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.

From the Dreyfus Affair to Hyper Casher – France has come full circle

A version of this appeared in Ha’aretz 1/15/15

Some 120 years after the Dreyfus affair, French Prime Minster Manuel Valls is putting the very fate of the French Republic in the hands of Jews and their willingness to stay in France. Amid the tragedy and political posturing from Israeli politicians, it seems that France has come full circle from an event that sparked modern Zionism.

In 1894, the promise of emancipation as the answer to the Jewish Question was proven false as Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason on the basis of trumped up charges. The whole affair led Herzl to the conclusion that assimilation into Europe would not solve anti-Semitism and inspired him to write Der Judenstaat, which became the seminal text of modern political Zionism.

Flash forward to today, the prime minister of France is now putting the fate of the republic on the courage of Jews to stay the course within French society. Acknowledging this transition is essential to understanding why the Israeli call for French aliyah was so anachronistic to the new anti-Semitism that the Jews of France, and of Europe in general, are now confronting.

The old anti-Semitism that led up to the destruction of a third of all global Jewry was based on the rejection of the concept of the European Jew. Jews were never accepted as equal citizens, be they German Jews, Austrian Jews, Polish Jews or French Jews. When the fascists rose to power, they picked on the eternal otherness of the Jew to demonstrate that these were a people apart, different and despised. The alienation and dehumanization of the Jew was a direct rejection of the Jewish place in the nation state.

Following the warning signs of the 1900s up until the Holocaust itself, it became evident that having one’s own nation state was the only solution to the racism and hatred that had led to genocide of mindboggling proportions.

The recent and sadly frequent deadly attacks on the Jews of France have not been because they are French Jews. The jihadists who killed the school children in Toulouse or the hostages in the kosher supermarket in Paris did not target them to make a point about how the republic should be Jew-free. They were targeted as they were Jews, Jews who happened to be in France.

The new anti-Semitism has turned every Star of David into a bull’s-eye for racists who have problems with what is happening in Israel, or so many of the perpetrators of these attacks have claimed. The Jews murdered in Toulouse and in the kosher supermarket were not the main targets of the overall attacks in either case. Their deaths did not start the rampages but they were the last targets in both.

When it came to Toulouse, as wells as the anti-Semitic remarks by French comic Dieudonne, some commentators have attempted to airbrush the anti-Semitism. They claimed that the targeting of Jews equaled the targeting of the establishment. Such claims rob the victims of these hate crimes of their very identity.

What these commentators get wrong is that Jews are still being targeted because they are Jews. What has changed is that they are not being targeted as French Jews or Flemish Jews, but Jews who reside there. It is no surprise that whether in Mumbai, Brussels or France, it is the symbols of Jewish communal life that have been targeted. It is not because attackers are saying that Jews in India or France have no place, but that Jews are targets the world over as they are Jews who are the subject of the worst of the conspiracy theories in the Islamist fantasies. It is not a local hate, but a global one.

Unlike the anti-Semitism of old, the solution is not an abandonment of one’s home. The state is not rejecting Jews; in fact, it is trying to protect them, at least in the case of France. The fact that thousands of police are deployed to protect Jewish schools doesn’t detract from the terrifying reality in the aftermath of the attacks. There are deep systemic problems that need both physical and educational solutions if multiculturalism and pluralism are to win out. But we should not kid ourselves that the violence against Jews today is the same as it was in the 1930s.

This new reality explains why Israeli politicians’ call for French aliyah is so hurtful to France and its Jews. The correct response to the attacks came from President Reuven Rivlin, who should have been the dignitary representing Israel at the Paris unity march instead of politicians jockeying for votes. Rivlin stated that aliyah should be “born out of a positive Jewish identity, out of Zionism, and not because of anti-Semitism.”

The new anti-Semitism that European Jews are experts on need new responses from Israel rather than the offensive knee-jerk denial of the Diaspora.

