Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The New Nationalism

The New Nationalism - How Ben Gurion's vision has diminished in our day.

With the establishment of the "Nation State" law, Israel has enshrined in law a tremendously honest and transparent truth: Israel is created first, foremost and forever as a state for Jewish people.  The Muslim Public Affairs Council declared the law "Jim Crow," and has called upon America to "Condemn Israel's undemocratic and unjust actions towards Palestine."  55 members of the Israeli Knesset (including the 13 from the Joint Arab List) opposed the measure. 2 senior Druze army officers and one Arab member of Knesset have resigned in protest.

The essence of the protest is this.  The pronouncement of the State of Israel, still found on the Knesset website, declares equality and freedom of religion for all Israel's citizens.  Ever since her founding, Arabic and Hebrew have been legally equal languages in government and education. Israel functioned under an understanding of democratic ideals.  The new basic law, carrying the weight of a constitutional amendment, removes the commitment to the equality of all her citizens.  Jews, like Hebrew, are the prioritized citizen of the state.  While there is no practical law or policy which has changed, and so the whole thing is posturing, it is also more than symbolic.  As a basic law, courts will bear it in mind in future rulings.

"So what?" you may ask.  Immigration, under the Law of Return, was always the privileged realm of Jews from anywhere.  And the Jewish settlement of the Land (regardless of where) has been the ethos of the State from the beginning.  Build new towns, and make the desert bloom.  Other immigration is possible, but not easy.  What is so different now?  The problem lies at the center of nationalism, and the nature of religion.

The State of Israel was created so that Jews would have a state "like all the other nations." Theodore Herzl famously pursued precisely that idea.  But one must know that "Jews" are defined by culture in that national identity, not by religion.  A communist atheist Jew has every right to claim the national identity of Jew as any profoundly religious Jewish person might.  Therefore it is the cultures of Jews throughout the world who make up the nationality in question.  Just as religion in Germany is not shared by all Germans, Judaism as a religion is not shared by all Jews.  So the State of Israel was not created for Religious triumphalism.

But the State of Israel did not evolve organically in the Land. It was created, mostly by waves of Jewish immigration, amidst a native population.  So the high ideals of that State under Ben Gurion were peace, civil rights, equality, religious freedom, and a democratic government of its citizens.  The Jewishness of the state was a commitment to the cultural identity and protection of the Jewish People in its ancestral home, but Ben Gurion was hardly a religious person and did not define Jewish in religious terms.  Herzl had insisted that the native population's rights would not be diminished by the establishment of a Jewish State, as did the Balfour Declaration of the British Mandate in Palestine between the wars.  And Ben Gurion enshrined that in the Declaration of Independance.  Those ideals have now been - not so quietly - removed by the Nation State Law under PM Netanyahu's leadership.

Does that mean that Israel will become a full blown "illiberal democracy" institutionalizing inequity and persecuting its minorities?  To be fair, there is some of that already.  Reform and Conservative Judaism are not equal or free in the State of Israel, and two weeks ago a Conservative rabbi was arrested for performing a wedding that the Orthodox beit din in Haifa disapproved of.  And much of the Palestinian narrative is based in systemic disparities between services, opportunities and protections for the Jewish Israelis on the one side and for Arab Israeli citizens on the other side - not to mention the curtailing of such liberties under the Israeli Military, Palestinian Authority and Gaza structures that are in play today.  The truth is that Israel is a democracy where various minorities are not treated equally and do not enjoy full freedoms.  The Nation State Law enshrines the positive value of Israel as a haven and incubator for the Jewish people, with the undeniable implication that anyone "outside" of that group is at a disadvantage or is vulnerable.

But to be even more fair, Israel is a place of profound freedoms.  Israel's freedom of speech and freedom of the press are among the most vigorous in the world.  Israel's participation in its elections and democratic process is also among the strongest in the world.  The civil rights of non-Jews in Israel are far better than the civil rights of many muslims and christians throughout the Middle East.  Equality and democracy are not exactly normal in that region of the world, and Israel - the best of them all in the neighborhood - is uniquely criticized for things like this.  Must Israel be fully liberal to be good?

