Morning prayers in Gondar’s Tikvah Synagogue. (photo from David Breakstone)
Since Dr. David Breakstone, deputy chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency, had to cancel his scheduled talks in Calgary and Winnipeg because of COVID-19, the Jewish Independent reached him by phone to learn more about his planned topic – Beta Israel and the Emerging Jewish Communities of the Amazon and Latin America.
Born and raised in the United States, Breakstone made aliyah in 1974 and has been involved with Jewish education for more than 50 years.
“The Jewish Agency (JA) really is the largest global Jewish organization that represents the full spectrum of the Jewish people,” said Breakstone. “JA itself is a partnership of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Federations of North America. It makes for a very dynamic, stimulating environment with incredible reach and ability, impacting our major issues and agenda items regarding world Jewry. To be in a position to impact all of that and influence things is, for me, a very exciting and demanding challenge.”
JA’s four major goals are connecting Jews around the world to one another, their Jewish heritage and to Israel; facilitating aliyah; serving those in need in Israeli society and fighting antisemitism; and assuring the safety and security of Jews everywhere.
The term Beta Israel refers to the Ethiopian Jewish community, thought to be descendants of the Hebrew tribe of Dan, explained Breakstone.
“Back in the 1950s, the JA was building schools and developed a teaching seminary in Ethiopia to work with the community,” he said. “Ethiopian Jewry has presumably been around for thousands of years, but has only been known about for the last 1,000 years…. The Beta Israel are unquestionably fully Jewish. Ovadia Yosef, chief rabbi of Israel back in 1973, confirmed the decision of a response of the Radbaz [David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra] from the 16th century. What’s happened, however, is that there are those of Jewish descent from Beta Israel who, over the years, converted to Christianity … and, so, there are major questions still being argued about whether they converted out of duress or whether they converted freely or for economic reasons.”
Regardless, said Breakstone, “There’s full agreement by the authorities in Israel on whether they are all … zera Israel (of Jewish seed), even if they are not, according to halachah [Jewish law], Jewish.”
The JA is involved with this community because of its Jewish roots. Today, said Breakstone, there are somewhere between 7,500 and 9,000 people from this community who have been waiting anywhere from 10 to 20 years or more to be allowed to make aliyah, all of whom have close relatives in Israel. The JA, he said, is committed to bringing to Israel all Ethiopians who are eligible to come.
Breakstone noted that there are other isolated Jewish communities throughout Africa, South America and India, which he referred to as “the emerging communities of Jews around the world.”
“The Ministry of the Diaspora, a couple of years ago, expressed a great deal of interest in these emerging communities,” he said. “And they put together a very high-level committee that really delved into the issue in depth and came up with the astounding figure of – believe it or not – some 350 million people around the world who have some sort affinity to the Jewish people.
“Affinity is a very vague term,” he cautioned. “In fact, a recent DNA report indicated that 24% of Latin Americans had a significant amount of Jewish DNA…. Most claim ancestry going back to the Marranos, Conversos and Crypto-Jews from Portugal and Spain who had moved to South America and kept various traditions going.
“In Brazil,” he said, “there was supposed to be – they just got notification that it was cancelled – there was going to be the first conference of Jewish communities of Brazil that are not recognized by the established Jewish community there … all of whom are connected through their belief that they are descended from Marranos, Conversos.”
Despite the cancelation of the conference, the Jewish Federation of Brazil is in contact with those communities and is exploring whether or not to recognize them and invite them into the larger community.
“At this point,” said Breakstone, “the JA is also exploring the history in conjunction with the established Jewish community, trying to figure out what to do with those who have not been part of the traditional Jewish establishment and yet, are living life as Jews. That’s quite an interesting phenomenon.”
Uganda is home to a Jewish community that claims no Jewish roots, Breakstone added. In that community, the founding chief was converted by Christian missionaries more than a century ago. And the chief, becoming well-versed in religious studies through the Bible, decided Judaism was the right path.
“Since 2002, they started going to formal conversion, through the worldwide Conservative movement,” said Breakstone. “They now have a local rabbi who studied at one of the Conservative movement theological seminaries … in California and they are fully embraced by the Conservative Jewish world. The JA, too, officially recognizes them as being Jewish. They’ve had a number of people come to Israel through various programs and a number of them are in the process of making aliyah.
“I think the diversity of the different Jewish communities, backgrounds, traditions and cultures that people bring to Jewish life are also something to be celebrated,” he said, “as it broadens the Jewish mosaic.”
A few weeks ago, my husband got an email out of the blue from a distant relative in Israel. This Israeli was working on some family genealogy. He was stunned to discover that he had many U.S. relatives he never knew about. Together, my husband and this distant relative took on a big extended family project, even as COVID-19 shut down borders and isolated us in our homes.
Suddenly, my husband in Winnipeg and his dad, aunts, uncles and cousins in New Jersey were emailing, sending photos and stories to one another. They tried to iron out all the stories they’d heard and fit the puzzle pieces together. My husband’s paternal grandparents (z”l) were from Mezritch, Poland. They spent the Second World War on the run. They were in a Siberian Gulag work camp. Then, they lived in a shantytown near Tashkent, Uzbekistan. After the war, they stayed in a series of displaced persons camps in Germany before U.S. relatives found them. They arrived in the United States, with their three children, in 1950.
Discovering what may have happened to each relative 75 years ago, and documenting it, has taken on an urgency for both my husband and this “new” Israeli relative. In part, it’s because his oldest aunt, who was 9 when she came to the United States, remembered it all and discussed it with her mother in detail, over and over, as those who’ve gone through huge upheaval sometimes do. For my husband’s aunt, this childhood experience defines much of her worldview. Now, though, her mother, my husband’s grandmother, has died. His aunt is still alive, but unwell. She’s unable to recount the stories or identify the people in photos anymore. The family is racing to record as much of their family history as they can before even more of the pieces are lost forever.
In the midst of this nightly family email exchange, I read a book called Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris. This novel makes connections between the Sephardi Jews who fled Spain after the Inquisition, the crypto-Jews of New Mexico and the history behind the family connections and modern-day Jewish practice. The author explained that the idea for the book came to her when she met someone long ago. This New Mexican seemed convinced that his family had been Jewish. Indeed, now we know through DNA analysis that many Spanish-speaking people throughout the world have Sephardi Jewish roots.
Gateway to the Moon was graphic, full of historically correct violence, and direct. It took me a long time to get through. It was powerful, but also hard to grasp the scope of the suffering faced during the Inquisition. This religious violence chased Jewish families for hundreds of years through Spain, Portugal, Mexico and beyond.
Morris does a good job of connecting people throughout history in her narrative. This was particularly powerful when a character tastes a lamb dish in Morocco, on vacation, and is instantly transported to her grandmother’s table in New Mexico. Even as their identity was hidden or forgotten, familiar recipes remained. Just the taste of that lamb stew connected the character to the family’s lost past and their Sephardi Jewish identity.
The ramifications of these huge experiences – violence, trauma, colonization, wars, genocides, terrorist attacks and pandemics – will shape us and future generations. We, as Jews, and as people, are forever shaped by these things. We’re about to celebrate Passover. It recounts a huge event in our people’s story – slavery, freedom and migration. This experience shapes us, though it happened (if it happened) long ago. As we say at the seder, Avadim hayinu: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. We’re commanded to remember this as though we personally left Egypt.
