My Extended Application for the Muslim-Jewish Conference

The Great Synagogue of Florence, Italy (Image CC-BY-SA 3.0 Toksave via Wikimedia Commons)
mjc14clean

You can apply for the Muslim Jewish Conference here, though you have hours left as of this posting to get the application in.

I didn’t fully answer the questions – merely because I ran out of space on the forms.  I decided to emphasize conflict resolution in my application for this event, namely between Jews and Muslims in the context of religious elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But there is a shared enemy right now for European Jews and European Muslims which should be a focus for both religious groups worldwide: anti-religious Europeans and the European far right.  When I say “anti-religious,” I don’t mean atheists generally; I mean the movement passing laws against religious rites and rights (know the difference), particularly against kosher & halal meat, public displays of religious affiliation and religious circumcision.

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Shavuot 5774: Ruth as the Immigrant Convert

Naomi sets out on her trek.

At the onset of Shavuot 5774, we are encountered, again, by the upheaval in the world of Jewish conversion. Calling it a “world” might seem dramatic considering how few people are directly affected by the conversion process and the increasingly fewer amount of Rabbis overseeing such processes, but it is more profound than that. So, as Shavuot celebrates the acceptance of Torah and emphasizes the point with a focus on the convert Ruth, it’s my obligation to try to delve into the topic more this year than I have in the past.

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Parshat B’Har & B’Hukotai: Keep THESE Laws

Man picks olives from a tree in Cyprus

The rules of Sh’mittah and Yovel can be frustratingly complicated for the unfamiliar, but their reward, their yield, is among the highest in the Torah. (Image: CC-BY 2.0 Dave Hamster via Flickr)

There’s something I like to do when I read the weekly Torah parshah: 9 aliyot.

“But Gedalyah,” you’re probably saying to yourself, “there are only 7 aliyot in a parshah, why or how do you do 9?”

Oh, I will tell you my curious friend.

I like to read the last aliyah of the previous week’s parshah along with the first of next week’s. What I’ve found in my short time as a practicing member of the Jewish community is that we tend to lose context of many statements in the Torah, other books of the Bible and throughout Judaism.

Take for instance, this week’s parshah בחוקתיי”/”b’Hukotai.” The very first sentence says it like this: “If you go by my laws and keep my commandments and do them (redundancy from the text), I will give your rains in their season, the land will give its yield and the tree will give its fruit . . . and you will settle securely in your land.” (VaYikra [Leviticus], 26:3 . . . 5)

WHAT LAWS? WHAT COMMANDMENTS?

I feel like it is a common assumption among my peers (only because I feel I’m guilty of this error often times as well), to think that those laws and commandments are referring to the entirety of the Torah’s legal codex. Statements along the lines of ‘If you keep this’ or ‘If you follow that’ dot the Torah.

But it more often is contextually referential to a recent passage. In this case, the entirety of the previous parshah, B’har.

In fact, the above-quoted passage is a perfectly spun version of an earlier one in the previous parshah, VaYikra 25:18-19: “Perform my laws and keep my ordinances…and you will dwell securely on the land.”

Look back further, to 25:17 (no, not Ezekiel 25:17 you Sam Jackson fanatics, VaYikra). B’har covers the laws of Sh’mittah and Yovel, times of debt forgiveness and expiration of long-term land leases. The parshah clearly states that as the Yovel year approaches, you have to reduce your asking prices for leases, because their respective duration are less than in previous years. But if on anyone who would think not to take that depreciation into account, the Torah is unequivocal: “Do NOT oppress your fellow; fear your God, for I am the Lord, your God.”

From there, the Torah states plainly to keep God’s laws in order to dwell securely in the Land of Israel. Do not overcharge nor, for lack of a more assertive term, screw over your fellow. From there, if you hold to that, the Land will be fruitful. Either because your respect for your renter will allow that person to, worry-free, be able to focus on tending to the land he’s rented. Or because a focus on better treatment of your neighbors enables you to focus on how to better treat the land. Or, quite simply, God will straight-out bless you for your actions.

That is what God reiterates at the end of B’har and the beginning of this week’s portion.

I hope my attempt at context is worth your read and forgive me for any oversimplifications.
Shabbat Shalom.

