Sumud Freedom Camp in the South Hebron Hills is a physical space dedicated to nonviolent activism. Photo by Gilli Getz

Sumud Freedom Camp: A vision of peace in the Hebron Hills?


There is something new under the unforgiving South Hebron sun.

A disparate group of Palestinians, Israelis and Diaspora Jews came together this spring to create Sumud (Steadfastness) Freedom Camp, an effort to show that a seemingly intractable conflict might yet be resolved through a grass-roots movement of people who refuse to be enemies.

Sumud campers from the Palestinian and Jewish worlds are making different political choices from many of their own community leaders. Sumud’s founding organizations include the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV), the Holy Land Trust (HLT), Youth Against Settlements (YAG), All That’s Left, Combatants for Peace, and the Popular Resistance Committee of the South Hebron Hills.

At the outset, two projects drive the mission: First, to exist as a “safe, nonviolent, unarmed space where all those who believe in a future founded on justice, freedom, and equality can come together to build a foundation that will sustain a just peace.” Second, to renovate housing at the site of Sarura, a village displaced by an Israeli military zone, hoping to return families to their homes.

The HLT, organized by Sami Awad in 1998, chooses to work with Israeli and Jewish activists in the context of extreme care taken by  Palestinian leaders to build any collaborations such that they do not normalize Israeli domination. While not a religious organization, HLT takes inspiration from the teachings of Jesus Christ as well as Mahatma Ghandi, embracing nonviolence as a guiding principle.

Awad calls Israel/Palestine a place of “many narratives.” Sumud includes people who regard 1948 as a miracle and others who see it as a naqba, a catastrophe. Rather than waiting for some magic day when everyone’s story collapses into a master narrative, Sumud campers are trying something new: creating a space where people can be together in their differences, joy, pride and pain to build relationships based on mutual respect.

Youth Against Settlements is a direct-action group committed to nonviolent civil disobedience, the right of each of its members to their own religious beliefs and women’s equality. A founder and leader of YAG, Issa Amro, who has led actions such as the creation of Cinema Hebron, a closed factory revitalized as a movie theater (which was shuttered by the Israeli military), faces prosecution in Israel for “assaulting a soldier” during a demonstration in which Amro was injured. He is accused of pushing and calling a soldier “stupid,” as though tactlessness could really be a crime in Israel.

Israeli authorities have ordered an August trial for Amro, who has been successful at turning young Palestinians away from violence and fundamentalism.

For its part, the Diaspora Jewish delegation, organized by CJNV, has gathered members of politically disparate organizations who do not always speak civilly, let alone work together at home, such as J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now.

The only agreements CJNV delegates had to commit to were the organization’s three guiding principles: opposition to the occupation, an unshakeable commitment to nonviolence and “belief in the shared humanity and full equality of Palestinians and Israelis alike.” This includes people who favor a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine, others who favor two states and people who don’t really believe there should be state power anywhere on earth.

The oldest Jewish camper, a man in his 80s, worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee fighting for African-American equality in the U.S. South. The youngest camper was 18. There were Jews of many colors, economic backgrounds and varieties of Judaism, from very observant to proudly atheist. Palestinian participants ranged from old to young, urban to rural, academic to working class, Muslim, Christian and none of the above.

Sumud Freedom Camp was created on the site of Sarura, a village located in Area C, the part of the occupied West Bank that is entirely under Israeli military control. Sarura and most Palestinian villages in Area C have been declared military zones, which means that whole communities live under constant threat of summary demolition. They are not allowed to file Master Plans with the Israeli authorities, but any construction made without a Master Plan is illegal. Hence, any improvement to a building, paved road, mosque, school, water tower or solar power plant can be, and often is, torn down — but not until its builders labor to its completion and are forced to watch the destruction.

The South Hebron Hills are a particularly challenging place to live when one is denied access to electrical power, filtered water and a sewage system — all of which are available to the Israeli settlements, including Sumud’s neighbor, Ma’on Settlement, which, in its founding, was illegal even under Israeli law.

Despite its beginnings, Ma’on enjoys water, power and green space sufficient to render it indistinguishable from a remote Southern California desert suburb. Its residents also, with impunity, engage in harassment of Sarura and other nearby villages. Even on Shabbat, settlers rode three-wheelers through the village close to the Sumud camp, scaring animals and taunting people.

Adjacent to prosperous (and younger) settlements, Har Hebron villages struggle to wrest a living based on herding and agriculture from the stingy, dusty soil. The residents live sustainably, micro-irrigating crops and allowing animals to roam free, which often results in confiscation by settler youth that goes uncompensated and unpunished.

Everything in the South Hebron Hills fights back: soil limned with sharp rocks and heavy stones, the scouring wind, the blazing heat of day, the frigid cold of night, even barbed and sticky weeds that compete with fragile crops for precious water. It is from this soil that the nonviolent youth movement, dedicated fiercely to education and self-improvement, is emerging.

Local Palestinians from neighboring villages such as Umm al-Khair and al-Tiwani have been supportive of Sumud, sheltering travelers on their way to the camp and spending the night themselves. Young men from the neighboring villages help renovate caves that have housed Palestinians for generations. The caves, naturally insulated from the heat and cold, are made livable by caulking the places where snakes and scorpions might hide, plastering the ground and installing doors and screens to make rooms.

Despite concerns that it might prove “triggering” for Palestinians to hear Jews praying in Hebrew, several Palestinians joined Shabbat celebrations, among them representatives from Roots/Shoreshim, a group founded by a self-defined “settler rabbi” and a Palestinian activist who had spent time in Israeli prison. Actual neighbors, they acknowledged that they had never spent time face-to-face with each other. They began to build friendships simply by introducing their children to one another and sharing personal histories.

During Kabbalat Shabbat, Shoreshim representatives shared their group’s vision of “a social and political reality that is founded on dignity, trust, and a mutual recognition and respect for both peoples’ historic belonging to the entire Land.”

The Israeli army continues to harass the Sumud camp, shoving people around and taking away tents, a generator, even a car. Most of the international campers have left, but the camp is being maintained by local Palestinian activists, Israeli Jews, and some Diaspora Jews who stayed.

Sumud Freedom Camp does not represent a retreat from politics. Rather, it is an experiment in building a political program from the grass roots up, based on real relationships and investments in one another’s well-being that cross national and religious divides.

Peace activists are often asked, “So where are all the nonviolent Palestinian activists?” Actually, they aren’t hard to find. A better question is, “Why isn’t the Israeli government acknowledging and trying to partner with such people instead of repressing them?”


Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at Cal State Long Beach and serves as affiliated clergy at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Israel I support


The first time I touched the Western Wall was on a Young Judea trip from Los Angeles to Israel back in 1997 — and can I just tell you? I felt … nothing.

Absolutely nothing. And, oh man, I wanted to feel something. Everyone said I would. From our rabbi in Culver City, to all my Sunday school teachers, to my friends who had been to Israel, to my mother and my grandmother who had touched the wall.

“It’s unlike anything else in the world,” they all said.

I felt like there was something wrong with me for feeling nothing when I touched it. So I nodded along with everyone else when they went on about how spiritual and meaningful it felt — but honestly? I can tell this now: I felt just a wall.

But I did feel other things that summer: Namely, a deep and abiding love of this little strip of land, this geographic fingernail that holds so much potential and so much promise. And more than that, I felt a powerful, permeating love of the people — all the people — living there.

Now, 20 years later, after immigrating to Israel nearly seven years ago, I have those feelings even more. I also feel that the wall matters to many of the people underneath this big huge tent with me. This little piece of wall is a symbol of how the Romans tried to crush us, and we survived. More than that: We thrived. We became bigger and more flexible. We became more diverse in our culture and religious experience. This little piece of wall symbolizes the journey we are still on as a people, honing our values — a small but mighty and insistently surviving people who disagree and come together. That means something to me.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer

But then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a deal to create an egalitarian prayer space for Jews who are not Torah observant. And that makes me livid. Because in doing so, Netanyahu basically said, “Screw you” to our big, huge tent. He basically said, “Screw you” to Jews like me and Jews like many of you.

If you’re a Diaspora Jew who believes in pluralism, chances are you’re angry right now, and that’s good. And I’m glad you’re angry because we need you to be angry. But I need you to come with me a step further, and feel something even more meaningful: People.

Our government does not give a damn about certain people despite great protestations to the contrary. I’m just going to give you a few examples. Many Holocaust survivors are in abject poverty. One out of four, actually. We have a lovely ceremony every year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, but our leaders basically do nothing to focus on the living who need help. And each year the number of survivors gets smaller and smaller, until — very soon — there will be no one left. And it really feels right now that despite the ceremony, despite ample reference to the Holocaust in political speeches abroad, that our government is just waiting for these people to die already. Because if that weren’t the case, wouldn’t we make sure that not a single Holocaust survivor was freezing in the winter, hungry all year round or alone? Is this an Israel you support?

In Israel, you can’t marry outside your own religious group or outside your own group’s strictest religious interpretation. Jews can marry only Jews. Christians can marry only Christians. Muslims can marry only Muslims. And if you’re Jewish and want to get married with a Reform rabbi in Israel, you can’t. Unless you go abroad and get married there, and then come back with a certified marriage license, and go through ridiculous legal and bureaucratic hoops and blah blah blah. This is unacceptable. Who we love and choose to make a life with is not anyone’s business but our own, and we shouldn’t have to jump through these hoops if we have enough faith to commit to someone for the rest of our lives. Is this an Israel you support?

Migrants and refugees are invisible to most Israelis — they work in the back of the kitchen, or they’re out there sorting garbage. They are poor and in need, and they are ignored. Or harassed. Or locked away. With the rare exception of people at such places as Terem Medical Center and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, no one looks after them. Because it’s easier to look away than face their pain and our moral shortcomings. Is this an Israel you support?

Arab citizens of Israel (sometimes referred to as Palestinian citizens of Israel) get racially profiled daily. They are humiliated. Daily. They are stopped and questioned and even searched. Daily. Mahmoud can’t get a building permit, but Moshe can. Their streets are not always paved, and trash builds up along their sidewalks. They’re told, “You have it better than you would in Syria” — a disgusting thing to hear because, despite being citizens, they are still not treated as equals of their Jewish neighbors. Is this an Israel you support?

Our child poverty rates are way too high. Our schools are de facto segregated into separate and not equal systems where basically zero effort is made by the government to help integrate communities in after-school programs. Our housing prices are way too high because so much of our money goes toward building settlements, further entrenching us in a conflict that gets harder and harder to end. Is this an Israel you support?

This little piece of wall symbolizes the journey we are still on as a people, honing our values — a small but mighty and insistently surviving people who disagree and come together. That means something to me.

I don’t support that Israel. But I do support Israel. I support the Israel that raises money to help a Palestinian guy pay a fine he got for wearing the wrong bathing suit on the beach — after 20 years of not seeing the shoreline because he lives behind a different wall.

I support the Israel made up of the civil rights workers and the human rights workers who are giving their lives — and in some cases, risking their lives — to defend the downtrodden and the disenfranchised.

I support the Israel whose citizens run toward a terror attack and not away from it because they want to help in any way they can.

I support the Israel whose citizens speak out against 50 years of occupation — an occupation that hasn’t made us any safer or any stronger, an occupation corroding us from within and teaching our children that some people are more equal than others.

I support the Israel whose citizens volunteer in South Tel Aviv with the migrant babies, who show up to help take care of impoverished Holocaust survivors, who send their kids to mixed schools between religious and secular Jews, and the Arabs and Jews who want their children to know their neighbors even when those neighbors come from different worlds.

I support the Israel whose citizens understand something fundamental: The Western Wall is a very important symbol of our faith and our strength as a people — but it is just a wall. Just a wall. It was the hands that placed those stones back in the day that were holy, and it is the hands that touch them today that are holy.

So, American Jews — and everyone else dismayed by the true face of our government that you are now seeing — please don’t give up on Israel. Speak out and vote with your wallets.  Don’t boycott us, because that will only make the extremists on all sides that much stronger. Support us by giving to organizations that support a just and equal Israel for all her holy people, such as Hiddush, New Israel Fund, Oasis of Peace: Wahat al-Salam––Neve Shalom, and Women Wage Peace.

The Israel I support and I love and I will give my life for understands that people are, above all, the most important — and treating people with dignity, respect and, yes, equality —  should be our holy mission on this earth.

I hope you will support that, too.


Sarah Tuttle-Singer is a writer in Jerusalem working on a book about the Old City. The Venice, Calif., native climbs on roofs and drinks scotch.

The flag in question looked like this. Via WikiCommons

The summer our rainbow flag became a red flag


The Jan. 31,1969, cover of Time magazine bore the headline “Black vs. Jew: A Tragic Confrontation.” Our rabbi brought a copy to our class of high school juniors and seniors, and used it as an opportunity to teach us a Latin expression.

Cui bono?” he asked. “ ‘Who benefits’ from a cover and a story like this?”

I walked away from our discussion that night with an understanding that has served me all these years. Of course there will be disagreements among friends and those with shared values and passions, but can we avoid letting those disagreements distract us from the causes and people most deserving of our attention?  

The disputes we’re encountering this summer stop us from working together and, more importantly, from sitting together and making a deliberate effort to understand where we are coming from and where we might go together.

My brother, Larry Edwards, is rabbi emeritus of the LGBT synagogue Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago. Long a participant in the Chicago queer Jewish community, he has been reflecting on the recent conflicts, especially the one that originated in Chicago last month.

He writes: “By now many are familiar with the controversy surrounding Chicago’s Dyke March on June 24. (And I want to clarify up front — because there does seem to be some confusion out there — that the event was not the Chicago Pride Parade. The Pride Parade, held the next day, has always been open to wide and diverse participation.) My friend Laurie Grauer, a longtime member of my former congregation and a long-time participant in Chicago Dyke Marches, was asked to leave because of a flag. Or perhaps not just because of the flag, but because she was closely questioned about her Zionist affiliation, and told that there was no space for a Zionist in this Dyke March.

“The flag in question was designed and produced by members of Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago during the time that I served as its rabbi. As far as I know, this was the first version of this flag, a Star of David on a Rainbow flag, though similar versions may have been produced elsewhere. It was a fundraiser, as well as a way to express — both playfully and seriously — queer Jewish identity. It was carried by us in numerous Pride Parades, typically to cheers from many in the crowd. So it was a bit surprising to hear that Laurie was harassed for carrying our flag, or that it was perceived by some in the crowd as a ‘trigger’ which made them feel threatened.”

My brother recommends a recent article in response to the Dyke March controversy by historian Judith Rosenbaum of the Jewish Women’s Archive, who offers some nuanced and historically informed insights into the current dilemma.

“Intersectionality,” she explains, “is not about enforcing alignment of identities and politics. In fact, by definition, ‘intersectionality’ is the opposite of alignment! Intersecting lines touch at only one point; everywhere else, they are heading in different directions. The purpose of intersectionality is to help us all realize that identities are complex and diverse and multi-faceted; that we can’t create simple equations to explain, describe, or prescribe them. …

“As a historian, I am keenly aware that social movements have often come undone over the attempt to enforce rigid ideological alignments. … In this historical moment, we do not have the luxury of splintering in pursuit of ideological purity.”

