Out Loud

  • Rabbi Amar is wrong. Now what?

    07 September 2012

    by Rabbi Seth Winberg, Assistant Director of the University of Michigan Hillel

    Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Shlomo Amar says that non-Orthodox rabbis are “destroyers who have already brought terrible and horrific destruction on the Jewish People in the Diaspora.” Rabbi Amar issued his letter last month to protest Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s order for state funding of 15 non-Orthodox rabbis.

    Thousands of Orthodox rabbis already hold official positions within the Israeli Rabbinate; they receive state funding for their salaries. Rabbi Amar’s letter enraged plenty of Jewish leaders outside Israel, but almost no Orthodox rabbis outside Israel denounced the Chief Rabbi’s intolerant views. I am an Orthodox rabbi and I think Rabbi Amar is wrong. Other rabbis should think so too.

    After Rabbi Amar’s statement, MKs from haredi and National Religious parties — including Ya’akov Margi, Yisrael Eichler, Moshe Gafni, and Uri Ariel — called non-Orthodox Jews “unnatural manifestations that have proven themselves a disaster” and “clowns for whom Judaism is a mockery.” These MKs show that the problem is worse than just a chief rabbi’s disdain for non-Orthodox Jews. Some very prominent religious and political leaders in Israel do not value religious freedom for Jews.

    Reform and Conservative rabbis are understandably offended and upset. They have been speaking about Rabbi Amar’s letter in their synagogues and on websites. Their surprise is also a little surprising. For decades haredi leaders have denounced non-Orthodox Judaism and opposed democratic values such as religious freedom. The late Rabbi Elazar Shach, recognized as the leader of most of the haredi community until his death in 2001, also denounced non-Orthodox Jews. (He had nasty things to say about Modern Orthodoxy, religious Zionism, and Chabad, too.) And he opposed democracy, calling it “a disaster” and “a cancer.” Rabbi Shach makes Rabbi Amar seem rather tame.

    Some Orthodox rabbis in Canada publicly rejected Rabbi Amar’s intolerance. Rabbi Dr. Martin Lockshin of Toronto and Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal, both Orthodox rabbis, said that Reform and Conservative rabbis provide potential avenues to develop Jewish identity for those not interested in Orthodoxy.

    Why aren’t more Orthodox rabbis speaking up? Some probably feel that Rabbi Amar’s sentiments are spot on, but not something to be said in public. Many, like me, feel that Rabbi Amar’s sentiments are way off, but assume people know that already. It should go without saying that open-minded Orthodox rabbis disagree with closed-mindedness. (Last week, Rabbi Amar attributed earthquakes to attempts to draft some haredi men for national service. Do I have to say on the record that I do not share this view, even though I too am an Orthodox rabbi?)

    Yet, American Orthodox rabbis have two good reasons to speak up. First, they are uniquely positioned for bridge building between haredi and non-Orthodox Jews. Second, American Orthodox rabbis committed to religious tolerance and democratic values like religious freedom can help Israelis — the majority of whom want religious freedom — to realize those same values and enact policies to safeguard those values. Israel’s critical alliances with the US and Europe are based on Israel’s being a democracy.

    It is tempting to sit back and tell ourselves that Rabbi Amar’s hatred of Jews who aren’t like Rabbi Amar will eventually make his office irrelevant in Israel and around the world. Or that Israelis bear most of the responsibility for Israel’s democracy. But American Jews — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — should be more helpful. We, their rabbis, should say loudly that Israel’s democracy depends on religious freedom for all Jews.

    This article was originally published in The Times of Israel and is reposted with the author's permission.

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  • Victory of ultra-nationalists in Israel may estrange U.S. Jews

    07 September 2012

    More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. U.S. Jews must find ways to support progressive voices in Israel whose values we share as they fight to take back their country.

