Last Thursday night I walked back from the Jerusalem city entrance to my home in Abu Tor. I had to walk because President Obama’s security had closed down the avenues and buses that would take me home. I needed to walk because I had to sort out my hawkish inclinations with my “presidential encounter”—this was the first time I had seen him live, and thanks to Ambassador Dan Shapiro, I’d had a great close-up seat amongst the students. And I had better get home to perform my role as sous-chef to my remarkable wife and children’s culinary efforts and creations. All I can do to keep pace with them is to cut the vegetables into increasingly smaller pieces; eventually they will be so small as to disappear. Not a bad metaphor, I thought, for my last eighteen years of aliyah and struggle with this country’s challenges. My growing “sophistication” and Talmudic vocation has only allowed me, in analyzing them, to dice up the problems ever more finely, as if that might make them disappear. But this only makes coherence impossible.
President Obama’s stellar performance was all about coherence. He came armed with having accomplished almost all the symbolic acts: he went to the Shrine of the Book and Yad Vashem, paying tribute respectively to David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin; he laid wreaths at Herzl’s and Rabin’s graves, honoring the symbols of Zionism; and he had the Turkey deal up his sleeve. True, he didn’t pray with Women of the Wall or go to the Gerer Hasidim’s pre-Passover tisch, but the Landes family also did neither. And he condemned Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas.
Moshe Milner / GPO via Getty Images
He spoke—with humor and intimacy that were enjoyed but easily shrugged off by a highly intelligent student audience—directly. The message received, as I spoke with students on the way out, was that security did not ensure but rather demanded peace, while any peace demanded security. They had to go hand in hand. Israel doesn’t have that much time; all the windows of tolerance for Israel with Europe and, for that matter, the rest of the world are closing, as are peace possibilities with the faltering Palestinian Authority. The latter, Obama maintained, was a partner for peace; peace is indeed possible. “Israel is the most powerful country in the region, and it is allied with the most powerful nation in the world,” Obama said.
Unexpectedly, this had a big impact on me. All Israelis have heard these arguments before from our own politicians. So why was this speech so powerful?
There's a great deal of talk going these days attributed to unnamed senior Palestinian official sources, and many others, about Palestine seeking redress at the International Criminal Court at The Hague if peace talks with Israel remain stalled. This is usually presented, and received by the public, as if it were a straightforward option, akin to the Palestinian decision to request nonmember observer state status from the U.N. General Assembly or joining other multinational bodies.
But the legal and political reality is far more complex, and a series of difficult, time-consuming and, in some cases dubious, contingencies would have to be realized before any charges against Israeli officials could plausibly be launched by ICC prosecutors.
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The biggest technical difficulty with asking ICC prosecutors to consider charges against Israeli officials or citizens for actions in the occupied Palestinian territories is the question of standing under the Statute of Rome, which guides the ICC's work. Israel is not a signatory to the Statute, meaning that Israeli officials could not be prosecuted for their actions on the grounds of their citizenship, or for any acts committed inside territories in which Israel is considered the legal sovereign. Internationally, that would definitely not include the occupied Palestinian territories, however.
On Friday, the United States released nearly $500 million in aid that had been frozen for months to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Following this announcement, Israel claimed that it would restart regular monthly tax transfers to the PA, which it has been withholding since the U.N. bid for Palestinian statehood in November.
Like Israel, the U.S. Congress froze $200 million in aid to the PA in 2011 as punishment for seeking statehood at the U.N. When Palestine was admitted as a non-member state last November, Congress once again froze the request for funds.
Ammar Awad/Reuters, via Landov
During Thursday's meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, President Obama specifically asked him not to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over settlement expansion or any other issue; it is suspected that these funds were released to ensure that President Abbas complies. However, following Obama's visit, forces in Congress are already trying to hinder these funds by introducing a bill titled "The Palestinian Accountability Act," which would cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority until it formally recognized Israel as a Jewish state.
Freezing aid money and withholding taxes bears heavy consequences for Palestinians who work in the public sector and are paid with PA salaries. According to Birzeit Economics Professor Ibrahim Shikaki, 22 percent of Palestinians work in the PA’s public sector; he estimates that an additional 750,000 Palestinians—the spouses and children of PA public sector workers—also depend on PA salaries for their livelihoods.
As part of his efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, John Kerry has reportedly asked Mahmoud Abbas to promise that he won’t try to bring Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). To many observers, this may seem like a modest request. After all, the U.S. has long made clear that it opposes efforts to engage the ICC in the conflict. Moreover, the PA hasn’t actually taken any concrete steps to initiate a case against Israel since winning its U.N. statehood bid last November, which suggests that it, too, may be ambivalent about the wisdom of moving forward.
