The Forest, the Trees and the Iran Deal

Concluding the nuclear deal with Iran has intensified political arguments not only in Washington, but also within the pro-Israel community. Many groups are devoting significant time and resources to opposing the agreement and attempting to prevent its approval by Congress out of a belief that it will leave both the United States and Israel less safe. In view of the political reality, however, the energy being spent to fight it is misplaced. Instead, we must prepare for the day after the agreement goes into effect to ensure that the United States and Israel are in the best possible position to confront the new realities that this deal will create in the Middle East.

Despite the various shortcomings identified by the agreement’s opponents, the campaign to scuttle it is a Sisyphean one. Even if a majority of senators and congressmen have strong misgivings, it will be extremely difficult to siphon off enough Democratic votes to make its rejection veto-proof. In addition, most polling confirms that a majority of Americans, including Jews, support it. While nothing is ever certain, the deal’s passage in Congress and eventual implementation appears assured. Thus, the vital task at hand is to ensure that, in the post-deal world, American and Israeli shared interests are protected. This undertaking, which cannot be pushed off for the next 60 days, should address three primary issues.

First, the U.S.-Israel relationship cannot afford to sustain any more damage as a result of the discord about Iran. Washington and Jerusalem must now repair ties at the highest levels while continuing to coordinate in the closest possible manner on regional defense, security and intelligence matters. Israel’s security is harmed when its support is seen as partisan, and the recent period of rancor between American and Israeli leaders must be set aside as an aberration rather than a new baseline.

Second, the forest of the two-state solution cannot be lost in the trees of the Iran deal. There is no better way of guaranteeing Israel’s future as a safe, prosperous, democratic state than preserving the ability to negotiate a separation from the Palestinians when conditions allow. In no way should efforts to counter Iranian regional mischief be conditioned on Israeli movement toward a Palestinian state. Finally, the squabbling over the Iran deal has opened up large fissures in the American Jewish community, and the wounds will not easily heal should they be allowed to fester. Principled policy differences and heated debate over the wisdom and efficacy of the agreement should not derail the universally shared goals of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance and a commitment to Israel’s security. We must deal with the world that we have. The international community has reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Let us now work together to shape a post-deal environment that advances important U.S. national interests, especially the security of Israel and our other regional allies.

Confronting Racism in Orthodox World

Chava Shervington, president of the  Jewish Multiracial Network.

Chava Shervington, president of the
Jewish Multiracial Network.

When I was 24, an Orthodox matchmaker tried to set me up on a date with a man older than my parents. When I objected, she told me, “Stop being so picky. Not many guys are willing to consider a black girl.”

As an African-American Orthodox Jew, this was hardly my first encounter with the questionable treatment I and my fellow Jews of color endure.

“Why is the goy here?” one black Jewish parent overheard when taking her child to a Jewish children’s event.

At one yeshiva in Brooklyn, the mother of a biracial student was asked to stay away from the school because it made the other parents uncomfortable.

An African-American acquaintance told me he overheard a worshiper at morning minyan talk about how he didn’t want to daven with a “shvartze” — while my acquaintance was putting on his tefillin.

Orthodox society is a beautiful community dedicated to charity, Torah learning and growth through observance of mitzvahs — and I believe we’re better than this racism suggests.

As a racial minority, it’s possible to be an integrated member of the Orthodox community, find your spouse and successfully educate your children in yeshivas — but it requires an abundance of self-confidence, tact and tenacity.

It takes confidence to keep going to synagogues when every time you show up to a new minyan you’re not sure if they’ll count you for the required quorum. It takes tact to politely rebuff yet another inquiry about your “journey to Judaism” or “why you read Hebrew so well.” It takes tenacity to keep going to kosher restaurants and Orthodox-run stores when all eyes gravitate toward you the moment you walk through the door (and stay there).

We Orthodox Jews of color constantly have to demonstrate our authenticity and belonging. It’s frustrating, exhausting and, frankly, heartbreaking.

While we may not be used to seeing African-American, Latino or Asian Jews in our midst, we must treat them as we do other Jews, and create a community that is welcoming and inclusive.

It’s time to reassess our self-image. The presence of African-Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities in the Orthodox community is growing rapidly, whether born Jewish or through conversion. We need to start paying attention.

The Jewish community is hardly alone when it comes to the problem of racism, nor are racist attitudes limited to the Orthodox. But as an African-American Orthodox Jew, I feel a special obligation to confront racist behavior in my own community. A society so focused on Jewish outreach and personal growth should be especially concerned with changing behavior that alienates Jews from Orthodox observance and community.

