Archive for March, 2009

March 23, 2009

Don’t Misread the Israeli Orthodox

by Gedalyah Reback

I read the New York Times article ( from this weekend about an aura set by the Israeli Defense Forces’ Chief Rabbi Brigadier General Avichai Rontzki over the Gazan battlefield in January. But many of the things he said are hardly militant-extremist, and should not be framed into some form of religious extremism. It is tempting to stereotype a society according to atheists, rationalists and fanatics, but such a breakdown has been the failing mindset of American policymakers and media in regards to approaching the Islamic World, and it would assuredly be a repeat in mistakes to characterize Jewish society in such a way.

The author’s approach suggested a fomenting religious militancy in Israel parallel to the psychotic ideologies that tore apart Iraq or influenced the September 11th attacks is a gross misconception of Israeli religion. These quotes have a context independent of some subjective attempt to see right-wing, religious folk as simple-minded, killing machines.

The verses, as quoted by the author, are taken from sources elaborating on justice. For instance he quotes, “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.” This quote is taken from the classic Rabbinical commentary on the Book of Lamentations, explaining that people have a tragic tendency to sympathize for those that must be confronted and/or face justice, depending on if the situation is a “time for war or a time for peace.”

Any defensive war is, by default, a war carried out with merit and seen favorably by the Jewish religion. There is no matter if all its soldiers are aware of this concept or not. That latter quote from Lamentations regarding times of war and peace describes the explicit natural reality that there are times for to communal self-defense. It is related to, though not totally similar, to the rules regarding individual self-defense. Defensive warfare is seen as a “mitzvah,” a divine commandment, and presents no contradiction with contemporary rules of international warfare.

Attempting to frame Israel’s religious communities in terms of “right-wing” and “politically liberal” is an intense mistake. It is the same type of generalizing that plagues Americans’ perceptions all Middle Eastern religion, exacerbates the perception the Jewish and Islamic law are at their hearts brutal, and that tyrannical or religious regimes in the contemporary Middle East adequately represent their respective religions. Things are not as simple as “right” and “left,” or ‘militant’ and ‘rational.’

March 23, 2009

New Cabinet Needs to Focus on the Jewish Diaspora

by Gedalyah Reback

There is, believe it or not, a way to end this potential diplomatic crisis that Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as Foreign Minister would cause for the Israeli government.

Lieberman’s party was the only one elected to the Knesset that ran on a platform that included expanding the Israeli relationship with the Jewish diaspora. Even though his primary focus would be on Russian Jews and may lack a vision in regards to religious communities, his platform is badly needed in the next Israeli government.

As pointed out this week by Ha’aretz blogger Anshel Pfeffer, Lieberman is one of the few Israeli politicians who is at all aware that Jews exist outside the country’s borders. That is, he doesn’t see Diaspora Jewry solely as a source of invitations to swanky events and campaign donations. (

Yisrael Beitenu would serve in an incredibly constructive capacity to rebuild relationships with Jewish communities abroad, and it would be much easier to get liberal Jews to work with Lieberman’s party than it will be liberal activists outside the Jewish community in Diaspora countries.

Given these considerations, and the need to give Yisrael Beitenu a so-called ‘major ministry’ in the new government, I’d suggest merging the Ministries of Immigrant Absorption and Diaspora, Society and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism” and giving this position to Lieberman, leaving open the slot of Foreign Minister to someone else, probably a Minister from Likud.

Even if Lieberman is not the best man for this position at this time, he is the best available, and it would be a waste to put him in a precarious, controversial position at a time of a crisis for Israel’s image abroad.

March 8, 2009

What means to what end? What happens after Israel makes Peace?

by Gedalyah Reback

I am not one to think the two-state solution is practical. The reason is simple, but is ignored or belittled by politicians outside Israel: the long-term risk of a Palestinian state is unforeseeable.

