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.
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February 11, 2013 | 8:49 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Recent surveys conducted by Hiddush, an organization committed to freedom of religion for Israel, show clearly that the vast majority of Israelis want “freedom of religion and equality in shouldering civic burdens, equal military service for all, the implementation of core curricular studies, civil marriage, public transportation on Shabbat, a decrease in subsidies for yeshiva students, and action against public discrimination of women. Instead the public suffers from the government’s repeated surrender to the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.” (Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush).
This conclusion is drawn from surveys conducted before and after the recent Israeli elections by the Rafi Smith Research Institute. Here are some of its findings:
There are a number of conclusions to be drawn from these surveys:
The ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, represents only 9% of Israeli society. Modern Orthodox Jews are far more in number but work and serve in the Israeli military as do all Israeli citizens. The Israeli public clearly has voiced its opposition to the unfair influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties over Israel’s civil community. It is hoped that the next government will reflect the true desires of the Israeli public.
The particulars of Hiddush surveys can be found on the Hiddush web-site.
February 4, 2013 | 9:16 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This morning I spoke by phone to Jerusalem with Felice Friedson (The Media Line's - TML - co-founder and its current President and CEO) about a new U.S. State Department-funded study on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks that soon will be released.
The article “Text-Book Study Sparks Controversy,” co-written by Felice Friedson and Linda Gradstein of NPR News, covers a study conducted over the last three years of how Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the images these textbooks create of the other population. Felice, who has read the entire study, reports that:
A U.S. State Department-funded study on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks released in Jerusalem has set-off a wave of insults, charges and counter-charges. Israel’s Ministry of Education called the detailed report “biased and unprofessional” while the International Society for Political Psychology called the Israeli government’s description “highly distressing.”
Education is a key element in a future two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is clear that there is a long way to go before the two enemy populations know and understand each other. Organizations such as Seeds for Peace have sought to defuse conflict through face to face encounters, camps and projects in which Israeli and Palestinian youth come to actually know one another, but not nearly enough people on each side have had such opportunities. This is why this text-book study is so revealing as a gauge for the state of understanding of each population towards the other. This story will have legs for some time. It is worth following:
See the Media Line Story here.
Note: The Media Line is a “non-profit news organization established to enhance and balance media coverage in the Middle East.” It delivers its in-house news and programming via multiple media – radio, television content, Internet news and features, and written stories for the print media. Media outlets using The Media Line as a source include the BBC World Service; National Public Radio; ABC, CBS affiliates; Al-Quds (Palestinian) newspaper; Y-Net (Israel); Ma’an (Palestinian) Television Network; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; India Today; IRN (UK Radio). Media Line may also soon be picked up by The Huffington Post .
February 3, 2013 | 7:49 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This little volume reminds me of a conversation once between Picasso and an art critique who asked the Master how long it took him to draw a piece that had only a few lines evoking the image of a man. Picasso said, “A life-time.”
So too is Elie Wiesel’s new book in which he reflects on the meaning of his life following emergency open heart surgery on June 16, 2011.
The volume is vintage Elie Wiesel. The writing is simple, the scope sweeping.
Upon awakening from the anesthetic he remembers thinking “…I am not dead yet. What does being resuscitated mean if not rediscovering one’s future?”
The book is a positive, optimistic expression of a grateful man. Eighty two years have not nearly been enough. He admits to having more words to write and teach, more to learn, and more love to share.
For me, Elie’s most moving passage is his description of what happened when his five year old grandson, Elijah, came to pay him a visit during his recovery: “I hug him and tell him, ‘Every time I see you, my life becomes a gift.’”
January 30, 2013 | 9:42 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The film “Gatekeepers” was made, according to Director Dror Moreh, for Israelis who do not think much about the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli occupation nor about the negative and corrosive impact the occupation has had on the moral and political character of the people and state of Israel. It is also intended for those American Jews who love Israel in their kishkes, who understand that Jewish history in light of the Holocaust compels them to appreciate the central importance of the Jewish state in their lives, but who have come to the wrong conclusion, that in order to love Israel they have to support her policies right or wrong.
