Thursday, July 12, 2018

Israel and the Diaspora - a Thought for Parashat Mattot/Massei

As my readers probably know, we Jews like to shrey gevalt.  This is a difficult Yiddish phrase to translate, but it means something akin to proclaiming, Chicken Little-like, that the sky is falling.  I'm not sure why it is that we're like this, but we are.  One thing, about which we particularly like to shrey gevalt, is concerning the disunity of Jews, and in particular the ever-present disconnect between Jews of the Land of Israel, and those of the diaspora.

Many books have been written on the subject, not to mention news articles documenting the phenomenon, and op-eds decrying it.  So many incidents in the Jewish world are looked at against the background of this disconnect.  Perhaps no issue is more illustrative of this trend, than the reaction of World Jewry on the Israeli response to the ongoing war - I use that word, because that's what, at the end of the day, it is - on the border between Gaza and Israel.  A recent survey of Jews in Israel and abroad, shows deep divisions between Israeli and diaspora Jews on whether the Israeli government is conducting this war in an ethical, and reasonable fashion.

When I studied at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, we spent two hours a day in conversational Hebrew with Israeli instructors.  These were not Reform rabbis; they were not even individuals with any connection to Reform Judaism, except for their employment.  From time to time, there would be friction between teacher and students as we discussed some current issue in Israel.  Occasionally, the teachers would express resentment about the standard of behavior the most vocaal students would demand of Israel, given that we were not living there, as we were only there as students, as temporary residents.  One time, my teacher reacted to a student's criticism of Israel with what had become a familiar refrain.  There's got to be a limit to your criticism, if you don't live here.  The student retorted:  I can't vote here.  That's the limit.

This tension between the responsibility for Israel, and the fact that many Jews live elsewhere and have no plans or desire to live in Israel, is nothing new.  In this week's Torah portion, we see the first reflection of the divide, even before the people Israel had reached the point of entering and subduing the land, when members of two tribes petition Moses to allow them to settle on the east bank of the Jordan rather than entering the land.  What was the reason for the request?  The grazing lands east of the Jordan, they asserted, were superior to those on the west bank.

This troubles Moses.  He asks the representatives of the  tribes, if they will live fat, dumb, and happy, whilst their fellow Israelites fight for possession of the land?  Oh no, they clarify:  they will establish homes and livestock pens on the east side, then participate fully in the conquest.  Far from expecting an exemption from the war, they will fight in the very vanguard of the army.  Once this is established, Moses seems satisfied; he instructs them to proceed to build themselves settlements and provisions for their livestock, and then when the conquest begins they will be expected to fight like all the other tribes.  But at the end of the day, they will not have a share in the land west of the Jordan.  In so proclaiming, Moses sets out a formula for relations between Jews in and out of the land of Israel;  some Jews may by choice or other circumstances not live there, and therefore not take a share of the land itself, but all Jews have an equal responsibility for the land's well-being.  Once Jews outside the land have taken care to build strong communities, their next responsibility is to their brother and sister Jews in the Promised Land.

Today, this does not play terribly well with Jews in the diaspora.  Since my first assigment as student-rabbi in 1992, I have observed that Israel tends to be about the farthist thing from most Jews' minds.  Instead of building viable communities where they live, and then turning their attention to Israel, the obsess endlessly about the minutiae of their own lives and seldom even think of Israel.  The majority of Jews in the USA, in a statistic that is very telling, have never even visited Israel:  this, despite that Jews tend to take annual holidays in all sorts of destinations near and far from where they live.  Generally speaking, for most Jews Israel is an abstract idea, not a part of their reality.

Jews' own concerns apart from Israel aside, the idea of being responsible for a distant place, where one has little possibility of influencing what happens there, also does not play well.  Amongst diaspora Jews, there is the sense that Israelis don't care what they think.  Security and wars aside, elements of the current coalition government never seem to tire of denigrating all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and those who affiliate with them.  Whilst all the other movements in Jewish life are marginal in Israel itself, they represent the majority of affiliated Jews abroad.  So, when Jews in the diaspora hear about the Israeli government breaking agreements with the non-Orthodox streams, such as regards the establishment of a permanent place of egalitarian prayer at the Westen Wall, or the ever-contentious issues of conversion and personal status in Israel, they wonder what the country has to do with them.

Such gevalt!  The solution, of course, is the same as the solution for just about any other deep dispute between individuals or groups:  keep talking about it, and listen respectfully to what the other side is saying, and don't take yourselff so seriously that you cannot see the merit in what the other is saying.  At the end of the day, the Jewish diaspora needs Israel.  And Israel, whether it likes it or not, needs the diaspora.  Shabbat shalom!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

It's STILL not about Alan Dershowitz (Part Three and Final!)

Okay, one more glimpse at Alan Dershowitz's
In the first part of this series of posts, I told why I could relate to Alan Dershowitz.  First, he has his BA from Brooklyn College, where my mother (z"l) studied, albeit Mom graduated a decade before Dershowitz.  But when he wrote about his early life in Brooklyn, including his years in Brooklyn College, I recognized his world as the world my mother came out of.  Additionally, as someone who grew up as a liberal Jew in postwar America, I understand the world that Dershowitz came out of, the world that shaped his worldview and his political affiliation as a Democrat.

