I’m Glad I Now Know

Wow, I loved this story (“You Should Know … Gal Massaton,” Sept. 23). What an outstanding emissary and spokesperson for Israel! Thank you for publishing this item.

The Unvarnished Candidates

An estimated 100 million viewers had an unvarnished look at the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on Monday night. The nationally televised — and live-streamed — debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton showed the two for who they are and so gave the American electorate a chance to make a more educated decision on Nov. 8.

Trump was subdued at the beginning, but his brashness and his debate-from-the-gut style soon broke through. Whether that helped or hurt him is itself debatable, as the Republican nominee has enjoyed much of his success among his base for shooting from the hip and “telling it like it is.” Clinton, by contrast, presented the carefully prepared, policy-focused and temperate alternative and pounced on a number of opportunities to put Trump on the defensive.

Judging the candidates on their delivery — so-called style points that are not very important but have had an effect in close elections — it’s safe to say that we emerged from Monday night much as we were when the debate began. This election pits the hard-charging outsider against the politically seasoned and experienced policy wonk, and whether you believe the political system to be broken or in need of breaking will likely inform who you vote for in November.

Clearly, the two candidates have very different views of where the United States is and where it’s headed, and that was on full display during the debate.

Trump described the economy, trade deficit, inner cities, infrastructure, NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal as “a disaster” or some variation on “the worst deal ever,” brought about by incompetent politicians, including Clinton. His solution for most of these problems was a commitment to “get very tough” on each of them.

Clinton, the conventional politician,  offered specific policies for the problems she enumerated. On the issue of race and law enforcement, for example, she said  the country needs to “deal with mandatory minimum sentences. … We need more second-chance programs,” and she called on ending private prisons in the state prison system.

And then, of course, there were the  attacks. Trump, for example, took heat for not releasing his tax returns but returned the assault by saying that he’d do so when Clinton released the 33,000 missing State Department emails supposedly stored on her private server.

Over the last few election cycles, voters began to question the value of presidential debates. Monday’s debate proved their value. There was nothing hidden on that stage. And if there was little in the way of theatrics, it was because the candidates were playing themselves. That’s not a bad thing.

Barack and Bibi: The Finale

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit all the right notes in their public comments before their 35-minute meeting in New York last week during the United Nations General Assembly. Obama declared the bond between the two countries “unbreakable.” He thanked former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who recently suffered  a stroke, “for his friendship and his leadership.” And of the just-signed Memorandum of Understanding and its $38 billion in U.S. military aid to the Jewish state over the coming decade: “We want to make sure that Israel has the full capabilities it needs in order to keep the Israeli people safe and secure.”

Netanyahu said the agreement “greatly enhances Israel’s security.” And he praised the “extensive security and intelligence cooperation” between the two countries. “I don’t think people at large understand the breadth and depth of this cooperation, but I know it,” he said.

It was a valedictory moment that was memorable for its blandness, coming after years of public rancor and sniping between the two leaders and their teams. In their private meeting, of course, Obama and Netanyahu were reportedly more candid about their differences. While we believe in the public’s right to know, we are  relieved that they discussed their differences away from the cameras. And after the acrimony that surrounded the Iran nuclear deal, it was okay that the two leaders ended their forced relationship with lame jokes about golf.

In his address to the General Assembly, Netanyahu repeated his praise for American support. But his main point was that the world body — “the U.N., begun as a moral force, has become a moral farce,” was one of his best lines — was fated to lose its hostility “because back home, your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes toward Israel. And sooner or later, that’s going to change the way you vote on Israel at the U.N.”

That would certainly be a positive  development. The marginalization of Israel was a product of Cold War politics and Arab enmity. Now even that enmity is cooling in the face of the region’s strategic threat from Iran. “Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS,” Netanyahu said. “Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace. I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals.”

The unanswered question that lingers is whether the Obama administration will make a last-ditch lame duck push for peace. As we’ve learned time and again, 11th-hour initiatives never work out, all the more so when the burden of peace is designed to fall disproportionately on Israel’s shoulders.

To the extent that a new era of cooperation between Israel and the United States has begun, we embrace it. And we welcome the sense of optimism that has been rekindled by that effort.

Evolving Religions Parshat Nitzavim

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiThe Syrian refugee crisis has prompted public debate worldwide, especially in the U.S. presidential campaign, over the issue of immigration. Should a nation’s top priority be to meet the humanitarian needs of people attempting to flee a war zone? Or should it be to emphasize national security concerns stemming from the terroristic affiliations of a portion of those seeking refuge?

Given that most of the people whose fate hangs in the balance are Muslims, the critical question underlying this debate is, what is the nature of Islam? Are we speaking of a religion of prayer, charity and belief in one God? Or are we dealing with a cult of death, conquest and jihad? The fact that both of these definitions contain an element of truth is the source of our dilemma. Islam is at war with itself, as Muslims  on both sides of these two  irreconcilable aspects of the religion’s identity vie for  supremacy. And unfortunately, institutional Islam — Wahhabism, Sunni, Shia and ISIS — believes strongly in jihad and world conquest.