But that topic is not the purpose of this note, at least not the main one. Israel’s peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and its other neighbors fall under a larger umbrella topic: What Next?

What purpose would peace serve the Israelis? It obviously brings certain benefits, but what kind? Would peace guarantee Israeli security in the region: not just the state’s, but all its citizens’? What are Israel’s long term goals for itself and its citizens in the Middle East?

Right now, Israel is what many analysts call a “fortress state.” It lives surrounded – though not like it was before the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It does face several border enemies – Gazan Hamas, Lebanese Hizbullah and Syria. It is forced to fight proxy armies, directly supported by Iran and Syria or not. Israel does not control the situation beyond its borders aside from the West Bank and arguably Gaza. There is anxious stalemate in these areas, and it takes a tremendously psychological toll on the Israeli population.

Thus, the goal would be to alleviate that situation to the point it is improbable, if not impossible, that militias and armies like the ones mentioned above are unable to apply pressure to Israel, and Israel can control more of its own destiny.

Peace ought to be pursued in a pragmatic way by the Israeli government, for many of the same reasons the left advocates – a loss of definiteness, perpetuating social anxiety, and the breakdown of societal bridges, and security. The right also can add reasons – reducing the amount of war fronts the IDF watches and refocusing on other major fronts like Syria.

But the absolute reason it needs to be pursued is it distracts Israelis from focusing on domestic needs. Those needs are both practical and idealistic, pragmatic and lofty. But the issues might be intertwined. And if the two state solution is impractical, where does that leave regional options?

Firstly, a two state solution would dramatically hinder the security of Israel’s 400,000 citizens in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Governments have been less and less inclined to force so many settlers out of the West Bank (200,000 if Ehud Barak had had his way in 2000; 80,000 if Ehud Olmert’s plan for the West Bank had become reality; 60,000 if Kadima’s secret deal had been implemented).

But the biggest detriment to a mass eviction has been the reaction to the Gaza pull-out and several smaller evictions Israeli police have conducted in the West Bank. Many Israelis are disgusted by the idea, and opine it would only invite more attrition from groups like Hamas to extort ore evictions out of the Israeli government.

Basically, it’s not going to happen. Israel might want to consider annexing more than just Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Opposite of what Yisrael Beitenu might advocate, perhaps small Arab villages could be absorbed into Israel as well.

But ultimately, Israel wants to improve its permanence in the Middle East, not just its tolerance. Israel ultimately wants peace on its borders with a position of respect. Israel needs to aim to solve its current conflicts not for the benefit of escaping war, but for going from a state ensnared by conflict to one that acts as a mediator in other wars. Israel should be in a position to help less fortunate countries and offering financial or political support. Essentially, it ought to aim at being a regional leader.

At such a point, Israel will not merely attend peace conferences, but actually arrange them to mediate other global conflicts. It would be a major partner with France in running the French plan for a Mediterranean Economic Union. It would join the movement for economic aid to African, South American and Asian countries. The country would be able to finally sit on bodies like the United Nations Security Council.

With less concern about immediate flare-ups on its borders, Israel could focus on rejuvenating its domestic culture. The country needs to reverse the brain drain emigration has created. Internal poverty, along with majority-minority relations, need to be tackled, considering how intertwined these issues really are. Finally, it needs to accommodate a growing population by developing the Negev, the Galilee, and working on renovating the Israeli environment and major development projects like water desalinization. The education system needs to be enhanced tremendously to halt the trends of socioeconomic stratification of Orthodox Jews and Arabs.

I’d hope that some new government might have these issues on its docket, but it is improbable. It might be advisable to treat the Palestinian Authority live a provincial authority instead of a foreign entity, making it easier to implement wide-ranging economic changes in the West Bank.

These thoughts have been running through my head. What should Israel’s long term goals be? How will Israel go beyond flimsy treaties in guaranteeing its own security in the future, when new reasons develop to go to war besides land and mutual recognition?

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