Israel: A work in progress


From the birth of the Zionist movement more than a century ago through its 60 years as a Jewish state, Israel has come of age amid a vastly changing world: two world wars, the technological revolution and economic globalization with all its attendant challenges.

The creation of Israel is a paradigm for the way people without sovereignty embrace and transform their history through freedom. That ongoing struggle of humans trying to find their place in the universe unfolds over time, but it requires a place.

Israel also represents a unique laboratory — and not just for defining itself for its residents but also for addressing global crises. Every problem on this planet is refracted and amplified here: Having resettled and grown in the land, how can we conserve its environment? Can we halt our addiction to oil and achieve energy independence? If we level the field in information and technology, can we overcome the limitations of size and space and become a player on the global stage? If Israel can answer questions like these, it will achieve a secure position among nations and obtain its peace.

As President Shimon Peres said, the objective of this 60th anniversary year should be to bring Israel to the world and the world to Israel. Our experiment, through shifting events and the failures and challenges they bring, is one that results in the covenant renewed. And looking back through the decades from our founding, we can find four lessons that resonate globally. They also inform 21st century hopes for our survival, based on the merging of ancient truths with the ever-present task of national renewal. These are lessons that will sustain all global communities from the chaos of our times:

Lesson 1: Diasporas need homelands.

Today, the United Nations reports that more than 300 million people in this world live in Diaspora communities that struggle to maintain homeland ties. The Rwandans, the Armenians, the Guatemalans and, yes, the Palestinians long for their place among the nations. For many nations, Diaspora remittances are sometimes far greater than foreign direct investment, portfolio flows and foreign aid combined. The contributions of Israel’s Diaspora and its transformation through the creation of the State of Israel have been a lesson well studied by others.

Lesson 2: Nations need security.

Imminent threats, beginning before the Holocaust, informed not only the Zionist movement but also the Jewish concept of state defense. No nation can survive while its people live in exile.

The captive Hebrews in Babylon lamented, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” In revolting against its history, Israel rejected centuries of subjugation and developed a national defense based on the doctrine that homeland building can tolerate many risks for peace — but never the catastrophic risks that unite senseless hatred with regional imperialism.

This is what links the Eichman trial to Entebbe to Osirak to last fall’s strike against the Syrian reactor facility. Yet the world has seen genocide spread to Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. The lesson of homeland security is ignored at great peril.

Lesson 3: Language and cultural revival are key.

Jewish cultural identity — expressed through art, music and, most important, through the revival of Hebrew from its strict liturgical usage to an official state language — has been key to our national renewal and rebirth. Where else in the world has a language no one spoke, but which was common to all, emerged as a national language?

Like archaeological discovery and conservation of cultural capital, the protection of language is essential for national cultures throughout the world. While not promoting linguistic exclusivity (Israel, after all, has three official languages), the protection of communal language promotes a multilingual access and a cultural infrastructure, encourages the safekeeping of minority languages and culture and their ultimate restoration as part of our international heritage.

Lesson 4: Unity exists in diversity.

From the microcosm of Israel’s rebirth as a modern nation, this is perhaps the most profound lesson for a global future. Israel’s Jewish-majority population can boast more than 120 nations of origin, along with significant local minorities of Palestinian, Druze and Bedouin Arabs. As a result, Israel is one of the most diverse countries in the world.

Integrating this pastiche into a democratic republic that protects and celebrates diversity through unity remains a remarkable achievement. It is also becoming a common challenge for nations around the world.

Absorption is the means to achieving true national self-interest. It puts the emphasis on integration, rather than on full assimilation and the triumphalism of a majority. In Israel, frankly, there is no majority — not Ashkenazim, not Sephardim, not political, not religious. It is our challenge to grow from the particular to the universal without comprising the richness and uniqueness of diversity.

Ultimately, these lessons underscore the celebration of Israel’s rebirth. Let us reaffirm our particular attributes as a nation by reaffirming our universal values. That was the lesson of the prophets.

These lessons and inspiration place Israel, a small country, on the global stage in a unique way. They offer enormous advantages in global trade and provide the basis for both military power and peace incentives. They provide the basic formula for an open society, global ties and national security. They enable Israel to renew and repair both itself and an endangered world in troubled times.

Glenn Yago is director of capital studies at the Milken Institute.

Hebrew course piques Iranian Jews’ interest


“You teach me Persian, and I’ll teach you Hebrew,” quipped Rabbi Hillel Benchimol to the crowd.Nearly 150 Iranian Jews of various ages had gathered at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills on Oct. 29 for the third session of a free five-week crash course in Hebrew.

