The Stew of Demonization

There may be many reasons — none of them justified — why 17-year-old Muhammad Nasser Tarayrah jumped the fence around the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron and stabbed to death 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. But even if it is determined why Tarayrah — who was shot and killed by guards after the attack — murdered a child, the case cannot be closed in a larger sense. Not as long as the Palestinian leadership continues to demonize Jews and delegitimize Israel. That drumbeat of hate needs to stop.

A case in point was President Mahmoud Abbas’ June 23 speech to the European Parliament. On the soil where 6 million Jews were murdered after centuries of demonization, Abbas declared, without offering proof, that “certain rabbis in Israel have said very clearly to their government that our water should be poisoned in order to have Palestinians killed.”

Abbas, who was applauded at the time, later retracted the claim. In a statement, his office acknowledged that the assertion was “baseless.” But what seems incomprehensible to us — that anyone would believe that Jews poison wells — apparently seems plausible to the Palestinian leadership and, as a result, to many of the Palestinians they lead. It is reminiscent of the age-old blood libel that Jews bake gentile children’s blood into matzoh. Never true, never proved, but repeated often enough that it was believed. And through the same pattern of demonization the Palestinians have successfully created a wicked image of their enemy — the devious Jew and the Israeli soldier as Nazi — and have peddled their hateful libel to their children.

No matter what it was that drove Nasser Tarayrah to murder a child, one can’t help but express concern that part of what drove him was the stew of demonization cooked up by Palestinian leadership over the past several decades.

We urge Palestinian leadership — whatever their political differences with Israel — to keep their rhetoric focused on their political goals and to established facts. And on this issue, it is important for the United States, Europe and all those who consider themselves sympathetic to the Palestinian cause to push Abbas and his leadership to drop the blood-libel thinking, the lies and the fabrications. Doing otherwise hardens the thinking of even sympathetic Israelis who would like a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and it provides ammunition to those who say Israel has no one to talk to.

Most importantly, Abbas’ unconscionable rhetoric and its blind acceptance by Palestinians and ignorant Europeans puts lives at stake. While the eradication of hateful speech will not end the bloodshed, it is also clear that so long as such speech exists and is promulgated by leadership, there can be no end to the conflict.

No Easy Answers in Orlando Bloodbath

Omar Mateen’s massacre of 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., appears to have touched more pressure points than any of the other well-known mass shootings in the last two decades. There is the hate crime of homophobia. Then there is Mateen’s pledge of allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in the heat of his attack, raising the specter of a Muslim-American’s “self-radicalization.” There was his everyday violent and erratic behavior, suggesting that mental illness played a role. And there was his easy access to and use of a military-style weapon — unnecessary for ordinary self-defense, hunting or an afternoon on the shooting range.

While each of the foregoing issues is a cause for serious concern, it is simplistic to argue, “The answer is gun control” or “If everyone in that bar was carrying a weapon, this never would have happened.” Moreover, this does not appear to be a case of overseas terrorism and the threat of radical Islam. Mateen apparently got everything he needed right here at home, just like several other well-known domestic terrorists.

Similarly, it’s just not right to blame the carnage on a diagnosis of mental illness and to say that the solution is to mandate treatment for the mentally ill — as the gun lobby does in its opposition to common-sense gun laws. That argument  ignores the problem of military-style weapon availability and stigmatizes those who live with chronic psychological conditions. And it ignores the fact that the overwhelming number of people with mental illness don’t go around shooting people.

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub has sobered a country drunk of the heady progress the LGBT community has made in terms of acceptance, inclusion and same-sex marriage. The Orlando tragedy reminds us that there remain many at the fringes of society who see violence as an effective means of opposing social or cultural progress. Add to that the reported FBI statistics that LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other group — more than African-Americans and more than members of the Jewish community — and we know we have a problem.

Still, we don’t yet know why Mateen did what he did, and it is dishonest to pretend we do. But if all we do in this complex case is blame it on “all of the above” and wash our hands, then there is no chance for the kind of dialogue that is necessary to put a tragedy like this into perspective.

No matter where one comes out on the underlying questions regarding the “why” of Mateen’s actions, we are left with the perplexing and chilling question: What can a society do to prevent people with strong beliefs and haunting demons from taking lives because of them?

Economic Support for Terrorism?

