1024px-December_Charter_FlightI’m not sure when it happened or even when I realized it. But something had shifted. After 20 years, we both had changed so much. Everyone and everything does of course. Why would I expect that we’d be exactly the same as when we first got together? We evolve, we grow; hopefully together. But in our case, it seems, we didn’t. At some point we fell out of love.

It’s not like I had an affair. I’ve had fantasies of course, who hasn’t? But I never did anything about it; heck, I never even looked anywhere else. Which puts me in the uncomfortable place I find myself today, stuck by inertia in a love-challenged long-term relationship.

This is not a confession about Jody. Don’t worry: our marriage is fine, we’re still deeply in love, best friends, committed for life and all that. No, this is about my other “marriage,” the one established by the vows I took at the Ministry of the Interior when we made aliyah in 1994 and I got hitched with the state of Israel.

When I share my situation with other Anglo immigrants, I know I’m not alone, although the particulars of what changed and the subsequent falling out may be different. In my case, I was a very different person twenty plus years ago: newly religious, right wing and recently Republican. For me and my ba’al teshuva friends, living in the U.S. was the definition of galut – the dreaded exile, which Israel had come to banish.

The Promised Land, by contrast, was filled with like-minded people, abundant prayer options and seemingly unlimited kosher food. Fueled initially by religious fervor (Zionism would come later), there was no other place I could imagine living.

But over the years, I did an R.E.M. and returned to the secular liberal roots I’d grown up with in Northern California. Without the shell of my now discarded religiosity, Israel’s rightward drift has created an unexpected cognitive dissonance. When a Knesset member or the prime minister opens his mouth, I cringe: who will be blamed next, what hateful speech will be delivered from the podium, who will be deemed “not Jewish” or “stabbing the holy Torah in the back” – maybe me? Add into that the wars, the missiles and every new “wave of violence,” and I have to ask myself: Why am I trying so hard to stay in a relationship where the love has waned?

It would be so much easier if I had another “woman” waiting in the wings. But I don’t. I’m realistic enough to realize that every place has its problems, and my country of origin is also not perfect. Like me, America has changed too. When I think about leaving the bed I’ve made all these years for the allure of fresh sheets, I feel no lustful attraction. When I get so down as to contemplate what it would take to actually file for divorce from Israel, there’s just too much bother for too little payoff.

Or as my friend Warren put it in a Facebook post: “Can’t go to the USA because of Trump and the high chance of getting shot. Can’t go to Europe because of anti-Semitism. Can’t go to China because of smog. Can’t go to Southeast Asia because there are too many Israelis there already.”

My friend Sarah has lost some of that lovin’ feeling too over her years since emigrating from North America. “All the things that I used to think were ‘charming’ when I was in love have now become kind of annoying. When I first came here, I used to give lectures about how outsiders might see Israelis as impolite, but once you’re on the inside you see that it’s really we’re one big family, so we speak openly, directly. I don’t think that anymore. I think Israelis are just rude. I don’t care what their family dynamic is.”

But I don’t want to live without love. I want to feel the passion I once had.

If this were a relationship between two people, one where commitment was something both sides took seriously, at this point I’d probably go for therapy – find myself a marriage counselor for the not-so-new immigrant. That therapist would undoubtedly start by suggesting a series of exercises to “rekindle the romance.”

What might those look like? Here are some of the most common suggestions for relationships on the rocks and how they might apply to a country.

“Put fun time with your spouse ahead of [everything else]. Go on regular dates nights. Take weekend excursions,” writes life coach Barrie Davenport. That sounds easy enough. There are endlessly beautiful trails to hike in this country and plenty of exotic foods to sample. Imagine how much fun visitors have vacationing in Israel. Then realize that you get to live here all the time! (And pay taxes and dodge knives and curse at obnoxious drivers, but I digress…)

Make a list of all the ways you used to connect and “all the reasons you fell in love with your partner in the first place,” urges the website How to Rekindle a Relationship. “Then think about all the good ways that [your partner] has changed since you first met. These are the elements you should be focusing on.” And of course Israel is so much more than dire headlines. Indeed, when I think about the Israel of twenty, thirty years ago vs. today, there have been so many improvements.

