November 19, 2018

Can We Please Start Over?

Screenshot from Twitter.

We are born unique, complex, imperfect.
Into the universe of nature, often moral, often unjust.
Into society, where we must sign a social contract to survive.
We are individuals, continuously striving to retain our individuality.

The first social unit we encounter is our family.
We desire acceptance but also crave respect.
The second is our religion, race, ethnicity.
Often, these add to our unique identities; sometimes, we are subsumed by them.

Next: School. From an early age, we try desperately to fit in, to be liked; it is here that we
first face the harsh realities of social acceptance.
We are cruelly pushed out of some groups and just as arbitrarily pushed into others;
parental pressures only add to the pain.
Our ability to navigate these early social rites informs how we deal with group acceptance
for the rest of our lives.

Finally, our political party.
Up until recently, aligning oneself with a political party did not create an impervious line
in the sand. Republicans and Democrats argued, to be sure, but they also could
socialize, see humor in their differences, compromise.
No more. The two groups hardly interact, and within each party, one must maintain
rigid conformity to a strict party line — The Orthodoxy — or you risk being publicly

I may agree with you on some issues, disagree with you on others. But unless you try to bully me into submission, I respect your right to your opinions, even if I find them odious.

Individuality, on both the left and the right, is dying; tribalism rules; obedience reigns.

Tribalism begets extremism; extremism begets hysterics. Social media lit the final match.

Can we please start over?

I am unique, complex, imperfect.

I may agree with you on some issues, disagree with you on others. But unless you try to
bully me into submission, I respect your right to your opinions, even if I find them

I don’t care which party you belong to; I don’t care which religion, race or ethnicity you
identify with. Unless you try to force me to follow your way of thinking or living.

I may try to get you to see an issue the way I do, but I would never bully you. We have lost
the distinction between arguing and bullying.

Issues are often complex; embrace the complexity. Totalitarianism offers instant
security; resist it.

Question dogma; rebel against irrationality.
Be brave but civil; break boundaries but remain decent.
Relearn to tolerate difference; to take comfort in diversity; to listen.
We each have the ability to create bonds of compassion, to sow seeds of accord, to bring
light back into the darkness.

But first, we need to reclaim our individuality.
I am unique, complex, imperfect.
I try to honor my quirks, idiosyncrasies, opinions, to let them inspire my dreams.
Heterodoxy: I think for myself; I don’t need the validation of others.

I am not a political party; I am not a group identity; I am me.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.

The Tribe That Binds?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I’m sitting at Café Noir in Tel Aviv, a European-style café famous for schnitzel, while Vice President Mike Pence is in Jerusalem speaking to the Knesset.

It couldn’t feel farther away.

Israelis often refer to the “Tel Aviv bubble” because Tel Aviv really does stand apart from most the rest of the country. So little of this dynamic, cosmopolitan city reflects the attitudes, values and politics that dominate in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Those who live in Tel Aviv are proud of their countercultural status: Pass through Habima Square or Kikar Rabin most nights and you’re likely to see young people in protest on their way to the bars.

In recent weeks, thousands have gathered under the banner of an “anti-corruption” movement, not to protest specific policies but to inveigh against the abuse of power in Israeli politics. Some think Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way out, but this is wishful thinking. The ascendance of President Donald Trump, and with it an American endorsement of Israel’s right-wing policies, has actually tightened his grip on power.

The ideological split between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is nothing new. But it is looking more and more like a harbinger for the broader Jewish world, particularly within the American Jewish community, where hyperpartisanship has ripped at the fabric of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel. These days, if you mention Trump in a liberal crowd or former President Barack Obama in a conservative crowd, you better bring boxing gloves.

The central existential threat to Jews — everywhere — is the toxic nature of internecine Jewish partisanship.

Shalom Hartman Institute scholar Yehuda Kurtzer recently wrote in the Forward that “the central existential threat to Jews in America today is the toxic nature of partisanship in American political culture.”

That premise may be true, but it doesn’t go far enough. The central existential threat to Jews — everywhere — is the toxic nature of internecine Jewish partisanship, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, and increasingly, between them.

I see this wedge everywhere.

Last week, an Israeli friend accompanied me on a visit to Safed, where I was eager to trace the footfalls of Judaism’s great scholars and mystics. But my friend was reluctant. As someone accustomed to the diverse streets of Tel Aviv, Europe and the U.S., he was uncomfortable in a city dominated by Orthodox Jews. He never goes to Jerusalem. And he couldn’t understand why I wanted to visit the graves of ancient rabbis — to him, it seemed comical.

