The Saddest Thing About Israel’s New UN Envoy: U.S. Jews Will Get Used to Him

This article appeared in the print edition of Ha’aretz on August 30th 2015

My Twitter timeline was awash with sad and exasperated tweets last week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in his wisdom to pick Danny “Deportation Now” Danon as the new face of Israel to the world, by appointing him Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. His rejection of the two-state solution and his want to deport all refugees make him the poster boy for the far-right members of Likud. His close relationship with Glenn Beck and his friendly on-camera appearance with Mike Huckabee suggest he could soon become Israel’s own representative to the Tea Party. And if that weren’t enough, despite being fired as deputy defense minister for not being able to have the self-restraint to withhold attacking the government during a time of war, Bibi apparently felt that this was the best person to build global partnerships and prevent diplomatic upsets.

Analysts rushed in to show the internal political reasons for the Danon pick: Bibi’s wish to remove him from the Likud Central Committee, to free up a cabinet seat and the like. Some, like veteran Israeli journalist David Horovitz, despaired, writing that this move showed Bibi’s true face and that of Israel.

Personally, I think this appointment demonstrates the utter disregard that Bibi has for diplomacy and his desire to control everything from the Prime Minister’s Office. Let the diplomats do public relations, anything of importance comes directly to him.
Ignoring the “why” of the appointment, the sad reality of this move is that the firestorm will calm down and the U.S. Jewish community will get used to having Israel’s own version of Ted Cruz in their backyard, and will invite him to the normal functions and honors.

When Avigdor Lieberman was first appointed foreign minister in 2009, there was an equal cry of anguish from the global Diaspora community. For his first term, it was then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, not Lieberman, who handled the U.S. relationship. Yet, when Lieberman was reappointed as Foreign Minister in the following Knesset, he was often seen as the grown up in the U.S.-Israel relationship, particularly during the peace negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. His obnoxious policy positions toward Israel’s Arab minority, which he had always held, did not change, though, and on the eve of the most recent election, while still foreign minister, Lieberman threatened some 20 percent of Israel’s population, on live television, saying that they were citizens “for now.” We just got used to having a brutal pragmatist who saw a fifth of Israel’s population as disposable.

So too will be the case with Danny Danon: We will get used to him. There will be some awkward moments for sure, maybe the Anti-Defamation League will issue a condemnation or too, but nothing serious. Danon will get the same invites to the same receptions as his predecessor did. Jewish Americans have set their expectations so low for him that if he manages to get through a speech without a racial slur, it will be seen as a diplomatic masterpiece.

All the while his appointment makes an utter mockery of the work that the Jewish community – led by the American Jewish Committee – has been doing in the United Nations. The AJC, nicknamed the “State Department of the Jewish People,” sees its role as being the representatives of mainstream Jewish opinion to the diplomatic community in the United States and to foreign governments around the world.

The AJC took on preventing the United Nations from recognizing Palestinian statehood when the General Assembly voted on it in November 2011, as one of its major calls for action. Its rubric was: support peace and oppose the UN “gambit.” It feels odd, then, that the AJC lobbied the world to vote against recognizing Palestine as a state on the grounds that doing so would go against a viable two-state solution, but went silent when the Israel announced its new ambassador to the United Nations is a decisive opponent to the two-state solution and supports annexation in the West Bank.

I wonder what the atmosphere was like within the AJC when Danon’s appointment was announced. How does appointing a man who spent the past few years embarrassing Bibi – including in the pages of the New York Times – in his desire to destroy any hopes of two states for two peoples play with the AJC policy position and advocacy for a two-state solution?

By tolerating the appointment and adding Danon into the fold of the U.S. Jewish communal architecture, the American Jewish community will show once again that there is no right-wing flap in the communal tent: While we brutally and viciously police the lines on the left regarding who is in and who is out, we are starting to understand that one can say whatever he wants on the right and still be welcomed with open arms.

Israeli commentators worry about what Danon’s appointment says about Israel. I worry about what his reception in America will say about us.


