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!
December 26, 2018
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?
November 21, 2018 by Makom
Airbnb has responded to pressure from Human Rights Watch, and has chosen to “remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.” This has, as might be expected, delighted activists working against the military occupation of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria, and has infuriated the Israeli government and its supporters.
The former might see this as an affirmation of what is almost an international consensus: The area East of the 1967 Armistice line known as the Green Line is Occupied Territory. As such, it is subject to the Geneva Convention that prohibits transfer of population into said areas, and rules out building permanent settlements there. Human Rights Watch created a video aimed at Airbnb, pointing out that listings are built on land stolen from Palestinians. Activists against the Occupation would say that Airbnb are to be praised for upholding international law. Hurrah…
On the other hand, Israeli governments of the last fifty years – and most Israelis – do not see this area as occupied. The land was conquered in response to Jordanian aggression, there was no legitimate State the land was conquered from (the strictly legal definition of Occupied territory), and anyway – this is ancient and traditional Jewish land. Many Israelis would even go further to say that Jewland (Judea) is rightfully owned and ruled by the Jewish State. For Airbnb to discriminate against Jewish residents of Jewland is grossly unfair. Boo…
There are others who, without denying either party’s claims, might ask a question: Does Airbnb refuse business to other countries involved in abuses that are also enumerated by Human Rights Watch? And if not, why not?
HRW condemns Zimbabwe’s theft of land, Saudi Arabian abuses of women, China’s occupation of Tibet and discrimination against Muslims – to name but a few. All of these places are trading happily on Airbnb. Tibet is even listed by Airbnb as being a province of China!
Yet Human Rights Watch has, as yet, run no campaign against these listings.
Given this inconsistency, how should we interpret the actions of Human Rights Watch (whose own founder denounced it), and of Airbnb?
[You might wish to print out this pdf version of the post, and stick it up on the wall of your House…]
This Headline for Identity is part of the 4HQ Encounters program for Moishe House, made possible by the generous funding of Jim Joseph Foundation.
October 25, 2018
So Lara Alqasem has finally begun her studies at Hebrew University. Her situation received huge coverage both in the States and in Israel, and raises two key issues for us to ponder.
Some background: Back in the States Lara Alqasem was an activist with Students for Justice in Palestine, that boycotts and condemns Israel. In Israel the issue of boycotts has become a fiery bone of contention, and the source of new legislation to prevent “giving succor to our enemies”. Those Israelis who call for boycotting the country lay themselves open to being sued for damages, and to lose certain State benefits. On the basis of this law, Alqasem was refused entry to Israel. After a two week legal appeal, Israel’s Supreme Court recently ruled she was free to enter the country: She was not judged to be currently calling for boycott.
Our first question to ponder is the “cock-up vs conspiracy” question. The fact that this young woman was coming to study on a year-long student visa at Hebrew University, has already infuriated those committed to boycotting Israel’s academia. As a boycotter of Israel, she’s a complete failure… So was her arrest a sign that the Israeli government has malign plans to extend the reach of the Boycott Law, and that the security establishment sees even a (former) student activist as a threat? Or was her arrest just a stupid mistake compounded by cheap local politics?
Our second question has often been obscured by the first: In a post 9/11 world, (when) is it justified for a government to prevent entry of foreign nationals to its territory – especially those it suspects might break its laws?
In our 4HQ language, we might ask two overlapping questions.
- Is a country’s Freedom to be judged according to the way it denies freedoms to others?
- Can a country’s Safety be threatened by campaigns other than military ones?
If the answer to both these questions is yes, how then should a country negotiate its border crossings?
Moishe House programming suggestion:
You might wish to work with this Headline for Identity together with Musica Cubana. You might ask participants to imagine how the protagonist in Musica Cubana would/should react to visitors to his club who call it racist?
This Headline for Identity is part of the 4HQ Encounters program for Moishe House, made possible by the generous funding of Jim Joseph Foundation.
July 3, 2017
Three thoughts about the way in which the compromise agreement over mixed-prayer at the Kotel was “frozen” by Prime Minister Netanyahu, thus infuriating the Jewish world:
For all its pain, the Kotel furore is good for Israel Education. It finally puts paid to the idea that one can teach Israel without touching on the politics that animate this place. No longer can Israel engagers maintain that we can engage with Israel as an embodiment of our religious convictions, without addressing the politics that drive this particular embodiment. Educators’ celebration of “shared values” must now incorporate issues where our values are not necessarily shared.
