Israel should not pay for American Jewish College Students

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 08/27/16

According to the latest data from the OECD, Israel gives 0.07 percent of its gross national income away in international aid. This is just under $200 million dollars. Israel ranks just above Russia (at 0.06%) and Thailand (0.02%) at third from bottom. In case you were wondering, the Slovak Republic is just above at 0.1%.

With so little taxpayer money going overseas to support needy causes, it is interesting to note that earlier this month, the government unveiled the recipients of what represents 11% of its total largesse – North American Jewish college students. $22m. will be given to Hillel International, Chabad and Olami to strengthen Jewish identity and deepen Jewish engagement on campus.

Mosaic United is the final incarnation of the “Government of Israel World Jewry Initiative” that became the “Israel-Diaspora Initiative,” three years in the making.

Is it that having the support of the government of Israel will help in campus outreach from a strategic level? If anything the reverse is true; any student will tell you that getting Israeli government support for your activities makes you a target for accusations of acting as a foreign government agent. It’s the same accusation that the government of Israel has made of the NGO community in Israel, namely that by receiving foreign government donations the non-profits are foreign agents.

If it’s not a funding gap and there is no strategic value to having the government of Israel stamp on your program, is it that the government does not trust that the US Jewish community is capable of providing the correct Jewish content to their community?

Israel as a country, and certainly as a coalition government has enough of its own problems in working out what being Jewish means to preach it to its biggest Diaspora. The egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, usage of mikvaot for non-orthodox streams of Judaism, and the issue of conversion are at the forefront of a never-ending laundry list of issues that create tension between the different segments of Jewish practice.

Looking at who the grantees are of this first round of funding, the concern of the Reform and Conservative community in the US is that Israel is trying to create a more Orthodox America. Chabad and Olami are Orthodox outreach movements. It is very easy to paint Mosaic United as Israel’s way to create a more Orthodox Jewish Diaspora who, on average, are more likely to support the policies of the current government of Israel.

Given the tensions that will exist in every Knesset about the issues of Judaism, the government is perhaps the least capable entity to fund a real conversation about Jewish identity today.

If one of the dozen Israeli billionaires or thousand or so millionaires want to fund alongside the North American Jewish philanthropic community programs for American 13-35-year-olds, that would be wonderful.

Until then, Israeli taxpayers’ international aid should support the poor, needy and sick, doubling down on the remarkable programs that help victims of the Syrian civil war, support victims of natural disasters and gift Israeli water technology to help deal with climate change around the world.

MJC Conference

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz Aug 22nd 2016

I first met Ilja Sichrovsky, an Austrian Jew, at an AJC conference in 2009 as he was starting the first Muslim Jewish Conference. He had a vision of bringing young Jews and Muslims, specifically those younger than 35, from around the world together for their own conference. The format would be committees producing their own domestic projects, eventually leading to a network of Muslims and Jews spanning the globe.

I thought Ilja was well intentioned but nuts, but I owed it to him as a friend to come, so it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to speak at the 7th annual MJC, held in Berlin this past week.

This year’s conference brought together more than one hundred participants from 33 countries. America, Israel and Pakistan seemed to have the most representatives, with a good sprinkling of Jews and Muslims from Europe, the Balkans and Turkey. The conference appeared to be evenly split between gender and religious lines, with a dozen of so participants wearing headscarves or kippot.

The week-long conference mainly focused on dividing participants into committees, where the conference split into seven working grounds with the hope of getting a deep understanding on big issues of identity, culture and rights. The conference’s final product was a projects committee that would come up with practical initiatives to be deployed in one’s home community, ranging from educational curriculums for schools to action think tanks aimed at dealing with common social issues in their respective local communities.

The main criticisms of gatherings like this are that they reach those who are already primed to meet, they avoid difficult issues and they don’t have a sustainable mechanism to ensure the conversation continues after the event. The MJC, however, did bring together Israelis and Pakistanis who otherwise could never meet and there was indeed some diversity in the room. The conference did try to offer ways for the members to get to grips with Israel and Palestine and speak about the real fear of the other in a group sense. Finally, on the core issue of being more then a conference, the vision of the MJC is to be a Muslim-Jewish global agency, establishing projects and programs across a world dealing with mass migration.

Having been around the block at different peace/cross cultural/interreligious conferences, the Muslim Jewish Conference has done one thing very well: It has managed to get a committed group of young activists from a range of countries that otherwise would never have come together to speak about important topics. I have been to dozens of conferences where I am the youngest person by a decade. MJC has cracked the code at getting younger community leaders engaged and others should look to them as an example for recruitment.

