A sleepless night could be the key to Jewish unity

This article first appeared in Haaretz 

With the ultra-Orthodox back in Israel’s new coalition, the small gains made by the previous government in the area of religious pluralism have already started to roll back. What little hope had been nurtured for more cooperation between different streams of Judaism has been crushed for the time being. Outside the legislative realm however, there is hope that the various streams of Judaism might be able to join together, at least on one night.

There is a custom dating back to the 1500s that today has the potential to truly begin the healing process between Jewish denominations. On the first night of Shavuot it is customary to participate in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night session of Torah study. This tradition finds its roots in the Midrash, which states that the night before the Israelites received the Torah they went to bed early to be well rested, but they overslept and arrived late at Mt. Sinai. To fix this (“Tikkun” means rectification) we stay up all night on Shavuot and learn Torah.

When I moved to Brooklyn two years ago, my Modern Orthodox community joined with all the other congregations, big and small, to celebrate Tikkun Leil together. Congregation Beth Elohim, one of the key Reform synagogues in America, would host the event and groups from the Conservative, Modern Orthodox and non-affiliated streams of Judaism would attend to learn from each other’s educators.

This is my first year celebrating Shavuot in Chicago, and I am happy that in Lakeview, the community in which I live, this cross-communal gathering on Tikkun Leil also takes place. All three major synagogues in the community, as well as wondering minyans (prayer quorums) and Jewish schools from every denomination are coming together to celebrate a night of learning together.

This cross-communal learning appears this year to be finding a place in Israel, as the Tzavta club in Tel Aviv and the Orthodox rabbinical group Tzohar hold an all-night Shavuot study session in which Conservative and Reform rabbis can take part. The Tzohar rabbis, who do not recognize non-Orthodox denominations, will reportedly skip the session, evidencing a lack of complete acceptance among the denominations. Yet, we should see this as a first step toward a foundation on which to build.

Collective learning, in which all the different – and often antagonistic – streams of Judaism take place, finds its roots in the Limmud movement that began in the United Kingdom. Often described as Anglo Jewry’s greatest export, the Limmud movement is a global phenomenon and has normalized the concept of cross-communal learning. Today, even the Chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Mirvis, has taught at Limmud, something that his predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks never did. Lord Sacks had been prevented from going by the long-held opposition to normalizing the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities on matters to do with Jewish religious practice. The times are clearly changing; Rabbi Mirvis’ landmark lecture indicated that the Orthodox establishment is starting to acknowledge the benefits of cross-communal learning.

We must not be naïve. There is still a long way to go. In Israel, it is Tzohar that is participating in the Tikkun Leil, rather than the ultra-Orthodox, to whom the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are anathema. And in the United States, I am yet to find Haredi communities who are willing to participate in cross-communal learning.

Yet, it is a start.

Shavuot might just be the festival that can begin bring us back together as a people, around our collective heritage and love of learning. As Maimonides (the Rambam) states, the greatest crown of all is that of the Torah, as anyone who desires it shall come and take it.

Will American Zionists be sued for urging a boycott of Israeli settlements?

This article first appeared in Haaretz 4/29/15

There has been a long running debate within the Jewish pro-Israel community in the Diaspora about how to best deal with BDS. One argument states that you must reject BDS in any form or format. Boycott of settlements is just a slippery slope to boycotting Israel and therefore everything from labeling products to identifying settlement companies should be opposed.

The other, often used by the Zionist left, states that the best way to deal with BDS is to demonstrate the utility of the tactic when it comes to settlements and draw a clear line between Zionist BDS (to borrow a phrase from Peter Beinart) and the general BDS movement, whose demand of a full right of return and ambiguity on what solution they are seeking threaten Zionism itself.

When the pro-Israel Jewish community established its red lines, support of BDS was the litmus test. The uncertainty around these red lines boiled down to this: Can one support a settlement boycott and still be part of the pro-Israel community?

In America this debate is played out every year in the Israel Parade in New York, when the Jewish Community Relations Council deals with the pro-Israel right’s attempts to ban the pro-Israel left from marching. The right claims that the left’s support for a boycott of the settlements means it should not be allowed to take part.

This month, Israel’s High Court of Justice upheld the “Anti-Boycott Law” and codified that BDS is an all-or-nothing enterprise. Israel’s finance minister now has the ability to punish entities that call for a boycott of the settlements. In addition, individuals can be liable for damages caused by their call for boycott, be that of settlements or Israel “proper.”

In practice, this means that if you have some 50,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter and you write a status that says that you encourage your friends not to buy wine produced in the settlements, you could be liable for damages that the vineyard could bring against you, if they can show they lost a sale.

The more effective your call is, the more liable you could be.

It’s not clear how much this will affect foreign nationals at this point, but the court decision has legislated an end to the debate within the pro-Israel community. BDS is now an all-or-nothing enterprise, an approach that maintains that there is no difference between the West Bank settlement of Mevo Dotan and Tel Aviv. This is the argument that settler groups have always maintained. Those in the BDS community who also argue that the Green Line is a false distinction join them.

