Opinion pieces From Jews in Israel and the Diaspora 

Coming to Terms with All the Faces of Israel

By Jerry Fischer

I have rarely taken the privilege of penning an essay outside of my Annual Report to the community. The events and issues facing us at the moment suggest that some framing of the matters at hand would be a good idea.

I want to start by reviewing some of the issues that you can read about in this edition of the Leader.

  • An orthodox man, for the second time, wielded a knife and managed to attack 6 marchers in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem before he was subdued. He had recently been released after serving 10 years for the same offense. A 16 year old young woman marcher died as a result of her wounds, so the man is now a murderer.
  • A Palestinian toddler died as a result of a firebomb attack on his family’s home in the West Bank. The attackers have not yet been apprehended but they are thought to be religious zealot settlers because there was Hebrew graffiti scrawled on the house and the attack came 30 days after the murder of an Israeli by a Palestinian.
  • The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes on the shore of the Kinneret was firebombed and heavily damaged by religious zealots from Tsfat. Two of the perpetrators have been apprehended and charged.
  • Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has issued strong condemnations about all of these events and has been threatened with death. The Israeli security forces asked him to file a police complaint, which he did.
  • The U.S. and six other nations have signed an agreement with Iran that, it is claimed, will prevent Iran from building a bomb in the next 12-15 years. The Israeli government is working very hard to encourage the U.S. Congress to disapprove of the agreement. It is a Republican Congress and the Republican leadership is very close to Prime Minister Netanyahu. There is a good chance that they will disapprove of the deal, but will not get enough Democratic votes to override a Presidential veto of their bill. Several prominent Jewish Democrats have announced, with serious concerns and misgivings, support for the deal with Iran. So have many retired Israeli military officers.
  • AIPAC and J-Street have lined up on opposite sides of this issue and are mobilizing their forces. AIPAC has devoted a great deal of money to try and get Congress to disapprove of the deal.
Some thoughts on all these very troubling issues:
  • Israel must address relations within the Green Line (Israel’s borders prior to the Six Day War) and insure that LGBT, Moslem and Christian citizens of Israel will be given the same protections and rights as Jewish citizens and that the state will mobilize all its resources to protect all citizens.
  • The one man who used a knife to attack the marchers in Jerusalem’s Gay Pride march was orthodox, but he was one man. We should not tar all of orthodoxy with the sins of this one man. The Orthodox chief rabbi of Israel condemned the attack, and condemned homophobia. But we should not turn our eyes from the fact that Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, studied at the orthodox Bar Ilan University and the perpetrators of the arson attack studied at a Yeshiva in Tsfat. The Orthodox educational system, in all its multi-sectarian varieties, must do an accounting of how they are producing people who cannot follow the simple commandment “Thou shall not kill.” And all Israelis must demand that.
  • In the territories Israel will have to confront a system of justice that seems to harshly punish Palestinian perpetrators of violence but does not respond with equal diligence to Jewish law breakers.
  • The emotional tone of the debate in America over the Iran agreement must be turned down. Accusing those who support the agreement of not being “Pro-Israel” or accusing those who oppose the agreement of blindly following the dictates of the Israeli government does not leave room for a serious and dispassionate look at the agreement and the other options that may or may not be available to America, Europe, Russia, and China, or to Israel. We are not dealing with a weak and helpless Israel. We have, thanks to the great sacrifices of many Israelis, and to the strong help of the United States a very strong Israel, both militarily and economically.
  • Iran has obscured the one challenge that Israel cannot easily overcome, the challenge of the Palestinians. This must be addressed. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pre-election promise that there will be no Palestinian state established on his watch needs to be walked back not only in word but in deed.
The recent Mission to Israel reinforced for me and for all that joined me the importance, vitality, and strength of Israel. But Israelis, and I believe, Palestinians, do want peace. As a mother of one of our Young Emissaries said to her sons and me “A bad peace is better than a good war.” We should keep that in mind as we deal with all the issues presented to us by recent events.

