Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

President Rivlin found a Fifth Tribe: Diaspora Jews


President of Israel Reuven Rivlin is this year’s senior Israeli speaker at the GA, the annual gathering of the North American Jewish federations. And this is not an easy job: Los Angeles is sunny, and visiting the city is surely enjoyable, but Rivlin came here as the representative of an establishment that is not highly popular with the leadership of US Jewry. Some call it a “crisis” in Israel-Diaspora relations, some deliberately want to avoid the C word. Terminology aside, the Jews of America – well, many of them – are angry with Israel’s government, and feel betrayed, neglected, disrespected. They want to see change.

President Rivlin cannot give them what they want. Moreover, his speech in Los Angeles today reminded North America Jews that “we must all respect Israel’s democratic process. The decision-making process”. American Jews must respect it, and hence accept that their ability to pressure Israel into doing something that its leadership is reluctant to do it limited. President Rivlin himself respect it, and hence is reluctant to express his support for a specific position in the great debate about – well, what is it about?


In a nutshell, Rivlin’s speech included 5 main messages:

  1. Israel is wonderful, and don’t you forget that.
  2. We Jews are partners in good times and bad times.
  3. Religion and State issues are highly politicized in Israel – and this ought to be taken into account.
  4. The Jewish world and Israel are changing, and we must understand and adapt to change.
  5. While we deal with secondary issues, let us not forget the important ones: Iran, anti-Semitism and other serious threats to Jewish existence.


Refereeing to the “crisis” Rivlin used his vast experience as an Israeli politician – one of the most experienced and most successful politicians we have. He used it to remind his North American listeners that “Whether we like it or not, in the only Jewish-democratic state, Religion and State is a political issue”. Obviously, most Jews in the hall do not like it, but Rivlin insisted on reminding them what this reality means: “Around five Israeli governments have fallen on questions like: ‘Can combat aircraft (not on mission) land in Israel on Shabbat?’ Or on the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ that is Democracy”.

Was he defending the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to renegade on the Kotel compromise? I would not go that far. Still, he was clearly at least somewhat sympathetic to Netanyahu’s political calculations. This isn’t some joke, he reminded the room, this is serious business of having to run a complicated coalition by delicately balancing conflicting outlooks and interests.

And as for the Kotel: “I hope that in the future we can return to the table together, and reach an understanding on this important issue”. Note what Rivlin did not say: he did not say that there is need to go back to the deal that the government decided to scrap.


The most interesting part of Rivlin’s speech was dedicated to his theme of “tribes” – a theme that Israelis are already familiar with. Israel is no longer a coherent society. It evolved and now has four main tribes battling for space, influence, resources, ideas – while also having to maintain a certain sense of partnership, because they are all partners who have a stake in the success of Israel. “from a society made up of a clear Zionist majority, to a society made up of four clear sectors or ‘tribes’, which are getting closer in size: The secular Jews, the National Religious Jews, the Haredim and the Arabs”.

Not everybody is happy with Rivlin’s formulation, and with the action he advocates based on it. But that’s not the issue for today. What was noteworthy about his speech today was Rivlin’s attempt at counting non-Israeli Jews as a fifth tribe. “we need the partnership with you, the fifth tribe, (and very important one), the Jews of the Diaspora”.


To be a fifth tribe is an honor – you are one of us – and a burden – you are one of us. It means that Rivlin just complicated the choreography of the already complicated dance of having to make four tribes get along with one another. In his speech, he did not much elaborate on this idea, but make no mistake, he probably thought about it, and already has some ideas as to how such formulation can serve us in the field of Israel-Diaspora action.

Is the Jewish Diaspora a fifth tribe? Does it want to be a fifth tribe? This can be an interesting discussion – but a fifth tribe is surely better than a second people.

Still, there are complications. World Jews are no more a coherent group that Israeli Jews are – so maybe they should not be counted as a fifth tribe but rather be added to the four other tribes (three really: secular, Zionist religious and Haredi). Or maybe to include world Jews in this formulation of tribes there is a need to add more than a fifth tribe – maybe a fifth and a sixth and a seventh.

Also: to have world Jews counted as a tribe we must assume a partnership in something. This might be easier for the Jews, but can we add them to a partnership that includes Israeli Arabs? (it is of course possible: because world Jews and Arab Israelis share an interest in the success of Israel).

And there is the numerical issue to consider. There are eight million Israelis and about the same number of Jews in the rest of the world. Is it fair to count Israelis as four tribes – about two million strong each – and then count all other Jews as just one tribe – eight million strong?

One way or the other, a fifth tribe concept is something fresh to ponder, maybe as a little respite from endlessly talking about the unresolved issue of the Kotel.


As for Iran, note that Rivlin agrees with Netanyahu – and he agrees with President Trump.

Photo from Facebook.

How the GA Can Fix the Jewish World

Jewish professionals and volunteers will gather next week in Los Angeles for the GA, The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. They will convene under the somewhat vague headline “Venture Further.”

Further to where? This is probably a matter for debate, but the slogan conveys a clear sentiment: What we have now is a transitional phase. Our job is to carve a course that will move us forward “into the future of Jewish education, philanthropy and our community.”

The future of “our community.” Here is something to think about: Is “our community” the North American Jewish community or the whole of the Jewish world? Clearly, in talking about a specific community, as large as it might be, there is also a need to keep an eye on other communities, as no Jewish community is an island. The future of “our community” must consider the future of the community that it not “our community,” but someone else’s.

In this spirit, and before this special annual occasion of discussion — where I will be a speaker this year — I would like to briefly suggest a simple framework for understanding the state of the Jewish world, and, hence, the test we must pass as we attempt to venture further. I know, many of the things I am about to write are obvious. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the obvious, as not to drown in a conversation about marginal or irrelevant matters.

So, here it is:

The Jewish world rests mainly on two pillars: North America and Israel. These two pillars have different characteristics that occasionally put them at odds, and this has been especially true over the past couple of months. Their main challenges are quite simple: For Israel, it is physical survival; for North America, it is cultural survival.

Israel is located in a problematic and dangerous area, it is small, it is surrounded by people who want to see it gone. All other problems — and of course it has other problems — pale in comparison. Keeping Jews alive, in a Jewish state, is the main concern of Israel. As for culture, most worries are exaggerated: A long process of communal design eventually will produce an Israeli-Jewishness.

Jews in North America are physically secure. Their country is the most powerful on earth (I know, North America also includes Canada, Mexico and other countries). The challenge they face is cultural. They need a Jewish culture that can be preserved in a modern world, and an open society, where they are a small minority. They need it to be intense and meaningful enough to survive the expected erosion of a minority culture in a majority society.

That’s it. That’s the challenge for “our community.”

Can Israel overcome the challenge? I hope it can. To succeed, it must be strong, realistic, sober, battle ready, tough. And since this is Israel’s main challenge, it would be nice if the Jews of North America would attempt to assist Israel in this arena — even as they attempt to advance the other causes they have in mind for Israel.

Can North American Jews overcome the challenge? I hope they can. To succeed, they must strengthen their communal institutions, invest in education and find a way to have a “community” that means more than a group of people who have Jewish ancestry. And because this is their main challenge, it would be nice if Israel would assist them — even it is not always convenient, politically or otherwise.

The first step in using this formula to venture further is not to deny its validity: There are many who argue that Israel has issues larger than security, that it is about to lose its Jewish soul. These people, although right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the right order. There are also many who argue that the Jews of North America have issues more important than reinvigorating their Jewish culture — fighting the alt-right, or correcting Israel’s course, or whatever. These people, while right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the proper order.

Simplicity is key: Israel needs to bolster its security — the rest will take care of itself. North American Jews need to bolster their culture — the rest will take care of itself.