But to me, it was tragic: Here is an Israeli whose lack of Jewish choice outside Orthodoxy has alienated him from Judaism. And it isn’t only personal choice that is responsible for this rift; it is the result of political policies that have driven an ideological wedge between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel, between biblical Judaism and liberal Judaism, between particularism and universalism. For God’s sake, how many statements does Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs have to issue decrying this or that Israeli policy toward liberal Jews?

This is symptomatic of a growing alienation between progressive, liberal Jews — and a generation of young Jews — from Israel itself.

While in Israel, I received a frantic call from a rabbi in Los Angeles who said he was “very exercised” about Israel’s decision to imprison or deport tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. A few brave El Al pilots issued public refusals to abet the deportation — something Jews the world over can be proud of.

But instead of offering those in need a pathway to a better future, Israel’s prime minister further delegitimized vulnerable migrants by denying their status as “refugees.” He employed the same kind of gaslighting tactic he loathes from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

As Hanukkah and Tisha b’Av remind us each year, this isn’t the first time in Jewish history there has been disagreement or infighting within our tribe. But once again, a politics of panic and pessimism threatens to upend the bond between the tribes of Israel. Don’t you think it’s a little pathetic to repeat a pattern the Bible warns about?

This time, it isn’t a temple at stake but an entire country.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

A Look at Dean’s Jewish Problem

Question: What’s behind Howard Dean’s ongoing problems in
the Jewish community?

Answer: No-holds-barred partisanship, especially among the
anonymous attackers who are clogging the e-mail inboxes of Jewish leaders
around the country, warning — without much evidence — that Dean would somehow
be bad for Israel.

But the bitter attacks are having an impact; a frequently
heard comment, at least in Jewish activist circles, is that many Jews who have
voted Democratic all their lives will vote for Bush if Dean wins his party’s

And Dean himself may be contributing to his Jewish problem
by publicly modeling himself after a former president once widely applauded by
the Jewish community, but who now is seen by many as a living symbol of their
disillusionment with a failed peace process.

But the fact that this is first and foremost an
ideology-driven, heavily partisan campaign is evident in the glaring double
standard: Dean is trashed for a handful of ill-chosen words, while President
Bush’s dramatic changes in Mideast policy — which have caused anxiety and anger
in official circles in Israel — have been mostly ignored.

Almost all of the anti-Dean campaign stems from his
off-the-cuff remark at a New Mexico barbecue that the United States shouldn’t
“take sides” in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Dean was rightly skewered for that comment, and not just by
the far right. The alliance with Israel is a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the
region and a vital element in Israel’s security.

But the candidate quickly retreated. He pledged fealty to
that special relationship, and explained that his comments were the result of
an insufficient understanding of some of the code words attached to the Middle
East controversy.

In communities across the country, his “take no sides”
remark continues to generate anger, despite his persistent clarifications, but
there is resounding silence about his rivals. More revealing is the silence
about Bush, who in 2002 became the first president to openly advocate creation
of a Palestinian state.

Bush demanded quick action on the international “road map”
to Palestinian statehood, against the wishes of the Sharon government; he has
applied strong pressure on Israel because of its security fence, and his
administration punished Israel by cutting desperately needed loan guarantees.
Just this week, his State Department angrily criticized Israel for not doing
enough to resume negotiations.

This week, Dean was being criticized for embracing the
unofficial Geneva accord. Somehow lost was the fact that the Bush
administration has shown a strong interest in the plan, even meeting with its
authors, despite angry protests by the Sharon government.

Still, there is an emerging conventional wisdom in Jewish
leadership circles that Bush is somehow good for Israel, Dean is bad.

That glaring double standard is no accident. The attacks on
Dean — mostly anonymous — come from ideologues who wouldn’t vote for any
Democratic candidate, no matter how pro-Israel.

These Jewish conservatives will forgive any sin by the
Republican president, even something that violates their creed like the demand
for quick action on Palestinian statehood — but the slightest rhetorical slip
by a Democrat will be taken as irrefutable proof of unfitness for leadership in
this volatile area.

But the anti-Dean mud seems to be sticking, worrying Dean
strategists. One reason is simply that for many Jewish voters, their first
exposure to the former Vermont governor was his September blunder, when he
spoke of more balance in U.S. Mideast policy.

