Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
On behalf of J Street, we are proud to send you Rabbi Richard Levy’s stirring meditation on the karpas, the vegetable dipped in salt water during Seder. Rabbi Levy urges us to become as courageous as Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Judah and the first Israelite to brave the waters of the sea. The Midrash recalls that he went forward while others hesitated. He demonstrated conviction when others wavered.
Today, our hope for Israel and for peace calls upon us to aspire to Nachshon’s courage. Around us are our many sisters and brothers who vacillate, who hesitate to step forward and act with resolution for peace and Israel’s long term well-being. Deliver Rabbi Levy’s message to your Seder participants and, as they dip their karpas, call on them to act with alacrity. In the year to come may every one of us, in the spirit of Nachshon, eagerly advocate for the end of occupation and the beginning of peace, security, hope and freedom for Israelis and their neighbors. As a supporter of J Street, tell them, “This is our time to lead!”
Click here to download the J Street Seder supplement, Dipping into Salty Waters: A Karpas for Our Time.
Warmest wishes for a sweet Pesach,
Rabbi John Rosove and Rabbi John Friedman
J Street Rabbinic Cabinet
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March 14, 2013 | 8:25 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Days before President Obama’s visit, PM Netanyahu has managed to form a new Israeli government with 68 seats (out of 120) for a ruling majority. What does it all mean? That is the question of the hour.
I offer a few observations and Israeli press sites that, hopefully, will not confuse you more than you may already be. After all, Israeli politics isn’t for the feint of heart nor the simple minded:
PM Benjamin Netanyahu (with a total of 31 seats combined with Yisrael Bateinu) has been vastly weakened compared to his standing in the former government, though he continues to hold onto the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministries.
Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) with a total of 31 seats together maintained their uncommon alliance (and growing friendship) and succeeded in excluding for the first time the ultra-Orthodox parties from the ruling coalition. Lapid’s #2 Rabbi Shai Peron will take over the Education Ministry and might be able to force the ultra-Orthodox yeshivot to include English, Hebrew, math, and science in their curriculum or risk losing government support for their schools. Bennett gets the important Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, the Housing and Construction Ministry and the Knesset Finance Committee, which will help him continue to finance heavily the settler movement that elected him, throwing a wrench into any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (Bennett is against a two-state solution - see below).
Lapid and Bennett’s alliance also insures that shivyon b'netel (“sharing the burden of military service”) will force Yeshiva buchers to serve in the military without the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties breathing down their necks. Yesh Atid has announced that a universal military service bill will be submitted to the Knesset, with Bibi’s approval, before the budget is submitted. It is likely that we can expect a sharp reduction of funds flowing to ultra-Orthodox synagogues and Yeshivot going forward.
Lapid will now be the Finance Minister and must come up with a national budget in the next 45 days. Lapid risks losing his image as Israel’s charismatic darling for the poor and middle classes because, as Finance Minister, he will have to make tough choices and propose cuts that might hurt the very people who voted for him and who are the most vulnerable in Israeli society. He is said to dread the prospect of protestors picketing his home.
Religious pluralism may or may not be a winner in this election. Lapid’s children became b'nai mitzvah at Reform Judaism’s flagship Tel Aviv congregation, Beit Daniel, and he is personally close to the Daniel Center’s Senior Rabbi Meir Azari. Though Lapid can, with a stroke of the pen, grant government funds to non-Orthodox religious movements equal to those going to the Orthodox for the first time, Israel’s culture still needs an aggressive non-Orthodox alliance between the secular population and Reform and Conservative Jews (estimated to equal 70% of Israel’s Jewish population) to fight hard to promote civil marriage and women’s rights, against government imposed Shabbat restrictions, separate gender seating on buses, and the ultra-Orthodox dominance of Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall (Kotel) and Plaza.
The right-wing Yuli Edestein was voted as the next Speaker of the Knesset which now retires my cousin, the respected long-time Likud leader, Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin from that seat. Ruby was second behind Shimon Peres for President of the State a number of years ago.