As to how to achieve these two goals? That is what the GA is for.

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

Will Trump Recertify the Iran Deal? It Doesn’t Matter

On Oct. 15, President Donald Trump will again accept the reality of a signed nuclear deal with Iran — or won’t.

Conflicting reports concerning his intentions confuse not only the media, they also confuse the governments involved in the deal. The Germans don’t know what Trump will do. The Russians don’t know. The Iranians don’t know. The Americans — yes, even those in Trump’s own government — are among the uninformed.

Asked in a recent interview if he had decided to pull the United States out of the deal, Trump responded with a vague “I won’t say that.” Maybe to maintain the mystery? Maybe because he hasn’t made up his mind?

The periodic certification of the Iran deal by the president is not a part of the deal with Iran. It is a requirement by Congress. So the Iranians don’t much care what the president reports to Congress; what they care about is the possible action by Congress after a negative report. They worry about new sanctions, and threaten to retaliate if such sanctions materialize. They worry about new demands, and clarify, for example, that demands to limit Iran’s missile program were not part of the deal.

The Iranians have a point. This wasn’t the deal. As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gholamali Khoshroo, explained in a New York Times op-ed: “It was always clear that the path to reaching a nuclear deal meant setting aside other geopolitical concerns.”

Indeed, it was clear. It was clear to Iran, and that’s why it decided to sign the deal. It was clear to President Barack Obama’s administration, which ignored all other aspects of Iran’s problematic policies as it rushed to make a deal. It was clear to all critics of the deal, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. In fact, that was a main reason they opposed the deal.

What happens if Trump declines to recertify the deal? Nothing happens unless Congress acts. And if Congress acts, a lot depends on how it acts. Even more depends on how Iran responds to how Congress acts. And then, on how the U.S. responds to Iran’s response.

In other words: It doesn’t much matter if the Trump administration does or doesn’t certify the deal before Congress. The only thing that matters — and this was true before the deal was signed as it is true today — is the level of resolve on the part of the international community, or of countries such as the U.S., to prevent Iran from advancing its strategic objectives, such as having nuclear capabilities.

In other words, not much will change if Trump decides not to recertify the deal. What matters is whether Trump has a plan for how to thwart Iran’s malicious intentions or whether he has resolved to prioritize thwarting Iran’s malicious intentions.

When the U.S. decided to accept the deal, it was trying to ensure Iran didn’t turn nuclear on Obama’s watch. The administration was kicking the hot Iran potato to some future president’s court. Declining to recertify the deal, without having the aforementioned resolve and plan, isn’t much different. Trump, by not certifying the deal or by asking Congress to toughen the law overseeing Iran’s compliance with the deal (as Bloomberg reported), will be tossing the hot Iran potato to Congress — a body ill-equipped to make foreign policy. He will make sure that if Iran keeps moving toward achieving its objectives, he will not be the one to take the blame.

Of course, there is a symbolic significance to the way Trump handles the matter. And the fact remains that refusing to recertify the deal could be the ignition of a process aimed at curbing Iran’s belligerent behavior. But as Israel’s Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren explained in his op-ed in The New York Times, “if canceled, the deal must be replaced by crippling sanctions that force Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons capacity.” Canceling — without replacing the deal with something better — will not serve any goal.

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

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Re’eh with Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss

Our guest this week is Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD. Rabbi Weiss was born and raised in New York City. She graduated from the High School for Performing Arts in Manhattan, where she majored in the Dramatic Arts. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Rabbi Weiss received her Master’s degree and her Rabbinical Ordination at HUC-JIR in New York. Rabbi Weiss served for four years as Assistant/Associate Rabbi at Temple Shalom in Naples, Florida. While in Florida she was a “PEER” fellow in the STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) Executive Leadership Program, 2008-09. Rabbi Weiss currently serves as the President of the Washington Board of Rabbis.

In this Week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) – Moses continues speaking to the people of Israel right before he passes away and before they cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Moses asks them to recite certain blessings and curses on Mount Grizzim and Mount Ebal after they enter Israel. He demands that they destroy all remnants of idolatry from the Promised Land and asks them to choose a city which will host the Holy Temple. The Parasha also discusses false prophets, kashrut, the sabbatical year and charity. Our discussion focuses on the imperative to “open your hand,” “not harden your heart” and “lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.”

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Va’etchanan with Rabbi Dresdner

Our guest this week is Rabbi Sruli Dresdner. Rabbi Dresdner received Rabbinic Ordination
from Dean Rabbi Yitzchak Wasserman, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Judaic Studies
from the Denver Talmudic Seminary in 1982. He graduated from Fordham Law School. He
clerked for The Honorable Howard Buschman III, and spent the next few years at the
prestigious Wall Street firm, Dewey Ballantine, before opening his own practice.
Over fifteen years ago, Dresdner returned to Jewish life full time as a Klezmer musician and
Jewish educator, in addition to serving as High-Holiday Cantor and substitute Rabbi at the
West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, NY.  Today he is the rabbi of Temple Shalom Synagogue Center in Auburn, Maine.

This Week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) – continues to
present Moses’ review of the Torah. Moses tells how he implored God to let him into the
Promised Land and how God refused. He recounts the story of the Exodus from Egypt,
declaring it an unprecedented event in human history. He predicts how in the future the
people of Israel will sin, worship other gods, get exiled, and return to obey the lord outside
the Promised Land. The portion also includes a repetition of the Ten Commandments and of  the verses of the Shema.


Previous Talks about Va’etchanan:
– with Rabbi Gary Pokras
– with Rabbi Terry Bookman
– with Rabbi Julie Schonfeld

Letters to the editor: Donald Trump, Women of the Wall and more

Israel Has Always Bled Red

Shmuel Rosner, who I greatly admire, apparently tried to excuse Israeli support for Donald Trump by writing that “Israel tilts rightward when it considers American politics” (“Like It or Not, Israelis Think Trump is Better for Them Than Clinton,” March 7.) One is tempted to say, um, but, friend, Israel just as much tilts rightward when it considers its own politics. For about 32 of the past 40 years, it has had Likud or Likud-sprung prime ministers. The same public has also voted in Benjamin Netanyahu as its second-longest serving prime minister — longest since its first one. The public obviously supports the settler movement and occupation, or it would not continue to vote in governments that do. Now Rosner has merely told us that, just as Israel wants Netanyahu for its own country, it wants Trump for ours. I’m reminded what liberal Israeli journalist Larry Derfner once said: “Israel is the reddest state in the United States.”

James Adler, Cambridge, Mass.

Christians and Israelis Unite

On March 4, Cnaan Liphshiz wrote an article in the Jewish Journal titled “In Face of Labeling Push, Dutch Christians Market Israeli Settlement Goods.” From the time Karel van Oordt started the international advocacy group, he didn’t only give Israel his support, but the support of the group Christians for Israel. When people come and buy food or drinks from Israel, they realize that Israel is another important country just like the United States. It produces food and resources and also has an organized government. I think that the readers of this article will also be inspired thanks to the hard work and effort of Karel van Oordt and his sons.

Daniel Sadeghi, Beverly Hills

Youth of the Nation

David Suissa’s column in the March 4 edition of the Jewish Journal, “Tikkun Olam Nation Is a Deeper Israel,” hits on a very important point. After reading the column, I found myself wondering why we don’t talk about Israel’s social justice culture more often. Similar to Suissa, I think the best way we can combat anti-Israel propaganda is by showing the rest of the world our better side. At a certain point, we have to recognize our audience. Nowadays, that audience consists primarily of the young people in increasingly liberal college campuses across the U.S. If our goal is to show this audience the quilt of vibrancy and diversity that is Israeli society, we cannot afford to focus solely on one aspect of Israel’s economy and culture (I’m talking to you, Startup Nation). Israel’s social activists, who work tirelessly to make the country a better place, are just as integral to Israeli society as the startups that power the economy, and more indicative of Israel’s moral and ethical principles.  

