Attention Israelis: Please stop kvetching

Excerpt from Israeli TV show “Ktzarim”: some troubled people meet for group therapy.
In Hebrew with English subtitles.
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Security in Israel now is about as good as it gets. Suicide bombings have become a rarity; just the threat of one is a big news story. The northern border is again quiet, and Sderot is, if not quiet, considerably quieter than it’s been. Israelis don’t think twice about getting on buses or shopping downtown. Judging by their behavior, as opposed to their words, people in this country feel safe.

Meanwhile, the economy keeps growing. The war in Lebanon last summer didn’t cause anything more than a brief downturn. True, about half the Israeli population is either poor or close to it, but that’s nothing new. For this country’s “haves,” and for the national economy overall, it’s clear sailing.

Even driving a car in Israel is becoming safer all the time, believe it or not. Last year there were fewer road deaths than there have been in 20 years.

Yet to listen to Israelis, and to listen to the news media, the whole country is falling apart. All systems are in collapse. The leaders stink. Corruption and incompetence are everywhere. Tragically, people have become alienated from the state, from the society.

Oh, do me a favor.

First of all, Israelis have no real problem with corruption. No elected Israeli politician ever lost popularity because he was corrupt, or suspected of corruption. Some, like Arye Deri, Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, even gained popularity by claiming the police were persecuting them for political reasons.

Is Arkadi Gaydamak not suspected of massive corruption? Did this stop him from becoming one of the most powerful, popular men in Israel?
I don’t know which complaint I’m hearing more — that the leaders are corrupt, or that the justice system is too hard on the leaders.

Could it be that Israelis just need to kvetch about whoever’s in the headlines?

What a terrible situation, they moan. The new chief of police is already in hot water, the one before him was forced to resign, the head of the army resigns before he can be fired, the justice minister is convicted of sexual molestation, the president is going to be indicted for rape, the prime minister may be forced out for corruption or incompetence, or both, and the defense minister may be forced to go with him.

What can I say, except — that’s entertainment. Because the point is that this country is not falling apart. Can anybody explain how Katsav’s disgrace has hurt anyone but himself? If his disgrace has hurt the institution of the presidency, does anyone give a rip? If Shimon Peres becomes the new president, will it make a difference to anybody but Shimon Peres?

This is a very interesting show we’re watching, that’s all. These resignations and firings and investigations don’t hurt Israelis’ lives, and they don’t hurt the life of the nation, either.

While I think Dan Halutz got a bum rap, is the army lost without him? Do we have any less personal security, does Israel have any less national security, now that Gabi Ashkenazi is the chief of staff? Is any 18-year-old Israeli boy going to dodge the draft, or become any less of a soldier, because of the Winograd Commission?

The same holds true for the rest of the leaders under fire, or fired already. Can Israel survive, can we Israelis survive, without Moshe Katsav as president, without Moshe Karadi (or even Ya’acov Ganot) as chief of police, without Haim Ramon as justice minister, without Amir Peretz as defense minister, without Ehud Olmert as prime minister?

I think we can survive just fine. Maybe even better.

People are saying this is a corrupt country, a dysfunctional country.

I think all these investigations show just the opposite, but even among those who think Israel is going to the dogs — are any of them leaving the country, or thinking of leaving, because of what Katsav did to “A” or what Ramon did to “H”? Is anyone holding off on having another child, or on remodeling the house, because Halutz failed to make Hezbollah disappear, or because Karadi fiddled while the mafia bought a few police officers?

In 22 years living in Israel, I’ve never been approached by a civil servant for a bribe, I don’t know any woman who’s been raped or sexually molested by a politician, I haven’t been threatened by the mafia — and I don’t know anybody who has. These things happen here, but corruption and lawlessness are not the way of life in Israel like they are in Russia, China or dozens upon dozens of other countries in the world.

Furthermore, the Israeli army is one of the world’s best armies, and if the Israeli police aren’t one of the world’s best police forces, it’s not because of corruption.

I think the reason we’re seeing Israeli leaders dropping like flies is partly because law enforcement is getting tougher and more victims are coming forward, which are good reasons
Israelis may be in a terrible mood about the country, but the country is in very good shape. There are security threats, but there always have been and always will be. The important thing is that except for the 33 days of war last summer and the intermittent rocketing over the border from Gaza, this has been a safe country to live in for the last three years, and there’s a good chance it will go on being safe for years to come.

