A Leadership Call for Critical and Necessary Debate About Israeli Policies

Introductory note: A total of 169 Jewish leaders – including 89 rabbis – signed the statement below. We represent a broad swath of Jewish American leaders, coming from synagogues, organizations, and universities in over 70 cities across the country. The following remarks are necessary to clarify where we stand:

  1. The statement lays out parameters for respectful and principled debate about Israeli policies – especially as they apply to Palestinians within Israel and in the occupied territories – and delineates guidelines for determining when debate involves legitimate policy-based criticism versus when it crosses the line into antisemitism.
  1. We don’t take lightly the responsibility of making this statement at a time of escalating violence.
    • We stand in solidarity with Israelis grieving their loved ones after the deadliest terror attack Israel has seen in years and mourn all innocent Israeli and Palestinian victims of the conflict.
    • At the same time, we share the concerns of tens of thousands of Israelis determined to protect their democracy and the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
  1. As this government’s policies unfold, conditions in Israel and the territories are bound to worsen.
    • There will almost certainly be settlement expansion, land expropriations, settler violence, police/army action against Palestinian protesters, etc.  Gaza may explode. 
    • Indeed, Netanyahu has already announced that decisions will be made said “to strengthen settlement in Judea and Samaria in order to make it clear to the terrorists who seek to uproot us from our land that we are here to stay.”
  1. Criticism of Israel is bound to intensify.
    • Defenders of Israeli policies will use false accusations of antisemitism to tarnish Israel’s critics and create political divisions.
    • This will hurt Israel by stifling the inevitable debate about critical issues.
    • It will detract from addressing real instances of antisemitism and bigotry.
    • We have seen this before – when politicians respond to criticisms with false accusations of antisemitism.  Critics are accused of applying a double standard or making overly harsh accusations about Israeli policies.
  1. By identifying parameters for when criticism is legitimate and when it crosses the line into antisemitism, our statement proactively frames the debate and serves as a tool for preventing the use of antisemitism as a political wedge issue.
  1. As the statement concludes: There is no contradiction between combating antisemitism and criticizing the deeply troubling policies of the new Israeli government. Those who employ accusations of antisemitism as a political weapon poison the debate, and they weaken our ability to fight real antisemitism and effectively advocate for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Here is the statement that was released:

“It Is Profoundly Irresponsible to Conflate Charges of Antisemitism With Criticism of Israeli Policies”

February 1, 2023

Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Israel has had no greater ally than the United States, and the two countries have formed enduring unbreakable ties based on deeply held shared values.

At this pivotal moment in Israel’s history — and with the beginning of a new Congress — we take this opportunity, as leaders in the American Jewish community, to affirm the importance of maintaining those bonds and upholding the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

As the 118th Congress begins its work, we believe it is important to state our concerns — which are widely shared by supporters of Israel here and around the world and by a significant number of Israelis — regarding some of the policies proposed by members of Israel’s new government.

Our criticisms emanate from a love for Israel and a steadfast support for its security and well-being. Some will try to dismiss their validity by labeling them antisemitic. We want to be clear that, whether or not one agrees with a particular criticism, such critiques of Israeli policy are not antisemitic. Indeed, they reflect a real concern that the new government’s direction mirrors anti-democratic trends that we see arising elsewhere—in other nations and here in the U.S., rather than reinforcing the shared democratic values that are foundational to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

We are, for example, concerned about the Israeli Justice Minister’s plan to limit the Supreme Court’s power, proposed modifications to the Law of Return to change the status quo on conversions to Judaism, and calls by ultra-Orthodox coalition members to outlaw non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall. We are also concerned about provocative actions that seek to open the Temple Mount to Jewish prayer in defiance of long-standing international norms and coalition agreements, legitimize settlement outposts retroactively, and expand Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.

Let us be clear: when antisemitism shows up in debates about the situation in Israel and the occupied territories, it must be called out. It is antisemitic to advocate the destruction of Israel or to deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. It is antisemitic to condemn Israel by using antisemitic tropes or singling out Israel because of its Jewish character. It is antisemitic to use Israel or Zionism as a surrogate for Jews, to hold Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s policies or conduct, or to suggest that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the U.S.

Accusations of antisemitism, however, must not be abused or misused. Indeed, it is profoundly irresponsible to conflate charges of antisemitism with criticism of Israeli policies, especially when antisemitism is on the rise in our country and elsewhere around the world.