Eytan Merkin, Los Angeles

If it Talks Like a Demagogue…

In Ben Shapiro’s article regarding “The Donald Trump Phenomenon,” I completely agree with his direction (“Why the Republican Party Is Dying,” March 4). Trump simply does not have the maturity and patience to handle delicate situations like the one we face in the Middle East.  We need someone who can handle the more than complicated situation with Israel with finesse, not just immediately decide to bomb ISIS, whether or not that may be the right decision. Mr. Shapiro pierces Trump’s overwhelming facade, portraying him as the demagogue he is.

Jack Mackler, Los Angeles

Divided in Compromise 

Judaism is a religion of tradition. One aspect of this tradition is that men, and only men, don phylacteries and tallitot and pray at the Kotel. Very recently, a group of women called Women of the Wall have requested to be able to pray at the Kotel while practicing their “custom” (“When Is a Compromise Not a Compromise?” March 4). Due to the democratic and understanding nature of Israel, they were given an area to the side of the Kotel to pray as they chose. But this isn’t enough for them. They are now requesting more space and a more central location. One must take into account that it is permissible by their religious laws to pray in a service led by the Orthodox, but it is not permissible for the Orthodox to Daven in a service led by these women. I disagree with the idea that the compromise made was in anyway unfair.

Benjamin Tarko, Los Angeles

Regarding “When Is a Compromise Not a Compromise?” by Cheryl Birkner Mack, I agree with her up until a point. I agree that the Kotel should be for all and that Women of the Wall should have an area where the women are not ridiculed or harassed, but that is as far as it goes. I also find this sad that even some groups of Jewish people can’t get along at one of the holiest sights for us Jewish people. I believe the only thing standing between the Women of the Wall and the Kotel is tradition. The Charedi, Ashkenazim, Sefardim and Chabad are all about tradition and the Women of the Wall are not very traditional. Many religious Jews laugh at the Reform movement and Women of the Wall. So why would you want to be around people who think you are crazy and disrespecting their tradition by putting on tefillin and reading the Torah?

Daniel Jackson , Los Angeles

Letters to the editor: Lucy Aharish, Bill Clinton and peace talks, the Temple Mount and more

Lucy Aharish: Progressive and Practical

I agree with David Suissa’s column “Why I Love Lucy” (Oct. 30). In order for there to be true peace in the State of Israel, the Palestinian Authority must have a progressive attitude. Instead of wallowing in the past with hatred and resentment, Palestinians must think of how they can move forward and build a better future. Until the Palestinian leaders adopt this Israeli mindset, the violence and hatred will never end. Israeli-Arab news personality Lucy Aharish understands what must be done to achieve peace and was brave enough to speak up. The real question is, will the Palestinian Authority ever adopt this progressive mentality and benefit for the future of its nation, or will it choose to be “stuck in failure mode”? Suissa’s opinion on the matter has made me love Lucy, too. 

Talya Sawdayi, Los Angeles

It was refreshing to see a Palestinian’s positive outlook on Israel, not the usual hatred we receive from our biggest adversary. If people who are uneducated in the Israel-Palestine conflict read “Why I Love Lucy,” it would be an eye-opening experience. Lucy Aharish doesn’t belittle either side, but rather states facts to back up her arguments, which is very uncommon on social media today. She makes valid points by stating Israelis aren’t the cause for the Arabs’ downfall: “They’re so caught up in seeing themselves as victims they don’t progress and look toward the future.” If the Palestinian leaders viewed everything from her perspective, there would be peace in the Middle East today and somewhere for the Arabs to call their home, instead of trying to destroy ours. Aharish’s bold statements on matters many are afraid to discuss are truly aspiring. Her productive attitude toward the conflict is, too, why I love Lucy. 

Aaliyah Botach, Los Angeles

20/20 Hindsight?

Rob Eshman has become a bit too nostalgic (“Bring Bill Clinton Back to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Table,” Oct. 30). Bill Clinton had Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak as his Israeli counterparts. President Barack Obama has Benjamin Netanyahu. Does he really think Clinton could work with Bibi and accomplish anything?

Unfortunately, the problems we are facing today have little to do with the United States and all too much to do with Israeli leadership.

Jeffrey M. Ellis, via

Even Exchanges vs. Excuses, Continued

While “The Knife War Is Not Evenhanded” (Oct. 23) was filled with excellent points, there were a few I liked especially. 

“When we confuse acts of aggression with acts of self defense, when we pretend that everyone is equally guilty and equally responsible, we suck the air out of accountability” really made me realize how angry I was about the false accusations against the Jews in situations involving weapons. Many news stations have falsely accused Israelis and Jews for causing the terror, when in reality, we are just defending our people and ourselves. Suissa made a brilliant point when stating, “Running away from this truth and trying to appear evenhanded does more than put the readers to sleep. It wakes the killers.” When the Palestinians and Arabs tell news stations and their own people things that aren’t true, they are causing even more violence between the Jews and Arabs, making people angry and making people risk their lives to hurt others.  

Samantha Shapiro, North Hollywood

Temple Mount Too Much

I agree with Shmuel Rosner when he says that what we have the right to do is not always the smart thing to do (“Temple Mount: The Right Thing or the Smart Thing?” Oct. 30). I also agree with his premise that Israel’s primary obligation is to ensure a “secured future for the Jewish state.” However, I disagree with his conclusion that Israel should give up its right to visit the Temple Mount in hopes of placating the Palestinians and stopping the terrorism. I believe that making such a move would be rewarding them for acts of violence. Moreover, we’ve learned from the pullout from Lebanon in 2006 and from Gaza in 2009 that making concessions often does not promote peace, but rather emboldens the aggressors.

Tzippora Topp, Los Angeles

Unreliable Narrator

I disagree with Andrew Friedman’s opinion on attempting to get involved with the private matters of the Israeli police and authorities (“Detaining Peace,” Oct. 30). Not only is Friedman overstepping his boundaries, he also is unaware of the situation and barely knows the arrested man, Mohannad. Even after speaking to Khaled Abu Awwad, Mohannad’s father, and learning that the family believed Mohannad’s first jail sentence had good reason and was a fair amount of time, he still questioned the Israeli officials. 

My last thought is that Mohannad’s family members are not good testifiers. Being a part of his family would make your opinion biased, at the least, and therefore unreliable.

Avital Tofler, Los Angeles

Panel: In Israel, will the future be hope or fear?

A post-Israeli election panel on the future of Israel. Featuring Rob Eshman, David Suissa and Shmuel Rosner. Moderated by Susan Freudenheim.

