A hope that Israel’s 10th president is a uniter-in-chief

MK Reuven Rivlin, won the election, but it was surprisingly close. (Itzike via Wikimedia Commons)

MK Reuven Rivlin, won the election, but it was surprisingly close.
(Itzike via Wikimedia Commons)

The role of the president of Israel is largely ceremonial. The most important constitutional role is holding consultations in forming a government and accepting a government’s resignation. But Israel’s presidency has also been shaped by the men who have served in that capacity.

In the case of Likud Knesset member Reuven Rivlin, who was elected the 10th president of Israel on Tuesday, the incoming president promises to continue to be a plainspoken man who will likely be eclipsed by Israel’s more vocal men in suits, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Rivilin has a mix of views and attitudes that could make his presidential tenure interesting: He is a hard-liner on the territories who opposes the government’s position favoring the creation of a Palestinian state. But as a parliamentarian, including his service for two terms as speaker of the Knesset, he was notable for an allegiance to process and the upholding of democratic norms. While Rivlin is a secular Jew, he views Orthodoxy as normative Judaism. This led him some time ago to denounce Reform Judaism as “idol worship.” And in his 2007 run for the presidency, Rivlin would not say whether he would refer to Reform rabbis by their title if elected. Rivilin sought to clarify those remarks in his recent campaign and appears to acknowledge that he needs to adopt a broader, more inclusive view as president of the nation state of the Jewish people.

In the first decades of the state, Israel’s presidents were largely confined to their ceremonial roles. First president Chaim Weizmann brought with him the prestige of the leader of the international Zionist movement. But he was frustrated to find his influence circumscribed by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Then things changed. For example, in 1982, then-President Yitzhak Navon stunned the country by going on television and threatening to resign unless the government launched an investigation into Israel’s responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Since then, presidents have weighed in on issues of the day.

Outgoing President Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and outspoken dove, may have seemed an ill-fitting partner for hawkish Prime Minister Netanyahu. But Peres’ good cop and Netanyahu’s bad cop seemed to work well and may have been behind Netanyahu’s call for a second term for Peres and his opposition to Rivlin’s candidacy, until it was clear that Rivlin would win.

Now we will all be watching to see how President Rivlin, who won by a 63 to 53 second-ballot vote in the Knesset, will utilize the bully pulpit and prestige of his new office. We hope he will shy away from the bombastic comments that peppered his legislative past and embrace the intended objective of his office of the president — to be Israel’s uniter-in-chief.

We wish him every success.

It sure isn’t art

060614_editorialsEverything in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have two narratives. Even in art. Even in Pittsburgh. That’s the lesson of the exhibit of Israeli, Palestinian and American artists, which was to have opened Sunday at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory museum but was canceled at the last minute.

“Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship” was to be the culmination of a joint multimedia project begun a year ago by a group of nine artists, composed of three Americans, three Israelis and three Palestinians. It was to be proof that art can be a point of creative contact between Israelis and Palestinians who want to engage with one another. As part of their own passage, the artists traveled together last year in the West Bank.

But last week, according to the show’s curator, the Palestinians began receiving threatening messages in Arabic on Facebook. The description of the exhibit used the words “collaboration” and “dialogue” — words that apparently have different meanings to artists and to Israel rejectionists — and the Facebook critics declared that the exhibit was a violation of the Arab cultural boycott of Israel, a serious offense.

To their credit, the Israelis tried to pull their Palestinian partners out of a tough spot. With magnanimity, they withdrew from the show on May 28 in an effort to remove the taint of the Palestinians being “collaborators.” Apparently that wasn’t enough. The Palestinians themselves pulled out the next day, and the project was abandoned. The museum and a related exhibition site, Filmmakers, followed up by posting an apology to “all Palestinians everywhere for the misunderstanding of this exhibition” on their websites. To Israelis and everyone else, they said nothing.

That was the first narrative. And that was bad enough.

The second narrative arose this week when one of the Palestinian artists blamed the city’s “Jewish lobby” for the cancellation of the show. He explained that after the Israelis withdrew, the Palestinians realized it wouldn’t be enough, because the “Zionist media” would “feed additional lies and stories” against the Palestinians.

As to what this artist could have been referring, we have no idea but feel it necessary to point out that until they withdrew, the image of the Palestinians was who they claimed to be: politically conscious artists whose feelings of injustice were backed by politically conscious Israelis.

In any event, regardless of the narrative, the Israeli artists showed sensitivity in trying to make the best of a bad situation. And the Palestinians, whether due to threats or otherwise, instead of letting their art tell their story, fell into the unfortunate image of hatred and bigotry, which in turn has been repeated in the media.