There is something cosmically discombobulating about doing a Muslim-Jewish conference in Berlin. I get a queasy feeling when I go to the German capital. I was there last year on a work trip and had an emotional response that has no rational explanation. A feeling of impending doom mixed with anger. I asked a friend who, like me, is a grandchild of survivors and they had also found it very hard to enjoy the city.

The executioner of Jewish Europe, the home of an Israeli Diaspora and a growing Turkish-Muslim population, Germany has now hosted a gathering of over a hundred passionate Muslims and Jews who want to help their civilizations come to terms with one another.

Like any civic initiative, the MJC alone cannot alone fix the stereotypes in their own countries of the other, but they are the pioneers in draining the swamps of hate that fuel the conspiracies and mistrust that make true Muslim-Jewish relationships all but impossible.

 

While Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Push Diaspora Jews Away, Israel’s Arab Citizens Bring Them Back

First published in Ha’aretz July 14th 2016

The relationship between Israel and the majority of the American Jewish Diaspora hit a new low this past week. In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the heads of the American Conservative and Reform movements warned of the potential for bloodshed between their members and the ultra-Orthodox given the incitement around the planned egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Despite Netanyahu’s image as a political magician domestically, he has not been able to deliver the compromise that he repeatedly promised to Diaspora Jewry regarding their rights to pray in a fashion they see fit.

This crisis is not limited to U.S. Conservative and Reform Jews. The issue lends to continued angst for modern Orthodox Jews in America, as the Israeli rabbinical courts have refused to recognize the conversions performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a highly regarded Orthodox rabbi in New York.

More so than the inability to move forward on the peace process, the real strategic threat to Israel-Diaspora Jewry relations comes from the Ultra-Orthodox’s disrespect, denigration and outright rejection of the majority of American Jewry’s practices. For all the time, attention and money spent on the strategic threat of BDS, Israel risks losing mainstream Federation donors and synagogues if this continues.

The Ultra-Orthodox political parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism are the glue that sticks the religious right coalition together. They care about few things: money for their constituents, a protection of their way or life — away from the demands of a secular state — and the supremacy of their religious practice when it comes to matters of religious law.

For the ultra-Orthodox, there is no wiggle room on these issues. There is no compromise position. These are issues that, if push came to shove, would force the coalition to collapse. Bibi knows this and thus is powerless to fulfill his promises to the Jewish Diaspora who are treated like second-class Jews in the Jewish state.

As the politically powerful Ultra-Orthodox are pushing Diaspora Jewry further away from Israel, it is Israel’s most politically weak group, the Arab citizens of Israel, that is finding a way to bring them back in.

According to the Pew polling done in 2013, over 60% of American Jews think that coexistence and peace is possible. When asked about the greatest problem facing the Jewish state, the second highest response was “Peace and Coexistence.”

Given their traditional pro-Israel stance and suspicions of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace, the Jewish community, both as individuals and institutions, is not turning outward to the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Federation dollars and attention, however, are being paid toward the internal issues of the status of Israel’s Arab minority.

This year marks the 10th year of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of Jewish Organizations learning and raising awareness about Israel’s Arab citizens. The coalition is one of the few places where the New Israel Fund, the Council of Jewish Presidents, ADL and the Federation movement sit together.

During my travels as part as my role at the Alliance for Middle East Peace, Federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils are constantly looking for “shared society” programming and ideas that they can get behind.

The Jews who are being alienated by the ultra-Orthodox, the Reform and the Conservative, are the individuals who are the most identified by polls as having liberal and Democratic politics. The Conservative and Reform movements see their heroes as Rabbi Stephen Wise, Justice Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, scions of the formulation of liberal values that form the core of much of their political and moral identity. The call for equality for all of Israel’s citizens in matters of public funding, legal treatment and place in society reflects Rabbi Heschel’s leadership in the civil rights movement that still inspires American Jews today.

While the current Israeli government coalition is pushing the majority of American Diaspora Jews away, the desire to help build an Israel that reflects the values of a shared society is pulling Diaspora Jews back in.

This inverse power dynamic is in its early stages, but it will be interesting to see how it adapts as the push from the ultra-Orthodox worsens.

The situation on the ground definitely needs more support. Given the heightened tensions this year, there has been a push to remove Arab citizens from the public space and even a case where passengers demanded an Israeli Arab removed from an airplanes. Bolstering support for Israel’s minority could help begin to deal with the deep societal gaps that enable the Ultra-Orthodox to be the only kingmakers in the coalition.