    By Daniel Sokatch | Jan.14, 2013

    For most of the past 64 years, Israeli and American Jewry enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. Both sides gained a great deal from the arrangement. Israelis got a fierce and loyal funder and defender - one that happened to be an important constituency in the most powerful country in the world. American Jews got a sense of mission and purpose, and, through advocacy and philanthropy, got to participate in the epic Jewish national project. Even if we didn't really understand each other quite as well as we thought we did, the relationship between our two communities was predicated on shared values, a bedrock commitment to an unshakable American-Israeli alliance, and a vision of Israel that was both a Jewish homeland and a liberal democracy.

    But this relationship is changing. More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. On some of the biggest issues, it is not clear how much we still have in common. The recent election in the United States and the coming election in Israel are a case in point.

    Two months ago, about 70% of the American Jewish community voted to reelect Barack Obama. This, despite an unprecedented multi-million dollar campaign by the Sheldon Adelson-funded Republican Jewish Coalition, Bill Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel and other groups attempting to peel away Jewish votes from the president and the Democrats by arguing that Mr. Obama was bad for Israel. The attempt to present the election as a referendum on the president's pro-Israel bona fides flopped, but not before it furthered the perception that supporters and surrogates of the Israeli government were choosing sides and trying to influence an American election. This didn't go over so well with American Jews.

    That this effort failed so miserably came as a surprise to nobody, other than Mr. Adelson and the neo-cons. American Jews are liberal, and have been for a very long time. In fact, you have to go back to 1920 to find an election in which more Jews voted for the Republican candidate for president than the Democratic one, and then only because the Jewish vote split between the Democrat (19%) and the Socialist (38%). What's more, most American Jews don't disapprove of President Obama's position on Israel. In fact, a majority supports the president's handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and strongly supports a two-state solution.

    But while most American Jews report that they feel close to Israel, only a tiny percentage of them actually base their vote on it. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish voters cite the same priorities as other Democrats: the economy, health care, education. These American Jews care about Israel, but it is only one of many things they care about. And when they - the vast majority of the Jewish American community - perceive that Israel is acting in ways antithetical to what they assumed were shared values, the danger is that they will walk away.

    Which brings us to the Israeli elections. If the polls are correct, on January 22, Israelis will elect the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It is likely to be even more hardline than the current coalition, on whose watch Israel's relations with the Obama administration soured over disagreements over Iran, Israel's expanding settlement enterprise, and the moribund peace process. This coalition presided over an Israel in which Knesset members from the ruling parties pushed forward a raft of patently anti-democratic legislation, women fought attempts by some in the ultra-Orthodox community to exclude them from the public sphere, and government ministers vowed to make the lives of African refugees in Israel miserable and expel them. Criticism of these policies from Israelis was all too often characterized as treason. Criticism from abroad was merely proof that -the world is against us." None of this was lost on worried American Jews.

    The coming coalition is likely to redefine -right wing" in Israel. The authors of the most anti-democratic legislation in Israeli history are now positioned high on the Likud-Beitenu list, and we are sure to see a renewed attempt to restrict judicial independence, the media and civil society, especially the human rights community. The passage of the Boycott Law in the last Knesset is a worrisome harbinger of more attempts to limit freedom of speech and conscience. The Likudniks who guarded the flame of their party's traditional commitment to individual rights and democracy have been tossed off the party list, replaced by extremists and champions of the settlement movement. New parties, like Habayit Hayehudi, headed by opponents of the two-state solution who openly advocate annexation of the occupied territories, are gathering strength and will likely exert strong influence on the new government's agenda.

    I don't think that many Israelis understand just how badly all of this damages Israel's international standing, particularly its relationship with the overwhelming liberal Jewish community of a country that venerates its Bill of Rights. I'm sure many of the talkbacks to this article will say that they could not care less. But righteous indignation and name-calling are not substitutes for the advantages that come with a strong relationship with the American Jewish community. And that relationship is at risk. Luckily, there are reasons for hope. Millions of Israelis are deeply committed to Israel's founding democratic and Jewish values, and are concerned about the direction in which their country is headed. The same polls that predict a victory for the hard right also show significant, albeit divided, strength for a center-left bloc, and many still-undecided voters. An invigorated opposition championing democracy, peace, human rights and social justice could provide a critical check and an alternative direction for Israel.

