Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Several have written to ask me what Israelis are thinking about Iran. Since I have arrived here I have been asking that question of everyone I encounter. All I need to say is “Yes or No?” and everyone knows what I am talking about. Everyone is thinking and worrying about Iran, but going about their daily lives as if there is no problem at all. The cafes are full. Kids are in school. People are going to work, seeing friends, and celebrating Shabbat with their families and dear ones.
Two very plugged-in Israeli friends, each of whom is close to the leadership of the country, had opposite views. One said to me, “I think it is a 90% probability that Israel will attack Iran between March and June of this year, because Israel simply cannot allow Iran to become nuclear.” The other said the opposite. “It isn’t going to happen. There will not be a war. It’s not in anyone’s interest. Pakistan has a bomb. We’ve got the bomb. So what!?”
Part of the angst that people naturally feel both here and in America is fed by the media that reports everything related to Iran’s nuclear program. The rhetoric and saber rattling is noisy, harsh and relentless. Yes, Iran has a brutal anti-Semitic government obsessively fixated on Israel and we would be fools to ignore the threat the Iranians pose. However, conventional wisdom says that if there is talk about it, it isn’t going to happen. When the talk stops, then we should worry.
It is the thinking of many here that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have ratcheted up the rhetoric as a strategic move to pressure President Obama to push harder on sanctions and hopefully provoke protests in Iran that will lead to regime change. Sanctions are having a biting effect and anything could ignite street protests leading to an Iranian spring.
In this election year, an attack against and possible war with Iran led by the United States is remote in the view of most observers. It is the same for Netanyahu who is considering calling early elections to solidify his current popularity in a new Knesset.
If either Israel or the United States were to initiate an attack, Israel can expect missiles to fall on Tel Aviv. When Israelis are killed as a consequence of either Bibi or Obama making the first move, both can reasonably expect to suffer at the polls in their respective re-election bids.
What are Israelis thinking? Everything!
Do they believe there will be a war? Some yes – others no.
Will there be a war? Who knows?
I have also asked everyone here another question - my young ulpan teacher, senior citizens, soldiers, human rights activists, rabbis, working Israelis, everyone I talk to -“Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the future?” To a person each smiles and says, “Yes, I’m an optimist! I couldn’t live here if I didn’t feel optimistic.”
I too worry, but in the end I agree with most Israelis. Call me an idealist, a romantic, an optimist, a fool. But as I too tend to say what Israelis say, Yehiye b’seder (Everything – God willing - will be fine.)
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February 14, 2012 | 4:26 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Israel’s democracy had several significant victories this past week:
First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed as the next President of the Supreme Court Asher Dan Grunis, a jurist who respects an independent judiciary. There are those in Israel who do not.
Second, the Knesset is expected to pass overwhelmingly next week a bill against sex trafficking by making it a crime to pay for prostitution. Sex trafficking has reached epidemic proportions in recent years with an estimated 15,000 individuals working in the prostitution industry, of whom 5000 are minors. Violence and abuse are common, and targeting clients will dramatically discourage demand by diminishing supply.
Third, the most serious general labor strike in the last two decades ended yesterday with a victory for the poor with a rise in the minimum wage and more benefits for many contract workers.
Fourth, Israel’s Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein announced that he will decide this spring whether or not to indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of fraud, breach of trust, fraudulent receipt, money-laundering and witness harassment.
And fifth, op-ed articles appear in every newspaper criticizing the government and nation’s leaders attesting to the strength of Israel’s free press.
All the above show how vital is Israel’s democracy, indeed, the only functioning democracy in this part of the world. Not only do Israelis enjoy free elections, but Israel’s democratic institutions are strong. Free elections without democratic institutions are meaningless, as we are seeing in Egypt and Gaza where elections ushered in anti-democratic parties whose goal is to subjugate the population to a new tyranny of the majority.
In every democracy there are flaws, imperfections and abuses. Such is the case in Israel too. The following news release today is unflattering to Israel and the Jewish people.
I believe this report to be generally true based on the work of two Israeli human rights organizations, B’tzelem and Shalom Achshav. Though this report is the product of a UN investigative body, this does not necessarily mean it is anti-Israel propaganda.
A UN investigation charged that Israel has strategically “Judaized” its housing policies vis a vis Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Bedouin living in the Negev.
