Sunday, November 27, 2016

Obama's legacy on Israel

Now that Obama's term is almost over, can we finally put to bed the preposterous notion, advanced by many of my more right-wing co-religionists, that "Obama is the worst president for Israel ever"?

Obama's actually been a pretty good friend to Israel, having her back at the UN, increasing military aid, and never, ever pressuring Israel financially like Reagan and George HW Bush did. His relationship with Netanyahu has been frosty, but the blame for that lies more with Netanyahu than with Obama.

So what was Obama's crime? Apparently it was criticizing settlement expansion and pressuring Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. At best, Obama has been accused, in the words of one recent critic I exchanged comments with as "[approaching] the peace process with complete naivete, and many assumptions that are simply not true".

Obama approached the peace process exactly like his two predecessors did. Perhaps that that doesn't work anymore, but Bill Clinton and George W Bush both did the same things, so Obama's approach was hardly unprecedented. They all pressured Israel to negotiate and to freeze settlements. They all criticized Israel publicly, albeit mildly, when Israel did things they deemed unhelpful.

Perhaps the peace process, as begun with the Oslo agreement (driven by Israel herself, not the US), is a failure and a new path needs to be expored. Perhaps Obama's "crime" was continuing longstanding American policy when the Middle East was changing drastically. But keeping a steady hand on the tiller hardly equates to throwing Israel under the bus.

History will judge the Jewish right-wing's hand-wringing over Obama's relationship with Israel as overblown partisan hysteria. I hope that our community can have a calmer, fact based view in the future.



Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Is the trend towards chumrot driven by a more halachically literate Orthodox laity?

A common criticism (which I have repeated myself many times over the years) is that the Orthodox community has trended towards ever more stringent chumrot because the shul rabbi, who understands the needs of the laity, has been replaced as as posek by roshei yeshiva, who are in the ivory tower, so to speak, and don't understand those needs, thus are less likely to look for compassionate kulot.

I still believe there's truth to that, but as I was reading this piece by Aryeh Klapper on gedolim, one sentence really struck me:

"The eclipse of shul rabbis occurred because they were less capable than the roshei yeshiva of serving a more educated and more observant generation of Orthodox men and women".

I never thought of it that way before, but he does have a point. The Orthodox laity is far more halachically literate than at most times in Jewish history, fantasies about shtetl life aside. People kept halacha culturally, and asked the community rabbi their she'elot. Girls didn't have formal religious education at all, and most boys had only cheder before going off to work.

Today, K-12 day school education is the minimum for Orthodox children and teens in most communities, and as a result, they have a far greater understanding of halacha than their ancestors. Rabbi Klapper's suggestion is plausible. The natural result of greater halachic literacy may be a demand for greater adherence to firmer standards, and that may be reflected in the responses given to she'elot.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

My 9-11 story

I'm not big on personal reminisces online, nor do I usually feel the need to recount the obligatory "where were you when".
But it's hard to believe that it's been 15 years. For better or worse, it feels like yesterday, and I'm in a reflective mood.

The evening before, on September 10th, I was in Manhattan having dinner with a friend, so I got home to Brooklyn very late. My job in Long Island was officially a consulting job at the time, and my arrival time wasn't strict, so I knew I could sleep in a little. I had my clock radio tuned to WNYC and it woke me up around 8am, but I kept hitting snooze for at least 45 minutes. I was the only one home, my parents both having left for work earlier.

Finally, closer to 9am and half-asleep, it percolated to me what the voice on the radio had been saying for the last few minutes. I was immediately awake, though I assumed (as did most for almost 20 minutes) that the first plane was an accident. I stayed at home listing to the radio, riveted to the description.I vividly remember Brian Lehrer saying very skeptically that someone on the other side of te building he was broadcasting from, who had a view of lower Manhattan, reported that another plane had just hit. It took a few minutes for Lehrer to report that it was real, and that's when t dawned on him, and me, sitting at home, that this was no accident.

I managed to reach my mother, who was stuck in her work building in lower Manhattan. She was safe, but they weren't allowing anyone to leave just yet. I tried to reach my father, but he was teaching class and it took a while. I called my work and told them that I wouldn't be coming in that day.

I turned on the TV and most of the channels, which had been broadcasting from the towers, were just snow. One channel (maybe CBS?) came in and I watched in disbelief as the towers each came down.
I finally felt like I had to get out of the house. I got in my car and drove to undeveloped section of Marine Park, on the southern end of Brooklyn, where I knew from past experience that I could see clear across all of Brooklyn to the twin towers. Along the way, I could see the smoke rising from Manhattan, hidden behind buildings and trees. When I got to the park, I could finally see Manhattan, but where the towers used to be, just a cloud of smoke, shrouding most of lower Manhattan, in fact.
I would have stayed there longer, just watching transfixed, if not for the fact that a cloud of dust & smoke from the attack that must have swept across Brooklyn settled over the neighborhood where I was standing, and I suddenly had a hard time breathing. I got back into my car and turned on the A/C which helped filter out the smoke.

