Beyond Seventy – on Israel’s Birthday       Friday, May 4, 2018

Yossi Klein Halevi just wants his Arab neighbors to understand what Israel, Jews and Zionism are all about. That, he says, is the purpose behind his new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which comes out in about ten days. In previous books, he’s reflected on the stories, ambitions and personal histories that his neighbors have shared with him. Now, he says, it’s his turn. And he’s made sure his neighbors have the opportunity to understand where he’s coming from: the book is available in Arabic, for free, on line.

“This book isn’t about optimism or pessimism,” he says, “but an attempt to explain the Jewish and Israeli story to our neighbors – why the Jewish people never game up its claim to this land even from afar, why I left my home in New York City in 1982 to move here. . . . We defend our story to the whole world, but we don’t bother explaining ourselves to our neighbors. We’re rightly outraged by the daily attacks on our history and legitimacy that fill the Palestinian media and the Arab world’s media. But we’ve never tried to tell them our story.”

Klein Halevi says the book is not about optimism or pessimism – but maybe it’s about both. And maybe that’s a good way to explain Israel and Jews and Zionism to the Arab world. An Arab world where, on one hand, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and the PLO continue to refuse to recognize the Jewish nation’s right to self-determination; and on the other, where Israel is finding allies in Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia that fear the power of Iran. Optimism that the shifting landscape throughout the Middle East gives Israel an opening to tell its story; pessimism that, after decades of lies and false narratives in the Arab world, the Jew hatred is entrenched so deeply that our story might not be hold.

And that has never been truer than it is this week, when the current Palestinian powers in both Gaza and the West Bank showed that they truly do not want – and will not seek – peace and recognition of the State of Israel as it approaches its 70th birthday.

In Gaza, Hamas has once again chosen to use the destitute population as a human shield for its attacks – encouraging men, women and children to riot along the border fence with Israel, setting fire to piles of tires to camouflage the terrorists who are trying to shoot and bomb their way across the border. Molotov cocktails have been hurled. Kites are now being set alight and landing with devastating effect in Israel’s tinder-dry wilderness.

Week after week, Israeli troops have pushed back, sometimes with deadly force. Week after week, western media outlets like the New York Times have put the blame squarely on Israel’s shoulders, without an acknowledgement that Hamas – which once promoted itself as a charitable agency – has been sacrificing its own people like this for years, while it wastes the vast resources the West has provided, smuggling weapons and digging tunnels instead building infrastructure and creating a functional civil society.

Hamas faces no dilemma here because it has no desire for peace, no plan for creating civil society. It is a terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel. When it talks about the “occupation” it is talking about the whole of the State of Israel, which it has vowed to wipe off the face of the earth.

On the other hand, Israel, at 70, does face many of these dilemmas and is struggling to make sense of them.

“My public life,” writes Klein Halevi, “has been devoted to upholding what I consider an essential realism about Israel’s dilemma – that we can’t permanently rule another people but also can’t make peace with a Palestinian national movement that denies our right to exist as a sovereign nation.”

That continuing denial was brought into sharp focus this week when Mahmoud Abbas gave a long speech in Ramallah to the Palestine Liberation Organization – a speech that included just about every anti-semitic trope in the book. The Jews of Europe, he said, brought the Holocaust on themselves. It didn’t happen because of European antisemitism, he insisted, but because of the Jews’ usury, banking, and what he called their “social function.”

He reiterated the old canards that Jews have no place and no history in the Middle East, that Jews are not originally from the Middle East, and that Israel was a World War Two Colonialist project that had nothing to do with Jewish history or aspirations.

He brought up the lie he began perpetrating some 30 years ago – that Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis to move more Jews into what would become Israel. A lie that is clearly contrary to the facts and the record of the partnership between Hitler and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. At their meeting in 1941, Hitler promised the Mufti that, as soon as German forces had broken through from the Caucasus into the Middle East – and this is a quote from the minutes of their meeting – “Germany’s goal will be the extermination of the Jews who reside in Arab territories under British rule.”

Such lies been pervasive in the PLO’s self-promotion for decades. Lies that are, in part, designed to distract from the incompetence, corruption, and avarice of a Palestinian leadership that has walked away from multiple offers of peace from Israel, and that has instead responded to those offers with violent uprisings and calculated, targeted killings.

Abbas’ language was roundly condemned even by organizations that have not been friendly to Israel. The United Nations special coordinator for peace in the Middle East called it “unacceptable, deeply disturbing.” And even the New York Times, whose coverage of the violence at the Gaza border has been stridently anti-Israel, apparently has enough. “Even in this gloomy climate,” wrote the Times Editorial board on Wednesday, “Mr. Abbas’ vile speech was a new low. . . . Palestinians need a leader with energy, integrity and vision, one who might have a better chance of achieving Palestinian independence and enabling both peoples to live in peace.”

I have said before that I do not agree with many of the policies of various Israeli governments, including this one. I do think there have been missed opportunities in Jerusalem. But the Times is absolutely correct that the Palestinian leadership has failed – failed to unify the West Bank and Gaza, failed to alleviate the desperate circumstances of its people.

Even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has reached the limit of his. He has publicly scolded the Palestinian leadership, told them to shut up, stop complaining, and stop rejecting Israeli offers for peace.

So, yes, maybe Klein Halevi’s book is coming at the right time to be heard in the Arab world. But there’s another important opportunity here – not just for his Palestinian neighbors but for all of us. Because it’s not just the Arab Palestinian national narrative that has flaws in it. Some aspects of the modern Zionist story, too, are problematic. Because if it only starts from 1948, if we are only celebrating 70 years, then we are doing ourselves and our cause a disservice.