Despite the ever-rising cost of living, it’s much easier to build a life here now. There was no Internet then, an international phone call was an “event” not just a click into Skype, and only the earliest hints of the Startup Nation (with all the economic opportunities and accolades that came with that) were present. The inflation that made us look like a third world country in 1985 is under control; unemployment remains low. Recycling is growing, smoking is banned (not from everywhere, but remember when you could smoke on buses – yuck). Heck, there’s finally even a law that allows you to return items and get your money back.

A third tip, this one from The Huffington Post’s Yagana Shah: “Work towards a goal together.” That one really spoke to me. A long-term project or a shared endeavor with mutual goals and values that are greater than any one person can help you glimpse the bigger picture; it can add a richness and even “purpose” to your life.

That was true when I first moved to Israel – and it still applies. Whatever’s happened to my religious or political certainty over the past two decades, I continue to believe with all my heart that this country needs to exist; that a homeland for the Jewish people is not just a “nice to have” but an essential in the world and for Jews, whether they live here or back in the Old Country. It’s probably why I never entertained an “affair” with another country. I can’t tell you exactly why I still cling to this belief this so strongly. Maybe I’m still religious after all.

Getting involved in a specific project for which I feel passionately is something to consider, for sure, and I’ll start chewing on that now. But in some ways, my “purpose” is a lot humbler: it’s simply to “show up.” To make my voice heard, yes, but also just to be here, physically and demographically. To raise my children in Israel; to enthusiastically support them as they head off to the army. Because if I’m not here to do that – and no one else is either – then who’s going to be the proverbial last one to turn the lights off at Ben-Gurion Airport? And would anyone even care?

My friend Sarah has come to that place, despite her grumbling. “Every person and every relationship has its flaws,” she says. “Do I love everything about my husband? No, not everything. Similarly, do I still love Israel? Some days yes, some days not as much. But life and relationships are all about compromise. Sometimes you have to put aside your self-interest for the larger narrative.”

“If your marriage or relationship has reached a breaking point, take advantage of the crisis. Turn it into an opportunity for growth, and a time to work on yourself,” says marriage counselor Marci Payne.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not giving up. I still have purpose, and that’s something I feel here and nowhere else; when I allow myself to get in touch with it, it can move me to tears. Plus, I still have hundreds of kilometers of trails to hike. Maybe somewhere on the path, I might find love again too.

I first tried figuring out how to rekindle my relationship to Israel at The Jerusalem Post.


Oberlin protest (Wikimedia Commons)Oy, what has happened at my alma mater? Oberlin College was in the news in December when its students declared that the campus dining department was guilty of a litany of offenses, in particular “cultural appropriation.” Trigger warning here: if you are uncomfortable with young people acting ridiculously, stop reading now.

Still with me? OK, so here’s the backstory for this latest outrage. A dining hall at the Ohio liberal arts college where I got my B.A. tried to pass off as a traditional Vietnamese dish a banh mi sandwich with the incorrect type of bun (ciabatta bread instead of a baguette) and coleslaw rather than picked vegetables and pate. Then, to add insult to injury, they served a Chinese General Tso’s chicken plate with, gasp, steamed instead of fried chicken. There was also some poorly prepared sushi involved in this crime against culinarity.

Dorm food was never the epitome of gourmet – at least it wasn’t when I was a student at Oberlin 30 years ago – but these days, the slightest slip, verbal or apparently in the kitchen, can lead to a charge of cultural appropriation. (Oxford Reference defines it as the “taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes or practices by one cultural group from another.”)

“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” student Tomoyo Joshi told the campus newspaper The Oberlin Review. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it, and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

“It was ridiculous,” another student exclaimed with the seriousness that comes with being 18 and on your own for the first time. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” Bon Appetit, the food service vendor, “has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines,” reported The Oberlin Review’s Clover Lihn Tran.

Not included in the escalating tensions over the soggy sandwich was the question of whether the new mash-up might actually have tasted better, or how banh mi is already a fusion between cultural boundaries: French and Vietnamese. And as for the General Tso’s chicken – the most culturally inauthentic Chinese dish (it was invented in America) – in any case, isn’t steamed healthier than fried?

I can pile on about the absurd obsessions at my alma mater – and certainly my friends on Facebook did (my favorite was from Richard Schultz: “look at the bright side – if these people succeed, no one will ever again be permitted to eat a pastrami sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise”) – but taken to extremes, it can affect more than culinary choices.

In November, a long-running free yoga class at the University of Ottawa was put on hiatus when the student government deemed that, because yoga has its origins in Hinduism, its practice by non-Hindu Westerners could be considered cultural appropriation. The controversy began with an email decrying that Hinduism is among the “cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and Diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy and we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves…while practicing yoga.”

