Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, October 8, 2010

There is Still Far to Go

Thanks to the media we have a sharper focus on gay and lesbian teen suicide. What's needed is eliminating the prejudice that preceded it.

The following is an editorial that appeared in a newspaper called the New Jersey Jewish Standard this past Monday [October 4]:

“We set off a firestorm last week by publishing a same-sex couple’s announcement of their intent to marry. Given the tenor of the times, we did not expect the volume of comments we have received, many of them against our decision to run the announcement, but many supportive as well.

“A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue. Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community have made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation, and we apologize for any pain we may have caused.

“The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future.”

In the words of our Yom Kippur confessional liturgy: “Ashamnu – bagadnu – gazalnu. We are guilty; we have betrayed; we have stolen”.

And for me, questions remain. “Who is guilty?” and “Of what are they guilty?”

I wonder whether this newspaper took confession to a completely new level!

And here is one of the – literally – hundreds of responses to this editorial that appeared online, which the paper posted and for which I give them some credit.

This reaction sums up all the negative comments – and most if not all of the 421 comments posted online – as of October 7 – were negative:

“How on earth can someone else’s simcha cause anyone pain and consternation? If it does, that person needs therapy, not to throw his or her weight around and bully a newspaper into bigotry.”

Or this reaction, which is also typical: “While I am happy to learn that you want to be sensitive to those in your community who are bigoted and exclusionist, I wonder whether you even care about the rest of us, the majority, who welcome the announcement of love and commitment between two members of the Jewish community?”

This newspaper, its so-called “editorial”, the Orthodox impetus for its printing, and the reaction to it, represents – sadly – a microcosm of the American society in which we live.

Even in an era when gay teen suicide is a prevalent issue in our national dialogue and a problem to be addressed – and even within a theoretically enlightened Jewish community – we are in need of education.

This demonstrates the old adage that Jews are just like everyone else, but even more so.

We are in an entirely new epoch when it comes to our relationships with gay and lesbian members of our society. It has taken us years to move our nation and individuals within it, toward a time when a person’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to his or her place in society.

But there is still far to go.

There comes a time when acceptance must give way to activism. People of moral conscience need to work to create a community where gays and lesbians are accorded the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

This week’s Torah portion reviews the sins of the early humans that, in the eyes of our Israelite ancestors, were the precipitating factors of the flood of the era of Noah and the downfall of the Tower of Babel.

The story of Noah and the ark, similar to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, has often been portrayed – in certain biblical fundamentalist circles – as a tale relating to so-called “sexual perversions” of humanity.

In addition to these narratives in the early Torah text, one can read the laws of Leviticus and infer that homosexual acts were something abhorred by the ancient Israelite community; these strictures are often used by fundamentalists to demonstrate that the Bible is against homosexuality.

But modern scholars now believe that these texts were more against homosexuality as a method of worship. Besides, sexual orientation was something that was not understood by our ancestors.

Still, because of fear, and following the pattern of many societies that were concerned with these kinds of issues, they condemned the practice without understanding its origin.

Today we know different.

Today we know that somewhere between 3% and 5% of the human family are homosexual. We also believe that God does not frown upon the expression of human sexuality, and that whether gay, lesbian, or straight, God’s divinity and image reside within each of God’s children.

But I am affected by a particular teaching in this week’s Torah portion, the section that deals with the destruction of the earth at the time of Noah.

The text says this: “Va-tishachet ha’aretz lifnei ha’elohim, va-timalei ha’aretz hamas.” “The earth was corrupted before God’s very presence, and the world was filled with violence.” And in these heated days of extreme national debate and angst, I think this may be true – in a way – about our nation.

But not in the way that biblical literalists think.

As a society, we have corrupted our land and committed violence against people. It’s just that today we have incited violence against yet another minority group whom we find easy to disparage.

Today, we legitimize old prejudices and encourage new discrimination by displaying examples of both in a Jewish newspaper.

Today, we can bully someone through the World Wide Web, showing video footage that is assured to bring embarrassment and humiliation.

Today, we can spread rumor and innuendo about anyone through the viral spread of Internet email and web images.

The media have put a well-deserved emphasis on the heart-wrenching suicides of gay and lesbian youth in recent weeks. But what really needs to brighten is the spotlight on the overt prejudice that has led to these needless deaths.

And in this election year, when self-aggrandizing politicians use anti-gay bias as a wedge issue, something is very wrong with the way we conduct our national business.

When homophobic interpreters of scripture mis-characterize the sins of the generation of Noah as being sexually based, they pervert the very validity of using the Bible as a book of moral instruction.

When we neglect to sincerely empathize with the families of Raymond Chase, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown and Tyler Clementi, five gay teenagers who recently committed suicide, we have permitted others to set the societal agenda. We have abdicated our role of leading a society by example.

Here is a set of statistics regarding gay and lesbian suicides that I found terribly distressing. I suspect you, too, will find them unsettling:

* Of all American teens who die by their own hand, 30 percent are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, or queer.

* According to the 2007 Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

* According to researchers in the journal Pediatrics, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who come from families that reject them when they come out of the closet, are more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide than lesbian, gay, and bisexual peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.

* According to a 2009 survey by GLSEN, a national organization that seeks to create healthier atmospheres on school campuses for all people, almost 85 percent of LGBTQ teenagers are harassed in high school because of their sexual orientation, with 61 percent of gay youth reporting that they felt unsafe in school and 30 percent staying home to avoid bullying.

We need to rid ourselves of prejudice and purposeful mistranslating of scripture. We need a certain kind of religious understanding that seeks not violence but rather tolerance and full acceptance, based upon the values of the text rather than ancient words that reflect fear and suspicion.

What is needed are more days similar to this Sunday’s “National Coming Out Day.” This is an annual event when gay and lesbian youth are encouraged to stop concealing their sexual orientation, and to disclose their orientation to those who know them and would be most supportive of this reality of their lives.

What is needed is more encouragement similar to that of the local cast of “Wicked”. Last Friday they placed on the YouTube website a two minute video reminding gay and lesbian youth that, ‘yes, it is difficult to reveal one’s homosexual orientation, but that the more one is honest and open about it, the easier it gets to do it.’

