Friday, April 28, 2006

Eight Months After Gaza

Eight months after their forced evacuation, which I supported though I had strong reservations regarding the way it was being handled, the emotional and physical wounds are still fresh for too many of the 9,000 ex-Gaza Israelis and yet the Olmert government-in-waiting is moving forward on plans to remove ten times that number of Israelis living on the West Bank. The lesson is that there is no lesson to learn from recent experience, that so what if there is no housing and other social infrastructure to resettle and provide basic needs for 80,000 or more Israelis. They will be deligitimated by the media and the government, as the Gazans were, as a prelude to getting their just desserts.

As wrongful as is the government's cavalier attitude to the welfare of its citizens, greater wrongs are in the offing. Mr. Sharon pulled out of Gaza because, it was said, withdrawal would make Israelis safer, if only because thousands of soldiers would not have to put their lives on the line to protect the settlers. Withdrawal would also give credibility to Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian Authority president, by showing that he could deliver the goods for his people.

Eight months is no more that a blink in history, yet what we have seen should give pause to anyone who debunks Henry Ford's notorious claim that history is bunk. The rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza, often from positions abandoned by Israel, are real. They are serious business, which is why senior military people are saying that the army may have to go back in and stay for a while. As for Mr. Abbas, Gaza withdrawal so fortified his position that his Fatah party was crushed by Hamas in the Palestinian elections.

Presumably, these inconvenient developments should alter the plans of those who expected a different scenario. But the bridge on the River Kwai must be built at all costs. Suicide bombers, Hamas' ascendancy and rockets from Gaza were not in the game plan, yet the chosen path must still be taken. The situation in the Middle East has deteriorated in recent months and this too should give pause. In Egypt, the semi-democratic Mubarak regime is increasingly unstable as it is relentlessly undermined by its own corruption and by the radicalized Moslem Brotherhood which, as one of its discontents, opposes Egyptian detente with Israel. Iraq is convulsed by sectarian conflict and whatever the outcome, the news for Israel will not be welcome. We all know about Iran. To add to the deeply disturbing brew, the Bush Administration is in deep trouble and this has limited its ability to provide diplomatic cover for Israel.

Is it unreasonable to suggest that Israel take a breather, that further withdrawals be suspended until the dust settles and Israeli policy makers can assess how best to advance the country's interests? To Ehud Olmert whose ambitions for Israel are spelled O-L-M-E-R-T and other officials who committed themselves to additional withdrawals, any pause is out of the question. They are determined to vacate most of the West Bank by the end of 2007. They should read Barbara Tuchman and other historians who have documented how the determination to stick to preconceived plans despite changing conditions or additional information resulted in diplomatic and military folly, even tragedy. Of course, those who ordered the light brigade to charge weren't interested in reading history.

Withdrawal is a primary component of what is referred to as unilaterilsm, the policy devised by Mr. Sharon to go it alone because Israel has no one to make peace with. Thus, Israel is building a security barrier and thus Israel will determine what territory to yield and which post-1967 population centers it will retain. Israel, it is said, will determine its permanent boundaries. This is a fantasy.

Unilateralism is a form of solitaire and like the game, it has utility, albeit quite limited. It works to a point on security matters, but it is a non-starter in all that entails diplomacy because its errant message is that negotiations can be safely discarded. In a word, unilateralism is vulnerable because it is unilateral.

Going it alone won't reduce pressure on Israel because foes and even friends will challenge the legitimacy of unilateral steps. Which governments will accept the claim that Israel can set its boundaries and that's the end of the story? For most governments, further withdrawals will be the beginning of the story, the starting point for direct negotiations regarding what else Israel must yield. For Palestinians and the Islamic world, further Israeli withdrawals are a signal that hostility bears fruit.

Further withdrawals under today's conditions are wrong and not because Israel needs to show the Palestinians or anyone else that it can be tough. Further withdrawals are wrong because they are reckless acts predicated on the refusal to examine old policy assumptions in the light of what has happened since last summer.

Of course, Mr. Olmert and the government he shall soon form can claim that last month's Knesset elections provide a clear mandate for what is being planned, especially since the issues that I raise here were debated and, by a significant majority, Israeli voters opted for those who favor further withdrawals. This majority is to be respected regarding governance, but the democratic outcome is no impediment to the collateral democratic prerogative to challenge what legitimately elected officials decide to do. Mr. Bush won a clear majority in 2004, way after the U.S. went into Iraq, and his election has not deterred sharp criticism of American policy. Even supporters of the Iraq intervention acknowledge that changed conditions must mandate a change in policy.

