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.

What I learnt from a speech in Lakewood NJ

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 2/6/16

On Monday, January 25, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, one of the big philanthropists in the Jewish world, stood before the top rabbis in Lakewood, New Jersey at a fundraising dinner for the largest yeshiva in America, and delivered a speech that shook the ultra-Orthodox community to its core.

In a passionate and thoughtful way, he railed against the elitism in the community that, in his words, “bordered on bloodshed” toward its youth: Young children have been left without elementary schools to attend, more than five weeks into the term. Parents have gone begging, crying to administrators and donors to get their kids into any school so as to avoid facing the shame of being excluded. Yet the schools are caving to the pressure of certain parents who urge them not to accept the children of certain members of the community, lest it lower the quality of education for their own children.

Rechnitz condemned the Lakewood community, stating: “No other out-of-town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.”

As his speech goes on, Rechnitz moves from the theme of schools to the paralyzing nature of judgment within the community. Here, Rechnitz accused the ultra-Orthodox in Lakewood of twisting religiosity and the minutia of religious practice into an idol, forgetting that there is value in every single Jew.

I find it hard to concentrate on any online video that is over 4 minutes (the destruction of my attention span – and that of my young adult peers – is particularly worrying), but I was so riveted by Rechnitz’s speech that I sat through all 52 minutes of it.

As someone who works in and around the field of philanthropy, I have never seen such truth being told to such power. In popular thought, it is those with the money who are the powerful, and the grantees who must follow their lead. Yet, in American ultra-Orthodox communities, while the donor is honored, it is the rabbinical authorities that are the centers of power. Yet here was a donor respectfully challenging a dais full of the leaders of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox community in America about the detriment they have caused to their community.

Watching the speech again, I am still stunned.

In Jewish and Israeli newspapers, mega-philanthropists are often accused of twisting Jewish communal discourse to their political world view; whether it’s the right pointing to George Soros or the left pointing to Sheldon Adelson. Rechnitz’s speech shows the best of what a committed, dedicated and brave philanthropist can do when motivated. Indeed, he did not just moan, but committed another $1.5 million to building inclusive schools.

Rachnitz’s speech sent shockwaves through the ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood, but that did not deter him. He sent a letter apologizing for the harsh nature of his speech, yet emphasizing the theme of elitism, saying that those who hold themselves and their children above others and push communal institutions to exclude those who they perceive as less “frum” (religious) are destroying a beautiful community.

The passion, commitment and urgency of Rechnitz’s intervention are something that the rest of the Jewish community would do well to remember, and emulate, as we look at the crisis of the affordability of Jewish day schools.

As Jewish Americans continue to struggle with the issues surrounding philanthropists’ role within our structures, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz stands as an example of Jewish giving at its best.

 

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.

 

Will American Zionists be sued for urging a boycott of Israeli settlements?

This article first appeared in Haaretz 4/29/15

There has been a long running debate within the Jewish pro-Israel community in the Diaspora about how to best deal with BDS. One argument states that you must reject BDS in any form or format. Boycott of settlements is just a slippery slope to boycotting Israel and therefore everything from labeling products to identifying settlement companies should be opposed.

The other, often used by the Zionist left, states that the best way to deal with BDS is to demonstrate the utility of the tactic when it comes to settlements and draw a clear line between Zionist BDS (to borrow a phrase from Peter Beinart) and the general BDS movement, whose demand of a full right of return and ambiguity on what solution they are seeking threaten Zionism itself.

When the pro-Israel Jewish community established its red lines, support of BDS was the litmus test. The uncertainty around these red lines boiled down to this: Can one support a settlement boycott and still be part of the pro-Israel community?

In America this debate is played out every year in the Israel Parade in New York, when the Jewish Community Relations Council deals with the pro-Israel right’s attempts to ban the pro-Israel left from marching. The right claims that the left’s support for a boycott of the settlements means it should not be allowed to take part.

This month, Israel’s High Court of Justice upheld the “Anti-Boycott Law” and codified that BDS is an all-or-nothing enterprise. Israel’s finance minister now has the ability to punish entities that call for a boycott of the settlements. In addition, individuals can be liable for damages caused by their call for boycott, be that of settlements or Israel “proper.”

In practice, this means that if you have some 50,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter and you write a status that says that you encourage your friends not to buy wine produced in the settlements, you could be liable for damages that the vineyard could bring against you, if they can show they lost a sale.

The more effective your call is, the more liable you could be.

It’s not clear how much this will affect foreign nationals at this point, but the court decision has legislated an end to the debate within the pro-Israel community. BDS is now an all-or-nothing enterprise, an approach that maintains that there is no difference between the West Bank settlement of Mevo Dotan and Tel Aviv. This is the argument that settler groups have always maintained. Those in the BDS community who also argue that the Green Line is a false distinction join them.

The new all-or-nothing approach is further strengthened by pending Congressional legislation that also links boycott of Israeli settlements to the general BDS movement. The amendment to the customs act would punish corporations and trade partners who support a boycott of Israel or “any of its territories.”

The result of the High Court decision is that one can call for a boycott of a business for unfair labor practices, environmental issues, gender or social statements by business owners or a whole other host of reasons. But calling for a boycott based on the location of the business could cause an NGO to lose its non-profit status.

The High Court’s ruling means that non-profits and individuals no longer have the freedom to express their views on this existential issue for Israel without significant legal and financial ramifications.

It will be interesting to see if prominent left-wing Diaspora Jews, like Peter Beinart and others could be ordered to appear before an Israeli court to pay damages for their activism.

What is for sure, is that the application of this law will further tear apart the pro-Israel community and force people into polemical positions; Israel right or wrong, or support real pressure to get Israel to change course. The ongoing debate within the Diaspora of how one can express their disagreement with Israeli settlement policy has just been severely restricted.

Much like the results of the Israeli election, these legislative moves in Jerusalem, and potentially in Washington, help destroy a complex relationship between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish state by forcing people into abject support or rejection of Israel. With a new narrow right-wing government on the horizon in Israel, this will continue to erode U.S. bipartisan support and damage Israel’s most strategic asset.

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.

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.