Monthly Archives: March 2012

An Iranian-Israeli Love-In?

by Kelley Kidd

Recently, Facebook has been bombarding me. Not with its usual memes and Spotify updates, but with a slew of politically oriented statuses and photos. This is usually fairly inevitable, but lately it’s transcended the typical circle of acquaintances who regularly post items from political blogs or links to news articles. In fact, certain messages have become trendy. First it was the mass movement against SOPA, aided by Google and Wikipedia. Kony 2012, an Invisible Children campaign, became the next hot topic. People get excited to be a part of a movement, to make their voices heard, and to stand in solidarity about something worthy of passion.

The latest of these explosive trends is the newly blossoming Israel Loves Iran campaign. Founded by Ronny Edry, the campaign began with a simple poster he created to send a message of love and understanding from Israel to Iran. Quickly, his modest gesture took off, giving birth to a widespread and large-scale exchange of message, images and discussion directed toward forging a connection between two politically estranged peoples.

The hope, ultimately, is to make an impression in politics—Iranians and Israelis want to make their leaders see that war is not an option in their eyes. Of course, the people with the power are not the same as those posting warm messages. For many, the potential for this movement not to affect anything on a grand political scale makes it a failure, worthless—another example of “slacktivism,” activism that refuses to move beyond the comfort of the couch and the safety of a computer screen. For many movements, such a complaint may be applicable, as it devolves into memes and likes from people who have no goal beyond being a part of whatever passion is trending. However, this cynical view, if it applies to any such movements, does not hold for the case of Israel Loves Iran.

First of all, it is inherently significant that Iranians, whose contributions to the site have been meaningful but commonly anonymous, are contributing at all, as many have said “they feared for their lives if they used their real name.” Iranians who have posted share messages of love, compassion and support. The posts note thousands of years of coexistence, express gratitude and love, and show us that, as one Facebook user in Iran promises, the sense of hatred between the two nations “was invented by the propaganda of the regime” and that the “Iranian people, apart from the regime, do not hold a grudge nor animosity against anyone, especially not the Israelis.” The mere act of sharing these messages demonstrates how committed the Iranian people are to communicating them; these people are not able to voice their complaints and defy their regime openly and freely, and their commitment to doing so clearly indicates their commitment to the cause. There is no slacktivism when even making your voice heard puts your life at risk.

The movement is a positive one, regardless of its direct political impact. The challenge, but also the beauty, of grassroots movements is that you do not see results immediately. The change is inherently bottom-up, and therefore slow to be enacted. Nonetheless, any eventual change has massive strengh and enormous support—a loud, clear voice that cannot be ignored. In this case, the change is a fundamentally meaningful one. People are learning to see one another as real people, to meet and connect with the “Other.” The hope is to influence political decision by taking a clear stance against war, but even if the movement fails to grow to that scale, its impact within the people is significant.  Alliances and wars are usually decided by the powers that be, but Israel Loves Iran may give us a chance to see how much change the Powers that Become can make.

The AIPAC/J Street Color War

by Charles Kopel

A new spring ritual has taken form for American Jews concerned with Israel activism. The AIPAC Policy Conference, a mainstay in the American Zionist establishment for 53 years, is attracting larger and larger groups of delegates to Washington, DC each year. These delegates gather from around the country to address the importance of strengthening the “U.S.-Israel relationship.” The third annual conference of AIPAC’s self-proclaimed rival, J Street–aimed at fostering a network of supporters to advance its “pro-Israel, pro-peace” agenda–is wrapping up today in the nation’s capital. This division of the Israel lobby into two separate camps proves to be a comfortable accommodation for the increasingly polarized spectrum of American Jewish views regarding both the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the potential nuclear threat from Iran.

An added dimension of this division, however, is that the conference faithful of both organizations now assemble each year for a sort of color war. Not only does each group aim to advance its own agenda; it takes swipes at that of the other group. Of course, this is more of a reality for J Street, which remains, in its youth, a small and ineffective opposition lobby that struggles to find its legitimacy with attacks on AIPAC. The establishment body AIPAC, however, has achieved a legendary position of power and influence in United States policy, reflective of the general success of American Jewry, and serving as an endless quarry of fodder for anti-Zionist thinkers and conspiracy theorists. To AIPAC, J Street is beyond the pale of “pro-Israel,” more critical of Israel’s actions than those of its enemies. To J Street, AIPAC represents an old American perception of pro-Israel, ignorant of the beliefs and sentiments of both the younger generation of American Jews and of the majority of Israelis.