And yet, getting Abbas to give up his right to approach the Court could prove exceedingly difficult. Last fall, in the run up to the statehood bid, the U.S. and the U.K. went through great pains to try to convince Abbas to guarantee that he wouldn’t use the new status to bring Israel to The Hague. But despite all the pressure, the PA refused to make any such promise. Today, domestic Palestinian politics make the PA even less likely to surrender its right to petition the Court than it was in the past.
The PA has recently been facing mounting pressure at home to go to the ICC. From the Fatah youth movement, to Palestinian academics, to Al Arabiya broadcasts, a chorus of voices has been urging the PA to go to the Court, chastising Abbas for failing to do so already. “Israel’s injustices are bad enough,” wrote one Al Arabiya columnist, “but not utilizing the means to effectively counter and end them"—i.e., going to the ICC—"is even worse.” He concluded with a call for a national protest movement to spur the PA into action.
Who is the character most recognized with the story of Exodus? Who lead the Hebrews out of Egypt? Most people would name Moses, the leader of the Hebrews during the Exodus. But some, while reading the Hagada this Passover, might have noticed that Moses was not mentioned in the Hagada. Why is the man so critical to the story of the Exodus—the man know as the greatest profit in the Bible, who had a hand in putting forward the ten plagues, who spoke to Pharoah in the name of God—not mentioned in the Hagada, which is meant to pass the story of the exodus from generation to generation Jews?
The Hagada was collected at first during the days of the second temple and up until the Geonim period, between the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. Some scholars believe the reason for not including Moses in the Hagada was the intention to show that God is the one who freed the Hebrews, without the help of anyone, As mentioned in the Hagada itself: "The L-rd took us out of Egypt," not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. What we can learn from this is that there is something bigger than the character or the messenger. The story can be told and can unfold without Moses.
Al Levine/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty
This lesson might serve us today in 2013. Recently, we saw a new Israeli government formed, with many new faces serving as ministers and Knesset members for the first time. All of them with the job of serving the people of Israel. All messengers of the people. During the campiagn, media and the public focused on the personalities more than ever. There was Benjamin Netanyahu, not Likud. There was Yair Lapid, not Yesh Atid. There was Naftali Bennett, not Habait Hayudi. Tzipi Livni and not Hatnua, Shelly Yechimovitz instead of Haavoda etc. Those were the main characters attracting the most attention. Not the parties, not the issues of the table, none of the content.
As a California-based rabbi on sabbatical in Jerusalem for the year, I have enjoyed exploring the city’s rich culture and heritage, particularly its archaeological history. But as a religious leader who champions human rights, I have also been shocked and disturbed to learn that in Jerusalem, where layers of history have been unfolding for millennia, a true archaeological treasure has fallen prey to politics.
Just a few steps outside of the walls of the Old City is the City of David. It is widely considered one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Jerusalem. As one of the Holy City’s most visited tourist attractions, it draws hundreds of thousands of Israelis and foreigners over the Green Line into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan every year. This prominent site of biblical era archaeology features historical finds including the Royal Acropolis, Hezekiah's Tunnel, and the Gihon Spring, ancient Jerusalem's main water source.
The Israeli government has considered the City of David a national park since the early 1970s. Since that time, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has retained management authority, but the Israeli government turned over park operations to the settler organization Elad—an acronym for “to the City of David” in Hebrew—in 2005. To this day Elad continues to essentially control the City of David, while the Israel Nature and Parks Authority involvement with the site remains minor.
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Americans have a penchant for making lists and imagining scrupulously constructed alternate realities in which we, the individual Americans, play a central role. Dungeons and Dragons comes to mind, as does Fantasy Football. Not to mention the List of Five popularized by Friends. Which is the closest I can come to an explanation for the fact that if you were to look closely at the insides of my brain you would find—tucked behind all the other bric-à-brac—my Fantasy Seder List. Because (apparently) being an egghead who likes a good Ottoman joke isn’t quite nerdy enough.
The rules undergirding the Fantasy Seder are as simple as they are few: to make it in the imaginary door, the potential guest has to be 1) Jewish (duh); 2) alive (double duh); and 3) a complete stranger to me (this is why we call it “a fantasy” and not “an actual guest list”).
