יום ראשון, ינואר 21, 2007


World Religion Day

Today I attended an event marking World Religion Day. It is apparently a concept that originated with the Baha'i Faith, and there are events to mark it in various communities. At the event I attended, there were representatives from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, New Thought, and Baha'i. The theme of the event was something like "drawing a circle big enough for us all." In other words, unity and the idea of "true religion" as being any of several paths that lead to peace and to one God.

For the speakers--many of whom were clergy from local congregations--the theme of the event required a rather delicate balancing act, a fact that the Sikh speaker explicitly acknowledged. That is, the theme is unity and how all these faiths ultimately are promoting the same thing. Granted that is an over-simplification of any religion, but that is precisely the point: As the Sikh representative noted, the very presence of representatives from so many traditions (so many yet still a fraction of all that exist) meant that there is something distinctive in each, and hence there is division as well as unity. (No one invoked E pluribus unum for some reason, though given the theme of the day, perhaps that should be reversed: E uno plures—or better yet, Ad unum plures.)

Despite the difficulty of the task, most of the speakers handled it quite well, I thought. Naturally, I thought the Jewish speaker was the best, but that is hardly a surprise: She's my sponsoring rabbi. She related two stories about Choni the circle drawer, one of which was about a man planting a carob tree, despite knowing that he won't live long enough to see it fruit. The planter explains that just as those before him planted trees that they could not enjoy, but he did, so he was planting for the benefit of future generations. (I liked the link to our upcoming holiday, Tu B'Shvat, or the New Year for Trees; on that theme I found a nice overview told for kids' benefit.)

The Sikh and Baha'i representatives were also good. What made them worthy of note is that they, like the rabbi, conveyed a sense of what their faith was, but grounded their remarks very clearly in the theme of the event (in the allotted five minutes!) Some of the others got the "unity" theme down well, but told us little about what their own teachings had to say regarding the theme. I was also impressed by the Christian representative, who came from what I took to be a nondenominational church. He joked about how there was simply no way he could "represent" all of Christianity, but he made a few terrific points: He said we (i.e. Christians) stand on the shoulders of Judaism, draw from the Abrahamic traditions of Islam as well as Judaism, and share connections to Zoroastrianism; Jesus even carried a message consonant with those of the Eastern faiths, he said.* But then came the kicker: He said Christians need to get off their "high horse" and "confess" for pushing Western culture in the name of evangelizing the religion. Amein, pastor!

There was, however, one speaker who failed in the theme of the day, in my estimation. He was the only one who came across as making assertions that his faith was the only way. His was the only presentation that made me uncomfortable. I am speaking of the Imam. His message boiled down to a claim that Muslims have shown the world what the faiths that came before only tried to say. It seemed to be: Join us and we'll show you unity. He also had a "helper" stand behind him; I felt as if the helper was watching the audience, even though for a while he was holding up a sign with some key concepts of the faith. (The sign was hardly necessary; he was really a "watcher," I think.) And he and his entourage were the only faith representatives to walk out as soon as the presentations ended and not to stay for the social and refreshment period after. Needless to say, he was a poor representative of Islam. (Or was he? Not something I want to get into in this forum. Maybe it was revealing, in its own way.)

All in all, an interesting afternoon. I only wish the advertised Zoroastrian representative had been in attendance.


* The sentence before the asterisk has been revised since original posting. TikkunGer pointed out in a comment that I might have misrepresented what the minister said about Zoroastrianism, as I implied that he said it was "Abrahamic." Upon reflection, I doubt he would have said so, because I am pretty sure that Zoroastrianism predates the Biblical Abraham and continues to set itself apart from the Abrahamic approach to God. I can't recall precisely what the minister did say. I know he acknowledged some historical connections of Christianity to Zoroastrianism. But I will not attempt to characterize his claims, as I can't do so accurately. (Note to self: Next time take notes!) As I said at the end of the post, I really wish the originally advertised Zoroastrian representative had appeared at the event.

