Hot Topics

Makom’s Hot Topics aim to ask Jewish questions of Israeli current affairs.

Designed to be short, accessible, and challenging, each Hot Topic attempts to ask us to align our Jewish identity with the ongoing drama of Israel and the Jewish People.

We are currently experimenting with a double-format – two pieces from two different perspectives on the same issue… Comments are welcome!

Can anyone say Never Again? Depends what it means…

July 1, 2019 by

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Screen grab of AOC instagram

“Never again,” called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her famous tweet condemning the US Administration’s immigration policy, as she talked of “concentration camps” on the Mexico border. 

The jury is out as to whether this use of language drew more attention to the plight of the imprisoned kids, or to the legitimacy of Holocaust imagery. Some argue the incendiary language has become a distraction, and others celebrate the way it has raised awareness.

What is clear is that the linking of “concentration camps” and “Never Again” left no doubt that an analogy was being drawn between the current immigration policy of the United States, and the history of the Holocaust. 

This has given Jews around the world, and Holocaust historians among them in particular, a stomach ache. There is a school of thought within Holocaust history that argues that the Holocaust should never be analogized to anything, because it was unique. Unique in scale, in long-term planning, in intent, in passive and active support across nations, and in cold-eyed precision. To compare the Holocaust to any other event past or present is to diminish its horror, even to trivialize it. 

Others argue that this kind of intellectual purity is counter-productive. Of course history never stands still and never repeats itself exactly. But this does not mean one can learn nothing from the past. How on earth are we to prevent further genocides without making comparisons and learning from history? Does “Never Again” mean nothing?

And here, it seems, lies the rub. “Never Again” means different things to different people. 

There are many, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, President Obama, and the late Elie Wiesel among them, who understand “Never Again” to mean that we should never allow genocide to happen again anywhere to anyone – whatever the precise historical details. 

Yet the person who seared this phrase into the consciousness of English-speakers across the world had a very different intent. Meir Kahane, later to become the leader of the racist Israeli party Kach, began pushing these words back in the early 1970s. And he meant “never again will Jews respond passively to antisemitic attacks”. Kahane, widely credited with popularizing the phrase, meant Never Again to Jews – not Never Again to All. 

It has even been said that this understanding of “Never Again” was a way of saying Jews’ Lives Matter, not All Lives Matter. (Which in itself is another example of how comparing horrors with horrors is rarely useful…)

This terrible tension, between us vs all, between communitarian vs cosmopolitan, is at the heart of the immigration debate and also at the heart of how we debate immigration. 

How do you address this tension?

Who is Right? – Ponderings on the latest elections manoeverings

June 19, 2019

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Lieberman, the joker in the pack?

Israel is now gearing up for another election, after the one that took place on April 9th did not result in a government. The Likud blames Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beytenu, for the new elections. Yisrael Beytenu blames Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Who is right?

Well, it would be right to say that Netanyahu was unable to build a ruling coalition because Lieberman made it impossible for him to do so. It would be wrong to say that this led immediately to new elections. Having failed to build a ruling coalition, Mr Netanyahu was expected to return the baton to the President, who would have handed the opportunity to build a coalition to the leader of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz. Instead Netanyahu called new elections.

Who is Right?

That night Netanyahu fulminated against Lieberman, calling him a leftist. In failing to support a right-wing government, he accused Lieberman over going over to the Left side. In turn, Lieberman shot back: “The man who lives in Caesarea is calling the man who lives in Nokdim, a leftist?” Prime Minister Netanyahu has his private home in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast. Avigdor Lieberman lives in the settlement of Nokdim in the heart of Judea and well over the Green Line.

So who is Right? Someone who strives to build a right-wing coalition, or someone who actually lives in the West Bank? Is being Right-wing to do with being a security hawk, or being committed to Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank)?

Who is Right?

Avigdor Lieberman is arguing that he is indeed on the political Right, but that to be on the political Right in Israel does not mean that one must be religious. Lieberman has chosen his moment to take a stand against the significant demands of the Haredi Ultra-Orthodox parties. He will not give his (now-growing) support to a government that kow-tows to the Haredim who demand continued exemption from army service and increasing funds for Yeshivot.

Lieberman is now saying that after the coming elections he will insist on a government made up of Likud (who received 35 seats this time) and Blue/White (who also received 35 seats). With the addition of Lieberman’s party, this would make for a strong, solid, and wholly secular ruling coalition.

Who is right?

Were this come to pass, we might be looking at the opposite of a scenario we floated back in late April: A government that will unlikely make any significant inroads towards ending the military occupation of the Palestinians, but that would probably make big changes to the place of Haredim in Israeli society.