Just focusing on the founding of the modern state of Israel plays into the lie that Jews were plunked down in the middle of the Arab world to assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. It’s a lie that is promoted deliberately by people like Abbas and by the anti-Semitic leadership of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, who rely on the sheer ignorance of most of the population of the world about the origins and history of the Jewish people in their land.

As Liel Leibovitz wrote just today in Tablet magazine:

“When everyone from Mahmoud Abbas to Natalie Portman speaks of Israel as a direct outcome of the Holocaust – one with malice, the other out of ignorance – it may be refreshing for the passionate and the progressive to hear about the millennia that preceded Auschwitz, about the Temples and the exiles, about the deep and immovable roots that bind us to the land and from which Jewish self-determination had bloomed for thousands of years.”

If we are going to try get others to see us as something beyond colonialists and interlopers, we need to make sure that our own narrative is clear and strong. Not just 70 years but thousands of years. Not just refugees but rightful heirs. Not just particularists but universalists.

This is, I think, what Klein Halevi is striving for here, when he asks his Arab neighbors not just to hear with an open ear, but with an open mind and a willing heart. He writes:

“Dear Neighbor . . .

“. . . We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless cycle. Not a “cycle of violence” — a lazy formulation that tells us nothing about why our conflict exists, let alone how to end it. Instead, we’re trapped in what may be called a ‘cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty. The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.

“That is the cycle we can only break together.”

I do not know if either side has the courage, or the leadership, or the willingness right now to break this cycle of denial. But I know that, like a good 12-step program, the first step is acknowledging the problem. And here, both sides have to do that. If not, we cannot move forward, step by step, to the future of peaceful coexistence many of us envision.

At the end of his book, Klein Halevi reflects on the celebration of Sukkot in Israel, and building and living in his sukkah. This is, he writes, “an expression of defiance against despair. This open and vulnerable structure is the antithesis of the fortified concrete room in my basement, which every Israeli family is required by law to build, against possible missile attacks. We live with that threat as a constant reality. But the sukkah is our spiritual air raid shelter, promise of a world without fear.”

As we prepare to celebrate the modern state of Israel’s 70th birthday, we must remind ourselves not only of the thousands of years of our history on the land, but also of the important and sacred times that cycle around each and every year, which have sustained our people for these thousands of years, in Israel and outside of it. Feast days and fast days; days when we recite Psalms of rejoicing and of remembering; days coming up soon, like Shavuot, when we celebrate the creation of our people in ancient times, bound by the covenant made at Sinai; days we farther along in the calendar, like Sukkot, when a temporary hut can be turned into a symbol of permanence and peace.

Let us look back on our history as stepping stones that take us, not just to how far we have come today, but where we want and need to be tomorrow. And let us say together: Amen.

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©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

 

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If Jews Controlled the Weather – At Friday, April 6, 2018

Tonight, our long and difficult journey comes to an end. I speak, of course, of the end of Passover – with its week of matzah, maror, and indigestion. I think we did okay, though it was touch and go at the beginning of the week when an April Fools Day snowstorm threatened Monday night’s congregational Seder. Fortunately it wasn’t as bad as it could have been – the storm, I mean; not the Seder – and a good time was had by all. At the Seder, not the storm.

But boy, wouldn’t it be nice if Jews could control the weather, and we could make sure that our special holy days were always beautiful?

Wait – is it possible that we do?

At least one person thinks so. Trayon White, Senior, a Democratic member of the D.C. City Council, posted on Facebook a few weeks ago that “the Rothschilds” control the climate, and that a snowfall that day in Washington reflected their ability to change weather to profit off of poor people.

Here’s what he said in that 20-second video clip:

“Man, it just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation. And D.C. keep talking about, ‘We a resilient city.’ And that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.”

The Rothschilds were prominent 18th-century Jewish bankers who have for centuries been targets of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world’s money supply – paranoid rants that more recently have also targeted Jewish financier George Soros.

But controlling the climate? Oh yes, according to the Times of Israel:

“Internet conspiracy theorists have stated the belief that the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities initiative, which provides grants to cities, including Washington, to address environmental and economic problems, is part of a plot to control and reduce the population of North America. And some conspiracy theorists also think the Rothschilds, working together with the Rockefellers, have technology to control the weather.”

White did apologize for the snowstorm remarks. He claimed he wasn’t anti-Semitic, just uninformed. He “ran with false information,” he said. And we might have been content to accept that apology. That is, until we found out that just a few weeks before, during a Mayor’s Council breakfast, White went on a similar rant based on internet conspiracy theories about “resilient cities”:

“The Rothschilds control the World Bank, as we all know – infusing dollars into major cities. They really pretty much control the federal government, and now they have this concept called resilient cities in which they are using their money and influence into local cities.”

“As we all know.” Yeah, we all know that. At least, we all know what that means. We all know that you are deliberately targeting Jews and blaming us for the bad things that befall your community. Even an unexpected snowstorm.

To be fair, Trayon White traffics in lots of weird and paranoid conspiracy theories, not all of them targeting Jews. And, to be fair, his supporters in Washington’s 8th Ward say that White was simply repeating in public what many blacks say in private – an outgrowth of generations of powerlessness and despair.

But you would think that your job as a public official is to tamp down what used to be fringe theories and denounce them. Educate your constituents, rather than fanning the flames of such hatred. But you can’t claim that you don’t know what you’re saying – when you keep on saying it.

We might brush off rantings like this. Except that what was once fringe lunacy has taken a terrifying leap into general public discourse, where it is repeated, transmitted, and normalized through social contacts, social networking, and even major media. We have seen it most recently in the hateful tropes attacking the surviving children of the Parkland school massacre. But much of the venom is reserved for Jews.