What is needed is our changing our attitudes. It actually helps society when our fellow citizens are able to be honest with themselves and with us regarding their sexual orientation. Suppressing one’s identity is unhealthy for the individual and for society.

What is needed is education and patience, but an always forward-moving set of attitudes.

What is needed is the expression of sincere remorse, and dedication to correcting past wrongs.

What is needed is for the religious community to take its place beside our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and to stand firmly on the side of equal rights in all areas of life.

It is time for us to reach out to other religious communities and encourage them to say “enough” to bullying, to suicides, and to harassment due to a person’s sexual orientation.

I invite you to begin this process locally with me, along with clergy and members of other religious congregations.

We must bear in mind the words he who stood in the breach between Nazi atrocities and humanity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Finally, what is needed are more follow-up editorials like this one that appeared in the online version of the New Jersey Jewish Standard after the so-called “firestorm” that erupted because of that paper’s initial editorial stand:

“We ran the wedding announcement because we felt, as a community newspaper, that it was our job to serve the entire community — something we have been doing for 80 years.

“We did not expect the heated response we got, and — in truth — we believe now that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community.

“We are now having meetings with local rabbis and community leaders. We will also be printing, in the paper and online, many of the letters that have been pouring in since our statement was published.

“We urge everyone to take a step back and reflect on what this series of events has taught us about the community we care so much about, and about the steps we must take to move forward together.”

Would that be the approach of all citizens in our nation!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Religious Bigotry: Unacceptable by Any Standard

(The following is the text of a press release composed by the signatories listed below about their grave concern over incidents of religious persecution in the weeks and months gone by. This was released on Tuesday September 7, 2010, at a press conference run by Ingrid Matson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. You can view the press conference through C-SPAN's coverage of the press conference by clicking here.)

As religious leaders in this great country, we have come together in our nation’s capital to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community. We bear a sacred responsibility to honor America’s varied faith traditions and to promote a culture of mutual respect and the assurance of religious freedom for all. In advance of the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we announce a new era of interfaith cooperation.

As Jews, Christians, and Muslims, we are grateful to live in this democracy whose Constitution guarantees religious liberty for all. Our freedom to worship in congregations of our own choosing, to give witness to our moral convictions in the public square, and to maintain institutions that carry out our respective missions—all of these are bedrock American freedoms that must be vigorously guarded and defended lest they be placed at peril. The United States of America has been a beacon to the world in defending the rights of religious minorities, yet it is also sadly true that at times in our history particular groups have been singled out for unjust discrimination and have been made the object of scorn and animosity by those who have either misconstrued or intentionally distorted the vision of our founders.

In recent weeks, we have become alarmed by the anti-Muslim frenzy that has been generated over the plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque at the Park 51 site near Ground Zero in New York City. We recognize that the vicinity around the former World Trade Center, where 2,752 innocent lives were cruelly murdered on 9/11, remains an open wound in our country, especially for those who lost loved ones. Persons of conscience have taken different positions on the wisdom of the location of this project, even if the legal right to build on the site appears to be unassailable. Our concern here is not to debate the Park 51 project anew, but rather to respond to the atmosphere of fear and contempt for fellow Americans of the Muslim faith that the controversy has generated.

We are profoundly distressed and deeply saddened by the incidents of violence committed against Muslims in our community, and by the desecration of Islamic houses of worship. We stand by the principle that to attack any religion in the United States is to do violence to the religious freedom of all Americans. The threatened burning of copies of the Holy Qu’ran this Saturday is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honor the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on September 11. As religious leaders, we are appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text that for centuries has shaped many of the great cultures of our world, and that continues to give spiritual comfort to more than a billion Muslims today.

We are committed to building a future in which religious differences no longer lead to hostility or division between communities. Rather, we believe that such diversity can serve to enrich our public discourse about the great moral challenges that face our nation and our planet. On the basis of our shared reflection, we insist that no religion should be judged on the words or actions of those who seek to pervert it through acts of violence; that politicians and members of the media are never justified in exploiting religious differences as a wedge to advance political agendas or ideologies; that bearing false witness against the neighbor—something condemned by all three of our religious traditions—is inflicting particular harm on the followers of Islam, a world religion that has lately been mischaracterized by some as a “cult.”

We call for a new day in America when speaking the truth about one another will embrace a renewed commitment to mutual learning among religions. Leaders of local congregations have a special responsibility to teach with accuracy, fairness and respect about other faith traditions. The partnerships that have developed in recent years between synagogues and churches, mosques and synagogues, and churches and mosques should provide a foundation for new forms of collaboration in interfaith education, inter-congregational visitations, and service programs that redress social ills like homelessness and drug abuse. What we can accomplish together is, in very many instances, far more than we can achieve working in isolation from one another. The good results of a more extensive collaboration between religious congregations and national agencies will undoubtedly help to heal our culture, which continues to suffer from the open wound of 9/11.

We work together on the basis of deeply held and widely shared values, each supported by the sacred texts of our respective traditions. We acknowledge with gratitude the dialogues between our scholars and religious authorities that have helped us to identify a common understanding of the divine command to love one’s neighbor. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all see an intimate link between faithfulness to God and love of neighbor; a neighbor who in many instances is the stranger in our midst. We are united in our conviction that by witnessing together in celebration of human dignity and religious freedom; by working together for interfaith understanding across communities and generations; and by cooperating with each other in works of justice and mercy for the benefit of society, all of us will demonstrate our faithfulness to our deepest spiritual commitments.

We are convinced that spiritual leaders representing the various faiths in the United States have a moral responsibility to stand together and to denounce categorically derision, misinformation or outright bigotry directed against any religious group in this country. Silence is not an option. Only by taking this stand, can spiritual leaders fulfill the highest calling of our respective faiths, and thereby help to create a safer and stronger America for all of our people.