The film has been nominated for an Academy Award at this year’s Oscars, and I am personally mixed about whether I want it to win or not, because winning means even wider exposure of this disturbing story before the world at large.
The film features interviews of six retired Directors of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services. These are hardened, pragmatic men, people with blood on their hands, who have seen it all, who have been the chief practitioners in the fight against terrorism, and who understand that though there are things Israel’s military has had to do to protect Israeli citizens, there is still something “unnatural” about this fight.
Why are these Shin Bet former directors speaking out now? After all, anyone working in Israel’s intelligence services historically has been closed-mouthed about what happens there. They agreed to be interviewed and part of this film because they believe that the direction of Israeli policy is leading the Jewish state towards a catastrophe, that the continued occupation of one and a half million hostile Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank is doomed for disaster, that the occupation is eating away at Israel’s political and moral heart and soul and threatening the survival of the Jewish democratic state of Israel.
The six characterized Israel’s policy in the West Bank as short-sighted, based on tactical matters and not reflective of a cogent long-term strategy. To a man they are soured on Israel’s political leaders who they say have failed to grapple with the core of the conflict and who have not demonstrated the courage necessary to find a two-state solution. They do not understand, for example, Prime Minister Netanyahu who on the one hand says he is for a two-state solution and on the other embraces the most extremist elements within Israeli society that are against a Palestinian state anywhere west of the Jordan River.
One can only hope that there will be a more moderate Israeli government that forms in the next few weeks reflecting the Israeli public’s rejection of extremism and a renewed effort by the United States to bring the parties together to talk and negotiate in good faith.
“Gatekeepers” is a must-see film for anyone who cares about Israel as the democratic state of the Jewish people.
Below is a 25 minute interview with Dror Moreh, the Director of Gatekeepers by The Huffington Post.
January 29, 2013 | 8:32 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
So threatened Ohed Shaked, a self-described Hareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) teacher of citizenship in an open letter to Yair Lapid, as printed in the Israeli daily Yideot Achronot (January 24).
Mr. Shaked expressed the view that Lapid’s success in the recent elections (19 seats) means that he now has a pivotal role to play vis a vis the Hareidi community. Shaked appealed to Lapid’s sense of decency that he showed during the campaign in not attacking key rabbis and leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. He also asserts that the future of the state of Israel is in Lapid’s own hands.
What is Mr. Shaked (and by extension) the Hareidi community most worried about? Two things: 1. Yair Lapid’s call for shivyon b’netel (sharing the burden), which refers to the conscription of the Orthodox into either military or civilian service, like all other Israelis, and 2. The new government’s reordering of budgetary priorities given the massive deficit of $39 billion, $20 billion more than was expected. One of the budget’s large expenses is to the Orthodox community that is estimated to be between $500 million and $1 billion annually. Note: The Reform and Conservative communities receive almost no funds from the government. Lapid is a pluralist and attends occasionally Beit Daniel, the starship Reform synagogue of Tel Aviv, and it is the hope of Israel’s liberal religious streams that official Israeli government discrimination will end.
Mr. Shaked is concerned that military conscription of all Orthodox students would devastate the commitment to Torah learning and practice in the Orthodox world, which they believe sustains the Jewish people and the Jewish state. He understands that there are, however, two categories of religious students – the serious students of Torah (“Torah faithful”) and others. The difficulty is in defining who is “Torah faithful” and who is not. At the very least, Shaked believes that bonafide “Torah faithful” students should be given a pass when it comes to military service.
Mr. Shaked called for a meeting of the minds between Yair Lapid with the second on his party list, Rabbi Shai Peron, and the rabbis of Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7 seats).
Since the election, Shas and United Torah Judaism have created a voting block of 18 seats, hoping to compete with Lapid's Yesh Atid (19 seats). The question is whether the religious parties will be invited by Netanyahu into the ruling coalition in the next Knesset. Netanyahu, if press reports are correct, is leaning towards giving Shas a role in the government instead of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party (Bayit Yehudi), which won 11 seats. Bennett, a young modern orthodox wealthy entrepreneur, represents the settler movement and is categorically against a Palestinian state existing anywhere on land west of the Jordan River.
