Thursday, August 29, 2013

S#!t debaters say about Israel and “the Jews”

S#!t debaters say about Israel and “the Jews”

By Eylon Aslan-Levy

Tomer Shani speaks for Tel Aviv at the ESL Final of the European debating championship. Photo (c) Jennifer Ho / Manchester EUDC.

The Israeli Debating League is heading home from this year’s European Universities Debating Championship in Manchester. The annual “Euros” tournament brings together hundreds of students from across Europe to argue about thorny issues for which they have only fifteen minutes to prepare. This year, over two hundred teams battled over the motion: “This House Believes that Israel Should Allow Members of the Jewish Diaspora to Vote in its Elections“.

It has become a tradition to hold a debate about Israel at Euros: this is the third in as many years. As such, the championship has become a fascinating place to see what the students of today – and the leaders of tomorrow – think and know about the Jewish state.

Before you read on, you should know that the vast majority of debaters at Euros were conscientious, friendly and highly intelligent young people, who tackled the debate with knowledge and sensitivity. Others, however, were not, and did no such thing.

Many of the debaters’ mistakes were, relatively speaking, benign.

Did you know that all Diaspora Jews are Orthodox, and that American Jews live in closed communities and feel no connection to Israel? Or that Iran is home to the world’s largest Jewish community outside of Israel? If you didn’t, you’d be surprised to know that there are three types of Jew in the world: those who live in Israel; those who want to live in Israel, but can’t; and those who want their children to live in Israel.

Other misconceptions were bizarre.

Israel is, as one team noted, the most tribal society in the world. It has seven tribes, another team added helpfully.

Yet others were far more sinister.

It was asserted that ”the Israeli people are irrational” and want to kill people. Israelis cannot be trusted with their own democracy: their extremist government won’t apologise for the Mavi Marmara. Israel has no right to sovereignty, since it can’t survive without foreign aid – that’s why the Jewish Diaspora should be able to vote in Israel, to keep the place in check. This should work because – as we heard in another room – Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own countries anyway.

Anti-Israeli bigotry is one thing. Anti-Semitism is another.

In one particularly shocking case, a Russian team blamed “the Jews” for the Holocaust: apparently the Jews funded Hitler’s campaign and then ran off to the US, so they share responsibility for the Holocaust. The debaters in question later apologised: they didn’t mean that all Jews caused the Holocaust – only American Jews. If that doesn’t make sense to you, you’re not alone.

When members of the Israeli delegation told their Kosovar counterparts that they had stayed in Manchester for a few days before the tournament, their competitors responded with a comment about “rich Jews”. When the Israelis clarified that they had in fact stayed in a hostel, the response became: “stingy Jews”.

There is in much of the world an unhealthy obsession with Israel, and the debating world is no different: Israel found its way into virtually every debate – no matter what the motion was.

Video games make people violent: they’re the reason that Israeli soldiers are so aggressive in Gaza! The Muslim Brotherhood‘s biggest anxiety is not Al Qaeda in the Sinai or Hamas in Gaza, but Israel, which wants to conquer the whole of Egypt. Foreign aid budgets should be approved by referendum because governments cannot be trusted to allocate money responsibly: just look at how the US gives Israel foreign aid in order to oppress the Palestinians. China does not need fear international criticism of its support for North Korea: after all, Israel slaughters Palestinians on a daily basis, and nobody blames America. This was all heard by just onejudge, by the way, in a competition of more than 200 teams. None of these debates had anything to do with Israel – until the debaters decided that everything boils down to Israel in the end.

At last year’s championship in Belgrade, we learnt that Ehud Barak was the president of Syria, and that Israel is guilty of genocide in the West Bank, where it might consider dropping a nuclear bomb. Debating a demilitarised Palestinian state, one Israeli debater mentioned post-war Germany as an example of demilitarisation; she was met with the sardonic response that it was “curious” that the Israeli debaters should try to draw an analogy to Nazi Germany. Whatever that was supposed to mean.

The Israeli delegation react to these modern-day blood libels with a laugh, a shrug, a sigh – and then business as usual. The Israelis are used to it. They are used to being the subjects of baseless aspersions and comments that would be deeply hurtful, had they not developed a thick enough skin already to deal with it. Israelis have learnt to just roll their eyes and laugh. It is just so normal to hear people accusing Israel of anything and everything, or just getting their facts horribly wrong, that it ceased to shock long ago.

