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.

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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.

Jews and France

This article first appeared at Harry’s Place Feb 2nd 2016

The New York Times opens its story of anti-Semitism in France last week with a terrifying paragraph:

“It was the heavy leather-bound volume of the Torah he was carrying that shielded Benjamin Amsellem from the machete blows.”

The barbarism and brutality of the attack by an ISIS inspired youth on a Jew brings a feeling of insecurity that public kippa wearing campaigns cannot erase. This is the latest incident of local Jewish communities being a prime target of terrorists attacking nations.

Whether organized attacks like MumbaiIstanbul and Paris or seemingly the lone wolf attacks in Toulouse and now Marseille, Jews and their community institutions are always on the list for terrorists trying to make a point.

For your average citizen, terrorism has sadly become like any other impersonal disaster. The victim of a mass terrorist incident is not targeted for anything other then the misfortune at the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet this obsession of attacking Jews, and there definitely is a trend, makes these incidents against the community far more personal.

I have criticized Tariq Ramadan and others for air-brushing anti-Semitism out of some of these attacks. Ramadan and others have claimed that Jews have just become the symbols of the state, and are not attacked because they are Jews, but a good target of a critic of the state and its policies.

The dehumanizing nature of this analysis shows a remarkable turn around in the genesis of anti-Semitism. Where as in the 20th century Jews were mainly victims of the State, now they are victims because of it. An expression of aggression towards liberal democracy is apparently the cause for running towards the nearest Jewish school or kippa wearing teacher to express a murderous rage against the West. The Jews have moved from being the outsiders in society to being the ultimate protected insider, thus a great target for attack.

This excuse has also been used to try and state that the anti-Semitic comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has nothing against Jews per say but against sacred cows. Thus any attack against the Jews in society is excused as a generalist objection to the state itself and thus justified in the name of grievance.

Jews are not being targeted by terrorists because they are angry about general grievances, they are targeting Jews as the Jew and/or Zionist is seen have long been seen as the hidden hand behind the conspiracy theories that are integral to the world view of these extremists. Free Masons, Zionists and Jews stand behind everything. They are the reason for the state of the world as it stands, the hidden shadow conspiracy keeping themselves in power while the rest suffer. They infect nations, the media and global capitalism, controlling it all.

These conspiracy theories are classic anti-Semitism and are prevalent not just in the Middle East and South East Asia, but broadcast on satellite stations that reach diaspora communities throughout the western world. The targeting of the Jewish communities is after a long diet of conspiracy theory. Throw in the question of Palestine (which ISIS has been preaching as of late) and you have the perfect mix to get loan wolves to turn against and target Jews.

When terrorism becomes personal, when every one of the Jewish schools and community centers need bomb proof glass, armed guards and 24/7 police protection, kippa rallies is not going to cut it. Despite the best efforts of the State, Jews are leaving France in record numbers to Israel. One of the biggest ironies of ISIS picking up the issue of Palestine is that it is causing Jewish immigration to Israel.  If you feel that at any moment your shul could blow up, why not move to Israel where at least the fear is collective and you can once again be an anonymous victim rather then a special target of global terrorism.

As a society there is much to be said about our universal values, our traditions and our traumas. Despite our differences, the universalist tradition says much about our ability to overcome our differences and recognize our shared humanity. Yet we should not fall into the trap of not recognizing the particular targeting of a community amongst us, even as we all fear the potential for terrorism. To do so takes away the reason why the victim was targeted and worse, prevents us from working on long term solutions to the entrenched conspiracy theories that lay behind the targets of some of the attacks.

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.

Why Purim is not Jewish Halloween

Ha’aretz 2/24/13

The commandment to get intoxicated on Purim and the tradition of fancy dress have led many Jews to treat the holiday as a “Jewish Halloween”, while glossing over its real message and relevance today. Purim, while it appears boorish from the outside, is actually a festival of great philosophical significance.

