Reaching for the Truth

July 5, 2015 at 7:38 pm

All of us can, at most, “Strive for Truth” [It’s a borrowed title], and so I appreciate Rabbi Shafran’s clarification of his position. And to the best of my recollection, there hasn’t been a back & forth discussion/argument of this nature on Cross-Currents in over a decade, much as different authors often disagree. The more one reads Cross-Currents, the more the reader recognizes that the Orthodox are hardly the monolith they are often portrayed to be; a debate of this nature just makes this as explicit as possible, and thus where Rabbi Shafran and I emphatically agree is that this is a positive dialog for several reasons.

I see no reason to depart from Rabbi Shafran’s enumeration of my points, and I’ll let people respond to both articles in the comments below.

1) My point was that there seemed no need for Rabbi Shafran to wander down this road, especially considering the tenuous ground upon which his arguments stand. What is the purpose of demonizing Oren? Instead of being a brilliant historian and dedicated public servant, all of a sudden he’s a right-wing nut job attacking Obama just to sell books, and Kafui Tov for not recognizing how wonderful Obama really is. Really?

Oren’s not a right-winger, he’s not a Netanyahu crony, and he only confirmed what those of us who have followed the news reports carefully have seen for years. As Rabbi Shafran conceded, the egregious omission of Israel in the countries rushing to provide aid to Haiti — that and that alone — disturbed him greatly, and “seemed to contradict” his “positive judgment of Mr. Obama’s regard for Israel.”

As described by Oren’s close friend, Yossi Klein Halevi, Oren had a good reason to release this book now:

Michael Oren is one of the most selfless public servants of the Jewish people I’ve been privileged to know. And he wrote “Ally” for one overriding reason: to challenge Obama on Iran. That’s why he timed its release just before the deadline for concluding the Iranian negotiations. His explicit intention was to call into question the credibility of the President of the United States when he repeatedly declares that he has Israel’s back. Not because Michael believes that President Obama hates Israel or wishes us harm, but because Michael believes – as do I – that the President’s Iranian policy is placing Israel under existential threat. “Ally” is Michael’s cry of alarm – the culmination of a commitment that we began together in 2006, when we co-authored an article for the New Republic warning against American complacency toward a nuclearizing Iran.

2) It’s clear that Rabbi Shafran did not understand what Oren said. The quote, in context, reads “The first principle was ‘no daylight.’ The U.S. and Israel always could disagree but never openly. Doing so would encourage common enemies and render Israel vulnerable.” It is extremely well-known that the United States disapproved of the expansion of settlements, and said so. Could Michael Oren, familiar as he was with the history of the US-Israel relationship, have intended to say that all of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II had never publicly disagreed with Israel at all? No.

What was Oren actually saying? That Obama made it a policy. Instead of highlighting the firm partnership between the US and Israel, he highlighted the disagreements — as he said he would do in his 2009 speech. That is what Oren was talking about, and it remains unrebutted.

3) I do not understand Rabbi Shafran’s claim that the change and tenor “is Mr. Oren’s judgment only.” The Bush letter acknowledged that Israel would not leave the entirety of the West Bank: “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The unwritten subtext approved Israel building in existing Jewish neighborhoods and settlements. Having been approved by both the House and Senate (including the votes of Sen. H. Clinton and Rep. R. Emanuel), it was a firm pledge from the United States to Israel.

Sorry, but Rabbi Shafran can’t have it both ways. If he wants to claim that there was no shift, then why did Obama need to disavow the letter? Why was an assurance from the House, Senate and previous President null and void, if nothing had changed? The very fact that the letter was set aside is clear proof otherwise. And if this had precedent, neither Rabbi Shafran nor any of Oren’s other critics have shown us where. [What Obama did was set a precedent, relevant to its relationships with all other countries: the commitment of one administration, though backed by both houses of Congress, can be dropped by the next without a backwards glance. The United States feels no obligation to keep its word.]

Further, Rabbi Shafran claims that “Mr. Obama has never addressed his position on the ultimate status of any settlements, opting instead to leave all such things to any negotiations between Israel and the PA.” But this, too, is incorrect. What Obama did was adopt the Palestinian negotiating position as US policy.