יום שני, ינואר 15, 2007


Reform Halakhah

Mah Rabu has an excellent post relating his experiences at a recent panel about The Role of Halakhah in Reform Judaism.


If we define "halakhah" by the Orthodox definition, then Reform Judaism is obviously not halakhic by that definition; if we line the denominations up on a scale from 1 to Orthodox, then of course Reform will come up short. If, on the contrary, we define "halakhah" as binding religious obligations, then all Reform views would agree that there is halakhah in Reform Judaism...

He then goes on to outline some of the key ways in which the Reform understanding of halakhah differs from that of the Orthodox and others. Key conclusions:

There is a concept called yeridat hadorot (descent of the generations) that informs Orthodox halakhah. The idea is that the Written and Oral Torah were revealed at some time in the past, and each successive generation is farther and farther from the original revelation... Since our generation is farther from revelation than previous generations, we are presumed to have less wisdom, and therefore we cannot supplant earlier halakhic decisions, but can only work within them...

Instead of yeridat hadorot, the operative principle [for Reform] is, in Isaac Newton's words, "standing on the shoulders of giants". By this understanding, we are greater in wisdom than previous generations, because our generation knows everything that they knew, plus everything that we have learned since then.

He has further thoughts on authority, autonomy, and the evolution of tradition.

One of my favorite lines is this:

We shouldn't assume that in the state of nature everyone is Orthodox, and that any difference from Orthodoxy requires justification.


It is a good read. (It is also posted a Jewschool, and the comment threads at both locations have some interesting amplifications and dissents.)

יום ראשון, ינואר 14, 2007



I have been planning for a while to elaborate on some themes I have addressed briefly before regarding my feelings towards the State of Israel. Now, having just read “Second thoughts on the Promised Land” in this week’s Economist, I think this is a good time to do so.

In a previous post, I made the observation that I felt that as I take on a Jewish identity, I am feeling at once more identity with the Land of Israel yet less Zionist. I am not even sure I am a Zionist, although I think I am—just not in the way that most established Jewish organizations--especially the American Jewish Committee--use (and sometimes abuse) that term.

The more I learn about Judaism, and in particular its connections to the agricultural society in which it originated and in which many of its festivals are grounded (so to speak), the more I feel connected to Israel, the Land, in an almost mystical sort of way. (I know, I am starting to use that word a lot, and I will admit that I would be hard pressed to give a coherent definition; more on that another day, perhaps.) Before I go on, I want to take a moment to note how a series of books (alas, no longer in print) by Nogah Hareuveni, published by Neot Kedumim, have crystallized these connections for me.

Even with my (growing) appreciation for the Land of Israel, I have always had serious reservations about the State of Israel. Not that I think it should be “wiped off the map,” in that horrible phrase that echoes across the news too frequently these days. My reservations do not extend to the very principle or fact of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land. In fact, if being committed to that basic idea is sufficient to make one a Zionist, then I am a Zionist. On the other hand, I have opposed so many actions of so many Israeli governments (in the Occupied Territories, in two wars in Lebanon, etc.) over the years as to make me question whether I am opposing specific acts of specific groups of politicians, or to something far deeper in the fabric of the very State of Israel itself. These feelings have only intensified as I have come to practice Judaism and declare myself a candidate for conversion. And, turning our attention to acts of Israeli governments in Jewish affairs, I have a very difficult time summoning up any deep affection for a state whose government and religious establishment would not even recognize me as a Jew, given the Reform auspices of the conversion I expect to undergo some time this year. If Israel does not love me enough to honor my (future) Judaism, why should I love it? (Again, here, I am speaking of the State and its institutions, not of the Land, which I love more and more all the time.)

I admire Israel and Israelis (as I have noted before) for building and maintaining a stable democracy and advanced economy in the face of hostile neighbors. It is a remarkable set of achievements. But then I admire several other countries for their accomplishments, in totally different contexts, as well (Canada, New Zealand, Norway, post-communist Czech Republic, and others). I hope to visit Israel some day soon, maybe even for an extended period some time, but I don’t think my Jewish identity is likely ever to be tied to the State of Israel in any deep way.