As I write this, we’re suffering a pandemic, another huge, worldwide and scary experience. My husband and I are Gen Xers. We’ve been shaped by the Holocaust experiences of our families and friends. We were raised hearing their stories and traumas, and it was part of who they, and we, are.
Now, I pray that we, and all our families, and everyone in our community, live to think about what the ramifications of this next event will be. It will impact us all.
My family and I wish you everything good – a chag sameach, zissen Pesach – a happy holiday. Most importantly, may you enjoy it in good health.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Israelis Ofir Gadi and Or Aharoni are rounding up their year of volunteering in Metro Vancouver. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
In Israel, high school graduates can go straight into the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) or opt to do a shnat sherut (year of service, for which the acronym is shinshin). The vast majority of 18-year-olds who do a shnat sherut do so inside Israel, volunteering with a variety of social welfare and other nonprofit organizations throughout the country. But, through the Jewish Agency, approximately 100 teens do their year of volunteering in Jewish communities around the world.
Vancouver began to take part in the program in 2015. In August of that year, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver brought three young women to split their time between Vancouver Talmud Torah, Richmond Jewish Day School, King David High School, Beth Israel, Temple Sholom, Beth Tikvah and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. The final quarter of the year was spent volunteering at camps Hatikvah and Miriam and the JCC day camp. Each agency contributed a portion of money to cover the expenses needed to bring the shinshiniot (female plural for shinshin) here from Israel and to contribute to a small monthly stipend. Host families, who welcomed an 18-year-old Israeli into their family for a period of three months, took care of living arrangements and meals.
Nearly four years later, all of the original host organizations continue to participate in the program. Shinshin coordinator Dan Stern helps make the connections between the organizations and the volunteers as smooth as possible. The main challenge continues to be finding host families. While it is a significant responsibility, the fact that many host families have hosted volunteers multiple times speaks to the rewards of doing so.
This year, for the first time, Vancouver picked one male and one female shinshin. Ofir Gadi and Or Aharoni arrived in early September and settled in right away. They spent two days each week at VTT, interacting with students through activities including song, dance, multimedia presentations focusing on Israel, Israeli-style Jewish holiday celebrations, and Hebrew. RJDS had them once a week for similar activities and the pair helped at the JCC with teen programming. On Sundays, they split up to give a special Israeli flavour to various synagogue religious schools. Federation also has had them working at many community events and its outreach program, Connect Me In, which services Squamish, Langley and Burquest. Additionally, the two have helped make other community-wide celebrations special, including making a presentation at this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
Gadi and Aharoni have proven to have complementary personalities. They have worked together, smiling through the challenges they have faced and thoroughly enjoying almost everything they’ve encountered here.
“Vancouver is my favourite city in the world,” said Aharoni with her typical warm smile. “The weather is much better than what the other Canadian shinshinim have and the people we have met here have been so welcoming and amazing. Also, being here, I’m not the only one saying thank you on the bus!”
Gadi has also had terrific experiences. “We have worked a lot in many areas of the Vancouver Jewish community and the good thing about that is we have met so many wonderful people,” he said.
While they were prepared to a certain degree about what to expect, both Aharoni and Gadi have said being in Vancouver has exceeded their expectations. “We both love it here and plan to return,” said Gadi.
The biggest surprise for Aharoni was that she felt at home as soon as she arrived. “I didn’t know that it would be such a good fit,” she said. “I was positive coming in but I have found the energy and the vibe of the students amazing and the community, host families and friends I’ve made have been so special.”
Although she has traveled outside of Israel, she said she didn’t know anything about what it is like to live as a Jewish person outside of Israel. She comes from a secular Israeli family and, she said, living here has brought up questions about Jewish identity that had never been an issue before.
“Firstly, I am an Israeli. Secondly, I feel fully Jewish even though I am not at all religious,” she said. “I see that it’s important to live the Jewish life the way you want. I also understand that going to synagogue is important here in order to be part of something, and being part of a community is very special.”
Both teens have stayed with families with whom they have deeply connected. “It’s been great to be part of a different family every few months,” said Gadi. “I have enjoyed my host siblings and I hope our connection will continue and my family in Israel will have a chance to host my families from here.”
Gadi is from a small community near Modi’in called Reut and Aharoni’s family lives on a moshav called Aviel, near Caesarea. Both shinshinim expect visitors, as host families and friends of past shinshiniot have kept in touch and visited when in Israel.
“The connections with people makes this experience more powerful and meaningful. Both Ofir and I have made so many special connections with students, families and the Vancouver Jewish community,” said Aharoni.
Up next for both shinshinim is summer camp. Aharoni will help augment the Israel programming at Camp Hatikvah and Gadi will be at Camp Miriam lending an additional Israeli vibe to the camp.
For more information about the shinshin program or how to host one of the two shinshinim who will arrive in September, contact Jewish Federation at 604-257-5100.
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
Clockwise, from top left: U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, Joe Lieberman, Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Cory Booker address attendees of last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference. (photos by Dave Gordon)
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, in addition to other ranking American politicians, spoke of their unwavering support for the Jewish state to 18,000 people at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, in Washington, D.C., March 24-26.
Speech themes revolved around recent rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, the Golan Heights being recognized as Israeli sovereign territory by the United States, and sanctions against Iran. Every official who mentioned BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, condemned it.
Much was said about the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Abdullahi Omar. Her statements – including “Israel has hypnotized the world” and that AIPAC has influenced U.S. policy through money – have been interpreted as antisemitic by some Jewish leaders.
Pence said, “History has already proven [Donald Trump] to be the greatest friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office of the White House.”
Among the pro-Israel bona fides of Trump, Pence said the United States shut down the Washington branch of the Palestinian Authority as a consequence for funding terror; ended tax dollar funding for United Nations-funded Palestinian schools; moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; and recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
“We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values,” he said.
In addition, Pence talked about the end of the “disastrous nuclear deal with Iran” that has been replaced with “a maximum-pressure campaign” of sanctions, thereby causing Iran’s economy to dip.
“There’ll be no more pallets of cash to the mullahs in Iran,” he said.
In a swipe across the political aisle, Pence said, “It’s astonishing to think that the party of Harry Truman, which did so much to help create the state of Israel, has been co-opted by people who promote rank antisemitic rhetoric and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel.”
Without mentioning her name, he referred to Omar as “a freshman Democrat in Congress” who “trafficked in repeated antisemitic tropes.”
Former U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s first comments were about what she believes is the UN’s hypocrisy.
“You know, what’s interesting is, at the UN, I can guarantee you this morning it is radio silent,” she said, in reference to the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. “They are not saying anything about Hamas, they’re not saying anything about the lives lost, they’re not saying anything. But, if it was any [other] countr[y], they’d be calling an emergency Security Council meeting.”
David Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel, claimed that Trump is “Israel’s greatest ally ever to reside in the White House” and, to those who think otherwise, “please, take a deep breath and think about it some more.”
How America is now sanctioning Iran was one example of an Israel-friendly policy. Friedman criticized the previous administration for paying the Islamic Republic $100 billion in the hopes that country would “self-correct.”
“What did Iran do with all its newly found treasure?” he asked. “Did it build up its civilian institutions? Did it improve the quality of life of its citizens?” Instead, he said, it “doubled down on terrorist activity in Yemen, in Iraq and in Lebanon. It increased its stock of ballistic missiles and it invested in military bases in Syria, on Israel’s northern border.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered an address via satellite, initially planning to take the podium in person, but returning to Israel to deal with the rocket attacks.