The fact is that these conspiracy theories are just one corner of a massive increase in anti-Semitic incidents over the past year – not just here but all over the world. A year ago, Yair Rosenberg of Tablet Magazine, writing in the Washington Post, pointed out that “according to the FBI, Jews in the United States are annually subject to the most hate crimes of any religious group, despite constituting only two percent of the American population.”

Last month, the Anti-Defamation League identified 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in this country in 2017. That’s an increase of fifty-seven percent over 2016, which also saw a huge increase over the year before.

It was the largest year-to-year increase since the ADL began its reporting 1979. Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL cited three likely factors: the increasingly divisive state of American politics, the emboldening of extremists, and the effects of social media.

“The diminishment of civility in society creates an environment in which intolerance really can flourish,” Greenblatt said. Social-media platforms, he added, have “allowed the kind of poison of prejudice to grow at a velocity and to expand in ways that really are unprecedented.”

We’ve seen all of this unfolding right in front of our eyes. The rise in attacks on Jews has accompanied an invigorated radical right, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And if their hatred was generally targeted at blacks, or Muslims, or other minorities – it seemed always to circle back to the Jews. Last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, their hateful chants of “You will not replace us” soon morphed into the terrifying, “Jews will not replace us.” Armed right-wing militias patrolled in front of one of Charlottesville’s synagogues, while terrified congregants who had come for Shabbat prayer huddled inside.

But even Jewish schoolchildren are under direct attack: swastikas painted on school property or on Jewish students’ belongings; a doubling of reports of anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools, and an 89 percent increase on college campuses, where Jewish students often report being afraid to even talk about Judaism or Israel in public. That’s a terrifying sign that young people are embracing these conspiracy theories and acting on them, even while they attend school with students of all races and backgrounds.

And the rampant growth of anti-Semitism is even more evident in Europe. Yair Rosenberg reported that Jews in France – who make up less than one percent of the population – were the target of 51 percent of France’s racist attacks in 2014. Jews have been attacked in Denmark, in Belgium, and in Sweden. Forty percent of Europe’s Jews, according to one survey, are terrified to publicly identify as Jewish. And no wonder, when they witness the recent horrific murder of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, who was stabbed 11 times in her Paris apartment.

But we should not presume that anti-Semitism is a disease of the right. Jew hatred knows no social or political boundaries. At decidedly liberal Oberlin College, writes Yair Rosenberg, “a writing instructor named Joy Karega shared Facebook memes about Jewish control of the global economy and the media, alongside posts asserting Israeli responsibility for the Islamic State and 9/11.” When she came in for criticism from the school and others, he points out, the Oberlin Student Council rejected the criticism as a “witch hunt.” Indeed, he notes, TV comedian Samantha Bee, after reporting on an anti-Semitic rant at a Donald Trump political rally, noted – “To find anti-Semitism that rabid, you’d have to go to, well, any left-leaning American college campus.”

Or, well, any left-leaning American feminist movement.

Anti-semitism has long been a disturbing element of feminism – since the 1970s, when many feminist groups took up the anti-Israel trope that equated Zionism with racism and insisted that Jewish women who supported Israel could not be true feminists.

That notion has infected many contemporary civil-rights groups, including elements of Black Lives Matter – which has rejected partnership with Jews who also support Israel.

But it’s at its worst, I think, in the leadership circles of the Women’s March, which includes several women who have publicly supported the avowed Jew-hating leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan.

One of them, Tamika Mallory, was given a shout-out by Farrakhan in February during a Nation of Islam speech in Chicago that was typically replete with anti-Semitism and homophobia: ““White folks are going down,” declared Farrakhan, “and Satan is going down, and Farrakhan by God’s grace has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew—and I’m here to say, your time is up.”

Both Mallory and fellow Women’s March leader Carmen Perez have publicly promoted Farrakhan. Their co-leader, Linda Sarsour, proclaimed Farrakhan as “too blessed.” Sarsour – a well-known Muslim and Palestinian activist – has publicly thrown her lot in with Palestinian terrorist murders and denies that Jews have a right to self-determination.

For many of us, the leadership of the Women’s March is tainted, even poisoned, and should be denounced and replaced.

As John-Paul Pagano so eloquently wrote in The Atlantic:

“That there appears to be no desire on the part of the Women’s March to confront Jew-hatred specifically and substantively, even as most religious hate crimes target Jews and anti-Semitism stats rise, is something that should trouble anyone of genuine antiracist sentiment.

“That the group refuses to be accountable for a high-level alliance with an open anti-Semite disqualifies it from ranking among today’s movements for social justice.”

Anti-Semites from across the political, social and religious spectrum seem to have found common ground in their hatred of Jews, which is all too often rooted in lies that go back generations – sometimes centuries. That even young people are all too eager to believe the rotten stereotypes points to a sickness in our nation that has infected our public discourse and even our public servants.

And that’s what is so sad, in the end, about DC City Councilman Trayon White, Senior. He could have made some important points about how little the government has done to help revitalize many black communities. He could have reached out to his community’s Jewish neighbors – instead of waiting for them to reach out to him.