In politics, first impressions are vital; Dean came across
as Jimmy Carter-ish, and that won’t be easily overcome.

The Dean reaction is also related to the angry
disillusionment many in Israel — and many pro-Israel activists here — feel with
the Oslo peace process.

Three years ago, former President Bill Clinton was widely
described as the most pro-Israel president ever, despite the bitter criticisms
of extreme anti-Oslo activists.

But with the breakdown of that peace process and relentless
violence, more mainstream Jews are willing to accept the view that Clinton was
too willing to negotiate away Israel’s security to win an agreement.

Dean has deliberately patterned himself after Clinton on
Mideast matters — something that might have helped four years ago, but which
could be hurting with Jewish leaders and activists in the harsher, post-Oslo
environment of 2004.  

Community Briefs

Iraqi Aliyah Recounted at KahalJoseph

When the smoke cleared in Baghdad, most Americans wanted to get out. But Manhattan resident Rachel Zelon opted to go in.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society vice president, who was responsible for facilitating the rescue of a small group of Iraq’s remaining Jews and accompanying them to Israel, shared her experiences with members of Kahal Joseph Congregation on Aug. 5.

“I think that most of you have a much better understanding of the Iraqi Jewish community than I could ever have,” Zelon said to the audience, composed mostly of Iraqi Jews. “I just had the luck – good or bad – to have been there more recently than you. But the culture and the community and the way people live their lives in Iraq is something that you grew up with and something that I can’t possibly begin to understand.”

Zelon recounted her journey to Baghdad and her initial impressions of Iraq’s tiny Jewish community. “You could tell they were very fearful,” Zelon said of Baghdad’s 34 remaining Jews, whom she was able to locate only through contact information obtained from friends and relatives who had previously fled the city. “They would talk very openly about the fear of their neighbors. ‘The Muslims are coming to kill us. You can’t trust anyone,’ they would say. They are afraid to go out on the streets. Many people have not left their homes since the war.”

Despite the conditions, Zelon said that it was difficult to convince some of the Jews to leave Iraq. Many had family or businesses still in Baghdad. But others, like 79-year-old Salima Moshe, were relieved. Zelon said that when she told Moshe, whose relatives had previously fled to Israel, that she had come from Israel to bring her home, Moshe replied, “I thought everyone had forgotten about me.”

Zelon regrets that more of Baghdad’s Jews did not agree to accompany her to Israel, but that she was relieved that some decided to come. “Some people say to me, ‘You only got six people?'” Zelon said. “But those are six people whose lives will hopefully be better … hopefully we brought some dignity back to these few lives.” — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer

Waxman Rails Against Bush Administration

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) tackled domestic issues during an Aug. 17 town hall meeting at Temple Beth Am that was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) as part of its Summer of Advocacy program and the synagogue.

“I’ve never been in office at a time when partisanship has meant so much,” Waxman said.

A staunch supporter of increasing medical/social services for citizens on a fixed income, Waxman blamed the Bush administration for upping the annual deficit to $500 billion, delving into the Medicare and Social Security surplus to pay for tax cuts and offering sweetheart deals to special interests.

“Many people in the Jewish community say, ‘If this administration supports Israel, I will support it,’ but, in my view, support for Israel transcends partisanship,” he said.

Waxman cited Torah-sponsored ideals such as tzedakah, social justice and tikkun olam as necessary, but increasingly scarce, commodities in political decision making.

“Policies now are favoring special interests,” Waxman said, “and ignoring interests benefiting the general public.”

During the question-and-answer session, Waxman had clear reactions to issues such as the California recall, which he finds appalling, and the implications of the Patriot Act, which he believes will encourage federal actions that may threaten our civil liberties. Waxman offered a less specific stance to the largely elderly crowd in attendance on the nexus of senior citizens’ rights and protecting the general public good, especially in relation to modifying driving laws following the July 16 Santa Monica farmers market tragedy. — Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Olmert: Invest in Israel Now

Ehud Olmert, deputy prime minister of Israel and minister of industry and trade, whose portfolio was also expanded Sunday to include communications, told local investors that now is the right time to invest in Israel. “The Israeli economy has great potential in different areas — more than high tech,” said Olmert last week during a breakfast at The Regency Club, sponsored by the Israeli Economic Mission and Southern California-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, said that the government is working to make Israel more attractive to foreign investors by reducing (or eliminating) capital gains, taxes for foreign investors and by allowing products developed with Chief Scientist grants in Israel to be manufactured outside the country.