Letters to the editor: Yom Kippur, Eid, Peace Now and Jews against evil

Putting ‘Exist’ in ‘Coexistence’ 
I found Simone Wilson’s article about the overlapping of Yom Kippur and the Muslim feast of Eid ul-Adha heart-warming and hopeful (“A Rare and Peaceful ‘Eid Kippur’ in Israel,” Oct. 10). It is remarkable that leaders from both sides met beforehand urging tolerance and that the day turned out peaceful after such a tense summer. I was surprised to hear that many Muslim citizens chose to walk rather than drive to their prayers and postponed performing animal sacrifices out of respect to Jews celebrating Yom Kippur. If allowing Muslims to visit relatives and friends through relaxing restrictions extinguishes their anger and hatred and brings positive associations with Israelis, why not find a way to safely do it again? I urge Israeli and Muslim leaders to capitalize on these good feelings and use this experience to continue the open-mindedness, understanding and happiness described here. Let’s try to learn from “Eid Kippur” and create moments of peaceful coexistence more than once every 33 years. Thank you to Wilson for shedding light on a positive view of Israeli-Muslim relations. 
Ariella Etshalom, Los Angeles 

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace 

Shmuel Rosner (“Bibi vs. Peace Now: A Potentially Dangerous Moment,” Oct. 10) accuses Peace Now of irresponsibly trying to hurt Israel’s image abroad by bringing attention to a Sept. 24 public announcement by the Interior Ministry to allow building over the Green Line in Givat HaMatos — a development that threatens to degrade what remains of the geographic contiguity of the Palestinian West Bank. 
Rosner is wrong about the obligations of a pro-peace, pro-Israel organization like Peace Now. While Netanyahu was revealing a lack of diplomatic skill (accusing President Barack Obama of not acting “in the American way,” among other things), Peace Now acted to advance the prospects for peace by exposing his politically destructive settlement action to the Israeli public in the hope that Israeli citizens would become aware and call for a change in Netanyahu’s settlement policies. Hesitancy on Peace Now’s part, not action, would have been irresponsible. 
Rosner’s final point that Peace Now should keep its message closeted rather than revealing Israel’s ever-expanding settlement program is the type of censorship that a responsible journalist like Rosner should abhor. 
Let’s get serious: The problem is not the messenger, but Netanyahu’s ongoing settlement policies, which are not only damaging Israel’s relationship with its largest and most important ally and provoking international criticism, but also threatening Israel’s future as a democracy and a Jewish state. 
Gerald Bubis, Richard Gunther, Luis Lainer past national chairs, Americans for Peace Now 

A Hard Line Down the Middle 
As a moderate, I fully agree with Dennis Prager’s hatred of the left’s support and/or tolerance for communists, Saddam Hussein and ISIS, not to mention Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran (“Do Jews Hate Evil?” Oct. 17). But as a moderate, I also abhor the right’s idolatrous worship of unregulated capitalism and trickle-down economics, as well as the right’s misuse of God, religion and the Bible as a trump card and a weapon of intolerance. 
It is unarguably true that the right’s policies of selfishness, greed and intolerance in the United States does not remotely compare with the evil of mass murder of millions of people on other continents countenanced by the left. But the right’s policies of selfishness, greed and intolerance hardly represent the pursuit of goodness or justice, nor does it constitute “normative Jewish moral instincts.” 
Michael Asher Valley Village 
Dennis Prager responds: 
Other than Mr. Asher’s agreement with my column’s thesis that the left — where most Jews locate themselves — has not generally hated evil, I don’t understand his letter. For example, he writes about the “right’s idolatrous worship of unregulated capitalism.” In a lifetime of work among conservatives, I have never met one conservative who believes in “unregulated capitalism,” let alone worships it. 
He makes sweeping negative charges but doesn’t provide a single supporting example. What conservative “policies of selfishness, greed and intolerance” is Mr. Asher referring to? He doesn’t say. Are they lower taxes? Or support for keeping marriage male-female? If so, they are poor examples. If not, what are they? The same holds true regarding his charge about “the right’s misuse of God, religion and the Bible as a trump card and a weapon of intolerance”? Could he not have written just one sentence providing one or two examples to back up such terrible accusations? 
Mr. Asher may be no fan of the left, but he has bought one of its distinguishing features  — demonization of the right. 
There are many, many more letters at
JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via email must not contain attachments. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: Jewish Journal, Letters, 3250 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1250, Los Angeles, CA 90010; email:; or fax: (213) 368-1684.

Four more years (of bickering)

So the Jewish vote didn’t make much difference after all. Not even in Florida. Had Romney taken Florida, had he won this election, we could have argued that the 31 percent of Jews he was able to win over in the Sunshine State played an important role in his razor-thin victory. But he lost the election, Jewish gains notwithstanding. Thus, the first lesson, then, for Jewish Republicans like Sheldon Adelson should be as follows: If you have resources to spend on campaigning, if you are truly committed to the cause, spend your time and money assisting your party in winning over the people without whom elections cannot be won: Latinos. 

Saying the 2012 elections were not as important as the candidates (and many of us) said they were is easy. The two candidates were uninspiring, as is clear from the fact that neither of them was able to attract many crossovers from the other camp. Obama was supported by Democratic voters and Romney by Republicans. They masqueraded a heated debate over issues of great significance when, in fact, they were battling over a technicality: Who’s the better man to fix the economy – an issue most well-trained voters told pollsters is the “most important” for them. 

Believing the answers voters give is as dangerous as believing the candidates’ promises. Obama and Romney painted their race in ways favorable to their main cause – getting elected. But the voters were just as unreliable: They know what they need to say; they know what is expected of them. These elections early on were defined as being about “the economy” – hence, voters’ tendency to put the economy on top. However, putting the economy on top and then saying that Romney is the better candidate on the economy, and then giving Obama the White House, is exactly what American voters did, according to the exit polls. Elections are never about one issue and are almost always about how comfortable the electorate feels with the candidates. 

That more Jews felt comfortable with President Obama is not such a big surprise. No one really expected it to go any other way. It was also quite obvious that Obama will not win as strongly with Jewish voters as he did four years ago. As this article is being written, on Tuesday night, we don’t yet have all the detailed poll data that is scheduled to be released on Wednesday by both the Jewish Republican Jewish Coalition and by J Street pollster Jim Gerstein. However, early exit polls have revealed that Obama’s standings with Jews have declined to 70 percent of the vote. Did the vigorous campaign to peal away Obama Jewish voters work at all? Romney got 30 percent of the vote. And one suspects that both Jewish Democrats and Republicans will find a way to spin these results without admitting failure. 

They will be able to do it, among other reasons, because there’s never been true agreement on the percentage of the Jewish vote that went for Obama in 2008. Hence, there will be no agreement on the percentage of Jewish voters who’ve moved away from him and into the Republican column. A recent study argued that Obama’s actual Jewish number of 2008 was 74 percent — while the 2008 exit polls gave Obama 78 percent of the Jewish vote. So the scale of the decline depends how much you believe the new research. 

Those responsible for the new research want you to believe that this is the more serious analysis of the Jewish vote. But Republican Jews want you to believe that this study is a spin aimed at making Obama look better as his 2012 numbers drop. And they did drop: 8 percent fewer Jews voted for him, compared to the 2008 exit poll. Four percent fewer compared to the recent study. Whatever the final count, there’s no denying that the climb in Jewish Republican votes appears to be a continuation of a trend. In my book about the Jewish vote, I described the drop in the Republican Jewish vote since 1992 – in fact, I described the last two decades as the decades of the-Republican-Party-is-no-longer-an-option for Jews. But the graph of the Jewish vote for the Republican Party since that big drop of the early ’90s shows a slow but steady climb back to the party being an option.

On the morning of Election Day, I spent a couple of hours harassing Jewish voters in Beachwood Ohio, not far from Cleveland. These are precincts that went 71 percent-28 percent for Obama in 2008, 65 percent-35 percent for Kerry in 2004, and 77 percent-22 percent for Gore in 2000. I can’t tell you what the numbers will be like this time, but based on the dozen or so interviews I had time to do, it is likely that Romney got numbers in these precincts closer to those of the 2004 Bush than to the 2008 McCain. Possibly even higher. 

