Category Archives: Israel

Election Fever

Here in Israel, election fever has seized the population or at least some small segment of it, with Knesset elections to be held in exactly two months. As always, old faces predominate even, as per custom, palates are salivating at the rise of the next flavor of the month, a taciturn general who can lead the nation to some place it thinks it hasn’t yet been.

The greatest mystery surrounds the fate of PM Netanyahu, who – if he survives – will shortly become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, to the dismay of those diehard Ben-Gurion aficionados who still see him as the prime minister and to the utter horror of long-time Netanyahu haters. Netanyahu’s problems are not with the voters, who would surely elect the Likud again as Israel’s largest party in the Knesset. His main problem is with the Attorney-General, who seems poised to indict him on something, anything. One doesn’t have to be a Netanyahu acolyte to note that none of the accusations are for anything even remotely substantive but the product of relentless investigations that have literally gone on for years in the hopes of pinning something, anything, on him. That should ring a bell for Americans, accustomed by now to the sad reality that you can always get anyone on something, and the clever prosecutor can make the innocuous look sinister, and simple acts of friendship look venal.

Lest one think that voters might get tired of a man who has served almost a decade, Israel’s parliamentary system can enable PM Netanyahu to “win” while receiving the endorsement of barely 25% of the voters, i.e., with 75% of the people voting for some other party. Some win. Some system (!) but at least it allows almost all voices and opinions to have a hearing.

Netanyahu has vowed to run even if indicted while his critics have vowed to end his campaign if he is indicted. The AG Mandelblit may release his findings shortly before the election, an odd practice to be sure. Israel does not use the Grand Jury system for indictments so it is basically one man’s choice. Talk of “one man, one vote.” This one man – Mandelblit – can change the face of Israeli history all by himself; despite Netanyahu’s current protestations, I cannot envision a situation in which even the Likud will allow him to run while under indictment. The pressure of the media (which despise him, for the most part) would be too intense.

The flavor of the month is Benny Gantz and his new Chosen L’Yisrael (Resilient Israel) Party. The name is as awkward in Hebrew as it is in English. Gantz is the latest in a long list of generals to retire from the military, enter politics, sweep to some elective office, and flame out after one or two elections. The names of his predecessors in this pattern might be familiar to some: Yigael Yadin, Yitzchak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shaul Mofaz, and I’ve forgotten several others. Despite these repeated attempts, the only two generals to actually attain the premiership were Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, both of whose tenures were marked by catastrophic surrenders of territory, domestic instability and weakened security. That has not stopped the Israeli public’s enchantment with ex-generals, at least for one election.

Gantz has been a cipher to date. His military career was not especially notable and his public policy statements have tended towards platitudes, clichés, half smiles, winks and good wishes. One problem generals have making the transition to politics (besides the need to get elected) was encapsulated by Harry Truman, who said of his successor, General Dwight Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” The fantasy of the politician-general is that he will know best how to defend the homeland, whereas actually being president or prime minister requires much more than that. The new flavor has always done well, and so Gantz’s party is expected to win double-digit seats. And then he too will decline in the election after this one, to be replaced by another flavor.

By the same token, third parties claiming the center also do well – once – and then recede. Think of Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, both up, and then down, but still around. This year’s incarnation of the Labor Party is nearing defunct status. And the wild card in the Knesset is always the Arab parties, last time the third largest bloc.

The so-called religious parties present an especially intriguing narrative this election season. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked ran away from home, i.e., abandoned the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party that they started to form the Yamin Hachadash (New Yamin, or Right, party). Although their maneuver contained not a little duplicity, it was a smart political move. Bennett has always perceived himself as a potential prime minister but felt hampered by leading a party that was perceived as sectoral even as he tried to broaden it. The widening of the traditional National Religious party apparatus led to certain gains but also muted its response to the issues that naturally affected their constituency including the plight of religious soldiers in the army and the leftist’s concoction of the specter of hadata, religious coercion, which they claim threatens their way of life. More impactful? The left’s hachlana (secular coercion), which in many ways has diminished or diluted Israel’s Jewish character.

The New Yamin is taking a gamble. In essence, Bennett has responded to critics of his Bayit Yehudi leadership who accused him of creating “Likud B” by, in effect, creating “Likud B.” If his gamble succeeds, his party might eventually succeed a post-Netanyahu Likud as Israel’s right-wing party but with a greater respect for Jewish tradition that has been found in the Likud. If it fails, well, the right-wing parties can find themselves with more votes but without power or influence in government. A similar and prior fiasco produced the disastrous Oslo Accords.

The traditional religious parties, right and left, never seem to grow despite obvious gains in their percentage of the population. The Agudah party, under whatever name, never rises beyond the six seats it had in the 1980’s. For sure, many of its voters don’t vote or vote for other parties. And since many of the so-called secular parties – especially Likud – contain many Knesset members who are Torah observant, the narrow parties like the Aguda party, the National Religious party, Shas and its various permutations get stuck at a certain threshold, and then reinforce their narrow agendas by focusing only on their constituencies.

The national religious party apparatus is divided into several small groupings that make meeting the electoral threshold a challenge. But the new leadership of these parties is especially promising. Betzalel Smotrich (new head of the National Union Party) has been an especially effective and diligent legislator and is uncompromising in his support of Torah, Jewish life and the land of Israel. We need such people with backbones and ideas. And Rav Rafi Peretz, the new leader of the old Bayit Yehudi, is not a natural politician – former combat helicopter pilot and Chief Rabbi of the IDF, and long-time Rosh Yeshiva – and perhaps that can be his great strength. His humble demeanor masks a steely will, and his unabashed commitment to Torah, mitzvot, the strengthening of Jewish identity and the holiness and inviolability of the land of Israel should stabilize the Jewish Home, both the party and the country. It would be best if these, and some other smaller right-wing parties, merged and created a larger bloc that could effect a proud national-religious agenda.

