Category Archives: Israel

Ample Room for Optimism

If only people today knew what a telegram was, the old joke about the typical Jewish one reading “Start worrying. Details to follow” would be apropos, at least to the pessimists among us, in the wake of the midterm elections.

Self-proclaimed Nazi Arthur Jones, running as a Republican for a House of Representatives seat in a Chicago area district, lost handily. But he received more than 56,000 votes. Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner had urged district residents to “vote for anybody but Jones” and Texas Senator Ted Cruz advised voters to vote for the Democratic candidate. Still, though, 56,000 Illinoisans liked the Nazi.

And then we have, unfortunately, two successful candidates for Congress: Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis. Ms. Tlaib proved herself so antagonistic to Israel that the left-wing group J Street withdrew its initial endorsement of her bid. And Ms. Omar once tweeted the sentiment that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” and prayed that people “see the evil doings of Israel.”

And the new representative of New York’s 14th Congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, once decried the Israeli military’s killing of Palestinians who were storming the Gaza border fence as a “massacre.” (To her credit, though, the 28-year-old later admitted that she was not an “expert on geopolitics on this issue” and promised that she would “learn and evolve on this issue,” so let’s hope she in fact does.)

Should I mention the reelection of Democratic Representative Danny K. Davis, who once called anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan “an outstanding human being,” and who, before finally issuing a condemnation of the Nation of Islam hater-in-chief’s “views and remarks regarding the Jewish people and the Jewish religion,” had explained that Farrahkan’s views on “the Jewish question” didn’t bother him? Well, I guess I just did. So I may as well add that he won 88% of the vote in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District.

But deserving as those developments might seem to be of a worrisome Jewish telegram, the less excitable among us might take solace in the defeat of the aforementioned Mr. Jones, and the loss likewise suffered by Virginian Leslie Cockburn, whose book “Dangerous Liaison” was described by a New York Times reviewer as “largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake.”

And in the downfall of Philadelphia area Congressional aspirant Scott Wallace, whose family foundation had donated more than $300,000 to pro-BDS organizations. And of John Fitzgerald, who aimed to represent a California district, and who not only called the Holocaust “a fabricated lie” but claimed the 9/11 attacks were a Jewish plot. (Sobering, though: 43,000 citizens voted for the crazed candidate.)

Further cause for optimism is the fact that, among the flipped Republican seats in the House, fully seven will be occupied (there must be a better word) by Jewish Democrats. And that there will be 28 Jews in the new House, five more than there currently are. And that, in the upper chamber, there will be eight Jewish senators, up from 7.

And that Representative Eliot Engel of New York, whose dedication to Israel’s security is long and unarguable, is set to become the chairman of the important House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Engel’s counterpart on the Senate committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, another unabashed defender of Israel, was reelected too, as was Representative Nita Lowey, another staunch voice for Israel’s needs; and she is positioned to take over the House Appropriations Committee. No less committed to Israel’s security is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

What is perhaps the most heartening outcome of the recent races, though, is something that was pointed out by longtime political commentator David Frum. Writing in The Atlantic, he asserted that last Tuesday’s vote “administered enough Democratic disappointment to check the party’s most self-destructive tendencies.”

What he means is that, while concerns about the excesses and insanities on the fringes of the Democratic party are understandable, and despite the presence in Congress of Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar, the party’s moderate, traditional base remains strong; and radical Democrats are likely to remain relegated to the sidelines, with little power or influence.

“There is no progressive majority in America,” writes Mr. Frum. “There is no progressive plurality in America. And there certainly is no progressive Electoral College coalition in America.”

Whether or not that will remain the case in the future, none of us can know for certain. But it would certainly be highly premature to send out a “Start worrying” telegram – or an e-mail with that advice in the subject box.

More fitting might be “Keep davening.”  Always appropriate.

© 2018 Hamodia

Letter in the New York Times

A letter of mine was published in the New York Times on Shabbos:

To the Editor:

In his essay “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are” (Op-Ed, Aug. 14), Ronald S. Lauder sees the Israeli sky falling, as a result of Israel’s “destructive actions” like the maintenance of traditional Jewish religious decorum at the Western Wall, which Mr. Lauder criticizes as coming at the expense of a planned egalitarian prayer space, and a new Israeli law that establishes Israel as a state with a Jewish identity, which he says “damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.”