Does foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority contribute to terrorism? An independent study in the United Kingdom suggests that it indirectly does, pointing to the P.A.’s much criticized policy of paying the salaries of people on the government payroll while they are serving time for terrorism.

The pro-Israel community has been making just such an accusation for years. The recent report by the Overseas Development Institute adds a crucial voice to the analysis. According to the study, the evaluation of a $224 million grant by the U.K.’s Department for International  Development (DFID) to pay for the  expansion of the Palestinian civil government workforce “suggests that people who know their families will still receive their salary and that they will have a job waiting for them after time in jail have less reason to avoid committing a violent act.”

One big caveat is that much of that 13-year period covered by the report does not  include the five-year period of the DFID grant. Nonetheless, two members of Parliament criticized the aid. Sir Eric Pickles, a Conservative lawmaker, said: “British taxpayers will be shocked to learn that we are helping to fund an equal opportunity employment policy for convicted terrorists.” And MP Joan Ryan, who chairs Labour Friends of Israel, called for an independent inquiry to make sure tax revenue is spent on building peace rather than “ending up in the pockets of convicted terrorists.”

The British government is now investigating the issue. But the prospect of an  increase in international criticism of P.A. practices raises the question of what the international community can do. The ODI study noted that “in the absence of donor support, a prospective collapse of the Palestinian economy would create acute adjustment costs, with an associated risk of an escalation in violence.” Put a different way: You think it’s bad now? Imagine how bad things would be without the P.A.

That’s actually a serious issue. Even with all of its problems, the P.A. is an  internationally sanctioned body that  cooperates with Israel on security measures, and it is the Palestinian address that Israel deals with in negotiations large and small. But while those functions are  important, they cannot excuse encouragement and sanctioning of terror. Rather, the international community should vigorously insist that President Mahmoud Abbas make good on his public promises to stop salary payments to terrorists.

A peace breakthrough may not be in the cards at this time. But it should be possible to raise the economic consequence of committing an act of terror, and it is not unreasonable to demand that the P.A. do its part to help achieve that result. This is another instance where actions speak louder than words.

After the Tel Aviv Attack

Last week’s terrorist attack, in which two Palestinian men shot and killed four Israelis in a Tel Aviv food court, came after the country’s least violent month since May 2015.

Still, the brazen, almost cinematic  nature of the attack — “They dressed in suits and ties and posed as customers at a restaurant, ordering a drink and a chocolate brownie before pulling out automatic weapons and opening fire, sending diners fleeing in panic,” AP reported — raises the fear that more attacks by both ordinary and trained terrorists are returning. And the fact that the attack was in the heart of cosmopolitan Israel, not in the contested West Bank or the capital of Jerusalem, will reinforce the convictions of those who fear, justifiably, that the Palestinians will never accept Israel’s existence.

But then came the reactions — the condemnations of the murders of civilians. The United States, the chief guarantor of Israel’s security, condemned the “horrific terrorist attack in Tel Aviv in the strongest possible terms.” The U.N. Security Council likewise condemned the attack “in the strongest terms.”

We frequently hear complaints such as, “Where are the moderates?” or “Why don’t they condemn violence against Jews?” So consider Dahham al-Enazi, a member of the Saudi Journalists Association, who tweeted: “The Tel Aviv attack is terror and thuggery. Our solidarity and support for the Palestinian people does not mean that we accept the killing of innocents and civilians. We would like to extend our condolences to the families of the victims.”

Of course, one wonders what al-Enazi thinks of the scores of attacks that preceded the Tel Aviv shootings. Does he also consider Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, or the men, women and children stabbed in the streets of Jerusalem, to be innocents? If he doesn’t, then what transpired in Tel Aviv is unfortunately more of the same — symptomatic of a refusal of the Palestinians and their allies to bring the conflict to a close.

We would welcome a clear condemnation from the Saudi government, as well as from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Neither has been forthcoming.  Instead, the Palestinian Authority issued a carefully worded statement condemning terror attacks against civilians, without mentioning the Tel Aviv shootings. That just isn’t good enough.