Iran and Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations? Much will be revealed in the coming weeks on both fronts in light of President Obama’s mission to the Middle East starting next week. It is likely that Obama and Bibi already have an understanding on how they will deal with the Iran nuclear issue (I pray!). It is likely that something will begin anew between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, with Bennett in the government, I fear the worst even as I hope for the best – a two-state solution. In a conversation I had last week with one of Israel’s leaders, he does not believe that Bennett, representing a small faction of 11 seats, will greatly influence the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I pray he is right.
For ongoing information, I recommend that you read the English and/or Hebrew edition of Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post, and the Hebrew edition for Yediot Achronot at www.ynet.co.il. You can also check out www.walla.co.il, another Israeli Hebrew language news link.
March 12, 2013 | 2:06 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I have taught children of every age since the early 1970s. In more than four decades I have learned many lessons about how people best learn, why teachers need to teach to the individual child and what is ultimately important in the teacher-student relationship. The Babylonian Talmud (Taanit 7a) teaches an important truth: “Amar Rabbi Hanina – Harbeh lamadti m’rabotai u-m’chaverai yoter m’rabotai, u-m’talmidai yoter mikulam" (“I have learned much from my teachers, more from my fellow students/friends, and from my students, most of all.”).
Though this Talmudic passage is generally true for me, nevertheless, one of the most important lessons I ever learned was when I was still a high school student. In the 11th grade I took a class from among the most popular and beloved teachers in my school. He was smart, charismatic, dynamic, devoted, emotionally accessible, and cared for his students - or most of them.
As part of his pre-college English class he required that students read a great deal of great literature and then write and give oral “book reports” on the books he assigned. During one lunch hour I was scheduled to present my report. In preparation, I had read the book as carefully as I could, underlined key passages, organized my thoughts in written notes, and brought all of that with me. I spoke for about 10 minutes during the lunch hour.
It was a custom for many students to congregate in his classroom during lunch, so many of my friends were present. At the end of my presentation he asked me an important question that to this then 17 year-old I did not understand. He asked again, and when I did not respond correctly a second time he exploded, accused me publicly of not reading the book, of relying on the book jacket for all my information, and then threw chalk and paper clips at me in a display that was, to say the least, shocking. I was humiliated, but his rant didn’t stop then. He carried it on into the next two periods accusing me in my absence and to my classmates of cheating.
I am reminded of this story often, and most especially this week when I heard that he was retiring after more than 60 years of teaching, that many students had come to honor him and express their gratitude. I too am grateful, but for very different reasons.
When I have had the urge to express frustration and/or anger at a student, I think of this teacher and credit him for reminding me of the wounds that such behavior caused me and that could cause to my own students. I once failed a student by embarrassing him, and when I did I sought him out to apologize and ask his forgiveness, which he magnanimously gave to me.
Years ago I wrote to my high school teacher to let him know of my experience that day. I had to get it off my chest and confront him directly. I am certain he received the letter, but I did not receive a response.
Rashi (11th century, France) taught that the teacher must always demonstrate patience and kindness towards the student regardless of the student’s academic, intellectual, or emotional ability, and to teach according to every student’s needs. If a student needs extra assistance, the teacher must see to it patiently that the student eventually understands.
Jewish tradition regards humiliating another human being publicly as equivalent to the shedding of blood (i.e. murder). This principle extends to all relationships and especially if there is a power differential (e.g. parent-child, teacher-student, employer/customer-employee, etc.).
Of course, criticism by a teacher to a student, an employer to employee, and within family and among friends and colleagues should be given - but, it should be done privately, carefully, patiently, and with loving concern that the receiver of such criticism understand it and have an opportunity improve and/or change behavior.
Having said all this, I also remember with great love and respect my Talmud teacher, Dr. Abraham Zygelboim (zal) at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. As a rabbinic student in my mid-20s, I had suffered a painful break-up with my then-girlfriend and I was emotionally devastated. Between classes I needed to take a few minutes for myself, so I walked outside and sat against a wall and wept.
Dr. Zygelboim approached me and kissed my forehead without ever saying a word. His sweetness will stay with me all the days of my life, just as the bitter memory of my high school teacher’s humiliation stays with me.