British youth do Israel initiatives better

3/27/14 This article first appeared in Haaretz 

The past few months have seen young Jews in the United States and United Kingdom attempting to challenge the educational settings of their conversations on Israel. In the United States, the continued back and forth over the “Open Hillel” movement even reached the New York Times. In the United Kingdom, a group of youth movement graduates made waves calling on all Jewish educational institutions to use maps that showed the Green Line.

To the outside observer, both of these campaigns can be seen on the same spectrum: young members of each community combating the more conservative funding elite. This, however, would miss the mark. While in the United States there is an ongoing battle between politically motivated funders and the end users of programs, in the United Kingdom the challenge is different. The unique way that Zionist Youth Movements function in the United Kingdom allow for a different sort of campaign that can yield far greater results.

This was particularly evident this month, when a group of young involved members of the Anglo-Jewish community launched a campaign that received a tremendous amount of press coverage. “Sign on the Green Line” urges all Jewish groups in Britain to only use maps of Israel that mark the Green Line (which signifies the 1949 armistice lines). Doing so, the campaign holds, will improve education about the Jewish state by highlighting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and portraying a more “honest” picture of the country.

After a burst of press coverage, the campaign is now attempting to use the pressure of its launch to get different groups to sign up. While no schools have signed to date, five youth movements, one synagogue and four Jewish organizations have.

Unlike their American compatriots, the students in the United Kingdom are not fighting “the man.” Rather, they often try to convince other graduates of the same youth movements they went through. The uniqueness of the British youth movement scene means that many of the communal leaders that students try to convince have a common educational core.

There are nine different youth movements in the United Kingdom that cater to every political and religious sector within the community. These groups are run by volunteers and sabbatical officers all under the age of 23. Every year, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, sends half of its Jewish 16 year olds to Israel on its Israel Tour, and many other young Jewish adults on its various Israel engagement programs. This is a remarkable achievement, one that is attained through the pressure cooker of peer-to-peer leadership.

In addition, every summer, thousands of Jewish kids go to summer camps run by young adults ranging from ages 17 to 23. These camps are held in fields across the countryside, with activities that deliver informal education through glue, paper and felt tip pens. With the exception of the sabbatical officers, none of the counselors are paid. In fact, in the first year of being a counselor, many of the youth groups charge first timers for the privilege.

These youth movements create lifelong bonds and the vast majority of teachers and community leaders within Anglo-Jewry are graduates of these various movements.

This common bond is what allows the members of Sign on the Green Line to achieve the change they want; not through public pressure, but through engaged education. Looking at the Facebook discussions of the senior members of each of the youth movements, one can see they are engaged in conversations about how they teach about Israel in an inclusive manner, and many of the movements have democratic forums where policies can be written and changed.

By creating a forum within each movement for these informal educators to discuss how they can best tackle the issues that the politics of Israel presents them with, they can achieve their mission of getting the Green Line in every map that every movement uses. By sticking to a purely educational platform, members of this movement can be welcomed in every British youth movement. Once there, the community will naturally adapt as the graduates of those programs go on to take positions across Anglo Jewry.

There is no scary, politically motivated funder closing off debate in the United Kingdom. It is an open community willing to have hard and educated discussions about Israel. If one wishes to institutionalize the openness, they must start early on within the informal learning environments, where half of Anglo Jewry spends it time.

Amid the anarchy of Jewish leadership, can we ever have our own Pope Francis?

Haartez 12/23/13

Like Time Magazine and most other people on the planet, I have been blown away by Pope Francis. In under a year, he has managed to reverse the way most people look at the Vatican and the value of the Catholic Church in general. He was crowned Time Magazine Person of the Year, rekindling a pride in the church and the confidence of its followers. And he has successfully captured populist messages to advance the mission of the Church. Nothing puts it better than my favorite op-ed headline about him: “Like Pope Francis? You’ll love Jesus.

Francis’ ability to tap into the public mood and impact the conversation in a positive way has lead some to wonder about the absence of a centralized Jewish spiritual leader. As Anshel Pfeffer notes, we Jews have not had a single leader since 425 CE (credit goes to Rome for that one) and will not likely have a single central authority until the coming of the messiah.

With no formal religious hierarchy since Roman times, Jewish spiritual leadership is found through meritocracy.