Rosenbaum, my brother and I join a growing number calling for real dialogue rather than absolutes, in the hopes, as my brother says, “such dialogue will lead to a stronger (if less pure) coalition — something sorely needed in a time when powerful forces are seeking to reverse the gains of recent decades.”

Indeed, in a decades-long struggle for queer rights, and in this time of angst, of threats real and perceived, none of us is lacking for examples of the way dismissals, quick judgments, assumptions and demands for apologies serve to alienate us from one another.

Cui bono?

Not our aching hearts nor our anxious minds, and not our community nor the people and causes we seek to support. We know it is easier asked for than accomplished, but we have some walls of our own to dismantle. Let’s talk.  


Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay
synagogue. This article was written in conversation with
Rabbi Larry Edwards, rabbi emeritus of the LGBTQ synagogue Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago.

Members of activist group Women of the Wall speak to the media following the Israeli government's decision to create an egalitarian prayer plaza near Jerusalem's Western Wall, January 31, 2016. (Photo: Amir Cohen/Reuters)

There’s more to the story: Look beyond the wall


I have been spat and yelled at (and worse) while davening at the Kotel. I stand behind the efforts to bring egalitarian services there. I am a supporter of Women of the Wall (WOW). And I am pained (but somehow not surprised) by the recent reversal by the government, which does feel like a betrayal, and which stymies admirable efforts to open the Kotel to the full array of Jewish religious expression.

And at the same time, I choose not to wring my hands or wallow today. I choose to celebrate, and thus identify with Rabbi Akiva in the famous story from the Talmud in which his rabbinic peers tore their garments upon seeing the ruins of Jerusalem. They see the moment frozen in time, a destruction prophesied by a particular biblical verse. Rabbi Akiva smiles, however, reminding them that the end of that very verse also prophesies redemption. Now that the nadir envisioned by the verse has come to pass, the eventual ascension/aliyah is also inevitable.

So why do I celebrate today? Because even though the Charedi hold on Israeli politics is at times painful and corrupt, as the Kotel fiasco attests, for me, redemption is not tied to a particular wall. I am sometimes bemused by the fact that so much focus is put on prayer at the ruin of the Temple by the very Jews who least ache for that spot to re-emerge as the center of Jewish spirituality. For the progressive-traditional Jew, who sees rebirth of meaningful and resonant Judaism within Israel as one of Zionism’s greatest contributions and challenges, what transpires at the Kotel may be symbolically important, but pales in comparison to the evolutions transpiring throughout the land — the mash-up of secular seekers and traditional liturgy at various Kabbalat Shabbat phenomena that are growing; the strength and vitality of Masorti and Progressive synagogues and communities despite the infrastructural challenges that inhibit them; the will exhibited by myriad Israelis to reject the authority and monopoly of the rabbanut by making decisions (which, yes, they ought not have to make) to marry creatively rather than under near-theocratic conditions.

Last summer, I attended a cousin’s wedding on an Orthodox kibbutz, where the officiant was female, and at which the hordes of sweaty, tzitzit-flying, tichel-wearing attendees saw no conflict between traditional Jewish rituals and practice on the one hand, and female religious leadership and party-style mixed-dancing on the other. This same cousin, who helped found yet another Orthodox/egalitarian minyan in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, recently posted on Facebook wishing a mazel tov on the recent wedding … of Moshe and Eran, two of his closest male friends and fellow B’nai Akiva alumni.

I’d tear a tiny thread in my clothes, as I really do wish that on my next visit to the Kotel, I and my daughters can pray in the manner we find sacred. But this symbolic setback is dwarfed by the extraordinary successes we see playing out in spots that are, indeed, more important to the Jewish future even than those venerable stones.

I honor the leaders of WOW and wish them strength. And yet I know we will not win every engagement. And the perfect is the enemy of the good. And Robinson’s Arch is a beautiful place to hold egalitarian prayer (and a bit shadier, too!). And if we scope out beyond those square meters, and if we are witness to (and financially contribute to) the efforts to egalitarian-ize and modernize and evolution-ize the many Judaisms of modern Israel, then we can stand with Rabbi Akiva, and celebrate the burgeoning redemptions.


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am.

Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall.

Big, Beautiful Tents


I remember the first time I saw you. It was the summer of 1978 and the whole family was traveling to Israel to celebrate the b’nai mitzvah of my older sister and brother. We’d only just met and I didn’t know your story yet, but I recall feeling impossibly small in your presence. Despite the heat, you were cool to the touch. I stood right next to you, holding my father’s hand as he gently rested his forehead against you, whispering a prayer.

Although both of my siblings had participated fully in the ceremony we’d celebrated at our synagogue in Omaha, Neb., a few months earlier, only my brother was given the honor of chanting Torah in your presence. My sister, my mom, my grandmother, my aunt and all of the other women stood on chairs on the other side of the divider as the men (and 8-year-old me) gathered around my brother to hear him recite the ancient blessings.

I don’t remember how I felt at the time about my mother having to stand on a chair to watch from a distance, but when I think about it now, almost four decades later, it makes me sad.

Over the years, I’ve visited you more times than I can count. I’ve stood before you with some of the people who matter to me most. I cried in your presence as I watched my grandfather lean against you to write a final letter to my deceased grandmother, telling her that he’d see her soon. I’ve introduced you to hundreds of people, from teenagers on summer tours to families on synagogue missions.

I’ll be with you again in just a few days. This time, I’ll bring two young women to stand beside you as they chant these words from our tradition: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael!  How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5).

Parashat Balak is the perfect text for such a time as this. A prophet is sent by our enemy to curse Israel. He explains that he can say only the words that God puts into his mouth and out comes a blessing instead. It can be read as a prayer, too: “May it be Your will, O God, that we might have the courage and wisdom to pitch big, beautiful tents like Abraham and Sarah, open on all sides, welcoming all who would enter.”

We magnify and glorify our tradition when we find room in our hearts for our entire community: women and men; secular and religious; Orthodox and Reform; Ashkenazi and Sephardi; gay, straight, and transgender; Jews by birth and Jews by choice along with non-Jewish friends and family members who have cast their lots with our People. This week’s reversal by the Netanyahu government of its previous agreement to provide an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and its views on conversion diminish our tradition and weaken our community.

There are congregations throughout Israel and the Diaspora that continue to support a broad, inclusive Judaism. Every day, I am grateful to be part of a synagogue that consciously and intentionally tries to celebrate the big, beautiful diversity of our contemporary Jewish community.

Next week, as I travel to Jerusalem and approach that ancient Wall, I won’t hear those young women chant Torah in the same place where my brother stood. Women’s voices still aren’t welcome there, so we’ll go a hundred yards farther south where, for now at least, we can join together as a community to worship, to give thanks, and to celebrate what it means to be part of a People called Israel.

And when those two young women raise their voices in prayer and song, proudly adding their links to our chain of tradition, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved to offer a simple prayer: “May all of Jacob’s descendants, all Israel, soon come to agree that each and every member of our diverse community deserves a place of honor within the tents of Israel.” 


Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple.

Nicholas Melvoin. Photo from nickmelvoin.com

Can Nick Melvoin bring more Jews to LAUSD schools?


One of the many items on Nick Melvoin’s agenda as a new member of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board is whether he can help make the L.A. public schools more attractive to middle-class Jewish parents and their children.

As I prepared to interview him recently, I knew this might not be the most pressing issue facing an enormous, financially troubled school district confronted with the many problems of urban America. But I thought it was important given that this group’s support had been significant to the public schools before it started to desert them in recent years. I had discussed the matter often with the man Melvoin defeated at the polls in May, school board President Steve Zimmer, and I wanted to know his successor’s views.

But, like I said, there’s so much else at play. Melvoin and the other new school board member, Kelly Gonez, are committed to a larger remodeling of the district, which often has proved to be ungovernable. They were backed in the election by rich supporters of charter schools who long have criticized LAUSD. These contributors want more charter schools, which are public schools not bound by union contracts and other district rules and regulations. The charter school backers say they provide a better education for students.

The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, see the charters as a union-busting device. Complicating the matter, because of the intricacies of school finance, some state funds go to the charters, which reduces the money available to regular public schools.

Charter school supporters and their opponents, the unions, spent $15 million on the election between Melvoin and Zimmer, with the charter supporters donating twice as much as their foes. The result was the most expensive school board election in U.S. history.

No doubt, Melvoin, 31, and Gonez, 28, got an idea of how hard remaking the district would be when they were schooled in the district’s byzantine ways by veteran staff members at a three-day session from June 21-23. I met Melvoin in his campaign manager’s Mid-Wilshire office after one of the sessions. I could imagine the scene: Veteran educators, resistant to change, assuring the young newcomers, “Kids, listen to us. We know the ropes. This is how we’ve always done it.”

I could see that he needed a shot of energy, and he immediately steered me to a Starbucks, where we talked about the importance of keeping white, middle-class students in LAUSD, including Jews.

First, though, a bit of context: The district in 2015 reported that 74 percent of its students were Latino, 9.8 percent white, 8.8 percent African-American, 3.8 percent Asian and 3.5 percent Native American and other ethnicities. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, along with USC’s Richard Flory and Diane Winston, found that about half of the white students in LAUSD are Jewish. That’s based on figures from 2000; Phillips said newer information is badly needed.

The school district reports that 84 percent of students attending the most recent academic year qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, the federal definition of poverty.

Melvoin said he thinks it’s important to increase the number of middle-class students in the Los Angeles schools. The additional middle-class parents, who vote more than the poor, would increase political influence on board members, maybe resulting in improved policies and administration. More middle-class students would make Los Angeles schools more economically and ethnically diverse, which studies show improves education and civic involvement. And more students would increase the amount of state aid — allocated by enrollment size — going to LAUSD.

Melvoin said he saw the importance of middle-class involvement in his campaign. “When you have a group of parent advocates engaged in a way that they haven’t been in the past, you have this advocacy base, this group of politically aware parents with political and social capital,” he said.

Melvoin said his involvement in the Jewish community and interaction with other young Jews showed that more Jewish students would bring to the schools a more diverse cultural experience when Jews, Latinos, African-Americans and other ethnicities mingle in classrooms, the theater, bands and in social life.

“I’m on the board of the Union for Reform Judaism and involved with The Jewish Federation and some of the young professional cohorts, so I think having a diverse school setting is an important value. … For our community, being in integrated schools and having our kids being in school with kids from a lot of diverse communities will strengthen the education our kids will receive,” he said.

Melvoin said that more Jewish students would bring to the schools a more diverse cultural experience.

But Melvoin, who was a middle school teacher in Los Angeles for two years, conceded it will be a tough sell, especially at poor schools where many students have limited English skills and test scores are lower.

“Parents first look at test scores,” Melvoin said. “Until they see academic improvement, they won’t send their kids. … Until you improve the core instruction, I don’t think some of these middle-class parents will be interested.”

I asked him about what it will take to improve the schools. “Great teachers, great principals, engaged parents, rigorous curriculum, deeper dives into content,” he said.

I don’t think any of previous board members would disagree with those generalities. But his predecessors have been stymied by obstacles big and small of which Melvoin still is unaware.

He will have to deal with hostile unions, especially when the board tries to reduce pension and benefit costs that administrators have warned are driving the district into bankruptcy. Charter school advocates will demand action from Melvoin after they financed his campaign. Parents will besiege him with complaints.

All this for a salary of $45,637 a year.

Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor and research scholar at Claremont Graduate University, described the new school board member’s challenge well on the Education Week website: “Remember the little dog you used to have: the one that chased cars but was smart enough not to ever catch one? Nick Melvoin caught the car. Now, he and his big money backers have to figure out what to do with the nation’s second largest school district.”


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

People take part in an "I am Muslim Too" rally in Times Square on Feb. 19. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Crafting political activism


“Protest is the new brunch,” says the new slogan. I certainly hope not.

Shortly before the inaugural, a friend posted a question on her Facebook page. She lives in Orange County and has a couple of small children. She asked if she should attend the Women’s March in Los Angeles, or go to a smaller one in the O.C.? It would be quite a hassle to bring her children, but she wanted to see her friends. What should she do?

I responded as follows: “Think about it this way. Resisting this Regime is not an exercise for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. It will be a marathon, not a sprint. It seems to me that doing that work means joining an activist community that you will be able to work with on an ongoing basis, developing ideas for what you want to accomplish, and then working together to accomplish them. You aren’t going to schlep up here regularly to do that. Moreover, maybe your kids will meet other kids from Orange County so it will be easier for you to involve them. So as much as I would like to see you, at least if you are trying to effect change, staying there might be better.”

She might have thought her question was about convenience, but it really concerned effectiveness. Did it matter where she protested?

We all have seen and I have participated in many of the now ubiquitous protests, marches, meetings, etc., that constitute the resistance to President Donald Trump. How do we assess them? If activism is supposed to accomplish something, it must be tethered to a clearly enumerated set of objectives — in other words, it needs a coherent theory of change. Put another way, how does activism get us from point A to point B? Answering this question is particularly necessary now, when marches, protests and actions are occurring throughout the country — and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Demand for a theory of change has dictated my own preferred activist course: voter registration. In Southern California alone, there are five congressional districts held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Since I want to block President Donald Trump as much as possible, I would like to flip those districts to the Democrats. So I spend a good bit of my time going to these districts (in Santa Clarita and Orange County), trying to register more Democrats. If enough of these districts flip across the country, then the House will become Democratic. It’s a straightforward theory of change. That doesn’t mean that it will work or that it will be easy. A coherent theory of change doesn’t necessarily mean an effective one. But it cannot be effective unless it’s coherent.

Theories of change span the political spectrum, of course. Anti-abortion activists picket clinics because they hope to shame pregnant women into turning away — making it too emotionally difficult to end their pregnancy. Whatever you think of this tactic, it contains a coherent theory of change. Picketing leads to shame leads to emotional pain leads to turning away leads to preventing the abortion.

“Raising consciousness” or “speaking out” can represent a coherent theory of change — but only if it is married to concrete ends. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to protest in Birmingham, Ala., precisely because he knew that the sheriff there, Eugene “Bull” Connor, would respond violently and brutally. The ensuing gruesome television images would, he hoped, catalyze complacent Northern opinion into seeing the ugliest face of Jim Crow and raise political pressure on Congress to act. It worked.

So I often get frustrated when activists say that they want to be a “voice” for change. What will that voice do? Simply being a voice can work only if the circumstances are right. A friend who organizes protests in Santa Clarita  explained her efforts to me this way: “This town has been Republican for so long that Democrats don’t think they have a chance. Protesting shows them that there are other Democrats here, and that we can win. So they will become more involved and get others involved in politics.” This is a coherent theory of change. 

