counselor?

More than 50% chose “modesty and humility,” implying not just these wonderful traits but also the lack of a personal agenda, a willingness to admit that not all answers reside in him, and an openness to the questioner. Indeed, the second most favored quality was “a personal relationship” with the rabbi. Grading much lower were qualities such as Torah knowledge, general knowledge and connectedness. Note that the question related not to halachic queries but to general and personal advice that was sought from the rabbi.

As such, it seems clear that what people seek out most in a rabbi is the personal connection, someone who knows them for many years, has experienced life’s highs and lows together with them, and knows what makes them tick. That bond is precious, that connection is sacred, and that relationship is one that is mutually rewarding.

Far from lamenting the state of the modern rabbinate, the study revealed how a significant portion of the religious-Zionist world desires, seeks and sustains a relationship with a rabbi, and this in a secular environment that frowns on and even discourages ultimate answers to life’s questions. Of course there is much that can be improved but only the immature, the impetuous, and the agenda-driven are constantly disappointed when they realize that life itself, and the living, are imperfect. While the American-type rabbinate is not yet pervasive in Israel, organizations such as Barkai are trying to fill that niche, something that can only add to the effectiveness and success of the rabbinate and the well-being of all Jews.

 

Who is First?

Election campaigns are so much fun that Israel is having two within the span of four months, providing daily entertainment if you sift through the vitriol. American elections are different because the dates are defined in law, unlike Israel’s parliamentary system, but they are also so much fun that American political campaigns are very, very long. Perhaps it is better said that they never end – the permanent campaign in which winning matters much more than governance. Israel’s election campaign, while unnecessary, is also mercifully short.

For all the volatility of American politics today – the endless feuding, screaming, dysfunction, real accusations, false accusations and and occasional hilarity – it is downright tame, even stable, compared to what is going on here in Israel. Having a polarized and divided society is the fate of many democracies today, which can be a strength (no group becomes excessively powerful) or a weakness (nothing really ever gets done). But to hold two elections within a few months is bizarre, especially since the electorate hasn’t changed. The configuration of Knesset seats is also likely not to change that much, although I do suspect that Binyamin Netanyahu – who just became Israel’s longest serving prime minister in history, exceeding David Ben-Gurion’s tenure – will not be the prime minister one year from now.

What is especially unusual, and somewhat irksome, is that the right-wing religious parties have fragmented into so many different groups that they are also undermining themselves, as they did in 1992 resulting in the Oslo catastrophe. I count one, two, three, four, five and maybe six parties or maybe more parties that on some level have support of the Religious Zionist community – all reflecting what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” There is the Bayit Hayehudi, the remnants of the old Mafdal; the New Right party of Naphtali Bennett, who gambled and lost when he abruptly left the party he founded to start his own. (Was it a wise move? Well, the modern philosopher, political theorist and ex-basketball player Charles Barkley once said that “the only difference between a good shot and a bad shot is whether or not it goes in.” If you shoot and miss, it’s a bad shot. Bennett shot and missed.) There’s the Zehut party, angling for a Torah state in which marijuana is legal. The Yachad party. Otzma Yehudit on the far right. The new Noam party inhabiting similar quarters. And even the Likud has a fair share of Religious Zionists in its list. And I have probably overlooked one or two equally redundant parties.

That’s a lot of parties, with nuanced differences but primarily espousing similar views, the “narcissism of small differences,” but that has and will result in cannibalizing their voting base. Bennett’s party and Feiglin’s party threw away about 5 seats, 250,000 wasted votes in April’s election. If those votes had counted, there wouldn’t have been a need to rely on Avigdor Lieberman’s party – which everyone assumed would join the right-wing coalition until he decided not to join and embarked on an anti-Torah campaign that he hopes will improve his electoral prospects. One would think that the dissipation of votes, power, and influence in the last election would engender some humility, a contraction of the parties and a willingness to work together for common goals. After all, agreement on 80-90% of the issues at hand should count for something.

What induces all these candidates and parties to run, to highlight their small differences, and then fail to work together to form a coalition? It’s old story that never ends, even if we assume that everyone is sincere.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) discusses the sad tale of Yerav’am ben Nevat who split ancient Israel into two kingdoms, reintroduced idolatry (building his own golden calves), a person who saw himself as royalty, but who also possessed tremendous spiritual potential. The Sages noted that notwithstanding that he “sinned and caused others to sin,” he was also a Torah scholar whose Torah had no defect but was completely perfect. All other scholars were before him “like shrubbery.”