    On the issues, recent polls show that Israel, much like America, is closely divided, with the values and policies of the left at least as popular as those of the right. Progressive political parties may be less popular in today's post-Oslo Israel; progressive ideas are not.

    This Israel still shares enormous common ground with the American Jewish community. Without engaging in the blatant electioneering shenanigans that damaged Israel's image during the American election, we must find ways to support those whose values we share as they fight to take back their country. And it is up to the leaders of the American Jewish community to speak truth to the new ultra-nationalist extremists of Israel, to tell them that the path they are on is damaging Israel and endangering its relationship with the American Jewish community that has always stood with it. It will be a difficult task. But that is what true friends are for.

    Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.

    This article was originally published by Haaretz.com.

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  • Coalition Tag Meir

    20 June 2012

    June 18, 2012

    Tag Meir -- a coalition of Israeli organizations convened by NIF -- sent the following letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    The Prime Minister
    MK Benjamin Netanyahu

    Dear Mr. Netanyahu,

    Re: Price Tag – A Strategic Threat

    We -- the members of the Coalition Tag Meir (Bright Tag) comprising non-profit organizations from all sections of Israeli society working to counter Jewish terrorism and violence against Palestinians, Israelis working for human rights and even IDF officers -- turn to you concerning the Price Tag attacks that have, to our distress, been continuing for over two years.

    Following the decisions of the Government, the Knesset and the High Court concerning Givat Ha'Ulpana, we believe that there is a serious threat of Price Tag attacks erupting in the West Bank and within Israel itself. Warnings of such attacks have been received in the last few days in the Jewish-Arab settlement of Neve Shalom and in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem.

    During the past two years, a dozen mosques have been desecrated, hundreds of car tires have been punctured, olive trees uprooted, shops and bazaars vandalized, threatening graffiti daubed on the homes of high ranking IDF personnel and IDF bases have even been penetrated and attacked.

    Mr. Prime Minister: Past experience has proven that Price Tag activists, bolstered by "Halachic" manuals and "learned" articles, will continue to attack innocent victims to revenge the withdrawal from settlements and homes. Warning of Price Tag attacks has been given: the writing is on the wall.

    Sir, we urge you now, not to surrender to these threats and to Jewish terror and vandalism. We are horrified at the ease at which these attacks have taken place in the past and we urge you to order increased security around the Palestinian settlements most at risk, to guard the mosques in these settlements, to increase the number of police and border police patrols in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the inter-denominational institutions. We ask you to increase the security surrounding officials of the Chief Public Prosecutor and high ranking IDF officers who will bear the responsibility for evacuating Givat Ha'Ulpana and the IDF bases in the vicinity.

    We believe that the actions of "Tag Machir" present a strategic threat to the moral fiber of the State of Israel to its Jewish character, to its security and its social complexity and it is your responsibility to act with determination to remove this threat from our midst.


    The Action Committee of the Kibbutz Movement, Bina – The Secular Yeshiva, Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, The Masorti Movement, Yeshivat Talpiot, Elijah Interfaith Institute, The Shittim Institute, Oz VeShalom Netivot Shalom, Realistic Zionist Movement, One Voice, Rabbis for Human Rights, Shatil, Combatants for Peace, Yod Bet B'Heshvan

    c.c.: Minster for Defense, MK Ehud Barak
    Minster for Internal Affairs, MK Yitzhak Aharonovitz
    Police Commissioner, Yohanan Danino
    Attorney General, Adv. Yehuda Weinstein
    State Attorney, Adv. Moshe Lador

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  • Sermon for Shavuot Day Two 5772 - 5/28/12

    06 August 2012

    by Rabbi Gordon Tucker

    Several months ago, in another context, I told you the following story, which I heard from Leonard Fein. I tell it again now, for a different, and very specific, reason:

    Ahmad Babikar Abdel Aziz, who is now 30 years old, is originally from a small town in north Darfur, a town lacking in education, health care and security. When he finished high school in Kinanah, a week-long journey from his home, he was admitted to Alzaeim University, in Khartoum, as a student of urban planning. But the war in Darfur broke out during his second year of study, in 2003, and he set out to return to his family’s home.