To ignore what has happened since Israel left Gaza is on its face a clear and present danger for the Jewish state.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Not Kosher But Traditional

While we continue to be awash in population studies and other statistical exercises, our best sociological nuggets are found in ordinary Jewish life, in what we read and what we see. We should curb our voracious appetite for numbers games and pay attention to happenings that serve as a window into a world where at once Jews are rapidly abandoning what it has meant to be Jewish even as they earnest seek to cling to their Jewish identity.

As an exhibit, there is the ad placed in the Times by Lattanzi, a mid-Manhattan eatery, seeking patrons for its "Non-Kosher Traditional Passover Menu," and announcing that "private seders are welcome." Even in an era when a "trend" is something that happens twice and a "tradition" is whatever a handful of people designate as such, we probably should not be surprised that Pesach is being celebrated in this fashion. After all, we now have non-Jewish Jews, they being persons who aren't Jewish by any definition. A great number of participants in contemporary seders are not Jewish and the number is growing. Doubtlessly, we will have additional sociological realities that invert Judaism by designating as Jewish practices that which always was alien to Judaism.

Whatever history's verdict on such innovations or the obvious hostility of these developments to halacha, sociological realities are what is taking place today, not how we behaved previously or what we expect to happen down the road. Today's realities speak of a critical mass of persons who somehow are designated as Jews who want to be Jewish in ways that previously were not thought to be Jewish. Although intermarriage takes an ever-increasing toll and Judaic abandonment ensnares greater numbers, this critical mass is expanding. Perhaps paradoxically, it is aggressively fed by those who have intermarried and who want to remain committed Jews and also by their non-Jewish spouses and family members who also somehow want to identify as Jews, as well as by persons who aren't Jewish and have no Jewish family ties but who somehow want to be tied to the contemporary Jewish experience.

Orthodox Jews, myself included, can decry this odd malange and say that history will show that much of what is now being passed off as Jewish was bogus, as in fact it surely is. Yet, we live in the present and decide and act in the present and what we are witness to are powerful realities that expand as the ranks of those who have departed from traditional Judaism expand.

The smaller number that clings to religion and tradition cannot build a communal fence that excludes this critical mass and perhaps they choose not to build such a fence. Persons of questionable status are routinely included in all sorts of communal transactions, ranging from demographic surveys to conferences to fundraising and a multitude of projects. We do not hear advocates of tradition saying that claims of five-million American Jews are errant because many who are included should not be, as they aren't Jewish according to religious law. We are caught in a process that feeds on itself, a process that we cannot escape and may not want to escape.

This process results in creative efforts to accommodate the polar tendencies of abandonment and identity. A Times' front-page story reports on synagogues departing from their regular routine in order to attract newcomers. "Jewish leaders," we are told, "are revamping worship in their synagogues to make the experience more lively and participatory; they are reconfiguring their sanctuaries to make them less intimidating; they are rethinking how to welcome newcomers; and they are getting increasingly creative about getting people in the door."

It's obvious that the services are too long in many synagogues, especially those that seek to attract people who are not religiously committed and who often cannot follow the liturgy. Although it is not possible to be optimistic that innovations will achieve much in view of the toll taken by intermarriage and other forms of advanced assimilation, the notion that our religious activities must have more emotional content and adapt to what people find attractive has merit. It isn't sufficient to dismiss innovations and not only because such dismissals are feeble protests against realities that cannot be readily dismissed.

It is also true that we ought not embrace every proposed change on the ground that tradition is yesterday's story. The most effective innovations are those that have some link with the past and move people toward tradition and religious commitment. If the goal of innovation is to attract the unaffiliated and nothing more, what is being instituted is ephemeral and soon will be gone.

Furthermore, efforts to attract those who are distant and alienated cannot succeed - that is, not have long-lasting results - unless there is a strong religious infrastructure throughout American Jewish life that serves as a magnet drawing those who are being attracted to greater commitment and religiosity. Else, the innovations will be empty shells or to borrow from the Times' headline, they will consist of yoga, comedy, parties and other fluff that do not need synagogues as props. It should be obvious that without Jews of strong religious commitment, there scarcely will be anything Jewish about the new outreach techniques.