The organisers of the competition appointed a formidable team to deal with allegations of sexism, racism and other forms of abuse. The number of formal complaints from the Israeli delegation was zero. “Nobody wants to be the annoying child who is always complaining,” explains Noa Golan, a debater from Ben Gurion University. Moreover, Israelis are not sure that Europeans understand why certain remarks are so offensive. So it is better just to drop it and move on.

Blood libels aren’t news. Israel and the Jews are responsible for all the world’s ills? Ho-hum, ma nishtana? Life goes on.

American diplomatic missions around the world will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s iconic 'I have a dream’ speech, including an event at Jerusaelm’s American Center.

American diplomatic missions around the world will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s iconic 'I have a dream’ speech, including an event at Jerusaelm’s American Center.

By Alona Ferber | Aug. 26, 2013 | 12:21 PM

In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington.Photo by AP

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. never visited Israel, but on the 50th anniversary of his iconic “I have a dream” speech in Washington D.C., he will be here in spirit as the American Center in Jerusalem marks the anniversary, along with U.S. embassies around the world.

Coming after weeks of heavy violence in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon - two years into the outbreak of the popular Arab Spring uprisings which transformed the region - Dr. King’s message has great resonance, a U.S. embassy spokesperson said.

“In his landmark 1963 speech, Dr. King articulated a vision for a future in which all people would be treated with respect and dignity,” the spokesperson said. “There is no more important message for today’s Middle East.”

As part of the effort to globally commemorate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, when 250,000 Americans marched for racial equality and justice, the American Center will host a performance of jazz group the Lab Ensemble, graduates of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, interwoven with footage of Dr. King’s speech. “Music was a vital part of this event,” the spokesperson explained. Along with compositions written especially for the evening, the Lab Ensemble will play music by stars who performed that day, including Joan Baez and Odetta.

The event is “open to the public and anyone who is interested in celebrating the historic events of 50 years ago is welcome to attend,” the spokesperson said.

The U.S. State Department has lined up a number of other initiatives to mark the occasion in the United States and around the world. On Monday, a “global viewing party” of Dr. King’s speech, which the U.S. embassy expects dozens of diplomatic missions to take part in, will take place at 1 P.M. Jerusalem time. There is also a YouTube video made especially for the 50th anniversary of the speech, interspersed with clips of people from various countries telling the viewers their own dreams.

Later this year, in the first half of October, the State Department is organizing a webchat with the author of a three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr, Taylor Branch. The date has yet to be confirmed.

As peace talks kick off again with American mediation and much skepticism from the Israeli and Palestinian publics, Dr. King’s message is also relevant, the spokesperson said.

“The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is echoed in the call to action that President Obama gave to Israeli and Palestinian youth in his speech in March where he stated that, ‘Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.’”

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Jews airlifted from Yemen get the lay of the Holy Land

Jews airlifted from Yemen get the lay of the Holy Land

The 17 members of the Karny family covertly brought to Israel last week from Yemen and Argentina acclimate to life in a Be'er Sheva absorption center - and to finally being together.
By Judy Maltz

Among the few prized possessions the last remaining Jews of Yemen lugged along on their secret flight to Israel last week was a snazzy-looking tabun for baking flatbreads. This particular oven is made of metal, rather than the traditional clay, and has instructions printed in Arabic on its exterior.

Another kitchen essential they refused to part with is the special stone used by generations to mash pepper into skhug, the signature Yemeni hot sauce, already being put to good use in their new living space.

Barely a week after touching down at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the two Karny brothers, their wives and children seem quite at home here at the Ye’elim absorption center in Be'er Sheva, the capital of the Negev. On the small stove top in their kitchen, a dish of crushed tomatoes and spices is simmering away, its pungent aroma discernible from the other side of the building’s long corridor. For lack of counter space, a huge bag of mixed sweet and hot peppers, waiting to be chopped into their upcoming meals, lies smack in the center of the kitchen.

The 17 members of the Karny family, airlifted to Israel last week in a trans-continental Jewish Agency rescue operation, have just returned from an early morning trip to the Interior Ministry where they received their Israeli identification cards. Still a bit overwhelmed by events of recent days, they respond joyfully to news from a staffer that fans for their rooms have finally arrived.

“It’s even hotter here than in Yemen,” Haim Karny, 57, the elder of the two brothers, complains good-naturedly.