James Baker, the Secretary of State to President George HW Bush, is alleged to have said in private, in reaction to American Jews' anger at his President over his treatment of Israel after Operation Desert Storm, "F**k the Jews; they didn't vote for us."  As nasty as the comment - which has never been truly confirmed - was, the second clause of the sentence was absolutely true; in 1988, Bush 41's first election to the White House, only 27 percent of Jewish votes went to him.  His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, garnered more than half the Jewish vote when he ran against Jommy Carter in 1980, but when Bush, Reagan's Vice President, ran, Jews returned to their historically strong preference for the Democrat Party.  In Bush's re-election bid in 1992, only 19 percent of Jews voted for him.

I remember reading an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post about the time of the Jews' particular anger at Baker and Bush.  I wish I could find that piece and its author, because what he wrote was pretty profound.  He wrote that the Jews have no right to expect more from the Republicans, because they are going to vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats no matter what.  Well, I wouldn't agree completely with the no matter what; they voted for Reagan when it became clear that Jimmy Carter, despite being celebrated for managing the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, was starting to sound just a bit like an Anti-semite.  It also hadn't helped that Carter was seem as an incompetent President.  But his point was well-taken, at least by me.  He pointed out that, as long as the American Jews' voting patterns were so fixed, indicating a sort of electoral immaturity, it was hard to sympathize with them for their complaint that the administration which would not receive their votes no matter what, was not listening to them very hard.

It wasn't just Bush and Baker who alienated Jews from the Repubican Party.  I had a friend, an Orthodox Jew, who was running as a candidate for city council in Lakewood, New Jersey, a very Jewish town east of Philadelphia.  I asked him if he was running as a Republican, knowing that his political views were definitely right-of-center and that he should naturally find his home in that party.  He told me no, he was running as a Democrat.  I asked him why.  He told me that, whilst the Republicans would surely make a logical ideological homeland for him, the Republicans "will never run a Jew for office."  Now, in the anecdotal sense there seems to be some truth to this.  Certainly in the US Congress, there have historically been very few Jewish office-holders with an 'R' after their name, and almost none - Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor briefly being a lone exception - in the party's national leadership.  That has changed some in the ensuing years, particularly after George W Bush famously employed several Jews among his senior advisors - not at the cabinet level, but immediately below.

President Trump famously has a number of Jews - including his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner - in his inner circle, and there are a few more Jews in the Rupublican caucus today, but Jews still overwhelmingly prefer the Democrat Party.  Jews have affiliated Democrat in large percentages since the 1930's, when the Democrat Party became the ideological home of trade unionists, as Jews were very prominent in the trade union movement.  This preference was cemented in 1960, with the ascent ot Democrat John F Kennedy to the presidency, and his successor, President Johnson's embrace of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Great Society anti-poverty reforms in 1964-5.  These legislative actions resonated strongly with Jews.  Never mind that LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act with 80 percent of the Republicans, and only 6o percent of the Democrats in the House.  In the Senate, about two-thirds of Democrats voted for the legislation, but 83 percent of Republicans did.  Because of LBJ, the Democrats became known as the party of Civil Rights even though that was only partly true.  (I'm not going to get into the point that the Republicans are the party of Lincoln and the Democrats opposed every initiative of his to end slavery, or Dinsh D'Souza's well-documented case that the Democrats were the founding fathers of the Ku Klux Klan.  But these aspects of the historical record do strongly detract from the Democrats' narrative that they are the Party of Civil Rights.)

Nationally-prominent social commentator Dennis Prager, a Jew, has written extensively about his journey from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican.  He makes that case that he didn't change his ideological underpinnings one bit since the Kennedy era when he was a student at Columbia University.  Rather, what these labels meant changed radically.  As he tells it, if the Democrat party and liberalism were still the ideological home of the liberalism of JFK, he would likely still be a liberal Democrat.  But he asserts that what changed was not this ideology of a strong military and foriegn policy, service to country, low taxes to expand the economy, and reverence for the life of the unborn.  Rather, what changed was that people with such values in the early 1960's were known as liberals and found their home in the Democrat Party, whereas today those who would agree with those premises are known as conservatives and find their home in the republican Party.

I remember listening to Dennis Prager in dialogue with Alan Dershowitz on his radio show.  I won't say the two agreed on everything, but their disagreements seemed less significant than their agreements.  Although Prager was too polite to say as much to Dershowitz, his guest whom I take it is also a friend, I remember thinking:  So why does Dershowitz still belong to the Democrat Party?  When he speaks, certainly about Israel, he sounds more like a Republican.

Support for Israel among Democrats has been steadily waning in recent years.  When Democrats say that they are pro-Israel, it is almost always with very strong caveats.  Given the way that Democrats talk about any Israeli government that isn't Labor-led - and the Labor Party has been in the opposition, not in the ruling coalition, for most of the past 41 years - it becomes clear that Democrats only support Israel when she is seen as Left-leaning.  And since about the year 2000, and the beginning of the "Al Aksa Intifada" (Intifada Round Two), the Left virtually collapsed as a viable political force in Israeli politics.