From page 208 of the book: “the capstone [of Obama’s new plan] would be recognition of the 1967 lines as the basis for peace. This, the president would likely say, would merely express the obvious and reiterate long-standing US policy. In reality, though, America’s embrace of the 1967 lines would undermine the Terms of Reference so fastidiously forged by Hillary Clinton. That TOR talked of ‘the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines’ – that is, not the Israeli or American goal. Endorsing those borders, even with mutually agreed land swaps, meant granting an immense concession to the Palestinians while they refused to even enter peace talks. It meant tying those talks to lines that, in broad areas in and around Jerusalem and along the Jordan Valley, no longer existed… Instead of taking Abbas to task for not negotiating and for opposing construction in neighborhoods Israel would ultimately retain, the administration rewarded him.”

There is an account earlier in the book which shows how Obama’s new attitude played out in real life — both towards Israel, and towards the Bush promise.

Ramat Shlomo is a (charedi) neighborhood on the northern edge of Jerusalem, and unquestionably one of those neighborhoods included in Bush’s letter as part of Israel. It is slightly to the northwest of Ramat Eshkol, and as much a part of Jerusalem. In 2010, as Joe Biden came to Israel, the Interior Ministry approved a plan to build 1600 new housing units. The plot of land being developed lies in between Ramat Shlomo and the green line, between HaRav Rephael Toledano Street and Yigal Yadin (Route 1). An you can see from the map, this simply develops a small tract of land that links Ramat Shlomo to the rest of Jerusalem.

In “Ally,” Oren describes how he and everyone else in the administration was as surprised as the Americans, when a Ministry bureaucrat approved the permits for these new units. From pp 137-139:

Finally, close to two a.m., Ron Dermer and I ran with a handwritten draft to the hotel lobby where [US Ambassador to Israel] Dan Shapiro waited peevishly. He visibly brightened, though, when he read our assurances. We typed them up in the business center and went upstairs for a few hours sleep.

The air itself felt supercharged the following day as the vice president rose to the Tel Aviv University podium. He spoke about feeling at home in the Jewish state, about the “unbreakable bond… impervious to any shifts,” between it and the United States… But then he turned to the Ramat Shlomo plan, which, he said, undermines the trust required for productive negotiations. ‘At the request of President Obama, I condemn it immediately and unequivocally.’

Some left-wing students clapped at this as well, but other Israelis seethed. Diplomacy provides a word-scale for expressing levels of displeasure, beginning with regret and disapprove and escalating to denounce and deplore. But the harshest of all is condemn. “the administration never condemned Iran for killing its own people,” Ron muttered, “but Israel gets condemned for building homes in a Jewish neighborhood in our capital city.”…

I… boarded a plane and arrived in the United States at five o’clock Friday morning to learn that Secretary of State Clinton had excoriated Netanyahu for forty-five minutes over the phone, rebuking him for humiliating the president and undermining America’s ability to deal with pressing Middle East issues… And then I heard that the State Department, protesting “the deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship,” had summoned me to an immediate meeting.

As in the case of the word condemn, diplomacy provides a calibrated lexicon to describe requests for high-level meetings. The scale descends from the amicable “respectfully invited” to the more neutral “asked to come.” The lowest, by far, is “summoned.”

So all of a sudden, building within Jerusalem meant the Israelis were not interested in peace. During the freeze insisted upon by Obama, people in Ramat Eshkol could not repair their porch — and Rabbi Shafran calls this consistent with previous US policy!

4) Whether or not the US has an obligation to inform Israel was never under discussion. The question to be asked is, did Obama value the historically tight collaboration with Israel on critical issues of national security (to both countries)? By deliberately shutting out Israel, and consciously acting to limit Israel’s options, he showed an entirely different attitude than previous Presidents. Oren, as the Ambassador of Israel to the United States, certainly knew the history of communication between the two countries, and found Obama’s refusal to communicate with Israel an ongoing concern — especially when it came to a nuclear Iran.

From p. 334: “Administration sources meanwhile continued leaking reports of IDF air strikes in Syria. One of these, a May 3 bombing of a Damascus warehouse purportedly containing yet another shipment of advanced missiles for Hezbollah, was said to have killed forty-two Syrian soldiers. Israel again withheld comment on the action, but the American leak spurred Assad to threaten counterattacks. At the embassy, I asked my staff what would impel some U.S. official to risk triggering bloodshed between Israel and Syria. Perhaps, one diplomat suggested, the White House wanted to distract Israel’s attention from efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.”

