Using Palestinian Refugees to Undermine Israel’s Jewish Future

Palestinian refugees leaving the Galilee in 1948

There will be people in Western countries that will excuse what Abbas said here as something he ‘needed’ to say to allay the hardliners on the Palestinian side. That sort of quarter hasn’t been given to Netanyahu, even though the domestic pressures he has faced have been displayed all over Western media (as opposed to Palestinian domestic divisions, which aren’t in mainstream Western newspapers day in and day out). That being said, whatever treatment, understanding or accommodation Abbas gets for supposedly being flexible in private but inflexible in public should be equally afforded to whomever the Prime Minister of Israel happens to be.

Mahmoud Abbas during the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos Sweitzerland (Image: AbuMazem, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Mahmoud Abbas during the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos Sweitzerland (Image: AbuMazem, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

But clearly there’s an issue with Israel trying to come to some sort of agreement on Palestinian refugees when the Palestinian Authority feels no obligation to let Israel simultaneously negotiate for the compensation of its own already-absorbed refugee population from Arab states who instigated the situation that ended with 700,000 Palestinians leaving their houses behind in 1947-49. Even though the two refugee populations are only partially related, the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League in this peace process is pretty inextricable (not all Sephardi and Mizrahi refugees from Arab countries fled their homes during or immediately as a result of the Israeli War of Independence, but many left in the late 1950s and 1960s). The fact the Palestinians don’t even have this on the radar signals that they’re even further away from an arrangement with Israel on Palestinian refugees than most of the world realizes.

Israel can’t let in a single Palestinian refugee without creating a legal precedent independent of an agreement that might allow for more to come. Abbas wants that option open so that Palestinians can emotionally tell themselves they can maintain a legal right to strip Israel of its Jewish majority with future forced negotiations, even if a Palestinian state were created in the West Bank (with Gaza or not).

Look, I’ve grown up in a time where “Jordan is Palestine” is illogical because it (apparently or supposedly) disenfranchises West Bankers and Gazans of their own state where they have representation (assuming an authoritarian government would adequately represent their interests). I live in a time where political independence is still attached to the territory in which your country has sovereignty, so seeing Israel annex the West Bank but those West Bankers only receiving citizenship from Jordan is still kind of ludicrous to me, even if it’s just ludicrous because an arrangement like that on this scale is merely unprecedented. I get it. West Bankers and Gazans might not have adequate representation in Amman – because, frankly, they didn’t have it when the West Bank and its Palestinian residents were considered Jordanian citizens before the Six Day War from 1949 to 1967, nor after 1967 until 1988 when Jordan relinquished all its claims to the West Bank.

BUT, the Palestinians are trying to utilize a stage division strategy to continue to impose Arab population pressures on the State of Israel, even though it would either 1) diminish Israel’s Jewish majority or 2) diminish the territory under Israeli sovereignty. I say this because what happened with Jordan is part o a long series of events. In 1922, the British divided their mandate into two territories, declaring the eastern half “Transjordan” to be a state reserved for Arab interests and the western half a state for Jewish interests. I think it’s fair to say that division was not plausible, fine, since large chunks of the Western half were still mostly Arab. But by 1947, the lines that were created at the UN demonstrated further subdivision or territorial compromise would have made a Jewish state completely indefensible and perhaps economically not viable. That Israel and the Arab League rearranged those borders to be more practical – giving Israel territorial contiguity and separating the largely Arab areas of the West Bank and Gaza – pretty much resolved the issue of division or border realignment. Those ceasefire lines were considered permanent because it was practical, consolidated the Jewish and Arab areas, and provided a context where further subdivision was not necessary. If a large swathe of Arab refugees were imposed on Israel, that context would be destroyed, the divisions between Israel and the Palestinian regions blurred, and a context created to theoretically merge Israel with Gaza and the West Bank with the pretext that since large Palestinian Arab populations exist in all three territories, those territories could be merged with the Jewish population becoming a minority.

THAT is the context of Abbas’ current refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state because it would eliminate this entire theoretical scenario. Based on this, the United States, European Union, Russia, the UN and whoever else wants to join this party have an opportunity to say right here that this is more a pipe-dream than anything the Israeli right wing produces on annexing the West Bank and giving its Palestinian Arab residents Jordanian citizenship. It’s a pipe-dream that does not seek peace but the further erosion of Israel – it isn’t a context for peace because it imagines a strategy being employed against Israel with the objective of either erasing it or obliterating it.

