Monday, May 30, 2016

Netanyahu Chooses: The Settlers Over The Army And Diplomacy

Last Friday, after weeks of political maneuvering, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Avigdor Lieberman to be his defense minister. A longtime political hard-liner who has filled various cabinet positions for more than a decade, Lieberman made his career with coarse talk: Israel, he said, should “cut off the head” of a disloyal Arab citizen, or take “a lesson from Putin” on how to deal with terror. His appointment served as a climax to parallel dramas: a public dispute between Netanyahu’s most conservative ministers and the Israel Defense Forces, which Lieberman’s appointment will inflame, and a secret peace initiative prompted by Tony Blair, involving players from the opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which the appointment effectively scuttles.

Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, the minister whom Netanyahu fired to make room for Lieberman, spoke bluntly at a press briefing on Friday. “To my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party,” he said. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was Ya’alon’s predecessor as defense minister under Netanyahu, angrily reinforced Ya’alon’s message on television later that night. Israel “has been infected by the seeds of fascism,” Barak said. “This government needs to be brought down before it brings all of us down.” At the Knesset on Wednesday, the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, of the moderate Zionist Union, also condemned Ya’alon’s removal. “The Army is mandatory for all, so it must uphold Israel’s collective values,” she told me. “When my two sons served, I wanted them back with the same values they went in with.”

Ya’alon was the I.D.F.’s chief of staff when it crushed the Al-Aqsa intifada, in the early aughts. He ran the last Gaza war, advocated early on for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, and mocked Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent peace shuttles as “obsessive.” So his words of warning about Lieberman’s appointment carry particular weight, and also make a distinction that clich├ęs about Israeli politics tend to obscure. When people speak of a “rightist” drift in the country, they are actually feeling two currents. The first is ideological: neo-Zionist, religiously inflected zealotry for the Land of Israel, representing at most a fifth of Israel’s Jews and valorizing the settlement project as messianic. The second is reactionary: the conviction that Israel has no partner for peace, that an Arab leader’s motivation to destroy Israel will correspond directly with his capability—reinforced with references to the pathos of Jewish history. This right represents a much larger constituency, shading into the centrist parties. Ya’alon—and Barak, too—are solidly in the latter camp. “Netanyahu always jumped from one camp to another,” Livni said.

Last week, perhaps inevitably, Netanyahu was forced to choose, first because of a controversy over recent knife attacks by Palestinian youths, which government officials have exhorted soldiers—barely out of their teens themselves—to deal with ruthlessly. There have been so many incidents in which disproportionate force was suspected that, in February, the I.D.F.’s chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, felt impelled to reaffirm I.D.F. rules of engagement and warn that it was hardly necessary to “empty a magazine into a teen-age girl carrying scissors.” Then, on March 24th in Hebron, in the West Bank, Sergeant Elor Azaria shot a knife attacker in the head as he lay wounded on the ground. He was taken to an Army prison by his superiors and eventually charged with manslaughter. (Azaria is currently on trial.) Netanyahu, however, had immediately called Azaria’s parents to reassure them that he saw their son as having done his duty; Ronen Bergman, the military correspondent for Yediot Ahronot, reported that the telephone call was seen by the brass as “a gross defiance of the military’s authority.” Lieberman came to court to show his support for Azaria, and called for his release. Late last month, there was yet another incident: a Palestinian brother and sister, who allegedly approached a checkpoint in the West Bank suspiciously, were shot and killed by an Army contractor. The surveillance video has not been released. Again the Army is investigating, and again the investigation was disparaged by the settler right.

The I.D.F. deputy chief of staff, Yair Golan, decided to speak out. On May 5th, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, he delivered a commemorative speech, calling for national soul-searching. In contemporary Israel, he said, there were the same “nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically.” There is “nothing simpler and easier than hating the foreigner, there is nothing easier and simpler than arousing fears and intimidating, there is nothing easier and simpler than becoming bestial, forgoing principles and becoming smug.” As for the Azaria shooting, Golan said the I.D.F. should be proud that, throughout its history, it has investigated “severe incidents” without hesitation. “We didn’t try to justify ourselves, we didn’t cover anything up, we didn’t whitewash, we didn’t make excuses, and we didn’t equivocate.” Both Netanyahu and Lieberman sternly reproached him. Golan had “cheapened the Holocaust,” Netanyahu said, and he summoned the general for a “clarification.”