We are, each of us, powerful beings, and we often underestimate our capacity to touch and/or harm others. Indeed, how we treat others and speak to them defines the nature of our character more than anything else we may say, teach or do.
March 7, 2013 | 11:51 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This week we learn about Bezalel, the man chosen to design and build the Tabernacle that carried the tablets of the law that Moses brought down from Sinai. (Exodus 38:22-39:31)
On the face of it, these verses describe the matter-of-fact building of a physical edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan. Rather, it’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites, a standard of beauty and meaning that would impress itself upon the soul of generations of Jews to come in the land of Israel and all the lands of the Diaspora.
Not just any craftsman could design and build this sacred structure. The necessary qualities are spelled out in the text:
“See, God has called by name Bezalel ... and filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom (chochmah), with understanding (t'vunah), and with knowledge (da-at) in all work. And God instilled thoughts (lachshov machshavot) [in Bezalel’s mind] in order for him to make designs of all kinds...” (Exodus 35:30-32)
Because of the importance of the Mishkan in the iconography of Jewish tradition, our sages sought to understand the deepest meaning of this passage. Rashi says that chochmah is the wisdom we learn from others; t’vunah - the understanding we gain from life experience; and da-at - mystical intuition. Jewish legend assumes that Bezalel was well-versed in Kabbalah, that he understood the combinations of letters with which God created the heavens and the earth.
From all this Bezalel is presented as a master craftsman and architect, seasoned by life's experiences, open-hearted and open-minded to the needs and insights of the people, inspired with a Godly spirit, and understanding of the fundamental laws and truths at the core of creation.
The name “Bezalel” means "being in God's shadow," suggesting that he had attained the level of tzadik and achieved yihud, unity with God.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev says, yes, Bezalel’s function was to be the chief executive of this project to build the Mishkan, that is, in Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s words, “someone who would meticulously carry out instructions.” But the next verse adds another dimension when it says “v’lachshov machshavot” ([and God] “made him think thoughts”), meaning that Bezalel was asked not only to carry out God’s instructions, but to contribute “original ideas of his own.”
There are people today and throughout history who have made and do fine work replicating through drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture what they see objectively in nature and in the art and architecture of others. They seek, at the very least, to reconstruct what they see. The great artist, however, does more than repeat. He/she adds something ineffable to the work - a deeper and broader vision that is unique to the artist.
Bezalel was such an artist. Yet, a midrash says that even Bezalel's wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and originality weren’t sufficient to merit his assignment as chief designer, architect and manager of the building of the Mishkan.
A midrash has God asking Moses if he, Moses, thought Bezalel was suited for this holy duty. And, as if stunned by the question from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be God, Moses replied, "Master of the universe! If You consider him suitable, then surely I do!" Whereupon God instructed Moses, "Go and ask Israel if they approve of my choice of Bezalel." And Moses did so.
The people, also probably stunned, replied, "If Bezalel is judged good enough by God and by you, surely he is approved by us, too."
From this, our sages concluded that Bezalel wasn’t only God's choice but also the people's choice.
Mark Chagall adds yet another dimension to the task of the artist when he wrote that "the artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art's sake. One must be interested in the entire realm of life."
This story reminds us to consider well the nature of our own sacred spaces. They are not meant to be merely functional meeting halls with an ark and Torah scrolls on the eastern wall. Rather, they should reflect the highest aesthetic vision of our tradition and people, and thereby not only enhance our prayer experience in their spaces but construct stairways to heaven.
That is the architectural vision that our own architects at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg of Koning-Eizenberg Architects, Inc. have envisioned for our new chapel to be built.
It is our fervent hope that construction will begin soon thereby fulfilling at last the final stage of what we set out to do as a congregation more than ten years ago, to create a new synagogue upon the old (now 87 years old) as a whole and a new sacred space in which we may celebrate the holy and draw nearer to God.
March 3, 2013 | 8:36 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Everyone is prognosticating whether Israel will be able to form a government. Allow me from abroad to add my two cents.
