Who is a Jew and it’s implications

16 Jul

Nathan Sharansky, the former Russian Jewish political prisoner, now Jewish Agency czar, responsible for Israel’s relations with Jews abroad, says, “The meaning of [the Rotem/Yisrael Beitanu conversion bill] is a split between the state of Israel and large portions of the Jewish people.” This is the pshat, the simple meaning of the bill. I would like to use this space to draw your attention to two other issues that arise regarding democracy and Israel advocacy.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” At the top of this list, democracy is still better in some places than others. A major difference is between the parliamentary systems of much of the world and the American democratic system. What works better for the people democracy is supposed to serve, the tyranny of the majority, as in the American system, or the tyranny of the  minority parties as we are seeing in Israel?

Yisrael Beitanu and its orthodox partners in the conversion bill, combined, are not a majority of Israel, yet because of parliamentary politics, Israel and the Jewish people will have to live with a narrowly defined version Judaism dictated by the rabbis who represent a mere 15% of the Jewish people. And don’t get the impression that all orthodox Jews support the bill either.

Orthodox Jewish, Israeli Rabbinic Court layer, Rivkah Lubitch, fears the worst from the Rotem Bill. “Even if you didn’t go to register for marriage, and even if you didn’t go to a rabbinic court for any reason, and even if you didn’t pass by a rabbinic court when you walked down the street — the rabbinic court can summon you, conduct a hearing about your Jewishness and revoke it,” she wrote on the website YNET. “In effect, the entire nation of Israel is presumed to be Not-Jewish — until proven otherwise.” Simply put, Israeli parliamentary democracy is failing Israel and the Jews (and the absence of a constitution isn’t helping either.) This brings me to my second point, Israel advocacy.

Nathan Sharansky’s Jewish Agency for Israel just put out a short movie explaining the mission of the agency under his leadership. In the first minute, the narrator mentions how American college campuses can be scary places for Jewish students because of accusations of apartheid and other claims against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Later in the movie, the Agency’s goal of solidarity with Israel is emphasized. What if the claims of scary anti-Israel forces on campus were about Israel’s treatment of Jews? Would the Jewish Agency still insist on solidarity of the Jewish students toward the Jewish state?

Just as democracy has its variations and various levels of success serving its constituents, so does Israel have various levels of serving the interests of Jews. On the issue of who is a Jew? we are open to debate and even criticize Israel. When it comes to foreign policy, however, there is an expectation of solidarity.

I find this double standard to be incredibly hypocritical. I live in Israel. I served in the IDF, I pay my taxes and I am an active member of civil society, yet, if I were to express my concern over the government policy vis a vis the Palestinians at a demonstration in Sheik Jarrah, for instance, I might face arrest, tear gas or even worse, police brutality. Why is this?

As a member of Chicago Peace Now, while doing my doctoral work in America, I was physically attacked for bringing Professor Sari Nuseibeh to Chicago to speak, ridiculed for screening the celebrated Israeli movie Land of the Settlers, and lambasted for speaking out against the 2nd Lebanon War. Would I receive the same treatment for speaking out against the Rotem Bill?

Sure, some will say that their are internal issues, like who is a Jew? and external issues like how we treat our neighbors, but why let this be the dividing line between acceptable self criticism and criticism deserving of McCarthyism? Why not make the guiding question more generic?

My conception of what is good for the Jews is not solidarity; it’s what’s good for the Jews achieved by open, civil, critical discourse? There is no need for double standards because everything we do can stand up to the question “what is best for our people?” With this as our goal, instead of solidarity, we can self assess the benefits to the majority of those who self identify as Jews through democratic processes. Is it really best for the Jews that we occupy nearly 2 million West Bank Palestinians? Is it best that we deprive Gazans of chocolate and other more serious necessities? Is it best that the non-Jewish minorities in Israel live as second class citizens in the Jewish state? What do these things say about Judaism?

In all honesty, the call for solidarity, when Israel and the Jewish people need critical discourse and democracy, is bad for the Jews. It’s hypocritical and it doesn’t make being Jewish on campus scary, it makes being Jewish scary. This is why the Peter Beinhart, NY Review of Books, article is so important. Young Jews want an “open and frank” discussion about Israel and Judaism. If we don’t give it to them, not only will we not achieve solidarity, we will lose that other favorite Jewish buzz word, continuity.

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The space between democracy and capitalism

10 Jul

I learned about the Cordoba House from an angry email from a friend. The project calls for a 15-story community center with a performance-art center, gym, swimming pool, and a mosque. Why the controversy? Because it would be built two blocks from ground zero, and some people believe it would be a “a slap in the face,” to the memory of the victims of 9-11, as Ruthfully Yours blogger Madeline Brooks puts it. Mayor Bloomberg and the municipal government of New York feel differently and support the project.