Foreign funding for Israeli politicians undermines Diaspora ties

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 12/31/14

The role of Jews from around the world in Israeli politics has been the third rail of Israel-Diaspora relations. Can we be critical? Should we be supportive? Do we get a say on peace and security? Do we get a say on immigration? How about the role of the non-Orthodox?

Yet, all of these careful discussions, which have been calibrated over years of tinkering, are thrown out the window during election season. It is now that the niceties of this conversation are thrown aside and the real dynamic between Israel and the Diaspora is laid bare.

For the majority in the Diaspora, an Israeli election is a confusing affair, a circus of different political parties flashing across the headlines. Israeli journalists, think tankers and communal professionals will come to synagogues and community centers and attempt to explain what the main issues are, and who might come out on top. Election season is the busy season for Israel educators across the world.

For the global Jewish donor community, however, the Israeli election season is a chance to boost favorite candidates.

Likud’s primaries, which take place on Wednesday, consist of two separate elections: One to pick the party’s leader, and another to determine its Knesset slate. This year, ahead of these ballots, Likud politicians have received donations from across the world. As of last week, Benjamin Netanyahu raised 539,000 shekels ($137,000) from 14 U.S. donors and one from Spain. Danny Danon, who is challenging Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud, raised 261,000 shekels ($66,800) from 11 donors, 10 of which are in the U.S. Zeev Elkin, who is vying for a preferential position on the party’s slate, was backed by donors from U.S., Russia, Switzerland and Britain.

Likud members are not the only ones receiving funding from abroad. Labor MK Nachman Shai reportedly received 79,352 shekels ($20,300) from donors in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Israel. MK Ayelet Shaked from Habayit Hayehudi received 51,976 shekels ($13,300) from donors from the U.S. and Israel.

Nearly every democratic system struggles to deal with the issue of money in politics, the U.S. being a prime example. Yet, the extent to which it is acceptable, both legally and publicly, for Israeli political candidates to receive direct funding from foreign interests is astonishing.

Israeli politicians should be joining the time-honored global political tradition of whispering political promises into the ears of their own tycoons, not foreign nationals; at least the tycoons need to obey the laws of those they are seeking to put in power.

This bizarre allowance, both legally and in the eyes of the public, shows the real nature of the Israel-Diaspora relationship: Rich boosters from abroad are allowed to have undue influence in the political process of a country they care enough about to try and buy off, but not move to.

The political donor dynamic undermines every argument of those Israelis, on the left and the right, who say that Jews from abroad should not have a say in Israeli politics. Those who have always maintained that Jews abroad should serve as Israel’s cheering section, that they should sit quietly if they disagree with Jerusalem’s policies, are hypocritical when they stand by and allow foreign funding for Israeli political careers.

It makes a mockery of the efforts that Jewish foundations have made, via seminars and dialogues, to make Knesset members understand the complexities of life in the Diaspora.

As long as it is a publicly accepted, legal norm for Jews from around the world to donate to political candidates in Israel, whether in the primary or general elections, the unhealthy dynamic between Israel and the Diaspora will continue unabated.

Naftali Bennett’s annexation plan: A report card

This piece appeared on +972 Mag on 12.25.14

When Naftali Bennett first entered the coalition, I wrote of his plan to create a de facto one-state solution. Now that the current government is in its final days, it is worth taking stock of his progress and looking at what his plans are for round two.

Strengthening the belief in the supremacy of claims to the Jewish homeland and the justness of measures to maintain control of it.

The last straw of this current government was the Jewish Nation-State Bill. As he stated in his much-watched performance at the Brookings Institute, Bennett’s next target is the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the constitutional basis in Israel for civil and human rights. He believes the “balance” was tipped by the Supreme Court and that Israel has become too democratic and not Jewish enough.

It is therefore no surprise that Bennett’s Jewish Home party has indicated it will demand the Justice Ministry in the next government.

