Friday, December 31, 2004

Who Pays for Israel's Orthodox?

The title for this piece is the title of a Hillel Halkin article a few days ago in the New York Sun. In response to a letter from a young fervently Orthodox Israeli woman named Sarah asking for support, Halkin - a significant writer who made aliyah many years ago - castigates Israel's "ultra-Orthodox" for taking "for granted that pious Jews are owed a living by someone," mainly the Israeli government which in return for political support transfers large sums every year to this community "in the form of child allowances to maintain its high birth rate and of transfer payments to its religious and educational institutions."

Halkin's flawed analysis - government support has no impact on the birth rate - raises two linked and familiar issues that have been used to clobber those whose lives are devoted to Torah study. One question is the appropriateness of this life style. The other is who pays for it. Thankfully, Halkin writes with a measure of sensitivity, a quality that is lacking in those who borrow from Russia's Communist past and refer to these charedi or fervently religious Jews as parasites.

It is hard for persons outside of our religious life to appreciate the intense commitment to Torah study, whether by those who arise early to study the Talmud or those who attend classes at night or use lunchtime or when they travel to study or who have chavrusas (study partners) or who devote themselves fulltime to this activity in yeshivas and kollels. Torah study is for religious Jews a fundamental obligation and yet it is an experience that is even greater, an oasis in the world of tumult, self-indulgence and crassness.

High Orthodox fertility has resulted in the rapid and substantial growth in the number of young men engaged in fulltime study. This obviously has serious financial consequences for families and the community. It is appropriate to ask whether so many students should remain for so long in yeshiva/kollel, provided that the basic concept of commitment to Torah study is respected.

Three points need to be made about the situation in Israel. The first is that the growth in the number of students was unplanned and, in a sense, unanticipated, although demographic data should have indicated what lay ahead. The seeds for government support of advanced Talmudic study were planted more than fifty years ago by David Ben-Gurion and his avowedly secularist Labor Party because they recognized that this activity was vital to Israel's well-being. Over the years, there arose a kind of social imperative impelling young charedi men to greatly extend their period of study, paralleling in an interesting way the far more widespread social imperative in modern societies impelling young adults to attend college and to continue at professional and graduate schools.

Secondly, the situation is changing as more young charedi men are entering the labor market, a development noted by Halkin and other writers and encouraged by key community leaders.

Thirdly, as Jonathan Rosenblum astutely pointed out several issues back in the Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel's magazine, the pace of change will be retarded by attacks against yeshiva study because community leaders will understandably conclude that the attacks are motivated by hostility to Torah study and not by a desire to improve the lot of the students and their families.

Who pays to maintain these families and charedi educational institutions? How much does it cost Israel's government and taxpayers? The figure must be high - it would be good to get a reckoning - but it must not include the cost of basic education because that is a governmental obligation. Also, expenditures on behalf of the charedi sector should be considered in the context of outlays for other segments of Israeli society, such as kibbutzim.

There is, importantly, the other side of the budgetary ledger, the funds flowing into Israel from Orthodox Jews around the world. For openers, there is their inordinately high proportion of tourists and what they spend, money that has an economic impact and contributes to the income side of the budget. Added to this are the expenditures by thousands of yeshiva and seminary students during their year or more in Israel, which is apart from the substantial tuition paid by their overseas parents to Israeli schools. Then there is what is spent by the Orthodox who made aliyah and the homes purchased by them and overseas religious Jews. The calculation should include contributions sent to individuals and to the hundreds of institutions and agencies that serve the Orthodox and often other Israelis. The richness and diversity of Orthodox communal life and the aggressive fundraising conducted by many institutions ensure that the transfer of hard currency into Israel by Orthodox Jews is quite substantial.

I am sure that I have omitted key sources of Orthodox contributions to Israel's economy and the Treasury. It is not possible to know what all of this comes to; hopefully, the subject will be tackled by economists. At the least, the total is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps considerably higher.

Accordingly, the financial relationship between the Orthodox or even just the charedi sector and Israel's government and people is far from one-sided. The answer to the question, "Who pays for Israel's Orthodox?" is that to a considerable extent the Orthodox do.

Beyond the determination of what belongs on one side or the other of the ledger, there is the transcendent value of Torah study to Israel and to Jews everywhere. What religious Jews understand and too few secular Jews now acknowledge is that the Torah and its study is a tree of life for all who grasp it. Sadly, this wisdom, confirmed by centuries of experience, is today beyond the grasp of most Jews.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Do We Want the Conservative Movement to Die?