Point #1 – The election was not about foreign policy or security, though those remain important. Rather, it was about internal Israeli policy, the economy and fairness in service to the state, young people’s inability to afford the cost of living, the huge government funds being given over to settlements and the Hareidim (ultra-Orthodox), the latter of which give nothing back in taxes or military/civilian service to the state.
Point #2 – Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Habayit HaYehudi), who surprisingly earned 19 and 11 mandates respectively, have formed a strong bond. Either they both become part of the ruling coalition or neither does, thus making Bibi Netanyahu scramble for parties (so far unsuccessfully) to join the government. Strange bedfellows when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Lapid and Bennett agree that the economy and “sharing the burden” of military service must be addressed by the next government. Neither will join a coalition with any Hareidi party. Bibi has been unable to break them up. The Israeli public is growing in respect for both Lapid and Bennett as a result.
Point #3 – President Shimon Peres has given Bibi a two week extension to form a government. If Lapid and Bennett hold together it is my best guess that new elections will need to be called. It’s said that Bibi is heavily courting Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) to enter the government though she has refused to do so (but so did Tzipi Livni once upon a time - Tzipi and Bibi hate each other – but she made a deal anyway). If Bennett/Lapid do agree to come into the government with no ultra-Orthodox Hareidi parties, it is unclear what Livni will choose to do because her two-state interest is contrary to Bennett’s one-state position.
Point #4 – Bibi was deeply weakened in this election. His partnership with Yisrael Bateinu (Avigdor Lieberman, now under indictment) had hoped to garner 42 mandates. Instead the combined parties got 31 (20 are Likud and 11 are Yisrael Bateinu). Lapid and Bennett together hold 30 (19 and 11 respectively). According to current polls, if new elections are called Yair Lapid will earn in the mid to high 20s and will be asked to form the next government.
Point #5 – Shelly Yachimovich seriously weakened the Labor Party by her refusal to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution and because personally she is not well-liked. Meretz (6 mandates) and Yesh Atid were the beneficiaries of disgruntled former Labor supporters. Lapid and Bennett are well-liked not only because they focused their campaigns on what the Israelis really want and need, (i.e. to clean up the economy, eliminate the disparity in government benefits going to Hareidim and the settlements, to make it obligatory for all Israelis - Hareidim included - to serve in the military or civilian service, and to clean up corruption.
Point #6 – Religious pluralism, though not the top issue of the campaign, will be affected by the government that is formed. If the ultra-Orthodox are kept out, this is very good for the Reform and Conservative movements and for secular Israeli Jews who make up 80% of the country. Civil marriage, reducing government support for ultra-Orthodox communities, granting more support for progressive religious communities (i.e. Reform and Conservative), women’s rights, civil marriage, immigrant rights, etc. will advance. Yair Lapid once wrote an article in Maariv saying that “We are all Reform Jews.” His children became b’nai mitzvah at Beit Daniel, our starship Reform synagogue of Tel Aviv and he is very close to Rabbi Meir Azari, Beit Daniel’s Rabbi.
Point #7 – The domestic issues that were the main focus of this election are now potentially in conflict with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Vis a vis the Palestinians, Israelis have thrown up their hands. They want a two-state solution by a substantial majority (Bennett does not), but they do not really know whether the Palestinians want the same, though polls say the Palestinians too are in favor. Israelis, however, are not at all convinced that President Abbas of the PA can deliver a Palestinian state. The Israelis know that Iran remains a mortal threat, but are confident that President Obama will lead on the issue.
Conclusion – I believe Bibi will be unsuccessful in forming a new government and that new elections will be called – probably in May. If so, Yair Lapid could become Prime Minister. Of course, I could be completely wrong.
My wish for Israel is a strong and pragmatic middle of the road government without the ultra-Orthodox parties, and then real movement on both the domestic issues and a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
March 1, 2013 | 7:20 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight to “atone for your souls.” (Exodus 30:13)
The Tosafot surmises that
"Moses was perplexed, thinking to himself, 'What can a person possibly give that will serve as atonement for his soul?' Thereupon, God showed him a 'coin of fire.'"