“Raising consciousness” or “speaking out” can represent a coherent theory of change — but only if it is married to concrete ends.

You might be more of a change agent than you think. A few years ago, I read a master’s thesis that considered, among other things, what organizations can do to get more people to come to their meetings. That’s a very important question for any organizing. The answer? Not slick ad campaigns, nor charismatic leadership, nor lots of money, but rather providing food and child care. That’s common sense when you think of it. So, don’t want to knock on doors or give speeches or drive all over the place? Fine, can you watch the kids during the meetings or cook something? Then you are doing a lot.

I sometimes hear two primary objections to insisting on a theory of change that deserve answers.

Objection one: I’m not a social theorist!

Social change is hard and complicated. “I’m just a doctor/social worker/customer service rep/development officer/accountant/teacher, etc. How can you expect me to develop a whole theory of change?”

First, don’t sell yourself short; you’re a lot smarter than you think. You don’t need a fancy education or experience to figure out how to get from point A to point B. You probably do it in your life all the time.

Second, you don’t have to have a theory of change, but any organization that asks for your energy, your time, your resources or your support should be able to explain to you what its theory of change is. Ask the organization, “In 18 months, if you are successful, what has happened and how do you see it happening?” If it doesn’t make sense to you, it might not make sense to the organization either. Or it might not know. If it doesn’t, then maybe you should look elsewhere. The goal is to help you focus your energy on activism that can lead to real change.

Objection two: One person can’t change the world.

Many people engage in protest and activism not because they think they will change the world, but because they simply want to stand for what is right and lead an ethical life. Critics might call this “virtue-signaling,” but we also can see it as simple humility. I am doing what I think is right even though I don’t expect that I will change the world. Christians sometimes call this “witnessing”: just declaring your beliefs and values publicly without pretending that others will listen, although we can always hope for that.

This posture is attractive precisely because it combines modesty with realism. If you adopt this approach, however, be clear in your own mind that that is what you are doing. “I suppose I have joined the Resistance, but what I am really doing is connecting to God.” Be honest with yourself — and with others who are considering joining you. We always benefit from courageous and moral voices, but we must not allow developing such voices to become an excuse for inaction.

Protest, then, is not the new brunch. It is a particular tactic that (we hope) fits into a broader program of social change. What is that program? How does it work? We can’t answer that question unless we ask it. But now we have. Go and learn.


Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Jason Greenblatt, left, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem on March 13. Photo by Government Press Office

A Palestinian state: Like Gaza, only bigger


“Two-state” Middle East proposals are alluring given the prizes they offer each side: a Jewish, democratic Israel; and an independent Palestine. But any real two-state “solution” (and not just a two-state result) must improve the daily lives of both Israelis and Palestinians. For Palestinians, that’s unlikely.

Ten years ago this week, the radical terrorist group Hamas took control of the already-miserable Gaza Strip – and daily life in Gaza has only worsened in the decade since. Indeed, two million Gazans face massive unemployment and daily struggles to find adequate food, housing, electricity, clean water, and medical care. The United Nations predicts the area will be “unlivable” by 2020.

Gaza’s dire straits are usually blamed on the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, as well as other travel and economic restrictions that wouldn’t apply if Palestine were independent. But Palestinian structural, political, and cultural problems mean the Gaza script is all too likely to be replayed on the West Bank in the event of a two-state resolution. How long before the Palestinian residents of Nablus and Hebron begin pining for the good old days of Israeli presence?

With all the complaints about Israeli checkpoints and other restrictions, it’s easy to forget that Israel built the skeleton upon which Palestine has rested, for better or worse, for half a century.

I’m not sure Israel would simply hand over the infrastructure it created – let’s face it, mostly for its own citizens – in the event of a Palestinian state. Two states would not reflect a “divorce” as in Czechoslovakia in 1993, since the land for Palestine originally came from Jordan and Israel was never binational. If Palestine asks Israel to defer to its declaration of independence, it can’t reasonably expect to simply keep everything Israel built within its borders. The two states would have to negotiate the disposition of the West Bank’s water systems, telecommunications, transportation, electric grid, and more.

But even if Israel did abandon all claims to the foundation it built through massive investment in the West Bank, Palestinians have no experience administering and operating it efficiently. Over in Gaza, the technical problems are not solely due to Israeli interference; Hamas blunders also play a role.

The currency Palestinians use – even in Gaza – is the Israeli shekel. An independent Palestine would have its own currency, which – even if pegged to the dollar or the Euro – would be untested and a risky change from Israel’s currently robust shekel.

People often forget that Israel’s military presence in the West Bank modulates the territory’s internal conflicts. Palestinians are sharply divided, particularly regarding the religious and political shape of any future state. Israel’s army has kept those tensions from boiling over into civil war. Who will play that role if Israel withdraws?

And some of Gaza’s plight results from Palestinian cultural factors that would stymie a healthy democracy. (Indeed, the technically democratic Palestinian Authority hasn’t held an election in 11 years.) Notorious corruption on the West Bank combined with tribal and regional rivalries suggest a constantly destabilized Palestine, particularly after it can no longer (well, should no longer) unify its people by blaming its disarray on Israel.

Of course, one of the reasons for Gaza’s hardship is the three short but devastating wars it fought with Israel. Israel had to invade each time because of rockets being fired at its civilians – and not only by militants controlled by Hamas. An independent Palestine will be hard-pressed to prevent individuals and groups from launching missiles on Israel – this time from closer range to Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv. Palestinians bemoan the deaths of Gaza residents from Israel’s “disproportionate response” to its defensive actions. Independence in the West Bank would double down on that problem.

Why are Palestinians even pushing for an independent state given its likely failure to improve their lives? It’s not like they are unaware of the obstacles. Well, for many of them, an independent Palestine is just one step toward the ultimate goal of a unified nation including all of their “heritage” – and that includes Tel Aviv and its suburbs as much as it does Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

Not every world problem has a solution. Korea remains divided and China still occupies Tibet. Many Israelis have welcomed he Trump Administration’s signals it is not wedded to the two-state approach. Perhaps Palestinians should also be heartened and eager to explore different strategies for easing the conflict, lest a two-state result produces a Palestinian state that is basically Gaza, only bigger.


David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him atDavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Congregation Mogen David, a polling station, on Election Day 2016. Photo by Ryan Torok

Oppose Charter Amendment C—and strengthen democracy


Did you know that there is an election on May 16? Don’t beat up on yourself if you didn’t, most of your fellow citizens do not know either. The problem is that the very “hiding in broad daylight” aspect of this election might allow some very bad law to be enacted. There is only one item on the ballot for most Angelenos, “Charter Amendment C.” The item has a reform sounding title: “Civilian Review of Police Disciplinary Matters.” Unfortunately, this amendement to the city charter is not a reform. It is an attempt by the Police Protective League (the police officers’ union) to undermine the current disciplinary mechanism.

Under the current system, enacted by Charter Amendment after the Rodney King uprising, there is a Board of Rights attached to and constituted by the Police Commission. In a case where the Chief of Police recommends suspension or demotion an officer may appeal to the Board of Rights. The Board of Rights is comprised of three people—two randomly chosen police officers, and a civilian from a pool handpicked by the executive director of the Police Commission. The Board of Rights cannot recommend a more severe punishment than the Chief, but can recommend a more lenient one.

Under the proposed Amendment, the Board of Rights’s composition will change so that it will be comprised of three civilians. An officer who has received a discipline recommendation from the Chief will be able to choose either the current Board (2 officers and 1 civilian) or the new Board. Neither Board may recommend a more severe punishment.

So why, one may ask, would the Police Protective League, fierce opponents of all manner of civilian oversight, first and foremost the establishment of the Police Commission in its current form itself (Amendment F), be the most vocal and lead supporters of Amendment C, labelling it “civilian oversight?” Why, on the other hand, are the most vocal supporters of police reform and civilian oversight opposed to this measure?

One answer might be that research has shown that over the last five years, civilians on the Board of Rights have overwhelmingly voted for more lenient disciplinary measures. Moreover, the civilians who make up the board are not randomly chosen, they have to go through an interview with the executive director. There is no guarantee (or even probability) that those chosen to be on the board would represent communities most impacted by interactions with LAPD. Under the current system, civilians who want to serve on the Board of Rights must have seven years’ experience with arbitration, mediation, or administrative hearings. Further, if these board members consistently vote against the officers, they can be removed from the pool since it is all at the discretion of the executive director of the Police Commission.

This is most definitely not enhancing civilian oversight despite what the expensive, glossy brochures supporting Amendment C say. This is the worst type of civic engagement—betting on the fact that after a brutal national election and a brutal local election Angelenos will be tired and will probably sit out another election in which there is only one measure up for vote. Then, if they do notice, use misleading advertising to make casual voters think that an unearned windfall for the police union is actually strengthening civilian oversight of the LAPD.

Beyond the fact that this amendment is bad for the residents of the city, the process is bad for democracy. In order for there to be a robust democratic conversation about the issues that impact our city, the residents of the city need to be convinced that the conversation matters, that things can change for the better. If instead of this, the ballot process is used in an underhanded and disingenuous way people—who in any event are working really hard to support themselves and their families, and do not have an abundance of leisure time—will be dissuaded from taking part in the process. Turnout for special elections is already low. We need to defeat this spurious measure so that special elections are no longer used to pass measures that otherwise would be debated and defeated.

Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, an early twentieth century American Orthodox Rabbi with a strong love for democracy, argued that the laws in Deuteronomy 16 that are usually taken to be referring to the behavior of judges (“You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”) are actually referring to democratic elections—that the elections must be fair, that the voters must not bribed, and not so on. It is not a stretch to continue and say that the ballot process must not be abused by deceptive advertising, or scheduling a vote for a time when turnout will be low.

We must defeat Charter Amendment C, get back to the work of actually enhancing civilian oversight of the police department, and enhancing the democratic discourse in our city.


Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, PhD is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University and Rabbi in Residence at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

Photo courtesy of Facebook.

What’s wrong with Jews’ emphasis on intellect?


Question: In life, which is more overrated — looks or brains?

I would argue that it’s a tie.

But there is a difference. For better or for worse, valuing beauty is built-in to human nature. Notions of beauty may differ from culture to culture, but every culture values beauty. Tests done with infants show that even they are drawn to faces most adults deem beautiful.

But the valuing of intellect is much more of a cultural matter. And no culture values brain power more than Ashkenazi Jewish culture.

There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this.

Take, for example, the famous Jewish joke about a birth notice: “Jacob and Sarah Birnbaum are proud to announce the birth of their son, Dr. David Birnbaum.”

Today, of course, the announcement would apply equally to a daughter.

Another example: I only exaggerate a bit when I tell audiences: “When you ask a Jew, ‘How are you?’ you will often receive this answer: ‘Great. My daughter is at Dartmouth.’ ”

Likewise, I tell audiences, “When a stranger recognizes me and approaches me — a somewhat frequent occurrence — unless the person is wearing a kippah, I have no way of knowing if the person is a Jew or a non-Jew. But there is often a giveaway: If the person tells me what college their son or daughter goes to, I know it’s a Jew.”

To demonstrate how cultural the Jewish preoccupation with the intellect is, the different reactions these lines receive from Jewish and non-Jewish audiences are telling. There is loud laughter in Jewish audiences but only a few chuckles from non-Jews.

Jews completely relate to what I said; to non-Jews it is just odd. Non-Jews rarely tell anyone, let alone a stranger, what college their kid goes to, no matter how prestigious. But for many American Jews, their meaning in life and social status are predicated on getting their child into a prestigious college.

Now, to be sure, this preoccupation with prestigious colleges is not only related to Jews’ valuing the intellect. It is at least as related to a preoccupation with professional success and the future earning power of their child. And, yes, ego. In Jewish life, what college one’s child attends is often seen as the single greatest proof of achievement as a parent.

This preoccupation begins at the birth of one’s children and grandchildren. Is there any Jew whose 2-year-old child or grandchild isn’t “brilliant”?

What’s wrong with all this preoccupation with brains?

First, it often overshadows the far more important trait of goodness. I am certain that for many Jewish (and, increasingly, non-Jewish) parents, their child’s brilliance is more important than his or her goodness. This is easily ascertainable: Compare how much time and effort parents spend working on their child’s moral character as opposed to their child’s intellect.

Here’s a test. Ask your child, no matter how young or how old, this question: What do you think I most want (or wanted) you to be — happy, smart, successful or good?

Here’s another test. Would you tell your high school-age son or daughter, “You need to know that I’d much rather have you attend a local state college than cheat on even one test and get into Stanford”?

And how many parents speak to others about their children’s intellectual achievements as compared with their goodness? Jewish parents who speak about how fine a person their child is usually are assumed to have a loser for a child.

The fact is, there is no correlation between intellect and goodness. In fact, a disproportionate number of intellectuals, in the 20th century and today, have been, to put it bluntly, moral idiots — and therefore disproportionately supported the greatest evils of their time. Almost all the support in the West for Soviet Communism came from intellectuals, not hard hats. Within Germany, the university was one of the most passionate pro-Nazi institutions. In America today, a Christian plumber is far more likely to support Israel than a Ph.D. in sociology, or in any other subject (including Judaic studies). And the number of bright, even “brilliant,” college students whose moral compass is broken is enormous.

Finally, intelligence not only is not as important as goodness, it is not nearly as important as common sense. A person of average intelligence with common sense will navigate life far better, by making far more intelligent decisions, than a brilliant person who lacks common sense. According to Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, in at least one important area — binge drinking and getting drunk — more intelligent people actually have less common sense. They do both more.

Parents who overemphasize brains to the detriment of other positive values, such as character, common sense and the ability to deal with life’s vicissitudes (think of all the bright college students who need “safe spaces” because they can’t deal with speakers with whom they disagree) are doing long-term damage to their child. And, to return to my opening question about looks and brains, they are not doing their daughter any favor if they neglect looks. In real life, they matter, too. But you need common sense to acknowledge that.

Delegates arrive for the 34th session of the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2017. Photo via REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

When will the UN Human Rights Council follow its own mission?


Editor’s note: This opinion tackling the United Nations Human Rights Council is the “con” argument published in conjunction with the “pro” argument written by David Kaye, “Reform, but don’t leave UN Human Rights Council.

In a recent letter to a group of nine non-profit organizations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a “biased agenda against Israel” and urged that “considerable reform” would be needed for the US to continue its involvement.

This was an important development, and one that echoes a growing chorus of voices who believe that the UNHRC must be pressured to change. As currently constituted, the Council discriminates against Israel and whitewashes oppression all over the world, violating its own mission and ultimately doing far more harm than good to the cause of human rights.

The UNHRC’s failure has been evident for many years now. In 2006, when the Council was founded, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was already expressing concerns about a “disproportionate focus on violations by Israel.” Unfortunately, Annan and his successor, Ban Ki Moon, were unable to hold the UNHRC accountable. According to UN Watch, between 2006 and 2015 the Council condemned Israel 62 times, compared with just 55 against all other countries combined.

