Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and Jewish supremacists

This article first appeared in Haaretz 5/16/14

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, stated during the 1920s that the Jews would know that their dream of a nation state had been fulfilled when there were Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and a Jewish police force. David Ben Gurion, picking up on this theme, said while in office as the first Israeli prime minister, “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” We can now add to this list of prostitutes and thieves, Jewish racial supremacists.

The concept of “price tag” is very simple. When the Israeli government pursues a policy that members of the far-right do not like, they create a “cost” for the government of Israel by attacking the Arab community. Settler violence against Palestinians saw a 57 percent uptick in the first seven months of 2011, according to UN data, and since then it has continued despite condemnations from every political sector in Israel.

Over the past year, price tagging has metastasized from a phenomenon restricted to the Palestinian territories to infecting Israel within the Green Line. Car tires have been slashed while mosques and churches have been vandalized – each with a distinct political message.

“Close mosques not yeshivas,” said the graffiti in the northern Israeli-Arab town Fureidis. “Mohammed is a pig,” “mutual responsibility,” “Terror stones,” and “regards from Boaz and David Chai” were the statements left on the wall of mosque of Baqa al-Gharbiyye. Boaz and David are the names of two individuals whose movements were restricted by the Israel Defense Forces.

The Jewish supremacists who commit these acts are doing so much like the aristocracy of a previous time who would employ a whipping boy. Unwilling to strike their own child, they would hire a child from a lower class to whip when their own offspring misbehaved. These thugs have made the calculation not to attack Jewish institutions, but those of the Arab other, causing them harm to make political statements against their own government’s policies of which they disapprove.

If a Jewish police force can deal with Jewish prostitution and Jewish thieves within the Jewish state, then why do they seem so incapable of dealing with Jewish racism? After a spate of “price tag” attacks, two ministers said they would urge the cabinet to allow the full array of security measures to deal with the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks, including administrative detention, by classifying offenders as terrorists.

Whether they are defined as terrorists, neo-Nazis (as author Amos Oz put it) or racist thugs, they need to be stopped. How does one do this?

With communal tensions simmering and Pope Francis on his way to the holy land, the Israeli security apparatus believes that the best way of dealing with hate crimes is to see them as a security problem. When it comes to security the Jewish state is an expert in all manners of tactics to secure the safety of its people.

Yet the tactics of security do nothing to deal with the strategic threat that these racist crimes pose to society at large. You cannot lock up everyone who makes a racist statement. The cancer at the heart of “price-tagging” has been growing for years.

There are no short-term fixes to this problem. If the Jewish state is to be a normal state, it needs to learn off other normal states how to deal with racism.

The key is through education. While “price tag” attacks certainly pose a security problem, the heart of the matter lies in education. Efforts need to be made through the education system to demonstrate the unacceptability of racism. Zero tolerance needs to be adopted. From sportsmen to public officials, all must be held accountable for racist statements and acts.

The Jewish state would do well to consult the Jewish Diaspora, a leader in the anti-racism and anti-fascism coalitions around the world, on strategies concerning how to defeat racism through education. They could speak to the Anti-Defamation League on the anti-bulling and cyber bulling campaigns they run across the United States. They could consult the Community Security Trust on how to create a police force that is sensitive to the needs of all racial groups within society.

There are constant debates about whether racism in Israel is the cause of the conflict with the Palestinians or a symptom of the conflict. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, we can all agree that we can not allow hatred to foster lest it consume us all.

The lessons of Hanukkah come at a perfect time for Israel

Ha’aretz 5/1/12

As Hanukkah drew to a close and the new year began, I started wondering: Of all the Jewish holidays, why does Hanukkah attract the most attention from religious and secular Jews alike?

There are two different lines of thought when determining why this festival, more than any other, seems to get buy-in from all Jews. The first is the timing of the festival. In every religion there has always been something to celebrate the winter solstice and so as Christians celebrate Christmas, the Jews have Hanukkah.

With so much of the Western retail economy based around the holiday seasons, Hanukkah gets a natural bounce. In America, alongside Father Christmas one can find Hanukkah Harry, a friendly Jewish fictional Saturday Night Live Character who has entered into the collective imagination.

Eight nights of presents, an easy family ritual, and no need to suspend one’s daily life; it’s easy to see why Hanukkah has caught on in such a big way. Not to mention the permissible calorie fest of donuts and latkes.

Yet the other explanation for its popularity looks at the festival itself and its meaning. It is no coincidence that the emblem of the State of Israel is the menorah with olive branches on either side.

Hanukkah marks the rededication of the temple when the Maccabees revolted and established the Hasmonean period of Jewish self-rule. The parallels to the modern State of Israel are pronounced and unlike so many other Jewish commemorations of tragedy, it marks a small group of Jews really fighting back and winning.

