Tuesday, May 22, 2012

J Street Makes it to Main Street

For more than two years, I have become increasingly involved with J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that shares. discusses, and promotes the belief of most Jews that Israel cannot remain a viable Jewish democracy unless and until an independent Palestinian state is established in much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Unlike other pro-Israel organizations, J Street believes it is not only permissible but it is actually positive for those who care deeply about Israel to engage in public discussions regarding what we believe makes the most sense for Israel and the Jewish people.

Since J Street was created just a few years ago, leaders of the Israeli government and other American Jews who also care deeply about Israel's future have done their best to frame J Street and its leaders as dangerously misguided.  So much so that they have put enormous pressure on Jewish professionals and rabbis to keep J Street speakers out of synagogues and other Jewish centers.

Nevertheless, J Street has consistently gained traction and credibility.  There are now dozens of J Street chapters around the country and branches of J Street U on dozens of campuses.  More than 600 rabbis and cantors proudly serve on the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and J Street now has more than 10,000 donors and almost 200,000 followers.

Still, the debate raged on in certain circles over whether J Street should be allowed "inside the Jewish tent" or whether its message was just too toxic and threatening to even be heard.

While not everyone who cares about Israel is part of J Street or will ever agree that its message and approach are a good thing, there now seems to be little doubt that J Street is now clearly inside the tent and the tactics and efforts used to destroy it have failed.

Just a few weeks ago, the Israeli government sent Baruch Binah, the second highest-ranking diplomat in the Israeli Embassy in Washington to attend the J Street National Conference where it was my privilege to sit with him at the gala dinner attended by more than 2,500 people.  In his speech, Binah made it clear that the Israeli government is not a fan of J Street's approach but it was equally clear that the government knows J Street is here to stay.

Just last week , Conservative pundit Bill Kristol appeared in a debate with J Street founding president Jeremy Ben Ami.  The debate, moderated by Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner, drew a standing room only crowd and there have been no reports of anyone contracting a disease from watching two thoughtful Jews who care deeply about Israel discuss their contrasting views in public.

Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev attended the debate and wistfully wrote that he was jealous that civil and respectful conversation could take place here in the U.S. in ways that it never could in Israel.

"As an Israeli observer," Shalev wrote, "I must admit I found myself envious of the ability of the two debaters and of their audience to conduct such a potentially volatile political debate in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In Israel, I suspect, such civilized debates may no longer be possible."

Shalev attributed the respectful atmosphere, in part at least, to the relatively moderate tone and tenor of Kristol's remarks. He was not vulgar or offensive in reference to President Obama. And he proclaimed his support, in principle, for the two-state solution. Indeed, both debaters strove to eschew emotive extremism in their presentations.

And just a couple of days ago, MSNBC contributor David Goodfriend appeared on the Dylan Ratigan show and told the world why he is a strong supporter of J Street  after Goodfriend returned from a family trip to Israel that was highlighted by his son's bar mitzvah.  Goodfriend's sentiments and reasoning are typical of what I have found among most of my fellow J Street supporters.  It is very different from the way we are portrayed by our many detractors on the outside.

Left to our own devices, we American Jews will revert to the pluralistic values of free speech and trying to find the partial truth in the opinions of others. As I wrote several weeks ago (J Street and AIPAC--These and These are the Words of Being Pro-Israel) we are always well served by having multiple approaches and opinions to sift through.  That's how we have always learned and grown.

Despite the best efforts of many of our wealthiest and most influential leaders, it seems that more and more gatekeepers of the Jewish tent have opened the doors to J Street.  Not necessarily to agree with us but to acknowledge the infinite value of open discussion.

These and these are the words of the living God.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Auschwitz, Israel, Arizona and This Week's Torah Portion

The headline story in the Arizona Jewish Post this week was a report on the 2012 March of the Living and the joy that my fellow Tucsonan Bill Kugelman felt in being part of it

The March of the Living is a 24-year old program that has involved more than 200,000 participants since its inception. On its website it states its mission as follows:

The March of the Living brings students from around the world to march from Auschwitz-Birkenau on Yom Hashoah in memory of all Holocaust victims. After visiting other places of Nazi persecution and sites of Jewish life in Poland, many participants travel to Israel, the homeland of the Jewish People.

I have many friends who have participated in this program over the years and found it to be a memorable and worthwhile experience.

Bill is an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor who has lived in Tucson for almost 50 years and has devoted a large part of his life to educating others and sharing his memories and knowledge about the horrors of the Holocaust.