Surprises await, as always. What is most impressive is that all these parties are not just vying for the perks of power (hey, that’s life) but present substantially different visions of what a Jewish state is and should be. That is a debate that affects Jewish destiny for all Jews across the world. It is also a good reminder that God runs the world His way – and also that (Masechet Makot 10b) He guides us along the way that we want to walk as well.

Democracy in Decline

It is not a happy season for democracies. The American President and the Israeli Prime Minister are under constant, endless investigations, with no end in sight. The British Prime Minister and the French President are besieged, incapable of implementing their preferred policies, whatever the merits might be. Riots abound in both places, and in Germany, where the long-serving Chancellor has lost support, power and is nearing the end of her tenure. Italy and Greece are as unstable as ever.

In each case, the media and hostile special interest groups are obsessed with opposition, resistance, tearing down societal structures and fomenting instability. And by comparison, Russia and China are authoritarian islands of stability, notwithstanding the internal problems of each. But it seems as if each democracy is intent on cannibalizing itself, and many “free” countries have enormously high rates of dissatisfaction with life, government and society. People are always agitated about something. Almost every government leader in democracies across the world is the target of some sustained personal, legal or political attack, without respite. It is the era of permanent investigation and relentless criticism. What was once democracy’s strength – the people’s power to change governments – has now become the symbol of its stagnation and weakness.

It is no wonder that after almost forty years of growth, promoted by the Reagan Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy is now on the decline. The Democracy Index, a somewhat tendentious but annual barometer (last measured in 2017) of the state of democracies across the world, finds that there are only 19 full democracies in the world today, compared to 52 dictatorships (authoritarian regimes, as they are politely called). Both the United States and Israel rate as “flawed” democracies, the latter partly for its religious ethos that irritates the secularists who measure these things, but both because of the dysfunctional governments that rule their respective countries. Israel rates well on the level of political participation of its citizens; the United States rates relatively poorly in that regard, tied with Mexico and Bulgaria.

President Trump, no conventional steward of governance by any means, riles up the opposition simply by proposing something. Policies that were once supported by Democrats (e.g., border wall over a decade ago) are now opposed simply because of their proponent. Kicking the can down the road and obsessing over elections (and not the actual tasks of elected officials) are the norms of political life. Money and power (which gives access to even more money) are the coin of the realm. The only area in which politicians excel is in spending money they don’t have.

Israel’s government is in such disarray. The Prime Minister is under threat of multiple indictments and his wife currently under indictment and awaiting trial. Binyamin Netanyahu today serves as the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Foreign Minister (and Health Minister, and possibly several other ministries). That is not a successful formula for good governance, effective leadership, astute problem-solving or crisis management. The new elections on the horizon will shuffle the deck but except for the customary one or two new faces who will shine brightly and then flame out, all the cards are still the same.

We are experiencing the veracity of Winston Churchill’s adage that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Why is there such discontent?  A number of points need to be made. The authoritarian countries do present greater stability, less crime, less opportunity, often a keener adherence to traditional values but at the cost of less individual liberty. Lest one think that the benefits outweigh the detriments, there are very few people immigrating to Russia and China, nor for that matter are people from across the world flocking to the most highly-rated democracies – Norway, Iceland and Sweden. European countries have been undermined by waves of Middle Eastern migrants, most of whom have not sought acculturation and still others who have transported such alien values to their new homes that violence and crime have rendered parts of Germany, Belgium, France and Britain off limits to citizens – and to the police. Riots and dissatisfaction abound. Many governments flit from party to party in successive elections, with the voters always voting for change, then either not liking the change or not seeing enough of it. The British and American governments are world leaders in stagnation and paralysis. Most voters resent politicians’ failing to keep their campaign promises, except in America where many people are outraged when the President tries to keep his.

There is such a state of perpetual ferment, unrest and turbulence that the happiest people tune out of public affairs, and only wake up (too late) when some unfortunate policy affects them deleteriously. Democracy has been so frangible that some newer democracies have drifted towards authoritarianism in recent years.

What is going on? The Torah certainly doesn’t incline towards democracy (it favors a benign monarchy) although it certainly doesn’t oppose it. But the era of discontent has been fueled by internal, personal struggles that only play out on the public stage of the politics of the moment.

The inherent and ongoing problem has been the secularization of society that has fostered a loss of meaning in life that causes both the obsession with politics and the disgruntlement with government. With freedom comes responsibility, and the freedoms of democracy have been abused to nurture a climate of irresponsibility that has produced aimlessness, the breakdown of the traditional family, rampant out-of-wedlock births and a steep deterioration in the numbers and state of marriage. Moral commitment has been so enervated that (1) people shy away from discussing traditional morality in public forums, (2) seemingly intelligent people are re-visiting (with straight faces) the definitions of male and female, and (3) the rock of society since time immemorial – the Biblical moral norms that set the standard for human interactions and aspirations – has been eroded and marginalized.

Lost in meaninglessness, some have made a religion of the environment and climate change. The priests of this movement, who warn, threaten and predict doomsday ahead, and, in their initial policy foray tried to raise fuel taxes in France to reduce dependency on oil, received their comeuppance in the form of riots that forced the elitists to back down. Call it the French Reformation, spearheaded by the common folk tired of paying indulgences to the Davos set.