While he was in Los Angeles, Olmert also met with Stanley Gold, the head of Shamrock investments (which has invested for the last 15 years in Israeli companies like Tadiran and Pelephone). Gold committed to creating a new $120 million fund for inestment in the Israeli infrastructure. Olmert also met with Elliott Broidy, who is creating with Ron Lubash a $250 million fund for investment in Israel.

“I want investors to believe that Israel is the best place to invest in the world,” Olmert said at the breakfast, “that they can make more money in Israel than anyplace else in the world.” — Amy Klein, Managing Editor

Watch Necessary on Campus

American Jews have spent a lot of time worrying about the difficulties facing college students in recent years. As a result, American Jews have put their money and ingenuity to work on behalf of programs that would combat assimilation on campus.

We have poured more funds into Hillel-supported organizations, supported the Birthright Israel project, which has brought students to Israel for their first trip to the Jewish state, and philanthropists have endowed Jewish studies and Holocaust-education programs that have proliferated across academia. All of these initiatives have had positive effects on Jewish college life.

But despite this, we have witnessed an upsurge in anti-Israel activity across North American campuses that has mixed traditional anti-Semitism with the vicious protest tactics of the far left.

While academia has long been a stronghold of the left, the main focus of collegiate extremists has rarely been on Israel in the past. But Jewish students, parents and concerned citizens are only just now coming to realize that there is no greater stronghold for hatred of Israel than American colleges and universities.

The core of this anti-Israel cadre is the growing body of academics in the field of Middle Eastern studies. In his authoritative study of this genre published last year, "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America" (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, $19.95), scholar Martin Kramer detailed the abyss of partisanship into which this discipline has fallen. Far from a bastion of impartial study, Middle East studies is a preserve of those devoted to whitewashing radical Islam, bashing Israeli policies, critiquing and undermining support for Zionism, and supporting the Palestinian Arab war to destroy the Jewish state.

Though you might think this field boasts of scholars with differing sentiments, in Middle East studies, only one point of view is welcome. Scholars sympathetic to Israel and critical of radical Islam are treated as pariahs in Middle East studies and an endangered species elsewhere in the academy. Even worse, much of this so-called scholarship is being funded by the federal government or by donors from Islamic countries.

Muslim and Arab student organizations, aided by their leftist allies, are making campuses hotbeds of anti-Israel protest. In response, the Jewish community can and should devote energy and money to educating Jewish kids to be informed pro-Israel activists.

But no student can expect to hold his or her own against a professor determined to indoctrinate a class with anti-Zionism and hatred for Israel. The issue of what students are being taught in class about Israel may turn out to be far more important than whether or not Jewish students can be effective advocates. The good news is that a Philadelphia-based think tank, the Middle East Forum, which is led by scholar and author Daniel Pipes, is seeking to begin the work of monitoring anti-Israel activity on the campus with a new Web site ( that has provided a vital store of information on the topic.

Predictably, the response from academia has been swift and vitriolic. Academics and institutions that have been listed on the site, as well as others who share their feelings, have come out swinging, falsely accusing Campus Watch of "McCarthyism" and suppressing academic freedom.

The truth is just the opposite.

It is, in fact, the campus Israel-bashers who have sought to banish any scholar who disagreed with them from the discipline. Having effectively blacklisted a brilliant scholar like Pipes from a major academic post, the academic mafia that controls Middle East studies is now seeking to ensure that any criticism of their work is branded as extremist.

But it is not Pipes, but the pro-Arab and anti-Israel academy that is creating a hostile environment for Jewish students. Bringing their biased work and course offerings to a wide audience, as Campus Watch has done, isn’t intimidation. It is merely exposing nefarious activity to the light of day, where donors to universities and taxpayers can properly evaluate it.

The Middle East Forum and the invaluable Pipes are to be commended for taking this initiative, and for braving the vituperation of both the academics and their mindless cheering section in the national press. But, unfortunately, no major Jewish organizations, including Hillel or the Anti Defamation League, has chosen to support Pipes’ stand or to criticize those seeking to stigmatize him.

Pipes is taking the heat on this issue, but he and his colleagues at Middle East Forum and Campus Watch should not stand alone. Anyone who values academic integrity, as well as the struggle against the growing scourge of anti-Semitism, needs to stand with him.

i>Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish
Exponent in Philadelphia. He can be reached at