In this Likud-Blue/White-Yisrael Beytenu world, all sorts of possibilities suggest themselves:

  • Women may be given full access to the Kotel.
  • Conversion laws could be made far more accommodating.
  • Moves may begin to replace compulsory military service with compulsory national service for all – Haredim and Arabs included – whereby volunteering for several years in the fire service, for example, would be recognized as just as valuable as army service.
  • Funding of Haredi schools may become dependent upon teaching math.

At the same time, such a combination would move hardly an inch towards a Palestinian State. And if Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman’s current statements are anything to go by, Israel would if anything be likely to behave even more harshly towards Hamas.

 

Bearing in mind progressives cannot have both, would it be right to support a right-wing secular government in Israel? Or would it be right to oppose it?

 

[The first English-language journalist to call this latest Lieberman twist was Shmuel Rosner. He often writes for the New York Times, and has a regular blog at Rosner’s Domain.]

 

Long-term planning is a Jewish value. How about in Israel?

May 22, 2019 by

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Matthias Stom

Genesis 25: 29-34 tells us about Esau stomping in after a hunt, absolutely starving. Jacob is cooking some lentils, thinking of the future. Esau wants to eat – now! Jacob wants Esau’s birthright, whose value will only come to fruition many years down the line. As we know, Esau does not hesitate. He sells his birthright for a bowl of lentils.

Jacob looks to the long term. Esau is more of the ADD type…

It feels like the whole world and Israel in particular has gone the way of Esau. Every news item must be fresh, every piece of information must be distributed immediately, both Peace and Messiah must arrive NOW.

Dan Ben David, head of the Shoresh Institution for Socio-Economic Research, has been calling for Israel to look beyond Esau’s view of security and corruption, and think more like Jacob about the deeper issues waiting beyond the corner.

Our health system is suffering from long-term decline. In the past two decades the number of Israelis dying from infectious and parasitic diseases has doubled – 73% more than those who die per capita of the same causes in the United States, and more than ten times as many who die on Israel’s roads.

Our transport infrastructure leaves us with three times as much traffic congestion than other countries our size – even though we have fewer cars on the road.

And don’t get Ben David started on education… Haredi schools do not study core subjects at all, and the academic achievements of Arab kids in Israel are way below par. These make up over 40% of our future adults…

All this has an effect on productivity. We’re far behind the rest of the developed world, and now over half of all Israelis don’t earn enough to pay income tax.

Can a country that needs extraordinary defense capabilities, cultivate a less-than-ordinary population?

The Esau in Israeli culture has served us extremely well. The world praises the spontaneity and creativity that spawned the Start Up Nation. Indeed the whole country has been the poster child for how a State can improvise brilliantly when faced with endless emergencies ever since its birth.

But perhaps the pendulum needs to swing back the other way?

Perhaps Jacob needs to take back the birthright once more?

So do you really have no influence over Israel’s elections?

April 21, 2019 by

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So do you really have no influence?

Jewish social media around North America has been responding to Israel’s election results. Irrespective of how devastated or delighted people seem to be, the underlying music has been similar: We can only observe from the outside – the decisions are in the hands of the Israeli electorate, not in ours.

This is not entirely true. There are two crucial areas in Israeli elections over which American Jewry – in particular non-Orthodox Jewry – does have a huge impact.

The Kotel, and the Palestinians.

Every pundit in Israel knows that when one is counting the parties in the pro-settlements Right-wing bloc, one automatically counts the Haredi ultra-orthodox parties. This is a correct analysis of the political reality in Israel, but has little to do with actual Haredi convictions about settling the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. As veteran Haredi politician Moshe Gafni has candidly explained: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Haredi issue. The Haredi aim in government is to take care of the issues close to their hearts – they are generally willing to back any policy over the Green Line, just so long as their own electoral needs are met.

What are these needs?

There are, of course, budgetary needs for their impoverished supporters. There are great obstacles to the idea of drafting Haredim to the army.

And then there is the issue of diaspora progressive Jewry and their “obsession” with the Kotel.

Haredim will abandon any government that “gives away” the Kotel to “the Reform”. Put another way – any government that distances itself from the Kotel Agreement could receive Haredi support on other issues, such as the Palestinians.

See how you have an influence?

In Israel’s current political structure, it is extraordinarily difficult to address simultaneously BOTH Israeli religious pluralism AND the Two State Solution. As far as the Haredim are concerned, the latter can be bought by selling out the former.

How would you react if Israel’s leaders on the Left said – “We think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important than religious pluralism. We are dumping the Kotel Agreement and reaching out to the Haredim. An additional 15 votes for the Left taken from the Right will enable us to make a deal with the Palestinians.”

Would you applaud? Would you rage? Would you grit your teeth? Would you shrug? (Or would you make Aliyah and vote yourself?)

