Tag Archives: J Street

Four children at the table: What a concept!

9 Apr

Since it’s Pesah, there’s a great story about a prominent British Jew who is informed that Queen Elizabeth intends to knight him. The queen’s protocol officials prepare him for the ceremony and instruct him to recite certain Latin words just before being knighted.

On the day of the ceremony, the man is very nervous and, sure enough, when he approaches the queen, he forgets the Latin expression. As precious seconds tick by, the only non-English words that he knows pour out of him: “Mah nishtanah ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot?” The queen is confused. She turns to her protocol officer and asks, “Why is this knight different from all other knights?”

At the seder we empower the youngsters at our seder to ask questions and learn. Shortly thereafter, we read in the Haggadah about the four sons, or the four children. This passage reminds us that at least four different kinds of people are invited to the seder. We traditionally call these children wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.

Each of these children has his or her flaws. And yet they are all at the table. They are all seeking to engage in the discussion in some way, each on his or her level.

Each child has a more complex personality than meets the eye. Consider for a moment the Rasha (often translated as ‘wicked’).

Rasha, mah hu omer? Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lachem? Lachem v’lo lo. Ul’fi
shehotzi et atzmo min hak’lal, kafar ba-ikar. V’af atah hakheih et shinav, ve-emor lo.
Ba-avur zeh, asah Adonai li, b’tzeiti mimitzrayim, li v’lo lo. Ilu hayah sham, lo hayah
nigal.

The Rasha asks: “What does this ritual mean to you?” (Exodus 12:26) By using the expression “to you” he excludes himself from his people and denies God. Shake his arrogance and say to him: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt…” (Exodus 13:8) “For me” and not for him — for had he been in Egypt, he would not have been freed.

The very term “rasha” is difficult to translate: As noted in the Haggadah “A Night to Remember (Mishael Zion and Noam Zion, eds.), “‘[W]icked’ and ‘evil’ are very harsh, uncompromising terms for a child. ‘Rebellious,’ ‘mischievous,’ ‘recalcitrant,’ ‘chutzpadik,’ ‘impolite,’ ‘vilde haye,’ ‘naughty,’ ‘troublesome,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘problematic’ or ‘alienated’ are also possible” (45).

These adjectives are more descriptive and less judgmental than wicked or evil. After all, why would we be expected to have at our table someone who was truly wicked? Our tradition puts great stock in questions, and we have a seat at our table for someone who will do just that. In a sense, he may be the truest yodea lish’ol, the one who knows how to ask the sharpest questions.

In our current society, I am concerned about how we talk to one another, particularly within the Jewish community. We all know the old saw about where there are three Jews there are three opinions. It seems that increasingly we have multiple opinions, but people with divergent views avoid talking to each other or even sharing the same space. A case in point is the recent annual conference of J Street, the lobbying organization that describes itself as “Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace.”

Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, was slated to speak at J-Street’s annual conference last month where some 1,000 Jewish college students from across the country were in attendance. However, almost at the last minute, he cancelled. His reason was that Saeb Erekat, an official with the Palestinian Authority, was slated to speak during the conference, though at a different time. Fingerhut said that due to inflammatory statements Erekat had made in the past about Israel, he would not appear at the same conference. I was disappointed by Fingerhut’s decision. I think it was his job to be there. As he himself said, he was going to speak at a student-only session to thank students for their fight against the anti-Israel Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement and to encourage them to continue this important work. Fingerhut’s absence was a missed opportunity to engage in dialogue with students whose outlook might not be in lockstep with the board and funders of Hillel. If the leader of Hillel won’t speak to 1,000 Jewish students who care deeply about Israel, then who will speak to them? If they are not welcome to sit at the table with the organized Jewish community, at whose table will they sit? If they are labeled “Rasha,” wicked, they may well opt out, and this will be a disaster for the Jewish people.

