Confirming Jewish Acceptance

The nomination of Elena Kagan as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court is but one further undeniable example of the acceptance of Jewish in the United States.

Recall that for generations there was a “Jewish seat,” held by such distinguished Justices as Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur J. Goldberg, Abe Fortas and the “seat” was empty between 1968 and 1993—though it was also filled by Reagan nominee Douglas Ginzburg in 1987, who was forced to drop out after drug use became public—until President Clinton nominated Ruther Bader Ginsburg. The subsequent nomination of Justice Stephen Breyer ended the concept of a “Jewish seat” and Elena Kagan’s nomination by President Obama demonstrated the degree to which Jews are accepted as part of the mainstream. If confirmed, there will be 6 Roman Catholics and 3 Jews on the Nation’s highest court—and no Protestants—a circumstance inconceivable even a generation ago.

Kagan will be questioned on many things, but not her religion. Another Judge on Obama’s short list was also Jewish.

And for those on the Jewish right and in Israel who want to characterize the President as an anti-Semite, we should recall that anti-Semites don’t nominate Jews to carry on their legacy, they don’t appoint them chief of staff and they don’t have them as their chief political advisers and in important positions throughout the Cabinet and the White House.

We have many things to worry about as a Jewish community. Thankfully, this is not one of them.

Since I wrote this entry Patrick Buchanan has raised the issue of three Jews being on the Supreme Court, Hardly a surprise, Buchanan’s affection for the Jewish people is well known., But he is alone at the extreme of the mainstream media. Kagan’s Ivy League Education has been an issue. If confirmed, all Justices will be graduates of Harvard or Yale. Gone are the days when Stanford graduates Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor were on the Court and four of the justices are from New York—Scalia from Queens, Ginsburg from Brooklyn, Sotomayor from the Bronx and Kagan from the West Side of Manhattan.

So hearing from Buchanan does not change the equation. It only makes us wonder why Buchanan is still respected in “polite” company.

Listen, Learn, Then Challenge

The controversy over Brandeis University’s invitation to Michael Oren Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, to be the commencement speaker is another sad indication of the unwillingness of Jews to speak with one another. Coming but weeks after threats by the South African Zionist Federation to disrupt the Bar Mitzvah of Richard Goldstone’s grandson with protests, it should give use pause over the erosion of civility in Jewish discourse, perhaps even of the erosion of the possibility of Jewish discourse.

Ambassador Oren, whose appearance at the University of California Irvine was rudely interrupted by protests from the students affiliated with the Muslim Students Association is now being greeted with protests from leftist Jews who are calling him “a rogue state apologist, a defender of (among other things) the war crimes and human rights abuses of the war on Gaza. Moreover, regardless of one’s political beliefs one can easily see that having such a polarizing speaker for commencement is divisive, exclusionary, and just plain stupid.”

Petitions are being circulated for and against the Israeli Ambassador appearance and once again people are talking at each other and past each other instead with one another.

Oren himself should be non-controversial. An American born oleh to Israel, he established himself as a fine scholar whose most distinguished work was a compelling history of the Six Day War, in which he reviewed documents from all sides to the conflict and spoke with most of the still living figures who shaped the war politically and militarily. His book is read in Arab countries and regarded quite seriously. Oren pierced some of the myths associated with Israel speedy triumph. As a scholar at the Shalem Institute, he was part of the neo-conservative think tank that features many of Israel’s most interesting moderate right thinkers. The Six Day War is of abiding interest because we are still dealing with its unsettled aftermath, perhaps it is more accurate to say that we are still fighting the Six Day War.

Oren was recruited for his role as a diplomat by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who anticipated that the right wing government he had formed would trigger a crisis in Israeli-American relations, most especially under a Democratic President, and wanted someone who could do intellectual battle in the areas where Israel’s political support in the United States was weakest, the media, college campuses and the American Jewish community. If the Brandeis students had read Oren’s work, they would have discovered someone whose personal positions on such issues as settlements and territorial compromise are subtle and nuanced and. a scholar far to the left of the government he represents or even those of the think tank which had been his intellectual home.

