Sunday, September 04, 2016

The "new normal" - divorced/remarried/blended/mixed/messed-up families

[This post has nothing to do with Israel but everything to do with me. I figured if Mayim can put herself out there so personally, so can I. :-)]

I saw a video the other day posted by Mayim Bialik about how she and her ex-husband are managing to construct a family dynamic filled with love and respect, raising their children together after their divorce, even spending religious holidays together.

This got me thinking about my situation after my divorce – and remarriage – and about how the "new normal" in family life poses so many challenges to so many of us these days.

According to recent statistics, more marriages end in divorce in America today than last the lifetime they were supposedly intended to.* It's a tragic and disturbing reality – certainly for those of us, married or otherwise, who see the institution of marriage as just that: forever.

And the challenges this reality poses are significant. How to spend vacation and religious festivals, and with whom, is only the tip of the iceberg. Dividing time and attention between various children and other family members, celebrating personal events like birthdays or graduations twice or sometimes three times, to accommodate various groupings, is also surmountable. Jason Mraz has a song which acknowledges the benefits of two birthday parties and the like (though the song itself deals mostly with many of the more depressing and negative aspects of a split family).

What I really liked about Mayim's post - liked, admire and respect - is how candid she is about their priorities; and about how they don't really care what other people think. For someone in any society to say "that's not normal" when divorced parents decide to share family events together, is not only insensitive; It's downright cruel. The perfect family unit – parents and children, grandparents and aunts and uncles and the whole wider family tree - doesn't necessarily disintegrate just because a husband and wife decide they no longer wish to live together.

We have divorced friends who spend Friday night Shabbat dinner - almost a paradigm of "family time" in the Jewish world, at whatever level of observance - together with their only son in his twenties, with his and their friends. It's different, yes - but it is beautiful and wonderful, no less than the "difference" involved in other friends where she is Orthodox-observant and he is less observant, or our two gay friends raising their child together, or my Jewish cousin who built a marvelous and loving family with a Catholic spouse.

I know someone who refers to his sister's kids as "my nephews" and his wife's sister's kids as "her nephews". Seriously? After decades of love and connection, after celebrating births and bat mitzvahs together, taking vacations and trips, commiserating over siblings and parents and children and arguing politics and helping each other out in times of need, I am closer to my (former) brother- and sister-in-law, mother- and father-in-law, and my nieces, then to almost anyone else in the world.

These are family, with ties that bind which are as strong and sometimes stronger than blood. Today they may be my "outlaws" - but that didn't prevent me from flying over to attend Dad's funeral. Not to have been there - to pay my last respects, to support our kids and all the family, to accompany one of my best friends on the planet and truly my second father on his last journey, would have been unthinkable.

It is true that I have been lucky, and have worked hard as well, to effect an amicable divorce and to maintain friendly relations with my former wife, after the initial pain and suffering (and even with the occasional relapse). It's a bit of an anomaly, it's true; most of the divorces I'm familiar with are unhappy, angry things which end in remorse and bitterness. But even those often evolve into situations of cool tolerance if not genuine warmth.

There are so many of these split, then sometimes blended (and sometimes just parallel, somewhat connected but not mixed) families around us. Each finds its own way to address the challenges of maintaining closeness and intimacy, creating new relationships with new spouses or children or parents or friends, and balancing the demands of two households (or sometimes three, or even four, if a child of divorced parents marries a partner who's folks are also split, let alone re-married!).

These challenges are hard enough without members of the extended family saying "we can't do this since you're divorced" regarding some joint event or other. In some situations it may be true, where a divorced couple are full of hostility or the wider family have taken sides in nasty custody or financial battles. But where a couple has managed - selflessly and at great emotional cost - to construct a modus operandi which reduces conflict and engenders love and warmth, it's so much healthier not only for them and for their children and parents but for all their wider family and even community.

As the children meet their own challenges of coming to terms with their new split-family situation - and this can take years, and may require help and a lot of sympathy and patience - the rest of the world, family and friends, would do them and themselves a great service, to leave their pre-conceived notions of what's "done" aside, out of love for all involved.

The new normal is not a nuclear family; it's a messed up, messy, beautiful, fascinating, exciting, challenging, frightening, painful and exhilarating roller coaster ride of relationships bent and broken, repaired and rebuilt anew in amazing forms most of us never considered or imagined - certainly not for ourselves. Let's accept - and enjoy, and even celebrate - this new normal, and get on with the business of living and loving our children and families, however they're constructed.

*Statisticians argue; some say 50% of new marriages and 60% of second marriages, others a bit higher or lower. And these numbers don't reflect the (growing, by all reports) number of couples who don't even bother to get married in the first place. The rest of the western world is even worse-off. For the purpose of this article and argument, exact numbers aren't relevant; the point is there are at least as many divided/split/re-married/blended/mixed families as traditional married-once-and-forever families.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Awakening Zionism in LA

March in LA - "Awakening Zionism" - Re-asserting the legitimacy of Israel and Zionism - Co-Sponsored by the Consulate of Israel, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Beverly Hills Synagogue, StandWithUs, and JACLA.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Re-asserting the legitimacy of Israel & Zionism

[Published at the Israel Forever site.]