The new all-or-nothing approach is further strengthened by pending Congressional legislation that also links boycott of Israeli settlements to the general BDS movement. The amendment to the customs act would punish corporations and trade partners who support a boycott of Israel or “any of its territories.”

The result of the High Court decision is that one can call for a boycott of a business for unfair labor practices, environmental issues, gender or social statements by business owners or a whole other host of reasons. But calling for a boycott based on the location of the business could cause an NGO to lose its non-profit status.

The High Court’s ruling means that non-profits and individuals no longer have the freedom to express their views on this existential issue for Israel without significant legal and financial ramifications.

It will be interesting to see if prominent left-wing Diaspora Jews, like Peter Beinart and others could be ordered to appear before an Israeli court to pay damages for their activism.

What is for sure, is that the application of this law will further tear apart the pro-Israel community and force people into polemical positions; Israel right or wrong, or support real pressure to get Israel to change course. The ongoing debate within the Diaspora of how one can express their disagreement with Israeli settlement policy has just been severely restricted.

Much like the results of the Israeli election, these legislative moves in Jerusalem, and potentially in Washington, help destroy a complex relationship between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish state by forcing people into abject support or rejection of Israel. With a new narrow right-wing government on the horizon in Israel, this will continue to erode U.S. bipartisan support and damage Israel’s most strategic asset.

Never trust the exit polls – Israeli Election 2015

Now with final results

Likud 30

Zionist Union 24

The Joint List 13

Yesh Atid 11

Kulanu 10

Bayit Yehudi 8

Shas 7

UJT 6

Yisrael Beytanu 6

Meretz 5

So what is the story of this election?

If we split the parties into the right, left, center, ultra orthodox and arab + Hadash parties we can see who took from who in this election.

Right – (Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytanu) 44 (+1) – The right managed to pick up a seat on this election.

Left – (Zionist Union, Meretz) – 29 (+8) – looking at the results it might surprise people that the left got 7 more seats. 6 of these are because Livni moved from the center directly into the left camp, but the left also managed to win an additional mandate.

Ultra Orthodox – (Shas, UJT) 13 (-5) – With Yachad still under the threshold (and they may pass it as the solider votes are counted) you can see the ultra orthodox losing almost a 3rd of their strength due to the wasted votes and infighting by Deri and Yishai

Center – (Yesh Atid, Kulanu) 21 (-6) – the six went to the left with Livni joining the Zionist Camp. The center actually held with Kulanu taking Yesh Atid and Kadmia’s votes

The Joint List – 13 (+2) – the joining of the parties and the GOTV campaign led to arab turn out of 67% (up from 54% in 2013) this led to more votes and mandates.

Looking at the bloc votes what we can see is that the religious right bloc actually went down by 4 seats from 2013. Bibi left the Ultra Orthodox out last time (he was forced to by the Bennett Lapid union) so his traditional right-religous bloc of 61 was not the foundation of the coalition. This time the right-religious bloc is not a majority, its only 57 – therefore the need to get Kulanu to join from the center to put him over the top.

Kahlon will do what ever he will, though I find it nearly impossible that he won’t recommend Bibi given his 6 seat win over Hertzog.

So what was the story of this election, we saw a shrinkage of the religious right bloc but a domination by Netanyahu over the bloc. In the last days of the election he moved the Likud to the right and in doing so took votes from within the bloc on solidified his position as the undisputed leader of the right and returned Likud back to a major power without the need of a unity list.

On the left – Livni crossing from the center to the left has the same effect on Hertzog – making him the first Labour leader in years to get more then 20 mandates. The left did grow by a seat, by the 4.1% boost in turn out clearly did not only go to the Zionist Camp. The left did grow by 2 (excluding Livni) so there were some votes that came into bloc that it had not captured before.

The Left Arab bloc in 2015 is 42 (+10) a ten seat gain. Now this is not the same bloc as the religious right as the current Zionist Left and Joint list have not worked a way to work better together. However if the left is ever to hold a stable coalition, they are going to need to find a way to work together.

With 2015 – I find it very hard to believe that anyone but Bibi will be PM. Like everyone else I think that Kahlon will join the religious right coalition and Bibi will have a government of 67 (Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytanu, Shas, UJT, Kulanu). He will want others to join so that it is not so ideologically right (given how the outside world will see it) but I predict he will fail to attract anyone else to it.

Bibi will have a much stronger government then the one he formed in 2013 – and given his abandonment of the 2 state solution and the aggressive stance he took on the election day against the arab minority, he is the right prime minster to lead a coalition that wishes to annex land and pass loyalty tests to citizens.

Whether it was the woe is me (Gevalt!) campaign or the scare tactics that Bibi used, he won this election, hands down. What we all need to understand with clear eyes, is that his fear tactics worked. He also demonstrated that the entire right wing bloc is his base vote. That says a lot about where Israeli society is up to. It also demonstrates the depth of the challenge that those of us who wish to see a less fear driven Israel, face.

The absurdity of giving Michael Douglas the ‘Jewish Nobel’ prize

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 1/24/15

The founders of the Genesis Prize, popularly known as the “Jewish Nobel,” hoped to create an award that would inspire the next generation of Jews. A secret group of nominators and a selection committee bestow the great honor – and a $1 million prize – on someone who exemplifies commitment to Jewish values and the State of Israel.