Jerry Fischer is Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern CT.

Why I Won't Serve Israel

The Opinion Pages  | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR


TEL AVIV — “WHAT are you,” he asked, “a leftist?”

We were both wearing the surplus United States Marines uniforms given to prisoners at Israeli Military Jail No. 6.

“It depends how you define ‘left,’ ” I said.

“Don’t get clever with me. Why are you here?”

“I didn’t want to be part of a system whose main task is the violent occupation of millions of people.”

“In other words: You love Arabs, and don’t care about Israeli security.”

“I think the occupation undermines all of our security, Palestinians’ and Israelis’.”

“You’re betraying your people,” he said.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“Me? Desertion.”


There is a growing chasm between Israeli rhetoric and reality. In the discourse of Israel’s Knesset and media, the Israel Defense Forces represent a “people’s army.” Refusal to serve is portrayed by politicians and pundits — many of whom began their careers through service in elite units — as treacherous and marginal. This rhetoric becomes the common wisdom: A popular bumper stickers reads, “A real Israeli doesn’t dodge the draft.”

The outrage is disproportionate. Rarely do more than a few hundred Jewish Israelis publicly refuse to serve each year in protest against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The shrill condemnation of refusers is thus an indication of the establishment’s panic.

Last year brought something of a surge in refusals. Open letters of refusal were published by a group of high schoolers, a group of reservists, veterans of the elite intelligence Unit 8200 and alumni and former staff members of the prestigious Israel Arts and Sciences Academy. All were denounced by politicians and in the media: In September, the Knesset’s opposition leader, the Labor member Isaac Herzog, blasted the letter from Unit 8200 as “insubordination.”

Aggression toward refusers is widespread. When I accompanied a refuser named Udi Segal to his draft station during the Gaza war this summer, we were met by a group draped in Israeli flags and chanting, “Udi, you’re a traitor! Go live in Gaza!” After signing the scholars’ letter, Raya Rotem, a former literature teacher whose husband was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, received a threatening phone call. And a friend of 50 years severed ties with her.

The idea that the “real Israelis” serve and those who refuse are “traitors” is a false dichotomy. As Ms. Rotem told me, “Israeli patriotism today means resisting anything which frames the occupation as normal.” It’s also inaccurate: The reality is that a majority of Israeli citizens do not serve in the military, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the “fifth column,” as they are often branded, and the ultra-Orthodox, or “leeches,” as they’ve been called.

The largest group is the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. Members of this community are not required by law to enlist, and only a tiny fraction volunteer (about 100 Christians and a few hundred Muslims in 2013). In 2014, the defense forces began sending “voluntary draft notices” to Christian Arab citizens, inciting Palestinian protests at Hebrew University and in Tel Aviv.

Even among the Druze, an Arabic-speaking minority whose male members have been drafted since 1956 and whose Arab and Palestinian identities are often played down or denied, dissent is rising. Omar Saad, a soft-spoken viola player, is the most prominent of a rising number of Druze refusers. He spent the first half of 2014 in and out of jail. In his letter of refusal, he wrote, “How can I bear arms against my brothers and people in Palestine?”

The next biggest group of nonserving Israelis are the Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews. Historically, they have been exempted from service as long as they were enrolled full-time in a yeshiva. Recently, though, a coalition formed in the Knesset over a proposal to draft the Haredim — which resulted in a 500,000-strong public demonstration. Most Haredim cite religious reasons for refusing, but the Haredi refusenik Uriel Ferera, recently released after six months in jail, gave the occupation as a primary factor in his decision.

There are also thousands of “gray refusers,” who find quieter ways to get out of the army, mostly by seeking mental health exemptions, known as a “Profile 21.” Like most public refusers in recent years, I was released after a month in military jail with a Profile 21.