I’m pretty aware that a lot of moderate Jews and moderate Arabs still harbor tension toward each other and might imagine a scenario where the opposite state would become non-viable and be ripe for later annexation by its rival. This is where the two State Solution is supposed to resolve the issue. but the Palestinians aren’t receiving pushback on this worldview. No one has said in public during these negotiations that making statements that hint at this scenario is disingenuous and a deal-breaker that won’t be tolerated by the mediators.

Israel cannot receive refugees and still consider this a Two State Solution. There can be no right of return for Palestinians. The onus must shift to the countries that currently house Palestinians and refuse to integrate them.

It’s ALSO not fair to force Israel to even compensate Palestinian refugees without Arab League recognition for crimes committed against its Jewish populations, the majority of whom are now Israeli. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intertwined with the Arab-Jewish tensions of the 20th century that compelled Jews to leave Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and other locales.

Israel Wants the Jordan Valley in case Jordan’s King Falls

Jordan Valley in purple border, from Google Maps

“We live in an environment undergoing strategic changes. There is no threat to the Jordan Valley from the eastern frontier,”

- Shelly Yachimovich on December 30, 2013.

I have not read anyone talk about it, but Israel’s demand to maintain the Jordan Valley as a wall against security breaches from the east only makes sense if you assume there will be new threats in the future.  At the moment, Israel and Jordan have a strong security-based relationship.  The two governments are on the same page with the Jordan Valley for clear yet unspoken reasons: Jordan fears the fall of Fatah; Israel fears the fall of King Hussein.  As Alon Ben David put it in Al-Monitor a few months ago:

“The collapse of King Abdullah II’s regime would in all probability pose the most significant threat to the security of Israel. However, the Israeli public seems to be in effect oblivious of and indifferent to the goings-on in the country neighboring Israel on the east. At the same time, official Israel is keeping mum about its contacts with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.”

Jordan supports Israel’s hold on the Jordan Valley as a buffer against a possible Hamas takeover of the West Bank.  Jordan’s majority population is now Palestinian.  Integration hasn’t reduced Palestinian identity among Jordanians but embedded it.  Jordan shares Israel’s fear of a Gaza-style Hamas coup in the West Bank.  As a consequence, Jordan’s government fears interference from a hostile Palestinian neighbor and wants Israel to serve as a buffer for the kingdom.

Jordan Valley highlighted in pink (Google Maps)

Jordan Valley highlighted in pink (Google Maps)

Israel is also aware of the possibility that Jordan’s king may not be all-powerful.  The kingdom is vulnerable from within and not just without, leading to the conclusion Israel must be prepared in the event of cross-border infiltration similar to the ones carried out from the Jordanian-controlled West Bank in the years before the 1967 Six Day War.

This all imagines the worst case scenario, though.  For the foreseeable future, Jordan’s throne is stable.  The kingdom took on over 500,000 Iraqi refugees in the last decade but staved off any organized threat some of them might have imposed on the country.  The government seems to be managing the ~500,000 Syrian refugees with experience.  (Sidenote: There is little chance that jihadist elements will come into Jordan stir trouble – they didn’t have time or resources to leave Iraq to attack Jordan, nor will they in Syria tied down by Bashar al-Assad.  It is more likely they will flow out of the country.)  The king has kept reforms coming that at the least quell more robust demands for change.  In fact, the instability of Syria and Iraq has frightened Jordanians – of Palestinian descent or not – out of any bigger push for changes with the government:

“The appetite for the kind of mobilisation that could generate real change has very much diminished.” – Mouin Rabbani

Jordan, however, is still isolated.  It has plenty of diplomatic connections, but very little influence considering it has no incentive to make trouble for Israel over its policies toward the West Bank and the peace process.  Even if Israel were to take a more assertive posture on Jerusalem and more specifically its holy sites, Jordan would not gain from stirring public rage at the Israelis.

Take the Framework Agreement and Move On

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry

To make something like this work that is palatable for everyone, this “framework” would essentially have to say next to nothing. The only thing you can really be specific about is borders because there is such a large consensus on what they will be with the exception of Jerusalem. Everything else is basically an agreement to disagree for some undetermined amount of time. The Americans are stomping their feet and the Europeans are threatening both sides with sanctions, but neither effort is getting Israelis and Palestinians closer to anything viable because they are sidestepping the public on issues of critical practical, symbolic and emotional importance to millions of people

Oslo sucks. It really does. But if people had more focus on cultural, religious and economic peace instead of just political peace during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, 20 years might have turned into something more viable, more accepted and more reinforced by consensus. It’s a wasted generation, since I’m here at the age of 27 being just as stubborn as people were back in 1993 when I was 7 years old and totally detached from the Jewish World, much less the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps when I am 47, or by the blessing of God, 37, we can actually sit down civilly and talk about things like the Temple Mount or formerly Palestinian refugees visiting Israel or Jews buying property in a Palestinian state without any laws preventing such sales from existing.