The economy offers a Western standard of living to people with good professional skills, which is a lot of people. The Israeli middle class lives well.

The only problems in this country that I would call grievous are: 1) the extent of poverty; 2) the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs; and 3) the increasingly extreme attitudes of many citizens, Jewish and Arab.

The Path for Growth

Almost 10 years ago to the day, I was interviewing at Adat Ari El for the position of assistant rabbi. The parsha on which I had to speak was Terumah. I wondered if there was any chance I would get the job.

Let me explain.

Some Torah portions lend themselves very easily to sermons. Yitro, which contains the giving of the Ten Commandments has lots of material about which to talk. Others are more challenging, like Tazria-Metzorah, which has extensive discussions about skin diseases, inflammations and rashes.

Terumah focuses on the details of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites were to carry with them through their wilderness sojourn. So we read about the height, width and length of the various items in the Mishkan, like the ark, the menorah, the altars and with what and how these things were to be decorated and covered — a dream for an interior decorator but a nightmare for a fifth-year rabbinical student looking for a job.

However, details communicate to us. They convey messages about our priorities, values and beliefs. Similarly, the details surrounding the Mishkan — whether something was covered in gold or bronze, where it was located and how was it made — contain their own lessons and meanings.

We see an instance of this in the rabbinic commentary on the wood used to build the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, we read: “You shall make the planks for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright” (Exodus 26:15).

The rabbis ask the following question: Why does the Torah insist on acacia wood? What is so special about it over and against other wood? Their answer is at once succinct and profound: Because it is not wood from a fruit-bearing tree.

What does this mean? Just as the Mishkan cannot be built by destroying that which gives food and sustenance and provides for the future, so, too, we cannot build our religion on beliefs, practices and attitudes that are destructive to those around us at the same time. God is the source and creator of all life, and it is God that permeates and infuses the entire world around us. Therefore, it is illogical to build a house dedicated to God that destroys that which God has made at the same time.

And what is true for God’s house is also true for us as individuals, for what are we if not portable tabernacles for God’s presence?

When we are little, we learn that what goes up must come down. It is the most basic rule of gravity and the first one we learn as children. But as we grow older, we learn a new twist on this basic law: I can build myself up by putting others down.

However, if we truly want to live life to the fullest and embrace it to the greatest extent possible, we need to find the inner resolve and sense of self-worth to feel good about who we are in a manner that does not put down others.

Hence, be it as religious tradition or an individual, the Torah teaches through a seemingly minor detail a crucial lesson: If we wish to find holiness comparable to the Mishkan and draw closer to God, it can only be done when we create in a way that does not also destroy at the same time. Our own growth can only be sanctified when it does not come at the expense of others.

Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. He can be reached at

U.S. Left May Be Turning Against Israel

For years, American Jews, including liberals, have watched in astonishment as Europe’s left-wing media, academic and political elites have turned decisively against Israel and, to some extent, Jews, as well.

Now it may well be America’s turn, at least according to a recent survey by pollster Frank Luntz for the Washington-based Israel Project. In a shocking review of the largely left-leaning opinion leaders from America’s top colleges, Luntz found that Israel was clearly “losing the battle for the hearts and minds of America’s future leaders.”

For the most part, Luntz found the bulk of these young people — 150 randomly selected products of elite Ivy League colleges, as well as such West Coast wannabes as UCLA — viewed Israel as the unquestioned aggressor and villain of the Mideast crisis. In contrast, Palestinians were seen sympathetically as victims.

Luntz goes even further, suggesting that anti-Israel feelings are “also having a negative impact on attitudes to Jews right here in America.” Such sentiments also tend to spill over into negative views about Jewish Americans, in part due to their sympathy for the Zionist cause.

Overall, Luntz concludes, Jews are being categorized as a wealthy minority unsympathetic to the needs of poor people, particularly those of nonwhite and Third World backgrounds. The Ivy League-level graduate students surveyed also considered Jews to be overly politically powerful, “over-represented” on their campuses and a clannish people, many of whom inexplicably insist on associating with and marrying each other.

As one surveyed grad student put it: “Jewish people have lots of influence on the finances of our entire political systems … Palestinians are poor, thus they have less value to American politicians.”

