Passover in the Shadow of a Gunman

4/14/14 This post first appeared in Haaretz

The article I planned on writing revolved around the Golden Age of television we are now experiencing. I was going to write specifically about how Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews and Neil DeGrass Tyson’s Cosmos have had huge emotional effects on me.

I was going to comment on how Schama’s show is a work of staggering achievement that manages to make the Jewish experience accessible to everyone. My plan was to contrast this with the universal majesty of Cosmos, a series that depicts the history of our universe. The tension between the particularism of the story of the Jews and the grandeur of the Cosmos is a theme baked into the Passover Seder, as we struggle between these different concepts.

I was going to finish the article by comparing this tension to that found within the writings of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, whose work “The Lonely Man of Faith” speaks to the tension of the Jewish condition as one between majestic man and covenantal man. This tension between the awesomeness of being created in the image of G-d and simultaneously being created from the dust of the earth.

I was going to remark that there is no synthesis between the particularism of Jewish Peoplehood and our Universalist values. That we have to expect to continue to struggle through the challenge of what it means to be Jewish today.

Yet as I sat down to write this blog, three people were killed in a shooting at the Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living center in Kansas City. Here in the most integrated, comfortable and successful Jewish community in the history of the world, peoplewere targeted and killed because they were Jews.

This is not supposed to happen. Yet it still does. Hate finds a way forth and Jews are killed because they are Jews.Kids and pensioners both targeted and killed. Young and old gunned down due to this hate.

One can look at Jewish history and know that the line from the Haggadah “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,” is true.

Yet what should our response to this be? We are within our rights to be hostile to the outside world, to close ourselves off and be suspicious of all those around us. Yet by doing so we would be failing in our duty to be an or l’goyim (a light onto nations.)

Being Jewish is not easy. We need to be able to deal with the tensions that our traditions demand from us. We need to understand our own particularism while being open to the universalism of the world around us. Sadly, even today, there are those who rise up to destroy us, but we cannot allow them to destroy our way of life.

Our resilience is shown by not withdrawing from the world and enclosing ourselves in the comfort of our particularism. Nor is it found in assimilating into the universalism of all of that around us. Rather, our quest to demonstrate what it means to live as a happy and free people, celebrating our traditions and impacting those around us, is found in balancing the wonder of the cosmos and the glory of our rich history together.

KKK costumes and an incompetent city near Jerusalem

3/31/14 This post first appeared in Haaretz 

Costume parties have a long history of going disastrously wrong. From Prince Harry dressing as a Nazi to a Brooklyn assemblyman going blackface for Purim, those who feel their outfits are pushing the limit are best to err on the side of caution. This is especially the case in today’s social media age, when a picture can fly around the world in just a few minutes.

This year, the award for the most offensive costume goes to 17 students from the Harel High School in Mevasseret Tzion, near Jerusalem, who dressed up as KKK members and created a whole tableau. They even marched in their local Purim parade right past an absorption center that houses some 1,100 Ethiopian olim.

The Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel saw these pictures and reached out to Jeremy Saltan (Habayit Hayehudi), a member of Mevasseret Tzion’s Immigrant Absorption Committee.

Saltan publicly decried the incident and promised to bring the issue to the committee’s attention. Indeed on March 26, he brought a motion to the committee, condemning the incident and stating that there is no place for racism in the city. The motion also stated that educational lessons should be drawn from this incident so that nothing like it ever happens again.

It is here that this issue stopped being about uneducated, ignorant schoolchildren who do something racist and horrid, and started being about a major systemic failure.

Mevasseret Tzion is a pretty secular place, judging by the 2013 election results. Those results show that 52 percent of the city voted for centrist parties Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Hatnuah and Kadima, while 26 percent voted for Likud. These are mainstream Israelis.

This is also a city in which there is a large absorption center for Ethiopian olim.
Given the nature of the city and its constituency, one would expect Saltan’s resolution to pass pretty unanimously. It flopped. Only Saltan, who proposed the motion, voted for it, while every other member of the Immigrant Absorption Committee voted against it.

Not only could the council not find it within their wisdom to condemn this act, the Harel High School felt it was appropriate to include these students’ costumes on their official Purim Flickr stream.

The principle of the school, Rina Even Tov, when questioned about the costumes saw no reason to reprimand the students. KKK, Pol Pot, she has no problem with Nazi costumes either: “There would be no difference if it was a Nazi costume.” Yes one can imagine the silence of elected officials if there were students parading as Nazis in the streets of Israel. I think not.

Kids can be stupid and offensive the world over and things like this happen with some regularity. But what normally happens is that the perpetrators of unacceptable acts get educated and learn their lesson. When a school and a city can’t see what is wrong with 17 kids dressing up like members of the KKK and parading through the streets of Israel, the entire educational system is broken.