In Herzl's day, nation states were the norm. Austria for Austrians. Russia for Russians.  Israel for Jews.  It's not a very subtle way of seeing the world.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work. WWI, WWII and countless other conflicts have been pursued as nationalist conflicts.  And with the shrinking of the world and the movement of populations, the diversity of human civilization is not so neat and tidy anyways. France, Belgium, Germany, Hungary and others are all engaged in internal debates about national identity and the "other."  And Israel has proven incapable of providing religious equality for its own Jews. And the security concerns and biases that are ingrained within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict prevent democratic idealism in the daily administration of government and the military control of territory at this time.  One might lament that, but there it is.

In the current situation, one must choose.  Nationalist moves within a democracy that becomes less a land of equality, or a commitment to full equality while asserting the Jewish ethos, identity and mandate of the state?  Herzl or Ben Gurion?

Unfortunately, a state that discriminates already between different kinds of Jews can not be trusted to be the protector and advocate of a benevolent Judaism.  Israel needs to separate "church and state," and protect all civil liberties for all its citizens.  It must return to Hertzl's understanding that it is the Jewish people's cultures and hopes that are the ethos of the nation state, not its religion, and Ben Gurion's understanding that a Jewish State does not exclude living with others in dignity, equality and peace.

Yes, Israel is still good. No, Israel is not perfect.  Yes, Israel is better than any other country in the region. No, Israel is not a place of unlimited equality and Justice - for Palestinians or for all Jews.

The Law is a step forward in clarifying the purpose of the existence of Israel, but it is a step backwards in diminishing the ideals of equality and freedom for all.  We now know what it is.  But how will it be used?

What will now change?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

If you dream it, too bad for you.

A week ago, a Conservative Rabbi in Haifa was arrested at 5:30 in the morning from his home for having performed a wedding ceremony two years before between two Jewish people, a man and a woman, whom the local Orthodox rabbinate had said were ineligible under religious law to marry.  The Conservative Rabbi disagreed with that religious interpretation of Jewish law and the couple were happily married under his auspices.  How can Israel, a heralded democracy, arrest a rabbi for performing a Jewish wedding?! It is astounding, disturbing and dangerous.

Unfortunately, in 2013 Israel passed a horrific illiberal religious law that threatened anyone who performs a marriage not approved by the Orthodox rabbinate with 6 months in prison, and anyone who does not register a marriage with 2 years in prison.  Since Conservative rabbis are not recognized by the Orthodox authorities who register and approve marriages, any wedding by a Conservative (or Reformed) Rabbi will automatically break both aspects of the law.

This was the first time the law was applied and resulted in an arrest.  News reports indicate that the Attorney General has directed the police force to not pursue the case, but the law is the law. Stay tuned.

Why is this such a big deal?  Well, this same week Israel passed a new "Basic Law" which carries the same weight as a constitutional amendment would in the U.S. (since Israel has no constitution).  That law excluded any language of "freedom of religion" from its definition of Israel as a Jewish Nation State.  Any hint at pluralism was clearly pushed into "Diaspora Affairs," and the Orthodox authorities, well ensconced in a decidedly right wing government coalition, are indirectly but deliberately invested with sole authority over Judaism in the State.  

Let's be clear: The Orthodox Rabbinate has been given formal and legal authority over Judaism in Israel. The 2013 law is not a joke. It is real.  And now it will just be the beginning.  It will be argued under the Nation State Law that the Orthodox rabbis have the right to have Conservative and Reformed rabbis arrested and imprisoned for doing the most basic things that a religious leader of a community does, marry their congregants in sacred ceremony, unless the Orthodox religious authorities approve (which by definition they will not).

The fact is that Israel has adopted a specific state religion, under leaders who are not accountable to the population at large, and handed them the power of the police - and not for the first time. How many times have women at the western wall faced not only private persecution, but arrest, for exercising Judaism in the manner of their conscience? When PM Netanyahu cancelled the Western Wall deal for pluralism, it was an indication that this is the direction that he is leading Israel as a particular kind of Jewish State.

A democracy that does not protect the civil rights of all of its people, and in fact legislates against them, is illiberal.  That term (first published by Fareed Zakaria in Foreign Affairs in 1997, though I recall its use a decade before in my modern foreign governments class at Georgetown) is often used to describe fake elections and despots. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate governmental description outside of that use.  The AP placement exam in Comparative Government and Politics, May 2006, for example, included the definition "elections coupled with restrictions on individual civil liberties" in its characterization of the term.  I contend that Israel has now crossed the line and entered that category.