Instead, he became a joke, the brunt of a whole slew of on-line memes. Here are a few of the jokes I found easily on Twitter about Jews controlling the weather:

  • Insanity of this conspiracy theory aside, I am genuinely confused about the alleged motive here for making it snow. If Jews controlled the weather I’m pretty sure most places would feel like Florida
  • If Jews controlled the weather it would always be cold so our mothers could tell us to wear a jacket, and we’d never complain about shvitzing.
  • Dude if Jews controlled the weather why would we EVER make it humid, that’s DEATH for our hair.
  • If Jews controlled the weather there would be no Winter, so Jewish mothers wouldn’t fret about their kids wearing their hats, mittens &scarves. The existence of both Winter AND Jewish mothers shows that, alas, the former is more in control of the latter than the other way ’round.
  • Why am I just learning now that Jews control the weather?? Shouldn’t someone have mentioned that at my Bar Mitzvah? ‘Congratulations on becoming a man. Also, you can make it rain now’.

Yeah, the tweets are really funny. Because, typical of Jews, we laugh where we might cry at the anti-Semitic tropes that never seem to go away but just morph into such utter stupidity. From evil money lenders and bleeders of Christian children’s bodies to nefarious controllers of black neighborhoods in “resilient cities.” Because, in the end, we still have got to trust that our country – and its citizens – will be better than this. Smarter than this. More decent and honorable than this.

This week’s Haftarah, from Second Samuel, depicts King David dancing and celebrating and sharing food with the masses as the Ark of the Covenant is carried into Jerusalem. It is a reminder during our Zman cheiroteinu, our season of freedom – of the gift that the Jews brought to the world.

A people unified by faith in God and Torah, the first such document in the ancient world to demand equal treatment for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger. A people inspired by prophets who, in God’s name, called for a community guided by social justice and individual dignity. A people which, like any other, is entitled to self-determination.

It is a reminder, not to us alone but, perhaps, most importantly, to all non-Jews – including those whose own faith traditions stand on the foundations laid by Judaism.

And is a reminder to us of our thousands of years of resilience – in the face of unspeakable evils – and the role we must play in the redemption, not just of our own people, but of all of humanity. And that is no joking matter.

Ken yehi ratson. May we join together to build a world of redemption  –  if not in our time then in our children’s time. And let us say together: Amen.

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©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem” – Friday, December 8th, 2017

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,

Let my right hand forget her cunning.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,

If I remember thee not;

If I set not Jerusalem

Above my chiefest joy.        (Psalm 137:1-6, 1917 JPS Tanakh)

 

The Psalmist wrote these words from the point of view of exile 25-hundred years ago, describing the Jewish people sitting, weeping, by the rivers of Babylon and vowing never to forget Zion, never to forget Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the beating heart of our nation. From the day, some three thousand years ago, that the Bible says King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought to the city and set up in the Tabernacle that he had constructed for it, Jerusalem has been both the temporal and the religious capital of the Jews. Since that time, Jerusalem has been a national capital city ONLY for Jews. Not for any of its conquerors in the past two thousand years, be they Greek, Roman, Christian, Ottoman, or Arab.

One hundred years ago, Lord Balfour declared England’s support for a modern Jewish homeland in our ancestral land – a declaration supported by the League of Nations in 1922 and by its successor, the United Nations, in 1947. Not, as detractors and anti-semites later would insist, as a post-World War Two colonialist enterprise to grab land from Arabs and assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. But rather to put right a historical wrong.

This week, President Trump sought to redress another historical wrong – by recognizing that Jerusalem IS, in fact, the capital of the modern State of Israel. And I think that is a really, really good thing.

There is no other example that I can think of – certainly not in modern history – where a sovereign nation did not get to choose where its capital would be. And no other example where that decision was ignored or even condemned by the rest of the world. The State of Israel operates out of Jerusalem: the president’s residence, the prime minister’s residence, the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and government agencies all are located in Jerusalem. And diplomats from other nations waste hours on the road every week, making the trek from their embassies in Tel Aviv to the seat of power in Jerusalem.

The president was just stating a fact, acknowledging reality. And that, unfortunately, is something that seems to be an alien concept in other parts of the world. I actually wish this had happened sooner. Maybe 70 years ago, certainly 50 years ago. I wish the western nations that all supported the creation of the modern Jewish homeland in our ancestral land had done the same. Because it would, I believe, have forced the nations of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, as well as the self-described Palestinian people, to acknowledge reality, instead of dealing in false narratives.

It is a message long overdue: Start negotiating based on facts on the ground, not the fantasy of a past that really never was.

The delusion goes back all the way to the UN partition plan of 1947 that envisioned a Jewish state and an Arab state carved out of the land, living side by side, with Jerusalem as an open, international city.

The Jews said yes to that plan. But the Arab nations, in unity, said no. No to it all. No to a Jewish state. No to an internationally supervised Jerusalem. Instead they attempted to engage in genocide. And they lost.   They – the aggresors – lost in 1947 and in 1953 in the Suez Canal zone and in 1967 when Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem away from Jordan. They said no. They don’t get rewrite history now: Well, we still don’t want a single Jew on the land, but we’ll take an international Jerusalem. No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. You said no back then. And you walked away from prospects for a negotiated peace at least half a dozen times in the last thirty years. So, no.

I am no fan of the current Israeli government. Not a surprise there. They, too, have squandered opportunities and engaged in deliberately provocative building campaigns over the green line. With a current cabinet that is solidly right-wing, there’s little incentive, and little appetite, for anything else. But, historically, Israel has been open to negotiation.

Everybody has ‘known’ for decades what the parameters of a peace plan would look like: both sides acknowledging the validity of the other and providing security assurances. Land swaps to compensate the Arabs for Jewish settlements – 85 percent of which are on only 8 percent of the West Bank and hug the green line. Acknowledgement of the Jewish capital in West Jerusalem while accommodating an Arab capital in East Jerusalem – even if that meant extending the city’s eastern boundary to achieve it.