My latest Jewish Week column (December 24) discusses the mounting troubles faced by the Conservative movement. I noted that Solomon Schechter schools, many of which are experiencing a declining enrollment and some have closed, are Jewishly superior to nearly all transdenominational Community day schools and that their decline and the more general decline of Conservatism does not bode well for Israel or kiruv activities. I also suggested that Conservatives needed to have a more unified and more vigorously led movement. A Rosh Yeshiva called to say that the column was "a hot potato," with people wondering why I felt it necessary to give advice to Jews who aren't observant. Perhaps I shouldn't be giving such advice. Perhaps it would be better if the Conservatives would move further away from our heritage and ultimately walk away entirely from Jewish life, taking the path already taken by at least half of American Jews.

Cross-posted on Cross-Currents

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - November 2004 - Torah Education

A key principle of Torah education, derived from Proverbs, is chanoch l'naar al pi darcho. Each child should be taught in the ways that best meet his needs and advance his intellectual and Jewish development. For us at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, this is a living principle that has guided us throughout the past thirty years. It is a principle that is manifested in our several schools and the range of Jewish educational approaches that they offer. No yeshiva anywhere has been more faithful to this ideal.

This principle has guided much of my communal life for more than fifty years, from the time when I met the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood of blessed memory and immediately enlisted in his extraordinary effort to create and sustain the network of religious schools known as Chinuch Atzmai or Torah schools for Israel. These schools operate in Israel at the elementary school level.

Even before this Herculean effort, he was the rabbinical leader and head of Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools - the organization that was then the vital force in promoting basic Torah education in North America. In his lifetime, relatively few Torah Umesorah schools continued past the eighth grade.

The great Rosh Yeshiva obviously also had the responsibility to nurture and sustain Beth Medrash Govoha, the transcendent yeshiva that he established in Lakewood. The lesson that he taught through these diverse chinuch activities was chanoch l'naar al pi darcho. Seventeen years ago I wrote the following in an essay commemorating his twenty-fifth Yahrzeit:

"The Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva who was the foremost proponent of the ideal of Torah lishmoh, who had been educated and virtually raised in the Beis Medrash, who had been a prodigy in the great yeshiva of Slobodka, who had given brilliant shiurim in the advanced yeshivos of Slutsk and Kletzk, and who served before the Churban alongside of the spiritual giants of that period, would now have to decide on aleph-beis questions for schools located in cities with just a relative handful of observant Jews.

"Rav Aharon met the challenge and he did so by being consistent and by a remarkable understanding of the nuances of American Jewish life. 'Rav Aharon lo shinoh,' cried out the Satmar Rebbe, zatzal, in anguish at the hesped in New York. He knew that a modern day school was not a Slobodka or a cheder and he knew what could be achieved. The question to him was whether a Jewish educational institution was sincere and serious in aspiring to the goal of elevating its students in Torah knowledge and observance. This, too, is an aspect of Torah lishmoh. If it was serious and sincere, it would be proper, at the time, to countenance practices that would not be acceptable in other settings."

There has been a change in how our Torah leaders and community view basic Torah education. They have incrementally accepted the notion that at the yeshiva ketana and even mesivta levels, support for chinuch is essentially the responsibility of the parents whose children are being educated and not of the community. This approach, which runs counter to a tradition that goes back more than 2,000 years, arises from the feeling that unless the parents carry the financial burden, our schools will not be able to survive.

No one should challenge the view that parents - and certainly those who can afford to - must pay a fair share for their children's Torah education. The point is that there are parents who do not have the means to do so and they are experiencing great pain and hardship because of the acceptance of the alien view that Torah education these days is just one more consumer product. As I have written elsewhere, it is telling that our Roshei Yeshiva and respected Torah leaders have for more than a decade not issued any statements calling for support of basic Torah education, this at a time when there is a steady flow of endorsements for other causes.

We are witnessing the steady decline of Torah Umesorah, an organization that has bought into the American Jewish falsehood that fancy weekends and sterile projects are what our people need. We need to have the courage to recognize that the harshest criticism of Torah Umesorah has come from the Rosh Yeshiva who was the most active in its work. It is astonishing that the recent Federation decision to terminate basic grants to New York yeshivas and day schools has not evoked a public protest by Torah Umesorah.