Shame on the council members that serve on the city’s Immigrant Absorption Committee who voted against the measure and shame on the Harel High School for adding these pictures to their official website.

We are taught that kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. If the members of Mevasseret Tzion are absent in their educational duties, we as a people have a duty to step in. The students should be forced to apologize and go through some serious anti-racism education. For that matter, the city council should, too.

British youth do Israel initiatives better

3/27/14 This article first appeared in Haaretz 

The past few months have seen young Jews in the United States and United Kingdom attempting to challenge the educational settings of their conversations on Israel. In the United States, the continued back and forth over the “Open Hillel” movement even reached the New York Times. In the United Kingdom, a group of youth movement graduates made waves calling on all Jewish educational institutions to use maps that showed the Green Line.

To the outside observer, both of these campaigns can be seen on the same spectrum: young members of each community combating the more conservative funding elite. This, however, would miss the mark. While in the United States there is an ongoing battle between politically motivated funders and the end users of programs, in the United Kingdom the challenge is different. The unique way that Zionist Youth Movements function in the United Kingdom allow for a different sort of campaign that can yield far greater results.

This was particularly evident this month, when a group of young involved members of the Anglo-Jewish community launched a campaign that received a tremendous amount of press coverage. “Sign on the Green Line” urges all Jewish groups in Britain to only use maps of Israel that mark the Green Line (which signifies the 1949 armistice lines). Doing so, the campaign holds, will improve education about the Jewish state by highlighting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and portraying a more “honest” picture of the country.

After a burst of press coverage, the campaign is now attempting to use the pressure of its launch to get different groups to sign up. While no schools have signed to date, five youth movements, one synagogue and four Jewish organizations have.

Unlike their American compatriots, the students in the United Kingdom are not fighting “the man.” Rather, they often try to convince other graduates of the same youth movements they went through. The uniqueness of the British youth movement scene means that many of the communal leaders that students try to convince have a common educational core.

There are nine different youth movements in the United Kingdom that cater to every political and religious sector within the community. These groups are run by volunteers and sabbatical officers all under the age of 23. Every year, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, sends half of its Jewish 16 year olds to Israel on its Israel Tour, and many other young Jewish adults on its various Israel engagement programs. This is a remarkable achievement, one that is attained through the pressure cooker of peer-to-peer leadership.

In addition, every summer, thousands of Jewish kids go to summer camps run by young adults ranging from ages 17 to 23. These camps are held in fields across the countryside, with activities that deliver informal education through glue, paper and felt tip pens. With the exception of the sabbatical officers, none of the counselors are paid. In fact, in the first year of being a counselor, many of the youth groups charge first timers for the privilege.

These youth movements create lifelong bonds and the vast majority of teachers and community leaders within Anglo-Jewry are graduates of these various movements.

This common bond is what allows the members of Sign on the Green Line to achieve the change they want; not through public pressure, but through engaged education. Looking at the Facebook discussions of the senior members of each of the youth movements, one can see they are engaged in conversations about how they teach about Israel in an inclusive manner, and many of the movements have democratic forums where policies can be written and changed.

By creating a forum within each movement for these informal educators to discuss how they can best tackle the issues that the politics of Israel presents them with, they can achieve their mission of getting the Green Line in every map that every movement uses. By sticking to a purely educational platform, members of this movement can be welcomed in every British youth movement. Once there, the community will naturally adapt as the graduates of those programs go on to take positions across Anglo Jewry.

There is no scary, politically motivated funder closing off debate in the United Kingdom. It is an open community willing to have hard and educated discussions about Israel. If one wishes to institutionalize the openness, they must start early on within the informal learning environments, where half of Anglo Jewry spends it time.

Israelis Paying For My Child’s Education Will Get Us Nowhere

First Published in Haaretz 2/19/14

Last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett made an announcement that foreshadows a fundamental change in the way Israel works with her Diaspora. Israel, Bennett said, is embarking on a project that would commit the state to spending $1.4 billion over five years to deepen the Jewish identity of Jews living the Diaspora, and strengthen Israeli-Diaspora relations.

This announcement marked a sea-change moment. To understand why, one must first understand how the Israeli-Diaspora funding relationship has always worked.

Ashkenazi Jews living in Eastern Europe in the 19th century received stipends from their communities to help them survive. When Jews began moving to Israel in the First Aliyah, which began in 1882, some of them continued getting support from those who remained abroad. This set up a system whereby Jews situated outside of the Land of Israel paid for Jewish activities within the Land of Israel.

Israel was built from the sweat of the pioneers, funded by the riches of global Jewry. Figures such as Sir Moses Montefiore, Lord Jacob Rothschild and Nathan Straus funded the cities that became part of modern-day Israel.

This paradigm continued throughout the history of the State of Israel, and was not without its critics. In his book, “With Friends Like You” (1992, Free Press), Matti Golan describes what Israeli Jews really thought of their cousins in America. He says the Israelis saw the donations as immoral: Jews abroad paying cash while Israelis paid in blood.