By Aryeh Green

"Zionism is nothing more, but also nothing less, than the Jewish People's sense of origin and destination in the land linked eternally with its name." Abba Eban
Israel is increasingly attacked as an imperialist, colonialist, apartheid aggressor and occupier; Zionism is seen as racism even though the nefarious UN resolution was repealed. “Combating the delegitimization” of Israel is a necessary but not sufficient response, focused as it is on specific manifestations – boycotts, divestment resolutions, hostile media outlets, and various political or cultural leaders’ statements. Israel is in desperate need of a coordinated, pro-active, strategic approach to this long-term erosion of its standing even among those who purport to support her. Excellent organizations and individuals – from AIPAC to the ADL, from the AJC and JNF and Hillel to TIP, StandWithUs, BlueStreet PR, HonestReporting, ElNet, ReThink Israel, EMET and NGO Monitor, to name just a few – are working hard to stem the tide. But these and other hard-working efforts are literally overwhelmed by the hostility permeating the intellectual climate in which the top echelons of the political, academic, media and cultural worlds operate.
This is an ideological, intellectual, civilizational struggle - and Israel and the Jewish people need an assertive strategic approach to coordinate and initiate efforts to re-legitimize Israel. We must generate nothing less than a paradigm shift in perception: Rejection of the present view of Judaism as just anotherreligion or faith community, and acceptance of Zionism and Israel as expressions of the national liberation movement of the Jewish people/nation. (This was accepted by western nations – and most Jews – a century ago.)
A long-term, comprehensive effort is required to augment and make more effective the efforts of already-active groups, collaborating at the highest levels. We must educate key elites to change the way Israel is perceived by political decision-makers, intellectual and cultural elites, academics, religious leaders of all faiths, the media and the general public. This will lead to better understanding of the history of Israel, Jews and Judaism and acceptance of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It will also engender increased support for Israel, including Jewish rights to the Land of Israel as the indigenous peoplereturning to their ancestral homeland – irrespective of preferred political solutions.
Whether one is an advocate of territorial compromise or of a greater Israel, the key is to achieve recognition of the true history and complexity of the conflict, and acknowledgment of the Arab leadership's primary responsibility for the lack of peace in the area, while increasing the legitimacy of alternative solutions to the region’s conflict(s). This is not a political agenda: leading lights of Israel's Left - including the head of the Labor Party, MK Itzhak Herzog, and the doyen of Israeli academia, Prof. Shlomo Avineri, as well as one of the founders of both Peace Now and the far-Left Meretz party, Mossi Raz, have articulated the same understanding. And as part of all this, we also must enhance appreciation for Israel’s free society and its place at the frontlines of the fight against the Islamist jihadi threat to western civilization.
Our community needs to reach, engage and impact the top opinion elites and decision-makers in leading western countries and to inspire and impactmillions of activists online. We must focus on leaders in academia, media, and cultural, political & intellectual spheres, with intensive efforts at buildingrelationships and disseminating factual, persuasive information and content, through published works, social media, academic and public conferences, aggressive print, TV, billboard and online advertisingpublic relationscampaigns, and personal interaction/persuasion. Simultaneously, we must create an assertive online environment to impact public opinion and stimulategrassroots activism and crowd-funding.
This strategic effort can dramatically increase the effectiveness of every individual organization, based on a combined top-down and bottom-up tactical approach: Impacting public opinion by impacting opinion-makers, while driving changes in leadership attitudes by grassroots activities online and in the street/on campus. Herzl said "If we will it, it is not a dream" - and with the will of all pro-Israel players in the field, we can return to the Zionist dream, in the process re-establishing the very term Zionism to its rightful place in the Jewish and wider world.
Envisioning a world where accurate information, unbiased analysis, and in-depth understanding lead to:
  • Acknowledgment of Jewish nationality/peoplehood;
  • Recognition and support of Israel as a legitimate member of the community of nations;
  • Informed and responsible policies regarding Israel and the Middle East; and
  • The promotion of liberal values and freedoms.
WATCH this video of Aryeh's inspiring talk March 27th at JACLA:
Aryeh Green is VP Strategic Investment at EnergiyaGlobal, a leading solar energy developer for Africa, and Director Emeritus of MediaCentral, a Jerusalem-based project of HonestReporting providing services to the foreign press in Israel. Aryeh has an extensive background in both the public and private sectors, having served as a senior advisor to minister Natan Sharansky in the Israeli Prime Minister's office and as an executive or consultant for some of Israel's leading companies. In Israel for over 30 years, he holds masters degrees in business and international relations, is an expert in regional affairs, media issues, and Israel history, and has been a leading advocate and activist for freedom and democracy in the region for the past two decades.

Friday, March 20, 2015

העת למנהיגות אמיצה - Time for Courageous Leaderhip in Israel (Hebrew)

