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.

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.

Never trust the exit polls – Israeli Election 2015

Now with final results

Likud 30

Zionist Union 24

The Joint List 13

Yesh Atid 11

Kulanu 10

Bayit Yehudi 8

Shas 7

UJT 6

Yisrael Beytanu 6

Meretz 5

So what is the story of this election?

If we split the parties into the right, left, center, ultra orthodox and arab + Hadash parties we can see who took from who in this election.

Right – (Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytanu) 44 (+1) – The right managed to pick up a seat on this election.

Left – (Zionist Union, Meretz) – 29 (+8) – looking at the results it might surprise people that the left got 7 more seats. 6 of these are because Livni moved from the center directly into the left camp, but the left also managed to win an additional mandate.

Ultra Orthodox – (Shas, UJT) 13 (-5) – With Yachad still under the threshold (and they may pass it as the solider votes are counted) you can see the ultra orthodox losing almost a 3rd of their strength due to the wasted votes and infighting by Deri and Yishai

Center – (Yesh Atid, Kulanu) 21 (-6) – the six went to the left with Livni joining the Zionist Camp. The center actually held with Kulanu taking Yesh Atid and Kadmia’s votes

The Joint List – 13 (+2) – the joining of the parties and the GOTV campaign led to arab turn out of 67% (up from 54% in 2013) this led to more votes and mandates.

Looking at the bloc votes what we can see is that the religious right bloc actually went down by 4 seats from 2013. Bibi left the Ultra Orthodox out last time (he was forced to by the Bennett Lapid union) so his traditional right-religous bloc of 61 was not the foundation of the coalition. This time the right-religious bloc is not a majority, its only 57 – therefore the need to get Kulanu to join from the center to put him over the top.

Kahlon will do what ever he will, though I find it nearly impossible that he won’t recommend Bibi given his 6 seat win over Hertzog.

So what was the story of this election, we saw a shrinkage of the religious right bloc but a domination by Netanyahu over the bloc. In the last days of the election he moved the Likud to the right and in doing so took votes from within the bloc on solidified his position as the undisputed leader of the right and returned Likud back to a major power without the need of a unity list.

On the left – Livni crossing from the center to the left has the same effect on Hertzog – making him the first Labour leader in years to get more then 20 mandates. The left did grow by a seat, by the 4.1% boost in turn out clearly did not only go to the Zionist Camp. The left did grow by 2 (excluding Livni) so there were some votes that came into bloc that it had not captured before.

The Left Arab bloc in 2015 is 42 (+10) a ten seat gain. Now this is not the same bloc as the religious right as the current Zionist Left and Joint list have not worked a way to work better together. However if the left is ever to hold a stable coalition, they are going to need to find a way to work together.

With 2015 – I find it very hard to believe that anyone but Bibi will be PM. Like everyone else I think that Kahlon will join the religious right coalition and Bibi will have a government of 67 (Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytanu, Shas, UJT, Kulanu). He will want others to join so that it is not so ideologically right (given how the outside world will see it) but I predict he will fail to attract anyone else to it.

Bibi will have a much stronger government then the one he formed in 2013 – and given his abandonment of the 2 state solution and the aggressive stance he took on the election day against the arab minority, he is the right prime minster to lead a coalition that wishes to annex land and pass loyalty tests to citizens.

Whether it was the woe is me (Gevalt!) campaign or the scare tactics that Bibi used, he won this election, hands down. What we all need to understand with clear eyes, is that his fear tactics worked. He also demonstrated that the entire right wing bloc is his base vote. That says a lot about where Israeli society is up to. It also demonstrates the depth of the challenge that those of us who wish to see a less fear driven Israel, face.

From the Dreyfus Affair to Hyper Casher – France has come full circle

A version of this appeared in Ha’aretz 1/15/15

Some 120 years after the Dreyfus affair, French Prime Minster Manuel Valls is putting the very fate of the French Republic in the hands of Jews and their willingness to stay in France. Amid the tragedy and political posturing from Israeli politicians, it seems that France has come full circle from an event that sparked modern Zionism.

In 1894, the promise of emancipation as the answer to the Jewish Question was proven false as Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason on the basis of trumped up charges. The whole affair led Herzl to the conclusion that assimilation into Europe would not solve anti-Semitism and inspired him to write Der Judenstaat, which became the seminal text of modern political Zionism.

Flash forward to today, the prime minister of France is now putting the fate of the republic on the courage of Jews to stay the course within French society. Acknowledging this transition is essential to understanding why the Israeli call for French aliyah was so anachronistic to the new anti-Semitism that the Jews of France, and of Europe in general, are now confronting.

The old anti-Semitism that led up to the destruction of a third of all global Jewry was based on the rejection of the concept of the European Jew. Jews were never accepted as equal citizens, be they German Jews, Austrian Jews, Polish Jews or French Jews. When the fascists rose to power, they picked on the eternal otherness of the Jew to demonstrate that these were a people apart, different and despised. The alienation and dehumanization of the Jew was a direct rejection of the Jewish place in the nation state.

Following the warning signs of the 1900s up until the Holocaust itself, it became evident that having one’s own nation state was the only solution to the racism and hatred that had led to genocide of mindboggling proportions.

The recent and sadly frequent deadly attacks on the Jews of France have not been because they are French Jews. The jihadists who killed the school children in Toulouse or the hostages in the kosher supermarket in Paris did not target them to make a point about how the republic should be Jew-free. They were targeted as they were Jews, Jews who happened to be in France.

