Our Complex Relationship with Saudi Arabia

The U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia has always been complex. Founded on oil, the relationship flourished as America’s need for foreign energy resources grew and was fed by the Arab world’s seeming endless supply of oil. But the kingdom is dramatically different from Western democracy, and the alliance has made for very strange bedfellows.

Saudi Arabia is a rigid theocracy, where non-Muslims are not welcome, where women are forbidden to drive and where religious minorities face systematic discrimination. There is no freedom of peaceful protest. The country’s political system is owned and operated by the large Saudi royal family, and the nation is a major exporter of an extreme brand of Islam and a significant funder of violent Islamic terrorist groups.

The kingdom has long been hostile to Israel, with its opposition softening only in the last decade and a half, as the two countries focus on combatting common enemies, including Iran. President Barack Obama recently summed up America’s  relationship with Saudi Arabia by saying, “It’s complicated.”

Included in the complexities of that  relationship is the fact that 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis. The 2002 congressional report on the attack — the deadliest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil — concluded that there was no evidence that Saudi Arabia supported al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. At least, that is what was said in the public version of the report.

Now, there is a growing call for the government to declassify 28 pages of the  report in which it is understood that the Saudi role is described in detail. “There’s no question that this is an important  alliance that has accrued to the benefit of the United States in many ways,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) said last week. “But as time goes on, it’s harder and harder to ignore the holes in the  relationship.”

At the same time, a bipartisan bill is moving through the Senate that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. “It’s very simple: If the Saudi government was complicit in terrorism, then they should pay the price,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the bill’s sponsors. But leaders in both the Senate and the House say they oppose the legislation, and Obama is likely to veto it if it passes.

The public has the right to know what the 9/11 Commission concluded about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the disastrous events of Sept. 11. Therefore, no matter how “complicated” our country’s relationship is with the kingdom, we encourage full disclosure of the extent of the Saudi role in the seminal terror event that turned this country on its head and led to two wars we are still fighting.

Syria’s Insoluble Puzzle

“In the last 48 hours, we have had an average of one Syrian killed every 25 minutes. One Syrian wounded every 13 minutes.” That was U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura’s  assessment of the carnage, as the shaky cease-fire in the Syrian civil war collapsed late last week.

In the divided northern city of Aleppo, a series of airstrikes on the rebel-held side killed more than 60 people, including  patients at a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Eyewitnesses said the hospital was “reduced to rubble.”

The blame for the attack falls on the Syrian air force and Russia, which provides air support for the Syrian government. Russia is firmly on the side of the Assad regime, as is Iran and Hezbollah. The chief aim of the United States, on the other hand, is the destruction of the  Islamic State group, which has carved out swaths of northern Syria and Iraq as home to its self-proclaimed caliphate.  Despite their conflicting aims, the U.S. and Russia have found ways to cooperate in seeking to broker a peace deal. It is in everyone’s interests for such cooperation to succeed.

But in response to recent efforts to get the parties to commit to peace talks, the Syrian government has sought to tie  regaining the Golan Heights, which Israel won in the 1967 Six Day War and  annexed in 1981, to attendance at the  negotiations. And the tattered Syrian regime has added inflated bravado to the mix: “All options are on the table for getting back the occupied territory from Israel” — including by force, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad reportedly said.

The Golan Heights demand is a distraction. It is also a nonstarter. First, Israel has made clear that the issue is not up for  discussion. And second, there is no functioning Syrian government with which Israel could reasonably negotiate, even if it had an interest in doing so — which it does not.

Rather than be distracted, the world needs to remain focused on the horrific human cost of the ongoing Syrian carnage. According to the United Nations, nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country since 2011. More than 6 million others have been internally displaced. The refugee crisis has strained the stability of Jordan and Lebanon, which, along with Turkey, have taken in the vast majority of the fleeing Syrians. And the waves of refugees trying to reach Europe have transformed its once-open societies, which provided unintended cover for terrorists and encouraged xenophobes on the right.

