A Kingdom Too Weak To Let Fail

President Barack Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah II met last month in California. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah II met last month in California. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The Kingdom of Jordan has made a virtue of its weakness. Ruled by a canny monarchy that manages to balance competing forces within the country and kept afloat by international aid, Jordan has always seemed fragile.

Yet, Jordan is pro-Western and a close and reliable friend of the United States (the notable exception being Jordan’s siding with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War). Jordan and the U.S. have close military and intelligence ties. The kingdom is one of two Arab states to have a peace treaty with Israel, and it has long served to secure Israel’s eastern flank. Surrounded by more powerful neighbors, Jordan is strategically vulnerable yet a valuable buffer in a volatile neighborhood. Simply put, it is too weak to let fail.

The importance of continued stability in Jordan was reinforced by the recent visit of King Abdullah II to the U.S. to meet with President Barack Obama and other officials. The chief threat to Abdullah’s rule is the Syrian civil war, which has driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries, including half a million into Jordan. That influx has increased the country’s population by 10 percent. A single refugee camp has become Jordan’s fourth largest city.

Jordan is resource poor. Its official unemployment rate is 13 percent but thought by many analysts to be 25 to 30 percent, according to a congressional report. It is clear that continued strong U.S. support is vital to maintain Jordan’s stability and its pro-Western, pro-Israel stance.

A five-year deal for the U.S. to provide $660 million in annual foreign assistance to Jordan is ending and is due for renewal. Last summer, the House of Representatives passed a resolution expressing a “firm commitment to support the Government of Jordan as it faces regional challenges and works toward a more peaceful and stable Middle East.” And a section in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2014 authorizes up to $150 million on a reimbursable basis to Jordan for security along its border with Syria.

As important as this monetary and moral support is in its own merit, it is also an indication that the U.S. is not staging a strategic withdrawal from the Middle East. We encourage that continued involvement and the exercise of a consistent policy with clear objectives in the region.

The key word here is “consistency.” We need that consistency with regard to Israel, we need it in Jordan, and we need it to manage events in Egypt. We needed it, but failed, with regard to Syria, and a consistent policy is necessary in order to stay the course in Iran. Far from making the Middle East a lower priority, the United States will need to be engaged there — with adroit diplomacy — for the foreseeable future.

A Draft For The Greater Good

To a small group of the reported hundreds of thousands of haredi protesters that demonstrated in the streets of Jerusalem this week, the prospect of a law drafting haredim into military service is no different than what the Nazis subjected Jews to in the Holocaust. That a thinking person could even compare the two is very troubling and shows just how far some in the haredi camp are from reasoned thinking on the issue. These fringe elements are clearly in the wrong.

Even without the radical views of a small group of the demonstrators, however, the massive protest shows a deep distrust of the Israeli government and its institutions by a growing group of citizens. They simply want to preserve the status quo and aren’t interested in any effort to “equalize the burden” of defending Israel.

Military service is considered a rite of passage for a majority of Israelis. With the exception of the existence of small haredi units in the Israel Defense Forces, the wholesale exemptions granted to the haredi community for the past 65 years seems to most to be an unacceptable state-sanctioned exceptionalism. According to that view, a military draft of haredim makes sense and goes hand in hand with haredi efforts to achieve political representation and to benefit from governmental largesse.

But even that argument can be taken too far. For example, some supporters of the bill, which last month passed a critical legislative committee and is expected to soon pass the full Knesset, tend to blame haredim for all of Israel’s problems. That’s nonsense. Many haredim play an active, positive role in the life of the state, just as many are willing enlist in the IDF. But the notion that a certain segment of the Jewish state’s population is not shouldering all its responsibilities remains a problem.

The bill under consideration is designed to address that issue, even if it will not penalize haredi draft dodgers until 2017. The hope is that during a multiyear transition period, the haredi draft will go from being viewed as evil incarnate to something closer to a duty to defend one’s family and home.

