Debra Kamin writes: A scene in the 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati offers a pitch-perfect crystallization of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.
It plays out in a Jewish National Fund forest in central Israel, where new Israeli immigrant and titular character Sallah is planting trees. A taxi pulls up bearing the rich American couple who paid for the forest. After the pair snaps a few photos and drives away, a new couple pulls up, and the sign bearing the first donors’ names is quickly swapped out for a new one. The Israelis nearby wipe the sweat off their brows, smile for the second couple’s camera, and chuckle among themselves.
The satire feels particularly poignant this month, as an unprecedented rift between Israel and American Jewry threatens to erupt into a permanent schism. Some diaspora Jews, furious with a series of legislative blows from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, are now threatening to stitch up their deep pockets once and for all.
“The rift is real,” says Seth Farber, a modern Orthodox rabbi who leads ITIM, an organization that offers assistance to Israelis in navigating the country’s religious bureaucracy. “[Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox] are not just shifting uncomfortably. They are saying: This is not the Israel that we know.”
The issues, all revolving around the ever-thorny questions of who is a Jew and what claim non-Israelis can stake to matters of Israeli life, have been simmering for years. But last month, when the Israeli government issued a swift one-two punch to non-Orthodox Jewish observance by nixing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and approving a bill that would block all but the most religious rabbis from performing Jewish conversions, the pot boiled over.
Despite its status as a parliamentary democracy, Israel grants a coalition of ultra-Orthodox rabbis legal authority over major life issues, including marriage, divorce, and burial. Only about 11 percent of Jews in Israel define themselves as Haredi, or ultra-religious, but their significantly higher birth rate — 6.9 children per woman, compared with 3.1 among secular Israelis — means their numbers are projected to dramatically increase over the next 10 years.
The sector also wields immense power in the nation’s multiparty system, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu currently holds a razor-thin 61-seat coalition; dissent from a single party could throw the majority, forcing new elections and bringing a challenge to the premiership. Netanyahu knows that in order to hold on to power, he needs the cooperation of ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and nowhere has this reality played out more dramatically than at the Western Wall.
One of the most important sites for Jewish prayer in the world, the Western Wall is under the control of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which means that the rules there are the same as within an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Male and female worshippers are segregated, and there is a total ban, on the women’s side, on traditionally “male” accoutrements of prayer such as Torah scrolls, tefillin (phylacteries), and kippot (skullcaps).
In Israel, even the most secular Jews are used to the idea that prayer at synagogues and religious monuments usually requires adjustments like modest dress and gender segregation. But in the United States, the picture of Jewish observance is much more complex. More than half of American Jews identify with either the Reform or Conservative Jewish movement, where women are welcomed to don prayer shawls and read from the Torah, husbands and wives sing Hebrew liturgies together, and ancient Jewish laws over issues such as kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and keeping the Sabbath have a looser, modern interpretation. Whereas most Jews in Israel identify as either religious or secular, outside of Israel’s borders it’s entirely possible to practice a form of secular Judaism that looks, to the average ultra-Orthodox observer, not like Judaism at all.
So when Netanyahu bowed to ultra-Orthodox pressure late last month and nixed a hard-won agreement to build an egalitarian space at the Western Wall — one that would have allowed not just for mixed-gender worship but for women to sing prayers and read from the Torah and for girls at the site to engage in the ritual of the bat mitzvah — the move was seen as a slap in the face to the majority of the globe’s Jews. [Continue reading…]
Anna Lind-Guzik writes: My late mother was a shiksa — tall, strawberry blonde and Midwestern — and that’s often enough for other Jews to disown and dismiss me: “Oh, so you’re not actually Jewish.” No matter that my father sought refuge from Soviet anti-Semitism, first in Israel and then in America, or that his immediate family fled the Nazi invasion on cattle trains leaving Odessa. Never mind that my mother insisted on sending me to crunchy Jewish summer camp every year, and prepared a beautiful seder. Forget that it was my father, not my mother, who talked me out of a bat mitzvah ceremony.