Continued bloodletting in Syria serves no one’s interests. But if the major powers continue to use what’s left of Syria as a battleground through which they and their proxies duke it out diplomatically and militarily, no one will win, and everyone will lose.

It is long past time for some sane international leadership to resolve the ongoing devastation in Syria.

How a United Community Can Still Work Miracles

Passover is a time for family, for tradition and for festive celebration. It’s also a time to fix a paradox. While we read the haggadah earlier this week, we reflected on our past travails and miraculous redemption as a Jewish people. But if we look only at the past we risk overlooking the incredible ways in which the cycle of Jewish history continues today.

A poignant reminder of this was the clandestine final rescue and immigration to Israel, or aliyah, of 19 Yemenite Jews completed on March 20. This wasn’t the first or the last time, given the dangerous era we live in, when unified, collective action through a strong and effective federation system meant the difference between life and death for Jews in peril. In this case it was the Jewish Agency for Israel — an organization funded and governed by almost 300 Jewish community federations worldwide in partnership with the government of Israel — that took the lead, with help from Israeli intelligence and the U.S. State Department.

Our liturgy says of the Exodus, which we celebrate at Passover, that God rescued the Jewish people “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” When it comes to rescuing Jews from jihadist terror and Muslim sectarian war in Yemen, from discrimination in Ethiopia or from a gathering storm of anti-Jewish violence in Europe, we know it is our duty to lend our own strong hands and outstretched arms.

Thank God we have the strength, unity and Jewish independence needed to take our fate into our own hands to the extent that we can. The rescue of the Yemenite Jews is one case in point.

Which brings me to another Passover paradox: What is the meaning of the “wicked son” — the person who stands aloof from the story, separating himself from the collective — in this time of fraying Jewish unity?

To me, today’s wicked sons are the men and women who, knowingly or not, dismantle the very unity that enables the noble work of Jewish rescue to continue. If there is one lesson we need to learn from the recent Yemeni rescue, it’s the need to preserve that most at-risk Jewish value and asset: communal unity.

In the final moments of Passover, let’s remember that the work of redemption is not complete and that the work requires not only divine grace but also our own strong hands and outstretched arms.

Dr. Steven B. Nasatir is president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and an associate member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.

‘Traditional’ Women Not Immune to Rape

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N..J., is no stranger to controversy. His statements have been condemned by the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Anti-Defamation League. As a former judge on the Beth Din of America, he has held some of the most prominent positions in modern Orthodoxy.

Pruzansky recently authored a blog post asserting that in many cases, women who report being raped on college campuses are leveling false allegations because they felt spurned by their romantic partners or were intoxicated at the time.

“If indeed there was a ‘rape culture’ on American campuses,” writes Pruzansky, “no intelligent woman would want to attend college. The fact that more women attend college today than men itself belies the accusation.”

Pruzansky failed to acknowledge that one in five women will report being assaulted during their time on a college campus. Rape and sexual assault are happening. While Pruzansky might want to pretend his words only apply to those engaged in the “hookup culture” or that those who adhere to “traditional morality” are immune from assault, Orthodox women might disagree.

Sarah Robinson, a Stern College alumna and a student in Yeshiva University’s graduate program in advanced Talmudic studies, boldly spoke out on the issue in The Observer, Stern’s newspaper.

“Our campus culture [at Yeshiva University] does not support victims of sexual violence,” she said. “It is immature and ignorant to think that consent doesn’t apply to students who are “shomer negiah” (someone who refrains from physical contact with members of the opposite sex.). Marital rape happens all the time. There are so many women who want to say no but don’t know how.”

Robinson added: “Rape can happen to anybody. Generally, rape occurs between two known parties. Shomer negiah doesn’t protect against rape.”

As Passover approaches, we are ready to say dayenu, enough.