But Israel, as a self-described Jewish state, needs a Jewish standard for public behavior at religious sites and to inform religious personal status issues. The standard that has served the state since its formation has been the Jewish standard of the ages — what the world calls Orthodoxy.

And, whether or not the nation-state law was necessary or wise, it does not impinge in any way on the equality before the law of any Israeli citizen.

Israel is not, as Mr. Lauder says some think, “losing its way.” It is the vast majority of the world’s Jews, those who do not regard their religious heritage as important, who are in danger of being lost — to the Jewish people. And it is those indifferent Jews who have the most to gain from the example of Israel preserving the traditional Jewish standards and values that have stood the test of history.

Avi Shafran

New York

The writer, a rabbi, is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Klal Yisrael Matters

A “scandalous letter” in the files of Israel’s official rabbinate “reflects ignorance,” delivers “a severe blow” to Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry and “abandons the religious system in Israel to haredi hands.

Thus spake Assaf Benmelech, whose organization, “Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah,” seeks to promote “open and tolerant discourse” within Orthodoxy.

Indeed.

Mr. Benmelech, a lawyer, is representing one Akiva Herzfeld, who was ordained by the “Open Orthodox” institution Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (“YCT”) and whose certification of a woman’s Jewish status was rejected by the Israeli Rabbanut.  The letter at issue, he asserts, based its rejection on the rabbi’s affiliation with “modern Orthodoxy.”

That assertion has led to loud criticism from America, where the official Israeli rabbinate is being characterized as maintaining a “blacklist” and bowing to what one critic called “the more extremist elements among them” – the dreaded chareidim, of course.

Mr. Benmelech’s characterization of YCT as representative of “modern Orthodoxy” does a grave disservice to Jews and institutions that have worn that latter label for decades.  The movement with which the lawyer’s client is affiliated has indeed tried of late to shed its titular skin, exchanging “Open” for “Modern.”   But (to shamelessly mix wildlife metaphors) the leopard has not changed its spots.

The “Open Orthodox” movement, whatever it calls itself, is, simply put, not Orthodox at all. That is to say that it is theologically indistinguishable from the early Conservative movement, which at least had the honesty to admit that it was a new, divergent, endeavor.

The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah has declared the movement “no different than other dissident movements throughout our history that have rejected [Judaism’s] basic tenets.”

For its part, the Rabbinical Council of America does not accept YCT’s rabbinic certifications as credentials for membership; neither does the National Council of Young Israel.  And Roshei Yeshivah at Yeshiva University have likewise rejected the appropriateness of “Orthodox” as descriptive of YCT.

The movement and its supporters’ prevarication is evident too in the use of the word “blacklist” to describe what is, in the end, a simple insistence on standards.  Medical students who have not demonstrated the knowledge or ethos needed to earn their accreditation have not been “blacklisted”; they have simply not made the grade. And if a medical association considers a particular medical school to be deficient in its training of doctors, the school’s degrees will not be recognized.  It hasn’t been “blacklisted”; it has simply failed to meet the required standard.

And so, the Israeli rabbinate has every right – and responsibility – to reject the credentials of those affiliated with YCT. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l – whose teshuvos are duly cited by YCT leaders when they feel something in the Gadol’s decisions comports with some position they espouse – was clear that a mere affiliation with the Conservative or Reform movement invalidates a rabbi’s ability to offer testimony (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:160).

Over most of Jewish history, individual rabbanim’s testimonies were all it took to establish Jewish credentials, and geirus and gittin overseen by a beis din were not generally challenged.

There were days, too, though, when halachah-observant Jews could judge the kashrus of a processed food by just reading the ingredients.

Today, though, Jewish life is more complicated.  Food products contain a laundry list of obscure colorings, flavorings and preservatives, from a multitude of sources.  That’s why kashrus organizations were established, and why they are necessary.

“Rabbis” today, too, have different ingredients and come in different flavors. If halachah is to be respected, standards are not only important but an absolute necessity.  At least if Klal Yisrael matters.

Tragically, in America today, there are, in reality, a multitude of “Jewish peoples,” born of the variety of definitions here of “Jewishness.” What is called “Jewish religious pluralism” has yielded an irreparable fracture of the American Jewish community. Innocent people, due to non-halachic conversions and invalid gitten, have become victims of the “multi-Judaisms” American model.