There are many causes for the racism that exists among Orthodox Jews. Insulated to some extent from secular society, the culture of political correctness that has permeated the general culture hasn’t quite achieved the same reach inside the Orthodox world

It’s time for change.

Let us create welcoming environments by using inclusive language and ceasing derogatory speech and the use of racial and ethnic slurs in our schools and shuls, and let us change the way we educate our children. Rather than denigrating outsiders as a way to elevate ourselves, we need to focus more on how everyone is created in the image of God.

Orthodox Jews of color do not need a special welcome mat — just acceptance and consideration.

Talking About Religion

Until Democrat Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1975, the issue of a presidential candidate’s religious faith wasn’t an open topic for discussion. That is clearly not the case today.  In last Thursday’s Republican debate, candidates were asked a silly and wholly inappropriate question: “[Have] any of them … received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first?”

The question, submitted via Facebook but adopted by the panel of questioners, drew largely non-answers from the candidates. But even some of the non-answers made some viewers uncomfortable.  For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker testified to viewers that “it’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed from my sins,” but went on to say that “God doesn’t call me to do a specific thing. God hasn’t given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day.”

Some will be relieved to hear this. But should the question have been asked in the first place?

We agree with Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance who commented that  “this type of chatter demeans our sacred teachings, exploits the passions of voters of faith and isolates those Americans who do not share a particular concept of the divine.” But nary a whimper was heard from the presidential contenders.

There were other less outrageous instances where religion became the focus of the debate discussion. For example, in what might be called biblically inspired policy, Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, advocated for a flat tax based upon the tithe offering of 10 percent.

And then there was the question asked of Ohio Gov. John Kasich about how he defended expanding Medicaid in his state by “saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor.” In his response, Kasich redirected the issue to his objective of making the government program more broadly available for the betterment of all people, arguing that beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion included the mentally ill and drug addicted, who received treatment to keep them out of prison.  He added:  “Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose.”

While we say amen to that, we would be much more comfortable keeping God out of the debates.

Three-Dimensional Chess

Sen. Charles Schumer

Sen. Charles Schumer

President Barack Obama presented a polished and impassioned defense last week of the international nuclear agreement with Iran that is being considered by Congress. For those who are trying to understand the agreement and what exactly separates its backers from its bashers, the speech offered a clear view of  the deal’s supporter-in-chief’s vision.

Inside the Beltway, however, Republican minds are already made up. So Obama’s speech at American University put the spotlight on Democrats who hold the key to the deal’s fate. Congress has until late September to vote on the agreement, and the president has promised to veto any attempt to kill it.

But there are signs that political maneuvering has begun. A number of prominent Democrats have announced support of the deal: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) as well as Reps. Adam Schiff (Calif.) and Sander Levin (Mich.).

Then on Aug. 6, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) along with U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) said they oppose the deal. Both men are in the top Democratic leadership in their respective houses of Congress and are among the most watched Jewish lawmakers in Washington. Schumer, under heavy pressure from AIPAC and other groups to oppose the deal, certainly sent a strong signal by coming out against it.

Or did he?

Some political watchers see Schumer’s announcement as part of  a game of three-dimensional political chess, in which players can be against something and for it at the same time. “How can a powerful Democrat’s opposition be a good sign [that the deal will survive a vote in Congress]?” James Fallows asks in The Atlantic. “Because it suggests that Schumer has already calculated that the administration can do without his vote.” Schumer can thus assuage his deal-opposing supporters while not damaging his president’s foreign policy objective.

As of now, at least one thing is clear: This game is far from over, and more strategic moves are bound to follow.

As Jews, We Are One Family



The last — and only — time I was in Curacao, the tiny Dutch Caribbean island just off the coast of Venezuela, it was as part of a press junket to explore the country’s long Jewish history. (It has the oldest Jewish community in the Americas, and Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, built in 1732, is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.)

That was back in 2003, seven years before the Netherlands Antilles, of which Curacao was a part, was dissolved as a political entity and the islands either attained constituent country status as part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands — like Curacao — or were subsumed as municipalities of the European nation. Today, as reporter Melissa Apter found out during a recent press junket of her own, Curacao is much as I remember, with the exception of increased tourist development to accommodate a significant increase in cruise ship traffic.