The problem stems in large part, Luntz believes, with the information these students are getting from the mainstream media about Israel. But much more of it has to do with what they learn from their professors.

“Someone is educating these kids, and it is not the pro-Israel community,” he notes.

A studied ignorance certainly helps. Most of those surveyed by Luntz knew nothing about the circumstances of pre-1948 Palestine, including the original U.N. plan for a two-state solution, the run-up to the 1967 Six Day War or the fact that Israel, virtually alone in the region, is a functioning democracy with considerable, albeit not perfect, safeguards for civil liberties.

Fred Siegel, who teaches history at Cooper Union in New York, sees this in his own classes, and the culprit, he says, is the current left-liberal perspective shared by most academics.

“Liberalism is increasingly the politics of ignorance — it’s amazing what these kids don’t know about the Middle East or about Jewish history,” he suggests. “This is real trouble for Israel.”

It is also means “real trouble” for those Jewish liberals who still support Israel. Luntz found that while pro-Bush students backed Israel almost unanimously, the vast majority of Kerry backers tilted toward the Palestinians.

Where this leads already can be seen in Europe, where traditionally anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiments have shifted from traditionally right-wing moorings. Today it is the left-wing academics, media and political leaders who tend to be the most vehement in their hatred of Israel.

This increasingly, one could almost say inexorably, tilts into anti-Jewish sensibility. Take, for example, the French establishment mouthpiece, Le Monde, whose publisher was recently fined by a French court for defaming the Jewish people as “a contemptuous people taking satisfaction in humiliating others.” Similar damning anti-Jewish sentiments are commonplace in other media outlets like Madrid’s left-wing daily, El Pais.

Even in Britain, our closest ally in the war on terror, many of those on the left are ferociously anti-Israel, and increasingly anti-Jewish as well. The left-leaning British Guardian famously ran a cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian child — it won first prize in the Political Cartoon Society’s contest for 2003.

“In Britain,” observed Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, “it is open season on both Israel and Jews.”

As in France, anti-Semitic crime is on the rise in Britain, the majority taking place in greater London. Arguably the greatest world city, suggests Hebrew University history professor Robert Wistrich, has also become the center for “the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel.”

London leftist Mayor Ken Livingstone has welcomed vicious anti-Jewish jihadis to his town, while denouncing Sharon as “a war criminal” who should be in jail. To Livingstone, Israel has conducted “crimes against humanity” and has “indiscriminately slaughtered men, women and children in the West Bank and Gaza for decades.” Even after the recent Islamic terrorist bombings in his city, Livingstone continued to express his understanding for Palestinian suicide bombers since “they only have their bodies to use as weapons.”

Such attitudes are seeping into America’s liberal community. Indeed, respected left-wing observers like Todd Gitlin are troubled by a growing anti-Semitic tendency on U.S. campuses — not only at elite colleges, but also places like San Francisco State. Gitlin fears what was once described by early 20th century German socialist August Bebel as, “the socialism of fools” is now “the progressivism of fools.”

To be fair, so far this “progressivism of fools” has only infected the fringe of mainstream liberal politics. But the early signs are there. By backing divestment schemes against Israel, liberal churches and academics have managed to find moral equivalence among Israel and some of the most repressive, totalitarian regimes in the world. And in the liberal bastion of Seattle’s King County, local Democrats have endorsed a proposal to withhold U.S. tax dollars from Israel.

Yet, over time, such expressions of openly anti-Israel sentiments will likely become more a part of liberal dogma. Many in the current generation of left-leaning politicians retain emotional links to Jews and to Israel. They were brought up in a time when, for most liberals, support for Israel was automatic and anti-Semitism was something reserved for fascists, nativists and extreme Christian fundamentalists. Their successors, brought up in the for more permissive current academic and media climate, are less likely to keep a soft spot for a people viewed as on the wrong side of the “progressive” agenda.

Over time, this means it may become increasingly difficult for self-identified Jews — as opposed to those totally assimilated — to be both pro-Israel and Jewish, as well as left-leaning. Such a result would be a tragic limitation on our ability to function fully both as Jews and Americans.

Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow with the New America Foundation. He is the author of “The City: A Global History” (Modern Library 2005).


