Divre Harav – May/17

I’m taking a break this month from my stroll through Pirke Avot (chapter 2) to report on my trip to Washington, DC to attend my first AIPAC policy conference this past March. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Every year, AIPAC supporters gather in DC for three days of sessions featuring speakers on various issues of Israel, such as technology, security, medicine, manufacturing, business, and entertainment. Speakers also include the political leadership of the United States and Israel, although this year we also heard from former leaders in Canada and the United Kingdom as well. AIPAC is a bipartisan organization, whose goal is to develop relationships with each of the 535 members of Congress as well as the Executive branch of the government, regardless of political affiliation.

It was an extraordinary experience to sit in the Verizon Center with 18,000 Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel, young and old and hear from the Democratic and the Republican leadership of both the House and the Senate, as well as the Vice President. I heard from Policy Conference veterans that 10 years ago the conference drew 4000 attendees. This year, there were over 4000 high school and college students alone! Eight years ago, there were 40 people at the lunch for rabbis and cantors; this year, I sat in a room with 900 people.

AIPAC is a phenomenal organization with a very clear mission: To strengthen the US-Israel bond. We learned how foreign aid to Israel supports US manufacturing. We learned how the Israeli defense program makes both Israel and the United States more secure. We learned how Israeli water technology is benefiting the region surrounding Israel and has been an important tool in addressing drought in California. We heard global experts addressing paths and obstacles to Middle East security. And much more.

The final day of the conference is a lobbying day. Many of the participants get on buses to Capitol Hill to meet with their Senators and Representatives. Each year, AIPAC prepares bipartisan materials to focus on a specific legislative agenda to support Israel. This year, we were asked to talk about three issues:

  • • A bill to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities, such as ballistic missile development, strengthening American sanctions against those who support such activities.
  • • A bill to expand existing U.S. anti-boycott laws to international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union which participate in organized anti-Israel boycotts.
  • • Robust foreign aid, which ensures America’s strong world leadership role, and security assistance and cooperative missile defense programs with Israel.

For more information on AIPAC’s legislative agenda, see http://www.policyconference.org/article/Resources.asp. And for a shining example of a powerful address, see this 17 minute video of the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, talking about how she is addressing the UN’s anti-Israel bias – http://video.policyconference.org/watch/toWdJqgHqFigsvr2m1PAE3.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Artzot Habrit (abbreviated in Hebrew, aleph-heh-bet) – United States (literally, “lands of the covenant” or perhaps “States of the Constitution”).
  • Umot Ha-me’uhedet (abbreviated in Hebrew, aleph-heh-mem) – United Nations
  • Nasi – President
  • Rosh Memshallah – Prime Minister (literally, “head of government”)
  • Haver Kenesset – Member of Parliament
  • Haver Congress – Member of Congress
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The Iran Deal: To Support or Not to Support?

For the past several weeks, I have been following rabbinic discussion on the Iran Deal. Most of the voices have been firmly against the deal, and many of my colleagues have been preaching against it from the pulpit. This is my first Shabbat back from vacation, but I am reticent to devote a d’var Torah on the subject because I’m not sure that the Torah has a definite and conclusive opinion on such a complex political issue.

For me to express a rabbinic opinion on the Iran Deal would be to say that the Torah can definitively solve a complex political issues such as whether Iran is less likely to get – and use – a nuclear weapon with this deal or without it. Although many people and organizations have strong opinions, I don’t know that anyone can predict the future with certainty.

However, I do have a personal take on the issue, and I wanted to share it with you. Many of you will agree with me; some of you will not. Those of you who support the deal have significant support both in this country and in Israel among people who understand security issues far better than I do. Those of you who are opposed to the deal can find a copy of a sample letter that you might send to our senators to encourage them to vote against the deal.

My personal opinion is that it is a bad deal. For years I’ve been hearing that Iran is only a few years from getting nuclear weapon technology. It hasn’t happened yet, which just proves to me that the experts are all just guessing based on the best data at hand. One of these days, though, they are going to be right, and I don’t think this deal is the best way to prevent that from happening.

To the question, “What do you propose instead?”, I say the following:

I’d rather see the sanctions kept in place until an agreement is reached ensuring a non-nuclear Iran, but I’m not thrilled with using the threat of long term, regime changing, war because I don’t think that the current Iranian government could be replaced with anything much better. However, I’d love to see a few precisely targeted massive bunker-busting ground-penetrating bombs dropped on the nuclear sites to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability, as Israel did to Iraq years ago, even though I freely admit that I don’t know if it is technologically possible to destroy the reactors that way.

There is also is the issue of the release of somewhere between $50 and $150 billion after sanctions are lifted. It greatly concerns me that think about how much mischief Iran will sow throughout the Middle East (and beyond) with that kind of money. A more gradual release of the money as Iran shows itself to be a responsible world citizen seems a more prudent course of action.

As responsible citizens of this country and as Jews concerned both about the security of the United States and Israel, it is a mitzvah to contact our elected representatives and share our thoughts with them.


