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.
Thursday, November 3, 2022
In This Moment: Is This That Break Glass Moment?
The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored
by Amy and Aron Davidson in honor of their son, Benjamin, becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Mazal tov to the family!
Some lovely scenes of TBE in the fall...
In This Moment
Is this that "Break Glass Moment" I've been talking about?
On Rosh Hashanah, I asserted that, for Jews, it only takes a simple word, just one word, “the,” to take a break glass moment and turn it into a break the glass moment. Just one word can turn a five-alarm fire into a jubilant wedding dance. From break glass to break theglass.
But this week, it feels like a five alarm fire. Between the shockingly open antisemitism now invading all our public spaces, virtual and otherwise (see details in Recommended Reading below), and the threats to American democracy, culminating in the attack on the Pelosi family, no one could be blamed for reaching out to break glass. How appropriate that this coming Wednesday is Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when many say the most violent phase of the Holocaust began, with barely a whimper from the rest of the world.
And then there were the Israeli elections. The Hebrew headline shown here says, "Victory"next to Netanyahu's photo, and "The mistakes that led to a loss" next to Lapid.
There is no sugar coating it. "Our Worst Fears," as the British Jewish News heralded on its front page (see above) following the initial results of the Israeli elections - which indicated a return to power for Bibi Netanyahu and, more significantly, the unprecedented rise of a Kahanist extreme right wing party that would seriously threaten basic human rights, for Palestinians and other minorities, LGBTQ, women, secular and progressive Jews and the rule of law itself. Mass deportations of Arabs are now a distinct possibility, along with a rise in violence perpetrated by terrorists both Arab and Jewish, and that violence is happening already.
"Israel is now on the verge of a right-wing, religious, authoritarian revolution, whose goal is to decimate the democratic infrastructure on which the country was built. This may be a black day in Israel’s history.... Religious Zionism, the Knesset list that distorted the Zionist project and transformed it from the national home of the Jewish people into a project of conservative, right-wing, racist, religious Jewish supremacism in the spirit of Ben Gvir’s teacher and rabbi, Meir Kahane, is now the third largest political force in Israel. That is the true, chilling significance of the election held on Tuesday."
Sounds suspiciously like a five alarm fire to me. And it could be. I'm not going to try to convince you that a government with the likes of Ben Gvir couldn't be extremely damaging to Israel at home and to its reputation abroad. Even assuming Netanyahu's more pragmatic side will take hold - once he's gutted the judiciary and blown up his trial, that is - those who have been having trouble defending Israel at the Thanksgiving table or college dorm will discover that the degree of difficulty has just increased exponentially.
But for at least as long as Joe Biden is in the White House, the Israeli government will not be able to go excessively rogue. We've seen this before, from the days of Menachem Begin, who, prodded by Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat, surprised everyone by veering toward the center; to Ariel Sharon, who left Gaza on his own, to Netanyahu himself, who at least gave lip service to the two state solution for a while. Biden will have an able assistant in Israel's own president, Isaac Herzog, who will twist arms aplenty to produce the broadest, least dangerous government possible. Add to that the Arab leaders who signed the Abraham Accords, who will keep Israel from excessive recklessness directed against Palestinians.
Half the population did not want to veer away from democratic norms
For those despairing that Israel is on a path to becoming an illiberal democracy, a couple of reminders. The country is still evenly divided between those who wanted Netanyahu back and those who didn't - and I mean that literally, as 49.5 percent of the vote went to the anti-Bibi bloc. It was only because of the foolish arrogance of the small left wing and Arab parties, who refused to consolidate, that two of them were left just under the threshold for representation in the Knesset, which would have blocked Bibi from having a majority. Columnist Yossi Verter writes this morning that much of that blame goes to Lapid, who mismanaged the run up to the election and squandered a chance to lower the threshold that would have allowed small parties Meretz and Balad to enter the Knesset and deprive Netanyahu this easy win.