J Street’s Redundancy

arrow-900x900I still find the J Street vote to be only slightly more significant than Netanyahu’s plan to legislate Israel’s Jewish Statedness – pretty insignificant. In the scheme of things, J Street is redundant – extremely redundant. They don’t represent the numbers or experience that groups like the Union for Reform Judaism and Americans for Peace Now have. It’s sort of like getting points on Foursquare. If you want more, you just have to create a new place and BOOM, 4SQ gives you 11 points when you check in and you didn’t do anything.

J Street might do some lobbying and exclusively deal with American policy toward Israel, but there are other groups that have been doing it for years who maintain the same line on Iran and yes, even publicly support the Two-State Solution. It’s like gerrymandering to allow every Jewish organization in the United States that has made headlines to get a representative seat at the table on American Jewish foreign policymaking. Holy crap, look at the current table: Union for Reform Judaism AND Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform); the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, MERCAZ USA, Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement, AND the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. The point here is that Jewish bureaucracy is far flung enough without adding another organization whose stated purpose is essentially to press one issue. That would mean a sudden open invitation to every organization that has a J in their names. It shouldn’t be that every group is on equal footing with the others.

We have plenty of groups actually lobbying for the Two-State Solution within the Jewish community already. AIPAC even supports it, explicitly, whether all of its supporters do or not.

“AIPAC strongly supports a two-state solution and works tirelessly to bring peace to the region. A two-state solution – a Jewish state of Israel living in peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state – with an end to all claims is the clear path to resolving this generations-old conflict.”

My problem with J Street has never been about their political stances. It’s their arrogance. The arrogance is inherent in their public assumption that mainstream Jewish organizations haven’t been major supporters of the Oslo Process over the last 21 years. They bring nothing new to the table. They don’t push forward Israel’s position in the world, only bog the community down in squabbling – and I mean squabbling. J Street hasn’t added anything to the table. They’ve only served to present the Jewish community as divided on issues while claiming it is unified. They ignore the immense support of AIPAC in the American Jewniverse and claim that support is imagined, that a silent majority opposes an emphasis on Israeli security. In their own words:

“For too long, a deep polarization has characterized the conversation on Israel, or lack thereof, across America. Within this divisive framework, the voices of the majority of American Jews – the true mainstream of the community that favors a two-state solution and American leadership to achieve it – have been absent from the political playing field. J Street provides a political home for this majority’s views and makes clear to politicians and policymakers alike that no one group can claim a monopoly on what it means to be pro-Israel in America.”

Where do they get this crap? This is ridiculous. The majority of the Jewish community in the United States supports the Two State Solution via AIPAC and a number of other groups with influence on Capital Hill (formal political lobbies through the Reform and Conservative movements; regional AIPAC branches; ecumenical meetings among Rabbis, Imams and prominent politicians; etc.) This paragraph, this statement of purpose from J Street’s own raison d’être, is a big fat lie. This position has not at all been stymied. It’s been decades – DECADES – since the majority of Jews expressed opposition to a two-state plan. It’s been a long time since Alan Dershowitz battled Rabbi Meir Kahane in a major debate on the Jewish future, pushing forward a more liberal view of things that justified creating a Palestine. J Street is misrepresenting the Jewish community and presenting opposition to the Two State Solution as overbearing and autocratic within the confines of the American Jewish establishment. Debate has existed for years and in fact supporters of such a plan have dominated the debate thanks to the mainstream discourse of American politics since the Oslo Accords were signed.

J Street shouldn’t be allowed in because they are simply redundant. Never mind the disingenuous nature of their declaration of policy, though that presumptuous attitude should be enough to deny their application on the face of things.

Zionism doesn’t Forsake the Diaspora

Since when is Zionism an isolationist movement?

I am disturbed at how dismissive the right wing of the Zionist movement has been so quick to give the finger to the world whenever an inconvenient viewpoint or event shows up on its radar. It’s one thing to wave it high and proud at the European Union’s applied double standard on the Israelis relative to the Palestinians in the peace process, or its hurry to lift American sanctions on the Iranians. But when it comes to Ukraine’s Jewish community, it seems to be held just as high if not higher, as though their placement outside the Land of Israel makes them lesser Jews.

That is in fact the attitude in not so many words I’ve gotten from the biggest pundits of right-wing Zionism, in the settler movement and in the corridors of the most dedicated hasbara organizations for Israel. I am hearing it in my hometown of Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion, from leaders of the communities in Samaria, and from peers all over Jerusalem, Europe and the world, that these Jews have nothing to do with Israel and Israel has nothing to gain from speaking on their behalf or taking sides in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The more oft-heard attempt to care is expressed as

That’s asinine.