    While making his way home, he was arrested and then imprisoned – and tortured – for four months. When he was at last released, he tried to contact his family. He learned that his mother and brother were in a refugee camp in Darfur and that his father had most likely made it to Chad.

    Mr. Abdel Aziz has been in Israel for three years now. He lectures on refugee rights, and helps new arrivals from Darfur become familiar with the availability of health services (not from public agencies but from volunteer doctors), with banking practices, and with prospects of their return to Sudan. He is also a volunteer translator, assisting patients at a refugee clinic at Tel Aviv’s Central bus station by translating their stories into Hebrew so that the doctors will understand them. (He is fluent in English, Hebrew and Arabic.) To make ends meet, more or less, he works when he can as a hotel cleaner, as a dishwasher in restaurants, as a welder for a construction company.

    How did this young man end up in Israel? The time had come for him to flee Sudan. It was far too expensive to be smuggled into Europe. With the $600 he’d saved up, he chose to get to Israel.

    He went by boat to Aswan and found a Bedouin smuggler who connected him to a group traveling to Israel via the Sinai desert. After crossing the desert surreptitiously, they raced for the fence separating Egypt and Israel. Egyptian soldiers tried to gun them down. Ahmad and his comrades crossed the fence and found the nearby Israeli military camp, thence to a nearby prison facility where they were held for 54 days, and finally released to Beersheba, from which Ahmad made his way to Tel Aviv.

    I also want to add to this very contemporary story another tale from a long time ago. We will read it later this morning when we turn, as we do each year on the second day of Shavuot, to the Scroll of Ruth. The end of chapter 1 of this scroll tells us that Ruth – a foreigner, and from the reviled nation of Moab – arrived in Judea, with no assets and almost without family, at the beginning of the spring harvest. And then immediately, at the beginning of chapter 2, Ruth announces to her mother-in-law Naomi her plan to alleviate their poverty and hunger by going to glean behind the harvesters in a field belonging to some Judean stranger. What this means is clear and very striking: it is that one of the very first things that Ruth learned about the culture of Judea was that this was a place where even a foreigner would be cared for if she was destitute and without hope. She would have the rights that any Judean pauper would have. And that right was the key to Ruth’s integration into a Judea that became stronger because of the family that she created, a family that produced David, the most successful Israelite king of all time.

    The importance of these current and ancient narratives is what they tell us about how to view what happened in the Hatikvah and Shapira neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv this past Wednesday:

    Some background, for those who have not been following the events: There are now about 60,000 African refugees living in Israel, the great majority of them in the impoverished neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv. Most of them come from Eritrea, with a significant minority from Sudan and South Sudan. These are almost all people who are unable to go home, because of unspeakable horrors that they have witnessed and continue to fear in their countries of birth. They have not only paid nearly their last pennies to Bedouin smugglers to arrive in Israel, but many of them have also endured abuse, torture, and rape along the way. And now they are in the Jewish state. Without official refugee status, without legal work opportunities, many without any work at all. Without much hope, other than that they are in a country that they know is the state of a people that has known what it is to be a refugee, what it is to be pursued, what it is to be abused and tortured and to fear for one’s life.

    Last Wednesday, there was a demonstration in South Tel Aviv, involving about 1000 members of the permanent population of those already poor and underprivileged communities. They were protesting the enormous presence in their neighborhoods of these Africans who now constitute competition for jobs and for customers of the small business shops. And they were expressing fear about what they saw as rising crime rates in their streets because of this African presence. Before too long, the demonstration turned ugly. Very ugly. Cars with Africans in them were surrounded and their windows smashed. Racist epithets were hurled. T-shirts with the inscription “Mavet La-Sudanim” (“Death to the Sudanese) were in evidence. Reporters covering the events were threatened and had to run for their safety. There was widespread looting of shops owned by Africans.