Promoting equal rights and justice for all peoples, including Palestinians within Israel and in the occupied territories, is neither anti-Israel nor antisemitic. Indeed, the two-state solution, which is critical for Israel’s survival, provides both Israelis and Palestinians with national rights, individual human rights, safety, and security. It is not antisemitic to hold Israel to the standards that guide the U.S. commitment to human rights across the globe and reflect our commitment to democracy. And while we do not support the BDS movement, we recognize that non-violent actions that press for changes in Israeli policies are not ipso facto antisemitic.

Turning political disputes about the policies of the Israeli government into an argument about antisemitism interferes with the critical and necessary debate about these policies. It also makes it harder to fight antisemitism by diverting attention away from genuine occurrences of anti-Jewish bigotry and hate.

The bottom line is this: There is no contradiction between combating antisemitism and criticizing the deeply troubling policies of the new Israeli government. Those who employ accusations of antisemitism as a political weapon poison the debate, and they weaken our ability to fight real antisemitism and effectively advocate for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

View The Signatories

Harry and Meghan

It is difficult for individuals to break away from tribal thinking, to separate themselves from all they have ever known, and to challenge the power of tradition over their lives when that tradition so clearly does not serve their best interests. It is far easier to ‘go along and get along,’ to settle quietly and without resistance into lives defined by established custom and loyalty. The need to belong and be at peace is strong for everyone. This is true in politics, religion, and national life.

Much has been written about the lives of the British Royal family and especially about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s dramatic decision in 2020 to leave the service of the Monarchy, though they were also expelled by the Royal family itself.

In reading Prince Harry – Spare and despite everything I already knew about the British Monarchy and its dysfunctional and disturbed relationship with the British tabloids, Harry’s painstaking memoir tells a far more intimate story about his growing up in that rarefied environment of privilege, wealth, celebrity, and notoriety than I expected to learn. His memoir showed how trapped he was, as are all members of the Royal family, in a self-perpetuating system that squashes compassion for one another and seems to care little for the mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being of its members. Appearances, clearly established standards of behavior, remaining silent about matters large and small, and Royal rank are everything, and the bullying threats of an insatiable British tabloid media and its immoral and intrusive paparazzi are permitted to stop at nothing in their intrusive, terrorizing, destructive, and dishonest practices against a family that has made a dystopian agreement with the devil.

Yes – this memoir is one-sided. We learn from Harry’s perspective only how the media and the Palace failed him and Meghan, how his brother, sister in-law, father and step-mother (victims themselves of the same media and palace treachery) in turn victimized H and M constantly, wittingly or not.

Harry’s story is a deeply sad one, but at least to this point in time, his has been a courageous and redemptive effort at self-liberation and self-realization away from the tentacles of the Royal-media complex. As I read one incident after another in his life starting with the tragic killing of his mother at the hands of the paparazzi in Paris in August, 1997, and his subsequent efforts to discover who he is and what is his purpose in life as an increasingly distant heir to the throne, one has to feel sympathy for him and wonder what is next for him and Meghan.

Harry and Meghan are, though exceptionally wealthy by any standard, also sympathetic and compelling a couple. They are charismatic, socially conscious, loving partners to one another, and adoring parents of their children.

On a personal level, I identify with Harry’s most important experience as a 12 year-old – the sudden loss of his mother. I lost my father suddenly as well when I was 9 years-old, and though I never engaged in the magical thinking about my dad that Harry did about his mother, believing that she wasn’t really dead at all, I understand how great a loss it is for a child to lose a parent. Everything that happens subsequently is somehow related to that early trauma. In discussions I have had over the years with friends and congregants who lost their parents when they were children, most confess that so much of what they did and became grew from their loss. Their yearning for the deceased parent never ends, though it recedes in time and is integrated into their lives. Yet, the hole of yearning doesn’t really go away. Many of us spent years seeking comfort, in both appropriate and inappropriate ways, in order to understand who that parent was and how we are like and unlike them.

For Harry, his mother was among the most famous people in the world, the “People’s Princess,” an idealized woman from Harry’s perspective, the loving font out of which his early life flowed and was nurtured. Fortunately for him, eventually he found love and meaning with Meghan who, contrary to the awful and false portrait of her created and disseminated constantly by the British media and promoted by the Palace Royal family and staff, is an intelligent, educated, talented, kind-hearted, loving, socially conscious, modern, and self-realized woman. Clearly, H and M love each other dearly and adore their children. In this, they are a model of what celebrities can do to preserve their sanity and dignity and thrive as a family despite the demands the public places upon them.   

Many are asking – why should we Americans care so much about this family, and why should we spend time and ink writing about them? My simple answer is that the British Royal family is 1000 years-old, and so from a historical point of view, their history of Kings and Queens is fascinating. Shakespeare thought they were so compelling that many of his plays are based upon them and their subjects. As Americans who broke away from England in a violent revolution 250 years ago to create a new nation, the British Royal tradition is part of American history and experience. We wonder, however, who the Royals really are today and what their anachronistic institution means in the modern world.

