Posted by Bob Goldfarb
Symbols are not as important as the things they represent, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that. Take the current disagreement over the proposal to construct a mosque at the World Trade Center site. The Anti-Defamation League says it opposes the plan; JStreet favors it. Of course the deeper issue is not Cordoba House or its planned programming about (among other things) Arab-Jewish relations. The building is being debated because of what it stands for.
A guest column in todays’s Jerusalem Post takes the opposite approach. Ari Hart, co-founder of the Orthodox social-justice organization Uri l’Tzedek, writes about the planned encirclement of the Palestinian village of Walaja by an extension of the separation barrier. For him it is not a metaphor for some abstract policy question. It’s about the lives and livelihoods of 2000 human beings. It’s well worth reading—both because of the issues it raises, and because it is a model of placing human concerns over rhetorical ones.
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July 29, 2010 | 8:58 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
The idea of a “two-state solution” for Israel and Palestine has become almost sacrosanct, so much so that it is invoked with the regularity and solemnity of a ritual. That makes it all the more surprising that a few Israeli politicians have come forward in support of the unthinkable: a single state for Jews and Palestinians.
The conventional wisdom in Israel sees a one-state solution as a demographic time-bomb, with Palestinians soon outnumbering the Jews and the state losing its Jewish character. From the Palestinian side the one-state idea has sometimes been advanced with the proviso that the new state be avowedly secular, eliminating its Jewish identity by law rather than through population trends.
The new move for a bi-national state would change the rules of the game by excluding Gaza from the mix. In one stroke 1,500,000 Gazans would be taken out of the demographic calculation, and Hamas would be removed from the bargaining process. That makes it plausible for Israel to consider a power-sharing arrangement with Palestinians that extends some sort of citizenship to the residents of the West Bank while keeping the country Jewish.
This plan is supported, perhaps surprisingly, by the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likkud party. “It’s preferable for the Palestinians to become citizens of the state than for us to divide the country,” he declared this spring. Fellow Likkudnik Moshe Arens, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, asked last month in his column in Haaretz, “What would happen if Israeli sovereignty were to be applied to Judea and Samaria, the Palestinian population there being offered Israeli citizenship?”
A weekend article in Haaretz two weeks ago portrays this new idea as coming mostly from the far right wing, and quotes Uri Elitzur of Gush Emunim (the “Bloc of the Faithful”) at great length in favor of it. But as the writer of the Haaretz article, Noam Sheizaf, observes, “there is another side, too: the impression that the Israeli center, in its addiction to the separation idea, has sloughed off the question of relations with the Arab population, on both sides of the Green Line.” As an alternative to the increasing separation of Jews and Palestinians, a one-state solution would actively promote the integration of the two populations.
There are also strategic considerations. Prof. Yehuda Shenhav, author of The Time of the Green Line, told Haaretz, “in their political diagnosis the settlers are right. I wrote exactly what the right is saying today: the war in Gaza is the model that will be repeated in the future if there is separation.” In other words, the status quo is untenable because separation will lead to great isolation and hostility on the West Bank.
Speaker Rivlin, in an interview with Haaretz, suggested “One could establish a system in one state in which Judea and Samaria are jointly held. The Jews would vote for a Jewish parliament and the Palestinians for an Arab parliament, and we would create a system in which life is shared. But these are things that will take time.” Rivlin speaks with particular authority since his family has been in the Land since the early 19th century (a street in downtown Jerusalem is named for one of his forebears).
Whatever the enthusiasm for this notion among Israelis—and so far it seems very limited—there is the unavoidable fact that Palestinians are very unlikely to give up their deeply felt national aspirations any time soon. Nor is it probable that world opinion will acquiesce to permanent Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. So this proposal may be useful largely as a thought experiment. Still, there is a lot to be said for shaking up the status quo with a new idea instead of repeating the old ones again and again.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, lives in Jerusalem. He also blogs for eJewishPhilanthropy.com¸ and Tweets about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture at twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.
July 27, 2010 | 9:41 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
Last weekend the Convention Center in Washington, D.C., was packed with 4000 supporters of Israel. They heard from speakers like Sen. Joseph Lieberman; Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush; and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Yet this was no Jewish conclave. It was the fifth annual Washington Summit of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), founded in 2006 by Pastor John Hagee and now numbering some 426,000 members. AIPAC, by comparison, claims 100,000. Considering the oft-stated importance of Israel to American Jews, one might expect the Jewish community to embrace these allies who so unequivocally support the Jewish state, financially as well as morally. The reality is that most Jews keep their distance. Why?