Others think they will find meaning and happiness in the triumphs of their favored candidates or party – only to be disappointed when they win and horrified and apoplectic when they lose. The win brings a momentary high – which of course does not endure because it is utterly insignificant in the course of things. Still others – especially, and surprisingly, young people – are embracing restrictive speech codes to spare themselves from having to suffer from hearing contrary views or words they consider harsh, not realizing that these official encroachments on personal liberty will come back to haunt them. The intrusions of Facebook and other social media outlets into people’s private lives rival that of any dictatorship – except for their inability to erase your real existence (they can erase your artificial one) – and the persecution and silencing of conservative or traditional viewpoints do not bode well for democracies either.

One would think that there would be some satisfaction in voting for the government of your choice – but almost 40% of the American electorate never votes. President Trump won in 2016 with 63M votes, in a country of 330M people; neither candidate garnered even 20% of the population. That is a small percentage, which is not to say that it is Trump’s fault. Turnout was less than 56% – and that exceeded the turnout in 2012.

It has occurred to me over the years that the wrong politicians can make life dramatically worse but the best politicians can only make life marginally better. Meaning has to be pursued in the areas that make life meaningful – our relationship with G-d, our commitment to the greater good, our love of family and friends, our pursuit of good deeds and always seeking the good in other people. Those have always been and always will be the key factors in the contented life: faith, family, community, tradition, values and good deeds. Almost everything else is fluff or distractions.

The disappearance of G-d from public and private life – and the creation of new gods to take His place – has spawned restlessness and despair across what used to be called the free world. It has led to the revival of socialism – the idea that the state and its organs (i.e., others) are responsible for me and my needs because I choose to desist from self-help and productivity. It has led to the robust movement to legalize marijuana across the democracies, although rarely in the autocracies; that too is very telling. It has led to the collapse of traditional morality that was one of the linchpins of a world that seemed more normal and more stable, because it was.

The god of dictatorship was slaughtered in the wake of the evil excesses of fascism and Communism; it seems that the gods of democracy are being slaughtered today, with the leaders in all the well known democracies scurrying about for solutions or even viable approaches moving forward. None are obvious or forthcoming; temporary balms are all that are on the horizon. Churchill was right, and Jews and the rest of the world have always fared better under democracies than under dictatorships. But history has taught us that states are more fragile entities than we think, and many things seem unbreakable until they break.

We certainly pray for the welfare of government, as our Sages taught, but we must seek stability, purpose, and true satisfaction in the private and communal areas of life – not in the public arena.

When all forms of human government fail abjectly, what then is our recourse? Perhaps that, too, is one vital role of Moshiach – to redeem society from its waywardness and relieve it of its bitterness and recriminations. That will be true freedom for all and the triumph of G-d’s kingdom on earth, may it come soon and in our days.

 

(You can buy Rabbi Pruzansky’s new book, Volume Two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility,” now in fine stores, at Amazon.com or at Gefen Publishing,)

Abolish the Rabbinate?

(First published December 14, 2018 on Arutz-7 at http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/23155)

A spanking new organization called “Ruach Hiddush – Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel” – has called for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It claims to represent the “rich… spectrum” of Jewish life, even transcending denominational lines. In truth, the few “Orthodox” representatives are not at all representative of anyone Orthodox, could fairly be called “Orthoprax” or “neo-Conservative”, and thus this proclamation is yet another call by non-Orthodox clergy for the elimination of the Chief Rabbinate.

Why would they want to do such a thing? In essence, they strenuously object to the Chief Rabbinate’s fidelity to Halacha, its commitment to the preservation of Jewish identity as defined by tradition, the furtherance of Torah and the promotion of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. They would encourage pluralism, freedom of conscience and legitimacy of any and all views professed by Jews, especially including those having little connection to Torah. They vehemently protest the “monopoly” the Chief Rabbinate has on matters of Jewish status, Kashrut, and interpretations of Jewish law, seeing as it is an unnecessary government entity.

Of course, that is the nature of government of any sort: a monopoly on the provision of services and the safeguarding of public trusts. Israel’s tax authority has the monopoly on tax collection, just like local zoning boards have a monopoly on how big your home extension can be. Israel’s army has a monopoly on defending the State, and the Transportation Ministry has a monopoly on the determination of speed limits. One could cogently argue that there should never be any monopolies at all; such a person is called an anarchist and no doubt will attract much support, at least initially. There are plenty of people who would love to be freelance tax collectors, zoning inspectors, generals, race car drivers on public roads, or control any other government interest. Similarly, the proponents here desire anarchy in conversion, marriage and divorce, kashrut, and every other realm of Torah – including mitzvot and Judaism’s fundamental principles. That is not a formula for success or Jewish continuity.

Their appeal is a modern form of “kill the ump!” They don’t like the “three strike rule,” preferring more flexibility and openness, perhaps four or five strikes for those who find three too restrictive. They don’t like the strike zone rules that give the umpire too much discretion and control – even a “monopoly” – over the game. They would prefer baseball without umpires, letting the players police themselves and make up the rules on the fly. Nice try; even the most hardened players and managers know that is not a viable option, even if we don’t necessarily have to agree with every single call.

I know Rav David Lau personally and have witnessed up close his limitless dedication to Torah, his love of every Jew of whatever background and his tireless execution of his duties. His days are impossibly long, and each day includes supervision of the Chief Rabbinate’s Court system, the kashrut apparatus, the personal status issues, ceremonial appearances and teaching Torah in all parts of the country, sometimes visiting three, four, five places in one day and night, to encourage Torah observance, love of Israel, and tolerance, and to spread the light and joy of Torah. His critics should envy his merits.