Other questions are left unanswered with regards to H and M and their children. Is there a way back for Harry to his family that is meaningful and healthy for him? Can H and M establish their lives and careers in America? What kind of a life will little Archie and Lilibet have in the United States given the likely tenacity and intrusion of the British paparazzi following their every step? Will these kids have a relationship with their British cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandfather? How will these children be educated, find normality, and remain secure given theirs and their parents’ fame? Will any of them be able to trust anyone new that they meet, or must they rely only upon long-held relationships for anything that approximates real friendship? What does fame of the kind that H and M have do to people over the years?

Time will tell about all of this. In the interim, I wish them well. They are entitled to happiness and fulfillment, just as are the rest of us.

Can Joe Biden Save Israel? – Tom Friedman, NYT

Introductory Note:

Many of you read the NY Times and Tom Friedman’s Op-eds. If you do, you can ignore this post. But, if you don’t, please read on.

I am posting Friedman’s most recent Op-ed (January 17, 2023) because he states clearly what is at stake in Israel today with the government’s proposed policies via a vis the role of the Israeli Supreme Court in relationship with the Knesset and the government’s de facto annexation of the West Bank and its settlement expansion policies.

His op-ed is a letter to President Biden to not sit idly by while this new extremist Israeli government changes the nature of Israel’s democracy. Those of us in the progressive and liberal American Jewish community who love Israel recognize that though Prime Minister Netanyahu ignores our community here and the Israeli opposition, he likely would NOT ignore anything President Biden says about these extremist anti-liberal policies that seriously compromise Israeli democracy and the future of the American-Israeli partnership.

I add that Netanyahu’s coalition government of the most extremist right-wing ultra-Orthodox Religious parties do NOT represent the majority of Israelis on matters of the separation of powers between the Supreme Court and the legislative body of the Knesset, nor of the rights of minorities and religious pluralism in the state (according to recent surveys).

Finally, in the 75 years of Israeli statehood no Israeli government has ever sought to change the nature of Israeli democracy as this government is seeking to do. Netanyahu can say whatever he likes to quell his own population and ignore the protests (80,000 in Tel Aviv in the rain this past Saturday night as well as protests in Jerusalem and Haifa) and the worldwide liberal Jewish community, but actions speak louder than words, and his government’s proposed actions are inconsistent with Israel’s democratic and liberal Jewish character.

Here is Tom Friedman’s Memo to President Biden:

“If I could get a memo onto President Biden’s desk about the new Israeli government, I know exactly how it would start:

Dear Mr. President, I don’t know if you are interested in Jewish history, but Jewish history is certainly interested in you today. Israel is on the verge of a historic transformation — from a full-fledged democracy to something less, and from a stabilizing force in the region to a destabilizing one. You may be the only one able to stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist coalition from turning Israel into an illiberal bastion of zealotry.

I’d also tell Biden that I fear that Israel is approaching some serious internal civil strife. Civil conflicts are rarely about one policy. They tend to be about power. For years, the fierce debates in Israel about the Oslo Accords were about policy. But today, this simmering clash is about power — who can tell whom how to live in a highly diverse society.

The short story: An ultra-nationalist, ultra-Orthodox government, formed after the Netanyahu camp won election by the tiniest sliver of votes (roughly 30,000 out of some 4.7 million), is driving a power grab that the other half of voters view not only as corrupt but also as threatening their own civil rights. That’s why a 5,000-person anti-government demonstration grew to 80,000 over the weekend.

The Israel Joe Biden knew is vanishing and a new Israel is emerging. Many ministers in this government are hostile to American values, and nearly all are hostile to the Democratic Party. Netanyahu and his minister of strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, had plotted with Republicans to engineer Netanyahu’s 2015 speech in Congress against Biden’s and President Barack Obama’s wishes and policies. They would like to see a Republican in the White House and prefer the support of evangelical Christians over liberal Jews and that of M.B.S. over A.O.C.

Have no doubts about this. The president should not be misled by their “our old friend Joe” pablum.

The current crisis in Israel may be presented to Biden as an internal constitutional matter that he should stay out of. To the contrary. Biden should wade right in (just as Netanyahu did) because the outcome has direct implications for U.S. national security interests. I have no illusions that Biden can reverse the most extreme trends emerging in Israel today, but he can nudge things onto a healthier path, and maybe prevent the worst, with some tough love in a way that no other outsider can.

