Less Hope for Two-State Solution

It’s bad enough that Obama allowed and reportedly encouraged the recent U.N. resolution against Israel. Adding to the damage was former Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for peace. Notably, he called for reparations for Arab refugees from the Arab-Israeli conflict, but said nothing about the greater number of Jewish refugees.

Kerry alluded to Israel’s security concerns but omitted the overwhelming obstacles to a two-state deal. He made it sound as if there were a stable entity with which Israel could deal. Palestinians are divided in their loyalties, with Hamas, armed and encouraged by outside sources, opposing Israel’s existence and likely to undermine any deal.

Israeli concern also reflects a history of Arab attempts to ethnically cleanse Jews dating back to the 1920s.

I agree that Israel cannot continue ruling the entire West Bank. However, Obama has made it more unlikely that there will be a two-state solution.

Caught in the Middle

President Donald Trump appeared to be addressing his core supporters rather than the nation during his inaugural address last Friday. There was no outstretched hand to the other side, no inclusive reference to “my fellow Americans,” and no soaring rhetoric projecting the United States’ leadership role in the world.

What Trump delivered with a clenched fist was more akin to one of his campaign speeches: Telling it like he sees it. Us against them. Disrupt it or tear it down. America first. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,” he said. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

There is an eerie and ominous tone to the “total allegiance” declaration. Does it mean that regular allegiance is not loyal enough? And does shared allegiance to such things as family, community and religion make one suspect?

Maybe it’s the paternalism inherent in the Trump message that bothers us. While his promise that “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American People,” may have resonated with his followers, nothing in his speech explained what he meant and how it would play out. Instead, we got the familiar and distorted message of “American carnage” and reference to efforts to address the needs of “a child … born in the urban sprawl of Detroit.” It felt like token empathy, and we don’t know what to make of it.

Just before Trump took his oath of office, a crowd of hammer- and crowbar-wielding anarchists broke storefronts and torched a limousine in an attempt to disrupt the inauguration. They were clearly no friends of the new president. But we can’t help but notice how their scorched-earth tactics were so consistent with Trump’s divisive identification of those in power as the real enemy.

The inauguration didn’t as much as blink during the disturbances, and the festivities and celebrations rolled on. But we wonder how the flesh-and-blood owners of the stores and limo felt to be labeled as abstract symbols of all that is wrong.

In a mind or movement without empathy, whether of the anarchist left or the heartless right, it is easy to strike out in hatred against abstract symbols. But for those of us stuck in the middle, it is confusing and frustrating to be targeted from both sides.

Give Trump a Chance

I am ashamed and disappointed in the way many of my fellow Jews are acting with regards to the swearing in of our new president, Donald J. Trump (“Groups Ready for March on Washington,” Jan. 13). This is not the Jewish way.

Yes, we all have the right to protest, but what are you protesting against? The election is over, and your marching (particularly on Shabbat) is not going to change a thing. Instead, you should be in shul, praying for our president’s health and safety, so he will be able to make America great again. Democrat or Republican — no one can ever agree on every policy.

Trump is going against the whole world to stand on the side of Israel. Does that mean nothing to you? When factories and businesses open again in America, and you or your family are put back to work, are you going to turn down the job? When Obamacare gets adjusted and your sky-high premiums go down — are you going to say “no” to that?

It’s fine to criticize a past president if you were unhappy with the way the country was run, but to be so critical of the new president without giving him a chance is unheard of. Let’s have a positive attitude for the future of our country.

Stop Talking About Race

I am scratching my head as to why the Jan. 20 editorial, “Woodmont Not Playing its ‘A’ Game,” brings up President Barack Obama’s race when the issue Woodmont had with Obama was simply his lack of support for Israel.

This seems to be a common theme of the liberal left media — making race an issue simply because one of the participants is of color. The Trump-Lewis feud last week is another example of race being brought in by the media when it wasn’t a factor in the comments of either participant.

If the Jewish Times and the left-leaning media really want to reduce racism, stop making it into a problem when it isn’t and, instead, focus on the facts of an issue, not the race of the principals.