If we are ever to experience peace, Abbas and his allies are going to need to go at least as far as Shua Mansour Masarwa, the mayor of the Arab village of Taibe, who called “to every moderate person in the country and say to them that it’s important for us to denounce and to overcome  extremism and hate to continue our lives in the best way and without violence.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Of Swiss Handshakes, Restricted Swimming

We are so used to thinking that the world is growing steadily more homogenous, particularly in the West, that it’s a surprise to learn about local customs that continue to thrive. Last week, we learned that in Switzerland it is customary for students to shake their teacher’s hand before and after class. It is a show of respect, if a bit too formal for looser places like the United States and Israel.

We might never have heard about this custom were in not for two male Swiss Muslim students who did not want to shake their female teachers’ hands at their high school graduation. In the Jewish community, this sensitivity is familiar: Many observant Jews will decline a handshake from someone of the opposite sex out of modesty (although others will shake hands).

Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims comprise 5 percent of the country’s population. Faced with the students’ religious sensitivities, the school made a reasonable  accommodation: It exempted them from shaking the hands of women, and to ensure there was no sex discrimination against the women teachers, the students were not to shake their male teachers’ hands either.

The local education department overturned this compromise. Then it threatened to slap a fine of up to $5,000 on the family of any student who refuses to shake hands. According to reports, the education department justified its position with the questionable assertion that “the public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of religion.”

If the modest religious accommodation for Muslim students on shaking hands is common sense in a public school setting, what about a religious accommodation for Orthodox women in public swimming pools in New York?

Last month, the New York Parks  Department canceled women-only swim periods at a public pool in the heavily  Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, after an anonymous complaint was made to the city’s Commission on Human Rights. It then reversed itself following objections by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox politician. Advocates on both sides are up in arms over the issue and are drowning in rhetoric.

While both stories have to do with  religious sensitivities about mixing genders, that’s where the similarity ends. Should the Swiss students have been forced to violate their religious sensibilities by shaking hands? No. But in the case of the swimming pool, no one is forcing anyone to do anything.

If the pool was being used in a school setting, and boys and girls were required to swim together, that would be another matter. But in a public facility, maintained for public use, the reasonable accommodation for someone who isn’t being forced to swim there is for them to seek out a private pool.

A ‘Rupture’ Over the Wall?

The stalled implementation of the plan to bring pluralistic Jewish prayer to the Kotel probably won’t cause a major rupture  between American Jews and Israel, but it is further proof of the complaint that  Israel guarantees religious freedom for all, except many Jews.

Emerging from a meeting on June 1 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,  Reform movement leader Rabbi Rick  Jacobs warned about a breakdown between Israel and American Jewry if the Kotel plan, approved by Netanyahu’s government in January, were not executed. Conservative movement leader Rabbi Steve Wernick was equally frustrated, even if less dire: “Until it’s done, it’s not done,”  he said.

The plan was designed to be a compromise over the prohibition of mixed-gender and women’s prayer at the Western Wall, which under Haredi Orthodox control  is run essentially as an Orthodox synagogue. The agreement would have created a mixed-prayer area to the south. But it caused a furor in the Haredi community, with Haredi members of Netanyahu’s government opposing it after they supported it and the Haredi rabbi of the Kotel similarly walking back his agreement to the plan.

In March, Netanyahu initiated a 60-day period to re-examine the deal. The 60 days were up last week. And so Wernick, Jacobs and other progressive leaders held what they said was an “emergency meeting” with the prime minister. But it’s unlikely that Netanyahu — who again voiced support for the plan — sees the Kotel plan and its implementation as an emergency, since the unhappiness of several liberal religious leaders is nothing compared to the pressure of two Haredi political parties whose dissatisfaction could imperil  Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Shas and United Torah Judaism have nothing to lose by opposing streams of Judaism they don’t believe in. And Netanyahu is stuck in the middle.

In addition, the Kotel and religious pluralism (for Jews) are not key issues for most Israelis. So, there is little on his  domestic front that Netanyahu needs to fear. And with issues such as BDS, Iran, Palestinian terror and other threats  besieging Israel, vocal American supporters of pluralism and the Kotel plan are going to be very careful about painting  Israel in too negative a light.

Perhaps it is, as Wernick suggested, that progressive Jews must be prepared to play the long game on Kotel pluralism. Or maybe they should start walking the walk — or praying the prayer — as one columnist suggested, by returning to some form of civil resistance similar to what Women of the Wall had been doing for years.

We are faced with an unfortunate reality: A year short of five decades since the Kotel was brought under Israeli control, it is still not a place for Jews to worship freely. That has to change.

