Hanukah and the Contemporary Jewish Cultural Civil War

Ten years ago Noam Zion, Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman in Jerusalem, in a talk to a group of rabbis in Los Angeles argued that Hanukah is a battleground for the heart and soul of Judaism, the State of Israel, and the Jewish people. What follows are the highlights of his thoughts.

From its beginnings (© 165 B.C.E.) to the present, Hanukah has represented very different things for the founders of the State of Israel, American liberal non-Haredi Jews, and Chabad. Based on Hanukah’s tendentious history and the corpus of sermons written by rabbis through the centuries, three questions have been asked consistently: Who are the children of light and darkness? Who are our people’s earliest heroes and what made them heroic? And what relevance can we find in Hanukah today?

Though religiously a “minor holyday” (Hanukah is not biblically based, nor do the restrictions apply that are associated with Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Succot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur), Hanukah occupies a place in each of the ideologies of the State of Israel, American liberal Judaism, and Chabad.

Before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Maccabees were a potent symbol for “Political Zionism” for those laboring to create a modern Jewish state. The early Zionists rejected God’s role in bringing about the miracle of Jewish victory during the period of the Hasmoneans. Rather, Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Jacob Klatzkin, and A.D. Gordon all emphasized that Jews themselves are the central actors in our people’s restoration of Jewish sovereignty on the ancient land, not God.

For 20th century liberal American Jews Hanukah came to represent Judaism’s aspirations for religious freedom consistent with the American value of religious freedom as affirmed by the first Amendment of the US Constitution. Even as the holiday of Hanukah reflects universal aspirations, the Hanukiyah is a particular symbol of Jewish pride and identity for American Jews living in a dominant Christian culture.

For Chabad, Hanukah reveals the essence of religious identity and defines the mission of Jews. Each Chasid is to be “a streetlamp lighter” who goes into the public square and kindles the nearly extinguished flame of individual Jewish souls, one soul at a time (per Rebbe Sholom Dov-Ber). This is why Chabad strives to place a Hanukiah in public places and why Chasidim offer to help Jews don t’filin. Every fulfilled mitzvah kindles the flame of a soul and restores it to God.

The cultural war being played out in contemporary Jewish life is based in the responses to the central and historic question that has always given context to Hanukah – ‘Which Jews are destroying Jewish life and threatening Judaism itself?’

The Maccabean war was not a war between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a violent civil war sparked by enmity between the established radically Hellenized Jews and the besieged village priests living outside major urban centers (the High Priest in Jerusalem had already been co-opted by Hellenization). The Maccabees won the war because moderately Hellenized Jews recognized that they would lose their own Jewish identity if the radical Hellenizers were victorious. They joined in coalition with the village priests and together took the Temple and rededicated it. That historic struggle has a parallel today in a raging cultural civil war for the heart and soul of the Jewish people and for the nature of Judaism itself.

The take-away for us today? There is something of the zealot in each of us, regardless of our respective Jewish camp. If we hope to avoid our past sins of sinat chinam (baseless hatred between one Jew and another that the Talmud teaches was the cause of the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E.) we need to prepare our own constituencies to be candles without knives, to bring the love of God and the Jewish people back into our homes and communities. To be successful will take courage, compassion, knowledge, understanding, and faith. The stakes are very high – the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Is it any wonder that Hanukah, though defined by Judaism as a “minor holiday,” is a major battle-ground for the heart and soul of Judaism and the Jewish people?

This blog also appears at The Times of Israelhttps://blogs.timesofisrael.com/hanukah-and-the-contemporary-jewish-cultural-civil-war/

3 Hebrew Poems in Translation by Moshe Dor

“Moshe Dor’s poems breathe, smell and taste like Israel. They express the pressures of living in a land constantly under siege, where hope and terror live side by side, where there is a fierce hatred of war and a fierce craving for peace. Here current events unfold in biblical landscapes.” (by unknown reviewer)

Moshe Dor (1932-2016) was born in Tel Aviv and authored 40 books of poetry, essays, interviews, and children’s books. He was a recipient of Israel’s highest literary honor, the Bialik Prize for Literature, and twice was the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award in Literature.

