Birthright’s Move To Exclude Arab-Israelis From Its Narrative Is A Crisis — And Here’s How We Fix It.

This first appeared in The Forward November 8th 2017

Birthright Israel’s education department recently announced that all providers of its signature 10-day trip to Israel for young Jews must stop including meetings with Israeli Arabs in their programming.

The move has hit a nerve. It has brought out the raw feelings surrounding the funders of the program, those who safeguard the educational content and those who lead the largest segments of the US Jewish community.

Birthright continues to be a crown jewel in the crown of US Diaspora relations. Given Birthright’s prominence, both in terms of costs, impact and cultural significance, it should not come as a surprise that people care deeply about what trip participants are exposed to.

Gil Troy, the chair of Birthright’s educational committee, in his passionate response to Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ press release on the decision which called Birthright “out of touch,” couches the adjustment of the program as a result of evaluative feedback rather than a rejection of the values of shared society:

“We’re perfectionists in Birthright. We reevaluate any program that gets mediocre feedback… When our Beit Midrash (religious study hall) tanked, we didn’t oppose Jewish learning. When our entrepreneur track sputtered, we didn’t stop celebrating Israel as “start up nation.”

While I’m sure that it was internal evaluations that lead to the adjustment, Israel’s relationship with its minorities is more than a little different from the virtues of the “start-up nation” or the values of Jewish textual learning. While the aim of Birthright is to connect unconnected Jews to themselves, there is an ethical question of whether or not one can ignore the impact the Jewish nation state has on its non-Jewish citizens. To what extent does the efficacy of the Birthright experience trump the ethics of editing Israeli Arabs out of Israeli society?

There are 1.8 million Arab citizens of Israel, a full 21.6% of the population of Israel, according to the latest census data. They are an essential part of the story.

I don’t envy the curriculum authors or the educators on the ground. Birthright participants are not blank slates who soak up whatever they are told. Participants come with their own array of ideas, political assumptions, experiences and backgrounds. Trying to get anything to stick on a 10-day emotional and hormonal visit is extremely hard. Arab citizens of Israel, however, are an essential part of the story of Israel — and how the Jewish majority relates to them is a test of our values on a national level.

Rather than assume that Birthright will forever ignore the complex relationship between Israel’s Arabs and Jews, I do think that they will continue to attempt to find a way to address this issue. The organized Jewish community in the US and UK provide a workable model worth considering.

The Interagency Task Force on Arab Israeli Issues (and its UK equivalent) have for years been bringing together the major forces in the diaspora Jewish community, from federations, to advocacy organizations and funders, to have a deep understanding of the realities of the situation of Israel’s Arab minority. Together, a subgroup created the Social Venture Fund, now run by the Jewish Funders Network, which finds the best and brightest organizations working on these issues and collectively gives to them.

An educational module crafted by these organizations, and adapted for the different types of Birthright trips could provide credible, and at times challenging, programing that the heart of the organizational Jewish community supports. It could provide the follow up bridge for the Birthright alumni to get involved, if they so chose, to access these issues with expert information and giving circle opportunities.

Another option is to connect Birthright groups to programs that are supported by the US government. A little known fact is that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of the largest funders of shared society programing in Israel through the office of Conflict Management and Mitigation. Here groups can visit organizations vetted and supported by Uncle Sam, who are working on a range of issues spanning education, employment, sports, technology and environment.

Again the experience would not have to stop when the trip was over, with Birthright alumni being able to convey their experience to their Congressional representatives, having seen first hand what the US is doing in the Israel.

The more taut the relationship between the US Jewish community and the Government of Israel becomes, the greater the friction on the signature program between the two communities. In today’s Israel, coexistence is not an apolitical concept and we would be foolhardy to assume that programs that create a shared society would be entirely uncontroversial.

Yet rather than abandon the hard educational challenge, this crisis can be converted into a showcase of how the U.S., both as a country and a Jewish community, are tackling this complexity in a ways that can both educate and connect the most unconnected among us.

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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.

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.

Forced to drink alone at the Whisky Jewbilee

Haaretz 10/20/13

My wife often struggles to find me a good birthday present.But this year, while she was Googling around for different gift ideas, she came across an event of such wonderful proportions that she immediately bought tickets for a friend of mine and me, despite the fact that it would take place a month before my birthday.

The Whisky Jewbilee brings together three great Jewish loves of mine – whisky, kiddish food and cigars – in a shul in midtown Manhattan. With 350 exhibitors, four different times of cholent and three different types of cigars to choose from, all to be enjoyed with a glass of bourbon, it was heavenly.

The event was due to kick off at 7 P.M. and I arrived 15 minutes early to see 100 Orthodox Jewish men (and one or two women) already waiting in line at the entrance to the shul. Two doors down, a comic book convention was getting started and hundreds of New Yorkers dressed up as superheroes and manga characters ogled and whispered at the nature of our curious line.

At 7 P.M. sharp we were allowed to enter, and before us was the greatest kiddish club that one could ever imagine. Two full rooms of tasting and food awaited.

For three hours, I sniffed and sipped world-class scotches, whiskies, bourbons and ryes. In each room I filled up a plate of kishka, chopped liver and cholent before commencing my sampling. To top it off, I closed the evening with yet another cigar in the cordoned off shul parking lot.

While smoking and reflecting on the evening’s events it struck me at what a missed opportunity Whisky Jewbilee was. The event came about on the fringes ofWhiskyFest, a convention for whisky connoisseurs from across the city that takes place on a Friday night and the following Saturday. Orthodox Jews are excluded from the event due to its timing, so Whisky Jewbilee was created independently of the event to provide the Jewish community of New York with a similar experience.

It is no surprise to anyone that there is a significant crossover between whisky lovers and Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox Jewish drinking public in New York is a key marketing demographic for the drink’s producers. When I raised the issue with vendors, they all agreed it was illogical for the WhiskyFest organizers to plan the event in such a way that excludes such an important market sector.

But the missed opportunity that I was thinking about was not merely marketing. There are very few opportunities for the Orthodox Jewish community in New York to mix in with the rest of the city around something they share a passion for. Whisky can be a great unifier to demystify a community that does not often open up. I met wonderful Jews from across the Orthodox world while speaking about our shared love for a new 17-year-old double wood Balvenie and the growth of the small batch Bourbon market.

Whisky Jewbilee 2013.

Whisky Jewbilee 2013.Matthew Slater/Single Cask Nation
 In this case, the Jews did not choose to self-segregate; that segregation was forced upon them. WhiskyFest’s first priority of course is to its owners and there are always mitigating factors, but whether they realized it or not, they could have provided a vital societal function alongside their commercial mission.

I hope they realize this, so that next year I can enjoy my tasting alongside lovers of whisky from across the city, not just across my community.