Uniting the nation and its leadership

Though it was clear that Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel was Housing Minister only for the West Bank settlements, Bennett’s personal popularity has only grown. His latest campaign video shows him trying to break out of the ‘settlement party’ box.

Military strength and controlling of the territory through the security establishment.

Bennett scored big political points during the last war in Gaza by arguing in favor of a ground invasion to shut down the tunnels early on in the operation. The fact that he was ahead of the curve has been important for his profile. Based on this performance (and his previous military service), he now regularly dismisses security officials who disagree with him.

The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools.

Bennett has maintained that there is no partner in the PA, pointing to incitement. He continues to do so at every available opportunity.

Making clear to the international community that a second state west of the Jordan River is not viable.

Many folks were surprised by the strength of Bennett’s performance during the Saban Conference in Washington earlier this month. Bennett’s main calling card is that he fully rejects the two-state solution and wants to shift the conversation in a different direction. The cornerstone of his plan is the annexation of Area C and some sort of self-rule in Areas A and B. Gaza isn’t worthy of inclusion in his plan. The more he can get people to agree that the two-state solution is dead, the more he can claim that he is the only person with a path forward.

Advancing the immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel.

Bennett rather enjoyed his position as Minister for Diaspora Affairs. He was Chairman of Birthright and champion of the World Jewry Joint Initiative, a program designed to scale up the concept of Birthright and have Israeli tax-payers responsible for ensuring a strong Jewish identity within the diaspora. As I’ve written previously, the idea of having struggling middle-class Israelis subsidize the humongous costs of Jewish day school education in the States is a losing concept. More importantly, being a third-party funder will give the Diaspora Minster a say over Jewish educational content in the U.S. and will give Bennett a whole new platform — targeting a new generation — to continue advocating and advancing his one-state vision.

One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population.

As Labor MK and Knesset Finance Committee member Stav Shaffir consistently showed, under Bennett’s priorities, the Finance Committee would give larger and more subsidies to West Bank settlements than to the socioeconomically weak towns and cities in the south of Israel. Between the Housing Ministry and the Knesset Finance Committee chairmanship, Bennett’s party has ensured that cash continues to flow across the Green Line in disproportionately larger and larger sums in order to make this his vision a reality.

The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current West Bank settlements.

Though there was no formal settlement building freeze during this government, there were constant rumblings about an informal freeze outside the major settlement blocs. Bennett hopes to continue advancing his one-state vision through his annexation of Area C, which he will be in a greater position to do if he takes becomes Israel’s next Defense Minister.

Palestinian construction workers in an Israeli settlement (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Executing a construction, development and economic plan for the million Jewish Israeli residents of the West Bank.

The Defense Minister is the de-facto sovereign of the West Bank. Not due to any lack of effort, many of Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s initiatives never got approval from the Defense Minister under this government. It is no wonder that one of Bennett’s main anticipated demands from Netanyahu in the next coalition is being given the reigns to the Defense Ministry.

Over all, Bennett has done remarkably well. What has stood in his way has been the Supreme Court and his inability to get final approval for settlement projects in the West Bank. It is little wonder that he wants to push through the Jewish Nation-State bill, while insisting on the Justice and Defense portfolios as his price for ensuring Bibi’s return to Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

Whether or not Bibi gives him everything he wants, Bennett is riding high.

What of the anyone but Bibi coalition (AOBB)?

For the math to work for AOBB, either the ultra-Orthodox need to sit with Lapid (not a chance in hell) or Meretz needs to sit with Avigdor Liberman. With the role of the Arab parties still unknown (as they struggle with the Left to work out how, if at all, they should work together) they have been left on the outside, at best in a supporting role.

Thus the savior of the two-state camp (Avigdor Liberman) is a man who wants to transfer Arab citizens out of Israel, the implementation of which would mark the formal departure of the concept of coexistence from the two-state paradigm.