The Measure of a Jew

One of the signal contributions of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) over the many years has been its stream of publications reporting on and analyzing our community. Its annual American Jewish Yearbook has long been a staple in Jewish libraries; as David Harris wrote in his foreword to Volume 100, which appeared in the year 2000, “In the pages of the Yearbook’s 100 volumes one can trace the full trajectory of the Jewish experience over the last tumultuous century.” (From 1899 to 1908, the Yearbook was published by the Jewish Publication Society; from its 10th volume on, the American Jewish Committee took on the central responsibility.)

Now we have a new and fascinating volume, titled “Jewish Distinctiveness in America, A Statistical Portrait,” written by Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. Herewith, to conform to the limitations of space, an appetizer:

Some years ago, in a free-ranging discussion of Jewish social science research with Steven M. Cohen, the eminent sociologist of American Jewry, and Milton Himmelfarb, the senior resident intellectual and ever-engaging provocateur of the AJC itself, Himmelfarb proposed that Cohen and I were wrong in defining America’s Jews as overwhelmingly liberal.

“Look at the data,” he said. “We look liberal only on issues of personal freedom: abortion, homosexuality, free speech. But when it comes to welfare issues, we are not terribly different from other Americans. We are libertines, not liberals.”

Spoken as a true conservative, which Himmelfarb — brother of Gertrude Himmelfarb, brother-in-law of Irving Kristol, and no slouch in his own right — doubtlessly was. It was he, after all, who coined the memorable — yet often misquoted — phrase, “American Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.”

But the truth of the matter is that American Jewish liberalism is a very complicated thing. Himmelfarb wasn’t right in dismissing it, but neither was I in proclaiming it. (Cohen can more than adequately speak for himself.) Smith’s new volume sheds some light on the matter.

At first pass, we seem not libertine (“one who acts without moral restraint; a dissolute person”) so much as libertarian (“one who believes in freedom of action and thought”), a term that had little currency back when Himmelfarb used the other, more sneering word. On all the personal freedom issues, we are an astonishingly different breed from other Americans: Abortion for no reason other than that the woman wants no more children? Forty-two percent of Americans approve; 82 percent of Jews. Suicide if a person has an incurable disease? Fifty-nine percent of Americans agree; 84 percent of Jews. Is premarital sex always wrong? Twenty-six percent of Americans agree; 4 percent of Jews. Is homosexual sex always wrong? Fifty-nine percent of Americans approve; 18 percent of Jews. And so on.

We’re distinctive also by virtue of our overwhelming agnosticism (65 percent of Americans “know” that God exists, compared to 25 percent of Jews) as also by a range of other judgments in the arena of belief. (Thirty-nine percent of Americans approve the Supreme Court’s ruling against school prayer, compared to 84 percent of Jews; one-third of Americans believe the Bible is the exact word of God, compared to 11 percent of Jews.) And then, of course, we’re hugely different in our voting in presidential elections, 25 percent or higher more Democratic than the national average.

But when it comes to government spending, we’re quite close to the national averages on most items, and sometimes (e.g., whether government is spending too little in assistance for the poor) actually lag behind the national average. We’re very close to the national average on whether government should provide special help for blacks, on whether black-white differences are due principally to discrimination, and on affirmative action (just 15 percent of Jews as well as the rest of the nation think blacks should get preferences in hiring).

Yet we come back to attitudes usually associated with liberalism, and distinctive when compared to most others, on whether there ought to be law against black-white intermarriage, on whether blacks should push for rights. Personal freedom, again.

Others, perhaps, will be intrigued that our per-capita income is nearly twice the national average and our mean household income some 70 percent higher, and considerably higher than “liberal Protestants,” a category that includes Episcopalians; that 61 percent of us have at least a four-year college degree compared to 23 percent of the general population, and compared to 33 percent of liberal Protestants. I am as intrigued by the fact that while 40 percent of American households have a gun, only 13 percent of Jews do. Still, when it comes to capital punishment, the national average of approval is 70 percent, and ours not far behind at 64 percent.

In short, it’s complicated. “Libertarian” doesn’t fit, nor is “liberal” sufficiently exact.

But there’s another point that wants stating here: What real difference does it make whether we are distinctive by virtue of demography, politics or general social attitudes? Idle curiosity may be satisfied by marshalling such data, but there is a difference between interesting things and important things.