Rev. Father Mark Arey
Director, Inter-Orthodox Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Galen Carey
Executive Director of the Office of Governmental Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals

Rev. Richard Cizik
President, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Dr. Gerald L. Durley
Pastor, Providence Missionary Baptist Church

Dr. Mohmaed Elsanousi
Director of Community Outreach, Islamic Society of North America

Prof. Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer
Chair, Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Dr. Welton Gaddy
President, Interfaith Alliance

Rabbi Steve Gutow
Executive Director, Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Rev. Donald Heckman
Director for External Relations, Religions for Peace

Bishop Neil L. Irons
Executive Secretary, Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church

Mr. Rizwan Jaka
Board Member, Islamic Society of North America

Rev. Rich Killmer
Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture

Dr. Michael Kinnamon
General Secretary, National Council of Churches (NCC)

Imam Mohamed Hag Magid
Vice President, Islamic Society of North America

Rev. Steven D. Martin
Executive Director, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Father James Massa
Executive Director, Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

Rabbi Jose Rolando Matalon
Rabbi, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun

Dr. Ingrid Mattson
President, Islamic Society of North America

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, Archdiocese of Washington

Bishop Donald J. McCoid
Executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Dr. Roy Medley
General Secretary, American Baptist Churches

Rabbi Jack Moline
Director of Public Policy, Rabbinical Assembly

Mr. Nicholas Richardson
Communications Director, Archdiocese of New York

Pastor Bob Roberts
Pastor, Northwood Church in Keller, Texas

Mr. Walter Ruby
Muslim-Jewish Relations Program Officer, Foundation of Ethnic Understanding

Rabbi David Saperstein
Executive Director, The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)

Rabbi Marc Schneier
President, Foundation of Ethnic Understanding

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Executive Vice President, The Rabbinical Assembly, the Association of Conservatives Rabbis

Dr. Parvez Shah
Secretary General, Universal Muslim Association of America

Bishop Mark Sisk
Bishop of New York City, The Episcopal Church

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed
National Director, Islamic Society of North America

Rabbi Steve Wernick
Executive Director, United Synagogue

Mr. Jim Winkler
General Secretary for Church and Society, United Methodist Church

Mr. Safaa Zarzour
Secretary General, Islamic Society of North America

Dr. James Zogby
President, Arab American Institute

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Jewish Response in Support of American Muslims

(NOTE: This is an opinion piece that originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on Sunday, September 5, 2010, and was written by myself and Charles Cohen, Professor of History/Religious Studies; Director, Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, University of Wisconsin, Madison)

This week we observe a unique confluence of days sacred to Jews, Muslims, and all Americans. The convergence of the beginning of the Jewish New Year, the conclusion of the month of Ramadan fasts, and the ninth anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11 compel us to reflect on the current controversies ignited by those who wish to divide Americans on the basis of religion.

We are disgusted by recent attempts in various US cities to intimidate Muslim Americans, people who wish simply to exercise their constitutional rights. Anti-Islam activities in New York City, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sacramento, California, and elsewhere soberly remind us that hatred can fester in any locale. We categorically reject these fear-infused acts to stand with our Muslim cousins – and all Americans of good will – against hate. These actions are utter anathema to us as people of faith and as citizens.

Most disturbing of late have been the threats by a Florida church to burn copies of the Holy Qur’an on September 11. Two generations ago, our parents and grandparents fought the Nazis, who also incinerated books that offended them. It is shameful that a few Americans wish to emulate Hitler.

We believe that the current attacks on Islam go deeper than a fear of terrorism; they put forward the canard that Islam is fundamentally at odds with American values, a viewpoint that we categorically reject. These assaults recall others on religious (and non-religious) minorities: Catholics were thought minions of a foreign potentate; Mormons were hounded because Joseph Smith was (like Muhammad) regarded as a false prophet; Jews were charged with deicide; and atheists were deemed unfit to hold public office. That all of these groups now participate fully in American life is self-evident and cause for national self-congratulation.

Those Muslims who hijacked four planes on September 11 surely caused America grievous harm. Islam itself, however, is not the enemy. The adversary is religious extremism and intolerance for differences. America's better angels have always upheld religious freedom. We hope that the majority of Americans, and surely the majority of Madisonians, will drown out the voices of hatred, bigotry, and ignorance that have rung forth so discordantly this past year.

Observances of both the Jewish New Year and the month of Ramadan encourage their faithful to examine the self, reject sin, and choose better ways of living. We urge Americans of all backgrounds, whether religious or not, likewise to examine themselves and affirm the values that make us a people: freedom of conscience, and respect for different religious heritages.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Madison's Gay Pride Day

On Sunday, August 22, 2010, Madison's Wisconsin Capitol Pride Parade takes place at 1 pm, beginning right in the city's political and social heart, Capital Square, and I hope that you can come. The procession loops around the square and proceeds west along State Street to the Liberty Mall/Fountain area, on to the campus of the University of Wisconsin.

In this era, I believe there is increasing need to support members of the lesbian and gay community, and it would be a true sign of support and comfort to have as many members of the Jewish community as possible come out to call for civil and legal rights for our LGBT brothers and sisters.

The parade is followed by a Madison Gay Pride rally from 2 pm until 5 pm. Please come to support our lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered Madison community, as well as our LGBT Jews living in Madison. Join up with other members of the Jewish community of Madison as we gather at the Sha’arei Shamayim banner and march. For more information, you can access the Wisconsin Capital Pride website by clicking here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Marriage Equality: One Step Further, One Step Closer

After the stunning decision on August 4 by a San Francisco Federal court judge, no issue will be as volatile on the American political scene before the November elections as the issue of whether states have the power to restrict legal marriages to heterosexual couples.

I just know there’s going to be a deluge of television and radio spots, fliers mailed to our homes, email in our in boxes, and all other means of mass communications. This issue will enter our homes and consciousnesses in many ways.

And here is one from me!

When I think of what my Jewish rabbinic response would be to those who advocate denying marriage equality to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, I consider three important values that emanate from our tradition:

First: “Praised are You, Eternal our God, sovereign of the world, who has made me in the Divine Image.” We offer these words of worship every morning, reminding us of the supreme human value, emanating from our tradition, that each human being, regardless of sexual orientation, skin color, nationality, or belief system, was created through divine power and authority.