Dor was one of the founders and editors of the literary journal Likrat, which launched, in the early 50s, a new direction in Hebrew poetry, and from 1958 for many years he served as literary editor and member of the Maariv newspaper editorial board. He was Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of Israel in London and a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at American University in Washington, D.C.

I share three of Dor’s poems just published in a volume called Shirim: A Jewish Poetry Journal – Contemporary Israeli Poets in Translation, guest edited by Barbara Goldberg, a translator of Dor’s poetry.

There Are Just Wars

There are just wars / and there are wrong wars / but every war is / anguish and untimely death / and cripples and smitten souls

There are wars that break out / in daylight and those that begin / at night but every war / is darkness even on sunny days

and even when flares / turn night into day

Spring has also arrived here / and walking along our street / I hear the song birds and ask, / “Birds, why are you singing, don’t / you know it’s war?” but they / don’t listen and keep on singing

Melon

The melon we ate at the Arab restaurant / was summer and Israel and Palestine and each / slice that graced our eager palates welcomed / peace to those who tasted it and those / who placed it before us.

At Abu Khaled’s

Abu Khaled’s restaurant in Herzliya / abounds with Arab dishes that delight / our taste buds and both majority / and minority diners eat with gusto / and no one can distinguish Isaac from Ishmael.

Summer and a late afternoon hour / wraps us up in tranquility as we sip / from small cups of bitter black coffee / that sweetens on the tongue. No one / pays attention to History crouching / in a kitchen corner. / If she wants / to remind us of past grievances / her voice is drowned out by running / water cleaning the cutlery / we humans use for eating.

Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs can live side by side, and the peoples, in places, are already enmeshed with one another (as Moshe Dor’s poetry suggests). His commentary on the tragedy of war (every war – both just and unjust) and his reflections on the potential for living together can become reality in a two-states for two peoples resolution of the conflict. Though the two peoples are now alienated from and distrustful of one another, both claiming Israel-Palestine as their rightful national Homeland, there is no alternative that preserves Israel’s democratic and Jewish character and enables justice for the Palestinian people except to make peace in a two-state solution of this century-long conflict. The question is whether to hold out for a divorce and separation in a hard border and a mutual security agreement, or integration and shared resources through confederation embracing two separate states with a clear but soft and open border.

For those interested in the latter, I refer you to a new paradigm being developed by Israelis and Palestinians together called Eretz L’kulamTwo States, One Homeland: A Confederation of Israel and Palestine https://www.alandforall.org/english/?d=ltr

Giving Thanks

Ever since Governor Bradford of Plymouth Colony initiated the festival of Thanksgiving in 1621, it has been part of the American experience, belonging to this nation and to all “the inhabitants thereof.” While President Washington declared “Thanksgiving” a national holiday for the first time on Thursday, November 26, 1789, it was observed intermittently. President Lincoln made it an annual event on the last Thursday of November. President Roosevelt put it on the fourth Thursday.

On the virtue of gratitude:

“Only the sensitive, the civilized, give thanks. The brutish, the barbarous, take for granted. They take from God. They take from nature. They take from humankind. They give nothing. There are people slightly less sensitive who give token thanks, verbal begrudging. There are people half-sensitive who give formal thanks, lest others doubt their breeding. And there are people, the sensitive, the civilized, who give whole thanks: with tongue, mind, heart, and hand.” –Rabbi Ely Pilchik (1914-2003)

“Tradition teaches that we are obligated to say the word: Thank you!” Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 54b (6th century C.E.)

 “K’sh-y’hudi shover regel, hu modeh L’AdonaiWhen Jews break a leg, they should thank God that they didn’t break both; and when they break both legs, they should thank God that they didn’t break their necks.Jewish proverb

“In the time to come all prayers of petition will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled.” Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 9:7 (5th century C.E.)