The unfolding crisis of Reform and Conservative rights has led to the need of a new intellectual framework concerning Jewish connection to Israel. The call to create a shared society offers a unique opportunity for connecting the Reform and Conservative moment to their values of social justice, in conjunction with their love of Israel as well.

 

Labour Party’s anti-Semitism Struggle: Recognizing Jews Are a People, Not Just a Religion

First Published in Ha’aretz 5/9/16

Picked up in Washington Post The Volokh Conspiracy

I left the U.K. Labour Party when I received my Green Card. I felt it was odd to continue to be part of a British political party when I had officially moved overseas for good. Yet, watching the party miserably fail to deal with anti-Semitism over the past ten days, and Ken Livingstone’s unending obsession with Hitler and the Jews, took me back to my days on the National Executive Committee of the National Union of Students, an organization that has been a feeder to the front lines of left-wing national politics in Britain for decades.

In 2008, I was elected as one of the 27 national executive members of the NUS. As Sam Lebens, a friend and mentor who served there two years before me, wrote in the Forward, the NUS was often a tense place for Jewish students, especially when they tried to get the majority to accept that anti-Semitism should be taken seriously.

During my own year on the NEC the first Gaza war, Operation Cast Lead, took place.We debated motions about whether NUS would march with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or condemn the usage of anti-Semitic imagery at the rallies. At another point during that year, I had to confront the hard left on the National Executive Committee about a leaflet that was being handed out that claimed that the Holocaust killed thousands of trade unionists, disabled people, gays and communists. While these groups were indeed victims, the pamphlet omitted one key group: Jews. Here we had dedicated anti-racists educating about the Holocaust while airbrushing out its Jewish victims.

In-between votes on theses issues, I would engage those who were part of the hard left — those who saw themselves as belonging to the same leftist faction as Ken Livingstone — on how they could possibly justify their anti-racist credentials when they were doing things that were so offensive to the Jewish community.

It all came down to their inability to understand why Jews were anything more than a religious group.

They felt that assigning Jews a peoplehood status would be to agree with the eugenics of the Nazis that Jews were “different” or “other;” that only the far-right fascists could see Jews in this way, rather than as just normal white folk. By reducing the Jewish experience to a religious dogma, the hard-left concurred, they were doing Jews a favor.

Jews did not have a place in the traditional liberation campaigns of the NUS. Being Jewish was not the same as being black, LGBTQ, female or disabled. Jews were hated by fascists; the hard left just wanted them to assimilate. According to the hard left in the NUS, being particularist about your Jewish ethnic background was to buy into a racism that was forced upon you.

The hard left was simply incapable of learning the lessons of why Jews felt that the enlightenment did not go their way (read: the Dreyfus affair) and insisted on “flattening” what it means to be a Jew into a solely religious experience.

The utter refusal of the hard left in Britain to accept that anti-Semitism can morph from the traditional eugenics into parts of modern-day anti-Zionist discourse stems from its rejection of Jews as a people. It is an unfortunate fact that Judaism comes from a time before census surveys began separating the “religion” box from the “ethnicity” box. In their worldview, Jewish peoplehood is a categorical error.

The core problem will not be solved until the hard left in Britain recognizes that the Jewish people are more than just a religious community. But the hard left is finding it hard to see that modern anti-Semitism exists beyond the far right, and in fact extends into its own territory.

Therefore, their obsession with Israel — and their inability to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism — is based in their rejection of the concept of the Jewish people. The nation state was never a construct that the hard left liked in the first place. When coupled with a people that the hard left denies exists outside a religious context, Zionism becomes for them the embodiment of everything they oppose. The Jewish state reminds them that a Utopian view where a leftist emancipation will heal all wounds fails the test of history, and that demography and territory is something that oppressed people do aspire to.

The personalities within Britain’s Labour Party who are being accused of having an anti-Semitism problem are of the same political bent as the hard left that I came into contact with during my time on the NEC of the NUS. It’s therefore clear that Labour’s anti-Semitism problem won’t go away until the hard-left elements within the party accept that Jews are more than a religious group. It won’t matter how many people are suspended from the party if its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, can’t bring himself to say “anti-Semitism” without qualifying it alongside other forms of racism.

Without recognizing the particular challenge of modern anti-Semitism, the new inquiry into anti-Semitism that the Labour Party has launched will — I fear — achieve nothing.