The UNHRC’s discrimination and bigotry against Israel do not simply end at the disproportional condemnations. In 2008, the Council appointed extremist Richard Falk to a six-year term as “Special Rapporteur” on “human rights in the Palestinian territories.” Falk has publicly endorsed the “The Wandering Who?a book that has been widely condemned for anti-Semitism; praised leading 9/11 conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin, and been accused of being “a partisan of Hamas” by the Palestinian Authority. The UNHRC has thoroughly discredited itself as a judge of right and wrong when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

While the UNHRC has criticized some human rights violations in Syria and elsewhere, it has also strenuously ignored the suffering of countless people living under some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Women continue to suffer brutal oppression in Saudi Arabia, migrant workers are subjected to modern day slavery in Qatar, people are executed at a higher rate in China than in any other country, and political opponents in Venezuela face prosecution for merely criticizing the government.

Yet the UNHRC has not passed a single resolution condemning those responsible for these abuses. Far from facing criticism, these regimes and others like them have actually been rewarded with membership in the UNHRC again and again. The UNHRC has become a place where the worst human rights abusers go to shield themselves from accountability, in part by scapegoating the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.

In December, during one of his final statements as Secretary General, Moon summed up the situation well: “Over the last decade I have argued that we cannot have a bias against Israel at the UN. Decades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel. In many cases, instead of helping the Palestinian issue, this reality has foiled the ability of the UN to fulfill its role effectively.”

These candid remarks were a step in the right direction, but they also served as a reminder of how unrealistic it is to expect the UN to fix its problems from within.

Indeed, history has shown that even such criticism from the UN’s own leading officials has not led to necessary changes in the UNHRC and other UN bodies that have been similarly compromised. While withdrawing from the Council may or may not be the answer, Secretary Tillerson’s demands for reform are clearly justified. Billions of US tax dollars are invested year after year as the UN continues to prove that it is incapable of self-improvement.

The US government is right to examine all options to ensure accountability, including cutting off its voluntary funding to the UNHRC and reducing its contributions to the UN’s overall budget. After over a decade of discriminating against Israel and undermining the cause of human rights around the world, it is clear that increased pressure is needed for the UNHRC to finally start following the mission it was created to fulfill.

Roz Rothstein, CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs
Max Samarov, Director of Research & Campus Strategy for StandWithUs

Pexels

Hate crimes, bomb threats, anxiety and people with disabilities


As we all are aware, recently there has been a significant increase in hate crimes and bomb threats across the United States. Minorities, including people with disabilities, are especially at risk, not only for attacks and threats but also for the stress and anxiety that can result from seeing what is happening around us. People with multiple minority status (i.e. people of color + disability, LBGTQ + disability, Jewish or Muslim + disability, immigrant + disability) are particularly vulnerable.

Following more than 90 recent bomb threats and 140 separate recent incidents of anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has issued a security advisory. It is asking people to review the Bomb Threat Guidance provided by the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security; refer to the chapter on Explosive Threat Response Planning in ADL’s Security Manual Protecting Your Jewish Institution, which assists institutions in creating welcoming environments while keeping them safe; and to refer to ADL’s list of 18 Best Practices for Jewish Institutional Security. However, while the ADL’s excellent guidance can be helpful to people of all faiths, it does not cover issues that are vital for the 56 million Americans who have a disability.

When Jewish institutions do not have inclusion committees or policies, issues of life and death that impact people with disabilities can be seriously neglected. Fully 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, and the Jewish community, due to genetic disorders and advanced paternal ages, is disproportionately impacted by disabilities.

Can you imagine if an alarm goes off at a Jewish community center or day school and someone cannot hear it and there is not a plan in place? Or if someone who is blind or has low vision isn’t properly helped when the alarms are simply flashing lights? Or if people who need to take medications at regular intervals are evacuated but their medicines are left behind? Or what happens to a child with autism or adult with mental health issues if the staff is not properly trained and no system is in place?

Every Jewish institution needs to take disability inclusion seriously. Our nonprofit organization, RespectAbility, has compiled the free tools and resources listed below to help.

The 1 in 5 people in America who have a disability need proactive and systematic planning in order to ensure they have the same safety and security as everyone else. Key issues and steps include:

Anxiety, Addiction and Emotional Health: Even for people who do not have ongoing mental health issues and who are located nowhere near bomb threats or hate crimes, the content of social and other media can be extremely frightening. Emotional reactions can include feeling physically and mentally drained, having difficulty making decisions or staying focused on topics, becoming easily frustrated on a more frequent basis, arguing more with family and friends, feeling tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried, and experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Most of these reactions are temporary and will go away over time. It is important to try to accept whatever reactions you may have and to look for ways to take one step at a time and focus on taking care of your needs and those of your family. Keep a particularly close eye on children and people with addiction issues (including internet addiction) who may need extra means of support.

Some of the things that can significantly help your mental health include limiting your exposure to the sights and sounds of stress, especially on television and radio, in newspapers and on social media, as well as to eat a healthy diet, get ample sleep and stay personally connected to family and friends. Stay positive. Remind yourself of how you’ve successfully gotten through difficult times in the past. Reach out when you need support and help others when they need it.

Most major cities have a Jewish social services agency, which will help people of all faiths. Additionally, the Red Cross Disaster Distress Helpline is free and available around the clock for counseling or support. You can call 1-800-985-5990, text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746 or utilize www.redcross.org/news/article/Red-Cross-Mental-Health-Teams-Help.

Another resource is the American Counseling Association. It has fact sheets you can download on mental health services, including post-traumatic stress disorder and crisis counseling. Moreover, if you are feeling suicidal, you should go immediately to the website www.suicide.org.

Create Your Evacuation Plan and Support System: Have you been in touch with your local police station and fire department? If not, do it now. A part of the services they provide is to keep track of the needs of residents with disabilities in times of threat or disaster. For example, if you use a wheelchair and live or work in a high-rise building, the fire department will come out for free to meet with you and create an individual plan for you in the case of a fire or other emergency.

If you have sensory, cognitive or other issues, it is vital for the police and fire department to know how to support you in a time of crisis. Hundreds of Americans with disabilities are killed by police each year because the police have not been trained to recognize and address mental health or other disability issues. The time to have those conversations and training is before a disaster strikes. Because this issue is so important, RespectAbility has conducted a free webinar, which you can find on our website: Special Conversation with Special Olympics about Violence, Police Training and People with Disabilities.

When it comes to evacuating people with disabilities, you must plan in advance. See the National Fire Protection Association’s terrific Emergency Evacuation Planning for People with Disabilities (June 2016) at http://www.nfpa.org/public-education/by-topic/people-at-risk/people-with-disabilities.

Have a “To Go” Kit Ready: If your building is evacuated, you will want to have several things handy. For example, you will want to have any medications you may need to take as well as your phone and charger, glasses, hearing aids and extra batteries if you use them, supplies for a service animal you may have and more. You also will want to let your loved ones, who might worry if they see a threat on the news, know you are OK. You can do that through phone, email or social media. There are terrific resources available through FEMA at https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1440775166124-c0fadbb53eb55116746e811f258efb10/FEMA-ReadySpNeeds_web_v3.pdf.

If you use a communication device, mobility aid or service animal, what will you do if these are not available? If you require life-sustaining equipment or treatment such as a dialysis machine, map out the location and availability of more than one facility. For every aspect of your daily routine, plan an alternative procedure. Make a plan, write it down and print it out. Keep a copy of your plan in your emergency supply kit and put a list of important information and contacts in your wallet.

Create a Personal Support Network: If you anticipate needing assistance, make a list of family, friends and others who will be part of your plan. Talk to these people now and ask them to be part of your support network. Share each aspect of your crisis/emergency plan with everyone in your group, including a friend or relative in another area who would not be impacted by the same emergency who can help if necessary.

If you have a cognitive or intellectual disability, or are deaf of blind, be sure to work with your employer and other key contacts to determine how to best notify you of an emergency and what instruction methods are easiest for you to follow. Always participate in exercises, training sessions and emergency drills offered by your employer or landlord.

Our nation is at its best when we are welcoming, respectful and inclusive of all. As many people are, or feel, at risk, we must show exceptional love and friendship to those around us.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who has a disability and is the mother of a child with disabilities, is the president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She can be reached at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.

Special thanks to Elliot Harkavy for ideas and contacts that were used in this piece. 

Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Feb. 21. Photo by Tom Gannam/REUTERS.

Stop celebrating Muslim decency


Being congratulated for basic civility is no compliment

Since the recent wave of anti-Semitic bomb threats, vandalism, and cemetery desecrations, journalistic and social media have vocally celebrated condemnations, fund-raising, and volunteer efforts by Muslim groups in an attempt to bolster interfaith cooperation and rehabilitate the reputation of the Islamic community precisely when its very welcome in America is being questioned like never before.

But nobody deserves congratulations for basic decency. Condemning bomb threats and making donations to repair damage from bias crimes is something good people of all backgrounds do. Liberal hoopla over proper Muslim responses to anti-Semitism is no more than a religious riff on the soft bigotry of low expectations. When Muslims go to extraordinary lengths to show they embrace their Jewish neighbors – and they sometimes do – public praise is appropriate. But headlines about Islamic press releases condemning cemetery vandalism send the opposite message – that in normal circumstances Muslims are callous and heartless.

Imagine these headlines:

  • Asian Driver Arrives At Work Without Incident
  • Jamaican Musician Passes Drug Test
  • Black Man Marries His Children’s Mother

 

While those headlines aim to challenge nasty stereotypes, they actually reinforce their legitimacy.

News stories about broad community efforts to help besieged Jews that contain a sentence “Even the local Muslim community turned out in force” are entirely appropriate. But special congratulations when Muslims act like, well, people are not compliments.

I know how it feels to have my own group celebrated for simple propriety.

As a Zionist, I am perpetually annoyed by hasbara (roughly, propaganda) that celebrates Israeli actions that are only minimally admirable – like an Israeli soldier who shares her sandwich with a starving Palestinian child or an Tel Aviv hospital that provides an impoverished dying Arab woman with free medical care. Yes, I understand that these examples are intended to debunk the idea that Israelis are not decent (although I have yet to see anti-Israel discourse accusing Israelis of withholding sandwiches from orphans). But the very act of highlighting basic decency legitimizes the slander, which is particularly offensive given the many good Israeli actions that are far from just minimally proper.

The people spotlighting Muslim attempts to repair desecrated cemeteries may think they’re rebutting negative stereotypes. But they aren’t. Sorry to say it, but Americans who fear or hate Muslims don’t do so because they think Muslims tolerate vandalism. They do so because they think Muslims tolerate terrorism. These stories will not dent that perception.

Americans are rightly proud of the way its citizens of many groups came together to help one group among them recover in a time of distress – and Muslims should be part of that celebration. But breathless reports that American Muslims aren’t jackasses after all help nobody – including American Muslims.

David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

 

 

 

The Pew Israel survey: A view from the margins


Just a month ago, two new reports cast light on the complex and contradictory nature of Israeli society.  The first was the Pew Research Center’s survey of Israel, which exposed “deep gulfs among Jews, as well as between Jews and Arabs, over political values and religion’s role in public life.”  The second was the World Happiness Report, which ranked Israel #11 in the world in terms of the level of contentment of its citizens.

To anyone who has spent time in Israel, the two reports capture the confounding nature of the country.  How can a place be so happy when its residents fiercely disagree on so many matters large and small?  Within the Jewish majority alone, the differences on core issues among the four groups surveyed– Charedi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (Orthodox), Masorti (Traditional), and Hiloni (Secular)—are striking.  For example, the Pew survey revealed a wide chasm between Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups about whether Israel should be more Jewish or more democratic. 

It is this question of Jewish vs. democratic that will shape the contours of Israeli society over the next half-century.  And it is this question that pushes to the fore the status of Israel’s large Arab minority. 

Here the Pew results reveal rather disturbing trends among all sectors of the Jewish population.  The survey showed that a plurality of Israeli Jews support the proposition (48-46 percent) that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from the country.”  A majority of Charedi, Dati, and Masorti Jews were in favor of this statement, while 36 percent of Hiloni Jews were, as well.  There has been much discussion around this conclusion, with one of Israel’s leading experts, sociologist Sammy Smooha, casting doubt on the validity of the figures.  Smooha, who has spent his entire career surveying Jewish and Arab attitudes toward the other, suggests that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Israeli Jews oppose co-existence with Arabs or would like to see them leave the country. 

But even these lower rates raise alarm bells about growing intolerance. In light of this, I was interested to know how Palestinian Arab friends in Israel interpreted the Pew results.  What is it like when a high percentage of your fellow citizens regard you as unwelcome in your own country?  

I spoke first to a young friend, Nabeel Aboud Ashkar, who does extraordinary work as co-founder and artistic director of the Polyphony Foundation, which brings Jewish and Arab kids together through classical music.  When I asked Nabeel about the Pew survey, he admitted that his first response was to say to himself that he should just take leave of the country and go to a place where his talents are appreciated — such as Germany, where he has pursued his own musical training as a violinist.  Upon reflection, though, he reversed course and said to himself: “No, this is my country.  The country does not belong to the intolerant.  It belongs to those who believe in living together side by side respectfully.  If everyone who is intimidated by extremism decides to leave, then the extremists achieve what they want.  And that is not my vision of the future.”

I also spoke to Fathi Marshood, another friend and colleague, who runs the Haifa office of Shatil, one of Israel’s leading and most effective social justice organizations.  Fathi labors indefatigably to insure that all residents in Northern Israel — Jews and Arabs alike — receive equal access to state medical and welfare resources. When I asked Fathi about the Pew survey, he said that it made him feel deeply uncomfortable about his place in society.  The survey results reflected, he said, an unmistakable trend toward intolerance on the part of the “hostile majority.” The Pew survey made clear to him that his ideal polity was not a Jewish state or a state of the Jews, but a fully democratic state that grants equal rights to all of its citizens, without discrimination.

Notwithstanding the alarming currents in the Pew survey, Fathi vowed to continue his work.  He was not optimistic about significant structural change in the near or intermediate term, certainly not under a Netanyahu government.  But he did express appreciation for one political figure in Israel today, President Reuven Rivlin, who has been outspoken at every turn in condemning anti-Arab racism.

I look on with great admiration and empathy at my friends.  How would Jews feel if nearly half, or even a quarter, of America’s population favored our removal?  The response by Nabeel and Fathi to the Pew results is neither self-pity nor flight, but rather redoubled commitment to work for the betterment of all in peaceful and constructive ways.  Understandably, they are not going to be singing “Ha-Tikvah” any time soon.  They are, after all, both children of the land, whose ancestors lived on it just as Jews began to act on the desire to return after a 2,000-year hiatus.  And yet, remarkably, their “hope is not yet lost.”  Therein lies a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark tunnel. 

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

One question for rabbis who perform same-sex weddings


For most supporters of same-sex marriage, the most persuasive, and certainly the most frequently offered, argument on behalf of same-sex marriage has been that homosexuals have no choice, that they could no more choose to be heterosexual than a heterosexual can choose to be a homosexual. 