It is an old cliché that diplomats are paid to lie on behalf of their country and students are often so convinced of the wisdom of their own positions that they see no reason bother reading or listening to someone who may have fascinating things to say. Itis mroe fun to hurl insults.

As a diplomat Oren had stumbled a bit as he learned his new task, most especially within the Jewish community. Good scholars are truth tellers; diplomats cannot be. His decision not to speak at the J Street Conference, reportedly for it might confer legitimacy on the new organization was a misjudgment. It indicated an unwillingness to enter into dialogue with those within the Jewish community who disagreed with the current government’s policies. He was forced to retreat from a statement he made to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism convention as he misrepresented what happened at the Western Wall when a woman was attacked while praying. He pleaded that he had been misinformed by his government. I suspect he had not learned well enough the craft of lying on behalf of your nation. What happened in Israel was indefensible and he knew it.

The choice of Oren as a speaker was made by Brandeis departing President Jehuda Reinharz who at the beginning of this academic year announced his resignation after 16 years of distinguished service. One of the major achievements of Reinharz’ reign has been to embrace again Brandeis’ Jewish roots and celebrate that unique aspect of its heritage. By all accounts the University has become more impressive academically and more secure financially even in these difficult times. Reinharz too has stumbled, most especially during the economic crisis when he proposed closing the Rose Gallery of Art and selling its important collection, but he will have left a large imprint on Brandeis and left it in far better condition than he had inherited it from his immediate predecessors. So it is sad to see his presidency end in controversy, sadder still that the controversy be one of Jews attacking Jews.

Reinharz will not bow to student pressure, especially the pressure so “brilliantly” articulated above. One hopes that the ZOA will spare us the accusation that Brandeis is inhospitable to Jews and that Jewish students would be well advised to apply elsewhere. Oren will speak and speak well; there will be modest student protests and student counter-protests.

Still, American Jews as well as Israelis must be mindful of the diminished support for Israel among some of the younger Jews. The Israel of my parents’ generation was the Israel of promise and of hope – Hatikvah was the anthem in their soul. They had dreamed of a Jewish state and were thrilled to see its realization.  My own generation was shaped by the Six Day War and its seemingly heroic triumph, by the Yom Kippur War and a realization of Israel’s vulnerability. Some of us were disillusioned by the first War in Lebanon and by the seemingly endless occupation.

The generation born in 1988 – the year of most current graduates—was conceived during Intifada I. They entered kindergarten when Israel and the PLO signed their accords at the White House, they were in second grade when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. As they were about to celebrate their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, when the Clinton Peace Process disintegrated and Intifada II began. During their high school years, Israel withdrew from Gaza, bombs fell on Shederot, and Lebanon II was fought. While they were in college, the War in Gaza was conducted, and the former President was indicted for sexual misconduct and the Prime Minister resigned to face charges of corruption.

If my parents experienced the leadership of the founding generation, whose contributions were truly historical and mine of the heroic generation of Generals and Warriors, their experience of Israeli leadership [and their American counterparts] has been anything but historical or heroic and their own relationship with Israel may reflect it.

For some younger Jews Israel is at the core of their Jewish identity; for many others, even for those whose Jewish identity is strong, Israel is marginal to their Jewish identity, peripheral to their Jewish journey.

But the controversy itself is sad. Michael Oren has much to say and the students of Brandeis should be honored to hear it. If they listen, they may be surprised. So perhaps the most important lesson of the Brandeis commencement may be that there much to learn by listening. Listen first and challenge later.

Divisions on Obama May Actually Mask Different Perceptions of His Predecessor

There is a growing division within the Jewish community regarding President Obama. More than three out of four American Jews voted for Obama [78%] and a higher percentage of Jews continue to support the President, than any other American ethnic group save for the African-American community. Yet if we read the barrage of criticism against the President and his administration – the US-Israel relationship is in crisis, our policy toward Iran is appeasement, the President is a closet Moslem – one would imagine that support for Obama would be in single digits, mirroring the sloppy poll since discredited that hade but 6% of Israelis support Obama.

