Israeli ministry plows ahead with ‘world Jewry’ project, even as funding and future remain uncertain

With a budget reaching $300 million, it was conceived as a broad partnership between the Israeli government and leading Diaspora Jewish groups. Its goal: to create a stronger connection between global Jews and Israel.

But nearly two years after its launch was announced with much fanfare — and after a string of delays — the Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry has yet to get off the ground. Even as an Israeli government ministry moves forward with appointing its staff, two of the three bodies that once led the project are now distancing themselves from it, and funding remains uncertain.

“There’s been a lot of politics surrounding this initiative,” said Jay Ruderman, whose Ruderman Family Foundation focuses on strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties. “This initiative is talking about being around for the long term. The important question to ask is, who’s in charge? Who’s making the decisions? How open are they to learning about the Diaspora and treating them as equals?”

Inaugurated in November 2013, the initiative was conceived to fund Israel education and Jewish identity-building programs in Diaspora communities —  in camps, schools and on campus — and finance young Diaspora Jews coming on short- and long-term trips to Israel. The project hopes to replicate the success of Birthright Israel, the free 10-day trips to Israel that have drawn more than 500,000 participants, by building platforms for similar trips and programs that will make Diaspora youth feel closer to Israel.

But what has happened instead is a series of delays, caused in part by a war and last year’s election campaign, and further exacerbated by vague promises and a lack of concrete funding. When the project was approved in June 2014, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky predicted program proposals would begin to be issued within a month, but they have yet to materialize. Funders from the Diaspora, meant to provide a majority of the budget, have not yet committed to donating.

Israel’s Cabinet approved the project last year as a tripartite partnership: Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office would direct the initiative in concert with the Jewish Agency, which would represent major Diaspora organizations, and the Diaspora Ministry would manage the day-to-day operations.

The Cabinet voted to invest $50 million in the initiative by 2017 and a total of $100 million by 2022. The government wanted Diaspora sources — federations, philanthropic foundations and individual donors — to contribute double those sums for two-thirds of the initiative’s $300 million total budget.

But the initiative has yet to launch. A subsequent Cabinet decision in June, weeks after Israel’s new governing coalition formed, put the Diaspora Ministry in charge of the initiative’s policy and its operations — effectively removing the Prime Minister’s Office. In early August, the Jewish Agency quit the project, complaining in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it had been frozen out of the decision-making process.

“Until the program is returned to its original conception and direction, we no longer see this as the joint initiative between the Government of Israel and World Jewry and therefore can no longer see ourselves part of it,” Sharansky and his agency’s board chairman, Charles Ratner, wrote in the Aug. 6 letter. “This undertaking has transformed simply into a funding framework for programs to be conducted by a single government Ministry.”

The Diaspora Ministry says it has remained faithful to the initiative’s original goals and that it will begin funding programs across the Jewish world by early 2016. But a Diaspora Ministry official told JTA that the ministry will have exclusive final say over which programs are approved.

The ministry official said the funding will be allocated across the Jewish ideological spectrum. A steering committee appointed by the ministry includes a former Sheldon Adelson deputy, a Detroit federation executive, a Holocaust education activist and an Israeli philanthropist. The Jewish Agency has also been offered a seat on the committee.

“The professional staff will work together with federations, philanthropies,” the official said. “The initiative doesn’t look at denominations or political affiliations. It looks at platforms.”

However, the ministry official could not name any confirmed funders who have committed to matching the government’s budget for the project. And the umbrella Jewish communal organization in the United States, the Jewish Federations of North America, supports the Jewish Agency’s protest of the initiative.

“We are proud of the Jewish Agency’s ongoing effort to meet the needs of the Jewish people, and we support their strategy as they move forward with the Government of Israel’s initiative,” JFNA President Jerry Silverman said in a statement to JTA.

It isn’t even clear whether the Diaspora Ministry has Netanyahu’s support; a spokesman for the prime minister would not comment on the issue. And Netanyahu sent a letter to Sharansky and Ratner, the Jewish Agency chairs, weeks after their split with the Diaspora Ministry suggesting that he would like to continue working with them toward the initiative’s goals.

“The Jewish Agency is our historic and invaluable partner to this end” of strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties, Netanyahu wrote on Aug. 17. He added that he hopes to “expand our cooperation even further.”

Despite the conflicts and unknowns, the Diaspora Ministry is optimistic that the initiative will move forward. The ministry is hiring a professional staff to oversee it, housed in a government-funded nonprofit that manages the project. The official said the nonprofit would launch pilot programs within the next several months.

“There are a number of foundations and philanthropies who have already been in talks with the ministry,” the official said. “It’s good to be ambitious.”

The diaspora debate: Is it good for the Jews?

I’m 58, and I still don’t know what kind of Jew I am or really want to be.  I know that in spite of a complete lack of formal training, I remain a loyal Jew; devoted to Jews of all stripes everywhere.  I think I inherited this surety of feeling from my 90-year-old mother whose weathered face now bears the complex burden of Jewish suffering.  If you were to ask my mother to define for you her Jewish identity; she would laugh at you puzzled by the absurdity of your question.  For it simply is whom she is. 

For her, being Jewish is an exhilarating mixture of joy and anguish that is punctuated by the melodic and haunting tragedies of her beloved Yiddish songs.  Being Jewish takes places in her heart; not in synagogue or in prayer, or in Israel which she found uncomfortable and alien.  She feels no need to justify her Jewish essence or her lifelong commitment to liberalism.  They simply go hand in hand.  Her mother was devout, and kept a kosher home, but her aunts were budding communists who would secretly feed her on Yom Kippur while her mother fasted.  They all lived unbearably close together and helped each other out when there was a crisis.  This became her definition of Jewish morality, which she took with her from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  She always worries for Israel and cheers its victories but refuses to choose sides among the many contentious debates that divide the Jews.  Because for her, the enemy is elsewhere and still breathing down all of our necks.  Which is why my mother would be greatly disturbed by much of the rebellious rhetoric in Alan Wolfe’s compelling new book “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews” (Beacon Press). 

Wolfe doesn’t seem to possess my mother’s unshakeable certainty about Jewish identity; he is a 72-year-old wanderer still looking for his place amidst the complex matrix that defines modern Jewish life.  He has written on many topics including the culture wars, school choice, political evil, and the strength of our democracy.  He has researched the intricate belief systems of Christian evangelicals, and although a lifelong atheist, feels drawn to religious belief as an area of study.  But he has never written about his own personal relationship with his Jewish heritage and he does so awkwardly now.  He grew up in Philadelphia in a non-religious home, the son of a father who refused any sort of ideological classification other that intellectual explorer.  

In his new book, Wolfe examines the thinking of everyone from Maimonides to Philip Roth to David Ben-Gurion to Hannah Arendt.  His conclusion seems to be that life in the Diaspora is very good for the Jews, and the non-Jews whom they live among, since it allows Jews the opportunity to fight prejudice and work towards justice and human dignity for all.  He feels this benefits the perception of Jews worldwide.  His book is a nothing short of a call to arms.  He writes, “Exile is not the enemy of the Jewish state; isolation is.  Now more than ever Israel needs the universalism that isolation abhors.  It is one thing for Jews to turn their backs against the whole world.  It is even more problematic to spurn those proud to be Jewish but also happy to be citizens in the countries in which they were born.”  He resents the public comments of A.B. Yehoshua, who said recently that the only authentic life for a Jew is one lived in the Jewish state of Israel. 

With the New Age romanticism of an aging hippie, he idealizes those Jewish thinkers who want to redefine a meaningful Jewish life as one that embraces liberalism and tolerance and pluralism as a panacea for all our woes. He mentions Avraham Burg with praise.  Burg was the speaker of the Knesset before he switched political alliances and declared bluntly to a shocked Israeli public that “what I want to do is to expand the borders of Israel beyond land and location to include universalism and spiritual search…We were raised on the Zionism of Ben-Gurion, there is only one place for Jews and that is Israel.  I say no, there have always been multiple centers of Jewish life.”

Wolfe clearly casts his lot with Jewish leaders who believe Israel has become too militant and right wing, and in doing so, have relinquished the dreams of its founders.  Israel, claims Wolfe, was supposed to be the place where the precious values of the Enlightenment would be cherished and practiced and set an example for the world. Instead, Wolfe is upset by the growing Orthodoxy and nationalism that has infused Israeli life, along with the messianic settler movement and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  He believes Israel’s behavior has fueled anti-Semitism everywhere, and prompted a call by many countries for a boycott of its products.  He believes that new hope for Judaism and Jews now lies in the Diaspora – particularly in America, where he feels things for Jews have never been brighter or more secure. 

Even on intermarriage, Wolfe is cavalier.  He writes “Intermarriage is universalism in miniature; by bring Jews together with non-Jews in the most intimate of ways, intermarriage, both as Herzl once hoped and as the work of Fishman and McGinity documents, really does expand horizons.”  He wants Jews to stop living as a people “doomed to drown in a sea filled with danger, from Christians, from secularization, and from Muslims…”  He resents the attacks made on Jewish liberal thinkers like Tony Kushner and Jacqueline Rose and the late Tony Judt who are often labeled self-hating Jews.  He sees their comments as heroic since it reflects their belief that they expect more from the Jewish state and are willing to voice their opinions publicly. 

These feel like fighting words to Jews like myself who see great danger in his loose talk about the Jewish plight.  I am a secular atheistic liberal humanist Jew just like Alan Wolfe, but not an amnesiac.  Wolfe seems to have tremendous trouble accepting Jewish vulnerability.  He doesn’t waste a drop of ink mourning for them, or the Holocaust, or the Jewish oppression he has witnessed throughout his life.  His passionless intellectuality will irritate many readers and confuse them.  He refuses to accept that, as Harold Bloom wrote years ago, “the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today, the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli, and this modern trial of the Jews, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.” 

Anthony Julius, the author of “Trials of the Diaspora,” points out that much of what is said about Israel is frighteningly deplorable.  Julius adds, “There’s a frightening animus, a one-eyed assessment of the dynamic of the conflict there.  The cartoons coming out of the Arab world are couched in particularly anti-Semitic imagery of the Jew as hooked-nose and ringleted, behaving oppressively to the Arab.”  He adds that more troubling is the extreme rhetoric and violent behavior of Hamas and the atrocious amount of anti-Semitic discourse in the Muslim communities around the world.  He cites those who equate Israel to Nazi Germany and Zionism to Nazism as the most heinous.  But Wolfe dismisses Anthony Julius and describes him critically as possessing the “luxury of self-pity, and the moral status associated with being a victim, without any of the perils that define that condition.”  Julius seems to have had men like Alan Wolfe in mind when he wrote, “There is a small history to be written of Jewish critics’ insensibility to the anti-Semitism of anti-Semitic works.”

Still, one can understand why Wolfe feels the pull to extricate himself from the burden of Jewish history, memory, grief, and obligation.  Philip Roth confronted these issues when he wrote “Operation Shylock” in 1993.  In it, there are two Philip Roth’s; the one we are familiar with and his alter ego who believes Israeli’s Ashkenazi Jews should return to their ancestral homes in Europe to fulfill their Diasporist destinies.  Roth’s alter ego has it all worked out.  The anti-Semitism that remains in Europe will be controlled by a new organization called Anti-Semites Anonymous that even has its own 12-step program.  Roth’s alter ego is not afraid to criticize the policies of the Israeli government that harm Palestinians and leave Israel vulnerable to charges of wrongdoing.  He believes eventually the Arabs will wipe out the Jews or the Jews will have to destroy them with nuclear weapons and inadvertently destroy themselves.  Roth’s alter ego sees Israel as a no-win situation.  Better to flee now for the Diaspora! 

Roth grew up in a tight-knit home in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, N.J., not far from Philadelphia, where Alan Wolfe was raised.  Roth claims his neighborhood was mostly secular, and he never saw a skullcap or a beard on any of his Jewish neighbors.  Like Wolfe, Philip Roth’s life was enmeshed in America and the pursuit of success.  He remembers that when he would ask his grandmother where she came from, she’d say “Don’t worry about it.  I forgot already.”  But Roth didn’t forget and much of his fiction explores the emotional contradictions inherent in forgetting.  Wolfe seems to have really forgotten. 

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Are Jews losing their story?

As we look back on the triumphs and failures of the past year, let’s reflect on one of the perennial shortfalls of the Jewish world — how we consistently overlook the importance of teaching the extraordinary story of the Jewish people. 

When I say “the story of the Jewish people,” I don’t mean biblical stories like Moses splitting the Red Sea or modern stories like the tragedy of the Holocaust or the miracle of Israel. Those are obviously important, and we hear about them often.

What I’m referring to instead are the fascinating stories of the “in-between” period — the 18 centuries of Diaspora history between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the beginning of the Holocaust. When’s the last time we heard any of those stories?

Seriously, where did those 1,869 years go? How did they become the big, black hole of mainstream Jewish learning? 

Try this test: Ask any bar or bat mitzvah kids if they know the story of their ancestors. Ask a Persian kid if she knows the epic story of Persian Jews. Do the same with Polish Jews, South African Jews, Moroccan Jews, German Jews, Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews and so on. Then ask the grownups the same question.

Chances are you’ll find that few Jews today know their own history. This shouldn’t surprise us. Compared to other items on the Jewish agenda, the story of pre-Holocaust Diaspora Jewry is simply not a priority.

This is a shame. As historian Deborah Lipstadt writes, “Those who do not know from whence they have come often have a hard time knowing where they are or where they are going.” Yes, we come from our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, but we also come from a long line of bubbes and zaydes.

It’s one thing to hear legendary stories about King David slaying Goliath during biblical times, but it’s quite another to hear about your great-great-grandfather David who studied kabbalah in Marrakesh.

The story of Diaspora Jewry is history with a family name — it’s a history we can feel and touch and own in a personal way. For too many Jews, though, it’s also a history full of mystery.

Where did our ancestors go after the trauma of losing the Second Temple? How did they split up? How did they forge a Jewish tradition without their holy Temple? 

Why did Maimonides study with Muslim philosophers? What ignited Reform Judaism? How did the Chasidic movement start, and why was it so vehemently opposed?

How did anti-Semitism come about and unfold over time? How did Jews adapt to their surroundings? 

Perhaps most important, how did Diaspora Jewry contribute to their adopted societies?

We’re always talking about building Jewish pride. What better way to do that than to teach our people the amazing Jewish contributions to humanity?

It’s sad to think that so few Jewish kids today are learning about the great Jewish scientists, artists, social activists, philosophers, musicians, rabbis, poets and writers who for centuries made such a mark on their world. 

Our Diaspora ancestors didn’t have the epic drama of our biblical heroes, or the tragic drama of Shoah victims, or the triumphant drama of Israeli pioneers. Maybe that’s why we’ve had a tendency to overlook them. But these ancestors are the resilient, unsung heroes who persevered and kept the Jewish flame alive for 18 long centuries.

Teaching our history need not conflict with teaching Jewish tradition or talmudic discourse. On the contrary, history provides a narrative context that enhances appreciation for that very tradition and discourse. History also enhances our humanity by shining an honest and candid light on our communal conflicts.

What about the critique that “history is boring”? Well, is it any more “boring” than any other subject? As historian and former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren once said to me, when you turn history into “story,” you make it a lot more interesting. Any Hollywood screenwriter will tell you that what makes the industry tick is the power of the story. We may be the people of the book, but are we not also the people of the stories?

It’s understandable that the horror of the Holocaust and the subsequent miracle of Israel have dominated our collective memory. If the Shoah represents the deepest darkness and Israel the brightest light, they both conspired to overshadow the formative journey that preceded them.

But, as much as the Holocaust and Israel are defining Jewish moments, they are the culmination of 18 eventful centuries that have shaped who we have become as a people, a nation and a culture.

We are blessed to be living in a generation where those 18 centuries of Jewish history can be felt right here in America, where Jews from around the world have gathered to create a phenomenal diversity. 