Israel’s establishment was meant to accomplish a number of things, but they didn’t include shutting the hell up when Jews are being threatened by the prospect of war or extorted by opportunist Slavic nationalists running around a former Soviet state like they own the place.

You can’t look across your Seder plate with a straight face and seriously say the Diaspora is not as important as settling another hilltop of questionable ownership with a destitute caravan. I can’t look back at you and listen to the Halachic excuse that the welfare of the Jewish communities of Jerusalem or the Land of Israel take precedence over the embattled and impoverished Children of Israel stuck in the middle of a civil war. The Zionist movement, particularly in Judea and Samaria, is losing its grip on reality and becoming an isolationist, weak shell of its former self.

Our movement is caught up in pretty trivial and misguided squabbles over questions like ‘Is Israel’s presence in the West Bank is self-defeating or emboldening. Regardless of the answer to that query, we seem to be a bit obsessed with it to the point that we care little about the Diaspora. We care little about the international standing of the global Jewish community to respond to serious crises, whether it be extortion letters written some hick rebels in eastern Ukraine or the obviously crooked effort to ban religious rites like circumcision and kosher slaughter.

 

The peace process isn’t over. No one’s going anywhere.

Image from Getty Images. Link below.

The peace process isn’t over.

That’s the assessment I hear from people – John Kerry came and went, and now it’s finally over. ‘Israel will never have to worry about the Palestinians ever trying to extort her again. There will be no Palestinian state.’ Conversely, Palestinians think this was Israel’s last chance to do things the easy way. ‘No more pointless negotiations. We’re going to court, to the UN & the ICJ and getting our rights to an independent state and Jerusalem there.’

Both of you need to get real. You’re not going anywhere. First off, the unpredictability of the European Union’s foreign policy toward Israel is going to keep Israel in a driver’s seat, steering however they can toward some sort of peace process. Otherwise there might be real sanctions, backed not by Europeans’ words, but by their willingness to discriminate against the Jewish State in international forums. EU countries are showing the world they have no qualms discriminating against Jews at home – against kosher slaughter, circumcision and public displays of religion. They’ll have no problem extending special standards against Israel.

The Palestinians are also going to run into one heck of a problem trying to define their borders.  The Palestinians have already agreed in principle, on paper, to adjustments of the border between Israel proper and the West Bank, dating back to 1993.  The entire infrastructure of the West Bank is based on provisional sovereignty for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Claiming all formerly West Bank territory captured by Israel in 1967 is erroneous.  The European Union might be growing frustrated with Israel, but the United States will force the Palestinians to resolve their border disputes in mediation, compelling them back to the table.  It’s a probable reason the Palestinian Authority announced last week they would negotiate exclusively over the issue of borders until the end of April’s deadline; without any border agreements, the Palestinian Authority will have a lot of trouble justifying a complete abandonment of negotiations with the Israelis, otherwise Israel will not only be forced to take unilateral action on final status in the West Bank, but be incentivized to do so.

Palestinian Authority’s Big Risk Going to Court

West Bank with shaded Areas A, B & C

If they can’t reach an agreement on borders, then the Palestinian Authority will have to prove standing to challenge Israeli building before 1993, when the Palestinian Authority came into existence. Or 1988, until which time Jordan claimed the area, though only the UK ever recognized it as such. The area has never had a universally recognized sovereign in post-WWII history. The Palestinian Authority is relying on sympathy at the court and bias against the Israelis, not a legal argument.

The best legal argument they will have is the one that stretches the parameters of the Geneva Conventions to cover territories unincorporated into other states or not governed by states. The argument goes that protections are extended to those territories because there would otherwise be no way for the native population to assert its stance on foreigners immigrating to the occupied territory (“occupied” being the legal term here according to the parts of the Geneva Conventions that govern these issues).

Israel as a state might be found to be out of favor by the court, but it will be difficult to penalize Israel for anything prior to the existence of the Palestinian Authority, when there was no state to oppose Israelis’ migration there. Israeli personal property there, landed property, is difficult to uproot. The thing that could hurt the settlement movement is the nature of land sales by the State of Israel, in that every sale of state land to the bank for mortgaging is essentially an indefinite lease, not a true sale. This could be problematic for the private property claims Israeli settlers will want to make clear in legal forums and in the public discourse. The State of Israel will have to consider relinquishing some limits of sale it has on the books in favor of either full ownership by the people who ‘own’/’lease’ the property, or at least co-ownership where the State’s ownership might be found problematic later and private ownership less so. International law does not govern private property.

