Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall in 2015. Photo by Marc Sellem/Reuters

Bibi hits a wall

When push came to shove, when he had to pick between politics and principle, between personal power and Jewish unity, between his position and his people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved. He picked his position. He showed us his ultimate priority.

Surrendering to ultra-Orthodox pressure, Bibi reneged on a January 2016 agreement to ensure an official egalitarian presence at the Western Wall and, as if that weren’t enough, he supported an initiative to give total monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. The timing couldn’t have been worse — it happened right when the Jewish Agency was having its annual conference in Jerusalem, with global representatives of the Diaspora looking on.

The moves were so insulting that the Jewish Agency did something unprecedented — it cancelled its dinner invitation to the prime minister. Meanwhile, the moves were condemned virtually across the board. You know you’ve gone too far when a beloved hero like Natan Sharansky goes against you.

Sensing that he may have overplayed his hand, Bibi has tried to do some damage control, but it’s not helping much. I think there are two main reasons for that.

First, Bibi clearly reneged on an agreement. His calls for renegotiation now ring hollow. It took years of hard negotiating, under the leadership of Sharansky, to come up with the compromise that recognized a non-Orthodox presence at Judaism’s holiest site.

As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The Times of Israel, “It was a noble compromise: The liberal denominations accepted with humility a secondary place at the Wall, but that at least recognized their right to be part of Israel’s public space; while the Orthodox seemed to accept an organized non-Orthodox presence at the Wall for the sake of Jewish unity.”

For those who fought so hard to obtain that agreement, the thought of going back to the drawing board must be demoralizing. As the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said, “To spend four more years negotiating and then not have that implemented, either, is not credible.”

The second reason Bibi will have trouble spinning away from this crisis is that he’s associating himself with an institution with little credibility — the Chief Rabbinate. In the past year alone, two former chief rabbis, Yonah Metzger and Eliyahu Bashki Doron, have been convicted of felonies. And who is the politician leading the charge on these latest moves of intolerance? None other than Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who spent three years in jail for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Add it all up and there’s not much wiggle room for Bibi to repair the harm done to Israel-Diaspora relations. Until Bibi stands up to ultra-Orthodox forces for the sake of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish unity, they will continue to pressure him for their own divisive agenda, which puts a strict interpretation of halachah above all else.

The tragedy is that Bibi knows better. He’s a cosmopolitan Jew who understands the Diaspora and the importance of tolerance, pluralism and Jewish peoplehood. As the leader of the Jewish state, he knows he has a responsibility to make Israel a unifying force for all the Jews of the world. Once Israel becomes a divisive force that offends the majority of American Jews, what’s left? Startup Nation?

“I’m a Jew first and an Israeli second,” I remember him saying once at a Manhattan synagogue. Will he be able to say that next year at AIPAC, or at an American synagogue? Will anyone believe him? What American Jews are hearing today is that Bibi is an Israeli politician first and a Jew second. That is the price he is paying for appeasing intolerance.

What I find especially sad about this affair is that Bibi knows how to build bridges — with non-Jews. For the past few years, he has done a remarkable job opening up Israel to other countries hungry for Israeli expertise. He has traveled the world and received delegations from places like China, India, Africa and Eastern Europe in an effort to build economic and cultural bridges.

But while he built those bridges, he allowed another bridge to fray—the bridge between his government and the Jews of the world. So many of these Diaspora Jews are deeply in love with Israel and deeply attached to the Zionist miracle. I hate to think that they will now need some kind of financial “leverage” in order to be heard by the country they so love.

If the cause of Jewish unity is not enough leverage, what is?

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

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on March 6. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Decaying relations with Diaspora yield bold words in Israel, but little action

Israeli politicians rushed to condemn their government’s decision Sunday to freeze a plan promoting pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall.

Voices from across the political spectrum, including members of the governing coalition, criticized the vote by the Cabinet as a reckless affront to American Jewry. They warned it could weaken the community’s support for Israel.

“Canceling the deal constitutes a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people and communities as well as the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement.

However, as in the past, such concerns were not enough to affect policy: An overwhelming majority of the Cabinet voted in favor of freezing the plan. Amid the outcry, haredi Orthodox politicians celebrated another success in preserving the powers and privileges granted to their community by the state.

When Israel approved the Western Wall plan in January 2016, it was widely hailed as a historic compromise between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews. The Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, the multi-denominational Women of the Wall prayer group and the haredi Western Wall rabbi negotiated the plan over several years.

They agreed to significantly upgrade the egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall plaza and allow leaders of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements to manage it. In exchange, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation would maintain control of the main prayer section. Women of the Wall, which for nearly two decades has protested limitations on prayer rites in the women’s section of the familiar Western Wall plaza, would move to the expanded space, known as Robinson’s Arch.

But when the plan was made public, haredi leaders decried the concessions to what they saw as illegitimate forms of Judaism, and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who heads the Heritage Foundation, quickly withdrew his support. The haredi political parties have since pushed the government to scrap the plan entirely, which it came just short of doing Sunday.