“Political correctness has become the new face of bullying,” Jen Scharf, who taught the yoga class since 2008, told The Toronto Sun. Where does it stop, asked another columnist in the same paper. “The long shirts many Western women wear over leggings strongly resemble the South Asian kurtas and tight pyjamas that women from that part of the world like to wear,” wrote Farzana Hassan. Should certain fashion statements also be banned as cultural appropriation?

How about white kids singing reggae (think: Matisyahu) or dressing up as Native Americans for Halloween costumes, an issue so contentious that a message sent out last year to encourage students at Yale University to act maturely when confronted with potentially upsetting culturally appropriative costumes resulted in a video that went viral, documenting a screaming match where students demanded the resignation of a dorm official for failing to create “a place of comfort, a home” for students.

This fear on American college campuses of causing inadvertent offense is stifling free speech, wrote Roger Kimball in The Wall Street Journal. In a widely shared article entitled The Rise of the College Crybullies, he laments that, given “American universities are among the safest and most coddled environments ever devised by man, the idea that one should attend college to be protected from ideas one might find controversial or offensive could only occur to someone who had jettisoned any hope of acquiring an education.”

Amidst all the hoopla over General Tso’s chicken, yoga classes and Halloween costumes, there’s one “controversial” idea that doesn’t seem to require protection: support for Israel. This won’t be news to most readers, but let’s return one more time to my alma mater in order to see the stark contrast between students running to the defense of the national and cultural aspirations represented by a sandwich and their absolute abandonment of the same sensitivity when it comes to expressing views defending the Jewish State.

In a separate article, a Jewish student at Oberlin described the mood on campus when it came to the Middle East. It was clear, the student said, that, “my fellow Obies and I were expected by our peers to join them in denouncing a plethora of social evils including…Israel.”

A private Facebook group called “Obies Against BDS” has begun to document the disturbing events that have occurred at Oberlin in recent years. One former student who transferred out of Oberlin due to what he called its “toxic climate around Israel” described an incident on campus when a “speaker drew laughs when she said that Zionists should be burned at the stake.” The planting of 2,133 black flags on the central quad, symbolizing Palestinians killed in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, was displayed on campus davka on Rosh Hashanah.

The school’s Kosher Co-Op (which ironically also serves Muslim students who keep the Halal dietary laws) was expelled from the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. Ohio was tarnished in online forums as a state “infested with Zionism” while Israel was referred to with the usual epithets – “a white supremacist…violent apartheid state.” One of the “demands” the Black Student Union at Oberlin made in a 14-page manifesto it released to campus administrators in December called for the college to divest from Israel. As my own children would say, ma hakesher, what’s the connection?

Let the kids be kids, some would say. They’ll grow up soon enough and have to confront a much less coddling real world. But that’s exactly what worries David Brog, executive director of the new anti-BDS Maccabee Task Force. Now, I don’t normally agree with the organization’s main backer, Sheldon Adelson, but Brog may be prescient when he wrote recently that, “BDS supporters are working diligently to turn a generation of Americans against Israel and are quite happy to [wait and] enjoy the fruit of their labor when these students run our government, media and corporations.”

In a statement addressing student complaints on the racist overtones of the soggy pork banh mi sandwich that turned Oberlin into a media punching bag these past few weeks, Michele Gross, Oberlin’s director of dining services, wrote that, “in our efforts to provide a vibrant menu, we recently fell short in the execution of several dishes in a manner that was culturally insensitive. We are committed to making sure these missteps don’t happen in the future.”

All very nice, but what’s becoming increasingly clear is that apologies over insensitivities in the kitchen don’t translate into a similar revulsion towards hate speech when it comes to Israel. The same 18-year-old campus “crybullies” who feel unsafe by fellow students dressed in “culturally inappropriate” Halloween costumes are becoming immune to nuanced dialogue on the complexities of the Middle East.

Maybe the goal for pro-Israel activists on campus is not to belittle students’ current obsessions with cultural appropriation, but to meet students where they are now, to accept that this is what’s important to millennials in college today and this is the language they invoke, and instead to demand that the tent they have pitched be expanded. Let it include defending the sensitivities of those making the point that Israel is not cause and culprit behind all the world’s problems; and that condoning hate speech against one group alone can not be tolerated.