Those things aren’t in the cards right now. There are certain things you can get people to agree on. Even many Religious Zionists concede on the idea of not keeping the entirety of Judea and Samaria – run with it. Pressing and pressing and pressing people to concede things they don’t want to relinquish isn’t a viable negotiating style.

Perhaps I am being too critical of John Kerry. Maybe working with a clock is more practical and produces more results. We’ll see, because there were opportunities for temporary agreements in 2000 and 2008 as well, but no one pressed the issue. Remove the deadline but not the pressure, you still might see a “framework” or a “roadmap” or an “insert-random-buzzword” sort of agreement come out of a few months of talks.

Israeli Annapolis Proposal 2008

This is the apparent Israeli proposal for borders at Annapolis in 2008. This will not be the final border, especially around Jerusalem, but generally beyond that it is essentially going to be unchanged (consider the disconnected status of Gush Etzion and neglect of Hebron, things that will be very different were borders actually to be drawn).

You have your rough idea of a border. Go with it. You won’t get much beyond that. This ends much of the pressure on Israel in settlement activity since it essentially legitimizes settlement blocs and large Jewish neighborhoods in formerly East Jerusalem. You can point on a map to areas that would be swapped with a Palestinian government. There is something tangible.

But you won’t resolve Jerusalem in these talks. You won’t resolve Hebron. You’re obviously not getting the Palestinian public warm to the idea of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley and certainly not Israelis warm to any Palestinians coming to Israel as returning refugees (haven’t convinced me).

Get your framework agreement, or structure agreement, or infrastructure agreement, or skeleton agreement, or nervous system agreement, or whatever the hell you plan to call it for the papers and work on a different strategy from now on: alliance. You aren’t just making peace between Israel and Palestine. You are setting your goals to low and not achieving them. If you are likely to miss your goals, you might as well aim high. Perhaps that’s Kerry’s attitude during this 9-month round. But beyond this, your real goal is to foster peace, not end war. The Israeli and Palestinian governments would be part of a new status quo in the Middle East, so you have to reinforce that notion by building something of an alliance between the two governments. What that looks like in the partitioned and demographically awkward region is a matter for another article, but I endorse the goal.

Bringing up the Temple Mount

Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem at night

I have been writing a lot over the past year about including religious groups in the peace negotiations, particularly about holy sites. Most of my pieces are coming from a pretty fantastical place, simply because I don’t believe anyone in the political process really knows how to make what I suggest realistic. The simple reality of things is for something to be feasible, people have to talk about it, hash it out and rework it with their own input. The Temple Mount, Hebron and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus are not part of the wider public discourse. If they were, there would be thought put into what to do with those places for the benefit of all Jews and Muslims involved. But, alas, it’s kept out of mainstream discussion until tensions over them explode, as they did in 2000.

My goal with these pieces isn’t to stir the pot as so much as to add some salt. Every issue in the soup of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is so bland that you can’t taste them on their own. You only smell the entire mixture cooking. You can’t distinguish the individual ingredients.

Consider for a moment how often you hear about the borders discussed for a peace deal. We’ve heard about land swaps, Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley and that’s it. We don’t hear about large Jewish settlements that are not considered part of the blocs, nor the Palestinians who live next to the proposed border that the Palestinian Authority would probably kick out of their homes to establish a buffer zone with Israel.

Netanyahu wants a demilitarized Palestinian state. What have they agreed to? What has been discussed on the Palestinian side of the table and what’s the likely deal? Will the Palestinian Authority buy military equipment anyway in contravention to a deal? Would the conditions of the deal change were another Palestinian government to come to power? How would Israel or a Palestinian state adhere to the terms of an agreement were there to be a coup in Jordan?

So, what do you consider to be realistic with the Temple Mount? There will be some sort of deal regarding the site. There will be some deal regarding Hebron. But the religious groups who have the most vested interest in the sites don’t talk to each other, much less are they allowed any input in the negotiating process going on right now.

Conventional wisdom is to conclude a quick deal and get people used to it afterwards. That might work with borders and tanks, but religious people don’t let go of things. I’ve studied enough Judaism and Islam to know there exists leeway on issues of prayer sites and ritual sanctity to accommodate the objections of these devout groups in divvying up authority over the Temple Mount and especially over the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Europe’s Failure on Religion in the Middle East

European Union flag

I think it’s telling that despite the United States’ nuanced stance toward Israelis and Palestinians, which changes from administration to administration, it is still the arbitrator for both parties in whatever peace negotiations take place during those respective, alternating US governments. The reason, I think, is because European countries simply don’t attempt to understand the parties involved in any way. I believe it is related to how the majority ethnic population on the continent looks at both Jews and Muslims, and, consequently, at Israelis and Arabs.