Among the Cabinet ministers, only Lieberman, the head of the hawkish Yisrael Beinteinu party, and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of the ruling Likud, voted against the freeze. In announcing the decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had appointed Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman to draft a new plan for the site. He said construction on the pluralistic prayer section would continue uninterrupted.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement and a vocal advocate of the plan, called the government’s decision an “unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry.”

“The stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox parts have on Israel and the enfranchisement of the majority of Jews in Israel and the world must – and will – be ended,” he said Sunday in a statement. “We are assessing all next steps.”

Tzipi Livni, a prominent lawmaker in the opposition Zionist Union political coalition, took to Facebook to explain why Israeli Jews should be concerned about the feelings of their American counterparts when it comes to prayer at the Western Wall and a new bill that would require the state to recognize only conversions completed under the auspices of the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

“Why do we care about Jewish Israelis from the Western Wall and the Conversion Law? Because it is important to us that Israel remain the state of the Jewish people and that Judaism be what connects us — and not what divides us,” Livni said Sunday in a post.

“The cancellation of the Western Wall arrangement and the new conversion law tear the Jewish people apart. The prime minister of the Jewish people divides them for the purpose of political survival, and gives the ultra-Orthodox parties a monopoly over the Judaism of all of us.”

Shuki Friedman, the head of religion and state research at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank in Jerusalem, said many Israelis resent the influence that haredi leaders exert over state institutions. But, he said, most people do not prioritize issues of religion and state, nor do they embrace liberal forms of Judaism.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t something that will shake up Israeli politics. The storm is mostly in the media,” Friedman told JTA. “Generally speaking, the Reform and Conservative movements have failed in Israel, and the public isn’t really concerned about them. Therefore, mainstream politicians aren’t going to challenge the haredim on an issue like the Western Wall. ”

Meanwhile, he said, the haredi political parties have an almost singular focus on protecting their narrow interests. That makes them useful to forming and maintaining governing coalitions, but at the cost of accommodating those interests.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the haredi United Torah Judaism party welcomed the Cabinet decision as a victory over liberal Jews.

“This decision sends a clear message to the entire world that Reform Judaism has no access to or recognition at the Western Wall,” he said Sunday in a statement. “I thank the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, and the chief rabbis of Israel. To their merit we were able to sanctify God’s name.”

Also Sunday, government ministers approved a bill that would require the state to recognize only conversions conducted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. The conversion bill, drafted last month by Interior Minster Ayreh Deri, head of the haredi Shas party, apparently aims to circumvent a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allowed those who undergo private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return.

Since helping to form the current government in 2015, haredi politicians have rolled back various efforts to reform the relationship between synagogue and state — many of them enacted under the previous government, which did not include them.

In November 2015, the Knesset postponed and watered down a law that would have ended the traditional exemption from military conscription for most haredi men. And in July 2016, Education Minister Naftali Bennett assumed the authority to ignore a law slashing state funding for haredi schools that do not teach math and English. State funding for yeshivas has reached record highs three different times under the current government.

However, some Israelis are mounting challenges to the religious status quo outside of the Knesset. The Cabinet’s decision came on the day of a High Court of Justice deadline for the state to respond to petitions on its failure to implement the Western Wall plan and build the pluralistic prayer space. How the court would react to the freeze was unclear.

Also, in an unprecedented move, the semi-official Jewish Agency issued a resolution on Monday calling on the government to reverse its decision, saying the move was un-Zionist.

“We deplore the decision of the [Government of Israel] which contradicts the vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky and the spirit of the Zionist movement and Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people and the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world,” said the resolution, which the agency’s board of governors passed unanimously.

Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion and Zeev Jabotinsky were perhaps the most important Zionist leaders of the 20th century.

“We declare that we cannot and will not allow this to happen. We call on the GOI to understand the gravity of its steps and accordingly reverse its course of action,” the resolution continued.

Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was at the Cabinet meeting Sunday before the vote to freeze the Western Wall plan. He presented a report by the think tank he co-chairs, the Jewish People Policy Institute, that urged the government to promote Jewish pluralism, in part to ensure the continued support of American Jewry.

While dismayed by the ministers’ decision, Eizenstat said he felt his message was heard.

“I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’ve never seen a meeting that lasted so long nor one that had such a spirited debate,” he told JTA. “There was tremendous engagement on our point by nearly all the minsters. It was clear they took it seriously.”

Ahad Ha'am, c.1913

Would Ahad Ha’am be denied entry to Israel today?

While reading an interview in the Forward with the 87-year-old literary critic and polymath George Steiner, I couldn’t help but think about the string of troubling bills that have been passed by the Knesset over the past few years.

The most recent bill, from March 6, denies entry to any non-Israeli who “has knowingly issued a public call to impose a boycott on the State of Israel.” It should be added that the bill includes those who call for a boycott of products produced in the settlements, which is a very different matter than calling for an academic, cultural or economic boycott of the State of Israel. A good number of prominent Israeli and Diaspora Jews support a settlement boycott, while a much more marginal group supports a boycott against Israel.