That disastrous situation is largely not the case today in Israel, due to the single standard upheld by the country’s rabbinate, no matter how imperfect the institution’s bureaucracy  may seem in some eyes.  Were things otherwise, the largest Jewish community in the world, the one residing in Eretz Yisrael, would be as divided and incoherent, chalilah, as the American one.  The maintenance of halachic standards are what have prevented that frightening scenario.

Hamodia readers know that, of course. But our fellow American Jews need to realize that – if they truly care about Klal Yisrael – they need to move past umbrage-taking and political positioning and confront the Jewish future with honesty.

© 2018 Hamodia

A Tale of Two Speeches

I had the honor of making two public presentations in recent days, one to second grade students at the impressive Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Southfield, Michigan; and the other, to students and members of the public at the University of Maryland.

The first gig was dearer to me, since the members of my audience were people not set in their ways and thus open to my message, which was about what makes kids kids and grownups grownups. (The boys shared various ideas and I, mine: Awareness of Consequences – hey, it’s never too early to learn a new word.) But the class has a wonderful Rebbi and really didn’t need my own input.

By contrast, the audience at the second presentation, which was sponsored by the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, included many middle-aged and older members, less open to changing their attitudes, which are largely and unfortunately detached from the Jewish mesorah. They were proud Jews, to be sure, but with an assortment of misguided notions of just what living Jewish really means.

And yet, from the sentiments conveyed by attendees who approached me after my participation in a panel discussion of whether there is a divide between American Jews and Israel, the presence of an unabashedly Orthodox participant in the day-long program was appreciated. And I am grateful to Professor Paul L. Scham, the institute’s executive director, for inviting my participation. Especially since other parts of the day included a strident speech by the president of the New Israel Fund and what struck me as an attempt to upholster the deck chairs on a theological Titanic by the head of the American Reform movement.

On the panel, I attempted some humor to convince the audience that underneath my black suit (and sefirah-overgrown beard) was a normal human being. Then I made a serious case, that a connection to authentic Judaism empowers dedication to the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael – and that the demographics of the American Jewish community, which indicate a clear waning of non-Orthodox movements and a waxing of Orthodoxy, heralds a stronger pro-Israel future American Jewry.

And I took the opportunity to assert that the true preserver of the Jewish people, and the true ensurer of its integrity and unity is our mutual religious heritage.

In that context, I highlighted groups like Partners in Torah, and the way they non-judgmentally bond Jews through the study of traditional Jewish texts. I cited the example of my wife, who has for years studied weekly by phone with an intermarried Jewish woman in Arizona whom she has not yet met.

I knew I wouldn’t likely convince those present who were long invested in Reform or secular Jewish culture. But planting seeds, I learned from my years in chinuch, is always a worthy thing. Sometimes seedlings sprout down the line.

The best part of such conferences, though, is the opportunity they present to speak with Jews whom I would otherwise not likely ever meet. I cherish those chances to engage fellow Jews very different from me in friendly conversation. (And there’s always the amusement afforded by the reaction of the inevitable question about my college alma mater; when informed that I just managed to graduate high school and thereafter studied only in yeshivah, the questioner seems shocked that I speak English competently.)

The most memorable conversation I had at this particular conference was with a lady somewhat older than I and with a very serious demeanor who recounted an experience she had had over Pesach, on the street of a Florida city where she had spent the holiday.

She described how she went for a walk on the first day of Pesach, in clothing suited to the climate, and saw a man, whom she described as “a Satmar Chassid in a big fur hat,” coming toward her from the opposite direction.

“And I said to him,” she told me, “‘Gut yontiff.’”

My “justification mode” kicked right in and I prepared to explain to her how there are different norms in different communities, and that some Jewish men, out of tzenius concerns, don’t address women directly, and how, in other circumstances, surely, the gentleman would have acted differently…

But as my head was churning out the hasbarah, she continued her story, describing how the man stopped, smiled at her and – here she imitated the man’s motions – bowed to her three times, and heartily said “Gut Yom Tov! Gut Yom Tov! Gut Yom Tov!”

It was worth all the time and shlep and speeches just to hear that account.

© 2018 Hamodia

Surveying Some Surveys

The imbalance itself didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been observing the political scene in recent years, but the degree to which Democrats’ support for Israel has dropped and Republicans’ has risen, as revealed by a recent Pew Research Center survey, was striking.

