Can Israel and Palestine learn anything from Tunisia

This article first appeared in Haaretz Oct 16th

The Middle East looks like a graveyard for hope. Throughout the region, violence is spinning out of control and the world’s leaders seem to lack any semblance of a strategy to contain it.

It is on this backdrop that the choice for the Nobel Peace Prize last week was so wonderful and surprising. While Nobel-watchers thought his holiness the pope or German Chancellor Angela Merkel were front runners, the committee decided to grant this honor to a quartet of civil society actors in Tunisia – the National Dialogue Quartet – who helped ensure that the birthplace of the Arab Spring would continue the path to democracy.

It is worthwhile reading the entire story behind the how the labor and trade unions, human rights activists, and a professional association of lawyers came together to form an unlikely quartet to save Tunisia’s nascent democracy after political assassinations and constitutional deadlock. Yet what is important is to understand that this unusual coalition was so diverse in its constituents, so unassailable in its credibility, and so masterful in mediation that it managed to get the budding democracy to pull back from the brink and fix the fractured political situation. Tunisia remains one of the few bright spots in a region so desperate for heroes.

It is always hard to apply the lessons from one country to another, but there is wisdom in how civil society played such a key role in Tunisia when the elected officials failed. Democracy is far more than the ballot box; it is a society that takes ownership of itself.

The leaderships of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have failed. Israelis certainly don’t feel safe, and Palestinians are no closer to ending the occupation. The political echelons seem incapable of delivering their populations a bright future. Is there a role for civil society to play in this conflict, outside the ballot box?

At different times, attempts have been made to get different civilians to play a productive role in working toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the Kerry initiative, business leaders from across both camps came together to try to “Break the Impasse.” Yet despite this group comprising business leaders from a vast array of their respective economies, they could not find the way to move the ball forward.

Israel’s trade union, the Hisdatraut  and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions came together to express their hopes for peace and signed agreements to advance “fraternity and coexistence between the two peoples.”

And the human rights communities in both Israel and Palestine have long, established working relationships, trying to ensure international law is upheld both day-to-day and at times of conflict.

Yet before these branches can come together across the societies, they must first come together within each of their societies.

In Palestine, the divide between Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem is creating a fractious identity. Finding a way for civic unity for a society separated by borders and circumstance is a daunting task. It was the street on March 15, 2011 that demanded unity and kicked off the unity talks between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. With the leaders’ failure to implement an agreement, it will fall on the street again to force the issue, and build the groundwork required to hold elections on the day after President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, as President Reuven Rivlin has diagnosed, is split into tribes – ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular Jews, and Arabs – who are struggling to find a common identity.

With Arabs making up 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, we – Jews in Israel and the Diaspora – must collectively recognize that Arab citizens are not a tolerated few, but equal citizens. We need to put an end to the perception of Israeli Arabs as a demographic threat. For when we perceive them as a threat, two things happen. First, all of our relationships with “the other” inherently become threatening. Second, we bequeath this conflict to our children and our grandchildren.

At times of increased tension and violence, civil society – both Arab and Jewish – can calm the tensions, even as elected representatives fan the flames. They can do this by sharing access to public resources, creating common civic values and finding practical partnerships between different civic and municipal groups that offer public services.

A civil society that has found a collective identity, that has achieved wins for its communities and can credibly advocate on behalf of its communities, stands a chance at creating its own quartet – one that is just as effective as the Tunisians’ and more effective than the diplomatic Middle East Quartet that currently exists.

In a region full of violence and hate, I do thank the Nobel Prize committee for honoring the unsung heroes of Tunisia – the unionists and businessmen, lawyers and human rights activists – who showed that change is possible and hope still has a place in the Middle East.

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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.

A racist chief rabbi will threaten Israel’s ties with U.S. and U.K. Jews

Ha’aretz 7/9/13

The past few weeks have been a time of great transition for the Modern Orthodox world. In the United Kingdom, the retiring chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, published his goodbye message. In the United States, Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, stepped down after acknowledging his failure to respond adequately to allegations of sexual abuse against YU rabbis in the 1980s. He published his goodbye letter last week. In Israel, the national-religious community revived its fight to elect Israel’s next chief rabbis, with Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu apparently garnering the support of most Habayit Hayehudi Knesset members.