All this is a good thing. Since Zionism was about the Jews assuming power, it was always odd that we bypassed the mechanisms and the energies that related to the use of that power.
We can now all embrace the invigorating challenge of educating about the politics of Israel without turning them into an all-encompassing obsession…
Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit offers a useful way of looking at the compromises that were made in the process of coming up with the Kotel agreement, and what compromises PM Netanyahu made in choosing to freeze its implementation. In his book, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, Margalit assesses when a compromise must be rejected, and when it should be accepted albeit while holding one’s nose. It is worth taking a look at the past few weeks in the light of Shady, Shoddy, and Shabby deals.
Finally, Margalit also points to what might be at the heart of the impassioned response to Netanyahu’s move: What constitutes decent behavior. While Israeli politicians such as Naftali Bennet point out that the current situation is not catastrophic for the progressive cause, since the platform at Robinson’s Arch will remain and even grow in size, Diaspora leadership will point not only to the result but to the process.
After having negotiated in good faith over the future of the Kotel, and after having agreed to a compromise – for this compromise to be summarily dumped is not only a poor result, it is poor behavior. In another of Margalit’s greats, he explores what he means by a Decent Society. A decent society is one in which its institutions do not humiliate its citizens. By extension we might say that a decent relationship between Israel and the Diaspora would be one that does not humiliate one side of the supposed-partnership.
[You might also be interested in the materials we created here about the Kotel a couple of years ago. The background is still highly relevant.]
May 21, 2017
Coming on for 100 years ago, The Balfour Declaration stated that the area of Palestine should be the “national homeland” of the Jews.
The Zionist movement of a century ago did not need the British to tell them that our national homeland was situated in the area known as Palestine. The Balfour Declaration is celebrated to this day because a world power had publicly acknowledged this connection. Jews knowing that the Land of Israel was ours, allowed us to dream. But when a superpower let everyone know the Land of Israel was ours, it allowed us to plan.
Recently this tension between what the Jewish People knows as the Land of Israel, and what the world recognises as the State of Israel, has come to the fore in extraordinary fashion.
President Trump became the first American president to visit the Kotel, the Western Wall. But in so doing President Trump’s advance staff pointed out an inconvenient truth: The Kotel is on the “other” side of the Green Line. As such, it is not within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
While every Jew would remind us that Jerusalem, and the area of the ancient Temple in particular, is at the beating heart of the Biblical Land of Israel, the President of the United States reminded us that it is outside the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel.
Bearing in mind that in the Balfour Declaration we celebrate the international recognition for what we Jews have always known, how should we engage with this current rejection of Israeli sovereignty over Zion itself?
August 7, 2014
Only a few weeks before its opening, the UK Jewish Film Festival needs to find a new venue. The Tricycle Theatre, the Festival’s North-West London home, suddenly demanded the Festival disassociate itself from one of its minor funders: the Israeli Embassy. To Full Post
May 15, 2014 by MakomShay Charka
Is our first instinct to stress the positives?
It does indeed take a strong and independent justice system to convict Presidents, Prime Ministers, Finance Ministers and the like. If we do take this approach, emphasizing the conviction and less the crime itself, it might be worthwhile examining our aims. Are we trying to defend Israel against its detractors? Are we trying to simply cheer our students up? Or even to cheer up ourselves?
And if we were to play down the conviction and focus on the corruption. How Olmert’s wrong-doings may well be the tip of the iceberg, and so on – what are our aims here? Do we wish to push our learners to action? To protest? To despair?
There will be many who will argue that the conviction of a politician in Israel is not a subject for Israel or Jewish education. In some senses they would be right, in so far as the headlines of the current discourse explore straightforward issues of justice systems, the rule of law, and so on. Beyond pointing out that Israel has a justice system, the “lesson” is limited. But at the same time, it’s in the news, guys… Do we really think no one’s going to ask, or notice?