Later during the day, in the afternoon, I was walking on Kings Highway on the way to a cafe with a few friends. We were getting together to try to make sense of what happened, and keep each other company in our shock. While we were walking, a great cloud of paper came over the neighborhood, fluttering down to the street. I think it was from 7 WTC, which collapsed in the afternoon. There was some insensitive person running around excitedly collecting papers for, as he called it, souvenirs.

I didn't go around collecting, but I picked up a few pages and saw that it was financial balance sheets from some company. Some of the pages were slightly singed. I kept them, and thought that I would return them to the company whose name was printed on the bottom. In the end I never got around to it and I'm not sure where they went - probably in the garbage. I'm sure that it wouldn't have made a big difference to the company after losing their entire office, but I've always regretted it nonetheless. It would have been symbolic, perhaps, but symbolism counts.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Israel does not practice apartheid. But is it on a path to do so?

Jay Michaelson makes some good points in his article If Israel’s Occupation Is Permanent, Why Isn’t It the Same as Apartheid?

Some thoughts:

The time to separate into 2 states would have been 20 years ago, when support was still high. Now it's hard to imagine how it'll happen. The Palestinians missed chances and then their violent responses hardened Israeli public position.

I don't know what the answer is. I agree with the article, but I don't see a two-state solution happening anytime soon. Israel is stuck in a morass of it's own making and the making of the Palestinians.

One other point - many on the right will take exception to Michelson's 2nd to last paragraph, that the long-term demographics aren't on Israel's side. Caroline Glick, for instance, asserts that the Jewish birthrate is rising and the Palestinian birthrate is dropping. Is that true? It's hard to know. It may just be selective reading of the data by a right wanting to believe that there will always be a Jewish majority.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Brit Milah

I tend to be a rationalist religious Jew, and try to contextualize the mitzvot and make them meaningful to my modern, western self.

But there's one mitzvah that defies contextualization or reinterpretation.

Standing alongside the mohel at my son's brit recently. I realized that there's no way I would be doing this were I not living the life of a religious Jew. It's an ancient ceremony that may or may not have medical benefit. But a roomful of people sitting there celebrating as a helpless baby's genitals are cut? It really does seem barbaric and bizarre.

I've adjusted my Judaism to my doubts about most of the ikkarim and made it work for me. But with brit milah, I just had to let go of my modern mind and accept that some things in Judaism cannot be rationalized. It's an ancient mitzvah that smacks us in the face and says to us that choosing to live as a Jew means accepting that not all of Judaism is rational. Rather, we do it as part of avodat Hashem, and because it's the continuation of a chain of numerous generations of my ancestors.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Tim Kaine anti-Israel?

I've tried not to post on presidential politics the last few days on Facebook, other than wink-wink posts that surreptitiously refer to 19th century elections.

But I got involved in a thread where someone judged Hillary's Israel views by her vice presidential pick, declaring that Kaine is "anti-Israel". So I'm jumping back in the fray.

It's really sad that the right-wing pro-Israel crowd has become so idological that they can't recognize friends of Israel. Let's get real. There are plenty of politicians who are truly anti-Israel, like Jill Stein, the candidate for the green party, former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and others. These are people who challenge Israel's right to exist and challenge her right to defend herself.

What are Kaine's crimes against the Jewish state? Boycotting Bibi's partisan concocted speech to Congress, supporting the Iran deal, and showing some friendship to J-Street. He probably shouldn't have skipped the speech, but his overall record is strongly supportive of Israel. I don't like J Street either, but speaking there doesn't make one anti Israel. (Kaine has met with AIPAC too, BTW). In the echo chamber of the right-wing on Israel, not falling in line behind the disaster of Bibi means anti-Israel, and that's a shame, because the pro-Israel community needs to acknowledge friends of Israel like Tim Kaine wherever we can get them.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The legacy of President Donald J Trump

Given Hillary Clinton's unpopularity, I think we have to start seriously considering that a Trump presidency is a possibility, and how we will live with a minimum of 4 years of it.

I'm not going to flee to Canada (thought aliyah's not out of the question). This country won't fall apart. Congress will still be deadlocked. Despite the rhetoric, I don't think he'll be able to deport all illegals, nor will he be able to build that wall. He won't be able to keep all Muslims from entering the US. These are things that the president simply doesn't have the power to do himself. And the Federal government doesn't control our daily lives to the degree people  think.

But he could still do an awful lot of damage. He might succeed in getting a repeal of Obamacare through congress. And his SCOTUS picks would be with us for decades. Not to mention trade wars, growing isolationism, and despite the delusions of much of the right, Trump wouldn't be very good for Israel.

The worst part would be the rise of a newly empowered racist right, no longer afraid to express what they really think. This is already happening.

I'm probably missing one hundred things. What do you think would be the worst parts of a Trump presidency?

And, to be fair, is there any part of the legacy of a President Donald J Trump that could actually be good?