“A Chasid was asked: ‘What is stealing?’ He replied, ‘A person steals when enjoying the benefits of the earth without giving thanks to God.” cited by Rabbi Harvey Fields (1935-2014), Bechol Levavcha, p. 94

“How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of the unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.” –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

“Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.” Gladys Brown Stern (1890-1973)

“When I started counting my blessings my whole life turned around.” Willie Nelson (b. 1933)

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

“When you arise in the morning give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself.” Native American Prayer, Techumseh Tribe

“I offer thanks to You, Sovereign Source and Sustainer of life, Who returns to me my soul each morning faithfully and with gracious love.” The Jewish daily morning service

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Why Hebrew Matters

Note: I am a life-long lover of the Hebrew language. In my book Why Israel [and its Future] Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019) I make the case to my 30-something sons and their generation as well as younger Diaspora Jews why learning to speak Hebrew is so important for them as part of the people of Israel and in their relationship to the State of Israel and Israelis. Here is that letter. I hope that it might encourage others of any age to learn Hebrew for all the reasons I state in this letter.

Dear Daniel and David:

One of the marvels of Israel is the way it turned ancient Hebrew into a living, working language and used it not only to unify a diverse collection of Jews from around the world but to build a dynamic, forward-facing culture.

To understand not just Israeli politics but the wealth of innovation, artistry, and tech leadership that’s emerging from the Jewish state and the minds of your Israeli cousins, you’ll need to speak their language. As never before, it makes sense to learn Hebrew.

Very few of us do. About half of American Jews can’t read the Hebrew alphabet, and only about 15 percent can follow a basic conversation or read an easy sentence. Only 4 percent are Hebrew speakers. That means that we’re keeping ourselves at arm’s length from any real possibility of communicating with Israelis.

David Hazony, an American-born Israeli journalist and translator who now heads The Israel Innovation Fund, makes the tough-love case that “American Jews have much to contribute to Hebrew discourse and our collective Jewish future. Their tradition of tolerance and religious liberalism, their democratic experience and their philanthropic habits, to name just a few things. But they will do so only if they dispense with the ignorance-as-wisdom arrogance that locks them out of Hebrew-based culture.”

Ahad Ha’am, the founder of cultural Zionism, wondered what a Jewish nation would produce in a setting where “its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree….” What we’ve been seeing in recent years from Israelis is just how rich and multi-faceted their free-spirited, Hebrew-based culture has become. They’ve produced, among many other innovations: business concepts like WeWork and Wix; life-saving strategies for bringing clean water to a world that’s drying up; the pure cultural deliciousness of Yotam Ottolenghi; the breakthrough thinking of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose collaboration Michael Lewis documented in The Undoing Project; the wonder of Gal Gadot and TV shows like “Homeland” and “In Treatment.” As Hazony and Adam Scott Bellos noted in The Jerusalem Post, “Zionism has always been about the Jews channeling the power of their creative-moral intellect into every facet of human life.” And this is what happens when they do.

It’s a creativity honed from the resilience and invention born of life under pressure and fashioned from layers of influences from around the world that have been thrown together and melded with Hebrew. This, not war, is Israel’s essence, exciting as any culture anywhere in the world. And Hebrew can unlock it for you. It’s the way into the Jewish soul, the language of prayer, Torah, philosophy, mysticism, literature, Zionism, and the direct experience of what’s being created and lived in Israel today.

It will take work to be able to enter the conversation in its native language, but as Hazony has said, “without fluency in Hebrew, the engagement with Israeliness will always be a dilution and distortion based on intermediaries looking to explain things for Americans rather than the immersive, direct exposure that a personal journey requires. Only the language carries the nuance, the instinct, and, ironically, all that is unsaid.”

Hebrew, as you probably know, is ranked by linguists as among the most difficult languages in the world to learn as a second language. If you need to, take it a word or phrase or verse or idea at a time. I just spent an enjoyable couple of minutes reviewing vocabulary with Mango Languages, which is offered free online through our local library. The options are many—and the time you invest in language practice is worth it. Learning Hebrew will change your life and open a door to Judaism and the Jewish people that you can’t reach in any other way. Yes, you can read much in translation, but to use a vivid image, doing that is like making love with your clothes on. It just isn’t as good. Translations are never literal, and they miss cultural references and associations. They’re essentially commentary, and every translator has a unique perspective to advance. It’s far preferable to go straight to the source.