“The Golan Heights is indispensable for our defence,” he said of the recognition by the United States of the northern land seized by Israel in the Six Day War, in 1967. “It’s part of our history. When you put a shovel in the ground there, what you discover are the ruins of ancient synagogues. Jews lived there for thousands of years and the people of Israel have come back to the Golan.”
Netanyahu said he thought comments like Omar’s are antisemitic.
“Again, the Jews are cast as a force for evil,” he said. “Again, the Jews are charged with disloyalty. Again, the Jews are said to have too much influence, too much power, too much money. Take it from this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins.”
In the session Canada’s Relationship with Israel, the panel included Liberal member of Parliament Anthony Housefather, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole and former Conservative foreign minister John Baird.
Housefather said he believes Israelis do not think there’s a negotiating partner for peace, but they share some blame in the conflict: “The more they create settlements, the less likely there will be peace … they should think carefully before expanding settlements.”
A questioner asked him when the Canadian prime minister would do something “real” for Israel and Housefather noted that, in recent weeks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau forcefully condemned the BDS movement in a town hall meeting.
Another audience member asked why the Trudeau government continues to fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. While acknowledging that UNRWA has “curricula problems” that involve “anti-Jewish, anti-Israel comments, misogynistic comments and anti-gay comments,” he said that the $50 million in funding was just.
Housefather said he had spoken with the head of UNRWA and voiced his “concerns at the slow pace they are making changes in the curricula,” but added that their schools make children “a lot less likely to become terrorists against Israel.”
“Yes to helping them with UN aid programs; no to funding their schools,” said O’Toole. And Baird agreed.
On the topic of a peace plan, O’Toole said he “kept hearing from Palestinians their want for a ‘one-state solution,’” while their government “exerts violence, and does not take care of the needs of their people.”
“I think you’ll see from Israeli leaders that they’re prepared to experience real pain [in concessions],” Baird said, but “Palestinians have to stop the incitement” and the “hate-mongering.”
While several candidates for the Democratic party’s 2020 presidential nomination skipped the conference, leading Democratic figures were prominent at AIPAC, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who insisted no one will be permitted to make Israel a partisan wedge issue.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.
T’ruah students help plant trees in the Hebron Hills. (photo from T’ruah)
U.S.-based T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights works in Jewish social justice circles in Israel and North America.
“We work with human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians…. We’ve also worked on introducing rabbis and rabbinical students, and also congregations, to what’s happening in West Bank and more,” executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs told the Independent.
T’ruah, which supports a two-state solution, offers the Year-in-Israel program for rabbinical students.
“Students study in Jerusalem at various institutions,” said Jacobs, “but they don’t necessarily get to see human rights issues up close. We take them once a month to see a human rights issue on the ground, either in the West Bank with Palestinians, in Bedouin Israeli communities in the Negev, asylum seekers, etc.”
At these sessions, students meet with Israeli human rights and other leaders on the ground. The program is held during students’ free time, separate from their regular studies.
“The goal of the program is to help them develop a rabbinic moral voice,” said Jacobs. “As rabbis, they’re going to be called on to speak about Israel. The question is, how do they talk about Israel as a rabbi? Rabbis talk out of their values, and also are generally dealing with politically diverse communities…. So, the question is, how can a rabbi speak in a way that will push people to listen to perspectives they might not otherwise listen to, [based on] Jewish texts and Jewish values?”
Jacobs recognizes that the information they provide is not comprehensive. Their focus is to give students the opportunity to interact with human beings – to meet Palestinians, Bedouins and others and learn from them what their life experience is like.
“It’s also crucial to us that they are meeting with Israeli human rights leaders,” said Jacobs. “Very often, there’s a dichotomy that suggests that being pro-Israel means supporting the right-wing government of [Binyamin] Netanyahu and that being pro-Palestinian means being against Israel. We’re pro-human rights and we want them to meet Israelis working every single day to push for human rights in their own country because they love their country. We want them to see that there are actually people who are changing the situation.
“We hear a lot from the students that our program gives them hope. Sometimes, they are so hopeless about what is happening in Israel and then they meet people, both Jewish and Palestinian communities, who are trying to change their situation.”
One T’ruah graduate is Rabbi Philip Gibbs, spiritual leader of Congregation Har El in West Vancouver.
“During my year in Israel, during my second year of rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to then be a fellow with T’ruah for their rabbinical student program,” Gibbs told the Independent. “I really appreciated the opportunity, both because, at least the year I was doing it, there was clearly a huge focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, also because the way, in terms of educating about social justice issues in Israel, they were able to show some of the other issues happening – whether it was meeting with Bedouins, talking to some asylum seekers from Africa … really seeing what their home-grown needs are and seeing how it developed into a strong sense of the how they were fighting for many of those needs through the legal systems in Israel.”
Gibbs met with Palestinians who had been displaced from the Jerusalem area after the 1967 war. “We had the chance to hear their narrative,” he said, “highlighting how their status as refugees during that conflict had really come into question because of both the policies of Jordan, as they were occupying the area, as well as some of the motivations of different settler organizations in their attempt to create a much stronger Jewish presence behind the Green Line… I felt like that was more educating us in understanding the way that the nature of a lot of these neighbourhoods had been going back and forth.
“For the Israeli settlers, they felt they were reclaiming a neighbourhood that was Jewish. For the Palestinians that had been living there, their legal status was caught up in layers of legal confusion of having that area under control of many different authorities over the past 150 years.”
Gibbs has not yet had an opportunity to bring this part of his rabbinical education to his congregation directly, but it has definitely played a role in how he shares his perspective regarding, for example, the upcoming Israeli election.
“I’m making sure there’s a deeper sense of having the recognition that a lot of these questions that are coming up, some of these issues are on the minds of most Israelis … but that, no matter what, a lot of the work that human rights organizations are doing, a lot of that is going through the overt legal system of Israeli government.”
Regarding the many Israelis he has met who work for human rights organizations, Gibbs said he appreciated the way their main motivation was a deep sense of trying to make their country the best it can be, noting that every government needs to be transparent in their treatment of their citizens, allowing for a certain amount of criticism.
“That’s something coming from a place of love and it’s the most ideal way to get things done in a constructive way,” said Gibbs. “People can debate about how much people living outside of Israel are supposed to be making any sort of direct intervention, which happens on both sides of the political spectrum, but, I think, there’s absolutely nothing that we should hide in terms of understanding the full array of political work happening in Israel.”
Mattathias and the Apostate (1 Maccabees 2:1-25) in Gustave Doré’s English Bible 1866. The time has not yet come when we no longer need the warrior Maccabee. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Before the rebirth of the modern state of Israel and the unprecedented success of Jews in North America, Jews had very little to celebrate. After our triumphant Exodus from Egypt, it was more or less downhill and, in the competition between monotheistic faiths, we were always on the losing side. The God who chose us, to quote Woody Allen, was a consistent “underachiever,” at least when it came to looking after our interests.
One of the few exceptions in this tragic tale was Chanukah. For a moment, we won. Who we defeated and what we achieved are debated though. Were the Maccabees fighting a foreign, occupying force that wanted to deny the Jewish people their freedom and liberty, or was the war essentially a battle against Hellenization and assimilation? Was the miracle the military victory or a spiritual one? Before the 20th century, it didn’t really matter. We had won at something. Dayenu. The light of Chanukah illuminated the darkness that engulfed much of Jewish history, and gave hope that, one day, we would again prevail.