The most pressing crisis is this: Israel’s courts, led by its Supreme Court, have largely been ferocious protectors of human rights, and particularly the rights of minorities. These minorities include Arab citizens, L.G.B.T.Q. citizens and even reform and conservative Jews who want the same freedom and rights of religious practice as Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews enjoy. In addition, because Israel’s Supreme Court reviews the actions of all executive branches, including the military, it has often protected the rights of Palestinians, including providing protection from abuses by Israeli settlers and illegal expropriation of their private property.

But this Netanyahu government seeks to radically alter the situation in the West Bank, effectively annexing it without officially declaring to do so. And the plan has just one big obstacle: Israel’s Supreme Court and legal institutions.

As The Times of Israel summarized, the judicial overhaul that Netanyahu intends to ram through the Knesset would “grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the high court,” replacing a much less partisan and professional judicial appointment process. The overhaul would also severely limit “the high court’s ability to strike down legislation” — especially legislation that might curb the rights of Israel’s minorities — “and enable the Knesset,” now controlled by Netanyahu, “to re-legislate” laws that the court strikes down.

The overhaul would also diminish the independence of the legal watchdogs at each government ministry: Instead of reporting to the attorney general, they would become appointees of each minister.

In short, Israel’s executive branch would assume control of its judiciary. This is right out of the Turkey-Hungary majoritarian playbook, especially when you consider one more thing: This is all being done at a time when Netanyahu himself is being tried on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases brought by his own attorney general.

Early this month, a former Netanyahu right-wing defense minister and former chief of staff of the Israeli Army, Moshe Ya’alon, tweeted that Netanyahu’s judicial “reforms” revealed “the true intentions of a criminal defendant” who is “ready to burn down the country and its values … in order to escape the dock. … Who would have believed that less than 80 years after the Holocaust that befell our people, a criminal, messianic, fascist and corrupt government would be established in Israel, whose goal is to rescue an accused criminal.”

Netanyahu, of course, says this is the furthest thing from his mind — God forbid.

Israel, because it does not have a formal constitution, is governed by a very complex set of legal checks and balances that have evolved over decades. Legal experts tell me that there is an argument for some changes to the judiciary. But to do so in Netanyahu’s way — not by a nonpartisan national convention, but with the Supreme Court being stripped of powers by the most radical government in Israeli history and knowing Netanyahu’s criminal case could end up before the high court — stinks to high heaven.

To put it in American terms, it would be as if Richard Nixon tried to expand the U.S. Supreme Court with pro-Nixon justices during the Watergate criminal investigation.

The current president of Israel’s Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, declared last week that Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul “will shatter the judicial system and is in fact an unrestrained attack.” In addition, groups of retired air force pilotshigh-tech executiveslawyers and retired judges from the left and the right, including some retired Supreme Court justices, have all signed letters saying basically the same thing.

The U.S. has given Israel extraordinary amounts of economic assistance, sensitive intelligence, our most advanced weapons and virtually automatic backing against biased resolutions in the U.N. I support that. We also have long opposed any legal action by international institutions, based on the argument that Israel has an independent judicial system that — not all the time, but plenty of times — credibly enforced accepted norms of international law on Israel’s government and army, even when it meant protecting the rights of Palestinians.

Before Netanyahu succeeds in putting Israel’s Supreme Court under his thumb, Biden needs to tell him in no uncertain terms:

Bibi, you are riding roughshod over American interests and values. I need to know some things from you right now — and you need to know some things from me. I need to know: Is Israel’s control of the West Bank a matter of temporary occupation or of an emerging annexation, as members of your coalition advocate? Because I will not be a patsy for that. I need to know if you really are going to put your courts under your political authority in a way that makes Israel more like Turkey and Hungary, because I will not be a patsy for that. I need to know if your extremist ministers will change the status quo on the Temple Mount. Because that could destabilize Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the Abraham Accords — which would really damage U.S. interests. I will not be a patsy for that.

Here is my guess of how Netanyahu would respond:

Joe, Joey, my old friend, don’t press me on this stuff now. I am the only one restraining these crazies. You and I, Joe, we can make history together. Let’s join our forces not to simply deter Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but to help — in any way possible — the Iranian protesters trying to topple the clerical regime in Tehran. And let’s, you and me, forge a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. M.B.S. is ready if I can persuade you to give Saudi Arabia security guarantees and advanced weapons. Let’s do that and then I’ll dump these crazies.

I applaud both foreign policy goals, but I would not pay for them with a U.S. blind eye to Netanyahu’s judicial putsch. If we do that, we’ll sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.

Israel and the U.S. are friends. But today, one party in this friendship — Israel — is changing its fundamental character. President Biden, in the most caring but clear way possible, needs to declare that these changes violate America’s interests and values and that we are not going to be Netanyahu’s useful idiots and just sit in silence.”