The Economist article suggest that, once I become a Jew, I will not be alone. I will not try to summarize the article here; the interested reader can find the issue and read the whole thing. (I believe the link I gave above will work only for subscribers.) The article provides several pieces of evidence from various studies that suggest that, while most Jews outside Israel (in the so-called Diaspora) still support Israel strongly, “their ambivalence has grown.” Many reject the very notion that they are in a “Diaspora” and the subordinate relationship with Israel (as conjured up by terms like aliyah) that the very concept of the Diaspora implies, and only 17% of American Jews call themselves “Zionists” (according to a study by Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at NYU).

A key part of the reason for the “ambivalence” is, according to the article, that the major Jewish institutions in the “Diaspora” (especially in the USA) have not updated their view of the relationship between non-Israeli Jews and Israel. Many still seem stuck in the days when Israel appeared to be the only hope for the very survival of the Jewish people or in the days when the state itself was still highly vulnerable to massive Arab armies and seemingly dependent upon miracles (as in both 1948 and 1967) to survive. (This is not the place to debate threats from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, but suffice it for now to say that while they threaten Israel and Israelis, none is existential in the sense of threatening sovereignty itself.)

I feel very keenly the irrelevance of the stances taken by established American Jewish organizations on various issues. In fact, sometimes it’s worse than irrelevance; sometimes my feelings towards the mainstream organizations are of hostility. As the Economist puts it: “The main Jewish lobby groups have tended to back right-wing Israeli governments and avoid criticizing their policies.” I have a sense that this is accurate, and that it even applies to some of the more (otherwise) liberal groups. Too often there is a fear in American Jewish establishment circles that any criticism is a short step towards being in league with the “wipe Israel off the map” crowd.

As I have alluded to in previous posts, I was very uncomfortable—to the point of wrestling with whether my beliefs were compatible with being a convert to Judaism—during the summer, 2006, war in Lebanon. I was utterly opposed to the actions of the Israeli government, which were a gross over-reaction to what I will concede was a serious provocation by Hezbollah. Serious, but not justifying the relentless pounding of Lebanese cities and towns and infrastructure that went on for a month (and ended, just as I predicted at the outset to several of my new congregant-friends, inconclusively if not in defeat for Israel).

Now there is nothing wrong with being uncomfortable at times when making major life-changing decisions. And the terror Israelis and Lebanese lived under for that month renders my “discomfort” utterly trivial. Moreover, the outpouring of support from within the American Jewish community for Israelis in time of war is indeed something to be proud of. However, I will never forget how squirmingly uncomfortable I felt at an evening service in July when copies of a certain (and, let me say scurrilous and unbecoming of a great newspaper) column by that noted expert on the law of war and counterinsurgency policy, Alan Dershowitz, were being distributed approvingly. The theme of the column was that no one in southern Lebanon or the Beirut suburbs being bombarded by Israeli warplanes was meaningfully a “civilian.” One by one, various congregants went up to the bimah to speak of the need to stand behind Israel, while not one word of sympathy was expressed for Lebanese. It was very tribal, I felt at the time. As this was going on, my wife, knowing how uncomfortable I was, asked me if I was going to get up and say anything. No way! I know my place, as someone still then unknown to most of the congregation and not even a Jew. Besides, deep down, I think I understood even at the moment the need that the congregation (which includes some people who formerly lived in Israel and many who had family or friends in harm’s way) to have a “rally” in such difficult times. Still, it was an experience that led to serious—and still ongoing—“wrestling” with what it means to be a “Diaspora” Jew (to be) and a Zionist in the context of current Israeli and Middle East politics. And, in that process, I found my search of the websites of the leading Jewish organizations in America—and their lack of any forum for debating the policies underlying the war, even once the fighting ended—very disappointing.