Literally half the population did not want to veer away from democratic norms. The other half chose to emphasize Jewish nationalism as well as tribal chauvinism. That precious balance between Israel's being a Jewish AND democratic state is one that the center-left might have ignored to their peril, according to Daniel Gordis, who reviewed a Lapid campaign video and noted that thew words "Jewish" and "Zionist" did not appear. He writes,
The problem, for me, is that if you translated this video into French and substituted “France” for Israel, Emmanuel Macron could use it in his next campaign. Translated into English with “America” substituted for Israel, it would make a fine video for Liz Cheney or Amy Klobuchar. It’s a lovely video that would work for any modern liberal democracy. But here’s the rub. I never intended to move to any old modern liberal democracy. Democracy? Of course? Liberal (in the philosophic, not political sense)? Absolutely. But “any old”? Definitely not. I came here to live in a Jewish state, a state that while not imposing religiosity on anyone, would be Jewish in manifold ways, culturally, educationally, in values and much more.
I'm a great believer in Jewish peoplehood, but pride must be coated by humility, as I've said so oftenand not by chauvinism. Ben Gvir's racist chauvinism is something I can't defend, and I do not want racists defining the nature of Judaism in the Jewish state.
It is time for those who love Israel to be vigilant and to be vocal, both in defense of Israel where the attacks are unfair, and in criticism of actions that betray both Israel's Jewish AND democratic values. We not only have the right to be vocal - we have the obligation. This will be a huge test for the American Jewish establishment. Rabbis can't sit on the sidelines. Organizations like AJC and ADL need to represent that mainstream of American Jews, who will not accept one iota of the the Ben Gvir agenda. You can read that agenda here. I am not crying wolf. (Also see this assessment from Foreign Policy). AIPAC must display zero tolerance at what the extremists bring to the table; that would have an impact on Bibi, who will not give a whit about the Democrats (we've seen that countless times); but he does care about AIPAC.
Unfortunately, with AIPAC's role so central, it's hard to have confidence in an organization that has endorsed scores of 2020 election deniers. That in itself is disqualifying for many American Jews - including me. How can I expect a group to defend democratic norms in Israel if they can't defend them at home? As for J-Street, it remains to be seen whether they can broaden their coalition by moving beyond old ideas that have no chance of success - like the two state solution - and inspiring creative solutions that can bring people together. Let's see if they can rise to this moment. Someone's got to.
Four out of 120 is not a wing, it's a feather on the tip of a wing.
They, and we, need to recognize that there is no longer a left wing in Israel. The former parties of the peace process literally now have just four seats in the next Knesset. The once proud founding party of Israel is nearly extinct. Four seats. That's it. Ben Gurion, Golda, Rabin and Shimon Peres. Sorry, no room for you, Moshe Dayan. No seat for you, Chaim Weizmann. Herzog family, you can wait in the foyer. Four out of 120 is not a wing, it's a feather on the tip of a wing. Sadly - and it is sad - there is no left wing.
There are reasons for that, some of them stemming from the wounds of twenty years ago (bus bombings), and some from the wounds of eighty years ago. And some from prejudices stoked by despicable forces of hate. Israelis are not going to just give back land for the promise of peace. That ship sailed long ago. But neither do they want to dominate the lives of their neighbors. Micah Goodman's ideas of how to "shrink the conflict" are flawed, but at least they get us beyond the old paradigms and into some creative thinking. He believes that the vast majority of Israelis do not want to control the lives of Palestinians but neither do they want to be threatened by them. There is a true consensus waiting to be found. Read more about those ideas here. At the same time, Palestinians face increasing insecurity as well, and coexistence needs to be fostered.
That's where American Jewish think tanks can be most helpful right now, in partnership with Israelis. We can't back down from this challenge.
So I am not beyond hope. I've seen this movie too many times to give up now. I can recall when Avigdor Liberman was the great danger to democracy, before he courageously left Netanyahu a few election cycles ago. Ariel Sharon gained wisdom with age; so did Rabin. There is no need to say "Gevalt" right now over the long term future of israel as a democracy. More people voted this week than in any election this century.
But I hear the cries of people like David Wexler, a tour guide and friend who led a TBE tour not long ago. He's gay and remarked forlornly this week on Facebook, "It seems like the situation has to get a lot worse until we see light at the end of the tunnel." And indeed, today there are reports that Netanyahu may walk backthe LGBTQ conversion therapy ban instituted by the current government, in a concession to his new dance partners on the right. I really feel for David. Gays in Tel Aviv may soon find themselves in the same predicament as pregnant teens in red states over here, facing a relentless, Bible thumping Big Brother, patriarchal government with screwed up morals.
No question that the glass is half empty right now, but it's still half full and Joe Biden is holding the beaker. No need to break glass right now. But we may want to hold off on breaking THE glass for the time being as well. Call me on Kristallnacht, next week, and we'll see.