Ad Kan! Up to here! Where do we draw the line?

April 2, 2019 by

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Last week a rocket was fired from Gaza, hitting a house in Mishmeret, some 20 miles North of Tel Aviv.

All hell broke loose.

All headlines and all politicians were going crazy, calling for revenge, for responses, for resolutions.

Why did this storm break out when it did? After all, since the last full-on conflict of 2014, Gazan rockets have been falling on Israel for many months, to say nothing of the incendiary balloons that burned hundreds of acres of Israeli farmers’ land throughout the summer?

The answer is clear to all: This time the rocket fell near Tel Aviv, in the Gush Dan metropolis.

Folks living on Kibbutzim near the Gaza border are pulling their hair out: What makes a rocket on Tel Aviv different from one fired at Kibbutz Beeri?

It is a painful question.

For sure, there are good reasons why the government avoids a full military response to Gazan attacks as much as it can. Any military response even approaching the strength its critics demand would – in the short term at least – lead to more Israeli casualties, as well as devastation on civilians in Gaza.

The question is why the line is drawn where it is drawn?

Bomb Sderot – we’ll issue warnings. Bomb Gush Dan – עד כאן! Ad Kan! (Up to here and no further!)

Here the question of security, To Be, comes face to face with the question of People: Which people’s security are we looking out for? Is every citizen’s security of equal importance?

Not a rhetorical but a real question – how might the US government respond if the Russians shot over a few make-shift rockets to Alaska? Or New York?

 

Steering Right, Left, and Center – how to 4HQ the Elections!

March 10, 2019 by

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The die is cast, at last. The parties are finally fixed, so that the voters can now concentrate on their key task: To decide for whom they will vote.

In Israel the meaning of Left, Right, and Center is very different from the rest of the world. A party’s stance on the welfare state, economic policies, religion and LGBTQ – none of these affect whether they are termed Right or Left. In Israel these political directional terms still seem to circle around one issue alone: The Palestinians. Left and Right are only assigned according to the party’s willingness or lack of willingness for there to be a Palestinian State.

If a party is keen for a two-State resolution, and for all settlement over the Green Line to stop, it is deemed Left.
If a party is against granting the Palestinians a State, and keen for settlements to grow, it is deemed Right.
And if a party would like for there to be a two-State resolution when the time and circumstances are right, and in the meantime is ambivalent over settlement growth, it is deemed Center.

 

Nothing else matters in these definitions.

And it is these definitions that will guide the forming of a coalition government in the late Spring. Will the Right form a majority bloc? Or will the Center form a majority bloc aided by the Left (or the moderate Right)?

Since Right/Left/Center is so critical, it is perplexing that the key issue around which these terms circle – the Palestinians and their demand for independence – seems to be the only issue that most politicians hardly ever discuss. In particular the Right and the Center – according to polling, some 80% of voters – share the belief that there is no Palestinian leadership with whom to negotiate, and so there is nothing to talk about.

There is an unspoken assumption that one’s attitude to a Palestinian State is guided by a single concern: Security.  Granting a state to the Palestinians risks Israeli security, while refusing to do so maintains it. This is why the Left – wishing to enable a Palestinian state – can be painted in traitors’ colors, since they are perceived to be happy to endanger us all. Even those in favor of expanding settlements in Judea and Samaria rarely trumpet their rights over the Biblical Land of Israel, and instead focus on Palestinians threats to Israeli security.

Quite apart from the fact that security experts are far from convinced that ongoing civilian presence over the Green Line adds to Israeli security, it would be a mistake to assume that the Palestinian issue is only about security.

The situation does not only ask the “To Be” question. It also asks us about the nature of the Jewish People, and the way in which we relate to another People in this region. It pushes us to define what we mean by Freedom, democracy, and human rights. And of course it asks the question as to where in Our Land should our citizens be allowed to build their houses?

It is according to their answers to these four interlocking questions that the Left, Right, and Center can be gauged.

The New Anti-Zionists?

February 25, 2019 by

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The video doing the social media rounds is of the first Knesset speech of the racist Meir Kahane. The entire government, including Likud hardliner Prime Minister Shamir, stand up and walk out. No respect nor honor is to be granted to the hate-filled fascism of Kahane’s Kach party.

That was then and this is now. At Prime Minister Netanyahu’s urging, the Jewish Home Party has merged with the Jewish Power party. This latter is made up of Kahanist supporters, who preach violence against Arabs, their expulsion from Israel, and worse.

If we are to understand Israel as a Jewish and Democratic country, it would seem that these politicians undermine both these concepts. Not only do these men act against Israel’s democratic principles, but many would argue they also act against well-established understandings of what is Jewish behavior and values.