More Images of Winter Mornings

On January 3, I wrote about my love for the early morning and posted images that I photographed as I walked in my neighborhood over the course of 2022. With the rain these past two weeks, the mornings have given forth more lovely images that I offer you along with three poems that elicit the glory of morning.

Composed upon Westminster Bridge – William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

“Earth has not anything to show more fair: / Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty: / This City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning …”

Dawn Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

“Day’s sweetest moments are at dawn; / Refreshed by his long sleep, the Light / Kisses the languid lips of Night, / Ere she can rise and hasten on …”

MorningPaul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

“The mist has left the greening plain, / The dew-drops shine like fairy rain, / The coquette rose awakes again / Her lovely self adorning.

The Wind is hiding in the trees, / A sighing, soothing, laughing tease, / Until the rose says ‘Kiss me, please,’ / ‘Tis morning, ’tis morning.

With staff in hand and careless-free, / The wanderer fares right jauntily, / For towns and houses are, thinks he, / For scorning,  for scorning. / My soul is swift upon the wing, / And in its deeps a song I bring; / Come, Love, and we together sing, / ‘Tis morning, ’tis morning.”

Dr. Martin Luther King’s Sermon, Temple Israel of Hollywood – February 26, 1965

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke from the bimah of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles on Shabbat evening, February 26, 1965, five days after the assassination of Malcolm X. Security was tight around the synagogue on that evening. Sharpshooters were placed on the apartment building across the street on Hollywood Boulevard. The Sanctuary was filled to capacity with 1400+ congregants.

Rabbi Max Nussbaum (1908-1974) was the Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood from 1942 to his death in 1974. He was born in Romania, graduated with a doctoral degree from the University of Wurzburg, and was ordained by the liberal German rabbinic seminary in Breslau, Germany (on the Polish border east of Berlin) in 1936. He served as a community rabbi in Berlin until 1940 under Rabbi Leo Baeck, the titular leader of German Jewry before World War II.

Rabbi Nussbaum and his wife Ruth were married in Berlin in 1938 by Rabbi Baeck under the watchful eye of the Gestapo. They remained in Berlin in order to give comfort and solace to the Berlin Jewish community as the Nazis escalated their persecution of the Jewish people. When Max and Ruth learned that the Gestapo was planning to arrest him, they fled to Amsterdam in the middle of the night, then to Portugal, bought passage on a ship, and finally arrived in the United States. They met with The New York Times to describe the dire situation of German Jewry and then with the German Jewish Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a leading American Zionist and Max’s mentor and friend, had arranged for him to enter the United States with the promise of a rabbinic position serving a small congregation in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1940 where Max learned English (Ruth was already a fluent English speaker). In 1942, he was elected Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles.

Max was a strong labor Zionist and an articulate liberal social justice activist, and it was as a consequence of his national and international prominence that he met and befriended Dr. King leading to the invitation of Dr. King to speak at Temple Israel in February of 1965.

Rabbi Nussbaum reminded the congregation that evening that since it was Shabbat, following custom and consistent with Rabbi Nussbaum’s German Jewish respect for decorum, that applause following Dr. King’s remarks would be inappropriate. In his introduction of Dr. King, Rabbi Nussbaum instructed the filled sanctuary: “You will wish to applaud, and you will not do so!”

The existence of Dr. King’s recorded speech, a part of the Temple Israel of Hollywood archives, was discovered by the wider Los Angeles Jewish community in 2006. The Los Angeles Jewish Journal contacted me, as the then Senior Rabbi of the congregation (1988-2019), before the Martin Luther King Holiday weekend to request permission to write a story about it. National Public Radio learned of the speech’s recording from the LAJJ article and requested permission to air it nationally. I happily agreed and the speech was broadcast on the MLK holiday weekend in both 2007 and 2008. The recording is now part of Temple Israel’s annual Martin Luther King Holiday celebration.

The sound quality of the recording is exceptionally clear. The speech borrows from many addresses that Dr. King delivered over the course of his career. He was only 35 years-old when he spoke that night in February 1965.

This blog also appears at the Times of Israelhttps://blogs.timesofisrael.com/dr-martin-luther-kings-sermon-temple-israel-of-hollywood-february-26-1965/

You can listen to and read a transcript of his remarks here – http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm

A Prayer for Israel that Transcends the New Government

Judi Rudoren, the Editor-in-Chief of The Forward, reported that Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan, will not recite a prayer for the State of Israel that includes the religious language “raishit smichat gi’ulateinu – the initial sprouting of our redemption” that is called “the signature line from the Prayer for the State of Israel as instituted by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate after the establishment of the State in 1948 (Ha-Tsofeh on 20 September 1948).