But the suggestion that the Chief Rabbinate be abolished engendered this thought: what if, instead, the Reform Rabbinate would be abolished?

It is by now incontrovertible that the Reform Rabbinate has been a catastrophe for the Jewish people. From its very origins, it has brought nothing but a renunciation of mitzvot, assimilation, conversion to Christianity and the attenuation of Jewish identity. The early Reformers in Europe switched Shabbat to Sunday, brought an organ into their temples and eliminated the mechitza. A wave of assimilation and conversion followed.

In America, it is enough to recall the treifa banquet on July 11, 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the first very graduating class of the Hebrew Union College, the Reform ordination school, was feted with clams, crabs, shrimp, and frog legs – all washed down with a dairy dessert. The temples had mixed seating (one Reform rabbi termed the mechitza an abominable “cage”), organs, confirmation ceremonies, a new prayer book that intentionally omitted calls for the return to Zion and the coming of Moshiach. Kashrut restrictions and Shabbat observance were nullified (the leading Reform rabbi of the 19th century mocked what he called “kitchen Judaism”), the marriage and divorce rites were radically altered and bore no resemblance to any Torah requirement.

Their modern descendants, sad to say, are not much better. Most Reform rabbis do not believe in the existence of G-d, nor do they accept that the Torah is divine or that the mitzvot are obligations and not mere suggestions. They do not feel bound by the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith. It is they who are largely responsible for producing an intermarriage rate of more than 70% in the American non-Orthodox world, as well as widespread ignorance of any true Torah concept. One is hard-pressed to find any four-generation family of so-called Reform Jews who are all still Jewish. And these are the rabbis that this new group – including the aforementioned Orthoprax rabbis – wishes to entrust with Jewish destiny and the future of Torah in Israel. Having failed miserably on the American scene, they now wish to export their failures to Israel – and become offended when they are excluded from the decision-making processes in the Jewish State. They have destroyed the company and now insist on a promotion and a raise. As they say, only in America…

I know several Reform rabbis. By and large they are decent people, mean well, and don’t at all realize the harm they are causing. They feel they have to find a way to accommodate the intermarried, without the self-awareness that they are perpetuating and exacerbating the problem. Their sermons are almost exclusively limited to elements of the Democrat Party platform (abortion rights, immigration rights, gun control, etc.) occasionally spiced with some railing against the Orthodox establishment for not considering them Jews. Of course they are Jews – that canard has been losing steam for almost two decades even as it is still uttered routinely – as long as the mother is Jewish or they are properly converted (something that is increasingly the problem).

If the Reform rabbinate would be abolished, I don’t doubt that a steady stream of Democrat political operatives could fill in on Shabbat mornings and deliver timely sermons that would be well-received by the audience. Everyone knows that if they are looking for Torah, they will not find it there.

Instead of abolishing the Chief Rabbinate, something that would cause untold harm to the Torah world, the Jewish people and the State of Israel, perhaps we should consider abolishing the Reform rabbinate. Only good would result and many Jews would clamor to reclaim their Jewish identity and their rightful share in G-d’s Torah.

Am I serious? Of course not! This is a parody, as I assume the call by “Ruach Chiddush” for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate is also a parody.

And if they are serious, and their proclamation is not meant as parody?

Well then…

A Visit to Shechem

It has been 49 years since my first visit to the Tomb of Yosef in the Samarian city of Shechem, called Nablus by the Romans to evoke the Italian city of Naples and obscure its Jewishness. In the ensuing half-century, I have visited Shechem approximately a half-dozen times but not at all in more than 15 years, since the city and its holy site were declared off limits to Jews (in violation of an explicit Arab commitment in the defunct and disastrous Oslo Accords). Until last night.

Accompanied by Elliot Cahan, Director of North American Development for the Yeshivat Hesder in Elon Moreh, a stone’s throw from Shchem (literally), we visited Shechem towards midnight, under cover of darkness and with a heavy military presence. More than a dozen times a year, the IDF opens up the Tomb of Yosef to Jewish visitors – always late at night and always with tight security. It is quite an experience, made even more special by the cool breeze that wafted through the Samarian mountains.

In 1969, still a young child, our family took an Egged bus to Shechem, exited at the Central Bus Station and walked a few blocks to the holy site. It was at high noon and quite routine.

We drove from the center of Israel, turned north at the Tapuach Junction and first traveled through the Arab town of Hawara, a fascinating site in its own right. The town was alive, with a commercial district that was new and vibrant, with exceedingly bright store signs, eateries packed with customers (it was late night, remember) and even some Jews walking around. I was last in Hawara four years ago, when it was drab and non-descript. Now, it looked totally revamped, thanks to the influx of millions of dollars funneled to the region by the Obama administration, which even paid for two sparkling new mosques. (Odd, indeed, that the United States government cannot build a synagogue or church in the US for constitutional reasons but the American taxpayer can fund the building of two mosques in Hawara.)

Aside from that, the town looked so normal that it reinforced my basic notion that many Arabs are not political, and just want to be left alone, and in fact, privately would prefer to be governed by Israel instead of their own corrupt dictators. They enjoy their proximity to the freedom that Israel represents. Alas, they too are often swept up by the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish fervor that too often animates their society. As if to prove the point, the entry into Shechem was a reminder of the stark reality of the Jew-hatred that remains endemic to Arab society.