Just look around your own communities. See all the different countries and cultures that are represented, and imagine all the stories. How sad it would be to let those stories go. How great it would be to rescue them and share them with one another.

My wish for the New Year is that our schools, synagogues and outreach groups reignite the flame of Diaspora history. After all, how can we ask our people to continue the great Jewish journey if we skip over 1,869 incredible years?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Seeking a Jewish ‘Reality’ for the YouTube generation

While the suits of the Jewish-American foundation circuit were banging their heads on their office desks, grappling for ways to engage an increasingly secular, drifting Diaspora youth, 28-year-old Jessie Kahnweiler, a loud Atlanta native with a Shirley Temple “Jewfro,” walked onto the scene in a pickle hat and made a crack about her pimps ’n’ hoes-themed bat mitzvah.

The suits caught on soon enough. Late in 2011, Kahnweiler, who had recently moved to Los Angeles and was working odd jobs in the film industry, scored a $40,000 grant from the Six Points Fellowship. The arts fellowship, according to its director, Josh Feldman, is an offshoot of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, built on “the realization that culture is … a major portal for meeting these young Jewish adults who are no longer going to synagogue.”

Kahnweiler was the New York fellowship’s first L.A. gamble, its first filmmaker and arguably now its most famous export. Her 11-part series, “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” — filmed using the Six Points grant money plus a few thousand dollars from crowd-funding Web site Jewcer — has amassed around 300,000 views collectively on YouTube.

This makes her grant-givers giddy. “Ninety percent of those were watched on mobile devices,” Feldman said. He believes this “confirms that young Jewish adults are looking for content and ways to engage in Jewish life. And when a project is made that actually speaks to them and their generation, they will watch it the way they view content — which often is on their phone.” 

The “Chutzpah” series followed Kahnweiler on a bouncy, messy spiritual journey from her bubbe’s funeral to an L.A. synagogue to a Holocaust survivor’s porch patio to the Holy Land and back, as she attempted to conquer the question: What does my Judaism mean to me? Until the 20-something could find a way to “live Jewish” for at least a year, according to the storyline, she would be cut off from the grand Jewish fortune that her bubbe had left behind.

If that sounds a little on the dorky side, she kind of thought so, too.

“I really half-assed my pitch,” Kahnweiler said of applying to the fellowship. “I was like, ‘I’m never going to get this. I’m the worst Jew.’ It was sort of like, OK, let me make something about being Jewish, so I’ll cover bagels, I’ll cover temples in L.A. — it wasn’t from a personal place at all.”

And when, much to her shock, she was crowned a Six Points fellow, Kahnweiler said, “It was just dread. Like, ‘Oh, great. What the hell am I going to do?’ ”

But after some nudging from Feldman to take the creative process more slowly and allow herself a research phase, Kahnweiler’s fictional journey toward Jewishness began butting into her own reality.

Just months after her on-screen bubbe died, Kahnweiler said, her real-life grandmother passed away as well. And although the latter wasn’t the cranky old tradition-monger portrayed in the film (“I swear she died so she could get me alone in a room with a Jewish doctor,” Kahnweiler says on-screen), her own bubbe’s death did, in a way, help bring out her inner chutzpah.

“My grandma would always smile at me in this way whenever I would be loud and crazy,” Kahnweiler said in a phone interview. “I feel her smile all the time — and it’s especially when I’m making noise and making a ruckus. That’s what my grandma would be proud of.”

In Jessie Kahnweiler’s most recent, and most controversial short, “Meet My Rapist,” the filmmaker, while at a local farmers market, runs into the man who raped her while she was studying abroad in Vietnam eight years earlier. So she takes the rapist on a tour of her current life, including to a family dinner and a job interview. 

For the spiritual climax of the “Chutzpah” series, Kahnweiler hits Israel like an untamed Yankee in a spotted blue sundress, a kiddie backpack and an oversized hair bow. She skips through the tear gas at the West Bank separation wall, hitting on Israeli soldiers and Palestinian activists alike, and wheels a watermelon around Jerusalem’s Old City in a baby carriage. In one scene, Kahnweiler dresses up like an Orthodox Jewish man in order to enter the strictly male prayer section of the Western Wall. In another, she takes shots at a Tel Aviv nightclub until dawn, then runs toward the ocean, screaming up at God: “Come on, reveal yourself! Burn my bush!”

“I meet a lot of self-hating Jews in L.A.,” she said over the phone. “They’re like, ‘Ugh, I’m Jewish.’ And it’s like, well, yeah, you are that kind of Jewish. But I’m not that kind of Jewish. I’m sexy, inquisitive, dangerous — why can’t that be Jewish? Why does my Judaism have to be allergies and overeating?”

In Israel, Kahnweiler said, she witnessed a different approach. “You meet all these people that are like, ‘I’m passionate, and I’m sexy, and I’m a risk-taker — I’m an Israeli.’ I think that was the turning point for me, when I shot in Israel, and I realized, ‘Oh — that can be Jewish.’ ”

Although “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” never lands on a definitive answer for what it means to “live Jewish,” as it sets out to do, its many parts do add up to a greater sense of awareness for both Kahnweiler and her followers. And now that the series is over, the filmmaker’s openness and curiousness toward herself and strangers — her ultimate incarnation of living as a nouveau Jew — is apparent in everything she does.

Kahnweiler’s 2013 follow-up series, “White Noise,” watches her run around Los Angeles, conducting racially themed street interviews with topics such as “Why do black guys want to bang me?” and “Can a white chick be a Latino day laborer?” They sound pretty bad at first — girl knows how to troll — but the videos are surprisingly warm and nuanced, and reveal loads about our own preconceptions.

Her moments of comedic relief are never predictable but always distinctly Kahnweiler. She’ll raise her eyebrows halfway up her forehead, stretch her mouth sheepishly across her face and kind of cock her head, as if to say, “Don’t hate me ’cause I’m ignorant.”

But she embraces ignorance, and stereotypes — if only as a weapon against apathy. If the other Angelenos shuffling past the Latino day laborers and homeless guys on Skid Row are the realistic ones, Kahnweiler would rather approach the world from a clean slate of cluelessness. So she kicks it outside Home Depot for a day and asks a man named Jose what kind of job he would have if he were king of the world.

“It’s difficult to answer,” he says. “Well, I’m a difficult woman,” she replies. “Welcome.” 

Kahnweiler’s most-viewed short to date is her most recent, and her most controversial: an anecdotal piece titled “Meet My Rapist.” In the film, Kahnweiler is flirting with vendors at a farmers market when she runs into a dude (or more a beard in a hoodie) who raped her eight years ago while she was studying abroad in Vietnam. So she takes her rapist on a tour of her current life, including to a family dinner and a job interview.

Financial planning for a move to Israel

What I know about Israel comes from a variety of sources, including the news and commentary in this newspaper, countless books, my own experiences as a traveler to Israel, and the Facebook postings of my friends who live there. But the information and insights in “A Financial Guide to Aliyah and Life in Israel” by Baruch Labinsky (Mosaica Press, $19.99) filled in a great many gaps in my knowledge of the jewish homeland.

Labinsky is a financial planner and investment manager, and his book is intended for readers who are seriously considering — or who have already decided to make — a move to Israel. Much of the financial advice Labinsky offers is similar to what we might hear from a financial advisor in any country of the world.  But it also contains information for any reader interested in Israel, even if he or she has no intention of making aliyah.  Indeed, what I discovered in the pages of this book was fresh, surprising and illuminating.

The author acknowledges that there are many reasons a Jew in the Diaspora might choose to live in Israel — “religious beliefs, familial or culture ties,” among others — but he confines his book to single pointed query: “Can I afford to make Aliyah?” The practical issue becomes a lens through which to glimpse day-to-day life in Israel, a fascinating exercise even for those who are not yet packing up their possessions. It is also true, however, that Labinsky does not entirely ignore issue of faith: “Take things into your own hands,” he writes, “and with G-d’s help you can make it happen.” The point is made, by the way, in the playful illustrations by Menachem Jerenberg  — almost all of the men, women and children are shown wearing a kippah or a head-covering.

Mostly, however, Labinsky accounts for how financial issues can shape one’s experience of Israel.  Thus, for example, he discloses that “[a]ll Israeli citizens are entitled to join one of four health funds,” which cover basic medical services and offer supplementary insurance coverage.  However, not everything is covered, and if you arrive in Israel with a medical condition that requires medicines or treatments not covered by Israel’s socialized medical system, the lack of coverage may impose costs so high that they “can even undermine an entire Aliyah plan.”

He is also alert to the practical problems of daily life.  A new arrival in Israel “can get by with little or no Hebrew” in Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Efrat, he writes, but postponing the study of Hebrew may also make it difficult to “integrate professionally in Israel and attain financial stability.” 

There are many other important considerations: Putting a stop-payment on a check, he cautions, “is considered a crime,” and he recommends consulting an attorney before doing so. U.S. Social Security payments received in Israel are not taxed at all in Israel  but distributions from an IRA or a 401(k) account are taxable in both places (with a credit in the U.S. for taxes paid in Israel).  He urges olim to master one of the most ancient practices of the Levant: “Living in the Middle East requires Westerners to change their ‘fixed-price’ mentality and start negotiating on all purchases,” he advises. “Don’t be embarrassed – that’s the way Israel operates and no one will think any worse of you.”

Some cherished myths are shattered along the way. “A once highly desirable option for olim was to look for a kibbutz to join,” he explains. “In recent years, however, most kibbutzim have been privatized.  While kibbutz life still remains an option for some, the overwhelming number of olim aren’t interested in that lifestyle, and the options are far fewer with today’s kibbutzim.”

Other insights will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Israel as a tourist. “Consumers pay significantly more for goods and services than their counterparts in most other Western countries,” which means that American spending habits can be catastrophic to a family budget. “For example, the average Israeli family spends about NIS 2,200 [about $625] a month on food,” he writes. “The average large Anglo family, when it comes to Israel, spends at least twice to three times that amount.”

Above all, however, the author insists that financial decisions are not purely a matter of dollars and cents. Holding onto one’s home back in the United States, for example, may be a prudent step for a new arrival to take, but Labinsky points out that it may weaken the resolve that is necessary for a successful aliyah: “Sometimes having an easy fallback plan prevents people from giving the Aliyah experience a real try,” he writes. “Psychology can play a tremendous part in whether or not Aliyah is successful.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

On Israeli religious reforms, Naftali Bennett still figuring out road map

Naftali Bennett doesn’t like to waste time.

In the eight months since he took over three Israeli ministries — religious services, economy, and Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs — Bennett has pushed through legislation to give Israeli couples more freedom in choosing which rabbi officiates at their wedding, worked with coalition partner Yair Lapid to lop $11 billion off Israel’s budget and fast-tracked a resolution to the showdown over women’s prayer at the Western Wall.

On this last achievement, Bennett managed an end run around the debate over a controversial compromise proposal by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky by ordering the construction of a platform for egalitarian services adjacent to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at the southern edge of the wall.

“The guy came and said, ‘Well, let’s bring it to government for approval.’ I said, ‘No, just go build the thing,’” Bennett recalled. “Within six days it was up and now we have an egalitarian pluralistic plaza. Everyone can go, no questions asked.”

But on some of the other issues considered crucial to American Jewish advocates of religious pluralism in Israel — establishing civil marriage, granting state salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis, and recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions — don’t expect Bennett to rush into things, if at all.

“When you talk about marriage, when you talk about conversion, it’s much more sensitive,” Bennett told JTA. “I do want to set expectations: I won’t go all the way. It’s going to be a fine line of balancing everyone’s positions. These are very, very delicate issues. It’s going to be a very slow process.”

In a wide-ranging interview last Friday at JTA’s offices in New York, Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, talked about his plans for religious reforms, what sort of Iran deal Israel might be willing to accept and how Israel’s “startup nation” ethos could be extended into good works projects overseas.

He also described how his approach to religious pluralism was influenced by his personal experience. The Israel-born son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett, who is Modern Orthodox, moved to New York in 2000 shortly after marrying his “totally secular” Israeli wife, Gilat. It was in Manhattan that Gilat first began attending synagogue — a beginner’s service at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side.

“We had to fly to New York from Israel for my wife to get closer to Judaism,” Bennett said.

“Here’s an area that I think Israel can learn a lot from American Jews. This no-questions-asked approach — I loved it,” he said. “I want to import it, albeit cautiously.”

Bennett says his approach to religious reforms is governed by three considerations: The changes must be good for Israel, done in discussion with the relevant constituencies and cannot contravene Jewish law, or halachah. Some Orthodox rabbis merely enabling egalitarian prayer, as Bennett did by building the Kotel platform, violates halachah. Bennett said he’s still figuring out where his red lines are.

“Any move by any Jew that gets him closer to Judaism, to our heritage, is a good thing,” Bennett said. “At the same time, there is a value — notwithstanding the disagreements — there is a value of having, on an official level, let’s say, lines that we don’t cross.”

It’s not clear how much wiggle room that leaves Bennett on such issues as non-Orthodox conversions or Conservative and Reform weddings that do not conform to halachah. He has made clear he opposes civil marriage legislation, though he says he wants to find some kind of solution for couples who have no ability to marry under Israeli law, such as interfaith couples.

“This is perhaps one of the most sensitive issues that we’re only starting to learn and map out what we can do,” he said. “What we don’t want to do certainly is encourage couples that can get married according to halachah and encourage them to get married in a different way.”

Bennett said he met for the first time two weeks ago with coalition partners Lapid, Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua party and Avigdor Liberman of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu to discuss areas in which they can push religious reforms. Bennett already is promoting a bill that as with marriage, would make it easier for Israeli non-Jews to convert to Judaism by enabling them to choose any rabbinical court in the country for their conversion.

Though he leads Israel’s fourth-largest political party, Bennett is a relative newcomer to the Israeli political scene. Following his army service in the elite Israeli Defense Forces unit Sayeret Matkal and law school, Bennett became a successful software entrepreneur. The technology company he founded in his 20s, Cyota, was sold for $145 million when Bennett was 33.

Bennett said his combat experience during the Second Lebanon War of 2006 changed his career trajectory, propelling him into politics. He worked as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff for a couple of years, returned to the world of technology to run another company (Soluto, which was sold two weeks ago for approximately $100 million), led the Yesha Council of Israeli settlers and decided to run for the Knesset.

Stunning the Israeli political establishment with his meteoric rise, Bennett transformed what had been a moribund political party — the National Religious Party, which held three Knesset seats — into Jewish Home, which captured 12 seats in last January’s elections.

Bennett quickly formed an alliance with Lapid, the other rising star in Israeli politics, whose newly founded Yesh Atid party captured 19 Knesset seats. Together the two forced their way into Netanyahu’s coalition government, sidelining the haredi Orthodox parties, which were left in the opposition for the first time in years.

“This was a tactical alliance, but it grew into something that today is more profound,” Bennett said of his relationship with Lapid, who is now finance minister. On their work together cutting Israel’s budget, Bennett said he and Lapid jumped off the proverbial cliff together, like “Thelma and Louise.”

Bennett says economic issues occupy 60 percent of his time, with the balance divided between his other two ministerial portfolios, being a member of the inner security Cabinet, politics and life. Bennett, 41, has four children under the age of 10.

One of his main economic projects is getting haredi Orthodox Israelis to work. Bennett is promoting a bill that would grant a four-year reprieve from the military draft to 50,000 haredi Israelis if they enter the workforce. He wants to complement this with a $142 million program to train the haredim for the labor market, incentivize them to work and employers to hire them.

Bennett wants to do something similar for Israeli-Arab women, who have relatively low participation rates in the labor force.

Though Bennett maintains a hard line on Palestinian issues — he opposes Palestinian statehood — he says it hasn’t really come up much. Few in the current Israeli government seem to believe the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will bear significant fruit.