As I noted above, the Economist article discusses an emerging trend in American Jewish life—mainly among youth—for less engagement with Israel and Zionism, and more with tikkun olam and Jewish social activism. For example, the Genocide Intervention Network and other activities around Darfur and other crises. The article also mentions the New Israel Fund, and I will quote the paragraph about it:

Some groups try to keep Israel relevant but in new ways. The New Israel Fund, for instance, holds traditional fund-raising appeals for Israel, but gives a lot of the money to untraditional causes like gay or Arab civil rights. It is also less afraid of politics: it published a newspaper article in November criticising the inclusion of Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing extremist, in the Israeli government, while groups like the AJC kept an embarrassed silence.

Now that is a form of support for Israel that I can get behind!

These new forms of activism are, however, often disconnected from religious observance. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that most religious observance takes place in the context of institutionalized manifestations of American Judaism—the very organizations whose positions are nowadays often irrelevant to (especially younger) American Jews. In fact, the Economist notes that Cohen, the sociologist, believes there may be a developing “polarisation” in American Jewry:

a small group growing more pious and attached to Israel, while a larger one drifts away.

Well, why should there have to be polarization? I hope we can find a way to be both pious and attached to Israel in ways that do not involve failing to stand up and question the policies of that country’s government.

Finally, the article also notes the renaissance of Jewish life in Germany, Poland, Russia and other parts of central and eastern Europe, and a renewed interest in the study of Yiddish. (My own evolving Jewish identity is probably more connected to these regions, and in particular western Ukraine, than it is to Israel; perhaps this will be a theme of a future post.)

So, I expect to continue wrestling with Zionism and Israel. I think that, in a religious tradition that encourages “wrestling with God,” the least we and our community leaders can do is encourage these other forms of wrestling, as well, without feeling as though doing so threatens in any way the fabric of what it means to be a Jew.


2006: An extraordinary year (personal reflections)

I have been meaning to get around to a post reflecting on 2006 for a while now—well, at least two weeks. It was my first year of Jewish observance beyond lighting Chanukah and (semi-regularly) Shabbat candles. In fact, it was the Shabbat before (Gregorian) New Year’s Day that my wife and I first entered a synagogue other than as a tourist (usually in Eastern Europe, some highlights of which can be seen at the Flickr set linked on the left sidebar).

We had been talking for months (maybe years) about looking for a shul to call “our own,” but for whatever reason, the time apparently had not been right before. Well, now we have attended almost every week (sometimes both evening and morning services) in that year (-plus) since. Our shul-shopping ended with our having “test-driven” only two. We have never been back to the one we attended that last Shabbat in December, 2005. It was the one geographically closest to us, but not close enough in any other sense. It was Conservative, and while that might itself be reason enough for it not to be a good fit, it was probably more the sense that a very small Jewish congregation that meets in a church just was not what we had in mind. (The ark was strategically placed in front of the Christmas tree and, as it was Unitarian Universalist, there were few other signs of Christianity around—not even a cross—but still, it was a church.) It is nice that Jews and Christians can worship in the same space, but it was not what we wanted. The next week we attended the closest Reform synagogue—about thirty minutes away. It turned out to be not only (relatively) close geographically, but also close to our hearts. We felt more both more comfortable and more welcome there than at our first “candidate” synagogue, and we joined a few months later without even shopping further. We are both very glad we did.

The first service we attended at this Reform shul was a bar mitzvah, as were one or two subsequent services. Then one Shabbat morning we walked in and there were about 20 people present. (At this point, I will mostly stop with the “we” as I am speaking only of own experiences the rest of the way.) At first, I found this quite intimidating. I had thus far met very few people at the synagogue, and could not read a single letter of Hebrew. (The typical service is a mixture of English, Hebrew with transliteration provided, and a significant amount of Hebrew without transliteration.) I knew very little about rituals and “accepted” synagogue behavior. Plunge right in! What was intimidating at first quickly came to be my preferred form of morning worship. While more than twenty fellow worshippers is nice, I take great meaning and comfort from being in the presence of the regulars, many of whom I now count as friends and teachers. We are fortunate also that the synagogue has two rabbis who are inspiring teachers and spiritual leaders, and a cantor with an amazing voice and high-energy commitment to enriching our worship experience. In fact, we really have four rabbis, as the husband of one and partner of the other are also rabbis who regularly contribute to the life of the congregation. Moreover, the husband of the senior rabbi is the instructor in my Intro to Judaism course and thus instrumental in opening my Jewish eyes and heart.