Hanukkah speaks to the modern day Israeli and allows them to connect to the land and their tradition in a way that has meaning in their modern lives, rather than just another religious festival ritual that many feel little affinity to.

Not every part of the story of Hanukkah makes comfortable reading. The Maccabees were zealots fighting against the secularization and assimilation they saw in their midst. Today there are ongoing battles within Israel between zealots who seek to change the society into images of themselves and the slowly awakening silent majority who are now realizing they have to fight for an image of a society they want to live in.

The story of Hanukkah has many messages for us today and can help us examine how we can move from an exilic mindset into one of a nation state. A people in exile have things done to them; they are not masters of their own fate, they cannot dictate their own destiny. A sovereign people have the power to shape their circumstance and not be left to the whims of others. The exiled Jew must constantly be alert to the dangers of assimilation, the self-ruling Jew in the majority need not worry about losing his or her identity but about how to create a society that can truly be light unto the nations.

As Hanukkah 5772 comes to an end and one reflects upon the mood within the Jewish State, one can see the majority waking up and realizing that they have the power to change the situation around them. From #j14 to the Bet Shemesh protests, the Jewish people living in their homeland is not an entity to which things happen, but a people who can affect their own fate.

Both in Haaretz and other newspapers, few are predicating positive things for Israel in 2012. Perhaps the only thing that can combat this wall-to-wall despair is the average Israeli recognizing their sovereignty and moving from a position of passive acceptance, to creative activity. 

Modern Orthodox educators must reclaim what it means to be a Jew

Ha’aretz 21/12/11

I struggle to remember to last time I read a news item from Israel featuring an orthodox person and felt pride. With the segregated bus saga and the awful incidents of price-tagging, the Judaism that I know and love is being abused. I know for a fact that Israel is filled with thousands of religious role models, yet in public the image that is being projected is that of an intolerant ungovernable fanatic.

I am a proud member of the modern Orthodox community who spent two years living in Yeshiva in Israel. My first year was in a Hesder Yeshiva, my second a more American affair with an Israeli kollel attached. I grew up in Bnei Akiva and see myself as a graduate of that movement. Yet the voices that helped educate me, that fill me with a vision of Judaism and ethical conduct that I treasure and live by, are sadly absent from the public religious discourse going on in Israel today.

The image of what Orthodox Judaism is matters. It matters because we believe that we are commanded to be an “Or Lagoyim”, a light unto the nations. We do not proselytize our virtue or our truth; we live it. How our actions are seen by those outside the community can either glorify or desecrate G-d’s name.

The current news headlines and public pronouncements are dominated by religious ideologues that use textual interpretations to justify or rationalize actions that clearly desecrate G-d’s name rather than glorify it. No one could look on the actions of those who proclaim to be religious and feel inspired by a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

As a modern Orthodox Jew, I do not think that I am “lesser” than the ultra-Orthodox. Holding that my connection to the Land of Israel does not justify all or any actions to control that land does not make me any less frum.

A moderate community often speaks quietly and politely. They educate their students on why those who participate in price-tagging are wrong. They teach their students the texts and rabbinical responses that show why it is perfectly allowed to have mixed sex buses. Yet when they leave the Beit Midrash, they do not feel it appropriate to take up the argument in a public space.

While there are many good reasons why we might not want Rabbis to have ideological disputes in public, I feel that now we need it. There are thousands of amazing modern Orthodox educators who have inspired generations of students who need to speak up and reclaim what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. They need to do this to restore the image of what a frum Jew is both at home and abroad.

This is more than just condemning the actions of those with whom we disagree. As a community we must reestablish the positive contributions that we make both to the Jewish people and to the world. We need to let others into our own internal conversations and demonstrate the diversity of opinion and multifaceted nature of our approach.

If we fail to do this, people will continue to point to the number of kippa-wearing commanders in the IDF as a threat to its integrity, rather than people advancing into command positions who have a deep commitment both the State and to a set of divinely inspired morals and virtues.

The task falls onto our teachers, as each of them has a network of hundreds of students who respect them and look to them for guidance. One of the blessings of the Orthodox community is the amount of educators it produces.

Those educators now have a responsibility to make sure the community’s image is not held hostage by the actions of a few within it. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has fired the starting shot with an excellent public letter to the Hilltop Youth. His voice needs to be joined by the thousands of Rabbi’s who feel the same way as he does. This is about showing what the community is about and it requires all who teach to stand up and be counted.

Jewish education ensured that the Jews survived their exile. If we are to be that kingdom of priests that we are commanded to be, the moderate majority of Rabbis need to speak out and be prophets for the community and the world at large as well.