There are in this country sporadic efforts involving Roshei Yeshiva to assist kiruv and immigrant schools. We also have the inspiring example of Rav Pam, ztl, on behalf of Shuvu, the religious school network for children of Former Soviet Union families. We need to have similar efforts on these shores.

There are substantial concentrations of marginally-involved Jews, especially in the New York area, for whom there are no day schools. For these children there is no chanoch l'naar al pi darcho because for them there is no chinuch. After more than a half-century of advocacy and work on behalf of basic Torah education, I am disheartened that because of our inaction, many children who would attend a day school if one were available for them are being deprived of their birthright, of their linkage to our great heritage.

I last visited Rav Shneuer Kottler, ztl, in Lakewood a week before he died. Shortly before I left, he read to me the opening lines of a letter from the Chazon Ish to Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, ztl, the head of Vaad Hayeshivos, the representative body for advanced yeshivas in Israel. For reasons that I will not go into here, I did not read the letter until recently, the substance of which was a request by the Chazon Ish that a portion of the funds allocated to Vaad Hayeshivos be given to the elementary school yeshivas that are referred to as Talmud Torahs in Israel because they are financially endangered and "the survival of the Talmud Torahs is the survival of the Yeshivos."

This letter was written in 1947, a time when the advanced yeshivas faced great financial difficulty. Yet, the Chazon Ish understood that there was a communal obligation to support basic Torah education.

Article In The Commentator

The latest issue of The Commentator, Yeshiva University's student publication, includes My Teaching At Yeshiva.

Friday, December 24, 2004

More Trouble for the Conservative Movement

The lead story last week in The Jewish Week told of the financial problems faced by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the central institution of the Conservative movement. This is one more piece of bad news for what not long ago was the largest of our denominations, a sector of American Jewry that seemed to be in good condition. There was a second item pointing in the same direction, it being an ad announcing the formation of the New Jewish Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts. NJA will be a K-8 pluralistic day school that is being advertised as the successor to the local Solomon Schechter School. Put otherwise, one more Conservative day school will soon be gone, adding to the roster of those that have closed.

There is a double loss in this. From every Jewish perspective - curriculum, ambiance and religious outcomes - Solomon Schechter schools are superior to Community day schools. There are Community schools that have maintained a high degree of tradition but they are under siege and their character is changing, as is evident in Florida at one of the largest of such schools where, as elsewhere, local community leaders have exerted pressure to go easy on the Judaics and to re-market the institution as Jewish lite.

The decline in traditional belief and practice among most of the half of American Jews who maintain a sense of identity - the other half have walked away entirely - is a major feature of contemporary American Jewish life. We have come to believe that the best strategy for preventing further losses is to tailor Judaism to meet the lowered commitment of most of those who remain in the fold.

Inevitably, day schools and the Conservative movement, as well as other mainstays in our communal life, are affected by the changing character of American Jewry. We are witness to a dynamic process in which the Jewish character of non-Orthodox schools and the Conservative movement has diminishing appeal for those whose Judaism is being defined downwards. Therefore we have fewer Solomon Schechter schools, Conservative synagogues are merging or closing down altogether, and there is a decline in the number who identify with the movement. Worse yet, it appears certain that more bad news lies ahead. All of this is demoralizing and adversely affecting the capacity of Conservative leaders to turn things around.

What is happening is a serious problem for all of us - specifically including the Orthodox - because those who are defecting are overwhelmingly moving toward weaker commitment and less involvement. This does not bode well for Israel and will further complicate the challenges facing those who are engaged in kiruv or outreach.

The Conservative movement needs leadership and vision, which means that it needs people at the top who can inspire others to give and to act. It has gotten by on organizational arrangements that are inherently weak because its ranks were greatly swelled by Orthodox defections. This membership source has mostly - but not entirely - dried up, with the children and grandchildren of the ex-Orthodox themselves becoming ex-Conservative.

Demographic realities suggest that there is scant prospect that the outflow can be reversed, that even if the movement adjusts its standards to conform to the lower Judaic commitment of the remnants of our people, there will be few in the near term who will embrace Conservatism as a consequence. The Reform movement and our secular organizations have successfully staked their claims to the territory of low-expectation Judaism, a landscape that they have shaped.