The sad irony is that what matters to far too many of my fellow Jews is the “purity” of my blood. I cannot be married or buried as a Jew in Israel, for example, because those institutions are under the control of an Orthodox rabbinate to whom I’m irrelevant, at best. My only option to avoid discrimination is a full-blown conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Other options, including Reform Judaism, agnosticism and even atheism, are reserved for purebreds.
Though religious customs seek to deny me, I consider myself ethnically and culturally Jewish. I’m not alone. Intermarriage is a factor in modern Jewish life.
David Friedman did not arise in a vacuum. Equating Jewishness with political support for far-right extremism has been on the rise in Israel for years. Let’s not forget Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s twisted lies to increase last-minute Likud turnout in the 2015 election: “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing organizations are bussing them out.”
Many Jewish people of Russian origin share those politics, in large part because they hold a blanket hatred of the left, a residue of their understandable aversion to Soviet Communism. Criticizing the Israeli government can invite furious accusations of anti-Semitism, hurled against Jews and non-Jews alike.
How did it come to pass that right-wing politics and anti-Arab racism have come to define Jewish identity more than a love for humanity? When is it ever OK to negotiate in bad faith, as if the Palestinians were animals and therefore undeserving of peace? Have we not been on the other side of this equation before?
This is why I’m begging those of you unwilling to pledge loyalty to far-right politics to hear me out:
Jews, you are my people, but I cannot be a member of your tribe. It’s not just because the tribe will not accept me: It’s because I reject tribalism. [Continue reading…]
Brent E. Sasley writes: President-elect Donald Trump has set the foreign policymaking world on edge with his and his team’s repeated insistence that as president he will move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The goal: support Israel’s claim to the city as its “undivided, eternal capital.” By nominating David Friedman — who agrees with that position — to be ambassador to Israel, Trump apparently emphasizes this commitment.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has resisted resolution for decades. But Trump has insisted that “a deal is a deal” and that because he is “a negotiator,” he will be successful where others were not. In this case, presumably Trump plans to offer the Palestinians compensation to accept Israel’s claims to Jerusalem.
But it is not that simple.
The “let’s make a deal” approach assumes that each negotiating party has a series of material things that can be traded off. In this approach, both sides understand they will be better off with more than they currently have.
But that doesn’t apply to a place like Jerusalem, or to conflicts like it. Over time, territorial conflicts between ethno-national communities have become more about ideological and emotional attachments than about material interests. Recent research shows that groups can’t trade off material gain against territory that they consider to be part of its national homeland — territory that’s important to everyone who identifies with that ancestral homeland, wherever they actually live. Jerusalem is a prime example: Its existence is loaded with cultural, spiritual, religious and national meaning.
Jerusalem’s layered history is so important to both Jewish and Muslim religious practice as immovable “sacred spaces” that even when Israeli and Palestinian leaders hold similar attachments, they can’t decide its disposition alone. They must account for the emotional commitments of publics outside the Middle East. [Continue reading…]
Christian Science Monitor reports: When Sheryl Olitzky first broached the subject of a Jewish-Muslim women’s group, Atiya Aftab didn’t buy it.
“Why is someone calling me because I’m Muslim?” Ms. Aftab recalls thinking. “This is creepy.”
But as Ms. Olitzky made her case over lattes at a Starbucks in suburban New Jersey, Aftab found herself drawn in.
“This is a woman extending her hand to me, saying, ‘I want to get to know you. I want to be your protector. I want to have your back because I know what you’re going through, because of what the Jewish community has been through,’ ” says Aftab, a professor at Rutgers University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “That was so compelling, so honest.”
After that meeting in 2010, the two women launched the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom – then just a casual gathering of local Muslim and Jewish women talking about faith and family, and sharing their experiences as religious minorities in America. Today, the group has chapters in more than 50 cities. [Continue reading…]
Universally, the targets of discrimination are more conscious of being treated unfairly than are the perpetrators of discrimination. Israel is no exception.
A new Pew Research report includes the following findings:
Whereas only 21% of Israeli Jews see “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims, 79% of Israeli Arabs (Muslim and non-Muslim) do.
Perhaps the reason so few Israeli Jews see discrimination is because so many believe that as Jews, they deserve preferential treatment.