The physical realities of the conferences demonstrates the organizations’ power differential quite well: This year’s AIPAC conference gathered 13,000 delegates, more than 1,000 of whom were students, and included visits from more than half of Congress, addresses from President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Peres, minority leaders from both houses of Congress, and Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. The conference operation was a logistical masterpiece, with organizational finesse and visual productions that speak to the lobby group’s undeniable importance.

The J Street conference, in contrast, gathered only 2,500 delegates, 650 of whom were students, with no top-ranking government officials. The conference operation was messy, reminiscent of a small-scale synagogue gathering, and with a bizarre and extensive hodgepodge of participating organizations–the New Israel Fund, Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem, Givat Haviva, Tikkun Magazine and many more–not all of whom even share similar political stances.

It is therefore with good reason that J Street classifies itself as a “movement” and not a lobby. Its conference seemed at times to be a summit of somewhat like-minded organizations, uniting under the banner of a group that has its own particular party line and a lobby group to advance it.

A much more important distinction between the conferences was the demographics of the presenters at each. An elementary understanding of each organization’s purpose is more than enough to account for this distinction. AIPAC, whose essential goal is to be a Washington advocate for the positions of the elected Israeli government , featured mainly American politicians among its speakers, as if to tell the delegates and the world: “Just look–the American government already overwhelmingly supports the decisions of the Israeli government!”

J Street, whose essential goal is to be a Washington advocate for the positions of the American Jewish population as regards Israel, featured mainly Israeli speakers at its conference, as if to tell its delegates and the world: “Israelis themselves want us, the American Jews, to use the unique power of citizen lobbying in order to urge Washington to pressure Israel toward a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians!”

This difference in perspective has wide-reaching effects on the image of Israel that emerges at the respective conferences. For delegates of AIPAC, Israel is a hazy, amorphous idea, a distant reality that supports Jewish values, democratic government and the rule of law, one that shares interests with the United States and has legitimate and far-reaching security concerns. Thousands of Zionists attending the conference learned to see Israel through the lens of American leaders–as a “strategic ally,” a place of some ideological and emotional value, a sheet of foreign financial aid figures and a basis for promises of military action.

Delegates of J Street, however, learned to see Israel as a living and breathing reality, a Jewish reality, with troubling complexities and too many flaws for comfort. They heard from intellectuals and authors like Amos Oz, social protest leaders like Stav Shaffir, women’s rights advocates like Anat Hoffman and left-wing Israeli politicians like Ehud Olmert, Amram Mitzna, and Avishay Braverman. They were presented with a uniquely Jewish imperative for peace, ranging from Oz’s secular, pluralistic Judaism to Hoffman’s “Women of the Wall” religious-feminist movement to Rabbi Donniel Hartman’s Orthodox presentation of “aspirational Judaism” and its relationship with “aspirational Zionism.” They were told that, sure, Israel has great security concerns, but that the threats posed by its current policies to its Jewish values are of greater consequence and greater urgency. Ultimately, it was added, these threats will compromise Israel’s security even more drastically.

That great security concern at AIPAC’s conference, was, of course, the threat posed by Iran; little time or interest was given to any other Israeli concerns. Hardly a word was said about the status of the Palestinians or the historic social developments that transpired in Israel since last year’s conference. Where survival in the face of an enormous enemy is concerned, all other causes are allowed to fall by the wayside. For this reason, Bibi, who has concerned himself diligently and loudly with stopping Iran, received a welcome from the AIPAC 13,000 far warmer than he would ever receive anywhere in his own country, where the people’s conscience grasps far more than one singular Israeli issue.

At J Street’s conference, however, Iran was considered mostly a diversion created by the Likud machine to avoid action on Israel’s real pressing problems—peace with its neighbors, Palestinian autonomy and social reform. Sure, Iran is a real and serious threat, the J Street speakers said, but it is a threat shared by the whole world. Israel has its own problems to deal with first. Also, they added, survival is worth very little when it comes at the expense of national values.