The primary regional issue that preoccupies Bennett is Iran. He spent part of last week in Washington lobbying U.S. lawmakers against easing sanctions pressure on Tehran during the current negotiations, arguing that only economic pressure will prompt the mullahs to agree to a deal.

“We need to create an either-or situation,” Bennett said. “Either you have an economy or you have a nuclear program.”

He also praised the Obama administration for being a “very good friend of Israel” and hailed what he called a “quality leap in defense ties” between the two countries.

But what Bennett seems most excited about is what he views as a historic opportunity for the current Israeli government to tackle domestic issues.

“I call it the 70-70 rule: Seventy percent of Israelis agree on 70 percent of the issues, but we spend most of our time on the 30 percent,” he said. “So this time no, we’ll do the 70 thing.”

List of acceptable Diaspora rabbis does not exist, Chief Rabbinate says

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said it does not have a list of Diaspora rabbis whose testimony it accepts on clarifying one’s Jewish or marital status.

Responding to a request made in September by the Tzohar rabbinical organization to see such a list, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate told The Jerusalem Post that “no list exists either hidden or public.”

According to the report, which appeared Monday, the spokesman said every request made for clarification of Jewish and marital status “is examined individually and thoroughly.”

Tzohar says an increasing number of Jewish couples from North America have had difficulty  in registering upcoming marriages with the Chief Rabbinate because the testimony of their communal rabbis was not recognized.

It had made its request under the freedom of information law, The Jerusalem Post reported after seeing the request. The request was filed on Sept. 12; the Chief Rabbinate was required to respond in 30 days.

Tzohar Chairman Rabbi David Stav told the newspaper that he recently met with Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi David Lau to discuss the issue.

The Chief Rabbinate spokesman told the Post that for a Diaspora rabbi’s criteria to be accepted, he must be ordained by a recognized Orthodox Jewish institution; he and his community must live according to Orthodox Judaism; and he must have the appropriate skills and knowledge to sign such a document.

The spokesman said the number of rabbis currently being rejected is consistent with previous years.

Meanwhile, the Knesset Caucus on Religion and State is scheduled to hold a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of letters certifying the Jewishness of immigrants to Israel by North American Orthodox rabbis.

The hearing comes after a request by the ITIM organization, an Israeli advocacy group that helps Jewish Israelis obtain services for life-cycle events, that the rabbinate be required to clarify what it takes for a rabbi’s testimony to be recognized.

In a letter sent to the chief rabbis last week, ITIM called for a clear policy relating to who can certify someone’s Jewishness.

“We believe that the rabbinate should recognize Orthodox rabbis who come from established institutions,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM. “It is an outrage that rabbis are being rejected based on individuals merits or demerits.”

Under a proposal floated by ITIM, institutions that have existed for more than 10 years with more than 50 members would have their members automatically accepted by the rabbinate.  The proposal also includes mechanisms that prevent abuses.

ITIM made the proposal in the wake of the rejection by the Chief Rabbinate of a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an American couple marrying in Israel written by well-known U.S. Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Temple Mount closed to Jewish visitors

Jerusalem Police closed the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors based on intelligence that Palestinians planned to cause disturbances there.

Tuesday’s closure, during the festival of Sukkot when tens of thousands of Israeli and Diaspora Jews visit Jerusalem, came after police received the  information about the potential unrest, according to reports.

Thousands already have visited the site during the weeklong holiday. Jews are not permitted to pray there. The site has limited visiting hours.

Last week at the start of the holiday, two Israeli police officers were injured at the site when dozens of Arab youths threw rocks at police and visitors. The Islamic Movement in Israel has called on its supporters to riot at the Temple Mount.

The closure forced the cancellation of a visit by hundreds of Jewish children and teens as part of an annual educational event sponsored by the Women for the Holy Temple Organization. The visit had been coordinated with police.

Knesset member Shuli Muallem of the Jewish Home party also had coordinated a visit for Tuesday.

On Monday, Temple Mount activist Michael Fuah was arrested for performing a Sukkot ritual — shaking a lulav and etrog — at the site.

Is Sharansky the only one who doesn’t want confrontation at the Western Wall?

In the last two years, the Western Wall in Jerusalem — also known as the Kotel — has become a place of controversy as much as of worship. It’s the site of a battle that has long been waged by a group called Women of the Wall, who are demanding they be able to pray in the women’s section wearing tallits — Jewish prayer shawls — and also be permitted to read from the Torah, rights that the rabbi of the Kotel, backed by the police, wouldn’t give them. 

Suddenly, however, the battle has peaked with the assistance of North American Jewry. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hearing reports that this issue was becoming highly disruptive in Israel-Diaspora relations, asked Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, to find a solution. About a month ago, Sharansky presented to Jewish leaders a solution that goes well beyond the issue of Women of the Wall. It proposes that the Jewish people take back control of the Kotel, removing power over it from the rabbinate in order to make it a place where all Jews feel comfortable. Sharansky proposed adding a third section, a place where Jews of non-Orthodox practice could pray near the Kotel as they please. 

The proposal was initially well received and seemed to be on the right track. It was, that is, until an Israeli court highly complicated things by ruling against the authority of the rabbinate, thereby turning attention away from the long-term compromise and reigniting the battle over whether women activists can wear tallits in the women’s section.

A climactic moment in this controversy was deflated by the rough humor of the big-mouthed Knesset Member Miri Regev (Likud), the head of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, having just ended a short speech before the committee during its discussion on the Kotel, pulled a tallit from her bag and wrapped it around her shoulders. This was no big surprise: Hoffman has always been somewhat theatrical in her presentations. Her opponents attribute such behavior to her desire for public attention — her supporters say drawing such attention is the only way forward to winning her cause, which they believe she is on the verge of achieving.

[Translation of Women of the Wall Jerusalem District Court decision]

That day at the Knesset, though, Hoffman came up against an opponent as capable of grandiose gestures as she is. Regev, head of the committee and not an avid supporter of Women of the Wall — she’s traditional and close to the Orthodox establishment — flatly demanded that Hoffman take off the tallit. The Knesset, Regev said, isn’t a place for shows. Hoffman treated this demand as an insult. Can I not get into the Knesset with a tallit? she asked. Regev refused to play this game of indignation. “Yesterday,” she said, cutting short the discussion, “a group of greengrocers was here, and they weren’t allowed in with their cucumbers either.”

A month and a half have passed since Sharansky presented the outline of his proposal for compromise to Jewish leaders in New York and got a nod of approval. A couple of days later, traveling with Netanyahu to London, he got another nod of approval, and he moved to the planning stages of the process in meetings with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and with National Security Council Adviser Yaakov Amidror. Sharansky’s compromise was moving forward when the judge’s ruling caught its architects by surprise, threatening now to overturn their hope of compromise.

It was a classic case of government folly where everybody is merely doing their job, no one is really at fault, and yet the outcome was unfortunate. On April 11, police detained five Women of the Wall activists — just as it used to do whenever women were caught with a loaded tallit at the Kotel. That same afternoon, the detainees were in court and then released by a judge who couldn’t find any reasonable justification for the arrest. 

The government — sensing a blow to any future similar arrests, and hence to its long-standing position that women can only pray at the Kotel if they abide by the rules set by the rabbi of the Kotel — decided to appeal. Bad mistake: This led to the second decision, by a district court, this time officially repealing Israel’s policy at the Kotel. The Women of the Wall, the judge ruled, can pray there as they wish and the state has no business dictating strict Orthodox custom in the women’s section. Thus, the government lost twice: It not only lost the appeal and its self-proclaimed mandate to manage prayers at the Kotel, but it also lost the path to compromise as the new rule made the implementation of Sharansky’s plan much more complicated, hence reducing the chances of what seems the only solution that could put an end to the ongoing friction.

This was evident in the second Knesset discussion, at which Sharansky himself was invited to speak. He believes a solution to the problem can’t be found at the courts or by attempting to win the case through legislation. But many others seem to have other beliefs. Some are like Hoffman, who feel they are winning without having to compromise. Others are like the Charedi members of Knesset — too angry to listen and in a vindictive mood. On Monday, in a meeting at the Rabbinate Council, Sharansky heard from the rabbis that the Kotel is a red line. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar explained to his guest that Hoffman achieved something remarkable by unifying the Charedi camp. Or, as Amar preferred to describe it at the meeting: “She unified the Israeli society.” 

Sharansky’s plan includes building a new platform at the southern side of the Mughrabi Gate that will serve as a third area for prayer near the Kotel. There, people would be able to pray as they wish, men and women together, Reform and Conservative. In the meeting with the rabbis, the speakers were weary of the objections: Israelis, one of them warned, might actually prefer having the third section. In the rabbinate’s dictionary, giving the public a choice is dangerous. Thus, the rabbis don’t yet approve of the plan and are waiting to hear from the Ministry of Religious Services as to what concessions and guarantees might be extracted from its dialogue with Women of the Wall leadership in exchange for such a section.


 Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, wearing a tallit at the Western Wall, is detained by Israeli police.

Last Sunday afternoon, I called Hoffman in Kansas City, where she was visiting, and found her in no mood for either concessions or guarantees. In recent weeks, Hoffman has changed her tone a little bit, moving from fully supporting the Sharansky plan to fully supporting the “process.” At the Knesset she said she was too busy worrying about “now” to be able to support “an imaginary scenario.” On Sunday, she was even clearer: “I will not commit to a plan on paper.” A veteran of many battles, Hoffman is scarred by unfulfilled promises and unmet commitments. Of course, she wants “a negotiated solution” and “to avoid confrontation,” but right now, with the court on her side, she has little reason to jump onto the compromise train.

Sharansky’s plan, meanwhile, is slowly moving forward according to the schedule he laid out at a Knesset committee meeting. There are licenses to get, plans to finalize, negotiations to conduct. In two weeks’ time, he will have another meeting with the Jewish leadership to whom he initially presented the plan, and they will discover that advances have been made. 

Thinking about the way forward, Sharansky had two obvious obstacles to overcome: first was the archeologists, who voiced vehement opposition to a plan that would put their findings of ancient Jerusalem under the roof of the new platform. At the Knesset meeting, they went as far as threatening Sharansky that they will turn to United Nations’ agencies to put pressure on Israel until it abandons its plan. But talks with them in recent weeks give reason for hope that theirs is a manageable problem. A second possible opposition might stem from sensitivity toward any new construction by Israel in the Holy Basin. Even some proponents of the Sharansky plan wonder whether it can overcome possible objections from Jordanian and Palestinian authorities. In government circles, there was some debate whether Israel should talk to the Jordanians in advance, or whether it would be easier for both sides if Israel doesn’t corner the Jordanians into having to spell out a position on this matter.

These difficulties may be serious, but they pale in comparison to the real threat for the Sharansky plan: that his plan will be deemed extraneous within the Jewish world in light of the court’s decisions. At least in the short term, until everybody comes back to their senses. 

Just as Women of the Wall and some of its allies have altered their postures and are focusing on their post-court-ruling tactics, the Orthodox camp has also toughened its language since the ruling. “Along with the Chief Rabbinate and other great rabbis, we must examine if we should oppose the proposal referring to Robinson’s Arch,” Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Kotel, said in a statement. Rabinowitz is a slick and well-connected operator — last week he was the rabbi presiding over the much talked-about wedding of Interior Minister Gideon Saar and celebrity TV anchor Geula Even. For him to reconsider his support of Sharansky is probably a calculated move: He does it because he sees more battles ahead.

Sadly, Rabinowitz is probably correct in this assessment. When it comes to religious affairs, the Jews love the battle more than the compromise and seem ready to keep it going. Knesset Member Yitzhak Herzog, the former minister and cabinet secretary, who was intensely involved in the first Kotel compromise (when the Robinson’s Arch area was first cleared for limited religious use about a decade ago), warns that “those who want an uncompromising legal solution to the problem will only lead to unnecessary confrontation.” Alas, Sharansky seems to be the last man standing who doesn’t want confrontation.

On May 10, Rosh Chodesh Sivan (the first day of the month of Sivan), and following a decision by the attorney general not to appeal the court ruling, women were allowed to pray at the Kotel for the first time without the threat of arrest by police. Of course, this didn’t mean a calm and peaceful prayer. Charedi rabbis — and even some Zionist-Orthodox rabbis — sent thousands of Charedi men and women to protest against the new rules and against the praying women. The protest was, at times, violent and ugly. And the battle became uglier still this week, with a vandal’s painting of graffiti reading “Women of the Wall are scum” and “Jerusalem is holy” on the home of Women of the Wall member Peggy Sidor. 

Some of the rabbis, asked for their interpretation, privately say that the current turmoil is all the fault of the court: “The judge essentially told us that the only way for us to prevent this provocation [Women of the Wall prayer] is to be aggressive,” one of them told me. So, aggressive they intend to be. June 6 will be the next Rosh Chodesh prayer service on the Women of the Wall calendar, and rumors started spreading this week that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, might attend in person, making the June confrontation much more volatile than last month’s — as he will not be coming alone. 

If this battle was only about Women of the Wall’s original goal of praying once a month wearing a tallit in the women’s section, some of the rabbis might have caved by now. “A couple of women coming to the Kotel from time to time with a tallit” is no big deal, one rabbi told me. However, they look at Hoffman and don’t really believe that this is her true endgame. They see in her a determination to keep pushing the envelope. The ultimate goal of Women of the Wall, as an official background document states, is to “enable freedom of religion and freedom of observance for all in the Western Wall.” The meaning of “freedom” and “for all” is open to interpretation, and the Orthodox don’t much trust either Hoffman or the courts to have the interpretive power over such matters.

In fact, the Sharansky compromise is also about much more than Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer. It is about having a Kotel that serves Jews of all stripes and denominations, a Kotel where any Jew can pray, or just visit, without being compelled to abide by rules of Charedi making. Sharansky has an ambitious goal for which he needs partners. But those partners, despite their faith in Sharansky, have little faith in one another, and apparently no one has yet reached the point of battle fatigue.

The women don’t trust the government and see the court victory as a sign that compromise might not be necessary. The Orthodox don’t trust the women and don’t yet understand that Israeli society is changing and is losing patience with Orthodox monopolies. The government doesn’t trust the progressive movements, and suspects — not without reason — that ending the friction at the Kotel would prove to be the beginning of some other conflict somewhere else. The progressive movements don’t trust the Orthodox or the government — and why would they, after so many years of condescending marginalization? 

Thus, as someone jokingly said in a recent meeting with Reform and Conservative leaders, when it comes to the Kotel compromise, “They all behave like Palestinians.” Namely, they would all reject a good compromise in the hope that someday they can have it all. Of course, such an approach could also end in losing it all.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at

Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel: Is it possible?

Every week, dozens of bar mitzvah boys from Israel and the Diaspora celebrate their rite of passage at the Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, which, after the Temple Mount, is Judaism’s holiest site.   

Many Diaspora families, especially from the more liberal streams of Judaism, are therefore surprised to learn that Israel forbids women and girls from doing the equivalent — celebrating a bat mitzvah at the Kotel. 

According to Israeli law, “No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall.” Women are forbidden to read from the Torah, to wear prayer shawls or to blow the shofar there. 

Several members and supporters of Women of the Wall (WOW), a multidenominational group of religious-activist women who come to pray at the Wall every Rosh Chodesh, the start of the Jewish month, have been detained and sometimes arrested for wearing prayer shawls in the women’s section. 

For those girls who wish to celebrate their bat mitzvah near the Wall, without these restraints and scrutiny, there is an attractive alternative: Robinson’s Arch, a part of the Southern Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple. 

Named after Edward Robinson, the scholar who identified the remains of the site in 1838, the arch historically served as an overpass at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. 

Part of the Jerusalem Archeological Park & Davidson Center, it is a tranquil, picturesque site just outside the Western Wall Plaza. It is the place designated by the Israeli government for religious ceremonies that do not meet the strict ultra-Orthodox standards established and enforced by the Ministry of Religious Services. 