In order for Israel to function as an integrated society, all segments of that society need to make the same effort to work for the greater good. To the extent that the haredi draft bill is meant to bring the haredim into Israeli society’s mainstream, we support it.

Admiring the Youthful Pursuit of Truth

runyan_josh_otGod bless the vibrancy of youth.

I use this variant of similar expressions aired by countless old men and women throughout the ages not in an attempt to join their wise ranks, but to remark approvingly at the dedication of those who will soon become the Jewish community’s next cadre of leaders.

There they were, 24 students from the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School, roaming through the halls of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center with a purpose. Theirs was among the largest high school delegation sent to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee earlier this week, and, as you’ll read about in the pages of this week’s JT, their advocacy efforts joined those of thousands of like-minded young professionals, lobbyists and career activists who descended on Capitol Hill Tuesday to make the case for Israel in the halls of Congress.

Whether or not the Beth Tfiloh kids were successful in their quest is beside the point. Israel does have a large hill to climb in combating the existential threat posed by the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran and in negotiating the treacherous path toward peace with the Palestinian Authority, and it comes as no surprise to many that there are and will continue to be outspoken critics of Israel within the U.S. government and in governments around the world.

What these students’ engagement and passion instead demonstrates is that for all the talk of Jewish youth “not getting it,” here were kids who did. It wasn’t their politics that mattered, it was their shared Jewish commitment that, to them, mandated their participation in one of the largest Jewish gatherings in Washington, D.C.

In another article in this week’s issue, Melissa Gerr examines the work of a former Pikesville philosopher who questions whether there’s something inherently Jewish about a specific style of scientific pursuit. “Jewish science,” he concludes, refers to a discipline in which many truths, as it were, lead to a higher truth that requires a greater level of understanding. This dialectic approach can certainly be found in the pages of the Talmud; it can also be found at gatherings like that hosted by AIPAC.

It’s no secret that ours is a community composed of disparate parts, at some times fractious, at other times united. Each constituent part claims the mantle of Judaism both to define itself and give strength to its own particular view and mission. An outside observer would be forgiven for hearing in the conglomeration of viewpoints a lot of noise.

But the higher truth is that through the back and forth, through the struggle and the give and take, the Jewish people ultimately discovers the higher truth that the differences among individual members are merely a facade. At the end of the day, each is part of a greater whole.

It takes hard work to reveal that truth. Thank God, we have an everlasting source of energy in the youth who will lead us into tomorrow.


Appreciating the Journey

2013-axler-craig“For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout all their journeys.”

With these words, we conclude reading the Book of Exodus this Shabbat. A book of the Torah that begins in slavery, walled in by the constraints of Egyptian oppression, concludes with the vast Wilderness in front of the Jewish people and the promise of journeys ahead. A book that sets out with the individual names of the children of Israel concludes by speaking of the collective, the House of Israel.

It is significant to point out that the translation here is “journeys” in the plural, not the singular. The final words in Hebrew read b”chol mas”eihem. Our ancestors were led on their journeys by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. There was a visible, even tangible sign of God”s presence and protection, as well as a guide for the path ahead.

Rashi points out that the phrase “in all their journeys” applies not only to the time when the Israelites were on the move, but also to their time of resting. “The place of their encampment is also referred to as a ‘journey.”… Encampments are referred to as journeys because from the place of encampment they traveled again.”

While the Tabernacle, cloud and pillar of fire of our wilderness wanderings came to rest thousands of years ago, the wandering of the Jewish people continues to this day and beyond. It is hard to imagine a place on earth where our people have not passed through — sometimes staying for a relatively short sojourn and sometimes building complex and layered societies. And yet, whether for short or long stays, each place where our people have wandered was only one temporary stage in our collective journey.

“Yalkut Yehudah,” a commentary by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsburg, whose journey began in Russia in 1888 and came to an end in Denver in 1946, expounds as such on this verse: “Even when Jews think that they have settled in a place where they have known only peace and tranquility, and they regard it as one where they have finally settled down, ‘that is also known as a journey.” They should bear in mind that this, too, is merely a way station and that they may be forced to wander again.”