Most of the prisoners with me in Military Jail No. 6 were Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), Ethiopians and Russians. Many of these members of Israel’s most marginalized Jewish communities told me of their intention to “get out on 21,” despite the risk this entailed for their future: Employment and educational opportunities often depend on completing military service.

In a recent interview, the Israeli author Amos Oz urged politicians to act as “traitors,” and make peace. But the type of traitors Mr. Oz wishes for — visionary ministers, peace-minded military men — are nonexistent. The most left-wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential challengers in Israel’s coming election is the same Mr. Herzog who attacked the 8200 refusers.

Peace won’t come from the next Knesset, or the one after that. But some hope for a less violent, more decent future lies with the real traitors, the disregarded millions of Israeli citizens who have refused to serve in the army.

The reasons for not serving may differ between a Palestinian youth from Acre and a Haredi from Beit Shemesh, between an 8200 veteran and an Ethiopian immigrant, between me and the deserter in Military Jail No. 6, but there is a deeper consensus: We all refuse to see the government as a moral guide and military service as sacrosanct. As the Israeli government leads us further from peace, and the army faithfully executes its violent orders, this is the kind of treachery we need most.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is working on a book about his experience refusing to serve in the Israel military.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 12, 2015, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Why I Won’t Serve Israel. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

Without a two-state solution, Americans will challenge Zionism itself

For all his references to Derek Jeter and 'Gone with the Wind,' Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't understand Americans as well as he thinks he does.

By Peter Beinart | Oct. 7, 2014 | 3:52 PM | Taken from Haaretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization in New York on July 8, 2010. Photo by Reuters

Asked about the obligations of American Jews to Israel, the sociologist Steven M. Cohen once offered this analogy. Imagine if Jews living in Rome around 135 C.E. had learned that Simon Bar Kochba was planning to lead the Jews of Judea in revolt. Living in the seat of empire, those Roman Jews might have realized that the revolt would likely end in tears. Should they not have used the insight that their particular vantage point offered to help their brethren avoid disaster?

The analogy is not perfect, but Cohen makes an important point. American Jews will never possess the intimate understanding that Israelis have of their own political culture. What we do possess is an intimate understanding of the political culture of the superpower on which Israel relies. And American political culture is growing more critical of Israel. There’s been a noticeable change even in the last few months.

To understand why, one must realize that Americans have always felt most comfortable defending Israel in the language of democracy. To combat Israel’s “delegitimization,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often stresses the Jewish people’s biblical ties to the land. That rhetoric works among conservative Christians, but it’s too theological for most Americans. Stressing Israel’s democratic character, by contrast – the political ideals it shares with the United States – appeals to Americans of all stripes.

That’s why Israel’s American supporters keep claiming that Israel’s government wants to create a Palestinian state, even as top Israeli leaders themselves insist they don’t. If Israel doesn’t want to create a Palestinian state – if its leaders are comfortable permanently controlling millions of people who cannot vote for the government that oversees their lives – then the core rationale that Israel’s American defenders have been using all these years breaks down.

That’s starting to happen. A few years ago, only experts fretted that settlement growth was killing the two-state solution. Now it’s a cliché. The failure of John Kerry’s peace mission and this summer’s war in Gaza have emboldened the American media to begin peering beyond the two-state solution. And the more journalists discuss the prospect of an Israel that permanently and undemocratically controls millions of stateless Palestinians, the more they question Zionism itself.

Eleven years ago, when Tony Judt advocated a binational state in The New York Review of Books, it created a scandal. Today, newspapers publish similar arguments all the time. In just the last month alone, The New York Times has published Antony Lerman’s “The End of Liberal Zionism,” which declared, “The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, has published Patricia Marks Greenfield’s “An Israel Equal for All, Jewish or Not,” which insists that Israel “must be a fully secular state.”

In the mainstream American media, the taboo against questioning Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is lifting. In the three weeks after Lerman’s oped, I received more requests to debate anti-Zionists than I had received in the previous three years.