5) Note that the Dominican Republic is connected to Haiti; they share a common island. According to Oren’s account — and the JTA’s revised version — the Israel ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Amos Radian, was the first official to come to Haiti following the quake on Wednesday the 13th, and was joined by an advance team to find a site for Israel’s hospital on the 14th.

But here, again from the book, is Oren’s fuller description of what happened, from pp. 131-133:

It began on January 14, forty-eight hours after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti. Vast swaths of the impoverished Caribbean country lay in ruins, with at least 150,000 dead. With its war-born experience in dealing with casualties, its expert medical teams, and its biblical traditions of caring for the week, Israel responded. More than 200 Israelis, many of them volunteers from the IsraAID relief organization, immediately took off for Haiti and set up the first completely equipped hospital unit. Yet the operation could not have been mounted without the logistical assistance of the United States. Some of the Israelis even slept in chairs at the US Embassy. Throughout, I was on the phone around the clock with the State Department, coordinating our joint efforts.

So again, Oren knew what the real situation was, because he was intimately involved. He knew that the Americans were quite well aware that what Israel was doing was on an entirely different level than that of any of the countries that made Obama’s list, up to and including the US itself — in the words of one American doctor, “it’s something that almost makes you embarrassed to be an American” when he compared Israel’s hospital effort to their own.

None of the critics have successfully challenged any of Oren’s facts, because they cannot. This is classic mudslinging and character assassination — throw anything you can at Oren and hope that something sticks. When proven wrong, just go try a different angle. This isn’t our way. Ally is not only precise in its descriptions of events, it is backed up by the record — and as such, it stands on its merits.

Say It Isn’t So, Rabbi Shafran

July 3, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Rabbi Shafran is someone I have admired for decades. His witty, moving, and inspirational biography of the journey of a Jewish convert, Migrant Soul, emerged when I was still a yeshiva student, and when he became Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel, I knew the organization was in good hands, and it has been so. I agree with what he writes most of the time, certainly on issues affecting the charedi community.

One of the few things I can neither agree with — nor even comprehend — is Rabbi Shafran’s service to the Obama Administration as its chief charedi apologist. Time and again, his arguments in this one area seem, to me, to stretch the limits of credulity in search of a way to show that Obama is actually much more pro-Israel, pro-religion, and/or simply pro-common-sense than he so consistently appears to be.

This week has proven no exception, and it is, for me, a bridge too far. As many have already pointed out, Michael Oren is brilliant, dedicated, loves both Israel and the United States, is an historian with an impeccable record of attention to detail, and, finally, is no “Ally” of Netanyahu — on the contrary, he is now a Member of Knesset from the centrist Kulanu party. He is not one who would be anxious to falsify the record, neither deliberately nor even through error. And, despite Rabbi Shafran’s protestations to the contrary, there is no evidence that he did.

As Bret Stephens and the Wall Street Journal put it, “Michael Oren’s candid account of Obama’s Mideast policy has won him the right enemies.” Stephens means the Obama administration, which he describes as “in an epic snit” over the book. But this could also refer to Jane Eisner of The Forward, and the Past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, both of whom resented Oren’s depiction of liberal American Jews as, in Yoffie’s words, “unreliable in their support of Israel… forever babbling about Tikkun Olam, and more inclined to help others than their own.” As Stephens put it, “Truth hurts.”

I do not understand Rabbi Shafran’s need to add to the din of the Obama-adulating masses, so eager to spin reality until it vanishes in a blur. This is especially true because his three critiques of Oren’s work can best be described as “wrong, wrong, and wrong.”

The three of Michael Oren’s claims with which Rabbi Shafran takes issue begin with two published in Hamodia:

Sin #1, according to Mr. Oren, consisted of Mr. Obama’s telling American Jewish leaders in 2009 that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s lack of movement toward a peace process “erodes our credibility with the Arabs.” And the president’s “void[ing of] George W. Bush’s commitment to include the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem within Israel’s borders in any peace agreement.” And Mr. Obama’s call for a temporary “freeze of Israeli construction” in contested areas.

Sin #2? President Obama didn’t share a copy of his Cairo speech with Israel ahead of time, even though it contained “unprecedented support for the Palestinians” and “recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear power.”