Europe, whatever the reason might be, is a theater where religious practice is not popular, or at least increasingly unpopular. While certainly not giving the issue its due attention, I’ll simplify by saying religion is considered illogical, not provable and a negative wildcard in society. Those sentiments translate to attitudes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only on issues where religion is relevant but also where it is not. The issues of settlements in the West Bank are not merely religiously charged, but also relevant to strategies on borders and defense. The military considerations are ignored often enough that Europeans’ view of events here is harmfully colored by their preconceptions on religion itself.

File:Catherine Ashton - George Papandreou (2009-11-19).jpg

Catherine Ashton of the European Union along with George Papandreou in November 2009. (CC-BY-SA 2.0 from ΠΑΣΟΚ via Wikimedia Commons)

Religious Rites & Religious Rights

Trying to ban circumcision is a cowardly, under-supported health scam by activists motivated by the coerced secularization of European society; this despite the fact American and global health organizations have repeatedly highlighted that health risks from circumcision are unquantifiable because severe mishaps are so rare and have even called circumcision a boon for global health.  Bans on kosher and hallal slaughtering practices rely on the assumption that such practice is inhumane, despite the fact stunning is not common elsewhere in the world.  Bans on the public display of religious affiliation simply mean to suppress the expression of religious belief in public.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has called out this trend in its 2013 annual report on global trends on religious free practice:

“During the past few years there have been increasing restrictions on, and efforts to restrict, various forms
of religious expression in Western Europe, particularly religious dress and visible symbols, ritual
slaughter, religious circumcision, and the construction of mosques and minarets. These, along with limits
on freedom of conscience and hate speech laws, are creating a growing atmosphere of intimidation
against certain forms of religious activity in Western Europe. These restrictions also seriously limit social
integration and educational and employment opportunities for the individuals affected.”

The legislation and court decisions can only remind historians of discrimination carried out against Jews in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as part of the Enlightenment.  While then the goal was to acculturate and assimilate Jews into the European fabric, today the main target seems to be immigrant Muslims around the continent.  Despite this, there has been little sympathy for the fact that circumcision and slaughter bans targeting Muslim customs have hit the Jewish community.  I can only suspect the same general collaterally damaging attitude would be expressed if the European Union were to have any more influence over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and whatever religious sub-issues exist within it.

Religious War?

There is an assumption in Europe that religion disturbs public order by its penchant for motivating conflict.  That attitude is strange because of religion’s lack of involvement in Europe’s world wars.  Yet, it is pervasive and tints European glasses when observing other conflicts around the world.  So, despite the fact Israelis and Palestinians, even Israelis and Arabs more broadly, have their conflict rooted in issues of controlling land in the unrest that defined the post-Ottoman and post-British Middle East, Europeans see religion’s influence as fueling the conflict further.

That feeds into the tendency to ignore religious parties to the conflict.  There is an assumption secular politicians can be rational about things while religious activists would be inherently irrational and uncompromising.  European culture has produced leaders that continue to rely on this narrative, a terrifying mistake.  Based on that logic, Western powers beyond Europe have ignored religious political parties and major religious public figures from Judaism and Islam who would have a profound impact on any series of negotiations that would resolve specifically religious disputes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I would assert that Hamas is not a monolith without factions of free-thinking members.  I know this already for Religious Zionists, presuming that I can justify identifying with that segment of the Jewish community.  Even if it were an American Jewish Rabbi and a Saudi Arabian Mufti, their talks would be groundbreaking if allowed to have influence on the allocation of authority, management or sovereignty over religious sites.

Not all religious leaders rush to call for war.

Trust

I do not trust a European state, even a collective like the European Union, to have the leadership qualified to understand what I am asserting. Ignoring religious parties to the conflict is to the detriment of a peace process’s potential and to the security of all involved. If a religious solution to these issues were to come about, those population groups would enforce an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Muslims.

 

When Religious Legislation Makes Sense . . . in a Democracy

A Jeiwsh mohel circumcises a baby boy likely on the 8th day, a week after birth.

There are few things that the Israeli government should adopt as religiously influenced policy.  This is one of them.  Circumcision is essential to being defined as Jewish according to the Torah.  Leaving someone without a circumcision who wasn’t raised religious in a literally painful position and nearly-impossible-to-decide place later on were he to want the procedure done.