The past few days have been spent not only trying to familiarize themselves with this desert environment that’s new to them, but also with one another. It was exactly two years ago, in August 2011, that a group of Satmar Hasidim arrived in Yemen and persuaded the two brothers and their wives (who also happen to be sisters) to allow them to take their children to safer shores. After the children were denied entry into England, their original destination, they were flown to Argentina, where the local Satmar community took them in.

The Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic sects, oppose Zionism, and by extension, immigration to Israel. Over the past 20 years, they have whisked dozens of Jews out of Yemen and absorbed them into their own communities, most notably in Kiryas Joel, New York. The Jewish Agency, with its declared mission of promoting aliyah, does not view these activities favorably, to say the least.

Last week’s operation reunited the two branches of the Karny family: The older generation arrived on one flight to Israel from the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, and their children on another flight from Buenos Aires that touched down exactly 30 minutes later. In the two years that passed since their separation, Yehya, 45, the younger of the two Karny brothers, and his wife, Luluwa, had another child (“We got lonely,” he says), while their oldest daughter, Bracha, and her husband Shimon, had their first.

The younger generation of the family had reached out to the Jewish Agency more than a year ago, not long after they had relocated to Argentina, complaining of adjustment problems and requesting assistance to move to Israel. But according to Arielle Di Porto, the head of the agency department responsible for endangered Jewish communities around the world, it was not legally possible to bring them to Israel until their parents had arrived. “That’s why it was critical for us that the flight from Yemen land here first,” she explains.

The real impetus for the operation, however, was concern for the safety of the barely 100-strong community of Jews still left in Yemen amid growing threats from radical Islamist groups including Al-Qaida. These threats have intensified since the ousting of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Since 2009, about 150 Yemenite Jews have been brought to Israel, including the group last Wednesday. This particular airlift was organized as soon as the Karny brothers notified the Jewish Agency that they had sold all their property and were ready to get out.

Two years spent among the Satmar in Argentina have turned the Karny children into quite an oddity: Yemeni Jews fluent in Yiddish, not to mention Spanish. The girls wear the long skirts, button-down blouses and heavy stockings favored by Hasidic women -- a striking contrast to the long black robes and hijabs donned by their mothers.

The young boys wear the dark pants and white button-down shirts classic in the yeshiva world.

Shimon, the husband of Bracha, is the only member of the Argentine group who seems to have made a clean break. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a plaid shirt, he jokes around freely, but when asked to explain why the group decided to leave Argentina, he measures his words carefully. “The Satmar have different rules than us,” he says in fluent Hebrew. “We just weren’t cut out for life there or for the way they do things.”

On a lighter note, he points out that the Eastern European dishes they were served by the Satmar weren’t exactly to their taste. “And besides that, there’s no khat in Argentina, ” he says jokingly, referring to the plant Yemenis traditionally chew that is known for its stimulating effects.

In recent years, the Jews of Yemen have been subject to growing anti-Semitism, culminating in the December 2008 murder of the teacher Moshe Nahari and the May 2012 stabbing death of community leader Aaron Zindani.

“During the last Gaza War, we got text messages from some of the locals saying that if we didn’t get Israel to stop bombing Gaza, they would bomb us,” recounts Yahya Karny, a carpenter by training, who says that in recent months grenades were hurled at the family home, and he was almost kidnapped by local Islamists.

Things got so bad in recent years, adds his brother Haim, “that we were afraid to leave the house.”

The Karny clan joins almost 100 other Yemenis living today at the Ye’elim absorption center, the gateway to Israel for 420 immigrants from 35 different countries. Working closely with the Yemeni group is Yahya Marhabi, who immigrated to Israel from Sana’a in 2000.

Marhabi was among the first group of 30 Yemenis brought to Kiryas Joel by the Satmar in 1994. He fled on his own three years later, returning to Yemen, where he married and had two children before immigrating to Israel. “I didn’t like all the restrictions they put on us,” he says, explaining his decision to escape. “They wouldn’t even let us study English because they said it was the language of the Christians. Instead, we were forced to speak Yiddish.”

Most of his family is still in Yemen, living in a special guarded structure in Sana’a, and he looks forward to the day they will join him in Israel.

Meanwhile, he has his work cut out for him teaching the latest arrivals some of the basic rules of life in their new homeland. Rule No. 1: Do NOT light a taboun indoors.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Jerusalem Post editorial

Jerusalem Post
EDITORIAL - August 18, 2013

With relatively little fanfare, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 50th chartered flight landed in Israel from New York on Tuesday. Although every voyage of the nonprofit aliya organization is important, the half-century one was special.