For half of Israeli Jews, a privileged status is apparently not enough — they would like to see Arab Israelis kicked out.
The Guardian reports: The US State Department has moved to back America’s ambassador to Israel in a febrile and escalating row over his remarks on Monday that Israel applied law in the occupied West Bank differently to Palestinians and Israelis.
Ambassador Daniel Shapiro’s unusually critical comments drew harsh criticism from ministers in Israel’s rightwing government – including from the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
Shapiro was also publicly lambasted on Israeli television on Tuesday by a former aide to Netanyahu who used the deeply offensive Hebrew word “yehudon” – which translates as “little Jew boy” – to disparage the ambassador. The term is used by rightwing Israelis against other Jews – particularly those in the diaspora – whom they regard as not being sufficiently Jewish or pro-Israel. [Continue reading…]
The remarks by Aviv Bushinsky, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff when he was finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s governmen, are reminiscent of an incident reported by the Washington Post in 1997.
U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, still seething at a two-week-old slur, ran into his accuser Thursday and fixed him with a glare. According to Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party member of Israel’s legislature, this is what happened next:
“The last time someone called me a Jew boy,” Indyk said, harking back to school days in Australia, “I was 15 years old and he got a punch in the face.”
A right-wing legislator, Rehavam Zeevi, had indeed called Indyk a yehudon — Hebrew invective translated variously as “Jew boy,” “yid,” or “kike” — at a parliamentary caucus late last month. He looked up from his seat at a memorial service for the late Yitzhak Rabin and glared back at Indyk. “Try me,” Zeevi replied. Then, taunting Indyk, he added distinctly: “yehudon, yehudon.”
Zeevi, a retired general who is chief of the ultranationalist Moledet (Homeland) party, apparently meant to say that Indyk, the first Jewish U.S. ambassador here, betrayed his coreligionists by pressuring the Israeli government for concessions in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Zeevi’s political platform, the most extreme of any party in the parliament, calls for expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank to make room for Jews.
A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s most famous novelists, has for many years been among the most vocal in promoting this view that Jews who remain living outside Israel are only, as he says, “partial Jews.”
But instead of being preoccupied with where Jews plant their bodies, he and those who share his views, might consider where the Jewish conscience may better thrive.
In 2003, Avraham Burg, former member of the Knesset, a chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a Speaker of the Knesset, who was born in Jerusalem, wrote:
It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their parents’ shock, that they do not know. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.
It is very comfortable to be a Zionist in West Bank settlements such as Beit El and Ofra. The biblical landscape is charming. From the window you can gaze through the geraniums and bougainvilleas and not see the occupation. Traveling on the fast highway that takes you from Ramot on Jerusalem’s northern edge to Gilo on the southern edge, a 12-minute trip that skirts barely a half-mile west of the Palestinian roadblocks, it’s hard to comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab who must creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him. One road for the occupier, one road for the occupied.
This cannot work. Even if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger forever, it won’t work. A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself. Note this moment well: Zionism’s superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall. Only madmen continue dancing on the top floor while the pillars below are collapsing.
As much as all of this might sound purely like a struggle over Jewish identity, it mirrors an affliction in which people across the globe withdraw into their various ethnic, religious, or ideological ghettos of identification and their cherished definitions of my people.
The testing ground for challenging this trend is now Europe.
Last year, Burg wrote:
In a generation in which we Israelis have forgotten how to be sensitive and empathetic to minorities, to those who are different, to the persecuted, and many American Jews are swallowed up in their comfort zones of white society and are abandoning their partnership with the “others,” in America, the “United States of Europe” is presenting a new model of identity – a union between those who are different, and the “other.” It’s a model no different from the American one which seeks to assimilate all into a monochromatic American democracy.
Further, Europe is the current meeting point between Islam and the West. Some of that encounter involves clashes, and some involves learning. The Christian continent is learning to make space for other, rich and varied identities. My friends, Ziya from Bangladesh, Shaida whose family is from Turkey and Rob from Jamaica, are impressive Europeans, and Europe is better off with them. Just like Shaul from Venice, Yoop from Amsterdam and Brian from London – there is no dissonance between their Jewish heritage and their European identity. The discourse between white, Christian Europe and those who are different is fascinating. More important is the dialogue between Western Europe and the Muslim forces in its midst.