To the best of my knowledge, George Steiner has not called for a boycott of Israel. That said, he defines himself as “fundamentally anti-Zionist” in that he believes that Jews are called upon to be “the guest(s) of other men and women.” Given how things are going, I couldn’t help but wonder if the day might arrive soon when Jews deemed ideologically unacceptable — for example, self-declared anti-Zionists such as George Steiner — might be denied entry to Israel.

Steiner belongs to a long tradition of modern thinkers who have defined Jewishness as the quest for intellectual, cultural or ethical excellence, rather than as the aim to attain political sovereignty. Some of these thinkers have even been Zionists. Figures such as Martin Buber, Akiva Ernst Simon and Judah L. Magnes, founding chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, made aliyah based on the belief that Judaism would reach its greatest fulfillment in the Land of Israel. They also held to the view that Zionism should not aspire to the formation of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, but rather should share power with the Arab population in a binational state.

One wonders how welcome such figures would be in the Israel of today. The Knesset has been chiseling away at the edifice of Israeli democracy through a raft of laws. In July 2016, it scaled back the principle of parliamentary immunity by making it easier to expel Arab parliamentarians. In the same month, it passed a law that called for new scrutiny of organizations that support a range of progressive causes in the country. Just last month, the “Entry Bill” turned the focus on individuals who, because of their political views, would be denied entry to the country.

Of course, many countries have used ideological beliefs as a criterion to deny entry to prospective visitors. The United States has done so itself, particularly in periods of heightened xenophobic and anti-immigrant fervor, such as the 1920s and 1950s. It is not something to be proud of. More recently, the U.S. Congress limited the practice of ideologically based exclusion through the Immigration Law of 1990 that prohibits entry only to those whose “proposed activities within the United States would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences.”

The Knesset’s new limitations on speech both erode Israel’s democratic foundations and do damage to its reputation in the international community.

That is a pretty high bar. It is hard to see how a single person expressing her views, even in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, would cause “serious adverse foreign policy consequences” for Israel. It is especially hard to see how Israel gains by denying entry to someone who expresses opposition to the occupation via a ban on settlement products, which he may believe to be essential in order to preserve Israeli democracy! Indeed, as a general matter, the Knesset’s new limitations on speech both erode Israel’s democratic foundations and do damage to its reputation in the international community.

What also is unsettling about the law is that it cuts against the tradition of sharp dissent that has been a constant feature of both Jewish and Zionist thought. The Zionist movement was born in contentious and productive disagreement, from the very first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. It was at Basel that Theodor Herzl gave definitive public expression to the idea of a state for the Jews. It also was at Basel that another prominent Zionist, Ahad Ha’am, declared that he felt like “a mourner at a wedding feast.” Ahad Ha’am believed that Herzl’s emphasis on achieving sovereignty did not address the key problem of the day, which was the atrophying of Jewish and especially Hebrew culture. His solution was to promote a spiritual and cultural center in the land of Israel that would radiate out rays of vitality to the Diaspora. Ahad Ha’am was a central Zionist figure whose focus was on Jewish culture rather than power.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the divergence of views in various Zionist camps — Socialist, Religious, Revisionist, among others — was a source of strength, not weakness. This diversity allowed for different groups of supporters to enter the Zionist fold through various portals, as well as for a robust competition that fortified each ideological strain.

What has changed since that formative period? Simply put, Zionism has succeeded in placing a Jewish state on the map — and not merely a state, but a powerful, technologically advanced state without peer in the Middle East. It is strange to consider the prospect that this powerful state might no longer be open to the likes of Ahad Ha’am.

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.

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.”

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.

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

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

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.”

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:

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.

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.”

Israel: A work in progress

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

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

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

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

Lesson 1: Diasporas need homelands.

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

Lesson 2: Nations need security.

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

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

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

Lesson 3: Language and cultural revival are key.

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

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

Lesson 4: Unity exists in diversity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survival hinges on being light unto nations

It’s impossible to augur the future of the Jewish people. It can only be summed up in two words: “I hope.”

In a paradoxical sense, the current political, economic and military
strength of the Jewish people does not suggest much self-confidence. We never before have had such a strong army and such a powerful state, just as we never have had such a great support network and influence as we have with today’s worldwide Jewry.

Nevertheless we are fearful. Every day we worry about our future and wonder if there still is hope for us. We fear annihilation and destruction. We see foes behind every shadow. Is this security? Are the fruits of independence and sovereignty the loss of the Jewish people’s faith in “netzach yisrael,” the eternity of the Jewish people?

We have tremendous national experience in survival and in forging means of existence in the face of a hostile world. But we have yet to develop a national strategy for times of respite, acceptance and equality, whether in our sovereign nation or in our Diaspora society.

The question for our future is, can the Jewish people, the vast majority of whom live today in the democratic hemisphere, survive without an external enemy?

The key to that future doesn’t really depend on our military or political strength but in decoding the Jewish genome that succeeded in getting us through so many challenging periods.