I hear the argument that a decision is being made without a baby’s consent to have this done.  The rhetorical question commonly asked is, “How do you know this boy would agree to let this be done to him?”

Accepting that argument would place Jewish parents in an absurd position where they would be forced to wait until some other arbitrarily chosen age to ask their son to get this procedure done.  Boys of 9, or 13, or men of 18 or 22 would all find that decision impossible to comprehend.  Why go through the pain when they could opt not to?  But in that lies an illusion of choice.  While the pain is temporary, it is still discouraging.  There is little chance of a rational, fair election to get a circumcision for males of any age.

In several systems of law, parents are entrusted to make decisions in the best interest of the child.  While in certain countries making decisions regarding the religious upbringing of the child are derided, they are taken for granted in places like the United States.  Efforts to impose bans on neonatal circumcision in European countries find their motivations in the effort to limit religious expression and not in a debate over personal autonomy (of all the ages, neonatal is the most demonstrably consistent age at which the procedure’s safety has proven itself to be near infallible).

While I don’t want to digress into the health arguments in favor of circumcision , I feel the need to rebuff some of the health arguments against the practice.

 

Complications from male circumcision are so rare, they are cited by individual cases, according to an analysis by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The majority of severe or even catastrophic injuries are so infrequent as to be reported as case reports (and were therefore excluded from this literature review). These rare complications include glans or penile amputation, transmission of herpes simplex after mouth-to-penis contact by a mohel (Jewish ritual circumcisers) after circumcision, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection, urethral cutaneous fistula, glans ischemia, and death.

I’ll refer to the American Urological Association’s policy statement on circumcision.  This policy statement doesn’t try to hide any possible complications, despite its open support for the practice.:

The American Urological Association, Inc.® (AUA) believes that neonatal circumcision has potential medical benefits and advantages as well as disadvantages and risks. Neonatal circumcision is generally a safe procedure when performed by an experienced operator. There are immediate risks to circumcision such as bleeding, infection and penile injury, as well as complications recognized later that may include buried penis, meatal stenosis, skin bridges, chordee and poor cosmetic appearance. Some of these complications may require surgical correction. Nevertheless, when performed on healthy newborn infants as an elective procedure, the incidence of serious complications is extremely low. The minor complications are reported to be three percent.

Properly performed neonatal circumcision prevents phimosis, paraphimosis and balanoposthitis, and is associated with a decreased incidence of cancer of the penis among U.S. males. In addition, there is a connection between the foreskin and urinary tract infections in the neonate. For the first three to six months of life, the incidence of urinary tract infections is at least ten times higher in uncircumcised than circumcised boys. Evidence associating neonatal circumcision with reduced incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is conflicting. Circumcision may be required in a small number of uncircumcized boys when phimosis, paraphimosis or recurrent balanoposthitis occur and may be requested for ethnic and cultural reasons after the newborn period. Circumcision in these children usually requires general anesthesia.

When circumcision is being discussed with parents and informed consent obtained, medical benefits and risks, and ethnic, cultural, religious and individual preferences should be considered. The risks and disadvantages of circumcision are encountered early whereas the advantages and benefits are prospective.

Three studies from African nations published in 2005 and 2007 provide convincing evidence that circumcision reduces by 50-60% the risk of transmitting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to HIV negative men through sexual contact with HIV positive females. While the results of studies in African nations may not necessarily be extrapolated to men in the United States at risk for HIV infection, the American Urological Association recommends that circumcision should be presented as an option for health benefits. Circumcision should not be offered as the only strategy for HIV risk reduction. Other methods of HIV risk reduction, including safe sexual practices, should be emphasized.

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Growing up, it is easy to contemplate religion or choose to move back and forth between secularism and piety.  It’s even easier if the hard part is out of the way.  It is in the best interest of a child to have this procedure done as soon as possible when the body will be best be able to heal and more importantly at an age that humanity is most experienced in conducting circumcisions.  If boys who grow to be men want to choose a non-religious way of life, it is easy either way.  For someone who chooses to live religiously though the hardest part is yet to come, then we see how unfair it is to categorize circumcision as something beyond the scope of parents’ ability to decide their sons’ best interests.

For Jewish converts, this is where most of their praise is earned.  If they haven’t been circumcised and they get the procedure done, they’re suddenly holier than thou – but not by their own self-aggrandizement.  They’ve elected to undergo an optional procedure.  Where someone born into the faith is technically obligated, they opted in.