Question - How can a "coin of fire" grant atonement for one's soul?
Rabbi Menachem Schneerson answered with a parable:
A person once served as an apprentice to a silver and goldsmith. The artisan taught his apprentice all the necessary details except for one, which he omitted because of its utter simplicity: in order to melt gold and silver and change its shape, a fire must be lit under the metals.
Setting out on his own, the apprentice faithfully followed all the particulars his master taught him, leaving out that one "minor" detail that his teacher had omitted, the need for a fire. Because of this omission, of course, nothing happened. The silver and gold remained as they were, and the apprentice could fashion nothing at all.
God similarly responded to Moses by showing him a ‘coin of fire,’ (the half-shekel). (Likkuti Sichos, Vol. III, pages 923-28; from Parashat Shekalim - "An Undivided Half-Shekel")
The parable explains that merely offering a half-shekel coin doesn't bring about atonement. But, when the coin is offered with fire, referring to soul-fire, then the half-shekel atones even for a sin as grievous as the sin of the Golden Calf.
Another question - Why does Torah ask for only a half-shekel and not a whole shekel?
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev explains in a complex Kabbalistic discussion (Kedushat Levi, vol. 2, p 494, Lambda Press) that what we’re dealing with here are purely spiritual matters, that when an Israelite gives a half-shekel of twenty gerah weight, it isn’t about the monetary value we earthly beings require to physically sustain a community. Rather, it’s about how we may enter into God’s presence.
The first letter in the word Keter (Crown - the highest emanation of God on the Kabbalist chart of emanations) is chaf, and chaf equals twenty according to Hebrew letter-number equivalents, the same as the weight of the half-shekel, thereby indicating that the 20 gerah (chaf-Keter) weight half-shekel is a spiritual metaphor of ascent towards yihud (unity) with God at the highest level.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak explains that without the spiritual fire no offering, no gift, no presentation from the heart will succeed in linking heaven and earth. Soul-fire is the critical element that enables yihud, union, between us and God.
It is part of the human condition that we are broken, flawed, distracted, seducible, unfocused, fragmented, disloyal, weak, and imperfect. The golden calf incident is the most spectacular example in the Biblical period of betrayal perpetrated by the people against God. Only 39 days before the making of the golden calf (in this week's Torah reading) they heard the commandment against worshipping false gods, and they made the object and celebrated it as a god in spite of what they had only recently experienced at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Those who had turned away from God badly needed a means to return to holiness. Restoration, thankfully, is always possible. Rabbi Simon Jacobson writes that "Moses offers us a rare - once in history - glimpse into the intimate secret of communicating with the Divine, as he beseeches God to forgive and reconcile with the people.... Moses implores God, ‘Show me Your face.’ [And in response] God forgives.”
Mending our relationship with God (and with those we love and community) is a fundamentally restorative and healing process, and it begins with the offering of the half-shekel.
Judaism teaches that we are most whole when we enter into authentic, trusting, loyal, loving, and passionately committed relationships with family and friends, with a sacred community and with God. That is the lesson of the half-shekel "coin of fire."
For those of us who do not believe there is a God or, at the very least are skeptical about ever experiencing a relationship with the Divine, then I suggest that you let authentic relationships with loved ones and with community suffice. Perhaps the Divine-human experience will follow.
Our Torah portion and the Midrashic literature teach that the ‘coin of fire,’ the half-shekel, facilitates atonement (read instead "at-one-ment"). When that occurs, when we offer a coin of fire we become, in effect, God’s light, as it says in Proverbs (20:27) - Nishmat adam ner Adonai - “The human soul is the lamp of God.”
February 21, 2013 | 11:08 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In October I joined with 28 members of my congregation in a “humanitarian mission” to the Cuban Jewish community (meaning, we took goods and cash as gifts to support the Jewish community there). There are about 1000+ Cuban Jews living today in Havana, Santiago and Guantanamo, and we visited 3 of the 4 synagogue communities on the island. We were deeply moved by these people. They hosted us for Shabbat in Santiago (41 Jews) and welcomed us in Guantanamo (75 Jews) for lunch with an Israeli folk dance performance by 7 of its young people.