The inaugural award went to Michael Bloomberg. I wrote last year of the absurdity of giving a billionaire $1 million; of old rich white Jewish men giving other old rich white Jewish men $1 million.

Bloomberg re-gifted the money, as anything else would have been slightly odd. Though the former mayor of New York has never inspired me as a Jew, I can appreciate his very many accomplishments. He was a public servant, a globally successful businessman, an incredibly generous philanthropist. It is not unfair to say that Bloomberg is a global phenomenon. Despite the oddness of giving $1 million to a man worth more than $30 billion, I could see some semblance of logic in the choice.

This year the Genesis Prize was awarded to Michael Douglas. Be honest now: How many of you knew the Hollywood actor was Jewish?

Apparently Douglas was bestowed this honor given his commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish state. I know that his son celebrated his bar mitzvah in Israellast year. What other qualifications does he have? Looking at the announcement, his so-called involvement in Jewish cinema (he narrated the voice of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the documentary “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers”) and his humanitarian work (he is a UN Messenger of Peace) seem to have made him the best candidate in entertainment for the award.

His mixed faith background and his desire to give his son a bar mitzvah in Israel also seemed to excite the judges. The committee stated: “The Douglas family’s experience of connecting with its heritage and embracing it on their own terms embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds.” Given the number of mix faith couples in the Diaspora, I don’t find this particularly remarkable, but it appears that the judges do.

No matter which way I look at it, I can’t understand this decision. Michael Douglas has little to no Jewish profile. He is not outspoken about Israel or his faith, and has never sought to be a beacon of Jewish culture.

If the committee was intent on giving $1 million to someone in the entertainment industry, they could have given it to Steven Spielberg, who clearly, through both his films and his philanthropy, has made his heritage part of his success.

The committee could have pivoted from honoring mega-famous men to mega-famous women, giving consideration to Mayim Bailik, a Modern Orthodox neuroscientist and actress who now stars in “The Big Bang Theory.” Bialik has always voiced her commitment to Judaism and expressed support for Israel.

If the aim is to inspire the next generation, the foundation could have picked from a whole wealth of young actors: Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Nick Kroll, Lena Dunham or Scarlett Johansson. All of these actors are more popular with the younger demographic that the prize hopes to inspire.

As long as the prize committee doesn’t have to clearly explain its reasoning, and the nomination process continues to be secret, the Jewish world will continue to be perplexed by this bizarre and frankly hysterical prize.

The prize would be nothing but a joke, if there were not thousands of deserving candidates out there who could do a huge amount of good with the resources and recognition that something like this would bring.

If the officials behind the Genesis Prize ever want the award to live up to its stated intentions, maybe they should look to the MacArthur Genius grants that pluck often obscure experts and give them resources and recognition to continue their groundbreaking work. Until then, at best we will continue to giggle as we learn who won the prize, or at worst, we will just ignore it.

The Case for an International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace

This piece first appeared in The Hill 1/17/15

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” remarked Charles Caleb Colton in 1824.

Congress should pay itself this compliment by establishing an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace that mirrors the bipartisan path blazed in 1986 by then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) and President Ronald Reagan in their successful efforts creating the same institution to address the violence in Northern Ireland.

Fortunately, with the courageous leadership of two members of Congress, the first step has already been taken.

In the 113th Congress, Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced a bipartisan proposal that would, like Congress did for Ireland, establish and contribute to an International Fund “to promote and support contact, cooperation, dialogue, shared community building, peaceful coexistence, joint economic development, and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.”

H.R. 5795, the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Authorization Act of 2014, recognizes that, despite political efforts, official negotiations, and significant investment in a political solution to peace, longstanding peace requires support from citizens.  H.R. 5795 promotes the efforts of those working every day to demystify the “other side” and encourages interactions to break down the metaphorical walls between citizens.

The International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace is a component of, not an alternative to, a negotiated peace between the two sides.  However, the grassroots component of any long-lasting resolution has not received the political or financial support it deserves.

Currently, through the USAID Conflict Management and Mitigation Program, Congress provides $10 million a year for grants to “people-to-people” reconciliation programs in the region.  This figure pales in comparison to the resources dedicated to the “top-down” approach to peace.

The International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Authorization Act of 2014 would increase U.S. investment in these initiatives by providing $50 million in seed money, to be matched (as was done with the International Fund for Ireland) by other participating nations, private sector donations, and philanthropic contributions.

Nearly 30 years ago, President Reagan urged that “our efforts, together with those of the Governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland, will help to promote economic and social development in Ireland, thereby constructing a durable framework that would provide a promise of peace.”

These same words could be spoken today about the conflict in the Middle East.

Now that the 114th Congress has convened, it should quickly imitate the work done by its legislative counterparts nearly 30 years earlier.  The lessons learned in Northern Ireland should guide our actions in the Middle East.  The proposal from Crowley and Fortenberry should be reintroduced, and the legislation should move quickly through the U.S. Congress.

President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill would be flattered to see the legislature replicating their bipartisan success.