The most important action you can take right now is to contact our Michigan Senators, both of whom have not yet taken positions on the deal. I will be urging them to reject it. Below are five points that I incorporated into my letters (from standwithus.com):

Senator Debbie Stabenow
3280 E. Beltline Court NE, Suite 400
Grand Rapids, MI 49525
Phone: (616) 975-0052

Senator Gary Peters
124 West Allegan Street, Suite 1810
Lansing, MI 48933
Phone: (517) 377-1508

Here are five points that will strengthen the agreement, and we urge you to require these points in a new agreement:

  1. Demand the dismantling of centrifuges in all Iranian nuclear facilities. The proposed deal would disconnect and store centrifuges in an easily reversible manner, but it requires no dismantlement of centrifuges or any Iranian nuclear facility.
  2. Include anywhere, anytime, short-notice inspections. The current agreement gives Iran up to 24 days to deceive, delay, and hide.
  3. Release sanctions gradually as Iran demonstrates full cooperation, satisfying International Atomic Energy Agency concerns over the possible military dimensions of Tehran’s program. The current agreement gives $150 billion and lifts sanctions as soon as the agreement commences, rather than gradually in phases as Iran demonstrates sustained adherence to the agreement.
  4. Block Iran’s nuclear weapons quest for generations. The current agreement permits Iran to legally acquire nuclear weapons in 15 years. A child born today would live in a world where the greatest terror sponsors, who want to annihilate the United States, also have the most powerful weapons and delivery systems to achieve their goals.
  5. Prevent Iran from obtaining ballistic missiles and do not lift the arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council, which will allow Iran to provide additional arms for terrorism and proxy wars, which inflame the region and threaten our allies.

Don’t let Iran become a nuclear threat on your watch!


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JFGR Statement on Iran Deal

In response to the recent agreement between the United States and Iran regarding nuclear proliferation the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids joins numerous other Federations throughout the country in expressing significant concerns regarding its content, and encourages the Administration, which worked admirably and tirelessly in pursuit of this deal, to negotiate a deal that requires Iran to dismantle its nuclear program before obtaining sanctions relief.  While we are not nuclear experts, we must recognize that a sizable and diverse number of authorities have stated that, for a variety of reasons, this deal fails to meet the most basic objectives originally set forth to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

History has taught us that the safety and self-determination of the Jewish people cannot be left up to the goodwill and false promises of rogue nations.  This agreement does not allow for “anytime” or “anywhere” inspections of nuclear facilities, and it does not require Iran to reveal its prior illicit nuclear program-a program that violated countless UN Security Council resolutions.  It allows Iran to gain access to intercontinental ballistic missile technology, which equally threatens New York and Tel Aviv, as well as $150 billion of frozen assets before it even takes minimal steps towards compliance.  Iran, which has repeatedly lied about its nuclear activities in the past, will now have time to disguise non-compliant activity before allowing international inspectors into nuclear sites.

The safety of Americans, Israelis, and our Middle Eastern allies would be threatened under this agreement, as Iran’s neighbors seek their own nuclear weapons and unleash a nuclear arms race in the worlds most volatile region.  History has shown us that regimes that sponsor terror throughout the world and call for the destruction of the United States and Israel simply cannot be taken at face value to comply with any agreement. Iran must earn the world’s trust before the international community rewards them with economic relief and legitimacy on the world’s diplomatic stage.

Proponents of this deal claim that our choice is this deal or war.  We feel that the alternative is a better deal that would not legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear state nor accept temporary constraints.  Nothing short of an outright dismantling of the nuclear infrastructure should be acceptable to the global community

We also note that not only do Iran’s neighbors oppose the deal but a broad spectrum of elected Israeli leaders as well, including both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Opposition leader Herzog.  We look to these leaders as examples of rising above partisan politics on such a monumental issue.  We recognize that there are diverse views within our community, but ultimately this issue must remain about policy, not politics, and allow us to demonstrate moral clarity, unity, and resolve when advocating for Israel, the United States, and Peace.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – September, 2014

My apologies – I forgot to post this at the beginning of September!

“Is it hard to be Jewish in Grand Rapids?” was one of the questions that one of our Israeli Scout guests asked as we were eating breakfast. Yes, it can be difficult. Acquiring kosher food can be a challenge, especially meat. One or two days, 2.5 – 4.5 hours, a week of Jewish education for children is barely enough to scratch the surface, much less teach serious Hebrew and the richness of Jewish literature, calendar, prayer, and other daily practice. There is a growing disconnect between the American Jewish community and Israel, as supporters of Israel find themselves having to work hard to overcome apathy at best, and to justify even the existence of the State of Israel at worst.

On the other hand, for those who want to support and/or participate in a serious Jewish community, Jewish behavior is as natural as breathing. Rarely do I feel that it is an effort or a burden to be Jewish – celebrating Shabbat in the Ahavas Israel community, being aware of how I give my Tzedakah dollars and what food I put into my body, helping staff our Family Promise shelter dates, and learning and teaching Torah, this is what sustains me.