2006 was a year of incredible new experiences that I never could have imagined as it started. I witnessed a conversion service. I wish I could relate the inspiring and moving story of this particular woman, but this would hardly be the place for that. Suffice it to say that, even several months later, it remains one of the more powerful experiences of my first year of serious observance. In her remarks to the congregation, she perfectly encapsulated why Judaism is the right choice. (I will address that question from a personal perspective in other posts; this one is going to be long enough as it is!)

At the time, conversion was something I had barely begun to think about. My Jewish father-in-law (more about him later) told me early in 2006, as I was beginning to attend services, that he remembered that when he and I first met in 1991, I told him I was thinking about converting. I have no recollection of having said that, but I am certain that if he recalled such a conversation, then I said it. (As I have related elsewhere in this space, I have been interested in Jewish history and culture since the 1980s some time, if not earlier, but I had little interest in “religion,” per se, until very recently.) After that conversion service, I told the rabbi who had led that service that I was interested in conversion, and she asked me to contact her and meet with her whenever I was ready. It took me several more months before working up the will to do so. Meeting with clergy and declaring a desire to convert is not something to be done lightly, and I decided I would spend time reading, thinking, and discussing with my wife and others before formally presenting myself to the rabbi as a conversion candidate. In the meantime, I witnessed two more conversion services, attended many more services of various types, read most of a complete Torah cycle, and finally felt my earlier uncertainty nearly evaporate. (Why only “nearly”? Because sometimes I still wonder about the need for formal conversion. It is not a sense of doubting I want to live as a Jew; it is a doubt about whether I need an institutionalized imprimatur in order to feel Jewish. But I am almost certain I will complete the process, God and the beit din willing.)

So, what a year it was! With my wife, I attended Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur services. On my own, I attended a service in the sukkah on the first Shabbat of Sukkot. I find something meaningful in an almost mystical way, that I can’t quite put my finger on, in the following. In my first year of holiday observance, Rosh Hashanah fell on both Shabbat and the first day of autumn, and as a result, Sukkot began on a Shabbat (with a perfectly clear night to enjoy the full moon). Chanukah also began on Shabbat and coincided exactly with the winter solstice (about which I wrote previously). Even my birthday fell on Shabbat (calculated by the Gregorian calendar, at least). No, there is probably nothing religiously significant in all of this co-incidence—just part of the calendar cycle. But in a year when I first began to pay attention to Shabbat as a day apart, having big events on the Jewish and my own personal calendar fall on Shabbat was noteworthy. And, given that I enjoy fruit growing (on a fairly serious scale) and thus have always paid attention to seasons, seeing the linkage of Jewish festivals to solar as well as lunar cycles, and having his be a year when the equinox and solstice coincided more closely than usual with holidays was spiritually meaningful.

Now, about that observance thing. I make a point of not working (especially in the sense of practicing my regular profession) on Shabbat, and I have found that truly liberating. I spend the day, after service, reading (Torah or books on Jewish history or just something I feel like reading that is not work-related or the news). Often my wife and I go out for lunch—something we rarely can do other days. Other days we spend time with a family member or friends. The biggest step forward in my Jewish observance has simply been recognizing one day as set aside for disengaging from the hurly burly. I also generally will not update either of my two blogs or check e-mail on Shabbat. A big test of my Shabbat observance will come in June when graduation day comes. As a member of the faculty, I am expected to attend (not that anything bad will happen to me if I do not), and it is a special day in its own right, celebrating the completion of two years of professional education for students that I have the privilege to teach in a required course in their very first quarter. But it is Shabbat; it may come every week, but it is only one out of every seven days, and I am loathe to treat one as anything other than a day for rest and Jewish learning. We’ll see. (The dilemma did not arise in 2006, as we were in Montreal at the time of graduation; it was for a conference, which meant I was “working” on Shabbat, presenting an academic paper and participating in the discussion of others. But it was a great conference, and I suspect I will always make the occasional Shabbat exception for truly extraordinary—even if not exactly holy—professional opportunities. One regret I have is not having found the time that weekend to attend a shul in Montreal, a city with a long-established and lively Jewish community.)