The very future of Zionism may depend on understanding student rage over a chef’s choice to steam rather than fry a popular Chinese chicken dish.

I first reported on the connection between cultural appropriation and BDS at The Jerusalem Post.


The LeftoversTwo weeks ago, the HBO TV series The Leftovers completed its stunning second season. With its incessantly bleak tone, and ratings that were not much better, critics and fans called it “the best show on television you’re probably not watching.” But you ought to. Go out and binge watch all 20 episodes right now. Because the fictional world of the Leftovers can tell us a lot about the very real world we inhabit, especially now in the shadow of ever increasing terrorism.

Based on the best selling 2011 book by Tom Perotta, and co-created by Damon Lindelof who masterminded the TV series Lost, the Leftovers presents a contemporary alternate universe where two percent of the world’s population inexplicably disappears at once, an event which is dubbed the Sudden Departure. That sounds a lot like the Christian Rapture, but the show’s conceit is that it never attempts to explain what caused the Departure.

What is clear, though, is that the Departure doesn’t fit into any religious framework we’re familiar with: the 140 million people who vanished were not all “believers” or even good people. The Departure appears to have struck completely at random, with criminals and babies disappearing along with presumably God fearing men and women. Pope Benedict XVI was taken, yes, but so were Condoleezza Rice, Salman Rushdie, Gary Busey and Jennifer Lopez.

This throws the fictional post-Departure world into an existential religious crisis and it’s that which the show wants to explore. The series starts three years after the Departure with humanity suffering from collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where traditional religions break down with new ones taking their place. All of them try to ascribe some meaning to what seems to have become a meaningless world.

Much of the Leftovers focuses on a cult called the Guilty Remnant which does whatever it can – including shocking violence – to prevent people from “forgetting” the Departure and moving on with their lives. Guilty Remnant members dress all in white, do not speak and incessantly chain smoke (because what’s the point, anyone of us could be gone in a moment).

I won’t provide any spoilers here, other than to say while the Leftovers operates on many levels, optimism is not one of them. Which is why it can seem so spookily reminiscent of the non-fictional world we live in, where “meaning” also appears increasingly absent.

The Leftovers had the Sudden Departure; we have the alarming wake-up of global terror. In both cases, the victims are random (well, terror groups target identifiable groups – westerners, Jews, Shi’ites – but usually not specific individuals) and the violence is nearly always unexpected. Two percent of the world’s population is large enough that just about everyone on the Leftovers knows someone affected by the tragedy. That’s not unlike our experience in Israel, too, where no one remains untouched by terror.

The result is a grasping for explanation – any explanation – to take away the pain of not knowing why. In the Leftovers universe, the Guilty Remnant is a kind of stand in for ISIS or Al Qaeda. They have a clear ideology and will do whatever they deem necessary in pursuit of their goals. Meanwhile, the post-Departure masses flail around lost and unclear of where to turn next, jumping from indifference to avoidance to depression.

The Guilty Remnant picks up on that, preying on people who just can’t deal with their lives anymore. In the real world, politicians try to fill the vacuum (witness Donald Trump’s reactionary calls to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.), as does religion, which has always excelled at providing big picture rationales for personal pain.

The son of friends of ours living in the States was visiting a few days after the San Bernardino terror attack. Noam grew up in ultra-Orthodox family; he has six brothers and sisters and a strong belief system. I, on the other hand, was feeling pretty hopeless about the world as we sat down for lunch.

“Suffering and evil does have meaning,” he said to me calmly as I balanced some rice and tofu on my fork. I must have looked quizzical. “It’s there to allow us to be better, to do good in the world, to make a change,” he continued. Noam was expressing the classic Jewish tikun olam point of view, one with which I readily agree. We were just coming at it from different starting points.

Noam’s religious beliefs allow him to perceive hidden purpose in evil – it provides us with the impetus to over-compensate towards the positive. I see that same evil, but for me there is nothing deeper behind it, no religious imperative or God-given backstory. So I’m compelled to come up with my own small tikun olam actions – more often that not a menu of digestible causes, from promoting social justice and gender equality to reducing waste and eating less meat.

“I feel sorry for you,” Noam said, but he meant it compassionately and he quickly corrected himself. “What I meant is, it must be hard for you living that way.”