The Muslim world and some of its members are embarking on a long journey toward the Western values of freedom, equality and brotherhood. The institutionalization of Western Islam in the heart of Europe – that which is absorbing values of democracy while remaining true to Muslim tradition – is where the strategic potential exists for bridging the gaps peacefully in the generations to come. It’s not happening in the Middle East or North America, but only in Europe. That is where the vanguard of humanity and humaneness is to be found.
Since Burg wrote this, the vision of Europe has become profoundly challenged by an expanding refugee crisis, acts of terrorism, growing nationalism, cultural protectionism, and the drumbeats of xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Both in Europe and the U.S., it often seems like the political momentum favors those who promote retreat in its various forms — through strengthening borders, heightened national security, and disengagement from foreign affairs.
At the same time, the inexorable global trends point in the opposite direction as populations expand and people choose or are compelled to cross borders.
In such a world, the task of building more inclusive societies is not an idealistic goal; it has become an urgent necessity.
Haaretz reports: Israel’s Education Ministry has disqualified a novel that describes a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from use by high schools around the country. The move comes even though the official responsible for literature instruction in secular state schools recommended the book for use in advanced literature classes, as did a professional committee of academics and educators, at the request of a number of teachers.
Among the reasons stated for the disqualification of Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” (literally “Hedgerow,” but known in English as “Borderlife”) is the need to maintain what was referred to as “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” and the belief that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.” The Education Ministry also expressed concern that “young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.”
The book, published in Hebrew by Am Oved about a year and a half ago, tells the story of Liat, an Israeli translator, and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist, who meet and fall in love in New York, until they part ways for her to return to Tel Aviv and he to the West Bank city of Ramallah. The book was among this year’s winners of the Bernstein Prize for young writers.
A source familiar with the ministry’s approach to the book said that in recent months a large number of literature teachers asked that “Borderlife” be included in advanced literature classes. After consideration of the request, a professional committee headed by Prof. Rafi Weichert from the University of Haifa approved the request. The committee included academics, Education Ministry representatives and veteran teachers. The panel’s role is to advise the ministry on various educational issues, including approval of curriculum.
According to the source, members of the professional committee, as well as the person in charge of literature studies, “thought that the book is appropriate for students in the upper grades of high schools – both from an artistic and literary standpoint and regarding the topic it raises. Another thing to remember is that the number of students who study advanced literature classes is anyhow low, and the choice of books is very wide.”
Another source in the Education Ministry said that the process took a number of weeks, and that “it’s hard to believe that we reached a stage where there’s a need to apologize for wanting to include a new and excellent book into the curriculum.” [Continue reading…]
Haaretz reports: Laura Wharton, an American-born political scientist who represents the left-wing Meretz party on the Jerusalem city council, is not surprised by the large number of children of English-speaking families among the terror suspects, noting that immigrants from these countries tend to be highly ideologically motivated, and are more likely to have radical extremists among their ranks. “I think in general people who immigrate to Israel from English-speaking countries, in fact from all wealthy countries, need a stronger incentive to make the move,” she says. “They also want to make their mark when they come here, for better or for worse.”
Sara Yael Hirschhorn, who has spent many years studying American immigrants living in the West Bank, believes the radicalism could reflect a failure to integrate smoothly into Israeli society. “I think it has to do with the fact that these people are not assimilated in the way that their native Israeli or perhaps other immigrant peers have managed to be,” she observes.
In some cases, she says, these teens may be acting out against their parents for not doing enough to make their mark on Israeli society. “It could be a rebellion against parents they thought had come to do some great ideological pioneering, but instead, turned out to be average suburbanites in places like Ma’aleh Adumim,” notes Hirschhorn, who serves as the University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford.
The author of the upcoming book “City on a Hilltop: Jewish-American Settlers in the Occupied Territories Since 1967,” Hirschhorn has concluded that roughly 60,000 American Jews live in West Bank settlements, where they account for 15 percent of the settler population.