The same pastel-colored buildings line the harbor of the capital of Willemstad, the synagogue’s floor is still covered with sand — Sephardic folklore attributes the practice of praying on sand to when conversos in Spanish and Portuguese lands didn’t want inquisitors to hear them engaging in Jewish prayer — and the historic copper still is producing the island’s quintessential liqueur.

But as you’ll read in this week’s JT, the fascinating part of Melissa’s journey was discovering her own husband’s distant relatives amidst the locals. That she had a tie to the island much stronger than the transient one of a visiting journalist provides a fresh view on the game of “Jewish geography” that most of us play when moving to a new community, visiting a new synagogue or walking along Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

A fundamental aspect of Jewish life, though not always appreciated and unfortunately tested too many times, is that we are not just members of the greater Baltimore Jewish community. We’re not just “American Jews” or “Jewish Americans.” We are actually intimately connected to people we’ve never met, not just next door or across the country, but on the other side of the world.

This column has frequently explored the idea of being in Baltimore, but being affected by what happens to Jews in Israel or Ukraine or Paris or London. But choosing to do so could be an expression of somebody’s politics or ideals. By contrast, being viscerally affected by what happens to a family member is not a matter of choice; it’s not a reflection of an idea, it’s an expression of a tangible reality.

Had Melissa not mentioned to her husband that she was going to Curacao, she might not have ever realized that she had family members in the Caribbean. But they would have remained, by marriage at least, her relatives.

That’s how we need to acknowledge not only Jews all over the world, but in our own neighborhoods. It’s not a choice. Many reactions I saw to the horrific attack at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade late last month were not of the “how could a human being do this?” variety. Among Jews right, left, center, “religious” and “secular” was an almost universal shock at a Jew attacking other Jews.

So many understood that at the end of the day, we are all members of one family. The more we put that idea into practice, the better able we’ll be  to ensure our continued survival.

BJC’s Opposition Offers No Alternative

I read with dismay of the decision by the Baltimore Jewish Council’s executive committee to oppose the agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany (“Good or Bad?”  July 24). As a rabbi and representative to the BJC, my objections are both substantive and procedural.

First, neither I nor the the BJC at-large was ever consulted about this most important policy decision. Inasmuch as the agreement enjoys majority support of the American Jewish community and of many former members of the Israeli security establishment, this decision is at best surprising and at worst unrepresentative of the community the BJC purports to represent.

Secondly, on the merits of the decision, the BJC position is quite likely wrong. When the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — with all of their intelligence and analytical wherewithal — agree on something, there had better be compelling evidence to refute their informed judgment. They, particularly the U.S. security establishment, are the experts. However, here there is no such evidence. All we’ve heard are conclusory statements deriding the agreement without providing an alternative.  Responsible citizenship means more than naysaying; it means articulating exactly why no agreement is better than this agreement.

There is no doubt that Iran poses a serious threat to Israel and the United States. That is not the issue. What is at issue is how best to arrest Iran’s nuclear development such that it can never threaten another country with nuclear annihilation. Sadly, the BJC executive board has failed to provide a viable alternative. Absent a broad consensus in the Jewish community, it should have taken no position on the agreement.

Time to Fight Back-Stabbing Venture

Where is the communitywide outcry against the Iran deal (“A Time to Act”  July 31)? Where are the local rallies, marches, speeches and programs to shout out how terrible this deal is, as we did with Soviet Jewry? This is not the 1930s. Where is the constant local media attention that should be focused on this world-threatening event?

Please facilitate actions that will light a fire under all people of goodwill, Jew and non-Jew, to loudly express their defiance of this back-stabbing venture orchestrated by an administration that chooses to repeat behavior rather than learn from history that is barely 70 years old. Otherwise, our children and grandchildren and future generations will be imperiled beyond comprehension because of its foreseeable consequences.

Heritage, Not Hate, Is Behind Flag’s Display

Shame on you, Jodi Zisow.

If my Confederate flag offended you (Your Say, July 24), perhaps you could have knocked on my door and engaged me in a conversation. The flag to me, symbolizes heritage. I have studied history my whole life. The focus of my studies has been the Civil War. I celebrate the brave men who fought for a cause. As far as I am concerned, that flag has historical meaning, not hatred, not racism.

Just because twisted, hateful people adopted it as their symbol does not dilute its true meaning for me and for other history lovers. The very fact that you condemn me for expressing my love of history makes you the hater. I do not, nor would I ever, condemn you for your lifestyle choices. I will continue to fly my Confederate battle flag with pride!