The announcement was made yesterday by Raquel Rolnik, Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council, on the right to adequate housing and non-discrimination. Ms. Rolnik, a Brazilian architect and urbanist, recently visited Israel and the West Bank where she met with representatives of the Israeli government, Palestinian Authority and international organizations. She visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Negev, Galilee, East Jerusalem, Ramallah, and the Gaza Strip.
Ms. Rolnik said that in the past Israel had an impressive housing record on affordable housing for all its people, but the situation has deteriorated over the last 20 years.
Among her claims is that state land goes for the highest price to maximize profitability, thus forcing Palestinians to move who cannot afford their homes, and that Palestinians and Bedouin suffer from discriminatory practices and land expropriation. She found that Palestinians cannot easily get permits to build or expand their existing homes. As their families grow (it is customary for all the generations in a family to live together in a single dwelling) many resort to adding add onto their homes without permits to accommodate the increased numbers of people.
Tens of thousands of such homes are at risk of being demolished. Ms. Rolnik noted that 70% of the demolitions in Jerusalem are carried out against Palestinians though they make up only 20% of the infractions. Last year Israel demolished 622 Palestinian structures of which 222 were family homes thus displacing 1,094 people.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry called Ms. Rolnik’s statements evidence of profound “misunderstanding of basic realities” and that she needs to “do her homework.”
One of the inherent problems in Israel and the West Bank concerns jurisdiction and authority. One set of law is applied within Israel itself by the civil authority while another set is applied by the military administration within territories taken by Israel after the 1967 Israeli-Arab War.
When all is said and done, how Israel treats its minorities will determine the moral character of the state. In this regard I was happy to learn today of the Knesset’s impending legislation to protect women and girls from the violence and abuse of the sex trafficking industry. We should all be waiting to see improvement in the way Israel treat the Palestinians living within Israeli jurisdiction.
February 13, 2012 | 11:05 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Last evening I found myself channel surfing Israeli television when I came across a gripping documentary centered on an Israeli cyclist who pedaled the length and breadth of Israel and parts of the West Bank to meet people and learn about their lives and relationship to the land and state of Israel. He met them in cities, villages, kibbutzim, moshavim, in fields, cafes, bus stops, anywhere they gathered - Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze, religious, secular, Holocaust survivors, survivors of war and terror, soldiers in uniform, Jewish and Palestinian refugees, old, young, anyone and everyone.
Each had a story; every story was personal; each was a tale of heartbreak, strength, perseverance, and courage. Many of these people’s histories were so sad that I wondered how they bore their sufferings. All spoke Hebrew, some not so well, as either a first language or a tongue acquired later in life. Everyone spoke honestly and from the heart. As he rolled throughout the land we heard behind his narration poetry and song reflecting the dreams and truths of the peoples’ lives. The visuals were stunning as only they can be in Israel.
This film offered a snapshot of the diversity of people crammed into a small slice of territory and the consequent clash of identities and national aspirations. One young Palestinian originally from Haifa who was visiting family and friends from his home in Germany said; “I was born here. I speak Hebrew and Arabic. This is my home. But I am not an Israeli. Theirs is not my flag. I cannot sing Hatikvah [Israel’s national anthem emphasizing the longing of the Jew for our people’s ancestral home]. This is not my country. They don’t respect me, but I am from here. What can I do! How can I live here?”
There was bitterness and anguish in his heart. I could not tell if there was also hatred or a desire for vengeance. He seemed resigned, and clearly had decided with his feet where he could live with self-respect and dignity outside this place.
Others expressed their passionate attachment to the land, the meaning of Hatikvah in their lives, and their desire that young Israelis and Jews the world over know the history of this place and why the Jewish state is so important.
Fear and hatred (though come by naturally) motivate too many people in this region and determine many self-destructive politics and policies.
In a separate blog I will tell of my tour of parts of the West Bank yesterday with a member of Shalom Achshav’s “Settlement Watch” team and the most recent controversy in settlement construction.
For now, mi’Yerushalayim – Shalom!
February 10, 2012 | 2:36 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Jessica Fishman’s story will break your heart. She is a young Jewish woman from Minnesota whose father was President of their Conservative synagogue and mother was President of Hadassah. Jessica was a Jewish day school student and attended services every Shabbat. As a teen she traveled to Israel, fell in love with the country and made aliyah at the age of 22. Though beyond the age of military service, she volunteered in the Israeli army for two years. She met a young man, fell in love and was engaged to be married. Then her troubles began.