The number of American immigrants living in Israel, including their children, has been estimated at about 170,000.
This is not the first time that U.S. citizens have been associated with or convicted of terror activities in Israel. In 1994, Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein, a physician from Kiryat Arba, massacred 29 Palestinians while they were worshipping in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Yaakov Teitel, originally from Florida, has been convicted of various acts of terrorism and hate crimes against Palestinians, homosexuals, Messianic Jews and left-wingers. Boston-born Baruch Marzel, a Kahane disciple, has a criminal record that includes assaults on Palestinians, policemen and left-wingers. Former New Yorker Ira Rappaport, a member of the Jewish Underground that emerged in the 1980s, was found guilty of involvement in a car bombing that left the former mayor of Nablus maimed.
Already back then, American immigrants had acquired a reputation as potential extremists.
Chaim Waxman, a retired professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, who has published extensively on immigration to Israel from the United State, recalls teaching a course at Tel Aviv University in the 1980s when reports about the Jewish Underground first started surfacing. “I remember the students talking about those ‘crazy Americans,’ even though only one member of the Underground was an American,” he recounts. “But that is an impression that many Israelis have.” [Continue reading…]
Ynet reports: The world’s Jews feel secure in their countries, including in Europe: In a survey conducted among Jewish community leaders in different places around the world, 77 percent reported that their members do not feel threatened in their places of residence, including 56 percent of European Jews.
Only 21 percent said their community members felt unsafe – about half of them due to the growth in anti-Semitism, and others because of the anger towards Israel, local criminal crime, the economic situation, the immigration problem in Europe, etc.
Ahead of the 9th World Conference of Jewish Community Centers (JCC Global), which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JCC leaders were asked whether the current situation in Israel affected them. The findings were surprising: Forty-six percent said the community’s sense of security was unaffected by the current round of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, while 35% said they felt less secure. Ten percent even reported a higher sense of personal safety recently.
The interviewees were also asked to rank the Diaspora Jewry’s challenges. They revealed that the communities’ unity is more important to them than the connection with Israel, preventing assimilation and fighting anti-Semitism. [Continue reading…]
Sara Yael Hirschhorn writes: On July 31, in the West Bank village of Duma, 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh was burned alive in a fire. All available evidence suggests that the blaze was a deliberate act of settler terrorism. More disturbingly, several of the alleged instigators, currently being detained indefinitely, are not native-born Israelis — they have American roots.
But there has been little outcry in their communities. Settler rabbis and the leaders of American immigrant communities in the West Bank have either played down their crime or offered muted criticism.
It’s worth recalling the response of the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to another heinous attack two decades ago, when an American-born doctor, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down dozens of Palestinians while they prayed in Hebron.
“He grew in a swamp whose murderous sources are found here, and across the sea; they are foreign to Judaism, they are not ours,” thundered Mr. Rabin before the Knesset in February 1994. “You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out.”
The shocking 1994 massacre was, at the time, the bloodiest outbreak of settler terrorism Israelis and Palestinians had ever seen. Less than two years later, Mr. Rabin himself would be dead, felled by an ultranationalist assassin’s bullet.
Suddenly, a group of American Jewish immigrants that had existed on the fringes of society became a national pariah. A former president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, labeled the United States “a breeding ground” for Jewish terror; the daily newspaper Maariv castigated American Jews who “send their lunatic children to Israel.” One Israeli journalist even demanded “operative steps against the Goldsteins of tomorrow” by banning the immigration of militant American Jews.
But tomorrow has arrived. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The attacks on Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, since he announced his support for the nuclear accord with Iran have been so vicious that the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Anti-Defamation League both felt compelled this week to publicly condemn Jewish voices of hate.
On the other side, three Jewish Democrats in the House who oppose the deal released a joint statement denouncing “ad hominem attacks and threats” against not only supporters like Mr. Nadler but also Jewish opponents, who have been accused of “dual loyalties” and treason.