Everybody “knows” this is what needs to happen. But it has never happened. And it never will happen as long as Jewish historical ties to the land and the city are disputed, and the right to Jewish sovereignty is denied.

This is probably why even some left-wing Laborites in Israel, who would never push for such a declaration from Washington, are reportedly delighted now that it’s happened. Maybe this announcement will be just the kick in the pants that the Arab world needs to get real.

That’s definitely not happening yet in Gaza, where Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, yesterday called for yet another violent uprising. “The only way to deal with the Zionist policy,” he declared, “is sparking a new intifada against the occupation and welcome resistance to this occupation.” By occupation, he’s not talking about the Old City or the West Bank. He’s talking about the entire state of Israel, which he is still committed to wiping off the map. And so are the leaders of Iran, who echoed these same sentiments. Violent protests are breaking out in Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem as a result.

Interestingly, we’re hearing very little from Arab capitals. Another truth of the current Middle East is that the Palestinian issue – which has long been used as a red herring by Arab autocrats to deflect anger away from their own oppressive policies – is not so important to them anymore, what with Iran’s bold ambitions, the bloody Syrian civil war, and the remnants of ISIS still at large. The Saudis are clearly re-thinking their alliances, and my colleague Rabbi David Kaufman of the group We Are For Israel writes that they are not alone: “Several Arab nations have come to realize that establishing more significant relations with Israel would be substantially in their best interest . . .  If the Palestinians and Israelis do not make peace soon, several Arab nations may establish peace agreements on their own without that happening first.”

I was on a conference call yesterday with David Makovsky, a former State Department official who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he pointed out that there’s a duality here that the Arab world seems to be ignoring. Yes, President Trump did correct an historic anomaly – some would say an historic injustice – in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But he also said: “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” Rather than closing the doors to a possible peace plan, the declaration is designed to go along with it.

Makovsky’s advice was that the White House should make that duality clear – not just in English in Washington, but in Arabic in the Middle Eastern media as well. Most of the Arab world is not told the truth by state-controlled media. A majority of Palestinians think that Israel wants 100 percent of the West Bank, which is both absurd and untrue. So it should be the responsibility of the United States to tell the truth, in every place and in every language it can.

And that includes the fact that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem will take years, given the need for land and security. That gives everybody enough time to do what everybody “knows” they need to do. This is what our former Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, had to say about it:

“I supported all three presidents’ use of their national security waiver authority to delay the move in the interest of pursuing Middle East peace. But I have never believed that arguments for moving the embassy were groundless, or that it must await a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

“I’m influenced by my love of Jerusalem — an emotional attachment born of decades studying its history — and sense of justice for Jewish claims to the city that are far too often called into question. The presence of a U.S. Embassy in parts of Jerusalem no one disputes are Israeli territory is one way of acknowledging the centuries of history that link the Jewish people to the city, the questioning of which is closely linked to the denial of Israel’s very legitimacy.”

David Makovsky, during yesterday’s conference call, acknowledged the short-term threat to a long-term solution: “I think it could get bumpier before it calms down,” he said. And I understand the concern of my friends and colleagues who live in Israel, many of them in Jerusalem. They fear for their safety and that of their children, some of whom serve in the IDF or in the reserves. Some think this was the wrong time to make the announcement, absent a detailed peace plan, and that the United States going it alone in the world – yet again – is not necessarily helpful.

And yes, I can say all of this because I have no skin in the game. I don’t live in Israel. I don’t have children who put their lives on the line there. But my colleague, Rabbi Mickey Boyden does. He picked up his family and moved them from England to Israel decades ago. And he lost his son Jonathan, an IDF soldier who was killed on a rescue mission in Southern Lebanon in 1993. Here’s what he wrote this week in the English-language newspaper Times of Israel:

“So the international community continues to play the charade of maintaining its embassies in Tel Aviv while its ambassadors and other officials travel up the winding highway to Jerusalem to do business at the Knesset and Israel’s government ministries. . . . Of course, there is still the issue of the Palestinians and reaching an accommodation with them. However, no one can seriously believe that Israel will relocate its seat of government to Tel Aviv even in the context of a peace agreement. Therefore, it is time to stop playing games.”

The work of peace is hard and long. And I agree with David Makovsky, who used a baseball analogy to describe a suggested path to negotiations. We have failed, he said, when we swing for the fences instead of hitting a solid single. Let’s start, not by trying to solve everything at once, but by dealing with the gut issues first – the ones that hit people in the kishkes. For the Palestinians it’s about land, and guaranteeing them a fair layout of the West bank. For the Israelis, it’s security, both now and in the future. What are the Palestinians teaching their children about Israel and the Jews? What is the message they send by providing lifetime incomes to the families of terrorists?

The president was right that the two sides need to step up to the plate and deal honestly and realistically. The United States cannot – and never has been able to – impose a solution. But if our acknowledgement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can shake some sense into them, it is a step in the right direction.

The Psalmist (Psalm 126: 4-6) also wrote of the joy of returning from exile in Babylon all those centuries ago:

Bring back our captivity, O Lord, like the streams in the Negev.

Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.

He who goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come back with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves.

Let this be the image of the city of David, the city of peace, the city of redemption. Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will. As we say together: Amen.

 

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Abraham, Sarah, and ‘#MeToo’” – Shabbat Lech Lecha October 27, 2017

“Finally, Sarah had had enough[1]. After all the years of humiliation, after decades of isolation from her friends and her family – this was more than she could bear. Abraham had taken from her, her dignity, her sense of identity. But now he had taken her only son, her beloved Isaac. And that was more than she could bear.