A group of politicians who seem to oppose both the Democratic and Jewish principles of the State of Israel could be termed – among other things – anti-Zionists.

Will the Jewish world behave towards these men in a similar way to which it behaves towards other anti-Zionists such as those in the BDS movement?

Israel or Diaspora – where does antisemitism strike?

January 31, 2019 by

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Difficult times lie ahead for North American Jewry, as antisemitism rears its ugly head. As Debora Lipstadt points out, Jews are now under attack from the radical Right, from the radical Left, and from radical Islam.

In past times, the only redeeming feature of antisemitism was the way in which it at least galvanized unity in the Jewish People, against these threats. No longer. Not when Israel is so tortuously involved.

On the Right, anti-Semites argue their kosher credentials because they support Israel. Richard Spencer may be keen that “Jews will not replace us” in the United States, but at the same time is a supporter of Israel and even calls himself a “white Zionist”. Backers of President Trump will likewise point to his support of Israel to rebut condemnation of his friendship with antisemites.

The Right would seem to be saying – I cannot be an evil antisemite, because I support Israel. I may hate Jews at home, but I like them in Israel.

On the Left, Israel is also a painful part of the equation. New congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour, argue the evils of Israel together with their support for the Jewish community in the States. Sarsour even led heart-warming fundraising campaign for victims of antisemitism in Colorado and Pittsburgh.

The Left would seem to be saying – I cannot be an evil antisemite, because I fight local antisemitism. I may hate Jews in Israel, but I like them here in the States.

Unfortunately the current Israeli leadership does not make this dilemma any easier for Diaspora Jews. Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to make common cause with those such as conspiracy theorist President Orban in Hungary and the Polish leadership that supports Israel while denying its role in the Holocaust.

It would seem that Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken sides in this “choice” between Diaspora Jew-hatred, and Israel hatred.

How does your soul respond?

 

Israeli Elections are coming – are you?

January 21, 2019 by

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The most direct and powerful opportunity for individuals to influence Israeli policy is upon us. On April 9th, every Israeli citizen has the chance to have their say as to how Israel should best answer the Four Hatikvah Questions.

What would be the best way to ensure Israel’s security? How should Judaism, the Jewish People, and Jewish values affect policy in Israel? How can Israel’s current EIU Democracy Index ranking rise higher than 30th in the world? Are we configuring our land and its resources in the most equitable and sustainable way?

In later Headlines for Identity, we’ll look into how the political parties do or don’t address these questions, but for now it might be worth asking a more fundamental question:

Why aren’t you voting?

Why don’t those American Jews who express so much care and concern for Israel and her policies, just come over here and vote? For Jews around the world it’s real easy to get the vote in Israel: You just make Aliyah. Technically speaking you wouldn’t even need to live here. Pop over to become an Israeli citizen, and then fly in to vote. It’s not nothing, but it’s nowhere near impossible.

So what is behind this desire to critique and influence Israel on the one hand, and this unwillingness to put one’s money where one’s mouth is on the other?

Do Diaspora Jews care less than they say they do? Do they view Aliyah in such hallowed terms that they could not bring themselves to “exploit” it in this way?

Or are they simply afraid that if given the right to vote in Israel’s elections they’ll find themselves confounded over whom to vote for, like the rest of us poor saps living here?

To Be – under threat of annihilation, or defeat?

December 26, 2018 by

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As they say, when the United States sneezes, the whole world catches the flu. While the decision of President Trump to withdraw US troops from Syria has led to political headlines and speculation in DC, it has put many in our area in fear for their lives.

The only buffer between an Iranian-Russian takeover of Syria, Israel’s Northern enemy, has disappeared overnight. Kurds fear massacre, and Israel fears the nightmare scenario of Iran on its border: Both in Syria and in Lebanon through Iran’s proxy army Hezbollah with their tunnels.

How should we respond to a sworn enemy that aims for our annihilation?

Ironically enough, President Trump’s move comes in a period when more and more military and ex-military personnel are calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. They, echoing Helit Bar El’s presentation to us, argue that we must differentiate between Iran’s threat of annihilation – TO BE – and the Palestinians’ threat to areas of OUR LAND and our own sense of liberal democracy (FREEDOM).

These Generals argue that if an enemy threatens our values or our interests, but does not threaten our existence, then this is an enemy with whom we can and should compromise.

In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, President Trump has strengthened Israel’s hand vis a vis the Palestinians, and in announcing the withdrawal from Syria has weakened Israel’s hand against Iran.

Some might say that Americans do not understand what it means to be under threat of annihilation. Are American Jews different in this respect?

How should American Jews, often opposed to US military exploits in the Middle East, respond to President Trump’s priorities?

 

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