A man reads a prayer while holding greens dipped in salt water in advance of a Passover seder service. The Passover liturgy recited at the seder meal similarly demands that you experience the Exodus as if you yourself escaped from Egypt - not your great grandfather or your Orthodox Uncle Max - and you owe the Almighty undying gratitude as your personal liberator. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
I figured I should just get that out of the way, because of course Jon Stewart. I’m an American Jew of a decidedly liberal bent with delusions of low-brow intellectualism. Of course Jon Stewart. The only reason he’s not on my List of Five is because I’m afraid I’d fall in love, and then where would my marriage be? Fantasy Seder it is.
Barack Obama's speech to Israeli students last Thursday has brought this country's familiar political fault lines to the surface again after years of dormancy. Moshe Feiglin, the Likud's new deputy Knesset chair, said the speech was filled with geefa, a term used by army recruits to describe the contents of the camp latrine. The left-leaning Haaretz, for its part, dedicated an entire front page spread to the Obama speech in a display of reverence generally reserved for events like the signing of the Oslo agreement or the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. For years the country's political contours had been warped by disinterest in the Palestinian question. It began with the rebranding of the Labor opposition as a party of social welfare that had put the issue of the territories behind it, reaching its denoument in the strange alliance between Naftali Bennet's settlers and Yair Lapid's middle-class Yesh Atid, an alliance predicated on the theses that right and left can unite around a new platform aimed at blunting the power of ultra-Orthodoxy. Obama's effect on Israel's public debate has been electric, reigniting the hitherto comatose discussion of the West Bank.
Provoking debate is one thing. Using the diplomatic muscle necessary to leverage policy change, however, is another. The announcement, just before his departure, of an historic rapprochement between Israel and Turkey indicates that Obama may have what it takes.
Uriel Sinai / Getty Images
His brokering of a resolution to the crisis that has pitted Israel's fundamental security concerns against the Moslem bona fides of Turkey’s PM Tayyip Erdogan was stunning in both its speed and execution. For Turkey this represents the reversal of an Israel policy that has trashed decades of military, economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries. For Israel it represents a complete capitulation to Turkish demands in the wake of the Mavi Marmara events of 2010. It was an achievement that undoubtedly required major arm-twisting combined with the judicious deployment of expensive negotiating assets on Obama's part. For the U.S., defusing the Jerusalem-Ankara dispute is an essential precondition for effective military action to secure Syria's ballistic missiles and chemical arsenals if Assad uses them against the opposition, or loses them as the regime collapses—both increasingly plausible scenarios. It will be of equal importance in the event of an Iranian campaign. Less obvious but of no less significance is its relevance for the peace process. Erdogan could be either a spoiler or catalyst if significant Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ensue. Obama knew all this and did what had to be done.
President Obama’s new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf does not have much experience with Israeli and Palestinian issues, but observers said the White House will instead benefit from his extensive inside-the-beltway skills.
Philip Gordon took over as special assistant to the president and coordinator for what is often referred to as the Central region at the NSC on March 11, bringing with him years of federal government experience and a decade in Washington’s think tank world. Like some of his predecessors, Gordon’s strengths lie more in his knowledge of Washington than his familiarity with the meeting rooms of Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Then-US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon speaks during his news conference in Tbilisi, Georgia on November 16, 2012. (Vano Shlamov / Getty Images)
Longtime peace process veteran Dennis Ross previously served as senior director for the Central region during part of Obama’s second term, and Gordon’s ascension to the role marks a shift from Ross’s familiarity with the area. With new secretaries of state and defense and widespread staff changes at the start of Obama’s second term, much about the peace process remains in flux. Gordon’s choice could signal a lower prioritization for Israeli and Palestinian issues compared to Syria or Iran—or at least less direct control from the White House, which may hand over the reins to Secretary of State John Kerry and the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, a position currently vacant. Even as Obama comes off his first trip to Israel as president, during which he spoke fervently about finding an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it remains to be seen how the White House and the State Department will divide responsibilities for the region.
Google claims today that there are 1,790,000 websites that have the phrase "the meaning of the Exodus story." (By now probably more—including this one.) The Exodus, of course, has many meanings—and two major motion pictures. John Adams wanted the splitting of the Red Sea to be on the Great Seal of the newly minted United States of America. This plethora of interpretations should make one hesitate before offering new meanings to this ancient event which has inspired millions of people over millenia.