It is commonplace to see egalitarian or women-only groups praying here, in prayer shawls and reading from a Torah scroll.  

It is also an option for some Modern Orthodox families of boys becoming b’nai mitzvah who feel uncomfortable with the total gender segregation at the Kotel: the mechitza (divider) between the men’s and women’s sections has been built higher and higher in recent years, due to Ministry of Religious Affairs directives, making it difficult for some women to feel part of the simcha taking place in the men’s section.   

Non-Orthodox Jews have held egalitarian prayers at Robinson’s Arch since 2000, and Women of the Wall has often read from the Torah here (though not in recent months), following prayers at the Kotel. 

Photo by Michele Chabin

Both WOW and the non-Orthodox movements would prefer to be allowed to pray according to their own traditions at the Kotel, and not have to turn to Robinson’s Arch, and, in response, the government has appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to study the issue. He recently proposed a plan to expand the Western Wall Plaza to includ a space for egalitarian prayer. It would include Robinson’s Arch, but be separated by several walls and a bridge, according to media reports.

Some have proposed allocating non-Orthodox groups one hour per week, or per month, at the Kotel to pray the way they feel comfortable. The Ministry of Religious Services has so far rejected this idea, believing it violates Jewish law and would hurt the sensibilities of ultra-Orthodox worshippers. “We hope and pray to welcome women and girls for b’not mitzvah at the Kotel some day,” said Shira Pruce, WOW’s director of public relations.

“Right now, it would be impossible for a woman to be bat mitzvah at the Kotel. She and her family would be interrupted, harassed by police and detained. She wouldn’t be able to complete the service, certainly not with a Torah, as of right now.”

Although WOW at one time welcomed bat mitzvah girls and women to Robinson’s Arch, that isn’t an option through them at the moment, Pruce said. WOW’s board of directors recently voted to hold future Torah readings from a Chumash at the Kotel, as an act of civil disobedience, Ha’aretz reported. 

Those wishing to hold a simcha at the Arch should contact the Masorti/Conservative movement in Jerusalem, which manages the site for this purpose, 12 to 18 months prior to the simcha.

More often than not, it is the prospective bar/bat mitzvah’s rabbi who contacts the movement, which will issue an entry permit (ishur) and schedule a time, almost always in the early morning. Entrance is through the Davidson Center, which charges for admission — even to bar/bat mitzvah families — after 9:15 a.m. 

The Masorti movement maintains a list of rabbis (also Reform) with experience working at Robinson’s Arch. Their fees range from $300 to $1,500, depending on what services they render and whether they serve as tour guides the rest of the day. 

Ivette Schirelman, the movement’s director of resource development, said certain restrictions apply at the Arch, due to its status as an archeological site. 

These include a prohibition against bringing musical instruments or candy (to throw at the bat/bar mitzvah) into the park. Also, there is no seating, but if given advance notice, a few chairs can be arranged. If wheelchair lifts are needed, the movement needs time to ensure they are unlocked and functional.

Once the simcha is complete, many families head to the Kotel to take photos. It’s also possible to take guided tours of the Davidson Center and southern wall excavations and/or visit the wonderful City of David archeological park, both for a fee.  

Another option is to explore the Western Wall Tunnels at the Kotel (book way ahead) and the winding alleyways of the Old City’s four quarters before stopping for brunch in the Jewish Quarter or one of the restaurants in the Mamilla shopping district outside Jaffa Gate (reservations are strongly advised, especially in upscale Mamilla). 

“Linda from Florida,” a mother whose son, Xander, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch, wrote in a blog how much she appreciated the ability to personalize the ceremony. 

“I wrote a blessing for my son and read it to him, my older kids participated in saying prayers, along with my brother, mom and aunt. For us it was very meaningful and positive. It was the highlight of our trip to Israel.” 

Robinson’s Arch “was beautiful as it provided a peaceful and spiritual setting,” Xander’s mother wrote. 

For more information, contact Rabbi Sandra Kochmann at 

David Hartman remembered: A voice that was freed – and now is silence

Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before he made a monumental contribution to Jewish life and a significant contribution to Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of  the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is a innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both Rabbinic and lay. It all its program, and especially within teacher training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition and its many texts to students often alienated  from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted to most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the preeminent of Jewish 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history; Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until… until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80 and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice that accepted some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of no-Jews whom he encountered and knew well and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious world view. Unlike Haredi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world, unlike Modern Orthodoxy that seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith,  and unlike Conservative Judaism did not make history paramount and push the halakhic world view to the side.  A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements yet deeply regret his untimely passing for there was much that he left unsaid, one he was free to speak out.

Hartman’s personal journey is significant, a product of Brownsville, Brooklyn when it was the second largest Jewish community in New York and also in the United States, he began his studies in the Haredi world, learning in Lakewood, New Jersey, which was then a small but growing Yeshiva. He then moved to Yeshiva University when he encountered the Rav and his marvelous example of religious studies and secular thought. The Rav was immersed in the world of Jewish texts, at home in the spiritual struggle with the religious experience that gave rise to these texts and their understanding of God, religious law and humanity and he was masterfully knowledgeable of the major philosophical traditions – classical and modern – that underscored religious thought.

It was he who advised Hartman to study philosophy with the Jesuits at Fordham University and thus to encounter classical philosophy, Roman Catholic theology – and secular thought – through the eyes of believing Catholics who engaged these text and their own faith. He went to Israel in the euphoria of the post 1967 excitement and could not quite fit in to Israeli institution. Religious institutions were narrow, the secular university was often equally parochial in a rather different way. A believing Zionist, he founded his own institution that gave voice to the issues on the top of his agenda and became a meeting place for secular Jews wanting to encounter Jewish texts and for religious scholars willing and able to engage secular thought.

In his last two books, Hartman has come clean. As he approached 80 and in failing health, with his achievements there is little reason to hold back. He spoke in his own voice and in his own name, struggling to make sense of the world in which he lived.  He was emotionally bound to the world of his youth, the Orthodoxy that reared him to a love of Torah and a passion for halakhah and yet he was a denizen of two worlds not one. He has engaged and accepted the categories of modernity, its engagement with ideas of equality, empowerment and engagement and its moral understanding of freedom. Unlike contemporary his master, the Rav, who was fortified and insulated in his encounter with modernity by an unchanging halakhah that was a historical and who could thus encounter modernity and its value system believing in the unchanging categories that established the framework of the world he encountered and unlike some in contemporary Orthodoxy who reject the modern world in its entirely and build a religious tradition that is oppositional and unlike some in contemporary so called modern Orthodoxy who want to live in a bifurcated world, a modernity untouched by their religious faith and a religious tradition untainted by modernity, Hartman was seeking a synthetic religious life; not a patchwork of dissident notions but an integrated religious tradition, embracing halakah and also engaging and being influenced by modernitry.

He knew and readily admits in the introduction to his work that others might then call him a Conservative Jew, but that was not who he was or where he wanted to go even though he wrestles with the poetic neo-Orthodoxy of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the religious sociology of Mordecai Kaplan, Yet the more he wrestles with these contemporary issues, the more he takes seriously the need to change in response, the more his situation resembles the religious circumstances of those who gave rise to Conservative Judaism passionately loving the tradition,   yet finding that the more they engaged the modern ethos the greater the tension with their faith of origin and their own sense that halakhah could actually accommodate modernity without an openness to change and a willingness to change.

Others will have to carry out that task. They could not do better than to use Hartman as their guide.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Historical experiences and perception

Brief synopsis: The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, directly impacting every conflicting issue is the broader psychological dimension of the conflict, which makes it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the conflict, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and how to alleviate them as prerequisites to finding a solution. This is the second of six articles; click here for the first article.

Underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the scars that each side carries from their respective traumatic pasts. Their perceptions of each other were engendered by their independent religious traditions as well as their historical experiences as they related to one another. Unfolding events – violence, mutual recrimination etc. – between Israelis and Palestinians over the past seven decades, however, have made it virtually impossible for them to settle their differences. Maintaining an adversarial mindset toward each other has thus provided the justification and rationale to perpetuate their historical grievances through constant rancorous public narratives, placing the blame for the continuing discord on the other.

The Jewish experience throughout the Diaspora was one filled with discrimination, persecution, anti-Semitism, and expulsion culminating in the Holocaust. The genocide perpetrated during the Holocaust was surely something new in history: never before had a powerful state turned its immense resources to the industrialized manufacturing of corpses; never before had the extermination of an entire people been carried out with the swiftness of an assembly-line. The fact that many Jews were prevented from avoiding death camps by immigrating to Palestine added yet another layer to the horrific experiences of the Jewish people. The Jews have carried the scars of this past with them and still hold to the view that it can happen again unless they remain vigilant and relentless in protecting themselves at any cost. With this past in mind, the establishment of the state of Israel was seen not only as the last refuge to provide protection for the Jewish people but also the realization and hope of both secular Zionism and biblical prophecy (i.e. the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland). Thus, religious and non-observant Jews believe this trust must be guarded with absolute and unwavering zeal.

Yet, this historical sense of victimization and injustice has served to nurture the allegiance that each Israeli feels towards the state and each other with naturally-engendered, negative emotional sentiments towards the enemy. From the Israeli perspective, the establishment of Israel on the heels of the Holocaust was seen (and continues to be viewed) as the last chance to create a refuge; they must therefore remain on guard to protect Jews’ welfare and wellbeing wherever they may live and at whatever cost. This sense of being victimized resulted from an intentional infliction of harm in the past, universally viewed as utterly unjust and immoral. Yet, it has led to a lack of empathy towards perceived enemies; for example, it manifested itself in Israel shirking responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and violating human rights, all the while promoting self-righteousness.

Compounded, these conditions inherently endure, particularly when accompanied by extensive and continuing violence against Israel and growing concerns over national security. They are further strengthened by the Palestinians’ public narrative, which openly promotes the rejection of the very existence of the state. The Palestinians, for their part, have hardly made any serious effort to comprehend and appreciate the psychological implications of the Jews’ historical experience of religious persecution. Instead of understanding the Israeli mindset that was formed by the horrific past, the Palestinians have either denied the Holocaust altogether, or bemoaned that it did happen. It is not that the Palestinians should be held responsible for the Jews’ historic tragedy, but they failed at a minimum to appreciate the Israelis’ mindset in effectively dealing with the conflict.

For the Palestinians, the experience of the Nakba (the catastrophe), precipitated by the 1948 war, was no less calamitous. From their perspective, they were living in their own land, albeit for centuries under Ottoman rule and then under British Mandatory authority. They are absolutely convinced that during the 1948 war they were forced out of their homes by Israelis (in fact, many were encouraged to leave by their Arab brethren and return “following the defeat of Israel” for the spoil.)

Either way, over 700,000 Palestinians found themselves as refugees, an experience that has lasted for decades and continues to endure, leaving an indelible impression on their psyche; currently, nearly 5 million Palestinian are refugees. This traumatic experience served to bind Palestinians together in the same way that the Jews coalesced following the Holocaust, with each side believing their tragic historical experiences are unparalleled in scope and magnitude. The fact that the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian refugee problem over many decades to their advantage does not change the reality on the ground; it did not alter the Palestinians’ mindset, their perception of what the Israelis have done, or their sentiment and disposition about their plight.

Subsequent and frequent violent encounters between the two sides, especially after the 1967 war, further aggravated the Palestinian refugee problem. This war not only created another wave of refugees, but also set the stage for a bloody confrontation, during which many thousands lost their lives on both sides. The Israeli settlement project provided daily blows to Palestinian pride while demonstrating the futility of their efforts to stem Israeli encroachment on their territory, especially in the West Bank. The occupation and the repeated humiliation of the Palestinians further deepened their resolve to oppose the Israelis at whatever cost, but all was to no avail. The Israelis have proven to be a formidable foe and the Palestinians’ resentment, hatred and animosity have naturally only increased.

Israelis have never fully understood the significance of what the Palestinians have been enduring, how this has impacted their psychological dispositions, and why they have shown no desire to reconcile their differences with Israel. Israelis often argue that since nearly 800,000 Jews left their homes (or as many believe, were forced out) across the Arab Middle East and North Africa and largely settled in Israel, the Palestinian refugees must be considered a de-facto swap with the Jewish refugees. This view not only dismisses the historic trauma experienced by the Palestinians, but also disregards their national aspirations to establish a homeland of their own, especially in light of the 1947 UN resolution (known as the Partition Plan) which called for separate Jewish and Palestinian states. This psychological fixation, reinforced by public narratives and education in schools, has prevented either side from coming to grips with the inevitability of peaceful coexistence.

Understanding the Israeli and the Palestinian mindsets from the historical perspective is central to appreciating their respective resistances to change, which is detrimentally empowered by their historical experiences, especially if they continue to harbor political agendas that overshoot what they can realistically attain. That is, will their historical experiences, bequeathing a sense of mutual victimhood, be mitigated by the changing reality, or will they hold onto it until they achieve their objectives, however illusionary they may be? Indeed, do the Jewish people’s and the Palestinians’ unprecedented historical suffering – although they do not fall into the same category – somehow ontologically elevate them from “victims” to “Victims,” guaranteeing them, and by extension contemporary Israelis and Palestinians, an unconditional status of moral untouchability?

The French philosopher Alain Badiou is right to suggest that we need to question the presumption “that, like an inverted original sin, the grace of having been an incomparable victim can be passed down not only to descendants and to the descendants of descendants but to all who come under the predicate in question, be they heads of state or armies engaging in the severe oppression of those whose lands they have confiscated” (Polemics, 2012). Indeed, the victim mentality has become a political tool in the hands of those who seek to promote their interests at the expense of the opposing political parties, not to mention the enemy.

The Palestinian culture of victimhood, on the other hand, was equally divisive in that it perpetuates the refugee problem by promoting popular refusal of permanent resettlement. Palestinian leaders have also used it as a tool for public indoctrination, ensuring that the Palestinian plight remains central to any political and social discourse. Palestinians and their leaders have carefully and systematically ingrained their victim mentality in the minds of one generation after another through the media, schools and places of worship.

Israelis and Palestinians alike (especially those who, like Hamas, seek the destruction of Israel) must become more self-critical in their use of victimhood; both sides need to realize that neither has a monopoly on the position of “the victim,” and neither is granted a morally unimpeachable status as a consequence of their historical experiences or the shifting realities on the ground. The effect of adverse historical interaction, however, can be mitigated over time or reconciled through dialogue, eventually leading to changes in perception.

Notwithstanding their traumatic historical experiences, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can or should use history to foreshadow the present requirements to make peace. Historical experiences can be both instructive and destructive; a student of history must learn from past experiences but not emulate them and thus obscure a contemporary reality that can no longer be mitigated short of a catastrophe, in particular Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. The Palestinians have every right to demand the immediate end to the occupation and live with dignity; Israel has equal rights to satisfy its legitimate national security concerns. These two requirements are absolutely compatible and provide the only basis on which to build a structure of peaceful coexistence.

Without denying the Jews’ and Palestinians’ sense of victimhood, perpetuating their conflict ironically creates new generations of victims, robbing them of their future only because their elders want to cling to the past.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

Taglit-Birthright Israel roundup

Since its inaugural trip in the winter of 2000, more than 340,000 participants ages 18-26 have traveled to Israel for the first time through Taglit-Birthright Israel. The 10-day excursions have attracted people from 62 countries, bringing together Jews from virtually every cultural and socio-economic background in the Diaspora. To fit the growing demands of such an eclectic cross section of participants, Taglit-Birthright also offers a host of niche trips, including theme and topic-focused programs (think LGBTQ, musicians, finance) and ones catering to those with special needs (there are programs for the hearing impaired, the physically disabled and those with developmental challenges). And if 10 days isn’t long enough, participants can extend their stay in Israel, choosing from a variety of four-day extension trips ranging from the adventurous to the relaxing, or a combination of both. 

