We will never find our synthesis

Times of Israel 12/9/16

Of all the wrap-ups of the 2016 US Presidential election, Prof. Yehuda Mirsky’s essay on ‘the new Jewish Question’ has had the most profound impact on me. In a sweeping historical overview, Professor Mirsky comments how the new global populist waves bring Jews back into the passion plays of the right and the left. The tension between Jews as a particularist tribe and Judaism as a universalist creed gives both liberal democrats and ethnic populists something to admire and something to attack.

Mirsky’s diagnosis leaves no instruction other then to safeguard the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of worship and utilize them to help create the new intellectual underpinnings for global politics.

Reading through his essay, I was struck by the systemic view with which he perceives the Jewish people. Here is a tribe, a particular people with familiar links- the Jews. The Jews, however have a universalist mission, Judaism. Jewish values are not distinct to Jews, it is in fact the Jewish mission to bring our values to the world. What we are is a particular delivery system for a universalist message.

That contradiction is what is motivating so much of the Jewish communal angst on so many different levels. For the majority of American Jewry, the liberal Jews who form a key part of the Democratic party, Tikkun Olam is the guiding philosophy. Social justice, repairing the world, the expression of Jewish values writ large, is what we are about. What happens in the shul is less important than the work we do outside of it. It is no surprise that Zionism, the ultimate expression of the Jewish people as a tribe, is causing such heart ache with liberal Jewish America, that is struggling to come to terms with the particularism that liberal nationalism demands.

While the world outside the synagogue walls motivates the majority of US Jews, to the minority that voted for the Republicans it was overwhelmingly the world inside the Shul that mattered. The strong bonds of community, faith and tribe, the particularism of Jews and the needs of Jews as a people link this community far closer to the mindset of the Jews of Israel, where the particularist part of their identity shares more in common with the global populist wave.

While the polices of the government of Israel and the US might make up the foreground of the rifts within the global Jewish community, the background is the tectonic shifts and tensions between our universalist and particularist identities. The unending controversy of ‘who is a Jew’ alongside practice of reform Judaism within the State of Israel is part of the challenging of the paricularist shibboliths that are the bedrock of the tribal leaders of Israeli Jewry.

Reflecting on Mirsky’s writing, I was struck how the oscillation he described resembles a similar struggle that the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) described in his seminal book, ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’. The Rav describes man as both majestic and covenantal. Majestic man is a master of the universe, imposing his knowledge, culture and technology on the world. Covenantal man feels alienation and seeks companionship to relieve him of the existential alienation of creation. The Rav famously describes how we oscillate between these two halves, both being an essential part of the human condition, but that we should not expect to find a synthesis between these two poles.

Looking at Mirsky’s essay I can see how our universalist mission can run alongside the majestic man of faith, global in scope self assured in its value to all. It is also easy to see how our particular instincts fall into the covenantal man, that the world is lonely, and that we seek comfort with others and with G-d as we go about our mission.

For the Rav. the Jews are a covenantal community that tries to bridge both parts of the human condition in their day in and day out activities. Neither aspect of the man of faith is superior. In Mirsky’s categorization, neither our universal values of Judaism nor our particular tribe as Jews takes precedence. Our job is to struggle between them.

In an uncertain world, one in which the political right and left will have their fetishes around Jews, our task is to carefully traverse the complexities of universal values as a particular people. If we manage to do this, without tearing ourselves to pieces, we will continue to be a light onto the nations as the world struggles to find its way forward.

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Poll Shows Israelis Don’t Resent the Diaspora as Much as We Thought

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 

With 5,601 interviewees, and a report of more than 200 pages, the Pew Research Center survey on Israel that was released last week is a data mine of facts, tidbits and, in many cases, depressing realities. The internet has been awash with headlines describing the individual findings of this massive research project that quantifies Israel’s tribal reality into neat numbers.