In these different perspectives lies the flaw of each lobby group’s repertoire: a deep transgression of omission. AIPAC presents what Israel is on paper, and what the concept of Israel looked like in 1948 (with, of course, a great deal of accolades for the small nation’s start-up miracles and high-tech achievements), but says nothing of the real status of Arabs in Israeli society, of the women who are made to ride in the back of buses in Haredi communities, of the Jewish state’s socioeconomic gaps now perching at the second-largest in the western world, of the recent slew of anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset (aimed at weakening the ability of NGOs and human rights groups to operate within the country), of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concerted attempts this week to assert his administration’s control over the future of the Channel 2 news network, and of the threat to Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state posed by the basic reality of millions of disenfranchised Palestinians living under Israeli military authority.

J Street presents what is supposedly a liberal Zionist ideal, and a genuine effort to save the soul of Israel. Its narrative seems, however, to include no room to blame anyone but the Likud-led coalition for Israel’s misfortune. No recognition of rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli civilians. No examination of the factors that led the last serious round of peace talks to devolve into a murderous Palestinian intifada. Little acknowledgment of the role of today’s Palestinian Authority intransigence in stalling the negotiation process. (Robert Danin, former head of Quartet Envoy Tony Blair’s mission in Jerusalem, and current senior fellow in the Council on Foreign Relations, shared at the AIPAC Policy Conference that, in his personal experience, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has no coherent peace negotiation policy at all, but just employs tactics variously to ensure that at the end of each day, he remains in power, and Israel remains demonized.) Little acknowledgment of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s great success in bringing home captured soldier Gilad Shalit, whose plight had for five years been at the forefront of the Israeli collective mindset, and whose safe return was undoubtedly among the most momentous occasions in modern Israeli history.

Some of these realities did emerge at the conference’s breakout sessions. The various guest speakers–intellectuals, journalists and generals–conducted informational lessons that at times acknowledged the history of Palestinian terror, PA intransigence, and the role of Netanyahu in the Gilad Shalit deal. But the plenaries, with the great big statements of J Street policy, were something else entirely. The throngs of delegates were told only how crucial a two-state solution is for Israeli security and values (which it is), how much of an obstacle the settlements pose to such a solution (which some certainly do) and how terribly the Likud administration has abused the democratic system in Israel (which, arguably, it has). But there was no room for nuance concerning these subjects, and no room for right-of-center Israeli voices–another legitimate segment of the Jewish reality in Israel.

J Street also prides itself on the political/historical narrative offered by American Jewish voices such as J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, provocative journalist and author Peter Beinart, and historian, author and oleh Gershom Gorenberg. All three of these men have recently written books arguing against Israeli settlement policy, and advocating for a new form of pro-Israel mentality based on the liberal Zionist aspirations of the younger generation of American Jews. Beinart in particular aroused a firestorm recently when he published an op-ed in the New York Times, in anticipation of the release of his book, which enjoined American Jews to boycott the West Bank settlements in order to save Israel (somehow assuming that afflicting the livelihood of private settlers, whom he maintains are not necessarily themselves guilty, will influence Israeli policy). It is worthwhile to note that references to this position at the J Street Conference received mixed responses from the delegates.

J Street claims that the positions of these three innovators represent the authentic voice of American Jewry, and its young generation in particular. In response, Bret Stephens wrote three weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, “one wonders why organizations more in tune with those ‘real’ views rarely seem to find much of a base.” Stephens’s claim is hardly compelling when considered in light of J Street’s short history and its attempt to compete with an old, entrenched establishment like AIPAC. Only several years down the line, in light of the success or failure of J Street to expand and thrive at that point, can Stephens’s contention be honestly assessed.

*                                      *                                      *

On the opening night of the J Street Conference, renowned Israeli author and social critic Amos Oz delivered a stunning plea for two-state peace. In doing so, he acknowledged differences of opinion concerning Israel’s future. “Zionism has always been a surname,” he said, “not a first name. No one person was ever allowed to claim Zionism for himself.” This point was well taken, and the vast divide between the different Zionist camps in Israel and America perhaps illustrates it quite well.

Still, the color war presentations of AIPAC’s and J Street’s conferences reflect this attitude quite poorly. It is true that the two organizations help complete the spectrum of politics within American Jewish activism for Israel. And it is entirely legitimate for any one Israel group to pursue only its agenda and leave other aspects of Israel aside. Nonetheless, the insistence of each group on considering only the support for its own agenda in a vacuum, ignoring any and all contravening evidence, leaves behind a sense of lifeless, unproductive dialogue–not entirely unlike the 21st century incarnation of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared in Yeshiva University’s The Commentator.