And, typically of this type of talented individual, the Gemara says that, in a prophetic vision, “G-d grabbed hold of Yerav’am’s cloak (apparently in order to shake some sense into him). And G-d said, ‘repent, and I, you and King David will stroll together in Paradise.’” Together, we can perfect the world!

But then “Yerav’am asked, who goes first? And G-d said, David goes first. And Yerav’am responded, if so, I can’t. I don’t want it.” Either I go first or I don’t go at all.

Mi Barosh – who goes first? – is such a destructive syndrome. Who will lead? Who is in charge? That ailment destroys people, societies, and nations. It destroyed Korach in his time and Yerav’am in his. It makes politics so superficial and allows problems to fester and never get resolved. Yerav’am was so jealous of the Davidic dynasty hat he felt disrespected even to walk behind the true king; he had to be first.

This Mi Barosh malady is harmful to marriages, to families, to shuls and communities. It is so ancient and so commonplace that one would think we would be aware of it, recognize it, and carefully scrutinize our motivations, decisions and actions. Sadly, we don’t, and even sadder, Mi Barosh is the rule, not the exception. The multiplicity of parties in Israel, and the cavalcade of candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, all reflect this fundamental human weakness. People will give up their lives, their spiritual destiny, their families, their wealth and their friends, and all for just a little honor, or a little more honor than the next guy.

Mi Barosh underwrites – and undermines – much of the political scene today, and the results could be quite unpleasant, as they were when Yerav’am maneuvered his way into the kingship of Israel and an ensuing rift in the Jewish society. And each person understands this, and each thinks that the other should therefore give way. Mi Barosh.

If we understand this on a personal level, we will have made great progress. To understand this on a national level will take a bit longer. Maybe it is happening now with a re-configuration of leaders on the right – but perhaps it will not be fully appreciated until the exalted son of David redeems Israel and the world. The sooner the better.

 

The Intermarriage Ruckus

The Midrash Tanchuma (beginning of Parshat Balak) notes that the nations of the world were also given a prophet – Bilaam – and underscores the difference between that heathen prophet and our Moshe. “Moshe warned the people against sin, while Bilaam encouraged a breach (in moral norms) so as to destroy people’s [spiritual potential].” Moshe’s world, and his Torah, contains moral strictures and eternal guidance; Bilaam’s world is a hedonistic free-for-all that causes chaos to man and havoc for the soul.

Rav Rafi Peretz, the soft-spoken Rosh Yeshiva and current head of the Bayit Hayehudi party here in Israel, raised the ire of the easily ired by terming the intermarriage rampant among American Jews a “second Holocaust.” He was apparently unaware that using the Holocaust as an analogy to anything is the exclusive province of one secular American Jewish organization. Of course, the error in using the term, if it indeed was an error, was that it enabled his intended targets and their defenders to avoid dealing with the substance of his remarks – uttered with love and genuine concern – and obsess over the Holocaust itself. But if he had not used the analogy, then his heartfelt critique would certainly have been disregarded, so let’s get real.

The reference was otherwise unremarkable, as provocative as some deemed it. Analogies of the Holocaust to assimilation and intermarriage have been made for decades, by personalities as diverse as Golda Meir, Emil Fackenheim and scores of kiruv professionals. As I remember hearing it in the 1970’s, someone opined that it matters little “whether a soldier is killed in battle or shirks his uniform and flees the battlefield; both are lost to his nation’s war effort.” We can certainly parse the distinction – the soldier who falls in battle does so advancing the interests of his nation and dies a hero. The deserter is a cowardly traitor. There is a difference in assessment and cause – but the effect is the same. Both can no longer contribute to the country, and in that regard the analogy holds. Assimilation does give Hitler a posthumous victory and the intermarried Jews and their offspring are generally lost to the Jewish people.

So why the indignant attacks on Rav Peretz for pointing out the obvious? Well, these days, pointing out the obvious is a risky proposition, as sundry groups allied with leftist, anti-religious or progressive causes tolerate only one viewpoint: theirs. And one cannot rule out the political dimension, as Israel is undergoing another election campaign and there is an inordinate desire to besmirch the religious parties in any way possible. Just today, a veteran Israeli journalist, known for his anti-Torah views, rhetorically asked an interviewee if Rav Peretz is “chashuch” (unenlightened, in the most charitable definition), because in another fabricated “controversy” he failed to toe the PC line and oppose the only form of psychotherapy banned today for political, not practical, reasons, and despite his claim to have experienced some measure of success with it. Alcoholism and other addictions, anger, depression and the like can be treated (and not always successfully because there are always bad therapies, bad therapists, and individual free will) but only one condition under the sun can never be treated, even if a person wants to seek treatment freely, of his or her own volition. Certainly no one should be coerced into any therapy but prohibiting people from seeking help of their own accord is neither enlightened nor scientific.