This assumes the case goes in favor of the Palestinians. The Palestinians might ask for a summary judgment of all land issues by asking if the idea of any Israeli moving onto West Bank (or Gazan) land is legal. The courts are going to have to also consider the effectiveness of their decision: if their decision is rejected in Israel as biased, it could hurt the court’s standing in certain circles and more importantly bring up for review a number of other territorial conflicts where countries maintain contradictory foreign policy on recognition, including Armenia & Nagorno-Karabakh, Morocco & Western Sahara, Turkey & Cyprus, and perhaps extend into dissimilar cases.

The Palestinians also have to justify their border claims in light of the Oslo Accords. Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords assume all West Bank territory would in the future be Palestinian, it seemingly contradicts (but actually qualifies) that assumption by stating its status would be determined in the future. The Palestinian Authority only has administrative control of Areas A & B (the major Palestinian cities and their outlying towns, respectively). They don’t administer Area C, where all Israel’s known intended annexations sit. Area C will be difficult to claim for the Palestinian Authority, and its own joining the Oslo Accords will force it by international law back into arbitration to negotiate over the area with Israel, otherwise the area will be left undetermined. The only thing they’ll be able to win is a stoppage of construction until mediation is achieved, which isn’t really a threat because Israel would have to do that anyway once there is an agreement. The Palestinians are essentially threatening to block Israeli settlement construction as a punishment for not negotiating to the results they want. But if the Palestinians don’t cooperate with arbitration and Area C remains in limbo, an ordered stoppage of settlement construction will over time become harder to justify because the stoppage won’t be because of the terms of the Geneva Conventions, but under the terms of the Oslo Accords in this scenario – Israel wouldn’t be penalized by customary law, but be obligated to fulfill a treaty that the Palestinians would in turn also have to fulfill, but wouldn’t be when not working with the mediators in good faith to reach a compromised solution to the Area C land claims.

It could also go one step backward for the Palestinians. They may be forced to acquiesce to the terms of the Oslo Accords and international mediators’ terms over the years to refrain from joining international organizations and assuming statehood until reaching a settlement with Israel, which would also bring into question the Palestinians’ standing to bring these cases before international courts of law. The cases won’t be thrown out though, because the Palestinian Authority is going to be allowed access to the court because they don’t have any other recourse. However, the court will be very unhappy if it is asked to excuse the Palestinian Authority from treaty obligations in the Oslo Accords that the Authority itself obligated themselves to.

Jerusalem isn’t just for the Orthodox

The Arab League is issuing policies refusing to recognize the Jewish status of Israel, the King of Jordan is saying he will prevent further Judaization in Jerusalem and Mahmoud Abbas is saying ‘no’ to more Jewish visitation rights to the Temple Mount.

These aren’t right-wing issues. I didn’t move to Israel to be right-wing. Even living in a settlement bloc in the West Bank – Judea & Samaria – I sometimes feel like the left hand of the right wing. I don’t see things in absolutes. I don’t see Jerusalem, Jewishness or Israel as the exclusive domain of any single branch of Orthodox Judaism, nor only Orthodox Judaism.

I don’t agree with all other movements of the religion, generally speaking. But the lesson of history and lessons of Torah are collectively clear that a Jewish nation that functions together despite its difference and whose members embrace each other despite their idiosyncrasies is a nation that is fortified and confident. It is secure and able. It has the agility to maneuver in the world and durability to adapt or defend itself. It, above all else, has the power to prosper.

I can see splits on certain issues. I can see the differences due to the West Bank or due to how Jerusalem is managed as a city. The style though does not affect the substance. The substance of the matter is that there are real Jewish religious, cultural, historical and practical interests in the return of Jews to the city of Jerusalem as well as access and use of the Temple Mount plaza and its immediate environs.

Orthodox Jews, in my opinion, fail to understand the intrinsic and practical need to remain engaged with non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad. Even if their numbers are small in Israel, they are still fellow Hebrews. Even if they are detached from events here and from the Orthodox viewpoint, they need to be attached and have an intimate inter-communal relationship with Orthodox Jews here.

Jewish Civil War in an Era of New Anti-Semitism

If we Jews cannot tolerate each other’s opinions, among ourselves, we will cease to exist.