I’ve been studying Hebrew on and off since I was 21 years old, and I count it as one of the most important things I’ve done in my adult life. I’m happy to be able to speak now and understand most of what I hear when Israelis talk to me, and I intend to continue my studies and struggles with the language for the rest of my days.

The best way to learn is to go to Israel and study on Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew immersion course. There are many Ulpanim available. I’ve studied in Jerusalem and with a teacher for the past two years from Los Angeles by Skype. One-on-one learning will enable you to progress far more rapidly than learning in a room full of others with different language capacities.

There are many levels of Hebrew competence, and anything is better than nothing. The first and most basic level is to be able to recognize Hebrew letters, read words, and follow along in religious services.

The second is to be able to comprehend what you read, to be able to pick out words and know what they mean.

The third is to be able to converse using simple language.

The next is more advanced speaking and comprehension.

Then there is reading and listening to the written and oral news. The Jerusalem Post publishes a simple Hebrew edition which is helpful because the articles cover current events, holidays, and culture, and the paper provides vocabulary with punctuation without your having to look through a dictionary. There are now apps that translate from Hebrew to English and English to Hebrew quickly.

The highest level, of course, is speaking and reading fluently – but that takes time and concentrated effort.

Biblical Hebrew is different than Modern Hebrew, and I recommend that you focus on the language you can use in conversation today.

Modern Hebrew has developed dramatically over time. A newly published book called The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert describes how the language developed through the millennia and centuries. I was fascinated to see how it was resurrected first as a literary language in the last two centuries and then as a spoken language beginning in the early 20th century. It still astonishes me that it is now the official language of an entire nation.

Daniel and David, each of you has learned some Hebrew. If you have an opportunity to study it again, I hope you will do so, and I hope it will lead you into real-life conversations with people who can share the best of what’s happening in Israel today, as well as into discussions about the issues that are most important to you. You have enough knowledge already to pick up where you left off and enjoy throwing yourselves into the language again.

A poem written years ago by Danny Siegel called simply “Hebrew” expresses how I feel about this remarkable language of the Jewish people. I hope some of that feeling rubs off on you!

“I’ll tell you how much I love Hebrew: / Read me anything – Genesis / Or an ad in an Israeli paper / And watch my face. / I will make half-sounds of ecstasy / And my smile will be so enormously sweet / You would think some angels were singing Psalms / Or God Himself was reciting to me. / I am crazy for her Holiness / And each restaurant’s menu in Yerushalayim /   Or Bialik poem / Gives me peace no Dante or Milton or Goethe / Could give. / I have heard Iliads of poetry, / Omar Khayyam in Farsi, / And Virgil sung as if the poet himself / Were coaching the reader. / And they move me – But not like / The train schedule from Haifa to Tel Aviv / Or a choppy unsyntaxed note / From a student who got half the grammar I taught him / All wrong / But remembered to write / With Alefs and Zayins and Shins. / That’s the way I am. / I’d rather hear the weather report / On Kol Yisrael / Than all the rhythms and music of Shakespeare.”

B’ahavah,

Dad

This blog appears also at The Times of Israelhttps://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-hebrew-matters/

Let’s give Joe Biden the credit he deserves!

Joe Biden ought to be praised for getting a very diverse Congress with Republicans going along as well to pass a huge infrastructure bill that eluded all his predecessors over many administrations.

His political savvy, policy chops, personal attention to detail, lobbying skill with Congress people of diverse needs and orientations, perseverance, patience, affability, refusal to quit, and ability to make this happen is an accomplishment so many inside-the-beltway commentators don’t seem to appreciate enough, including liberal-left news and op-ed writers.

Assuming he will also be successful in bringing Congress (Dems. only this time) along on the BBB bill and get that passed for his signature again, hopefully won’t stimulate the political snipers who say he’s too old for the job, not steady enough, and past his prime. Come on Dems!

Then there’s the Voting Rights Bill and getting a set-aside of the filibuster for that one effort. I suspect he’ll be successful there too.