At its essence, Purim is about how Judaism views spirituality. Unlike many other religions, Judaism believes that true holiness is found by fusing normal earthly acts with holiness. It is not a religion that honors those who remove themselves from everyday life to concentrate on the holy: our rabbis are expected to be married, and we mark holy days with meat and wine rather then deny ourselves of such earthly pleasures.

Purim is the zenith of this concept. In the Book of Ester, G-d’s name is famously absent. Yet the entire story is seen as G-d acting through these mundane events and lays out how we should expect to experience G-d in the modern era.

Through festive meals, drinking, charity and telling the story of Purim, the Megillat Esther, we mark how Jewish holiness comes from the way we inject spirituality into our surroundings, rather than removing ourselves from that physical reality – via asceticism – in order to reach a high level of spirituality.

This of course is not an excuse for drunken brawls or tomfoolery, as one of my rabbis used to say. The message of Purim that he preached was that one should work on himself for the 364 days leading up to Purim so that the person he presents to the world on Purim is one who can celebrate excess as a mensch.

Today, Purim is often overused as a festival in political circles. With Megillat Esther’s Persian setting, it has been used as a frame of reference for those who wish to highlight the seriousness of Israel’s concerns about the intentions of the current Iranian regime. So many of us have been fixated on updating the story of Purim to today’s geopolitics that its spiritual message on our own understanding of religious practice has been neglected.

For far too many of us, Jewish practice is restricted to acts of worship that take place in the synagogue alone. We abscond from infusing our normal life with Jewish meaning, seeing that as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox alone.

Fundamentally, this is not the case. Judaism belongs to every aspect of our lives and by celebrating it we demonstrate our ownership of it. This was exemplified recently by MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid), whose maiden speech to the Knesset went viral through its thoughtful Talmudic reasoning and message of unity.

For me, the most important part of Purim is its end. The majority of Jewish holy days – be it Shabbat or a festival – end with Havdalah, a religious service that marks the separation between the end of the holy day and the start of the week. For Purim, there is no Havdalah; Purim never ends. Its message is supposed to stick with us all year round.

The British Chief Rabbi – Right choice began at home

The Jewish Chronicle 3/1/13 

After months of leaks, rumours, deadlock and a search that spanned the globe, the committee to find the next chief rabbi picked Ephraim Mirvis of Kinloss. He is a wonderful rabbi with one of Britain’s most prominent pulpits and he is someone that most in the Orthodox community knew all along was the correct candidate for the job. With the support of the community, the right credentials and the relevant experience, why the song and dance before the decision was made?

The office of the chief rabbi has grown in stature over the years to the point that its incumbent serves as one of the leading representatives of the Jewish people globally. The longevity of the terms, accompanied by the official title of “Chief” give the holder the ability to impact the national debate in the UK and help shape long-term communal planning. And the strategic location of London as a global media hub means that the chief rabbi has the ability to cross borders in a way that few other rabbinical figures can.

Yet while Lord Sacks has global appeal, this is not his primary function, and it was misplaced of the committee to seek a Jewish ambassador to the world rather than a designated head of the UK’s Orthodox establishment. While the personalities of previous occupants have allowed it to go beyond our borders, the office is and must stay fundamentally a local one. Anglo-Jewry has its own problems, ones which can only be solved by someone who understands the community. Parachuting in an American or Israeli candidate, as was apparently mooted, would not merely have appeared odd – imagine the accent on Thought for the Day – but would have meant someone with no local credibility trying to solve local challenges.

The UK is suffering from a major Jewish brain drain. Our returning yeshiva students go to Yeshiva University or to Israel for training, while our greatest export, Limmud, continues to befuddle the United Synagogue. Someone with establishment credentials is needed to tune the rabbinical leadership to the future of mass Jewish popular education.

So why did the selection committee spend so much time looking abroad? As a Brit based in the US, I am often struck by the rock star status that Lord Sacks enjoys on this side of the pond. In communities far more traditional and strict than the ones he is directly responsible for, there is no talk of the controversies of The Dignity of Difference, only effusive praise for how his weekly sermons mix secular learning with rabbinical tradition.