The Jewish people never survived merely for the purposes of survival or subsisted solely for the purpose of subsisting. Judaism and the Jews can survive only if we, connected with one another, are aimed toward a goal far larger than physical survival. We must aim for the destiny of the entire world and think about our contribution to humanity.

This is how we gave the world the notion of liberty, expressed during the exodus from Egypt in the eternal cry, “Let my people go.” This was the humanistic universalism of the prophets, and this is the Jewish ethical lesson for the world’s generations.

Without enlightened universal humanism, the Jewish people do not justify their existence or the heavy price we and others pay with suffering. A state and sovereignty are only the means. The question must always come back to a means to what, a state for what.

The strategy for the Jewish people can be found in our past. We must return to a position in which our contributions to the world will be so vital and unique that neither we nor the world can afford to forgo our existence.

In the medieval era, when the daughters of Judaism — Islam and Christianity — blossomed, Maimonides said, “There is no difference between our days and the messianic era except for the subjugation of the nations.”

What he meant was the only difference between history and post-history is that in the messianic era, nations will not subjugate other nations, people will not conquer other peoples, individuals will not humiliate or oppress other individuals, men will not abuse women.

This universal Jewish call for peace, equality and justice, which preceded all the modern revolutions, is still relevant and far from being fulfilled.

The fulfillment of Maimonides’ grand humanistic dream is undergoing the incredible experiment of our generation. As the nation of victims, we must not claim for ourselves a monopoly on suffering. We must not be closed or apathetic to the sufferings of others “because our trauma is bigger than yours.”

We must transform our suffering to a model for the world — of good against evil, of light against darkness. The cry “never again” means never again for anyone who is suffering, never again for anyone who is persecuted, never again to the evildoers and the malicious — not, heaven forbid, never again for the Jews alone.

The Jewish future means undergoing a revolutionary change from Holocaust to recovery, from trauma to trust, from victim to protector of victims, from an era of enslavement to an era of fellowship.

We will secure our existence by being a model for the world and for ourselves. We must go from a nation of victims to a nation that is of the righteous among the nations for the entire world. We must be there for suffering people around the world who need us as we needed others — even though, except for a few isolated cases, there were no others there when we needed them.

We can have no loftier a national goal. It carries on its wings the promise for the future of the Jewish people in these enlightened and open modern times into which we have been fortunate enough to have been born.

This piece was translated from Hebrew by Uriel Heilman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency associate editor.

Avraham Burg is a former speaker of Israel’s Knesset, former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and author most recently of “Defeating Hitler” (2007).

Fending off the end of aliyah

Founded with the express purpose of “ingathering of the exiles” — but with no more large groups of Jews to save — Israel is facing the end of the era of mass aliyah.

Recent reports that the Jewish Agency for Israel was considering shutting down its flagship aliyah department have prompted discussions about the future of immigration to Israel even as agency officials quickly denied the department was closing.

“Israel cannot throw away the idea of aliyah because it is one of basics of the ideology of having a Jewish state,” said David Raz, a former Jewish Agency emissary abroad. “You have to create a situation that people will want to come, from the element of being together with Jews. But it’s not simple. There is a trickle, but basically from the free world the majority does not want to come.”

The crux of the matter is that immigration of necessity — also called “push aliyah” — is largely at its end, with few Jews left in the Diaspora who need the Jewish state as a haven from persecution or dire economic straits. The Jews of the Arab world fled to Israel in the 1950s, Russian-speaking Jews flocked here in the 1990s and Ethiopians came over the course of the past 25 years.

With nothing pushing mass immigration of Jews today, all that remains are the few immigrants of choice — also known as “pull” immigrants. Officials involved with aliyah say they expect no more than 15,000 or so new immigrants to Israel this year.

“You have Jews in the West who live very comfortably under pluralistic governments that give them unprecedented social and economic opportunities and let them live Jewish lives,” said Uzi Rebhun, a demographer at Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry. “In turn, aliyah to Israel has gone down.”

With the pool of potential push immigrants drying up, officials like Oded Salomon, the director-general of aliyah and absorption for the Jewish Agency, are thinking about how to pull Jews to Israel in new and different ways.

Salomon says the focus now is on educational programs that bring young Jews to Israel in the hope of fostering lifelong connections to the Jewish state and creating new immigrants.

The Jewish Agency wants to create a special visa for visiting Diaspora Jews who want to explore the idea of aliyah by living in Israel for a few months. Such arrivals would be assisted with finding volunteer or work positions and Hebrew study.

Aliyah officials also are embracing the notion of “flexible aliyah” in which immigrants split their time between Israel and the Diaspora. About 10 percent of immigrants who have made aliyah with the assistance of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates aliyah from North America and Britain with cash grants and assistance, divide their time between Israel and jobs abroad.

Other ideas to attract a new kind of aliyah being discussed include retirement communities near Eilat for American Jewish retirees and the creation of an all-French-speaking town.