[English at - "Time for Courageous Leadership"]
העת למנהיגות אמיצה
אתגרים לא קלים עומדים בפני מדינת ישראל כיום - כמו תמיד. איראן. הדה-לגיטימציה. דאע"ש. חמאס וחיזבאללה. מצוקת הדיור. עוינות ונוקשות ערבית / פלסטינית. סוגיות כלכליות וחברתיות. האנטגוניזם האמריקאי והאירופאי מתגבר. שינוי שיטת בחירות. פלורליזם דתי.
קראו שנית את הרשימה לעיל. זה מדהים עד כמה דומות הפלטפורמות, המדיניות וההצהרות של ראש הליכוד, ראש הממשלה בנימין נתניהו לאלו של ראש מפלגת העבודה, יצחק הרצוג. אכן, במסע הבחירות הדגש היה על מה שמבדיל ביניהם; אבל בשלטון, ובחיפוש ליצור קואליציה שתצליח להתמודד עם הרבה מהבעיות הרציניות הללו, מה שיש להם במשותף הוא לא רק חשוב יותר, אבל הוא עומד מנגד עיננו באופן מובהק.
המונח "מחנה לאומי" איננו רלוונטי לתקופה בה אנו חיים. זהו מונח לתקופה של מלחמה, כפי שהיה ב -67. מה שנכון לזמננו  הוא למקד את תשומת הלב שלנו על אותן מדיניויות שהכל מסכימים כי הן קריטיות לפתירת הבעיות הללו. ניכר אפוא כי האלמנטים המרכזיים בליכוד - כולל נתניהו, אדלשטיין, ארדן, בגין, כץ, יעלון, שטייניץ, אלקינס ומנהיגים אחרים של המפלגה - ואלמנטים המרכזיים בעבודה - כולל הרצוג, בר, כבל, בר לב, טרכטנברג, שי, יניב ואחרים - לא רק שמשותף להם אותה האידיאולוגיה הציונית, הליברלית, אך הם כולם גם חולקים תחושה עוצמתית דומה של נחישות לאומית, צדק חברתי ונכונות להשתמש בכוח צבאי בשביל הגנה עצמית בעת הצורך.
זהו לא המעמד המתאים לפרט את ההוכחות לכך; אבל גם סקירה שטחית של עמדותיהם לגבי מניעת התחמשות גרעינית איראנית, המבצע הצבאי ההגנתי של ישראל בעזה בקיץ האחרון, אפילו לגבי בנייה בשכונות יהודיות של ירושלים וכן בשכונות קיימות של קהילות יהודיות ביהודה ושומרון, שמירה על הקהילות הגדולות בשטחים (מכשול "התיישבות" הגדול), שלא לדבר על הצורך ברפורמת דיור, רפורמת קרקעות, שינוי שיטת הבחירות, רפורמת שירותים-דתיים ועוד, להפגין כמה קרובים הם באמת. זה בעצם מצב טבעי והגיוני כיוון שמדובר באנשים אינטליגנטיים, זהירים ומנוסים שמכירים במציאות שאנו חיים בו. ההבדלים בין הליכוד והעבודה עיקרם בניואנסים שונים, אך לא בעיקרון. שני המפלגות מובילות בעצם את "המחנה הציוני" (שם השיווק שנבחר לאיחוד של מפלגת העבודה ומפלגת התנועה).
אל תאמינו לכל דיווחי החדשות - ישראליים או בינלאומיים. ייתכן והרצוג הוביל קמפיין על מצע שהוא יכול לעשות שלום עם שכנינו, אבל הוא ידוע כאדם הרבה יותר ספקן לגבי מניעיה ויכולותיה של ההנהגה הפלסטינית הנוכחית, בדומה לעמדתו של נתניהו. גם נתניהו, שצוטט באומרו כי לא תקום מדינה פלסטינית כאשר הוא יכהן כראש הממשלה, אבל ברור כי אמירה זו היוותה לו רק קביעת עובדה ולא הבעת עמדה, כיוון שאין לנו כרגע פרטנר פלסטיני אשר מסוגל להפוך חזון זה לאפשרי. אם כי ייתכן שאירה זו שירתה את ביבי בשביל מסע הבחירות שלו, הוא בשום אופן לא "התנער" מקבלתו המסויגת של אפשרות זו לפני כמה שנים (כפי שארי שביט אמר ביום רביעי שעבר ב- CNN, ביבי הוא "אחת הדמויות המתונות ביותר" בגוש המרכז-ימין. וארי איננו תומך בביבי כלל).
זהו העת, על כן, למנהיגות אמיצה, ושלושת הגברים אשר נמצאים במקום המתאים להפגין מנהיגות בעלת חזון למען ישראל כיום הם נתניהו, הרצוג והנשיא רובי ריבלין (אכן, הם כולם גברים, אבל זה נושא למאמר אחר). הם יכולים - וצריכים - לפצות על הטעות הממארת ביותר של ציפי לבני, כאשר כראש קדימה, לאחר הבחירות בשנת 2009, היא סירבה מסיבות אישיות קטנוניות להצטרף לממשלתו של נתניהו, למרות עמדות מדיניות משותפות ברורות בין השניים.
בוז'י הרצוג אינו ציפי לבני. ישרתו ודאגתו לטובה הלאום עולים על האגו שלו. הוא יכול באופן נינוח לכהן כחבר בכיר בממשלתו של ביבי. אבל מעבר לכך: הוא יכול להשיג כל כך הרבה יותר על ידי ישיבה בממשלתו של ביב מאשר מה שיוכל להשיג אי פעם כראש האופוזיציה (כדוגמת  אח צעיר ונרגן שמתלונן הרבה ועושה מעט). כשר הביטחון, או כשר האוצר, או כשר החוץ, לא רק שבוז'ייוכל להמשיך להתעסק בנושאים החשובים לו ביותר, אלא הוא יוכל למקם את עצמו כמנהיג אמיתי, מקבל החלטות ומדינאי.
בדומה לכך, ביבי נתניהו אינו אהוד אולמרט. אולמרט סרב להזמין את הליכוד (מפלגתו לשעבר ובעל בריתו הטבעית) להצטרף לממשלתו בשנת 2006 בשל היריבות האישית בינו לבין נתניהו, מנהיג הליכוד באותה העת. לא בלבד שביבי יכול לשתף פעולה עם בוז'י; הוא מכבד אותו מאוד  וביבי יותר מכל אדם יודע כי ביום אחרי הבחירות כולנו - והוא בפרט - יכולים להבליג על הדברים השונים שנאמרו בקמפיין. זוהי כמעט בוודאות הקדנציה האחרונה של ביבי כראש הממשלה; הוא רוצה, ואף צריך, להיתפס כדמות לאומית בעל מעמד היסטורי בולט.
עבור ביבי, איחוד שכזה יבטיח טיפוח של המורשת שאותה רוצה להותיר אחריו; עבור בוז'י, האיחוד יפגין את יכולות המנהיגות שלו. עבור נתניהו, זוהי קרש קפיצה להיסטוריה; עבור הרצוג, קרש קפיצה למשרד ראש הממשלה.
ביצוע הרפורמות הגדולות הדרושות כדי לייצב את המערכת הפוליטית ואת הכלכלה, וכדי לשפר את יחסינו עם שכנינו וחברים / בני ברית בעולם, יכול להיעשות רק עם ממשלת מרכז חזקה שאינה מוחזקת כבן ערובה על ידי מפלגות קטנות.
יש מספר שותפים טבעיים למיזם.  כולנו, יש עתיד, גם בית יהודי, ישראל ביתנו וש"ס - כולם שואפים להיראות כמו "מרכז" (בין אם מרכז-ימין או -שמאל) וללקט מצביעים ממגזרים שונים. ממשלה עם שילוב של כמה מהם - או את כולם - תהיה יציבה מכיוון שהיא לא תהיה פגיעה לאיומים מכל אחד מהם. ממשלה המורכבת כך תהווה השתקפות אמיתית של הקונצנזוס בישראל: גאה מאוד, מחויב לרווחה וכלכלה ליברלית, חזקה על ביטחון, מוכנה להמשיך במגעים עם שכנינו בזהירות, עם כבוד למסורת אבל גם עם דגש על זכויות וחירויות הפרט.
איזה נס יהיה אם במשך השבת הזה, כאשר אנו נזכרים בעצמת הענווה של משה, כמו גם מנהיגות מרחיקת ראותו עבור העם היהודי הצעיר, ביבי ובוג' יכולים להתעלות על הפוליטיקה הקטנה של החודשים האחרונים (ושנים האחרונים) וליצור קואליציה יציבה, חזקה, ובעל חזון - הממשלה שרוב הישראלים רוצים כל כך  וראויים לה.
אריה גרין הוא מנכ״ל MediaCentral ( -בירושלים , והיה יועץ בכיר לשר נתן שרנסקי במשרדו של ראש הממשלה.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