Jessica’s fiancé and his family wanted her to convert to Judaism with an Orthodox rabbi because her mother had converted to Judaism with a Conservative Rabbi. They worried that Jessica’s future children would not be considered Jewish by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate and could never marry here.
Jessica refused to undergo conversion, saying; “This so upset me that these rabbis would define my identity for me.”
The tension was too much, and she and her boyfriend ended their engagement.
Jessica felt abandoned and disillusioned despite all she had given of herself to the state of Israel. After living here for seven years, she returned to Minnesota and explained, “I no longer feel that this is my home. I feel unwanted, not accepted,…it’s as if they spit in my face.”
Jessica’s story is only one recent example of the destructive impact the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate is having on Israeli society. The unholy alliance between religion and state has emboldened the ultra-Orthodox to impose themselves in more and more areas of Israeli life including the demand that certain bus lines running through Orthodox neighborhoods have separate seating for men and women with women seated in rear of the bus, nearly complete control of the Western Wall plaza by the Chief Rabbi of the Kotel, and incidents such as that which occurred last December in Beit Shemesh when Chareidi Orthodox thugs spit on an Orthodox 8 year-old little girl who was not dressed modestly enough for their taste.
Not unrelated were the massive protests last summer when hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested the squeezing of the middle class in cities all around the state. The protesters complained about not being able to make ends meet, all the while Orthodox religious institutions serving only 25% of the population who don’t work, don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the military are being massively subsidized by the government.
In response to the Israeli protests, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a commission led by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, the chair of the Higher Education Planning and Budget Committee in the Knesset, to examine and propose solutions to Israel’s economic problems. Among other things, the commission made recommendations to integrate ultra-Orthodox men into the work force, enforce core curriculum in Orthodox religious schools and to limit funding for yeshivas. (See here for details.)
It came as no surprise that the commission’s recommendations met with fierce opposition by the ultra-Orthodox religious parties. However, in a national survey only 22% of the country opposed the recommendations. 90% of secular Jews supported it as did even 67% of the religious population, as well as 75% of Likud and virtually 100% of Labor and Kadima supporters.
Why are these recommendations so important? First, they aim to ease the financial burden of Israel’s constricted middle class while also leveling the playing field for all members of Israeli society, including the ultra-Orthodox; and second, they would break the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox religious parties over many parts of Israeli life. However, because of the threat of the ultra-Orthodox religious parties to leave the government coalition, these recommendations have been frozen.
For more information on this danger to Israel’s civil society no less significant than the threat from without by Israel’s enemies, I recommend spending spend time looking at the web-site of Hiddush, an organization led by Rabbi Uri Regev that is committed to the separation of church and state.
February 8, 2012 | 1:57 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
On a long flight to Israel this past week I read a beautifully written memoir called “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund DeWaal. This thoroughly researched work tells the story of four generations of the Ephrussi family, among the most prominent and wealthy Jewish families in pre-World War II Europe. It is a gripping tale about a dynasty acting at the center of the world of art, culture, politics, and finance in two great European cities, Paris and Vienna. It is biography, history, art history, anthropology, autobiography, and memoir written by a British porcelain ceramicist and Ephrussi descendent.
Hailing from Odessa, the Ephrussis migrated to Paris in the mid-19th century, then to Vienna, and within weeks of the Nazi Anschluss (lit. “link-up” with the “Fatherland”) of Austria in March 1938 to London. They fled Austria with one suitcase leaving their palatial estate, much property, a massive art collection and library, and interests valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars by today’s standards.
The book’s title takes its name from a small carving in the Japanese netsuke style, one of 264 such figurines collected by Charles Ephrussi (great-great uncle to the author) who was an amateur art historian, dealer and art patron in late 19th century Paris. These animal carvings are the only items remaining of the family’s fortunes. The Ephrussi treasures most likely hang in the world’s great museums and private collections with no compensation ever having been given to the Ephrussi heirs.
Edmund DeWaal is an elegant writer with an artist’s eye for detail. As he weaves the family’s story together set against the late 19th century and early 20th century European art culture and Parisian and Viennese upper-class soirees and balls, he ponders what it means to belong anywhere and to leave what one has always known. In that sense, this is a quintessential Jewish story.
Though the Ephrussi family fate was like that of the rest of pre-war European Jewry, there was almost nothing identifiably Jewish about them. They never attended synagogue, did not observe any holidays, were disinterested in nascent Zionism (Theodor Herzl appealed to them for financial support but was politely turned away), and they seemed to know little about or care about Judaism as a faith tradition and religious civilization.