Everyone lost in this experiment: Pittsburgh’s philanthropic community that bankrolled the venture; the Israelis who went out on a limb only to be branded the enemy; and the Palestinian artists themselves, whose blind embrace of intolerance has undermined the very freedom of expression their artwork was meant to embrace.

Pope in the Holy Land

Pope Francis is greeted by Israeli president Shimon Peres at a ceremony held at the president's residence in Jerusalem. Pope Francis recently completed a three-day visit to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Pope Francis is greeted by Israeli president Shimon Peres at a ceremony held at the president’s residence in Jerusalem. Pope Francis recently completed a three-day visit to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank was not merely a religious event. He is, after all, the head of a state. And even more than the charismatic John Paul II, Francis is everyone’s pope. He came, as one commentator put it, “mostly to do what he does best — project friendliness to the world.”

He seems to have succeeded. His visit balanced countries and faiths with a kindness and humility that we have come to expect from Francis during his short tenure. From Jordan, where he met Syrian refugees, the pope went to Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He held mass at the spot on Mount Zion where Christians believe Jesus held his last supper and also prayed at the Western Wall, visited Yad Vashem and made a special trip to Israel’s national cemetery on Mount Herzl and to the grave of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl.

These were potent symbolic acts of reconciliation — recognizing the Jewish connection to the Holy Land’s holy places, paying respect at Israel’s memorial to the Shoah and affirming the State of Israel. His message was clear and most welcome.

But the pope also veered off the expected course, telling a crowd gathered in Bethlehem that he prayed for the “State of Palestine” and then, a short time later, stopping his entourage to pray alongside Israel’s security barrier, his arms outstretched alongside graffiti with the words “free Palestine.” While it is hard to be critical of a man who preaches peace and who exudes kindness and compassion, these two events, coming on the heels of the latest failure of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, understandably raised the hackles of Israelis and their supporters throughout the world.

Before ending his pilgrimage, Francis extended an offer to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join him next month at the Vatican for a peace/prayer summit. While the invitation was a nice gesture, no one appears to be terribly optimistic about this papal initiative. Indeed, it borders on naive to expect much to come from the planned Vatican visit.

Sure, it will be nice to see Peres and Abbas talk and pray together. And we expect Francis to be an active, welcoming host. But peace rests on a lot more than recognition of each side’s aggrieved status and joint prayer. Indeed, as we have learned from the past many efforts to bring the parties together and to an agreement, it will take a sustained effort to get them back to the same negotiating table that fell apart so unceremoniously last month.

At the end of the day, however, Francis’ soothing words and gestures, coupled with his warm personality, resonated with all those he visited. As noted by Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a colleague of Francis’ from Argentina who accompanied the pope on his visit, “This was a very delicate trip.” Yes it was.

How will Modi lead?

Narendra Modi (Narendra Modi Offical Flickr)

Narendra Modi
(Narendra Modi Official Flickr)

A youthful nation and growing economic powerhouse, India has long been forging strong business relations with Israel. Those ties are expected to grow stronger following last week’s landslide election of India’s conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader Narendra Modi.

As chief minister of Gujarat state in Western India, Modi, 63, oversaw a pro-business climate and expanded trade with Israel. In fact, according to recent reports, Gujarat signed an agreement within the last year with an Israeli company and two others to build two semiconductor fabrication plants for a total cost of almost $10.4 billion. Trade between the two nations is $5 billion a year, not counting defense trade.

Modi reportedly wants to continue to improve India’s relations with Israel, which is good news for the Jewish state. It doesn’t hurt for a small nation with eight million people to have the world’s second most populous nation in its corner. And India and Israel clearly have security interests in common, as Islamic terror threatens both countries.

But it would be a mistake for the two countries to base their relationship on an anti-Muslim platform. And we hope that doesn’t become the focus of further efforts to bring the countries closer. A large percentage of the population of both countries is Muslim — indeed, India is the second-largest Muslim nation in the world after Indonesia. But defining your country as anti-Muslim doesn’t make sense and is no way to lead a nation forward

Yet, that is what India’s BJP has done, at least in some respects. The BJP has sought to identify India with the Hindu religion and has vocally rejected the country’s secular tradition of the last 67 years. And within its pro-Hindu promotional activity, the party has vocal anti-Muslim elements. Although candidate Modi has distanced himself from his more radical party supporters, many recall the religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslim. Then-Chief Minister Modi has been accused of looking the other way during that dark episode.