This should worry Israel’s leaders a great deal. It should worry them because once Israel’s Jewish character becomes a subject of controversy rather than an unquestioned fact, many liberal-minded Americans will find it difficult to defend. That’s not because they are anti-Semites. It’s because outside the Christian right, Americans intuitively assume that governments should have no religious or ethnic character. Indeed, a clear plurality of American Jews already tell pollsters they want Israel to separate religion and state. They just don’t realize that in saying so they’re challenging political Zionism itself.

I still believe the best answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a democratic Jewish state alongside a democratic Palestinian one. I believe that because, in a post-Holocaust world, I want there to be one country that has as its mission statement the protection of Jewish life. And I believe it because among both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, nationalism remains a massively powerful force. To assume each community could subordinate its deep-seeded nationalism to a newfound loyalty to secular state strikes me as utopian. Secular binationalism barely works in Belgium. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea it’s probably a recipe for civil war.

But this requires arguing that Israel/Palestine is, at least right now, fundamentally different than the United States. It requires defending Zionism as something alien to the American experience, something necessary because in Israel/Palestine, the civic nationalism we revere here is neither possible nor desirable. That’s very different than arguing that the United States should support Israel because it’s America’s Middle Eastern twin.

For all his references to Derek Jeter and "Gone with the Wind," Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t understand Americans as well as he thinks he does. Yes, an aging minority of Fox News-watching whites will support Israel no matter what, because they admire Jews and fear Muslims. But younger Americans are less white, less religious, less nationalistic and less racist. And the harder they find it to conceive of Israel as a democracy, they harder they’ll find it to support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Israelis need to realize that by undermining the two-state solution, Netanyahu is prompting a debate inside the United States about Zionism itself. That debate will take a long time. But unless Israeli policy changes, it’s a debate that we Zionists may ultimately lose. 

On refugees, Netanyahu evades facts, history and responsibility

The Holocaust taught Jews the right to safe haven overrides that of nations to seal their borders. Has Netanyahu forgotten this cardinal obligation from the period of Jewish history he references quite so often?

By Gershom Gorenberg | Oct. 7, 2014 | 7:24 PM | Taken from Haaretz
African migrants walk on a road after leaving the Holot detention facility, Dec. 15, 2013. Photo by Reuters

When I read Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's assertion that Israel has a problem with "job-seekers from Africa" rather than refugees who seek asylum, I thought about J.

I recalled the afternoon I spent with him in south Tel Aviv, listening for hours as he told how he'd gotten there from Darfur in Sudan: About the attacks on his village by the Janjaweed militias and Sudanese government forces; about fleeing to a UN camp that the Janjaweed also attacked; about his trek, walking night after night for weeks, to the Egyptian border; about the Sudanese intelligence agents in Cairo who targeted Darfuri refugees; about another journey by night in the Sinai to the Israeli border; about how he wanted to go home and how he knew he'd be killed if he did.

And I thought about Y., who told me his story in one long rush of words, in the park across the street from the Tel Aviv bus station. He was an Eritrean in his 30s, who'd joined the army before his country drifted toward totalitarianism. The first time he was jailed was after he asked why soldiers only got 10 days furlough a year to see their families. The third time was after he asked why journalists had been jailed without trial. When he was released from prison, he was assigned to a base near the Sudanese border. He fled, and kept going through Sudan to Egypt, where he heard that you could pay smugglers to take you to a democratic country called Israel, "where Jews, Christians and Muslims could live together." So he crossed yet another border. When the Israeli soldiers who found him gave him food, he thought they were practically angels because they treated him like a human being.

These, according to our prime minister, are the immigrants coming only for jobs, not for refuge from persecution.

Netanyahu made his remarks about "illegal job seekers" and Israel's right to protect its borders last week, when he was asked in New York about the Supreme Court's recent decision overturning two anti-refugee amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law: One allowing the state to jail new "infiltrators" for a year without trial, the other allowing it to keep more veteran infiltrators in the Holot "open facility" in the Negev, a prison in all but name.