Of the 331 North American olim on board the so-called “soldiers’ flight,” 125 came as “lone soldiers” set to serve in the IDF. The 63 men and 62 women aged 18 to 22 will be part of the Garin Tzabar program, with most of them hoping to be in elite combat units.

“Even after 50 charter aliya flights, the excitement and emotion we experience on board the plane is as inspiring and heartwarming as the very first flight,” NBN cofounder and executive director Rabbi Yehoshua Fass told The Jerusalem Post. “Looking back at scores of group and charter aliya flights over the past 11 years, it is humbling to observe the remarkable impact that these olim have on Israel.

“Whether it be the brave young men and women who come and volunteer in the IDF, the doctors helping solve Israel’s physician shortage, the pioneers moving to Israel’s North and South, the teachers coming to educate Israel’s younger generations, the medical professionals enhancing the level of medical care provided in Israel or the entrepreneurs impacting Israel economicallywith their innovative ideas.”

The soldiers’ flight goes to the essence of what Nefesh B’Nefesh (“Soul by Soul”) is all about. Fass came up with the concept after his 13-year-old cousin, Naftali Lanzkorn, was killed in a terrorist bombing at the Mifgash Hashalom gas station east of Kfar Saba on March 28, 2001.

Naftali’s murder left a void that spurred Fass to establish NBN together with philanthropist Tony Gelbart in 2002.

He came on aliya with his family on the organization’s first flight from the US, moving to Beit Shemesh.

Working together with the Interior Ministry, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, NBN revolutionized aliya from the US, Canada and Britain by cutting red tape and removing financial, professional and logistical obstacles that often stand in the way of potential olim.

Since its establishment in 2002, the organization has brought some 35,000 immigrants to Israel, maintaining a retention rate of 97 percent.

NBN olim contribute greatly to the social, economic and demographic welfare of Israeli society by serving in the IDF, settling in Israel’s cities and periphery, and boosting economic growth, while infusing the country with idealistic enthusiasm and optimism.

The numbers are staggering. NBN has helped in the aliya of 650 scientists and medical professionals, 415 physicians and psychologists, and 420 educators. Some 4,000 immigrants have served in the IDF, 3,000 have moved to the periphery, 680 have married and 4,200 babies have been produced.

They have formed a huge community in Israel with its own website ( and Facebook page.

“It is inspiring to see the trend of western aliya become increasingly prevalent among North American and British Jews, with so many families, children and young professionals choosing to make Israel their home,” said Fass. “As more of these olim make successful lives for themselves in Israel, we are noticing this is having a snowball effect on their friends, family and peers back home.”

This summer, a total of 2,500 olim will come on NBN flights. Former captive IDF tank gunner Gilad Schalit and Jerusalem Postreporter Danielle Ziri were among those invited to join the first flight last month, which carried 231 immigrants, including a record 106 children and 54 singles.

Ziri was struck by the overwhelming “optimism” among the new Israelis.
“Even those planning on joining combat units in the IDF didn’t seem worried at all,” she wrote. “Everyone was happy. They clapped each time the pilot made an announcement, even if he was simply notifying them of the sale of duty free items, and of course, as the plane’s wheels hit the runway at Ben-Gurion Airport.”
It is in this uplifting spirit that we extend a warm welcome to the newest NBN arrivals. May your optimism grow and spread, may your lives in Israel be happy, and may your contribution to the Jewish state be everlasting!--

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Israel and the Constancy of Change

Israel and the Constancy of Change

by Tal Becker

In our everyday discourse the belief that change is possible, that people's characters and attitudes can fluctuate with time, is an attribute usually associated with naïveté. The wise and seasoned among us know better.

What is astonishing is that the pull of determinism remains strong even when evidence of change is all around us. As parents, our children grow and change before our eyes, and yet at each stage of their development we can find it hard to imagine them transitioning to the next. We are often drawn to seeing our current job, or our family life, or our emotional state, as fixed in stone even if our own very life experience points to the contrary. When we look at the Middle East the same dynamic is often at play. In the last years we have watched the region undergo unprecedented change, and yet many find it hard to accept that more is yet to come. With each transition, many quickly persuade themselves that things have settled permanently into place.