So, let’s take a major victory lap and give Biden and his administration the credit he and his advisors deserve. I’m tired of the sniping and the doubters constantly questioning everything he does and how long it takes for him to do it. Legislating is a highly honed skill. And he gets it. So do Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, some of the progressive Democrats in the leadership, and everyone successful enough to get things done in contemporary Washington, D.C.

Interview with Nadav Tamir, JStreet’s Israeli Executive Director

I am posting this short interview on I-24 News so that my readers come to know Nadav Tamir, the Israeli Executive Director of J Street.

Nadav served as a Political Officer in the Embassy of Israel in the United States, as well as in major administrative duties in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was the Consul General of Israel to New England in Boston, MA. Prior to his current position at J Street, he was the Policy Adviser to the then President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres.

Nadav was interviewed about the recent JStreet Congressional delegation to Israel that included Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) who is a leading voice in the Progressive Congressional Caucus. Nadav’s views and approach to Congress are refreshing thus emphasizing that support for Israel ought to be a non-partisan issue and that the Israeli government ought not to take sides with either Democrats or Republicans against the other.

Watch and listen – https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10160004501884853&id=786009852&sfnsn=mo

Remembering two angelic souls – Claude Morady and Bruce Corwin

Maya Angelou said, “I sustain myself with the love of family.”

For so many of us, Angelou’s sentiment is a truism, that our families help us to feel moored to the good, to nurture the core of who we are and hope to be, to open our hearts to joy, intimacy, and love, to affirm the benefits of partnership and camaraderie, to instill the virtues of gratitude, humility, generosity, and faith, and to go out into the world to make a difference, be productive, and discover added meaning through our good works benefiting everyone we encounter.

This past week, my community and I lost two dear friends and two pure souls who adored their families and were adored by them and their wider communities as a whole – Claude Morady and Bruce Corwin.

These men were models of civility, kindness, humility, generosity, optimism, hope, faith, joy, and love. We are all diminished in their passing.

Zichronam livracha. May their memories abide among us as blessings.

Dan Rather – Still an important voice in American life

I’ve always been a fan of Dan Rather. His perspective as he turned 90 recently is like water on parched earth in a news environment disturbed constantly by the thoughtlessness of social media, the pressures of the 24/7 news cycle, overly opinionated cable television “news,” what Stephen Colbert once called “truthiness,” and what Trump has distorted as “alternative facts.” There are lots of smart people commenting these days about politics, government, and the historical record – but Dan Rather offers consistently a cogent, clear, and intelligent perspective on American and world events.

Here is his most recent “Steady” post. I recommend you subscribing to it.

“A funny thing about the passage in the House of the 1.2 trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill is that it is almost as if people have forgotten that in some ways this is the way things are supposed to work. All the last-minute pressure and pleadings, the threats and assurances, the arm-twisting and vote counting, was covered as if it were a circus. But for those of us old enough to remember a Congress that at least pretended to function, there was a sense of deja vu. In the end the various factions, including most of the progressive caucus, backed their president, joined by some Republican votes. And voila, a bill will become a law. 

No matter how you cut it, it adds up to a big win for President Biden, who is in desperate need of one. For now, a lot of the coverage of the process has diminished how significant this bill is, and all that it will do. From providing broadband, to repairing roads and bridges, to significant investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and public transportation, it represents a massive re-imagining of our national infrastructure for the needs of our century, and hopefully beyond. 

The White House will now try to drive this message home to a country that has come to believe, and for good reason, that Washington can’t get anything done. 

For context, it’s important to remember how many presidents have talked about something like this, and not got it passed. But some in the press focused also on the bipartisan nature of the bill, specifically the fact that some Democrats on the left voted against it in the House (while the vast majority did not) and that the Republican votes were enough to more than make up the difference.

I would suggest it’s a potentially misleading framing, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi undoubtedly knew which votes she had, and whose votes she could release to vote against the measure without it being struck down. Furthermore, I would contend that this level of bipartisanship on something that should not have been controversial – and indeed there was a higher percentage of Republican votes in passing the bill in the Senate – suggests how difficult it is for Democrats to get Republican buy-in on issues that should unite us. 