    One thing is very clear. While there is certainly anger and fear among the South Tel Aviv residents, one of the biggest factors that turned the demonstration into a race riot was the fact that certain Members of Knesset (MKs) came from Jerusalem to speak at this rally in ways that crossed many lines of civility and responsibility. MK Miri Regev told the crowd in a shrill tone that the African population in Israel is “a cancer in our body”. She exhorted the crowd to demand that they be “sent back to Sudan”. Other speakers incited the crowd of demonstrators by telling them that they will “have to decide whether you want to live in Israel or Sudan.”

    In other government offices, the rhetoric has not been any better. Eli Yishai, the head of the Shas Party and the government’s Minister of Internal Affairs, has said that if only he were given the authorization to do so, he would “lock up all 60,000 of them, and eventually send them all packing.” Even if this were a morally acceptable thing to do, where exactly would he lock up 60,000 “prisoners”? An example of pure, opportunistic political demagoguery. But it was hardly surprising, given the tenor in South Tel Aviv, that there were chants in the crowd of “Ten Le-Yishai Le-Natzeah” (“Let Yishai prevail”). It’s gotten bad enough that graffiti has shown up in Tel Aviv – including at the offices of a lawyer who represents refugees – saying “Kushim Ha-Hutzah” (“Kushim get out”). “Kushim” in classical Hebrew meant “Ethiopians”, but in modern Hebrew they are called “Etiopim”. “Kushim” now translates into an English word that, when uttered in the U.S. in the course of an assault, automatically makes it into a bias crime. I need not elaborate further, except to say this: it is always painful to hear prejudicial and racist language, but it is excruciating – or should be – to hear such ugly and violent words uttered in Hebrew.

    You usually have to go to certain elements of the foreign press, and especially the European press, to find the worst condemnations of events in Israel. But this time, you had to go no further than Israel Defense Forces Radio. For that Israeli army media outlet described what happened in South Tel Aviv on Wednesday as “a pogrom”.

    Now here are some of the things that I believe we should take away from this:

    (1) We should begin by taking pride in the fact that Israel is a place to which oppressed and desperate people want to go. Mr. Abdel Azziz, with whose story I began, said the following, when asked why he risked his life to get to Israel: “I knew that the Jewish people were also under extermination in Germany and so I thought that if the Israelis will not help me, then no one would help me.” But that pride has to be bolstered by a reality that delivers on some of the promise that draws people without hope to come to us.

    (2) Prime Minister Netanyahu did indeed make a statement that the actions of the mob on Wednesday were unacceptable. That is commendable. But given how the situation has been festering with no government action, it was too late, and it was without a doubt too little. The PM has gone on record as describing the African refugee presence as raising concerns about both security and “the Jewish character of Israel.” Jewish character??? How narrow a definition do we now have of “Jewish character”? Is it only a matter of what the percentage of Jews is in the population? Is it of a Jewish character to be sending refugees home? Here was one of the worst statements from an MK who whipped up the demonstration on Wednesday. Danny Danon, from the PM’s Likud Party, said that he had been in touch with the President of Sudan, who told him – “no problem, send them all back home to us. We’ll be glad to have them.” Imagine that. Imagine that Franklin Roosevelt had said of the tens of thousands of German Jews who came to the U.S. in the 1930s, “I’ve spoken to the Chancellor of Germany, and he said he’ll be glad to take them in, and we should just send them all home.” Jewish character of the state? Eikh Naf’lu Gibborim (How the Mighty have Fallen)!

    (3) Here was another placard seen at Wednesday’s rally. It said: “Bibi: It’s not the Iranians I fear.” This is a revealing protest line that expresses a suspicion about the government from its own citizens: that although the threat from Iran is not fabricated – it’s real of course – nevertheless, the exclusive and obsessive focus on it is a way for the government to avoid having to do anything for deteriorating social and economic conditions for the underprivileged. In particular, it may absolve the government from taking steps on behalf of the residents of Hatikvah and Shapira, or of the Africans, that will upset the coalition or require the kinds of steps that could endanger reelection.