When Not to Act against Anti-Semites

For a while last week, Jews were able to  indulge in a conspiracy theory of their own. “(((Echoes))), Exposed: The Secret Symbol Neo-Nazis Use to Target Jews Online,” read the headline on, which brought to light a Google Chrome app that automatically placed a set of three parentheses around Jewish-sounding surnames to make them targets of online harassment.

The “exposure” of the “Coincidence Detector” quickly led Google to remove it from its Chrome store. But the app’s existence certainly made it seem like there were hidden forces at work. Reactions varied from horrified to amused with one pundit calling for the subversion of the symbol by asking everyone on Twitter to put three parentheses around their names — a sort of “We are all Jews” response. Other reactions were a combination of creative, dismissive, defensive or resigned acceptance responses to the offensive app.

That’s about as much time and energy as the Jewish community needs to spend on this. There is a difference between the bizarre acts of hate-driven developers and the direct, targeted hatred that can threaten the physical safety of the harassed. An  example of the latter is what happened to Erin Schrode, a 25-year-old candidate for Congress in California. “Fire up the oven” is one of the many hate-filled and obscene messages she received last week. But her attackers also posted her personal information, including her phone number and email address. It is these kinds of hate-filled threats to which the Jewish community and others of good will should vigorously respond.

The fact that many far-right anti-Semites are supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump further complicates matters. But we do not believe that a candidate is responsible for the words of each of his supporters. Calls for Trump to repeatedly distance himself from and  denounce each crackpot only serves to magnify the offending comments and ideas and does not really help.

Instead, what the Jewish community needs to do is to call on all politicians  to denounce the unrepentant white  supremacist and anti-Semitic public leaders who support them. In this vein, Trump’s public distancing from David Duke several months ago was a positive move.

By focusing our anger and indignation where it is truly warranted, we likely will have a better chance of protecting our community. But no matter how vigilant and effective our efforts, the cold, hard fact remains that we will never be able to eradicate baseless hatred from this earth.

Asleep at the Switch on BDS

In recent years, BDS has become the scourge of the organized Jewish community and the government of Israel. Everyone from B’nai B’rith International to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that the movement to boycott, divest and sanction the Israeli economy is not only anti-Israel, but also anti-Semitic. This past Tuesday, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, led an anti-BDS conference sponsored by a host of centrist and rightwing Jewish groups that was designed to “create practical tools to battle BDS by training students to serve as ëambassadors’ against boycott.”

It is clear that to Netanyahu, Danon and others, BDS is to the legitimacy of Israel what Iran is to Israel’s physical existence. And we agree. But many rightly argue that notwithstanding its importance, a blanket one-size-fits-all condemnation of BDS is overly simplistic.

With so much at stake, it was disheartening to learn that Israel’s state comptroller, Judge Yosef Shapira, issued a report concluding that the government is failing in its fight against BDS and rising anti-Semitism. Thus, according to the report, “Israel is not effectively countering the overt hostility from different parties abroad that cast doubt on Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish nation-state.”

The report traced the failure to the erosion of the foreign ministry’s authority, as Netanyahu has, since 2009, spun off the ministry’s public diplomacy efforts to various other offices — causing overlapping authority and turf wars. The Strategic Affairs Ministry, in particular, came in for strong criticism. Netanyahu gave the ministry the BDS portfolio, and significant funding, in 2013.

While those findings may be correct, there appears to be another reason for concern about anti-BDS strategy. For several years Israel has sought to get European capitals from Madrid to Kiev to outlaw endorsements of the BDS movement as hate speech. Those efforts have failed. Indeed, just last week, the Netherlands followed Sweden by declaring calls to boycott Israel as legally protected free speech.

On the merits, the Netherlands is right. Advocacy for BDS, standing alone, isn’t hate speech. Israel is also correct, however, that the analysis changes when such advocacy is coupled with unsupported accusations, lies and other hateful tropes about the Jewish state. In that case, the totality of the circumstances crosses the line and turns otherwise free speech into something else. The problem is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to legislate the distinction, and any attempts to do so could likely backfire. For example, what would prevent the Dutch Parliament from declaring speech supporting the right of Israeli settlers to live in Judea and Samaria as illegal hate speech?