I did not manage to fast on Yom Kippur. I blame my hypopglycemia. One can’t properly take in the most powerful prayers of the year if one passes out from lack of blood sugar, after all. However, I ate almost nothing throughout the day, and even that partial fast (if there is such a thing) was powerful in focusing the mind. I was one of the few at the service to be wearing conspicuously non-leather footwear. I wore my plastic garden clogs; I was pleased when I saw a couple of other congregants also observing that one piece of Yom Kippur tradition.

As powerful as my first Yom Kippur experience was, I think it was on Sukkot that I felt the deepest connection to Judaism of any point in the year between the conversion I witnessed early in the year (as I mentioned above) and the end of the year (which I will get to, eventually). Sitting in the Sukkah that morning, with the sun shining through the (California native) palm fronds covering the structure, and with the first seasonal rains having fallen just the night before, was an intense experience. We read several passages from various sages about Jewish responsibility for caring for the earth, lent to us by God, and for its bounty that we celebrate with that festival. The rabbi called on me—fortunately “cold-calling” is not a regular feature of our Shabbat services as it is of my classes!—to read a passage that she knew would especially resonate with me. It was about the importance of planting trees—something so important that, according to this writing, even if you hear that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree and then go greet the Messiah. I was honored to have been asked to read such a moving passage.

As Sukkot came to end, we celebrated an Erev Shabbat service that was a mix of Hoshana Rabba and Simchat Torah rituals. And, as the congregation was well in to its circuits around the sanctuary with the Torah scrolls, it started to rain. (Talk about mystical connections!; we don’t even get rain at that time of the year very often.) The following morning was Shimeni Azeret, and its Yizkor service, about which I wrote previously.

The year, 2006, entered its final month with a family tragedy. My father in law, Aryeh Lev ben Zvi Hirsch, died on Kislev 10 (December 1). It was rather sudden, albeit coming after a couple of weeks in hospital and in a year when his health had gradually declined. So, much earlier than I had ever bargained for, my Jewish learning suddenly included mourning. There is no easy way to experience the pain of losing someone so close. I have lost both my parents within the past six years, and now this. With Aryeh Lev’s agreement in his last days and the support of his wife of 50+ plus years that he was leaving behind, we chose to have a memorial at our shul, led by one of the rabbis we had come to know in this past year. This is the same rabbi I had met with just a few months previously to begin the formal conversion process, and she happens to be the granddaughter of the rabbi who led the bar mitzvah of my late father in law many years ago in Connecticut. (Talk about mystical connections!) (We had known of this connection since joining the congregation, though unfortunately, the rabbi and my father in law did not meet.) We sat shiva (though not for the literal seven days) and we had a minyan from the congregation at the house of mourning. I think my mother in law, although never observant, derived comfort from these traditions. I know I did. The experience showed how observant Jews take seriously their responsibility for the welfare of the community, and revealed how the traditions work to help mourners to disengage form worldly responsibilities for the first days as a means to cope with the shock and loss, but also to ease their way back into the world beyond our grief. The kaddish has new meaning now, of course. I knew it was inaccurate to call it a “prayer for the dead” to the extent that it never mentions death. But in the wake of this great loss to our family I now understand that one of the core principles of Judaism is precisely what is expressed in the kaddish: Whatever else we may be experiencing, we always recognize that God is awesome; we are forever in debt for God’s blessings that we experience during the time that we and our loved ones are on this earth, and our duty is to live our lives in a way that honors God’s blessings. My father in law did that in his life, and may his memory be an inspiration to me in 2007 and beyond. Aryeh Lev told me just a few months ago, “welcome, you will be a good Jew.” May I prove worthy of his welcome.