    (4) This is, in other words, a classic pitting of one impoverished, underserved and underprivileged group against another. Despite what today’s rhetoric may suggest, Hatikvah was not a beautiful safe neighborhood before the Africans arrived. There was crime of all kinds. And it has been, besides, the center of a sex-slave industry about which way too little has been done over the years. But now there is a scapegoat that can divert attention away from the systemic problem. “It’s the Africans’ fault”. And now that there’s a scapegoat, the next thing you know, they’re being pursued and dehumanized, insulted and beaten, looted, with thoughts of sending them back to uncertain life, and in many cases, certain death.

    (5) Governments all over the globe indulge in denial and inaction by letting two desperate groups go at each other. But is this what one expects of a state with a “Jewish character”? Think of the symbolism: Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently sold his apartment in Akirov Towers for almost $8 million (not shekels). [Hint: he was not moving to a more modest place]. And yet nothing is done about the gnawing gap in wealth that turns people into pursuers.

    (6) The New Israel Fund is among the organizations actually trying to do something constructive and long-lasting to address this and other social justice problems. Not to treat an entire population like criminals (even though individuals in that population do commit criminal acts), but to recognize that something must de done before it is too late. And what does the NIF get for its efforts on behalf of the security and real Jewish character of the State? You may get the same e-mails I get from self-appointed zealots for “correct” Zionism in advance of next week’s Celebrate Israel Parade. The NIF and other groups are vilified as “enemies of Israel” unworthy of marching in support of Israel. They are the enemies of Israel, not the MKs who incite riots! As Rabbi Joshua’s son is reported in the Talmud to have said: “Olam Hafukh Ra’iti” (“I have seen a topsy-turvy world”).

    I want to share with you my translation of a declaration that was put out immediately after the riot, on Thursday morning, by the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and the Masorti Movement, our brothers and sisters, who are among those who worry deeply and with activism about the Jewish character of Israel. Here is the text as published in Israel:

    In only three instances does the Torah command us to love. Two out of those three are commands to love people. It is difficult to command a person to love; and it is more difficult still to bring yourself to love someone only because you were commanded to do so. All the more so if the subject is a stranger in the land, a foreigner with strange ways, distant and segregated from us. But it is precisely because the commandment to love the stranger is so difficult, that the Torah was constrained to mention it.

    Values are tested in tough conditions. It is easy to be tolerant in a utopian setting. It is far more difficult when reality is piercing, congested, and sweaty, and when it pounds you in the chest before it can be taken in by the mind.

    The challenge posed by illegal immigrants and migrant workers who have concentrated themselves in recent years in the south of Tel Aviv is one of the most complex problems that the government of Israel must struggle with. The problem was neglected, and as a result, the character of the neighborhoods in questions has changed to the point of being unrecognizable. But distress has no color. Crime and violence, which always increase when distress peaks, have made inroads into the streets, and have turned the lives of residents – veterans, migrants, and illegals alike – into lives devoid of hope, at the very foot of a volcano.

    The volcano has now erupted. Its boiling core pierced the streets of Tel Aviv on Wednesday with a dark rain of racism. When mobs range through the streets, rioting, smashing, looting, beating, and injuring – it is our obligation to stand beside the pursued. When leaders give fiery and incendiary speeches, we must remind everyone that we have been there ourselves. More than once. For endless generations we have been objects of incitement. We were the targets of the inciters and the rioters. Throughout history, when a person ran for his or her life from the mob, in the majority of cases that person was a Jew.

    In the name of our fathers’ and mothers’ tradition, in the name of the strangers in the Land of Egypt and refugees in wastelands everywhere, in the name of those of our nation and those of other nations who have fled deep abysses and migrated or entered other places illegally out of a hope for a better future, in the name of the morality of the prophets of Israel and in the name of Jewish law – we will not let racism win out. Even as we struggle to maintain the Jewish and democratic character of our state, we are forbidden to lose either our conscience or our memory.

