Hope is not a strategy

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post on Oct 9th 2016 and is co-authored with Jeremy Saltan 

When asked about the future of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the White House press pool, Former United States President Bill Clinton, who had just returned from the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, stated that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will happen at some point because the young people in the region will demand it.

The assessment made by Clinton has been made by countless others in the past and is a mainstream position among policy makers –young Israelis will be our saviors. However, if one looks at the data, statistics, and polling of young people in Israel, it is quite clear that the next generation in Israel has a different view than many policy wonks.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on July 17, 2016, found among the 18-29 demographic only 35% supported the principle of ‘two states for two nations’ as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to 53% against it. The youngest voters were the least supportive of the two state solution. The poll results countered Clinton’s argument and found that the older the voter the more likely was voter support of a two state solution.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on the August 31, 2016, found a majority (54%) among the 18-29 demographic considered Haredi control over religion and state issues acceptable compared to a minority (43%) among the 50+ demographic.

The latest Pew poll conducted in Israel, arguably the most comprehensive polling ever conducted in Israel, found the younger age bracket (in this case 18-49) was more religiously observant and less supportive of two states than their elders. The younger demographic is more inclined to be supportive of settlements, believe that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, believe that security is Israel’s biggest threat, believe that Israel was given to the Jews by G-d, favor gender segregation on public transportation, favor Halachah as a basis of law in Israel, and view the US as not supportive enough of Israel.

The policy positions of young Israelis trickle down to party affiliation and Prime Minister preference. A Midgam poll broadcast by Army Radio in 2015 found 18-29 year olds were the most likely to choose Netanyahu as Prime Minister (57%) and least likely to choose Herzog (19%). Midgam found the older the voter the more likely was support of Herzog over Netanyahu. A Teleseker poll published by Walla in 2013 found 67.6% of Bayit Yehudi voters were between the ages of 18-49, compared to 32.4% over the age of 50.

There is a clear trend that the younger generation is more religious and more right-wing than previous generations. While in most countries the younger population represents a more left wing and socially open constituency, in Israel the trend is actually the opposite.

It is our belief that this is due to at least two factors.

The changing demographics in Israel mean that the next generation is more religious. The official Israeli Social Survey of the Central Bureau of Statistics found the 18-29 demographic is more religious than the older demographics. The Haredi share of the 18-29 population is 12%. The national religious share is 13%, and the traditional share is 31%. Although secular Israelis make up a majority of the 50+ demographic (52%), they make up 44% of the 18-29 demographic. This trend is set to continue in the coming years as 28% of Haredim aged 40 or older have 7 or more children compared to less than 1% of secular Israelis.

These long term demographic changes adjust the make up of the younger generation and, given the separation within the Israeli education system, carries forward their communities’ belief systems in separate tracks.

While the demographics can help explain the religiosity of the younger cohort, their support for the right is not mere biological determinism. This is a generation that came of age during the second Intifada and its aftermath. The hope and promise of the 1990s means little to nothing to young Israelis. The political horizon of young Israelis has been one of stunted visions and conflict management. Given that reality, young Israelis’ skepticism of everything other than what they have experienced is understandable.

The purpose of this snapshot is to ground in reality the current situation of young people in Israel today. To believe young Israelis will demand a future that is different from their current experience, with all things being equal, does not bear out in the data. As time goes on the demographic realities of young Israelis manifest in overall poll numbers, such as a Panels poll in May that found 53% of Israelis in favor of applying Israeli law to at least some settlements in Judea and Samaria/West Bank.

Israeli youth differ from the progressive left wing wave of change that we see elsewhere in the world. The majority of young Israelis resemble and identify more with the governing right-wing religious coalition of Israel, not the left-wing secular opposition.

The hope of a rising youth that will demand the change President Clinton hopes to see coming from Israel is against all trends in the data. Rather than trusting gut feelings and being disappointed when the results don’t bare out, a realistic assessment of the current state of play should drive policy making and strategic considerations. Only with an eyes open approach can those who wish for a change in the status quo begin to build a strategy to achieve it.

Diaspora Jews and placard politics

Ha’aretz 7/28/13 

With the announcement of new Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, I’m bracing myself for the inevitable pro-Israel debate that is about to dominate my inbox, Twitter and Facebook.

One of the saddest things about being a Jew who lives outside of Israel is the ”pro-Israel” debate that seems to consume Diaspora communities. The reduction of the complex relationship that a Jew has with Israel has been morphed into placard politics that ignore everything but the politics of the day. The reductionist nature of this conversation, the tribalism that enables it to consume thousands of communal funds and hundreds of communal hours is ultimately self-destructive.

The Jewish peoples’ relationship with Israel has never been simple. Where Zionism fits into one’s Jewish identity is a complex philosophical and personal journey that often develops throughout one’s life. This, of course, does not preclude one from taking a political position, yet it is all too often the be-all and end-all of many Jews’ relationships to the state.

The self-destructive nature of this issue stems from the shallowness of political support. If the entirety of your relationship with Israel can fit on a placard, you are doing it wrong. This does not preclude one from becoming an anti-Zionist, a post-Zionist, an expansionist-Zionist or a liberal-Zionist. It does mean, however, that one’s journey through Zionism should not be based solely on a boo-hurrah news cycle.

The abandonment of Zionism as a topic within much of the mainstream discourse has seeded our intellectual challenge and heritage for others to define, use and abuse. To be a Jew was always something complex, the modern state of Israel enriches that complexity.