The result of all this, is that Jews on the Left - which is still most American Jews - feel less and less connected to Israel despite that many will say that this is not the case.  They feel connected more to an early vision of Israel as a secular, leftist utopian polity, than to any reality of Israel in recent years.  Michael Oren, an American Jew who immigrated to Israel, became a noted historial, and served as Israel's ambassador to the US from 2009-2013, in his book Ally, used the American Jews' continuing support and embrace of President Obama even as he pushed the Iran Nuclear Deal, as evidence of his hypothesis that American Jewish liberals were conflicted between thier traditional support of Israel, and Israel's ever-increasing unpopularity among the polical Left, in the USA and the rest of the world.  When I read his book, I could not but agree completely given the evidence.  But liberal American Jews were incensed that Oren would call them out in such a way.

The truth is that the deligitimization of Israel on the political Left, has been underway for a long time.  Thanks to successive Right-wing governments in Israel, where the Right is popularly seen as the only political force that can provide a robust response to very real, existential threats from the Arab/Islamic world, and growing sympathy on the Left for even such Arab elements as Hamas and Hizb'allah, Jewish liberals find themselves ever more conflicted over their support of the Jewish State, and their membership in liberal circles and the Democrat Party.

Alan Dershowitz has always been a strong advocate of Israel's right to self-determination and self-defense.  And he has always been a strong advocate of the individual American's right to freedom of speech and due process.  He has not changed over the years.  But the party and people amongst whom he once found ideological agreement and comfort, have changed.  As I wrote in Part One of this series, I'm not up in arms that his former friends are shunning him socially.  But I think that his detractors' jabs that he is some kind of crybaby for defending President Trump and then still expecting to be in the embrace of the community that has beeen his ideological home for over a half-century, are very telling.  I believe that Alan Dershowitz, and others who stand for what he does, should take a good look at the two major parties in American politics and what they stand for today.  If they're not big fans of President Trump, they aught to look beyond that antipathy.  (As I've said before, I'm a somewhat reluctant supporter of President Trump.)  If they do, I believe they will find that, just as with Dennis Prager, as with Rabbi Don Levy, and as with many American Jews today, their logical home is in the Republican Party.  No, it's not really about Alan Dershowitz.  It's about whether people with views like those of Alan Dershowitz - including Dershowitz himself - really agree with what's coming out of the Democrat Party today.

It's STILL not about Alan Dershowitz (Part Two)

Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz
So, in my last post I outlined the problems that Alan Dershowitz, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Law School and source of pride to many American Jews...well, until recently, anyway.  Dershowitz has been a prominent liberal Democrat for over half a century, a champion of civil liberties and in particular Free Speech, a member and board member of the ACLU.  And, he has been all these things whilst being a proud, sometimes-practicing but always identity-affirming, Zionist Jew.

He was also, by the way, a strong supporter - including financially - of Hillary Clinton's bid to become the 45th US President.

So, what changed?  In Dershowitz's life and work, nothing; ever the champion of legal due process, he spoke out against the way that the Mueller investigation was running roughshod over President Trump and members of his inner circle.  He defended their rights as he has defended the rights of many others over the decades.  He has spoken on the subject a number of times recently on Fox News, the only major news organization that seems interested in this story.  Dershowitz has not changed one whit.  What has changed, is that his former colleagues and associates - in the academic world and the civil liberties advocacy community - have pushed Dershowitz aside and shunned him as if they were a medieval reilgious cult and he had committed heresy.

Let me be clear; I'm not especially troubled that Alan Dershowitz has stopped getting invitations to hoity-toity Martha's Vineyard dinner parties.  But I am interested - and troubled - by their shunning one of their own for having the audacity of defending the rights of the president whom they consider to be The Embodiment of All Evil.  No, I'm not troubled that they don't especially like President Trump.  There have been occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, of whom I was not especially a fan - in particular the immediate past one.  I cringed, in particular, when he was re-elected with such zeal after his first four years' performance in office.  I told all my friends who voted for President Obama the first time, that I absolutely forgave them, given the hype that accompanied his first election campaign.  But I could not for the life of me understand why they would vote for him again, especially when he was running against such a nice, smart, moderate guy like Mitt Romney.  So, support, or lack thereof, for President Trump is not the point.  Rather it is the way that someone - even someone with amount of liberal, democrat cred that Dershowitz enjoys - becomes toxic to the Left the moment he says, Whoa, like the guy or not, he's still entitled to the protections of the Constitution!  That's what Dershowitz has done, and that's why he is persona non grata in circles that used to honor him.

The political Left, and I say this with nothing but regret, has become so anti free speech and civil liberties in recent years, that it is just breathtaking.

It didn't happen overnight, with the election of Trump.  It has been happening at least since the year 2000 - to my observations - but probably a lot longer.