God or Religion - what takes precedence?

I found this article particularly insightful and compelling, not least in light of the internal debates here in Israel over various religious issues (not mentioned below).  I’m not weighing in on the US presidential candidates but certainly do agree with the fundamental principle here: religion is meant to serve God and/or a higher purpose, and clearly is distorted when it seems to become MORE important than God or those moral values it is meant to promote.  Or as he puts it, “the religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve God and instead worships his or her religion…”.


Are Mormons any weirder than the rest of us?

I don't believe Joseph Smith found ancient tablets in upstate New York. What has that got to do with electing politicians?

I have been close to Mormons ever since my days at Oxford, when Michael Taft Benson became a member and then an elected officer of our L’Chaim Society at the University. Benson’s grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson, was the prophet of the Mormon Church at the time. Thus began a lifelong friendship that continues till today, with many visits to lecture for Mike at Southern Utah University and other mostly Mormon academies of higher learning in the majority Mormon state.

I have thus watched with mild amusement as the debate surrounding the beliefs of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have gained steam. Aren’t the Mormons weird fanatics? Should we trust people with such strange beliefs with high office? 

This is an interesting question coming from my evangelical brothers and sisters whose belief that a man, born of a virgin, was the son of God, only to die on a cross, and then be resurrected. With all due respect, that’s not exactly the most rational belief, either.

The criticisms are equally interesting coming from Orthodox Jews, like myself, who believe that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked to Balaam, and the sun stood still for Joshua.

But it is equally strange coming from evolutionists like Richard Dawkins who have said, without a single shred of evidence, that life on our planet may have been seeded by space aliens. Even those evolutionists who reject Dawkins’ faith in extraterrestrial life have a belief system of their own; namely, that intelligent life somehow evolved capriciously and accidentally from inorganic matter, even though the possibility of complex organisms evolving without guidance is mathematically nearly impossible.

Julian Huxley, who stemmed from the world’s most famous family of evolutionary proponents, described the probability of the evolution of a horse thus: “A proportion of favorable mutations of one-ina- thousand does not sound much, but is probably generous... and a total of a million mutational steps sounds a great deal, but is probably an understatement....With this proportion, we should clearly have to breed a million strains (a thousand squared) to get one containing two favorable mutations, and so on, up to a thousand to the millionth power to get one containing a million.... No one would bet on anything so improbable happening...and yet it has happened!” 

Yes, even men of science can believe things that can be construed as highly irrational.

NOW, DO believe that Joseph Smith found ancient tablets written in reformed Egyptian in upstate New York, that Jesus Christ appeared to the people of South America as recorded in the book of Mormon, or that when a Mormon dies he becomes a god and gets his own planet? No. Respectfully, I do not. Nor should it matter. It is what a person does, rather than what they believe, that counts. It took four years for the Dalai Lama to be identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor in a process that to Western eyes can appear highly arbitrary. Yet, the Dalai Lama remains one of the most respected men alive because of his commitment to world peace and good works.

Misguided attacks on groups like the Mormons stem from a willful desire on the part of many to fraudulently identify people with a different faith system as fanatics. Therefore, a brief discussion of religious fundamentalism is in order.

The most confusing story of the Bible involves God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. What was the God who would later declare that all human, and especially child sacrifice, to be an abomination, thinking?

The most insightful commentary I have seen on this story comes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who said that the key to the story is to see Isaac not as an individual but as a religion. Who was Isaac? He was Judaism. He was the person who would continue Abraham’s belief system. With his death, everything that Abraham had taught in terms of his rejection of paganism and the belief in one God would be lost.

The test, therefore, was this: would Abraham follow God’s commandment to kill off his religion or would he put his religion before God’s will? What really mattered to Abraham? God, or Judaism? And if they were to be put in conflict, what would he choose? The religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve God and instead worships his or her religion, turning their faith into yet another false idol. Religion is solely the means by which by which we come to have a relationship with our Creator. But when it becomes a substitute for God it becomes soulless and fanatical, seeing as there is no loving deity to temper it.

In this light we can understand why an Islamic fundamentalist is so deadly, prepared even to go against God’s express commandment not to murder. He is prepared to kill not in order to strike a blow for the glory of God, but of Islam.

Hence, our concern need not be with a person’s faith in public office. It does not matter if they are Jewish, evangelical, Mormon, or Muslim. What does matter is whether their faith is focused on relating to God and, by extension, caring for God’s children. Do they see the purpose of their high station being to promote their particular religion? 

It is easy to identify the difference. People who are in a relationship with God are humble and do their utmost to refrain from judging others. Their proximity to a Perfect Being reminds them of their own fallibility, and their experience of God’s compassion leads them to be merciful and loving.