Due to the political nature of the Israel debate, many Jewish communities around the world have been instituting red lines that set the limits of communal discourse. Depending on what you put on your placard, you are either given or denied access to the table.

This approach compounds the issues I am describing rather then helps them. With the exception of inciting violence (which should be banned no matter where it comes from), the communal red lines should not be based on political positions, but on how they were arrived at.

If as a result of a deeply complex Jewish journey and self exploration one has arrived at a position some consider an anathema, they should be invited to discuss that position with those who have traveled the same road but reached a different conclusion. If, however, their position is based on letters to the editor that start with “As a Jew,” then their placard Zionism or anti-Zionism does not merit discussion.

Of course I realize that this test is almost impossible to judge. How do we discern between the genesis of a position being a place of deep thought or a reflex? Is it intellectually arrogant to deny a platform to those without well-thought out political positions?

I do believe this it necessary. The constant politicization of Jewish identity is leading many to ignore and abandon Judaism altogether. We desperately need to ground our conversations in an educational rather than political framework. This does not stop opportunities from being political calls to action, but does mean that groups that solicit Jews primarily as Jews on the basis of a political talking point around Israel need to examine the collateral damage they are doing in their wake.

A racist chief rabbi will threaten Israel’s ties with U.S. and U.K. Jews

Ha’aretz 7/9/13

The past few weeks have been a time of great transition for the Modern Orthodox world. In the United Kingdom, the retiring chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, published his goodbye message. In the United States, Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, stepped down after acknowledging his failure to respond adequately to allegations of sexual abuse against YU rabbis in the 1980s. He published his goodbye letter last week. In Israel, the national-religious community revived its fight to elect Israel’s next chief rabbis, with Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu apparently garnering the support of most Habayit Hayehudi Knesset members.

These three communities have so much in common that they are often mistaken as the same. If you were to draw a Venn diagram, the Modern Orthodox communities of the United Kingdom and United States, and the national-religious community in Israel would greatly overlap. The common thread that combines them, however, is at risk of snapping if Eliyahu is indeed elected to become Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi. His election, supported by the national-religious community, would demonstrate a fundamental rejection of both of the ideologies that the U.K. and U.S. Modern Orthodox communities hold dear. To understand how, we must look at what drives each of these communities.

Modern Orthodox mensches

Though a diverse crowd, if one had to find the defining concept at the heart of Anglo-Jewry’s Orthodox (but not ultra-Orthodox) community, it would be “Derech eretz kadma la’Torah.” This was the lesson of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the late 19th Century rabbi in Germany, and roughly translates to manners (or behaving well) proceeds the Torah. Being polite, or, using the Yiddish term, being a mensch, is a necessary prerequisite to fulfilling the Torah. The literal translation of the term is “the ways of the land come before the Torah.” Understanding what it is to be an upstanding member of society comes part in parcel of being a G-d-fearing Jew.

This ideology can be seen in Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ writings and particularly in his last publication, “A Judaism Engaged in the World.” Critiquing both assimilation and segregation of the ultra-Orthodox, Sacks makes a passionate case for an Orthodox community that can fulfill its mission as a light unto the nations.

Sanctify the secular

In the United States, the ideology behind Modern Orthodoxy is Torah Umaddah, Torah and secular knowledge. Embodied by Yeshiva University, its great figure was Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, commonly known as The Rav. The belief that one could enhance their understanding of the Torah through the study of secular knowledge alongside that of the Torah is at the heart of Yeshiva University and all of its rabbinical graduates.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, perhaps the leader of this ideology today, spoke about the need to sanctify the secular and understand the liminal space between the secular and the holy. Life is complex for Modern-Orthodox Jews, but worth living.

Serve G-d and the state

The national-religious community in Israel focuses on serving G-d and the state. When I was in Hesder Yeshiva in Israel, I was told that for Jews from abroad there was the Rav (Rabbi Solovetichik). In Israel there was the Rov (Rabbi Abraham Ha’Cohen Kook). Rav Kook’s ideology of the holiness of the land, the concept of redemption through the state, and G-d’s will happening through those who are not religious are some of the main concepts behind the national religious. The religious Zionism he championed can best be summed up in the B’nei Akiva slogan, “Torah Ve’avoda,” roughly translated as “Torah and work.” In the 1920’s this work was on kibbutzim, but today can be seen as contributing to the state.

The knitted kippa-wearing public of all three communities all share parts of each other’s foundations. At 18 years old, Modern Orthodox Jews from the United Kingdom and United States go to Israel for their gap years and often study in yeshiva or seminary. Religious olim bring to Israel the values and ideologies of their home communities. British rabbinical students attend Yeshiva University and the chief rabbi is a revered figure in the United States. The endorsed figures for the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, however, could present significant challenges to the interconnections of these communities.

Rabbi David Stav shares many of the values and understandings as members of both the British and American Modern Orthodox communities. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, shares few – if any.

His legacy of racism and incitement to violence stands as an anathema to the values of what are the two sister communities in the Diaspora. If elected, he should not be welcomed nor hosted in any Modern Orthodox community abroad. It truly would be a stain on the values of the Modern Orthodox and the national religious for him to be selected.

The progressive streams of Judaism have made their voices heard when it has come to the Women of the Wall protests and successes. The ultra-Orthodox have marched in New York against reforming the Tal law. Now, Modern Orthodox Jews of the Diaspora need to make it clear that a racist chief rabbi of Israel will not be accepted or welcomed anywhere.

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.