Although the argument, as I will explain, is a non sequitur, it is true. Especially in the case of gay men, it is simply silly to say that they have “chosen” to be gay. I ask heterosexual men who make this argument: If you were threatened with death unless you stopped being attracted to women and started desiring men sexually, could you do so?

The answer, of course, is no. Even under threat of death, a heterosexual male could not choose to have a homosexual orientation. (I have referred to men specifically because women’s sexuality is considerably more complex. For many women, though certainly not all, there is an element of choice.)

So, now, given the power of the “gays have no choice” argument, I’d like to ask rabbis who perform religious Jewish same-sex weddings a question.

If a bisexual Jew came to you for religious advice, how would you counsel him or her? Let us imagine a bisexual man asked you, “Rabbi, I am capable of having a fulfilling sex life with either a man or a woman. Does Judaism have anything to say to me on this matter? Should I confine my sexual activity to women with the aim of eventually marrying a woman, or should I continue to have sexual relations with both sexes and marry whomever I fall in love with?”

If this rabbi responds to the bisexual by saying that Judaism has no preference for heterosexual relations and heterosexual marriage, then the argument that gays have no choice is, as I described above, a non sequitur. It is so because this rabbi is saying that even for those individuals who do have a choice, Judaism doesn’t care if a person has sex with the same sex or with the opposite sex, or whether he or she marries a member of the same sex or the opposite sex.

It seems pretty clear that rabbis who wish to be consistent with their argument that not allowing same-sex marriage is unfair to gays because they haven’t chosen to be gay would have to counsel a bisexual to confine his or her sexual activity to, and marry, the opposite sex. Bisexuals, after all, do have a choice.

The bisexual forces rabbis who support same-sex marriage in the name of Judaism to confront the most important question: Does Judaism have a heterosexual ideal or not? The “gays have no choice” argument strongly suggests that Judaism does have a heterosexual ideal, but that gays simply cannot meet it.

No one who has ever argued for black equality based their position on the argument that blacks have no choice, that no black has ever chosen to be black. Why not? Because the argument would clearly suggest that being black is an inferior state to being white. The only argument ever offered — and indeed the only correct one — was that there is no difference between a white human being and a black human being. 

Why then was this not the primary or even the only argument for same-sex marriage — that there is no difference between heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage — instead of “gays have no choice”?

Because even most of those arguing on behalf of same-sex marriage believe that there is a difference between heterosexual and homosexual marriage — that, for example, at the very least, it is best for a child to have a loving mother and a loving father. Yes, there are some people who argue that if there are two loving fathers, never having a mother means nothing, and that having two loving mothers and never having a father means nothing. But do most people outside of academia really believe this? 

This in no way dismisses the love or the sincerity or the goodness of same-sex couples. It is only an acknowledgement of the obvious. 

The bisexual question posed here forces people — in this case rabbis who perform same-sex weddings — to confront the obvious: that, of course, there is a Jewish ideal — namely male-female sex and male-female marriage. That gay men and many gay women cannot — through absolutely no fault of their own — meet this ideal is truly unfair. Therefore, one can easily understand why many people will conclude that it is worth denying the Jewish heterosexual standard. 

I do not agree with denying this standard, but I can respect those who are preoccupied with fairness for gays. I cannot respect those who deny that Judaism has a male-female sexual and marital ideal. 

Every rabbi who performs same-sex weddings needs to answer the bisexual question. Then we can know whether they are animated exclusively by sympathy for gays or whether they also deny the Jewish male-female ideal. 

Why is this important? Because religion without ideals and standards is no longer religion. Compassion is a major personal virtue, but it is not a standard.

Our task in life is to maintain both compassion and standards. 

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

The University of California should stand for free speech


On the surface, the UC system adopting a definition of anti-Semitism seems like a no-brainer. After all, the University should oppose all forms of racism and discrimination, and have meaningful definitions to guide its policies of enforcement. However, the definition of anti-Semitism currently under consideration comes with political strings attached.

The definition under question is commonly called the “State Department definition” and is based off of a discredited European Union definition. Those who are advocating for its use at the UC level point out that as a government definition, it should have bearing on one of the United States’ largest public university systems. Yet as Kenneth Stern, the author of the aforementioned European Union definition, has stated, this use of the State Department definition “would do more harm than good.” In fact, he argues, “to enshrine such a definition on a college campus is an ill-advised idea that will make matters worse, and not only for Jewish students; it would also damage the university as a whole.”

A coordinated group of pro-Israel advocates, led by the AMCHA initiative, is behind this push for the UC system to adopt the definition. Despite their claims about advocating for Jewish students, these organizations see this definition as a way to stifle speech in support of Palestinian rights across the UC system. This definition includes clauses that define anti-Semitism as “demonizing, delegitimizing, and applying a double standard to Israel” – clauses that are unenforceable, and further, if used by the UC system would unconstitutionally limit political speech of students and faculty, and would dangerously conflate the identities of American Jewish students with the actions of the Israeli government.

As Stern points out, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, has stated clearly, “that advocacy in favor of Boycotts/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) against Israel would be classified as antisemitic, as would the erection of fake walls imitating Israel’s separation barrier. So if the definition is adopted, presumably administrators would be expected to label such political speech as antisemitic, or face challenges (political and perhaps legal) from AMCHA and its colleagues that they were not doing their jobs.”

The UC system should, rightly, stand up against racism in all of its forms, and work to create a university system that includes all of its students. Defining anti-Semitism in this way is a barrier towards that goal. I am not alone in thinking this; Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, one of the first 10 women rabbis in the US and long-time peace educator, notes that “the proposed definition of anti-Semitism does not reflect the understanding of tens of thousands of Jews who have adopted nonviolent direct action to challenge Israeli militarism.” Rabbi Gottleib further points out, “the emphasis [on the State of Israel] in this proposal will have a chilling impact on the work of justice. Noncooperation with militarism is not anti-semitic.” As many Jewish Studies scholars point out, critique is a part of the Jewish tradition, and as evidenced by the work of Palestine Legal, to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is to chill political speech and risk violating constitutional principles.

While I applaud Stern’s strong stance for free speech and academic freedom, I do take issue with several points in his articulation of anti-Semitism. For example, he states that “if a diplomat says that Israel – a member state of the United Nations – should not exist as the nation state of the Jewish people, it is appropriate for the Department to State to label that antisemitism.” I am curious about that phrase, “the nation state of the Jewish people.” Many citizens of Israel, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, have strong critiques of the ways Jewish religious law is applied in Israel, not to mention the 20-25% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish, and are treated as second class citizens by the Jewish state. Is advocating for secular democracy then anti-Semitic? That question seems to be a rich one for discussion in a college classroom, or within a student organization. This definition would limit that possibility, and as a result, limit the possibilities of the university itself.

Instead of accepting this dangerous and unenforceable definition, the University of California should take a strong stance on academic freedom and free speech, and in particular, for a healthy and robust discussion of Israel and Palestine. Invite speakers from across the political spectrum, including those who advocate for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Support faculty who teach on and research Israel and Palestine. Protect students’ constitutional right to protest, which includes creative, performance-based, or other non-violent, if confrontational, methods designed to raise awareness.

The status quo in Palestine and Israel is unsustainable. Only by encouraging the full range of discussion on the subject will progress be made towards ensuring safety and freedom for all people in the region. The UC system has a chance to make that progress possible by rejecting this definition.

Tallie Ben Daniel received her BA at UC Santa Cruz and her PhD at UC Davis. She is currently the Academic Advisory Council Coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace.

Cartoon: ISIS Wants YOU


What we are, and what we are not


I recently was delighted to meet a former Hebrew school student and his mother at the market.

The woman proudly shared that her son was active in combating anti-Semitism in his school, reporting swastikas on lockers and publicly condemning the hostility some of them were experiencing.

I congratulated the boy’s sense of justice and asked him my usual question about what his favorite mitzvah is.

“Fighting hate crimes. Making sure every person feels safe in my school and in my neighborhood.”

Anti-Semitism is undeniably on campuses — even at some elementary schools — and along with the subtle and not-so-subtle occurrences comes the obligation to stand up and condemn them, and prevent them from happening again.

I could give you a whole slew of examples, many of which you are likely to be somewhat familiar with, but this is the very problem in Jewish life today, particularly among young college students.

We understandably become so preoccupied with Jew hatred — preoccupying ourselves with proclaiming what we are not — that we’ve forgotten to explore what we actually are.

We are so involved in damage control that we’re failing to give ourselves and our children a positive Jewish identity.

I worry about a generation of Jews whose closest association with Judaism is fighting anti-Semitism. Although it is certainly a noble preoccupation, it’s hard to imagine taking Judaism into adulthood, cultivating good feelings — joyous feelings — of being a Jew if we are exploring only how terrible it is to be picked on.

Anyone in a thriving business knows that with all the PR in the world, and all the successful attempts to clean up Yelp pages from negative reviews, without a really good product, you have nothing.

So I suggest that this Friday evening, together with friends or family, let’s bask in the priceless product: what we are.

Let’s look at the values that Jews not only died for, but lived for.

Let’s bask in the knowledge that we are a vibrant nation; millions of Jews are learning about their Judaism today more than any other time in history.

Let’s experience the joys of Judaism — the glow of the Shabbat candles, the wine of the Kiddush, the crusty challah, the words of our timeless Torah to uplift and invigorate us all, and the prayers that connect us to our Creator … all in a tech-free zone, where we’re not just hearing each other, but really listening.

Let’s show the world not only our intolerance for racism, but that Jewish people love being Jewish.

Rebbetzin Shula Bryski is co-director of Chabad of Thousand Oaks and the founder of rentaspeech.com

Why does a Jew write for Atheists?


“Are you an atheist?”

No, I explained. I’m a Jew.

“Then why are you writing a book about atheists?”

I’ve run into this line of questioning a lot.

For the past several years, I’ve worked on What If I’m an Atheist?, a guidebook for teenagers who doubt or deny the existence of God. The book answers questions that teenagers have about unbelief (Are atheists immoral? How do I tell my parents I’m an atheist?) and tosses in atheist stuff both trivial (atheist jokes, lists of celebrity atheists) and serious (how to answer popular lies about atheists, where to turn if your parents kick you out).

Finally, the book has been published. But the question remains: Why does a Jew write a book about atheists?

Even worse, why does a Jew write a book for atheists? Worse yet, for young atheists? Am I trying to turn impressionable minds toward unbelief?

No, I’m not – but being Jewish has made me feel a kinship with atheists.

Jews were the original people who said, “No, we won’t believe in your god.” Kill us if you want, but the answer’s still no.

Like atheists, Jews know how it feels to have your viewpoint about religion ignored and slighted, even in Jew-friendly America. Every winter, it seems as if every store window, TV show, and public event is saying: Celebrate Christmas! Sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Holy Night”! Get a tree and a ham!

And like many young unbelievers, I spent much of my teens and twenties trying to determine if God exists and why he lets the world be as – there’s no more appropriate word for it – godawful as it sometimes gets. When young people described the path that they took toward atheism, I recognized some of the landmarks.

But that’s not why I wrote this book.

I wrote it because there weren’t any books like it. There were lots of books for young people of religious and spiritual leanings (mostly Christian) but no advice for teenage atheists and other unbelievers.

And a lot of them needed advice. In researching the book, I discovered first-person accounts of atheist and agnostic teenagers who were scared to tell their family and friends what they believed. Some parents yelled or wept. Some teachers and principals criticized and threatened atheist students. Some classmates shunned or insulted them.

I had written a lot of books that had entertained and informed people, but this one could genuinely help them.

So I knew the reasons why I wanted to write the book – but were there reasons why I shouldn’t write it? Was it wrong for a Jew, even (or especially) a secular Jew like me, to make a guidebook for young atheists?

I wasn’t worried about my soul or God’s judgment on it. I figured that if God exists and wants to blame me for being a bad Jew, he’d unspool a long rap sheet of my other sins before he’d get to “…and you wrote a book.”

But I did worry about hurting Jews. Would the book, in its tiny way, hurt Jews or Judaism? Specifically, would it encourage young Jews to reject their heritage?
  

I had been through something like this before. I had written a coffee-table book about the wild ways in which people light up their houses for the winter holidays. Since most of those people were decorating for Christmas, I wondered if I was doing wrong by, in essence, glorifying a Christian practice.

So I queried ask-a-rabbi websites. Most of the rabbis answered that I’d be doing wrong only if I were encouraging Jews to abandon Judaism. Since there’s nothing un-Jewish about lighting up in December – it’s the time of the Festival of Lights, after all – I reckoned that I was in the clear.

But hanging up lights is just decoration. Going atheist means abandoning religion, exactly the practice that the rabbis warned me about. And I was aiming this book at kids, a very touchy matter.

So I thought and wrote and deleted and rewrote and then rewrote again. The final, published book doesn’t encourage anyone to abandon his or her faith.

It does imply, though, that there’s nothing wrong with being atheist or agnostic. If that offends the Almighty or my fellow Jews, then so be it. Virtually every book offends someone. Some of the book’s toughest critics have griped that I didn’t go far enough – that the book should push young people to become atheists.

Why write about atheism? Because kids needed it. Because I’ve had doubts about God. Because I wanted to make something that would help its readers. Because of a lot of reasons.

The reasons don’t matter, really. Once a writer finishes writing a book, it’s on its own. It will offend or delight the readers no matter what the writer’s motives were. The writer can explain himself at endless length, but the readers will make up their own minds.

Which is what atheists and agnostics have always done. It’s just one more trait that they have in common with Jews.

Attacking the messenger and not the message


It is sad that Barbra Miner resorts to the old ploy of attacking the messenger and not the message.

Yes, I was upset and passionate about the presence of Jews for Jesus, Messianic Jews—also known as Hebrew Christians— and other missionaries at the Celebrate Israel Festival.

But Barbra failed to share the essence of our discussion.

When I asked Barbra if she had informed the Festival officials that her group believed in Jesus, she responded that she specifically told them they believed in the “Jewish Messiah.” This deflects the real issue. I am sure Barbra knew that if she had been honest and mentioned Jesus she would never have been given a booth. To make matters worse she expects us to believe that she was not required to make a full disclosure about Jesus to the Festival staff since they did not explicitly ask about Jesus. This is disingenuous and surreptitious.

In the interest of reaching out to her, I continued my conversation with Barbra and asked her if she believed Jesus is God. But once again she avoided the question and simply responded that she believes he is the Jewish Messiah. Barbra’s method of response is right out of a Jews for Jesus training manual that encourages Hebrew Christians to intentionally avoid mentioning the controversial issue of Jesus’ divinity.

It was at this point that I asked Barbra a hypothetical question. “If I believe Hercules is God incarnate in a body, and I am wrong, what sin have I committed?” She acknowledged that it would be idolatry.

I continued, “So if you are wrong about Jesus, there are serious consequences because you would be guilty of idolatry too.”