The week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur would have been an appropriate time for Netanyahu to engage in introspection about his government's errors. Instead he seems set on finding a new way to circumvent the judgment of the earthly court.

In the seasonal spirit of forgiveness, though, let's accept that Netanyahu really believes in a country's unlimited prerogative to seal its borders, and that he's merely ignorant of the meaning of international law. But forgiveness has limits. One can only attribute his insistence that the 50,000 or so Sudanese and Eritreans in the country are all economic immigrants to dishonesty. And his underlying attitude toward the refugee issue points to what's truly pernicious in his constant references to the Holocaust.

Contrary to what Netanyahu implied, national sovereignty isn't absolute. It's limited by law. The part of international law created by treaties is a textbook example of a social contract: Countries agree to give up freedom of action to create a world with less conflict and cruelty. Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and to the 1967 protocol expanding it. As a guide to those treaties by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees explains, one of the basic rights of people fleeing persecution is "not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state." Under the social contract, Israel has ceded some control of its borders.

But then, Netanyahu claimed in New York that Israel allows legitimate "asylum seekers… like those from Syria" to enter its territory. (Apparently he was referring to people wounded in the Syrian civil war who have received treatment here.) He just denies that the Sudanese and Eritreans are legitimate. As the Supreme Court ruling notes, though, the Interior Ministry has evaded dealing with most requests by Sudanese and Eritrians for refugee status. Of those on which it has ruled, it has approved two out off 444 applications by Eritreans and none by Sudanese.

Worldwide, the acceptance rate for Eritrean asylum seekers is 82 percent, and for Sudanese 68 percent. In other words, government policy under Netanyahu is to ignore the facts.

Israel, along with international Jewish organizations, took an active role in formulating the convention on refugees. The reason was clear: Before, during and after the Holocaust, Jews were victims of nations asserting their unlimited right to seal their borders. Jews knew that there was a greater right to safe haven.

Except for Menachem Begin, no Israeli prime minister has called up the memory of the Holocaust more often than Netanyahu. He uses it to justify Israeli actions and to demand that the world remove threats to Israel. Heaven knows, such threats exist. But in his rhetoric, the memory of the immense crime imposes responsibilities only toward Jews, not toward human beings as such. It does not serve as a reminder that Jews, too, have an obligation to those fleeing the threat of murder - and that as prime minister of a Jewish state, he must meet that obligation. 

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter.

Netanyahu must prove his 'new diplomatic horizon' isn't empty talk 

The prime minister must resume negotiations with the Palestinians and release the prisoners he promised - otherwise, his statements will remain hollow and worthless, just like before.

Haaretz Editorial Aug. 22, 2014 | 6:27 AM

Netanyahu, August 20, 2014. Photo by Oder Vaknin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried on Wednesday to rip open a diplomatic window for Israel. At a press conference he convened together with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, he said that one of the goals he set for the fighting in the Gaza Strip is “achieving a new diplomatic horizon for the State of Israel.” He boasted that it was now easier for Israel to explain its diplomatic considerations, referring to the changes that have taken place in the Middle East. “I’m interested in exhausting this possibility ... I will look forward to restarting negotiations with a Palestinian government committed to peace with Israel, to the end to terror,” he said.

What the prime minister said is true: The regional changes indeed call for a daring new diplomatic initiative on his part, in order to end the occupation and reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Without doing those two things, Israel has no chance of improving its diplomatic and regional standing, even if new temporary alliances have been created with several Arab states that oppose Hamas. These alliances won’t hold water over time without a solution to the Palestinian problem.

In the summer of 2009, Netanyahu gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he voiced willingness to see a Palestinian state established. Since then, five years have passed, during which he did everything in his power to thwart this possibility. He lent a hand to more and more construction in the settlements and sabotaged the talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on various pretexts. Now, he has been granted a second opportunity, perhaps the last, to make his mark and advance a historic agreement.