There is no Rabbi or Jewish school on the island to teach adults about Judaism and Jewish practice. Cubans generally have no access to the Internet, and so one would think that assimilation would be the greatest threat to the continued existence of their Jewish community. Yet, despite much intermarriage (by some estimates only 25 individuals have two Jewish parents) their Jewish identity is strong and their longing for all things Jewish compelling.
In Santiago I was asked to name a 10 day-old baby girl. In Guantanamo, we were shown the pride and joy of that community, a brand new Torah scroll contributed a few years ago by the Canadian Jewish Congress. It had never been read, which brings me to the purpose in this blog.
A study was recently published called “American Jewish Secularism: Jewish Life Beyond the Synagogue” by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar in which the authors discuss our changing American Jewish identity. Though 40% of the American Jewish community (by some estimates) is affiliated with synagogues, and among them a portion do believe in God, study Torah regularly and do Jewish good works in the interest of tikun olam (repair of the world), most American Jews are not synagogue-affiliated, and an even greater number consider themselves atheist or agnostic, are unlearned in Judaism, and do not lead lives that are particularly Jewish, though they may very well self-identify as Jewish.
Many so-called “secular” Jews, instead of being involved in religious communities, are instead drawn as Jews to Jewish culture and politics such as Church-State issues, Israel, Yiddish and modern Hebrew study, Klezmer and Jewish music, Jewish photography and art exhibits, Israeli film, and Jewish book festivals. All this is well and good. Indeed, what the study indicates is that there is developing a rich secular Jewish culture in America that engages many.
My question is this: Just as the Cuban Jewish community relishes in the celebration of Jewish holidays, Israeli music, and Jewish communal life (with an obvious lack of exposure to American Jewish cultural opportunities), their knowledge base in Judaism is paper-thin.
Let me not be misunderstood. What the Cuban Jews have managed to create with no rabbis and no serious Jewish educational institutions is nothing less than heroic. But, I and my traveling companions worried about the survival of the Cuban Jewish community.
I also worry about the nature of the American Jewish community going forward. Will it survive, or will it morph into something unrecognizable by today’s standards?
I take the position that every door needs to be kept open, and new doors need to be opened, to welcome Jews and their families into Jewish communal life. I am well aware that not all these doors will necessarily lead people to an enriched Jewish faith, experience of God and the holy, or to greater Jewish learning. Yet those doors (be they children’s education, Purim Shpiels and carnivals, social justice work, trips to Israel and Jewish communities around the world, and Jewish cultural events), I would hope, will be stepping stones leading our people to deeper Jewish knowledge and engagement in the covenant of the Jewish people with God.
Many American secular Jews confess that that they do not need synagogues in order to be Jewish. That may be true, but for our community to maintain our Jewish identity and secure some measure of Jewish continuity, no other institution in Jewish life has ever been able to bring Jews together in all the dimensions of life as has the synagogue, except perhaps the State of Israel.
The synagogue has been the Diaspora’s laboratory of Jewish living for two millennia. It is where Jews experience the holy and engage in tikun olam.
What will the next generation of American Jews be like? Will our American Judaism look more like that of our Cuban Jewish brothers and sisters, or will we discover a more enriched Jewish identity and life?
The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) reminds us of the truth that Talmud Torah k’neged kulam (“The study of Torah is equal to all the commandments”).
To secure Jewish life, Jews have had to be learned and committed to the building of community. It is from this base that we have survived, and this alone.
February 13, 2013 | 8:36 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
What follows is my response to a flurry of letters posted by Reform Rabbis on our List Serve (RAVKAV) critical of J Street. Many of my colleagues charge that J Street ignores hostility to Israel throughout the Middle East, the growing influence and threat of Hamas in the Palestinian community, that Israel has no real partner to peace in Mahmud Abbas, and that J Street is constantly critiquing Israeli policies and not the Palestinians.
Note: I serve as the National co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet with close to 700 rabbis of all religious streams - see J Street's website for all policy positions - www.jstreet.org.