Israel has experienced other periods of sluggish immigration, such as the 1970s and 1980s, but in those eras there were large communities of Jews unable to emigrate and come to the Jewish state, such as those in the Soviet Union.

Today, however, the Jews who remain in the former Soviet Union are either too old to immigrate or prefer to stay put in countries where improved economies and more democratic freedoms have made life in the Diaspora more attractive.

Mass immigration from Ethiopia — where politics, economics and religious ideology sent tens of thousands of Jews to Israel over the past quarter century — is expected to end some time this summer.

Yuli Edelstein, the former Soviet refusnik and prisoner of Zion who later served as Israel’s absorption minister, said Israel must make sure it can provide both meaningful professional opportunities and meaningful Jewish life if it wants to see significant immigration to the country.

“This is a real period of rethinking,” Edelstein said in an interview, noting the economic and professional opportunities Jews have in the West. “Without a Jewish motivation for being here, it will be much more difficult to attract people.”

Among Israelis, too, the ethos of aliyah has dampened in recent years, a far cry from when it was described by the drafters of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 as part of the vision of “the prophets of Israel.”

Despite the country’s founding mission, Rebhun said, “Sixty years after the State of Israel was established, most Jews still live outside of Israel.”

Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer from Hebrew University who also is associated with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, says many potential immigrants are put off by the bureaucracy and difficulties of Israeli life, not to mention Israel’s security situation.

DellaPergola says major reforms are needed to help ease the path of immigrants, especially when it comes to accepting degrees and professional credentials earned abroad.

Despite plans for a new set of tax breaks for new immigrants and other ideas to help pave the way for potential immigrants, at the end of the day immigrants will come to Israel only if they see in the Jewish state the promise of a fulfilling Jewish life, DellaPergola said.

“If it’s a country just like any other,” he said, “then why come here?”

What Israel means to me

This is one in a series of articles and essays on myriad topics related to Israel that will run weekly as we approach the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.

Noam Chomsky was interviewed in the summer 2004 issue of Heeb magazine:

At peace with conflict

One of the bonuses of living in exile is that you can see Israeli society more clearly, one lunch, party, speech or cappuccino at a time. When I’m in the Holy Land, I lose myself in a noisy, beautiful, hectic, joyful and soulful blur.

It’s as if I’m inside a boat in a stormy sea. Here in the Diaspora, Israel comes at you in neat little waves. Over the past month, I’ve had encounters with four passionate Israelis, and each, in their own way, has helped me make sense of the craziness of what it is to live the Zionist dream.

My first encounter was at Beth Jacob Congregation, where on a recent Shabbat morning I went to hear right-wing Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, who has developed a cult-like following among fellow right-wingers.

Here is this petite, gentle-looking brunette who doesn’t look a day older than 30, but listen to her speak and you’ll see they don’t come any tougher. During three long sessions that continued through late Saturday night, Glick showed a mastery of the geopolitical dynamics that challenge Israel on a daily basis.

Glick doesn’t apologize for her contention that military victory against an uncompromising enemy is the smartest policy. Because she brings so much knowledge to the table, she comes across not as an extremist, but as a reasonable and logical thinker.

Of the many words she spoke, one phrase stood out: “It’s not about us.” Israel can dismantle settlements and make concessions and have peace meetings until hell freezes over, but that won’t change a thing, not least the nature of our enemy. This is an inconvenient truth, but as Glick passionately expressed it, it is a truth we must deal with if we are to survive.

My second encounter was with two wounded heroes of the Lebanon war, whose first names were Haran and Idan, and who were in town to help an organization called Friends of Israel Disabled Veterans.

Over egg rolls and sushi at Shanghai Gardens on Pico Boulevard, they bantered, laughed and playfully needled each other, before Idan began telling me his story. He was at the head of a platoon that had just finished an eight-hour operation to take over an enemy hill. At around 4 a.m., he noticed that two Israeli tanks were stuck in the valley below — what they call in military lingo the “dead zone,” because you’re a sitting duck to enemy fire — and he immediately commandeered towing and armored vehicles to rescue his comrades.

They got hit with a “bad-ass missile,” as he called it, and a firefight ensued. Israeli tanks came to rescue the rescuers, and in the chaotic seven kilometer trek back to the safety of the Israeli border, Idan, who was nearly unconscious from the barrage of shrapnel that had pierced his body, could only remember hearing these words: “Yaffe, stay with us!”

Yaffe was his nickname, and his comrades were pleading with him to stay alive.

I asked Idan what went through his mind as he was fighting for his life, and he recalled the promise he had made to his girlfriend, Yael, that he would never leave her. When he saw that I was a little shaken by his story, he lightened things up a bit by telling me that Yael had recently broken up with him, and that he was now dating someone else.

I had no luck getting Idan to say anything negative about the Israeli army, or even all those corrupt Israeli politicians we so often complain about here. He and Haran looked like party animals who would rather spend their nights in a Tel Aviv disco than in a combat zone, but as they both said to me: “When our country calls, we go.”