The story of the 2012 Jewish vote, then, is a story of a growing gap between the conservative wing of the community, a large part of it Orthodox, and the rest of the community, who remain loyal to the Democratic Party. Earlier this week, in Columbus, I made a pact with a local rabbi: I could ask any question and quote any answer, as long as I didn’t give away his identity. Not a hint, not a clue. Is it not problematic for a Jew in America to have such fear of exposing one’s political beliefs? – I asked him. The rabbi laughed. “You realize”, he said, “that my so-called fear has nothing to do with non-Jews – it is the Jews that I fear.” He then asked if I’d read Roger Cohen’s article in The New York Times about “The Jews of Cuyahoga County,” which, of course, I had. The rabbi didn’t like Cohen’s use of the word “ugly” at the outset of his article (“Things are getting ugly among the Jews of Cuyahoga County, with family splits and dinner invitations declined”), but he also gave the impression that at times things are, well, becoming ugly. Not for all Jews in Cuyahoga or Columbus, not in all families. But in some cases, it does – hence, the rabbi’s obsession about not wanting to be exposed. “If I get into political issues, I’m definitely going to alienate some people from one side or the other, and more likely from both sides.” These are days of tension and bickering and highly partisan spirit. These are days in which “hardly anyone can see both sides’ arguments.”

Having met and interviewed many Ohioan Jews during my week here, I discovered that it was easy to find Obama voters (“Is there even an alternative?” one Cleveland resident asked me), and also not very hard to find Romney voters (the easiest way: look for the Orthodox shul and the kosher deli), and was more rare, but still possible, to find the 2008-Obama-disappointee. But, truly, it was easier to find people who claim to know people disappointed with Obama than to find those disappointed people in person. “Yes, I have some friends that voted for Obama in 2008 and are now voting for Romney,” Jerry Mayer told me. Stewart Ain of The Jewish Week got a better quote from a Bret Caller: “I’ve had dozens and dozens of Jewish friends who voted for Obama in ’08 say to me that they are on the fence and will make a decision in the voting booth.”

And, one must admit, many of the Ohio Jews I met in recent days tended to think about Obama and Romney in the same dichotomist manner. Romney will “ban all abortions,” a weary Bev (or was it Deb? Forgive my insensitive Israeli ears) Hart explained, knowingly. Obama is “an enemy of Israel,” an angry Rob Gold told me. No article on the 2012 Jewish race can be concluded without some discussion of the Israel issue.

My first 2012 story on the U.S. election was published on Jan. 1, reported and written in Iowa, where Mitt Romney began his long journey to win the Republican primary election and become the nominee. I had a catchy headline for it: “Witnessing European Menace Invading Des Moines.” The only real foreign reference made by Romney in the political rally I attended that week “was not about the Middle East or even China,” I wrote back then. “Romney – and some of the other candidates as well – have made Europe a topic of political conversation. As in: If we continue to have policies like we have now, we might risk “ending up being like Europe.” I was reminded of this event and of that post, as I was listening on Sunday to Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, in a well-kept medium-size hanger, where he made a short landing in Mansfield, Ohio. Ryan was at his very best at that event, sharp and amicable. But he had no intention of talking about anything but the U.S. economy. 

I was waiting to hear a word or two about foreign affairs. Two days before an American election, as the whole world was watching, one would have been justified to expect at least a pretense interest on the part of the American candidates in what’s happening beyond America’s borders. But no such words ever quite materialized. Obama, when I saw him last week, seemed to have little interest in talking about foreign affairs. In fact, Obama made it a habit to tell American voters that electing him is important because he’s the candidate that will do “some nation building here in America.” Obama, like Romney, is an internationalist. But both of them felt a political need to make the world disappear in the final stretch of the election.  

For Israel, a less involved America is a convenience on some matters – such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but really it’s a curse. Israel needs the United States to be leading the coalition against Iran, and needs the United States to project confidence and have influence in a region that becomes more volatile by the hour – recent exchanges of fire on the Syrian border being the most recent manifestation. Obama is likely not to have much appetite to be more engaged in the region, and even less appetite to have to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, but will have no choice but to do it. 

Interestingly, not since Eisenhower has Israel had to make do with a president with whom it doesn’t quite get along for two consecutive terms. Carter, Ford and the first Bush – the three presidents at the top of Israel’s list of unfavorable presidents – were all one termers, annoying to Israel’s government, but gone quickly. With Obama, it will be eight years of bickering and mistrust and miscommunication, unless one of three things happens: If Netanyahu is not re-elected; if Obama or Netanyahu determine to put an end to the sour state of relations; or if the U.S. disengages. Option No. 1 will be an important component of Israel’s coming election – a tool that Netanyahu’s rivals are going to use in hopes of convincing Israelis that the relations with Obama are reason enough for them to replace the prime minister. Option No. 2 is the preferable option – the grown-up option – and hence the less likely one. Option No. 3 is the most dangerous of them all. Better for Obama and Netanyahu to keep the bickering going – and with it the involvement of the United States in Israel-related affairs. 

A dialogue on Jewish life in America today

Following the publication of the New York Jewish Population Study, Shmuel Rosner interviewed Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. So, how many Jewish people are there exactly?

Dear Steven,

A couple of years ago, you made a name for yourself by provoking the Jewish world to consider the possibility of a growing divide between two kinds of Jewish people — the in-married and the intermarried. Of course, no consensus ever was reached on the matter — yet consensus is hardly a Jewish value. However, your description stuck and is still quoted in articles and discussions.

Enter the latest New York Jewish Population Study (which you authored, together with Jacob Ukeles and Ron Miller) with its many details, and it seems to me that a new Jewish divide should be considered.

On the one side — the progressive and secular Jewish world, with its many components: A community that isn’t always much connected to Jewish identity and practice, but is educated, affluent and quite successful, economically speaking. They have less by way of daily Jewish life, but more resources with which to make Judaism available for all.

On the other side — the Orthodox Jewish world: Fast-growing, vibrant and highly affiliated, Jewishly educated, well-connected to Israel, with a very low rate of assimilation and very high number of children. And it is relatively poor. The more they are affiliated, the less resources they have to support the high cost of Jewish life.

Can this divide be bridged? Can we find a way to somehow overcome the seeming contradiction between affiliation and financial resources?

I’m turning it over to you …

Dear Shmuel,

Your call to focus on the divide and differences between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is, indeed, well-placed. As our study amply demonstrates — and as your comment underscores — Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews differ on so many dimensions of Jewish engagement, demographic patterns and worldviews.

But I think it would be a mistake to ignore another critical divide (as maybe you are suggesting) among the non-Orthodox: That distinguishing the intermarried or the children of the intermarried from the majority of non-Orthodox Jews who are the children of two Jewish parents and are either non-married or in-married. In other words, rather than divide the world into two (either Orthodox/non-Orthodox or in-married/intermarried), I prefer to divide the world into three (Orthodox; in-married or unmixed ancestry non-Orthodox; intermarried and mixed ancestry). The differences across these boundaries are real, even as the groups do bleed into one another.

In fact, each camp I’m suggesting may itself be divided in two. Among the Orthodox, we found incredibly large differences between the Modern Orthodox and the Charedim, especially with respect to participating in the larger Jewish community. Among the in-married non-Orthodox, we found substantial differences between Conservative and Reform Jews, especially if affiliated, countering the widely held notion that the two venerable denominations are no longer meaningful. And among the intermarried population (be it by ancestry or current circumstance), Jews divide significantly between those who see Judaism as their religion and those who do not.

In short, Orthodox/non-Orthodox obscures and distorts reality too much. It leads you to obliquely characterize the non-Orthodox Jewish world as “progressive and secular” and to speak of the Jewish community within it in the following way: “A community that isn’t always much connected to Jewish identity and practice.” The data that Jack, Ron and I analyzed in depth say otherwise. The (non-Orthodox) Jewish community — those who are engaged in Jewish life but do not identify as Orthodox — is very much “connected to Jewish identity and practice,” sometimes “progressive,” and does not see itself very much as “secular.”

In short, the Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide, when unqualified, leads even some very smart, sympathetic and experienced observers in Jewish life in the United States to a downwardly biased assessment of Jewish life and vitality among the non-Orthodox.