As disappointed as I was by Fingerhut’s decision, I am just as concerned when the left shuns divergent view points as the right. We might call it opinion cleansing. I am not a fan of J Street. I believe that it’s in Israel’s best interest to pursue and ultimately achieve the goal of two states for two peoples so that Israel will remain a Jewish democratic state in peace and security. Yet, in pursuing their vigorous two-state agenda, J-Street has shunned centrist points of view, including, most notably, Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz notes that he has never been invited to speak at a J-Street event, even though he supports the two-state solution. As Dershowitz wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz last year:

“[J Street] seeks to attract centrist members by advocating the two-state solution, an aggressive stance towards peace negotiations and criticisms of Israel’s settlement policies. These are positions I fully support, and if they were J Street’s only positions, I would have joined that organization many years ago. But in an effort to expand leftward, particularly hard leftward, it has taken positions that undercut Israel’s security and that virtually no Israeli center-leftists support.”
Dershowitz notes further:

“When J Street invites BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) supporters and those [who] oppose Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people to speak at its events, it claims that it does not necessarily support these positions, but it believes in encouraging its members to hear views that are different from its official positions. That is total nonsense. J Street only wants people to hear views to the anti-Israel hard left of its position. It categorically refuses to allow its members to hear views that are more centrist and more pro-Israel, such as my own.”
On this Pesah, this Festival of Freedom, there is much to be concerned about in the world such as a nuclear-armed Iran, a Middle East crumbling under the scourge of militant Islam, and Israel’s increased isolation among the family of nations. It is easy to be frightened by the unknown that awaits us, and we may be inclined to wall ourselves in among like-minded people. The Passover Haggadah challenges us that to be truly free we must move beyond our comfort zones and engage in discussion with people from different points of view. The Rasha is sitting at our table. Rather than alienate the Rasha with labels and creating distance, let’s reframe who the Rasha is. The Rasha sits opposite the “Sh’eino Yodea Lish’ol,” the one who does not know how to ask a question. Let’s rename the Rasha the “Yodea Lish’ol,” the one who knows how to ask. If we are lucky enough that he or she is sitting at our table, let’s not be dismissive. Let’s listen, because chances are such a person cares deeply about the Jewish future.

Through having open conversations at our seder table and throughout the year, I pray that the Jewish people will model that a free people is not afraid of disagreement. We sit at the same table with respect for one another as we challenge the ideas of those around us and listen to their challenges to us. Our Haggadah provides the Jewish people with a template for modeling respectful dialogue for our society. May God give us strength to fulfill this sacred duty.

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Who speaks for the American Jewish Community?

9 May
Tally of votes in J Street's failed bid to join Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Tally of votes in J Street’s failed bid to join Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Who speaks for the American Jewish community? For years the assumption has been that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was the main voice of the American Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents is an umbrella encompassing some 51 Jewish organizations representing all of the religious streams, defense organizations and other significant American Jewish institutions. Their mission is to produce consensus statements on behalf of American Jews on matters important to us, such as Israel’s security, so that political leaders in our country and opinion leaders have a sense of the pulse of the American Jewish community. During the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained that he was inundated by so many Jewish organizations lobbying him on Israel, and he didn’t know who spoke for the Jewish community. Therefore, the Conference of Presidents was formed to streamline contact between the Jewish community and Washington. This model works when there is general consensus. Until there isn’t.

Recently, a deep rift in the Jewish community has been exposed over the Conference of Presidents’ vote to reject a membership application by J Street, the so-called “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobby organization. While the vote was secret, news media reported that of the 42 organizations that participated in the vote, 17 supported J Street’s membership, 22 opposed and three abstained. J Street needed a two-thirds majority of the Presidents Conference, or 34 of the 51 member groups.

I must confess to some personal ambivalence over this vote. Underscoring my own ambivalence, two organizations within the Conservative Movement in which I’m involved cast opposing votes on the matter. I sit on the board of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement, which voted against admitting J Street. The Rabbinical Assembly, on the other hand, voted in favor.

Before I spell out the reasons for my ambivalence, I note that our Torah portion this week, Parashat Behar, is focused as a whole on the Eretz Yisrael, that tract of land that embodies so much emotional, spiritual and religious importance for us as Jews. If Israel did not hold such importance, nobody would be getting worked up over a membership vote in the Presidents’ Conference. The portion describes the practices of Shmittah, the Sabbatical year in which the Land is to lie fallow, and Yovel, the Jubilee, in which all land returns to its original owner, all debts are erased and all slaves are freed. Observance of these laws is meant to remind us that the Land ultimately does not belong to us, but to God. In describing the Jubilee, the text instructs: V’khi timkeru mimkar la’amitecha o kanoh miyad amitecha, al tonu ish et achiv. When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another (Leviticus 25: 14).