What the Conservatives need to do and quickly is to become a movement, rather than a collection of semi-autonomous baronies that are short on cooperation and inspiration. The titular or perhaps de facto head is the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary whose primary day job is to lead that institution. The arrangement may be good enough for JTS, although reports of a financial crisis raise questions about this, but it certainly leaves the movement short-changed and short-handed.

Conservative congregational and rabbinical bodies have enormous autonomy, at times without paying heed to what is transpiring in the larger movement. This is true of the functional agencies, including the Solomon Schechter School Association, Ramah Camps and United Synagogue Youth.

The absence of central authority works well for Orthodoxy, although it generates much agita and problems, because what emerges are multiple points of vitality. This isn't true at all of the Conservative agencies. The Solomon Schechter Association is terribly underfunded and understaffed and plays a miniscule role in advocating for the expansion or strengthening of the movement's day schools. What vitality there is exists at the local level, as in Bergen County and Westchester. Local schools that are in trouble must fend for themselves, without even the benefit of a morale boost from outside.
Ramah Camps, long the pride of more traditional Conservatives, have for too long been beset by complacency and by exaggerated claims of Judaic benefits. If the Conservative movement had centralized energetic leadership, there would be more camps than the relatively small number in operation. But Ramah functions as a mostly independent organization where camp directors earn substantial salaries for easy work (while counselors are exploited) and where the attitude too often is that going to Ramah obviates the need to send the children to a Jewish day school.

Conservatives must believe more in their product and they must be prepared to invest far more than they have, both emotionally and financially. If the present drift continues, the movement's shrinkage is likely to accelerate. Are there Conservatives who are willing to step up to the plate to lead, to give, to inspire and to create?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Justifying Murder

My friend, Rabbi Avrohom Cohen, editor of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society which I publish as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, has said to me often about our fellow Orthodox, "G-D gave us a beautiful religion and look what we are doing to it." His words have come back to me as I have received sharp responses to my current Jewish Week article criticizing Jewish Action, the Orthodox Union's magazine, for publishing a defense of Baruch Goldstein's murderous rampage a decade ago in Hebron. Have we sunk so low as to justify murder? Goldstein's defenders help drive Jews away from a religious life.

What saddens me most is that too few of those who speak or write on our behalf are prepared to challenge the mood of hatred and paranoia.

Cross-posted on Cross-Currents.

Monday, December 20, 2004

UnJewish Action

When Baruch Goldstein murdered twenty-nine Arabs who were praying at Ma-arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron ten years ago, his evil deed was strongly condemned by Israeli and American Jews across the religious and ideological spectrum. It mattered not at all that Goldstein was described as a talented and extraordinarily kind medical doctor, nor was his crime mitigated by speculation about his motives. Whatever they were, they could not be morally contorted into a defense of murder.

There were no doubt at the time some - probably very few - who privately justified the murderous rampage which culminated in Goldstein being killed. Horrific acts tend to generate lunatic fringes that make excuses for what is morally indefensible. There were then and certainly there are now those who believe that the Arabs got what was coming to them. As we are more removed from the shock of what transpired in 1994 and with the Intifada and suicide bombers, the ranks of those who believe that Goldstein killed and died for a just cause have grown. His gravesite has become a place of homage, a place for prayer and something of a shrine.

While there was and still is little that can be done to squelch the religiously-deficient and morally repugnant pro-Goldstein claque, for the most part the toxic attitude has been contained. It has been understood that the principle of free speech and free press does not create an obligation to impart legitimacy to that which is odious. The fantastic and disturbed musings of those who condone the murder of people in cold blood are appropriate fare for those who are engaged in abnormal psychology. Our media do not publish articles defending the assassination of Presidents or the murder of students in Columbine.

There is, however, a point to showing the affinity between suicide bombers and what Baruch Goldstein did, although the demonstration would not have any impact on the thinking of those who believe it appropriate to murder Arabs.

Jewish Action, the fine magazine sponsored by the Orthodox Union, has crossed into forbidden territory by giving a forum to an apologist for murder. I am certain that no official of the organization knew that in its latest issue, the magazine would publish a long letter - more than 1,000 words - by Toby Klein Greenwald arguing that there may have been legitimate grounds for Baruch Goldstein to kill. I am equally certain that one of the editors sympathizes with Greenwald's views and that is why a sick and sickening letter made it into the publication. That person should be censured and perhaps removed and there should be an apology in the next issue.