As much as I value the focus on the demographic issues of in-marriage and birthrates for analytic and policy purposes, I believe we need to see Jewish demography and Jewish communal vitality as related but with distinct dimensions. As important as is population growth/decline, it is not the total measure of cultural, communal, and spiritual success (or failure). From a policy point of view, we cannot assume that inspiring communities automatically promote in-marriage, high birthrates and Jews (or non-Jews) choosing Jewish engagement. Just as we need policies and practices that strengthen Jewish communities and life, so, too, do we need separate policies and practices that improve the likelihood of Jews marrying Jews, Jews parenting Jews, as well as Jews and non-Jews engaging in Jewish life.

In short, we need to think of at least three population segments, not two; and two sets of policies, not one. The Orthodox, in-married and intermarried merit our distinctive attention. So, too, does Jewish vitality and Jewish demography.

In a follow-up letter, Rosner asks Cohen: Do you have to have money to be Jewishly engaged?

Dear Steven,

Thank you for your response. I have many follow-up questions but will have to start with the question I’ve already asked. Interestingly, while my original question was a lot about the economics of the Jewish community, your response doesn’t at all deal with it — you highlight the differences among three groups but do not write about Orthodox financial constraints. I guess what I need to know first is if there really is such difference that is affiliation-based. And if there is such difference, what do we do about it?

Dear Shmuel,

In response to your question, “I guess what I need to know first is if there really is such difference that is affiliation-based. And if there is such difference — what do we do about it?”

I offer the following: Some indicators of Jewish engagement are sensitive to income (usually, the ones that cost money), and others are not.

Those measures that are at least moderately related to higher income are a collection of indicators, all reflecting institutional involvement:

  • Going to museums or Jewish cultural events.
  • Going to Jewish community center programs.
  • Attending Jewish educational programs.
  • Accessing Jewish Web sites.
  • Belonging to synagogues.
  • Belonging to Jewish organizations.
  • Giving to Jewish causes, both UJA-Federation and others.
  • Volunteering under Jewish auspices.
  • Celebrating Passover and Chanukah (family-oriented holidays).

Among the items not related to income are:

  • Shabbat-meal frequency.
  • Monthly service attendance.
  • Keeping kosher at home (higher among the poor).
  • Lighting Shabbat candles (higher among the poor).
  • Fasting on Yom Kippur.
  • Having close friends who are Jewish.
  • Feeling attached to Israel.
  • Feeling that being Jewish is very important.
  • Talking with friends about Jewish matters.

Not surprisingly, feelings of being part of a Jewish community in New York rise with household income, from 19 percent of the poor and near-poor who answer “a lot,” to 36 percent of the affluent group.

As compared with the affluent, low- and moderate-income Jewish New Yorkers feel just as Jewishly engaged and act just as Jewishly engaged in their private and social lives. However, financial and social barriers, if not the pressures of daily living, work to restrain and constrain the participation of the less-affluent in Jewish communal life, in matters ranging from belonging, to attending programs, to volunteering.

As to what can be done about financial barriers, a few ideas come to mind:

First, we need to recognize that more committed and connected Jews find more value in acts of Jewish engagement, even when they cost money. Hence, anything that can raise commitment and connection will tend to lower the perceived cost of Jewish involvement.

Second, volunteer efforts by committed Jews with high cultural capital can significantly trim costs. Some Jewish camps, schools, congregations and minyanim can operate with relatively lower budgets than conventional counterparts because they draw upon capable volunteers or semivolunteer low-paid professional staff. But that requires a pool of people with Jewish commitment and cultural capacity. Where such people are plentiful, the cost of Jewish involvement drops. Hence, the Jewish community has an interest in educating young people who, in some time, will go out and volunteer their talents to build and sustain Jewish institutions, especially those engaged in education or prayer.

Third, targeted scholarships and fee reductions can induce some families to engage in Jewish life in various ways. The generic problem with such policies is that, if not targeted, the costs will mount dramatically with little impact on increased participation. All such programs grapple with the question of how to target the funds without insulting or offending families who would otherwise participate in the particular activity or institution.

Bulgaria blast: Fresh updates from Shmuel Rosner’s Twitter feed

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Israeli citizenship law: Human rights vs. demographics

It was an important decision, and not a trivial one, when Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a law last week that prevents most non-Israeli Arabs who marry Israelis from living in Israel. The court was split almost in half: Six justices sided with the majority ruling, and five justices — Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch included — opposed the ultimate decision. The numbers reflect the magnitude of the dilemma, they reflect the fact that this could not be an easy decision for any country, and they reflect the delicate balancing act with which Israel has to live. Thus, it is good that five justices did not want to uphold the law, good to have a sizable opposition for such a ruling.

The law in question is problematic. It is meant to prevent the immigration of non-Israeli Arabs — mostly Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza —into Israel by way of marrying Arab Israelis. It states that the interior minister can grant citizenship only when an applicant has convinced him that he identifies with the State of Israel or in cases where the applicant or his family members have contributed to Israel’s security.

Civil rights advocates have argued that such a law infringes on the rights of Israeli citizens to a family life. The Israeli authorities claimed that Palestinian immigrants-by-marriage pose a security threat — a claim that is not easy to prove: The number of Palestinians that have been allowed into Israel through marriage and later were caught engaging in terrorist activity is relatively small. Civil rights advocates also argue that the real story behind the law is not one of security, but rather one of demography: The state wants to maintain its Jewish majority. It is a claim that’s hard to deny with a straight face, and was definitely one of the reasons for lawmakers to propose and support the legislation.

That the court was split, then, should not be a surprise. Here was a collision of the most basic and sacred principles of the Jewish state — Israel’s liberal principles versus Israel’s constant need to stand alert against its enemy; Israel’s democratic nature versus Israel’s ultimate desire to maintain a Jewish majority and a Jewish character (whatever that means).

One should not be surprised by the nature and tone of response to this ruling of the court. Naturally, Arabs were not happy with the court’s decision. Leftist Israeli lawmakers joined in the condemnation, saying that “the [Supreme] Court’s power has been weakened in the fight against racism.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar mocked the protestations from the left. “Respect for the rule of law and for judicial decisions cannot only be when those decisions are consistent with one’s own world view,” he said, reminding Israelis that speakers on the left are usually the first to defend High Court decisions, and the first to see any criticism of the court as a sign of a weakening democracy.

That the court has been influenced by the public mood is possible. That it is influenced by realities “on the ground” is also a possibility. This just might be one of these cases where reality has to trump theory. On paper, this law is not an easy one to defend. In reality, eliminating a law that is quite sensible under the current circumstances is also not easy to defend. On paper, the law (and the court’s decision) might seem like a blow to human rights and human dignity. In reality, human rights can’t be defended out of context and can’t be judged as a stand-alone value. Yes, security matters, and, yes — as unfashionable as saying it might seem — demography also matters. Preserving a Jewish majority is very important — it is at the heart of why Israel was established. Is it more important than “human rights”? That is not a fair question. This law doesn’t cancel “human rights,” but rather limits one right for some people for the sake of preserving other rights of other people — the right of Israelis to be safer, and their right to defend the character of their Jewish state.

Is this an easy call? I wouldn’t say it is — the legislators and the court have limited the rights of Arab Israelis. I therefore understand the frustration and even the indignation of the people opposing the court’s decision. The Supreme Court, though, is not a one-cause institute for human rights. It has to consider human rights, and security, and long-term goals of the state, and the current state of affairs, and, yes, at times, even the public mood — and then balance them all. This time, the scale tipped toward preserving a controversial law, a problematic law, a difficult and sticky law. Not because it is a good law, but because it is better than the alternative.