In the aftermath of World War II, it seemed extremely petty to continue to fight each other on matters even as great in importance as belief in God, questions of creating a new country and whether to identify with liberal or conservative values.  I’ve really seen the bickering go up a notch the last couple of years.  While we’re out denouncing Haredim as archaic and blind, or Reform as disingenuous and uncommitted, European countries are passing laws against kosher slaughter of animals, government employees wearing yarmulkes, and even the rite of circumcision.  Antisemitism is literally flooding the streets in cosmopolitan France, yet we’re hung up on trashing each other.  The video below was taken two weeks ago:

We’re tearing into each other for building houses in the West Bank, or for encouraging more lenient conversions for people from intermarried families.  These are some honestly petty, bullshit issues to waste our energy on considering the uptick in anti-Semitism in Europe, which is having an obvious reverberation on the European Union’s laws and even its foreign policy.  Jews don’t have the power to agree on everything today and only the Messiah knows when they will, but they do have the power not to treat each other like the enemy.

Today our fighting stops.  Take off your blinders brothers and sisters.  The real enemy is out there.  I can feel their guns moving.  Their metal targeting us.  Anti-Semites are influencing government policy on religion in Europe and coloring a double standard against Israel in international forums.  While Israelis build houses in territory that even the Palestinian Authority recognizes is under Israeli administration absent a diplomatic agreement, the European Union is signing agreements with Morocco to promote their fishing industry in the stateless territory of Western Sahara, an area they have “illegally” occupied and begun to settle as well.  Northern Cyprus, a state carved out of the island by a Turkish military invasion in 1974, is entitled to benefits with the European Union.  Israel faces a double standard, even when it builds in East Jerusalem, territory that only Jordan, the UK and Pakistan claimed belonged to another country in 1967 when Israel formally annexed it.

I have put forth a right-wing argument about Israelis’ settlements in the West Bank, but the context I offer it in reflects that the international pressure Israel faces over the area is different than the standards held for Morocco and Turkish Northern Cyprus.  It should concern left-wing Jews in Israel and around the world that Israel is held over a candle on these issues while are other countries are not.

Foreign policy against Israel is only a segment of the anti-Jewish fervor that is attacking the community, especially in Europe.

The Coldest Tu b’Shvat for 70,000 Years

Frozen rain covering crabapples
Happy Tu B’shvat!  This is the earliest the holiday will fall – relative to the solar calendar – for the next 70,000 years.  For the same reasons we saw Chanukah fall on American Thanksgiving, we’re now seeing the Jewish “New Year for the Trees” happen upon us in the middle of January.
Freshly picked Catalonian olives - pre-pickling.
You can look at it as something peculiar or stereotypically “religious,” defying conventional logic that allows something so conventionally based on the spring season to fall in the winter.  But the holiday’s significance is not to open up the “Jewish Spring” so to speak, but to find a point in the year that presents a clear break between the previous year’s reaping and the one to come.
“There are four new years… the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, places it on the fifteenth of that month.”
(Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Mishnah 1:1)
Chanukah is actually the last true harvest-oriented holiday of the Jewish year.  Olives can ripen later than the traditional harvest celebration of Sukkot, which takes place usually around mid-October.  Because of that, olives tended to show up as gifts at the Jewish Temple later than Sukkot and the olives may be brought up through Chanukah.  Tu b’Shvat, the midpoint between the beginning of Tevet and end of Adar, presents a neutral break between the previous year’s agricultural cycle and the new one’s, no matter how cold it is outside and how few trees are actually budding.
So should we actually take the day to be a time to discuss Judaism’s attitude toward the environment, deforestation and other things if it’s too cold to even consider planting new trees?  YES.  The season is always ripe for a discussion on how to improve the world we live in, particularly in the Land of Israel. There’s more to the environment than just THE trees, but given that this holiday’s legal and spiritual core revolves around them, and fruit trees in particular, consider how today’s physical environmental issues affect those trees.
Traditional Tu b'Shvat Plate: dates, figs, almonds, plums, raisins
The ice, wind and snow that we might encounter this year is perhaps not a challenge for Jews in the US, Canada or the UK who have to celebrate this holiday in the sleet every year.  It’s the cold weather that gives us the impulse to remember the Halachic significance of the holiday – for orlah, for ma’aser, for ma’aser sheni.  For anyone who will conduct a Tu b’Shvat seder this year, remember this point when you wonder why the Jewish Arbor Day often takes place with frost on the ground.