The Midrash interprets the application of this verse as extending beyond a mere business transaction. Rather, the admonishment al tonu ish et achiv, “you shall not wrong one another,” includes wronging a person with harmful words (Lev. R. 33:1, quoted by Rabbi Harold Kushner, Etz Hayim, p. 740). This includes reminding a repentant sinner of his or her former misdeeds and asking a merchant the price of something when you have no intention of buying. In other words, the Torah is concerned not only with economic justice, as vital as it is, but also in promoting civil discourse.

The centrality of promoting healthy speech in our tradition is the source of my ambivalence over the J Street/Conference of Presidents controversy. On one hand, I have deep concerns about J Street. As Alan Dershowitz wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz recently:

“[J Street] seeks to attract centrist members by advocating the two-state solution, an aggressive stance towards peace negotiations and criticisms of Israel’s settlement policies. These are positions I fully support, and if they were J Street’s only positions, I would have joined that organization many years ago. But in an effort to expand leftward, particularly hard leftward, it has taken positions that undercut Israel’s security and that virtually no Israeli center-leftists support.”

Dershowitz notes further:
“When J Street invites BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) supporters and those [who] oppose Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people to speak at its events, it claims that it does not necessarily support these positions, but it believes in encouraging its members to hear views that are different from its official positions. That is total nonsense. J Street only wants people to hear views to the anti-Israel hard left of its position. It categorically refuses to allow its members to hear views that are more centrist and more pro-Israel, such as my own.”

As Dershowitz and others have said, J Street speaks out of both sides of its mouth. It says it’s a Zionist organization, but gives public platforms to those who seek to destroy the concept of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Given this track record, I understand the sentiment of the majority of Jewish organizations that see J Street as a threat to the consensus-building mission of the Conference of Presidents.

Despite Dershowitz’s compelling case, I am concerned that J Street may actually have won by losing. The negative vote enables J Street to play the victim and boost their agenda to delegitimize the organized Jewish community. Even for those of us who don’t agree with their platform, they have made significant inroads in the Jewish community, especially on college campuses. Like it or not, they are a “Major American Jewish Organization” that is far more influential than many other long-standing members of the Conference of Presidents. J Street is exploiting the vote for fundraising and publicity. It has declared that the vote is proof that the organized Jewish community is tone deaf and doesn’t care about younger Jews who don’t relate to Israel like their parents and grandparents did.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, President of the Rabbinical Assembly, voted in favor of admission and wrote the following in an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week:

“Despite my own personal misgivings about J Street, I advocated for its admission to the Conference precisely because I don’t share its views. There are other members of the Conference whose views are not consonant with my own on matters that are of the greatest concern to me….But in the years that I have participated in its meetings and programs, the Conference has afforded me – and those with whom I differ – a crucial opportunity to move beyond the instinctive demonization of “the other” to a healthier, more reality-based appreciation of the areas of commonality that we share.”

Rabbi Skolnik continues: “That is exactly what should have happened with J Street. Membership in the Conference would have afforded its leadership a crucial opportunity to see the world though the Conference’s eyes, and for the Conference to see the world of Israel advocacy through J Street’s eyes. It would also have sent a much-needed message to the many college students who have found their voice on Israel through J Street that the leadership of the American Jewish community hears them, and values what they have to say, even if it sometimes disagrees. But the Conference of Presidents did not do that, and that was, in my view, most unfortunate.”

We learn in the Torah al tonu ish et achiv, “you shall not wrong one another.” Our tradition understands this as extending to how we talk to and about one another. In this light, I believe it is in the best interest of the Jewish community that those within the organized Jewish community and those who seek to enter find a way to talk to and listen to one another. For J Street this might mean adopting a constructive agenda that does not seek to embarrass American Jewish organizations that have done vital work for decades. For the organized Jewish community, efforts towards greater inclusion might just neutralize the most strident voices they seek to exclude and enhance an umbrella organization committed to Jewish unity. As Israel celebrates 66 years, may we be blessed with renewed vigor to promote civil discourse for the betterment of the Jewish people.