This August recess has not produced the kind of fiery town hall-style meetings that greeted lawmakers in 2009 before their vote on the Affordable Care Act, but in one small but influential segment of the electorate, Jewish voters, it has been brutal. Infighting among Jewish Americans may be nothing new, but the vitriol surrounding the accord between Iran and six world powers has become so intense that leaders now speak openly of long-term damage to Jewish organizations, and possibly to American-Israeli relations. [Continue reading…]
The Times of Israel reports: World Jewry is finding it increasingly difficult to support Israel due to its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, leading many communities to shun discussing the Jewish state altogether, a new major study has found.
The trend is eroding the Diaspora’s support for the Jewish state, warns the report by the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank, to be formally published next week.
While most Jews sympathize with Israel’s needs to wage war in self-defense and believe that its army acts according to high moral standards, there is growing discomfort with some Israeli policies they believe unnecessarily perpetuate conflict, according to the 100-page report by the JPPI, which was made available to The Times of Israel.
Diaspora Jews are not convinced that Israel is doing enough to prevent military conflicts and are troubled by the number of civilian casualties they often produce, though they generally blame Israel’s enemies for the bloodshed. The accusation of the use of “disproportionate force” makes it difficult for these Jews to defend Israeli actions. Somewhat paradoxically, however, Jews in the Diaspora are disappointed that Israel doesn’t manage to end its wars with decisive victories.
“Many Jews doubt that Israel truly wishes to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians, and few believe it is making the necessary effort to achieve one,” according to the study’s author, Shmuel Rosner. [Continue reading…]
Anshel Pfeffer reports: ‘The Cossacks aren’t coming’ – a series of dispatches from Jewish communities across Europe – was born from a feeling that the true story of Jewish life in Europe is not being told.
It is obscured in both Israeli and international media due to a, perhaps understandable, focus on terror attacks and perception of a rising tide of anti-Semitism washing over the continent. The narrative which has emerged in recent years, to an increasing degree since last summer’s conflict in Gaza and in the wake of the Paris killings in January, has been one of fearful and endangered Jews on the brink of tragedy – that can only be averted by mass emigration to safer shores.
Much of the reporting on European Jewry in recent months has been tinged with disbelief: Who are these foolhardy Jews that have failed to learn the lesson of the Holocaust and are once again ignoring the coming storm in this cursed continent?
It fails to take into account that for a million and a half Jews across Europe, this is home. They are part of the social fabric and national identity of the countries where they were born and continue choosing to live their lives. While thousands of communities were wiped out in the Holocaust and many others have since drastically dwindled in numbers, Jews still live openly throughout Europe, both carrying on traditions and creatively innovating new and fascinating Jewish experiences.
Very little of this has been reported, and the complex challenges the Jews do face, are routinely reduced to the simplistic formulations of physical threat from the new Islamization and a resurgence of old anti-Semitism. Most of the coverage has also disregarded how in the wider upheaval occurring now in Europe, the Jews are not victims of change, but also have a key role to play in the continent’s future.
Ten features cannot provide a broad picture of such a wide range of communities, each facing its own particular set of circumstances and carving out a unique place in wider national identities. It is intended to present a series of snapshots, illustrating how the Jews of Europe are not only responding to tragedy and intimidation, but also busy building a future. In addition to my research in five countries, chosen to give a cross-section of regions and Jewish populations of different size and temperament, the insights are informed by my reporting for Haaretz over the last eight years from all the major Jewish communities in Europe and many of the smaller ones as well.
The Jewish cemetary in Krakow. Photo by Moshe Gilad
It is an attempt at a clear-eyed appraisal of the dangers facing Europe’s Jews but also an optimistic view of their future; which is why my journey began down the road from Auschwitz, at the bright and new Jewish Community Center in Krakow. [Continue reading parts 1-10…]
Diana Pinto writes: Europeans, especially European Jews, are used to being treated as museum pieces and historical relics by Americans. We are the object of extensive commentary but rarely regarded as possessing any living voice worth engaging with. I recently had the strange experience of listening to myself and other European Jews talked about as if we were already as silent as a Pompeian plaster cast while reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s article “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” in the April issue of The Atlantic and watching his accompanying video chat with James Bennet and Leon Wieseltier. If a plaster cast may be permitted to speak, I would say that Goldberg and his colleagues aren’t describing my reality; the world I come from isn’t already destroyed; and the story of the Jews in Europe isn’t yet ready to be relegated to museums or to antiquarian sites like Pompeii.