The selection committee sought like for like. They attempted to pull in a leader from American modern Orthodoxy, giving the international Jewish press a titillating rumour to play with and leaving most British Jews bemused. The community, by and large, knew who it wanted and needed to answer the challenges. Republican American rabbis with royal rabbinical names carry less weight with a community that does not like its pulpits used for political purposes.

In the end common sense triumphed and the right man won. The proof of this can be seen in the muted global response to Rabbi Mirvis’s selection. It was a British appointment for a British position.

Rabbi Mirvis may well build himself into a global figure in the same manner as his predecessor. Meanwhile, he inherits a community he knows intimately, one facing major questions he is more than familiar with. His shul has been a leader in Jewish learning, and recently hired the US’s first female halachic advisor. Innovative on the local level, his task will be to nurture the same ideas nationally.

Combatting Europe’s serious antisemitism problem

Ha’aretz 12/31/12

Growing up as an active Jew in London I always hated when Americans or Israelis would comment on anti-Semitism in Europe. Always hyperbolic and often boarding on racism, their declarations of doom and destruction of the Jewish community of Europe was as unwelcome as it was uneducated.

Yet looking at the events of the past few years, and from my new home in North America, I can say that Europe has a serious anti-Semitism problem. With the recent advice that it is no longer safe for Jews to openly walk around Copenhagen, the number of safe European capital cities has shrunk to a tiny number. London and Berlin are some of the last holdouts for Jews to feel safe walking around with a kippa on. Europe is definitely going backward.

This is not just the vain imagination of the Jewish community. A few weeks ago, the Economist ran a story about the ingrained nature of Hanukkah in U.S. culture, leading it with, “On the London Underground or the Paris Metro, only a brave passenger would dress as a Jewish version of Santa Claus. Such an outfit would risk stares, grumbles about Israeli policies, or worse.” This is not news to the Jews of Europe. Indeed, the new chief rabbi-designate of Britain, Ephraim Mirvis, has recognized this as a growing issue that will be on his agenda. The Community Security Trust, a British Jewish communal group, has set best practice on the reporting and prevention of anti-Semitism across Europe, often being highlighted by the U.K. government as a glowing example of how communities can work with local law enforcement.

Yet to the governments of Europe, at a local, regional, national and pan-European level, this issue is not being taken seriously enough. European decision makers often have two reactions when the subject of anti-Semitism is raised.

The first reaction is to section anti-Semitism off as a problem only of the far right. There is a growing problem with far right extremism on the rise in Hungry and Austria alongside nationalists in many European countries remembering their Jew hatred of the past. Today, however, the solutions to anti-Semitism cannot be found by only using the familiar coalitions against the far right.

The second reaction is one of abdication of responsibility. They see anti-Semitism as directly tied to foreign policy and thus blame others for the lack of safety of their own citizens. This is appalling. Regardless of one’s feelings for the Middle East, hateful and violent demonstrations against Jews and Jewish property is never justifiable.

European anti-Semitism is a domestic public policy problem that cannot be fixed with a magic wand, and blaming the victims of hate crime – something that the Mayor of Malmo does often – is an unacceptable solution.

As Europe’s demography changes, governments have to start systemically educating their citizens that hating Jews is not ok, and that it is unjustifiable. This means going beyond Holocaust education and getting into touchy, hard topics such as Israel and Palestine. If the hate, fear and loathing come from today’s political situation, states have the obligation to make sure their citizens are not being brought up on a diet of racism. That starts with educating each and every child.

Jews not living in Europe have a role to play as well. In America,supporting the office of the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism is a good start. Jews in Europe need the United States and Canada to lobby their own governments to put pressure on the European Union to take the issue seriously. European Jews do not need Israelis or North American Jews to tell them about their own problem, but to support them in helping to make sure that their governments take it seriously.

Lastly and importantly, the global Jewish world must allow European Jews and their agencies, such as the Community Security Trust, to define what constitutes anti-Semitism. The Jews of Europe know their societies, their nuances and cultures better than anyone else. The Jewish world has an obligation to support the Europeans in this existential fight, but they must let the Europeans lead if we are to have any hope of victory.