Today, incoming Prime Minister Modi is a man who promises to pull India out of its economic torpor. Clearly, his message has resonated among India’s youth, its business class and millions of others who saw this election as an opportunity to change direction and leadership with an eye toward a brighter economic future. If  Modi chooses to lead as an Indian and operates as a pro-business conservative, he will be someone with whom both Israel and the United States could work. But if the prime minister designate begins to voice and act on the dark chauvinism at his party’s heart, he should expect a much rougher ride.

Bringing openness to JNF

American Jews have historical, idealistic views of Zionist institutions. And the Jewish National Fund is no exception. For many, JNF conjures up the warm images of placing coins in blue pushkes, planting trees in Israel and generally making the land of Israel bloom. It is this image that has sustained support of the organization for generations.

But the JNF also has a major say in Israel’s land policy. It owns 13 percent of the regulated land in Israel and reportedly holds more than $1.1 billion in liquid capital — most of it raised through the sale of that land in deals that are not open to public review.

Despite its large public role — which includes the power to expropriate Israeli land — JNF is not a public institution, and there is no public scrutiny of its records or operations. Not until last week, that is. On May 5, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein changed JNF’s status to a public corporation, effective in 60 days. The move, which will force JNF to file annual financial statements, was opposed by the organization, which argued that as a governmental body it could lose its tax-exempt status in several countries.

The JNF issue has moved concurrently along political and legal tracks. On the political side, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for a committee to study the issue, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni proposed a bill to allow the state comptroller to audit JNF and to publicize its transactions, operations and financial records. On May 4, the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation struck down the bill by a narrow margin.

The next day, Attorney General Weinstein, operating on the legal track, changed JNF’s status and put the company under his supervision. He based his action on an opinion by his deputy, who wrote, “The JNF wields great power. This power requires balance and supervision, and therefore, from a practical standpoint as well, it’s appropriate to apply the higher standard of conduct that the legislator stipulated for a public benefit corporation.”

Critics of the change worry that as a public company, JNF could become a politician’s plaything. But supporters say that already is the case, with widespread political appointments being made in the shadows. Such behind-the-scene deals are far from the image of the blue-and-white pushke, a reality JNF unintendedly experienced when it recently issued new coin boxes whose image of Israel seemed to negate the possibility of a future Palestinian state.

As its name implies, JNF belongs to all Jews. That’s good. And if its workings are now going to be made transparent to all Jews, that’s even better.

Referendum on the Presidents’ Conference

Although controversial, J Street’s membership in the Conference would “ensure the credibility of American Jewish advocacy.” (Courtesy of J Street)

Although controversial, J Street’s membership in the Conference would “ensure the credibility of American Jewish advocacy.” (Courtesy of J Street)

In 1956, developing American Jewish organizations were working hard to find their voice in public matters. At the same time, the State of Israel, not yet a close ally of the United States, was looking for every possible way to make its needs known to the U.S. government. And the Eisenhower administration was looking for an authoritative American Jewish voice, so it wouldn’t have to navigate the intricacies of intra-Jewish politics.

Out of those needs, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations came into being. Through the participation of its 50 voting member organizations, the Conference of Presidents acts as the consensus spokesman of the Jewish community, particularly about Israel. “The Conference is the pre-eminent forum where diverse segments of the Jewish community come together in mutual respect to deliberate vital national and international issues,” reads a statement on its website.

Just whether the Conference’s members actually believe in diversity and consensus, and recognize “that common interests and goals far outweigh differences” (again the website), was raised in last week’s 22-17 (with three abstentions) vote against admitting left-wing pro-Israel group J Street as a member.

We have concerns about J Street. We have issues with many of the positions J Street has taken. And we don’t believe that J Street’s ongoing public criticism of Israeli government policy is in Israel’s best interests. But J Street’s views on Israel and peace have a significant following in the Jewish community and are similar to organizations that are already members of the Presidents’ Conference, such as Americans for Peace Now and the Union for Reform Judaism. Just as significantly, groups that disagree with J Street — among them the Anti-Defamation League — nevertheless voiced support for its inclusion, because it would “ensure the integrity and credibility of American Jewish advocacy and of the Conference of Presidents,” as the ADL national director explained last week.

Although some organizations announced ahead of time how they would vote, the membership ballot was secret, which raises questions of transparency. There is also the question that has always dogged the Conference: Namely, how representative is it? Large, well-established organizations have the same single vote as smaller, sometimes relatively obscure organizations. And many of the Conference’s existing “major Jewish organization” members are not well known to even those active in American Jewish life.