There is no doubt that this assessment of Jewish history aptly portrays the often tragic reality of our past. Considering Rabbi Ginsburg”s dates and locations, it can be seen in even more stark lines how the sense of “always having a suitcase packed” would be natural.

However, an additional lesson within this verse on both the individual and collective level is that our journeys are what shape us into the people/nation we become. When recently teaching a group of Christians about the cycle of reading Torah over a year”s span and then immediately beginning again, I was struck by the profound truth that wherever we are in the text, we are always continuing the journey.

As the story of our people continues to unfold, we remind ourselves that “every step of the journey is the journey.”

‘Daniel From Texas’

I sat at my desk munching a sugar-coated doughnut. Mr. Heller, our sixth-grade math teacher, handed our class treats for the 100th Day of School celebration. As I neatly chewed mine, I could see the new kid’s mouth twisting left and right as some powder covered his freckled face and plaid shirt. My friends and I snickered.

“Daniel from Texas makes lots of messes!” one kid blurted in a loud whisper.

Daniel turned around to face me, crumbs still covering his mouth. “Yes?” he queried, his eyes meeting mine.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Oh.” Daniel turned back to face the teacher.

Again my friends snickered. Daniel had been in our class since the first day of school. He walked with a hop to his step. He wore skinny jeans like the rest of us, only his tops never matched the color of his pants. Some of us called him “mental,” thinking that he had problems because he didn’t fit in with the rest of us. None of us chose him to be on our football teams at recess, but he liked to read, so he would sit on the sidelines with his book.

Deep down, I felt sorry for Daniel. He was different.

One day later that month we were out at recess tossing Yosef’s football and just playing around. Daniel came over to the sidelines, as usual reading his latest library book. Suddently, Morty sent the ball flying in Daniel’s direction.

“Daniel from Texas, catch!”

The ball whizzed along, toward Daniel, but it was too late. It hit his head. I saw Daniel lying face up on the ground, his Harry Potter book knocked to one side and blood everywhere.

I was the first to run over and tap him. “Daniel. You OK?” No response.

“Quickly, call a teacher. It’s an emergency!” I screamed.

“This is crazy,” Yosef yelled out. “Oh, here comes Mr. Heller with the nurse and an EMT.”

I told the EMT what had happened and then joined the boys on the sidelines.

“Listen,” I whispered, “let’s promise to be nice to Dan and to change, and maybe we’ll get a second chance.”

The guys agreed, and Morty said, “Sure hope we do.”

I looked up and was relieved to see Daniel standing with the EMT. They decided to take him to the hospital for observation, and our class went inside. The rest of the day everyone was quiet. When Daniel returned to class the next week, the guys circled around him at recess, and they all wanted him on their team.

“I have to take it easy for a couple of weeks,” he replied with a smile. I think Daniel enjoyed the new popularity. “They said I had a concussion, but I’m OK.”

A few guys sat near Daniel and talked with him about his book while the rest of us played catch. And there was no more teasing the rest of the year. None at all. We had learned the hard way the damage it causes.

Note: Hurtful words are called “onas devarim,” and the Torah forbids us from speaking them.

Discussion Questions
1. Might the boys have changed their behavior before the accident?
2. Why can words sometimes hurt more than physical pain?

Danielle Sarah Storch is a local freelance writer. “Shabbat Table Talk” is a monthly
feature synthesizing Torah insights and lessons for children of all ages.

Keolis Already Came Clean

In the debate over the much-anticipated Purple Line, it’s been forgotten that Keolis has satisfied the 2011 legislation’s two conditions for being allowed to bid on transit projects (“Purple Line Under Scrutiny,” Feb. 21). The first condition was that Keolis issue an apology to Holocaust victims — which the company did. The second condition was that the company come clean by making its archives available and turn over its records to a neutral arbitrator.

Keolis complied, and after a year of diligent research, the arbitrator ruled in 2012 that the company had satisfied both conditions of the 2011 law for coming clean and was therefore entitled to bid on transit projects. Although Keolis wasn’t awarded the 2012 contract, the company complied with the 2011 law and is a qualified bidder.