To which he later added a third:

Mr. Oren’s description of how President Obama left Israel off a list of countries the president lauded for aiding Haiti after its devastating earthquake in 2010.

MK Oren did not, in actuality, claim that no previous President had publicly disagreed with Israeli policies. What he referred to, rather, was “no daylight.” Regardless of disagreements, brothers are brothers — there is no “distance” between members of a loving family. In his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, aptly titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel,” Oren described how Obama changed things as follows:

“When there is no daylight,” the president told American Jewish leaders in 2009, “Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs.” The explanation ignored Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and its two previous offers of Palestinian statehood in Gaza, almost the entire West Bank and half of Jerusalem—both offers rejected by the Palestinians.

Obama did not merely “call for a temporary freeze of Israeli construction.” What he did was dramatically shift the tenor of the American position from that of every American President since Reagan, all of whom disagreed with the expansion of settlements, the “settlement enterprise,” the building of outposts and roads through territory certain to become Palestinian.

Oren writes that Obama, by contrast, “insisted on a total freeze of Israeli construction in those areas — ‘not a single brick,’ I later heard he ordered Mr. Netanyahu — while making no substantive demands of the Palestinians.” Indeed, Obama said at a 2009 press conference, with Netanyahu standing beside him, that “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” Oren is hardly the first person to point out that Obama thus turned a Palestinian demand into US policy.

Attempting to defend Obama against the claim that he abandoned George W. Bush’s “promise to include the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem within Israel’s borders in any peace agreement,” Rabbi Shafran points to Obama’s statement that the return to the 1967 borders “would include land swaps.”

This is insufficient for three reasons: Obama explicitly broke Bush’s promise, Obama demanded no further construction even inside the major settlement blocks certain to remain part of Israel, and Obama expected Israel to withdraw from the equivalent of the full territory of the West Bank, which was demanded neither by George W. Bush nor, in fact, UN Security Council Resolution 242. In his letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004, as Sharon contemplated unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, President George W. Bush wrote the following:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.

As documented by Oren in his book:

The letter… endorsed by both houses of Congress… persuaded the Israeli public that ceding territory could yield concrete commitments from the United States. It safeguarded secure borders for the Jewish State. And it created diplomatic space for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The letter enabled Israeli governments to ease pressure from right-wing groups by building in those “major population centers” without precluding the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Though they officially opposed any Israeli presence beyond the 1967 lines, Palestinian leaders understood that the areas suggested by the Bush-Sharon letter were nonnegotiable.

Shockingly, then, shortly after taking office, the Obama administration disavowed the letter. Denying the existence of any “informal or oral agreement” on Israeli construction in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, the State Department further asserted that the letter “did not become part of the official position of the United States.”

As seen above, Obama demanded a complete building freeze, explicitly including the very regions that Bush promised could now be considered part of Israel proper. The fact that Netanyahu was forced to institute such a freeze for ten months, the Palestinians did absolutely nothing during that time, and afterwards Obama continued to blame both parties equally for failing to negotiate, simply reassured Abbas that he had no reason to negotiate at all, as Obama was making Israelis miserable for him. Or, as Oren puts it in his op-ed:

Consequently, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas boycotted negotiations, reconciled with Hamas and sought statehood in the U.N.—all in violation of his commitments to the U.S.—but he never paid a price. By contrast, the White House routinely condemned Mr. Netanyahu for building in areas that even Palestinian negotiators had agreed would remain part of Israel.

We must then turn to what Rabbi Shafran describes as “Sin #2″ — namely, that Obama failed to share an advance copy of his Cairo speech with Israel. This characterization of Oren’s second accusation, however, is entirely inadequate. What Oren refers to is an ongoing pattern of “surprising” Israel with radical changes in policy, the Cairo speech, “with its unprecedented support for the Palestinians and its recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear power,” being merely the first of many.

Oren asserts that these surprises were unprecedented, and indeed no one is able to provide a counter-example — perhaps explaining why Rabbi Shafran substituted such a facile strawman argument in place of what Oren actually said. For example, requiring that Israel return to the 1967 borders “with land swaps” reversed forty years of US policy, as mentioned above.

All of these build to Oren’s most timely example of an Obama surprise: “Finally, in 2014, Israel discovered that its primary ally had for months been secretly negotiating with its deadliest enemy.” Oren put this op-ed out now because he believes that Obama’s coddling of Iran is putting Israeli and Jewish lives in grave danger. For this, Rabbi Shafran has no rebuttal.