That isn’t to say that the same sort of praise shouldn’t be heaped upon those raised disconnected to Judaism who encountered the dilemma themselves when they were much older.  An innumerable amount of Jews from the former Soviet Union have undergone circumcision in Israel, even if they do not live a day-to-day life of piety.  For cultural or religious reasons, this was too essential to skip.

There are no risks to neonatal circumcision of any statistical significance and most risks discussed, unfortunately, get most of their airtime in Europe where there is a trend of anti-religious legislation (debate the last point if you wish, but legislation against religious slaughter of animals, circumcision and public expression of religious affiliation spell all that out).  Circumcision is critical religiously and eliminates a painful obstacle for people later in life as they make independent decisions about religious practice (and marriage in civil Jewish society).  This shouldn’t block their ability to make an honest choice: if they want to be circumcised, that painful decision was already made with their best interests in mind.

Conservative Jewish Conversions: Not That Trief

The mikvah/mikveh is an essential part of the conversion process that cannot be ignored. Without it, a Jewish conversion is simply incomplete.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is violating the rights of potentially thousands, if not tens of thousands of converts all over the world by virtue of its automatic disqualification policies.  While it’s been argued several times over – effectively I might add – that the Rabbinate’s willingness to play politics with Orthodox conversions in the United States is unquestionably infringing on the Torah’s edict to “love the convert,” I want to remind everyone that Conservative conversions cannot be systematically ignored.  The variety of observance and authority among Conservative leaders and teachers, especially among those who convene for conversion panels, is staggering.  It is impossible to say categorically that all Conservative conversions can be assumed to be ‘unkosher.’

William Blake's 1795 painting of Ruth, Orpha and Naomi from the Book of Ruth.  Ruth

Ruth embraces her Jewish mother=in-law Naomi and pledges to join her in a return to Israel from Moav, while Orpah leaves her sister-in-law after the deaths of their respective husbands (Book of Ruth, Chapter 1; Artist: William Blake, 1795)

The Conservative Movement’s application of this might vary, but its main issues are with the administrators of conversions.  Their personal Jewish practice matters as far as their authority being accepted to oversee a Conversion court.The Conservative Movement is not the US Reform Movement, firstly.  The American Reform Movement does not require 1) circumcision, nor 2) immersion in a mikvah in order to be considered a convert.  US Reform conversions, without these rites simply are not conversions.  I say this with all due respect to those men and women in the Reform Movement who have undergone ceremonies without those elements, nor do I question your commitment to the Judaism you’ve learned and applied in your lives.

There are certainly dozens of nuances to the rules regarding who can serve as a witness or a judge in a court of Jewish Law.  Though many of the arguments that would permit someone who is commonly considered forbidden from such permissions are either theoretical or have long not been the common practice.  That being said, such theory cannot be applied for fear that the conversion itself really never took.

If we consider the debates within today’s Conservative Movement about observable Jewish Law and then the actual practice of those laws, we see many Conservative Rabbis who are the common overseers of conversion courts 1) do not observe Shabbat and even go so far as 2) to say that the restrictions of Shabbat are not or no longer binding.  The first point disqualifies individuals from serving on a court.  The second point implies that these individuals do not “accept the mitzvot.”  More on that point in a moment.

Conservative Rabbis in the past have not trended this way.  Certainly, this has become more common, but it’s still not universal.  Thirty years ago, 60 years ago, there could never be a justifiable policy to automatically ignore the viability of Conservative conversions.  They would have had to have been considered on a case-by-case basis.  That is still, despite the Chief Rabbinate or the RCA or Yeshiva University, indisputable.

Since my own conversion, I have stressed this point tirelessly.  To automatically ignore someone claiming to be a convert and throw their past back at them by saying they still are not Jewish is a direct, explicit violation of the Torah.  It’s plain and simple.  It is assur, categorically prohibited. To do so also risks telling someone obligated to perform certain mitzvot that they are in fact not obligated to do so, violating the law of “do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” Even if the evidence were strong a second conversion were necessary, any degree of uncertainty prevents treating the person in question as a non-Jew.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg. What seems to be happening, a policy of automatic disqualification for a conversion conducted under Conservative auspices, must not be allowed to cement itself in the Rabbinical bodies of the Jewish world. It propagates ignorance at a time we need more meticulous Jewish literacy.

If Not Now, When? Judaism and Intervention

US tanks roll in Iraq in 2003 after the American invasion against Saddam Hussein.

Contributing to the Times of Israel, Rabbi Arthur Waskow offered, loosely speaking, an alternative to American military intervention in Syria.

US Military Intervention in Syria & Jewish Law: If Not Now, When?  Or Something Else?