Does Judaism have a role to play in this debate? Israel must bear God’s message of morality and peace to the world and God, in turn, will guarantee  Israel’s eternity. It is our task as a people to educate the world toward recognition of a God of morality, love, and peace. Everyone need not become Jewish or worship God in the way we do. But everyone must be moral and ethical and must not violate any other innocent human being, if the world is to endure.

Fortunately, there is a precedent for a religion to alter its moral trajectory. For nearly 2,000 years, Christianity exploited its power to persecute non-Christians, especially Jews. Rivers of Jewish blood can testify to that ugly history. However, over the past 50 years, a change of historic proportions has taken place in the way Christianity has come to view Judaism, symbolized by 1965’s “Nostra Aetate,” the Papal Encyclical publication that affirmed the legitimacy of the Jewish covenant with God.

In contrast, a very different trend is taking place within Islam. Certainly there are millions of peace-loving Muslims who find the hijacking of their religion to be abhorrent. However, this silent majority has failed to prevent its co-religionists from co-opting Islam.

Judaism has a role to play in this debate. Our covenant of moral absolutism requires that we call upon Muslims to draft their own “Nostra Aetate,” a theological shift that would accept the legitimacy of other religions. This is an internal Muslim dispute, but it has global ramifications, and we have a vested interest in its outcome.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

A Matter of Faith

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

Some have the custom of making predictions for the coming Jewish year in the days before Rosh Hashanah. But I am no prognosticator and will not presume to have the requisite wisdom or guts to hitch my reputation to the probability of future events. So on the eve of 5777, I will not make any forecast as to what may befall — in either a positive or negative sense — the Jewish people here at home or abroad.

I will, however, offer one prediction of what will positively not happen between the last shofar blast on Tuesday and the first of 5778: The United States of America will not crumble.

It’s a hard concept to grasp, I know, especially for those of us who have a lot invested emotionally, intellectually and ideologically in the outcome of the presidential election  on Nov. 8, but come Nov. 9 — regardless of who wins on Election Day — the nation will remain. Come Jan. 21 — regardless of who takes the oath of office on Inauguration Day — there will be no civil war,  no collapse of our national  infrastructure, no mass exodus to Canada. How I wish we could dispense, once and for all, with the doomsday scenarios envisioned by the diehards on both the left and the right promising imminent demise should the other candidate prevail.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, some area rabbis are indeed  referring to politics in their High Holiday speeches, but  almost to a one, they’re focusing on such universal issues as  repentance and bringing the spiritual into everyday life.

But while we focus on improving our lives here at home, I  suggest we also look across the Atlantic Ocean at the community’s other guiding light — the State of Israel, whose continued existence is due not to its size, government or strength but to the hand of Providence. Any New Year’s prediction of its continued health is therefore one of faith, not political science.

Living here, it’s so easy to forget how precarious Israel’s position is, bounded on two sides by hostile Palestinian populations and surrounded by Arab states with a long historical record — if not an outright present policy — of belligerence to their Jewish neighbors.

We hold Israel up as an example of a nation state adept at making something out of nothing, the Startup Nation that made the desert bloom and practically invented cybersecurity. It’s mythic, but it’s based on truth. And the only proper description of its successes — from its victory in the Six Day War to the growth of its IT  industry — is miraculous.

Miracles, of course, can neither be relied on nor earned. They’re bestowed, a gift from the Almighty. So, while we do our part to aid in Israel’s survival, we also pray, and on Rosh Hashanah more than most other days.

May our prayers be heard and may each of us enjoy a happy, healthy, sweet and peaceful new year.


Respect Our Needs, Values

The JT’s article regarding adding Eid as a school holiday (“Muslims Look to Jewish  Example in Campaigning for School Days Off,” Sept. 9) put me off but not for the obvious reason. Certainly, school boards must evaluate how to accommodate their schedules in districts where Muslim observers, whether students or teachers, comprise a large proportion of the school population.

It seems absurd that the Jewish Times and JTA used this particular woman, “the daughter of a Sephardic Jewish mother and a Catholic father” who converted to Islam, as the Muslim on record for this issue. She is a Jew according to Jewish law/Halachah, whether she chooses to identify as one.

The bigger issues of assimilation and intermarriage affect the Jewish community more critically than which holidays are on the school calendar. By featuring someone who has cast off Judaism, the JT and JTA add to the legitimization of intermarriage, the discarding of Jewish values. This woman is the face of a traitor to the Jewish people. If you don’t see it this way, at least you should appreciate the irony of your choice.