Israel is not only falling short in achieving results because of governmental mismanagement of the anti-BDS agenda, its international strategy needs attention as well. Nothing less than a complete rethink of the agenda is necessary. If the Jewish state can’t get its act together on BDS, can diaspora voices be expected to do any better?

Shaky Steps in Building the Party Platform

Humorist Will Rogers once famously remarked: “I’m a member of no organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” That decades-old quip appears to be today’s political reality on the left, as tensions continue to mount between the camp of presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton and the partisans supporting Bernie Sanders, raising questions about the achievability of Democratic Party unity in the upcoming election.

Last week, the two candidates participated in the appointment of the 15-member Democratic National Convention platform committee — with five people appointed by Sanders, six by Clinton and four by party leadership. And as that process unfolded, it was Sanders’ appointments — which included Cornel West, James Zogby and Rep. Keith Ellison — that raised eyebrows.

For pro-Israel Democrats, the appointments of West — a fiery, leftwing social activist — and Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, are particularly troubling, given their prominent support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. And there is concern as well regarding Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress. Although Ellison has close ties to his home state’s Jewish community and has said that Israel’s security must be taken into account as part of any peace deal with the Palestinians, he has nonetheless been a vocal critic of Israel on the issue of Palestinian rights.

While there is good reason to be concerned about the participation of West in any policy development for the Democratic Party — after all, he argued in 2014 that the crimes of Hamas “pale in the face of the U.S.-supported Israeli slaughters of innocent civilians” — the real issue is whether anything done by the platform committee actually matters and whether the policy positions articulated in the party platform make any difference.

As a practical matter, it is highly unlikely that the next president will be guided by positions taken in her or his party’s platform. And that will be nothing new. Think, for example, of the plank, shared by both parties in past elections, to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: lots of words and lots of emotion, but no policy changes and no results.

Indeed, the same practical assessment is being made by supporters of West. For example, Bruce A. Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, commented: “At best, West and the other four Bernie people will be able to insert a few of the traditional empty promises, which are in no way binding upon the next president.”

But just because the words in the party platform may not matter doesn’t address the concern about the judgment and views of those who have appointed controversial advocates as their proxies in the policy debate. As they approach their nominating convention with an eye toward achieving party unity, Democrats need to consider the message being sent by their choices if they are intent on keeping the party a friendly home for the pro-Israel community.

Pro-Peace, Not Anti-Israel

Over the last several years, mainline Protestant denominations have become increasingly active in their opposition to Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria, known to the rest of the world as the West Bank. The territory is where Palestinians hope one day to establish a state. In support of that effort, the churches have turned to selective boycotts, appearing to coordinate their efforts with such groups as Students for Justice in Palestine and the International Solidarity Movement. In 2014, for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from companies that profit from Israeli construction and military activities in the West Bank. And a year later, the United Church of Christ followed suit.

When the 12-million-member United Methodist Church considered four such resolutions at its quadrennial General Conference in Portland, Ore., this month, many pro-Israel groups expected more of the same. But that didn’t happen. Resolutions that called for divesting from three companies that were accused of working with Israeli security forces to sustain  Israel’s settlement movement — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola — were defeated. To the surprise of many, rather than becoming yet another Protestant  endorser of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, the Methodists effectively said “no.”

Then, another vote — a nonbinding  petition that called for the church’s mission agency to cut ties with a group founded to end Israel’s presence in the West Bank — passed 478-318. The petition was noteworthy because it called the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation a “one-sided political coalition” that seeks to isolate Israel “while overlooking anti-Israel aggression,” and it noted that “blaming only one side while ignoring the wrongdoing of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran will not  advance the cause of peace.”

The Methodists appear to be on to something: a realization that the Middle East is not a zero-sum game. Instead, they appear to now realize that you can be pro-peace, and still be pro-Israel. What comes with that is the more important understanding that if you are more anti-Israel than you are pro-peace — meaning that you are trying to delegitimize Israel in the guise of seeking peace — you are not really a friend of peace.

More than a decade ago, the seeds of the BDS movement were planted in Presbyterian conferences and resolutions. It spread from there to a number of college campuses and beyond. By breaking from the pack, the Methodists may be signaling that it is time to stop targeting Israel and to change the focus from punishing Israel to trying to do something to end the conflict. We hope this is the case.