It’s good that the prime minister said what he did precisely now, at the height of the fighting in Gaza, and at a time when he is under incessant attack by his colleagues on the right. But the burden of proof is on him. His statements about a new diplomatic horizon must not remain empty words.

Netanyahu must imbue them with real content, and as quickly as possible. He must resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority — including the Palestinian unity government, if it lasts — and undertake a series of confidence-building measures, including the release of Palestinian prisoners to which Israel previously committed and freezing construction in the settlements. Without such steps, Netanyahu’s statements will remain hollow and worthless, exactly like the words of his Bar-Ilan speech.

Opinion taken from

Is this what morality looks like?

Since the world began, morality has refused to be the province of those who ignore injustices committed by their own side.

by Oudeh Basharat, Published on August 6

After more than 1,600 people have been killed and 10,000 wounded, and en enormous devastation, a good friend of mine expressed his genuine pain over what is happening in the Gaza Strip. He spoke in a firm tone, saying that Israeli Arabs must stop blaming the Israeli government and blame Hamas, the real criminal, instead.

After this declaration, I could not help but say: My dear friend, if the leaders of my people were to kill 1,600 Jewish civilians in greater Tel Aviv, which is about the size of Gaza, wound another 10,000, and turn the southern part of the city into rubble - I would be too ashamed to look you in the eye.

Twas my first reply, which expressed shock more than a rational response to the dulled senses with which Israeli society has regarded the terrible suffering in Gaza.

B if my own leaders were to wreak such evil, my response would be to cry out against public opinion among my people. I would cry out against the way they do not bat an eyelash after perpetrating all these atrocities, and then I'd place the blame on the Zionist leadership, which situated its military headquarters near Ichilov Hospital and in the heart of a residential neighborhood.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with good Jews, people within whose hearts the sacred fire of morality burns. They could no longer tolerate the horrific killing being done in their name. One of them told me: "We have become 'them.'" "Them" refers to those who committed crimes against the Jews.

I to agree to such self-flagellation. Those who fight against evil, even if that evil comes from the leaders of their own people, are not part of the collective that walks unthinkingly behind the poisoners of hearts and minds. Just as one must not blame the majority for the sins of the individual, one also must not blame individuals for the sins of the majority. If we do otherwise, we will turn into another version of Ayelet Shaked, who sees all the Palestinians, their women, children and even property, as enemies.

After I read Miron Izakson's recent essay, entitled "Compassion begins at home," in Haaretz Hebrew edition, I was reminded of an Arab saying that I abhor: "Let a hundred mothers weep as long as mine does not." In my mind's eye, I imagined my mother, smiling and happy thaer son had remained safe and sound, surrounded by a forest of weeping women.

"We must direct the compassion and solidarity within us first of all toward our own," Izakson writes, as if Israeli society has suffered from being over-compassionate towards the Palestinians, and has nary a drop of mercy left for "our own."

But the "compassion" directed toward "our own" here has exceed all bounds. It is not odd that instead of directing a drop of compassion toward the Palestinian families who are going through hell, what is being directed toward such families is hatred and schadenfreude, as people gleefully sing: "Gaza is a graveyard."

There is morality, and on the other side there a contemptible morality shown only toward the injustices done by others. But since the world began, morality has refused to be the province of those who ignore injustices committed by their own side.

Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnapping in June of the three yeshiva boys at every opportunity, and his own campus accused him of being a collaborator in the occupation. Gideon Levy, who criticizes the actions of Israel Air Force pilots who bombard Gaza, has been subjected to a smear campaign of unprecedented proportions. Still, there is a small difference between those moral people: The former is the leader of the Palestinian people while the latter, a Haaretz journalist, is unfortunately portrayed as a traitor by his government's coalition chairman, Yariv Levin.

Morality complements patriotism. Morality does not negate it. The moral person lives better, sleeps better, and his conscience allows him to enjoy life. But for those who only act as though they were moral, the road to trouble is a short one.