It is illogical to claim to be a “legitimate part of the Jewish community” when every other Jewish denomination is in agreement that the basis of your theology is idolatrous. Additionally, the State of Israel does not recognize Hebrew Christians as Jewish under the Law of Return, specifically because of their belief in Jesus’ divinity.

For 2,000 years Judaism has rejected the divinity of Jesus, and recognized that such a belief places believers in the Christian camp and not the Jewish camp.

I doubt Barbra would invite Mormons (who they consider to be an idolatrous cult) to have a booth at one of her Messianic conventions, even though Mormons claim to be both Christian and descendants from the Jewish tribe of Ephraim.

The difference for the Jewish community is that Mormon’s don’t misleadingly refer to themselves as “Jewish Mormons” and masquerade as observant Jews. It is important to point out that although Hebrew Christians reject rabbinical Judaism they conveniently—and deceptively— use rabbinical rituals and texts to lend credence to their Jewishness.

There is a time and a place for everything. I believe it is wrong and disrespectful for missionaries to share their propaganda at a Jewish Israeli Festival. However, I extend a genuine and warm invitation to Barbra to join my family for a Shabbat meal to discuss our beliefs and experience the beauty, warmth and spirituality of Judaism. Many, I am pleased to say, have already accepted this offer and are thankful they discovered something meaningful they never knew existed in Judaism.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz loves God and Judaism. He is the founder of Jews for Judaism, International and welcomes sincere searchers to dialogue with him.

President Obama vs. the LA Times on anti-Semitism


The Obama White House and the opinion page of the Los Angeles Times are usually in sync—but not always.  Take for example the recent conflict between President Obama and Palestinocentric UCLA Professor Saree Makdisi on anti-Semitism and how to combat it.

In a much-discussed recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, the President argued that his Iran policy was our best chance of curbing not only the Iranian nuclear threat, but the mullahs’ support of a global jihad preaching and practicing Jew hatred. Some of us were not convinced. However, when it came to recognizing the linkage between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel carried to the extreme of questioning the Jewish state’s right to exist, the President was right on. This is what he said:

“I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge the justness of the Jewish homeland, you acknowledge the active presence of anti-Semitism—that it’s not just something in the past, but it is current—if you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology. If you acknowledge those things, then you should be able to align yourself with Israel where its security is at stake, you should be able to align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not held to a double standard in international fora, you should align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not isolated.”

Without using the term, President Obama was essentially embracing the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The definition specifically includes as examples accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust, and  accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.

The State Department’s definition is currently in the news because University of California President Janet Napolitano gave it her personal endorsement, prior to a UC Regents Board meeting, scheduled for July, which will debate adopting the definition as a new guideline for U.C. campuses.

Here in the LA Times (May 26 issue) comes in Professor Makdisi who ignores President Obama but frontally assaults UC President Napolitano for the effrontery of disclosing that—like the U.S. State Department and the U.S. President—she believes there is an inherent linkage between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel’s right to exist: criticism which Makdisi considers a benign and sacrosanct form of “anti-Zionism.”

According to Makdisi, to call out anti-Zionists who urge the destruction of the Jewish state for “delegitimizing” and demonizing” Israel is an attempt to “stifle academic freedom and “pre­empt crit­i­cism of Is­raeli poli­cies.” This is patent nonsense. Criticize Israeli government policies—including settlement policies—all you want. Just don’t cross the line by demanding that Israel, a UN member state with six million Jewish and two million Arab citizens, commit national suicide because it “has no right to exist.”

Makdisi has no problem with shutting down forms of campus advocacy that threaten the status and self-esteem of students on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation. Earlier this year in another LA Times’ op ed, he even questioned the right of Paris’ murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to satirize the Prophet Mohammed.  But when it comes to campus advocacy—and actions—that marginalize Jewish students by charging them with “dual loyalties” and by tauntingly raising the specter of another Jewish genocide in the Middle East, Makdisi believes that “anything goes, and that free speech provides an impenetrable suit of armor to protect  toxic forms of speech and conduct on campus.

A case in point about the linkage between verbal incitement against Israel’s right to exist and actions meant to intimidate Jewish students is Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which Profess Makdisi endows with a halo as a hero of the academic free speech crusade. The real track record of the SJP and its campus bullies includes shouting down or disrupting pro-Israel speakers, beating up Jewish students who dare to speak up against anti-Israel incitement, presenting Jewish dorm residents with mock eviction notices because of Israeli policies, and demanding at UCLA that Jewish candidates for student body office sign “loyalty oaths” that they have never made a trip to Israel sponsored by a Jewish organization. 

The colleges and universities where the SJP, Makdisi’s folk heroes or martyrs for free speech, have been investigated or sanctioned for actions—not just words—verging over into anti-Semitism include Northeastern University, Vassar, and Loyola University-Chicago.

Makdisi also cites in support of his position the dismissal by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of complaints against Berkeley UC Irvine, and UC Irvine for allowing groups like the SJP to create a hostile learning environment for Jewish students, in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In fact, the UC Santa Cruz complaints—which were copiously documented—were dismissed by OCR higher ups against the advice of their own regional office and contrary to their own internal rules.  The anti-Zionist lobby’s “victories” at UC Berkeley and elsewhere were also hollow because the cases against them were largely dismissed on narrow procedural grounds, not because groups like the SJP were really vindicated.

President Napolitano and President Obama are on spot-on regarding the issue of when “Anti-Zionism” crosses the line into anti-Semitism.  And we applaud them for calling out anti-Semitism when it masquerades, with righteous indignation, as anything but.

Rabbi Meyer H. May is Executive Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Historian Harold Brackman is a consultant to the Center.

Fifteen answers for Dennis Prager


All right, I’ll admit it. I believe I’m a progressive, and I’m proud of it. I define “progressive” as “advocating inclusivity and being ready to adapt to changing world conditions.” If that is different from the idea Dennis Prager had in mind, stop reading right now. From my point of view, being a progressive means following in the footsteps of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harold Schulweis, to name two of the most recent proponents of that philosophy. With that said, I offer fifteen answers to Mr. Prager’s fourteen recent questions to progressives, whom I do not believe to be any more monolithic a group than Jews in general.

Number one: hatred from the left. Over the last couple of centuries, “the left” has come to mean “liberal” or “progressive” (as defined above), while “the right” has come to mean “conservative”. I apologize if I offend conservatives when I suggest that their basic philosophy is the protection of the status quo, if not the advocacy of a return to the conditions of some earlier time. These are relative terms, however. It might be useful to see how they might have applied in an earlier era.

Let’s think of the time of Roman domination of Israel. “The right” probably would have meant the Sadducees, who advocated the existing Temple cult. “The left” likely would have been the Pharisees. Our entire tradition was rescued and reshaped by Pharisee sages; the whole idea of reinterpreting the Torah to meet changing conditions comes from them. The funny thing about that is relativity. Our Christian neighbors give the Pharisees a pretty bad press; they think of them as “the right” and Jesus as “the left” – even though most of the teachings of Jesus strike me as thoroughly based on the earlier prophets and the Pharisee tradition.

When we return to the modern era, we might have questions about Mr. Prager’s facts. Although some of my Presbyterian clergy friends bravely spoke out against BDS, their Church – not renowned as a liberal organization – voted for it. Meanwhile, the presidents of several universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, have spoken forcefully and vociferously against BDS.

Number two: antipathy to Israel. ANY antipathy to Israel as a nation bothers me, but I do not agree with Mr. Prager’s premise that the preponderance of that antipathy comes from any particular side of the aisle.

Number three: where Judaism and I differ. Please note that Mr. Prager wrote “Judaism” as if there were universal agreement on the definition of that word. I generally follow Conservative practice, which began as the Conservative branch of Liberal or Reform Judaism. In other words, some people thought there might be such a thing as “too much reform”. There are ideas of Judaism to the left and to the right of me. I understand Mr. Prager to observe Orthodox practice, placing him on my right-hand side. If he means his choices when he uses the word “Judaism”, he has slanted the playing field in his direction. I like my Judaism and he likes his.

Perhaps we should be a little careful about the word “differ” as well. There are a few things in Conservative Judaism that I know perfectly well, but choose to ignore. Call me lazy – you wouldn’t be the first – but I could do better at my own practice. That’s not the same as taking actual exception to the tenets of my faith.

Number four: why bother with Judaism if you are a progressive? I offer a short answer to this question: for me, Judaism implies belief in G-d, while simply being a progressive does not require it. My particular belief structure includes working for the betterment of the community, which includes attendance at, leadership of, and student instruction in religious services. Gratitude to G-d is woven into the fabric of my life.

I am lucky to be employed by two congregations in various capacities, because I don’t have the money to be a member of either of them. “Opting out of synagogue and all other aspects of religious Jewish life” is a straightforward, if somewhat embarrassing, choice by families whose financial circumstances cause them to make difficult budget cuts. Yes, I am aware of committees at most synagogues that privately discuss these matters with such families. Let me suggest that we do not do as good a job in explaining how important Jewish communal life is for both adults and youth of families in any financial circumstances as we could. (If we did, there would be better Junior Congregation attendance and less soccer on Saturday morning!) I will go one more step to say that those explanations should have been made more clearly to the parents of the current parents.

Perhaps more importantly, I disagree with Mr. Prager’s notion that “progressives” who do not affiliate have ceased to be Jewish. All across America, in living rooms, in the back rooms of restaurants, and in backyards, chavurot of people who think of themselves as Jewish meet on a fairly regular basis. They are trying to do exactly what the Pharisees did nearly two thousand years ago: redefine their Judaism to meet changing conditions. Because they think of G-d and tradition differently than does Mr. Prager, he appears to write them off. I do not, although some sources of their “tradition” may not be as authentic as they could be.

In fact, here’s a question: does Mr. Prager consider “disassociation” peculiarly modern? This tension goes all the way back to Abraham’s departure from Haran. The warnings in the Torah against fraternizing with Canaanites were designed to prevent the Israelites from discovering the less savory aspects of “progressive” practice in their new land. Our Chanukah story glorifies the victory of the conservatives, who were the ones who “disassociated” at the time, over the “progressives”. Might Hellenists and Maccabees have found a middle ground without civil war? Would Mr. Prager equate Yigal Amir with Mattathias? (I’m sorry if that was an obnoxious question.)

Number five: “haters” and the definition of marriage. Look, Leviticus 18:22 is perfectly clear on how G-d feels about homosexual activity. Here, as in so many other places in the Torah, it is crucial to apply a more modern sensitivity to that issue. I do not understand homosexuality to be a pagan religious practice, nor do I see it as a disease that has to be cured. It’s just the way some people are. If such people want to contribute to the Jewish community, it is essential for us to open the doors and let them in, with all the benefits that accrue to traditional couples. Although it is not biologically possible for them to fulfill the very first commandment of the Torah, we should allow them to answer for that omission directly to the Almighty when their time comes. Separately, exclusion of faithful homosexual couples seems to be contrary to federal law, although I am no expert.

Number six: a rabbi’s “private” opinion about gay marriage. If those rabbis are willing to fulfill the tenets of their movement, who cares what they believe in private, but I would ask how those rabbis got that far in their training without realizing the problem.

Number seven: choice of marriage partner. Who cares what I want? My children have to live with their spouses. I have seen both. My elder daughter married into Orthodoxy and wholeheartedly adopted it. My son married a non-Jew long after becoming disaffected with religion in general. I care very much for both my son-in-law and my daughter-in-law because they make my own children happy.

Number eight: do I want my children fully Orthodox or fully secular? My answer is “neither”, but I don’t disown my children for their choices. “Fully orthodox” seems to me to be a little bit insular, while “fully secular” seems to me to ignore the work of G-d in the world. I’m sorry if I cannot meet Mr. Prager’s “black or white” choices.

Number nine: cross-dressing rabbi. Again, Deuteronomy 22:5 is clear about the Torah’s stance on this subject. My personal answer to Mr. Prager’s question is “yes”, but I consider it a very conditioned reflex.

Number ten: the danger of fundamentalism. I believe Moslem fundamentalism to be the most dangerous today because it has turned into extremism. I’ll have more to say about this subject in later questions. Let me be clear, however: ANY fundamentalism is a threat to my progressive leanings. Let me recommend that Mr. Prager and all who see this essay read The Ornament of the World by the late Professor Maria Rosa Menocal. The record of tolerance in medieval Spain led to advances in every area of human endeavor as well as prosperity and social status for Jews surpassed only by our lives in the United States. Only when that tolerance was replaced by the Inquisition – a form of Christian fundamentalism – did all the glory of Spain die out.

Number eleven: how often do I listen to conservative opinions? Daily. Some of my best friends espouse them, and they are still my friends. Many AM stations are filled with them – including your opinions, Mr. Prager – but because we live in the United States, we get to choose. An opinion without facts to back it up is nothing more than hot air. Honest disagreement over facts should not devolve into ad hominem attacks, but why should I choose to listen to opinions based on what I consider inaccurate “facts”?

Number twelve: pro-Israel events staged by conservative Christian groups. Yes. In fact, I attended and performed musically at such gatherings, because both the leadership of the particular group and a fair number of my congregants at the time spoke Spanish. I am extremely grateful for their friendship towards Israel. At the same time, I think it entirely appropriate to examine the motives for their friendship. Individuals may be altruistic, but it is not so easy for organizations.

Number fourteen: nuclear Iran vs. climate change. I know I went out of order. I might stay up because of the thing that might kill me tomorrow: Iran. Why must we compare these two severe situations, however? We first have to devote resources to prevent being killed tomorrow, but does that excuse us from taking action today to head off what most scientists consider a serious long-term threat?

Number thirteen: differences with the Torah. This question had to come last. I am not so bold as to suggest that I am “smarter” than the Torah. But seriously, people have been having differences with the Torah since we received it! Isn’t the Talmud a book of responses to situations where the Torah was too general, too harsh, or perhaps did not address the situation at all? Haven’t the famous commentators made their names for their willingness to address tough questions the Torah posed? Mr. Prager may have scored debating points over Professor Dershowitz for his announcement, but does he advocate all the severe physical punishments in the Torah, for example? I suspect that given the choice between the literal Torah and the rabbinic interpretation, he would go with the latter.

Here is my number fifteen: how does G-d test humanity? Start with number thirteen. Can Mr. Prager reconcile our idea of a universal G-d with the clear command of a “Canaanite genocide” mentioned in Deuteronomy 20:17? Can he see how Moses “took the fall” for the Almighty in the Deuteronomy story of the Spies when the text in Numbers says their mission was a commandment? Can he understand the nobility of a Jewish doctor, recently deceased, who was Chief Medical Officer at Spandau Prison?

All of these things were tests. Sometimes we passed, sometimes we failed. Our Bible is even-handed about recording both. I have lived a progressive line – inclusivity combined with love of G-d – because I think that is the best way to pass these tests. Mr. Prager, if your way works for you, great, but please do not disparage those of us who arrive at a different opinion honestly.

Jay Harwitt has served several Southland congregations in musical capacities.  He holds degrees from Yale College and Columbia Business School.
 