    “You know the feelings of the stranger; for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)

    Recall the words on the placard: “It’s not the Iranians I fear.” More precisely, it should have said “it’s not just the Iranians I fear.” Indeed, Israel does not have a special responsibility to absorb every refugee from Africa or from elsewhere in the world. Israel has a right to tighten its borders and to demand of the UN that more be done to reduce the number of refugees, and to distribute the burden of caring for those who must flee in a more equitable way. But we are talking now about those who have already reached Israeli soil, many of whom have small children and have had children born in Israel. Yes, the minority of the Africans who are criminals, and the criminals among the rioters, should be handled the way that all criminals are handled, without stigmatizing entire populations. But the majority on both sides, who all need economic and physical security, cannot be wished away. The Jews of South Tel Aviv cannot be wished away, because Israel is a Zionist state; and the refugees cannot be wished away because Israel is a Jewish state, and Jewish character means something more than what the population data reveal. But most of all, the government must do what governments are elected to do: face problems and use their resources to solve them, not find pretexts for sweeping them under the rug until the next election and the inevitable horse-trading to form a coalition. This government actually now has an unprecedented 94 votes in the Knesset. What will the government’s excuse be for inaction now?

    Ruth, the grandmother of David, was a desperate immigrant. We know from Boaz’s warning to his employees not to molest her, that she otherwise could have been expected to be subject to violence. But the laws and Jewish character of ancient Judea protected her, and guaranteed her basic human rights. It is true that she was one Moabite, not 60,000. But even 60,000 refugees, if they are not passively allowed to gravitate to the community least able to care for them, constitute barely one percent of the Jewish population of Israel. Can modern Israel truly not find ways to protect and absorb them (especially since most will want to go home when it is safe to do so), and thus display at least as much Jewish character as ancient Judea?

    Here are two things to do: (a) don’t let anyone in your presence define “true Zionist” or being “pro-Israel” in a way that focuses solely on physical survival, and doesn’t include living up to the values, promises, and commitments that have always constituted “the Jewish character”. Challenge them on this; and (b) don’t let any of the official representatives of the Israeli government – who appear so often in our communities – speak at any event without having to answer at least one question about what is going to be done the Israeli underprivileged and for refugees, who look to us for their hope in life. Israeli officials should not automatically be suspected of not caring, but they will care a great deal more if they know that we care and that we are watching.

    This is obviously not a typical “Yizkor sermon”. Except for this one central point: When, in a few moments, we ask God to remember our departed, our martyrs, and our misfortunes and tragedies, both personal and national, we should remember that whatever we ask of God we must be willing to do ourselves, to the best of our human ability. That is one of the things Judaism has tried to teach the world. And this becomes especially important when we are looked to as the one hope of those who, we should always remember, have their own martyrs, their own destructions, and their own people and loved ones whom they mourn and remember.

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  • From Hope to Fear

    07 June 2012 by Stephen Slater

    I met George Kulang in 2007, he had heard of the plight of Sudanese refugees fleeing first from genocide, and then racism and state sanctioned murder in Egypt. Like myself, he had arrived recently in Jerusalem. I was part of a group of student activists from Hebrew University, where I was studying for my Masters in ancient Jewish history.

    George stands a head taller than most but weighs far less. Scars mark his face from ritual cuttings done in his tribe. But he looked at me with gentle eyes, and he said, “When I came across the border, I was tired and thirsty. I walked for a long time. Then I saw an Israeli flag, and I thought to myself, I must walk to that flag, because the Israelis are good, they have democracy, they will not turn us away. When I came to the flag, I could see that it was a military base. I walked up to the gate and I called out to be let in. No one answered. I called again. No one answered. Then I went to a nearby tree and sat down. A little while later, a man dressed in a soldier’s uniform came out and gave me a jug of water and a piece of bread. He gave them to me, and he said, ‘Do you know where you are?’ I said, ‘I am in Israel.’ He said, ‘Why are you here? I told him. He said, ‘You can’t stay here.’ I said, ‘I can’t go back’.”

    In many ways this exchange captures the relationship between my Sudanese friends and the state of Israel.