The ride from Itamar, a large settlement adjacent to Shechem, was as uneventful as any ride can be in a bullet proof van filled with men toting guns. The army presence was pervasive and the operation well organized. Just two blocks from the grave, our van was hit by large stone, which glanced off the thick sides of the vehicle. It was close to midnight, and to myself, I complimented the stone throwers on their work ethic, staying up late to seize the opportunity to stone Jews. The Tomb of Yosef, our Sages taught, was purchased by our patriarch Yaakov, and is thus one of the three places in Israel whose Jewish ownership cannot be denied. Sadly, the Arabs did not get the memo and have refused to examine the deed.

The Tomb of Yosef was destroyed shortly before my previous visit, in the wake of a terrorist attack that left six soldiers dead including Madhat Yusuf, a Druze officer who was allowed to bleed to death by the terrorists who refused to allow medical assistance to arrive for almost six hours and by the IDF commander who refused to order a rescue operation. The tomb and surrounding structure were razed and burnt to the ground.

It has now been rebuilt, refurbished, enlarged and a worthy final resting place for the great son of Yaakov. Over the course of the night, perhaps 1000 Jews came to pray, recite tehilim, and enjoy the ambience of this historic site. Van after van and bus after bus pulled up, depositing its passengers – men, women and children, Hasidic and modern, Jews of all stripes and backgrounds, and all to secure our claim to this territory that resonates with Jewish history. And this despite the fact that outside the tomb there was sporadic gunfire in the distance and the release of tear gas canisters to keep the hostiles at bay.

And perhaps as well to fortify ourselves in these troubled times with the strength of Yosef the Righteous. Yosef is the paragon of self-control in Jewish tradition, the man who had every reason and rationalization to sin and yet remained faithful and chaste. In an era in which self-control is considered a vice and immorality shamelessly parades about in public, Yosef’s lesson is a powerful reminder of human potential and an antidote to human degradation.

It was also Yosef who was so hated by his brothers that they sold him into slavery, and yet was quick to forgive them when he saw the broader picture, the providential role he and they played. In an era in which discord and acrimony are prevalent, Yosef showed us that there can be a better way, that Jews can find unity in our common purposes and objectives in fulfilling G-d’s will as a nation and as individuals.

And Yosef was characteristic of the Jew who benefits the nations of the world, whose wisdom and kindness saved millions even if it was not always appreciated.

I’m not keen on praying at graves, something that attracts many Jews of a different bent. But visiting the graves of heroes and righteous people affords the opportunity to bask in their presence and especially reflect on their lives and what we can learn from them.

The tomb of Yosef in its current state is a reminder of the hatred of our enemies that still deny Jewish history, and especially the necessity to enter only in the middle of the night so as not to provoke the natives even more. But it is also a reminder of the glorious past and the struggles of the present, and contains within it the seeds of the blessings of the future – the blessings of holiness and faith, the blessings of strength of character and moral rectitude, and the blessings of Moshiach ben Yosef who is in the process of rebuilding the material life of Israel and laying the foundation for ultimate redemption.

 

 

The Jewish State

The Knesset this week, by a vote of 62-55, adopted a Basic Law declaring Israel to be the “nation-state of the Jewish people” (in Hebrew, medinat hale’um hayehudi). By the hysterical reaction of the Jewish secularists, leftists and non-Orthodox Jews in America, one would think that Roe v. Wade had been reversed.

The thought arises: isn’t the State of Israel already the “nation-state of the Jewish people”? Isn’t that why it is referred to colloquially as “the Jewish state”? Indeed, I recall hearing once or twice (of course, it was in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem) that “our hope is not lost,” that the beating Jewish heart yearns to return to the land of Israel, “the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” in order “to be a free people in our land.” Wasn’t that the essence of the Hatikvah and the Zionist movement?

Moreover, Israel’s Declaration of Independence declared (as Declarations are supposed to do) that “the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.” (Of course, this is not entirely true. The Land of Israel was not the birthplace of the Jewish people; we actually became a nation in Egypt from which we were liberated by the mighty hand of G-d – and then our nationhood was confirmed when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. But let’s not quibble.)

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

This assertion was the main predicate for what followed, the dramatic announcement seventy years ago (5 Iyar 5708) that: “Accordingly, we, members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael and of the Zionist movement…by virtue of our natural and historic right…hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

There it is – in bold italics. Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” is seventy years old. Why are so many Jews throwing a hissy fit?

One anomaly is that, for all the drama of the Declaration of Independence, it has never had the force of law in Israel. Thus, Hatikvah was never Israel’s formal national anthem, nor was the Israeli flag ever officially adopted as the national flag. Both of those entities gained official recognition through this new law. Is that a problem? It might be for Arabs, but both the Declaration of Independence and the new law assure the non-Jewish population of “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” Accordingly, the rights of all citizens are protected (sometimes, it must be said, to a fault), so why the uproar? Surely the Arabs of Israel are aware that they live in a Jewish state, and if it troubled them, could easily emigrate to one of the 23 Arab states in the region.

Some critics have charged that the law is unnecessary, hardly the case in a world where Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish state is constantly under attack and especially in an environment in which previous advocates of the “two-state illusion” have now abandoned that chimera in support of a “one-state-for-all-its-citizens delusion,” essentially a renunciation of the existence of a particularly Jewish state. Sometimes laws come to reinforce basic values, norms and notions, and it is noteworthy that Israel for the first time in its history – and long overdue – it has adopted an official anthem, flag and language (Hebrew), all reflective of its Jewishness.