Also known as “Read Hebrew America,” the course has been picked up by nearly 700 synagogues in North America during last 10 years through the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), a nonprofit organization based in New York. The objective is to promote Hebrew learning among American and Canadian Jews who have lost touch with their Jewish identities.

While this is the first year Nessah has participated in the program, its leaders said the free Hebrew course has attracted more than 600 local Iranian Jews to its first three sessions.

“I was really amazed that so many people from this community really want to learn Hebrew and reconnect with their heritage,” said Benchimol, who has been teaching the 90-minute classes on Monday nights since Oct. 15. “You don’t typically see this large of a turnout for Hebrew classes from the Ashkenazim.”

Ilya Welfeld, a spokesperson for the NJOP said her organization was “extremely pleased with the large response” they have received at Nessah. On average, roughly 20 to 80 people attend the “Read Hebrew America” courses in the United States.

Surprisingly, the majority of individuals in attendance for the classes at Nessah were between the ages of 50 and 70. They said they wanted to learn Hebrew because they had been unable to do so previously, due to the difficulties of trying to re-establish themselves in America during the last 25 years.

“I like how people of all ages from our community are here and wanting to learn Hebrew,” said Eliza Ghanooni, a 20-something resident of Beverly Hills. “I think Persian Jews are generally more traditional and have a stronger connection to Judaism.”

A small contingency of younger Iranian Jews were also in attendance and said they had come because they want to speak Hebrew fluently.

While the Nessah class was often sidetracked by individual questions and comments, Benchimol kept the group’s interest by making the group laugh at his witty comments and his efforts to pronounce odd Persian-language words.

“When you’re learning Hebrew, you’ve got to have fun with it, and we’re trying to keep it a light-hearted environment so people will want to come back,” Benchimol said.

A number of non-Iranian Jews visiting Nessah said they were impressed with the excitement Iranian Jews had exhibited in the Hebrew class, and as a result would continue to take the classes at Nessah.

“I’m here to improve my Hebrew because my bar mitzvah is coming up soon, and I want to be able to read from the Torah better,” said Yuji Hasegawa, of West Hollywood, who recently converted to Judaism. “Iranians are loud, but it’s good to see so many of them interested in learning Hebrew.”

Benchimol said after the remaining two sessions of the Hebrew classes are completed, Nessah plans to offer more advanced Hebrew language classes to adults in the coming months.

For more information on the “Read Hebrew America” courses offered at Nessah, call (310) 273-2400 or visit visit http://www.nessah.org

Is Pot Kosher for Pesach?


Here’s a fifth question for the seder: What makes this herb different from all others?

The Green Leaf Party, a small Israeli political party that supports legalizing pot, announced March 27 that marijuana might not be kosher for Passover.

The reason, they say, is that marijuana seeds — and likely hemp seeds — are kitniyot, which Ashkenazim traditionally don’t consume on Passover. Sephardim do eat kitniyot.

“You shouldn’t smoke marijuana on the holiday, and if you have it in your house, you should get rid of it,” Green Leaf spokeswoman Michelle Levine told the Associated Press.

The announcement did not set off much of an uproar in Jerusalem, according to Jewschool.com editor Dan Sieradski.

Jews may be kashering their pots and pans for Passover, but he said he wasn’t aware of anyone throwing out their pot.

But even on a religious level, Sieradski said the argument that pot is kitniyot and should not be used by Ashkenazim is a pipe dream.

Kitniyot, generically called legumes, include rice, corn, beans, peas, lentils and seeds. The traditional ban among Ashkenazim, which is not rooted in halacha, began in medieval times from fear that kitniyot could come into contact with banned grains while in storehouses.

“For those who are machmid,” or stringent, about kitniyot, Sieradski said, “it could be an issue. But if they’re really that observant, they probably don’t smoke weed anyway.”

Perhaps it’s something on which the Orthodox and Reform could smoke a peace pipe: No herb — not on Passover or any other time.

“Marijuana is not kosher all year long,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer and rabbinic coordinator of kashrut for the Orthodox Union.

However, Elefant noted that if the marijuana is used for legal medical purposes, it would be acceptable on Passover, as are all medications.

Elefant’s Reform movement counterparts took a similar position.

“The law of the land is the law,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “If it’s illegal to use marijuana, we certainly don’t sanction the use of it.”

One Orthodox smoker in her late 20s said she had never asked her rabbi if pot was kosher for Passover because — like other natural products that are not grain-based — she assumed it was fine. If she did consult a rabbi over this, the woman said, she would consult the most lenient one she could find.

And if that rabbi told her pot was illegal for Passover, “I would just have to double my prescription for Xanax,” she said. “There’s always a replacement.”

JTA Staff Writer Ben Harris and intern Armin Rosen contributed to this report.