A mere 27% of the 1503 respondents who identified themselves as Democrats told the pollsters they sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, and 25% said their sympathies lie with the Palestinians.

Among self-identified Republicans, those numbers were 79% and 6%, respectively.

In 1978, 49% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians. And in earlier years, it was the Democratic party that was perceived as the most supportive of Israel, and the Republican as a less reliable friend. Times, and parties, change.

Vital, though, for all of us who care about Israel to remember is that political parties, as has been asserted repeatedly in this space, are not sports teams. It would be mindless, in fact counterproductive, for Jews to become “fans” and brand either party as “pro” or “anti” Israel, and unthinkingly vote accordingly.

For what the poll reveals is just that the pool of Americans who are less sympathetic, or hostile, to Israel has gravitated to the Democratic party – not that Democrats in Congress, or Democratic candidates, are in sync with those misguided citizens.

Of course, that gravitation is worrisome in itself. But we must remind ourselves that some of Israel’s most stalwart and ardent supporters in Congress are Democrats, and that Congress as a body is unmistakably friendly to Israel and supportive of her security needs.

Resolutions and legislation favoring Israel routinely pass both houses of Congress with little to no opposition. And among the 18 states that have passed laws against the BDS movement, nine are blue, nine are red.

The Pew survey, moreover, shows that sympathy for Israel remains greater than that for the Palestinians among men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, the educated, the uneducated, Protestants, Catholics and even (if at a disturbingly slim margin) Democrats.

More concerning to me than the Pew survey, though, are the results of another recent one, from Nashville-based LifeWay Research, which found that, while 77% of older evangelicals – the largest identifiable strongly pro-Israel group –say they support the existence, security and prosperity of Israel, the percentage drops to 58 percent among younger evangelicals, those 18 to 34.

“For the most part,” said Scott McConnell, who directs that research center, “younger evangelicals are indifferent about Israel.” That’s not good news.

And more disturbing still is yet another recent survey, this one conducted by sociologist Steven M. Cohen and social researcher Jack Ukeles, of 3000 respondents in the Bay Area.

They found that a mere 11% of Jews ages 18-34 said they were “very attached to Israel.” Even more alarming was their finding that only 30% of American Jews in that age cohort said that they sympathized more with Israel than with the Palestinians. And, most startling of all, that only 40% of those surveyed said they were even “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.”

Now, the Bay Area isn’t exactly representative of the nation. Were Northern California (my home for 7 years a few decades ago) a state unto itself, its capital would be either San Francisco or Berkeley, whose latitudinarian reputations are legend.

But an earlier study of the broader Jewish geographical scene, the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews nationwide, yielded a similarly worrisome portrait of young respondents’ feelings. It, too, found that less than a third of young Jews it asked sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians.

If such young Jewish Americans’ attitude don’t mature, and evangelical support for Israel wanes in tandem, the tight connection between the U.S. and Israel could, chalilah, be threatened.

There is, though, a silver lining to that ominous cloud: Us.

That is to say, the Orthodox community. We are deeply committed to Israel’s security, and we are poised to become a formidable social and political force on the American scene.

Orthodox Jews already represent more than a quarter of American Jews 17 years and younger. Within the past two generations, according to Professor Cohen, the Orthodox percentage of the American Jewish population has already more than quadrupled.  And the trend is, baruch Hashem, continuing.

Our young generation, both in its embrace of Torah u’mitzvos and its support for its brothers and sisters in Israel, is the converse of the one the Pew study described. And will be playing a pivotal role in maintaining a continued strong bond between American Jewry and Israel.

© 2018 Hamodia

Agudath Israel on Today’s General Assembly Vote

Agudath Israel Statement on This Morning’s U.N. General Assembly Vote

The countries that voted this morning in the United Nations General Assembly to demand that the U.S. rescind its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its plan to move its embassy there once again showed their true and ugly colors.

The General Assembly has long been a ludicrously anti-Israel forum, a grandiose soapbox where nations, including more than a few whose regimes routinely oppress, torture and murder their own citizens, wax righteously indignant at Israel’s audacity in defending herself against her many bloodthirsty enemies.

Today’s vote, however, forged a new low in the world body’s antipathy toward Israel.  Not only does the majority of the General Assembly seek to deprive Israel of the right to determine her own capital, but it seeks to prevent our own country from respecting that right.