Why give Muslims a Pass?


If a Christian fundamentalist holds a provocative conference attacking abortion and two violent liberal protesters show up and start shooting, do we accuse the preacher of being too provocative and igniting the violence?

If a Muslim preacher gives a nasty public sermon calling for the killing of Jews and eradication of Israel, and two Jewish protesters show up and start shooting, do we accuse the preacher of being too provocative and igniting the violence? Of course not.

And yet, in the wake of the attempted shootings at a “Draw Muhammad” event May 3 in Texas, much of the media reaction centered on the anti-Islamic nature of the organizer, Pam Geller.

The media wanted to know: Was it really necessary for Geller to be so provocative and insensitive toward Muslims? Wasn’t she painting all Muslims with the same dark brush? Didn’t she know she’d risk attracting this kind of violent reaction — especially after the murders a few months ago at Charlie Hebdo?

In other words, the conversation was not so much about Geller’s freedom to offend, but about her obligation to show respect.

We saw a similar sensitivity toward Muslims last month from Gary Trudeau, creator of the satirical comic strip “Doonesbury,” when he received the George Polk Career Award.

Trudeau, whose brilliant career has been based on satire, eviscerated the French satirists of Charlie Hebdo, who were murdered in their office in Paris by Islamic gunmen, because of their mocking cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

“By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, ‘Charlie’ wandered into the realm of hate speech,” Trudeau declared. “Well, voilà — the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world.”

The two words here that especially bother me are “powerless” and “triggering.”

Seriously, where is it written that violent Muslims are powerless? Muslims in France or elsewhere may indeed feel part of a “powerless” minority, but do you know where real power comes from? It comes from the willingness to take a machine gun and shoot people who upset you.

“Trigger” is another word that triggers my outrage. It assumes a certain moronic quality in those being triggered, a lack of human agency or ability to think things through.

It’s the ultimate insult. When Trudeau says the cartoons “triggered” violent protests across the Muslim world, what he’s basically saying is that these violent protestors can’t think things through.

They can’t balance the feeling of being insulted with the devastation of extinguishing a human life. They can’t think through the lifelong pain they inflicted on the family members of the French cartoonists they murdered. You see, according to Trudeau’s way of thinking, these people can’t think things through — because they’ve been “triggered.”

When we use language like “powerless” and “triggered,” all we’re doing is pouring oil on the fire. When we walk on eggshells for fear of offending a bully, all we do is empower the bully.

The freedom to offend is the true test of freedom. The ability to swallow an offense in the interest of a higher value is a sign of human enlightenment.

When I see a cartoon that insults Jews, I have a choice: I can either take it personally and react violently, or I can see the insult as the price to pay to live in a free society. I always choose the latter. Most people do. We expect them to.

If one day we see an American Jew start shooting people at an anti-Israel rally, I can assure you the media reaction will be about the shooter. That is as it should be. It’s one thing to express outrage at offensive speech, it’s quite another to start killing people when you get offended.

But when it comes to Muslims, it’s a whole other ballgame. We see the same pattern each time. Offended Muslims get violent, the media get the obligatory caveat out of the way — “nothing justifies violence” — and then they proceed to attack the offensive speech that “triggered” the violence. We’ve all seen how well that’s worked.

The bottom line is this: If we don’t focus single-mindedly on the wrongness of the violent reaction, instead of the wrongness of the offensive speech, we invite more violence. And that goes for all offensive speech, whether from Pam Geller, Charlie Hebdo or any joker with bad taste.

It’s time to stop patronizing Muslims who react violently to insults. The new message must be: We expect the same from you that we expect of everyone else. In the same way that you have the right to offend non-Muslims without expecting violence, non-Muslims have the same right.

Do gooders such as Trudeau who single out Muslims for kid glove treatment are not doing anyone any favors. If the great satirist expects Jews or Christians not to be triggered into violence by offensive cartoons, he should extend the same respect toward Muslims.

Seeing the future


On the whole, I don’t believe in direct prophecy or in seeing the future.  But, this past Sunday evening, at the Dr. Hassan Hathout Foundation annual gathering, where I was humbled and privileged to be a speaker, I met and learned from a man who made me feel like I was seeing the future.  And it was a future of peace.

The featured speaker on the panel, which was held at USC, was Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, who just completed a four-year term as South Africa’s ambassador to the United States.  He is a Muslim, born in Capetown in 1962, telling us that his ancestors 300 years back were brought from Indonesia as slaves.  His resume is extensive, notably head of the ANC at one point, governor and was jailed several times, one of which he spent with Nelson Mandela in 1987.  He is a global leader and a Muslim, yet not a cleric. He is a scholar (he will begin a post at Georgetown now for 15 months), and he was talking about a paradigm shift.  Shifting how we see the world, how to believe that peace is possible in overcoming hate and destruction.  Some of my fellow clergy on the panel (there was a Catholic chaplain and a retired minister, along with Dr. Eba Hathout), spoke out against militarism, and when we were asked on the panel if we thought that the military industrial complex was a direct blockade to peace, we all said yes.  Period.  

So, Ambassador Rasool made me feel like I could see a future where people of good will can get along, disagree, but respect and care about one another.  We let go of suspicions, we realign our priorities, and we create a new world, one that we all want but can’t seem to find.  This ambassador, one man in a sea of people, trying to tip the scales toward justice and righteousness.  And the most exciting thing was that he is a politician, a successful one in his country, and one of the crafters of their constitution.  He spoke of Muslim cooperation in South Africa, how extremism is snuffed out by ending conflagration.  I would urge you to visit the website, That was the glimmer of hope for me, the “seeing the future” moment.  A South African, Muslim politician is on the dais with a Catholic priest, a minister, a Muslim woman, physician and medical expert, president of this foundation, and me, a rabbi.  I felt the palpable presence of something greater than ourselves.  I felt, after talking with many energized people after the panel, that burst of hope, that rush of shalom, the explosion of peace and possibility.  Everything doesn’t have to be what it seems; war, conquering and perpetual hatred are a choice we make.  I was inspired by Ambassador Rasool, who risked his life for freedom and succeeded, and I want the world to know this man.  With leaders like this, and like Pope Francis, the inevitable and never-ending march to war need not be; with leaders like these, we can march toward peace, which while harder to achieve, is in the long run much more cost effective, and might actually change the world.  “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Why doesn’t the world care about Palestinian refugees in Syria?


It’s happening again — Palestinian refugees are caught between warring factions in the Middle East and the world is reacting too slowly to their plight.

In earlier times, Palestinian refugees found themselves in the crosshairs at the Sabra and Shatila camps, when Lebanese Phalangists massacred them while Israeli forces stood by. Now it’s the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, where militants from the Islamic State have targeted Palestinian civilians in a reign of terror that Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, has called the “deepest circle of hell.” 

Some have used the Yarmouk tragedy to point out, appropriately so, that the world is relatively silent about the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of ISIS. The point is made that it is only when the Jews can be blamed for what is happening that the international community rises up. Otherwise it couldn’t care less.

I reach a similar conclusion but from a different perspective. If the world truly cared about the situation of Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, it would not wait for a humanitarian crisis to erupt before acting to fundamentally improve their quality of life and end the circumstances that set the stage for these disasters.

Yes, we know the arguments for maintaining the status quo regarding Palestinian refugees. Many of those Palestinians wallowing in camps await the time they can return to their homes in what is now Israel. This, of course, is a non-starter since it has always been clear that this would lead to the demographic demise of the Jewish state. Without denigrating the motives of many Palestinians who long for their old homes, for the Palestinian leadership, the refugee issue has been a primary vehicle for sustaining the war against Israel.

Then there’s the argument that the refugee camps need to be sustained until the Palestinians achieve a state of their own — and indeed, a Palestinian state should be the first option for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees. But it hasn’t happened yet, mostly because the Palestinian leadership turned down multiple opportunities to create such a state. Yet even without a state, there is no reason why the condition of Palestinian refugees cannot be improved.

All of which points to one inevitable conclusion that the tragedy at Yarmouk should reinforce: The world needs finally to treat the Palestinian refugee issue like the many other refugee situations that have plagued the world over many decades. The goal must be to end their refugee status as soon as possible. There needs to be international pressure on Lebanon, Syria and other Arab states to dismantle these refugee camps and institute an orderly procedure to integrate Palestinian refugees into their societies.

Integration of refugees is always a challenge and one should never underestimate them — particularly in Syria, which is going through its own hell because of President Bashar Assad’s aggression and the brutality of ISIS. But the idea of dismantling the camps and integrating their residents has never been on the agenda. Now it should be introduced, with the understanding that once there is an independent Palestinian state, some of the former refugees, if not most, might consider moving there.

But the most egregious example of this state of affairs is not in Lebanon or Syria, but in the Palestinian territories themselves. Every time I read about an incident in a refugee camp in the West Bank or Gaza, I can’t help but ask myself: Why are there still camps in territories where Palestinians are in control?

At least in Syria and Lebanon, one must acknowledge the resistance by ruling governments to integrating these outsiders. But in the territories under Palestinian rule, there are no outsiders and nothing to stand in the way of the immediate dismantling of the camps.

Here, more than anywhere, the cynical motives of Palestinian leadership are apparent. Here, where the ability to transform the lives of people living in camps is in their hands, they do nothing. But that is no excuse for the failure of the international community to act.

Let me be clear: None of this is an effort to sidestep the need for renewal of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a two-state solution. That remains an imperative and the best long-term solution for the Palestinians.

But for now, to avoid future Yarmouks, to finally take Palestinian refugees out of this nebulous position they’ve been in for decades, a qualitative change in the international approach must take place.

It is not a simple solution, but it is a beginning for a people who have suffered far too long, with the unfortunate acquiescence of the international community.

(Kenneth Jacobson is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.)

An open letter to Cornel West


Judea Pearl is Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science and Statistics at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

Dear Professor West,

This is a humble request sent to you from a rank-and-file Jewish professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where you are scheduled to deliver a keynote address in honor of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, titled “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.” My request may sound odd, perhaps even audacious, but it needs to be said as we are preparing to commemorate the life and legacy of Rabbi Heschel, his moral grandeur and his spiritual audacity.

I will be as blunt and straightforward as possible: You should excuse yourself from delivering this lecture. My reasons are also blunt and straightforward: No matter how eloquent your speech and how crafty your words, the audience you will face at UCLA will not be able to take them too seriously in light of your recent decision to become a leading propagandist for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. You have to forgive us for being pedantic in these matters, and perhaps not as flexible and nuanced as one might hope, but our history has taught us the importance of devising crisp and visible litmus tests to distinguish friends from foes. It so happened, and you know it as well as we do, that the term BDS has become our most reliable litmus test. In other words, we have come to equate promoters of BDS ideology with those who seek the destruction of Israel, hence the demise of the Jewish people.

Thus, as much as we might try to separate the words you would be saying in honor of Rabbi Heschel from those you uttered in a Feb. 25 interview with David Palumbo-Liu at Stanford (published in Salon), in which you took great pride in promoting cultural and academic boycotts of Israel, our minds will resist the separation. Our minds will be warning us, again and again, that the person speaking before us wants our destruction.

The human mind is a funny machine, Professor West, unlike for politicians and entertainers, our mind seeks consistency and coherence in everything that we see and hear. This stubborn mind will therefore not allow us to forget that in your Aug. 12, 2014, interview with Sean Hannity, you could not find even one historical link between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. None! Nada! Blank! Not one word of empathy for a multiethnic society of immigrants who’ve fought 67 years of besiegement and hostility. None! Nada! Blank! Thus, Professor West, you will have to forgive those stubborn minds if they remind your audience that the keynote speaker at the Heschel memorial conference does not represent the ecumenical legacy of Rabbi Heschel (1907-72), but the moral deformity of BDS.

I believe your UCLA hosts, and certainly your UCLA audience, will accept your apologies if you decide to cancel your engagement. They would understand.

The effective way to combat anti-Israel activity on campus: Public relations


There has been an incredible growth of anti-Semitism on college campuses in North America. Too often anti-Israel sentiment is simply a veiled and more culturally appropriate form of anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses in the United States increased by 21 percent in 2014 when compared to incidents in 2013.

This past October, swastikas were painted on the Jewish fraternity house at Emory University in Atlanta, just one day after Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish day of the year. In May 2014, it was discovered that professors at Temple University were participating in a listserv that contained anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric, including a denial of the Holocaust. And this March, a student at UCLA was initially rejected from applying to the Student Council’s Judicial Board because she was Jewish.

Much of this anti-Semitism stems from anti-Israel sentiment — or possibly vice versa; regardless, people feel emboldened these days to express anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views. But American Jews are not helpless; we can fight back. American Jewry needs to start valuing public relations to combat effectively anti-Israel bigotry and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement on college campuses.

Unfortunately the activities of anti-Israel forces on campuses are only growing. According to Raphael Shore of Jerusalem University, after Operation Protective Edge during the summer of 2014, anti-Israel activity rose on college campuses in the 2014 fall semester alone by 46 percent. Nationally, sponsorship of anti-Israel events by university departments increased by 142 percent.

As Israel continues to be isolated and maligned in many press outlets, we can expect this trajectory to continue upward. The BDS and Students for Justice in Palestine movements have also grown, as well as their anti-Semitic tactics for expressing their views.

Anti-Israel advocates often use deception to prove their point. I know firsthand how this works. Last year, organizers of National Apartheid Week, an anti-Israel event, corrupted footage to make it seem as if I were agreeing with anti-Israel sentiment. That had not been the case. I was disgusted. But, rather than shrug and say, “What can I do?” — I fought back. I blitzed them with an all-out media campaign and within a few days they had discretely removed the video from YouTube. I had won one battle in this media relations war, and you can, too.

These groups’ tactics of deception need to be exposed, but, more importantly, we need to amplify the voices of young pro-Israel activists on college campuses across the country, making their voices heard. If we do this, the truth, too, will be heard and the misperceptions and falsehoods perpetuated by the opposition will be effectively combated.

To ensure that students are exposed to the truth, we need to develop an effective communications strategy. To address these issues, young pro-Israel activists need a platform and an audience. And it cannot be an audience solely comprised of like-minded individuals, but rather those who are not yet sure where they stand on the issues. We should reach out through the media.

Representation of young pro-Israel activists in the global broadcast media is sorely lacking in today’s pro-Israel advocacy efforts. We need to educate pro-Israel college students on how to address biased or downright false reporting in the media, and how to respond when student organizations hold votes to have their universities divest from Israel. We must educate them on how to use public relations effectively to ensure the deceptions that form the basis of the BDS Movement are exposed.

Today, pro-Israel students can use social and digital media as platforms to disseminate accurate information about Israel and combat the mistruths being propagated. Corporate boardrooms, many run by American Jews, utilize public relations as it pertains to minimizing the impact of crises in Israel; for whatever reason, however, when it comes to the crisis that is escalating on college campuses across North America as the BDS movement gains traction, we are not investing enough resources in public realtions to combat the trend.