If PM Netanyahu invites Bennett’s party into the government, he would not need Shas to give him a majority of seats in his coalition. If he invites Shas he would not need Bennett’s Jewish Home Party.
Yair Lapid said immediately after the election that he would push hard in his discussions with Netanyahu for renewed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority towards reaching a two-state solution, as well as the goal of Orthodox conscription and efforts on behalf of the middle class. Essentially, it seems that Lapid has become the “King-maker” as Bibi strives to piece together a coalition that would be secure enough to rule.
Shas is more open to negotiations with the Palestinians than is Bennett. Should Bibi invite Shas, Lapid would then insist that the Rabbis agree to go forward in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. If Shas does agree, it is likely that Bibi will accommodate the Ultra-Orthodox community somewhat on the issue of “sharing the burden” of military service.
My own view is that at this point in Israel’s history, a two-state solution must be number one on Israel’s agenda (along with concern about Iran’s nuclear development) for Israel’s sake as a Jewish and democratic state. Though there is much resentment towards the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society (they make up 20% of all Israelis) because of the military deferments and the large budgetary expense for their yeshivot and communities, it may be politically necessary to set that issue on the back burner. Perhaps, there will agreement on the goal of a more gradual “sharing the burden.”
The politics of coalition building may avert Mr. Shaked’s veiled threat of a Milchemet Achim, (war between brethren) while also averting the next war with the Palestinians.
That would be a win-win!
January 27, 2013 | 8:28 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
So writes Charles Blow of the Republican Party on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times (January 25, 2013).
In key toss-up states controlled by Republican legislatures in the most recent presidential contest, the Republican Party had attempted to skew the vote towards Governor Romney by rigging the system so as to reduce the number of Democrats who would be able to vote. The GOP used a number of strategies including reducing the number of voting places and voting machines in Democratic districts, eliminating the weekend for voting before the election, and shortening the number of hours the polling places would be open that would adversely affect areas populated by minorities, seniors and the poor who tend to vote Democratic. The Republicans had also attempted to require photo identification in order to vote which puts the poor and elderly at a disadvantage, most of whom, of course, tend to vote for Democrats.
Despite this blatant assault on the most basic of democratic freedoms (i.e. the right to vote in free elections), voters in those targeted districts defiantly either voted early by mail or stood for hours in rain and cold to vote. Such long lines, of course, did not exist in districts where Republicans were in the majority.
After trying to unsuccessfully suppress the Democratic vote in 2012, the Republicans have devised a new strategy to win future presidential elections. Though both the Democratic and Republican parties have gerrymandered their state districts to give their respective party advantages, the 2010 gerrymander effort by Republicans has effectively enabled them to retain their majority in the House of Representatives despite the fact that Democrats nationally won more than one million more votes than their Republican colleagues.
Now the Republicans (as described by Charles Blow) are trying something new, to rig the election by changing the way states allocate electoral votes in presidential elections.
Currently, states are winner-take-all for the Electoral College, meaning that the candidate who wins a state’s popular vote receives all that state’s electoral votes. The Republicans want to change the system and award electoral votes proportionally by congressional district regardless of who wins the most votes state-wide. On its face, this does not seem unreasonable until one looks at the numbers and connects the dots. This system would favor less populated rural areas that vote Republican over more populated urban areas that vote Democratic by giving them equal weight. Had this system been in effect in 2012, Governor Mitt Romney would have won the presidency despite losing by millions of votes nationally to President Barack Obama.
The only comfort I take from these underhanded undemocratic shenanigans is that they are a reflection of desperation within the GOP that is struggling to stay competitive in a country in which demographics have changed against Republicans and that Republican ideas and approaches to government are no longer held in the majority.
If the Republicans are defeated in these vote-rigging efforts I suspect that the GOP as currently constituted will die from its own self-inflicted wounds. In its place I would hope that there would emerge a new kind of Republican Party that is more moderate, more pragmatic, more inclusive, more compromising, and more democratic.
The United States works best with a viable two-party system that can meet often on common ground and arrive at a workable national consensus on policy while checking the excesses of the other. We certainly do not need one party like the current Republican Party that thinks nothing of cheating the public and undermining our democratic system.