The implicit assumption in Goldberg’s piece, and in many articles going back to at least the end of the Cold War in 1989, is that Europe’s Jews, if they had an iota of common sense and dignity, would not be in Europe. [Continue reading…]
Dimi Reider writes: As flagship events go, the anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, meant to be a high point of the campaign to oust Israel’s Prime Minister in next week’s general elections, left a lot to be desired. The turnout was unimpressive, the speakers uncharismatic, and the mood, attendees reported after the event, surprisingly lethargic.
The reason Israelis are still talking about the rally days later is not because of a passionate speech delivered by the former chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, Meir Dagan, but rather because of a highly embarrassing – and potentially, electorally damaging – speech by an artist and frequent Haaretz contributor, Yair Garboz.
Garboz opened the rally by describing how he viewed Israel with Netanyahu at the helm, indulging in a popular habit of attributing the most extreme aberrations and abuses of powers to a tiny, unrepresentative minority.
“They told us that the man who killed the [former] prime minister [Rabin] was part of a delusional, tiny handful of individuals,” he said. “They told us he was under the influence of rabbis detached from reality, part of the crazy margins. They said those of yellow shirts with black badges, who shout “death to Arabs”, are a tiny handful. They told us the thieves and the bribe takers are only a handful. That the corrupt are no more than a handful…. the talismans-kissers, the idol-worshippers and those bowing and prostrating themselves on the tombs of saints – only a handful… then how is that this handful rules over us? How did this handful quietly become a majority?”
In the heated discussion that ensued, Garboz insisted he wasn’t referring to anyone of any particular ethnic origin. But to most Israelis, the phrase about “talisman-kissers” and “tomb worshippers” was as much dogwhistle politics as American lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s remarks a few weeks earlier about Obama “not being brought up like we were” was to black Americans. Some Ashkenazi Jews do all of the above too, usually in connection to the tomb of the 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslaw in Uman, Ukraine. But talismans and pilgrimages are a well-known staple in the lives of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries – also known as Mizrachim. [Continue reading…]
Anshel Pfeffer writes: “I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.”
This bald statement by Benjamin Netanyahu, at a gathering of French-speaking Likud supporters in Jerusalem on Sunday, should be astonishing. He was saying that when he insisted on taking part in last month’s solidarity march of world leaders in Paris, against the wishes of French President Francois Hollande, he was acting on behalf of French Jews. He is now planning to do the same in Washington: “Just as I went to Paris, so I will go anyplace I’m invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us.”
It should be astonishing, because for the first time an Israeli prime minister is not only saying that Israel has a responsibility for Jews in jeopardy around the world, that it works to rescue those living under despotic rule and is also the homeland of Jews who choose to live elsewhere; Netanyahu is going a step further, claiming to be the true spokesman and leader of those Jews — even when that puts him at cross-purposes with their democratically elected leaders, and even when Jewish members of Congress implore him not to openly defy their president by addressing the chamber next month.
It should be astonishing, but it isn’t. No one who has followed Netanyahu in recent years could have reached a different conclusion. He believes he represents the interests of Jews in the Diaspora better than they do themselves. It is implicit in the story he often tells of his late father, Benzion Netanyahu, who as a young acolyte of Zeev Jabotinsky in the 1930s tried to warn the leaders of American Jewry of the impending tragedy in Europe, but failed to shake their complacency.
The father did not have the power to make them listen and to begin evacuating Jews from the gathering storm. The son has that power and he will use it no matter what: As he said on Sunday, there are “those who want to kill us” and “I will not hesitate to say what’s needed to warn against this danger, and prevent it.”
This is the task thrust upon Benjamin Netanyahu by history. Who are you, Jews of America and France, to tell him it is not his burden to take up?