We understand the position of the majority of voting members who cast a “no” vote on J Street. But is that vote really faithful to the stated purposes of the Conference’s existence? Love it or hate it, J Street has demonstrated that it is a player on the American Jewish scene.

While the Jewish community is no longer terra incognita to American leaders — and Israel has no shortage of advocates — we nonetheless see value in an organization that serves as the consensus voice of the many different voices within the American Jewish community. If the Conference of Presidents no longer fulfills that role, is it time to consider alternatives?

Assessing Palestinian unity

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with the media in Ramallah on April 22, a day before his Fatah party signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas.  (Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with the media in Ramallah on April 22, a day before his Fatah party signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. (Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images)

The agreement reached April 23 by Fatah and Hamas apparently caught both the United States and Israel off guard. But with Israel-Palestinian negotiations sputtering to a disappointing ending last month, the “unity accord” gave everyone something to talk about.

Under their agreement, rival Palestinian groups will form a unity government in five weeks. Since a brief 2007 civil war, Hamas has controlled Gaza, and Fatah has ruled parts of the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority.

In responding to the news, the U.S. and Israel restated why Hamas is an unacceptable negotiating partner: The Islamist group is considered a terrorist organization by both countries, it doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence, and its aim is the destruction of the Jewish state. Any Palestinian government that includes Hamas is therefore unacceptable.

Although Israel and the U.S. issued denunciations, they shaved off the hard edges of complete rejection. Israel “suspended” peace talks, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netan-yahu held out the possibility of reviving them should the deal with Hamas fall through. And in a contentious cabinet meeting, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is lead negotiator in the peace talks, reportedly persuaded the government to impose “measured sanctions” rather than pursue a nuclear option
that would bring about the Palestinian Authority’s collapse. Perhaps part of the reason why a more measured approach prevailed is because economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority could ultimately hurt Israel’s security by threatening the paychecks of Palestinian security forces whose cooperation is a bright spot in existing bilateral relations.

For its part, the Obama administration is officially “disappointed” in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ embrace of Hamas. And on the Hill, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) called for an immediate suspension of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, with other Israel supporters of both parties not far behind.

Yet, as of this writing, nothing has changed on the ground. And it might not.

Perhaps that’s because the announced unity effort has a distinct element of déjà vu: Fatah and Hamas have announced unity agreements before only to scuttle them over turf and ideological differences. Many pundits are betting that will happen again.

Nonetheless, to the optimists, the Fatah-Hamas unity effort may present an opportunity to help the moribund peace effort. Until now, Hamas has always been viewed as the wild card in the peace process. But, as observed by Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the involvement of Hamas in a unity government that reached some agreement with Israel “would be much better, because any peace talks could possibly result in a peace agreement with all the Palestinians, rather than half the Palestinians.”

But first, of course, Hamas would have to learn to say the word “Israel.”

Rethinking right-wing extremism

The Jewish Community Center in Suburban Kansas City. (Facebook)

The Jewish Community Center in Suburban Kansas City. (Facebook)

The Boston Marathon bombing, a year ago last week, took three lives, created an uproar and reignited fears about the threat of Islamist-inspired terrorism in this country. The response after what police say was white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller’s murder of three people outside two Jewish institutions in suburban Kansas City was decidedly different. True, he was arrested in a parking lot without a deadly car chase. But the shootings haven’t sparked a call for re-evaluating the relative lack of attention given to the danger posed by right-wing extremists. It should.

Until 9/11, the most deadly terror attack on American soil was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing masterminded by Timothy McVeigh, a right-wing extremist. His attack led to the deaths of 168 people. Since 9/11, right-wing extremists have killed more people in this country than “extremists motivated by al Qaeda’s ideology” — 34 deaths to 23, write Peter Bergen and David Sterman of CNN. That includes “white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants.” And while it isn’t a contest, it does suggest the need for a shift away from what appears to be Homeland Security’s single-minded focus on the threat of jihadist terrorists.

It is troubling to learn that law enforcement didn’t have Miller on its radar, even though he has been an outspoken white supremacist and anti-Semite for decades, having founded and led the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party. He served time in prison on weapons charges and for plotting to assassinate Morris Dees, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center. As part of a plea bargain in another case, he testified against other Klan leaders. But when he decided to take his gun to the Kansas City JCC, no one had an eye on him. The connection between white supremacism and domestic terrorism seems to have been lost on the watchers. We hope this tragic event serves as a wake-up call.

