ADL Seizes the Center

It’s not often that a Jewish organization  revises its position on a public matter. Most groups are beholden to an ideological slice of donors and members and are frozen on a single track. Yet, the groups that take nuanced and thoughtful positions are the ones that generally win the respect of the wider community.

So it was refreshing to see the ADL shift its position on Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading contender for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison, an African-American and the only Muslim in Congress, was immediately rejected by rightwing groups. The Zionist Organization of America was unrelenting: “If he becomes DNC leader, Ellison will likely be empowered to persuade even more Democratic congresspersons to join him in actions hostile to Israel’s security and Israeli civilians’ lives — wreaking enormous damage to the prospects for future bipartisan support for America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” it said.

Left-leaning groups voiced support for Ellison, who once defended and later  rejected the anti-Semitism of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and has built a mixed but largely pro-Israel record in Congress. The ADL remained silent on Ellison, saving its fire for President-elect Donald Trump’s adviser Stephen Bannon, whom the ADL regards as beholden to an alt-right movement characterized by anti-Semitism.

Then a short audio clip, recorded at a 2010 Ellison fundraiser, was released by the Investigative Project on Terrorism. In the clip, Ellison says that American foreign policy in the Middle East “is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people,” a reference to Israel. “Does that make sense? Is that logic?”

In response, ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt called the clip “deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” and joined those who believe Ellison will be a divisive DNC head and sour Jews on the party. Ellison responded, saying the tape was doctored. The Investigative Project on Terrorism released a full transcript of the video which they claim proves that the clip was not doctored.

While the job of the DNC chair has nothing to do with foreign policy, the  debate over who will be responsible for leading the fractured party further into the 21st century is a legitimate one. That said, we note that similar charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel beliefs were cast at Chuck Hagel, when he was under consideration as secretary of defense. To the extent that anything stands out from Hagel’s two-year tenure, it is not anti-Semitism or animus toward Israel.

We are concerned about a disturbing pattern of public debate, with groups on the right wielding the charge of anti-Semitism against the left and groups on the left wielding the charge of anti-Semitism against the right. In such an atmosphere, neither side gains credibility; the accusation itself is even cheapened. Anti-Semitism is serious stuff and cannot be tolerated. That  the ADL has demonstrated an air of evenhandedness in its ultimate response to the Ellison tape teaches all of us — left, right and center — that we must be vigilant against anti-Semitism, wherever it comes from.

House Support for Israel

It is rare to get the warring political factions in Washington to agree on anything. But last week, in a unanimous vote, the House of Representatives sent a clear message to President Barack Obama that he should oppose any U.N. Security Council resolution that seeks to impose on the parties a  solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In unmistakable terms, the bipartisan resolution called on the president “to oppose and veto … resolutions that seek to impose solutions to final status issues, or are one-sided and anti-Israel.” It even directed that proposed “parameters” of a settlement should be rejected.

Add to that a similar letter signed in September by 88 senators that urged Obama to veto any Security Council resolution that recognizes Palestine and it seems that Israel has wall-to-wall support in the Capitol for its position that negotiations should be bilateral and that solutions should not be imposed from the outside.

While these developments give comfort to Israel’s supporters, we can’t help but notice disconcerting moves coming from the Obama administration and troubling commentary from the left flank of the Democratic Party on the need for some kind of U.S. or international intervention. The concern seems to be based on the recognition that chances for a two-state solution are being eroded by facts on the ground — that toxic combination of Palestinian intransigence and Israel’s  expansionist policies in the settlement blocs. So, there have been reactions. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry  recently told the Women’s Foreign Policy Group that short of direct U.S. intervention, “there are other things we can do” to preserve a two-state solution.

What was Kerry talking about? Could it mean some effort to recognize a Palestinian state, if only in name? Does that make any sense? Well, that is exactly what former President Jimmy Carter called for last week in a New York Times op-ed. “This is the best — now, perhaps, the only — means of countering the one-state reality that Israel is imposing on itself and the Palestinian people,” Carter wrote. And he argued that “recognition of Palestine and a new Security Council resolution are not radical new measures, but a natural outgrowth of America’s support for a two-state solution.”