This lesson is unfortunately lost on many who have the keys to our communal priorities. Inadvertently or not, they disparage that which has sustained Judaism, choosing instead to exalt trivial pursuits whose only hope for success is dependent on there being meaningful Jewish experiences down the road. If we are going to add the bathwater, let's not throw out the baby.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Those 'Powerful' Jewish Lobbyists

Tucked into a recent New York Times and, I suspect, read by few was a brief item with the bland headline "Software Company Abandons Deal."

This is not the sort of bait to pique readers' interest, yet it provides insight into how powerful Israel is - or is not - in Washington.

CheckPoint, an Israeli company, was forced by the Bush administration to drop plans to buy a small American software firm. The decision came "near the conclusion of a full-blown investigation by the same American panel that approved the now-abandoned ports deal involving DP World."

This body was expected to rule against the Israelis because "the transaction could endanger some of government's most secretive computer systems." Baloney.

While this latest demonstration of Israeli "influence" in Washington was unfolding, Stephen Walt, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Prof. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago were putting the finishing touches to a paper entitled "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," which posits that American Jews and others whom we control got the United States into the war in Iraq. More generally, the claim is that the Israel lobby, headed by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, has vast influence in determining American foreign policy.

Those who want to think ill of Jews or Israel do not need material. Their fervid minds provide all they need to feed their dark fantasies. They know what to misread and what to exaggerate, what to link to their conspiratorial mind-set and what contrary evidence to distort or ignore.

Those who dislike Israel conveniently disregard US arm-twisting and expanding American interference in Israeli diplomatic and commercial activity, most crucially relating to China and India.

Israel bashers ignore that key AIPAC staffers are under indictment for alleged criminal charges of a kind that have never been brought against anyone else. It matters not at all to them that the White House says Dubai can buy up US ports, but an Israeli company cannot buy an American software company.

Reality does not dislodge the blind faith of Israel-bashers that Israel and Jews are in control. They will scarcely notice, several weeks from now when the dust settles on Israel's election and the new government is formed, that Condoleezza Rice will be putting intense pressure on Ehud Olmert to make concessions not in Israel's interest.

YET IT is right to enquire whether our Israel advocacy bears good fruit, or is counterproductive. The assumption is that we should continue doing what we have been doing - no questions asked. Organized American Jewry seems to have checked its intellect at the door, part of what I see as an extraordinary dumbing-down process that should be an embarrassment to people who once exalted the intellect and ideas.

AIPAC is a prime example of our refusal to raise vital questions. Each year in Washington it stages a massive extravaganza befitting a national party convention. Trotted out are more House and Senate members than can be found on the floor of Congress and there are loads of top administration officials and machers from Israel. The purposeful message sent by this display is that Jews are powerful, that Israel has great influence in Washington.

AIPAC wants everyone to believe that it is a powerhouse. We should not be surprised, then, when those who look at Israel through hostile eyes interpret what they see as evidence that the Israel lobby is all-powerful. We kvetch when others get the message that is intentionally sent.

This might be a reasonable price to pay if AIPAC made a difference. It does not. At the end of the day, other considerations determine Israel-US relations on all matters that count. At the end of the day, AIPAC is a bunch of shvitzers and people who run around a lot, acting like big shots who do not have power, although they do make noise, mainly for fund-raising purposes.

REAL INFLUENCE? Try Saudi Arabia, which connived with the White House to spirit dozens of its key people out of this country immediately after 9/11; or when it arranged back-channel military purchases from the US through Germany. Real influence is Dubai buying US ports with White House approval.

When the US demands control of Israel's relations with China, vetoes Israeli commercial activity in the US, brings criminal charges against AIPAC people and twists Israel's diplomatic arm constantly - that ain't influence. All the noise made by AIPAC and other advocates for Israel cannot change this reality.

Whether with respect to diplomacy or other spheres of activity, true influence is exerted quietly. Noise and publicity are antithetical to influence.

The chances that American Jewish leaders will reflect on the lobbying tactics that we cling to are zero. We believe that hoopla and attention are signs of success. Like those who bash Israel, reality is not allowed to intrude on fantasy.

And while it is truly meritorious for pro-Israel activists to be making the case for the Jewish state - we need to rethink how best to do so.

I fear that we are trapped in arrangements that promote self-deception. We seem to lack the capacity to evaluate the utility of our current stratagems.

I wish it could be otherwise. I wish we did not give ammunition to those who bash us by promoting the wrongful perception that we are powerful.