As we approach the fall of the year and our High Holidays once again, I encourage you to use the time of teshuvah to consider how you might enliven your Jewish souls. Our Scholar in Residence weekend this month, featuring Dr. Yael Aronoff of MSU, will answer many of your questions (or the questions your friends or co-workers might throw at you) on Israel. Let the return of our religious school students to class be a reminder that Judaism is not (just) for children – you, too, can find ways to learn Torah and Rabbinic literature both locally and online. You can find my weekly reflections on Psalms at embodiedtorah.wordpress.com – read Psalms along with me and add your own reflections in the comments.

May your new year be sweet and give you many opportunities to nourish your soul.

Remarks at the Grand Rapids Solidarity for Israel Rally

Friends, this rally is about peace and I am standing before you to offer a prayer for peace. Peace has a price. Peace means compromise. Peace means that neither side gets all that they want, but they agree to live and let live, to prosper and marry and raise children side by side in safety.

Peace means that the State of Israel is here to stay; otherwise, there is no peace, only devastation.

For over 3000 years, Judaism and Israel have been intertwined. For 2000 years, the heart of the Jewish community yearned to be a free people in its own land once again. For 66 years, we have lived in our homeland and created a proud, moral State that has fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of being an or goyim, “A light among the nations.”

I am here today to say to the anti-Israel protestors, chanting “End the occupation,” chanting “Free Palestine,” that we can talk, peace is within our grasp, as long as you accept reality — Israel exists, and we will not apologize for the fact that Israel is here to stay!

I am here today to say to the terrorist Hamas regime who says that the missiles will stop when the occupation – of 1948 – is over, I say that is not peace. That is a threat against my family, and my family does not take threats lightly.

Here’s the simple recipe for peace, in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.”

I dream of a day when Lo Yisa Goy el Goy Herev, lo Yil’medu od Milhama, nation will not take up arms against nation, when they will no long experience war; when they will no longer teach hatred to their children, when they will no longer send their children strapped with explosives to murder themselves and others, when they will no longer dig tunnels, marvels of engineering, in order to kidnap and kill our citizens. On that day, there will be peace, and for this we pray:

May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease,
When a great peace will embrace the whole world.
Then nation will not threaten nation,
And [humanity] will not again know war.
For all who live on earth shall realize
We have not come into being to hate or to destroy.
We have come into being
To praise, to labor, and to love.
Compassionate God, bless the leaders of all nations
With the power of compassion.
Fulfill the promise conveyed in Scripture:
I will bring peace to the Land,
And you shall lie down, and no one shall terrify you.
I will rid the Land of vicious beasts
And it shall not be ravaged by war.
Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream.
Let peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.
And let us say: Amen.

Sending a 17 Year-Old Child to Israel

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My 17 year old son Solomon arrived in Israel today, about 4 hours before Israeli soldiers found the murdered bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel in a field less than 12 miles from the place from which they had been kidnapped 18 days ago. They had apparently been shot soon after being taken captive. Solomon is participating in the Ramah Israel Seminar, and I should have no worries about his safety in Israel – Ramah is fanatical about the safety of participants on their programs. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel a twinge of worry. Israel is going to respond, and the response has to punish not only the two Hamas members responsible, but also others involved in covering up their actions and hiding them. I am distressed that Solomon’s Israel experience will be scarred not only by tremendous sadness, but also by the military response that is bound to occur.

This is not the blog post I had intended to write today. I had intended to write about the experience of sending a blind son on an Israel program, with lavish praise for the Ramah Israel Seminar and the director, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, for making it happen. That post will have to come later. Today’s emotions are distress, disappointment, anger, and despair.

I am deeply disappointed that despite the horrific nature of the crime (and the fact that one of the boys is American as well as Israeli), it took President Obama nearly 7 hours to make a statement; and while he “strongly condemned” the murders, he also called upon the Israeli government to refrain from taking “steps that could further destabilize the situation.” What steps should be taken against people who kidnapped and tied up three boys, shot them, and left them half-buried under some rocks in a remote Wadi? Is there any way to take even the justified step of finding and arresting the suspects without “further destabilizing the situation?” The President offers US help in finding the perpetrators of this crime (although I wonder how US forces can be more effective than Israeli forces), and says that Israel has the full support and friendship of the US government, but doesn’t want Israel to take steps that might destabilize a situation that cannot reasonably be described as anything resembling stable.

To my Presbyterian friends – do you realize that while your national organization was passing a resolution of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, shortly after the Palestinian Authority was creating a unity partnership government with Hamas, three teenage boys were being murdered? When will we see you call for sanctions again those who perpetrate and support such a crime? Are you as angry as I am at the ineptitude of your leadership’s moral judgement?

Finally, as a person who still wants to believe that it will be possible to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians in my lifetime, I begin to despair that I will ever see Israeli and the Palestinian areas coexisting in security and prosperity.

May the families of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach be comforted among the mourners of Zion, and may their memories be for a blessing.