The truth is, it’s not. I’m satisfied with my makeshift approach to meaning. I don’t need a supernaturally imposed sense of morality to do the right thing, at least when it comes to the small stuff. But terror, well, that’s not small stuff anymore. And that’s when the existential despair sets in. Other than enthusiastically exercising our right to vote for leaders we hope will make the right strategic decisions, we don’t have much direct impact on the politics of terror.

Or maybe we do.

Micah Avni’s father Richard Lakin was killed in the October 13 terror attack on Egged bus number 78 in Jerusalem. Avni, who is the CEO of a publicly traded Israeli commercial finance institution, holds social media responsible for enabling incitement and providing a platform for hate to flourish.

In a New York Times op-ed, Avni argues that “this wave of terrorism is different from anything we’ve seen” and that “the world leaders who [are] having the most impact on the situation in the Middle East right now [aren’t U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and other young entrepreneurs who shape the social media platforms most of us use every day.” Avni calls for social media companies to “become more active in combatting hate” and to “remove blatant incitement without waiting for formal complaints.”

Elsewhere on Facebook, a social media group called “Fight F/Book Anti-Semitism” has close to 7,500 members; its goal is to identify, shame and ultimately force Facebook to shut down pages that incite their followers to violence against Israelis and the Jewish people. Last week they were able to get the “Death to Israel” page removed after months of concerted effort.

I agree with Avni and others fighting anti-Semitism online; they deserve all the support we can give them. But it’s only half the solution. The other is creating a compelling counter message; one that appeals to would-be terrorists, their followers and supporters, and that sanctifies meaning without murder in an irresistible way.

Do I know what that message would be? Maybe something like the Muslim Reform Movement, which was announced on December 4 by a dozen Muslim scholars and activists from around the world. In its preamble the group declares, “We are Muslims who…stand for a respectful, merciful and inclusive interpretation of Islam. We…seek to reclaim the progressive spirit with which Islam was born in the 7th century and fast forward it to the 21st century…we reject interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice or politicized Islam.”

One of the authors of the Muslim Reform Movement said that the group’s goal is to take the declaration to mosques, Muslim institutions and Muslim leaders throughout the world and to seek their formal endorsement. David Suissa, writing about the initiative in the Jewish Journal, commented that, “Even if it takes 100 years, getting those endorsements is the real war we must win.”

This is how it begins. In the world of the Leftovers, the Guilty Remnant comes off like a cult but might be a religion in training. “Most religions are founded on some supernatural act, but it’s way in the past, ” Leftovers author Tom Perrotta says. But what “if we moved this supernatural event into our world, how would we react to it? Maybe [the Guilty Remnant’s] lifestyle isn’t a full-fledged religion yet, but…once you create that space, then maybe the religion evolves and maybe it survives.”

We are at that juncture today. Can the Muslim Reform Movement mature and catch on as an accepted religious direction? Will the holy devotion to unfiltered free speech on social media be tempered by real world rationality as Micah Avni proposes? Can an alternate message of meaning manifest itself as we teeter on the brink of madness in the Middle East and beyond? And what role can Israel and the Jewish people contribute so that that the world we live in does not become the nihilistic equivalent of the Leftovers?

Cracking that would be the most meaningful tikun olam.

I originally compared the world of The Leftovers and our very real one in The Jerusalem Post


A terrible confession

by Brian on December 7, 2015

in Living Through Terror,Politics

Bataclan_theater,_Paris_January_2011I have a terrible confession to make. I’m ashamed to even let the words pass my lips, but I suspect I’m not alone. Each time there’s a terror attack overseas, that is to say, one outside of Israel, I feel a tiny twinge of hope. Then I am instantly overcome with guilt and I berate myself for being an awful individual: insensitive, callous, cavalier. What kind of person feels anything but anguish at other people’s pain? I ask myself, while writing down a new al chet for next year’s Yom Kippur.

It’s not that I want people to get hurt, chas v’chalila. I’m in shock over what’s been happening in the world, in Paris in particular, and have no desire to see violence of any kind escalate. But here’s the thing: when terror strikes outside Israel, I harbor the slightest, undoubtedly misguided fancy that this time the world will “get” us. That the people of Brussels who were locked in their homes and hotels for three days straight will finally understand what we in Israel have to deal with on a daily basis. That John Kerry will do more than issue even-handed warnings and denunciations.