In contrast, those who worship a religion are arrogant and think they have the only truth. They are dismissive of other people’s beliefs and maintain that advancing the cause of their religion is more important than life itself. The Israeli rabbi who recently made the strange comment that soldiers should choose a firing squad rather than listen to a woman sing is a classic example of this heresy.
Those who worship religion evince the classic characteristic of cult members. Whereas a real faith system is empowering and makes one strong and capable of operating outside their own faith community, cult members can only identify with other members of their group and require the environment of the cult in order to function. They don’t have beliefs. Rather, they take orders.

I see none of these characteristics in Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman – who graciously hosted me along with my guest Elie Wiesel at the governor’s mansion in Utah a few years back – or any of my countless other Mormon friends. All should be judged on their merits as people and politicians, whatever their faith and whatever their beliefs.

The writer has just published of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself, (Wiley), and will shortly publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on his website and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

For all those who don't understand ENGLISH, this is a pretty funny, short video about English Accents:

Friday, May 20, 2011

'B+' on democracy, 'D'- on Israel-Arab conflict

Truth is there's something for everyone in President Obama's MidEast speech: support for reform, commitment to Israel, Palestinian state, opposition to Iran & Syria.

But at base two things must be recognized: They're beginning to understand democracy; they still don't understand the Arab-Israeli conflict.

First, the Obama administration understands the issues relating to the desire for freedom in the Middle East, including the dangers - and should get credit for supporting and promoting democracy and reform in the region. Obama has started to talk the talk - not only applauding, but demanding that regimes in power, including Syria and Iran, stop killing their people and start responding to the legitimate demands of the governed. And walking the walk - in steps, and a bit late, but still important - by giving massive aid ($2 billion in funds and debt-forgiveness to Egypt alone!). What a message to the protesters in Syria and Yemen (and Gaza and Iran): overthrow your governments and not only will you be free, we (the West) will help you financially. That's worth an A. Telling Syria to stop repressing its people, and voicing support for all those struggling for freedom everywhere, is worth an A+.

His verbal support for 'universal' freedoms is important; but he needs to be more pro-active, and his call for 'reform' in Syrian and insistence on respect for 'universal rights' in Iran, were weak and passive. And the fact that he didn't even mention Saudi Arabia or Jordan or Lebanon is irresponsible and short-sighted. For all this, he deserves a B-. So put together: B+

Second, it's clear the Obama administration still doesn't get the Arab-Israeli conflict. They're learning - not only history and law, but the importance of nuance and language - and Obama's references to Israel as a Jewish State and national homeland for the Jewish people, to Hamas and its rejection of Israel, and to Palestinian (and others') efforts to delegitimize Israel, are important landmarks demonstrating this. President Obama would get an A for this. And his little-noticed reference to the Palestinians 'walking away from negotiations', thereby signalling that he recognizes, and holds them accountable, that they have made excuses for refusing to return to talks, is worthy of an A+.

And while many are suggesting that his reference to '1967 lines' is problematic, I somewhat disagree, and rather agree with Jeffrey Goldberg that there's little new here; as a 'basis' this has been understood for decades, and the words 'with agreed swaps' is code for negotiating the towns and neighborhoods which the Bush letter acknowledged - and all negotiations as well - are realities on the ground' which will be under Israeli sovereignty in the end. I could tweak the sentences to better reflect reality, and/or Israeli preferences, but that's not the point. And none of this, nor the below, has any bearing on whether one supports immediate withdrawal from the disputed territories (Judea/Samaria, the "West Bank") or eternal Jewish control of them; this is not about politics, this is about logic, history, law and morality.

No, my main and significant disappointment with President Obama's speech, and the reason I note they still don't understand the conflict, is the framing he sets, and the suggestions he offers as next steps.

As so many do - wrongly, based on a combination of visceral support for the 'underdog', mis-reading of history, politically-led misunderstanding of international law, and mostly the success of Palestinian propaganda permeating public discourse - Obama views "the occupation' as the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and that Israel is 'in the wrong' at base, and his speech repeatedly reflects this, from references to Palestinian suffering to territory to effects on other countries in the region. He remains captive to the idea that this conflict is a border conflict, rather than a national conflict where one nation - the Arab nation and Palestinians in particular object to and refuse to accept the existence of the Jewish nation in this land.

But more, Obama opined that starting with borders and security, we could move on to what he called "emotional" issues, Jerusalem and refugees. Here too he misstepped, not recognizing Israel's absolute right to Jerusalem (under law* and history, not as a 'pro-Israel' stance), and not calling clearly for Palestinian refugees to return only to a Palestinian state. And moreover, he could have used this platform both to note the fundamental responsibility of the Arab world FOR those refugees, and to recognize the similar number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands (who have never been compensated nor recognized, but rather were simply absorbed into their country as so many millions of other refugees were over the past half-century).

All this deserves at least a C.

But here's the rub: he didn't even mention, let alone focus on, the real primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East, the continual rejection of any Jewish connection to this land, and hence of the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel, by a century of Arab, Muslim, and then Palestinian leaders. This is what makes this a national conflict, not a simple border dispute; this is where the Obama administration once again has flunked the class.

Obama himself said, " people -– not just one or two leaders -- must believe peace is possible." But he did not note - nor insist - that Arab leaders, and in particular Palestinian leaders, have continually taught their people that peace is not only not possible, but not desirable with Israel and the Jews. In fact, instead, he repeated the old mantra (and not very strongly at that) that Hamas (or Hizbollah, or Al Quaida, take your pick) are the bad guys, rejecting Israel's existence, instead of boldly demanding of Palestinian and all Arab leaders to finally accept Israel, as a Jewish state, and to cease attacking Israel and the Jews not only with missiles and bombs and threats of destruction but with textbooks and speeches and TV shows and statues dedicated to 'heroic martyr' terrorists.