In matters of the Jewish religion Israel is no longer just a "political mess" where minority members of the coalition get the funding or favors that they want in return for keeping a PM's coalition in power.  Israel has now enshrined in law an illiberal refusal to protect the civil rights of non-Orthodox Jews.  Ironically, Muslim and Christian variety is accepted and protected by the Israeli government. But not Jewish pluralism.

The most recent "Democracy Intelligence Index" from the Economist has noted this aspect of Israel's poor record on civil rights as a key reason for a poor evaluation of this area of its government.  Israel properly boasts how vibrant its democracy is, including levels of participation that lead the entire world. But civil rights are a black spot on its record.  And that is without the inherent civil rights problems that arise from the Palestinian conflict. Add the two together, and Israel can not legitimately claim its preferred status among the great democracies of the world.

It is an appalling development for me, after a full adult lifetime and 20+ years as a rabbi advocating for and defending Israel, that I have to admit a simple fact: The Government of Israel is at best apathetic, and at worst hostile and oppressive of my colleagues' civil rights as rabbis serving their congregations in Israel.  Israel is not a land of religious freedom, at least not for Jews.

Is it too late to return to the original intent of the founders of the state, proclaimed by David ben Gurion in 1948, that

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Has the dream, indeed, died for the rest of us?






Friday, July 13, 2018

NYC Identification Cards - "I am Spartacus!"

Get your NYC ID Card today!  If you are a resident of NYC, it is free and easy, and important.  Why?  Read on. And apply here.

The recent arrest of ConcepciĆ³n and Margarito Silva's at Fort Drum should shock us all, and question the current ICE practices of the Trump Administration.  

What did they do? The came to Fort Drum to celebrate July 4th with their son-in-law, an active duty Marine, and their pregnant daughter. They presented NYC government issued I.D. cards for entry.  Fr. Drum asked for another form of I.D., as the NYC I.D. card is often used by undocumented aliens, recent prison parolees, and others who have difficulty finding an honest government i.d. document.  According to an Army spokesperson, the NYCID card does not have a scannable barcode that provides the guard with a photo to check against the person holding the card.

There is no question that the i.d. was a lawful, accurate identification document. But for some reason, Fr. Drum went further. So they showed their Mexican Passports, which did not have a legal entry stamp or visa to the U.S. But the Passports would have verified the identity found on the ID card, which the spokesman says was the concern.  Instead, ICE was called, the couple was arrested, and they remain imprisoned in Brooklyn awaiting a hearing and probably deportation.  Their U.S. citizen daughter and marine son-in-law will have to raise their baby without hardworking grandparents who have been peacefully working in this country for 20 years, because they were stupid enough to think that celebrating America's Independence day at a military base with their family was a good thing to do.

This seems to be a U.S. Army mandate now, as it is not the first time an undocumented immigrant has been taken into custody after presenting their IDNYC card. New York resident Pablo Villavicencio was detained while delivering a pizza to the Hamilton army base in New York City last month, after presenting his identification card at the gate.

Is this what we have come to? Hard working, honest people working 7 days a week to raise a family are being challenged without probable cause because they are using a completely legal and accurate NYCID card.

 If we see an injustice that is trying to cull the herd, to pull individuals out of the crowd, we should stand up and hide the innocent in the wave of the majority.  Think of the famous scene, "I am Spartacus!"  To that end, I encourage everyone who is a resident of NYC to sign up for the NYCID card, and to use it everywhere that government I.D. is required.

In this way we can normalize the document's use, so that people acting in the honest light of day do not need to suffer in this way.  Let the people live and work.

In the meantime, yes - I do believe in legal immigration, and I do not want people, including children, crossing the river on our southern border.  The death of children in the water and the dessert has not been sufficiently covered in the news. We should not have a system that encourages and rewards people to come across in that way.  Genuine asylum seekers should be welcomed at the ports of entry of the U.S. and a serious system of justice must be afforded them.  And I do believe in a much larger immigration system than we currently have, including a path to citizenship for those like the Silva family.  I do not believe in open immigration, and I do believe in strong borders. 

The recipe is clear. Broader acceptance of legal immigrants, strong enforcement of our borders, a path to citizenship for those who are here, and a process of dignity justice and mercy for those who seek asylum.

There must be an open door of mercy, and a reasonable process of justice.