I used to think that this was a particular sin of the political Right, of the Republicans.  When Bill Clinton beat George HW Bush's bid for a second term, a number of Republican voices began, almost immediately, to say negative things about him.  At the time, I thought, oh, that's just sour grapes.  It's one thing when a president gets beaten out of a re-election, but it must especially sting when that president hasn't been the subject of any kind of scandal that broke his credibility.  George Bush 41 weathered no particular scandal, and he had just led the nation in a military campaign that, to so many astute observers, was brilliantly executed and restored the military's honor which had been in a tailspin since Vietnam.  So, why did Bush 41 lose his re-election bid?  I think it was essentially two things.  Firstly, he broke his promise ("Read my new taxes"), and secondly, he didn't have the charisma and ability to articulate a vision for the country that Bill Clinton had.

With the passage of time, during Bill Clinton's tenure in the White House, it became clear that there was something to the charges of bad behavior that had followed him from the Arkansas Governor's mansion to the White House.  And it became clear that all along the way, his wife Hillary was covering for him and even applying her own considerable political and legal muscle to quash anybody who would dare accuse her husband of any untoward behavior.  The defense of one's spouse is honorable...iff the defender has reason to believe in her spouse's innocence.  Over the years, it has become clear that Hillary was fighting for her husband, specifically to defend her own political ambitions and future.  And in doing so, she hurt a number of women - an offense, in particular, because she has posited herself as the champion of women.  But also, she simultaneously fought her own scandals.  By the time Bill Clinton lefft office in 2001, it was clear that many of the charges against him were not just innuendo or Right-wing Smears.  And the Clintons' behavior in the years after the end of his presidency, during wife Hillary's political rise in her own right culminating in her unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2016, give further credibility to the charges of corruption that have only grown with time.

During all these years, it has become acceptable to throw spurrious accusations at Republicans (eg, "Bush Lied, People Died") whilst throwing labels such as "racist" at anybody who had even a legitimate gripe about Obama's performance in the White House.  But the curbs on free speech are not limited to important public figures.  If you were not a supporter of same-sex marriage, for example, for whatever reason, you were a "homophobe."  If you offered any argument, not matter how moderate, for control of the chaos at the border, you were a "xenophobe" (or simply "racist," since the complaints about lawless immigrants almost always apply to non-whites).  If you thought that abortion is tantamount to murder, or even just manslaughter, and even just in some circumstances, then you were a "misogynist," since denial of a woman's absolute right to do what she will with her body, even freely dispose of a child who happens to be dwelling therein during gestation, must be reflective of a hatred of women.  You get it.  For every possible ideological position on any issue, where you come out opposite the ever-left-shifting positions of the Democrat Party, there's a label, a perjorative term whose purpose is nothing other than to deligitimize the person taking that position, and therefore that position.

In the  case of Alan Dershowitz, he has dared to remain steadfast in the ideologies that he has held dear all his professional life.  Because he is not willing to stop defending the rights of the President, whom the Left likens to the Sum of All Evils, he is now beyond the pale.  The Left is cutting him out of the conversation.  They've tried to cut so many others out of the conversation, but where Dershowitz is concerned, it is very telling because he is so firmly and completely one of them.  Well, not exactly:  he is so firmly and completely one of what they were, before they went off the Deep End.

I know what I sort-of-promised to wrap this up tonight, but I think this post is long enough and I still haven't begun to make my point about why Alan Dershowitz and other liberal Jews who are starting to feel as if the Democrat Party and liberal circles are not their natural home after all, are absolutely correct.  I will continue tomorrow.  A good week, everybody!

Friday, July 6, 2018

It's Not About Alan Dershowitz

Professor Alan Dershowitz
I've long harbored mixed feelings about Alan Dershowitz, Harvard School of Law Professor Emeritus.  On one hand, I relate to him as a graduate of Brooklyn College, my mother's (z"l) alma mater, and as a liberal Jew who has tried over the years to reconcile his love of the State of Israel, with the constant Israel-bashing on the political Left.  I've enjoyed reading a number of his books, finding him to be not only erudite, but an engaging author.  Never having heard him speak in person, I've enjoyed listening to him discuss the issues on Dennis Prager's radio show and, more recently, since he has become a fixture on Fox News.

On the other hand, I've often thought him a publicity hound, over-eager to enter into any public conversation on any topic for the purposes of self-promotion.  This is, to be sure, a common pitfall for public figures whose opinions on various subjects are eagerly sought by journalists.

Additionally, whilst I appreciate fresh, out-of-the-box ideas, I think his hypothesis years back, expressed in his book The Vanishing American Jew, that what would save Jewish America from extinction, would be a renaissance of the Yiddish language and of secular, Yiddishist culture for Jews who find faith in G-d eludes them.  When I read that, my immediate thought was this guy is so smart, he's stupid!  (Surely you've heard this expression before; it applies to someone who, whilst certifiably brilliant, is so out of touch as to come up with ideas that are incredibly obtuse given the reality of the material world.)  In positing a secular Judaism of Yiddish culture to be The Answer to the Problem of the Vanishing Jew, I thought Dershowitz was going down that path.  And it isn't that I'm an enemy of secularism, not by a longshot!  Although a religious person myself, I am nothing if not sympathetic towards those who cannot be religious, and their dilemna of balancing that secularism with the desire to see the Jewish people survive and flourish.  But it takes a blind man, or one who is so smart that they're stupid, to think that Jews, disaffected by religion, would be motivated in any kind of numbers to join in to a resurrection of the Yiddische Bund as the solution to the Jewish demographic nightmare.