This is not propaganda; had Obama and his advisors taken the time to notice, the events of Sunday underscore this very fact. Demonstrations on May 15, the date of Israel's founding, commemorated/mourned by Arabs (Palestinian and other) as "the Catastrophe", were organized throughout the region. These are not against 'the occupation'. (Were they so, they would be held on June 4 or 6, ie. commemorating Israel's advance into the territories.) In fact, in the disputed territories and Palestinian Authority (Judea/Samaria, the "West Bank") protests were decidedly muted - as most Palestinians living in the territories are aware that they are on their way to establishing a State there, are ready to live with Israel in peace, and are interested in protesting mainly against their own corrupt and authoritarian leaders. The demonstrations which made the news (and in which people were injured and killed, mostly by Lebanese forces it turns out) were on the borders of Israel, not in the "occupied" areas - and the calls were for Israel's destruction, not withdrawal from the territories.

President Obama does get that in a non-democracy, leaders focus on an external enemy to justify their own repression - he referred to Arabs' criticism of Israel being their only 'free speech'. He just doesn't get that this focus on Israel and the Jews as being responsible not only for all Palestinian suffering but for all the ills of the region (and often the world) is coordinated and propagated and allowed by all Arab and Muslim regimes, to a greater or lesser degree, and not at all least by the Fatah 'moderate' leadership of the PLO and PA. And he doesn't get that this - and nothing Israel actually does, even when it makes mistakes - is the real thing preventing peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

This is the crux of the matter; these are the facts, and they are not disputed at all by the majority of Arabs and Muslims and especially their leaders, with a few enlightened and courageous exceptions. The Obama administration doesn't get it; they deserve an F, and to be kicked out of the class.

Had the Obama administration understood this, they could and would never focus on 'borders and security' as the first steps in any potential renewal of the 'peace process'. Nor would they ignore the demands of the quartet for Hamas to recognize Israel, renounce terror, and abide by earlier agreements - none of which Obama mentioned. Referring to Hamas, while ignoring the evidence that Fatah and Hamas (and the rest of the Arab world's leaders) are different only in style and degree, he says Palestinians have to find a 'credible answer' to the question "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?" But he offered no demand for what that answer is, which goes directly to the heart of the matter. You can't; America wouldn't; Israel won't, either.

The larger picture is still clear: Israel has negotiated, and continues to call for a return to talks, with those Palestinians who at the very least make the pretense of accepting our right to be here and renouncing violence, and who at least seem to be more interested in creating their own state than destroying ours.

Unfortunately, even a 'peace agreement' and the establishment of a Palestinian state in most of the disputed territories, won't bring real peace to our region; only leaders and people in the Muslim and Arab world who truly want peace, and not merely a pause in the centuries-old war against the Jews, can make that happen.

If the Obama team wants to really help bring peace to this area, they have a great deal of homework to do. Otherwise, they're receiving a D-, and are pretty close to failing the class.


*Professor, Judge Schwebel, former president of the International Court of Justice in the Hague writing inWhat Weight to Conquest [1994]:

"(a) a state [Israel] acting in lawful exercise of its right of self-defense may seize and occupy foreign territory as long as such seizure and occupation are necessary to its self-defense;

"(b) as a condition of its withdrawal from such territory, that State may require the institution of security measures reasonably designed to ensure that that territory shall not again be used to mount a threat or use of force against it of such a nature as to justify exercise of self-defense;

"(c) Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully [Jordan], the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense [Israel] has, against that prior holder, better title."

"As between Israel, acting defensively in 1948 and 1967, on the one hand, and her Arab neighbors, acting aggressively, in 1948 and 1967, on the other, Israel has the better title in the territory of what was Palestine, including the whole of Jerusalem."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Taking back the banner of Human Rights - Sharansky article in NY Times May 17

A Moment of Moral Clarity

How many protesters must a regime murder before it is no longer fit for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council? How many thousands of dissidents must it jail? How many acts of international terrorism must it instigate?

The line is invisible — but Syria, having too openly crossed it, has now been forced to vacate its candidacy in the May 20 elections to the council.

It is good that Syria has been removed, just as it is good that Libya has been suspended from membership.

But what was Muammar el-Qaddafi’s blood-soaked regime doing on a human-rights body in the first place? What separates it and Syria from Cuba, China and the other dictatorships that make up the council majority and brazenly sit in judgment on the human-rights record of others? Why has the free world remained largely silent? In the run-up to the elections, such questions are more urgent than ever.

Something very important and very dramatic is happening in the Arab-Muslim Middle East. The peoples of the region are deciding to stop living in fear, and are risking life and limb to rid themselves of one seemingly immovable autocracy after another.

In so doing, they are simultaneously repudiating the unspoken agreements that the West has reached over the years with their dictators, agreements that bartered the people’s freedom for a facade of stability.

But while masses of people in the Middle East are demonstrating in the streets for freedom, the free world itself, led by the United States, has responded in classic realpolitik fashion, calibrating its response to each regime’s perceived chances for survival.

This is understandable. After so many years of supporting Hosni Mubarak, it was difficult to acknowledge him for the corrupt dictator he always was. After convincing itself that Bashar al-Assad was a reformer, a White House wishing to engage the regime on “the day after” was incapable of saying what Syrians already knew: that he was a barbaric tyrant and murderer.

But silence and confusion have exacted a price. To the people in the streets, to the millions who have crossed their own line from fear to freedom, the signal has been sent that America is not with them, that the world’s beacon of freedom is indifferent to theirs.

In the face of regime turmoil, many have insisted that Washington must choose between the two stark alternatives of engagement and disengagement. This is a fallacy. Engaging with a dictatorial regime and engaging with its people are two different things, and the same goes for disengagement. The United States engaged with and subsidized the dictatorship in Cairo, and America is cordially hated by Egyptians; the United States and the mullahs in Tehran could not be more disengaged, and America is loved by the Iranians.