If Bennett has accomplished anything it is this: he has forced the two-state camp to rely on a party whose main plank is the transfer and disenfranchisement of Arab citizens of Israel.

Until the Left finds a way to include the Arab parties in their potential coalition, the result will be depressing and the coalition-building formula will mean that the two-state solution may no longer be worth the price.

Orthodox Jews have failed in our duty to welcome converts

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 10/30/14

When I was a teenager, I had a family-friend who was going through an Orthodox conversation. Born into a Liberal Jewish family, he wished to be Orthodox and upon finding out that his mother had converted under non-Orthodox auspices he went to the Beth Din (rabbinical court) and applied for an Orthodox conversation.

About seven years later, after much humiliation and delay, my friend completed the process.

Hearing stories of his experiences during the conversion process scarred me. Born to a religious family, I was brought up being told you should not oppress the stranger (Exodus 23:9) and that you were actually commanded to love the stranger. (Deut 10:19). The rabbis’ interpreted the word stranger, “ger,” to mean convert. While I understand the rabbinical courts need to be sure that conversation are real, my friends’ experiences seemed to go well above and beyond that threshold.

One example is a painful story my friend once recounted to me: He was made to wait for months on end for a particular examination, only to be invited in before one of the key Jewish holidays. The Beth Din asked him hundreds of questions about the customs and traditions of the upcoming holiday, all of which he answered correctly. Toward the end, they asked him about a story that is told about one of the traditions.

The story is normally told to children in Hebrew school before their bar and bat mitzvahs. My friend, having never attended Hebrew school, did not know the story. The Beth Din humiliated him, saying any child would know this story, and dismissed him without telling him when he would next be called back in. Though he answered all the substantive questions correctly, he was left in this liminal state unsure and unaware of where he was up to in this seven-year process.

One thing that I never knew growing up was that converts were not being welcomed into the Jewish community. When joining any school, shul or camp, their papers are demanded, they are treated with suspicion and very much are not being loved, as the Torah commands.

I thought of my friend when I heard the news of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest. Freundel had been one of the main rabbis in America to conduct Orthodox conversations. The secret filming of people in the mikveh, which Freundel has been accused of doing, makes every convert a victim of abuse.

When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said it might retroactively annul the conversions carried out by Freundel, I was appalled. Doing so would have constituted a failure of spectacular proportions for the global Jewish community. What if these converts were victims of the rabbi’s alleged voyeurism? Would we be willing to let them get punished for their abuser’s abuse?

Fortunately, after furious lobbying by many groups, including Itim, the Rabbinate came to its senses and stated that the converts had nothing to fear, and that it would not reevaluate their conversions.

While many in the Orthodox community can justify why a long and arduous conversion process is necessary, the fact that many converts can be held hostage to the good graces of the rabbis who oversee their conversion is a scandal. There is nothing further from the Torah’s commandments to love the convert than to hold their Jewish identity hostage to the good behavior of those they have no control over.

I can’t imagine how distressing it must have been for Freundel’s converts, who have been failed on so many levels by a community they are desperate to belong to. One such convert is Bethany Mandel, who says was converted by Freundel. She has taken this opportunity to advocate a converts’ bill of rights.

Among the rights she includes in her proposal are providing converts with a timetable that indicates on what date they should expect to complete their conversion, an ombudsman, a welcoming committee, and a guarantee that once converted, converts’ Jewishness can’t come into question.

Neglecting to give these rights to converts already shows we have failed in our duty. Jewish tradition doest not make clear what is needed for conversion. The seminal story is that of Ruth, who merely made some declarations and followed her Jewish mother-in-law into poverty. Without strict legislation to guide us, we have inflicted angst and pain on those seeking to be part of us.

We need to implement the acts listed in Mandel’s bill of rights in order to get reach a place where we can love all those who join us. We must demand change and ensure that the converts among us are treated, at the very least, equally to any of us who were lucky enough to be born Jewish.