Let’s look at a broader picture – stepping back for what those of us in television like to call the wide shot. The world faces an existential climate crisis. Our democracy is under assault from a would-be autocrat. There are all sorts of urgent challenges around education, housing, criminal justice reform, just to name a few. A government is meant to debate solutions, yes horse trade and compromise when needed, but not just do nothing. 

As the political press has covered the torturous attempts to pass Biden’s legislative agenda, which mostly amounts at this point to playing “what the heck does he really want” with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, you might have come to think that there are no Republicans on Capitol Hill. They are barely mentioned. It’s all about Democratic “divisions” (again, see Manchin), or Democrats’ inability to live up to their promises to the American people, or maybe for the truly DC-savvy, the role of the filibuster. But let’s be clear. The only reason why we are in this place is because almost the entire Republican Party has decided that on all the major issues (with the notable exception of the infrastructure bill, see above), that they play no role and bear no responsibility in trying to tackle any of our nation’s needs. And you can add to that even a reckoning to the 1/6 insurrection, with a few exceptions. You can understand why they think that because they are often given a free pass from the Beltway press. 

Now to be fair, it is often the case that political opposition, by its very nature, is not eager to pass the agenda of the opposite political party. And they have no obligation to do so. This is in some sense how politics work. Political parties disagree on policy and priorities. You debate and, depending on what you propose, you may not get a lot of support (or any support) on a particular issue from representatives from the other party.  But if you are going to be against something, that is also a decision, just like being for something. And if you are an elected official voting no, you should have to at least answer the question, and bear the responsibility, of why you are voting no. 

During the first two years of the Trump administration, the Republicans held both the Senate and the House as well as the presidency. All these big issues in the country were out there. Trump had run on giving Americans a much better healthcare option than that evil “Obamacare.” Remember when every week seemed to be “infrastructure week.” And even though Trump dismissed climate change as a hoax, that doesn’t make it any less real; a governing party should have to answer why they aren’t doing anything on it, or are actually supporting policies that make it worse. But with all that consolidated power, the Republicans fell back on their usual playbook – tax cuts and far right “conservative” judges. Perhaps the erratic and unlawful antics of the man in the Oval Office sucked up the oxygen from other issues, but what was happening on Capitol Hill, or more importantly what wasn’t happening, as in legislating, was just chalked up to business as usual. 

My job here is not to carry water for the Democratic Party. As the ruling party they deserve extra scrutiny. Their policies and bills are news and they should be able to defend them to fair questions from the press. The deal making and frustrations of the different factions are legitimate stories. But so are the actions of politicians who are lockstep no’s. If you don’t think we need to deal with the climate, that’s a story. If you have no ideas about how to make child care better, or protect the right to vote, or deal with spiraling drug costs, that’s also a story. That Republicans feel no responsibility to offer any bills of their own, or even any ideas, that everyone knows from the beginning that no matter the issue, they are just going to throw insults from the sidelines, that Mitch McConnell has weaponized the idea that a government that does nothing about anything fuels the asymmetric power dynamic that powers our modern political system, does not absolve them from having to defend these positions. 

This reality is tragic on many levels. It is tragic for the country because big problems go unaddressed. It is tragic for the breadth and depth of ideas, because having only one party come up with solutions is far from ideal. There is no monopoly on wisdom, particularly when it comes to politics. And I suspect that it is a tragedy for individual Republican politicians, some of whom at least got into this line of work to do things. They have their own backgrounds, family histories, struggles and lived experiences. I am sure they have many good ideas. But the politics of obstruction, perfected by McConnell, prevents any action. The infrastructure bill is a notable exception. I really believe if the system favored collaboration rather than clashing, we would see much more progress, and ideas come from people and places that you might not expect. This is what many critics of the filibuster maintain, that it discourages bipartisanship rather than encourages it. 

