Archive for April, 2011

April 21, 2011

What are Israel’s Priorities?

by Gedalyah Reback

Netanyahu Looking Like a Wreck

This has dragged out too long. Just shut down the settlement expansion.

I have to admit, I am a Religious Zionist. Not all RZs support settlements, but most do . . . and but I do. The settlements actualize the imperative to settle the country. If the land is bought from a private owner, there is nothing stopping me from celebrating it.

I am also a realist. They give Israel some more breathing room territorially and reach at the negotiating table . . . that is until now.

Diplomatically, the comfort zone the country has had building them was probably going to decay – eventually. I think that point has come. The extra cards it gave Israel in negotiations do not mean anything if the world does not let you negotiate. This is not judging the settlements as legal or illegal under international law; nor moral or not; nor conducted while respecting private property or not. There is simply too little breathing room these days. Shut down the enterprise. Shut it down.

The prospects of international isolation are very real. While Jews worldwide and Israelis especially think the situation with the Palestinians as much more complicated than issues of independence and self-determination, the rest of the world simply does not agree.

The world simply prioritizes Palestinian independence over Israeli security. There is little Israel or the global Jewish community can do about it. We will, by majority, disagree with the planet on this. Public relations and negotiating tactics are out of step with global opinion. The country simply has been caught off guard by the drive toward Palestinian independence. With that, Israel ought to go with the flow and change its approach to the Palestinians. Allow the West Bank and Gaza Strip their independence, merely with the stipulation that border and refugee issues have not been finalized, and that goes doubly for Jerusalem. Just outright support it – just ask for some time to design a withdrawal plan.

I expect Netanyahu to say something like this soon. But as of now, he does not have the political foresight to out-pace this situation. The UN will recognize Palestine as an independent state. Even if the Syrian protests turn into a civil war and the world allows Israel more leeway in how it positions the IDF (i.e. in the West Bank), the pressure is just going to come back.

Building the settlements was the right idea. It expanded Israel’s physical territory. No one knew how far it would eventually go before it became too much of a problem. Given the situation, I am guessing this would be a time to consolidate what Israel has gained and re-focus on other issues. Israel has no vision for its future.

Everyone has been running too scared to choose the country’s path. What preparations have been made for Palestine actually becoming an independent state? What does that mean for the priorities of the Jewish State in such an event?

As for the country’s identity, what would be Israeli policy toward a Palestinian state; goals of Zionism; security and religious interests under Palestinian rule; and settling the Galilee & Negev?

The lack of priorities has left Israel unprepared for the “diplomatic tsunami” that seems to be headed toward its pristine Mediterranean beaches.

Will Israel try to get a million new Jewish immigrants? Will it expand its economic power? Its cultural influence? Settle disputes between Jewish denominations in Israel and reform civil law? Write a constitution? There are simply no goals. There is no clarity.

AND as for Religious Zionists: the West Bank and Gaza are still holy land – it’s not going anywhere – it will just be under Palestinian government. It cannot constitute a priority compared to Jerusalem on the one hand or domestic stability on the other. But when was the last time you heard a settlement leader talking about the Temple Mount instead of a less significant hilltop somewhere south of Hebron? Religious Zionist leadership is out of step with reality and has no vision for its community and its religious goals. Of all the priorities that are contorted, twisted and far from straight, theirs seem to be the utmost.

April 13, 2011

Jerusalem Needs to Expand

by Gedalyah Reback

This is going to have to be accepted by policymakers worldwide if the city of Jerusalem is to avoid the economic decline of Berlin in the event of a sudden rupture by war or abrasive politicking in the United Nations. Jerusalem has too many interests to be left to a simple municipal government. In many ways its politics make its status as important as New York City. Michael Bloomberg has the de facto status of a governor in the American media (he might be more important than the Governor of New York anyway). So too, the mayor of Jerusalem should be balancing the multitude of interests in such an important city as if it had five bureaus itself – and maybe it should.

The city is crippled by a number of domestic and international factors. The lack of political options has reduced the municipality to politically clumsy home condemnations in areas targeted for development, alienating the local Arab population.