We might take as our entry point the gags and the cartoons popping up all over. “The formation of the new political party, The Hard Labor Party with real conviction” – “The potential for an entire shadow government cabinet in prison”. From what pain, anger, or detachment do these gags emerge?
Or what if we chose to examine the language being used? Might we then reach a deeper opportunity for questions of Identity?
Look around the articles and the Facebook posts. Who talks of being “ashamed”? It’s worth unpacking what kind of connection someone has to a place or a person if they are ashamed of them. If I am ashamed of someone or something, it suggests they hold a significant place in the way I understand myself. If I were disconnected, or disinterested, I might use the word “sad” or “stupid” or even “outrageous”, but would never feel “shame”.
Do our learners feel ashamed of Israel? That might be a good sign. They are connected.
But by the same token, we should not forget that the twin of shame is pride. They emerge from the same place of identification.
When do our students feel pride in Israel? It’s a human need for us to experience both – sometimes even at the same time.
Exploration of this duality of shame and pride in Israel may allow us to extract some educational juice out of this complicated and challenging headline.
What do you think?
Some eighty years ago this discourse arose about whether an artist’s creation stands on its own without reference to the beliefs of the artist – with the refusal of the Israeli Philharmonic to play the compositions of Richard Wagner.
On 12th November 1938 the Philharmonic Orchestra had planned to perform “Lohengrin”. Since Kristallnacht had taken place only three days previously, the conductor Eugene Shenkar decided not to play Wagner. This was not an official or institutional decision: Just the gut feeling of the conductor and the fellow members of the orchestra about the connection between Wagner and the Nazi Party. There were no anti-Semitic lyrics, or anti-Jewish names of the works. The Philharmonic decided not to play the works because of their human connection. Since then the Israeli Philharmonic has never played Wagner in a publicized event. To Full Post
My favorite character from the Chazal period, the Rabbis of the first and second century, is Rabbi Meir. He was a smart cookie. He was married to a strong and smart woman, and was an original thinker. At the same time, his superior intellect made him slightly suspect in the eyes of his contemporaries. It was said, (admiringly or disapprovingly) that he could argue a point of law one way, and then argue it equally fluently the other way. When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.
When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.
Meir’s most famous moral and intellectual choice was in his ongoing friendship with R. Elisha Ben Avuya. Ben Avuya had been the top scholar of his generation until he lost his faith and was excommunicated. In the moral universe of Chazal, to renounce one’s faith was disgraceful. Like being a child abuser in our days. In the Talmud his name was obliterated, his teachings were accredited to “the other”, and no one was allowed to come near him, let alone study with him. R. Meir, my hero, totally ignored this ban. He continued to study with his old friend and teacher, arguing: “When one eats a pomegranate, one can spit out the seeds yet still gain sustenance from the juice.” Quite apart from the fact that this is actually more difficult that it sounds (ever tried it?), it is also more morally complicated than Meir admitted. To Full Post
November 26, 2013 by Robbie Gringras
So while I always get confused about whether we light the Chanukiah from the right or from the left, I never get confused about the cumulative effect. First night is only one candle, second night is two candles, and the final night is the whole dark-banishing lot.
This morning, trying to get my head round the Iran Breakthrough/Deal/Compromise/Capitulation, I was reminded of the old argument about which order we should light the Chanukiah.
Bet Shammai, concerned for the correct and truthful representation of things, insisted that on the first night of Chanukah we should light all of the candles, reducing the number every night until the final night only one candle should be lit. This is in correct and proper representation of the amount of light in the day, which in December diminishes every day. Just as light is falling in the world, so should it decline in the house.
Bet Hillel just could not accept this reasoning. However rational and true, the Shammai ruling was just too depressing. I often like to think that Hillel appreciated the aesthetic side of things: Increasing the light daily is just prettier and lifts the soul. Bringing light to banish the darkness gives us hope.
So here we are on the cusp of Chanukah, with the results of the Geneva talks gradually being assessed and judged. Not being a nuclear physicist nor an international statesman myself, I find myself switching between columnists like one might switch between Shammai and Hillel. Sometimes I see clearly we are heading towards darkness. Sometimes towards the light.
And maybe this Chanukah, as we light ourselves a symbol of increasing optimism in defiance of the reality outside, I might also pray for a miracle.