Yet, buried in the report is a series of findings that can give someone who cares about Israel-Diaspora relations hope. On pages 160 to 166, it states:

– 69 percent of Israeli Jews say that a thriving Diaspora is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people;

– 68 percent of Israeli Jews say they have a lot or some things in common with Diaspora Jews;

– 75 percent of Israeli Jews say they share a common destiny with American Jews; and

– 59 percent of Israeli Jews feel that U.S. Jews have a good influence on Israel.

The data represent a remarkably positive view of the Diaspora among Israeli Jews. In particular, that most Israeli Jews say U.S. Jews have a “good influence” on their country is the capstone for the data that precede it. It is also contextualized by them.

The concept of shlilat ha’galut, negation of the Diaspora, has a long history in Zionist discourse and is one of the fault lines of the global Jewish conversation. A. B. Yehoshua has been the leading public Israeli intellectual in recent years to champion this cause, calling the authenticity of being a Jew in the Diaspora into question. With more than two thirds of Israeli Jews deeming a thriving Diaspora crucial for the survival of the Jewish people, A. B. Yehoshua’s logic is challenged; modern Israeli Jews would repudiate those looking to negate the Diaspora, for they see the fates of both communities as intrinsically linked.

Perhaps even more profound is that this finding challenges something that Matti Golan wrote in his seminal book, “With Friends Like You” (1992, Free Press). Golan describes what Israeli Jews really thought of their cousins in America: that their donations to Israel were immoral – Jews abroad were paying in cash while Israelis paid in blood. The data in the Pew poll suggests that Golan’s assertion is now outdated.

While most Israeli Jews feel they have a lot in common with American Jews, there is at least one area in which they differ: in their perceptions of the greatest challenges facing Israel today. Among Israeli Jews, an almost equal proportion see economic issues and security issues as the biggest long-term problems (39 percent and 38 percent, respectively), whereas among U.S. Jews cited in the same report (page 59), 66 percent see security issues as the biggest problem, with only 1 percent citing economic issues. The gulf between what Jews in each country sees as the most urgent issues facing Israel is unsurprising; domestic economic affairs don’t enter into the U.S. Jewish political discourse. Their worries are shaped by how Israel is portrayed in the media and how Israel treats American Jews.

The survey also shows that Jews in Israel and America share a sense of belonging to the same community. In the 2013 Pew survey of U.S. Jews (page 82), 69 percent said they feel attached to Israel and 87 percent said that caring about Israel is either essential or important to what being Jewish means to them personally. Now, we find that three quarters of Israeli Jews say they share a common destiny with American Jews, and almost two thirds say American Jews have a good influence on Israel. Clearly, these two communities feel deeply connected to one another.

How these communities utilize this connection to influence one another will continue to be a question that drives much of the passionate discourse in the Jewish world. Does the Diaspora have the power to influence Israelis to make compromises? Can Israeli Jews build programs to help U.S. Jewry fight assimilation? It’s unclear.

What is crystal clear, however, is that the two communities want to continue hugging and wrestling with one another. We are not sick of each other yet, and that, in its small way, is a source of hope for the future of the Jewish world.

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.

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.

It’s time to make being Jewish affordable

Haaretz 8/27/13

The Religious Services Ministry has decided to raise the cost of all of its services for the first time since 2003. As of September, marriage, burial, kashrut and ritual immersion will become a lot more expensive.

At a time of belt tightening, price hikes across the board mean that many Israelis who were already not keen on the dominance of religious practice on their rites of passage will be even less pleased.

Meanwhile, as Jews throughout Israel suffer from these price hikes, we Jews in the United States continue facing our own financial problem: education.

In footnote four of his book “Halakhic Man,” Rav Soloveitchik z’l presents a two-page mini-essay on why being religious is hard. Spiritual greatness requires complexity and risks, he writes, not just a desire for solace and happiness. To students, this footnote holds a special meaning, for while the challenges the Rav was referring to were moral and intellectual, for students, they can also be financial.

The prohibitive cost of being religious is not a new concept. Lulavs, tefillin and kosher food are anything but cheap, but yet they are somewhat manageable. The amount of money one needs to allow their child a formal or informal religious education, on the other hand, is unsustainable.