According to the left-wing non-profit Ir HaAmim (City of the Nations), the master plan announced for Jerusalem in 2009 inadequately answers the concerns of East Jerusalem residents. They periodically point out that no plan has ever really addressed development needs in Arab East Jerusalem. While they might be correct, the political context and diplomatic stopping short by Israel’s Western allies and Arab ambiguity about negotiations has created a protracted Catch 22 in Jerusalem vis-a-vis its Arabs: if Israel builds, it alienates states supporting negotiations with Arab states; if it doesn’t build, it alienates Arabs within East Jerusalem.

The fact the plan severely under-addresses the likely housing needs of East Jerusalem is only part of what is lacking. The plan makes no preparations for alternative realities – i.e., the city splitting between two governments.

The analysis of the right-wing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs brings up the issue of land registration in East Jerusalem, though with different motives than Ir HaAmim. While Ir HaAmim complains that subjecting local Arabs to contract law in order to prove ownership of property, the JCPA complains that the lack of that information prevents the Jerusalem municipality from planning to develop areas (and deciding what land to buy from private owners. As their analysis states:

However, the policy of refraining from resolving ownership on most of the land in eastern Jerusalem substantially contributes to the illegal construction there, and severely damages the property rights of the individual, allows for dual registrations and the implementation of contradictory transactions, and does not allow for mortgaging innumerable properties whose exact boundaries are not known.

Basically, East Jerusalemites are screwing themselves.

Neither approach clearly gives us a way forward. There is clear politicization in both analyses. The city is snarled by traffic and perpetually in shortage of housing for the lower and middle classes. Tourism is below possible numbers and the possibility of conflict leaves the city in perpetual stagnation.

Building in Jerusalem is necessary in all neighborhoods for the general health of the city, accommodating immigrants and spurring job growth. It also encourages de-congesting traffic – the indisputable molasses to Jerusalem’s economy.

In my opinion, conceiving a durable development plan that can be adjusted easily as political realities shift, is the only responsible maneuver. Nir Barkat’s plans are simply unoriginal and sub-par. He might be less a fiend than Ehud Olmert (when he was mayor of Jerusalem), but he does not seem to be ready.

April 13, 2011

Jerusalem and (some Minor Reasons Why Palestinian Independence will not End the Conflict)

by Gedalyah Reback

Not Actual Photo

This September, the Palestinian Authority will attempt to gain recognition as an independent state via a vote in the United Nations’ General Assembly. It is taking a a page out of the playbook of the Zionist movement and the leadership of what would become Israel. This time, the Arabs will support a resolution that partitions the land into two states. In a lot of ways, it is a big vindication of the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel. After 63 years, the two state solution wins.

That does not resolve the conflict though. Even if Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu stops fighting this political move by Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister, Israel will not withdraw from all of the West Bank – and especially not Jerusalem.

There are a plethora (awesome academic term) of political questions about the past, present and future of the city. Will it be divided along the 1949 armistice lines? Why did the European Union pass a policy resolution last year demanding East Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state, but its members refuse to recognize even just West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? Would Israel and Palestine share control (and government) over certain areas; that is to say, the Temple Mount?

And the last question is why we are far from seeing Israel and Palestine enter into a peace treaty. The negotiating teams have failed to discuss the issue with seriousness. Either 1) one side refuses to talk about it – as it seems Tzipi Livni refused to do (in a meeting with former Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat; check out the Palestine Papers released a couple months back by Al-Jazeera), or 2) the proposals simply do not reflect the complicated and unique reality that two sets of religious law have to be analyzed in order to find an elaborate way for Jews and Muslims to share the spot.

How to Negotiate over the Temple Mount

Despite what we think we know about Judaism and Islam, neither religion has a simple outlook on the location. But it is safe to say that the spot is much more significant to Jews than it is to Muslims. A former big shot in the Israeli security services recommended some months ago that the Temple Mount be the center of the negotiations unless we want to see this whole thing drag out any longer (or explode into another Israeli-Palestinian war).