I want, instead, to resurrect an interpretation first offered 107 years ago in a small town in eastern Poland by a Rabbi whose name was Aharon Shmuel Tamares. Tamares pointed to an interesting detail in the Biblical story. After commanding the Israelites regarding the Passover sacrifice, and telling them that they need to put the blood of the sacrifice on their doorposts, and further telling them that He was going to kill all the Egyptian firstborns, God says: "None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning." (Exodus 12:22)
Participants with One Million Moms for Gun Control, a gun control group formed in the wake of last month's massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school, holds a rally and march across the Brooklyn Bridge on January 21, 2013 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty)
Tamares suggests that this detail is actually central to the story. In the retelling of the story at the annual seder, we read that God personally destroyed the Egyptians without outside aid—angel or human. Why didn't God empower the Israelites to wreak vengeance on their enemies who were evil people? This, then, is the meaning of the Exodus. God did not want Israel to witness the violence inflicted on the Egyptians so as to stop the cycle of violence. God knew, says Tamares, that all violence leads to more violence. The victim who takes up sword or fist will eventually become the predator—and the cycle will continue. In an attempt to stop the cycle, God did not allow the Israelites to be involved in this necessary violence, so as to stop the use of violence right then.
When President Obama spoke in Jerusalem last Thursday, he told the audience:
When I consider Israel's security, I think about children like Osher Twito, who I met in Sderot—children, the same age as my own daughters, who went to bed at night fearful that a rocket would land in their bedroom simply because of who they are and where they live.
Then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama receives a t-shirt from Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal after press conference at Sderot Police station July 23, 2008 Sderot, Israel. (Rina Castelnuovo-Pool / Getty Images)
Peter Beinart took issue with the word “simply.” He pointed to a correlation between the severity of the Israeli siege on Gaza and the level of rocket attacks aimed at Israel from Gaza.
But "simply" means "in simple terms" or "basically." Was Obama's remark accurate? Absolutely.
Twenty-eight years and an oppressive empire ago, in April, 1985, I arrived in Moscow just days before the holiday of Passover was about to begin. My friend Danny and I had memorized a list of refuseniks—Soviet Jews denied the right to emigrate—to visit. The “contraband” we smuggled in included five or six novels by Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, two sets of phylacteries, two prayer shawls, two prayer books, two haggadot retelling the Passover tale, two boxes of matzah—all of which we insisted were for personal use but which we planned to somehow “lose” on our journey.
The Russian border guards, knowing the game, were unconvinced and sent me to a side room for further interrogation. Protesting loudly, asking “isn’t there freedom of religion in the Soviet Union,” I heard a cascade of Russian, dripping with contempt, exchanged between the border guard and his superior. It sounded to me like vyunah veyalah pizhulsta pakleema followed by the one recognizable word “zeeonist,” Zionist.
Former Soviet political prisoner, Israeli politician and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut) Natan Sharansky is seen in Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 1, 2010. (Bela Szandelszky/AP)
It is important, as Passover approaches, to remember that it was only just a few years ago that millions of Soviet Jews were denied basic rights because they dared to want to express their national Jewish identity and to be Zionists. At the time, in the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign, we had little faith that the Soviet Union would fall or that the Soviet Jews would ever go free. Natan Sharansky—then Anatoly Scharansky—was somewhere deep in the Gulag, imprisoned for speaking his mind. Today he heads the Jewish Agency for Israel. Yuli Edelstein was just beginning his jail term for teaching Hebrew and was on everyone’s mind because his health was fragile. This month he was named the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset.
Those of us who witnessed the miracle of liberation, and those of us lucky even to have a small part in it as protestors or temporary tourists to what seemed to be their permanent hell, should make sure to retell the tale of this modern-day Exodus—and not just at the Passover Seder. It is a tale of political activism that seemed quixotic but actually succeeded. It is a tale of freedom triumphing over oppression. And it is a reminder, amid all the inevitable political tensions involved in running a Jewish state, of the basic need for a Jewish State and the basic justice of the Zionist cause. Happy Passover.
There is no chimney at the headquarters of the Chief Rabbinate in north London. No blue and white smoke billowed out at the appointment of a new Chief Rabbi, to succeed Lord Jonathan Sacks, last December.
Sacks was the tenth in the post and the third British-born to achieve it. He was a superb academic and has several degrees and professorships to prove it. He was media-friendly, and filled a vacuum left by other British faith leaders at a time of growing disenchantment with faith, and he spoke with a British accent. He also spoke Hebrew with an Ashkenazi pronunciation, which may not have endeared him to the progressive community. And he became "Chief," as those working with him were allowed to call him, at the time of a leadership vacuum in Anglo Jewry.