And then finally, in a new contribution, Rabbi Shafran focuses upon Oren’s pointed reference to President Obama’s public statement about the Haiti Earthquake, which entirely omitted the disproportionate, massive contribution of the State of Israel to the relief effort.

Rabbi Shafran relies upon Ron Kampeas of the JTA to rebut Oren; the only problem is that Kampeas was wrong. First of all, Oren feeling like he “had been kicked in the chest” clearly indicates that “he knew what they knew” — unless Oren is, today, simply delusional, suffering from False Memory Syndrome. According to Oren’s account, he knew with certainty that the Obama administration knew Israel was sending a team quite large enough to deserve mention, and this was why Obama’s failure to do so caused him acute pain. In their anxiousness to discredit Oren, Kampeas and Rabbi Shafran are happy to assert that he fabricated this personally traumatic recollection from whole cloth.

Oren’s version, though, is substantiated by contemporaneous documentation. On Thursday, January 14, a day before the President’s speech, Israel 21c reported the following:

On Thursday afternoon, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued this announcement: “Israel is doing all in its power to help the people of Haiti cope with the disaster in their country. A 220-person delegation, headed by Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, will leave this evening for Port-Au-Prince on two Boeing 747 jets leased from El Al by the IDF.

“The relief package includes a Home Front Command field hospital and rescue unit, as well as teams from Magen David Adom and Israel Police.”…

Meanwhile, the Israeli Embassy in the US has been called on to coordinate Israeli efforts with American aid offices, so the Israelis will be ready to provide medical aid where it is most needed.

So not only did Israel announce to the global press that they were sending two 747’s full of people and equipment the day before the speech, Oren’s office was intimately involved in coordinating with the Americans. If anyone knew what the Americans knew at the time, it was Michael Oren — which, again, explains why he was personally hurt by the President’s omission.

Additional documentation is provided by The Tower. First, they dispense with Kampeas’ assertion that Israel was not the first country to arrive in Haiti after the disaster. All the other countries listed, those used by Kampeas to “disprove” Oren’s statement, turn out to have “already had a presence in Haiti in January 2010 through their participation in MINUSTAH—the United Nations Stabilisation Force in Haiti.” In addition:

Obama’s remarks on January 15 referred to those countries both present as part of the UN force and those countries that announced they were sending aid in the earthquake’s aftermath: hence his phrasing (“Help continues to flow in“) and his namechecking of Mexico and the Dominican Republic…

As Kampeas’ JTA colleague Uriel Heilmann reported: “Within hours of the quake, officials from Israel’s consulates in New York and Miami were on civilian planes heading toward the Dominican Republic, where they were to rendezvous with the local Israeli ambassador before heading overland into neighboring Haiti. Their goal: rent vehicles, find a site to establish a field hospital, and take care of all the necessary logistics so the 240-person IDF-organized aid team could hit the ground running”…

The CNN timeline which Kampeas relies on contains the following entry made nearly seven hours before Obama delivered his speech [Note that this is off by a day. That CNN report, having been posted at 6:45 a.m. on the 14th rather than 15th, precedes the President’s speech by 31 hours. –YM]: 6:45 a.m. — A four-member rescue team from Israel was scheduled to arrive Thursday morning [the 14th], followed by two more jets carrying a field hospital and 220 rescue and hospital workers.

Awareness of the Israeli aid effort was being reported in major media as early as January 13. On that day, Fox News reported that ‘Israel and Ireland also had disaster aid teams on the way.’ On January 14, The Christian Science Monitor published a piece entitled ‘The nations that are stepping up to help’ which noted the following: ‘Israel: Two plane loads of aid and rescue staff of 240, including 40 doctors and nurses to set up a field hospital capable of serving 500 people a day.’

So not only was Israel’s very substantial contribution to the effort publicized by its Foreign Ministry, it was also reported by (at least) three major national US news outlets well before the speech. There is simply no way that anyone well-informed about the aid effort could have been unaware that Israel’s field hospital team, which was, according to CNN, “like another world compared to the [American] hospital,” was already inbound while the President was speaking. The President simply chose to leave Israel out in the cold.