What needs to be considered is that for two groups the Temple Mount is vital, crucial and indispensable: 1) those Jews who interpret Jewish law as obliging us to not let non-Jews control the Temple Mount, or requiring us to build the Temple ourselves and 2) those Muslims who maintain the sanctity of the current buildings on the Mount.

Well, how indispensable is not clear. The reality is that Jews and Muslims see the whole location as holy, but for very different reasons. FEW PEOPLE REALIZE that Jews and Muslims do not agree on which part of the Temple Mount complex is the central, holiest spot.

While there is no dispute the entire area has deep, legal and/or traditional significance to both religions, the Jewish focus remains on the spot that housed the Holy of Holies, roughly where the Dome of the Rock stands today. The Al-Aqsa mosque on the other hand maintains sanctity as a mosque, something disputed regarding the Dome (some Muslims say the entire Temple Mount plaza is considered a mosque) .

I am not implying coming up with something would be easy – it will be creative – but I am pointing out that what we think is set in stone and impossible to resolve isn’t necessarily so.

The Conflict Once Was National and is Now Religious

One of the mistakes which the above-mentioned security dude alludes to is thinking we can leave religious groups out of the negotiations of the conflict. This is also the view of Rabbi Michael Froman of the West Bank Settlement Tekoa. he is unique not just because he has met Muslim clergymen tied to Hamas and befriended them, but has even pledged he would stay in a Palestinian state if it were created. Aside from these absurdly interesting issues he brings up, his basic premise stands that Religious Zionist Jews and groups like Hamas have to consider their own interests just as important during negotiations.

I cannot pretend that all Religious Zionists or Islamists think this way – many of them see this as an all-or-nothing war or all-or-nothing political game. But I know Religious Zionists who would find what I am saying at least interesting. I doubt there are no Islamists who might think the same way. Having a political, empowering ideology for one’s religion does not preclude being pragmatic or even kind of liberal.

Personally, as an Orthodox Jew, my concerns are about the immediate future of the Temple Mount and Jews’ physical connection to it. The Western Wall is not the object of our affections and duties, but what lies behind it.

April 3, 2011

If Goldstone Doesn’t Speak Turkish, It Won’t Make Much Difference

by Gedalyah Reback

Surveying the headlines in Turkish papers (in Turkish or English), you will not see the name Goldstone anywhere. Goldstone’s words would force the Turkish government to say something substantial, which would increase the pressure for it to mend fences with Israel.

There is little that can be done to ensure the Turks take into account Richard Goldstone’s opinions that the War in Gaza was fairly fought. The Turkish Prime Minister has beefed up Turkey’s position in the Arab World based on its criticisms of Israel, especially the way he characterized Gazan casualties in 2009 (humiliating the President of Israel, Shimon Peres).

But he is under pressure. The Turkish military enjoyed ties with Israel, and NATO is not happy about the fallout. But as so long as there are elections in Turkey scheduled for June 12th, neither Israel nor Turkey is going to budge. Erdogan does not want to suddenly break his hard line against the Israelis and lose support in June. Netanyahu probably would not want to have to apologize for the “boat incident” last year in order to sweeten a ‘reconciliation’ with Turkey (that would make Erdogan look good, strengthening his party’s chances in June).

Things are likely to have permanently changed, or at least for the next few years, between Israel and Turkey. Even if things get better, they will not be as close. The one wildcard is Egypt. Yes, Egypt. Turkey has had just as much trouble trying to take a consistent public stance on the Arab revolutions as Barack Obama has. If things get worse in Syria, the government will face pressure to change its attitude toward repairing things with Bashar al-Assad (Erdogan has been a big supporter of open government, free of the military.

Erdogan supported the revolution in Egypt, but supports Syria making “reforms.” Obama supported the revolution in Egypt, but supported Bahrain making “reforms.” How Egypt emerges from all this is not certain, but it has a chance of being stronger, especially in the Arab World. If Turkey and Egypt start competing over economic and political influence, Israel could become an important connection for either country (then again, also a target).

The current Turkish government hates the awkward situation it faces with Goldstone, so it is going to be pushed as far away from the public as possible. Getting Goldstone’s words in Turkish is crucial to getting Turkey to let up.

