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!
August 19, 2019 by Makom
“Clever is the person who can extricate themself from a situation the Wise person would have avoided getting into in the first place.” This last week, one wonders who has been clever, who has been wise and who neither?
Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were due to fly in to Ben Gurion, to visit “Palestine”. With the public encouragement of President Trump, the Israeli government refused them entry. An additional request by Tlaib to visit her grandmother in the West Bank on humanitarian grounds, was granted on the condition that the visit would remain non-political. Tlaib refused to accept these terms and cancelled her trip a second time.
Let’s see if our 4HQ model can help us find the routes to a constructive conversation about all this:
It would be fair to say that Omar and Tlaib’s intentions were to promote Palestinian rights and BDS, and that Israel identifies BDS as a threat to the State’s existence. Certainly we can “O-word” the BDS movement, and identify some activists who wish the Occupation of 1948 to end, and not just the Occupation of 1967. Yet is it credible to see Ilhan Omar as an immediate threat in the league of an Ayatollah, or Syria, or even Hamas?
On the other hand, perhaps we are looking at things too narrowly. Across the world two trends are beginning to emerge: Human rights and liberal democracy are on the wane; The international community is less capable of intervening when a large power invades a weaker country. Given this global insecurity and vulnerability (Putin, Xi, Bolsonaro, Modi, and Donald Trump potentially President until 2024), perhaps it makes sense to try to keep President Trump on Israel’s side?
Quiet – Democracies are at work! All four politicians involved in this situation have come away with a win for their domestic constituencies. Omar and Tlaib have managed to prove Israel to be a secretive oppressive regime without even having to risk jet-lag. Trump has succeeded in adding Israel to the list of wedge issues to divide the Democratic vote. And Netanyahu has shown himself to be both strong against Israel’s enemies, and a friend of America’s President, in the lead-up to the elections.
At the same time, many express deep concern over Israel’s freedom of speech, openness to critique, and disregard for the democratic choices of the United States. Surely our democracy is robust enough to welcome a visit from and cope with the critique of two Congresswomen from our greatest ally?
On the other hand, since when must a democracy grant rights accorded to citizens, to people who are merely guests?
In Our Land
Does any State have the moral right to refuse foreigners entry to its territory?
And if it does have such a right, when can it use it?
We left the best one till last…
Irrespective of political affiliations, the American Jewish community could do with Israel being a non-partisan issue. At best, Israel should not be an issue at all. But certainly not one that splits the American public.
If Israel splits the American public along political lines, then it also threatens to split the American Jewish public along the same lines.
When even AIPAC publicly decries the decision to block the arrival of Omar and Tlaib, a threshold has been crossed.
This cannot be good for Israeli Jews, and certainly not for American Jews.
In the meantime, while ramifications of the travel ban continue to rock the Jewish community in the States, Israeli Jews have already moved on. Only three days after the ban, Israeli Hebrew-language news outlets look very different from those in the English language. In Hebrew, apart from a few isolated op-eds, the subject is now media-forgotten as security issues hot up in the South, a cannabis-tycoon has been arrested, and the elections approach.
Where does this leave “us”?
A range of opinions on the issue in general:
August 13, 2019 by Makom
Photo: From a Makom visit to Temple Mount
The celebratory Muslim festival Eid el Adha, commemorating the sacrifice of Isma’il (not Isaac!), is accompanied by much barbecuing of meat symbolizing the lamb Ibrahim slaughtered instead of his son.
Tisha B’Av is a fast day. Remembering the destruction of the Temples, and various other catastrophes in Israel’s past. So much of a day of mourning it is, that it is traditional to eat mourner’s food and sit on the floor as if sitting shiva for a close relative.
This year Eid el Adha and Tisha B’Av fell on the same day.
In any other place in the world, this need not be relevant.
But Israel makes the spiritual, material.
Our return to the Land of Israel has reasserted the place of Place in our worship.
Some 150,000 Israeli Jews go to the Kotel during this fast, and mourn the loss of the Temple – that stood only a few hundred yards, and a few thousand years away.
There are others, a growing number, who feel the most appropriate place to mourn the loss of the Temple is not at the left-overs of an outer wall (The Kotel), but at the site of the destroyed Temple itself: What we call Temple Mount (Har HaBayit), and what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary (al-Haram al-Sharif).
A place that, on this particular day in this particular year, was full of Palestinian Muslims celebrating Eid el Fitre.
The Jews called for the freedom to pray at their Holy Place. The Wakf decried this provocation, and moved to prolong the Muslim prayer time so as to prevent the Jews’ entrance. The police decided that it was too dangerous to guarantee the public’s safety, and forbade Jewish entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound. Politicians on the right raged: Is Jerusalem ours or not? How can we give in to threats? The police eventually allowed Jews to enter the Temple Mount.
Violence, tear gas, unrest ensued. 4 police officers and over 60 Muslim civilians were injured. Eid el Adha was no fun in Jerusalem this year. (Tisha B’Av was no fun either, but then it’s not supposed to be.)
Many argue that the Jews wishing to pray on Temple Mount are provocateurs. Others argue that a religious visit to one’s Holiest Place ought not be met with threats of violence. Others simply wish to avoid a spark in this long dry summer.
Towards the end of his excellent final lecture, Amos Oz z”l talks of the paradox of attempting to replace in the realm of space, something that was lost in the realm of time. He likens these attempts to a form of madness – and attacks both Palestinians and Jews for the same dangerous madness of “reconstritis”.
But hasn’t the State of Israel always been a paradoxical combination of time and place? Aren’t we constantly re-membering and re-placing ideas, memories, and practices from the past into the here as well as now?
How can we better negotiate time and space, memories and place, people and land?
July 1, 2019 by Makom
“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?
June 19, 2019
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.]
May 22, 2019 by Makom
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?
April 21, 2019 by Makom
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?)
April 2, 2019 by Makom
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?
March 10, 2019 by Makom
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.
February 25, 2019 by Makom
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?
January 31, 2019 by Makom
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?