That said, I chuckled and thought of him in a complementary light, when I read him declare (I think it was in his book, Chutzpah.)  that Harvard Law School kept him as a practicing, observant Jew for several years after he would have drifted away from Jewish practice on his own.  How did this happen?  When he first accepted his position at Harvard, he felt in his heart of hearts that the move to Cambridge from Brooklyn, would involve his break from the 'yoke' of Jewish practice.  But, during his orientation at Harvard, when he was informed that his duties would sometimes involve teaching classes or proctoring exams on Saturdays - the Jewish Sabbath - he rebelled and refused on the basis of the need for Jewish observance.  And then, having invoked the needs of Jewish ritual, he did not make his break from Jewish observance until some time later - presumably, when he had enough seniority at Harvard to decide for himself when he was going to work.  Why did this make me see him in a complimentary light?  Because in my role as a military chaplain, I occasionally encountered troops who would use the exingencies of Jewish practice, to avoid duties in the Sabbath, or to get extra food allowance for keeping kosher, but without Dershowitz's integrity.

Anyway, Alan Dershowitz has been in the news lately, for two things:  firstly, his defense of President Trump from those on the Left who would deny him due process from their vicious innuendo meant, with no denial, to topple his presidency prematurely.  And secondly:  his complaint that his 'high-falutin' friends in wealthy, Left-wing circles in the rarified social circles of the uber-expensive summer enclave on Martha's Vineyard in Massachussetts, have socially shunned him for the former.

If I may be allowed a slight digression here, I would like to delve into the First Amendment and the issue of free speech.  As my rabbinate took me around the world, I found that outside the USA, those who staunchly advocate freedom of speech, think of that right in more limited terms than their American cousins.  Most non-Americans believe that an almost-unfettered right of free expression is not a good thing.  I say, 'almost unfettered,' because US law established long ago that one does not have absolute freedom of speech.  The example usually given, is that one has no right to yell, "Fire!" in a crowded venue, an act that would almost be guaranteed to case deaths or at least injuries as a general panic caused people to get trampled in the melee that would predictably ensue.  But the limitation of not having the right to yell fire in a crowded place - where there is not fire - has always been considered to be a very limited, er, limitation.  So, for example, the American Nazi Party was given the go-ahead to march in Skokie, Illinois - a Jewish enclave that at the time, was home to a sizable population of Holocaust survivors - in the year 1977.  It was the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that argued for the right of the Nazis to march, even though it was obviously provocative, as an expression of their First Amendment rights.  

Jewish law does not validate Freedom of Speech to that extent.  The laws of Taharat Halashon - 'purity of speech' - forbid passing negative information about someone - even if true! - unless there's a really compelling reason to do so.  And the respective civil law of other countries with which I'm familiar - in particular, Australia and the UK - also limit Freedom of Speech when that speech is disparaging to someone else even when true.  These sentiments notwithstanding, I have listened to individuals - Jews and otherwise - in these countries, slander others to no end, and with no remorse whatsoever.

Alan Dershowitz is a long-time member of the ACLU, having served on its national board years back.  In his defense of President Trump's civil liberties, he has excoriated the organization for its silence on the matter in contrast to its stance in earlier times of defending the rights of people, with whom the organization disagrees.  The ACLU, as Dershowitz charged, has morphed into ACLU 2.0, no motivated by specific political ideologies whereas in past time the organization scrupulously avoided even the appearance of political preference.  Therefore, the ACLU has been completely silent on whether the Department of Justice has violated the President and certain associates' civil liberties, where Dershowitz - one of the nation's foremost authorities on the subject, believes they clearly have.  And how has the ACLU responded?  Well, they haven't specifically addressed Dershowitz's complaint, but the chairman and director of the organization are on record as stating that in this era of political acrimony, they have changed the parameters and practices of the ACLU from previous generations.  Translation:  formerly, they stood up even for Nazis in their quest for absolute Freedom of Speech, whereas today, they think there are higher values, ie, defending the ideology of the Left.

As a result of his standing up for the President, Dershowitz finds himself not only at odds with many whom he has considered his friends on the Left; they are shunning him, refusing to attend dinners where he will be present and that sort of thing.  This particularly hurts, as he explains, because he has been a stalwart liberal Democrat for over a half-century, and that his recent remarks regarding President Trump are entirely in keeping with his civil libertarian posture that he has always maintained.  Dershowitz opines that hatred of Trump is so all-encompassing, so toxic in Left/Democrat circles, that his former friends and colleagues have lost all sense of perspective and rationality.