I don’t know how we get there exactly, but one step in the right direction can come from the press. If a politician is a no, ask them why. Don’t let them get away with a process argument. Don’t revert back to tired narratives about a broken Washington. To Republicans who complain that the Democrats don’t include them, ask what ideas they are prepared to offer. To the Democrats who are wary of Republicans playing games to drag out debate only to not support bills in the end, ask them what specific ideas they are getting from their colleagues that they might include. Another idea is to bring in more diverse reporters who are used to covering stories out in the country. Perhaps they will be less burdened by seeing every issue on Capitol Hill through the lens of inside baseball. Ultimately Washington is meant to work for the rest of America, not the other way around. 

It is unacceptable that we treat dysfunction as almost an act of nature over which humans have no control. Every vote, yes or no, every choice of whether to find solutions or just play politics, is a willful act over which every politician has agency. This is also a story. And one that needs to be told for the sake of our country, and the world.”

An Open Letter to Progressive Seminary Students

Dear Progressive and Disgruntled Seminary Students:

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine printed a piece entitled Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism – How a new generation of Jewish leaders began to rethink their support for Israel (November 2, 2021). The article highlighted some of your struggle to sustain your Jewish moral values in the context of contemporary Israel. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/02/magazine/israel-american-jews.html

I understand your despair over the right-wing oppressive policies of Israel’s recent governments of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and your frustration over the sclerotic log-jam towards the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in two-states for two peoples. You have legitimate reasons to be upset. I’m upset as well.

What concerns me in the letter that ninety of you signed last year in the context of the Israel-Hamas War that criticized harshly Israeli policies, and among some of you who were interviewed in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine article is that you did not articulate adequately or clearly enough your support of the core Jewish value of Ahavat Yisrael (Love of Israel) nor did you express your concern for and understanding of the legitimate fear that Israelis feel for their safety and security in the face of hostile attacks from Israel’s neighbors.

That said, I am sympathetic to your argument that Israel is tending in the wrong direction concerning the occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But, as a life-long progressive Zionist, liberal social justice activist, Reform Rabbi, and Jew, I believe that we in Diaspora communities need to remain as close as possible to Israel and to Israelis despite the repressive policies the Israel government and military administration commit in the occupation for our sake and theirs.

Over more than forty years serving as a congregational rabbi and after having lived in Israel, visited more than twenty-five times, taken hundreds of congregants to the Jewish state to learn from Israelis (left, right, and center, religious and secular, Jewish and Palestinian)  what hopes, dreams, and fears constitute their lives, I understand how and why we American Diaspora Jews need Israel as a source of Jewish pride, courage, and strength, as a life-line to the Jewish people, and as a stimulant for our own Jewish renewal. I also believe that Israel needs us for the American liberal values we can bring to the Zionist enterprise.

It is important for American Jewish leaders, in spite of the negative trends we see within Israel, to acknowledge and derive a measure of hope from the fact that there are many good faith efforts by hundreds of thousands of Israelis to liberalize Israeli society. These efforts exist in the growing Israeli Reform and Conservative religious streams, throughout Israel’s civil society, and in the multiplicity of Israeli NGOs working on behalf of democracy and human rights in the Jewish state. There are dozens upon dozens of Israeli groups and organizations working along with universities, schools, hospitals, and community groups to create a shared society between Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish communities.

I suggest to you that how we approach being American Zionists and at the same time maintaining our liberalism constitutes the central challenge for 21st century American Jewry. To that challenge, there are a number of questions we ought to be asking ourselves. For you who seem to be turning your backs on Israel and Zionism, I ask you to consider the following as core questions the resolution of which can help recast Israel and Zionism into a positive and sustaining engagement with the Jewish State:

  • How do our liberal Jewish values augment Israel’s democratic, diverse, and pluralistic society?
  • How do we bring the moral aspirations of the Biblical prophets and the compassion of rabbinic tradition into Israel’s relationship with its Arab-Israeli citizens and the Palestinians living and suffering under Israel’s military occupation?
  • How do we join our fellow Jews around the world in fighting our enemies and assuring Israel’s security without sacrificing our moral and democratic values?
  • How do we pursue peace as a moral and Jewish imperative despite the threats of terror and war?
  • How do we support Israelis while advocating on behalf of democracy and the equal rights and dignity of Israel’s minorities?
  • How do we oppose oppressive Israeli policies without turning our opponents into the “other” and losing the possibility of reaching the common ground of peace with the Palestinians based in justice, mutual respect, and security?
  • And finally, how do we preserve a Jewish majority in Israel while supporting social justice, a shared society with Arab-Israeli citizens, and the human rights of all?