One likely reason is simple political differences. CUFI unambiguously supports a conservative agenda, and American Jews are generally liberal. To take one example, a CUFI spokesman summed up its position on one hot-button topic by saying “we don’t believe, recognizing Israel as a sovereign nation, that we can dictate where they can and can’t build.” Advocates of a freeze on new construction in East Jerusalem would naturally disagree.
The discomfort doesn’t end there, however. Given the long history of Christians seeking and sometimes forcing Jews to convert, some Jews have trouble trusting the motives of these new friends of Israel. They wonder if there is some hidden agenda, and since CUFI is a faith-based organization they look for theological explanations.
In particular, some Christians believe that Jews lost the Covenant with God when they rejected Jesus, and that after being gathered in the Land of Israel Jews must convert to Christianity at the End of Days. On the other hand, many don’t, including Pastor Hagee. There are numerous doctrinal disagreements within Christianity. Still, some Jews are afraid that the support of the Christian Zionist movement comes with some strings attached.
On some level this may come from a feeling that evangelical Christians are The Other. The differences in the two communities’ origins, beliefs, and customs have certainly led to mistrust and prejudice over time. Now that CUFI has reached out to Jews by embracing one of our core values—supporting Israel—this may be an opportunity to move beyond our preconceptions, see one another more realistically, and find common ground.
Honest disagreements are part of any political process, and reasonable people can differ on matters of policy. It’s something else entirely to spurn millions of people because we don’t understand them or their religious beliefs. Jews who reject CUFI’s support should ask themselves exactly why they have made that decision. As Hillel said, that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He also blogs at eJewishPhilanthropy.com, and Tweets about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture at twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.
July 22, 2010 | 8:23 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
The strife in the Middle East comes from the clashing beliefs of two peoples who both believe that the Land of Israel belongs to them. These two peoples of course are American Jews and Israelis, whose mutual incomprehension has surfaced yet again in the controversy over the Rotem bill.
Like any two peoples locked in conflict, each has its own historical narrative. Israel’s population comes from all over the world, and in much of the world it’s customary for a Jewish community to have a Chief Rabbi. Both the Ottomans and the British recognized the Rabbinate in Palestine, and its authority was strengthened after the establishment of the State. A Chief Rabbinate is as normal for Israelis as the Queen is for the British.
Americans, on the other hand, come from a political tradition where religion is a private matter and the state legally cannot interfere. Having a Chief Rabbi would be as peculiar as, well, having a queen. In particular, since pluralism runs deep in American culture, the idea of empowering one stream of Judaism over another seems inherently wrong. For American Jews these principles are generally so self-evident that they are beyond question.
Israelis are mostly secular Jews, and it doesn’t matter to them who decides what’s kosher. Some are unhappy with the Rabbinate’s monopoly on performing weddings and its standards for conversions, but that is more likely because of disagreements over particular standards rather than about the principle of rabbinical power. It’s like the Food and Drug Administration in America: people may disagree with its decisions, but most don’t actively object to its authority.
By contrast, Alana Newhouse captured the powerful feelings of many American Jews in the New York Times last week. “Future historians,” she wrote, “will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.”
No Knesset law can invalidate religious practices in the Diaspora; all it can do is fail to recognize them in Israel. As Newhouse’s passionate Op-Ed shows, however, this bill is an emotionally charged symbol. American Jews feel as if they have been slapped in the face by a member of their own family. It doesn’t matter that very few of them will ever be directly affected by anything the Knesset decides. The issue is deeply polarizing.
Meanwhile, both the Rabbinate’s detractors and supporters claim that Jewish unity is on their side. The Rabbinate believes that there must be a single standard – a religious standard – for who is a Jew, otherwise we will no longer be one people. Meanwhile Benjamin Ish-Shalom of Beit Morasha, opposing the Rotem bill, writes in The Jewish Week, “We are one people and must remain one.”
Professions of unity come mostly when unity is in doubt, and the truth is that there are more divisions within Jewish life than we can count. A true pluralist would respect those divisions, rather than ignoring them or trying to defeat the people with whom one differs. Israeli and American Jews share Jewish identity but have different values and expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s accept that we live in different countries and grant each other some autonomy. We’ll get along more peacefully with a two-state solution.
Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem and a regular columnist for eJewishPhilanthropy.com. His Twitter feed on Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture can be found at Twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.