In 1995, Congress passed a law explicitly establishing the position of the United States that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel,” and requiring that the American Embassy in Israel be moved to Jerusalem.  Earlier this month, President Trump announced the implementation of that law.

We are proud of the steadfast friendship toward Israel and recognition of reality that Congress and President Trump have demonstrated.  We applaud President Trump and Ambassador Haley for their courageous articulation of American values in the lion’s den of the United Nations.

And we remain ever hopeful that other responsible nations will come to recognize the special status of Jerusalem not only to the state of Israel but to the Jewish people throughout the millennia.

What is Jerusalem?

Whether one regards President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel as a dangerous and foolhardy move or wise and deeply principled, it cast a well-deserved bucket of cold water into the faces of the Arab and European worlds. But it also begged a question: What, exactly, is “Jerusalem”?

The recent history of Eretz Yisrael is well documented. After the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations, in 1922, granted the British a mandate to oversee “Palestine.” In November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a partition plan creating two states: one Jewish and one Arab. Jerusalem, which had by then developed well beyond the walls of the Old City, would fall under international control as a Corpus Separatum, or “separate entity.”

That never happened. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted the partition plan; the Arabs did not. And the following year, on the very day the British Mandate ended, the Arabs invaded the Jewish community, starting a war which, to the invaders’ surprise, they decisively lost. So, in fact – and despite what many media persist in stating – the Corpus Separatum status of Jerusalem, as part of the Arab-rejected partition plan, never became reality.

When Israel declared its independence in May, 1948, the western half of the expanded city of Jerusalem became part of the nascent state, while the eastern half, purged of its Jews, along with the Old City, was occupied by Jordan. As we all know, and some of us vividly remember, during the 1967 Six Day War, Israel rebuffed Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and captured the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, Shomron and Yehudah, including the eastern part of Jerusalem and the Old City.

The Old City. The Ir Haatikah. We sometimes forget that, while Israeli law and colloquial shprach applies the name “Yerushalayim” to the greater metropolitan area outside its walls as well, the name really refers to the Old City alone.

Chanukah is coming to an end, which, to Jews who mark time Jewishly, means that the next celebration in our sights is Purim.

And hidden in Megillas Esther, as it happens, is a passuk that holds a hint well worth pondering in the context of recent events.

“Ad chatzi hamalchus,” Achashveirosh offers Esther, “up to half the kingdom” (Esther, 5:3). The Gemara (Megillah 15b) explains that Achashverosh said “up to” in order to indicate that he was not willing to offer something in the middle of the kingdom, something that would cause a political rift were he to relinquish his control over it: the Beis Hamikdash.

We optimists hope that Mr. Trump’s recent blunt statement might, in the end, push the Arab world to come to terms with reality and actually shuffle, grumbling but surely, to the negotiation table. To fantasize further, maybe Arabs in Eretz Yisrael will be brought to see the incitement and hatred they sow as counterproductive to their goal of a state alongside Israel, and desist from their regularly scheduled vilifications of Israel and Jews.

Unlikely, certainly. But, whatever our personal feelings about whether a “two-state solution” is a healthy or a noxious prospect, it is the declared goal of both Mr. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. So let’s imagine further what might emerge from such an agreement.

It really doesn’t need much imagination; the general terms of a peace agreement have long been obvious to all informed observers. Parts of Yehudah and Shomron, from which Israel’s withdrawal would not pose undue security risks, would be ceded to the Arab state. The state would be demilitarized, and pledged to abandon its hostility toward Israel.

The western part of Jerusalem would remain Israel’s capital, and the eastern part, the new state’s.

And the Old City? Oy, there’s the rub.

Would – could? – Israel cede even part of it to an Arab state? And even if it did, what about the source of the city’s kedushah, the Mekom Hamikdash?

Truth be told, Israel is not really in possession of that sacred ground even now. While she controls access to the Temple Mount, the compound is administered by the Wakf, itself controlled and funded by the Jordanian government.

That sad reality is not likely to change, not until we merit the bias go’el tzedek. Until then, though, it should be a reminder that, even were “Jerusalem” to be recognized as the capital of Israel by the entire civilized world, even by all Arab countries and a new Arab state, rejoicing would be premature. Klal Yisrael remains, l’daavoneinu, stalled in galus.

May that situation end bimheirah biyameinu.

© 2017 Hamodia