There were also political and religious differences between Israeli and American Jews, as chronicled by Yossi Beilin in “The Death of the American Uncle”(1999, Yedioth Ahronot and Chemed Books), where he writes of his fear that the traditional model of rich American Jews supporting Israel is doomed to break down unless something radically changes.

The State of Israel has always encouraged Jewish immigration and has helped facilitate it through the Jewish Agency, yet it was not until the year 1999, when Taglit-Birthright Israel was founded (inspired by Beilin’s sentiments in the aforementioned book), that the Israeli government became a major sponsor of creating Jewish experiences for Diaspora Jews. The Government of Israel funding a program that did not directly serve its citizens marked the beginning of a reversing flow of cash: from the Diaspora funding Israel, to Israel funding the Diaspora.

Birthright’s funding model is tripartite, consisting of donations from Jewish philanthropists, the Government of Israel, and Jewish organizations and communities. Supporters of Birthright (and I am one) can point to the documented economic benefits that these tours have brought Israel: $825 million dollars in the past 13 years. Yet there is a conversation to be had about Israeli public money going to programs that Israelis cannot participate in (except for the soldiers who join the tours.) This conversation becomes imperative in light of Bennett’s announcement.

The Israeli government, says Bennett, wants to commit 1 billion shekels each year on programming for Jews outside of Israel for the purpose of deepening their Jewish identity. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermanagrees that the Israeli government should work to curb the “demographic catastrophe” facing Jewish Americans today, and says that only through a combined Israeli-Diaspora effort to improve Jewish education “can we ensure our endurance as a people.” Thus, he said he is going to act to ensure the government approves the allocation of $365 million for Jewish education outside Israel.

The program Bennett speaks of, dubbed the Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative, seeks to create programs in seven areas of Jewish life of which aliyah is only one. It’s unclear whether Bennett and Lieberman’s plans are linked, but their intentions are the same: using Israeli taxpayers’ money to curb assimilation abroad.

Should this project go ahead, the government of Israel would become one of the largest institutional sponsors of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

This is an awful idea.

Let’s put aside for a moment the complex questions raised by the fact that that the Israeli government would take hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the purses of Israeli citizens in order to pump it into the purses of Jews in other counties, despite the economic hardship being experienced right now by Israel’s middle and lower classes. The Israeli government is uniquely bad at posing honest questions about Jewish identity. It is simply incapable of funding inclusive, open and critical discussions on this topic. Why? It’s a political entity! Its programs would have clear agendas dictated by the party line of the day.

I cannot imagine a state-funded program having an honest discussion about how settlements affect the Israeli-Diaspora relationship. I struggle to understand how publically funded programming could enable critical discourse on cultural Judaism, when the Rabbinate in Israel is still dictating – through narrow criteria – who is and is not a Jew.

For Bennett, this initiative seems to be an attempt by to replicate the“Jewish Identity Administration” that he created domestically, in which the Religious Affairs Ministry would try to instill Jewish values in the public at large. It was a poor idea at home and an even worse one abroad.

It is wonderful to see the highest levels of the Israeli government working on Israel’s relationship with her Diaspora. But, seriously, subsidizing Jewish life abroad is simply not a solution.

What @ukipweather teaches us about mocking bigots

Haaretz 1/26/14

Social media can, all too often, be the bigot’s best friend. From cyberbullying to conspiracy-fueled racism, the Internet has allowed hatemongers to spread their filth worldwide.

The Internet also has the power to let us destroy bigotry – through mockery.

Last week, a local politician from the UK Independence Party blamed the recent flooding across the United Kingdom on gay marriage. David Silvester, the councilor in question, held the prime minister accountable for the floods, saying they were occurring due to the recent legislative progress toward gay marriage in Britain. “It is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods,” Silvester wasquoted by BBC as saying.

How did Silvester justify his claim? “The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.”

Silvester’s proclamation was motivated by his Baptist faith. We, in the Jewish community, have our own fair share of members who blame meteological events on the LGBT community.

Rabbi Noson Leiter is one of them. In 2012, he reportedly blamed superstorm Sandy on New York State’s support for gay marriage. One year earlier, Rabbi Yehuda Levin reportedly blamed the Haitian earthquake on the island nation’s high AIDS rates, and an earthquake in Virginia on gays.

Such is the power of the LGBT community that they can literally move mountains and flatten cities.

What peaked my interest in this story however, was less the religiously-inspired bigotry on display, but rather the collective response of the good people of Britain. The story broke on January 19. Some prankster created @UkipWeather to tweet about the weather patterns that the LGBT community was causing. Just five days later, @UkipWeather had over 109,000 followers.