Trump Derangement Sydrome afflicts many
I can relate to this.  Recently, on Facebook, I posted an article about how the Democrat Party was so completely consumed with Trump Derangement Syndrome, that they are unable to articulate their own, competing vision for the country.  I tried to make it clear that I wasn't trying to bash the Democrats, a party in which i once found my ideological home, but wondered if anybody representing Democrat affiliation - I have friends who do - could clarify what is the party's vision?  Well, instead of the rational answers I mistakenly expected, all I got were people 'yelling' at me for betraying my roots and all morality for standing up for Trump.  I even ended up 'unfriending' the worst offender.  And I made it clear - then and previously - that, while I voted for Trump, it was as a Lesser of Two Evils. 

I have noticed the trend, in Jewish circles and elsewhere, to advocate for a limiting of Freedom of Speech when it's speech use in the expression of opinions with which one disagrees.  For example, when I was a pulpit rabbi, people would tell me that something I said in a sermon was 'offensive' to them, essentially because they didn't agree with it.  And it seems to be happening more and more with the passage of time.  I started noticing it after the election of President Obama; one could not express disagreement with anything coming out of the White House without being quickly charged, by someone on the Left, as being a racist.  And now, if one expresses any support of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one is quickly labelled a racist/misogynist/homophobe/transphobe/islamophobe/xenophobe or just about any kind of phobe, for expressing any support of the racist/misogynist/homophobe... who dwells at that address.  I've certainly felt it, and now Alan Dershowitz is - much more publicly - feeling and complaining about it.

In Part Two of this blog post, to be published after the Jewish Sabbath, I'm going to humbly explain why I ultimately changed my own political affiliation...and suggest why Alan Dershowitz should consider doing the same.  But remember, it's not really about Alan dershowitz, but a principle much bigger than him.  Standby, and Shabbat Shalom...

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Detention at the Border and Jewish Ethics

Families caught crossing the US border illegally, in detention
It's the latest contentious issue to explode in the marketplace of ideas; in many parts of the world, but here I'm addressing specifically the issue as it presents itself in the United States.  For a number of weeks, there has been a public outcry - from the Democrat Party, from much of the press, and from many citizens including Republicans, concerning one result of the Trump Administration's policy of 'zero tolerance' at the border:  the separation of migrant children from their parents.

The phenomenon apparently results from a settlement from 1993 between the courts and the Clinton Administration, known as 'the Flores Agreement.'  A lawsuit was filed against the administration on behalf of an under-aged refugee from El Salvador, who arrived unaccompanied by a a parent or guardian and was placed in detention until her status could be determined.  As a result of that lawsuit, the administration agreed that such children would be placed when possible, with a family member or friend in the US and if unavailable, they would be detained only under the least restrictive and safest possible conditions, and only for a limited period.  If the case took more than 20 days, and filing to find someone known to the family with which to place the child, they would be placed in temporary custodianship - ie, foster care - until an adjudication could be made.

Since Flores, this agreement has been understood by every administration to apply by extension to children who arrive with their parents; if their parents' status could not be adjudicated in a short time, the children had to be separated to avoid keeping them in detention for an extended period.

Previous administrations struggled to comply with Flores and all its ramifications, while trying to maintain some control over the border.  In 2014, the Obama Administration got into trouble with the courts when it decided to hold entire families in detention and try to adjudicate their status quickly.  That's when the US Ninth Circuit Court ruled that Flores definitely applies to accompanied children, and limits the government's ability to detain whole families, to 20 days.

So what changed, that this is such a hot issue all of a sudden?

Attorney General Sessions' replacement of 'Catch and Release' under the Obama Administration - and under the current administration until they'd had time to study the law and address the issue - with 'Zero Tolerance' happened, that's what.

Under 'Catch and Release,' many illegals caught on the US side of the border were given a scolding, then released back over the border.  The premise was that crossing the border without papers was illegal, but not a real crime; instead of clogging up our judicial system and prisons, they would be sent back whence they came.  But the problem was that such individuals, released from custody, would usually just try to enter the US on another day, perhaps by a different route.  And once they were able to reach a 'Sanctuary City,' they were home free.  In such localities, local law enforcement agencies are under strict instructions not to turn over anybody having an encounter with the law, and suspected of being the in US illegally, to federal authorities.  The result of these 'sanctuaries' is a string of sensational cases where illegals have committed terrible crimes, crimes that they wouldn't have been free to commit had they been detained at the border, prosecuted for illegal entry if indicated, and incarcerated for the crime of entering the country illegally.

Under Sessions' 'Zero Tolerance' policy, those caught in the country illegally are detained, prosecuted if warranted, and punished through the legal system.  This has led to a dramatic increase in illegal border-crossers coming with children, having been advised that those children cannot be held more than 20 days.  And the uproar is a result of the Trump Administration's efforts to comply with the law and previous agreements, while at the same time taking measures - such a 'Zero Tolerance' to keep the country safe from the hardened criminal element that has been entering the country through the leniency of previous border policies.