Election 2012: The Jewish Vote

By Monika Wysocki

For the past two decades, Jews have been a strong Democratic constituency; the party has consistently been able to rely on at least three-quarters of the Jewish electorate for their votes. In fact, Jewish support for the Republican party plummeted to nearly an all-time low in 1992 when George H.W. Bush received only 11 percent of the Jewish vote—the lowest of any GOP presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater, who in 1964 garnered only 10 percent despite having a Jewish family background.

But according to recent studies, Jewish voters are turning away from the party of President Obama. A recent analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the number of Jewish voters who identify as a Democrat has declined, while the number saying they lean toward the GOP has risen. In fact, Jews are the only religious group analyzed in which the percentage who identify themselves as Republican has risen significantly.

In 2008, 72 percent of Jews identified themselves as Democrats or said they leaned toward the Democratic Party and Democrats held a 52-point advantage among this group. But now, Jewish voters prefer the Democratic Party by a significantly smaller 36-point margin.

The increase in support for the GOP amongst Jews and other voters who identify with religious groups may be indicative of an impending shift in traditional constituencies—or just a reflection of the importance of social issues in this election cycle. Either way, Jewish voters are set to play critical roles in large cities within presidential swing states, such as Philadelphia, Miami and Las Vegas.

The stakes are particularly high in South Florida, home to 490,000 Jews who make up a voting bloc powerful enough to influence national elections. Andre Fladell, a longtime Jewish Democratic activist, was quoted in the Sun Sentinel as saying: “Florida is up for grabs right now. The Jewish population is not overly enthused by Obama. If that vote becomes unenthusiastic, the election goes the other way.”

Though a small percentage of the overall population, Jews have the highest voter participation rate of any demographic group. And with the feeling that “the Jewish vote is up for grabs,” all the candidates seem to be pandering. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have all expressed pro-Israel sentiments in public debates, while the Democratic National Committee established a “Jewish outreach program” headed by senior advisers Ira Forman and David Axelrod, with an active campaign designed to set the record straight on Obama’s policies towards Israel.

Let Us Know What You Think – Who are you voting for in 2012?

A Scanner Messianically

R. Justin Stewart may not be the first artist you’d expect to be behind a work called “Distorting (a messiah project, 13c).” The self-described atheist became interested in the idea of the Messiah after his Jewish wife suggested that he might investigate Judaism for topics to explore in his art. “Distorting,” on display at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center through May 5, is an installation made of fleece, rope and plastic, and is dotted with QR codes that visitors can scan for more information. We spoke with Stewart about the installation, the Messiah and its surprising connection to the modern courtship dance. (The following is an edited transcript.)

Can you explain the concept behind the piece?

It’s a 3D bubble diagram of one segment of the history of the idea of the Messiah within Judaism. I’ve done a survey map of the history of the idea of the Messiah as I was able to figure it out over 18 months of research. I took the 13th-century segment and used that data to blow it up to fill the space, so each pod represents a person, a category that person wrote about, or an individual bit of information they said or wrote or was said about them. You can access those bits of information by scanning the QR code that’s on each pod.

What inspired the project?

I really like to read, so this project was an excuse to make reading my work. As an artist you can do that kind of thing. Before I started the project, my father-in-law recommended that I read What Do Jews Believe [by David Ariel]. When I was looking for a topic, my wife suggested Judaism because it has this long history of evolving dialogue, and ideas changing over time, and people riffing off of the writing that came before. That was part of the essence of the topic I was looking for. So I was flipping through the book and one of the chapters is the Messiah. When I flipped through that chapter, I’m like, “Jews don’t believe in the Messiah.” At least that was the Judaism I’d learned up to that point. So I started reading and that was kind of the beginning of my Jewish Messiah education.

So is this religious art?

I’d find it difficult to not put it in the religious category. As an artist I come about it more as an interesting idea that happens to be on a religious topic. I would consider this a piece that has very religious content and could be considered religious art, but I wouldn’t consider myself a religious art maker.

What are you hoping for people to get out of the project?

What really fascinates me is the idea that each one of these pods is just an individual bit of information and the pods themselves are suspended and created by relationships between architecture and each other, in the same way that ideas were created by the relationship between the person writing them and the culture they’re in, the place and time they’re in, and other ideas they’re connected to. No idea manifests in isolation. I’m fascinated by the interconnectivity of them. I think the viewer might be able to get to the idea that each one of these pods needs each other to exist, in the same way that if you removed any bit of information from the messiah topic, the Messiah would change. If you cut any of those ropes it would change the art in its totality.