Instead, their social circles were populated by writers, artists, intellectuals, royalty, and business tycoons. In the Paris of the 1880s Charles was a friend to Proust, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Monet, and Renoir. He even appears in top hat and black suit in Renoir’s famous Le dejeuner des cannotiers (“Luncheon of the Boating Party”). He was among the earliest and most important collectors of Impressionist art in Europe.
Charles Ephrussi’s granddaughter Elisabeth continued the family’s affinity for the intellectual and artistic elite. She had left Austria when Hitler came to power and earned a law degree in London. She carried on an extended correspondence with the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The lack of a strong Jewish religious identity eventually took the family far from the large pre-war Jewish community of Vienna as they continued the process of assimilation that many underwent in the Western Europe of those years. Elisabeth married a member of the Anglican Church who was eventually ordained a Priest, attending Church with him every Sunday. Her uncle (Edmund’s great uncle Iggi), a gay man, lived out the rest of his life in Tokyo as part of that country’s artistic and cultural elite with his long-time Japanese partner, Jiro.
The netsuke carvings followed the family from the moment Charles purchased them in mid-19th century Paris to Vienna. They symbolize this family as constant outsiders. The only reason these object d’art survived as a collection is due to the courage and loyalty of a long time Ephrussi family Viennese servant, Anna, who, when the Nazis ordered her to help crate all the family’s art and books, systematically took them away in her apron pockets and hid them in her mattress until she could return them to the family. They now reside with the author.
Edmund concludes years of research, travel and writing by wondering what it means to belong to a place, to leave it and continue to wander. “You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport [in] hand. You keep something private…Why keep things, archive your intimacies?...Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live.”
A provocative thought, but I don’t buy it. For Jews, especially, memory shapes who we are, how we think and what we think about, and who we will be. Transmission therefore becomes not only an existential necessity but a religious duty.
February 7, 2012 | 5:14 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This is my 15th sojourn in Israel since my first trip 38 years ago, and as much as Israel has changed in that time it is still the most fascinating and inspiring place I know.
Today I met an old friend for lunch who made aliyah from South Africa in 1970, and he shared with me how difficult life has become for Israelis noting that the mood of the country is very similar to that immediately following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. That war shattered the illusions and optimism that Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Days War had inspired. In those heady six short years between the wars Israelis felt impenetrable, like modern-day Maccabees, capable of overcoming every challenge and believing that at last they were fulfilling Jewish destiny.
Today, in light of last summer’s massive social justice rallies, the current government’s extremist nationalistic policies and the existential threat posed by Iran, it should not come as a surprise that Israelis are disheartened and distressed.
I am here for two weeks to study Hebrew on Ulpan (an accelerated language immersion program), and though my speaking approaches fluency at times it isn’t good enough for me. I am finding it increasingly difficult to understand many Israelis under the age of 45 who speak a mile a minute, far quicker than I remember 20 and 30 years ago. I figure that if I ever hope to engage with them in our common language, I have to do better, enhance my speaking and listening, and meet them where they live.
I asked my Ulpan teacher about why she thinks so many speak so fast all the time. She is a smart and sophisticated young woman younger than my eldest son, and she confessed that she didn’t know, but acknowledged that Israelis today live with exceptional tension, and perhaps that pressured life-style has affected their communication patterns.
That being said, there is no place like this place!
The day after I arrived, last Friday morning, I walked from my hotel in the chilly 45 degree sunshine to Machaneh Yehudah, Jerusalem’s famed open-air market, to buy food for my room and a fine bottle of Israeli Cabernet for my Erev Shabbat hosts. En route I wandered through old neighborhoods and narrow alleyways. Two elderly religious women hauling food carts were talking excitedly about their children and grandchildren who were coming from a Jerusalem suburb to their homes for Shabbat. Children ran by laughing and yelling. Hip looking 20-somethings passed me as well. Other than these human voices the streets were quiet as few cars were about. I entered the market and barkers were shouting the price of dried fruit for Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees and one of Israel’s favorite holidays, that comes Tuesday night and Wednesday.
So much happens here. On Shabbat evening I prayed with my friends at the Reform synagogue, Kehillat Mevasseret Zion. In the morning, I attended services at Congregation Shira Chadasha, an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue where women co-lead services with men. The singing of P’sukei D’zimra (a section of the service filled with Psalms and praises of God) especially was moving, melodic and beautiful. Kol isha (“the voice of the woman”) was clear, feminine and strong despite the Talmudic prohibition against men having to listen to a woman’s voice out of fear that they (the men) will become sexually aroused and distracted from their prayers. I was happy to hear these feminine voices and especially here, in the holiest of cities, for they along with the men were filled with love and Godliness, the essence of holiness.