Why does Maryland have to revisit this issue and sponsor new legislation that imposes additional conditions, such as paying reparations, for allowing Keolis to bid? What message does additional conditions so soon after a company has complied with a recent law send to the business community?

Jeffrey H. Marks

Let’s Not Forget Industrial Hemp

Aside from the question of the legalization of hemp for human consumption, perhaps the United States will grow more accepting of industrial hemp (“Candidates Game for Decriminalization,” Feb. 21).

This is a natural product whose production and usage in the U.S. has suffered all of the years of opposition by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Dave Weintraub

Be Grateful!

With all due respect, how ungrateful are the Hyatts to their new home and the place that gave them a venue to continue to watch the Baltimore Ravens (“Jewish Geography Tackles the Super Bowl,” Jan. 31).

They should have been pulling for their new neighbors and the Denver Broncos, not the Seattle Seahawks. That’s just my opinion.

Sonny Taragin

Focus on Your Mission

As someone who was also previously featured in the “Beshert” column with my Jewish wife, I must add my disappointed voice to Seth S.’s well-written letter (“Intermarriage a Disappointment,” Feb. 7). Although the JT does not bill itself as a “religious” organization, its admirable goal is to “build and strengthen the Jewish community,” and it serves as a public face for the Jewish community to many.

Focusing a well-regarded column on intermarried couples, and not on the myriad Jewish marriages that occur monthly in Baltimore, does not even come close to achieving this goal. Sadly enough, it deters from strengthening the community by making it the norm to consider intermarriage these days.

If the JT purports to “build andstrengthen the Jewish community,” it should publicly disavow itself from intermarriage, rather than overtly advertise it in its pages.

Joshua Friedman

The morning after AIPAC

The list of high government officials who will speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference, which opens Saturday night in Washington, is long and impressive. It includes Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The presence of these and other notables on the stage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center reinforces AIPAC’s reputation as a major force in the political world, and the place to be to address the pro-Israel community.

But the cause of Israel’s security is not helped when politicians tell Jewish audiences what they want to hear at an AIPAC plenum, only to clarify or retract their declarations the next day. Yet, in keeping with AIPAC’s bipartisan balance, “morning after clarification” is a sin that both Republicans and Democrats have committed.

At the 2008 policy conference, for example, then-candidate Barack Obama called for moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, and declared that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel. The applause Mr. Obama received to those pronouncements was thunderous; but the criticism was swift. And the next day, Mr. Obama amended his view, saying that the final status of Jerusalem would be decided in negotiations.

In 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush pledged to the AIPAC conference that he would begin moving the embassy “as soon as I take office.” But like Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush’s administration found reasons not to follow through on something it probably was not going to do anyway.

We’ve noticed a clear trend. When at the AIPAC Policy Conference, politicians tend to be generous with the use of words like “always” and “never,” even when addressing elements of what they recognize to be a complex international situation. Indeed, many politicians who are normally quite careful with their public pronouncements seem to get caught up in the AIPAC moment, and read lines or freelance commentary that goes beyond what they would otherwise be comfortable saying.

To be sure, an audience of 13,000 or more pro-Israel activists, who are anxious to hear a pro-Israel message, is an inviting venue and an intoxicating opportunity for speakers who are unquestionably supportive of a strong American-Israel relationship. The thrill of endorsement and acceptance by the crowd is invigorating. But it often leads to pandering, or the making of statements designed to win over the crowd rather than reflect the speaker’s actual beliefs or positions. Overstatement is then followed by clean-up explanations and excuses the next day, which don’t do anyone any good.

We encourage those speaking at AIPAC’s Policy Conference to express their support of the American-Israel relationship in the strongest terms. We encourage each speaker to say what he believes. But we ask the speakers to be honest and realistic in what they say. AIPAC’s delegates and the public will all be better served by honest, straightforward rhetoric. And we will all be able to respect the speakers the next morning.