What do you think the idea of the Messiah means today? Do you believe in the Messiah?

I would consider myself more of an atheist, but I see the Messiah in its broadest definition as just a beacon of hope, the idea of a rupture with reality or a change in reality to something better. That’s an idea I can get behind. I think everybody hopes for something better. So many of the ideas that came up were ideas that seemed to resonate beyond a time frame. Issues that people are dealing with in the 2nd century, they’re still dealing with today, and I think the Messiah can represent a resolution to some of those things. Some of the things the Messianic age would bring for people I find fascinating. One of my favorites was a writing that said when the Messiah came, women would pursue men in the courtship dance. When I read that I was like, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” only because that whole anxiety that goes with men pursuing women or vice versa has existed forever. It’s those kinds of things that I just found amazing in the research.

Murder is the Message

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

It started before the bodies were even cold, long before they could be returned to the earth. There was barely time for seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his five-year-old son Arieh and his four-year-old son Gabriel to be pronounced dead when the chorus of explanation began. The world was extremely eager to learn what message the man on the motorbike was attempting to deliver by means of a Colt semiautomatic pistol.

Before he could oblige, Catherine Ashton, Baroness of Upholland and the European Union’s “foreign minister,” had already answered for him, implicitly linking the Jewish murder victims in Toulouse with Palestinian children killed on the sidelines of battle in Gaza. Ashton has long had an obsession with attacking Israel, having used her maiden speech as EU foreign policy chief in December 2009 to condemn the “Israeli occupation,” so her offensive equation was hardly surprising. And neither was her attempt to “clarify” her remarks by appealing to “context.”

The baroness claimed to be wounded at the outrage her remarks caused, not least because she had spoken in the same breath of children dead in all kinds of circumstances, including the Belgian victims of a recent bus accident in Switzerland, and the victims of the Palestinian rocket attacks on the Israeli town of Sderot. Indeed, an amended transcript was recently released to accurately reflect her comments—which had initially been misreported. She said: “And the days when we remember young people in all sorts of terrible circumstances—the Belgian children having lost their lives in a terrible tragedy and when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and Sderot and in different parts of the world—we remember young people and children who lose their lives.”

It would be too easy to dismiss her remarks, therefore, as the ramblings of a fool, a fuzzy-minded veteran of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that used to demand that her native Britain give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally in the face of the Soviet threat. But there’s the nagging fact of the important international position Ashton holds, and the deeply disturbing way in which the baroness anticipated the murderer, Mohamed Merah, in his explanations for his bloody deeds. Ashton’s utter confusion over the most basic human values, her inability or refusal to distinguish between accidental death and murder, is widely shared. It is not too much to call it the agar plate on which the germs of unreasoning hatred grow and flourish. For if the child who dies when her school bus hits a tunnel wall is to be mourned in exactly the same way as the child who dies at the hands of a gunman who seizes her by the hair and shoots her in the head, then the murderer is no more to be condemned than the concrete walls under the Swiss mountain.

But there was never any need to wait for Ashton’s witless ramblings, or Merah’s odious proclamations, in order to decipher the message he sent at the Ozar HaTorah school. The message was in the deed. The killer wanted nothing from his victims, except their lives.

The nihilistic political culture promoted by Ashton and those even worse than her leads to yawning indifference when Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah (“a Shiite military, political, and social organization,” according to the New York Times), says he likes the concentration of Jews in Israel, because it saves him the trouble of hunting them down elsewhere. It leads to the shrugs that meet the Iranian regime’s repeated promises that the cancer that is Israel will soon be extirpated from the Earth. It leads to the turning away of eyes and ears when the heroic rebels of Libya turn into a lynch mob at the sight of a lone Jew, while the freely elected Egyptian Parliament calls unanimously for the rupture of the peace treaty with Israel. It is these signs, combined with the dire threats the “international community” aims at any hint that the Jewish state might dare seek to defend itself against those who have vowed to finish Hitler’s work, with the nuclear weapons the Fuhrer never managed to obtain—these are what send a message. And the message is, as Ron Rosenbaum has acidly written, “Kill the Jews—this time they really deserve it.”

Merah, the man on the motorbike, took this message to heart, and replied with a message of his own. The message is murder.