Public Domain image from the US Air Force via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t understand the last line’s placement in this article. It doesn’t belong there.  “If not now, when?”  I’ll try to answer the question in a direct response, anyway.

  • If gas masks would not meet the need, drop antidotes to the nerve gas Sarin, sending instructions in Arabic by radio and social media.

  • Test out what would happen if the US invited physicians to be parachuted into Syria, as brave as the soldiers that some US politicians want to send.

I would argue that sending 10,000 doctors and 100,000 vials of antidote won’t protect Syrian civilians from chemical weapons. The unpredictability of the next strike makes their deployment a waste. Such a strategy also isn’t really a strategy. It’s a reactionary approach to conflict which has usually exacerbated killing in the past – the deployment of peacekeepers, observers and volunteers has assuaged the concern of foreign countries. They offer no resistance or challenge to the human-rights-violating parties at war.

Their presence often signals that no one else is willing, able or sympathetic enough to do anything about mass killings by conventional or chemical means. Plus, your complete lack of cohesive strategy for deploying medical-only units has no hope for success and only makes those doctors defenseless targets for arrest, torture, rape and slaughter at the hands of whatever force captures them, as has happened as recently as August 2013 in countries like Somalia.

If our own government pushes us over the edge of that precipice, the real losers will be the American and Syrian peoples.

This statement is extremely inappropriate and arrogant considering that the Syrian people have been well over the edge for two years.  Sending in the troops isn’t pretty, but the complete lack of military intervention until this point has led to 100,000 dead Syrians, at least 1,500 of them by chemical assault.  I cannot help but think at this point this article functions more like American political rhetoric than a practical alternative to military intervention. The American people would lose a lot of money with an aerial wave of attacks, but the Syrian people would not lose anything close to what they’ve lost already.

So while your words, Rabbi, might placate someone who wants to hear a message of peace and pacifism from their shepherds, your words bring no comfort to anyone but American Main Street who want to feel good about ignoring a massive genocidal event. If the war were to spread to Israel or Turkey, many Americans would love to hear your approach to the expanded conflict because it involves no effort from them whatsoever (well, at least no one but the thousands of unarmed doctors parachuted into the war zone).

That’s where the US is in regard to Syria: All the “official” choices — from Do Nothing to One Strike to Overthrow the Regime – are destructive to us, to the Syrian people, to the US Constitution, and/or to international law.

Never mind for a moment that Barack Obama just went to Congress to ask for a mandate of war (in line with the US Constitution).

Your solution is just an alternative version of “Do Nothing.” So I ask you, if this isn’t the time to put a foot down and deter chemical weapon assaults, then when is?

One More Thing

So we may after all be standing on our tiptoes at the very edge of the precipice of still another immoral, illegal, unwinnable, self-destructive war.

P.S., the unqualified use of the term “immoral” for military intervention against Bashar al-Assad is in my very humble opinion, extremely irresponsible; particularly coming from someone with the title of Rabbi.  What we are contending with is whether or not to launch a military attack to 1) restore a deterrence against unconventional weapons use and 2) eroding the more powerful side’s ability to wage war so as to lower its apparent intensity between the two primary combative sides (two being a loose number here).

So, if trying to deter chemical weapons use before they come to be used more often is an immoral thing, then I might just be an immoral person for thinking there’s something compassionate and sensible to the idea.

I, personally, don’t like to make statements without being straightforward about my own opinion to begin with, but in this case I felt these words were much more important than revealing how indecisive I’ve personally been about an American attack against the Syrian military.

Jewish Law of Military Intervention

I could cite Jewish legal argument after Jewish legal argument to support and oppose a military intervention.  However, given that ultimately Jewish law concerns itself with the preservation of life to the point that it abjures major practices in order to ensure a life can be saved, I would imagine the decision on intervention’s morality vis-a-vis Judaism lies in which argument wins out: would military intervention and containment create/restore a deterrent that prevents the conflict from relying increasingly on unconventional weapons, or would military intervention of that kind be the very spiraling out of control that everyone is concerned about preventing?  I will have a hard time answering the question, so I hope that whatever hard-thought answer I come to isn’t arbitrarily labeled as “immoral” by someone who refuses to appreciate the severity of the issue.

Better phrased, to directly quote Michael Broyde of Emory University on the topic as regards Jewish tradition:

In the real world, just war theory has to actually work, and not just theoretically work. Doing nothing is a moral option when doing anything makes a bad situation worse. Options that bring peace and protect the innocent are to be favored when reasonable people think that they are likely to work in fact.

