I did a lot of soul-searching first. Increasingly, I have come to see the Three Weeks — and the final “Nine Days,” which are subject to the most severe restrictions — as symbolic of everything that is seriously wrong with Judaism.
The Torah insists that it must evolve, so the fact that laws have changed over time is not the problem. How the laws have changed is the problem. When, as happened recently, a charedi man refused to help his wife as she was giving birth in his car (a passing tow-truck driver came to the rescue) because “his religion forbade him from touching the baby or the mother,” in the words of the New York Post, we have a problem.
The real reason we observe the Three Weeks
The Three Weeks begin this evening, and with them once again comes the question of why Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The standard answer is this: Jerusalem was destroyed because of the sin of “baseless hatred” (sinat chinam); the Talmud says so, so it must be true.
But the Talmud does not say so. Sinat chinam was a contributing factor, but extremism was the cause.
A few days ago, 120 people who sought refuge in Israel were sent back to South Sudan, where they face existential danger in the shape of hunger and threat of war. Things have been getting worse in Israel, with militant violence. Hostile, intolerant language comes from politicians as well as protestors.
As is the case in other nations around the world, Israel is experiencing great difficulties with rising immigrant populations. Because Israel is the only democratic state with a land connection to Africa, it is inevitable that many African refugees would seek to go there. These undocumented aliens — I prefer to call them migrants — cross into Israel either looking for work, or fleeing from severe persecution. Israel is a tiny state, already overwhelmed with social and economic issues; its resources are very limited. Clearly, it cannot be a home for all refugees who wish to come. There is no justification, however, for the racism and violence that some Israelis are showing toward this population.
Can a state legislature outlaw gay marriage? Can voters do so in a referendum? Can Congress block the Defense of Marriage Act?
Finally, these questions will come before the Supreme Court of the United States. By next year at this time, the high court will provide some answers.
I have an answer I have proposed in this space in the past. While I agree with those who argue that government should not differentiate between same-sex couples and heterosexual ones, I also believe that no government, at any level, should be involved in marriage in the first place. “Marriage” belongs in the religious realm, not the secular one. Getting government out of the marriage business is the easiest way to resolve this civil rights issue.
Hypocrisy is an ancient curse.
One thing you discover in studying other cultures is that from way back in time, each has had its own way of saying that all people deserve equal consideration. Sometimes the statement is made in the negative, sometimes in the positive, sometimes in both forms.
Thus, for example, the sacred Hindu text, the Mahabharata, offers this version: “This is the sum of duty: Do nothing to others that, if done to you, would cause you pain.”
This Sunday, we who live in the tri-state area will have the opportunity to publicly celebrate the State of Israel’s first 64 years as New York City hosts what has become a tradition over the last 48 years — the Salute to Israel Day Parade (sorry, I mean the Celebrate Israel Parade; more below on why the name change).
The parade is the largest gathering of Jews outside of Israel to celebrate the forming of the Jewish state. In the past, it was arranged by the Israel Tribute Committee with respect and dignity. This year, however, some of that respect and dignity may be diminished. Not only will school groups, Jewish organizations, synagogues of all stripes, Zionism-inspired artists and the like proudly proclaim their love for Israel, but this year’s parade will also see people marching who stand accused by some of actively working to undermine Israel. It matters little whether the accusation is a false one. This is a case in which perception counts more than reality.
My father directed communications for the parade one year a couple of decades ago. To him, it was a display of Jewish unity and pride as groups that normally stood apart from each other stood shoulder to shoulder along the parade route.
I served on the Israel Tribute Committee’s board for several years between 2002 and 2009. My fellow members and I would argue over themes, color schemes, and logo designs. We sometimes fought over whether a band or an act was too parochial, too secular, or too awful, but we always agreed on this: No matter what we chose, it had to highlight the very best of Israel and those who wish the Jewish state well every day, and on parade day in particular.
Jews for Jesus wanted to march, but we said no. We agreed amongst ourselves that this missionary Christian group probably does love Israel for many of the same symbolic reasons we Jews do, and for some reasons unique to its own ideology. Yet, we also believed that to allow the group, a very definite lightning rod for discord, to march would be divisive and we did not want divisiveness on a day of unity.