But they say more than that. They also confirm that each of us possesses – within – part of the substance of God.

It is only right and just, therefore, that we accord each member of the human family the privileges of marriage and family love. For so we humans have been made to give and receive love, and to perpetuate our species through life affirming parenthood.

Further, we read in the Torah a passage that is brief, but that contains the strength of our human bonds with one another. The words “love your neighbor as yourself” from the book of Leviticus confirm the demand that we must treat each person equally. These words form the basis of what we call “The Holiness Code”, and, accordingly, the call to love our neighbors and not hate them shows us the way in which we – ourselves – become holy people.

Finally, the Torah demands no less than thirty-six times that we care for the widow, the orphan, the deprived, and the stranger, and the books of the Prophets of Israel preach essentially this important value.

We Jews know the heart of those who have been persecuted, having ourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. Through our history, we know how it feels to be enslaved, and to have equality only as a dream and not a reality. And since we understand the heart of the stranger, it is up to us to empathize with the victims of bigotry and prejudice, and strive to eliminate persecution.

The verdict in Perry v Schwarzenegger, the official name of the case whose verdict was announced on August 4, was also a shining example of the upholding of a simple, American value. That is the concept that the majority of voters may not tyrannize and discriminate against any minority when it comes to the area of human rights. As Jews we know intimately the feeling of discrimination based purely on being part of a minority, and it is, therefore, our responsibility to be part of the solution of this problem. Ours is the duty to struggle on behalf of those who are subject each day to social and legal disabilities.

Yes, before us we have both Jewish and American calls to create and maintain a society that is just and fair, and prejudices based on sexual orientation have no place in that society. And I invite you to continue to be part of this struggle, this movement.

In this week’s Torah portion (Re’ei, Deuteronomy 14:29), we read about our responsibility to allocate part of our bounty with the Levite (to whom no land was apportioned), the orphan, the widow, and the stranger among us. None of these can earn the benefits of life for themselves, and so we share with them. And not only must they eat but they must be satisfied. Then God shall bless us.

And in Hertz’s commentary on the Torah, he notes this: “The purpose for the poor tithe was to teach the salutary doctrine that man’s possessions are only truly blessed when he permits others to join with him in their enjoyment.”

So we infer that it is up to us to share the benefits of God’s world with all those who have been persecuted in their lives, and then our lives will have meaning.

It takes an act of courage to confront and challenge those who would oppose equality. But I believe that each one of us has the strength to make a stand on behalf of all those who have created families, or who wish to create families, where love and generosity should be rewarded with the rights and privileges of marriage.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Where Are We on Christmas Day?

“Where are you on Christmas Day?”

So asked Senator Lindsey Graham to Solicitor General Elana Kagan, candidate for associate justice of the United States Supreme Court this past week.

Graham was about to launch into a “Q and A” about the extent to which the US Constitution and established law enables the United States to deal with suspects of terror, referring to the averted disaster on a Northwest airlines flight that safely landed in Detroit last Christmas Day. His opening question could have been a bit more coherent.

So with a deft use of aplomb and grace, Kagan launched into a statement trying address the various issues surrounding terrorism and the “law of war,” but it was clear that she was answering a question that Senator Graham did not ask. So he stopped her in mid sentence and, in his inimitable style, asked, “I was just trying to ask you where you were on Christmas.”

I think that her second response was more Kagan-esque that before. After apparently having found the right response and offering a few moments of self-deprecating laughter, she said, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

“Great answer,” responded Senator Graham. And the room erupted in laughter.
And Senator Shumer chimed in to remind everyone, “Well, those are the only restaurants that are open on that day.”

And more laughter came.

And Senator Graham continued, “You were with your family on Christmas Day in a Chinese restaurant, is that right? That’s great. That’s what Hanukkah and Christmas are all about.”

Well that last statement may not be exactly clear, but to me, this was an extraordinary exchange to take place in the United States Senate. In the midst of these important and serious hearings, everyone is looking for some release of nervous energy, so the humor is understandable.

And to have the Jewishness of a Supreme Court nominee become a safe focal point – instead of an embarrassing and uncomfortable one, as it has been hinted at in the weeks preceding these hearings – is, to me, a sign of having made some kind of progress as a notable religious minority.

“Shah-shtil!” “Quiet! Don't call attention to yourself.” These used to be the watchwords of the American Jewish community toward their Judaism as they attempted to assimilate into American society.

But now, the stereotype of our eating out at Chinese restaurants – because they are, by and large, the only places open on Christmas day – is as welcomed and accepted as the Yiddish expressions that pervade the screens of television and movies.

But more than that:

The level of tolerance of a Jewish presence in America is clear and wide-spread, even among some southern good ole’ boys in the Senate, and perhaps this is something to be thankful for on this Independence Day weekend.

In the weeks prior to these Senate confirmation hearings, the rumblings and dissatisfaction that we heard regarding the fact that, if Kagan were to be confirmed, there would be six Catholics, three Jews, and no Protestants on the court, were quite troubling. To me it meant that there are those who are still watching, and still worrying in their dark world, and still keeping score of such things.

But there are brighter spots, and this moment in these Senate hearings represents one of them.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The recent successes of immigrant populations suggest that a different approach needs to be considered for comprehensive immigration reform.

You may remember these recent headlines:

The New York Times proclaimed: "In Miss USA Contest, a Novel Twist," because pageant organizers had crowned a 24-year-old Lebanese immigrant as Miss USA 2010."

From the Detroit Free Press: "Metro Detroit celebrates Miss USA's Arab-American winner."

And in what was to me a clear reach for ratings and in reference to a controversy spun by the political Right, CNN had this headline: "Miss USA: Muslim Trailblazer or Hezbollah Spy?"

Then there was a hate-filled website that read "Zionists Install Rima Fakih as Miss USA 2010." And there are even more which I would not repeat in this forum.

There were similar events that also made headlines. Thaindian News announced "Anamika Veeramani Wins Bee Championship," when it beamed with pride that Veeramani was the third consecutive Indian-American to win the Bee Championship. I wonder what the hate websites said about that!