And perhaps therein rest the discomfort, discontent and even hostility in some circles to this law. There are too many Jews who see themselves first as universalists and only then –if then – as Jews. They are uncomfortable when Jewish symbols infringe on their universalism, and horrified when actions of the Jewish state (self-defense, for example) “embarrass” them in their social circles. The dictates and value system of Torah having been long eschewed, and exchanged for Western secular liberalism, anything that smacks of being Jewish becomes, by definition, “too Jewish” and even “Charedi.” Their Jewish identity, as noted here in the past, is primarily ethnic, not religious, but even the ethnic identity has to be bland, innocuous and couched in a universal framework.

It is odd, indeed, that a law that seems so self-evident to many is deemed repugnant to others. As Israel becomes more Jewish and religious in population, character and practice, the secular minority has become more shrill, more vocal, and to a great extent, has lost its moorings. What was natural to Ben Gurion – “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael” – has somehow become anathema to his party, no longer his followers in any meaningful sense. Ben Gurion, for all his flaws and his rancorous relationship with the Torah, had Jewish pride. That is not necessarily true of his socialist and secular heirs. Those who fear the Arab reaction to this law would have recoiled from declaring statehood seventy years ago, no doubt mindful of the Arab “reaction” to that provocation.

En route to complete redemption, the men are indeed being separated from the boys, the believers in the Zionist dream from the non-believers, the people of faith from the faithless, and the proud Jew from the pretenders. It is shameful, and of course reflective of the acrimonious partisanship that afflicts so many nations today, that the bill passed by only 62-55. The world that has not fully accommodated itself to Jewish independence in the land of Israel can rant and rave, but who would have thought that nonchalance or opposition to Israel as the “Jewish state” would have so many Jewish supporters? That too is a disturbing sign of the times.

And the recent fiasco involving Birthright, in which young participants brought to Israel on the dime of Jewish communal funds seized the opportunity to abandon the trip to visit with Israel’s enemies, simply underscores the problem of garnering support for a Jewish state in the land of Israel from people alienated from Torah. That dilemma trumps the problem of dealing with a coddled, egocentric generation that feels entitled to anything – including a free trip to Israel – and does not see the moral absurdity of taking someone’s money and diverting it for your own purposes.

As we approach Tish’a B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of both Temples, the temporary loss of our homeland and the weakening of Jewish nationhood, we can celebrate this forceful assertion of Jewish pride, identity and strength, and pray that all Jews join the bandwagon. The era before the final redemption will be tumultuous; in fact, it is already tumultuous. All we can do is hang on, maintain our faith, learn Torah, do mitzvot, reach out to our fellow Jews and pray that the days of sadness and strife are soon transformed into days of joy and peace.

 

 

Jewish Identity

    It has occurred to me that most, if not all, of the perennial arguments roiling Jewish life for several decades are the product of one, solitary, substantial and irreconcilable difference in the perception of Jewishness. And it all stems from one verse in the Torah, at the very founding of our nation.

G-d said to us, through Moshe (Sh’mot 6:7): “And I will take you to be My people and I will be a G-d to you.” There are two fundamental aspects to the nation of Israel that is often obscured or ignored. We are both a nation and a religion; as Rav Shamshon Hirsch put it, “a religio-nation.” We have both an ethnic identity as well as a religious identity. This conflation of religion and ethnicity is by and large unknown in the world.

For example, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims each have a unique religious affiliation but by no means would anyone aver that there is an ethnic identity that binds adherents together. Christians from Africa, Asia or South America bear little in common with each other beyond shared beliefs, just like Arab Muslims are different in many ways from non-Arab Muslims. There is no ethnic identity that links them all together.

Not so with the Jewish people, where religion and ethnicity are intertwined, and always has been. It is one reason why Jews have always taken a keen interest in the welfare of Jews wherever they might be, and why Jews are bound by the Torah to see the land of Israel as our homeland even when we hold citizenship elsewhere. National identity is grafted on to our Jewish identity (historically, that has usually been a graft that was eventually rejected) but the Jewish identity remains paramount. We are part of the Jewish nation, which nonetheless should not be construed as inimical to maintaining kinship with our host nation.

It is that phenomenon of the “religio-nation” that has been under assault for most of the last century and to which many Jews no longer subscribe. Too many Jews have bifurcated the Jewish character  into separate ethnic and religious identities, and one attendant consequence has been the controversies that never seem to end.

The clearest example relates to the hoary and by now hackneyed question of “who is a Jew?” Jewish law is clear that a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. But those who perceive Jewishness as defined simply by ethnic identity (i.e., the presence of some Jewish blood in one’s ancestry) did not hesitate in embracing patrilineal descent or purely formulaic conversions requiring little more than a declaration of attachment, however tepid, to the Jewish people. Usually, it is for the purpose of marriage rather than the fulfillment of a genuine religious quest. The religious component of Jewish identity – the Torah, the Mitzvot, the obligations that bind us to the G-d who designated us as His people – is non-factor.

Thus a Jewish sportswriter breathlessly reported the news that June 8, 2018, was a banner day in our history: “Five Jewish baseball players hit home runs in one day,” a truly remarkable feat. Except for this: all seem to be the product of intermarriages, three are not Jews according to Jewish law, and, of the two sons of Jewish mothers, neither was raised Jewish. Jewish? Yes, if traces of blood are the only indicia of Jewish identity. There is no sense at all of our founding doctrine: “And I will take you to be My people and I will be a G-d to you.” All that matters is an ethnic attachment, and that they had a good day at the plate.