By the way, that very flag was designed by rabbis in Richmond. It is all explained in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Take a field trip. You might learn something.

JT Cover Story: Biased Reporting?

Reading your July 31 issue and viewing its cover (“A Time to Act” ) one could only conclude that the bulk of American Jewry agreed with the positions of ZOA and AIPAC and were vigorously opposed to the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. However, that is far from clear. In fact, as reported in The Washington Post, a national survey conducted by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles showed that American Jews support the agreement by 20 percent more than the general population. The actual numbers were 48 percent in support, 28 percent in opposition and the remainder undecided. So was your July 31 issue yet another case of  “the squeaky wheel gets the {media} grease,” or is it evidence that your reporting suffers from gross bias, notwithstanding the little sidebar, “Most Jewish federations find ‘plethora’ of opinions on Iran deal.”

All You Need Is Love? Parshat Ekev

“All the world needs is love.” We hear that refrain in our music, in our theologies, in conversations prosaic and profound. While there is no denying the power of love as the essential and irreplaceable core of our lives, there are also other things we need: a home, sustenance (food), and meaningful work — among others. And even love is multilayered and often complicated.

While the Hebrew prophets often use the metaphor of love and marriage to describe the relationship between God and Israel, the Torah uses different metaphors to describe that relationship. Deuteronomy 5:2-3 provides one of many beautiful examples:

“The Eternal our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the Eternal made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.”

How this covenant is understood forms the center of the conversation about what it is to be a Jew. What is the nature of this covenant? Is it binding? Who is included? What are its obligations — upon us, and upon God? Are there consequences for violating the covenant, and if so, what are they?

Parshat Ekev addresses one of these questions head on, the conditional nature of the covenant: “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Eternal your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant made on oath with your fathers: [God] will favor you and bless you and multiply you.”

In this extensive passage, the Torah continues to elaborate on the conditional nature of this covenant. Compliance and faithfulness bring blessings of womb and land as well as victory against our enemies who abide within it.

“Keep, therefore, all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, so that you may have the strength to enter and take possession of the land that you are about to cross into and possess, and that you may long endure upon the soil that the Eternal swore to your fathers to assign to them and to their heirs, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

“Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls sky-high.”

“Know then this day that none other than the Eternal your God is crossing at your head, a devouring fire; it is [God] who will wipe them out — subduing them before you, that you may quickly dispossess and destroy them, as the Eternal promised you.”Elements of this text may sound like a manual for the Taliban. (For
example, see Deuteronomy 7:25, “You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire.”) It’s an important
reminder for Jews to know that the Torah contains terrifying material before engaging in the activity of pointing out the terrifying verses in the holy texts of others. Though some Jews still lean on these terrifying texts as mandates for present action, most of us do not. Judaism is continually evolving. The universe of commentary and the lived experience of history are part of the expansion of Torah. Affirming the divine image in each human being is our most fundamental mitzvah, “religious obligation.”

Inside these troubling texts lies one of my most favorite passages from the Torah: “Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, in order to test you by hardship to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not. [God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that a human being does not live on bread alone, but that one may live on anything that the Eternal decrees.

“For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains
issuing from plain and hill, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey … where you will lack nothing. … When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land given to you.

“Take care lest you forget the Eternal your God and fail to keep the divine commandments, rules, and laws which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage … and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the Eternal your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.”

This passage speaks to me and to the community of which I am a part. We have built fine homes, our stocks and investments have multiplied, and so much of what we own has prospered. Yet, it is easy for us to think it is because of the power of our might, that our own education, our own talents our own perseverance has won this wealth for us. We forget that in the web of the universe, we are all connected. We forget that our successes depend on the successes and sacrifices of countless others, we forget how dependent we are on a larger society, on the planet and its health. We forget our obligations to others — and we forget that with all this material wealth, we will not be happy or even satisfied without gratitude.

Life (with its gifts) is not earned or won. It is a gift. We need to be aware of the blessings, giving thanks.

The text cautions that our residence on the land — whether it be Israel, Palestine, America, or the planet as a whole — is contingent upon gratitude. We will need to move beyond, “It’s mine,” “I earned it,” “I worked for it,” “My ancestors won it for me,” or “God promised.” We need to shift our perspective somehow from ownership to gift. The land, the water, springs and fountains, wheat and barley, vines, figs and pomegranates, olive trees and honey are all gift. The love may be unconditional, but the gift is perishable.