Hebron evokes powerful emotions among religious Jews and some who aren't religious. These feelings result, in turn, in a dilemma that many of us face. There is the view that Hebron is an essential part of our religious and national heritage and the Jews who live there are right and heroic. These same Jews tolerate and even embrace extremist attitudes and actions. They have created an environment that nurtures paranoia and hatred, an environment that nurtured Baruch Goldstein. When we give support to Hebron Jews we are, in effect, buying into a single package. What we like and what we would like to reject are inseparable as Siamese twins.

Many of us turn a blind eye toward the outrageous excesses of some Hebronites because we admire their courage. We seek to accommodate the antithetical and yet intertwined attitudes that we have about Hebron through a form of dissonance, through processes that attempt to block out that which makes us uncomfortable.

A couple of issues back, Jewish Action focused on the Hebron massacre of 1929 when rampaging Arabs murdered Jews. In an article, Toby Klein Greenwald referred to Baruch Goldstein's killings as an "incident." This provoked a letter from Jerusalem resident Howie Kahn who wrote, "I am sure that she wouldn't call the killing of Jews at the Park Hotel in Netanya on Seder night in 2002 an 'incident.' It was a planned massacre of innocent people in the midst of prayer, as was that perpetrated by Dr. Goldstein in Hebron."

Greenwald than responded with the lengthy letter that has just been published. Despite several weak qualifications, her letter is a defense of Goldstein's action on the ground that it was "a pre-emptive strike" because there were credible reports that Arabs were planning to attack Jews. Accordingly, in her view it is an "open question" whether those who were killed were "innocent victims."

This is despicable stuff. The defense of Israelis is presumably the responsibility of Israel's military and security forces, not of individuals who are prepared to kill at random. Israel is in a state of perpetual danger and there are reports nearly each day of possible terrorist attacks. If we accept Greenwald's repugnant approach, nearly each day Israeli citizens would be gunning down innocent Arabs.

Whatever his motives and whatever his background, Baruch Goldstein was a murderer. What he did was evil. His killing of Arabs did not result in a single Jewish life being saved, nor in Hebron's Jews or any other Jews being more secure. Indeed, one immediate consequence was that Israeli Jews were less secure. Nor did his actions result in Jews having greater access to our holy sites. As my son Yosef has noted on his blog, Goldstein's actions led directly to the reduction in Jewish access to the Cave of the Patriarchs.

We in religious Jewish life must understand that it is no mitzvah to justify wrongdoing and it is certainly not a mitzvah to make excuses for murder. When we do so and even when we allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who preach hatred, we are turning other Jews away from our glorious heritage.

Friday, December 10, 2004

350 Years

It doesn't take much to get Jews to celebrate. We have plenty of holidays on our religious calendar and also religious life-cycle events. Then we have the other stuff, including dinners, conventions, conferences and much else in our robust communal life. Some of us are in a near state of exhaustion as we attempt to accommodate the many demands on our time and gastronomical capacity.

Because in September 1654 twenty-three Jews arrived by boat in New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil, we are now commemorating the 350th anniversary of what is said to be Jewish life in North America. Thankfully, the celebrating is mostly cerebral, with scholarship and good talk being the main entrees. Yet, even with intellectual fare, there is an obligation to see that what is being provided is of good quality.

Jonathan Sarna, the distinguished historian of American Jewish life, has written an important book, American Judaism, which is essentially a history of our religious life on these shores. The work has already been anointed as great and magisterial. For sure, much of the praise is deserved. Sarna is a terrific writer who tells a fascinating story with much empathy for nearly all who make it into his narrative. Since American Jews have been blessed (or saddled) with more machers than can be fit into nearly 400 crammed pages, inevitably there will be objections about some who have been excluded.

More critically, Sarna adheres to the scholarly model employed in the study of American Protestantism, an approach that probably is appropriate for the history of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, etc. for whom congregational life was and continues to be the primary expression of religious activity. But the model is not sufficient for a history of Judaism, because there is a good deal more to our religious life - notably schools - than synagogues. It is true, of course, that in the American Jewish experience synagogues were far more important than religious educational institutions. This is a development that tells us much about the course of American Jewish history. Sarna needs to tell us why religious Jewish education was neglected for so long and what were the consequences of this neglect.

Consistent with Sarna's determination not to be judgmental, a religious history of American Jewry still needs to grapple with the decisive question of why we have lost so many. 1830 marks the halfway point in the 350-year history of American Jews. According to Sarna's estimate, there were then between 4,000-6,000 Jews in the United States. It is a good bet that no more than a handful of their descendents who are now living continue to identify as Jews. What happened to these Jews and why should be the subject of historical inquiry.