Depending on the city one lives in, Jewish day school can cost between $15,000-$40,000 a year per child. A month at Jewish summer camp can be between $4,000-$6,000 dollars all said and done.

I never knew how blessed I was in the United Kingdom with state-funded faith schools. It was only when I moved to the United States that I learned to appreciate it. The financial commitment of Jewish education here is a crippling cost to both American families and the communities that endow the schools themselves.

The U.S. Jewish community may be the richest Diaspora in the history of the Jewish people, but the high cost of education has created generations of Jews with only a cursory knowledge of their traditions. Jewish education here concentrates on the Orthodox, while the rest of the community does what it can without the state support that so many other Jewish Diasporas rely upon for their educational survival.

Peter Beinart, most famous for his views on Israeli policies in the West Bank, finished his book “The Crisis of Zionism” with a plea for the U.S. Jewish community to reverse its support of school vouchers in order to fix the educational crisis it currently faces. Yet, while the other arguments in Beinart’s book have spawned debates, roundtables and community soul searching, debate on school vouchers has yet to take place.

With the United States’ absolute commitment to a separation between church and state, there are no easy solutions to this problem. Yet, whether it is a reversal of the U.S. Jewish community’s long-held public policy position of embracing school vouchers (seen as mainly a standpoint of the Republican party) or perhaps taking advantage of the growth of online courses, the community needs to stop talking and start acting.

There is literally no greater Jewish value than providing one’s children with a Jewish education, and so our community must stop turning a blind eye to its failure to create an affordable system – be it formal or informal.

As we start to take account of our actions in the countdown to Rosh Hashanah, we also must take into account those whom we are pricing out of our tradition.

Diaspora Jews and placard politics

Ha’aretz 7/28/13 

With the announcement of new Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, I’m bracing myself for the inevitable pro-Israel debate that is about to dominate my inbox, Twitter and Facebook.

One of the saddest things about being a Jew who lives outside of Israel is the ”pro-Israel” debate that seems to consume Diaspora communities. The reduction of the complex relationship that a Jew has with Israel has been morphed into placard politics that ignore everything but the politics of the day. The reductionist nature of this conversation, the tribalism that enables it to consume thousands of communal funds and hundreds of communal hours is ultimately self-destructive.

The Jewish peoples’ relationship with Israel has never been simple. Where Zionism fits into one’s Jewish identity is a complex philosophical and personal journey that often develops throughout one’s life. This, of course, does not preclude one from taking a political position, yet it is all too often the be-all and end-all of many Jews’ relationships to the state.

The self-destructive nature of this issue stems from the shallowness of political support. If the entirety of your relationship with Israel can fit on a placard, you are doing it wrong. This does not preclude one from becoming an anti-Zionist, a post-Zionist, an expansionist-Zionist or a liberal-Zionist. It does mean, however, that one’s journey through Zionism should not be based solely on a boo-hurrah news cycle.

The abandonment of Zionism as a topic within much of the mainstream discourse has seeded our intellectual challenge and heritage for others to define, use and abuse. To be a Jew was always something complex, the modern state of Israel enriches that complexity.

Due to the political nature of the Israel debate, many Jewish communities around the world have been instituting red lines that set the limits of communal discourse. Depending on what you put on your placard, you are either given or denied access to the table.

This approach compounds the issues I am describing rather then helps them. With the exception of inciting violence (which should be banned no matter where it comes from), the communal red lines should not be based on political positions, but on how they were arrived at.

If as a result of a deeply complex Jewish journey and self exploration one has arrived at a position some consider an anathema, they should be invited to discuss that position with those who have traveled the same road but reached a different conclusion. If, however, their position is based on letters to the editor that start with “As a Jew,” then their placard Zionism or anti-Zionism does not merit discussion.

Of course I realize that this test is almost impossible to judge. How do we discern between the genesis of a position being a place of deep thought or a reflex? Is it intellectually arrogant to deny a platform to those without well-thought out political positions?