I’m not expecting that the European Union or the Obama Administration will change their respective approaches towards peace in the Middle East. I’m not even saying that they should. But it would be nice to hear, just for a moment, that maybe you Israelis aren’t “executing” innocent civilians, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has accused us; that maybe we Europeans could learn a thing or two from you about fighting terror; that we’re all in the same boat when it comes to a shared enemy.

But alas, my hopes are repeatedly dashed. While the world poured out its sympathy for Paris – as well it should – no similar sentiment was expressed for the Israelis killed since that horrendous Friday the 13th in France. The American news programs I follow belatedly realized their omission…about Beirut and Turkey, that is, which suffered their own ISIS attacks prior to Paris. But not a word about Ezra Schwartz, for example, the American teenager who was gunned down by a Palestinian terrorist in Gush Etzion on November 19.

Three days later, on November 22, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a press conference in Malaysia where he paid tribute to two Americans who had been killed in the recent terrorist attacks – Nohemi Gonzalez who was in Paris and Anita Datar who died in the Mali hotel assault. But not Schwartz. Why was he left out? Was it because he was killed “in an attack in the politically complicated West Bank and not in one of the higher profile attacks that was rocking the world?” asked Haaretz’s Alison Kaplan-Sommer?

When Obama finally called the Schwartz family – a full four days later – to offer his condolences, it was too little too late for Israelis already infuriated by the double standards of language. Such as Marne Richardson, who posted on Facebook the official responses from the U.S. State Department to Schwartz’s murder and the attacks in Paris.

About Paris: “These are heinous, evil, vile acts. Those of us who can must do everything in our power to fight back against what can only be considered an assault on our common humanity.” About Schwartz: We “continue to urge all sides to take affirmative steps to restore calm and prevent actions that would further escalate tensions.” Why the different tone? Richardson asked. “Wasn’t Ezra’s murder [also] a heinous, evil, vile act?”

To his credit, U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro did acknowledge Schwartz’s death quickly. But “the contrast with the way the world, officially and unofficially, has embraced France [compared to its approach to terrorism in Israel] has been impossible to ignore,” concluded Kaplan-Sommer. When it comes to Paris, the State Department seems “strikingly unconcerned about ‘restoring calm.’”

For the paranoid, the-world-hates-the-Jews personalities among us, the Paris-Gush Etzion divide confirms our worst fears. Pro-Israel musician Peter Himelman (Bob Dylan’s son-in-law) wrote on his blog: “Why aren’t the people who changed their Facebook photos to the French flag changing it today to the Israeli flag? Changing it to Ezra’s picture? But who am I kidding? Israel isn’t France is it? No, it’s just a bunch of Jews over there and maybe, just maybe… they deserve it, right?” Himmelman added emphatically, “Today, I am standing with Israel, plain and simple.”

Journalist, lawyer and former Jerusalem Post correspondent Jordana Horn, in a JTA op-ed, offered one answer to why terrorism in Israel elicits such a paucity of response. Maybe, she wrote, it’s “because Jews are murdered so frequently that it just isn’t as shocking as Parisians being murdered in a music hall.”

Or as Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom sputtered in an interview, the fact that the “Palestinians see that there is no future” must be the root cause for the attacks in Paris.

I don’t usually agree with most things Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, but he was right when he declared on Facebook that, “it’s time for the world to condemn terrorism against Israel in the same manner that it condemns terrorism in France and anywhere else in the world.”

The most depressing part of what happened in Paris – and what’s happening every day in Israel – is that it flies in the face of (and stands to potentially upend) data that shows we are living in the least violent time in history. In his Brief History of Humankind course, Yuval Noah Harari brings what should be a set of optimistic infographics.

In the year 2002, 172,000 people died in wars between states while 569,000 died from violent crime (including terrorism), for a total of 741,000. “That sounds like a lot of people, and it is – each of these victims is a world destroyed, a family ruined, friends and relatives scarred for life,” Harari says.

But from a macro-perspective, those violent deaths represent just 1.5 percent of the 57 million people who died from all causes in 2002, Harari explains. Looking at it a different way, in Japan, only one person per 100,000 will be the victim of “intentional homicide” (statistics speak for “murder”) in any given year. In New York, it’s 7 out of 100,000; in Detroit, it spikes to 50 out of 100,000. For the U.S. as a whole, it’s just under 5, and for the entire world, including its most dangerous places, the grand total is just 9 people out of every 100,000.

Israel’s intentional homicide rate in 2012, according to the World Bank, was just 2 people per 100,000. (Going forward, that number would include knife attacks but not missiles from Gaza, which would be classified as “armed conflict.”)