On June 26, Pruzansky’s synagogue will host a daylong conference of Jewish educators with participants from more than 30 Orthodox yeshivas, day schools, publishers, youth groups and synagogues.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is asking those attending to make clear that their sponsorship and participation is contingent on Pruzansky not speaking at the conference. We are asking people to reach out to partnering organizations with which they are affiliated.

Pruzansky’s insensitivity and failure to understand the violent and vicious nature of rape, confusing it with unsatisfying sex and “unrequited love,” indicates he should not be in a position to preach about values we want to pass on to our children.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

The Pawns of Gaza

International focus on the well-being of the residents of Gaza is cyclical. That concern reached a high point during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, when over the course of 50 days, Gazans were held hostage by their rulers. Those rulers sent rockets into Israel knowing that any Israeli response would lead to a high death count, yet confident that it would also lead to world outrage at Israel.

The fighting left quite a mark on Gaza, damaging or destroying some 171,000 homes. After it ended, an international conference pledged some $3.5 billion in reconstruction aid over three years. But the World Bank reported last week that those pledges are being fulfilled more slowly than promised.

Of donor countries, the United States was the most prompt. It has delivered the entire $277 million it promised. By contrast, Qatar, which pledged $1 billion, has only delivered $152 million, or 15 percent of its promise. Saudi Arabia has delivered about 10 percent of the $500 million it promised. Turkey, a close ally of Hamas, has sent one third of its $200 million pledge.

We’re obviously in the waning phase of the cycle of interest in the plight of those living in Gaza, and the cynicism of the wealthy Arab states who made bloated promises of assistance is chilling. After years of turning a blind eye to the actions of Hamas, which diverted international aid to build cross-border tunnels and stockpile weapons — actions that directly led to the 2014 war — Arab states declared that they would contribute to a rebuilding of the Gaza abandoned by Hamas. But it appears that those promises were as hollow as the oft-repeated canard that Israel bears responsibility for the Palestinians living under Hamas rule.

Indeed, as Hamas rearms, retools and rebuilds under the watchful eye of its Arab sponsors — just last week came the news of a discovery by Israeli forces of perhaps the longest tunnel to date — there appears to be very little focus on the humanitarian needs that allegedly prompted the international commitments two years ago. Someone besides the World Bank needs to press the Gulf States and other boastful international pledgers to fulfill their humanitarian commitments and to stop treating the Palestinians in Gaza like pawns in a never-ending war of attrition against Israel.

Blaming the ‘Liberal-Left’

Vice President Joe Biden (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Vice President Joe Biden (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Vice President Joe Biden used his appearance at the recent J Street Gala to voice the Obama administration’s frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

That was not news to anyone who has followed U.S.-Israeli relations during the Obama years. Nor is it a secret that the administration believes that “the present course Israel’s on is not one that’s likely to secure its existence as a Jewish, democratic state,” as Biden put it.

But what the vice president said in the next breath is vital: “We have to make sure that [secure existence] happens.” And later in his remarks, he said: “We are Israel’s maybe not-only friend, but only absolutely certain friend.”

Biden’s same message of warning and support was derided at the AIPAC Policy Conference in March. It was warmly received by the J Street audience, whose organization is pushing for an end to an Israeli presence in the West Bank.

Many on the Jewish right demonize J Street as Israel haters and self-hating Jews. Right-wing commentator Daniel Pipes took a more nuanced approach in a recent analysis of changes in support of Israel: “Jewish support for Israel has weakened primarily because Jews are solidly on the liberal-left of the political spectrum (these days symbolized by Bernie Sanders), the side most critical of Israel,” he wrote. “From Israel’s point of view, the fact that American Jews are losing their ardor for Israel is a distinct loss. But it is made up for by American conservative support for the Jewish state.”

In other words, according to Pipes, liberal support is down, conservative support is up. Jewish support is down, Christian support is up.