Our responses to questions such as these will help to make compatible our core liberal Jewish values and beliefs with a democratic Jewish nationalism.

Finally, we cannot afford to lose you to the greatest endeavor and accomplishment of the Jewish people in two thousand years.

Please think about what I have written to you. I wish you well.

L’shalom.

This blog post also appears in the Times of Israel at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/an-open-letter-to-progressive-seminary-students/

BDS Explained

What is BDS (Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions) as it applies to Israel?

The BDS movement has been in the news of late following the ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s decision to withdraw the sale of its product from settlements in the West Bank (but continue selling in Israel itself – a pro-Israel position) and of Irish author Sally Rooney’s decision not to translate her most recent novel into Hebrew (probably an anti-Israel position if she believes in a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or that Israel does not have a right to exist).

The official global Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions movement (BDS) was founded in 2005 by pro-Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti who is anti-Israel and a strong opponent of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA), the latter of which was established during the Oslo Peace Process to represent the official government of the Palestinian people. The PA recognizes the two-state solution (at least formally) as the final and just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The following explains well what BDS is. It is an excerpt of an article written by David Abraham, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Miami, who wrote about the nature of the BDS movement and its challenge to Progressive Zionists (Israel Horizon’s Magazine, December 2017):

 “Many leaders and core thinkers in the BDS movement, Jews and non-Jews alike, do see BDS as a tool to delegitimate Israel’s very existence, to mark it as an immoral state, one founded on an original and perhaps irreversible sin—namely, the dispossession of the native Palestinian population. For some of these true-believers the Occupation began not in 1967 but in 1948. All of Israel is thus illegitimate, and though it may not be possible to return the U.S. to the Native Americans, Canada to the First Nations, or Australia to the Aboriginals, at least as an aspiration, Palestine ‘from the River to the Sea’ should be returned to the Palestinians. Even the leaders of BDS do not expect that boycotts, divestment actions, or international sanctions would materially harm Israel’s economy or turn the tide of its domestic politics (though some adherents point to the success of just such measures in turning around South African politics), but they do believe that delegitimation would demoralize and weaken an aggressive state while building support for the Palestinian cause.

Viewed this way, BDS looks like the mirror image of the Israeli Right: the conflict is a zero-sum game, 1948 and 1967 are the same, it’s all ours, this is a Jewish land or no land, etc.  

But most members or supporters of BDS, especially on campuses but also in the broader public arena, are not advocates of Israel’s destruction. They are simply beside themselves with frustration and grief over the relentless and uncompromising takeover of Israeli politics by the Right. They also see how Israel has both become embedded in a growing international right-wing nexus and, in recent years, exercised a deleterious impact on liberal Jewish life in the US, France, and numerous other lands, not to mention Israel itself.

For the majority of its supporters, BDS is more a cri de coeur than a political agenda. One might object that such politics are ineffective (if not counter-productive) and merely reflect a penchant for moral righteousness. But the politics of emotions are important, and American politics in particular are notoriously driven by ideological commitments, and nowhere more so than among conservative American Jews who consistently create and mobilize fear and insecurity in order to justify Israel’s extreme positions.

Prudential calculations are not enough, however. The BDS movement is gaining in prominence and support not because it offers efficacious solutions: it is advancing because of the weakness of progressive politics in Jewish America and in Israel itself. The only real answer, then, for those who do not share the maximal BDS vision but who see the dead end of current Israeli policies, is to fight those policies ourselves, tooth and nail, in the US and in Israel. That means rebuilding the Left. We may be seeing the start of something like that in the US; we need to help make it happen in Israel as well.”

For the full article – see – https://www.progressiveisrael.org/newsletters/Israel_Horizons_December_2017.pdf