I’m not so interested in Islamic needs in our community or on the national front. But if you’re going to run these stories, make sure they’re not chipping away at our needs and values

Focus on the Music, Art

Joshua Runyan’s Sept. 16 Opening Thoughts, “A Most Jewish Conversation,” inspired me to write this. As time goes on, I find that the less I know about my musical and other artistic heroes, the more I can enjoy the music/art that they have given to the world. No musician/artist could ever possibly live up to the ideals that are found in his/her work, but the works of art can inspire us to strive to be a little better and at the very least give  us some moments of joy or  delightful melancholy.

A Real Bargain

There are grounds to criticize President Barack Obama on his dealings with Israel, but last week’s 10-year military  assistance package is not at the top of the list.

Indeed, this may be a good deal for both sides. The U.S. is estimated to have spent  upward of $85 billion on overseas military forces in 2014 alone — $156 billion when the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq were included. Israel is a self-sufficient nation in an important but dangerous part of the world. It does not ask our troops to go in harm’s way to defend them. Our Israeli ally’s ingenuity has improved the armor on our tanks, defended troops from missiles and saved wounded soldiers with specialized combat dressings. That’s a lot more than we got for the $1.7 billion sent to Iran.

Iran held hostage our diplomats and is a recognized “state sponsor of terrorism,” linked to the 9/11 attacks. We need not worry that Israel, a country with which we share so much, will deny us diplomatic or military support, let alone attack us. Enhancing Israel’s military edge for $3.8 billion a year in American-made goods is a bargain.

As for Israeli promises to  refuse future funding, anyone who makes predictions on  future threats is likely to be disappointed, as with earlier presidential promises to end the war in Afghanistan. If circumstances change, future presidents and prime ministers can do what is needed.

Get Your Facts Straight

The BJT’s editorial board is  entitled to its opinions (“J Street Crosses the Line,” Sept. 15), but readers would be better served if it grounded them in facts.

First, J Street is indisputably a part of the “big tent of the Jewish community.” We are members of the Baltimore Jewish Council and are welcomed regularly into the offices of our elected officials.

It is our profound concern for Israel’s future that motivates our support for a two-state  solution and opposition to settlement expansion. The State Department determined in 1979 that settlements are illegal and contrary to established  U.S. policy, a ruling that has  remained in effect under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Under U.S. law, activity that is illegal or contrary to longstanding U.S. policy may not be supported by tax-deductible donations. That is why we in  J Street urged the Treasury  Department to review so-called “charitable” organizations funding settlement expansion. In doing so, we are not seeking to “shut down” anyone. We are simply concerned that organizations aiding the spread of settlements in contravention of U.S. law and policy continue to be subsidized by American taxpayers.

Rather than making unfounded attacks on organizations like ours that wholeheartedly support Israel’s future as a  secure, democratic Jewish state, the JT would perform a greater service to its readers by presenting a range of informed opinion in its pages. J Street is always ready to carry on that discussion with anyone, regardless of their views.

Embracing the New Year

ftv_millstein-bethAfter a long, hot summer, I eagerly embrace the subtle change in season upon us now. The cool refreshing evenings, the shortened days, the crunch of leaves on the driveway reground me as autumn beckons.

Since I grew up on the East Coast, for me, these sights and sounds are inextricably associated with the High Holidays and the return to a familiar time of year filled with ritual,  reconnecting me with my heritage. I love the changing seasons and the different perspectives one has seeing the same landscape in full bloom, stark and covered with snow or bursting with early spring buds. Similar to how my visual perspective changes with the seasons, my emotional perspective changes during the holiday season. I become more introspective and start to think about how I can help make a difference in my community, both local and abroad.

This Rosh Hashanah, as I embrace the new year of 5777, I am also embracing my new role as president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County. In a very short time, I have gained a different perspective of our Jewish community and our deep caring and connection to one another. After the terrible tragedy of the Ellicott City flood, I was incredibly moved and proud as our Jewish community sprang into action to help our friends and neighbors. Business owners were offered alternative space from which to work. Some worked side by side to remove debris. Others provided both emotional and  financial support, raising more than $6,500 in just 30 days. Another touch point occurred when members of our community became concerned about an anti-Israel display placed in a Howard County library branch. The community reached out to Federation in shock and dismay, asking us to take a stand for truth.

Through these two events, I was reminded that Federation matters to Howard County. We help support the rich fabric of a Jewish Howard County and have already sponsored a number of events designed to engage and support all segments of our community. We continue to support those with emergency financial needs and those in need of social services. We help educate about Israel, teach Hebrew and create environments where we can share our common heritage.

So, as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and relish in traditions, family and community, please take a moment to think about those who are less fortunate. Be generous in your  support of fellow Jews and give generously to our annual campaign. Together, we can help provide a sweeter and happier New Year for all.

Shana Tova!

Beth Millstein is president of the  Jewish Federation of Howard County.