Not too long ago Bashar Assad was considered the unquestioned and stable ruler of Syria. Today, the civil war that threatens his rule is seen by many as a tragic and fixed part of the landscape. In Egypt, few predicted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, fewer still its fall from power in such short order. Hardly anyone anticipated these changes. And yet, amazingly, there are still those who speak with conviction about the nature of the Middle East when the only thing that it seems possible to say with certainty is that we do not know what will come.

Our discourse and understanding of Israeli society can be similarly distorted by our pre-conceptions about the (im)possibility of change. In parts of the Jewish world the sense that Israel's democracy is imperiled is seen as a constant. But despite the insistence that "it was always thus" it is hard to deny the evidence that Israeli society has become more democratic and pluralistic with each passing decade.

We forget too that Israel's search for peace and security has known different phases. There have been times of utter despair, but also moments of justified hope; there have been times of more and of less security. The pollsters tell us that many in Israel have grown deeply skeptical about the prospects of peace, but in years to come this may be described as a period through which we passed, not a permanent state of being. After all, pollsters give us a glimpse of what people think today, but they tell us little about how they may change tomorrow.

This is not to say that everything changes all the time, that change happens quickly or that it necessarily occurs in a positive direction. Some features of our existence are deeply entrenched and exceedingly difficult to uproot. Hostility towards Israel is one of these features. But while the nature of Israel's challenges can be similar over time, the way we adapt and respond to them does not have to be.

Our resistance to embracing the unpredictability and frequency of change may come in part from the fact that there are elements in our environment that can appear immovable. But it also stems from a psychological need to feel in control, from a basic human yearning for stability. Perhaps also by discounting the possibility of change we can avoid responsibility for our role in directing events. Ultimately, though, permanence is an illusion. And we need to be aware of how our attraction to it can warp what we see, what we think, and the decisions we take.

What we must resist is the view that real change is impossible; that somehow Israel's present predicament is also its permanent one. This is a particularly dangerous illusion for it prevents us from asking the right questions. How does change happen? How can we identify the signals that it is coming? How can we shape events in our favor? And how do we influence hearts and minds? If we are trapped in the mindset that there is nothing new under the sun, we forfeit the capacity to be agents of change ourselves, and we hand it to others.

In our Jewish calendar, we have just entered the month of Elul: the period leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur where our focus is on Tshuva - on the opportunity to renew and re-create ourselves. A tradition in which the concept of Tshuva is so central, is a tradition which rejects determinism. It is a tradition which recognizes that being blind to the reality and possibility of change is immeasurably more dangerous and more impoverishing for our individual and collective existence, than is the fear and volatility associated with change itself.

Our Judaism, not just our lived experience, tells us to be conscious of the pitfalls of the chimera of permanence. It tells us to leave a space for the possibility of the presently unimaginable. It tells us that change is coming, the only question is whether we will be a part of it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

'One day we will reach Eretz Israel': The never-ending saga for Ethiopian Jews

'One day we will reach Eretz Israel': The never-ending saga for Ethiopian Jews

Every time immigration from Ethiopia seems to have reached an end in recent years, pressure from various quarters - both here and abroad - has reignited the whole process.

By Anshel Pfeffer

In four weeks’ time, on August 28, a grand ceremony is scheduled to take place at Ben-Gurion International Airport: The prime minister, president, chief rabbis, leaders of American Jewry and others will line up to greet “the last remnants of Ethiopian Jewry.” Two charter flights from Addis Ababa carrying the 400 remaining members of the Falashmura community who received permission to emigrate will land, and the ongoing efforts of three decades to bring over the Beta Israel community, at first, and subsequently the Falashmura, will be over.

But there has never been a tidy end to previous chapters of this whole saga, and there almost certainly won’t be one this time either. Four years ago, the Jewish Agency had ostensibly finished bringing over every last immigrant on the authorized list and closed its offices in Ethiopia, only for some of its people to be sent back two years later, when the government changed, and it decided to examine the cases of a new list of 8,200 Falashmura. Now an identical point has been reached: 6,300 of those on that list have been recognized as eligible, and by next month all will be in Israel. Operation Wings of a Dove is nearly over, and this time a clear message to those remaining behind is being sent that the door will not reopen.

The welfare and education programs for the Falashmura in the northern town of Gondar − which were originally operated by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry ‏(NACOEJ‏), and which, for the last two-and-a-half years, were run by the Jewish Agency − are to be terminated next month. Around 150 local employees, many of them Falashmura who were themselves not recognized as eligible for aliyah have received notice.