Carter has been battling Israeli settlements for more than three decades. He conveniently ignores the clear choice made by the Palestinians at the beginning of the millennium to disengage from the peace process and to embark on continued warfare against Israeli civilians. But while that may explain the logjam, it doesn’t excuse it.

There is no question that Israel can do something to create a better situation in which to make peace. But it would be foolish to do so without a willing partner with whom to negotiate. And until one appears, Congress seems to be telling the president that we need to step back and let the parties chose their own course.  Because that’s what self-determination is all about.

Monumental Portion about Monuments Parshat Vayetzei

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiOur Torah portion, Vayetzei, tells of Jacob’s journey into exile and, not coincidentally, the first instance of a monument, matzevah, to God in Jewish history. Until this point, the great biblical personalities have erected altars to God: Noah when he exited from the ark, Abraham when he first came to Israel, Isaac when he dedicated the city of Be’er Sheva and Jacob on two significant occasions.

An altar is clearly a sacred place dedicated for ritual sacrifice. But what is a monument? An understanding of this first monument in Jewish history will help us understand the true significance of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people.

Fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau, Jacob leaves his Israeli parental home and sets out for his mother’s familial home in Haran. His first stop is in the fields outside Luz (Beit El) — the last site in Israel he will spend the night before he begins his exile. He dreams of a ladder standing (the word is mutzav) on land with its top reaching heavenward. “And behold, angels of God are ascending and descending on it.” God is standing (the word is nitzav) above the ladder and promises Jacob that he will return to Israel and that this land will belong to him and his descendants eternally.

Upon awakening, the patriarch declares the place to be “the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.” He then builds a monument (a matzevah) from the stones he has used as a pillow and pours oil over it.

Jacob’s experience leaves us in no doubt: A monument is a symbol of an eternal relationship. It is the physical expression of a ladder linking Heaven and earth, the Land of Israel and the Holy Temple of Jerusalem (House of God), which connects the descendants of Jacob to the Divine forever. A monument is a gateway to Heaven, a House of God on earth. The Land of Israel, with its laws of tithes, Sabbatical years and Jubilee, magnificently expresses the link between humanity and the Almighty, and the promise of Jacob’s return from exile bears testimony to the eternity of the relationship between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel.

Furthermore, a monument is made of stone, the Hebrew word for stone being even, comprised of the letters aleph-bet-nun. It is also a contraction of parent-child (Hebrew, av-ben), which also uses the letters aleph-bet-nun symbolizing the eternity of family continuity. And the monument is consecrated with oil, just as the Redeemer will be consecrated with oil — and herald eternal peace and redemption for Israel and the world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

What Other Country?

Based on “ceding heavily Arab populated areas of Israel proper — specifically in the Galilee — to the Palestinians,” the JT’s Nov. 25 editorial, “Settlements Again,” states that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman “hasn’t explained how he proposes to get Israeli citizens to agree to become part of another country.”

I’m not sure what other country you’re talking about. It can’t possibly be “Palestine,” as Mahmoud Abbas has already publicly stated many times that “Palestine” will be Jew free. Where would these Jews go? America? Germany? South Korea? Dealer’s choice?

Sadly, Compromise Is Long Gone

The JT’s article about Bernie Sanders promoting his progressive politics (“Bernie Is Back,” Nov. 25) reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by Abraham Lincoln. Paraphrasing, Lincoln said, “One can judge a man’s character by how he treats those who can do him absolutely no good.”

I definitely do not agree with all of Sanders’ viewpoints, but when he says, “A great nation is not judged by how many billionaires it has, but how it treats its most vulnerable people,” I can completely agree. Pushing close to 80, I can remember when bitter political adversaries could comprise and accomplish goals for the entire country. However, those years are long past and, one fears, never to be witnessed again.