Support for Woodmont

I was very surprised to see the Baltimore Jewish Times take a negative position toward the Woodmont Country Club’s stance against President Barack Obama (“Woodmont Not Playing its ‘A’ Game,” Jan. 20).

The one-two punch of the Iran deal and the U.N. vote has cemented President Obama’s legacy as the worst president in Israel’s history. That’s a fact that’s very difficult to dispute. President Obama has done more to threaten the safety and security of the State of Israel than any president in modern history.

The decision by Woodmont is courageous and a very important statement of the support that American Jewry should be showing Israel.

I’m not sure who the editorial board of the Jewish Times thinks that they are speaking for. Certainly not me or my family.

No Third-Rate Hack Job

It is tempting to dismiss allegations of Russian hacking during last fall’s presidential election as blame shifting by sore losers in the Democratic Party and/or the work of a socially-awkward teenage hacker working from his parent’s basement. Various figures on the right, including President Donald Trump himself, have intimated as much.

But faced with the seriousness of an apparent consensus on the part of our nation’s intelligence community that Russia unquestionably did something in an effort to affect our electoral process, now is not the time to be dismissive. As a practical matter, there is much we don’t know — and most Americans will never know what they don’t know about the alleged hacking. In such a situation, prudence demands that the allegations be investigated by those in a position to do so.

History supports such an approach.

On June 17, 1972, police arrested five men who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel in Washington. The next day, the White House denied any knowledge of the break-in. President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, dismissed the event as “a third-rate burglary.” And the whole affair was covered in the metro section of The Washington Post.

In today’s parlance, the Watergate events would be downplayed as a nonevent or dismissed as “fake news.” But we all know that Watergate was none of those things. And we learned about the seriousness of the Watergate episode from formal investigations, bi-partisan governmental hearings and full press coverage.

Such a bipartisan and open effort is exactly what the hacking story needs now. Regardless of the culprits, the hacking efforts perpetrated an unprecedented and dangerous infiltration of the American electoral system. That cannot go unexamined. Indeed, in order to preserve the integrity of our democratic machinery — and the public faith that keeps it operating — an across-the-board accounting must be made.

Until recently, Trump dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s growing confidence that Russia carried out the hacking. And even when he changed his position, he sought to justify the ends, if not the means: “Hacking’s bad, and it shouldn’t be done,” he said. “But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.” We respectfully disagree.

According to the intelligence community’s declassified report released on Jan. 6, “Russia’s [hacking] goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” That “end” is as unacceptable as the means.

Officials from both parties have called for hearings on the hacking activity. We urge Congress to begin them quickly.

The True Purpose of the Plagues Parshat Vaera

Parashat Vaera is all action: The first six plagues descend on Egypt and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Vaera come in two sets of three plagues each. In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third. And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.

Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal is what we often remember from this series of events (even my 4-year-old child knows to sing, “No, no, no, I will not let them go” at this point in the story). However, in Exodus 7:3 it is actually God who says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” This statement raises a fascinating question: is God responsible for Pharaoh’s obstinacy?

The plagues are not only intended to crush the Egyptian slave masters and cruel king into submission in order to free the slaves, but they also provide evidence of God’s power to an enslaved people.

It is critical to remember that at this point, the Israelites have been slaves for over 400 years. They are accustomed to oppression and all that comes with it — lack of choice and agency, demoralization, and dehumanization. And they are used to not having God around. A far cry from Abraham or Joseph’s personal relationships with God, God is conspicuously absent during the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt. And this absence lasts enough generations for the tales of their ancestors to fade from familiarity into distant legend.

The Israelites, maybe even more than Pharaoh and the Egyptians, desperately need proof of God’s power and might. The plagues unite them, not only as an oppressed people accustomed to life’s cruelty, but also as a people on the verge of liberation. These first plagues are those first glimmers of hope. It’s a brilliant strategic move by God who understands that the Israelites can’t be expected to just will themselves out of Egypt; they need inspiration and guidance. Parshat Vaera provides the essential stepping stones toward the freedom we know is just over the horizon.

Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, N.C., with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director and director of year-round programs at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past eight years.

This commentary was reposted/printed with permission from ReformJudaism.org. The original post can be read here.

The Power of Women Parshat Shemot

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiIn decreeing the destruction of the Israelites in Egypt, why does Pharaoh distinguish between the genders? Apparently afraid to keep the Israelite men alive lest they wage a rebellion against him, Pharaoh is confident that the Israelite women will not pose a threat, as they will presumably marry Egyptian men and assimilate into Egyptian society.

This strategy underscores Pharaoh’s ignorance — or denial — of the pivotal role women play in the development of a nation, and stands in stark contrast to the perspective of our Sages, who in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni declare that it was “in the merit of the righteous Israelite women that the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt.”

The Talmud teaches, “I always call my wife ‘my home,” since the real bulwark of the home is the woman of the house. As the Jewish nation emerged from a family, and family units are the bedrock of every society, it is clearly the women who are of supreme importance.

Pharaoh was blind to this. Apparently, he had no tradition of matriarchs such as Sarah and Rebecca, who directed the destiny of a national mission. For him, women were the weaker gender who were there to be used and taken advantage of. This is why Pharaoh attempts to utilize the Hebrew midwives to do his dirty work of actually murdering the male babies on the birth stools. To his surprise, the women rebelled: “And the midwives feared the Lord, so they did not do what the king of Egypt told them to do; they kept the male babies alive.”

Pharaoh begins to learn his lesson when Moses asks for a three-day journey in the desert; Pharaoh wants to know who will go. Moses insists: “Our youth and our old people will go, our sons and our daughters will go — our entire households will go, our women as well as our men.” A wiser Pharaoh will now only allow the men to leave; he now understands that he has most to fear from the women!

And so it is no wonder that Passover, the festival of our freedom, is celebrated in the Torah with “a lamb for each house,” with the women included in the paschal sacrificial meal by name no less than the men. In our time, we find this idea expressed in the observances of the Passover Seder (the drinking of the four cups of wine, the eating of matza, and the telling of the story of the exodus, etc.), which are binding on women no less than men.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Thank You, Chief Johnson

Over the past 12 years, I have had the honor to interact with an accomplished public servant, Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson.

What impressed me most during Chief Johnson’s 12-year tenure was that the Baltimore County homicide rate was one-tenth that of Baltimore City, violent crime was consistently down to record low levels, and amazingly enough in this past year, the homicide clearance rate was at an astounding 106 percent. This is due to the constant hard work and dedication that Chief Johnson and his department exemplifies by solving a majority of the cases for 2016 while also continuing to investigate and solve previous cases that had been open for years.

I am grateful to have worked with Chief Johnson during his tenure. His legacy will thrive on through the continued hard work of the Baltimore County Police Department. I thank him for his service and commitment to Baltimore County.

Rabbi Not Required

The brouhaha over Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom’s stand on interfaith marriage is based on “fake news” — namely, that you need a rabbi to officiate at a Jewish wedding (“The Jewish Future,” Jan. 13). The Hebrew Bible only prohibited intermarriage with the seven Canaanite tribes; it was Ezra the Scribe who — unilaterally, autocratically, with no textual authority and therefore exclusively on his own say-so — expanded it to include everyone else.

In point of fact, a rabbi’s presence is not halachically required for a Jewish wedding. Indeed, in America, (s)he functions as the agent of the state (“by the power invested in me”) for that proceeding. What kiddushin requires is the exchange of an item of value and a ketuba (contract) authorized by witnesses. Recall: David and Paula Ben-Gurion were married in 1917 at a town hall civil ceremony in New York City. The leading rabbis of Israel attended the weddings of their grandchildren, so clearly their children were kosher and that 1917 ceremony was not treife.

In America, the rabbi’s “Jewish” presence at a wedding is symbolic, so why not send an encouraging welcoming signal?
By the way, you also do not need a rabbi for a bar mitzvah, but that is another discussion.