When Ronald Reagan pronounced the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” the partisans of Western engagement were horrified, but throughout that evil empire Reagan’s truth-telling brought courage to dissidents and a surge of hope to hundreds of millions desperate to escape the bonds of a fear-permeated society.

Reagan did not thereupon cease negotiating with the Kremlin. At the same time, however, his administration encouraged the struggle of ever-growing numbers of Soviet and East European dissidents — with results that, starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, shook the world.

There may be no evil “empire” in today’s Middle East, but there are more than enough evil regimes to go around. It is past time to start delegitimizing them. What, indeed, must a dictator do to lose the respect of the international community, or to trigger action against him?

It is not a matter of sending troops — another straw man. It is a matter of saying, not softly but loudly and in the clearest possible terms, that those who violate the human rights of their people cannot be our partners in building a world safe for human rights.

It may be necessary to deliberate the pros and cons of engaging with a dictatorial regime, but there is no need to deliberate engaging with its people.

To those millions crossing, or waiting to cross, the line into freedom, we can send a simple but thrilling message of support and solidarity: We are with you. No dictator is a legitimate representative of his people. “Human rights” are not a phrase to be cynically parroted by the world’s worst violators sitting on a grotesquely misnamed Human Rights Council, but a real and universal criterion of decency. We are with you.

At this moment of moral clarity, when the free world is being challenged to cease turning a blind eye to tyranny, surely it is not too much to affirm full-throatedly the aspirations of the Arab and Muslim peoples to live in freedom, to choose their own governments, to be protected in their right to dissent, and no longer to be ruled by guns.

At the very least, we, who would never choose differently for ourselves, owe this much to them, and to ourselves.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet political prisoner, is chairman of the Jewish Agency and the author, most recently, of “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Converted to the Conversion Bill

Converted to the Conversion Bill

By Aryeh Green

I’m a moderate, traditional Jew. I’ve been following and supporting the progress of Natan Sharanky’s efforts to find a solution to our society’s conversion issues for over a decade, and was very excited when the Neeman Commission proposed its conversion courts. Here was a moderate, practical, Halachic forum to move quickly ahead to enable the conversion of immigrants from the FSU (and others!) who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish people by coming to live in (and defend, and die in) the Jewish State. Over the past two weeks, I have given talks at and spoken to Jewish leaders and communities in 8 cities across America – and I am quite frustrated at the misunderstandings rampant, and even more so at the unnecessary wedge being driven between non-Orthodox Jews abroad and Israelis (of all sorts).

Even if (if) the Rotem conversion law was perhaps flawed before the recent excising of the section affecting the Law of Return – and I’m not sure it was all that bad – at this point I suggest simply that all who care for Judaism and Israel simply announce ‘victory’ and support it. All of us – Reform and Conservative rabbis and leaders in the US, modern Orthodox leaders there and in Israel, and all the rest of us who crave a ‘normal’, classical approach to Judaism – can feel satisfied that, with the amendment separating this internal-affairs bill from any treatment of conversions abroad and the ‘who is a Jew’ issue regarding the law of return, this is an effective and long-overdue bill.

Personally, I wish Rotem would have waiting until Sharansky (now head of the Jewish Agency and specifically tasked by the prime minister recently to help iron out an agreement) had been allowed to negotiate a solution. Politically, Rotem deserves our wrath. But the law is a good one, one which actually promotes the kind of more open, welcoming, tolerant Judaism and a cessation of control by the ultra-Orthodox which the non-Orthodox streams have been supposedly seeking for years. I’m not sure Sharansky’s efforts wouldn’t have led to the same law, or one very similar.

Those Diaspora leaders declaring that this law is “divisive” should be told in no uncertain terms: they are the ones who are causing a potential “schism” in the Jewish people, rather than blaming this law for it. They were successful in removing the offensive elements of it – now it’s time to declare victory and move on.

A close reading of the law (which it appears many Reform and Conservative leaders have not done, it seems, if judged by their rhetoric) demonstrates it does exactly what it’s supposed to: enable local, community rabbis to streamline the conversion process and to make it more welcoming, and, while Halachic of course, easier. The law, while codifying certain elements of Israeli practice already in place, allows much more freedom for more ‘modern’ rabbis like Shlomo Riskin and the Tzohar moderate rabbinical movement to move ahead with the conversions of FSU immigrants who want them – not to mention many others. This can – and in practice will – break the monopoly over conversions of the Haredim.

The Jerusalem Post editorial was inaccurate; it said the bill would give “the haredi-controlled chief rabbinate ‘responsibility over conversions’”. It already has that, even if not codified in law. Of course we should support it – it’s (part of) what we’ve been working towards for decades. (Yes, it’s a partial solution, but it’s a beginning. And mainly, it’s finally an answer to the issue of immigrants from the FSU who aren’t Jewish and want to be but either who won’t convert through the Rabbinate or whom aren’t being accepted by that Rabbinate.)

Moreover, we must understand the significance of rhetoric and the language used in debates like these. Those abroad who suggest that this law would be ‘divisive’ or ‘destructive’ (as did the recent Post editorial) are mistaken, as it does nothing to affect conversions abroad. It is they who are stoking the fires of division and a crisis in Diaspora-Israel relations. These leaders are making this a discordant issue when in fact they should be celebrating it as the first step towards liberalizing Judaism in Israel ever, and towards eliminating the control of the Haredim over our Judaism.

We – all of us who look to a more moderate version of Judaism which is open and liberal (dare I use that term, as an “Orthodox” Jew practicing what some might call “classical” Judaism?) – should simply claim victory with the recent amendment. We should explain to the liberal streams abroad just why this is a good law, even for them and their interests. The SF Jewish newspaper, The J Weekly, wrote that the bill puts more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate. This is incorrect, that power exists there today and it is strangling the Neeman and Druckman – and Riskin and Tzohar rabbis – approach to conversions. This bill will enable local rabbis to take the power away from the haredim, including the more modern, tolerant rabbis. The Diaspora leaders who’ve led this fight, for years – Reform, Conservative and otherwise – can be justifiably proud of it, and of their success in removing the one, small, admittedly mistaken clause which was offensive.