And isn’t hearkening back to the culture and morality of Hellenism and ancient Rome the very definition of “chashuch?” After all, it was the darkness of Greece that the lights of Chanuka came to illuminate, to enlighten the world forever with Jewish moral ethics. That is a Jewish approach born of Jewish sources rather than modern sociological and political trends.

So who would be offended by referring to the intermarriage and assimilation as a “second Holocaust,” a “silent Holocaust,” and the like? Could it be the intermarried themselves who have already made their choices and are tenuously connected to Jewish life as it is? As noted, intermarriage lacks the coercive aspects of the Holocaust genocide even if the result is the same. But don’t they know that intermarriage is (was?) a taboo, and the death knell of Jewish continuity? Of course they do.

Politics aside, it would seem that the offended include those who defend, support and have even acquiesced to intermarriage, and number in their ranks a couple of pseudo-Orthodox rabbis, better defined as neo-Conservatives or even Modern Hellenists. There is not a Torah value that they seem to respect when it defies the zeitgeist. The defense of the intermarried as good Jews with holy souls is not just wrong but also counterproductive, catastrophic for the Jewish future. They are overly inclined to assuage the consciences of the intermarried in their modern church of good feelings and love conquers all. But what then happens to Torah and the Jewish people?

As they subtly encourage more and more intermarriage, they are blithely indifferent to one simple rule of economics: Whatever you subsidize (i.e., endorse, tacitly encourage, or reward), you get more of. Whatever you tax (i.e., penalize, oppose, disapprove and reject), you get less of. Do they want more intermarriage? Then they should keep attacking Rav Peretz and all others who refuse to reconcile themselves to this horror-by-choice. But then they will have distinguished themselves as modern Bilaam’s, the sinner’s favorite prophet because he rejects the very concept of sin. Bilaam too believed in all forms of love, free expression, and faithfulness to one’s inner compass, and completely rejected the notion of a divine morality that binds the faithful – and affords them a better, holier, more productive and happier life.

And perhaps that should be our approach, in an age in which authority of all sorts is routinely assailed and dismissed. The life of Torah provides us with the best life possible. (Those who seek it elsewhere are attempting to connect to themselves, which might provide some temporary, but not enduring, joy.) A recent study showed that people who attend religious services even once a week have a substantially lower incidence of suicide. That makes sense, because they are part of something greater than themselves and can find meaning in life regardless of whatever personal pain they experience. There are similar studies extant, worth publicizing, as it can help restore people to observance. It is unsurprising that the Torah “restores the soul” and “gladdens the heart” (Tehillim 19:8-9).

It is eerie that a Jewish think tank recently released an exhaustive study of the state of Jewry today – and the word Torah was not even mentioned. The overwhelming focus was on Jew hatred and how to combat it, as if the only reason for the existence of the Jewish people is to confound our enemies who want to destroy us. Thwarting anti-Jewish persecution is a worthy goal – but isn’t enunciating the purposes, objectives, values and uniqueness of the Jewish people, and how to advance those, an even worthier goal? We don’t live just in order not to die. We live in order to glorify G-d and His Torah.

There are many modern maladies traceable to a rejection of Torah. All the various lifestyles that people today have been forced to (wink, wink) celebrate, endorse and legitimize do not alter that basic reality. It is the Torah life and the conquest of our yetzer hara (instinctual drives) that provide us with balance and true happiness, and not our indulgence of every fantasy or passion. We should have compassion for every sinner because we are all sinners, but woe to us if we accept Bilaam’s Torah and his moral guidance. If people only realized what a Torah life truly meant, they would run to it, embrace it, and protect it with their lives – as holy and faithful Jews have done for millennia. And rabbis should never be intimidated into abandoning or concealing any part of the Torah.

It strikes me that persuading anyone to change any position today is beyond the scope of any writer or thinker. Positions have so hardened, and there is no form of human corruption that doesn’t have its ardent defenders. Sinners of all stripes take refuge in that. But sometimes it is important just to articulate basic truths, so the great majority of faithful Jews realize that the real world has not gone completely mad. It is just sort of underground – perhaps waiting for the speedy appearance of the great redeemer.