Jewish people “come in all sorts of shapes, colors, personalities and backgrounds,” said Traci Szymanski, Taglit-Birthright alumna and former Oranim Educational Initiatives executive. “It is important for Birthright to accommodate young Jews from all facets of life. They have done a great job at partnering with a diversity of organizations to make sure that there is something for everyone.” 

Registration for Birthright trips from the United States and Canada for spring and summer 2013 begins at 10 a.m. EST on Feb. 13.
Past applicants can access early registration at noon EST on Feb. 11. For more information or to register, visit

The following is a sampling of some specialized Taglit-Birthright trips: 

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles expects to send 360 young Angelenos to Israel on nine trips through a number of different organizers, according to Michael Gropper, program director for Birthright at Federation.

Foremost is their flagship, 10-day program that includes visits to Masada, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. In addition, Federation this year is organizing “Recovering Israel,” in partnership with Beit T’Shuvah, targeting Jews in addiction recovery and those who want to live in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

Another program, “L.A. LGBT & Ally” is designed for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths, along with their friends and families. There is a trip focused on the outdoors, and “LA 2 Israel — Persian Style” is geared toward the local Persian community.

Information: 323-761-8186 or


This trip caters to those who want to travel with Israelis for the entire 10-day trip (rather than just part of the time like many of the other programs). Shorashim staff members program alumni with several years of leadership experience who are committed to a pluralistic Jewish experience. Shorashim reaches out to all Jews, from secular to observant. Participants teach each other about Jewish life and culture in Israel and the United States.


Crohn’s and IBD Birthright Trip

Organized by Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), the trip is intended to provide an experience that counteracts the feelings of insecurity among many young adults with Crohn’s and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). In addition to being provided with emotional support, participants stay two to a room (rather than the standard three). “Although young adults with Crohn’s typically lead productive lives, the episodes of bowel dysfunction that accompany the disorder create potential for shame and social anxiety in this age group,” said Beverly Daley, a social worker at CHLA, who helped found the trip. “The fear of being in public places inhibits international travel; our program is organized around the need for frequent restroom stops and sensitivity to bouts of fatigue and abdominal pain.” For more information, contact Beverly Daley at (323) 361-2490. 


No Limits — In Motion

Routes Travel-Amazing Israel sponsors this trip, which is geared for those in wheelchairs or with mobility limitations.


Ou Israel Free Spirit

For hiking, biking and nature enthusiasts, this trip (affiliated with the Orthodox Union) is for the adventure buff who wants to combine a passion for outdoor activities with the discovery of the land of Israel.


Sachlav — Israel On The House

One of the largest organizers of Taglit-Birthright trips, Sachlav is a nondenominational trip that features an all-encompassing itinerary offering a mix of outdoor adventure with hands-on experience with Israeli culture and people. Highlights include getting involved with the Lone Soldier campaign and being a guest in the home of Sachlav’s founder and CEO, who meets and greets every participant.


Aepi And Aephi Members Experience

For sorority sisters and fraternity brothers who want to party after last call at the on-campus keg party, Tlalim-Israel Outdoors offers a few trip options, including Israel Quest, Israel on Foot and Israel by Bike.

Gifted diaspora teens

Growing up in Los Angeles, Asaf Shasha, then 16, had everything a teenager could want: a loving family, good friends and a comfortable home. 

Still, Shasha couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to life than the fancy gadgets prized by the kids at his Jewish day school.   

“Life was becoming very materialistic. Everyone was starting to get their license and cars,” Shasha, now 18 and a high school graduate, recalled recently. “It was a movie life where you were judged by how much you have, how expensive your car is. I didn’t want to get into that. I didn’t want to become that.”

After discussing the issue with his Israeli-born parents, Shasha made a big decision: to finish high school in Israel.

He enrolled in the Naale program (aka the Elite Academy), which in the past 20 years has offered more than 13,000 mature, gifted Diaspora youths a fully subsidized three-year high school experience at one of 26 religious, secular or traditional Israeli boarding schools.

Although fluent in Hebrew, Shasha wanted to be with other teens from English-speaking countries (10 percent hail from the United States, 60 percent from the former Soviet Union and the rest from other nations), so he chose to live and study at the Mosenson Boarding School, on the grounds of the Mosenson Youth Village in Hod Hasharon, whose campus also hosts English-speaking students from other programs.  

The goal of the program “is to connect the students to Israel, to underscore the value of Israel to the Jewish people,” Chaim Meyers, the program’s coordinator at Mosenson, explained during an interview at the leafy campus. 

Roughly 80 percent of Naale students remain in Israel through high school graduation; of these, about 85 percent decide to live in Israel for at least another three years, often in an army uniform or advanced yeshiva program. Of the 15 percent who return to their home countries following graduation, roughly half move back to Israel within a year. 

Regardless of which school they choose, Naale students receive free tuition, room and board, medical insurance, a phone budget to speak to their parents, trips and a one-way ticket to Israel from the Ministry of Education. 

The staff — program coordinators, teachers, counselors, house parents — keep an eagle eye on the teens, virtually all of them living away from home for the first time.   

During their first year in Israel, the students study Hebrew 20 hours a week, in addition to 20 hours of regular coursework, much of which is taught in easy Hebrew.  

“By 11th grade, their second year, they’re studying in Hebrew,” said Ofer Dahan, Naale’s director of development for the Western world. “Everyone studies toward their matriculation and [the academy has] a 93 percent success rate — the highest in Israel.”

The 60 percent of applicants who are accepted to the program must first undergo tests and interviews to gauge their maturity level and their ability to be in a group setting and live away from home. Knowing some Hebrew is helpful but not a prerequisite. 

Once in Israel, students whose families do not live in the country are provided with a host family, where they often spend Shabbat and holidays. 

Floren Avraham’s parents sent her to Israel on the Naale program believing they would join her in a few months. But it took the New Yorkers nearly three years to sell their house and make aliyah (her father is a returning Israeli). 

Taking a seat on the campus’ central lawn, Avraham said she “loved living at home” but that moving on her own to Israel “made me much more independent, more confident, more open. It was an amazing experience, and, looking back, I can’t believe I did it.” 

Avraham’s adjustment was softened by the fact that her grandmother lives just a short walk from the school; her uncle teaches there. 

Unlike Avraham, Kareen Haim decided to move to Israel more out of a sense of adventure than anything else. Her Israeli-born parents are still in Los Angeles, “But they hope to move back to Israel in a few years,” she said. 

“I wanted a change. I went to a fancy school, and I was looking for something more down to earth.  People were snobby and looked down on people like me who aren’t rich.”

Since moving to Israel — which she had visited but didn’t particularly like — Haim has found the people “are a lot warmer than they are in America. And although she has many Israel-based aunts, uncles and cousins, Haim said, “My friends here at Naale have become my family because we rely on each other.” 

Although she calls enrolling in the program the “right decision,” Haim said she wouldn’t have minded a bit more privacy. 

“It’s like living in a small neighborhood where everyone knows everything about you — what you’re eating, what you’re wearing, how late you’re sleeping.” 

The positive side is that “the counselors really care about us; they call us a lot to make sure we’re OK,” Haim said.  

The students emphasized that the decision to attend Israeli boarding school shouldn’t be taken lightly, even by the roughly 50 percent of students who hail from a home with at least one Israeli parent.  

“The adjustment was very, very hard in the beginning, and at some points I wanted to go back home to my parents,” Shasha said of the homesickness he felt. “But thanks to all the support I received from the staff and my parents, and after seeing how happy the 11th- and 12th-graders were, after two months I felt at home.”    

While Dahan said that few if any parents encourage their children to apply to Naale solely to save the cost of a day school education, the fact that the program is free to participants makes boarding school in Israel a viable option.   

Avi Toledano, who oversees Naale at the Education Ministry, said the ministry invests so much into the program because it makes overseas students excited about Israel. 

“The hope is that after the kids come, the family will follow,” Toledano said.

Conference sessions suggest new fundraising model, praise Israel-Diaspora cooperation

Delegates to the Jewish People Policy Institute conference proposed a new model for Jewish communal fundraising and stressed the importance of cooperation between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities.

At a conference session on how the global Jewish community spends its funds, former CBS executive and Fox News founder Mark Pearlman suggested that the community shift in part from focusing on umbrella Federation funding, and instead emphasize funding based on causes — though he noted the importance of Federations to American Jewish communal life.

He also said that Jewish communities should develop better online fundraising, and set up an organization that can monitor fundraising groups and direct donors to specific causes.

“It's not about auditing,” he said. “We need to continue to support the federated system but we need to promote a marketplace like this to get funding to solve causes.”

The conference, taking place Tuesday and Wednesday in Jerusalem, is called “The Conference on the Future of the Jewish People” and brings together more than 120 Jewish leaders and experts from around the world. The Institute is a think tank focused on developing policy for the Jewish world.

Israeli President Shimon Peres also addressed the delegates on Tuesday.

Aside from the Jewish communal budget, the conference's sessions dealt with Israeli and Jewish identity and geopolitics.

Tuesday's keynote speaker, French Jewish public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, praised increased unity between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities, as compared to Israel's early days as a state.

In earlier years, “there was the feeling in French Jewry that Israel was a reality that had to be accepted but that it would probably create more problems than it would solve,” he said. “This whole debate seems over. Today it seems the Diaspora and Israel are like the two pillars of the Jewish world and one cannot work without the other.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, JPPI's parent organization, also appeared at the conference on Tuesday.

Where’s the tough love for Obama?

When it comes to criticizing Israel, liberal supporters of Israel routinely quote the Jewish value of self-criticism. Try telling a pro-Israel critic the following:

“Israel is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the world community; it is being demonized and boycotted by a global movement trying to eradicate the Zionist project; it is surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction; and it already has plenty of criticism and dissent within its own country. Should we, as Diaspora Jews, pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy — or should we push back against these exaggerated attacks and make Israel’s case to the world? Why give our enemies more ammunition to hurt us?”

The typical answer you’ll get is: “Because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! It’s not just a right to criticize Israel, it’s an obligation! That’s how we improve. Israel needs our public criticism. It’s the highest and deepest expression of our love for the Jewish state.”

I understand that sentiment: We can’t grow in life without getting some tough love.

But what I don’t understand is this: Why won’t liberal critics of Israel use the same argument for President Obama? If self-criticism is such a noble value, why won’t they show the same kind of “tough love” for the president and criticize him as loudly as they do Israel?

I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen liberal supporters of Israel get all aggressive when criticizing Israel’s policies, but then, as soon as the subject turns to Obama’s policies, they suddenly get all defensive.

Apparently, not all self-criticism is created equal.

This is a shame, because the president could use a lot more criticism from liberals, especially on issues that liberals care deeply about.

In a recent post on the Atlantic Web site titled “Why do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?” Conor Friedersdorf pleads with liberals to “stop ignoring President Obama’s failures on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the separation of powers, treating them as if they [don’t] even merit a mention.”

Friedersdorf takes to task several prominent liberal writers, among them Jonathan Chait, whom he calls “the latest to write about the president as if his civil liberties abuses and executive power excesses never happened.”

Referring to a long assessment of Obama by Chait in New York Magazine, Friedersdorf writes:

“Apparently it isn’t even worthy of mention that Obama’s actions in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution … and the legal advice provided to him by the Office of Legal Counsel.

“Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn’t even allude to Obama’s practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process.

“Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama’s escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken [and] the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided.”

Seriously, how often do we see prominent liberal writers publicly criticize the president for some of these vexing actions, which certainly can’t be blamed on the previous president?

“Why is all this ignored?” Friedersdorf asks. “Telling the story of Obama’s first term without including any of it is a shocking failure of liberalism.

“What does ‘better than the Republicans’ get you if it means that executive privilege keeps expanding, the drones keep killing innocents and inflaming radicals … the Pentagon budget keeps growing, civil liberties keep being eroded, wars are waged without Congressional permission, and every future president knows he or she can do the same because at this point it doesn’t even provoke a significant backlash from the left?”

Friedersdorf says it just won’t cut it “for smart writers and prestigious publications to keep writing big think pieces about Obama’s tenure that read as if some of its most significant, uncomfortable moments never happened.

“Civil liberties and executive power and war-making aren’t fringe concerns. … They’re central to the Obama narrative, and the American narrative, as the president himself would’ve affirmed back when he was articulating lofty standards that he has repeatedly failed to meet.”

So, given all these liberal failures, why are Obama’s liberal supporters “sanitizing” his story? Even before this election season, why have so many of them been reluctant to publicly criticize their president and give him the kind of “tough love” he needs?

Well, here’s one possibility. It’s not that they think Obama is perfect and can do no wrong. Rather, it’s that they see how Obama is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the conservative community, and they say to themselves:

“Why should we pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy? Better to push back against these exaggerated attacks and make a strong case for our side. Our opponents are so much worse than we are — why give them more ammunition to hurt us?”

Why? For the same reason you criticize Israel — because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! Because self-criticism is not just a right, it’s an obligation!

Because if your beloved Israel deserves your tough love, then so does your beloved president.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Jews and guns

It is a given among liberal and progressive Jews that gun ownership among the general population is a bad thing. The ideal is near-universal disarmament with only a handful of individual exceptions and, of course, the police.

The majority of Americans have the opposite view. They believe that gun ownership is a fundamental American right, and that the more law-abiding Americans who own guns, the safer the society. This view is so widely held — even among many Democrats — that few Democratic politicians take anti-gun positions.

Like the great majority of American Jews I grew up in a home with no guns, no hunting, no target shooting or any other use of guns. Moreover, no one I knew had a gun or even knew how to use one. Diaspora Jewish culture is almost pacifist. And the general Jewish view is that non-Jews play with guns, not us Jews. A home with guns is as foreign to a Jewish liberal as gefilte fish is to a Mississippi Baptist.

Over the course of my lifetime I have come to side with the majority of Americans. I would hope that Jews are open to rethinking what has become, like most liberal beliefs, an essentially religious position.

I support gun ownership for two reasons — one American and the other Jewish.

First, I have come to admire the American value of the armed citizen. It is part of the great American value of independence and self-reliance. If I am armed, I can better protect myself, my loved ones and my neighbors.

America is great in large measure because Americans relied much less on the state than any other nation.

Jewish and other progressives see the state as a much more wonderful thing than do Americans who believe in traditional American values such as a small state and gun ownership (it would take a rewrite of American history to deny that gun ownership has been a traditional American value). Of course, the state can and must do good things. You cannot protect a country with armed militias; you protect it with a national army, navy and air force.

Progressives, taking their values from Europe, came to regard the state as the vehicle to a nearly utopian society. Gradually it displaces individual responsibility, parental authority and communal institutions.

But the traditional American view was that the state should do as little as possible, while the individual and the community should do as much as possible — including having the ability to protect ourselves against those who would do us harm. Of course police are indispensable. But the police almost always show up after an innocent has been murdered.

My Jewish reason largely emanates from the Holocaust.

Just as it amazes me that Jews can believe that people are basically good — after the Holocaust and all the other unspeakable evils inflicted on us Jews (and so many others) — it also amazes me that Jews can believe that it is a good thing that the state prohibits any of us from owning arms.

Both beliefs show how dogma trumps reality.

How many Jews the Nazis would have murdered if most European Jews had guns is impossible to know. But common sense suggests that the number would have been much lower. The Warsaw Ghetto revolt was begun with 10 old pistols and very little ammunition. Later a few hundred pistols and rifles and a few machine guns were smuggled into the ghetto. Himmler told Hitler he would quell the revolt in three days. It took four weeks. Many hundreds of German troops — perhaps a thousand — were killed or wounded.