Anshe Chesed’s Rabbi, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, said in an interview with the Forward that he could no longer pray for the success of Israel’s current leaders, ministers and advisers, as this liturgy calls for, since its new government includes right-wing extremists he considers akin to the Ku Klux Klan. He said: “I don’t hope that this government succeeds. I hope that this government falls and is replaced by something better… I just could not imagine us saying this prayer that their efforts be successful. I think their efforts are dastardly.”

I agree. The anti-democratic “religious Zionism” of the extremist right-wing political and ultra-Orthodox parties in the new Israeli government is not the religious Zionism with which we in the liberal and progressive Zionist community identify. Our religious Zionism includes the principle that Israel will remain democratic and the State for the entirety of the Jewish people. We emphasize justice as a precondition for the Jewish people’s settlement of the land as commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“Justice justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and take hold of the land that the Lord your God is about to give you.” (16:20)

Equal justice must remain a core value and foundational goal for all Israeli citizens (Jewish and non-Jewish) and institutions and for Palestinians living under military occupation. The new Israeli government broadcast its intention, however, contrary to Israel’s democratic traditions, to limit the authority of Israel’s High Court and to move quickly towards de-facto annexation of illegal West Bank outposts thereby preparing the way for unilateral de-jure annexation of the entirety of the West Bank. This is not the religious Zionism that we support in liberal and progressive Zionist circles.

Judi Rudoren noted that the American Reform movement includes a different prayer for the State of Israel in its prayer book Mishkan HaTfilah that does not include language that Rabbi Kalmanofsky finds objectionable given the new Israeli government. The Reform movement’s prayer emphasizes the State as the embodiment of the Jewish people’s highest moral and spiritual aspirations:

“O Heavenly One, Protector and Redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel which marks the dawning of hope for all who seek peace. Shield it beneath the wings of Your love; spread over it the canopy of Your Peace; send Your light and truth to all who lead and advise, guiding them with Your good counsel. Establish peace in the land and fullness of joy for all who dwell there.
Amen.” – Mishkan HaTfilah (p. 377)

In 2005, before the publication of Mishkan HaTfilah, my congregation, Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles, created our own High Holiday Machzor in which we included the following prayer, based upon a prayer published decades before in an early Israeli Reform prayer book:

“Eternal God of the universe: Receive our prayers for the peace and security of the State of Israel and its people. Bring Your blessing upon the Land and upon all who labor in its interest. Inspire those who lead the Jewish State to follow the ways of righteousness. Remove from their hearts hatred, malice, jealousy, fear, and strife. Let them be infused with the ancient hope of Zion and be encouraged by the symbol of Jerusalem as the eternal city of peace. May the State of Israel be a blessing to all its inhabitants and to the Jewish people everywhere, and may she be a light to the nations of the world. Amen!”(Temple Israel of Hollywood High Holiday Machzor, p. 111)

“Religious Zionism” includes also those of us in the liberal and progressive Zionist community in North America and around the world who refuse to allow right-wing Zionist extremists to take sole ownership of the religious Zionist label.

Our prayers for the well-being and security of the people and State of Israel, as written in Mishkan HaTfilah and my synagogue’s prayer book, provide language that transcends particular Israeli governments and embraces the highest moral and spiritual aspirations of liberal Judaism, liberal Zionism, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel’s democratic traditions.

This blog also appears at The Times of Israelhttps://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-prayer-for-israel-that-transcends-the-new-government/ 

Jeremy Ben Ami Responds to Harsh Criticism of J Street

Last week in a Times of Israel Blog, Rabbi Brian Strauss of Houston, Texas accused J Street (a pro-Israel, pro-peace, and pro-democracy political organization in Washington, D.C.) of being anti-Israel based on a selective misreading of J Street statements and actions. Here is his piece – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/j-street-is-honest-about-what-it-is-we-just-have-to-listen/

J Street’s President and CEO, Jeremy Ben Ami, responded, also in a Times of Israel Blog, and clarified J Street’s policy positions which, according to polls, represent the views of 70% of the American Jewish community vis a vis its support of Israel, its security (e.g. support for the Memo of Understanding granting $3.8 billion military support annually for ten years, support of the Iron Dome defense system, support for the JCPOA, and against BDS), prospects for peace and justice with the Palestinians (opposes Israel’s Occupation policies and the expanding settlement enterprise), and supports democracy in Israel and the United States. Here is his piece – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/j-street-and-what-it-really-means-to-be-pro-israel/

I urge those who are concerned about the historically close and important American-Israel relationship and what J Street actually advocates to read both articles carefully. Also, I suggest that they look at J Street’s website (www.jstreet.org) and read its policy positions, blogs, and press releases, and then come to an informed conclusion about J Street’s positions and advocacy work. They may disagree with positions J Street has taken, but it is important that civility amongst American Jews and a respect for each other’s pro-Israel bona fides be sustained and that name-calling and the questioning of motives vis a vis Israel be rejected.

