Strange Comrades: Gershom Gorenberg and Israeli Singing Star Noa

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What would the Talmud say about the suppression of public debate over Israeli policies in the American Jewish community? This is the question posed by Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg in “An Open Letter to American Rabbis” in the May/June issue of Moment Magazine. Gorenberg , who made aliyah 35 years ago, wrote “The Unmaking of Israel,” a highly readable book chock full of facts that make a powerful case that the occupation of the West Bank is destroying Israeli democracy. But in this Letter, he shifts his attention to America and expands on a theme that Peter Beinart focused on in his recent book, “The Crisis of Zionism” – the stifling of criticism in the American Jewish community about Israeli government policies. But Gorenberg uses an interesting twist, drawing on a Talmudic text to illustrate that healthy debate is an essential part of the Jewish tradition and that limiting debate undermines that heritage.

Along similar lines, a controversy has recently erupted around the Israeli singing star Achinoam Nini, also known as Noa, for her participation in an alternative Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) commemoration on April 24th. Last weekend she posted a moving column which illustrates what can happen to public figures in Israel today who dare to act contrary to the expectations of the right-wing ideologues. (I attended the event where Noa performed and wrote about it in a short blog post on April 25.)

I wish it were possible for every rabbi and Jewish communal leader in America to read these columns by Gorenberg and Noa. It might lead to more open and informative conversations.


News Roundup: Illegal Settlements, Criticism of Israel, and a Personal Essay

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There have been tons of articles this past week that are worth reading. I have highlighted a few below that I felt deserved special attention.

1 – Evacuating illegal settlements: Israeli newspapers have been filled with articles and commentary about impending court ordered deadlines to evacuate settlements in the West Bank that have been built on privately owned Palestinian land. Cabinet ministers are squabbling with each other, the government is scrambling for ways to delay the evacuations, and a bill has been introduced in the Knesset that would require just slightly more than a majority vote to overrule Supreme Court rulings. This would enable the government to ignore court mandates to evacuate illegal settlements. Yesterday the government ordered the army to construct emergency housing on a nearby hill for the settlers of Migron, an illegal settlement that must be evacuated by August 1st. This order is in contravention to existing laws – in other words, replacing one illegal settlement with another one. Even the Military Prosecutor’s Office objected. The government has also appointed committees to devise ways to legalize after-the-fact the approximately 100 illegal settlements in the West Bank and to avoid executing court-ordered evacuations.

Haaretz had two recent editorials that do a good job summing up what is at stake here. See “Anarchists” and “Badge of Shame.”

In contrast, coming soon on this blog is an investigative report on the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes and businesses, which is the way that the government deals with what it considers illegal Palestinian construction.

2 – Criticism of Israel: This past Sunday I read a wonderful profile of 88 year-old Albert Vorspan, the founder of the Commission on Social Action in the Reform movement. Vorspan, an early proponent of the civil rights and the Vietnam antiwar movements, helped make social justice a cornerstone of the activities in Reform temples. But in 1988, after he published an article criticizing the Israeli response to the first intifada and the Jewish organizations that supported it, he encountered a deluge of virulent criticism. As Vorspan said, “I was shocked by the fierceness and the vehemence of the response…I said there was no way to end the intifada and violence without a political settlement.”

The article concludes with his final comment: “I’m angry that the Jewish community, instead of facing issues like guns and torture and economic injustice, wraps itself in the Israeli flag and takes out full-page ads. Everybody is a defender of the faith, and the faith is Israel.”

This brings to mind Peter Beinart’s new book, “The Crisis of Zionism” (a must read!) which also has shared the same fate as Vorspan’s article. A column in The Forward caught my attention because, by quoting critical reviews of the book, it illustrates one of Beinart’s main points about how the organized Jewish community does not tolerate criticism of Israel. As the article points out:

One of Beinart’s key goals is to question the narrow parameters that communal leaders attempt to impose, with some success, on American Jewish discussion of Israel. The trouble is, those narrow parameters also preclude questioning the narrow parameters. Pushback was inevitable.

But that doesn’t explain the attacks’ venomous, ad hominem intensity. For that we must look to the general mood of panicked rage sweeping some segments of Israeli and American Jewry: the McCarthyite attacks in Israel on human rights organizations and the New Israel Fund, the attempts to keep J-Street speakers out of synagogues and to defund or shut down Israeli film festivals screening the wrong Israeli films. The legal threats against campus Arab student groups. The hounding of M.J. Rosenberg. It’s hard to remember such a dark mood of repression since the days of the enemies’ lists circulating in the community in the early 1980s.

3 – A short personal essay: And finally, from last week, here’s an eloquent column by Beth Miller, a young Jewish woman who is working for a human rights organization in the West Bank. Her piece offers a small, personal window into Palestinian life.

Jewish Power and Victimhood: Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism”

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Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, is undoubtedly the most controversial, and most important, Jewish book of the year. The Times of Israel just featured on their website a review I wrote that I think you will find interesting. I highly recommend this superbly written book – what Beinart writes about is of the utmost importance to anyone who cares about Israel.

I began my review with this quote from an interview with Peter Beinart in Haaretz Magazine on March 23, 2012:

If Israel does not survive as a Jewish democratic state, I want to be able to tell my children that I did what little I’m capable of. I’m a writer, so what I can do is to try to sound an alarm. I just want to be able to say that to them.

His book certainly sounds the alarm in a highly informative and compelling manner.

To read the review, click here:

Because I think Beinart’s book is so important, I encourage you to share this post via email, Facebook or Twitter to those who might be interested.

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