If the Nazis knew that Jews refused to go to roundup areas and that many Jews were armed, awaiting Nazis to enter every apartment, it is difficult to imagine that the Nazi genocidal machinery would have been nearly as effective. And, vitally important, even had the number of Jews murdered been near 6 million (which I doubt), not all ways of dying are equal. There is a world of difference between being gassed or shot to death while standing naked beside the mass grave you were forced to dig and getting killed while shooting a Nazi.

The first thing every totalitarian regime does is confiscate weapons. As long as evil people have guns, good people will need to have them. This is true for nations (which is why it is so important for America and for the world that America have the strongest military) and it is true for individuals.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (

Palestinian Diaspora discover their roots

The participants gather outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s old city for a group photo. They look like any group of college students visiting Jerusalem on a summer trip.

The photographer counts to three. “Free Palestine!” they yell in unison, and laugh.

The 41 delegates, half of them Christian and half of them Muslim, all between the ages of 18 and 25, are here on a two-week trip called “Know Thy Heritage,” sponsored by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.

Most are from the US, but a few are from Australia, Canada, England and France. All but seven are women, says Rateb Rabie, president and founder of the sponsoring group.

“This is good because they are the ones who are going to raise the children, and this will help them understand their roots,” he told The Media Line.

The participants pay for their airline tickets and the Foundation, with additional sponsorship from the Bank of Palestine and the Palestinian telephone company, Paltel, picks up the other costs.

“They see how the Palestinians are living here,” Rabie said. “They see how Palestinians are building a state under occupation. An agreement is coming regardless of what we hear on the news and we will be ready to run this state.”

Many of the participants have visited relatives in the West Bank before, and speak at least some Arabic, but they say this trip is strengthening their Palestinian identity.

“I’m getting to know who my people are and what I want for the future,” Noor Diab, 23, a recent college graduate from San Diego told The Media Line. “It’s given me a sense of pride but I’m also saddened by the situation here and by the (Israeli) occupation and the separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Throughout the trip, you feel happy, frustrated and sad but at the same time you’re experiencing the reality of the holy land.”

Diab is wearing a sky-blue head covering or hijab, which she put on when she went into the mosque, and decided to keep on for a subsequent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She said she found the visit to the mosque inspiring, but was angered by the Israeli security checks before she reached the site.

“When I’m in the mosque, I feel like I’m home,” she said. “But the journey there was a little difficult because going through metal detectors and checkpoints really takes away from the spirituality of the land. I would like to come here one day without being asked my race or my religion.”

To reach the mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, visitors must pass through an Israeli-controlled security checkpoint. They then walk up a narrow bridge onto the large plaza where both the Al-Aqsa mosque and the gold-cupola Dome of the Rock stand. On the plaza, the independent Muslim Waqf Trust is in charge of security, although Israeli soldiers are allowed to patrol and conduct searches in the plaza.

An uncomfortable moment for the group ensued when Muslim guards refused to let the Christian delegates inside the mosque, saying entry was restricted to Muslims. Western tourists were also excluded. Several group members, including Rabie’s wife Rocio, who is an Ecuadorian citizen, went to the administration and complained. Most of them did eventually manage to enter.

“It was very disappointing,” said Mohammed Iftaiha, a financial advisor and the group leader from Virginia. “This was the first time the issue of religion had ever come up. What made it worse was we saw Israeli security escorting a group of Israelis into the mosque. So the Christians thought, why are we being singled out?

The students stay in Bethlehem but they are also warmly welcomed in Ramallah, the Palestinain financial capital. Hashim Shawa, the chairman and general manager of the Bank of Palestine, tells the young people that they should consider what they can do to help build a future Palestinian state.

“The country should not just be built from American aid – what’s really needed is investment from our own people,” he said. “Doing good is investing in bricks and mortar. Consider working here for a year or two.”

He also said that Visa and Master Card used to consider the West Bank part of Israel, but the Bank of Palestine convinced them to consider the West Bank as a “separate country” and now all processing of credit cards goes through the Bank of Palestine, the largest bank in the West Bank.

Several students complained that the Israeli security forces detained them for seven hours as they crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel. The Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s Rabie seconded their frustration.

“We all have Western passports and instead of helping us out, the Israelis hold us and question us,” he said.

Shawa urged the students not to let these kinds of incidents frustrate them.

“You’re always going to be held up – is that going to stop you from visiting?” he asked them. “In Israel these days, you get stuck in a traffic jam. Let’s not use that as an excuse.”

The delegates also visited Paltel, where Kamal Abu-Khadijeh, the Deputy CEO, described the difficulty his company faces.

“We can’t service Area C,” he says, referring to the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under sole Israeli administrative and military control. “If we can’t install our own towers, we can’t provide service. You have to be part of an Israeli network to operate from one place to another.”

That means that many Palestinians have two cell phones, one with a Palestinian number and one with an Israeli number to cover the whole West Bank. He also said that the core equipment switches are located in Jordan and London while the company operates in the West Bank.

The Know thy Heritage program is loosely modeled on the popular Birthright program, which has so far brought almost 300,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for free ten-day trips to strengthen their Jewish identity. The family of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson has announced that they will donate an additional $13 million to Birthright to reduce the long waiting list.

Rateb Rabie says the Know thy Heritage trip is different than a Birthright trip.

“The Jewish people offered some good things and we thank them for bringing this (idea) to us,” he said. “But we have a completely different agenda and we are not involved with politics or religion.”

Rabie says that even the world “diaspora” is a Jewish term, which the Palestinians have now adopted to refer to the seven million Palestinians living abroad.

Just as the Birthright participants do not meet Palestinians from the West Bank, (although they do meet Arab citizens of Israel), the Know thy Heritage delegates do not meet Israelis.

Rabie says he is open to the idea of holding a dialogue with either Israelis or Jewish Birthright participants.

“Dialogue is the most important thing in anything you want to do,” he said. “When people sit face-to-face, they come to their senses. It would be a pleasure to do that, but we need that cooperation.”

Some of the students also say they would like an opportunity to hold discussions with Israelis.

“I would like to meet the young generation of Israelis,” Wassam Rafidi, 21, from Houston, Texas, told The Media Line. “The older generation was involved in wars and fighting and there’s too much harsh sentiment on both sides. You always remember, you never forget, but we have to learn how to forgive. It’s the young generation that will make or break this thing.”

But for most of the participants, the focus of the trip is in strengthening their ties to the West Bank and to their Palestinian heritage. Hadeel Abnadi, from San Diego, is visiting for the first time. Her mother was born in Jordan, her father in Lod, which is today part of Israel. In 1948, he fled and moved to Jordan. At age 14, he moved to the US and attended Michigan State University. After college he returned to Amman, where he met his wife.

“I wanted to do this program because I kept hearing stories about our land,” she told The Media Line. “I would watch CNN and Al-Jazeera and see the land that was being fought over. I wanted to learn about the culture and my roots. Whey you come and see it, it puts it all in perspective.”

Sarah Ikhnayes, 23, tells a similar story. Her father was born in Surif, and lived in the Deheishe refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem. She was born in Kuwait where she was raised in a refugee camp called Talibiye until she was 8 years of age and then headed to New York.

“It was nice to come back to the land where my father, my grandfather and my great grandfather were born,” she said. “This took us to a whole new level of knowing our heritage.”

Documentary traces changes in kibbutz life

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Diaspora Jews desperately needed a symbol of Jewish strength and pride, the brawny, sunburned kibbutznik became the poster image for the new Jew emerging in Palestine.

Two generations further on, the straightforward picture has become blurred. The kibbutznik astride a tractor has been largely replaced by the high-tech entrepreneur as the face of modern Israel, and most kibbutzim have had to drastically change their outlook and functions in order to survive.

The history and contradictions of this social, ideological and economic movement are explored in the 79-minute documentary “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment.”

The film, richly studded with black-and-white footage of early kibbutz labor and celebrations, provides a useful, unsentimental look at kibbutz life, from the founding in 1910 of Degania Alef, the flagship commune, to a more recent phenomenon, the urban kibbutz.

Toby Perl Freilich, the film’s director, producer and writer, discovered kibbutz life in the 1970s, while visiting her younger sister, who, to the horror of her immigrant parents, had decided to chuck the American dream and live in a kibbutz.

For her documentary, Freilich visited some 25 of the existing 270 kibbutzim and selected five for closer examination.

The first is Kibbutz Ein Shemer, between Haifa and Netanya, founded in 1927 along the pure ideological lines of a communist commune, a realization of a vision that the Soviets never accomplished.

All property and assets belonged to the kibbutz; children were, for the most part, raised in a group away from their parents; and committees regulated lifestyles and settled disputes. In return, members received all of life’s necessities, from food and clothing to education and health care.

Among the original settlers was Aliza Amir, who proudly declares, “Without the kibbutz there would be no Israel.”

This is no exaggeration. Although in 1948, the year of Israel’s independence, kibbutz members made up only 5 percent of the then-600,000 Jewish population, their ranks were the source of the new nation’s political leaders, ideological shapers, the shock troops of the Palmach and the officers of the defense forces.

Yet another veteran pioneer, David Ben Avraham, is less upbeat. None of his five children has stayed in Ein Shemer, and, voicing the fears of fellow old-timers, he asks plaintively, “How will we survive if our children and grandchildren leave us?”

Ben Avraham has put his finger on the kibbutz’s sorest spot. As Israel has turned from a socialist to an entrepreneurial capitalist society, most of the second and particularly the third generation are abandoning the egalitarian dream for the challenges and rewards of a freer, more competitive and individualistic outside world.

In this sense, the kibbutz history parallels the fate of the utopian communities in America built before and during the 19th century. Few such enclaves could retain the fervor and idealism of their founders beyond one or two generations.

In the late 1960s, the stability and image of the kibbutz movement started to disintegrate. There were bitter internal political splits and growing dissatisfaction with the collectivized lifestyle.

Kibbutzim built large swimming pools, much envied by city dwellers, and many assumed large debts, which they could not repay when the economy soured in the 1980s.

The kibbutzim that have best met the challenges of survival are those that adapted to the new social and economic realities of Israel. These days, almost all kibbutzim have added an industrial and manufacturing component (frequently high-tech), reward managers with higher salaries and have returned responsibility for child rearing to the parents.

There are some cautiously encouraging signs for the movement’s survival. Recent statistics puts kibbutz membership at an all-time high of 140,000, though the figure is somewhat deceptive — considering the tenfold increase in the country’s Jewish population since 1948, the percentage of kibbutz members has actually dropped from 5 to 2.3 percent.

Over time, many kibbutzim have transformed themselves from purely collective to semi-privatized communities. This change, for instance, allows many young couples who work in outside jobs to live and raise their children in the open kibbutz spaces.

Another interesting development is the formation of a few urban kibbutzim, such as Kibbutz Tamuz in the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Its members hold a range of city jobs but pool their resources and strive for the equality and social cohesion of the old rural kibbutz model.

As the film’s subtitle indicates, Freilich considers the kibbutz an ongoing “experiment,” the outcome of which is yet to be determined. “My film ends with a question mark,” she said. “The jury is still out on the final verdict.”

Freilich’s resume includes numerous awards for the documentaries “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII” and “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.” Her largest financial support for the kibbutz film came from the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

“Inventing Our Life” opens June 8 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.

Israeli parody of Taglit-Birthright Trips [VIDEO]

This season of “Eretz Nehederet,” Israel’s version of “Saturday Night Live,” features a running parody of a Birthright trip to Israel that mocks American Jews for their enthusiasm and naivite (and obesity and JAPpiness, of course) and Israelis for their gold-digging and trigger fingers. Chuckle along:

Diaspora communities can help with peacemaking, Jewish leaders tell Abbas

The presidents of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and Latin American Jewish Congress expressed hope for progress in Middle East peace at a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Latin American Jewish Congress President Jack Terpins described the positive experience of Arab and Jewish communities’ coexistence in Latin America, where they often live side by side harmoniously, during a Jan. 15 meeting in London. He said it was a model that should be replicated everywhere in order to lower tensions.

The Jewish leaders emphasized the urgent need for a permanent solution to the conflict in the region and underlined the role Jewish and Palestinian communities in the Diaspora can play.

“Jewish and Palestinian Diaspora communities have a role to play in fostering better understanding,” WJC President Ronald Lauder told Abbas.

Terpins added, “Peace, unlike war, cannot be declared unilaterally; it has to be agreed between the parties. Both communities in the Diaspora, Jewish and Palestinian, must work together to achieve a better understanding.”

Also present at the two-hour meeting was Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian Authority negotiator.

“Reaching peace with one’s neighbors is part of Jewish yearning, and I am convinced that better cooperation between Jewish and Palestinian communities around the world can help to build the peaceful future both our peoples want,” Lauder said.

Israel-Diaspora crisis: Averted

This week, Shmuel Rosner joins The Journal’s regular contributors as senior political editor, writing weekly for the print edition and blogging daily, and exclusively, for from Israel on his newly re-created Rosner’s Domain. This blog, which he started in 2005 for the Israeli news daily Haaretz, features not only Rosner’s insights on political issues and the intersection of Israel and the larger Jewish world, but also many guest columnists and interviews with leading figures. Rosner comes to us from his previous post as columnist at The Jerusalem Post, and along with this move to The Jewish Journal, he will continue to contribute a weekly Hebrew-language column to Maariv, Israel’s largest daily newspaper; serve as a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute; and as the nonfiction editor for Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir, Israel’s largest publishing house.

After revelations last week of Israel’s guilt trip on the Jewish Diaspora through a billboard and video advertising campaign that included, among others, a young Americanized girl mistaking Chanukah for Christmas, to the distress of her Skyping Israeli grandparents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly shut the whole thing down, but not before an outcry that left Israel with one more public-relations problem on its hands.

This was not the first time Netanyahu has had to intervene on behalf of bettering Israel-Diaspora relations. Netanyahu has become detonator-in-chief of all recent Israel-Diaspora landmines. For some reason, the prime minister’s office is much more aware of the Diaspora’s sensitivities and importance than most other Israeli offices. This might stem from Netanyahu’s American background and his many contacts in the United States, or it might be because he’s the only one charged with looking at the big picture, while most other ministers only see the world through the relatively narrow lens of the mission they have to accomplish.

This difference was quite evident in my interview last week with Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver. She defended the campaign and explained why it should not be considered hurtful, but also clarified that the whole controversy was not hers to worry about. “Minister Edelstein [Yuli Edelstein, minister of information and Diaspora] is the one who needs to communicate with the Jewish community,” she told me. “I’m in charge of returning Israelis.”

The crisis at hand was over an Israeli campaign aimed at luring emigrating Israelis who live in the United States to come home, back to Israel. There were billboards placed in key locations in Los Angeles, Palo Alto, New York, Boston and Miami, and there were video clips. In the most circulated one of them, a family is shown Skyping Israeli grandparents at Chanukah, and their presumably assimilated granddaughter refers to the holiday as “Christmas.” The message of this clip and all the others is pretty straightforward: You can’t live in the United States and maintain your Jewish identity.

Why such campaigns make some American Jews uncomfortable is quite clear. The United States is home to a vibrant Jewish community, as well as to many Israelis who are able to maintain their Jewish identity far away from the homeland. Jeffrey Goldberg, raising hell over the issue in his popular Atlantic blog, the Goldblog, wrote that “the idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik.”

The many comments I’ve gathered this week from many American acquaintances all followed the same line of thought, some more forcefully, some willing to forgive what they saw as merely typical Israeli ineptitude.

Among Israelis, most reactions were quite different. Israelis told me, “Well, if these Americans can’t face the truth, that’s their problem.” (The exception was an Israeli living in the Los Angeles area, Eli Tene, co-chair of the Israeli Leadership Council, who told me that the new campaign lacked “sensitivity to the majority.”)