That hope came true in the 20th century, and both Israel and North American Judaism embraced Chanukah as the paradigm for their success. Each, however, tells a very different Chanukah tale and sees itself as combating a very different darkness.
Now, differences alone are not a problem, as long as they complement each other. In the case of Chanukah, however, these differences express a deep schism between Israel and North American Jewry. It is not hyperbolic to argue that, unless we learn how to share a Chanukah story, our shared enterprise and common identity are at risk.
In Israel, Chanukah is primarily a story of our military victory over an oppressive enemy that sought to destroy us. Zionists who wanted to re-form the Jewish psyche and heal it from its diasporic defeatism and powerlessness saw the foundation for the new Jew in the Maccabees of old – a Jew who was brave, a Jew who was willing to bear arms and, most significantly, a Jew who was victorious.
The Maccabean victory of the few over the many continues to serve as a dominant theme in Israeli discourse. In our experience, we continue to encounter forces of darkness who seek to destroy us. We are the light that they yearn to extinguish and, as we celebrate Chanukah, we recommit ourselves to the heroism and sacrifice that our survival requires and demands. If, in the past, our tradition commanded every Jew to see themselves as coming out of Egypt, in modern Israeli society, the demand is that every Jew commits himself or herself to being a modern Maccabee.
In North America, a very different Chanukah story is told. As paragons of religious tolerance, the United States and Canada have created an unprecedented environment for Jews to live and thrive as a powerful and beloved minority. There is no war of survival. Consequently, North American Jews have little personal use for the warrior Maccabee.
Through the North American lens, Chanukah celebrates the constitutional rights of all to religious freedom and to the fostering of religious tolerance. The war of the Maccabees was a battle against religious oppression, and the Maccabees were liberal warriors against the darkness of religious oppression and fundamentalism. Through the chanukiyah, which stands proudly side-by-side with the Christmas tree, Jews pledge to lead the fight to preserve the religious freedoms of liberal democratic life. The Chanukah light is the torch leading their way.
The beauty of religious symbols is that they have no inherent meaning, and the history on which they stand is but raw material to be molded by each generation and community in search of meaning and relevance. People in different times and circumstances will inevitably develop diverse understandings. The problem arises when these differences become expressions of value systems that are positioned as mutually exclusive.
A community is a collection of individuals who do not merely share common symbols. A strong and vibrant worldwide Jewish community is only possible if we share as well a set of common values. For North American and Israeli Jews to walk hand-in-hand, we cannot be alienated from each other’s values, but, quite to the contrary, we must respect and seek to embody them. In short, we must not only light the same candles, but strive to illuminate and overcome the same darkness.
Israelis must begin to fight against the darkness of religious intolerance. Religious freedom must be the foundation of Israel’s democracy, and Israelis must cease to vote primarily for the Maccabean leader who will lead us to victory against external foes, and instead seek a Maccabee who is devoted to creating a Jewish society where all forms of Judaism and all religions are supported and treated with equal respect. No North American Jew will in the long run have a relationship with Israel that does not strive to embody these values.
At the same time, the generation of North American Jews for whom the survival and power of Israel are a given, must learn to recognize and respect the real threats and dangers that their people in Israel experience every day. The time has not yet come when we no longer need the warrior Maccabee. While we share the same values of justice and peace, in the realities of the Middle East, their implementation is challenging at best. Israelis will not feel connected to a North American Jewry that does not appreciate the complexity of this reality.
As a people, we share the same Chanukah. To be a united people, we must learn how to share each other’s stories, share each other’s needs and values, and together fight to embody them in our lives.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartmanis president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of the 2016 book Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. This article was initially posted on the Times of Israel in 2015. Articles by Hartman and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.
The Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly this year in Tel Aviv Oct. 22-24. (photo by Pat Johnson)
The Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly in Israel, as it does every five years, Oct. 22-24. This time, for the first time, the convention met in Tel Aviv. The event was marketed with the theme “We need to talk,” the provocative title suggesting that the meetup would frankly confront the many points of contention between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
By the time about 2,500 delegates, including a sizeable number of Israelis, arrived at the conference centre, the theme had shifted from the ominous pre-romantic-breakup phrase to the more upbeat “Let’s talk!” Delegates talked among themselves and listened to a plethora of speakers, including Israel’s president, prime minister, leader of the opposition and other elected officials, heads of civil society organizations, a recipient of this year’s Israel Prize and leading figures in the Federation movement.
While some observers – including the organization Am Echad, which placed a full-page ad in the Jerusalem Post – said the conference did not reflect the diversity of demographics or opinion in Israel, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken refuted the criticism.
“I think that we’re never going to have a shortage of people who want to criticize our gatherings,” he said. “I don’t believe that that is actually accurate. When I look around the room, I see kippot on people’s heads, I see people coming from the Modern Orthodox side of the community and I see people coming from the liberal side of the community. We have made an effort, in Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Federations of Canada and our Federation, to dialogue with as wide of a group as we can. I think there is a lot of diversity here.”
A two-and-a-half-day conference provides an intensely limited time to address, let alone resolve, the range of issues on the table. Topics included broad issues like the stalled peace process, treatment of Eritrean and Somali asylum-seekers in Israel and a Nation State Law that some say undermines the democratic nature of the country. There are also a host of issues that cause friction directly for North American Jews, including the reversal of the promised egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and Orthodox control of lifecycle events in Israel, which negates Reform and Conservative members, who make up the preponderance of North American Jews. If anything, the GA in Tel Aviv was the beginning of a conversation, or the widening of a conversation already in progress.
Some of the divisions were illustrated in public opinion poll results that were projected throughout the convention centre. The percentage of American Jews who believe that non-Orthodox rabbis should be permitted to officiate at Jewish ceremonies in Israel is 80%, compared with 49% of Israeli Jews. Fifty percent of Israeli Jews believe in God “with absolute certainty,” compared to 34% of American Jews. Among Israeli Jews, there is 85% support for the decision by the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, compared with 46% among American Jews. Support for the existence of a mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall stands at 73% among American Jews, compared with 42% of Israeli Jews. Among Jewish Israelis, 42% believe that Jewish settlements in the West Bank improve Israel’s security, compared with 17% of American Jews. Sixty-one percent of American Jews believe that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully, compared with 43% of Israeli Jews.
Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Federations of North America, illustrated some of the lines of divergence.
“As North Americans and Israelis, we ask very similar questions. But each through a different lens,” he said. “North Americans may ask, after nearly a century of unwavering support, do Israelis really think our opinions should not be considered when it comes to policies that affect us? Israelis ask, why should anyone other than Israelis have a say in the decisions of our democratically elected government? North Americans, we may wonder how Israel can claim to be the nation state of all Jewish people when it doesn’t recognize the value of Jewish practice of 85 to 90% of Jews living outside of Israel. Meanwhile, Israelis feel that, well, we live here, so what makes you think you have the right to define what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state? How is it possible, North Americans may ask, that the chair of the board of Brandeis [University] or a student from Florida are questioned or prevented from entering Israel because of their activism and views? Is this a democracy, or isn’t it? Israelis ask, what gives anyone the right to question our security decisions when we are the ones under constant threat?
“These are just a few of the questions of two proud communities who have learned to thrive in two very different environments; two members of one family who operate in their own political realities, where North Americans are seeking validation, empathy, partnership and understanding from Israel and Israelis who are living in a sovereign state have largely been insulated from a global conversation about Jewish peoplehood. I don’t have all the answers to all these questions, but I can tell you this – we will only find the answers if we start asking the questions to each other and if we really start working together.”