Jews Do the Darndest Things (On Passover)

Congratulations to the winners of our Passover giveaway, each of whom will win a copy of New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. We asked for your family’s favorite Passover tradition or memory; the winners (of a very tough competition) are below:

  • @ilanagarber: “My fav: decorate seder table w/mirrors. “B’chol dor” – hold up mirror & SEE urself as having left Egypt.”
  • @MindWarp11: “Yearly, we add NEW symbols (a la the orange). Fav: apple w/ a slice removed for the educational achievement gap in the US!”
  • @NEXTRafi: “Every year, Dad shows Zayde’s old crowbar (frm unloading produce crates as a grocer) & says ‘Hard Work ddn’t end aftr Egypt'”
  • Anita Silvert: “Passover, circa 1980. My grandparent’s tiny apartment in Chicago. My parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and my two sisters were all sitting around the table, engaged in our Seder with the Maxwell House Haggadah. New to the table was my sister’s fiance, an Israeli of Syrian descent. Suddenly, the phone rang. Since the entire family was present, none of us could imagine who would be calling at such a time. Grandma got up to answer the phone, realized it was an international call from Israel, and handed the phone to my younger sister; she must have given her inlaws-to-be the phone number. We all expected it was a “happy Pesach” call, but her face and voice didn’t match with that kind of message. She said a few words, quietly hung up the phone, and announced to her fiance, and the rest of us, that his aunt, the last left in Syria, had finally been ransomed out of Syria and had arrived in Israel that night. We sat in silence for half a second, then burst into cheers and hugs. The holiday of redemption, of liberation from oppressive lands never seemed so present, so real, so true as it did that night. and hasn’t since.”
  • Jerry Kane: “Several years ago we invited our guests to bring a symbol of something from which they wanted to “free” themselves in the coming year. We placed those symbols on a plate alongside our seder plate. Examples of what guests brought were – car… keys — to encourage more walking instead of driving — a cell phone – to encourage more face to face contact — exercise equipment to encourage more physical fitness — and other items. It is a practice we still continue to do at our seders and encourages great discussion and participation.”

And a few honorable mentions that we just couldn’t resist sharing:

  • @tktchr: “We use a dog biscuit instead of a shankbone. When we got our 1st dog right b4 Pesach we were so excited we forgot to shop!”
  • @adinacate: “My mother lives in ME and can’t get shank bones, so my fiance drew a pic of one 4 the seder plate used each year.”
  • @DEHausfrau: “Fav Pesach tradition: Miriam’s Dance/Conga Line complete with timbals and drums!”
  • @tbenwdoe: “Free trade chocolate on seder plate, each person stating what need to wash away at this time for first washing of hands.”

Congratulations, and thanks for playing, folks!

Changed from Darth Vaderberg at Ellis Island


Breaking news in “people you didn’t know were Jewish”: Darth Vader. Yes, some Lucasphiles say that Darth Vader’s chestplate (right), revealed in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, has Hebrew lettering, suggesting Jewish roots. Interpretations of the text vary, but one fan with a little too much time on his hands argues that the text translates to “His deeds will not be forgiven until he merits.” So, Darth Vader: closet Jew? Maybe. After all, he does atone at the end, an idea that is pretty darn Jewish, and the chestplate is vaguely High Priestly. On the other hand, he is, you know, a fictional character who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Vive le mystere!

March Comes In with AIPAC and Goes Out with J Street

March is bookended by two Israel-related conferences in Washington this year: the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, attended by about 13,000 people, was held the first weekend in March, and the coming weekend marks J Street’s third national conference. So, what does it mean to be pro-Israel? Moment asked 24 writers and thinkers–including Israeli novelist Amos Oz and journalist Peter Beinart, both of whom will be at the J Street conference–to tell us what they think it means to be pro-Israel today.

Getting It All Out in the Open

by Kelley Kidd

Rally in support of Tamar Epstein

Jewish husbands, we think, are educated and upstanding, family men who treat their wives with warmth, kindness and respect. Domestic abuse? Not in our backyard.

We need only look to recent news coverage to see that it is in our backyard: For approximately four years, Aharon Friedman, a Congressional staffer living in the Washington, DC area, has been refusing to grant his wife Tamar Epstein a get, or a Jewish decree of divorce. According to Jewish law, the husband must initiate divorce proceedings, a generally unproblematic technicality. Sometimes, though, a husband may refuse, as Friedman has. As a result, Epstein is an agunah, or a “chained woman” under Jewish law, unable to remarry or move forward in her emotional or romantic life. Despite the completion of their civil divorce, as well as widespread condemnation of his behavior, Friedman refuses to relinquish control over her life by consenting to a religiously valid divorce. Prominent Washington-area rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld describes this behavior as emotional abuse that is “no less a form of spousal abuse than striking one’s wife.”