        “Their marriage had, in the beginning, been one of love, companionship, trust and respect. Unlike so many women of her time, Sarah never felt in those days that she was merely an appendage, a piece of the household. Abraham had appreciated her talents, her warmth and kindness, and her home reflected her personality. Through their early travels together, when their work on behalf of their God was meaningful for both of them, she had great influence throughout the community. While Abraham brought many men to the worship of Adonai, Sarah had converted scores of women. Their household grew and was filled with love of one another that reflected their love of God.

        “But over the years, Abraham had changed – and so had his treatment of Sarah. As he became more obsessed with being the perfect servant of God, he began to treat Sarah as his servant. When famine in Canaan forced them to move to Egypt for a time, Abraham felt threatened by Sarah’s beauty and grace. “If the Egyptians see you, they’ll kill me to have you,” he had said to her. “So say you’re my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you.”[2]

       ” Just as Abraham predicted, Pharaoh’s servants were mesmerized by Sarah, and word of her beauty quickly reached the palace. Pretending to be Sarah’s brother, Abraham negotiated a bride price and sold his own wife into Pharaoh’s harem, in exchange for gold, silver, sheep and camels. Forced into sexual slavery, Sarah went about in a daze, trying to distance her mind from what her body was being forced to do. Abraham’s God finally took pity on her and revealed to Pharaoh that she was, in fact, Abraham’s wife, not his sister. Pharaoh sent for Abraham and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Here, take your wife and leave!”[3] And Pharaoh sent along an escort to make sure they left his country as soon as possible.

       “But when they returned to Canaan, it happened again. King Avimelech, who should have been an ally and friend, was suddenly seen as a threat by Abraham. “She’s my sister!” he insisted to the king’s servants – this time without consulting Sarah and without warning her.[4] As before, Abraham got the goods while Sarah was taken to the king’s bed. This time, though, God put a stop to the charade before any more harm could be done. Seeing that Sarah had not consented this time, God came to Avimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.” And God said to him in the dream, “I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and so I kept you from sinning against Me. That was why I did not let you touch her. Therefore, restore the man’s wife—since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you—to save your life.”[5]

        “The next morning, Avimelech had gone immediately to Abraham and confronted him: “What have you done to us? What wrong have I done that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.”[6] Sarah, of course, had thought much the same thing. Avimelech paid Abraham off with sheep and oxen, male and female slaves, and a thousand pieces of silver, as he returned Sarah to him[7].

       “All of this Sarah bore with dignity – especially when she discovered soon after that she, at age ninety, was going to be blessed with the child she’d always hoped for. God had answered her prayers, and she bore her beloved Isaac, the light of her life. She kept Isaac close to her, and over the years taught him kindness, gentleness, and respect for men and women alike. She taught him that being a servant of God did not excuse neglect or abuse of the human beings around him – but that, in fact, the way he treated others reflected the way he felt about God.

        “And then he was gone. Sarah had noticed Abraham even more distant and distracted than usual. He refused to talk to her, ignored her pleas to share whatever distressed him. She arose one morning to discover he’d gotten up especially early, saddled his donkey, sent for a couple of his young lads, and taken Isaac away. For three days, she sat weeping in her tent, wandering around the household, praying for her son’s safe return.

“That night, in a dream, an old man came to her[8] and said to her: “Do you not know what your husband has done to your only son this day? He took Isaac, built an altar, slaughtered him, and brought him up as a sacrifice. Isaac cried out to his father, who refused to look at him and acted without compassion.” Sarah thought she would die, there and then. She fainted and felt the life force flowing out of her. Little did she know that, at that very instant, her beloved Isaac felt the same – as he looked up from the altar to see his father raising his hand against him, slaughtering knife in his grip, and beyond him – the angels in heaven openly weeping.

“Sarah came to. She refused to believe Isaac could be gone – it must be Satan, she thought, playing on her mind. Not even Abraham would do such a thing. Would he? Another three days, she searched the countryside around their home, making inquiries, but nobody had seen the father and son. That night, the same old man appeared in her dream. “I was wrong the first time,” he said. “Abraham did not kill your son after all. He’s alive, and he’s returning to you.”

        “Isaac returned alone, without his father, shaken, exhausted and traumatized by the events of the past few days. After a weepy reunion, during which Isaac told his mother every detail of what had happened on the mountain, Sarah knew what she had to do. She packed her things, loaded her camels, took her son and her most trusted servants, and left her husband’s house. She went to Hebron and there lived by herself – something no married woman ever did in that time. But the community knew her, accepted her and respected her. She never saw Abraham again. And neither did Isaac. When word reached Abraham of Sarah’s death, he came and he wept over her and he mourned for her – and for all he had done to drive her away. He bought a suitable burial ground and gave her a proper funeral.”

 

I created this modern midrash on the Torah portions we read this week and next in 2003, as part of a Jewish Women International program on domestic violence in the Jewish community. The events and dialogue are taken directly from Scripture. Sarah’s dream comes from rabbinic lore that attempted to more fully explain what happened while Abraham went to sacrifice his son. The only thing I added, really, was the overlay of Sarah’s own voice, of her own feelings. That’s something that Scripture doesn’t give us, and neither do the rabbis.

As I read it, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was startled into silence by the words and deeds they had read so many times in the Torah but perhaps never before actually seen. Afterward, I was accosted by an Orthodox Jewish woman: “How dare you say such things about Avraham Avinu!” she chastised me. “How dare you do such a thing.” She could not comprehend the fact that these events are in Scripture, and that these words do come from the Midrash, where the rabbis –in their own way – acknowledged that Sarah deserved to be heard. Certainly, from their perspective, they would not – and did not – think of her as an abused woman. But from a 21st-century perspective, that’s just what I was suggesting.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been inundated by news and accusations of sexual impropriety, sexual assault, and even rape, by prominent and important men in American culture. It started with the stories about Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and his abuse of  many young actresses who worked, or wanted to work, for his production company.