They are right of course, all the French Jews who told me last week in Paris — and not only from the left — that they were deeply insulted by Netanyahu’s high-handed manner. Many deeply Zionist Jews told me they felt he was making a mockery of centuries of effort and sacrifice to integrate into the Republic, that he had no right to come to Paris and lecture them on the futility of their endeavor. Just as the U.S. Jewish leaders who are finally speaking out and saying that Netanyahu does not speak for them are simply stating the obvious: They didn’t vote for him, and he has no right to defy their president on their behalf. He is the prime minister of Israel, and if he thinks safeguarding Israel’s interests justifies a confrontation with its allies then that is his duty. But leave the Diaspora out of it.
They are right, but their reactions were a case of too little and much too late.
If the Jews living outside of Israel didn’t want Netanyahu speaking and acting on their behalf, they should have called him out years ago, privately and if necessary also in public. Save for a few commentators and fringe organizations, they were silent. At the same time, they feted Netanyahu at every opportunity and acquiesced to hiring like-minded figures, who rarely if ever criticized him in public, to head major national and international Jewish organizations. [Continue reading…]
Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Birthright Israel, concedes, “it’s easier to be a Zionist in Manhattan than it is in Tel Aviv.”
Philip Weiss writes: As a liberal, I think this really is a better way to be, tolerating others, worshiping whoever you want to (right now George Eliot), minding your own business. It’s great that Bernard Avishai gets a lot out of Bialik. That’s no reason to insist on a Jewish democracy. Especially when that Jewish democracy breeds people like Moshe Feiglin and Caroline Glick who believe the bible is a title for the Jews to the land of all of Israel. That’s lunacy. When one of our lunatics Sarah Palin sets out to protect Christmas from the cultural war against it, I don’t feel the least bit threatened. But Feiglin and Glick are truly threatening characters, because theirs is a vital belief system: the government is stealing land and forcing Palestinians out of their homes on that basis.
I used to be afraid of my mother’s best friend, who had escaped Berlin to move to the U.S. and then Jerusalem; it took me a while to come out to her as an anti-Zionist, when she started shouting at me about the Holocaust, and one reason I didn’t is that I had assimilated the idea that Jews in Jerusalem were aliyah, higher, than Jews in the Diaspora, yoredim, lower. It was an old religious idea inside my subculture. Without getting into who’s higher or lower, Zionists sure have propagated some backward ideas. Jewish democracy and the Jewish people’s right to self-determination are out of step with the culture that Jews and others have fashioned in my country over the last 30 or 40 years. Whether that identity is assimilationist or areligious or syncretist or idealistic, I leave to others to sort out. I know it’s where I’m happiest and most fully engaged. If the people of Israel gave up the idea of ethnic-religious self-determination, the Palestinians might give up theirs too, and they might get to the same place. I want to encourage them.
Matt Duss writes: With the myriad challenges the Israeli government currently faces – regional turmoil, unrest in Jerusalem, and opposition to a highly contentious budget — this might seem like an interesting time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to promulgate a new law defining Israel’s identity as “the nation state of the Jewish people.” The bill, which was supposed to have been voted on this Wednesday but has now been delayed, would recognize Jewish religious law as an inspiration for legislation, and affirm that, “The right to the fulfillment of national self-determination within the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
At first glance, the timing for this bill is odd. The past months have seen the most unrest in years among Israel’s Palestinian population. The murder of 16 year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and set on fire in revenge for the murder of three Israeli teenagers in July, have fueled tensions that are high after decades of neglect at the hands of the Israeli government. Anti-Arab demagoguery by Israeli politicians, and anti-Arab attacks by Israeli citizens who take that demagoguery seriously, is on the upswing In the view of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, who make up some 20% of the population, the new law would make clear that they are second-class citizens.
The move is understandable, however, when one takes into account that Netanyahu needs to protect his right flank from rising contenders like Naftali Bennett, Minister of the Economy, who recently wrote a New York Times op-ed declaring the two-state solution dead. Netanyahu is also pressured by critics within his own Likud Party, where he finds himself representing the left-leaning camp in an increasingly right-wing party. [Continue reading…]