We Jews should understand this manifestation of hatred. We, too, once ascended into mainstream society accompanied by derision and contempt. And so it is with today's new immigrants, who have become the targets of racists.

Whether through the anti-immigrant sniping of radio and television talk-show hosts, or the ranting of nativist groups on the World Wide Web, or the anti-Semitic attitudes recently expressed by former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, many in our society have felt emboldened to assert expressions of white superiority or, as some might call it, "American exceptionalism." (You know, I really dislike that term.)

Yes, the cries of white supremacists have again been heard in our land.

And overall, our society has grown coarser. Hate speech has become more widespread. And why our society has not come out more fervently against these new and emboldened expressions of hatred - I just don't understand.

Psychologists will tell us that expressing our feelings makes us generally feel better. But the prejudicial emotions that are aired so freely in the media these days - from many places along the political spectrum - do nothing but degrade the humanity of which we really should be rightly proud.

Remembering 'the plight of the stranger in our midst' is a command spoken by the Torah no less than 36 times. This represents a sacred obligation which should permeate every moment of our lives. And all of this begins with our speech. How we put our thoughts and emotions into words truly declares our intent and our direction.

The racially triumphalist speech to which we are subject makes me view, in a much more positive light, Korach's words of dissent in the Torah portion of Korach, beginning in Numbers 16. When contrasted with the nativist language that we hear from people like Glenn Beck, various states such as Arizona, TEA and other sectarian parties, and the vast array of hate websites, Korach's cry rings in our ears, for it can be heard as a declaration and desire for equality.

At the beginning of our parashah Korach bellows out at Aaron and Moses, "You have gone too far. The whole community is holy - every one of them - and the Eternal God is among all of them. Why then do you raise yourselves above this assembly of God?"

Now: It is clear, in the context of the Torah, that Korach protests the elite status of the Cohanim - the priestly class - of which he is not a member. He criticizes those who have, in his eyes, unduly elevated themselves within the Israelite hierarchy. So on behalf of the entirety of the community of Israel, he demands equality and justice.

As the narrative of the Torah unfolds, we see that God actually finds his protest objectionable, and punishes him, his followers, and their families. The purpose - and plain message - of the narrative is that the community of Israel needs a stable hierarchy of civic and religious leadership to survive the rigors of desert life. The preservation of Israel requires the keen oversight of the priests to ensure that each sacrifice and each ritual is observed in scrupulous fashion. Citizen participation is not required.

But understood in a different context, we today might read Korach's words as a plea to whomever is listening that, in his view, each citizen of Israel - and, by extension, each person on the planet - is graced with an equal amount of God's divinity; each person is made in God's image. And if that is the understanding, then no difference should stand between one person and another.

It is ironic that, both from the biblical and the scientific/evolutionary points of view, the generations of humanity are understood to have descended from a single ancestor. Whether we're talking about Adam and Eve, who in the book of Genesis originated in the Garden of Eden, or about homo habilis, one of our first ancestors who walked upright, who seems to have his/her origins in the south and east parts of the African continent, our commonality should make us grow closer to one another rather than act as a barrier keeping us apart.

And, at least from the standpoint of the rabbinic commentators of Torah, this common ancestry that we read about in Genesis 5:1 is the most important 'take-away' that we articulate through Jewish tradition. This unique and unified human pedigree, according to our Torah authorities, should permeate every action we take during our lives.

It is in this context that I share with you my profound disgust of that infamous new Arizona state law about identifying and dealing with immigrants. It is, as we know, a statute that enables law enforcement personnel or agencies to "determine the immigration status of the person" whenever any "lawful contact" is "made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency."

This new law invites racial profiling at its most nefarious level, that is, when it's sanctioned by the state. And given the vast numbers of Latino Americans in Arizona, not to mention any other minority of some color, the law could subject massive numbers of Americans to violation of their freedoms.

All that is needed by any officer or agency is "reasonable suspicion" to ask someone for "zheir papers." And unlike most laws that I have read, certain terms, especially the ambiguous phrase "reasonable suspicion," are not defined. This murkiness will surely lead to abuse, particularly in a 'wild west' state.

If simple physical appearance, or arbitrary officer discretion, are determining factors, any non-white person living in Arizona is really, as they might say in Spanish, "auf tzuris."

As an update: On June 4th, 2010, a coalition of civil rights groups petitioned the federal courts to block the implementation of the law until its constitutionality can be determined. The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education League, the National Immigration Law Center, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the ACLU of Arizona, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

And a month ago, 13 Reform Rabbis in Arizona notified the governor of their opposition of the law. They stated their abhorrence of an "inhumane and retrogressive bill" that "threatens the rights of all Arizona residents by making the failure to carry identification into a crime and leaving the entire population vulnerable to police questioning." They rightly complained that the permissions given to local law enforcement was "an affront to American values of justice and our historic status as a nation of immigrants."

All of this brings me back to the Torah's unique appreciation of the plight of the stranger that I mentioned earlier. For centuries of history, and more centuries of our story as described in the bible, we have been intimately familiar with the plight of the stranger.

From our past days enslaved at the hands of Egypt's leaders, to our wanderings from land to land while in exile, we know - in our kishkes - the hardships, the degradation, and the disabilities of being foreigners in a strange land. We understand deep inside how it feels to be chased, enslaved, imprisoned simply for our existence, and then expelled for the same reason.

We also know the hard work that it takes to survive in a foreign land. Many of our ancestors were itinerant peddlers on foot - perhaps with a horse - making their way across the landscape, in Europe or America. And we persevered, despite the employment and social disabilities that we suffered at the hands of the Christians and the Muslims. When arriving in great numbers on these shores, we banded together, helping one another even with social barriers erected.

So we also remember the joy we felt when we had realized that we had 'made it' in America. We recall the elation when Louis D. Brandeis was nominated, then confirmed, as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice. We enjoyed an immense sense of satisfaction when, in the face of quotas in secular or other sectarian institutions, we created our own medical schools and hospitals which, even today, have continued to achieve the highest levels of quality and patient care.

