Archive for January 3, 2010

If left-wing Israelis should answer to a higher law, how about right-wing rabbis?

January 3, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–Professor David Shulman of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, commenting on the by now almost notorious Goldstone report – and sort-of agreeing with much of it – writes nostalgically in the December 17 issue of The New York Review of Books:

            I remember a time when charges of war crimes were not simply sloughed off by   Israel’s leaders, when military mistakes that cost innocent civilian lives were acknowledged as such and elicited expressions of sorrow, and when Israeli courts clearly articulated the principle that a soldier has not only the right but  indeed the duty not to carry out an order that is at odds with his conscience as a human being or with basic human values.

 These are noble words by a liberal Israeli intellectual concerned about the soul of his people and his country. The trouble is that, applying the same criteria, ultra-nationalist rabbis may have a strong case, too. Some of them openly urge Israeli soldiers to disobey orders if sent to help remove illegal outposts in the West Bank and perhaps soon (we pray) help evacuate Israelis from established settlements as part of a peace agreement.  They, too, espouse higher values that in their view should supersede military orders.

 I surmise that this professor of humanistic studies, whether or not burdened by secularist prejudice, doesn’t look forward to a time when Halakhah (Jewish law) will supersede any law that Israel’s democratically elected parliament will pass on the grounds that God’s commandments must come before human legislation.  What he identifies as human conscience and human values, these rabbis regard as having infinitely higher authority, which for them is embodied in Jewish law. They understand this law to say that every bit of the Land of Israel is a God-given Jewish possession and that no Jew has the right to move another Jew from it. Disobedience in their scheme of things isn’t just a human value but a sacred duty. How is their stance intellectually inferior to his?

There’s indeed a strong case for Israel to investigate accusations of abuses by soldiers during the Gaza war, as listed in the Goldstone report. But do such possible abuses warrant disobedience of military orders and halakhic considerations don’t?

As a liberal I’d like to side with Shulman and condemn the rabbis. However, I find it impossible to do so without being inconsistent and hypocritical, and thus fundamentally wrong. As much as I disagree with the settler rabbis and fear for the consequences of their campaign, I don’t know how to refute their argument when they ask why, when professors encourage disobedience the elites laud them, but when rabbis do so the same elites condemn them.

With this dilemma constantly on my mind I can no longer choose between the liberal left, where I’d like to belong, and the militant right, which at times I fear more than the known enemies of Israel. Like so many others nowadays, I’m not in a position to label myself politically, for if you free yourself from ideological and political blinkers, all you can hope for is that those entrusted to lead the country will be sufficiently inconsistent and pragmatic to try to be many things to a lot of people. It’s not pretty and not comfortable, but I know of no other viable and honest option.      

Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his year between Israel and Canada.

An Israeli columnist’s 2010 predictions

January 3, 2010 Leave a comment
By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–This is the season for projecting a continuation of what has been. Some of you have accused me of cynicism. Some have called me a realist. No one should be surprised by what follows.
Overseas observers will report on Israel’s military exercises in preparation for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. There won’t be a comment from the IDF, the prime minister or defense minister. Other leading officials will express their threats. Iranians will bluster against Israel and about their own rights, while they hold off home grown opponents, and reports leak out about the casualties. President Obama will express regrets and vague comments about Iran’s nuclear program, international sanctions, and the rights of Iranians.
The White House will see progress in Iraq, hopeful signs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and maybe even in Somalia.
Congress will add a thousand or two pages worth of patches to health benefits and regulations. There will be a theatrical presidential signing and declaration of success. HMOs and insurance companies will scour the legislation for their opportunities, and Americans who think that they have health insurance will wrestle with new regulations and paperwork. It will take a while to know if they move up from the bottom of the heap for life expectancy and other health indicators.
Israeli officials will not say no to the deal for Gilad Shalit. Neither will they say yes to the demands of Hamas. 
The leaders of SHAS will lament homosexuality.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis will curse and demonstrate about the violation of Shabbat, and mumble or be silent when some of their colleagues protest the actions of police and judicial personnel who move against those who behave unconventionally.
Mahmoud Abbas will remain the president of the Palestine National Authority (West Bank) and travel the world urging potential allies to recognize his country in its historical boundaries of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital. The election originally scheduled for January 2009, and more recently January 2010, will be pushed ahead to a more appropriate date.
Israeli activists will claim that their country has the least desirable scores in the world, or (more modestly) among Western democracies on traffic accidents, economic inequality, environmental quality, the accomplishments of school children, higher education, the unrepresentative nature of the political system, religious persecution, the violation of minority rights, international laws of war and the rights of refugees.
With Jews helping to lead them, international promoters of peace and justice will say Amen to that listing of sins, and do what they can to condemn, disinvest, and impose other sanctions.
Most of those bothering to read this will still be here a year from now. I hope to be among you.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

Elena Bonner tells Norwegians about their double standard

January 3, 2010 1 comment

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson 

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel–“You must read this,” a friend said, thrusting some typed pages into my hand. They contained the text of a speech given by Elena Bonner, the Jewish widow of former Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, at the Freedom Forum held in Oslo, Norway, in May 2009.

I read the typescript with growing astonishment. Elena Bonner spoke out bravely and unequivocally in favour of Israel, berating her hosts and the representatives of other countries for applying a double standard to Israel when it came to the issue of human rights. After giving a brief account of her own personal history (left parentless at age 14, father executed, mother imprisoned and exiled, brought up by grandmother, orphaned again by WWII, married Sakharov, exiled), the 86-year old Bonner summed her life up as ‘typical, tragic and beautiful.’

She quotes some of the statements made by her late husband: ‘Israel has an indisputable right to exist,’ ‘Israel has a right to existence within safe borders,’ and ‘With all the money that has been invested in the problem of Palestinians it would have been possible long ago to resettle them and provide them with good lives in Arab countries.’

After referring to the wars and terrorism which have targeted Israel since its existence, Bonner notes that a new motif ‘two states for two peoples’ has become fashionable. She claims that it sounds good and that there is no controversy on this score in the peacemaking quartet made up of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia, adding with regard to the last: “some great peacemaker, with its Chechen war and its Abkhazian-Ossetian provocation.” Without making any attempt to fudge the issue, she states that the demand for the return of the Palestinian refugees from 1948 is simply another way of working to destroy Israel. She shows that the statistical record has been distorted since the very beginning, with the connivance of the UN. She describes a ‘Judenfrei Holy Land’ as ”Hitler’s dream come true at last.”

Bonner also cites the case of Gilad Shalit as showing up the hypocrisy of the human rights activists, saying: “You fought for and won the opportunity for the Red Cross to visit Guantanamo. You know the prison conditions, the daily routine, the diet… The result of your efforts has been a ban on torture and a law to close this prison… But during the two years that Shalit has been held by terrorists the world human rights community has done nothing for his release. Why?…I can find no answer except that Shalit is an Israeli soldier and a Jew… This is conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism. It is fascism.”

Ms. Bonner concluded her remarks by stating that when she first visited Oslo in 1975 to represent her husband at the Nobel Prize ceremony she was in love with Norway, but today she feels both alarm and hope (the title of the essay written by Sakharov in 1977 at the request of the Nobel Committee). Alarm because of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment growing throughout Europe and even further afield, and hope that countries, their leaders and people everywhere will recall and adopt Sakharov’s ethical credo: “In the end the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice.”

How refreshing to come across a voice which openly expresses support for Israel in these days of inveterate Israel-bashing wherever one turns.

Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.