A disclaimer: I have been a supporter of J Street from its beginnings in 2009. I believe in its mission and advocacy goals before the American Congress and Administration as well as its role as a safe space for pro-Israel liberal and progressive American Jews to express their liberal American Jewish values. I serve currently as a national co-chair (with three colleagues in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Tel Aviv) of the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet that has grown to 1100 members nationally.

Morning Images

I start each day very early in the morning – usually between 3:30 am and 4:30 am. As I age, my sleep patterns and circadian rhythms have changed. However, the morning hours are my delight. While it is still dark, I read and write, as my head is clearest then. By the time I perceive through my home office-window looking towards the east the silhouette of the trees emerging from the darkness against a lightening sky, I prepare to go out, rain or shine, for a 3 to 5 mile walk in my neighborhood.

We live in the foothills of Sherman Oaks, a suburb in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, on a small street without sidewalks that feels more like a country road than a city street. We love it here. We bought this modest home at the beginning of 1989, raised our sons here, and can’t imagine living anywhere else.

While on these morning walks, often while it is still dark, I listen to podcasts or music or I simply enjoy the silence. Ours is a very quiet neighborhood. We can hear sometimes in the distance the Amtrak trains signaling their coming into a station, church bells ringing on the hour, the muffled din of traffic on the 101 a mile or two away, mockingbirds singing mating calls in springtime in our backyard trees, owls cooing, and the loud caws of crows. A flock of crows (called a “murder”) lives here year-round and, apparently, loves our neighborhood as we do. At the top of a tall pine tree two doors from our home, during the spring and summer, there sits often a hawk disturbed from time to time during the nesting season by small black birds swinging around him and squawking as they nose-dive towards the hawk on his perch without there seemingly being any effect at all upon the larger bird that sits so regally and still.

I pass the same people and their dogs most mornings, and though I know no one’s name, we wave to each other in friendly recognition. They are all part of the beginning of my day.

I often witness on these hour+ long walks spectacular moon and sun risings. The colors in the early morning sky of bright red, magenta, and orange play themselves off streaking clouds over rain-soaked streets (of late) yet to evaporate with the progression of the day.

When I see a breath-taking image, I take a photograph. Today, I offer some of those images from the last year that I was fortunate to record at the right moment, as many of them vanished within seconds of their appearance. They represent the quiet radiance and calm of the morning’s light.

A joyful, healthy, and peaceful New Year to you all.

George Santos’ Secrets

It is hard to fathom the inner life of George Santos, the disgraced Congressman-elect from the 3rd District of New York, as he manufactured virtually everything about his past and identity to create a new persona and win a seat in Congress – his family origins in Europe and the Holocaust, his religion as a Jew, his high school and college education as a graduate of elite schools, his employment history in powerful economic institutions, his considerable wealth and ownership of multiple properties, his mother’s death in 9/11, and his sexual identity.

So many questions have been raised about the character and integrity of this young man; how he thought he could lie so brazenly and present himself so fraudulently to the constituents of his congressional district; why the media and his Democratic opponent didn’t perform due diligence by giving even a cursory check into Santos’ exalted claims about himself and his alleged accomplishments during the campaign; and how the morally challenged leadership of the Republican Party can remain so utterly silent that such a liar is about to become a fellow Member of Congress, though nothing ought to surprise us any longer about the craven power-seeking-at-all-costs-Republican-Party and its Senate and House members in the Trump era.

I have been wondering how Santos could look at himself in the mirror each morning and then go out into the public and brazenly present himself as a fraud about virtually everything that distinguishes a human being. And I have wondered what damning secrets he is covering up that compelled him to lie so flagrantly and with such hubris and dishonorable ignobility.

What is he hiding? What truths about his character has he veiled? What blemishes is he refusing to confess? What failings has he suffered in his short life about which he seems so embarrassed and shame-filled that he felt the need to create an entirely new identity?

The French novelist and politician André Malraux wrote: “Man is not what he thinks he is; he is what he hides.” (From his novel Man’s Fate, publ. 1933)

True enough. We all hide some things about which we feel are too personal to share with others. Some of us hold tightly onto our secrets from fear of embarrassment and shame. Doing so, though understandable, carries the risk of damage to our moral integrity, emotional well-being, and relationships with others.