And Jews have 'made it' in many fields, from politics to education, from science to entertainment, from law to medicine, from retail successes to volunteer excellence. So we can really only be happy for another immigrant community who also desires to succeed in our country of possibilities.

So I return to the words of Korach in our parashah: "The whole community is holy - every one of them - and the Eternal God is among all of them. Why then does anyone raise himself or herself above this assembly of God?"

So when an Arab American wins a Miss USA beauty pageant, or when a Hindi American wins, for the third straight year, the national Spelling Bee, we see that, even with the hatred and the prevalent name calling; even with the steepness of the climb: other minorities, too, are beginning to make it in our country.

And this should make us proud. Perhaps even hopeful. But certainly very proud!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Does Elie Wiesel Deserve the Benefit of the Doubt? One Nobel Laureate Speaks to Another

Elie Wiesel is an optimist, and an optimist who survived the Holocaust is someone to whom we must attend. And so it is with sensitivity and care that we must read his recent plea (his full page ad in major newspapers in April 2010) to defer discussions on the future status of Jerusalem.

The ad that appeared in the New York Times is not addressed to any particular party, though many have (correctly, I think!) inferred that it is directed against the Obama administration, and that it refers to its current diplomatic dispute with Israel.

But what if his message was addressed to Israel and its leaders?

This is what Wiesel writes:

“What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps that will allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?”

Readers should presume that Mr. Wiesel’s reference to “pressure” connects to the insistence of President Obama that Israel halt construction in disputed areas of the West Bank, including parts of east Jerusalem.

But what if Mr. Wiesel’s message was intended not for Mr. Obama but rather for Mr. Netanyahu and his government?! What if we read Mr. Wiesel’s words as a call to Israel to halt their planning, declaring, permitting and constructing, because those are actions that do not “allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security”? What if Elie Wiesel here criticizes the entirety of Israel’s settlement expansion in Jerusalem as detrimental to an “atmosphere of security?”

We do not know what Mr. Wiesel intends. We must presume, of course, that the totality of his comments were, indeed, aimed at the Obama administration, and that they assert the ancient prejudices, biases, and fears of an Israelite nation relying on the Hebrew bible for their validity and force. But I am a dreamer, and I would hope that a Nobel peace laureate would search for truly peaceful solutions even when it is most difficult. I would hope that one Nobel peace laureate would make the same assumptions about another.

Mr. Wiesel asserts earlier that “Jerusalem is above politics,” and concludes his ad with the hope that Jerusalem “remain the world’s Jewish spiritual capital.” This is certainly my hope as well. But I wonder whether we can ever learn to share this spiritual treasure with those who similarly view Jerusalem with the same love and passion as Mr. Wiesel.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

For Jerusalem's Sake We Should Not Keep Still

This post is a sermon authored by Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, delivered at Temple Beth El, San Antonio, Texas, March 19, 2010; and Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, delivered at Temple Beth El, Madison, Wisconsin, March 26, 2010.

The American Jewish community today confronts a question of true significance, and that is about the nature of the relationship between the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.

This question arises perennially, and no one ever seems able to solve it. Yet today, the disagreement over the answer to this question has recently engendered vehement and violent reaction from Jews in both the US and in Israel. We disagree about whether there can or should be diverse voices presented to Washington legislators on matters concerning Israel and the Middle East. They have differing opinions about the stake that Diaspora Jews have in affairs in Israel.

But in most cases, I believe all these voices are realistically concerned for Israel as a nation and as a force for good in the world.

(True, there is the voice of the self-hating Jew or the Jew almost exclusively focused on Palestinian issues to the exclusion of Israeli security. I believe that many of these voices set themselves outside of the community, and this piece is not about them.)

The proliferation of American Jewish voices on this topic, heard through the Internet and through a vast array of membership organizations, has caused us great angst. And angst can lead to frustration, and frustration can lead to violence, either overt or, more likely, recriminations and violent invective hurled back and forth in the media.

What should be our stance with regard to speaking out about Israel if we live in the Diaspora?

Many of us are sometimes unsure even if we have a right to react at all. We seriously question whether it is our place to express our opinions to the government in Israel. And as Jews living in the United States, we also question the wisdom of speaking out publicly if we disagree with some of Israel’s actions. We don’t want to be seen airing our dirty laundry in public, nor do we want to do anything to undermine Israel’s relationship with the US or to upset the support most non-Jewish Americans feel toward Israel.

Further, within the American Jewish community, dissent is often fraught with difficulties. It can be frightening to express aloud any criticism or disagreement with anything the Israeli government does. To do so risks being labeled anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or even a self-hating Jew. Rabbis I know have been publicly vilified or, worse, have had their jobs threatened.

Even though as Americans we understand it is both our privilege and our duty to express any disagreements we might have with our own government – and we celebrate our right as citizens to express our opinions to our elected officials – when it comes to Israel, any dissent is often portrayed as disloyalty.

Is it possible, therefore, to disagree with the policies and actions of the Israeli government, while still loving and supporting the State of Israel?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is “Yes!” There is a saying in Hebrew – kol yisrael mitarev zeh b’zeh – “all of Israel is intertwined, one with the other”. What this means is that each Jew is connected to every other Jew in the world; our destinies are tied to one another. We American Jews may not live in Israel, but we are affected by what happens there, and while we cannot dictate to our Israeli brothers and sisters what they should do, we are and should feel entirely within our rights to express our opinions and offer our advice.

One may ask then, “Is it wise for there to be a multiplicity of voices of American Jews addressing our legislators on these questions?”

Let’s look at one particular new voice in the mix.

The arrival of J Street has been particularly difficult for some AIPAC members to accept. J Street’s founders believed that the previous structure of Jewish organizations that lobbied Congress and the Administration on Israel-related matters did not adequately represent the majority of American Jews. They felt that they were being either disregarded or, worse, misrepresented in the discussions regarding peace in the Middle East.

And since many of them believed that, because of their love for the state of Israel that their voices needed to be heard, they felt it was appropriate to find the funding – and the backing of American Jewish leaders – who would spearhead their efforts.