My third encounter was with a talent agent who represents two of the lead actors in the Israeli movie “Beaufort,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. At a raucous reception in a private home in Beverly Hills, with Israeli television cameras and reporters covering the scene, the agent talked to me at length about how Israeli artists struggle to get their work produced, distributed and recognized internationally. Before we parted, she said in a wistful tone: “If Israel put the same amount of money into the arts that they put into weapons, we would be the most creative country in the world.”

Finally, I met with political analyst and author Yossi Klein Halevi. In a little French cafe nestled in Topanga Canyon, my friend Halevi said that most Israelis were willing to pay a heavy price for real peace, but that there was a general consensus among the people today that since a real peace is not in the cards, they should “tough it out” until the circumstances become more favorable.

Halevi held the same passion to defend his country as Glick; the same love of life as the wounded warriors; and the same love of art and culture as the actors’ agent. He seemed to carry within him the views and struggles of all Israelis.

Maybe that is to be expected from a spiritual seeker who struggles to make sense of the bigger picture. As we entered my car to drive through the canyon, he couldn’t wait to play me this new CD of beautiful Yom Kippur melodies, as if to say: “This kind of beauty helps us all see the bigger picture.”

As I reflected on my four encounters, it struck me that maybe the Jewish destiny is not to obsess over peace and to end conflict, but instead, to be at peace with conflict. We will never be a Buddhist-like nation that wallows in peace and serenity in a quiet mountain enclave. That’s not our calling.

Our calling is the struggle. Whether we are struggling with war, peace, art, ideas or God, living with conflict is our story, our collective journey.

The Israelis who met me here in exile seemed to be at peace with that.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Israel obligated to consider Diaspora views on Jerusalem

Do Jews outside Israel have the right to criticize Israeli policies relating to defense and security matters or eternal issues, like concessions on Jerusalem?

Some argue that while Diaspora Jews may debate a range of Israeli policies, national security and defense policies should be debated only by Israelis, seeing that only Israelis directly reap the benefits or pay the price of such decisions. But this conclusion does not follow from the premise.

We agree that Israelis alone have the right and obligation to decide what Israel should do in life-and-death questions of national security and defense. In fact, we would strongly oppose anyone other than Israelis deciding Israel’s future.

But this does not mean that Diaspora Jews cannot contribute by debate and criticism to the evolution of the decisions that Israel takes. On the contrary, the onus is upon those who disagree to explain why Diaspora Jews, on matters of vital importance to the future of Israel and the Jewish people, should suddenly be struck dumb.

The legitimacy and importance of Diaspora Jewish participation in Israeli debates is all the stronger when the subject is Jerusalem. Here we are not only talking of Israel’s capital but about the central inheritance of all the Jewish people.

Jerusalem is our holiest city, mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible and referred or alluded to in dozens of prayers. Major Jewish rituals, including the conclusion of the Pesach seder and Yom Kippur, end with the age-old affirmation, “Next year in Jerusalem.” And these prayers and rituals refer to the historic old city with the Temple Mount in eastern Jerusalem — precisely the areas that Palestinians are demanding that Israel give up — not the modern suburbs of western Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is also the only city in the world in which Jews have formed a majority since the middle of the 19th century. Under the Rabin government, a “Jerusalem 3000” anniversary celebration was held, something that has not been done for any other historical Jewish city.

Against all that, Jerusalem is not mentioned once in the Quran, nor has it ever served as a Muslim or Arab capital. During the years of Jordan’s illegal occupation of eastern Jerusalem (1948-67), the 58 synagogues there were destroyed, and Jewish gravestones were used to pave Jordanian army latrines.

Despite signed agreements, Jordan did not permit Jews to visit Jerusalem’s holy sites. The city became a backwater, Amman remained the Jordanian capital and no Arab ruler, other than Jordan’s King Hussein, visited it. Moreover, the PLO and Fatah charters do not even mention Jerusalem.

Any division of Jerusalem not only carves out part of the heart of the Jewish people but would also endanger Israel by introducing terrorists within rocket and rifle range of the western half of the city. Just as Sderot near Gaza has been subjected to years of incessant missile and mortar fire from territory handed over to the Palestinian Authority (PA), resulting in almost half its citizenry leaving for safety, the rest of Jerusalem could share the same fate if the eastern half of the city were given to PA control.

And, of course, if concessions are made over the Jerusalem’s holy sites, one can only imagine — after witnessing the torching and destruction of Joseph’s Tomb and the Jericho synagogues once Israeli forces were withdrawn — what fate would lie in store for Jewish sites once the PA obtained control.

Actually we do not even need to imagine: The Muslim waqf, which controls Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, has undertaken renovations and construction programs that have already destroyed priceless Jewish antiquities on that site. Various PA officials over the years have also denied the Jewish religious and historical connection to the city.

Yasser Arafat once said, “That is not the Western Wall at all but a Muslim shrine.” The former PA minister of religious affairs, Hassan Tahboub, asserted, “The Western Wall is Muslim property. It is part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Once we control it, Jews must remain six feet away from our holy wall.”