American Jewish support for Obama developed and has been sustained despite a daily barrage of attacks against Obama by the right wing in the United States and by many Israeli columnists, journalists and political figures. The best that is being said is that the young American president in naïve; worse, much worse, has become common place in the Israeli and American press and Israeli and American Jewish political discourse.

Some commentary has been racist. Much more of what I read is intellectually condescending to a man who after all is manifestly intelligent even without his Harvard and Columbia pedigree. And some seek to scold him as if Israel’s leadership has been an unquestioned bastion of wisdom and competence and as if the former Prime Minister and former President and former Mayor of Jerusalem were not under criminal indictment; as if Israel’s Foreign policy intentions were clear and disciplined and its domestic policy coherent. Whatever its intent, it alienates many American Jews.

If Israel and the American Jewish right and their loudest supporters yearn for George W. Bush or even John McCain, it is they who are being naïve.

Regarding Israel, there is no doubt that George W. Bush was a loyal friend of Israel. That is not subject to dispute, but one cannot help but wonder if eight years of such friendship left Israel more secure, improved its standing in the world, and reduced the threats to its security.

When the 43rd President left office, the United States was in a free fall economically with no bottom in site. The economic policies that had dominated the Bush Administration – the Milton Friedman School that left economic policy to the free unregulated marketplace, and supply side economics, e.g., lower taxes would yield increased government revenues – had led to an economic crisis, which was only addressed by a dramatic change of ideology and policy. It was clear that the previous Administration had run out of ideas and the President and the Republican Presidential Candidate were like deers caught in the headlights, frozen by crisis. President Bush disappeared, would be President McCain grandstanded.

One does not know the extent to which the economic policies of the Obama administration will lead America into a robust rather than a sluggish recovery, but given the behavior of the Stock Market, the end of the massive job loss, the all too slow but still positive growth in jobs, the healthy growth in the GDP and the generally accepted notion among economists that the economic stimulus has at least brought economic stability, the real political issue for President Obama and the Democrats is going to be all about jobs.
There was a deep sense as the 43rd President left office that the American century had ended and that other powers would share, if not dominate leadership in the 21st century. The decline of American power – economic or military – and with it the decline of American Jewish power—is not in Israel’s best interests. Newsweek’s cover story last month “America is back!”

On the international front: the United States entered a war on faulty intelligence and it conducted two wars for six and five long years with manifest and now universally acknowledged incompetence. Only in late 2006 when some of the architects of the war were gone was the way in which the war in Iraq was conducted, changed.

We know that the security of the Bush-Israel tie enabled Israel’s Prime Minister Omert and the Israeli government to initiate two wars with uncertain planning, indeterminate conduct and consequences. We also know that an energy policy that is based on “drill baby drill” only enriched forces hostile to the United States and Israel.

American Jews and supporters of Israel have no more at stake in the global warming issue than all other Americans—and all other denizens of the world—but Jews have the deepest of interest in energy conservation and the development of alternative energy sources. Our expenditures on energy enrich America’s enemies and embolden Israel’s enemies. They shift the global balance of power. And for eight years we had no energy policy. Remember Jimmy Carter’s admonition, energy is the moral equivalent of war was replaced by Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” and the energy issue was pushed to the back burner. Regarding Carter, even a broken clock is correct twice a day. He was right and we have lost 30 years on the energy front.

Two things are clear: the war in Iraq has empowered Iran.

The quest for Democracy, the secondary justification for the Iraq war, so heavily influenced by a genuine Jewish hero Natan Sharansky, led to the Bush administration’s insistence on Palestinian elections, despite objections from Israel and Fatah. The result brought Hamas to power and thus only further empowered and emboldened Iran.

The policy of non-negotiation with Iran did not curtail its nuclear ambitions. The new policy of negotiation has also failed but its failure has impacted on world opinion and change public perception regarding an appropriate response to Iranian nuclear development.