I propose we declare victory with the recent changes, support the bill and its liberating effect on conversions in Israel and its ending of Haredi control and coercion – ‘we’ including the Diaspora leaders who can now climb on board, communicating this clearly, and as forcefully as they’ve opposed it – to their flocks.

The writer is director of MediaCentral (, and was an advisor to Natan Sharansky as Diaspora affairs minister. He has been talking to Jews across America since July 8, including in Portland (Ore.), San Francisco, Mountain View (CA), Aspen, Rochester (NY), White Plains, Manhattan, and Washington DC. Much of the above is a distillation of these conversations. (

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Where is Orthodox aliya?

I have been asking this question for years; as usual, Michael Freund puts it more articulately than I:

Where is Orthodox aliya?

By Michael Freund



Earlier this year, a crisis erupted among American Orthodox Jewry, one that sent shock waves hurtling from coast to coast.

At the speed of broadband, word spread quickly from one community to another about the budding calamity, which threatened to cast a pall on Jewish life as we know it. Various organizations rushed to issue statements, the Internet was abuzz with rumors and parents from Staten Island to Seattle naturally went into a panic.

And just what, you might be wondering, lay at the heart of all this drama? Well, it had to do with raisins.

Yes, you read that correctly: raisins.

On January 27, New York's K'hal Adath Jeshurun, a prominent Orthodox congregation also known as KAJ, published a statement billed as an "important kashrus notice," which warned readers in grave and no uncertain terms that "due to bug infestation, no raisins of any brand... may be used at the present time, whether eaten plain or used in cooking or baking." The notice was then hoisted onto the Internet, setting off alarm bells for many Jews because of the Torah's prohibition (in chapter 11 of Leviticus) regarding the consumption of insects.

Obviously, the blanket nature of the ban imposed by KAJ was unnerving, and left many observant Jews wondering if they could still reach for their Raisin Bran in the morning.

But the chaos was short-lived. The tempest in a teacup, or shall we say the racket in a raisin box, quickly proved to be overblown.

As the predicament reached a fever pitch, the venerable Orthodox Union stepped into the fray and reassured the raisin-eating Jewish public "that raisins packed and stored under normal industry conditions do not pose a halachic infestation concern and may be consumed without further checking on the part of the consumer."

The Vaad Harabanim of Queens, an esteemed rabbinical body, also calmed the waters when it declared that the problem of infestation concerned raisins being sold by three specific companies and was not an across-the-board problem.

Now don't get me wrong. I am all in favor of the meticulous observance of Jewish law, which dictates how I live my life from the moment I awaken until I go to sleep. And the Torah's ban on eating bugs or insects is in fact quite serious, with the Talmud in Tractate Makkot (16b) noting that it can involve numerous prohibitions.

But this entire incident says a lot about the present state of American Orthodoxy, where a welcome trend toward greater observance nonetheless often leads people to lose sight of some larger and no less compelling issues of paramount importance.

IT IS TRULY wonderful that Orthodox Jews in America are sincerely concerned about upholding the intricacies of Jewish law. Maintaining the integrity of Halacha and preserving the rites and practices of our ancestors is what Judaism is all about. But what I fail to understand is the selectivity which many American Orthodox Jews seem to apply in this regard.

On matters great and small, from Sabbath observance to raisin infestations, it is common practice for religious Jews to ask their local rabbi a question seeking halachic guidance on how to proceed. This is done to ensure that the demands of Jewish law are being met.

But I have yet to meet an observant Jew in New York, London or Paris who has bothered to ask their rabbi a similar question about whether or not they should live in the Diaspora or make aliya. If a person is committed to living according to Halacha, how is it possible not to ask one's rabbi a question of such paramount importance? This "oversight" is especially difficult to grasp given the significance which Jewish sources attach to living in Israel.

The Sifrei on Deuteronomy, for example, states unequivocally that "dwelling in the Land of Israel is the equivalent of all the mitzvot in the Torah." And the Talmud in Tractate Ketubot declares that "he who lives in the Land of Israel is akin to one who has a God, while he who lives outside the Land is similar to one who has no God."

Centuries later, Nachmanides, the great medieval commentator, ruled unambiguously that the commandment to live in Israel is incumbent upon every Jew, and applies even if the land is under foreign control. The Pitchei Teshuva, in his 19th century commentary on the Shulhan Aruch, notes that all the earlier and later authorities agree with Nachmanides that there is a positive Torah commandment to live in Israel.

Israel is described in the Bible (Deuteronomy 11:12) as the land "which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year." And, as the Ohr Hachaim noted in the 18th century, "There is no joy other than in residing in the Land of Israel."

In light of all this, one can not help but wonder: Why isn't there large-scale Orthodox aliya? Sure, Orthodox Jews are said to make up the bulk of new immigrants arriving here each year from the West. But the numbers remain small - just a few thousand annually - and most religious Jews in the Diaspora seem content to remain where they are.

This situation brings to mind the words spoken by Joshua to the people of Israel more than 3,000 years ago, when he asked, "How long will you be remiss in coming to possess the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given to you?" (Joshua 18:3).

Indeed, it has never been easier to move to Israel, now that we have been blessed with the existence of our own sovereign and independent Jewish state.

I don't mean to stand in judgment of anyone's personal decisions. But I do mean to suggest that Orthodox Jews in the West at least need to start asking themselves, and their rabbis, the question. After all, if they seek halachic guidance about what they put in their mouths, isn't it time they also ask about where they put their lives and bodies as well?

This article can also be read at /servlet/Satellite?cid=1239710872635&pagename=JPArticle%2FShowFull.


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