The shootings outside Kansas City also illustrate how hate-fueled violence can affect even those who are not the focus of the hater. The three people who Miller murdered were not Jews but white Christians. Their tragic deaths are a testament to the nihilism of hate and a call for greater vigilance of those who would perpetuate it.

A Seder is not enough

041814_editorialThe hungry, like the poor, have always been with us. At our Seders this week we declared, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” But can our words alone fight hunger? That is the question raised by the National Hunger Seder, held April 9 at the U.S. Capitol.

Being against hunger is easy. Doing something about it is much more difficult. At the Hunger Seder, one of 27 held around the country, a number of elected officials were on hand to speak out against food insecurity. In attendance were Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Jim McGovern, (D-Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) as well as Matt Nosanchuk, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement for Jewish Outreach. The Seder was sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which has been the Jewish voice fighting hunger for nearly 30 years.

And that’s part of the problem. Mazon, the food banks and the other fine groups that are trying to ease hunger in this country and around the world can go on collecting checks and stacking canned goods, but they will never solve the problem. The solution must come from the very building in which the Hunger Seder was held — the Capitol … and the U.S. Congress.

It is our elected officials in Congress who are best able to address the persistence of hunger and poverty in this country. It was Congress that earlier this year cut $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps. And, incredibly, the $9 billion cut was considered a victory for food stamp supporters, because the Republican-led House had proposed slashing up to $39 billion.

Why has Congress seemingly forgotten the extent of hunger in this country? One answer may be that the needy don’t really have that strong a voice in the halls of government. So it is hard to get the attention of lawmakers on the issue. And officials within government who speak out on these issues don’t find significant support from lobbyists and large donors who try to influence the national agenda.

A true national hunger Seder would need to begin by confronting these issues squarely. If we want to defeat hunger, we need to do something about it. Declaring “let all who are hungry come and eat” at the Capitol sounds nice. Following up with a serious commitment on the issue and programs designed to break the cycle of poverty and the pain of hunger would be a wonderful result.

Let’s hope the men and women inside the U.S. Capitol get the message and get to work.

Three little words

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,  pictured here with President Obama earlier this week, seems completely opposed to recognizing a Jewish state. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/Newscom)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,
pictured here with President Obama earlier this week, seems completely opposed to recognizing a Jewish state. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/Newscom)

Will Israeli-Palestinian peace come down to whether the Palestinians will acknowledge that Israel is “a Jewish state”? And if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t say those three little words, will we see the current negotiations end without a resolution?

In his defense, Abbas says that he recognizes Israel; that his predecessor, Yassir Ara-fat, already recognized Israel as a Jewish state; and that the 1988 PLO Declaration of Independence speaks of a Jewish state next to a Palestinian one. So why do the three words stick in the throat of the Palestinian leader?

At his White House visit this week Abbas spoke of the urgency of the peace process, warning that “time is not on our side. … We hope that we would be able to seize this opportunity to achieve a lasting peace.” So far so good. But why not seize the opportunity to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, as the original U.N. partition plan called it? Especially when Abbas is calling on Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners as agreed this month “because this will give a very solid impression about the seriousness of these efforts to achieve peace,” why not simply acknowledge Israel’s fundamental Jewish identity?

All parties to any negotiation know that confidence-building measures go both ways. By recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas would give up nothing tangible, while Israel will have taken a calculated risk to its security with the series of prisoner releases. Recognition would be a tremendous confidence boost. It would be a nod to the “Jewish soul” in “Hatikvah.” It would be an admission of what has become known as the “Zionist narrative” — that Jews have always lived in the land and are not interlopers or colonialists. And for the Palestinians and the Arabs to work past the Jewish state mental block, it would surely go a long way to help promote peace and reconciliation between the two peoples.

For now, Abbas seems dead set against Jewish state recognition. We hope that as President Obama did so very publicly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent Washington visit, he at least privately made clear to Abbas the serious problems the Palestinians will face if he lets these talks fail: a loss of Western financial support and obstruction of any unilateral Palestinian moves at the U.N. There is plenty of pressure Washington can bring to bear on the Palestinian Authority. And maybe Washington has done so behind closed doors. All we know is that it has so far failed to do so publicly.

Whether Abbas is prepared to say the three little words at this time or not, we believe the peace talks should continue. And we urge the Obama administration to do all it can to assure that they do. Without peace talks there will be no possibility of resolution. By continuing, the two sides can build trust, understanding and a relationship. Something may actually come from that.