When I read this story, I see something very different. What I read is a struggle between capitalism and democracy. If anything, democracy is government by the people and for the people. In the Talmud, we are instructed to “lean toward the majority.” Capitalism, uncontrolled, is about unobstructed, personal accumulation of wealth. It has no framework for ethical deliberations. Some say, markets are self correcting, but never do they say that the corrections are about what’s right or best for the citizens.

In lower Manhattan, a group of people followed the law and purchased land with the intention to build on it. They applied for the required permits and received permission to build. They are probably also benefiting from American democracy’s freedom of religion and non-profit laws. The problem that those opposing this project have is not with their democratic rights. It is with their economic rights, which they feel are being exercised in a way that offends. We could go into all the moral, religious, historical and political implications of this, but the biggest issue on the table is economic. Do owners of property who fulfill all the necessary legal obligations have the right to do with their property as they please. In a purely capitalist system, they do. Although no purely capitalist system exists.

Writing about this from my Tel Aviv apartment, I cannot stop myself from applying this tension to another land issue of great importance in Israel; the acquisition of land for Jewish settlement.

As a Jewish educator, I once attended a seminar at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel organized by Professor Kenneth Stein. Among the things we were taught was the fact that the Jewish people legally acquired the land on which Jewish settlements were built, both before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. I know that this is a controversial matter. My wife’s grandparents moved into their house in Jaffo when there were still pots on the stove cooking what was presumably a Palestinian family’s dinner, but the ethical issues of this are much more clear. I want to discuss the difficult relationship between legally binding economic transactions and ethics.

Professor Stein showed us land deeds of purchases made of Palestinian land. Without a legal background, I still believe that what I saw was documentation of strictly legal transactions. But the white space on those pages was shouting at me. What became of the tenant farmers on those fields that now became the property of the Jewish National Fund? Did the land owner have that much control over the lives of his fellow Palestinians? Of course he did in Ottoman, and later British, ruled Palestine. Neither of these authorities gave a damn about the rights of individuals – except for their economic right to acquire land and do with it as they pleased, within military and political bounds. Certainly, the British were not willing to allow the Zionists to declare sovereignty on the land they purchased no matter how legal the transaction was.

This is just another example of the tension between political and economic authority, and in many ways we have lower expectations of conquering powers than we do of the democratic systems of all citizens. We cannot expect that the British would be more ethical about economic transactions than the Americans are today primarily because America is a huge democracy and England was a colonial power in Palestine. But the tension existed and the economic transactions took place. Ethical considerations were not the guiding principle of the economic conquest of the land.

By exploring these issues under the lens of critical literacy, we expose the ethical problems of the systems we live by. Now is the time to work together to right the wrongs of these systems which don’t serve the majority and don’t conform to our democratic system of values.

Should a Mosque be built at Ground Zero? The humanist in me says that it would be no different than building a church or synagogue. The secularist in me wants to protect against the sanctification of space. The democrat in me says it would be reasonable to bring this to a public discourse. But there is, however, a problem with the Talmudic demand to lean toward the majority. Sometimes majorities fail to make ethical decisions and sometimes they can disrespect the will of a significant amount of a population.

This issue needs deep, critical examination on the part of the populace. It is not a call for a culture war. It is an opportunity to build our society together. We need communicative action and discourse ethics to guide us in this task and we need to keep our eye on the prize; a democratic nation that is run by the people for their mutual benefit.

Learn more at

  1. Cordoba Initiative: Improving Muslim-West Relations
  2. The Wall Street Journal: Ground Zero Mosque — Cordoba House Plans to Create Mosque Near
  3. Hey, That’s Sacred Ground: Let’s Talk About Where to Build that Mosque
  4. Imam planning Islamic center, mosque near Ground Zero rips Tea Party’s Mark Williams, other critics

Welcome to The White Spaces

10 Jul

The Baal Shem Tov used to say that he reads the spaces between the letters of the words in black ink on a page. I was thoroughly intrigued by this metaphor until I read that he believed that “Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of God. This is the idea of spiritual service – to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve God.”

While I am not as certain as the Baal Shem Tov in the existence of God, I want to train myself and others to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which a good god might have us behave. This takes a lot of effort, skills, mindfulness and a willingness to be engaged with humanity. The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, refers to this as “communicative action.” I call the combination of these skills and the engagement between people “discourse literacy.” It is also the name of my dissertation about a curricular approach to peacemaking for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

It is my hope that The White Spaces blog becomes a destination point for people interested in communicative action and the “discourse ethics” Habermas believes will come from our conversations.

The rabbis of the Talmud, used to say, This text shouts, “Interpret me!” This is the essence of communicative action. We need to be engaged with the texts of our lives in order to understand them. “Interpret me!” is the rabbi’s subliminal way of telling us that every time we read a text we are creating new meaning. The goal of discourse ethics is to a create meaning a good god might have us understand.