יום שלישי, ינואר 02, 2007


New high in Jewish legislators worldwide

Is this an ideal topic for a blogging Jew (-to-be) who is also a political scientist, or what?

Noted in Haaretz shortly after the US midterm election:
Tuesday's U.S. elections brought the number of Jewish parliamentarians worldwide to an all-time high, according to the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians.
There will be 13 Jews in the new Senate (up from 11, so they already had a minyan*) and 30 in the House (up from 26). However,
the United States is still only in third place worldwide for the number of Jewish legislators, after Israel [duh--(z)ed] and Britain.
Britain's elected Jewish legislators number 18 (in the 630+ seat House of Commons); there are also 59 in the unelected House of Lords. As for the rest of the world:
After Britain and the United States come France and Ukraine, with 18 Jewish legislators each, followed by Russia (13), Brazil (11), and Canada and Hungary (10 each)... According to the ICJP, there are 246 Jewish legislators worldwide (excluding Israel), up from 208 in 2005 - an increase of about 18 percent.

The organization noted that it does not use the halakhic definition of a Jew in determining whether a legislator is Jewish. [Good for them--(z)ed]


* Though not in the Orthodox sense: There were only nine Jewish men in the previous Senate, but now eleven of the thirteen are men.


Aliya Jewish immigration to Israel, but what kind?

Extensive excerpts here from Anshel Pfeffer in The Jerusalem Post:

Israel doesn't have a constitution, but the Law of Return, one of its most fundamental documents, defines the nation's raison d'etre - to be a haven for the entire Jewish people.

This is Israel's DNA. But almost six decades after the country's rebirth, the definitions of statehood, emigration, nationality, citizenship, borders and travel have been revolutionized, while the state's and the Jewish Agency's definition of aliya is still stuck in the early '50s.

Take some fundamental questions: Is aliya automatically the best solution to an outbreak of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world, or should Jews maybe stick around and fight? Should Israel encourage the younger generation in successful communities to emigrate when it might deprive that particular outpost of the Diaspora of its best and brightest?

And should we be flexible with our definitions of Jewishness just to boost the aliya numbers? Does that mean accepting as citizens every tribe and indigenous people who have memories of their great-grandmothers lighting candles?

Moreover, what will we do when the reservoir of potential olim runs out, begin converting foreign workers so we can keep the aliya machine running?

The article notes that aliya Jewish immigration to Israel overall is down, yet from English-speaking countries, it is up. (More in another JPost article.) This creates a bit of a contradiction:

Sometimes it seems as if Israeli politicians want to have it both ways: to enjoy the support of strong and influential Jewish communities in places like the US and Britain, and to tell the children of these communities that the only place they belong in is Israel.
And the contradiction deepens:

The two biggest initiatives established over the last decade to link the Diaspora and Israel have been birthright israel/Taglit and Nefesh B'Nefesh. Both were dreamt up by private sector activists and donors, with the Jewish Agency and the government tagging along.

Did anyone sit down and think about the implications of these ventures? There is even a certain contradiction between the two, with birthright/Taglit designed to return Jewish teenagers to their communities with an imbued sense of their Jewish heritage, while Nefesh B'Nefesh is helping them leave those very communities.

Various news reports over the past year indicated that probably a plurality of the world's Jews now live in Israel, and it could become a majority relatively soon. Various other news reports have suggested that acts of antisemitism are on the upswing in many parts of the world, especially Australia and the U.K. These trends imply that the issues raised by Pfeffer will become ever more important for the Israeli government and Diaspora World Jewish leadership alike.