I would add that the Zionist Organization of America’s opposition to the re-division of Jerusalem, contrary to what is often asserted, reflects the expressed views of Israeli public. An October 2007 Tami Steinmetz Center Tel Aviv University poll has shown that a clear majority of Jewish Israelis — 59 percent to 33 percent — oppose, even in return for a peace agreement, Israel handing over to the PA various Arab neighborhoods in the eastern half of Jerusalem.

And this likely reflects the feelings of most Jews throughout the world. Jerusalem is part of our heart and soul. It has great historical and religious significance to Jews, whether they live in Los Angeles, Melbourne, Montreal, Buenos Aires or Paris. That is why Israel is morally obligated to take all of the world Jewry’s feelings into consideration when it comes to this critical issue.

As Eli Wiesel said, “Jerusalem for me is above politics. It represents our collective soul.” Natan Sharansky has said, “Jerusalem is an integral of the identity of the entire Jewish people.” That’s why Jews throughout the world have prayed, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said during an April 2005 meeting with American Jewish leaders that “Jerusalem will never be divided, and Israel will not negotiate on Jerusalem. Since 1860, the Jewish population of Jerusalem was larger than the Christian and Muslim population combined.” He also stated to American Jewish leaders that “not only can [Diaspora Jews] interfere, but you have to interfere when it comes to Jerusalem,” (Ha’aretz, Feb .23, 2001).

Current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was emphatic when he told American Jewish leaders last week that “I welcome all thoughts from Diaspora Jews concerning Jerusalem, and I want to emphasize that they have every right to speak out about this issue.”

Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Mort Klein doesn’t like the “two-state” solution”


The grunion were running last weekend, so I went down to the Venice Beach breakwater just before midnight to watch them mate. The sight of thousands of slim, silvery fish wiggling desperately out of the surf and struggling to spawn before the next wave crashed upon them made me think, of course, of those birthright Israel trips.

This summer, a record 23,500 participants are expected to visit Israel as part of TAGLIT-birthright Israel. The program offers free 10-day tours of Israel for Jewish young adults, 18 to 26. This year, the organization received nearly 32,000 applications — also a record high.

Part of the success is undoubtedly the attraction of all-expense-paid foreign travel. When I was in college the simple words “free trip” would have had me packed and ready to go to Jonestown without thinking twice.

But birthright’s success is more genuine: it combines education and spirituality with a search for roots and meaning, and anchors the whole experience in a 10-day nonstop party.

It’s no wonder that birthright, founded seven years ago by philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, can count as one of the few unmitigated successes the Jewish establishment has had in involving younger Jews in Jewish life.

Since 2000, the program, jointly funded by private philanthropists, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israeli government and the North American federation system, has sent more than 120,000 young Jews from 51 countries to Israel for free.

But let’s be honest about what accounts for a good part of the program’s runaway success — hormones.

“No one tells you it’s about hooking up with other Jews,” one 20-something participant told me, “but there’s plenty there to make it happen.”

There is no curfew, chaperones who are in some cases only a couple of years older than the visitors and lots of booze.

“What happens among the Diaspora,” one happy birthrighter from Pittsburgh told me, “stays among the Diaspora.”

Which is why I’m not quoting anyone by name here.

One 21-year-old UC San Diego sophomore I spoke with said the subtext wasn’t that hidden. Her Israeli organizer told the group the best thing about birthright and Israel is that they could hitch up with other Jews and make Jewish babies. She recounted his exact words in a thick Israeli accent: “When you see a cutie on the beach in Tel Aviv and you say, ‘Hey, what’s cooking?’ you know you’re talking to a Jew.'”

Her friend, a young man who also attends UC San Diego, said the message wasn’t covert, and it didn’t bother him at all.

“I was fine with it,” he said. “We get to go on this great trip, and they get to tell us what they want.”

The message, he said, is that you need to make Jewish babies, because Jewish babies will save the Jewish people. If birthrighters needed any more nudging, each trip culminates in a kind of mega-meet-up. Held in Jerusalem, it brings every birthright group together in an amphitheater in Jerusalem, the Holy City, where they hear some great rock music, then adjourn into a raucous, beer-fueled party. (The party is free, the beer you pay for).

“I faked an Israeli accent to hit on girls,” another birthrighter told me. “It works better.”

Again, I think of the grunion. If you haven’t seen them, it’s worth grabbing a warm coat and a thermos of mint tea and heading down to the beach during mating season, which occurs between May and September during the full and new moon.

The fish, which are relatives of smelt, ride the waves onto shore. The females use their tails to wriggle down until only their heads, bug-eyed and vulnerable, poke from the sand. Into this nest, they squeeze their eggs.

Meanwhile the males find females to squirm around, and in a frenzied swarm release their milt. The murky liquid slides down the females’ backs and onto the eggs. Some females deposit eggs though no males surround them — but I’m sure there’s a guy for them on some other beach.