“It’s very important that we not create any illusions,” says the head of the Agency in Ethiopia, Asher Siyum. “We helped all those who were supposed eventually to reach Israel, and now our mission is over.”

But no matter what the Agency does, the Falashmura in Gondar have not lost hope that “we will one day reach Eretz Israel.” As many say, “It is all up to God.” And, despite their determination to finish the process, the government and the Agency are still keeping a few options open.

The Interior Ministry announced three weeks ago that it was setting up an appeals committee that would reexamine the status of “extraordinary” cases that were turned down. The Agency is leaving its office in Gondar open for now, with a skeleton staff, ostensibly to serve the trickle of Ethiopian immigrants who are eligible, unlike the Falashmura, under the Law of Return to continue to make aliyah.

The Joint Distribution Committee ‏(JDC‏), an international Jewish humanitarian organization, also has to decide when it will close down its clinic in Gondar. “The clinic serves those who are about to emigrate to Israel, and there is no reason to keep operating if there is no emigration,” says a senior JDC official. “But we have seen so many changes in Israeli government policy over the years that we are not in a hurry to close the clinic.”

The inconsistency in government policy vis-a-vis the Falashmura − descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity starting at the end of the 1800s, and who have been trying to return to the Jewish people for the last couple of decades − began during Operation Solomon in May 1991. At that time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided not to allow Falashmura on to the airlift, even though thousands of them had arrived in Addis Ababa alongside their Beta Israel “cousins.” In some cases, they were physically prevented from boarding the planes.

But after the successful conclusion of the operation that brought 14,310 people to Israel in 25 hours, the pressure increased: American-Jewish leaders and philanthropists joined with local rabbis, mainly of the national-religious right wing or politicians from Shas, all claiming that the Falashmura were Jews who must be allowed to come to Israel immediately. ‏(Their Jewishness, however, was not sufficient for the rabbis to forgo the demand that they undergo full conversion after arrival here‏). They were joined by part of the Ethiopian community already living in Israel, many of whom had Falashmura relations. The pressure did the work, and the governments, each in its turn, authorized new lists and quotas of Falashmura immigrants.

In July 2008, the entire number authorized four years earlier by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had arrived in Israel, and again the aliyah operation in Ethiopia was shut down. However, this was merely the starting point for another, better organized campaign. Prominent figures were enlisted, such as former Supreme Court President Judge Meir Shamgar, who became president of the Committee for Saving the Remnant of Ethiopian Jews, while from North America came the two Jewish legal stars Alan Dershowitz and Irving Cotler. The Olmert government refused to change its policy.

Among the steadfast opponents to more emigration were Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but a more amenable government was just around the corner: Benjamin Netanyahu was more open to persuasion ‏(or prone to pressure‏), and in November 2010, his government agreed to examine the new list prepared by NACOEJ and restart immigration for those who met the criteria set by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

“It isn’t over,” says a senior official in the Jewish Agency. “We are wrapping up the operation, but the pressure will continue and the government will have to decide yet again. Going by past experience, they will cave in and we will be back in Ethiopia again, where we started.”

I Have No Chief Rabbi

I Have No Chief Rabbi

By Yossi Klein Halevi

The two new chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, have promised that they will be the spiritual representatives of all Jewish Israelis. I can’t speak for my fellow Jewish Israelis, but I can unequivocally say to the two honorable rabbis: You don’t represent me. I have no chief rabbi.

Marked in recent years by shameless politicking, financial scandal and religious fundamentalism, the chief rabbinate has become a hilul Hashem, a desecration of God's Name, and of the good name of Judaism and the state of Israel. Almost immediately after his election as Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Lau delivered his first hilul Hashem, a racial slur reported in the media. The absurdity of xenophobic haredi rabbis representing the modern State of Israel ensures an ongoing clash of values and perceptions between the Israeli majority and its supposed spiritual leaders.

Polls confirm that, for growing numbers of Israelis, including many of us who are traditional Jews, the very institution of chief rabbi has become irrelevant. Worse: a chief rabbinate dominated by one stream of Judaism – and the most stringent version of that stream – is an affront to Zionism.

Zionism is the ideology of Jewish peoplehood, the move to reconstitute fragmented communities back into a people. The State created by Zionism must accommodate the varied religious streams and competing cultural values which we have brought home from our various wanderings. And for Israel to remain the spiritual focus of the Jewish people around the world, it needs to reflect Jewish diversity.