Some secrets are like cancer metastasizing in the soul. They ought to be shared confidentially, at the very least, with one’s closest family or friends or therapist or clergy person who can support and help us confidentially move through the suffering that gave rise to our most self-destructive secrets. Only by acknowledging and talking through the most painful truths in our past can we understand ourselves in the present and release the negative toxins associated with the secret we held onto for so long. Denial, deception, and delusion are hindrances to the nurturing of integrated lives and honest relationships. Self-knowledge and self-acceptance of our vulnerabilities are foundational to self-understanding, emotionally sound and spiritually healthy human beings.

It is unclear whether Mr. Santos understands himself at all. His lies are so egregious that we have to wonder – who is this young man beneath his here-to-fore fraudulent veneer?

We certainly cannot know what secrets he holds that motivated him to falsify everything in his life. Perhaps, he hoped that the pursuit of public office offered him an escape from his secrets and an opportunity to invent himself ex nihilo.

Over time, of course, the character of most public people emerges under the flood lights of celebrity. Though Santos’ deception came too late to throw the election to his opponent (thanks to The New York Times), Shakespeare’s counsel rings true and is sound advice for us all whether we are public figures or live the most private of lives: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Hamlet – Act 1, Scene 3)

Ten Volumes of Presidential Papers and My Father’s 117th Birthday

My wife and I had been holding onto boxes of memorabilia in our garage that belonged to our sons Daniel and David since they left for college nearly 20 and 15 years ago so that one day, when they had homes of their own, they could retrieve the boxes. They collected them last month. As they cleared out an area of the garage, I found one box stacked beneath theirs containing very old and heavy books that I saved when my brother and I moved our mother from her apartment into assisted living years ago but about which I had forgotten were there.

These books once belonged to my father. His parents, immigrants from Ukraine to the United States in the early 1890s, must have purchased these volumes new in 1900 when they were first published. My father was born exactly 117 years ago today, on December 30, 1905. His upcoming birthday reminded me yesterday that these old books were sitting in our garage. And so I decided to open the box to see what was inside.

The box contained 10 volumes entitled “Messages and Papers of the Presidents – 1789-1897,” copyrighted in 1897 and printed by permission of the Congress of the United States (1900). Each volume contains proclamations, letters, speeches, memos, photographs, political cartoons, and reproductions of paintings of all the first American presidents from George Washington to Grover Cleveland.  

Yesterday, I took the ten volumes into the house to preserve them against the cold and heat of our garage, and I looked especially through the papers of Abraham Lincoln, printed only 32 years after his assassination. The volume contains many photographs of him, his wife and sons, his contemporaries and friends, his birthplace and home in Springfield, Illinois, as well as a photo of the house in which he died across from the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. Each volume has similar documents of all the nation’s first 24 presidents.   

These are veritable treasure troves of first documents of American history.

As it happens, I have almost completed reading Jon Meacham’s new biography of Lincoln called “And There Was Light – Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” (New York: Random House, 2022). I recommend it highly, especially to history buffs.

Jon Meacham is a national treasure in his own right, a prolific historian and commentator on contemporary political affairs. I have read many excellent histories of Lincoln, and Meacham’s is a worthy addition to all those that came before. His book reads like a contemporary narrative with emphasis on Lincoln’s boyhood, self-education, early family and love life, and his legal and political life leading through his single term in Congress, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, his election as President, the Civil War, and his principled decision to emancipate enslaved African Americans. The text includes conversations with his long-time friends, family, cabinet, and generals. Meacham is true as well to Lincoln’s periodic melancholy leading him at several points in his life to contemplate suicide following the deaths of an early love and of his son Willie.

As I read the remarkable story of our nation’s 16th President, I was struck by Lincoln’s courage and resolve in carrying the union of the country on his back, and his dogged devotion to moral principle in waging war against the rebellious south leading to the elimination of the “peculiar institution” of the enslavement of an entire race of human beings. 

Meacham’s writing is crisp and insightful. Here is but one example in which he describes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“The Gettysburg Address was an eloquent attempt to frame American politics as not only a mediation of interests but as a moral undertaking. Slave owners portrayed slavery as divinely ordained; Lincoln portrayed individual liberty as God-given. Slave owners invoked the constitution as a shield for suppression; Lincoln invoked the Declaration of Independence as a higher, older, superseding authority. Slave owners defended an aristocracy of color; Lincoln defending democracy.”

The confluence of my reading Meacham’s biography and my rediscovering the 10 volumes of presidential papers that I recall  from my childhood sitting on my birth home’s living-room shelf, not only is a source of inspiration about one of the greatest figures in American and world history, but a source of loving memory on my father’s birthday 117 years ago. Zichrono livracha.