By contrast, in ancient societies, comprised of simple farmers, “with no political organization larger than the local community, about 400 people were violently killed each year out of every 100,000. That’s eight times more than in Detroit,” Harari says in his course.

But have we reached a tipping point, where violence starts trending upward again? In November, the Institute for Economics and Peace released its latest report and found that in 2014, 32,685 people were killed in terrorist attacks, an 80 percent increase from the year before. Most of the terror occurred not in the west (or in Israel for that matter) but in five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. Boko Harem was the deadliest terror group, surpassing ISIS, although most of the casualties in Syria were classified as “battlefield deaths.”

The numbers look grim, but the intentional homicide rate, the report points out, was still 13 times greater. But after Paris and whatever comes next, ISIS appears to be winning the fear game if nothing else.

How else to explain what happened in Brussels, where for three days, citizens were told to stay indoors, mass transit was shut down, restaurants closed and cultural events canceled? Even though Israelis feel constantly under siege, such a total shut down has never happened here. No doubt downtown Jerusalem is hurting (my wife and I went out for sushi the other day and we were mostly alone in the restaurant), but Israelis defiantly continue with their lives. How else to explain our remarkable score of 7.4 on the latest OECD happiness survey, compared with an average of just 6.6 for other developed countries?

Which leads me to the other reason I feel that odd twinge of hope when it seems that we’re not alone in the crosshairs of terror. It closes down the mental escape hatch, the niggling voice that speaks up, especially to immigrants, to say that it would be safer elsewhere and that by living here we’re endangering our families and ourselves unnecessarily. But when the whole world seems to be on the brink of war, and terror can strike anywhere at anytime, there’s probably no place I’d rather be than in Israel, with our own army, run by our own sons and daughters, here to protect us.

And that’s a confession I’m proud to make.

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post.


Meesh and RachelJewish social media has been bent all out of sorts these past few weeks after the Rabbinical Council of America, one of Modern Orthodoxy’s key umbrella organizations, passed a contentious resolution prohibiting its member congregations from employing Orthodox Jewish women if they’ve been ordained with the titles Rabbi, Rabba or Maharat.

The resolution, which squeaked by with just a small margin and was panned even by the RCA’s president Rabbi Shalom Baum as “ill-timed” and “unnecessary” given that the resolution reiterated a nearly identical one from 2010, is an unambiguous attack at the growing “Open Orthodoxy” movement and its Yeshivat Maharat in New York (as well as smaller institutions in Israel like Rabbi Herzl Hefter’s Beit Midrash Har’el) that have begun – audaciously in the official eyes of the RCA – to ordain Orthodox women as rabbis.

The RCA’s reactionary slap gave ample fodder to Orthodoxy’s more progressive pundits to bemoan the rightward drift of the movement; non-Orthodox leaders have been quick to condemn the decision as well. All of which led me to a very strange reaction.

“Who cares?” I asked to the surprise of our guests around the Shabbat table one afternoon. “I mean, why are we even having this conversation in 2015? Why should we still be debating whether women can or can’t do this, fill or not fulfill that role? Haven’t we moved past that? And in any case, we’re not exactly Orthodox anymore. Our congregation’s rabbi is already a woman. So why does it get us so upset?”

My wife Jody was quick to answer. “Things that have to do with gender inequality or sexism are bigger than any specific denomination.”

“OK, so maybe I’m asking the wrong question,” I responded. “Maybe what I meant to say is, why would someone who cares about women’s leadership roles choose to stay in a system that denies women the ability to fully actualize their potential? Why aren’t they running away from Orthodoxy, like Alice Shalvi did, to a framework that’s more welcoming and encouraging?”

In 1996, Professor Alice Shalvi, then the principal of the prestigious Pelech Religious High School for Girls in Jerusalem and the chair of the Israel Women’s Network, astounded the Modern Orthodox community by announcing that she was joining the Conservative Movement. She soon became the head of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the movement’s theological seminary in Israel.

Nor is this question of “why stay?” limited to just issues of women and Orthodoxy. I could ask it about a whole range of modern day conflicts where western values clash with religious tenets. The problem of agunot (get refusal) in Orthodoxy is enough to make one head for the secular hills.