There is no better response to bigots than public ridicule. All too often, social media is used by bigots to target minority groups, but this time, a moderate majority used social media to amplify their voices and make fun of the homophobe in their midst.

The more outlandish the bigot’s claim, the easier it is to mock him or her, and when it comes to blaming the rain on the gays, it’s very easy to demonstrate the stupidity behind the hate. But it’s harder to beat the biggest when they spread pernicious conspiracy theories, anti-establishment gestures that target racial groups, or just your run-of-the-mill homophobia. In those instances, the bigots usually win.

Fortunately, the Internet has a tendency to amplify stupidity. While not every hater is stupid and often their hate comes across as witty, subversive or fun, We must constantly demonstrate the stupidity that underlies bigotry, and show the bigots for the morons they are. That’s how we can beat the bigots in the Internet age.

150 words on Sharon

The Evening Standard asked me for between 100-200 words on Sharon in a personal capacity (like the vast majority of things that I write). This is what I came up with. As a reminder everything on this blog is my personal opinion.

Ariel Sharon like the biblical King David was a Jewish wartime leader who galvanized the people behind him but did deeply immoral things in the process. Many of his deeds stand as examples to be learnt from rather than acts to be aspired to. Like King David his hands were bloody enough to win the war but too bloody to win the peace. His evacuation of eight thousand settlers from Gaza was necessary but the unilateral manner in which it was done guaranteed that it would not help the peace process. A founding father of Israel his life was one dedicated to the service of establishing and safeguarding the Jewish State. The mass of mourners reflect the deepfelt respect for this sacrifice but should not be misinterpreted by outside observers as approval of all his policies and actions.

From Toulouse to the quenelle

Haaretz 12/30/13

The aim of professional sports teams is to dominate the sports sections of newspapers while ensuring the antics of their athletes never make the front-page headlines. When soccer player Nicolas Anelka made the “quenelle” gesture over the weekend in celebration of his goal, he did just the opposite: It made everyone ignore the goal, and fixate on the politics of the moment instead. The debate over the controversial salute crossed the Atlantic Ocean on Monday as Tony Parker, a professional French NBA player, was pictured making the quenelle, too, sometime earlier this year.

Anelka maintains that he has done nothing wrong; that he was only showing solidarity with his friend Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, the French, extremist comic who started the gesture. He claims that it is simply a salute against the establishment.

Amid the uproar, Anelka promised his club not to do it again, but showed nothing but pride for doing it the first time. “The club fully acknowledges that Nicolas’ goal celebration has caused offense in some quarters and has asked Nicolas not to perform the gesture again. Nicolas immediately agreed to adhere to this request,” West Brom said in a statement. What an evasive response. West Brom is either carefully avoiding getting involved, or has no idea of why people are upset at all.

Let’s ignore for a second that Anelka thinks its fine to show solidarity with an eight-times convicted anti-Semite and concentrate on the popular “anti-establishment” gesture itself.

The debate around the quenelle is reminiscent of Tariq Ramadan’s comments around Mohammed Merah’s killings of a rabbi and three children in Toulouse in March 2012. Ramadan said Merah was “imbued neither with the values of Islam, or driven by racism and anti-Semitism,” but merely attacking symbols, “the army and Jews.” Shortly after his remarks, I wrote a blog claiming Ramadan and others were airbrushing anti-Semitism out of the attack, dehumanizing the victims to mere symbols of the state.

The airbrushing of anti-Semitism seems to have been revived with the quenelle. Once again, Jews are being dehumanized into the “establishment.” As it is acceptable to be against the establishment, and since Jews are now synonymous with the establishment, it is fine to be against Jews, as they just stand in for the established order of things. What could be wrong with performing the quenelle at Anne Frank’s House, Auschwitz or at the Jewish school in Toulouse itself if it’s just anti-establishment? This is just poking fun at the powers that be. Who cares if the instrument of this fun is a minority group? By making fun of the Holocaust we merely use it as a tool to show how much we dislike “the man” – no offense is meant to the Jewish community itself.

Dieudonne’s attempt to transform anti-Semitism into anti-authority is so clumsy that any fool could see through it. Dieudonne himself cares little for being convicted of racism and chooses to continue upping the ante with Holocaust deniers. Regardless of whether one thinks that limiting hate speech is correct, this man has made the law into such a mockery that France is looking into ways to ban his show entirely.

Anshel Pfeffer is correct in saying that we need to educate rather than legislate against this problem. Banning things just makes them cool, and making this an act of rebellion will only encourage it to spread. But before we turn to solutions to this disease, let us first be sure to diagnose it properly. The virus is anti-Semitism, the origin of this gesture is an anti-Semite and the mask is so poorly constructed that it is a mark of our own public stupidity that we have to have this debate. The quenelle is meant to mainstream and spread anti-Semitism. With that said, let’s get on with educating why that’s not OK.