As Sanders and many others say, the 1-percenters buy politicians in the same way as the fabled Don Coreleone — albeit with cash.

Why No Mention of Rabbi Essrog?

How could the JT publish a long article about the history of Beth Israel Congregation (“A Labor of Love,” Nov. 25) without once mentioning the late Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog? Isn’t that Rabbi Essrog in your picture, wielding a shovel as “Beth Israel members and clergy break ground at the congregation’s then-new home on Liberty Road in Randallstown”? If it is, why doesn’t the caption mention his name?

We knew Rabbi Essrog as the Jewish chaplain at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Beth Israel knew him as its spiritual leader for 30 years. The people you interviewed should have given Rabbi Essrog credit.

Be Wary of Democratic Party

The next presidential election in 2020 will be the pivot point for Jews (“Rabbis on Trump: ‘We Have to Stand Up for Civil Liberties,’” Nov. 25). We have always voted for Democrats, but in the next presidential election, circumstance will be very different.

The Democratic Party continues to veer toward socialism, radicalism and extremism. Its campaign rhetoric has incited the worst racial, ethnic and religious strife since the 1960s. Democrats reject the threat of radical Islamic terrorism in the U.S. Their anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian agenda is also troubling, which may become part of their party’s platform in 2020. So there is reason for Jews to be wary of the Democratic Party.

Many Jews do not vote for Republican candidates because they are conservative and are supported by white supremacists. But Republicans stand for law and order and support Israel. They also have plans to rebuild our bankrupt economy and restore job security. The Republicans are committed to reducing the threat from radical Islamic terrorism and building a stronger military.

There are pros and cons for both parties. The divisive rhetoric that saturated this campaign season distracted many people from the real issues: What will each candidate do for the country? Who will best represent the people? And who will protect the rights of all people?

A Jewish Place

Editorial Director

Editorial Director Joshua Runyan

I’ve never been to Vermont, but after reading correspondent Liz Spikol’s tale of Jewish life in the Green Mountain State, I’ve added a trip there to my bucket list.

Liz, who spent almost a week in the state, begins her story with a quote from Susan Leff, executive director of Jewish Communities of Vermont, a nondenominational umbrella organization seeking to unite the disparate communities in at least seven cities. “No one comes to Vermont to be Jewish,” Leff said. The reason? You’re not going to find the Jewish culture oozing out of the farmland as it does in the planned neighborhoods of Boca Raton, Fla., or the religious fervor more akin to a place like Brooklyn, N.Y.

What you will find instead is a patchwork of sometimes historic communities whose Jews are a mix of those who’ve been there their whole lives and those who chose Vermont to get away from it all.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, one of those families fleeing civilization is the husband-and-wife team of Rabbi Asher and Sara Esther Crispe and their children. They sought the isolation of an off-the-grid life, but they also did so with an inherently religious purpose: Their Jewish educational nonprofit, Interinclusion, offers inspiration and spirituality at a Danby retreat center housed in a place that once made a wheel of cheese for the benefit of Abraham Lincoln.

It’s clearly out there, and I guess that’s the entire point. If a person can come to New York or Baltimore to be Jewish, why not Vermont?

When discussing the relatively mundane issues of where the better Jewish community is or which place is the best for raising Jewish children, or the more consequential topic of where exactly Jews are meant to live, we tend to get lost. Israel, for instance, has remained the center of our people’s consciousness for millennia, but in the fervor of promoting aliyah or of urging European communities to flee for the Holy Land, we might be losing sight of those Jews who, for whatever reason, choose to remain where they are.

Put another way, who’s to say that a Jew can’t be Jewish wherever she finds herself? And if she wants to pack up and move to the unlikeliest of places, who’s to say that it’s impossible?

There happen to be Jewish laws on the subject, delineating the relative value of certain communal institutions in the absence of others, but I think the base assumption is this: Any location on earth has the potential to be a “Jewish place,” and if someone wants to go to the farthest reaches of humanity to find Judaism there, more power to him. In truth, Judaism can thrive anywhere, but in order to do so, people need to be committed.

