Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
TBE congregant Pinchas Gross sends along regards from Tel Aviv, along with this photo of a handwritten sign, where a business owner is inviting passers-by into his shelter in the event of a red-alert siren. There have been many this week, in Tel Aviv and throughout the country. Stay safe, Pinchas and Yaffa!
Join us for all our special services and events this weekend, (including an outdoor Friday night in gorgeous weather), Sisterhood Shabbat on Shabbat morning, and Zoom based Shavuot festival services on Monday and Tuesday at 10 AM (no afternoon minyan those days). Spend Shavuot eve immersed in Torah, either at the Conservative movement's all-nighter or an assortment of other options - including one by the creative think-tank "Reboot."
Please note that our office is closed for the festival from Sunday evening through Tuesday. I will be responding to emergency emails, but TBE routine business will take a much needed break.
Israel: Two Paths in a Wood
I'm a middle child, a practitioner of nuance - a "tradition-and-change," old fashioned Conservative Jew, someone who really does like to drive down the middle of the road. Whether dealing with Jewish ritual or with Israel, I'm usually looking for the shadings of truth on all sides.
But the events of these past several weeks, and this week in particular, demand a less subtle approach, a certain moral clarity, a clear, binary choice.
So let's talk about what's clear. Launching thousands of missiles targeting innocent civilians is a war crime and inexcusable. The attacks have been relentless- I know, I have the Red Alert app on my phone and it has been vibrating nonstop. The fact that Hamas has done this repeatedly without the clear and unconditional condemnation of the world in no way softens the nihilistic evil of this act - nor the shock of it's impact on individual lives. The fact that Iron Dome has kept the human cost relatively low will not bring back the life of that five-year-old killed in Sderot. The rockets are a crime against humanity. It is a binary choice.
Here's a tweet that I saw this week, demonstrating another kind of binary choice:
The Hamas attacks must be dealt with and defended against, until Israelis can feel safe. So set that aside.
That said, Israeli is without moral leadership at the helm right now. So many wrongheaded decisions have been made that have frayed the social fabric, particularly between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, and between Muslims and Jews. So much fuel has been poured onto this fire, especially in the weeks since the beginning of Ramadan, and it is still being done in places where Jews and Arabs have maintained a fragile but productive coexistence.
As that tweet states, there are people who want coexistence - Jews and Arabs - and there are people who do not. It is a binary choice. And it is a choice we all need to make. Are you for coexistence, or not?
There are people who respect the sanctity of holy places and holy times, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and there are people who do not respect coexistence at all. There are people who open their shelters to all who need it, and people who do not. There are people who respect minority cultures and who understand the fragile balance that needs to be maintained without evicting long term residents in Sheikh Jarrah, and those who do not. There are people who see potential in building relationships, one person at a time, so that people won't be afraid of their neighbors, and people who do not - and who often exploit those fears for political gain. It is a binary choice.
While you are choosing, here is a plea from leaders of mixed Israeli cities, places that have been havens of cooperation, like Ramla and Jaffa and Akko and Lod. it comes from the Abraham Initiatives. The instigators are primarily zealots recruited from the outside, along with those infected by social media.
Here is a clearer version of the statement on the left:
For Immediate Release
May 12, 2021
We council members, Jews and Arabs, in the mixed cities in Israel, call on the mayors of mixed cities, our partners in the councils and the general public do everything in their power to allow legal demonstrations by members of the minority group, to refrain from acts of violence and to engage in dialogue aimed at reducing the tensions among residents. We call on the public to refrain from posting explosive images and videos, and in particular disseminating fake news that could further enflame the area.
If there is one thing we can do to help the situation, it is to not inflame tensions by spreading the extremist garbage flooding your social media accounts. They are being sent to you by people who have already made their choice. Even the current Prime Minister of Israel has called the internal flames (which he has historically fanned) between Israeli Arab and Jew a greater existential threat than Hamas rockets.
Think of all the Russian bots that have tried to tear the fabric of American society apart. Americans on the whole have become better at recognizing this manipulation. We learned our lesson in 2016. But so many Jews seem to check our intellects at the door when confronted by inflammatory videos trying to lead us to condemn every "other" as a murderous subhuman, deserving of eviction. We need to resist that. Think of the Arab in Jaffa who put out the fire.
So before you pass along inflammatory information, make sure it is vetted by reputable journalists and other sources. At a time when there really have been lynchings and places of worship set aflame, we need to choose to help bring down the temperature.
Our community had a prayer vigil yesterday and it was handled very well. I was glad, in a way, that it was on Zoom, where it was far less likely to become a rally. There were no speeches, only prayers. Right now is not the time for sloganeering. If ever there was a time for thoughts and prayers, or at least some thoughtful prayers, it is now.