One-hundred years later, in 1930, there were nearly 4.5 million Jews. Another three-quarters of a century has gone by and the number of Americans who identify as Jews is about the same as it had been in 1930, this despite a fairly high Jewish fertility rate for much of this period, the continued influx of European Jews in the 1930's and after the Holocaust, and later on the substantial Israeli and Russian immigration to the U.S. I believe that Sarna and other historians of American Jewish life should reflect on where have all the Jews gone.

The important questions that he ignores were asked nearly a century ago in 1907 by Israel Friedlaender in a notable address that is the centerpiece of a special issue of Conservative Judaism commemorating the 350th Anniversary. Friedlaender, a major figure at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was murdered in 1920 in Ukraine while on a mercy mission. Amazingly, he does not make it into Sarna's book. After noting that "the expansion of American Judaism is not an organic growth from within, but a mechanic addition from without," Friedlaender asserts that this "is the gain of one who puts his earnings into a bag with holes." He then asks: "What will our second and third generation be a quarter of a century hence? American? Yes. Jewish? Perhaps."

He continues, "wherever our gaze turns, we witness the same spectacle - the decomposition of Judaism, of Jewish living and Jewish thinking under the influence of freedom…Judaism, which stood out like a rock amidst the billows of hatred and storms of persecution, is melting away like wax under the mild rays of freedom." In short, "the dawn of the Jews is the dusk of Judaism."

Friedlaender's subsequent analysis of the American Jewish prospect was evasive, but as Arnold Eisen notes, "his evasions are the ones to which we too resort." Eisen is also right that "it is positively eerie to read Israel Friedlaender's essay of a century ago, and consider how utterly contemporary his formulations remain."

Unfortunately, for all that is truly outstanding in Sarna's book, he writes as if he is oblivious to the loss of our religious identity, of our spiritual existence and heritage. That an historian of the first rank could approach this subject as Sarna does is a mystery.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Mail We Get

Is there a point when the flood of letters we receive from Roshei Yeshiva and notable Rabbis seeking our support for needy families, mainly in Israel, becomes a serious communal problem? We need to face this issue because the sums involved are large - in the aggregate, certainly many millions of dollars each year - and because the practice has been spreading without any sense of accountability.

Putting aside for a moment the accountability issue, there is much that is wrong with the situation we are in, ranging from the wrongful sale and purchase of mailing lists to the messages that accompany the solicitations, increasingly on the outside envelope and in bold print. Doubtlessly this is meant for those of us who are too illiterate or too uncaring to read and rely on the text of the solicitation letter. We are told in these messages and with reckless regard for the truth, that "Your contribution will save a life" or, "A child is waiting to hear from you" or some other bit of fiction.

Like much else in contemporary life, there is a constant need to up the volume, to increase the stridency of the message. In a recent 4-page, multi-colored communication sent out in the name of Rabbi Aaron Schechter, we are told, "A needy Jew came to our shores seeking help... He left empty handed... Are we free from responsibility for the tragedy now unfolding?"

As for accountability, there is little or none, not in determining the reliability of the cause for which the solicitation is being made and not in determining what happens with the funds that are contributed. Shouldn't we at least know what cut is being taken by the fellows who send out the solicitations? As has been often noted, quite strangely many of the letters seem to be written by the same person. Should we not know who the people are who pick up the envelopes that are mailed to the Roshei Yeshivas?

It should not be difficult to develop an arrangement that assures a far greater degree of accountability than we now have. Admittedly, this would require a certain restraint on the part of the distinguished people who so promiscuously allow their names to be used. Is it too much to ask or expect that they act with prudence?

There is a second question that Roshei Yeshivas especially should consider, namely whether they are inadvertently promoting the notion favored for so long by secular Jews that chesed activities are more deserving of support than yeshivas and day schools. Our Torah leaders need to consider whether they are sending a message that vital Torah institutions must fend for themselves as there are more pressing tzedakah obligations.