In weightier matters, the ruckus over the recognition of a non-Orthodox presence at the Kotel underscores this dichotomy. Even ignoring the obvious point that Reform Judaism does not grieve over the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash nor prays for its rebuilding, what is most telling is that those who are clamoring for access do not perceive the Kotel as a religious site but as an ethnic, cultural or historical one. It is a relic of Jewish history, a solemn reminder of a bygone era, and even a glorious testimonial to our survival. But a religious site, requiring faithfulness to the tenets of that religion? Hardly. Permanent access is sought in order to facilitate ethnic rites of passage – like Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, often devoid of any real religious substance or commitment– rather than as a place to which Jews go to bask in the divine countenance or to sense His presence where it is most felt, in proximity to the Temple Mount and the ruins of the Bet Hamikdash.

It is a mystery why Israelis feel bound to respond to these entreaties, even threats, when they are coming from a place of antagonism to the foundations of the Jewish state. The decline of American Jewish political support for Israel among ethnic Jews is just a symptom of the problem that cannot be rectified by concessions in the religious sphere – Kotel, conversions, institutional support, etc.

Indeed, it is quite telling that divorcing the ethnicity from the religion certainly eradicates the faithfulness to Torah but it also causes the Jewish ethnic identity to attenuate over time. Hence the bizarre but growing phenomenon of Jews who pride themselves as universalists, not particularists, and whose commitment to Jewish life often entails supporting policies that would destroy Israel or obliterate Judaism. That is to say, the ethnic Jew does not need “Judaism” to remain “Jewish,” and will therefore embrace (happily or half-heartedly) cultural aspects of Jewish life stripped of any real Jewish content – e.g., attending Temple on Yom Kippur followed in midday by a treif lunch to “break the fast,” or observing both Jewish and Christian holidays in December and April, something that is seen as very ecumenical, open and tolerant. And it is. It’s just not really Jewish. From this perspective, the average ethnic American Jew’s support for Israel is understandably waning, as Israel is embarrassing him by defending itself and not further surrendering its land to its enemies.

The Jewish world in both Israel and America has to reckon with this divergence in Jewish identity but in different ways. In Israel there must be recognition that those who assert a purely ethnic Jewish identity weaken the claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, which, after all, is based on the Torah and G-d’s will. It is exacerbated by the presence in Israel of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are not halachic Jews – in other words, classic examples of people with an ethnic but not a religious connection to the Jewish people. The conflation of Jewish and Israeli identity is admirable but misleading; there are many Jews who (sadly) are not Israelis but there are also many Israelis who are not Jews. We blur the difference at our peril.

In America the crisis is even worse. The glorification of ethnic Jewish identity is a Jewish hobby – basking in the achievements of “Jews” of even tenuous association with the Jewish people (athletes, celebrities, public officials) and trying to hide from the ignominious deeds of other such “Jews” of ethnic origin only (such as the miscreants accused of sexual harassment in the last year or so, who have been disproportionately, though of course not all, Jewish).

The greater problem is intermarriage, and the biggest problem with intermarriage is that most American Jews today do not consider it a problem. And that makes sense – if all Jewishness requires is a biological affiliation with other Jews. By this reasoning, any child of one Jewish parent or grandparent will always have Jewish blood and therefore it shouldn’t matter who one marries. And so it doesn’t, and so most American Jews intermarry and assimilate.

The attempt to reach out to these individuals by broadening the Jewish cultural offerings available to them will inevitably fail, as such programs do not conflict with their ethnic Jewish identity; in fact, they reinforce it. The ethnic Jew can also enjoy a bagel, klezmer and even reading the Bible in a totally secular way. But none of that will strengthen the other pillar – the religious component of Jewish identity. Rav Saadia Gaon wrote almost eleven centuries ago the verity of Jewish identity: “Our nation is a nation only by virtue of the Torah.” It is true that there are Jews who embrace the religion but not the national or ethnic attachments that bind us together, but those are really fringe elements. The greater problem today: those Jews who welcome Jewishness but disassociate from Judaism.  They might even support the State of Israel but that tribal sentiment is infinitely more difficult to transmit to children when it is detached from Torah; hence the declining support for Israel among the young, many of whom have been educated in multi-cultural, “progressive” environments where such tribalism is anathema and anachronistic.

Hoping people will love Israel when they don’t love Torah and mitzvot is a tried and true recipe for failure. So many Jews just don’t know what they are missing or what they have abandoned. They have been raised in a heterogeneous environment in which religion is a private matter and ethnicity is the spice of life but not life itself.

The only hope for this remnant of Israel, denizens of free countries, is to expand the teaching of Torah in a positive, loving way but without making it trendy, a slave to newfangled values, a tool of social justice agendas or anything else that detracts from its divine origin. Only then will its voice reach its intended audience, and all of us will strengthen the identity that G-d bestowed upon us at our founding, as not only a nation among nations but as His nation.

The Obvious

To quote Menachem Begin, “Sometimes the obvious needs to be said.”

That’s the initial reaction to President Trump’s courageous and long-awaited announcement that the United States, after seventy years of indecision, has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Well, of course, it is, and has been since King David designated it as such more than 3000 years ago. Even more, it has been so since G-d decreed that Jerusalem would be the world center of the divine presence and implanted the Jewish people there to safeguard the city and proclaim His word to mankind.

All credit goes to President Trump for overcoming the naysayers in his administration and across the world, fulfilling a campaign promise (something that still shocks the average American) and acknowledging that the declaration “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel” is not just an applause line at a generation of AIPAC conferences. Seventy years of vacillation is a long time. It means that if Choni the Circle Drawer (see Masechet Taanit 23a) had fallen asleep in 1948 with part of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty  but with the United States renouncing Israel’s declaration of Jerusalem as its capital so as not to pre-judge final status negotiations, and awakened today with all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and the US still rejecting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in order so as not to pre-judge final status negotiations, no one would blame him for wanting to take a sleeping pill and crawling back under his blanket. Nothing would have changed in seventy years, especially the empty rhetoric of diplomats.