What about the fear some of us feel about expressing any disagreement with Israel? Is it disloyal, anti-Israel, or self-hating, if there are times when we disagree with some action or policy of the Israeli government?

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, had this to say on the subject:

“Israel needs our help … and this means hearing our criticisms. Unconditional support is not the same as uncritical support. We love the Jewish state, but we must hold firm to our vision of a Jewish, democratic, and pluralistic Israel. We cannot accept settlement in the heart of the West Bank, where a Palestinian state must one day arise … We will always reach for the highest ideals of the Zionist dream, seeking justice for all of Israel’s citizens and for her neighbors as well.”

And it is important to express these viewpoints, simultaneously, if necessary: support for Israel’s very real need for security and the right to defend herself when she is attacked; and disagreement when her actions seem to threaten that security or when she fails to live up to the ideals we all hold dear.

So, to a specific issue:

“Hasn’t the current diplomatic flap about the construction of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem been exacerbated by the support of progressive Jewish organizations for the position and actions of the Obama administration?”

Each one of us may speculate as to the answer to this question, and we may never have an answer that is completely free from ambiguity.

According to Tom Friedman of the New York Times, the announcement to build those units came from the Israeli Interior Minister who, disregarding the international consequences of his actions, fulfilled – if you will forgive me – a ‘pork barrel’ promise made to ultra-Orthodox Jews in that neighborhood. And instead of clamping down on an uncooperative cabinet minister, the Prime Minister used the occasion to assert the sovereignty of Israel over Jerusalem.

Was Prime Minister Netanyahu legally justified in his pronouncement? Yes. There is no requirement in international law that any nation that has won territory in combat be required to return that territory to a previous owner.

But I think a more subtle question needs to be addressed: Was it wise, given the then-current state of negotiations between Israel, the United States, and the Palestinian Authority on their proximity talks, was it wise for Prime Minister Netanyahu to react in the way he did?

That is a question that we can debate – and we should.

And finally a question particularly germane to those who love Israel and yet have differing views as to the way in which Diaspora Jews should be engaged in these matters: “Is a multiplicity of Jewish voices in Washington, especially when they differ so widely regarding the Middle East peace process, good or bad for the Jews?”

An article I read recently asserts that the activities of J Street have not only confused lawmakers and administration officials. The author, a rabbinic colleague who works in Iowa, asserts that “The J Street perspective on Israel is now driving the Obama Administration's policy toward Israel.”

I believe that this overstates J Street’s, or any organization’s, real influence on these matters. J Street is simply too young and inexperienced to have that kind of power. If J Street’s perspective is the same as the current administration, this is simply because that organization and the administration just happen to understand those issues in similar ways.

In Internet appearances and in written columns, Alan Dershowitz makes impassioned pleas for our American Jewish community to speak with one voice when it comes to lobbying Congress or when speaking to the media. He believes it’s confusing if law- and policy-makers hear diverse views from their Jewish constituents.

But every congressperson knows, if they take the time to read polling data, that the American Jewish community holds varying opinions on these issues. This is a secret to no one. It was not a secret to previous administrations that staunch supporters of Israel supported with dollars and votes; it is not a secret to President Obama and his advisors; it is not a secret to the majority of American Jews. There is no reason to pretend that the American Jewish community is less diverse than it is.

There is a way to bring our opinions about Israel and the situation in the Middle East into the public arena, even when we hear diversity in those views: Our language of criticism needs to be accompanied by unqualified support for the Jewish state even though her actions at any given time may upset us. We need to be unequivocal about our support even when voicing concern.

Also remember this: American support for Israel runs very deep, and is based on many geo-political and religious realities. I believe that stories of the influence of the Jewish lobby are exaggerated and mythic, and any expression of disagreement with Israel’s policies would in no way threaten America’s alliance with Israel.

I believe that discussion is good; transparent debate is healthy; and resolving disagreements help us to struggle with the issues and diverse ideas, and then to hone in on what we ourselves truly believe.

The more we accept and welcome a variety of views, and permit different voices to enter the discussion, the stronger and healthier our community becomes. From the synthesis of ideas there may even come a clearer – and practical – solution.

We have just concluded our observance of Passover, a time when we ended our Seders with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem, next year may all be free!” For next year, let us add, “May all be at peace, in Israel and in all the world."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Passover in Our Times: Jews and Christians Must Be Jews and Christians Even When It's Tough!

I used to think that Glenn Beck was simply one of those right wing fanatics with whom I simply disagree.

Then he offered crocodile tears on his television and radio programs regarding what he viewed as the 'downfall' of America due to the progressive agenda of our president and his administration. I became very, very skeptical.

But now that he has attacked the whole panoply of Judeo-Christian teachings regarding helping the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, I agree with Reverend Jim Wallis that people of religion should simply leave him.

The New York Times Blog site contains this article that reviews the brouhaha that erupted last week, so I don't have to go into that. However, as we approach the holiday of Passover, it is good to remind ourselves of our purpose in celebrating this holiday in the way we do.

Our Seder teaches us through sound, sight, taste, and experience that we must empathize with the plight of the stranger. But that is not its end. The purpose is to motivate us to act, to alleviate suffering, and to look toward the day when there will be no poverty and no injustice.

Judaism sometimes seems somewhat schizophrenic on this and many topics. In the Torah we read about the rewards for caring for the poor and, in almost the same breath, we note that there will never cease to be needy in our land (Deuteronomy 15:11). Perhaps this is not so much schizophrenic as it is reality. There are so many poor and persecuted people among us that we can't help but realize that we have a life-long task ahead of us. We have to strive relentlessly for finding justice and ending oppression and feeding people, even though we know we'll never cease having the need.

The Torah states one sacred obligation, perhaps two, about belief in God. (They are the Sh'ma, and the Fist Commandment that Moses received on Mt. Sinai.) However, the Torah states at least 37 times the sacred obligation to help the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. And why? Because we know the heart of the strangers, having been strangers ourselves in the land of Egypt. The priority of the Torah is very plain. What better lesson could we possibly derive from our Passover celebration?!

It seems a difficult row to hoe, but my father always said that it was hard to be a Jew. In many ways that is right. But it is also a privilege that we should never give up and never defer.