Implicit in this argument is a conclusion that because liberal American Jews are not viscerally supportive of the Jewish state (a questionable assertion), their Judaism is lacking. But that is demonstrably not true. One can be a proud, committed and active Jew and still be critical of positions taken by the Israeli government. And one can be a strong, visceral supporter of Israel and be critical of various realities there.

That’s not to say that we back J Street’s point of view or their full-throated denunciations of Israel. We absolutely do not. In fact, we believe that in the dangerous reality in which the Jewish state exists, the last thing Israel needs from its allies — whether in the U.S. government or in the American-Jewish community — is tough love.

Nonetheless, as we near the end of Passover, a reminder of the time when we were given our identity as a people, attempts to exploit the divides in our community for political gain — a sin employed by both sides of the spectrum — must be called out as the cynical tools they are. Dividing the Jewish community into “friends of Israel” and “those for whom liberalism is a more important religion than Judaism” is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

Changing the World While Counting the Omer

This Shabbat is the last day of Passover (Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 and Numbers 28:25), and we can put aside (or throw out) any remaining matzoh and  return to our everyday lives. But can we really? Is the holiday truly finished? Yes, Passover is finished here in the diaspora after eight days, but it actually isn’t finished because Passover is inextricably linked to our next big holiday, Shavuot, through the counting of the Omer.

We began counting the Omer (originally sheaves of wheat from the beginning of the harvest, see Lev. 23:15) on the second night of Passover. We continue counting for a total of 49 days, until we reach Shavuot, the 50th day. The Omer is a period of semi-mourning, but it is also when we celebrate the founding of the State of Israel.

On Passover, we are enjoined to relive the story of our slavery as if we ourselves had been slaves and are now free.

 

A pilgrimage to offer the first fruits to God in the Temple in Jerusalem distinguishes all three of the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot). These holidays highlight Judaism’s big three — Torah, God and Israel.  We  remember that if it were not for God we would still be slaves in Egypt; if it were not for God we would not have the holy words of Torah as an  exemplar of life; and if it were not for God we would not have the land of Israel as  our spiritual and physical homeland.

On Passover, we are enjoined to relive the story of our slavery as if we ourselves had been slaves and are now free.

Then comes the Omer on the second night. What are we counting? We are counting up to the intellectual, spiritual and ultimately action-oriented places within ourselves to be the people who are continually receiving the Torah and then take its teachings to better ourselves and the world through our actions. Fifty days to count, 50 days to contemplate, 50 days to formulate how we will actualize the godliness within ourselves to repair the world.

As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan noted, we live in multiple civilizations. This teaches me that we cannot afford to stop at the pshat, the surface level of our holidays, observances and teaching.  We must take our particularist perspective and broaden it to the universal. We were strangers, we were slaves and now others are strangers, others are slaves. It’s our responsibility as both Jews and people of the world to make sure that no one lives in  slavery, that everyone is free.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the spiritual leader of the Olney, Md., Kehila.

Voter Registration, Clarified

Voter Registration,  Clarified

I would first like to commend the JT’s Marc Shapiro for capturing our accomplishments during the contentious 90-day legislative session in “Looking Back on the Maryland General Assembly” (April 22).  I would like to clarify what was written on the Universal Voter Registration Act.

As originally introduced, the bill would have automatically registered all eligible voters in Maryland. This version of the bill was defeated on the Senate floor. A similar bill (HB 1007) passed the House of Delegates but was subsequently  reworked on the Senate side. Sen. Steve Waugh, a Republican colleague, and I spent countless hours modifying the bill in the final days of session.

The significantly amended bill, known as the Freedom to Vote Act, will make it much easier and more accessible to register to vote. It increases the number of government agencies that will be able to register voters and establishes an “opt-in” rather than an “opt-out” system. The revised bill passed the Senate unanimously.  With such bipartisan support, it is very likely that Gov. Larry Hogan will sign the bill.

Thank you for covering the successes of the legislative session and for helping to inform the residents of Maryland.