“It’s not easy to leave a community where you’ve spent many years, perhaps your entire life,” a guest at the Shabbat table said. She was right, of course. It took me more than 20 years to redefine myself as something other than Orthodox. My reasons for leaving were broader than the way women are treated, although the slow pace of egalitarianism in Orthodoxy definitely played a part. Nevertheless, it was a shock to the entire worldview I’d built up during that time, even though I was returning to something familiar from my pre-Orthodox youth, not heading off blindly into the unknown like Shulem Deen or Deborah Feldman whose book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hassidic Roots was chosen as one of Oprah’s “Ten Titles to Pick up Now.”

Once you’ve left the system, you start making friends with others who have either gone a similar way or are wavering. One friend has become a closeted atheist; he continues to live in a black-hat Anglo haredi community where he acts “as if.” His wife knows and has made peace with his self-proclaimed quiet heresy. Another friend has been threatening for years to take off his kippa. “But I would probably lose my job,” he sighs. Every time I see him, his head remains covered.

Not everyone has such existential angst. An article in Commentary Magazine last year by Jay Lefkowitz may help explain why people remain in the Orthodox world even when it comes into conflict with their changing values – on the role of women or even more heavenly matters. Lefkowitz defines a phenomena he dubs Social Orthodoxy – ”one of the fastest growing and most dynamic segments of the American Jewish community,” he claims.

Social Orthodox Jews, Lefkowitz explains, are fully observant, but “not because they are trembling before God.” They may not be “sure how God fit[s] into their lives [nor are they certain] if Jewish Law is divine or simply the result of two millennia of rabbinical interpretations,” but they still get up every morning to pray with Tefillin (phylacteries). They wouldn’t think of eating bread on Pesach even though they doubt its origin story.

“Much more important to [Social Orthodox Jews] than theology, Lefkowitz concludes, “is maintaining the continuity of the Jewish people. The key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity.”

Being Jewish, Lefkowitz adds, means “being a member of a club, and not just any club; a club with a 3,000-year-old membership, its own language, calendar, culture, vast literature including histories and a code of law, and of course, a special place on the map.” Judaism even adds the ultimate physical test for acceptance: circumcision. (It’s pretty hard to fake membership when something so sensitive is at stake.)

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the best selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, describes what makes such a club a religion.

“Religion is a system of human norms and values founded on a belief in a super-human order,” he explains. “Super-human” is not the same as supernatural, Harari stresses. “The theory of relativity is super human, in that humans can’t change the laws just like that.” But relativity doesn’t include the second requirement of a religion: that the belief in this super-human order also establishes ways of behaving.

Harari says that the last 300 years have seen an “intense religious fervor” but with an emphasis on what he calls “natural law religions” – capitalism, nationalism, humanism, liberalism – all with their own immutable super-human (though not supernatural) truths (“all men are created equal”) and the legal and behavioral codes that result. In this light Lefkowitz’s Social Orthodoxy seems very much a piece with these more modern “religious” systems, despite its ancient Jewish origins.

That doesn’t make it any easier to leave, though. If anything, understanding and acknowledging the importance of the social element ought to give one added respect for those who remain, despite the cognitive dissonance that undoubtedly arises.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first Orthodox Jewish woman to be ordained at Yeshivat Maharat In New York, and now its dean, wasn’t looking for a way out. She would probably recoil at the appellation of Social Orthodoxy. In an article published a few weeks ago, she recalled that when the RCA issued its 2010 denunciation of women with rabbinical titles, she felt “isolated and unsure of the future of Orthodox women in my position, of which there were very few. She was shocked “by the threatening phone calls and emails I received.”

But five years later, the train has decisively left the station. Yeshivat Maharat has ordained 11 women and another 22 are currently studying there. Ha’rel graduates Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kosoy and Rabbi Rachel Berkowitz made news in Israel earlier this year for doing the same. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin oversees the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, which gives women the title of morot hora’ah – essentially equivalent to ordination, although it’s not labeled as such.

After the RCA proclamation, an online petition “We Support Women in Orthodox Leadership Roles” garnered more than 2,000 signatures in 48 hours. “Today, I feel 100 percent certain of the future of Orthodox women serving as clergy in halachically committed communities across the United States,” Hurwitz says. “Trying to write us out of the narrative is no longer an option.”

Those who stay within the system, fighting against the scare tactics of groups like the RCA, deserve our respect and require our support, our lobbying and, yes, our social media outrage.

So let me ask the question again. Who cares about Orthodox women rabbis? I do.

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post website.


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