One after another, speakers acknowledged the challenging differences between the two communities, which together make up more than 85% of world Jewry, and then accentuated the commonalities.
“We are not strategic allies,” said Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel. “We are family…. We don’t have shared interests. We have shared faith, a shared history and a shared future – and a very bright one. It may not be easy to have the truly honest conversation, but this is, I believe, what needs to happen.”
Rivlin suggested a “reverse Taglit,” a Birthright-like program for young Israelis to travel to Diaspora communities, summer camps and schools.
Danna Azrieli, who, with Israeli high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Marius Nacht, co-chaired the assembly, has a personal history suited to facilitating a conversation between the two communities. Born and raised in Montreal in a Zionist family, she made aliyah 18 years ago and now heads her family’s business operations in the country, Israel’s largest commercial real estate enterprise. She was born in June 1967, at the time of the Six Day War.
“My mother tells the story of how, when she was giving birth, the radio was on and the doctor would be listening to the news from Israel between contractions,” Azrieli said.
“We have come to this ‘let’s talk’ conversation about our future together from very different starting points,” she noted. “For example, how do we as North Americans begin to understand what we perceive as backward thinking, when women are not allowed to pray at the wall? And yet, the prime minister reneged on the Sharansky Compromise because of the pressure exerted by religious extremists. As a North American, you are probably asking, how could he have done that? Some of you, and I know a few, might go even further and ask, why should I support a country that does not support the way I practise my religion?” On the flip side, she acknowledged the fears of religious Israelis, who see any diversion from tradition as a step toward assimilation and extinction.
“Since I come from the real estate world, I’m going to use an image of an arch,” she said. “An arch is two sides pressing together. North American Jewry and Israeli Jewry are like two sides of an arch. We need each other. We need to push against each other to stay strong. By leaning into each other, by providing each other with the right amount of resistance and the right amount of support, we will have the strength to withstand the pressure from all sides. But one side of an arch cannot stand without the other. The art is to find the right amount of resistance, the right amount of pressure and the right amount of dependence and independence to ensure that our two sides will always remain strong vis-a-vis one another.”
She acknowledged the differences over policies, but tried to differentiate this from core support for the state of Israel.
“We don’t give up when we disagree with our leaders,” she said. “Don’t walk away because your liberal sensibilities are insulted. Don’t assume that nothing can change. Things do change, just painfully, slowly, incrementally, and with all of our help. Help by continuing the dialogue. Help by infusing your children with a love of our heritage. Let’s celebrate the good. I am not suggesting that we ignore the things we disagree with. I am simply suggesting that we remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the opposition who recently became head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the growth and successes of modern Israel could not have been forecast.
“No one could have imagined that, 70 years later, [Israel’s] population would increase more than tenfold, its GDP would grow more than fiftyfold, its share within the Jewish world would grow from six percent to 45% and that Israel would become what a great country it is today.”
Herzog, a grandson of Israel’s first chief rabbi and the son of a president, added: “Israel is not the only Jewish marvel in the last 70 years. You, too, North American Jewry, are a marvel. The saga of North American Jewry is one of the most exhilarating and inspiring success stories of the modern era and your success is evident not only in your high level of education and income, and in the fact that the number of Nobel Prize winners that you’ve got are over 120, but because your success is palpable in the fact that you are organized, committed and energetic. You donate more than any other group in society, both locally and globally, and your success is manifest in 3,500 congregations, in 150 federations, in 350 JCCs and countless organizations and foundations that you’ve created together into a beautiful, unique civil society.”
He spoke of the historical bonds between the two communities.
“You nourished us ever since we were a helpless newborn,” Herzog said. “We were, we are and we shall always be reliant on one another. Our alliance is profound, is heroic and is eternal.”
He added: “I see the growing rift between our communities and am shaken to my core. In Israel, there are those who shamefully refuse to recognize the great non-Orthodox Judaism of North America and, in North America, there are those who disavow the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.
“Ironically, in this, the first era in our history when the external existential threats we have faced are greatly diminished, we ourselves are endangering our own existence. It is up to each and every one of us sitting here together in this hall to look into the eyes of our young generations and see where did we go wrong. The obligation we all share is to listen to their pains, to listen to their questions and to listen to their frustrations and ask ourselves, how can we do it better? We must dare to think anew, dare to act differently.”
Herzog called for a renewed dedication to the Hebrew language.
“Our first act should be to find a common language,” he said. “When I say common, I mean both literally and figuratively. We have a rare and sacred national treasure: the Hebrew language, the language of the Bible and the state of Israel. For all of us to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another and to debate, discuss and delight one another, we must return to our national heritage and treasure. We must enable every young Jewish person in the world to learn Hebrew.”
He called on the government of Israel to allocate funds for a program that teaches Hebrew all over the world.
“From here on, it will be every young Jew’s birthright, wherever he or she may live, not only to visit this historical homeland, but to learn the language of the Jewish people,” said Herzog. “Hebrew can be a common denominator of all Jews from all streams of Judaism – a beautiful language can serve as a tool for unity.”
Other ideas being mooted, he said, include a Jewish “peace corps” that brings Diaspora and Israeli Jews together for tikkun olam projects around the world, and inviting thousands of young Jews from around the world to Israel to participate in groundbreaking “startup nation” technology projects.
As head of the Jewish Agency, Herzog promised to “reach out to all of you to advance hundreds of faction-crossing, stream-crossing, continent-crossing dialogues under one common tent. Israelis will learn to appreciate and know the magnificent civilization of world Jewry, while world Jewry will learn to appreciate the achievements of Zionism and the beauty of Israeliness. Reform and Conservative Jews will learn to cherish Jewish orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews will learn to respect the Reform and Conservative. We shall learn from one another and learn to appreciate one another and endeavour to resolve our internal differences through a new Jewish dialogue. All that I ask of you is not to despair and not to give up. Indeed, let’s talk.”
Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, speaker of the Knesset, addresses delegates in the parliament’s Chagall Hall. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Before the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America began on Oct. 22, a local delegation, headed by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver board chair Karen James and chief executive officer Ezra Shanken, toured Vancouver’s partnership region, the Upper Galilee Panhandle, which includes Israel’s most northerly communities.
Shanken said that a “mirror” volunteer board of community members from across the panhandle region has been created, including people who are sourcing projects, bringing them in and deciding, along with funders from Vancouver, which critical projects within the region will receive support.
“Those can be everything from a kitchen that we just opened that’s helping developmentally challenged individuals learn cooking skills, or we are looking at education programs … really trying to lift up the north,” he said.
The periphery in Israel has always faced more challenges than the centre of the country, Shanken added. Trying to rebalance that situation, he said, involves engaging the people in the partnership region to take ownership of the projects funded from Canada.
“One of the great things that we saw was the graduation of [the first cohort of] something called Galilee Up, which is something we’ve been working on,” he said. “It’s a leadership development program where we looked around the table and said, who’s going to be the great volunteer leaders of tomorrow?”
More than 20 individuals with leadership potential, mostly younger adults in the early stages of their careers, have been brought together, participating in courses at Tel Hai College. On the Vancouver group’s October visit, the cohort pitched concepts that could help improve the region.
Shanken also celebrated the reopening of a medical centre in Kiryat Shmona, for which Vancouverites had advocated alongside residents of the panhandle.
“This was a huge, huge win for us,” he said.
Democracy in Israel
Speaker of the Knesset Yuli-Yoel Edelstein assured delegates that the health of democracy in Israel is strong.