President Trump, under fire for the separation of children from their parents, challenged Congress to change the law.  But there's no change forthcoming, at least not in the immediate future.  For the congress and previous congresses, immigration is a 'hot potato' that they don't want to be caught holding.  So in the case of the Democrats - and some Republicans as well - the solution is to cry 'Nazi' to foment hatred and loathing of the President, while not offering  single solution.  President Trump, knowing that he has to do something, has issued an Executive Order dropping the 20-day limit on children being held, and called upon the military to assist in providing a number of facilities where families with children can be detained without mixing them in with populations of potentially hardened criminals.

Some conservatives have charged that the protests, and inability of the opponents of the administration policy to sit down and craft legislation allowing the administration to solve the problem at the border, represents that philosophical position that borders are, in and of themselves, bad and that a completely open borders policy is the only defensible immigration policy.  It's hard to deny that there's truth in that; there is a 'No Borders' camp in many places of the world, that decries any government's attempts to put some control into the movement of people from country to country.  I have seen this camp at work in Australia when I lived there, in Europe in recent years, and in Israel.  Talking to people outside Israel who are critical of the state's use of limited military force to prevent mass breakthroughs of the border from the Gaza Strip, it becomes clear that many of those who criticize Israel over the issue simply believe that there should be no obstacle to desperate people wanting to cross a border into another country.  So, this strain of thought in the US - and those outside of the US who are critical of the Trump Administration's action - is not surprising.

Among Jews, the argument is often made that keeping those who would declare themselves refugees out of the US, or at least vetting them on arrival to determine if they are bona fide refugees - is like the countries of the world closing their doors to Jews in Europe when the Holocaust loomed and those Jews were at great risk.  This creates, in many Jews' minds, a popular notion that the only valid Jewish ethic on the subject, is open borders to anybody who would claim refugee status, and whether they crossed the border legally or illegally.

I couldn't disagree more.  In statecraft, there are frequent tensions between compassion and doing what's good for the nation.  Sometimes, laws and policies have unintended consequences and should be looked at for revision.  In the 'immigration business,' finding a balance between compassion for those who claim to be fleeing persecution and personal danger, and the nation's need to allow those who truly rate that compassion to enter while protecting the public from those who. allowed to enter, would pose a danger to the nation's citizens, can be difficult.  If all parties are truly concerned about those fleeing danger, it is unhelpful to label the President and his advisors as Nazis and suggest the dismantling of ICE, the law enforcement agency charged with controlling the border.

If there's a position required by 'Jewish Ethics,' I would submit that it is the idea that it is the assumption - unless proven otherwise - that all sides desire a good result, and that they be prepared to discuss, negotiate and arrive at a best solution for a difficult problem.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Struggle Between Self and Duty - a Thought for Parashat Balak, 30 June 2018

I’m sure that I speak for a majority of individuals who may be reading this, when I say that my life has often been a struggle between that, which I wanted for myself, and that, which I felt responsible to do for others.  I like to think of myself as something of an individualist, but I served close to three decades in the military service where I often subordinated my own desires to the needs of my duties.  And we all, whether in service to country, or service to an employer, or service to one’s family, are often faced with the same decisions.  It is simply an existential fact of our lives – excepting perhaps those who tend to be self-contained, who eschew marriage, child-raising, and other demanding relationships – that we find ourselves conflicted repeatedly.  It’s the main reason that I find myself right now, preparing for a long voyage in a small boat, something that figured prominently in my dreams from a young age but which career, marriage, and parenthood, forced me to put off until now, in my sixties.   

This week’s Torah reading, Balak, includes a verse that is extremely well-known amongst Jews today.  We know this verse, because in many synagogues it is sung as an anthem at the very beginning of the morning service.  Mah tovu ohaleicha Yaakov, mishkinoteicha Yisrael.  “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel.”  It has become an anthem, which which to start the morning worship and teaching service, because the Rabbis connected the two words ohel – tent – and mishkan – dwelling-place, with the two ancient places where the people Israel gathered to worship G-d.  Ohel, tent, as in Ohel Moed, the ‘Tent of Meeting,’ the moveable sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites on the sojourn in the desert.  Mishkan, dwelling-place, as in HaMishkan, the permanent place of worship erected by Solomon, the son of David on Mount Zion.  The verse is stated, or sung at the beginning of the service – immediately upon entering the synagogue – to draw a parallel between Israel’s ancient places of worship, and their contemporary counterparts, where we enter regularly to praise G-d.

But in the context of our Torah reading, Balaam, the prophet of the gentiles, is not praising a place of worship, but literally the tents, the dwelling-places of the people Israel.  He is depicted as standing atop a mountain overlooking the encamped people Israel; he is observing how their camp is neatly organized by family unit and tribe.

Balaam himself, you’ll know if you’ve read the parasha, has experienced conflict between that which he wanted to do, and that which he was instructed by G-d.  Recruited by Balak, the Midianite king to curse his enemy Israel, Balaam is told by G-d not to go but Balaam, in a child-like campaign to do as he pleases, whatever, argues with G-d that he will not curse Israel as long as G-d continues to so instruct him.  In his ‘negotiation,’ he reminds me of many such negotiations that I conducted with my own children when they were young, and I told them they couldn’t do something or other, and they tried to get me to relent ‘in stages,’ by getting themselves closer to what they wanted thinking that having taken me down the road, the last mile wouldn’t be so hard for me to concede.