Among Israelis living in Israel, though, “assimilation” is still the word most associated with American Jewry, as was evident in another ad campaign yanked two years ago — the “lost Jews” campaign. That campaign created by the Jewish Agency for Israel and co-sponsored by the government, was an attempt to make Israelis more aware of the MASA program, which is designed to bring young adults to Israel for long-term stays. In the advertisement, missing-person signs showed Jewish names and faces posted at a train station as grim-looking trains departed, while a narrator, speaking over haunting music, intoned: “More than 50 percent of young Jews overseas are assimilating, and we are losing them.” The ad asked anyone who “knows a young Jew living abroad” to call MASA so that “together, we will strengthen his or her bond to Israel, so that we don’t lose them.”

Criticism followed, and the campaign was pulled prematurely. Israelis, though, haven’t changed their minds. The way they see it, Diaspora equals assimilation. It is the classic Zionist position, and has always been a point of contention between the two greatest contemporary Jewish communities.

Nonetheless, when criticism threatened to ruin this newest ad campaign, Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Landver was furious. How can anyone not like a campaign aimed at bringing back emigrating Israelis? How can anyone not understand its true motivation and meaning? Do I really have to respond to such “foolishness”? she asked me.

She later called the criticism “out of touch” and “tzimmes” (big fuss), and talked about a “journalist with zero understanding.” (While not mentioning him by name, she was obviously aiming mostly at Goldberg.)  Every journalist, she said, “needs to have some intelligence.”

I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with the minister and got the impression that she didn’t quite get it. “We took it upon ourselves to try and connect with Israelis abroad; this has nothing to do with American Jews, for whom I have the utmost respect,” she said. The American Jewish community is “dear to our hearts,” she told me. The campaign was about Israelis — not American Jews, she insisted. And, in fact, her position did made some sense: Second- and third-generation Israeli emigrants are in higher danger of assimilation than American Jews in general, because they often lack any ties to a strong and vibrant Jewish community.

Landver, however, was taken aback, because she didn’t expect all this criticism and, up until the outcry, she was very happy with the campaign. Her bottom line was: The response from Israelis is great, “more than 100,000” looked at the videos on the ministry’s Web site in the first week. (Her spokesperson later gave me an updated number: 155,000.) We managed to “touch all the right emotional buttons,” she added. That is, Israeli buttons. In May 2010, the Israeli government had made the decision to try to lure more Israelis to come back, and since then, 14,000 have responded to the call and returned, according to the ministry’s numbers.

“How would you like us to highlight all those things important to Israelis” without doing such a campaign, without arguing that being away from Israel might cause one to lose one’s identity? she asked. This divergence of views will now be the headache of the prime minister, as Netanyahu is torn between avoiding the criticism and possible further crises, while also wanting to bring more Israelis back.

Yogev Karasenty, a leading expert on emigrating Israelis, wrote in September,  “The numerical difference between Israelis who head overseas for a year or longer and those who return to the country after a sojourn overseas for a year or longer is not overwhelming. In 2009, the number stood at 4,900 — that is, 15,900 departing Israelis compared to 11,000 returning Israelis (not counting new immigrants). And here’s the best news: The 2009 figure represents the lowest such migration differential in over 30 years.” In other words, Israelis are coming back much more than you might think. The economy (better in Israel than in the United States) is probably the driving force. Campaigns such as the one we saw last week only ride an already existing trend. And Israel wants this trend to continue.

During my conversation with Landver, it was quite clear that she doesn’t bother to make this nuanced distinction between “Israeli” and “Jewish” identity. “We wanted to address the things that every Jew feels,” she said.

It is no surprise, though, that Netanyahu chose to cancel the campaign. He is in charge both of returning Israelis and of Israel-Diaspora relations. He can’t leave either entirely just to Landver or to Edelstein. On Dec. 2, the campaign and the negative press it was getting were brought to the attention of Netanyahu’s people. There was not time to do much before Shabbat, but a decision was made to pull the campaign and re-examine the goal and the strategy.

This story vividly recalls that of the conversion bill controversy of 2010, when Knesset Member David Rotem of Israeli Beiteinu (the same party to which Landver belongs) was trying to toughen the state’s conversion law. At the time, the bill was moving forward in the Knesset, and American Jewish leaders were scratching their heads trying to understand why the Israeli government would enter into such an unnecessary fight with Israel’s most important support group. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Jewish Conservative movement described to me the lobbying campaign of American Jewry against the change of conversion laws:

“The prime minister received over 60,000 individual e-mails on this issue, as well as countless phone calls and letters from high-level officials around the world, including members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, philanthropists and business leaders. Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a member of a Conservative synagogue, who is also a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, stated, ‘I don’t think there’s any issue that is of such great concern to American Jews as “Who is a Jew?” I have asked them to oppose this legislation.’ ”

The outcome was similar to what we’ve just seen with the current ad campaign: Prime Minister Netanyahu, wishing to avert both a coalition crisis in his government (with Yisrael Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties supporting the law) and a crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations, suspended the bill. While still wishing to solve an urgent problem over the conversion of 300,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union, the prime minister nevertheless acting as the responsible adult, had to clarify that solving one problem by creating another one, no smaller in scope, just was not worth it.

Likewise last week, the government remains clear that it wants Israelis to come back but hopes now to achieve this important objective without alienating American Jews.

Netanyahu pulls ad campaign for Israeli expats that angered U.S. Jews

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is canceling an ad campaign aimed at luring Israeli expatriates home that some American Jews have found offensive.

The ads, produced by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, attempt to convey the message that the children and families of Israeli expats will not have Israeli identities if they stay in the Diaspora. This week, the Jewish Federations of North America called the ads “insulting,” and the head of the Anti-Defamation League said they were “demeaning.”

“The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused,” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in a statement. “The campaign, which aimed to encourage Israelis living abroad to return home, was a laudable one, and it was not meant to cause insult. The campaign was conducted without the knowledge or approval of the Prime Minister’s Office or of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Prime Minister Netanyahu, once made aware of the campaign, ordered the videos immediately removed from YouTube, and he ordered that the billboards be removed as well. The prime minister deeply values the American Jewish community and is committed to deepening ties between it and the State of Israel.”

Though the ad campaign, consisting of billboards and three videos running on YouTube and on some Israeli sattelite TV channels, is more than two months old, Jewish organizations appear to have been galvanized by a report on The Jewish Channel that was highlighted Wednesday by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a blog post titled “Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews.” Goldberg called the ads a “demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews.”

The Jewish Federations then said it was sending a letter to Netanyahu protesting the 30-second spots and asking that they be pulled.

In one of the ads American Jews complained about, the young daughter of Israeli expats sits with her parents while video chatting with her grandparents in Israel, who have a lighted menorah in the background. When the grandparents ask the girl what holiday it is, she says, “Christmas!” The tagline: “They will always be Israeli. Their kids won’t.”

In another ad, a dozing Israeli expat father is deaf to his son’s calls of “Daddy!” until the kid finally says “Abba!” The tagline: “Before ‘Abba’ turns into ‘Daddy,’ it’s time to come back to Israel.”

“While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel,” Jewish Federations leaders wrote to their board of trustees. “We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, told Haaretz the ads were “heavy-handed, and even demeaning.”

According to the Haaretz report, Israeli’s Foreign Ministry consulted with the Absorption Ministry after receiving several complaints from American Jews and was told that the feedback from Israelis who live in the United States was positive.

Watch the ads:




Bridging the Israel-Diaspora gap is more vital than ever

Turkey, long one of Israel’s more stable and supportive partners in the region, expelled Israel’s ambassador. In Egypt, a peaceful partner to Israel since the two nations signed a treaty in 1978, the Israeli Embassy was attacked by an angry mob whose members spoke of being willing to die just to have the chance to remove the Israeli flag. And in Jordan, staffers at the Israeli Embassy were evacuated recently for fear of a similar attack.

Israel’s ties with other Middle Eastern nations may never have been as fragile as they are today, which is a bold statement when one considers the history of violence and war in the region. It is that very fragility that lends new urgency to the effort to strengthen Israel’s ties to Jews around the world.

As a people, Jewish unity has been a primary value of our community. But in the 21st century, we find the connection between Israel and the Diaspora slipping away. Those bonds, critical to Israel’s standing and resiliency, must be reinforced so that we are able to contend with the myriad challenges confronting us today.

My parents were born in Poland, survived Nazi concentration camps and managed to immigrate to Israel.  From a young age they taught me to appreciate the Jewish state and never take it for granted. I witnessed the rebirth of my nation, and I have served my country for the past 40 years through various roles in security and public life.

But the post-Holocaust Jewish narrative is, in fact, nothing less than a continuum of the historic Diaspora—a distancing that now, more than ever, raises troubling questions about support for Israel from Jews across the world, but especially in the United States.

My cousin Sammy and I, for example, share a common past and values, but totally different upbringings. Oceans away from my hometown of Ashkelon, Sammy was raised in Detroit, where his father and uncle immigrated after surviving the Nazis. Sammy grew up as a committed Jew and Zionist, and remains so to this day.

We have been close since childhood, devoted to keeping our families intact with regular visits and communication. But will our children and grandchildren be committed to maintaining that connection and its underlying devotion to Israel?

This has always been of great concern to me, but it became even more important on a study trip I took to North America several months ago. Organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation, the trip showed me that my deep personal concerns for my family ties are but a microcosm of the dangers facing the continuity of the Jewish people. I am not the first, of course, to grasp this threat to national Jewish unity and security. Pundits and researchers have examined the Israel-Diaspora relationship for years, with debates raging over the ability to sustain this unique bond in the 21st century.

As politicians, this was a new experience for all of us. Rather than coming to speak, we came to listen. Instead of espousing our own ideas, we learned from others. And some of what we learned was alarming.

We found out that 12 percent of the population—more than 30 million Americans—hold anti-Semitic views, according to a 2009 Anti-Defamation League survey. We were astonished to learn of such bigotry in America, the beacon of freedom around the world, where Jews have thrived for well over a century. Further, we learned that 35 percent of American citizens view American Jews as more loyal to Israel than the United States.

Just as disturbing were inconsistent statistics about the number of Jews living in the United States. Various studies estimate the number of American Jews from 5.2 million to 6.5 million. The vast 25 percent difference in the sum suggests a serious crisis of identity as to the definition of “Jewish” ­or, as we in Israel frame the question, “Who is a Jew?” In Israel, we tend to define Jewishness with clear either-or classifications. But by doing so, we risk alienating our friends in the diverse Jewish communities around the world and most importantly in America, which finds unity through diversity.

As Israeli political leaders, this journey into the American Jewish community has left us deeply concerned about this divide—and its potential for widening even further at a time when Israel must depend on friends from abroad.

Avi Dichter is a member of the Israeli Knesset for the Kadima Party. He is a former director of the Shin Bet security service and minister of public security.

Egypt bans lulav exports to Israel, Diaspora

Egypt has banned the export of palm fronds to Israel and Jewish communities abroad, leading to fears of a lulav shortage for the Sukkot holiday.

Israel had previously imported about 700,000 palm fronds a year in the run-up to Sukkot, which is about 40 percent of the annual demand, Haaretz reported. Another 700,000 of the 2 million lulavs used in Diaspora Jewish communities also come from Egypt.

The palms are grown in the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel’s Agricultural Ministry said in a statement that it is encouraging local palm farmers to increase their production. The ministry also has issued special licenses to import lulavs from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Spain. The holiday begins on the evening of Oct. 12.

While Egypt reportedly has not given a reason for banning the palm export, it is believed that the current unstable relations between the two countries is the cause.

Song contest searches Diaspora for ‘the next Jewish star’

When Israeli music producer-to-the-stars Eitan Gafni put on a global song contest for Jews nearly two decades ago, finding contestants was difficult. At the time, he called on Jewish Agency shlichim residing in capitals around the world to find young Jews with musical talent and ask them to send an audition tape, a process that took months.

The Hallelujah music project ran for three years, beginning in 1992, but a lack of funds caused its cancellation.

Seven months ago, Gafni decided to put his song contest out there again, after a friend of his son’s—who was a teenager at the time of the original contest—returned home to Israel from an extended stay in Australia and encouraged him to help young Jews in the Diaspora to reconnect to Israel through song.

Though there was a comparatively short lead time running up to the contest—the finals will be held August 25 in Israel—it was considerably easier to find contestants this time around. Gafni and his partners got the word out through Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites, in addition to the myriad organizations that work with young Jewish adults. Audition videos were sent in by e-mail or posted on YouTube.

The result is that, whereas nearly all of the participants in the Hallelujah Global Jewish Singing Contest 20 years ago were affiliated with the Jewish community, many of the 260 Jewish singing-sensation wannabes who vied to participate in 2011 are not affiliated with any Jewish organizations in their home communities.

“These are the people we want to reach,” Gafni said.

The contest’s slogan is “Who’s going to be the next Jewish star?” (Using a phrase like “Jewish idol” to play off the popular American television show would not have sounded right, Gavriel notes.)

A panel of judges, including veteran singer and actor Yehoram Gaon and other Israeli musicians, viewed the auditions and chose 30 semi-finalists to come to Israel to continue competing. The contestants came from around the globe, including the U.S., Canada, South America, Russia, Turkey and Belgium, as well as one Israeli contestant currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Nearly all of the contestants, ages 16 to 26, already had a music background and had already performed before audiences, which will make the final more professional, says Gafni, who has been a producer for the last 40 years for such Israeli music stars as Shlomo Artzi, Motti Caspi and Ruthi Navon.

Adam Dahan, a 17-year-old singer and piano player from Quebec, uploaded an audition just days before the deadline, after reading in The Canadian Jewish News about two women from his community who had entered the contest. While they didn’t make the cut, he did.

Dahan, who says he practices music between two and seven hours daily, including time spent with his vocal coach, attended music school in Los Angeles. Recently, he noted, a record label got in touch with him.

“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to connect to the rest of the world through my music,” said Dahan, who is a sometime hazan in his synagogue in his hometown of Cote St. Luke.

Dahan says he has thoroughly enjoyed the Hallelujah experience, traveling throughout Israel with the 30 semi-finalists. (Dahan was eliminated in the contest’s August 18 semi-finals.)

Tzachi Gavriel, a co-founder of the MASA program, which brings young Diaspora Jews to study, volunteer and work in Israel, worked with Gafni to shepherd the song contest along for the last seven months. He said the contest is an “unconventional” way to reach Jewish young people “through the back door.”

Gavriel, who has volunteered his time and expertise—until two months ago he was a senior advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—marvels at the combined power of a singing contest and Facebook to reach the young generation, saying “you can probably reach the computer of every young Jew in the world.”

The Israeli government has recognized the power of reaching young Diaspora Jews through song, and four government ministries, including the ministry of culture and sport, provided about $350,000 to get the contest off the ground. Other funders include Keren Nadav, the foundation established by Russian tycoon and philanthropist Leonid Nevlin; and the city of Ramat HaSharon, where the finals will take place.

The winner of Thursday’s finals, in which contestants are performing popular Hebrew songs, will receive an $8,000 cash prize and record a duet with an Israeli artist to be broadcast on local radio stations and Jewish radio stations worldwide. The winner will also give a concert tour in Jewish communities around the world.

A DVD of the contest is also being put together and is set to be distributed for showing in Jewish venues around the world.

Plans for next year include holding auditions and semi-finals in Jewish capitals including Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London.

Gavriel predicts that the number of people vying to participate will increase exponentially by next year’s contest.

“We’re not just talking about what it means to be Jewish,” he explains. “We’re taking them on an adventure.”

Two-way street: Israel should learn about Diaspora, too

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, caused a storm within the Jewish community a few weeks ago when he published a piece arguing that the connection by students at America’s liberal rabbinical schools — the future leaders of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora — toward Israel was weakening.

But what about the connection felt by Israeli educational leaders toward the Jewish communities of the Diaspora?

I had the privilege to study this year as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute (MLI), along with dozens of Jewish educational leaders from Israel and the Diaspora.