The concept of chief rabbi has no formal religious standing among the faithful, and is often times a convenient political construct. And while a global pulpit such as the British Chief Rabbinate can help propel some to global moral leaders – as was the case with Lord Jonathan Sacks – it is the person, not the position, that matters.

Making matters worse, the Jewish people have never been comfortable with authority, whether in biblical times (we are described as a “stiff necked people”) or in the modern era (consider all the jokes about our wanting to set up new communities at the first sign of disagreement).

Our lack of established structure makes outsiders wonder how we Jews recognize our leaders. When the New York Times asked Rav Moshe Feinstein z’’l how he had become the leader of his generation (“gadol hador”) he replied, “You don’t wake up in the morning and decide you’re an expert on answers. If people see that one answer is good and another answer is good, gradually you will be accepted.”

Jews have no conclave, and no formal process of discovering our spiritual guides. Our rabbis and teachers come from everywhere. Learning was always meant to be a meritocratic exercise, not a prophetic one. Though we pray for divine inspiration, no one is infallible; even G-d is debated by Moses.

The lack of structure entails a great commitment to finding consensus, and is something we all struggle with – be it between Ashkenazim and Sephardim or between the denominational streams. Discussions are flavored by where our own epistemological and eschatological red lines fall. The nuances among us are what drive fruitful debate from communal meetings – such as Limmud – to deliberations on how to manage our most holy sites.

Yet within the differing ideas and the fraternal arguments that are a staple of any Jewish communal discussion, there are those rare educators who manage to rise above the noise and receive an almost universal respect of their peers.

So despite being a stiff necked people, I have faith that we Jews will continue to generate the leaders we need to survive the challenges that the world will continue to present us with. Though we don’t have a religious leader on the cover of Time Magazine, and while it’s messy finding our own true leaders, we would not have it any other way.

We need to pay to make our communities sustainable

Haaretz 9/12/13

For the past ten years, Jewish communities the world over have been providing committees, events and avenues of involvement for me. Reading the communal and demographic tealeaves it was clear that a huge drop off point was during and after university for this generation of Jews.

The focus on the ‘young professional’ has not been without its controversies. The communal pie is only so big and the amount of free or hugely discounted events for me created a tab for others to pay.

One of the side effects of this level of communal welfarism has been an expectation of services without fees. This is all well and good when one has no income, but it seems that many in my generation have not realized that someone needs to pick up the check.

Now, my wife and I are members of one of the new pop up prayer communities in New York. Prospect Heights Shul is a small, liberal, modern orthodox community with a couple of dozen members who pay membership. We rent whatever space we can in Brooklyn and have moved from a thrift shop to a Christian school classroom.

Starting off as a wondering minyan, the community has developed with new families coming in from the Upper West Side in search of more space and affordable homes. One of the factors holding back many young religious families was the lack of sense of a modern orthodox community in Park Slope. Having now created it our community is growing.

Though our communities’ story is similar to that of many other communities’ origin stories, we are a community made up of people who have, for many years, been coddled by a generous overarching Jewish community. Though we seem to have managed to grow in numbers, our membership is stuck.

Prospect Heights Shul is not unique within the prayer space, or any other Jewish communal space for that matter. From advocacy to welfare charities, everyone is struggling to get young Jews to start making the cash commitments needed to ensure sustainability. It is clear that the federated model is far less enchanting to this generation of Jews than for those of yesteryear. We are not looking for a Jewish tax, but equally we cannot be expecting Jewish handouts either.

While of course it is necessary to try and provide a Jewish experience to those who have no affiliations, we as a community need to jettison the concept of ‘free at the point of delivery’ for all those except the most needy. In order to create the next generation of givers, we need to institute, from the earliest age, a ‘give what you can’ model with a suggested donation.

If there is a subsidized fee, the actual fee should be displayed with a message of encouragement to those who can afford, to pay full price for their experience. Transparency about where the money goes will be essential as well. With payment comes accountability.

The extensive Jewish outreach that has occurred over the past ten years has been expansive and incredible. We have created a Jewish experience for every sort of Jew one would want to define themselves as such.  In order to achieve the sustainability of such a diverse and rich melding pot, we have to ask our users to pay and create that expectation from day one. We will all be better off as a result.