Recommended Reading (and Watching)
Last week's interfaith conversation about Isaiah 7:14 was quite spirited. Was Isaiah talking about a young woman or a virgin? Or both? How did the innocent translation of the Hebrew word "alma" into the Greek word "parthenos" contribute to a theological firestorm that has lasted for centuries? What does this issue tell us about how religions evolve? Did belief in virgin birth really matter that much to the founders of Christianity? How does it compare to Moses' birth story? Hercules? Yes, it was a fun session. See for yourself. Click to watch the Zoom video. And join us tonight on Zoom at 6 as we discuss atonement and sacrifice.
45% of Americans Say U.S. Should Be a ‘Christian Nation today (PEW) Yes, even some Jews were among those who agreed! Growing numbers of religious and political leaders are embracing the “Christian nationalist” label, and some dispute the idea that the country’s founders wanted a separation of church and state. On the other side of the debate, many Americans – including leaders of many Christian churches – have pushed back against Christian nationalism, calling it a “danger” to the country. A new Pew Research Center survey finds that most U.S. adults (60%) believe America’s founders intended the country to be a “Christian nation,” while many (45%) say it should be a Christian nation today. Yet among those who say the U.S. should be a “Christian nation,” there are differing opinions about what that phrase means.
Tree of Life Rabbi: Shame on You, America (Ha'aretz)- Four years on from the Tree of Life massacre, Jeffrey Myers finds himself in a unique position: How do you deal with personal trauma while serving as an avatar for anti-Jewish hatred that’s reaching unprecedented levels in your homeland? He has been forced to reckon with a United States where antisemitism has only grown and been normalized through political and cultural figures. “It is disgraceful. Shame on you, America: you let it grow in this petri dish,” the rabbi says in an interview.
The Meaning of Stanford’s Apology to Jews (NYT) - To anyone who understands the history of Jewish exclusion on elite campuses, the central findings of a recently released, long-awaited report from Stanford University were no shock. The report confirmed that Stanford admissions officers purposefully limited the enrollment of Jewish students in the 1950s, in part by greatly reducing the number of applicants admitted from heavily Jewish public high schools. What’s surprising is that these discriminatory measures were, comparatively, so mild and so late to come about. Elite Northeastern schools perfected Jewish exclusion decades before Stanford got in on the act.
Six days before a local runoff election last year in Frisco, a prosperous and growing suburb of Dallas, Brandon Burden paced the stage of KingdomLife Church. The pastor told congregants that demonic spirits were operating through members of the City Council.Grasping his Bible with both hands, Burden said God was working through his North Texas congregation to take the country back to its Christian roots. He lamented that he lacked jurisdiction over the state Capitol, where he had gone during the 2021 Texas legislative session to lobby for conservative priorities like expanded gun rights and a ban on abortion.
“But you know what I got jurisdiction over this morning is an election coming up on Saturday,” Burden told parishioners. “I got a candidate that God wants to win. I got a mayor that God wants to unseat. God wants to undo. God wants to shift the balance of power in our city. And I have jurisdiction over that this morning.”
What Burden said that day in May 2021 was a violation of a long-standing federal law barring churches and nonprofits from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns, tax law experts told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. Although the provision was mostly uncontroversial for decades after it passed in 1954, it has become a target for both evangelical churches and former President Donald Trump, who vowed to eliminate it.
Burden’s sermon is among those at 18 churches identified by the news organizations over the past two years that appeared to violate the Johnson Amendment, a measure named after its author, former President Lyndon B. Johnson. Some pastors have gone so far as to paint candidates they oppose as demonic.
The Jews started it all – and by "it" I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings. And we would set a different course for our lives… Their worldview has become so much a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code.
Since time is no longer cyclical but one-way and irreversible, personal history is now possible and an individual life can have value… The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had.
The Jews were the first people to develop an integrated view of life and its obligations. Rather than imagining the demands of law and the demands of wisdom as discrete realms (as did the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks), they imagined that all of life, having come from the Author of life, was to be governed by a single outlook. The material and the spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one: “Hearken O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH (is) One!” The great formula is not that there is one God but that God is One.
Thank you to the hundreds who have taken a look at my new Substack page, which this week featured my valedictory address to Gen Z and Millennials. If you haven't done so yet, give it a look - and subscribe! It's free, and increasingly, I'll be sharing exclusive content there.