Here is an excerpt from Marc Schulman's excellent backgrounder on the events of the past few weeks, with the focus on the role of social media. Read the entire essay here.
Social Media is responsible for many evils in this world, primarily for enflaming and expanding hatred. Still, when the history of this period is written, this may go down as the first time social media helped cause a war. While the latest battle with Gaza was directly caused by only one thing the Hamas missile fire on Israel, which I will go into in a minute, the latest series of events began with a series of Tik Tok videos which Arab Youth posted at the beginning of the Ramadan, showing them attacking Jews leaving the Old City of Jerusalem. The youth tried to outdo each other in showing how they could attack unarmed Jews by having their attacks which included pouring hot coffee on unsuspecting Yeshiva students. The police responded by closing off the area immediately outside the Damascus Gate, a popular place for Arab youth to hang especially during Ramadan. This resulted in clashes between the police and the Arab Youth, in which the police repeatedly used stun grenades to gain control.
Meanwhile, not to be outdone, the racist elements of the Jewish society began taking things into their own hands. On the evening of April 20th, groups of Jewish youths marched through downtown Jerusalem chanting death to the Arabs and attacking any Arab they could find. Buoyed by now having one of their own Itamar ben Gvir in Knesset, they felt they could do whatever they wanted in Jerusalem.
A sideshow in this drama is events in Sheikh Jarrah. The attempt to evict a few Arab families is neither a small real estate dispute as some defenders of Israel claim, nor is it a massive attempt to evict implied thousands of families as Israel's critics claim. What is involved is a few buildings in the overwhelmingly Arab section of Sheik Jarrah that were owned by Yemenite Jews during the mandate but were abandoned during the Arab riots of 36-38. the descendants of the original owners were able to prove their ownership in court. As part of a compromise, the course stated that if the current residents who have been squatting for 70 years paid rent, they could stay. They were encouraged not to, and thus the attempt at eviction. This would be a simple case of real estate law if the law were at all equitable. Our defenders will not say that our laws provide for Jews to reestablish ownership on properties in East Jerusalem while giving Arabs who fled West Jerusalem no equivalent recourse. In addition, the reacquisition of the homes in Sheik Jarrah is part of a long-term strategy by religious rightest in Israel to encourage Jews to move into East Jerusalem. However, what is not going on is a massive human rights violation, or for that matter, a violation of international law. Currently, the issue rests with the Israeli Supreme Court, which will not take up the case for another month.
The next main event took place on the Temple Mount. The protests centered around the Damascus Gate spread, and on Friday, May 7th, reached a pitch when police were attacked around the Temple Mounts' outskirts, and stones were thrown at Jewish worshipers. Under the command of a new police commissioner whose background as the head of Magav is the use of force, the police stormed the Temple Mount using stun grenades inside the Al Aqsa Mosque. While the assault may have been justified, it was stupid. The temple mount has been a flashpoint since 1928 and probably before, and the police actions are unforgivable. On the other hand, their efforts to gain control of rioting represent no attempt at changing the status quo on the Temple Mount, as Israel's critics claim.
Things went from bad to worse on Monday ( May 10th) afternoon when Hamas gave Israel two hours to remove all police from the Temple Mount and Sheikh Jarrah, something Hamas knew Israel would not do. Israel had earlier ignored a few missile firings believing that Hamas had no interest in confrontation. Most of Israel was expecting a missile attack on Tel Aviv. To everyone's surprise, Hamas fired a round of seven missiles at Jerusalem. Israel had no choice but to respond. (click here to continue)
Since 2013 (see table on the right), there's been an uptick on many of these categories, in particular the top three. While "observing Jewish law" has declined, I would contend that for Jews, "religion," ethics, law and culture are completely intertwined. My writing on the Holocaust has attempted to demonstrate that the "religion" of American (and Israeli) Jews has been profoundly influenced by that still-evolving phenomenon. And ethics and social justice are central to how we practice our faith. And traditional food is climbing, which is good, because I'm on Team Latke!
The survey shows that the American Jewish population has risen over the past decade, despite all the predictions of our demise.
We love those pets, don't we? Once again, Jews seem to downplay "religion" but culture, literature and family are huge components of who we are. We are coalescing around the idea of Judaism as a civilization rather than a faith.
Diversity is growing markedly among the younger generation of Jews. (Similar trends are found in the increase of LGBT Jews). Synagogues need to take notice. For the three tables below, note that there is considerable shifting among the denominations - and that fully a third of Orthodox migrate out of orthodoxy, which accounts for the fact that the percentage of Orthodox among American Jews as a whole has not increased as much as the birthrate might suggest. But the political divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews has increased dramatically and intermarriage has become the norm.