After he was fired, Jenni Konner, the executive producer of the HBO series “Girls” said: “I see this as a tipping point. This is the moment we look back on and say, ‘That’s when it all started to change.’”[9]

And she was right. Once the wall was breached, it came tumbling down quickly. Among those finally getting the ax: Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, which last January renewed his contract knowing full well he had just settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $32 million – the sixth such lawsuit against him. The Murdoch family, which owns Fox, made the calculated decision to hang onto O’Reilly even though the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, already had been fired for alleged sexual harassment himself – activity that had gone unchecked for years.

Also recently fired after multiple sexual harassment complaints: Chris Savino of the Nickelodeon network; Vox Media Editorial Director Lockhart Steele; and Hollywood agent Tyler Grasham. Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios, resigned after similar allegations were made against him. Prominent political journalist Mark Halperin was pulled from his current gig as a commentator at NBC and MSNBC, after five anonymous women from his time at ABC came forward. Women are also now coming forward to make accusations of harassment and inappropriate touching against President George H.W. Bush.

And perhaps most sadly for the Jewish community: Leon Wieselthier, long-time literary editor of The New Republic and an important voice in modern Jewish literature….and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who allegedly copped a feel at a public event.

All of these men are powerful leaders in their fields, opinion shapers, and trend setters. All allegedly felt that their power and positions gave them the right to inflict themselves on women who depended on them or looked up to them. I’ve mentioned the word power twice here, and for good reason. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not, at base, about sex. They are about power – about men using sex as a tool to control women.

Some of these men deny the allegations, some have not answered them. Of those who have acknowledged at least some of the damage they caused, their excuses are pathetic. Harvey Weinstein said, in essence, well, that’s the way things were when I was growing up in the ‘70s and nobody thought anything of it. He’s headed for some kind of private therapy – as though that will make him no longer a brute and a bully.

As for Mark Halperin, he actually told CNN: “I did pursue relationships with women that I worked with, including some junior to me. I now understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain.”

Now? From these accounts? That’s how and why and when he gets that what he did was disgusting and disturbing? As Monica Hesse and Dan Zak, asked in their Washington Post article this week:

 

“Does the ‘now’ merely arise from the fact that his actions are now public? Does ‘now’ mean we’re watching an epoch of entitled masculinity finally end? Or is there something else going on ‘now’?”

Maybe there is. When I was growing up, we called these guys dirty old men and tried to ignore the patterns of behavior around us – the men who would wink at us at public events, eye us up and down, comment on our legs or hair, brush up against our backsides in the aisles the music store.

When I was a young reporter and the owner of a prominent sports team – obviously intoxicated – found me alone in the tunnel underneath the stadium and pinned me against the wall, I slipped out of his drunken grasp and sprinted out and never told anybody. I guarantee you that many, many of the women who are now coming forward did the same. Nobody would believe us. Or our young careers would be imperiled. Or our reputations would have been tarnished. Our reputations, not theirs. Because in a patriarchal society – whether in 21st –century America or in ancient Mesopotamia – that’s what happens.

In Sarah’s day, wives belonged to their husbands. They were part of the household, like a chair or a goat. Do you think ownership of women does not exist today?  Why else do you think girls throughout Africa are married off so young, or Saudi women are forbidden from driving, or Haredi women in Israel are ordered to cover up and move to the other side of the road?

Oh, but don’t think that America is going to get off that easy. That we are still debating whether women should have access to birth control – much less abortion – shows the lengths to which men will go to control our bodies, make our decisions, and limit our opportunities for education and financial independence.

Sexual assault does not just occur in Silicon Valley or New York media or Washington power circles. It is not found just in the lurid front-page stories of our newspapers and magazines. It is part and parcel of life – here and around the world. The use of sex as a control device may be more subtle or more overt, illegal or just gross – but it is a constant. At least it has been. Maybe the halls of power are finally closing in on the offenders. Maybe the walls of shame are finally cracking around their victims.

Dozens and dozens of women I know have come out of the shadows to post their #MeToo notes on social media. Amazingly, it has been eye-opening even for forward-thinking male colleagues and friends. They are having their own #YouToo moments.  And that can only be for the good.

But it will take more than individual epiphanies, in a nation that knowingly elected a Groper-in-Chief. The New York Times’ Jodi Kator, who broke the Weinstein story, notes: “Ailes, O’Relly, Weinstein, Halperin were some of our culture’s key storytellers, shaping our ideas of gender authority, power, and much more.” And there’s the real challenge. Because unless and until women achieve equality as shapers of our ideas and voices of our culture – and political leaders of our nation – very little is likely to change.

But making everything public that we have kept so private for so long, is a start. As Hesse and Zak wrote, “It used to be in private, between women alone, or behind closed doors between and woman and the man who was making her life miserable. Now it’s in public. Which might be what Halperin meant in his use of ‘now’: The discussion has gotten really loud. It’s pretty hard to ignore.”

The story of Sarah, as told by Sarah, teaches us that sexual control of women by men is as old as the Bible itself. The #MeToo stories of dozens and hundreds and thousands of women today, as told by them, teaches us that naming it, and sharing it without shame or self-blame, are the first steps to fixing it. We are all created in God’s image. We are all equal in God’s eyes. We are all equally worthy of respect in the eyes of others. We must demand no less.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] This midrash was originally written for a Jewish Women International program in Chicago on domestic abuse in the Jewish community, “Peace in the Homes: The Voice of Sarah,” delivered February 9, 2003.