April 1, 2011

Hanging by a Thread: Conversion Corruption in Israel

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally Posted on New Voices

Beginning in 2006, I began the process of converting to Judaism – orthodox style. I came from a mixed family (and my Mom eveven converted via Conservative Judaism!), and for me it was probably inevitable after so many years of searching out the Jews. I lived in a pretty goyische town and grew up with little religious content. Even though I was converting just when the environment was becoming politically hotter, I still gave the benefit of the doubt to the Rabbis around me. My Mom had had a Conservative conversion, yet they still felt I should go through it.

They had a lot of views and policies I was not totally secure about, but I was in no position to ask more than just simple questions. “They know better than me,” I told myself, “and if they say I need to convert for myself, I am not about to start questioning their authoritativeness just because it is inconvenient.” Some day, I thought, I might differ in my opinion to the ones that the rabbis of our day are expressing, “but for now,” the thinking went, I will go with the flow.

That was then, this is now. By the end of 2007, as soon as my personal Rabbi told me I was ready, I began to push anyone else involved – particularly members of the Beit Din. I have followed the issue solidly ever since.

I am starting to get more and more cynical about conversion today, or at least being more outward about it. The problem still lies in the fact policy is the concern of people in charge of conversion, not halachah. So, it’s empowering people who are essentially inventing new rules. It’s turning people away just reading about it, almost as if these new rules are being designed as a new tool to push people from converting (the whole turn-away-3-times thing).

The idea that someone actually needs to be pushed away is remarkable. If someone were only pushed away twice when he first asked a Rabbi about it, his conversion is not going to be overturned – it can’t be. Why? Because this is not an essential part of the conversion process. The only essentials are a brit mila (if a guy) and dunking in the mikvah. Beyond that, it gets more complicated, but those are the essentials. There are a number of reasons to turn people away from converting, but actually trying to prevent their inevitable conversion is a stark perversion of this policy. It is the natural evolution of misunderstanding. Turning people away is doctrine to most people, even Reform and Conservative Jews. This is an absurd development.

We have control over what is an ancient act of policy – turning people away – that is, what is not a halachic precedent. There is no need to employ a deterrence system unless we think we need one. We are not obligated to it. Some say we have to prevent people who will not observe Jewish law from entering the community and diluting the seriousness of its members. This is a legitimate concern. But that is not what is driving these policies today. It is not even the emergent “doctrine” of turning away that I mentioned before. It is policy and politics. But the more people actually believe it is required of us to deter people from Judaism, the more difficult it will be for us to accept new members. All the more dangerous, we are scaring away people who have already converted, creating the most serious spiritual crisis Judaism has had since the European Enlightenment.

It is obvious Israel needs a coherent conversion policy. It is also obvious to population planners and policymakers that Israel’s Russian, Ethiopian and American communities need to have the option open to its members. Conversion allows people to be more mobile in Jewish society and opens doors to integration with people they’d otherwise be unable to marry (both observant and traditional Jews unwilling to cross this Jewish-legal boundary).

From the perspective of making policy for the religious community itself, considering the spiritual ramifications, we are watching the disintegration of the Jewish legal imperative to “respect the convert.” Even more frightening, this is one of the many social flaws that God, via Moses, warns us to avoid to the utmost in the Torah. The consequences of abusing converts, immigrants, widows and orphans are dire and impact the entire Jewish people.

A secular person, whether he is a believer or a traditionalist, needs to understand the gravity that it has, that Jewish religious leaders are ignoring these legal and moral principles. It is a fundamental corruption of Judaism. This marks a crisis in leadership.

There are plenty of Rabbis, both young and elite, that oppose the policies I am tearing apart right now. But, their voices are pretty lame. They are not taking the gloves off and especially not accusing the powers that be of the things that I am. Without a fiercer bite, nothing will change and new Jewish leadership will not emerge. A Rabbinical figure that has the guts to both organize a coherent opposition and articulate could save Jews the world over further embarrassment and division. In so doing, he would rescue Jews from the spiritual ramifications of this conversion crisis. And all the more likely, he would not only reverse the trend of people running away from Judaism, but cause a reverse movement of people flocking toward Jewish observance.

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