These three communities have so much in common that they are often mistaken as the same. If you were to draw a Venn diagram, the Modern Orthodox communities of the United Kingdom and United States, and the national-religious community in Israel would greatly overlap. The common thread that combines them, however, is at risk of snapping if Eliyahu is indeed elected to become Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi. His election, supported by the national-religious community, would demonstrate a fundamental rejection of both of the ideologies that the U.K. and U.S. Modern Orthodox communities hold dear. To understand how, we must look at what drives each of these communities.

Modern Orthodox mensches

Though a diverse crowd, if one had to find the defining concept at the heart of Anglo-Jewry’s Orthodox (but not ultra-Orthodox) community, it would be “Derech eretz kadma la’Torah.” This was the lesson of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the late 19th Century rabbi in Germany, and roughly translates to manners (or behaving well) proceeds the Torah. Being polite, or, using the Yiddish term, being a mensch, is a necessary prerequisite to fulfilling the Torah. The literal translation of the term is “the ways of the land come before the Torah.” Understanding what it is to be an upstanding member of society comes part in parcel of being a G-d-fearing Jew.

This ideology can be seen in Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ writings and particularly in his last publication, “A Judaism Engaged in the World.” Critiquing both assimilation and segregation of the ultra-Orthodox, Sacks makes a passionate case for an Orthodox community that can fulfill its mission as a light unto the nations.

Sanctify the secular

In the United States, the ideology behind Modern Orthodoxy is Torah Umaddah, Torah and secular knowledge. Embodied by Yeshiva University, its great figure was Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, commonly known as The Rav. The belief that one could enhance their understanding of the Torah through the study of secular knowledge alongside that of the Torah is at the heart of Yeshiva University and all of its rabbinical graduates.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, perhaps the leader of this ideology today, spoke about the need to sanctify the secular and understand the liminal space between the secular and the holy. Life is complex for Modern-Orthodox Jews, but worth living.

Serve G-d and the state

The national-religious community in Israel focuses on serving G-d and the state. When I was in Hesder Yeshiva in Israel, I was told that for Jews from abroad there was the Rav (Rabbi Solovetichik). In Israel there was the Rov (Rabbi Abraham Ha’Cohen Kook). Rav Kook’s ideology of the holiness of the land, the concept of redemption through the state, and G-d’s will happening through those who are not religious are some of the main concepts behind the national religious. The religious Zionism he championed can best be summed up in the B’nei Akiva slogan, “Torah Ve’avoda,” roughly translated as “Torah and work.” In the 1920’s this work was on kibbutzim, but today can be seen as contributing to the state.

The knitted kippa-wearing public of all three communities all share parts of each other’s foundations. At 18 years old, Modern Orthodox Jews from the United Kingdom and United States go to Israel for their gap years and often study in yeshiva or seminary. Religious olim bring to Israel the values and ideologies of their home communities. British rabbinical students attend Yeshiva University and the chief rabbi is a revered figure in the United States. The endorsed figures for the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, however, could present significant challenges to the interconnections of these communities.

Rabbi David Stav shares many of the values and understandings as members of both the British and American Modern Orthodox communities. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, shares few – if any.

His legacy of racism and incitement to violence stands as an anathema to the values of what are the two sister communities in the Diaspora. If elected, he should not be welcomed nor hosted in any Modern Orthodox community abroad. It truly would be a stain on the values of the Modern Orthodox and the national religious for him to be selected.

The progressive streams of Judaism have made their voices heard when it has come to the Women of the Wall protests and successes. The ultra-Orthodox have marched in New York against reforming the Tal law. Now, Modern Orthodox Jews of the Diaspora need to make it clear that a racist chief rabbi of Israel will not be accepted or welcomed anywhere.