[2] Genesis 12:12-13.

[3] Genesis 12:18-19.

[4] Genesis 20:2.

[5] Genesis 20:6.

[6] Genesis 20:9.

[7] Genesis 20:14.

[8] Versions of this midrash appear in Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer and Sefer HaYashar. Another variant has Satan appearing as Isaac himself to tell Sarah what is transpiring. See Tanhuma, Va-yera, 23; Ecclesiastes Rabbah. 9:7, 1.

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/08/business/harvey-weinstein-fired.html

When Prayers are Not Enough: A Response to Las Vegas

Another beautiful High Holy Days season with my congregation has just come to an end, and we immediately are turning toward Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Yesterday, we put up the sukkah in the Temple rose garden. This morning, I’d planned to work on my programming and prayers for this Shabbat.

And then….

And then I was awakened to the news from Las Vegas. More than 50 killed, 200 wounded, by a single man with unclear motivation but lots and lots of military-grade weaponry and a clear shot from his hotel room at a crowd of 20,000 at a music festival across the street. Once again, we are using the phrase “largest mass murder in our nation’s history.” Once again, our nation is in shock. Once again, our leaders ask for prayers.

I’m a rabbi. I’m in the business of prayers. And I’m telling you – no.

No to empty rhetoric. No to the shock, when our recent history tells us we shouldn’t be. No to the call for prayers when you won’t do anything to prevent this from happening again. And again. And again.

How long has it been since Orlando? Or Sandy Hook? Or Columbine? How many more times do we have to use that phrase “largest mass murder in our nation’s history”? How many times do politicians have to kowtow to gun manufacturers who use the National Rifle Association as a front for their madness and their mendacity, and the politicians use the Constitution as an excuse for taking their money? When do you grow a backbone and decide that the lives of your constituents are more important than the blood money in your campaign chest?

Just Saturday, on our fasting and atonement day of Yom Kippur, we read from Isaiah 58, in which the prophet chastised the people for false piety.

““Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist!“[1]

If God has no patience with words with no action, why should we?

At this writing, I have no idea what the motivation of the shooter was, or his mental state. All I know is that Americans have once again been victimized by a cult of death that has infected our nation with the evil notion that a man (or a boy, and generally mass shooters are male) should reach for a gun as a first resort to settle his scores, or soothe his pain, or make a political point. All I know is that I was brought to tears by Tom Brokaw on the Today Show this morning, when he talked about how parents all over the country would now be worried to let their children go to concerts, and what a sad commentary that is on our nation today. All I know is that, once again this Shabbat, I will be asking my congregation to remember the victims of Las Vegas as they did those of Orlando, and San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook. And nobody should be asked to do that. Ever.

So I’m as done with false piety and empty promises as Isaiah was:

“Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.”[2]

I’m an American and I demand more. I demand safety when I go to concerts, or to school, or to the movies. Or even when I’m at home (since there is a proven connection among many mass shooters between gun violence and domestic violence). I demand that we support our police and our other first-responders, whose Kevlar vests do not protect them against military-grade weaponry.

I demand that we have national laws that, once and for all, require that all gun sellers – including private dealers – run background checks on buyers, and that the checks be completed (see Dylan Roof) before a sale is made. I demand a waiting period of at least three days before that sale can be concluded – so that someone does not buy a gun while in the throes of anger or distress. I demand that anyone who buys multiple weapons and/or large rounds of ammunition in a limited amount of time be reported to authorities – because chances are that such a person is either buying to re-sell illegally, or is planning something very, very bad.

And I demand that we have national laws that make it illegal for private citizens to own military-grade weaponry such as the semi-automatic weapons that have caused such mass carnage – a ban that even Justice Antonin Scalia allowed for in his majority opinion in the District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment affirmed an individual right to bear arms:

“[L]ike most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. . . . [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose . . .  Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Justice Scalia wrote that the Constitution protects weapons that can be carried and are in common use.  And while a million AR-15’s and the like are in the hands and homes of private citizens in this nation, they should not be considered “common.” There is nothing common – that is, ordinary – about a weapon that can cause such carnage, instill such fear, shed such much blood in such a short period of time.

Have you watched the videos taken by concert attendees, as the bullets were fired so fast, so long, and with such deadly power, that people didn’t have time to hide? Can you watch this – and listen to shot after shot after shot – without feeling anger and revulsion as well as fear and pity?

And can we expect our prayers to be answered by God, unless the Eternal sees that we mean it when we pray with awe and reverence?

“Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am. If you banish the yoke from your midst, The menacing hand, and evil speech, And you offer your compassion to the hungry And satisfy the famished creature— Then shall your light shine in darkness, And your gloom shall be like noonday.”[3]

Our nation will not see the light of salvation unless we remove the “menacing hand and evil speech” from our midst. Until we as a citizenry demand that our nation’s leaders stop engaging in platitudes and start engaging in the work for which we have elected them: protecting our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We cannot sustain these rights when we fear going into public places. We cannot be free when guns have such a stranglehold on our elected leaders, and on our peoples’ psyche. We cannot be happy when we see the sorrow that gun violence brings.

So, yes, I will ask for healing prayers for the survivors and the families and I will offer a memorial prayer for the dead. I’m a rabbi, so that’s what I do. But as a rabbi, I cannot and will not be silent in the face of this cult of darkness and death. Let there be light.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

[1] Isaiah 58:3-4

[2] Isaiah 58:5-6

[3] Isaiah 58:9-10