It remains true that the US government remains light-years ahead of any other in its support for Israel — as the EU proved just today, by supporting a resolution equating Israeli self-defense with bloodthirsty terrorism. But it is perhaps time for Rabbi Shafran to give Michael Oren credit where credit is due, and indeed, to revise his “positive judgment of Mr. Obama’s regard for Israel.” It would be nice to go back to reading his articles with admiration not merely for his talents as a wordsmith, but with how excellently he has expressed my own sentiments.

Open Your Eyes

July 3, 2015 at 1:16 pm

donkeyIn this week’s reading, we learn the incredible story of Bila’am, who traveled to curse the Jews, only to be confronted by an angel – and his own donkey.

His donkey saw the angel first, with a drawn sword, and prudently steered to avoid the angel by walking off the path. Bila’am responded by hitting the donkey, especially when it trapped Bila’am’s leg against the wall as it desperately tried to avoid their death.

The donkey was doing the right thing; Bila’am refused to see. Even when G-d miraculously gave the donkey the power of speech, Bila’am responded by threatening to kill it. Finally the donkey started to get through: it asked Bila’am, (paraphrasing Num. 22:30) “in all the years you have ridden me as your donkey, have I ever acted like this towards you?” And Bila’am admitted that it had not.

And then, finally, G-d opened Bila’am’s eyes. Or, at least, this is what the translations say. The Hebrew word, “VayeGal,” comes from the root “Galui,” something which is revealed, the opposite of hidden. Of course Bila’am could see, his eyes were wide open the whole time. But he could not see the truth — that there was an angel standing in front of him.

He should have known the truth. Clearly the donkey was acting wildly out of character — he should have known there was some good reason without needing to see the angel himself. Only once he began to understand, and admitted that the donkey had never acted this way, only then did G-d let him see the truth.

Friends of us once recounted the story of taking a walk on a Shabbos afternoon, when a well-known Rabbi and his daughter suddenly emerged from their house and jumped into a waiting taxi. After Shabbos, the daughter called them to let them know that her father had a medical emergency, which required “breaking” the Sabbath in order to save his life in accordance with Jewish Law. The wife, telling this story, recalled thinking to herself “no, really? We thought that after 80 years, the Rabbi had said ‘I’ve had enough of this Jewish observance, let’s go for a ride!'”

Sadly, though, it’s not always so simple. It’s not always so obvious that the person acting so out of character might have a very good reason (even emotionally) to act contrary to his or her normal behavior. And it’s our obligation to try to see beyond the limitations of our eyes, to imagine .

This world is all about concealment. We only know part of the story, we don’t know all the facts, we don’t understand. If Bila’am should have understood that there must be a really good reason for his faithful donkey to suddenly act this way, we should certainly try to recognize that good people don’t suddenly go bad — and interpret their actions for the best.

Let’s Not Cry Anti-Semitism

July 2, 2015 at 10:47 am

The trail of anti-Semitism is long and bloody; irrational hatred towards the Jewish people permeated Europe, Asia and North Africa back through ancient times. Nonetheless, one should not be overly hasty to fall back upon ancient biases in the modern era.

It does not make sense to resort to charges of anti-Semitism in response to positions and activities against the Jewish state, when there are other reasonable explanations that justify the same positions. Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and the recent Flotilla trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza, assert that they are motivated by humanitarian concerns for the residents of the Gaza Strip, rather than animus towards Jews or Israel. These motivations include:

  • The needs of the Gaza population. The lead ship of the flotilla, the Marianne of Gothenberg, carried solar panels and medical equipment as demonstrations of this concern.*
  • The blockade’s violation of the human rights of Gaza residents, and violation of international law
  • The deprivation of “security of food supplies, medical care, education, drinkable water and cultural exchange” (from the website shiptogaza.se).
  • And more fundamentally, the rights of an indigenous population to a homeland – meaning that Israel must end its occupation.

The question we must ask is simple: are these neutral humanitarian concerns, or excuses with which to mask discrimination? The difference is found in how these arguments are employed in other situations: one who applies humanitarian principles across the board is genuine, but one who encourages global condemnation of a single group or country — while ignoring equal or greater violations by an opposing or third party — might more accurately be called a bigot. And there’s the problem.

marianne3It is true that the Gaza Strip’s sole power plant is producing limited power at this time – due to the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to provide more fuel until Hamas, the organization governing the Gaza Strip, pays its past due balance. Israel, by contrast, continued to provide electrical power to Gaza even during last year’s war, though Hamas owed Israel over $60 million for previously-supplied power at that time.