I hope you have a wonderful Passover.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

God Sends Us

In a recent edition of Forward, Rabbi Ilana Grinblat wrote this about whether and how God intervenes in the life of earth’s creatures: “Does Judaism believe that God sends natural disasters in punishment for sin?

"This question was examined by the rabbis. The Talmud posits, “If a man stole a bag of seeds and planted them in his garden, it would be right if the seeds didn’t grow. However the rabbis concluded that nature follows its own rules and the seeds grow.

“The text likewise explains that if a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, it would be right if she did not get pregnant. But nature follows its own rules and she conceives. Through these and other scenarios, the rabbis articulated that God does not intervene in nature based on moral calculus.

“The devastation of the earthquake is horrible enough without giving the victims the added burden of feeling guilt that somehow they are responsible. This atrocious discourse only adds insult to injury.

"If God doesn’t intervene in nature, then where is God in disaster? A story is told of a man who goes up to heaven at the end of his life and stands before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice of the world. He cries out, “God, look at all the suffering in your world. Why don’t you do something to fix it?” God replies gently, “I did do something. I sent you.

"In the aftermath of disaster, God is with the injured and the bereaved, giving them strength to endure and heal. God is with the rescuers, giving them courage and perseverance. God is with all of us, encouraging us to give generously to the victims. God surely did not send the earthquake in Haiti last week. But God has sent each one of us to help."

The question for me, this Rabbi in Madison, Wisconsin, is whether we can see ourselves sent by God. For many of us, our eyes are blinded to this possibility because we are 'rationalists' who cannot fathom a God who intervenes in the world. I do not suggest that God does this, of course, but rather that this is the mission and goal of every individual on the planet. In other words, God set this up from the start, that the job of being human is precisely that, to intervene and help in the life of our world, and especially when our fellow humans need help.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti: Why Politicize Tragedy?

At a time when our nation should be rallying together to help Haiti's citizens at this critical time, conservative broadcast pundits and preachers have found it imperative to both politicize the tragedy of Haiti and offer nonsensical theological blather about the cause of the catastrophe.

Syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh politicized the calamity by saying that President Obama would use the Haitian tragedy to boost his standing with the "light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country."  Limbaugh also seemed to want to scuttle the fundraising for relief efforts when he protested, "We've already donated to Haiti.  It's called the U.S. income tax."

On Glenn Beck's January 14, 2010 radio show, he implied that he has a problem with the Obama Administration's pledge of $100 million to Haitian aid.  Beck believes that the military should be providing security only and allow private charitable organizations and NGOs to do the rest.  IN short, he wanted to create Katrina 2.0.

At least one-third of that island nation has been brought to its knees by tragedy, and the best the Beck can offer is criticism of the Obama Administration's desire to spend $100 million there.  This amount in comparison to our total government outlay is a drop in the proverbial bucket.

And television evangelist Pat Robertson was apparently criticizing the indigenous citizens' adherence to various forms of Haitian voodoo religion as a cause of the earthquake, though he did not do so directly.  On the January 13, 2010 edition of the Christian Broadcasting Network's The 700 Club, Pat Robertson bizarrely claimed that Haiti was hit by the crushing earthquake because it "swore a pact to the devil" to get "free from the French" hundreds of years ago.

This insensitive comment was only the latest in a long line of remarks made by Robertson regarding other disasters.  For example, in 2005 he linked the tragic aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina to the legality of abortion and the presence of homosexuals in New Orleans.  And he earlier agreed with the late Jerry Falwell about the cause of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Falwell commented on the September 13, 2010 edition of The 700 Club Falwell said then that the attacks could be attributed in part to "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

It is unfortunate that there is little we can do against ignorant, insensitive, and anti-humanitarian remarks such as these, except to be aware of them and, as many progressive organizations are doing, to shine a light on these buffoons.  This might go far to begin the cleansing process.  It is only by educating ourselves and exposing these bigoted, politicized, and mean-spirited attitudes that we may be able to put this kind of prejudice in its proper place.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Can We Be Only for Ourselves?

A very happy New Year to you! May it be a year of health, happiness, and peace!

Much controversy has erupted over the recent resolution passed at the recent biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) regarding support for programs intended to raise the standard of living of Israeli Arabs.

In reality, the Reform movement’s action is not new nor is it unprecedented.

Over the past six to eight years, the URJ, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the United Jewish Communities, and, in fact, over 80 other American Jewish organizations, have addressed ways to fill the social and educational gaps between Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Israel. (see below my commentary on the controversy)

These organizations and others have begun to address the ideals stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. That document asserts that there would be “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” and that there should be “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”

Today the social gaps in Israel are glaring, and most poignantly among the Israeli Arab citizens who make up 20% of Israel’s population. A 2008 report by the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, 50% of Israeli Arabs (and 65.7% of Arab children) live below the poverty line, compared to 15.7% among Jews (and to 31.4% for Jewish children). Other social indicators reveal similar gaps in health care, education, welfare funding, life expectancy, and employment.

Raising all Israelis’ social and educational standards would help to strengthen Israel’s society. Offering and providing assistance in appropriate ways would fortify relationships and increase the level of coexistence that the Zionist founders of Israel sought in their time.

Much of this advocacy work is being conducted by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues. I invite you to learn more about this organization that aspires to “make civic equality in Israel a priority for the Jewish people” (from its mission statement).

This is truly an embodiment of the value of Hillel, to concern ourselves about the lives of others as well as our own.


I can only imagine that some donors to these and the other organizations that make up the Inter-Agency Task Force are unhappy with the decision, made eight years ago, to act on this issue. Following the passing of the URJ resolution, the presidents of the Zionist Organization of America and the national Young Israel movement condemned the resolution.

The comments of the Young Israel leader were particularly hurtful, stating that 'Jewish priorities' would dictate serving and supporting Jews and NOT non-Jews.

I think this is a misreading of tradition, which teaches us to help others in addition to ourselves, and at least 37 times in the Torah to help the stranger because 'you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'

I am, as always, interested in hearing your views. Please sign in and share your thoughts.