    When I asked George what he wanted to do with his time in Israel, he looked at me and replied confidently, “I want to read the Bible in Hebrew.” George is a Christian from the South of Sudan, so the Hebrew Bible is his holy book. Though he could read it in his native Dinka, he wanted to read it in the language in which it was written. This man, who had literally walked out of Africa and across the Sinai, wanted nothing more than to learn the language of his holy text. I too had come to study in Israel in order to learn to read the Hebrew Bible, and was by then teaching it to American and European students. So I agreed to teach him Hebrew. He learned quickly. Due to his knowledge of Arabic, he found many cognate words. “Learning Hebrew is easy,” he once told me with a broad smile. We found a scholarship for him to come to a Hebrew Ulpan. Then, after working for over a year, he had saved up enough money to pay for Ulpan fees on his own. He worked below minimum wage while paying rent and taking care of himself. And every evening he studied. When I asked him what he would do upon his return to Sudan, he said, “I will teach my people Hebrew.” George has since returned to Sudan, but he has not been able to find a job. His country teeters once again on the brink of war with the Sudanese government. Many times while working with George, I was overcome by his hope. His story is filled with many crushing experiences. Though he averted his face to tell me this, his wife and children were killed when the Janjaweed raided his village. That is when he walked out of Sudan. He experienced torture in Egypt, so he walked across the Sinai. He sat in an Israeli jail for months. But every time I spoke to this tall, soft spoken man, I heard hope spring anew.

    These noble and proud Sudanese people now live in fear again. After the anti-migrant riot in Tel Aviv I called a leader of the Sudanese community in Israel to ask him how they were doing. He said, “It has become dangerous for the community, so that we can’t even go out at night. I called one of my friends yesterday, and I said, ‘I have to tell you, make sure you go on the good side of the street. Don’t go in corners.’ My friend responded, ‘Thank you for telling me, But I already know. I didn’t go out from morning to night.’ He added, ‘Visas have been cancelled three months ago, so they are not able to work.” My friend had been working in a hotel before his visa was taken away. Voices for Sudan, a US based Sudanese advocacy group, claims that many Sudanese are now facing starvation in Israel.

    I asked my friend if he feels safe in Israel today. He answered, “I don’t feel safe. I am concerned for my life. You don’t know when you will be taken by the police, arrested and deported. You don’t know how long it will be. We’re living in an uncertain future. We are living in fear. We might be attacked in the street.” To illustrate the point, he went on to tell me, “I have another friend who was beaten up by migration police, they broke his arm, drove him around for a long time, then dropped him on the street. He was lucky to find an American doctor. He almost died. His shoulder is in pain.”

    When I heard all this I told him, “You know this is hard for American Jews to hear.” He responded, “I know it is hard for you to hear. But southern Sudanese find it hard to believe too. When we had never come to Israel, and someone said this or that bad about Israel, we would have fought to say, it is wrong, Israel would never do that. I tell you my friend, the South Sudanese people believe in Israel.”

    On May 24th, at a political rally in South Tel Aviv, politicians egged on a crowd with sayings like, “Sudan is not here.” Soon anti-African violence broke out; migrants were chased through the streets, their property destroyed as they fled. On Monday, the Prime Minister announced plans to quickly expel 25,000 Africans from Israel, and to expand the detention facilities in the Negev to hold the rest until deportation could be arranged. He specifically targeted the South Sudanese and Eritreans for deportation, and has scheduled flights this month and next to send my friends and a large portion of their community back to Africa. Directly following the announcement, arsonists lit fire to an apartment building, trapping 10 Eritreans inside.

    When there is rioting against "foreigners" because they are foreigners, when a building is burned down because it is full of foreigners, when governments declare a mass deportation of foreigners, then we who have been foreigners must speak up. We must speak for the kind of Israel that my Sudanese friends have believed in, a place where all people are safe from harm. Now is the time for a unified voice from around the Jewish world telling the Israeli government that this kind of behavior coming from citizens or from our Prime Minister is unacceptable.

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Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

By Daniel Sokatch and David N. Myers

13 January 2014