And if it’s ultimately succeeding in Vermont, there’s no reason it can’t succeed right here at home.

The Two Americas, the Two Israels

For those of us who watched the U.S. election from Israel, the results seemed eerily familiar. America’s electoral map is sharply divided: between blue and red, urban and rural, the coastal liberals and the conservative masses in the middle. In Israel, we call it the geographic divide between the “center” of the country and the “periphery,” between the elites and the rest of the people.

Donald Trump was propelled to victory in part on a platform of “draining the swamp” of a corrupt ruling class and stopping illegal immigration. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his re-election campaign last year, was spurred to a last-minute victory by tacitly reviving the timeworn idea of a disconnected Ashkenazi elite and the threat of the Arab minority “flocking to the polls.”

While comparisons are always inexact, it does seem that in both America and Israel there is a great divide in society on issues of culture and identity. Combined with economic frustration on a global stage, this divide fuels feelings of growing nationalism, xenophobia and populism among the citizenry. It is this divide that all of us in both countries who care about liberal and constitutional democratic values have to understand and work to repair.

Like America, Israel is now engaged in a battle over its identity. Religious and nationalist particularism is on the rise, and many fear that the Jewish State’s Zionist identity is threatened by a growing Arab minority and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.

In the 2015 election, Israelis on the periphery reacted against urban elites who appear to have more in common with their counterparts in Berlin and Brooklyn than with the peripheral working-class town of Beit She’an.

During my time as director general of the Kadima party, I saw the full spectrum of Israeli society. Our party activists were dedicated and sensible people. But in recent years I have watched some of these same people come out in support of overtly illiberal legislative proposals. Did these party  activists suddenly become racists and populists? I don’t believe so. Rather, I believe they are responding to their own perceptions of peril — to Israel’s Jewish character in a challenging security environment.

For Israel as well as America, what is needed is a genuine concern for the preservation of national identity and more inclusive economic policies that bring prosperity for all. Our openness and pluralism are among our societies’ greatest strengths. They cannot be taken for granted.

Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Dreaming of Health Care

Despite reports that the Affordable Care Act is in danger of being obliterated after the election, enrollment in the health insurance marketplace reopened Nov. 1 to high demand, with more than 100,000 people signing up for coverage in the first week alone.

Anyone without insurance can enroll until the marketplace closes Jan. 31. Since the law took effect, 20 million people have gained coverage, bringing the uninsured rate to an all-time low of 8.6 percent. That’s a lot of people to throw overboard without the lifejacket of health care, and it remains to be seen what Congress may propose to deal with the crisis that would ensue if it were  repealed.

While we ready ourselves to try to preserve health care access for millions, getting people covered now is not only our moral obligation but will be among our best defenses. We must include those left out who ought to be in, and young immigrants born elsewhere but eligible to stay in the United States are among them. In 2012, President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, sheltering from deportation many (often known as DREAMers) who were brought to the U.S. by their parents at an early age. They have known no other home and fervently hope to remain here and live full and productive lives integrated into American society.

Ironically, those able under the president’s program to stay in the United States continue to be denied access to Medicaid, barred from the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers children of low-income families, and excluded from accessing the health care available in the marketplace through the Affordable Care Act. Others who reside in the United States with lawful status can obtain health coverage through these programs. Those covered by DACA are the  exception.

In the wake of the political victories of staunch opponents of the Affordable Care Act,  efforts to improve the law may fall victim to efforts to destroy it. But Obama can lay down a marker and fix the injustice that bars DREAMers from  accessing affordable health coverage without a new law. Before leaving office, the president should remove this  exception and fully include all who are in the U.S. and deemed “lawfully present” by DACA.

Surely one way to advance the goal of supporting young, striving immigrants is to change the administrative regulations of the Affordable Care Act that exclude DREAMers from federal health care programs. That is indeed within the power of the president to do, and if his legacy is to hold, we urge him to do it immediately.

Nancy K. Kaufman is chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women.