Unfortunately, Friedman’s abusive behavior is not the only issue at hand. We are also faced with the fact that in Judaism, there exists a mindset that preserving tradition in the form of “a nearly thousand-year-old ruling is more important than offering women equality within the religion.” As Dvora Meyers writes in The Forward, we see a husband “brandishing a psychological weapon and threatening his wife with it” because current Jewish law allows for it, and rabbis lack the “judicial courage” to implement “halachic proposals that would enable a rabbinic court to dissolve marriage contract even without the husband’s consent.” The law actually facilitates the continuation of abuse, in the form of emotional control.

This story sheds light on what has always been a fairly unspoken issue—as I mentioned, no one really considers abuse to be a Jewish problem. In fact, though, Jewish homes face the same rate of abuse as the rest of the community—it occurs in 15% of Jewish families, across the religious and socio-economic spectrum. Abuse includes a wide range of action, all of which tend to center on control of the other partner. This may mean physical abuse, such as any kind of attack or beating, or sexual, which entails forcing oneself sexually on the other partner and demanding sexual acts that violate the partner’s wants. But, as we see in the case of Aharon Friedman, it also crosses into the realm of the less tangible, the use of intimidation, manipulation, criticism and humiliation that characterize emotional forms of abuse. Economic abuse entails keeping tight control of someone by monitoring their finances and withholding their money and choice in order to determine what they can and cannot do. These types of abuse may exist independently or in conjunction with one another.

So, if abuse is just as widespread as issue within the Jewish community as in the general population, and perhaps even justified by certain Jewish laws, we must consider why most people are so oblivious to it. Though our rate stands no higher than that in the rest of the population, Jewish women tend to stay in abusive relationships for two to three times longer than women in the general population. It seems likely, then, that there are cultural factors in Judaism that contribute to the fatal silence that surrounds abuse in Jewish homes. On the most basic level, observant women may hesitate to leave their home for logistical or financial reasons—many observant women depend on their husband for an income. And in pursuing a divorce, what if she finds herself “chained,” an agunah like Tamar Epstein?

Beyond that, however, it seems that there is a stigma surrounding abuse of Jewish women, creating shanda, or shame, regarding being the victim of abuse. Women may be hesitant to come forward because they believe “Jews are not supposed to be victims of abuse” and fear being ostracized in the community, or simply not believed. Abuse has hardly come up in Jewish forums, so our culture has failed to send the message that women should feel comfortable coming forward and being honest. In fact, Shalom Bayit, one of the few mitzvot dedicated to women, sends quite the opposite message. Shalon Bayit refers to Peace in the Home, the Jewish woman’s “pride and joy” according to tradition. This expectation that a woman create the ideal home to family, education, and love may prevent a woman from seeing it as socially acceptable to “shatter” that image by being honest about an abusive situation.

Some in the Jewish community are fighting domestic abuse. The public outcry over Friedman’s treatment of his wife—including efforts to pressure his boss, Congressman Dave Camp of Michigan, to intervene—proves that the issue is coming to the fore. And the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, based outside of Washington, DC, works to eliminate the issue’s shroud of secrecy. It is our duty to look beyond what is easiest to believe and find the truth. Friedman and Epstein’s case demonstrates the absolute necessity of this kind of critical thinking. And once we see that the tragic truth stems in part from our own cultural creation, we can move towards bringing about a norm of justice, and true Shalom Bayit that is far more worthwhile than the illusion currently masking the need for meaningful cultural change.

Marc Maron: Recovering Messiah


Courtesy of Marc Maron

In 2009, Marc Maron was a down-on-his-luck comedian, a man who’d survived alcohol and drug addiction, two divorces and resentment over his friends’ successes in the comedy world. Then, his career was resurrected with a little help from iTunes. For the past two and a half years, Maron has hosted the wildly popular twice-weekly WTF, podcasts in which he interviews comedians like Chris Rock and Robin Williams, television stars including Amy Poehler and Jon Hamm, and even the occasional highbrow public radio personality (Ira Glass, in case it wasn’t clear). Moment editor Nadine Epstein sat down with Maron at his Los Angeles home to talk about Israel, his days as a Hebrew school provocateur and the time he thought he was the Messiah.