And then, on Motzei Shabbat kol isha again! It is now an annual tradition on the Saturday night after Shabbat Shira celebrating the “Song at the Sea” (Exodus 15) that HUC’s cantorial students celebrate the life, music and spirit of Debbie Friedman (z’l) who is responsible for initiating the transformation of liturgical music for Reform Jews and many Conservative Jews around the world. Hundreds sang Debbie’s songs, laughed, cried, and expressed gratitude to her for what she gave to us and the Jewish people, again in this holiest of cities.
I have two homes – one in Los Angeles and one here. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
January 29, 2012 | 12:59 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This is a deeply moving statement of Jewish identity by a young Jew, Andrew Lustig, in poetic rhythm. I do not know Andrew, but I love what he has created here. If you are moved as I was, please share it with your college friends and 20 somethings and 30 somethings and 90 somethings. It will make your day and cause you to renew your faith and hope in our people’s future with young Jews such as Andrew.
Thanks to my friend Jacob Perlin for sharing it with me, who, (along with his new wife Kat) and their friends, inspire me also about the Jewish future.
Note: I begin my Sabbatical leave today and will journey to Israel on Wednesday to study on Ulpan to enhance my conversational Hebrew. I may or may not post before leaving, but once there I will share reflections from time to time on this blog about being there.
Kol tuv lachem!
January 26, 2012 | 6:24 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went and came, and brought no day,
And [people] forgot their passions in the dread
Of this desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:…”
Lord Byron describes well what must have been in the hearts of the Egyptians when the 9th plague of darkness befell them, as described in this week’s Torah portion Bo.
This was not an ordinary darkness. So dense it was that a person couldn’t see the hand in front of his face and if he/she moved would trip over the darkness.
The Midrash says that this darkness (choshech) wasn’t of the natural world. It wasn’t as a consequence of a solar eclipse or a moonless night. While it oppressed the Egyptians, the sun and universe operated normally everywhere else. It was as if each Egyptian was imprisoned in a black box of isolation, requisite punishment for their cruelty. This darkness catapulted the Egyptians back to a time before the creation when “darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:2)
From whence did it come? And what did it mean? In Psalms (105:28) it is said; Shalach choshech va-yach’shich – “God sent darkness and it became dark.” In our portion God instructs Moses; N’tei yad’cha al ha-shamayim vi-hi choshech… - “Hold your arm over the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” (Exodus 10:21) This darkness reflected the debased spiritual and moral condition of the Egyptians.
The Psalms tell us something else as well; Yashet choshech sitro s’vi-vo-tav sukato - “He makes darkness be His screen round about Him,” (18:12) suggesting that the spiritual light that abides at the very core of existence is always hidden and could never enter the Egyptian heart. That same light, however, shone in all the Israelite dwellings. In its pure form this light was so powerful that no one could see it and live. It is said that every angel and human being are able to receive only a very small measure of this Divine glow, each according to our spiritual capacity and development.
The Kabbalist Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (14th century Spain) taught that God shut down every Egyptian’s antenna so that none could receive these Godly light-waves and therefore not interfere with the Source of its transmission. But the Israelite antennae were open.
What does all this mean for us?
It is a certainty that each of us will suffer a broken heart once or more in our lives. Some of us bear chronic biochemical imbalances that need medical attention. All of us need love and support when we or our loved ones become ill, divorce, suffer the death of dear ones, the loss of jobs and income. Every loss casts a darkness upon the human soul.
Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter (19th century Poland) taught that the worst darkness of all is that blindness in which one person will not “see another,” and will refuse to look upon another’s misery and lend a hand. Such a person is incapable of “rising from his/her place,” that is, of growing in heart and soul.
Rabbi Yochanan taught that every eye has an area of white and black. We might think that the human being sees out of the white part. But no! We see out of the black part, which means when we’re in the dark we’re capable of seeing what’s in the light, but when we’re in the light we can’t see what’s in the dark. (Yalkut Shimoni 378).
In other words, there is always hope out of darkness, and there is always light when we think there is none.
In Egypt, wherever Jews went light went with them because the light was in them. That is what it means to be a Jew - to live in the light, to be a light to others and to hope.