Realingment in the Middle East

Speaking from a perspective just before Shabbat here, with a week’s worth of headlines rattling around my brain, my instincts tell me this country, Israel, will simply need to continue punching above its own weight in the Middle East.

Along the Israeli-Egyptian Border.

No matter who takes over Egypt, things promise to get more difficult. But that can be limited. Everything gets better before it gets worse, but it does not have to stay that way. The truth is, Egyptians under a democratic regime would loathe the idea of going to war and would oppose an Islamic Brotherhood attempt to send the country into a collision course with Israel. Additionally, the party has to recover credibility it lost to years of being co-opted by the Mubarak regime.

Even so, Israel will have to prepare for the worst case scenario – the Muslim Brotherhood wielding absolute power, repealing the treaty between the two countries and arming Hamas. But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only player in Cairo, and will have to deal with an emergent movement of opposition parties over the next few months. Iran’s proclamations Egypt is heading down the path of Islamic revolution is more rhetorical than actual. Besides, whatever gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood would be more than offset by new protests in Tehran itself, which seem to be inevitable.

Over the next few months, the Israeli government is going to have to redesign its foreign policy approach. Firstly, it should praise the revolution in Egypt, even if this causes fallout with Mubarak. In the same way Mubarak knows Israel cannot do a thing about anti-Semitic propaganda in state media, Mubarak has no choice for his own sake but to continue a strong embargo on Hamas and block arms shipments.

Over the next few years, the democratization of the Middle East, be it slow or quick, should be the cornerstone of an ideological foreign policy. It has to be. Without such support, Israel will not be able to shake an additional association with authoritarian regimes throughout the region. Simultaneously, democracy enables Israel to more easily lobby different constituencies in various countries seeking support for, at the least, treaties, and at the most, alliances. Minority groups in North Africa like the Berbers or Coptic Christians, the Kurds, Maronites and Druze of the Fertile Crescent, provide stark and realistic possible allies.

Most importantly, Israel will have to engage Egypt intimately and assertively. Congratulating Egyptians publicly for whatever achievements they obtain is a priority. Offers to protect a moderate and democratic government from the Saudis or Iranians should be made. Offers to mediate between Egypt and lower African countries (with whom Israel is growing closer to) give plenty of reason to maintain a balanced relationship.

A free media in Egypt may be the most important development. Even under Mubarak, as mentioned above, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda have been common. It was not so much out of undercutting the Israelis that such things were printed in Egyptian papers, but to feebly distract Egyptians from the slew of domestic issues they faced and displace any resentment they had toward the Mubarak regime.

Such simplistic thinking did not do justice to Egyptian wits, nor does this meager paragraph do justice to this topic. But Israel and Egypt are far from getting a definitive divorce. There is plenty of reason to think the relationship can actually be improved as so long as the Israeli government makes a persistent effort.

Tahrir Square on Friday, February 4, 2011 – “Day of Departure”

Any vocal support from Jerusalem now can go a long way in tripping up any Iranian designs to take advantage of the situation, poor more fuel on the fire and push the protest movement across the Iranian border.

The Right to Property in relation to Peace between Jews and Arabs

There is a fundamental flaw in the approach of the diplomatic world in inundating a peaceful settlement in the Middle East – at least between Israel and the Palestinians. Rather than looking at property as the unalienable human right to obtain and hold that other Western governments and the main religions of the world have long respected, international mediators have encouraged an agreement that rests on uprooting thousands of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims from their homes in the name of an ethnic realignment along the lines of the partition of India and Pakistan in the late 1940s.

Arguing the West Bank is open to settlement under international law, Israel openly pursued a settlement policy that expanded the breadth of the besieged Jewish state once the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem had been secured from Jordan and Egypt – themselves considered occupying powers by nearly every government in the world.

Excluding the now defunt settlement blocs of the Gaza Strip, 500,000 Israelis have taken up residence in private apartment and housing units throughout the conquered territories. At the same time, Palestinians have affirmed their ownership over their own share of land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But because of the competing political interests of the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both population groups have seen their properties usurped or restricted.

Several cases have seen Jewish settlers evicted from, and recently purchased properties destroyed, often on the orders of the Supreme court in an effort to appease tension with the Palestinians in the facinity of the properties – be they in Jerusalem or Hebron. Settlers have made purchases in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars through a series of intermediaries – a system used by Palestinians interested in selling who fear reprecussions by lynchers or the Palestinian Authority.

Jewish women being forcibly evicted by Israeli police from the “House of Peace” in 2008 on the outskirts of Hebron

East Jerusalem Palestinians themselves face a different challenge. Municipal authorities have long prioritized building new neighborhoods that would consolidate the city of Jerusalem, at the expense of permit requests by residents of Muslim neighborhoods. Lengthy waits have encouraged illegal building in these neighborhoods that should have been authorized from the outset. recently, the Mayor Nir Birkat has used the possible demolition of up to 200 illegally built houses for political leverage against American pressure on Jewish housing projects and against Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Police arrest protestors in Sheikh Jarrah, Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem

These political considerations have done more to increase tension in the region than pacify it, with two rival population groups venting their legitimate gripes at each other. This is the fundamental flaw in the idea of splitting Israel from the West Bank along ethnic lines, and points even more directly at the risks of the Obama Administration’s stress on Jewish settlements themselves.