So, who would oppose such an obvious iteration of reality? Who would mourn such an historic recognition of Jewish rights to Jerusalem? It seems like almost everybody. Almost.

They fall into several groups.  First, those who make a living from fostering a “peace process” that by definition can never end, no matter the facts on the ground and the reality Above. These are the people who supported the catastrophic Oslo surrenders, the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif and the facilitation of the Iranian nuclear program. They include people who deny Jewish destiny in the land of Israel and would prefer the State of Israel not exist, although it is still considered impolitic (except on college campuses) to state that publicly. They include diplomats from across the world, and most of the pointy heads in Foggy Bottom, who find Israel to be, at least, an international nuisance, and so routinely castigate Israel at the United Nations and global conferences. For them, Israel’s right to exist is always tenuous, and they have determined that Israel should remain the only country on the planet denied the right to designate its capital city. They include the radical Arab world that will never recognize Israel’s existence except as a means to weaken it and then destroy it.

To them, America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has “destroyed the peace process,” which is a lot like saying the NY Giant’s restoration of Eli Manning as starting quarterback has “destroyed” my chances of leading the team to victory this Sunday. There is no “process” and there is no “peace.” If anything, acknowledgment of Jerusalem’s true status shatters some radical Arab fantasies that Israel’s existence is temporary and tentative, that the Jewish presence there will just slowly wither away. If anything, it pours cold water on some Arab dreams and is a wake-up call to Israel’s detractors as to the direction in which history is moving.

The second group consists of those who fear Arab violence in the wake of this decision. These well-meaning people are often inclined to give Arabs a pass for lack of self-control, thereby rationalizing and fomenting such violence. But “three days of rage” have really been “three generations of rage,” if not more, and succumbing to such blackmail is as understandable as it is pathetic. “The eternal people are not afraid of the long road,” as the song goes, and the voices who fear this decision because of the potential consequences would similarly have opposed (and like-minded people did oppose) the declaration of statehood in 1948. A proud, free nation asserts its just rights and privileges, and especially when those rights and privileges are rooted in the Torah, the Prophets and G-d’s eternal promises to His people. A nation of slaves, exiles and dependents lives in fear of the present and future. “Mi she’maamin lo mefached: those who believe are never scared.”

The third group is composed of leftist Jews who have abandoned their connection to Jewish destiny. The dogmas of the left have captured them and any action that strengthens Jewish destiny and our possession of the land of Israel is anathema to them. They have forgotten Jerusalem, their right hand has lost its cunning, their tongues cleave to their palates because they have not lifted Jerusalem above all their delights, especially the joy of hobnobbing with the rich and famous, the donors who sustain their organizations. They have sold their souls for the porridge of the acclaim that is garnered by Jews who turn on their own people, which is not to say that they are not sincere in their misguided beliefs.

The final group? The Trump haters who assume he can do no good and who will long resent that he was the president who recognized Jerusalem, rather than his predecessors (Clinton, Bush and Obama) who promised to do the same but never did. Once you posit that someone can never do anything good, then, by definition, anything done is not good.

To be sure, statements of the obvious are obvious but that does not mean they are not welcome and appreciated – nor do they mean that they come without a diplomatic price or at least a request for one. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should not produce any demands for good-will gestures or concessions on Israel’s part, which will certainly be the approach of the old hands at State who must be railing against this decision. It should not be used to revive empty negotiations that are only designed to weaken Israel and not be construed as a means to resuscitate the two-state illusion, the Holy Grail of peace processors. Indeed, even President Trump announced his support for two states, “if agreed to by both sides,” which is quite an “if” and thus should not be construed as an endorsement of that chimera.

The decision should stand by itself, as “our feet stood firm at the gates of Jerusalem” (Tehillim 122:2). It should be perceived as a reaffirmation of the victory of Chanukah, which, after all, celebrated the liberation by Jews from the Hellenists of the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple that radical Arabs  and haters of Israel today (including Arafat and his followers, and UNESCO and their fellow travelers) deny ever had any connection to the Jewish people. That, alone, is an arrow in the eye of Satan.

Those who deem restatements of the obvious are unnecessary most likely do not pray every day or express their love for spouses, parents and children. Those, too, are obvious sentiments, but the sensible and sensitive individual knows that uttering things that we know are true is good for us and good for the listeners. It sets the record straight, and here it attempts to correct an historical absurdity, not to mention an historic injustice. The recognition is even more important than the location of the embassy for it recognizes what is natural and right, and everything else follows from that. It is a proclamation that rivals that of Harry Truman in 1948. With much of the world and the US State Department vehemently opposed to Israel’s declaration of independence (the revered George Marshall threatened to quit if Truman acted and even to vote against him that November), Truman announced that he would recognize the nascent state of Israel.

History eventually came around, more or less, as it will to this announcement. Gratitude is in order. If people clamor for something for years, and then finally are granted their wish, it behooves them to show a little gratitude to the President who kept his word, remained resolute despite the pressures, and who changed the direction of history.

This is a joyous day. The decision should be embraced by all those who love Jerusalem and Israel, and may they be rewarded with the fulfillment of the prophetic vision: “Seek the peace of Jerusalem, those who love it shall find serenity” (Tehillim 122:6).