That is not to say there is no progress being made. Chabad and Birthright should be commended for their efforts to instill Jewish pride in students who might shy away from it due to the current unfavorable climate toward Israel’s actions. The collaboration between the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity in developing CombatHateU, an app providing a platform for students to report anti-Semitic incidents instantaneously, is yet another example of innovation being used to assist Jewish students in this situation.

But we need to stop speaking to each other and start speaking to our peers who are not sure of their position yet. Do not leave people standing on the sidelines: Give them the facts, both through oratory and the media, and stand up to the false “facts” currently being spread.

Josh Nass is a public relations strategist and a frequent contributor to Fox News.

The failed promise of Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’


The Israeli journalist Ari Shavit is the talk of the town.  Widely known in Israel as an influential and well-connected columnist for Haaretz, Shavit has not been a household name in this country.  Until recently, that is.  He has newly conquered America, earning glowing praise for his new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.”  Recently, Shavit made it to Los Angeles, where he spoke to a capacity crowd at Schoenberg Hall on the UCLA campus and then answered questions from Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman.

Many have lauded Shavit as the voice of the true Israel—a country that, as he describes it, has flaws but also possesses wondrous human resources and a remarkable record in facing down and overcoming adversity.  Shavit seems to relish the goal of disseminating this message.  In his media appearances, including his talk at UCLA, he often sounded like a representative of the Israeli hasbara project, not only expressing great pride in his country, but actively seeking to recruit prospects to the cause of mounting a rigorous defense of Israel.  This involved the familiar, but not altogether convincing, move of comparing Israel’s predicament to instances the world over—for example, by comparing the Israeli flag to the Union Jack, or Israel’s treatment of its Arab population to Canada’s and Australia’s treatment of their indigenous populations.   (Somewhat at odds with this recruiting aim, Shavit offers up in the book a latter-day version of the old Zionist doctrine of “negation of the Diaspora” with a series of overstated comparisons between the moribund state of Jewish life outside of Israel and the vibrancy of Jewish life within it.)

To be sure, Shavit is more than a front man for the “Israel advocacy” movement.  He is a fine writer with probing, quirky and frequently brilliant powers of observation.  A number of chapters in “My Promised Land” shed important light on Israeli society, including those devoted to the settler movement, the world of Mizrahi religious politics, left-wing academics in Jerusalem and perhaps most memorably, the Tel Aviv music club scene (“Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition”).

One chapter has garnered more attention than others.  It is the one serialized in the New Yorker in October 2013, on the expulsion by the nascent Israeli army of the Arab residents of the city of Lydda in July 1948.  How one reads this chapter is a Rorschach test of one’s Israel politics.  Eshman began his interview of Schoenberg Hall by asking Shavit if this chapter, in its unvarnished depiction of Jewish cruelty and even murder, lent succor to Israel’s enemies, as some maintain.   Meanwhile, many other readers have heralded Shavit’s exposé in this chapter as a bold and courageous confrontation with an unsavory past. 

I see it as neither, and in fact regard this chapter as the triumph of Zionist amorality.  How could that be?  Doesn’t Shavit acknowledge that Lydda was “our black box” containing “the dark secret of Zionism”—namely, that Zionism’s success depended on the elimination of Arab Lydda as a demographic and military threat?  Doesn’t he expose the unrestrained vengeance of Jewish soldiers toward Arab civilians in Lydda, leading at times to massacres?  Unquestionably, he does. 

But this is hardly an original claim.  Two decades of rigorous scholarship, from Israeli researchers of differing political bents, have demonstrated that tens of thousands of Arabs from Lydda (most estimates range from 50,000 to 70,000) were forcibly evicted from their city on July 12.  The commanding officer of the Israel Defense Force’s Harel Brigade who issued the expulsion order was none other than Yitzhak Rabin, who recalled that he received the directive to “expel them” from David Ben-Gurion himself.  This is hardly the invention of enemies of Israel, but is drawn from a passage from Rabin’s memoirs that was censored by Israeli authorities.

Shavit offers new insight into the motivations of Israeli soldiers and officers involved in the Lydda action through a series of interviews he conducted with them.  But, more importantly, he symbolizes the shift in the way Israelis tell the story of the Palestinian refugees.  After decades in which Israeli and Diaspora Jews were raised on the belief that the refugees left of their own volition, Shavit models a different narrative tack:  No more denial of the fact of Israeli expulsion.  The new claim is that there was no choice.  The nascent state was in a war of survival and, unfortunately, bad things happen in war.  “Either reject Zionism because of Lydda,” Shavit proposes, “or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”

Shavit here follows in the footsteps of the leading Israeli historian of the Palestinian refugees, Benny Morris, whom he interviewed in Haaretz in January 2004.  After discussing the expulsion of thousands of Arabs undertaken by Israeli troops, Morris famously declared in the interview that, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” 

Shavit fully adopts Morris’ view that the ends justify the means.  From the Israeli Jewish perspective, this is understandable.  1948 was a war of survival for the Zionist movement.  But that perspective will carry little weight with expelled Palestinians, for whom 1948 was a war of survival that they lost.  Why should that matter?  Well, Shavit himself lamented at various points in his UCLA appearance that neither side in the Israel-Palestine conflict ever deigns to see or understand the other.

Shavit, for his part, doesn’t take us very far.  He proposes the following logic: we came, we expelled, and we acknowledge it.  Now “get over it,” he tells the Palestinian side, quite literally.  In his view, acknowledgment of the Lydda expulsion is itself an act of great virtue.  It need not substitute for an apology for Lydda—nor less for an agreement to participate in financial compensation consistent with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (dealing with the Palestinian refugees).  This is where the amorality enters.  Shavit remains within his own self-contained and self-congratulatory world.  He remains opaque to the experience of the Other—the victims and losers of 1948–whom he otherwise enjoins us to see.  How does this advance the ball?  Should we not expect him to push us beyond our—and his own–comfort zone?

Let it be clear that issuing an apology for the physical dispossession of Arabs in 1948 is not equivalent to accepting the Palestinian right to return.  It is to acknowledge that the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of Palestinian displacement, is a deep and searing wound in the Palestinian psyche.  Unless and until Israel recognizes it (and then, together with other responsible parties, puts real effort and money into a refugee settlement plan), there is little chance of healing the wound and thereby lending to the Palestinians a measure of dignity that would allow them to overcome their own profound inhibitions and insecurities. To be sure, there is no guarantee that an expression of contrition will prompt Palestinians to turn around and accept Israel’s existence, or, even less, its desire to be defined as a Jewish state (as Shavit insists on).  But it is the right thing to do.  And without such contrition, the wound of Palestinian dispossession will continue to fester, preventing serious movement toward reconciliation and increasing the chances of ongoing conflict.  Someone has to take the first step toward understanding the Other.  Why not Israel, the far more powerful and stable party to the conflict?

Ari Shavit, with all his powers of observation and political savoir-faire, should be able to see this.  He could have done what authors of great literature often do—propel us toward an understanding of a world unfamiliar to us.  But he doesn’t.  The result is a book that succeeds at many levels of description, but ultimately fails to transcend the paradoxical insecurity of the triumphant Israeli. 


David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA and is the author of “Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz.”

Relationship advice: Marry young


I know the arguments that people give for delaying marriage: 

“I’m not ready.”

“I need to be financially secure first.”

“Right now, I’m preoccupied with ____” (fill in the blank).

“To tell you the truth, I’m having too much fun to settle down.” (This argument is usually offered by males — and generally told only to other males.)

Others cite data suggesting that marrying later means less likelihood of divorcing.

I would like to make some arguments on behalf of early marriage.

The first and best argument for early marriage — providing, of course, that one meets a good person and believes this person will also be a good parent and/or provider — is that it forces you to grow up.

Nothing — and I mean nothing — makes us grow up as much as marriage does. Children are a close second, but the maturity leap from singlehood to marriage is still greater than the maturity leap from marriage without children to marriage with children.

The problem today is that becoming mature is not even on the list of most young people’s life goals. If anything, staying immature — committing to no one and remaining dependent on others — is more of a goal.

That is what “not ready” usually means.

Putting aside the financial issue, which we will address, “not ready” almost always means not willing — not “not ready” — to take on the permanent commitment to someone else that marriage entails.

Why were people throughout history ready to commit to marriage at a much younger age than people today? Only because society expected them to become adults at a younger age than today. Nothing makes you an adult as much as responsibility does. And no responsibility makes you an adult as much as marital responsibility.

And why, even today, are religious Jewish and Christian young men and women ready to marry in their early 20s? Because their values and their culture expect them to.

Let’s be honest. “I’m not ready” is usually a statement of emotional immaturity even when the person is otherwise a wonderful and responsible man or woman. 

As for the financial aspect of “not ready,” this is puzzling. People who say this may be entirely sincere, but they may also be fooling themselves. For one thing, two people living together cuts many costs almost in half. For another, nothing spurs hard work as much as marriage (and family) does. Married men make more money than single men. Moreover, many of the happiest and most bonding memories of couples are the early days when they financially struggled.

Another argument pertains to each sex separately. 

To women, I would argue that:

a) More good marriageable men are available when a woman is 23 than when she is 33, not to mention 43. To deny this is to deny reality. To dismiss this as “sexist” is to complain that life is sexist. Moreover, it is irrelevant whether it is “sexist”; all that matters is whether it is true.

b) She will learn little more about men and relationships by either going from relationship to relationship after college or by living with a man for many years without marrying. In other words, all those years a woman spends avoiding looking for a man to marry are largely wasted. There is rarely major emotional growth — this is just as true for men — during those unmarried years. And, in the meantime, she might have been able to find a good man and begin the most satisfying thing in life — making a home and, hopefully, a family. 

c) The notion that marriage will interfere with her career means she believes that, in the long run, career success will bring her greater joy and happiness than marital success. For the vast majority of women, this is not true. Young women who do not believe this should speak to successful single women in their 40s.

To men, I would argue that:

Guys who spend their lives avoiding marriage are, as a general rule, not impressive. That is one reason committed bachelors rarely get elected to high office. Neither sex thinks much of them. I understand men “sowing their wild oats” in the belief that it can help later on in life if they are plagued with curiosity about what it would be like to be with another woman. But after a certain age, chasing women is quite pathetic, and men doing so are spinning their wheels in terms of personal growth. Unfortunately, not all men want to grow up — just ask all the women looking for a man who complain of a surfeit of “man-boys.” 

I learned all this first from traditional Judaism, and later from life and from callers to my radio show. 

In order to be a judge on the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, a man had to be married and a father. Also, in traditional Jewish life, a man could not wear a tallit (prayer shawl) in synagogue until he was married. It was the community’s unsubtle way of telling males that until they committed to a woman in marriage, they were still considered a boy.

There are, of course, exceptions. But in general, boys and girls stay single. If they want to become men and women, they marry.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Letters to the Editor: Wilshire Boulevard Temple, peace talks, Women of the Wall


Celebrating L.A.’s ‘Grand Dame’ Synagogue

Thank you so very much for your column about the rescue and restoration of Wilshire Boulevard Temple — the “grand dame” of synagogues in Los Angeles (“Wilshire Boulevard,” Aug. 2). 

I am one of the fortunate who attended religious school and confirmation at the Wilshire Boulevard campus. Every religious memory I have from childhood emanates from that building — be it standing in the sukkah in the courtyard, sitting in the small auditorium viewing the first Holocaust film I ever saw, or continually staring at the unbelievably beautiful murals that captivated our attention at services. 

I compliment Rabbi Leder and the congregants who funded this restoration. In a city that rarely respects the old and tears down quicker than it builds, the restoration of this landmark is not only courageous and forward thinking; it is respectful as well. Buildings like this are not just tents that can be erected and broken down at will. They are living, breathing structures that can modify and mold to the changing needs of their inhabitants.

Leslie Aranoff-Hirschman via e-mail


On Peace Talks

David Suissa thinks Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory might be legal (“Why Peace Talks Will Fail,” Aug. 9).

He should think again.

In 2004, the highest judicial body in the world, the International Court of Justice, issued an advisory opinion. All 15 judges sitting on the court agreed that Israel settlements are illegal. There was no dissent or disagreement. It happens that two of the judges, Rosalyn Higgins and Thomas Buergenthal, are Jewish. (Buergenthal is also a Holocaust survivor.)

Unless the judges are suffering from mass psychosis, the legal question would appear to be resolved.

Norman G. Finkelstein via e-mail

David Suissa responds:

Mr. Finkelstein missed something important. The international panel he quotes is littered with members from anti-Israel, anti-democratic countries whose positions tend to stay loyal to the foreign policy of their respective regimes. To cite just one example of its bias, in reaching its conclusion, the panel used the work of U.N. “expert” Jean Ziegler, the man who created the Muammar Gadhafi human rights prize. If Mr. Finkelstein were interested in a serious advisory opinion, he could have cited the legal scholar who headed the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Stephen Schwebel, who wrote in 1970 regarding Israel’s legal case: “Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title.”


The Western Wall as an Emotional and Religious Barrier

Either Leah Aharoni is unaware of or hostile to the democratic ideal of separation of church and state (“Women of the Wall’s Collateral Damage,” Aug. 9). That is what Women of the Wall is attempting to achieve; gender equality is its ultimate goal. It is disingenuous for Ms. Aharoni to suggest that gender equality in civil matters such as marriage and divorce, among others, is the law of the land. In Israel, it is not. Gender equality should be a guaranteed civil right, not a religious beneficence. 

We are forbidden by the second commandment to worship symbols. While the Kotel is a holy site, we may only pray at it, not to it. But, among many ultra-Orthodox Jews it seems as if the latter holds more sway than the former. Any Jew should be allowed to pray anywhere along the length of the Wall without fear of obstruction, intimidation or arrest. Bear in mind, those women arrested were detained by civil authorities.   

Finally, don’t make waves in front of the world? Pathetic. Acknowledge the problems, address them, and fix them. They are real, undemocratic, inhumane, painful and shameful.  

Robert Barash, Los Angeles


There is more reason for Diaspora Jews to feel disconnected. On my first trip to Israel, about two years ago, I went to the Western Wall with a dear friend. We were dressed appropriately in long skirts and arms covered and were not wearing tallit or yarmulkes. There were Orthodox women seated in front of the Wall sitting on white plastic chairs. We politely asked to be able to touch the Wall and gestured our wish in case they didn’t understand English, as neither of us spoke Hebrew. We tried several times in several places. No one would let us in. Finally, we just pushed our way in. It was hard to pray when I was angry. 

On the other side, my husband and a friend who isn’t Jewish but wore a yarmulke were allowed at the Wall and into the study rooms.

The wall is not exclusively for the Orthodox. All of us should have access. I had no connection to [Women of the Wall] previously, but I certainly do now! Who gives anyone in Israel the right to decide who is a Jew and who is not and who should be allowed in holy places? If the Orthodox wish us to monetarily support Israel, they should cultivate us, not reject us.

Rhoda Becker via e-mail