Golan quickly apologized for invoking the Nazis, but his words prompted a continuing controversy. Naftali Bennett, another far-right leader, demanded an end to the “festival of self-flagellation.” Herzog said, “This is what morality and responsibility sound like.” Ya’alon, for his part, who had dismissed veterans of the group Breaking the Silence as “traitors” for exposing routine violations of the I.D.F. code of conduct, could hardly permit attacks on the code itself. Shortly after Golan’s speech, Ya’alon spoke out: “The job of every I.D.F. commander, and certainly every senior commander, does not end with leading soldiers into battle but obliges him to map out values with the help of a compass as well as their consciences.” The attack on Golan was another tactic in an “alarming campaign aimed at politically damaging the I.D.F. and its officers.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Reform Jews Talk To The Wall

Four days before Passover, on the slopes of Mount Scopus, a group of Kohanim sacrificed a lamb as mandated by the laws of Exodus. The Kohanim, members of the priestly caste supposedly descended from Moses’s brother Aaron, erected their altar in a national-religious settlement overlooking the golden-domed site that was once home to the Second Temple; they slaughtered, skinned, and roasted the lamb, poured its blood on the altar, and delivered the priestly blessing, accompanied by the sounds of trumpets. Hundreds of spectators, mainly from radical Orthodox movements, were provided bleachers. Arieh King, a member of the group and of the Jerusalem city council, thanked the city for its financial support and said that he looked forward to being able to advertise the ceremony using the municipal logo.

A couple of days later, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit prohibited a group of female activists from performing their own version of the priestly blessing, which they intended as part of a (bloodless) Passover prayer service at the Western Wall. The women’s campaign dates back to December, 1988, when a group of seventy women, including a number of female Reform rabbis, carried a Torah scroll toward the Wall—actually, the part of the plaza facing the Wall reserved for female worshippers—to conduct a prayer service. They read portions of scripture and some wore prayer shawls, both of which are prohibited for women by Orthodox synagogues. Their service prompted jeers from the Orthodox women at the site, and they were even threatened by worshippers in the larger, separate men’s section. During subsequent attempts to repeat their service, resistance to their presence grew more violent. Police protection all but evaporated. 

The Ministry of Religion—which maintains custodianship of the plaza, and has typically been run by Orthodox parties in coalitions with the Likud Party—sought to impose jail sentences on those worshipping “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site,” as a 1989 decree put it. An activist group, the Women of the Wall, took shape, led by Anat Hoffman, a charismatic Jerusalem city-council member whose father was American, and who had been exposed to Reform Judaism while studying in the U.S. Over the years, the Women of the Wall filed several lawsuits to the Israeli Supreme Court, which tended to intervene in ways that protected the women’s prerogatives but without challenging the legal status or practice of the Orthodox rabbinate.

The Orthodox rabbinate is not just demonstrating theological antagonism but also exercises state power over important civil rights: weddings, conversions, and other ceremonies are legally recognized only if performed by Orthodox rabbis. The rabbinate sees itself as waging a culture war, and it has been winning. Nearly a quarter of Israeli Jews now tell pollsters that they would, if forced to choose, prefer to live under Jewish law than democratic norms. (In 2009, it was a fifth.) In recent years, the American Reform movement has become increasingly involved in this war, with support for the female activists as its focus. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, could not support the suits directly, but his growing enthusiasm for their activism helped the Women of the Wall raise funds among networks of American Reform donors.

In 2013, increasingly troubled by negative American publicity, Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, to help put an end to the conflict at the Wall. Sharansky proposed a workaround, which was accepted by all sides, including the U.R.J., earlier this year. The Orthodox rabbinate would retain exclusive control over the plaza, and Reform (and other progressive) Jews would have a section of their own, abutting a newly exposed continuation of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, about a seventh the size of the original. Some of the women activists rejected the plan, and the Orthodox continue to revile the Reform service, conducted so openly and close to their plaza. Nevertheless, the U.R.J. applauded the agreement. “This effort,” Jacobs said in a statement, “is the result of the extraordinary commitment shown by those in Israel who wouldn’t agree to the second-class status imposed by the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, and by all of us outside of Israel whose unconditional love for our Jewish State compels us to tirelessly advocate for a more equal, pluralistic, and Jewishly vibrant Israel.”

When we spoke in late February, in Jerusalem, Jacobs told me that he considers Israel’s state-supported Orthodox rabbinate “one of the most corrupt and corrupting institutions ever to happen in the history of the Jewish people.” But the compromise over the Wall is one of several signs that suggests he is ambivalent about whether some kind of a state-supported rabbinate is not, after all, what makes the Jewish state Jewish. In both Israel and America, his movement may rail against the dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate. But in many instances it has not acted to break rabbinic power so much as to share in it. The Reform movement in Israel, supported by the U.R.J., has repeatedly sued to have its conversions recognized by the state (which would make those converts eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return). A small number of regional councils successfully sued the state to pay Reform rabbis, focussing on the social services the rabbis may provide. Reform rabbis have sued, persistently and unsuccessfully, to be able to perform marriages.

The larger challenge—which Jacobs’s statement about the Wall implied success in confronting, although the compromise almost entirely elides it—is theocracy. “Jew” is a legal status in Israel, over which the rabbinate has considerable say. Orthodox rabbinic officials directly control marriage, divorce, and burial; indirectly, by controlling conversion, they determine important parts of immigration and residency law. The state taxes all Israeli citizens to support a network of Orthodox schools, rabbinic courts, local pulpits, and, in effect, theocratic political parties. (The state also provides funding for institutions of other religions, and for secular schools.) A Jew cannot marry a Muslim, or a Christian. These problems cannot be solved by giving a fraction of rabbinic authority to Reform rabbis.

Read on at The New Yorker