Israel’s Water Pioneers

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge might be frequently maligned through each iteration of the “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” quote — the slightly altered line from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” does not, unlike how its most invoked, refer to scarcity in the midst of abundance — but in a world still reeling from the headlines coming out of places like Flint, Mich., and right here in Baltimore, where officials at one school have admitted to trucking in bottled water for years  because of lead contamination, the literal meaning of his words are proving prescient.

Like the ancient mariner who slays an albatross and finds himself amid a sea of water — alas, not in any drinkable form — much of  “civilized”  society is today grappling with an abundance of contaminants. Potable water, however, is in short supply.

Into this reality comes the State of Israel. As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the Jewish state has emerged as a leader  in turning that which was  undrinkable into something bordering on potable. Much like its fabled history of making the desert bloom, Israel is pioneering an industry of  desalination plants and water purification technology, earning attention from the parched state of California, as well as her own Arab neighbors, in the process.

I’ve remarked before in this column that with the news cycle being what it is, rare is the chance to report on good news coming out of the Middle East. So when reporter Daniel Schere returned from a trip there looking at Israel’s  attempts at renewing a tainted resource, we jumped at the chance. The country, as many a historian or local resident will tell you, has a unique history with water, owing in large part to its arid climate and near-constant state of warfare. Any town worth defending had to have ready and immediate access to a spring or a cistern, the remnants of which you can literally stumble upon during a walk through the countryside. (Many guidebooks contain a general warning that broken ankles from falling into an ancient water pit are quite common.)

Many such systems still  collect water today, but as Ben Gurion University archaeology professor Steve Rosen observes, “You don’t want to put your toe in, let alone drink.” That might be fine for an ancient society, but with “the startup nation” emerging as a global leader in information technology and bursting at the seams with a fast-growing population, Israel’s only option has been to invent a new way to process and deliver water.

While the transformation has been entirely necessary, it’s also inspiring. It begs the obvious question: If Israel, beset by  terrorism and other existential dangers, can meet the environmental challenge, why can’t the rest of us?

Vote on April 26

Along with the public school, the library and the city park, the line forming to vote on Election Day is a reminder and reaffirmation of civic life in the United States. As public spaces shrink, these affirmations become more important, with friends and neighbors meeting on neutral ground to share the common bond of citizenship.

This is one reason to vote in the April 26 primary. Another, of course, is that by voting, we exercise a fundamental right as Americans, animating an institution that helps give democracy its name. Voting reminds us what free and fair elections — something not guaranteed everywhere — are all about. And for us in the Jewish community, it’s an absolute imperative that we use the rights we and our ancestors looked to this country to provide in the first place.

Do you think that your vote doesn’t matter? Think again. Whether you are a registered Republican or Democrat, you have an important voice in the presidential primary that takes place on Tuesday. It’s one thing to criticize the candidates and the campaigns from the sidelines, but without casting a ballot, yours will be a complaining voice instead of an invested one.

Looking closer to home, wherever you live, there are races on the ballot that will directly affect how your tax dollars are spent. Want government money to support parochial schools? Then vote for candidates backing that position. Do you adhere to a more traditional interpretation of the separation of church and state? Then make your voice heard at the ballot box in addition to at the picket line.

We urge you to speak your mind on Tuesday, not because it will lead to utopia, but because it will link you to your fellow citizens in the performance of something vital. That is an unusual occurrence in our atomized society.

American Jews have traditionally voted in high percentages. This is likely because as a small minority, we are jealous of our rights, and, while the memory persists of how our people were persecuted in whatever Old Country they lived in, we are grateful that the United States welcomed so many of us.

This year’s election season has presented choices like no other in recent memory. Much depends on the outcome. For all of these reasons, do not choose to be silent, and do not throw your vote away. Voting is our infrequent chance to demonstrate in the clearest of terms that ours is still a government by the people and for the people.