It is clear that his concentration camp experiences of almost 70 years ago have played a major role in shaping his world view and his life even today.  His presence on the trip must have added great value since he was able to walk with the young people as someone who actually lived in the places they were seeing and could tell them how it felt to be part of the history they were trying to recreate in their own minds.

When Kugelman was asked what he hoped to accomplish and why he agreed to go on the trip at the age of 88, he said something that really got my attention.

"If Jewish parents want their kids to remain Jewish, to have a spark of Jewishness, they need to know the price of Jewishness."

Kugelman, speaking sincerely based on his own very real life experience, seems to view the message of the Holocaust in Jewish terms--a narrative that he finds every bit as relevant today as he did back then. The Nazis were the latest in a long line of people who have hated Jews and came after us.   He believes that any Jewish parent who wants his child to remain Jewish owes it to that kid to teach him about the Holocaust so he will know how high that price might be.

Near the end of the article, a teenager from Tucson who also went on the trip talked about why the trip was such a transformative and meaningful experience to him. After spending time in Auschwitz and then in Israel on a trip that is choreographed to highlight the Jewish journey from death and despair to hope and prosperity, Benjamin Bressler said,

"I cannot stress how important the trip is. Not just because you are Jewish but because you are human."

Benjamin's comment provides what is to me a more contemporary perspective.  And on top of that, it really reflects a more Jewish perspective as well.  Our Torah and our values have always obsessed on ways to make the world a better place for all people--not just a safer place for Jews.

That is in no way to diminish the very real respect and gratitude that I feel toward Bill and the many other survivors for their tireless effort to create programs and museums and curricula to make sure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.

For the vast majority of the world's Jews who live in Israel and the U.S., the Holocaust years are truly a reflection of a time in history and a mindset that are an important memory--not a measure of our current reality.  In Israel and the U.S. today, Jews enjoy lives of unprecedented power, prosperity, and are widely sought out as friends, business partners, neighbors, and spouses by those around us who are not Jewish.

Both Kugelman and Bressler loved participating in the March of the Living and thought it was important and life changng. It gave the teenager, gave him a first-hand sense of the story of the Holocaust and how it led to the return of the Jews to the State of Israel.  And it showed him how horrible and cruel humans can be to one another and that we need to be vigilant to make sure that kind of behavior doesn't happen on our watch. 

But for the Holocaust survivor, the point of the story is uniquely Jewish.  No parent should allow his child to remain Jewish unless that child understands they will pay the price of being universally tormented by the outside world that will always hate and want to destroy us.

As happens with shocking frequency, I found a line in this week's Torah portion (with the help of my friend and teacher Rabbi David Segal of Aspen) that brought this news story into sharper focus. After outlining dozens of commandments that people are required to follow in their daily lives, God launches into a long and daunting list of curses that will befall those who ignore his instructions and act badly.

One of the more subtle curses--but obviously an important one since it is repeated twice in Leviticus 26:17 and again a few pages (or a turn of the wrist) later in 26:36--is that those who are truly cursed are those who live in constant fear of dangers that are no longer real.

 I will cast a faintness into their hearts...The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight.  Fleeing, as though from the sword, they shall fall, though none pursues.  With no one pursing they shall stumble over one another as before the sword.  They will not be able to stand their ground.   (Leviticus 36:36-37).

I receive several emails daily from fellow Jews who want to make sure I know how anti-Semitism is alive and well and, in the opinion of many, worse than ever. I am constantly being warned by very sincere people that I must remain vigilant in fighting and, in the words of my friend Bill Kugelman, know the very high price that comes with being Jewish.  Meanwhile, I look around and just don't see it. In fact, we are surrounded by signs of the opposite--love, acceptance, and respect for and appreciation of Judaism and Jewish values by my non-Jewish friends.

Is this the fulfillment of God's warning as we all read in the Torah just this week? That we will be self-afflicted with the fear and outrage and anguish that leads to the perpetual feeling of victimhood and the need to flee, even when no one is chasing us?  Is this part of the price we are paying for the inability of so many Jews to treat others in a civil manner?

Perhaps many Jews are doomed to suffer from that curse unless and until they can learn, as so many younger Jews have, to opt for Jewish values, wisdom, ethics, and ritual observance as a treasure that will lead to happier, more productive, and more meaningful lives instead of only seeing being Jewish as a high-priced burden that those who choose to remain Jewish are doomed to bear.

There is a more full-blown blog in that line and it will be coming. But for now, I just wanted to share what started as a random musing that, when seasoned with a little Torah wisdom, became something much more.