Jews stand in Trafalgar Square to listen to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks address a rally in London, on January 11, 2009. (Adrian Dennis / AFP / Getty Images)
The office of Chief Rabbi is not a secular creation; it evolved as the small Anglo Jewish community's needs grew. Sacks became the Labour party's Chief Rabbi having nurtured one of the "loveliest friendships" with Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, a unique achievement. Ambition is essential to become Chief Rabbi, but that and academic prowess may not have been enough to make Sacks's tenure a glowing success. Lord Stanley Kalms, an "enthusiastic patron" of Sacks's candidacy, said in 2010 that Sacks was not a collective leader. Though he promised inclusiveness, Kalms said,"he tried but he failed." The result? Antagonism between Reform, Liberal, Masorti, and Modern Orthodoxy—the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth—Sacks's fiefdom. Kalms added that Sacks had an inferiority complex about not being as learned as the Dayanim, the judges of the Batei Din, the religious courts, and the men Sacks once referred to as "my fundamentalists." He wanted to be all things to all men, but that only made him appear ambiguous.
On March 6, as coalition talks lurched haltingly forward (“Yesh Atid, Jewish Home Deal ‘Could Be Done within Hours,’” one naïve headline announced), a prisoner in the custody of two Israel Prison Service guards escaped from the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court by climbing out of a second-floor bathroom window. The 40-year-old haredi man was there because, after spending the past six years in prison for refusing to grant an official Jewish divorce, or get, to his wife—with whom he had already been separated for seven years before that, after only two years of marriage—he had finally agreed to terms and conceded to release her from 13 years of enslavement as a “chained woman,” an agunah.
But this hopeful breakthrough turned out to be no more than a deviously effective pretext for his escape.
Yair Lapid (L), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, during a reception marking the opening of the 19th Knesset on February 5, 2013 in Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)
Two days later would be International Women’s Day, and the timing was not lost on the woman identified in an Israeli television news interview only as ha-mesurevet—“the refused.” Standing with her back to the camera to conceal her identity, she invoked the upcoming holiday in a plea directed at the incoming Knesset. “These have been 13 very hard years. You don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "I can’t get married, I can’t have children. But I am not just speaking for myself." She concluded, “I hope that the members of parliament will draft legislation that will force the giving of a get, as prescribed by Jewish Law.”
Now that the government has been finalized, and Lapid’s alliance with Bennett affirmed as not merely a negotiating strategy but a governing partnership, it seems fair to ask Lapid where “the refused” fit on the agenda—if at all. If not, a central pillar of Yesh Atid’s promised social reforms will have to be judged a failure. For any substantive conversation about the liberalization of religious state power in Israel must feature a commitment to solving the agunah issue. And in this context, the question of whether Lapid’s commitment to such liberalization is substantive, and not merely cosmetic, remains open to skepticism.
For all the talk about talks during Barack Obama's visits in Israel and Palestine, new action seems, to put it mildly, unlikely. In Jerusalem, Obama said "the world can change," but not that it would change today. "Obama presumably also knows that making one speech and then hoping that the Israeli public will do the rest of the work is not serious," Daniel Levy observed. Obama, then, seems decidely unserious. Over the next three and a half years that Obama is in office, the President promised, Israel will get unconditional support. Money will flow, diplomatic cover will be steadfast, and the U.S. will take Israel under its security umbrella. Those things are clear: “Ah-tem lo lah-vahd," Obama told the crowd, uttering the Hebrew for, "You are not alone." It's the "benign" in what Peter Beinart reported as Obama's expected "benign neglect" policies toward the Holy Land.
The "neglect" part is where things get worse before they get better, owing nothing to what Obama does or doesn't do: that, like the lack of positive change, will come in large part because of Israel's leadership. Yair Lapid paid lip service to the two-state solution during his campaign, but after coalition talks, he looks set for marginalization in the finance ministry. The only other player in the government who wants to talk at all is Tzipi Livni, the new Justice Minister with responsibility for the Palestinian portfolio. She will serve in the “most right-wing nationalist government ever,” said Israeli leftist academic Shlomo Avineri immediately after a recent speech by Livni. He added sarcastically, “But good luck to her.”
Pro-settlement factions in this government don't need any luck; they have the power. Haaretz's Barak Ravid reported last week that Israeli President Shimon Peres told Obama few, if any, gains could be made in the stalled peace process—if such a thing can be said to still exist—owing to Netanyahu's coalition. Those warnings are well-founded: a senior official from Israel's ruling Likud party today told Maariv that Livni would be blocked by the coalition agrement that includes Jewish Home, a party that wants to annex most of the West Bank, and other right-wing parties. Likud itself is dominated by pro-annexation politicians. Those factions are all included on a super-committee which has oversight over negotiations, a part of Jewish Home's deal to join the government. "How can you hold negotiations with such limitations?" the official said of Livni. "Of course if the Prime Minister really wanted to he could, but at the moment, what she thinks needs to be done is not at all what the Prime Minister thinks."
Ali Gharib on how badly John Kerry's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks are going.