“Purposely misquoting great American author Mark Twain, I can say that the rumour of the demise of Israeli democracy has been slightly exaggerated,” he told a special evening plenary held in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall. “Israeli democracy has been strong, is strong and will be even stronger.”
He encouraged Diaspora Jews to write, email and telephone members of the Knesset with their concerns.
At the same event, Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition, offered an alternative view, warning that the Nation State Law undermines the democratic leg of the “Jewish, democratic state.”
She said that her opposition to the law is not based on what is in the law, but what was left out. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that Israel is a Jewish nation, but guarantees equal rights for all its citizens.
“When the state of Israel was established,” she said, “all the Jewish leaders signed – we’re talking about socialism, communism, revisionism, Charedim – they decided, this is a moment in which they should put aside all the differences and say that Israel is being established as a nation state for the Jewish people, but also giving equal rights to all its citizens.”
This assurance is missing from the Nation State Law, she said.
“And it’s not that somebody forgot it,” she stressed. “It was part of the discussion here. I wanted to add in the first article of this bill: keeping Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. The answer was no. Let’s refer to the Scroll [Declaration] of Independence. The answer was no. I said, let’s have equality. The answer was no. Israel is a democracy and we will keep Israel as a democracy, but, frankly, this is a challenge now.”
Livni added that Diaspora Jews who spend a certain amount of time every year in Israel should have the right to vote in Israeli elections.
“Our decisions as an Israeli government affect your lives as well,” she said.
Trauma experts thanked
Stacy Kagan, the vice-mayor of Parkland, Fla., fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Israel, but acknowledged she never envisioned it would be under such circumstances. Kagan was at the General Assembly to thank Israeli emergency responders for stepping up after the mass murder at a high school in her city last February.
“In the days following the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school, grieving and in shock, we received an outpouring of support from across the country, across the world and Israel,” she said. “Within days, experts from the Israel Trauma Coalition were on the ground in Parkland. They were training our local counselors, who were there themselves and unprepared to address the impact of a large-scale attack that terrorized our local residents. The team from the Israel Trauma Coalition was nothing short of incredible. Their experience was invaluable.
“Today, I stand before you not only as an elected official, but as a Jewish woman who has always wanted to visit Israel,” she said. “I’ve dreamed of this but never made it until now. I never could have imagined that I would be here under these circumstances. As a Parkland resident, I come here to express my appreciation to the Israel Trauma Coalition, the entire Federation movement and the people and government of Israel for standing with us. This was our time of need. You showed up. You gave us strength and you taught us how to be resilient. As a wife, a mother and a consoler to those families and children that were taken by this horrible tragedy, I am here to say todah. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.”
Danna Azrieli, co-chair of the General Assembly, spoke of the Zionism of her childhood, which was mixed with the intergenerational trauma of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
“I struggle with anxiety and fear that an enemy may lurk in a place I don’t expect,” she said. “I am always vigilant. I’m the graduate of a 95-day outdoor leadership training course, just in case, one day, I will have to survive in a forest. And I hope that my overactive antennae that work overtime all the time and have deeply psychosomatic effects on my health will save me if ever, one day, I am faced with an unexpected horror in a restaurant or dance club.”
Since moving to Israel, she has witnessed brutality on both sides, she said.
“I have been within six metres of a terrorist running down the main street of the city where I live,” Azrieli told the plenary. “I saw his knife. I saw him sweat. I heard the sirens because he had just stabbed a 70-year-old lady in the coffee shop on the corner. And I also saw the total abandonment of morality, the bestiality, that overcame my Jewish neighbours when they ran the terrorist over with a car and hit his legs with a stick as he was face down at the bus stop while they were waiting for the police to arrive. I am a product of all of these things.”
Deborah Lyons, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, delivered an address that repeatedly brought the audience to laughter and their feet. Citing the Federation movement’s commitment to helping people in North America, Israel and throughout the world, she said, “Your goals are nearly interchangeable with those of the Canadian government.”
She said, “We both are committed to supporting the most vulnerable around the world … regardless of background. And we both are strongly supportive of Israel, its future and a deepening, closer relationship with Canada.”
Both federations and the Canadian government are facilitating cultural and economic missions to Israel to strengthen connections, especially in the business sector. In recent months, Lyons said, Canada’s governor-general, prime minister and a large number of senior cabinet officials have traveled to Israel.
“Our international leadership is perhaps best demonstrated by our recent partnership in rescuing White Helmet volunteers in Syria, one of the best moments of my career,” she said.
Along with allies, “Canada and Israel answered the moral obligations to ensure the swift evacuation of 422 members of this incredibly brave civil defence group, and their families. It was the support from Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu and, in particular, the incredible professionalism and heart of the IDF that brought that evacuation about.”
The ambassador added that combined efforts include batting antisemitism.
“Canada has worked alongside Israel to produce an internationally accepted working definition on antisemitism and we will continue to work with Israel to combat this ill everywhere – wherever, whenever,” she said, adding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will officially apologize for Canada’s turning away of the refugee ship MS St. Louis in 1939.
She reiterated Canada’s support for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians and spoke personally about her experiences living in Israel for two years now.
“It’s a complicated, invigorating and empowering place that can touch every emotion and challenge every belief,” she said. “It’s filled with energy, with incredible vitality and with endless warmth. I come from Canada – I know warmth when I feel it.… It’s simply very alive here.”
The most emotional presentation of the General Assembly was delivered by Miriam Peretz, winner of the 2018 Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and special contribution to society, whose story of the price Israeli families pay for the security of the nation had audience members sobbing. Earlier this year, Education Minister Naftali Bennett delivered the news of the award to her by arriving at her front door, the same door where, a decade ago, officers arrived to deliver, for the second time, the worst news a mother can receive.
“Ten years ago, on the eve of Passover, three angels knocked on my door,” Peretz said. “They didn’t bring with them the prophet Eliyahu. Rather, they were the bearers of terrible news. My second son, Eliraz, a deputy commander of Battalion 12 of Golani – a father of four little children, the biggest was 6 years old, the littlest was 2 months old; she didn’t know her father – he was killed fighting the terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
“As soon as I saw who was outside my door, I ran. I shut the door. I shut the window so no one could enter,” she recounted. “When they finally came in, I begged them and asked them, please don’t say the word, don’t deliver the news. Just let me [have] my son for one more minute. Because, as long as you don’t say this horrible news, my Eliraz still lives for one more minute. It has to be a mistake, I explained, for I had already paid the ultimate price of our country’s survival. A dozen years earlier, my firstborn, Uriel, an officer in a special unit of Golani … was killed fighting the Hezbollah in Lebanon. And, if it’s not painful enough, my dear husband, unable to bear the loss of Uriel, died five years after of a broken heart.
“So it was the eve of Passover and we were gathered to the seder without Uriel, without Eliraz, without Eleazar, my husband,” she continued. “And we read … we cried when we read in the Haggadah, l’dor v’dor, in every generation they rise up to destroy us…. There is no mother in Israel that wishes her children to be a combat soldier. When we have these children, we only pray to Hashem to let them be alive, to keep them healthy, but not to be soldiers. And my children, every time, when called upon to defend our nation, they did not hesitate. They said simply, Ima, it’s our turn.”
Peretz spoke of her childhood in Morocco and how, one night, her father told the family that “this night we will meet the Moshiach, the Messiah. I asked my father how he looked? And he said he will come with an open shirt, with shorts and with sandals. This is the shaliach of the Jewish Agency.