So, Balaam has to negotiate with G-d three times to get him to the place where he is standing in a high place, looking out over Israel’s tents.

What is it about the arrangement of Israel’s encampment that brings Balaam to make his pronouncement about how good are Jacob’s tents, Israel’s dwelling-places?  The text tells us that he proclaims it after seeing how the encampment is organized by tribe and family-unit.  By tribe:  the Israelites express their loyalty to their ancestral unit by using that criteria as their main organizing factor.  They remain organized by tribe, for purposes of government and also assignment to fighting units for the upcoming struggle to conquer the land of the Canaanites.  By family:  the tents are set up, so that each family’s dwelling has a private entrance, symbolic of each individual family’s autonomy and need for privacy.
In other words, the Israelites engaged in the struggle between the individual and the collective, and – at least apparently, judging from the way their camp was set up – they had found the balance necessary to satisfy all aspirations.

Today, we struggle with the same choices.  We do so in the general realm, and also in the realm of Judaism.  In the latter sphere, we desire to uphold the well-being of the Jewish people as a whole.  To support and defend the State of Israel.  To defend our religious liberties in the various countries of our habitation.  And yet, we sometimes find it necessary to ‘break ranks’ with our fellow Jews at times when our individual sensibilities lead us to do so.  Sometimes, it is positive impulse that leads us to do so, and the result is positive.  Sometimes, just as with Balaam and his desire to do the bidding of King Balak, whatever the cost, we allow ourselves to be lead by that, which we’ve already made up our minds to do.  But this is the nature of the struggle.  Even when we observe negative consequences in others’ actions that they have taken in their own response to the struggle, we don’t repudiate the struggle itself.
In our struggles between that, which we want to do for ourselves, and that, which we feel duty-bound to do, may we always keep an open mind to allow ourselves to be lead in the best paths.  Shabbat shalom.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Bit Too Close for Comfort...

Iron Dome battery deployed near Ashdod
...when the Iron Dome intercepts two rockets over your home town, as just happened this afternoon, according to the Israeli Defense Forces.  I never heard the sirens - apparently they didn't sound - but I did hear the explosions.  The Iron Dome - Israel's defense system against short-range missiles and projectiles - is a wonderful, mysterious creature, largely hidden from view although I occasionally see the soldiers who operate it, who wear distinctive uniforms and ball caps, around town or the nearby train station.  The system was largely funded by US military assistance, and US contractors did some of the development work although most was done within Israel.  The US does, however, benefit greatly from their participation and the lessons learned in deploying, operating, and improving the system.

There have also been retaliatory air strikes on Gaza, with some of the fast-movers flying over my head, for the rocket and mortar firings. (Oops!  There went another aircraft, or perhaps a flight of two!)

As I've mentioned in recent posts, there is a surreal air to the ongoing conflict at the Gaza/Israeli border.  We have to tune in to the local news or news websites to find out what's going on, except when the black smoke from burning tires gets thick in the southern sky, as the Gaza Strip is just about 10 KM south of Ashqelon.  Otherwise, until the Islamic Jihad began firing over the border today, we don't hear much and certainly don't see any hints of the activity.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing lately in the Jewish world about how Israel keeps losing the Propaganda War over Gaza.  Everybody seems to believe that Israel occupies the Gaza Strip.  When one points out that Israel pulled out unilaterally from the Strip almost 13 years ago, they will often retort by saying that, while Israel perhaps has no troops inside the Gaza Strip, they've quarantined it to where its residents are dying in squalor and malnutrition.  For the sake of accuracy, I direct your attention to the below video clip, which is not the product of any organization friendly towards Israel:  it was published a few days ago by (official) Turkish TV - please remember, that Turkey under its President Erdogan is no friend of Israel and constantly calls it a 'terrorist' or 'nazi' state.

So, the conflict over the Gaza border is not because the Gazans are prisoners inside the world's largest concentration camp!  To be sure, with Hamas in charge there is a totalitarian element of life in Gaza; it is no Garden of Eden.  But you can see that the push to cross into Israel is not due to festering privation in Gaza, rather to the desire to destroy Israel and kill its citizens wholesale.

Earlier today, I drove my son, Eyal to his deployment base at Shekef in the Judaean Hills, next to the barrier wall; he had had to travel to his home base at Aleika in the Golan yesterday and got to come home last night.  He went out during the evening on a coffee date with a woman he met in a shop here last weekend.  He's finishing up his service soon and trying to bring some normalcy into his life, although at the same time he has volunteered for keva, an extension of his service in a semi-professional status.  I won't see him for a while as I'm about to go abroad for a few months.  Shekef is not close to Gaza, but of course the whole army is a bit on edge between the action down there, plus the rumblings of the Hizb'ullah and other Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon and Syria.

Never a dull moment in the Holy Land!  Oy!