None of this need be construed as cheerleading for current American Foreign Policy but one thing is certain the vehemence of the attacks from Israel and from the American Jewish right, the accusations of naïveté and the undisguised yearning for Bush and McCain endanger support for Israel.. The more support for Israel appears as a partisan issue in the highly partisan atmosphere of American politics, the more it alienates many American Jews, most especially our young.

Shame

As a Jew, a Zionist and a rabbi I feel shamed by the efforts of South African Zionist Federation Chairman Avrom Krengel and his fellow travelers to protest the attendance of Richard Goldstone at his grandson’s Bar-Mitzvah.

Synagogue services are no place for demonstrations. Every Jew should be welcome to pray and embarrassing a man or preventing his attendance at the Bar-Mitzvah of his grandson is certainly not the best way to make friends and influence people. It is also counterproductive to Israel’s cause.
I am perplexed by the Rabbi of the Congregation who has been negotiating on behalf of the family. Entry to a South African synagogue is tightly restricted for security reasons. There is usually one entrance for the few who walk even to an Orthodox synagogue, and one guarded entrance for cars. Under those circumstances any organization should be able to determine who enters its premises. Any rabbi worth his salt should be able to maintain control over his congregants and synagogue services and find a creative and constructive way to inviting engagement with the issues at hand. Disturbing a Bar-Mitzvah is shameful.

If Avrom Krengel and his followers feel so strongly about the Goldstone Report, let them challenge him to a public debate or let the rabbi convene a forum within the synagogue in which a heated exchange of ideas can be had and the issues at hand aired. I would warn Mr. Krengel that I attended one such debate at Brandeis University between Justice Goldstone and Ambassador Dore Gold, Israel’s well respected former Ambassador to the United Nations and frankly any objective observer of the event came away with the feeling that Gold was not equal to Goldstone, who more than held his own in the debate.

If I were the rabbi, I would invite Israeli ethicist Professor Moshe Halbertal, who advised the IDF on its Code of Conduct and who is well versed in International Law and Jewish and secular military ethics for a conversation with Goldstone. Halbertal offered the most principled and the most reasoned ethical dissent from the Goldstone Report and he did so in a manner than invited discussion. He engaged the issues and did not resort to name calling.  I might also invite Professor Michael Waltzer of Princeton’s Institute of Advance Studies, the leading American philosophical authority on just wars and just behavior during war to engage the issues raised by Israel’s incursion into Gaza as a response to repeated attacks on its citizens. Any creative rabbi should be able to turn the tide of conversation and change a “street brawl” into what the Talmud has called a “dispute for the sake of heaven,” in which both sides are sustained. Elevate the discussion; engage the issues, discuss the clash of values and of ethical norms and the unique ethical burden that the tactics of Hamas who shelter themselves among the civilian population and who use Mosques and hospitals as shields, impose on the.

And if I were the family, I would tell the synagogue and the community to go to hell, invite my guests to my home or to a hotel and create a holy congregation in temporary space, which would be consecrated by the occasion.

This efforts of the South African Federation diminishes the cause of Zionism and demeans the values of Judaism.

One must also wonder about Israel’s strategy of non-cooperation with the Goldstone investigation, another example of its recent choices of self-isolation. Was the tactic wise? Goldstone is a judge and as such one who considers the evidence put before him. Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone inquiry and refused to present evidence. So Goldstone had to deal with the material before him, the testimony offered him and the witnesses willing to be questioned. Since the Report, Israel has investigated some of the accusations against made it, sustained some charges and disputed others. It has vigorously denied the most awful of Goldstone’s charges that Israel deliberately targets Palestinian civilians. The United States has blunted many of the efforts to gain an advantage in the delegitimization campaign against Israel; the Zionist Federation’s efforts have only brought the Goldstone Report to the forefront again. Save us from such brilliance.