“They took us from the alleys of this place in Morocco to this country,” she said. “When we arrived to Haifa, I saw my father kneeling and kissing the ground when he said the Shehecheyanu. I didn’t understand the behaviour of my father and I never imagined that, one day, I will kiss this earth twice, like my father, when it covered the bodies of my children on Mount Herzl.”
She said that, after the death of her second son, she asked: “What can I do with this grief and sorrow? I can continue to sleep on my bed, to cry about my destiny, to blame the government, the IDF – this is not my way. I chose to continue and to hold the life. I chose to look outside … to see all this land and ask myself, every day, what can I do to be worthy of them? They gave their life for me. I didn’t want to waste my life, because life is not how many years you are here. It’s what you do with this minute that God [has] blessed you.”
Peretz has devoted the years since to comforting bereaved families and wounded soldiers.
“She did not choose the circumstances of her difficult life,” Bennett has said of Peretz, “but chose to live and revive an entire people. She is the mother of us all.”
“It’s not only my personal story,” Peretz told the General Assembly. “It’s the story of this land. It’s the story of faith and hope. It’s the story of the price that we pay for the existence of this state.”
Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, in Tel Aviv Oct. 24. (photo by Pat Johnson)
The theme of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv was “We need to talk.” The conference was explicitly dedicated to confronting the issues that divide Jews and alienate the Diaspora from Israel. But, when the moment came to meet with the most powerful man in Israel, conference organizers folded like a house of cards.
Outgoing chair of the board of trustees of the JFNA, Richard Sandler, sat with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on a stage and performed what Haaretz rightly dismissed as a “fawning” conversation. More Oprah than interlocutor, Sandler first offered belated birthday wishes to the prime minister, then proceeded with one softball lob after another, allowing Netanyahu to control the dialogue – which he could have done more effectively if he had delivered a conventional address instead of the folksy sit-down – while Sandler offered no resistance or challenge to anything the prime minister said.
The JFNA is a non-partisan organization, of course. But the very nature of this meeting was to frankly confront the very real divisions between Jewish people in the Diaspora and those in Israel.
Here was the first question: “I’m just wondering, when you were back in high school or college, did you ever imagine someday you would be the prime minister of Israel, and would you share with us a little bit of the path from that time to what got you here?”
Even Netanyahu seemed a bit embarrassed by the question and offered assurances that he was not, in childhood or young adulthood, some Machiavellian born with his sights on the levers of power. What seasoned politician would respond to such a question with, “Yes, I’ve been planning this since I toddled”?
Next question: “I’m wondering, in all the years you’ve been doing this, how do you see the relationship between our two countries, between Israel and the United States, evolving – and what concerns you most, if anything, about that relationship today?”
“If anything”? Thousands of people had traveled from North America to Israel to address the very tangible friction points between the two Jewish communities and the inteviewer effectively invited the prime minister to assert that everything is rainbows and unicorns. And Netanyahu accepted the offering. Everything is pretty great, he contended. The trajectory of American support for Israel is increasing, he said. When he and his wife walk around Central Park or visit the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, they get warmly welcomed. The audience of 1,300 at a performance of Hamilton gave him a standing ovation. (“How did you get tickets?” heckled an audience member. “My cousin’s wife works in the production,” the PM replied.)
Then it was time for the interviewer to get tough.
“One of the things that we spoke about, Mr. Prime Minister, that we’ve been talking about the last couple of days, are all the things that we have in common,” said Sandler, moving in for the kill, “We’re having frank discussions on some of the issues that concern many North American Jews and I’m sure you are aware, as I am, that we have a number of concerns about pluralism, acceptance of Reform and Conservative Jews here in Israel, the Nation State Law and.…”
At this point, Sandler’s words were drowned out by applause from an audience who seemed to think they were finally going to get some red meat. Instead, Sandler asked, “Are we missing something? And where do we have it right?”
“I don’t think you should be concerned, but I think you should be informed,” Netanyahu responded to a room filled with the leadership of every major Jewish community in North America. “So much of this is – let me be charitable – misinformation.”
Netanyahu went on to say that, from the first prime minister on down, Israel’s leaders have managed the status quo by making modest, incremental compromises.
“We have a series of slowly evolving arrangements and that reflects the evolution of the Israeli electorate,” he said. On the issue of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, Netanyahu acknowledged a delay in the opening, but insisted his goal remains a place where women and men can pray together.
On a two-state solution, Netanyahu dismissed the terminology. “I believe that a potential solution is one in which the Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves but not the power to threaten us,” he said. “What does that mean?”
He explained by recounting a conversation with then-U.S. vice-president Joe Biden.
“Well, Bibi,” Netanyahu said, describing the discussion, “are you for two states or are you not? I said, Joe, I don’t believe in labels.”
Netanyahu committed that Israel would retain security control west of the Jordan River, envisioning a situation where Palestinians would govern themselves but that overall security would remain in the hands of the Israeli military. This is not only good for Israel, the prime minister said, but for Palestinians, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel uncovered and foiled a plan by Hamas to not only overthrow Abbas, but to murder him, Netanyahu said. Without Israel’s military control in the West Bank, Hamas would swoop in, overthrow Abbas’s Fatah and Israel would have another Gaza to the east.
“They’d be overrun in two minutes,” he said.
This is all true enough, perhaps, and the first job of the prime minister of Israel is to ensure the security of his country and people. But, in acknowledging that his position would negate the possibility of an independent Palestinian state, Netanyahu reduced it to a matter of nomenclature.
“Give it any name you want,” he said. “But that’s the truth. And this truth is shared much more widely across the political spectrum than people understand, because we’re not going to imperil the life of the state for a label or for a good op-ed for six hours in the New York Times.” Like a flailing comedian, Netanyahu then turned to the audience and complained, “Nobody’s laughing.”
Sandler’s final question to the prime minister was, “What are you the most proud of about Israel today that you want us to think about when we’re going home?” And Netanyahu offered a response worthy of the question, a meandering reflection on visiting a synagogue in his family’s ancestral home of Lithuania.
As the loudspeaker was trying to advise people to remain in their seats while the prime minister’s entourage departed, Netanyahu, already standing for his farewell, interrupted to take the opportunity to tell the audience that his real concern for the Jewish people was the loss of identity. “It’s not conversion,” he said. “It’s the loss of identity.”
He warned, “Jewish survival is guaranteed in the Jewish state if we defend our state. But we have to also work at the continuity of Jewish communities in the world by developing Jewish education, the study of Hebrew and the contact of young Jews coming to Israel.”
He talked about additional funding for programs to support study-abroad programs in Israel and other things the Jewish state is doing to advance the strengthening of Jewish peoplehood.
Given the last word at the close of the three-day conference – a meeting explicitly convened to address contentious issues between the parties – Israel’s prime minister took the opportunity to school the leaders of Diaspora Jewry in how their shortcomings could imperil Jewish survival. Then he departed.
Consul General Galit Baram was in Vancouver last month. (photo from Consulate of Israel)
Galit Baram, consul general of Israel to Toronto and Western Canada, was in Vancouver last month.
“The visit was very good,” she told the Independent in a phone interview. “It included some political meetings and an academic meeting and I addressed the Jewish community and I attended the Negev Dinner of the JNF…. I had the opportunity to see the city, which is beautiful, and the weather was nice.”