We never once disagreed on the purpose of the parade. It was intended to demonstrate the stunning and overwhelming support Americans had for Israel. The parade — with hundreds of thousands of people (and even over one million people in some years) marching along Fifth Avenue, or cheering marchers on from the sidelines regardless of the weather — was designed to send a powerful message to anyone who doubted the American people’s resolve to support Israel as a true friend of the United States and a champion of democracy in the Middle East.
Today, the parade is run by a larger organization, one that used to have just a vote or two on the board, but which now controls its agenda. “Agenda” is the operative word here, because there is no other way to describe it. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, funded largely by New York’s UJA-Federation, now controls the parade. The JCRC-NY even changed the name, from “Salute to Israel Parade” to the supposedly more inclusive and perhaps more pareve-like “Celebrate Israel Parade,” so that many more people can now participate.
And, indeed, more are joining in. We now have the New Israel Fund, for example, which helped finance an effort to convince the Norwegian government’s pension fund to divest from Israel. Meretz USA, an offshoot of the Israeli political party, urges a boycott of products made in the territories, including Ahava cosmetics; it will march. The Israeli civil rights group B’tselem, whose chairman publicly called for “effective sanctions” against Israel, will be there, as well.
These groups believe in Israel and in its security, and it is disingenuous to argue otherwise, but they disagree with Israeli government policies in the territories. That is their right, but on parade day, they are lightning rods of discord, just as Jews for Jesus would do.
One need only see what has been going on for a couple of months now. Richard Allen, founder of JCCWatch.org, has been promoting an effort to rally against these groups at the parade. He notes, often in overly exaggerated and inflammatory rhetoric, that John Ruskay, the head professional at UJA-Federation in New York, once was part of an organization known as the Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East.
Allen said that he and a committee he helped form to “give the parade back to the people who want to see a thriving Israel” are working hard to get the message out.
“We have an open call for all friends of Israel to attend the Israel Day Parade and give out a loud Bronx Cheer to New Israel Fund, Meretz USA and B’Tselem as they march by. There should be no room at the Israel Day Parade for those groups that support a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions against Israel,” Allen said.
Never mind whether Allen is correct. What he proposes for Sunday can also run counter to the main purpose of the parade by adding further discord and dissension.
He and those who agree with him are not the problem, however. The parade organizers are at fault, because they abandoned the parade’s original mission.
The message, the spirit, the reason the event was begun in 1964 will be lost amid the din of those Bronx cheers. In its own words on its website, the parade states that its purpose is to “enable the tri-state community to celebrate in a non-partisan, apolitical show of unity with Israel.”
Make no mistake, political diversity is acceptable. Lightning rods are not. Groups that support a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian Arab state and no settlements are acceptable. Groups that would make the people in the territories suffer because they live there, or who would make the entire state pay an economic price for a peace even the Palestinians do not seriously pursue, are not acceptable, especially if they do not also advocate similar measures against Palestinian intransigence.
People should come out in larger numbers than ever this year to unite behind the State of Israel. That is the only reason to be there. That is the real reason we all need to be there. More than ever, the world needs to see that America’s concern for Israel’s safety and security and prosperity remains undiminished and unshakable.
The politics of it all have their venues. Fifth Avenue on Sunday is not one of them.
This weekend, we celebrate Shavuot, the festival known as z’man matan torateinu — the time of the giving of the Torah. The Torah does not refer to Shavuot in this way, but the chronology it gives for the journey from Egypt to Sinai is strongly suggestive, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes in his article on page 18.
Because Shavuot, the celebration of Torah, focuses on learning, education — specifically, Jewish education — is a proper topic for this week’s column.
What makes it an urgent column is an e-mail I received a couple of weeks back as a member of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis (NJBR). It informed the community’s rabbis that the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) in effect was cutting its last lines of support to Jewish education in the areas of Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties that it serves.
If ever there was any doubt about who we are and what our place is in the world, that doubt should have been erased on a Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv 64 years ago, when David Ben-Gurion stood before a packed room and declared that it was “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”
As he stood there, Ben-Gurion, as always, was mindful of both Jewish history and world history. He knew that what he was about to do had never been done by any other expelled people. He knew how impossible it was for this to be happening. And yet, there he was, saying the words Jews only dreamed about hearing for nearly 2,000 years.