UPDATE: Late last week a compromise was announced. Goldstone would attend the Bar-Mitzvah, a private meeting would be set up between the Zionist Federation leaders and the Judge and the chief rabbi issued a blistering condemnation of the Goldstone Report. Apparently cooler heads prevailed. Bravo.

What’s The Strategy?

Delegations from 47 countries were at a nuclear summit in Washington this past week among them were 37 heads of state. Noticeably absent was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The formal reason for his absence as repeated in the Israeli press was that Israel was fearful that the Arab and Muslim States would gang up on it for its refusal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and for the ambiguity of its own policy on nuclear weapons. While everyone assumes that Israel has Atomic Bombs and even knows what’s in Dimona, Israel has been deliberately ambiguous. Time and again it has stated that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. No one seems to believe this formal denial, repeated ad nauseum; perhaps no one should.

If the explanation offered in the press is accurate, then we have witnessed what political scientists would term anticipatory compliance. Fearful of isolation from the family of nations, fearful of the current campaign of delegitimization, Israel’s Prime Minister absented himself, isolated himself from his fellow heads of state and was not at the table when the safety of nuclear weapons was being discussed; when cooperation in the effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions was being raised. He did to himself what others could not have achieved. No matter that Israel was ably represented by Dan Meridor, the Prime Minister was self isolated. The fact that no attack on Israel materialized made his absence sadder still.

It is widely suspected that there was a second reason to duck the conference. Netanyahu would be returning to Washington empty-handed with nothing to say to President Obama who convened the conference and who had asked for some symbolic Israeli concessions in their private Oval Office meetings in March. With nothing to offer, he must have felt that he was better off not attending.

It was a high price to pay for defending what everybody concedes was a stupid move of announcing the building of Israeli housing in East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joseph Biden arrived to proclaim his love for Israel and the depth of the American commitment to Israel. The Prime Minister seemed to be unable to show his face in Washington. Stupidity has led to self isolation.

But much more important issues are at stake in this self isolation. We understand the tactics, but what is Israel’s strategy? There seems to be none except to maintain the status quo.

I know that the Jewish establishment is deeply upset, at least formally – what is being said in private is quite a different matter—that the American administration is seeking to raise the issue of Jerusalem, to challenge Israel’s eternal, undivided capital. But even if we score points in the debate, the advantage is merely tactical and very short-term at best. If Israel is to have peace with the Palestinians – and that is a big if – then the status of Jerusalem will be determined by negotiations. In 2000, 2001 and in the last year in discussions between then Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, each side has a very clear understanding of what the other side needs regarding Jerusalem.

Let me be clear what I mean by strategy.

Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and several other countries now have shared de facto strategic interests in containing Iran and thwarting its nuclear ambitions. If one were to look at the larger picture and quit squabbling over stupidity and coalition politics, shared strategic interests, perhaps even existential interests should offer important political opportunities and we should be furious at Israeli leadership for getting itself bogged down in peripheral issues, no matter how symbolically important they may seem to be for them, while failing to avail themselves of the opportunities presented in the current political climate. The Prime Minister came to Washington in March to rally American Jews for a fight with the Administration. He went from his enthusiastic reception at AIPAC to meet with the President and brought with him a chart that detailed for the President and the Secretary of State that he and his office were not responsible for zoning issues in East Jerusalem.  But he and his office are responsible for Israel’s place in the family of nations and for its relationship with Egypt and Jordan, countries with which it has signed a peace agreement, and with Saudi Arabia, which is central to Arab politics.

Self isolation is a lamentable. The failure to develop a real strategy, engage the United States and the anti-Iran Arab world is potentially tragic.

I wonder what Obama must have thought of the chart and the man who brought it. He had just had his greatest accomplishment as President, the historical passage of Health Care, he had told the American people: “We did it not because it was easy, but because it was right.” Netanyahu came to discuss zoning. When Obama raised the large issue of nuclear non-proliferation and containing Iran, Israel’s Prime Minister had diminished himself by thinking small and pathetically unimaginatively.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.