Competing NGOs that represent Jewish settlers and East Jerusalem-West Bank Palestinians have found themselves in conflict. The two groups’ advocates have sought to undermine the rival’s access and rights to properties while strengthening their own.

2007 Hebron Eviction

The most competent way forward is to alleviate the anxiety of these rival groups and declare a moratorium on evictions and demolitions in Jewish and Arab areas that are contentious. Each group’s mirroring concerns fuel much of the tension that has come to a boiling point in the last year. The legalization and restoration of illegal or siezed properties would help restore public confidence in the Israeli government and the right to due process at a time where social confidence is low. To be sure, preserving property rights is a fundamental to any economic aspect of peace, between two states or not.

Tough Love from Norman Lamm, not Baseless Hate

Yeshiva University - Stern College in New York City, once under the leadership of Rabbi Norman Lamm

Yeshiva University Chancellor, Rabbi Norman Lamm

(This is a response to this editorial by Rabbi Meir Feldman in the Jerusalem Post)

“With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” so said Rabbi Norman Lamm, the Chancellor of Yeshiva University’s Rabbinical School. But responses to his assessment have been reactionary and lack substance. They lack any understanding of what Rav Lamm said. They presume it is an outgrowth of Orthodox contempt for their liberal neighbors. The writing is on the wall, yet so many figures in these movements refuse to read it.

The comments by Reform Rabbi Meir Feldman in the Jerusalem Post belittled my reading of Rabbi Norman Lamm’s comments. Rabbi Feldman assumed Rabbi Lamm was expressing sinat chinam by predicting the death of the Reform and Conservative Movements. That assumption sees the opposite of reality. His analysis was honest and disparaging. He in no way wished such a death upon the lifelines of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

It was Rabbi Lamm who several years ago tried putting an end to the conversion crisis by negotiating with, and co-initiating with those movements a universal conversion for American Jews. His efforts were not successful, but his effort was born out of the reality that the continuing superfluous nature of conversions for new members of Reform and many Conservative communities was an enveloping social crisis for the Jewish people. He criticized Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the leader of Agudath Israel, for leading the opposition that ended the project.

The failure by Agudah to recognize the severity of the situation has had deep repercussions for conversion the last several years. Today’s decision in the Israeli spureme court to fund Reform conversion projects in Israel has emboldened the denominational lines on conversion and worsened the social crisis that has prevented many marriages from taking place, offering false promises to prospective converts, and inundated Jewish religious courts with difficult cases regarding divorce, conversion and mamzerut.

It is unfortunate that the immediate reaction of Rabbi Feldman is that Rabbi Lamm wishes a cataclysmic collapse upon these movements. He recognizes Reform’s growth is attributable to the recognition of patrilineal descent and inclusion of non-Jewish parents of mixed-lineage children in congregations’ member lists.

The Conservative and Masorti Movements: Global Schism

“Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture,” Rav Lamm said last week. He is alluding to the fact Conservative Judaism has slipped on its original doctrinal commitments that juxtaposed it to Reform’s theological doctrine. The doctrine of reform, negation of law and precedent, arbitrary dismissal of customs and aversion to observance of the major precepts Shabbat and Kashrut have hammered the size of Conservative Judaism as a separate movement.

Calling this “Baseless Hatred” Simply Avoids the Issues

I would go as far as to say Rabbi Feldman’s comments are characteristic of a certain demeanor I experienced prior to my experience as ba’al t’shuva. Progressive Jewish leaders, be they Reform or Renewal or from the left wing of the Conservative Movement, have framed these issues in terms of freedom or religious observance, pluralism and other terminology which offers unconditional acceptance of all Jewish practice. Hence, any open criticism of such a stance becomes, itself, intolerable. The attitude in Rabbi Feldman’s article is reactionary because it assumes that merely offering analysis and even lament to reinforce that analysis is a contravention of tolerance. In that, I think much of the leadership in these movements have sacrificed the “freedom of speech” in order to preserve an unquestionable “freedom of religion.”

Lamm Still Demands Working Together

“He supports outreach to Reform and Conservative Jews, ‘but not by watering down what we believe and not by demonizing them either.’”

Lamm wants to support those who identify Jewish and contribute to their education and acculturation. He represents a segment of the Jewish people that see the same practical issues that liberal Jews see in having to acculturate Russian and Ethiopian Jews who have committed themselves to Jewish life. He sees the same practical issues that the whole of Orthodoxy sees in making sure those who deserve conversion receive it, and that conversion itself maintains its integrity and does not dilute what it necessitates of its candidates.

These are issues he has battled before and wishes for the support to make sure he can battle them again, this time with the utmost success. Rav Lamm is not at all expressing sinat chinam, but that ahavat chinam that Rav Kook so espoused, and that Rav Feldman just cannot seem to see.