Baram will be returning to Vancouver in November, when the late Dirk Pieter and Klaasje Kalkman will be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations for the assistance they provided to Jews during the Holocaust. The ceremony will be held in conjunction with Yad Vashem Canada and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
Baram’s June meetings explored the opportunities of expanding cooperation between Israel and British Columbia in innovation and entrepreneurship.
“I believe that there is great potential in economic cooperation between Israel and British Columbia,” she said.
The provincial government, she said, “is making its initial steps now…. There is interest, there is curiosity, there is awareness of what Israel has to offer in innovation, in the medical field. When it comes to pharma, when it comes to cybersecurity, Israel is a leading country in the international arena in many of these fields.
“We had very good relations with the previous government and we hosted a mission … in November of 2016, a mission that was led by then-minister of finance [Michael] de Jong; there were representatives of different business sectors in British Columbia…. [It] is our intention to work very closely with the current government as well.”
The change in the federal government in 2015 also hasn’t affected Canada-Israel cooperation. On May 28, in Montreal, François-Phillippe Champagne, minister of international trade, and Eli Cohen, Israel’s minister of the economy and industry, announced the signing of the modernized Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.
Cohen spent two days in Canada, said Baram, adding, “I hope that Minister Champagne will soon reciprocate and visit Israel as well.
“I believe this is very important to have visits on such a high level … because I believe that governments can contribute greatly to bringing countries together. But we have to remember that, at a certain point, governments have to take a step back and leave it up to the business sector and the private sector to build bridges and to bring the countries together, but, as governments on both sides, Israel and Canada, we do as much as we can in order to strengthen and broaden our bilateral relations.”
Baram also sees the possibility of building a groundwork for peace in Israel through business and trade.
“I believe that economic mobility plays an integral role in bringing communities together,” she said, “and we are watching with pride the growing high-tech sector in the Israeli-Arab community, especially in the Greater Haifa area, in cities such as Nazareth…. We would like to see more Israeli-Arab students concentrating on science, concentrating on business, in business management and innovation and entrepreneurship.
“When it comes to building social bridges between Israelis and Palestinians, not necessarily Jews and Arabs, there are many activities that concentrate on that … and they are conducted by civil societies in Israel and it is heartwarming to see that. I would like to mention the activity of an organization such as Save a Child’s Heart … [which] brings children to Israel [for cardiac care] from Arab countries, from the Middle East, from Muslim countries in general, and they do wonderful, wonderful things in building bridges…. Another example I can give you is the upcoming visit of Dr. Yossi Leshem, one of Israel’s greatest experts on bird migration – he is going to be in Vancouver towards the end of August and he will be accompanied by his friends from [elsewhere in] the Middle East, and they are going to present beautiful regional projects in a conference that will be held in Vancouver…. Two other organizations that I would like to mention … are Ultimate Peace, that organizes Frisbee tournaments for youth … and another project, by Danny Hakim – Budo for Peace – teaches martial arts to Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinians, Jordanians and others, and they have instructors coming to Israel from Japan and from other countries…. I believe that such organizations can do so much good for Israeli society in general, for the Palestinians and for neighbouring countries in the Middle East.”
Of course, there are significant obstacles to peace, not the least of which are the ongoing altercations at the Gaza border.
“When it comes to the situation on the Gaza border, we are facing some very serious challenges,” admitted Baram. “It is an uphill battle. We see that there is sometimes a deterioration, sometimes the situation stabilizes a little bit and then there is another deterioration, the situation changes constantly.
“There are many, many challenges on a daily basis that are facing not only IDF [Israel Defence Forces] soldiers and the Palestinian civilian populations, but also the civilian population on the Israeli side of the border. Sometimes there is a tendency to forget about them but there are families, there are entire communities, that raise their children on the Israeli side of the border and because of this intifada of burning kites and balloons, they have to deal with arson cases on a daily basis, with a loss of crops and forest in the south of Israel, and it’s heartbreaking to see that because so much work has been put into making the desert bloom, especially in those regions.”
She added, “The one very disappointing thing for me to see as a former director of the department for Palestinian affairs was the fact that the Kerem Shalom border crossing that was built in the first place to enable trucks to enter Gaza was burned down by Hamas activists and by other terrorists and it’s a shame to see that because so much money was invested in that, so much effort was done in order to make trade between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and especially Gaza, easier and simpler for us but especially for the civilian population in Gaza. And it’s difficult to see a civilian population that is being held captive by a terror organization…. Of course, there is awareness of the situation in Israel and understanding that the main enemy that has to be dealt with is definitely Hamas and not the people of Gaza.”
As for the Canadian government’s initial statements after the violent March of Return protests – in which Canada admonished Israel, saying its “use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable,” and called “for an immediate independent investigation to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground” – Baram said, “I would like to mention that, after Hamas started attacking Israel, [with] renewed rocket attacks to the south of Israel, there were statements that were released by Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau and by Minister of Foreign Affairs [Chrystia] Freeland condemning Hamas for this activity and I believe we should concentrate on these statements.”
And Canada’s reluctance to move its embassy to Jerusalem?
“When it comes to Jerusalem,” said Baram, “we believe that all countries should move their embassies to the capital of Israel and the capital of Israel is Jerusalem. Every sovereign country has the right of defining and choosing its own capital and we believe that we don’t have to prove over and over again the story connecting the people of Israel and the land of Israel, between the people of Israel and its eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
With respect to the almost 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, Baram said, “We have to remember that the first Western country that these people from Africa, from Eritrea, from Sudan, asylum seekers, work migrants – define them as you wish – the first Western country they encounter is Israel. And, several years ago, many of them came to Israel…. This is never an easy issue to deal with because the personal stories are very emotional and very difficult, and these people, many of them have been through terrible ordeals, until they reached Israel.
“The issue of migration in general … is an issue that is dealt with in Europe and in other parts of the world,” she said. “In the Middle East, for example, the issue of Syrian refugees is a very big issue that many countries deal with and, now, Syrian refugees, for example, are coming knocking on the doors of European countries, as well, but this is a problem that many Middle Eastern countries have dealt with for quite awhile, a long time now.
“With the African refugees or asylum seekers or work migrants, definitely a solution must be found in order to protect them, protect their rights. On the other hand, we have to keep the sovereignty of the state of Israel and we cannot allow floods of refugees entering Israel because we have to think about our population and … providing an answer that would satisfy all parties involved. This is not easy,” she said.
And neither is Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jews always easy.
“When you look at Israeli society, you see that the public debate in Israel is very heated and emotional,” said Baram. “This is how we do things in Israel. People are very opinionated … they don’t hide their views and opinions, and I think this is wonderful. This is the strength of Israeli democracy.”
She recalled a statement made by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin about a year ago. “He talked about the four tribes of Israeli society, and he referred to secular Jews, to Orthodox Zionists Jews, to the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and to Israeli Arabs…. And he called for these four tribes to join hands to discuss the future of Israeli society for the benefit of the country. Later on, he added the fifth tribe … and I believe this is very important to mention that the fifth tribe is Diaspora Jews because Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people…. I am actually very encouraged when I visit Jewish communities throughout Canada and people ask me sometimes challenging questions … about the nature of Israel and about the nature of Israeli society, and what should be done and what is done correctly, or what should be corrected in Israel. I encourage that and I welcome it, because it shows love and devotion and interest in Israel.
“And I encourage people to come visit Israel and express their opinions and to keep us Israeli diplomats on our toes … and I thank Jewish communities for participating in this ongoing discussion. I think this is vital not only for Israel by the way – this ongoing discussion is vital for Diaspora Jews as well.”
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