I do believe this it necessary. The constant politicization of Jewish identity is leading many to ignore and abandon Judaism altogether. We desperately need to ground our conversations in an educational rather than political framework. This does not stop opportunities from being political calls to action, but does mean that groups that solicit Jews primarily as Jews on the basis of a political talking point around Israel need to examine the collateral damage they are doing in their wake.

Misused Diaspora dollars undermine Israel’s democracy

Ha’aretz 6/20/13

Being a member of the Jewish community I have come to expect charitable requests when they come knocking, and, as a member of a global community that highly values charity, I have never minded the dinners, young professional committees and email appeals that come across my desk. It is part of being a member of the Jewish people who lives in the West. My wife and I normally sort through the different groups, picking out whom we want to support each year.

The amount of solicitations that I received dramatically increased when I moved from the United Kingdom to the United States. This was understandable – now that I belonged to a bigger and generally richer community, I was expected to support more global Jewish causes.

Now, I have written in the past about the need to change the donor-based dependency of all the different groups in Israel and the Diaspora. I, of course, do see the Zionist value in supporting Israel through one’s wallet, but I also feel strongly that Israeli millionaires should pay for their own poor.

In terms of Zionist bang for your buck, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces can be seen as the charity to get American Jews to open their wallets for. No group is more perfectly situated to make U.S. Jews feel the obligation to give. Here is a group that basically says, “We fight for the Jewish State, your job is to support us in this mission.”

For many U.S. Jews who feel guilty at the fact that it’s other people’s kids who have to fight, this charity is a perfect vehicle by which they can feel a part of the war effort.

It is odd in general that charity funds support another country’s military. The IDF is very well funded, both through general taxation in Israel and through the aid that the U.S. government gives it every year.

The money raised by FIDF is supposed to go toward recreational rooms and other creature comforts that make compulsory conscription just a little bit less awful. In the words of the FIDF, it seeks to provide conscripts with “love, support, and care in an effort to ease the burden they carry on behalf of the Jewish community worldwide.”

I was surprised then to find out that money raised by FIDF had gone toward paying for a NIS 8 million ($2.2 million) gym for the Mossad. The Mossad is a professional intelligence outfit, not a conscripted army. For the FIDF to provide the Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the CIA, with a gym seems outside their mission statement. How does a NIS 8 million gym for the Mossad provide “love, support and care” to compulsory conscripts? The people who will enjoy this gym are well-paid  employees who choose to work for the country’s national intelligence agency; they are not compulsory conscripts.

What could possibly justify why FIDF decided to fund this project? Is the Mossad’s funding so strained that they cannot train their legendary spies without charitable funds? Is the economic situation in Israel so desperate that the state cannot afford to run its own intelligence service? Or was it that the Israeli government decided such funds were better spent elsewhere?

As Israeli ministries continue to tackle for their share of limited budget funds, those who miss out on the big bucks may lay their eyes on the Jewish Diaspora. There they hope to find Diaspora dollars that will fill the gaps. If the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry wants to do job training but can’t find the shekels, why not find a Diaspora program to fund it? If the Defense Ministry is going to find its budget shaven, why not ask the FIDF to make up the shortfall?

The danger in using charitable funds for programs that should be run by the state lies in the risk of skewing the democratic process. Budget cuts are, sadly, part of democratic governance; if elected officials decide that the Defense Ministry budget is bloated, the Diaspora community should not re-inflate it. If the government wants to cut subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox to encourage them back into the workforce, Diaspora groups should not make up the difference with donations. (Nor should Diaspora groups be expected to pay the full cost of job training necessary for adding the ultra-Orthodox to the workforce.)

The status quo is dangerous. We risk falling into the trap where charitable money replaces the role of the state. This has the potential to both absolve the state from its responsibilities and prevent it from carrying out it’s polices. As a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Israel is not the charity case it once was. To continue to treat it as such is a disservice to all involved.