See Charles Blow’s column here.
January 25, 2013 | 3:58 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Israelis have spoken – that is, 67.52% of Israel has spoken equaling 3,777,977 votes with a smaller percentage of Israeli Arabs voting than ever before. In the next six weeks we will learn what the ruling coalition will look like.
There were some big surprises in the final vote tally representing a kind of tikun (correction) within Israeli politics. Rather than continuing the trend towards a more extremist right-wing government, Israelis wanted their next Knesset to turn back towards the middle of the political spectrum.
The two most significant winners are Yair Lapid of “Yesh Atid” (i.e. There is a Future) representing the middle with 19 seats, and Naftali Bennett of “Bayit Yehudi” (i.e. The Jewish Home) from the right with 11 seats. Netanyahu was the big loser though he will likely remain Prime Minister. Kadima dropped to 2 seats and the ultra-Orthodox parties lost strength as well with a total of 19.
What does it all mean?
For the past two months I have been studying modern Hebrew by Skype with two wonderful teachers in Israel. Tomer lives in Tel Aviv, is 25 years old, secular, a graduate student in history and literature at Tel Aviv University, a jazz musician, and interested professionally in the media. He was among the 20% of “undecided voters” until he walked into the voting booth and cast his vote for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.
My other teacher, Avital, lives in Efrat (on the West Bank), is 28 years old, religious, a graduate student in Hebrew grammar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and wishes to be an editor and translator. She was viscerally excited whenever speaking about Naftali Bennett.
Both teachers are smart, sophisticated, educated young Israelis. They are concerned about quality of life, the Israeli economy, the growing deficit, and the future of the middle class. Each was drawn to a candidate who is straight-talking and unencumbered by political corruption.
Tomer worries that Lapid yitkapel (slang: “he will fold/cave” to the pressures of Netanyahu and politics). Avital had wished that Bennett would have fared better. She liked his campaign's emphasis on family and Jewish study. Both Tomer and Avital liked that their respective candidates each emphasized the importance of shivyon b’nitel (“sharing the burden of military/civilian service, including the ultra-Orthodox).
Bennet and Lapid are alike and dissimilar, mirror images of each other. Lapid has called for a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians leading to a two-state solution, is against the division of Jerusalem and wants the large settlement blocs to remain in Israel with appropriate land swaps in a final settlement.
Bennett wants to annex 60% of the West Bank and is opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian State anywhere on the land west of the Jordan River.
Lapid is a secular Jew and attends our starship Reform synagogue Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv occasionally. He believes in a pluralistic democratic Israel.
Bennett is a modern orthodox Jew who is married to a secular woman and wants the government to support all the orthodox parties and not just Shas. He and Bayit Yehudi have provoked the scorn of Shas' 90 year old spiritual father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who branded them as a party of "goyim." Bennett does not speak about religious pluralism nor about equal rights for Reform and Conservative religious streams. He wants to change the way judges are appointed so as to prevent them ruling on the constitutionality of legislation passed by the Knesset. He charges that the media is controlled by the left, though neglects to note that the most widely read Israeli newspaper is Israel Hayom, financed entirely by the wealthy American right-wing Jew, Sheldon Adelson.
A defining decision will be whether Netanyahu includes Bennett in his coalition or excludes him. If Bibi excludes him the government will essentially re-affirm the goal of a two-state solution. If he includes Bennett, he will signal his disinterest in negotiations leading to a two-state solution.
Secretary of State designate John Kerry is planning to visit Israel and the Palestinian communities in February to get a lay of the land. I would hope that President Obama will come as well, or very soon thereafter, in order to speak heart to heart with the Israelis and demonstrate his personal concern for their security and welfare as a Jewish and democratic nation, and then do the same with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, thereby opening up the process leading to a final two-state solution.
Granted, the President has much on his plate, not the least of which is the Iranian nuclear threat. But only the President can act as the divorce mediator between the Palestinians and Israelis, and I hope he will take on that role.
Tomer and Avital, their generation and the people of Israel deserve nothing less.