One day, I met an Israeli educator who, as part of her studies at Mandel, traveled to New York to visit a Jewish day school. There, she encountered an institution of exceptional educational creativity abounding in examples worthy of study and replication.

But when Israelis (outside MLI) heard she had traveled to New York, the only thing they asked her was: “Are you going there to raise money?”

I first came to Israel when I was 21 years old. It was the summer of 1993, and I was the captain of the U.S. swim team at the Maccabiah Games. I fell in love with Israel. Now, as a rabbi and educator, one of the most important things to me is that American Jews see Israelis as brothers and sisters and feel that here — in Israel — they have a home and a family.

During my year at Mandel, I got the chance to visit Israeli schools and meet educational leaders. I learned much. But I am returning to the United States with a sense of sadness, and even concern, about the way Israelis relate to Jewish communities outside Israel.

I am leaving the country with a clear sense that Israel does not really know me or the world to which I return.

For many Israelis, American Jews are a stereotype: tourists. Too many Israelis look at the Diaspora as merely a source for fundraising and a pool of people who should make aliyah.

They believe that the purpose of my community begins and ends in its being part of the AIPAC lobby that secures $2 billion in annual support for Israel.

When an American Jew has an opinion about something in Israel — such as the Law of Return or the fact that Interior Minister Eli Yishai has refused to register Reform and Conservative converts as citizens on their national ID card (in violation of a Supreme Court ruling a decade ago) — many Israelis do not understand by what right someone who does not live in Israel or serve in the army dares to express an opinion about what happens here.

Diaspora Jews are not a stereotype. Jewish communities outside Israel have rich and varied traditions and histories, cultures of vitality and life and, yes, even a future.

But the world to which I am returning — the world of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox Judaism, of JCCs and Jewish day schools, of Jewish summer camps, of Hillels and Federations — is, for most Israeli educators and, for most Israelis in general, a foreign and even strange world.

Israelis, please understand: We Diaspora Jews are your sisters and your brothers. As a member of the family, I plead with you: Get to know us, not as a stereotype, but as living communities and real people.

Love is a two-way street. I believe with all my heart that what will allow all of us to survive and build a better Jewish future is a feeling of connection and love between us.

I remain committed to Israel. I pray Israel feels the same sense of commitment to this connection.

I invite Israeli educators to visit the United States not (only) to raise money, but also so we can learn together and better understand one another’s worlds. Together we can nourish a deep love for the Jewish people in our communities. It is that love that unites us all.

‘Sing’ festival extols diaspora diversity

“I’m a nonprofessional dreamer,” said singer/composer/producer Craig Taubman, who is in the midst of staging his sixth annual “Let My People Sing,” a 24-hour festival taking place March 11 and 12 at Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles. The event features Jewish performers from around the world and includes music, dance, food and a host of activities.

“‘Let My People Sing’ sprang from a dream six years ago,” Taubman explained. “Six months before Passover, when I came up with an idea — what better way to celebrate the holiday than with music, dance and art, from a variety of different cultures? — I brought the idea to Rabbi David Wolpe, who said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ and the festival was born.”

This year’s celebration is called “Ashkenafard,” symbolizing the diverse cultural strains that make up the worldwide Jewish community, Taubman said. “The idea behind this festival is to say, ‘What’s the best of the [Persian] community? What’s the best of the Israeli community? What’s the best of the Ashkenazi community and the older as well as the younger community? Let’s put it all in one big tent, in one place, and celebrate the best that we all have to offer each other.’ ”

Taubman’s aim is exemplified by a highlight of the festival, the Charoset Cook-off, part of the activity dubbed Oneg Ashkenafard. “Each culture makes charoset differently because of where the people were born,” he said. “There’s Israeli charoset; there’s Yemenite charoset; there’s American charoset, there’s Manischewitz, and on and on.  We’re going to have the Charoset Cook-off, for which Whole Foods donated a ton of nuts and berries and wine, apples, etc. Kids and parents have the opportunity to make charoset, and then the rabbi’s going to test it and decide which charoset is the winner.”

To carry the underlying concept of unity amid diversity even further, the slogan for the event is “reuniting the Diaspora,” referring to the dispersal of the Jews among various lands after the destruction of the Temple.

“Maybe it’s time we got back together. Two thousand years ago, we were dispersed from one central location. Some of our people went to Eastern Europe, some went to Western Europe, some stayed in the Middle East and they went on to become either Persians or Israelis. Two hundred fifty years ago, they became Americans. Some lived in France, some in Germany. Each culture has something unique that it gave to the Jewish people, and the Jewish people gave something back to that culture,” Taubman said.

“This particular festival is saying, ‘Let’s celebrate what we all share, the unique thing that we have in our tradition that we got from our birth country, but we’re now in America, and let’s celebrate that,’ ” he added.

“We have the Israeli tradition and the Persian-Farsi community. … We have a Ladino artist; we have an Orthodox Jewish man, Yisrael Campbell, a comedian who converted from Catholicism and now is an Orthodox rabbi,” Taubman said.

There will also be a free 90-minute yoga session taught by instructor Eric Paskel and accompanied by the acoustic rhythms of singer Todd Herzog.

While the nonmusical activities will be conducted in English, the musical programs boast an array of languages, such as Persian, Arabic, English, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, Ladino, Yiddish and Spanish.

The festival will kick off at Sinai Temple’s Friday night service, conducted by Wolpe. He and Taubman will share the stage with Canadian singer Aviva Chernick and Yale Strom’s klezmer band, Hot Pstromi. One of Saturday’s programs, Concert Ashkenafard, will showcase Chernick and other musicians of worldwide renown.

“Culture and art truly do have the ability to transform people’s minds and experiences,” Taubman said. “We are known so much as a people of the book, the Jewish people, but, in truth, we were artists long before we were scholars. The Temple celebration was a grand celebration. The sacrifices were grand celebrations.

“I think that we’re a people of art and culture and spirituality, and that’s what this festival is trying to bring to the people of Los Angeles or whoever sees it, whether they be Jewish or not.”

Let My People Sing: Ashkenafard — Friday, March 11, 2011 and Saturday, March 12, 2011 at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

POINT: Caveat Conlator: Funder beware

The entire Jewish community should applaud the recently announced plan by The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and several major Jewish federations to invest millions of dollars over the next few years to fight the delegitimization and demonization of Israel. These groups understand that if academic and cultural boycotts are legitimate when aimed at Jews in the West Bank today, they will soon become legitimate when aimed at Jews in Tel Aviv tomorrow; and, you can be sure that after that, the boycotters will set their sites on Jews in New York, Los Angeles, Peoria … and everywhere else that Jews live.

Unfortunately, on the ground, anti-delegitimization efforts are being undermined by some of the very organizations that the mainstream Jewish community actually finances. The JCC of Manhattan recently invited boycotter Tony Kushner to speak at the opening night of its “Other Israel Film Festival.” American Friends of Hebrew University bestowed their prestigious Scopus Award on boycotter Frank Gehry. The JCC of San Francisco made boycotter Stephen Sondheim a keynote speaker at their Ideas Programs. And, the executive committee of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, an organization with a proud history of support for Jewish scholarship and art — though also with a recent history of funding several highly controversial projects that many critics consider anti-Israel propaganda — recently overwhelmingly rejected a simple resolution to condemn “academic or cultural boycott of Jews or Israel, their academics and artists, or their academic and cultural institutions.”

This vote was disturbing for many reasons. First, the mission of the foundation is to “nurture a vibrant and enduring Jewish identity, culture, and community.” What could be less nurturing to Jewish culture than cultural boycotts? Second, the foundation had a special obligation to distance itself from boycotters; a number of artists and academics whom it has honored, funded or placed on grant panels during the past decade are some of our people’s most prominent boycotters — Kushner, Theodore Bikel (a board member of the foundation), Sheldon Harnick, to name a few.  In recent years, the foundation has funded some of the most anti-Israel propaganda, on the principle that artists and academics were entitled to “freedom of expression.” In rejecting the above resolution, the Foundation apparently concluded that some Jewish and Israeli artists and academics’ rights were not as important as others.

Most troubling of all, however, is that the Foundation for Jewish Culture is funded by many Jewish federations, foundations and philanthropists. Ironically, at just the time that so many of these major funding entities are investing millions in efforts to combat delegitimization and demonization from one pocket, they are actually (unwittingly) supporting delegitimization and demonization from the other pocket. 

I would maintain that Jewish communal money should never be used to provide artists or academics with a platform (i.e., funding, honor or visibility) for their art, scholarship or political views, if such a platform would be denied to another Jew or Israeli — anywhere in the world. Therefore, I propose that every Jewish federation, foundation and philanthropist that opposes academic and cultural boycotts — and every Jewish organization that receives community funds — enact a simple board resolution or grant policy (and require that each of its beneficiaries do the same), as follows:

BE IT RESOLVED that [name of federation or organization] condemns any attempt or implementation of any academic or cultural boycott of Jews or Israel, or Jewish or Israeli academic and cultural institutions, and will take any and all future action that it deems appropriate to publicize its position on the above, to distance itself from those who participate in such boycotts, and to ensure that it in no way aids or abets such boycotts through its funding programs.

Some boycotters may believe that by participating in international boycotts, they are merely protesting a policy of the Israeli government, when, in fact, they are fueling what the Reut Institute has called the Delegitimization Network, a loosely aligned group of radical leftist organizations and individuals who seek to “negate Israel’s right to exist.” Reut continues that the “effectiveness of Israel’s delegitimizers … stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others by blurring the lines with Israel’s critics.” Unfortunately, as Hannah Rosenthal, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, recently told a conference on combating anti-Semitism: “Opposition to a policy [of] the State of Israel morphs into anti-Semitism easily and often.”

A resolution such as this would, first and foremost, ensure that these funders — who are avowedly anti-boycott — not unwittingly fund organizations that do not share their values. Second, Jewish organizations have an opportunity to educate and inform the general public, as well as well-meaning, non-enemies of Israel, of the unintended destructiveness of boycotts in fueling the Delegitimization Network. 

A resolution, such as the one proposed, would not be unprecedented for federations or foundations. Today, many impose upon their grantees various obligations, which range from practicing and promoting ethical business practices to maintaining an open and diverse workplace. Some go further and require grantees to commit to principles of pluralism, and some even fund only organizations that express a positive attitude toward the State of Israel.

What can individual Jews do? First, you should inquire of the federations and organizations that you support what they are doing to combat delegitimization and demonization of Israel, and suggest that they institute an anti-boycott measure, such as the one outlined above. Second, individuals who patronize the arts and culture should educate themselves about artists and institutions that support international boycotts.

Think twice before going to a performance or supporting the work of artists like Daniel Barenboim, Stephen Sondheim, Tony Kushner, Harold Prince and Julianne Moore; think twice before you patronize any number of organizations that have allowed their boycotting staff to associate their organizations’ names with the boycott movement: Playwrights Horizons theater, New York Theatre Workshop, the Public Theater and even the New York Foundation for the Arts. At a minimum, do what you can to educate these individuals and organizations — and the hundreds of others like them — about how their actions violate other artists’ rights to free expression and play so perfectly into the hands of Israel’s biggest enemies.

David Eisner is CEO of a financial data company and an active philanthropist from New York. He previously lived in Westwood.

Meeting again with Jewish leaders, Abbas broaches substance

For Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Jewish leaders, their second date featured a little more substance and a little less flirtation. And this time the Palestinian Authority president brought a wing man.

Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, met separately Tuesday evening with Jewish leaders in New York —a sign of understanding on the Palestinian side of the importance of Jewish sensibilities, in Israel and the Diaspora, to advancing the peace process.

Abbas at the meeting seemed ready to move forward on some substantive issues, which took place during the launch of the U.N. General Assembly session.

In the first meeting, in June, Abbas had frustrated Jewish leaders by dodging issues of substance—returning to direct talks and incitement—but set a tone unprecedented in Palestinian-Jewish relations by recognizing a Jewish historical presence in the land of Israel.

When a group of Palestinian intellectuals challenged Abbas on the issue a month later, instead of backtracking—typical of the one step forward, two steps back peace process tradition—his envoy in Washington, Ma’en Areikat, repeated and reaffirmed the comments.

In the interim, direct talks have been launched, and Abbas was prepared to move forward on some substantive issues at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I would like for us to engage in a dialogue where we listen to each other and where I can respond to your questions because I trust we have one mutual objective—to achieve peace,” he said, according to notes provided by the Center for Middle East Peace.

The center, a dovish group founded by diet magnate Daniel Abraham, sponsored the Abbas meeting, as it did in June. The Fayyad meeting was sponsored by The Israel Project, which tracks support for Israel in the United States and throughout the world.

Making his clearest statement to date on the matter, Abbas said he would not walk away from negotiations should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fail to extend a partial 10-month moratorium on settlement building set to lapse next week. The PA leader suggested that a way out might be if Netanyahu does not make a public issue of the end of the moratorium.

“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” Abbas said.

Netanyahu is under pressure from the settlement movement not only to end the moratorium, but to resume building at levels unprecedented in his prime ministership. The Israeli leader also is heedful, however, of Obama administration demands that the parties not go out of their way to outrage each other.

Among the Jewish leaders at the Abbas meeting were Malcolm Hoenlein and Alan Solow, the executive vice chairman and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director; and leaders of umbrella groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Also on hand were Clinton administration foreign policy mavens such as Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright and Daniel Kurtzer, who maintain close ties with Obama’s foreign policy team.

Abbas also showed that he was attempting to bridge a gap on what until now seemed an intractable issue.

The Palestinians have long accepted the inevitability of a demilitarized state, but they reject a continued Israeli military presence. Netanyahu told Jewish leaders in a conference call Monday that he would trust no one but Israeli troops to preserve Israel’s security on the West Bank’s eastern border. At the meeting, Abbas floated the idea of a non-Israeli force that would include Jewish soldiers.

On other issues, Abbas was less prepared to come forward.

Israel wants a clear commitment from the Palestinians that any discussion of the refugee issue would clearly preclude a flooding of Israel with descendants of refugees of the 1948 war, which Israelis say is a recipe for the peaceful eradication of Israel. Behind closed doors, the Palestinians have said they are ready to provide Israel the assurances it needs, but Abbas said at the meeting only that it is a final-status issue.

Another issue could yet scuttle the talks now that the parties seem ready to put the settlement moratorium behind them.

Netanyahu, having extracted what seems to be an irreversible Palestinian recognition of Israel during his previous turn in the job, in 1998, now wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a result of the emergence of movements that seek to strip Israel of its Jewish character.

Abbas has resisted, in part because he sees such recognition as cutting off the 20 percent of Israel that is Arab, but also because he seems baffled by the demand. He argues that states are free to define themselves and should not need the approbation of others.

“If the Israeli people want to name themselves whatever they want, they are free to do so,” the PA president said.

In a sign that he also was seeking conciliation on the matter, Abbas said at the meeting that he would accept the designation if it were approved by the Knesset. He repeated his recognition of Israel’s Jewish roots and decried Holocaust denial.

It was not far enough for some of his interlocutors.

Stephen Savitzky, the president of the Orthodox Union, wanted Abbas to recognize not only Jewish ties to the land but with the Temple Mount, the site of the third holiest mosque in Islam.

“President Abbas missed an opportunity this evening to make a key statement that would have created good will in the Jewish community,” Savitzky said in a statement.

Fayyad, less charismatic but deemed more trustworthy than Abbas by the pro-Israel intelligentsia, appeared to fare well in the dinner hosted by The Israel Project, which hews to the centrist-right pro-Israel line of much of the U.S. Jewish establishment. He scored points for admitting that the Palestinian Authority had not done enough to combat incitement.

“Prime Minister Fayyad’s spirit of hope was extremely welcome,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a founder of The Israel Project.

“We know that some people will criticize us for falling for a Palestinian ‘charm offensive.’ However, there is nothing offensive about charm. More Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, should sit together over dinner and exchange ideas—especially when it can help lead to security and peace.”