In response to [the above] challenges to J Street, I want to offer J Street's stated position on a number of issues as well as its reasoning for a number of its positions.
Re: the issue of "calling for concessions by the Palestinians" - I would make two points:
(1) J Street has always made clear such views as
(a) the Palestinians have to give up the right of return;
(b) the Palestinian state has to be demilitarized;
(c) the Palestinians must cease the rhetoric and actions that incite violence and hatred of Jews; and
(d) that any Palestinian entity/party that hopes to be part of the political process has to renounce violence/terror, recognize Israel and agree to abide by past agreements.
Those views are all in J Street's policy papers and on the J Street website – but not too much discussion or debate is ever generated by them because they are consensus points. There would be no need to set up a J Street in the first place if those were the thrust of our points – every Jewish organization agrees with and makes those points. That's why 2% of the ink spilled about J Street addresses or acknowledges these points;
(2) The reason why it seems to those who follow us/read about us that we are 98% of the time talking about what we are calling on Israel to do is that that's what there's an argument. Those who choose to argue/debate don't raise the issues on which we agree, they raise the issues on which we disagree. So that's why one hears a lot more about our belief that Israel should stop expanding settlements, or that the US should play a more active role in leading the peace effort, and that such parameters as the borders need to be based on the '67 lines with swaps or that both countries should have a capital in Jerusalem should be put forward by the US.
On the issue of primarily focusing on Israel – it's hard not to disagree with the theory that, even though we're Jews and we engage in this issue (as opposed to peace in Mali) because we care so deeply about Israel and the Jewish people, we somehow shouldn't be more focused on the Jewish side of the equation. The entirety of this debate actually is about what it means to be pro-Israel – not what it means to be pro-Palestinian. We believe it is pro-Israel to advocate for Israelis to stop building settlements. We believe it is pro-Israel to advocate for US leadership in getting a deal. Of course it's pro-Israel to advocate that the Palestinians should stop incitement and fight terror – but we're going to have little impact on the internal Palestinian debate on how best to gain their freedom (even though we have made statements precisely on those points). We are going to have an impact on the Jewish debate over what it means to be pro-Israel.
On the Palestinian partner question, J Street obviously just disagrees. Abbas, Fayyad and this PLO/PA leadership ARE a partner for peace despite Abbas' rhetoric at the UN, about which I was sickened. However, their being considered partners in peace is not just in J Street's opinion but in the opinion of such Israeli leaders as former Prime Ministers, the President of Israel, former heads of the Israeli security services. No, Mahmoud Abbas is not a Zionist. That's no surprise. When, as the leader of the Palestinian people, he addresses the international community directly he will be – as we would expect our leaders to be – a fierce advocate for the rights of his people, which we have to acknowledge are in conflict with the rights of our people. If he were to do less, he would be completely abdicating his role and he would sacrifice the last shred of legitimacy and credibility that he has. For anyone to simply state that "it is a reality" that Abbas and the PLO are "not yet committed to offering themselves as serious partners in the peace process" is simply an opinion that is out of step with the moderate mainstream of Israeli policy makers and analysts. It's such a person’s right to hold that opinion and it's J Street's right to believe that s/he is wrong. If one is waiting for Abbas to come to Israel and announce up front that the Palestinian people renounce their right to the land as "theirs," s/he will sadly watch a bloody, violent struggle continue for the rest of his/her life, and the state of Israel gradually will become more and more internationally isolated and shunned. If one is willing to recognize that peace will be made between two leaders/people who fiercely believe they are "in the right" but are willing to compromise at the end of the day to achieve peace and end bloodshed, then maybe there's hope.
Let me say one more thing. I deeply appreciate the civility with which those who have posted are writing. That is a win for everyone. I would hope that those who hold views that presume J Street is one-sided will take a second look at J Street's positions and approach to a two-state solution. It is, in my view, the only way forward. I am well-aware of the risks. I understand that Israelis are the ones on the front lines and that we in Galut have only a secondary right to speak. But, I also know that so many hundreds of thousands of Israelis agree with J Street's position, or should I say, that J Street agrees with their position.