Two weeks later the fertilized eggs, hidden under the feet of countless sunbathers and sea gulls, hatch, and a new generation of grunion swarm the tides.

It’s remarkable — the utter implausibility of fish finding one another on dry land, the rush to hook up, the race to meet and secrete. That there are still grunion in the world is nothing short of miraculous — and one could say the same of the relatively few Jews who manage, against the odds of persecution and assimilation, to reproduce. If the alcohol-fueled all night hotel room parties that our philanthropic dollars support help, who’s to quibble? If the birthright mega-gathering is closer to a grunion run at low tide than a Zionist congress, so what?

Like most Jews in a generation that missed out on the birthright junket, I’m jealous, but supportive. I understand that, as my friend Jon Drucker is fond of saying, Jewish survival is not in the genes, but in the jeans.

But I do wonder if the message is getting through that there is more to Jewish survival than hooking up. The rabbis teach that all the Jewish souls that ever were, were present at Sinai. But us plodding literalists would argue that it is the unerring emphasis on Jewish values — or rather, the debate over those values — and on Jewish deeds, or mitzvot, that determine, truly, how many Jews there are in this world.

Two Jews can create such a person, but a non-Jew can become that person too.

For ultimately, unlike grunion, Jewish souls are made, not spawned.

New video of Taglit-birthright trip. Contains no spawning

Bibi Netanyahu ranks high … as racist demagogue

By rights, Binyamin Netanyahu, which every poll says is by far the most popular politician in Israel, should be ranked with Jean Le Pen, Jorge Haider and the rest of the Western
world’s racist demagogues.

But he won’t be, because anti-Arab racism in Israel is either supported or strategically ignored by the mainstream of the Jewish world and pretty much taken for granted by the non-Jewish world.

What Netanyahu said last week was not new for him. He was reported to have made the same appeal to the same sort of audience — Charedi political leaders — a couple of years ago as finance minister. Then, as now, he was apologizing for the way his child welfare cuts had hurt large Charedi families, while at the same time asking the Charedim to look at the bright sides of that policy.

“Two positive things happened,” he told a conference of Charedi government officials in Nir Etzion last week. “Members of the Charedi public seriously joined the workforce. And on the national level, the unexpected result was the demographic effect on the non-Jewish public, where there was a dramatic drop in the birthrate.”

The once and possibly future prime minister of Israel says publicly that he’s sorry his welfare cuts made life harder for Jewish families who are “blessed,” as he put it, with many children, but isn’t it “positive” that these cuts resulted in fewer Arab children being born?

Then Netanyahu went on to suggest a national remedy for the victims of his economic policies — but for Jewish victims only, not Arab victims.

“I don’t think that the Jewish Agency should refrain from helping part of the Jewish public in the state,” he said, “and it is possible that additional nongovernmental bodies could have done so.”

Imagine if any non-Jewish government official in the world cited the lowering of the Jewish birthrate in his country as an accomplishment, then recommended that his country’s founding institution raise money to help poor non-Jewish families but not poor Jewish families.

How would the Jewish world, starting with Israel, characterize such an individual? What sort of pressure would the Jewish world apply to get him or her fired, blackballed and, if possible, indicted?

Yet everyone knows the speech in Nir Etzion will not hurt Netanyahu at all — even though, again, this is not the first time he’s said this, and even though the statements are perfectly in line with his standing as Israel’s No. 1 fear-monger on the Israeli-Arab “demographic threat.”

(On second thought, Netanyahu is probably only No. 2 — Avigdor Lieberman, his former right-hand man and alter ego, is No. 1. When it comes to the subject of Israeli Arabs, it’s hard to tell where Netanyahu ends and Lieberman begins.)

The worst that will happen to Netanyahu from this is that maybe another liberal commentator or two will denounce him, and there will be a press release from some civil rights organization. Maybe not even that. If, on the other hand, we’re really, really lucky, the attorney general might have a word to say.

(FYI, even if there was a chance of it happening, I wouldn’t want to see Netanyahu indicted. If every Israeli who made racist remarks in public had to stand trial, the courts would collapse under the load.)

The only political parties that might censure Netanyahu are the left-wing parties, and nobody cares about them. In fact, a bad word from Meretz can only help the Likud leader in the polls.

The Anti-Defamation League won’t say anything, and neither will the other Diaspora Jewish organizations. Bibi is just too big, too popular, too important, too much a symbol of Israel for the Diaspora Jewish establishment to say a word against him, let alone accuse him of being a shameless bigot.

“Two positive things happened: Members of the Charedi public seriously joined the workforce. And on the national level, the unexpected result was the demographic effect on the non-Jewish public, where there was a dramatic drop in the birthrate.”

That’s the Israeli people’s overwhelming choice for prime minister talking. I hope The New York Times, CNN and every other major news medium in the world picks up this story and doesn’t let it go until Israel and Diaspora Jewry are shamed into dumping this guy once and for all.

On second thought, exposure as an anti-Arab racist by the international media could cause Netanyahu some problems overseas, but at home, it would only increase his appeal.

Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.