Israeli electrical service to Gaza was only interrupted when an errant Hamas rocket hit the power line. Employees of the Israel Electric Company then worked in bulletproof vests and helmets in order to restore power to 70,000 residents of Gaza just days later.

And despite accusations that Israel “destroyed” the Gazan power plant during the war, that plant resumed operation within two months of the war’s end. So a neutral concern for Gazan residents would direct opprobrium primarily against the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, those responsible for cutting the power. BDS activists, however, protest against Israel.

As for medical equipment and care, we must wonder why the Flotilla bypassed Morocco, Algeria, and most notably Egypt, countries along its path where the life expectancy at birth is significantly lower than it is in the Gaza Strip. Yes, despite what you’ve heard about “genocide” in Gaza (a smear designed to stir up grotesque comparisons to the Nazi Holocaust), a baby born in Gaza can expect to live nearly three years longer than one born in Egypt — due in large part to access by Gazans to treatment in Israel (where the life expectancy of both Jewish and Arab citizens is still higher).

A neutral concern for human rights and international law would also have motivated the flotilla to dock in Algeria, where Freedom House upgraded the state of press freedom to “Partly Free” only last year, or Libya, where attempts at freedom of expression could be greeted with the death penalty — as could the announcement of an LGBT relationship (in Algeria, one would only get a few years’ imprisonment and a large fine for that). Yet the “freedom flotilla” sailed straight for Gaza — and not because hundreds of homosexual Palestinians have fled to Israel to avoid discrimination, harassment or death.

A naval blockade during hostilities is a conventional defense tactic, and Israel claims the Gaza blockade will end as soon as Hamas ceases its efforts to import weapons with which to kill Israelis. This argument is buttressed by the interception of a shipment of advanced Syrian rockets, paid for by Iran and intended for Hamas use, just prior to the outbreak of last year’s war. But under European Union law, Spain has no similar justification for its summary deportations of refugees who jump the fence from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Yet the Flotilla did not stop there to protest this undisputed violation of international law, nor suggest that Hamas cease attempting to import weapons as a method with which to end the blockade.

Discussion of the “security of food supplies” is also a troubling subject for BDS supporters to raise, as Israel continues to facilitate entry of 800 truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies into Gaza every day. These imports halted only briefly during the 2014 Gaza War, when Hamas deliberately fired rockets at the border crossing. Egypt, on the other hand, has closed its border with Gaza completely, and is razing an entire city — the Egyptian side of Rafah — to prevent terror attacks against its soldiers. Yet again, the Flotilla accuses neither Hamas nor Egypt of indifference to Gaza — only Israel, the only one of the three that has acted reliably and consistently to ensure the security of food supplies.

As for cultural exchange, it’s interesting to note that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas will tolerate the presence of an Israeli Jew in any territory under their control, whereas, by contrast, Arab citizens of Israel enjoy greater freedoms than Arab citizens of any Arab country — including mixed Jewish-Arab schools, Arab professors and students in Israel’s top universities, Arab Knesset members, and even a leading contestant on MasterChef Israel. A Palestinian in Lebanon is barred from at least 25 professions, including law, medicine and engineering, but BDS does nothing to protest open discrimination against Palestinians by other Arabs.

And when it comes to self-determination, the flotilla sailed past Morocco, which continues its occupation of the Western Sahara and control of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Palestinian Arabs comprise the majority of the citizenry of Jordan — itself eighty percent of the old British Mandate for Palestine. Yet, once again, the flotilla does nothing for the independence and self-determination of millions of ethnic Palestinians languishing under the Hashemite clan (originally of Saudi Arabia).

So yes, let’s not be so fast to say that BDS and the recent flotilla are nothing more than a recent manifestation of age-old anti-Semitism, reminiscent of the Nazi Boycott of the 1930s and false incitement against Jews throughout the Middle Ages. Let’s offer the proponents of BDS the opportunity to provide new and more reasonable justifications for their positions and actions that are neutral, humanitarian, and have nothing to do with bias against Jews.

Because the ones provided thus far have done precious little to prevent us from slipping inexorably towards that ugly conclusion.

* As the Washington Post determined, the “aid” comprised a flat package able to hold a small solar panel, and a single nebulizer.