The ongoing denial of the right of liberal rabbis to officially preside over matters of personal status sends a devastating message of exclusion to the majority of Diaspora Jews.

This exclusion has practical consequences. It is intensifying the growing alienation toward Israel among many Diapora Jews. And that, in turn, poses a potential security threat to the Jewish State, undermining the motivation of American Jews to defend Israel.

One rationale for the creation of an Orthodox chief rabbinate was to preserve Jewish unity within the land of Israel. Granting one stream monopoly over matters of personal status, the argument went, ensured that Israeli Jews from across the spectrum would be able to continue marrying each other.

Perhaps the arrangement made a certain sense in the old Israel, where the overwhelming majority of citizens were halakhically Jewish. But the logic of that arrangement has since collapsed. The Orthodox rabbinate has presided over one of this generation’s greatest spiritual failures: the inability to incorporate into the Jewish people hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who aren’t halakhically Jewish. By insisting that only those willing to become strictly Orthodox would be eligible for conversion, the chief rabbinate has placed the most uncompromising interpretation of halakhah over Jewish unity.
A handful of courageous Orthodox rabbis have challenged that approach, but they have been marginalized. The result is a threat to the intactness of the Jewish people. The children of rabbis Lau and Yosef will probably not fall in love with a Russian Israeli of questionable Jewish status, but that is hardly true for the children of mainstream Israelis. In the current situation, then, the official rabbinate endangers the Jewish continuity of many Israeli families.

Some advocates of religious pluralism greeted the election of Lau and Yosef as a hidden blessing. Perhaps, they argued, that if the moderate candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Stav, had been elected instead of Lau, his modest changes might have deflected growing resentment against the chief rabbinate and restored public support for an archaic institution.

That kind of cynical, Leninist-style argument – that the worse things get, the better for the revolution – is unworthy. The health of Israeli society depends on empowering the moderate elements within each camp. In the often painful process of learning to live together again as a sovereign people, we need, when possible, to spare ourselves traumatic ruptures. Moderates within the religious Zionist community are potential allies for those Israelis beginning to embrace Judaism on their own, non-Othodox terms.

For the next 10 years – the term alloted a chief rabbi – we will live with the ongoing frustration and embarrassment of the most exclusionary sector of the Jewish people speaking in the name of Judaism and the state of Israel.

In the end, though, the future of religious pluralism will be determined outside the reach of establishment faith – on the spiritual periphery, where true religious change historically occurs.

The change is already happening. In recent years thousands of secular Israelis – more accurately described as post-secular – have begun creating new expressions of Judaism. Egalitarian prayer groups, drawing on Israeli poetry and song, as well as on traditional prayer, are emerging around the country. Perhaps the msot successful of those efforts is Beit Tefilah Yisraeli (Israeli House of Prayer), which meets in the summer months at the Tel Aviv Port. Hundreds gather every Friday night to welcome the Shabbat with prayer and song. Significantly, the Tel Aviv municipality has endorsed – and funded – the outdoor synagogue. Municipality-sponsored banners hanging at the Port urge passersby to join the services. Other municipalities are now funding liberal synagogues, too.

Change may even be imminent at the highest state level. The government appears committed to implementing the Sharansky Plan – devised by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky – which would create a space for egalitarian prayer along a stretch of the Western Wall near the archeology garden.That would mark the first time that the State of Israel officially sponsors a liberal synagogue – and at the religious site most beloved by Jews today.

In fact, religious pluralism has long been part of the educational system, where schools sponsored by the Conservative and Reform movements are fully recognized and funded. That revolutionary change was quietly implemented by the late Orthodox education minister, Zevulun Hammer, leader of the old National Religious Party. Hammer understood that allowing a measure of religious pluralism was healthier for Israeli society than maintaining a secular-Orthodox divide that left little room for varieties of Jewish identity. Hammer's visionary policy offers compelling proof that significant parts of the religious Zionist community are prepared, under certain conditions, to side with religious pluralists against fundamentalists.

As usual in the state of the Jews, paradoxical trends are happening simultaneously. Even as fundamentalism is entrenched in one part of Israel, pluralism is rising elsewhere. Rather than despair over fundamentalist victories, pluralists need to focus on deepening the spiritual vitality of the new forms of Israeli Judaism. And one day we may discover that the balance of religious authority has quietly shifted, and the revolution has already happened.