The important thing is that we remain devoted to Jewish purposes. Yes, some of that devotion can be measured in terms of political and social values, but a more, much more telling measure is how we act. What about our charitable giving? What about our volunteering in agencies and organizations that feed the hungry or that lobby for a more generous food stamp program? What have we done to halt the genocide in Darfur? How have we advanced and internalized Jewish culture? Smith is silent, but it is a proper answer to such questions that would speak to the kinds of distinctiveness that really matter.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).


Twins Bring Hope to Paralyzed Couple

Shmuel and Rivkah Klein have all the hassles of being new parents. Their twins don’t sleep through the night, and with all the feedings, baths and diaper changes, they have difficulty finding time for themselves.

But the Kleins have an added challenge: They are both paralyzed, and they need to care for 8-week-olds Yosef Netanel and Yaakov Aryeh from the confines of their wheelchairs.

"Years ago, when I was growing up, I wondered how I would be as a mother," said Rivkah Klein, 27, who became paralyzed from the hips down after she contracted polio as a child. "But once my sister got married and had children, I became the second mother to them, and I was changing diapers and helping feed them. Then I realized that I am capable of doing anything another mother can do; I just do it from a sitting position instead of a standing one."

She met 41-year-old Shmuel, a graphic designer and tutor, on a blind date in 2001. He was able-bodied until he was 22 years old, when he broke his neck in an accident and became a quadriplegic. As a couple, they bonded over their shared disabilities, their commitment to religion (they are both Orthodox) and their desire to have children.

"When Shmuel and I were dating that was one topic we discussed," Rivkah Klein said. "We both wanted children, and it wasn’t a question of whether we would be able to, but rather finding the right way to have them."

After about a year of marriage, the Kleins started investigating fertility options.

"We covered all the bases, from homeopathic to in vitro," she said. "There are many options for people with paralysis. The key is to find what might work for you, and not to get discouraged."

The Kleins ended up conceiving the twins through in vitro fertilization, and the pregnancy was not without its challenges.

"Rivkah was all baby," Shmuel Klein said. "It got hard for her to cook and lift a pan, get into the van and climb into bed."

At 33 weeks, Rivkah Klein thought her water broke. She went to Cedars-Sinai, where she remained on bed rest while taking steroids to speed the maturing of her babies’ lungs.

The twins were born on July 1 via c-section; Rivkah was 35 weeks pregnant. Yosef, born first, weighed 5 pounds, Yaakov followed two minutes later and weighed 5 pounds, 3 ounces. Although premature, both babies were born healthy.

At home in their Pico-Robertson apartment, the Kleins have a round-the-clock nurse, who helps with all the regular baby care tasks, as well as some extra ones. The Kleins have both slowed down the speed of their wheelchairs, so the babies would not feel a rushed and hectic environment in the house.

In lieu of Shmuel Klein holding the babies in his arms, the nurse holds them close to him so they can get used to his smell. That way, he can bond with his children.

"What Shmuel cannot give them physically he makes up 100 fold by what he can give them spiritually," said Reuven Fauman, who is making a documentary about the Kleins through his production company, Sightline Video, which he hopes will air on PBS. "When I was filming his daily routine I couldn’t stop weeping one day, when the attendant took off his leg brace, and his foot started to spasm uncontrollably, but Shmuel just looked at the twins and this look of pure joy came over his face. These parents, whose bodies have betrayed them, have these two children who are so perfect, and when you see the faith that [the Kleins] have in God, and their positive attitude, is just so inspiring."

Whether it will become more difficult for the Kleins once their twins are ambulatory remains to be seen, but both the Kleins and their doctors seem confident about the future.

"I think children who grow up with handicapped parents accept the fact that the parents are handicapped and to them it is normal and not a problem," said Dr. Harold Peart, the Klein’s obstetrician at Cedars-Sinai.

"The things that make me nervous are when I look into the future," Shmuel Klein said. "I want to go to shul with them on Shabbos, but I need someone to wheel me there. So who will be taking them? It is obviously doable, but until it is actualized I don’t know [how we will do it]. My biggest thing is that I want to know that we will be a family. I just want to know that we are a family unit sitting at a table, just the four of us eating dinner. That is really my goal."