An Unbroken Chain

June 26, 2015 at 11:35 am

We read this week about the passing of Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. At the time of his passing, G-d tells Moshe to ascend the mountain with both Aharon and Elazar, his son — and to remove the vestments of the High Priest from Aharon, and place them upon Elazar before his father’s passing.

IMG_1802_1__61147.1423773883.1280.1280The Sifsei Chachamim points out that this is a unique moment. It was forbidden to leave the Temple Mount wearing those unique garments — so why was Aharon told to ascend the mountain in them, and Elazar to return wearing them?

Aharon was special to the Jewish nation in two ways, which we could perhaps describe as “personal” and “professional.” He, Aharon, was a pursuer of peace, the one who helped people to reconcile their differences. But he also held a critical office in the leadership of the Jewish people, as the High Priest.

Every time a great leader or teacher passes away, it is natural to worry that no one can fill his place, that he was irreplaceable. By having Elazar descend back to the Jewish nation in the Priestly Vestments, HaShem was sending us a message — that as much as every individual truly is unique, the nation will not be leaderless.

Hashem had to order them to ascend the mountain. None of the three, of course, wanted to see Aharon pass away. But Moshe was also ordered to dress Elazar. The impression given is that Elazar would not, otherwise, have wanted to put them on. He would have hesitated, but HaShem showed him that he should wear them. He would never be Aharon, his father — but he would be Kohen Gadol.

Just last year, following the passing of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, who had been the leader of Sephardic Jewry around the world, Rav Shalom Cohen, Dean of Yeshivat Porat Yosef in Jerusalem, was appointed to succeed him as the head of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah, the council of scholars that guides Sha”s, the Sephardic party in Israel. While Rav Cohen was a member of that Moetzet since its formation over thirty years ago, many pointed out that he always invested his time in scholarship and in teaching his students, rather than political matters.

It has been this way throughout our history, that the true leaders have not sought leadership, but only to dedicate themselves to God and the Jewish people. They find leadership thrust upon them, often by their own predecessors if not by that predecessors’ other students. HaShem promised us that just as the Jewish people will always survive, we will never find ourselves like a ship without a rudder. The two go together — we will always find ourselves with leaders, to guide us forward through history.

Police Can’t Do Their Jobs

June 15, 2015 at 10:12 am

The Baltimore Police — officials, union leaders, and officers themselves — are coming forward to confirm my analysis of the situation last week. As one person told the Baltimore Sun, “They’re not afraid of dying. They’re afraid of going to jail.”

Quote from Baltimore Sun

See also the interview with two officers on CNN:

The officers are afraid to do things, because you have a State’s Attorney right now that’s unpredictable. You don’t know what she’s going to do. When she came out with the statement, when the six officers were charged, she already convicted them in the public view. They have been tried and convicted in public opinion…

Q: Do you feel like those officers acted appropriately?

A: They’ve done nothing different than what we’ve always done as police officers on the street. Those type of arrests happen on a daily basis.

Q: … You would have done the same thing?

O1: Absolutely. It’s being compliant. If you are compliant, you will not have to be engaged by officers. Force has to be used with equal force. If you’re not compliant, you know, that is why police were able to restrain subjects that are non-compliant. The officers did nothing wrong.

On Princeton and BDS

June 13, 2015 at 11:18 pm

My letter to the Princeton Alumni Weekly:

Somewhere during my education, I was taught that you get to have your own opinions, but not your own facts. This being the case, the recent divestment letter (Inbox, April 22) and referendum are still more troubling than previous letter-writers have allowed.

According to both its American and British authors as well as the text itself, UN Resolution 242 expects Israel to withdraw from “territories” – not all, but rather some, and only upon conclusion of a peace agreement giving Israel secure borders. Israel already has withdrawn in order to make peace with Egypt and Jordan, and even without a peace agreement, from the Gaza Strip.

Said resolution also requires “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every State in the area.” The PLO, which immediately rejected Resolution 242, stated as recently as 2010 that “the Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state.” Hamas, of course, seeks genocide, the extermination of every Jew, in its charter.

So we are left to confront the reality that 76 professors ignorantly or deliberately falsified the record and inverted the facts in order to satisfy their personal biases. This, along with a student referendum based upon this and similar falsehoods, risks sacrificing Princeton’s reputation for academic integrity on the altar of political correctness.