So, in conclusion, one cannot monopolize the definition of morality (much less immorality) nor legality and illegality when the topic is as untested and subjective as this one is: the military intervention into a military conflict to contain it before its unconventional nature spirals out of control.

Don’t Give In to Senseless Hatred

Yonah Metzger has had abundant legal problems heading toward the end of his role as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.5 Itzik Edri)

Last week was one of the most amazing weeks of my life. My son was born, bringing home this idea I’ve pounded myself with for months: get better. i have to be better for him. I have to teach things that I would otherwise dismiss as mundane. I have to point out the obvious. I have to review everything the previous 27 years taught me, because now the student has become the master. So clearly I would hope that our greatest sages would help me in that mission with their wise words and their modest acts.

You can imagine my disappointment.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef speaking, presumably at a Motzei Shabbat function, in 2006.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef speaking, presumably at a Motzei Shabbat function, in 2006. (Source: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5 מיכאלי)

Yonah Metzger has had abundant legal problems heading toward the end of his role as Chief Rabbi.

Yonah Metzger has had abundant legal problems heading toward the end of his role as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.5 Itzik Edri)

Rav Ovadia Yosef’s and Rav Yona Metzger’s actions exemplify one of the most embarrassing weeks in recent memory for Orthodox Judaism. Besides the fact Shas MK Ariel Atias thought to humiliate Rav David Stav by boycotting his dance circle at a wedding (of all things), Rav Ovadia’s words directly led to the man’s assault. Rav Metzger’s charges, whether they pan out to constitute something criminal or not, associate petty crime with one of Judaism’s and Israel’s greatest religious offices.

It leaves us to ask what on Earth they could have possibly been thinking saying what they said or doing what they did. But what we should focus on is how we handle it from here. What do we expect of the people older and wiser than us? Essentially, what would we expect of ourselves were we to find ourselves in their shoes?

I’d expect them to provide us with ideals to strive for while keeping above the madness of politics or rhetoric. I’d expect they’d easily assuage their anger and ignore words of hatred, particularly during times of high tension.  We know where it leads otherwise:

File:Ercole de Roberti Destruction of Jerusalem Fighting Fleeing Marching Slaying Burning Chemical reactions b.jpg

You younger Rabbis should take note. Even if corruption and irresponsibility aren’t as prevalent as these incidents would lead us to believe, your job is to act as if they are.  Do everything within your own personal strength to avoid the errors these men of power just made.

So my advice to my son would be to not give into senseless hatred.  For everyone else, don’t boycott Haredim and their institutions, as tempting as it might be. Even if they refuse to eat your Modern Orthodox food or dance in your Dati Leumi wedding circles, don’t avoid the restaurants of Me’ah Shearim or the chupah of a Shas’nik. Don’t let ignorance make you indignant in return.

Hold the line and refuse to give into hatred.  Be better than those who have come before you.

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook put it in terms of poetic justice: if the 2nd Temple was destroyed on the grounds of baseless hate, then the 3rd Temple will rise on the heels of unconditional love.  You decide which Rabbinical example will define you on the 17th of Tammuz.

Tisha B’Av’s Lesson for Israelis: Cut the Crap

As Tisha B’Av ends in Israel, it remains to be seen if the various communities learned from the holiday, having enough introspection to know that the rhetoric between Haredi and Dati Leumi Jews is absolutely unacceptable and a complete contradiction of the spirit of the Mo’ed that is 9 Av.

Why is it awkwardly referred to as a Mo’ed in some sources, anyway??? For every speech and article that tries to figure it out and tear the issue apart, the obvious answer is in the definition: the term has the same Hebrew root as “Va’ad,” a committee or “Edut,” community. The idea is to compel diverging people to come back together.

I’ve personally found Rabbinical conduct to be egregious over the last few months. Haredi rhetoric has been in the headlines, but you don’t have to go far on social networks to find Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi young Rabbis making their fair share of comments either.

Even if you completely, completely disagree with my assessment of either group, it’s hard to argue that the tension is at a disappointing level. Seriously, cut the crap. If you are right and the other party is wrong, don’t treat them like the bottom of your shoe. Hold back your rage; hold back your venom. Things can only get more visceral and emotional.

Pulllll back from the brink, everyone. It will be difficult, but the more you swallow your pride and listen rather than scream, the quicker we’ll be to redemption. At the very least, the further we’ll be from disaster. There is much more important stuff to stress about. Let’s figure out the army. Let’s figure out employment. Let’s figure out chastity. Let’s figure out praying. Let’s figure out Shabbat and Kashrut.

We have no time to treat other like this. We’ve got a world to illuminate.

See the original at The Times of Israel.