The changing face of Judaism in the U.S., Israel

Harvey E. Goldberg is emeritus professor and Sarah Allen Shaine Chair in Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Utilizing both field research and historical documentation, he has focused on the cultural history of Jews in North Africa, ethnicity and religion in Israeli society, and, more generally, on the interface between anthropology and Jewish studies. Recently he has been involved in projects concerning Jewish life in the United States, where he was born.

Shmuel Rosner: You write that “many Jews, particularly those who see themselves as bearing responsibility for the Jewish future, view recent changes and developments with alarm.” Such alarm, you say, “distracts us from understanding the positive and culture-constructive aspects of Jewish responses to trends unfolding in the United States, Israel and elsewhere.” Can you name the two or three most positive aspects?
Harvey E. Goldberg: In the United States, my colleague Steve Cohen and other researchers have pointed out that while there are Jews who “leave the fold,” those who remain engaged in Jewish life do so with greater commitment, intensity and knowledge. The education they make available to their children reflects the same trend. This is true for all the standard categories, including Conservative and Reform Jews, and also expresses itself in new types of congregations that define themselves and their images of Judaism in ways that move beyond conventional denominational labels. In Israel, the past generation has witnessed the growth of a range of frameworks in which Jews who most likely would be classified as secular seek exposure to Jewish texts and devote time to expand their knowledge of Jewish culture and history. Even if these new forms of study do not lead to changes in observance from a traditional rabbinic point of view, they demonstrate the growing awareness that it is no longer acceptable for Judaism to be the monopoly of datim, or the religious, alone. Another phenomenon that can be found in both countries is the greater participation of women in public religious life.

SR: Can you say something about the different ways in which Jewish feminism impacts Orthodox Jews in the United States and in Israel?
HG: An important change in both countries is that women began studying everything that men did. Today, there are professors of Talmud who are women. This does not occur among Charedim, of course, but within Modern Orthodoxy or Israeli National Religious streams, women are recognized as having advanced knowledge of the whole gamut of Jewish texts. 

SR: Please explain: “In the American context, informed by late-modern trends but also with roots in Protestantism, the contemporary locus of religion is the individual looking out. But in Israel, we are witnessing an opposite move —the weakening of collective imperatives and a groping toward the individual as a site of Jewish value.”
HG: American civilization developed around an ideology that saw the individual with his (and now, her) religious conscience as a sacred cornerstone that must be respected, and out of which various forms of associations grew.  Add to that the trends of late modernity or postmodernism, which question perceived cultural categories and master narratives, and we are not surprised to find Jews in America expressing themselves in diverse and fragmented religious modes according to their preferences and sensibilities. In Israel, we are beginning to see partially analogous trends coming from the opposite direction. Beginning from firmly formulated notions of collective identity and solid institutional structures, the growing emphasis on the individual in all spheres of Israeli life — from economics through the exposure to global culture — means that people sense they should have more choice in the realm of religion as well.

More and more Israeli Jews believe that they have the right to follow Judaism as it feels right to them, and not only in terms of norms handed down from the past. With privatization being such a dominant Israeli theme, it is understandable that it now appears in the realm of religion. Thus, some Jews in Israel recently have found that they appreciate forms of religious expression that evolved in the Diaspora, and at times are attracted to them.

SR: Is there a growing gap between Jewish Americans and Jewish Israelis? If so, why?
HG: The basic historical fact is that Judaism in America and in Israel have evolved along differing trajectories. Given the constitutional separation of church and state in the United States, Jews were free to formulate different religious paths and to organize synagogues, schools and other forms of communal life accordingly. This led to the growth of liberal forms of Judaism, but even Orthodoxy in America benefited from this freedom. Diversity among the various streams grew with time, and no group can force its beliefs and practices on another.

In Mandate Palestine, and then the State of Israel, Jews who were committed to exact religious practice sought to protect their way of life and turned to politics to ensure that formal institutions were in place enabling them to follow their religious conscious. This resulted in the established place of Orthodoxy, and the separate streams of education seeking to ensure the continuity of various Orthodox ideologies and groups.

Thus, while the majority of Jews in America affiliated with Reform or Conservative congregations, these were stifled in the Israeli setting and only slowly attained some recognition. The recent strengthening of strong nationalist rhetoric in Israel, anchored in the conflict with Palestinians, is another factor now driving many Jews in America along religious and cultural roads that separate them from Israel. Liberal ideologies and laws enabled Jews to make their way in America, and many find it difficult to understand why Israel seems to ignore or even run against these principles. There thus have emerged articulate Jewish voices in America that distance themselves from contemporary Israeli life. Simultaneously, other American Jews feel deep connection to Israel no matter what policies its leaders advocate, and some remain attached even as they try to contribute to projects of social change.

SR: And an easy final question: All in all, is Jewish civilization rising or declining?
HG: Easy, because it’s impossible to answer, but I can suggest several points that should be kept in mind. First, one should not equate change with decline. Many patterns of Jewish life are undergoing change, and it takes time to reach assessments whether these are contributing to Jewish civilization or detracting from it. Second, calling Judaism a civilization needs to be qualified. Judaism has deep historical roots and has spread throughout the world, but because of the small number of Jews compared to other major civilizations, Jewish culture and religion have always been closely intertwined with other ways of life.

Some Jewish ideologies, particularly those we call Orthodox, have sought to deny or minimize the fact of cultural interchange and dialogue, but any sober look at Jewish history reveals myriad examples of what we consider Jewish to reflect give-and-take with the wider environment. This realization need not lead to extreme positions: Viewing Judaism as a minor derivative culture, on the one hand, or seeking greater self-isolation to help protect Jewish ideals and practice, on the other. Jews need to be informed about their past and exposed to a variety of Jewish paths that are being forged in the present. Armed with such self-understanding (which entails a grasp of other civilizations within which Jewish life has grown), contemporary Jews can make thoughtful choices that are also informed by ingrained Jewish habits.

If Jewish civilization succeeds, to continue to grow and flourish, it will only be on the basis of internal variety and dynamic efforts to hold onto what is significant from the past, while creatively sorting through new sources of influence and pressure.

Iowans weigh in on GOP’s Ron Paul and Israel

I have come from Israel to the United States to witness the Republican candidates’ campaigns for the presidency. Earlier this week, I spent some time reporting from Iowa, including talking to Ron Paul supporters. Of those I met, first one must say they were all very courteous and nice. If Paul’s supporters — now we can start calling them voters — bear any grudge against Israel, they hide it well. At least the supporters here in Iowa do. At least those with whom I was speaking did. And, one must also say, not one Paul supporter refused to speak to me. In the course of four days, but mostly on Jan. 2, I interviewed about a dozen of them. Not all agreed to be named, but many did. They did, even though they probably suspected that I’m not Paul’s greatest fan, as all my conversations started exactly the same way: “Hello, are you a Paul supporter? I’m a writer from Israel, and I would like to talk to you about your candidate and Israel. Would you give me two or three minutes of your time?”

Aaron Storm, 30 and single, works in technical support. He is a staunch Paul voter. Back in 2008, he voted for Paul in the primaries, and he voted for him again in the general election, even though Paul wasn’t officially on the ballot. “I vote my heart and conscience,” he told me — meaning, when Mitt Romney becomes the Republican nominee, Storm should not be counted as a likely GOP voter.

I met Storm at the downtown Des Moines Marriott, where Ron Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), were holding a rally Monday morning. The room was packed with supporters and reporters, and Storm looked happy — his candidate seems to be doing well, better than four years ago.

“So what is it about Paul and Israel?” I asked him. His answer — and this is pretty much what I’ve heard from nearly everyone I’ve been speaking with — was somewhat surprising. It is all a big misunderstanding, he patiently explained. “All the candidates say they will support Israel, but Paul is actually supporting Israel. He is the only one saying that Israel should be able to do whatever it wants to do.” Like bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor back in the early ’80s. The Reagan administration was very unhappy with this action, and “Paul was the only one that was not against this,” Storm said.