יום שני, ינואר 01, 2007


AJC, progressive Jews, and Zionism

In a few weeks, the Intro class will have its session (which I have been waiting for as much as any) on Zionism and Israel. I have long--that is, going back decades before my decision to convert to Judaism--harbored deeply contradictory feelings towards Zionism, the State of Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have always placed the State of Israel among the very few countries in the world that I genuinely admire. Israel is deserving of admiration by all progressive-minded people everywhere for its construction of a stable and vibrant (if imperfect) multicultural democratic island in an authoritarian and sectarian sea. In a region where most states consist of varying forms of autocracy in which minority rights are suppressed (or in some cases, in which the rulers come from a sectarian minority that suppresses the majority) and many remain hostile to the very existence of Israel, the democratic achievements of Israel are justifiably a source of Jewish pride. At the same time, I have long believed that a terrible injustice was committed against the many residents of "Palestine" who fled (under whatever circumstances) in 1948 and that terrible injustices continue to be perpetrated daily against the survivors among these people and their descendants nearly sixty years later.

The experience of Judaization (my own, not that of parts of the West Bank) has only intensified the feelings on both sides of my inner conflict. On the one hand, I have come to understand, albeit probably only partially, the deep emotional and religious attachment that Jews feel to Israel (whether conceived as "The Land of..." or "The State of..."). On the other hand, I have had several uncomfortable, even cringing moments, at synagogue events--even services--when the topic of Israel, settlements, or Arab-Israeli wars (particularly the one of this past summer) have come up. I have come away from some of these moments wondering if I can even call myself a Zionist--as if becoming more Jewish is at once making me more pro-Israel yet less Zionist. And, yes, I see the (obvious) contradiction. Remember, I started this off saying that I have held "deeply contradictory" attitudes even before deciding to practice Judaism and seek conversion.

In this context, I could hardly be more troubled by a report published by The American Jewish Committee under the title, “Progressive’ Jewish Thought and The New Anti-Semitism.”

I have read the report. Mobius, at Jewschool, has a long and thoughtful demolition of the linkage implied by the report. The report makes a classic error: Taking a selective reading of the works of certain authors and not too-subtly conflating these authors' sometimes-extreme views with all members of the broader class being tarred (in this case "progressive" Jews; the quotation marks are the author's.) The report likewise implicitly conflates the overt acts of antisemitism that it chronicles at its beginning with the criticisms of Israeli policies that its author defines as "illegitimate"--as if allowing that political Zionism has become an ongoing justification for injustices against Palestinians puts one in the same category as those who accept the messages of Mein Kampf and the Protocols and those who charge Jews with poisoning wells.

The very idea of linking Progressive Jews (a mantle I will wear proudly one day) and antisemitism (old or "new") is offensive. I think Mobius, in the Jewschool post (which I highly recommend) is quite fair in his characterization of it. Restrained, even. I certainly will not quote from Mobius extensively, but I was especially struck by this passage, which refers to a discussion in the AJC report of Palestinians' use of the term "Nazi" and to the comparisons to South Africa (famously and recently by Jimmy Carter):

It is not accurate to compare Israel to Nazi Germany nor to claim that Israel is committing genocide. However, it is not necessarily antisemitic to do so either. Neither is it antisemitic nor even inaccurate to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa, though it is certainly unflattering and contrary to Israel’s projected self-image.

(I will note in passing that I agree with Mobius's characterization of the "Convergence Plan" and other aspects of current Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories as "hardly distinct from the South African Bantustan system.")

In general, I would like to see Jews of all (or no) denominational stripe (and non-Jews, for that matter) be more open to debate the current status of Zionism and Israeli policies without fear of being branded antisemitic or "self-hating Jew" or other unconstructive epithets. In this regard, the AJC has done us all a disservice.

As one commenter on the Jewschool thread says:

To criticize the IDEA of Zionism is not the same thing as trying to drives Jews into the sea.

Indeed. I don't know what the model ultimately should be, but the status quo--even the hypothetically peaceful version of it known as "the two-state solution"--is of dubious viability. When one side sees the establishment of the state of Israel as the fulfillment of "the two-thousand-year-old hope" and the other as "The Catastrophe," we have to be willing to use our progressivism--and, yes, our Judaism--to allow ourselves to have debates that might even lead us to reassess long-held axioms.

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