The new anti-Semitism has turned every Star of David into a bull’s-eye for racists who have problems with what is happening in Israel, or so many of the perpetrators of these attacks have claimed. The Jews murdered in Toulouse and in the kosher supermarket were not the main targets of the overall attacks in either case. Their deaths did not start the rampages but they were the last targets in both.

When it came to Toulouse, as wells as the anti-Semitic remarks by French comic Dieudonne, some commentators have attempted to airbrush the anti-Semitism. They claimed that the targeting of Jews equaled the targeting of the establishment. Such claims rob the victims of these hate crimes of their very identity.

What these commentators get wrong is that Jews are still being targeted because they are Jews. What has changed is that they are not being targeted as French Jews or Flemish Jews, but Jews who reside there. It is no surprise that whether in Mumbai, Brussels or France, it is the symbols of Jewish communal life that have been targeted. It is not because attackers are saying that Jews in India or France have no place, but that Jews are targets the world over as they are Jews who are the subject of the worst of the conspiracy theories in the Islamist fantasies. It is not a local hate, but a global one.

Unlike the anti-Semitism of old, the solution is not an abandonment of one’s home. The state is not rejecting Jews; in fact, it is trying to protect them, at least in the case of France. The fact that thousands of police are deployed to protect Jewish schools doesn’t detract from the terrifying reality in the aftermath of the attacks. There are deep systemic problems that need both physical and educational solutions if multiculturalism and pluralism are to win out. But we should not kid ourselves that the violence against Jews today is the same as it was in the 1930s.

This new reality explains why Israeli politicians’ call for French aliyah is so hurtful to France and its Jews. The correct response to the attacks came from President Reuven Rivlin, who should have been the dignitary representing Israel at the Paris unity march instead of politicians jockeying for votes. Rivlin stated that aliyah should be “born out of a positive Jewish identity, out of Zionism, and not because of anti-Semitism.”

The new anti-Semitism that European Jews are experts on need new responses from Israel rather than the offensive knee-jerk denial of the Diaspora.

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.

British youth do Israel initiatives better

3/27/14 This article first appeared in Haaretz 

The past few months have seen young Jews in the United States and United Kingdom attempting to challenge the educational settings of their conversations on Israel. In the United States, the continued back and forth over the “Open Hillel” movement even reached the New York Times. In the United Kingdom, a group of youth movement graduates made waves calling on all Jewish educational institutions to use maps that showed the Green Line.

To the outside observer, both of these campaigns can be seen on the same spectrum: young members of each community combating the more conservative funding elite. This, however, would miss the mark. While in the United States there is an ongoing battle between politically motivated funders and the end users of programs, in the United Kingdom the challenge is different. The unique way that Zionist Youth Movements function in the United Kingdom allow for a different sort of campaign that can yield far greater results.

This was particularly evident this month, when a group of young involved members of the Anglo-Jewish community launched a campaign that received a tremendous amount of press coverage. “Sign on the Green Line” urges all Jewish groups in Britain to only use maps of Israel that mark the Green Line (which signifies the 1949 armistice lines). Doing so, the campaign holds, will improve education about the Jewish state by highlighting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and portraying a more “honest” picture of the country.

After a burst of press coverage, the campaign is now attempting to use the pressure of its launch to get different groups to sign up. While no schools have signed to date, five youth movements, one synagogue and four Jewish organizations have.

Unlike their American compatriots, the students in the United Kingdom are not fighting “the man.” Rather, they often try to convince other graduates of the same youth movements they went through. The uniqueness of the British youth movement scene means that many of the communal leaders that students try to convince have a common educational core.

There are nine different youth movements in the United Kingdom that cater to every political and religious sector within the community. These groups are run by volunteers and sabbatical officers all under the age of 23. Every year, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, sends half of its Jewish 16 year olds to Israel on its Israel Tour, and many other young Jewish adults on its various Israel engagement programs. This is a remarkable achievement, one that is attained through the pressure cooker of peer-to-peer leadership.

In addition, every summer, thousands of Jewish kids go to summer camps run by young adults ranging from ages 17 to 23. These camps are held in fields across the countryside, with activities that deliver informal education through glue, paper and felt tip pens. With the exception of the sabbatical officers, none of the counselors are paid. In fact, in the first year of being a counselor, many of the youth groups charge first timers for the privilege.

These youth movements create lifelong bonds and the vast majority of teachers and community leaders within Anglo-Jewry are graduates of these various movements.

This common bond is what allows the members of Sign on the Green Line to achieve the change they want; not through public pressure, but through engaged education. Looking at the Facebook discussions of the senior members of each of the youth movements, one can see they are engaged in conversations about how they teach about Israel in an inclusive manner, and many of the movements have democratic forums where policies can be written and changed.

By creating a forum within each movement for these informal educators to discuss how they can best tackle the issues that the politics of Israel presents them with, they can achieve their mission of getting the Green Line in every map that every movement uses. By sticking to a purely educational platform, members of this movement can be welcomed in every British youth movement. Once there, the community will naturally adapt as the graduates of those programs go on to take positions across Anglo Jewry.

There is no scary, politically motivated funder closing off debate in the United Kingdom. It is an open community willing to have hard and educated discussions about Israel. If one wishes to institutionalize the openness, they must start early on within the informal learning environments, where half of Anglo Jewry spends it time.

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.