Then he used a phrase that was repeated in many of my conversations. “You [Israelis] are like slaves to the lender.” The U.S. gives you financial support, and you have to do what the U.S. tells you to do. Don’t you want to get off the hook? “We give much more money to Israel’s enemies then we give to Israel; it doesn’t make sense for Israel to want us to continue doing it,” Storm said. Then he made another point that I’ve heard from more than one Paul supporter: “Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu told Congress that Israel would never ask America to fight for Israel; why can he say that, and Ron Paul can’t? This is what Netanyahu wants; Paul agrees with him.”

Tim Juang, 18, of Minnesota, is another supporter who pulls Netanyahu’s speech out of the hat. “He said that Israel can defend itself,” Juang reminds me. Juang came here with some schoolmates to volunteer for Paul before the Iowa caucuses. And he is the youngest and most blunt of all my Paul-supporting interviewees. Preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon is “a form of bigotry,” he told me. We Americans “have nuclear weapons, and you”  — Israelis — “also have nuclear weapons. Why can’t Iran also have nuclear weapons? Only because they are Muslims? This is racism.”

During his short speech, minutes earlier, Paul pleaded with his fellow Americans to “stay out of the internal affairs of other nations.”  Juang could not agree more. “We should not intervene; most of our fears are unjustified.”  He did not say anything about Israel that could even remotely be considered antagonistic, but he also didn’t try to portray himself as the biggest fan of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Diana — one of two Dianas with whom I spoke, this one on the condition that her last name would not be printed —  is not at all like Juang. She’s “a devout Christian who loves Israel. I want to have a president that will let Israel do what needs to be done. I want America to stop giving money to Israel’s enemies.” Yes, she knows that Israel is also getting some funds, but, just like Storm, she doesn’t see the rationale behind this double giving. “If we don’t give more money, we all benefit. Americans will benefit, because we need this money and don’t have any to spare to spend on other nations, and Israel will benefit because its enemies will not be getting any money.” 

Diana Burkhalter is the other Diana. She is yet another Paul supporter whom Romney (or any other candidate winning this race, other than Paul) would not be able to count on, come Election Day. “Paul wants all peoples to have sovereignty of land — to America and to Israel,” she said. Other Republican candidates feel that the United States must intervene in other places, so, when Paul says he wants no such intervention, “People interpret this as [being] anti-Israel,” she told me. But it is not — if you care to believe Burkhalter or any one of the other Paul people I’ve interviewed.

“It is all media propaganda,” Storm said of how Paul is perceived. And as we speak, I am reminded of something Newt Gingrich had told me two days before: “As Republicans learn more about Paul’s positions [his support] would drop” — and I am not at all convinced that he is right. The young people I interviewed seem as informed as they want to be. It is not that they don’t know Iran is dangerous; they just don’t see why the United States should be the one doing anything about it. It is not that they don’t respect Israel or its security concerns; they just don’t see why American money should be spent to protect people who have vowed to protect themselves.

Among Paul’s supporters, there are also bigots and anti-Semites, no doubt. And the candidate himself has been accused of saying (which he denied) some nasty things about Israel. In the week before the Iowa caucuses, though, the Paul supporters I had a chance to meet were all patient and cooperative, and, well, quite friendly toward this visiting, nagging Israeli. So much so that when I thanked Storm for his time and his answers, he just nodded and then said, “Shalom.”

The Israel Factor Project: Romney vs. Gingrich vs. Obama

What do nine Israeli scholars and ex-officials know about American politics? Why should we even consider their opinions worthy of attention? These questions are asked whenever a new survey from The Israel Factor project is released — and we’ve been doing these surveys since 2006, so it’s been quite a long while. The answer is, we believe that it’s useful to understand how an informed group of Israelis view what’s going on in the Diaspora. Our most recent survey, published this week, revealed that our panel isn’t very enthusiastic about the prospect of a second term for the Obama presidency. From an Israeli point of view — our panel is all-Israeli — a Mitt Romney presidency would be better (for Israel!) than a second term for President Barack Obama. The panel also concluded that a Newt Gingrich presidency would be better for Israel than a second term for Obama.

The Israel Factor panelists are: Alon Pinkas, Fox News contributor on Middle East and international affairs; Fred Lazin, a professor at Ben-Gurion University; Dan Halperin, a former minister for economic affairs at the Israeli embassy in Washington and a member of the board of trustees of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Yossi Shain, a specialist in international relations, comparative politics and Diaspora politics, with a dual appointment at Georgetown University and Tel Aviv University; Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who served as the 11th permanent representative of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999); Zohar Segev, a senior lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa; Zvi Rafiah, who served in the Israeli diplomatic service for 21 years and was minister-counselor at the Israeli embassy in Washington, serving as the liaison for the embassy with both houses of the U.S. Congress; Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for International Communication and senior researcher at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University; and Abraham Ben-Zvi, lecturer and author and contributor to such publications as Middle East Focus, Strategic Assessment and The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations.  (For more complete bios of each of the panelists, visit

In this most recent survey, both leading GOP candidates were given higher marks than Obama in response to two separate questions: One asked the panelists to rate all candidates on a scale of 1 to 10 on whether they are “good for Israel.” Obama’s overall average was 6.78, Romney’s was 8, and Gingrich’s was 7.56. All the other Republican candidates trailed Obama on this scale — which is to say, the panel didn’t think they were as “good for Israel” as the current president. One should add, though, that this panel tends to pay more attention to leading candidates and to rank them higher than marginal or secondary candidates.

A second question on the Obama-Romney-Gingrich trio forced the panelists — four of them are former Israeli officials and five are university professors, all experts on United States-Israel relations — to look at two possible head-to-head races: Obama vs. Romney and Obama vs. Gingrich. In both races, the panel chose the Republican candidate over Obama, but, interestingly, while the general ranking was more favorable toward Romney (8) than Gingrich (7.56), in these head-to-head matches against Obama, Gingrich ranks higher than Romney.

What Israeli experts think about U.S. candidates isn’t necessarily going to impact how Americans vote — though it might be of interest. There are Americans who put Israel high on their voting agenda, and those voters might look to Israeli experts for help in assessing the complicated components of an administration’s policies toward Israel. Other voters might value this survey for its perspective on the way an essential ally is assessing America’s conduct: Are you happy with the way the United States is handling its current Middle East policies? — you might be, or you might not. And it can be useful to discover that a group of Israeli experts ranked “overall American policy toward the Middle East” as a 4.78 out of possible 10 — not a disaster, but also pretty far from being a positive assessment of the way the United States has been navigating the Arab Spring and Winter.

The panel is much happier with the way the Obama administration has been handling its relations with Israel. Yes, the governments have had their share of differences and more than a healthy share of mutual bickering, but all in all, the panel gives the Obama team a 7 out of 10 on “overall policy vis-à-vis Israel.” This number, too, should be taken with a grain of salt. Our panel is not homogenous. We have experts from right and left, some who believe that a little pressure on Israel might be good for all parties involved, others who want the United States to support Israeli policies as much as conceivably possible and consider “pressure” to be a sign of bias or even hostility. Thus, the 7 — as with all marks in The Israel Factor survey — is the average of their markings and not unanimously agreed upon by all members of the team. If one is looking for relative conformity, one should look for marks that are very high or very low: Ron Paul — not good for Israel (2.89 out of 10); Occupy Wall Street — also not good (3.12 out of 10); AIPAC — good (8.78). The panel has a centrist streak and is usually more supportive of mainstream positions and policies and candidates.

For more Israel Factor statistics and analysis, become a reader of Rosner’s Domain, which is updated with news, analysis and interviews multiple times daily, and The Israel Factor online.