Cross-posted at Cross-Currents.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A Question of Democracy

There is in all democracies the potential for conflict between the basic principle of majority rule and the necessity of leaders to lead. It is not for them merely to echo what the voters who elected them may desire, if only because changed conditions require leaders to act without knowing what the electorate might think or, at times, in opposition to those who put them in power. Nor can leaders blithely decide that the preference of the electorate is of small consequence. The ideal of representative government tips the balance somewhat but certainly not completely in favor of leaders being allowed to act independently, the notion being that elections serve as a reality check. Where public opinion is sharply divided and there is a good likelihood that much of the public will feel bitter and excluded if leaders go into uncharted territory, there is ample reason for caution.

We know that with his Gaza withdrawal plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has defied his political base and party, even turned his back on commitments made with gusto and without reservations. He is, in short, acting as a leader, sharply adjusting his sails because the world - or at least the Middle East - has changed and also because where he now sits and what he now sees differ from the perspective he had previously. It appears that Israelis support him by a wide margin, which is to say that on Gaza he is not getting too far ahead of public opinion.

Getting out of Gaza is a substantial challenge. Mr. Sharon and the rest of us do not know how difficult this will be. He is already faced with new issues and pressures that may make the Gaza withdrawal look easy. Across the globe there are calls for even bolder action by Israel, for substantial withdrawal from the West Bank along the lines of President Bush' Road Map and proposals that were advanced by President Clinton. Diplomats and editorial writers are underscoring the view that Yasir Arafat's death and the installation of new Palestinian leadership have created an opportunity that must not be allowed to pass. It has also said that Israel must act boldly because of the mess in Iraq, fears of Islamic radicalism, Iran's nuclear threat and the strong desire among European leaders and presumably the White House to find a way to reestablish the shattered Western alliance. Israel, in short, is being asked to make the world a safer place, perhaps by making Israel a less safe place.

There is no way of knowing whether further Israeli territorial concessions will result in the dawn of a new day of moderation in Islam or de-quagmire Iraq or convince the Ayatollahs to pray more and not make nuclear weapons. There are, for sure, abundant reasons for skepticism whether any Israeli actions might achieve these desirable goals. On the other hand, it may be conceded that Israeli concessions will beget a brave new world where, to borrow a bit from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Americans, French, British, Germans and Russians will once more be friends. However we may look at these global matters, what Israel does needs to be decided by Israel's leaders.

This is not some fussy point about democracy. Public support in Israel for additional West Bank withdrawals is obviously narrower than it is for a Gaza withdrawal. In terms of people and cost, West Bank complications and implications dwarf what Israel will face in Gaza. There are additional reasons for caution, probably the most powerful being the current disequilibrium in Palestinian and Middle East affairs. Because Arafat is gone and it is not known what and also who will ensue, Israel needs to proceed super-slowly. It is preferable to see what happens after the Gaza withdrawal, particularly whether Hamas will act with responsibility and restraint. There is a decent prospect for internecine Palestinian conflict and it would be terrible if Israel were caught in the middle with less land to serve as a buffer.

Ariel Sharon knows all of this. I suspect that he is telling much the same to the Bush Administration, but saying little publicly, his silence being recompense for the U.S. having provided strong political cover for Israel at the United Nations and elsewhere. In short, Israel has forfeited some of its leeway, even sovereignty.

It is customary in Jewish circles which strongly favor President Bush to regard his support for Israel as uni-dimensional, as being unencumbered by any pressures on Israel to make further concessions. This is a naive reading of the situation. Washington's public persona is one of constant support for the Jewish State and this is expressed with few reservations and with much sincerity. Yet, there is also the ongoing business of diplomacy, the quiet contacts that amount to a road map or agenda for further Israeli concessions.

When Prime Minister Tony Blair came visiting soon after our elections, he explicitly insisted on concrete steps by Israel to promote what he regards as Middle East peace. It is not credible to think that Mr. Bush told him, "Tony, not now. Let's see how Iraq works out and only then should we turn our attention to Israel and the Palestinians."

The prevailing diplomatic climate is as treacherous as any Israeli leaders have faced in a long while. Mr. Sharon should proceed without delay with the Gaza withdrawal because there are few reasons for staying there and many for getting out. Palestinians now control large parts of the West Bank. They should at long last proclaim a Palestinian State and take seriously the responsibility that statehood brings. Israel should move slowly as it assesses the character of the new Palestinian leadership and the extent of intra-Palestinian unity. Until the playing field is clearer there should be no additional territorial concessions. In democracies, leaders must lead. They also must be prudent and aware of the risks and they must be mindful of the responsibility to at least try to avoid exacerbating internal strife.