It’s a familiar chain of events: A prominent scholar and public intellectual visits an elite college campus to speak to students. In his remarks, he shocks his audience and the Jewish community by questioning the right of the Jewish people to a state, and asserting that the Zionist treatment of the Palestinians is morally equivalent to the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Naturally, the address elicits strong condemnation from the local Israeli ambassador.
But this is 1961, not 2014. The setting is Montreal, where the famed British historian Arnold Toynbee, a specialist in international affairs, delivered a controversial lecture to students at McGill University. And the story didn’t end with an exchange of op-eds, press releases, and public apologies. Instead, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Yaacov Herzog, responded by challenging Toynbee to a public debate, just five days after his initial comments. On Jan. 31—53 years ago today—the two squared off at McGill’s Hillel House for an exchange that was broadcast live across the country and later that evening in Israel.
53 years ago from this past Friday, what Israeli President Shimon Peres has called "one of the most dramatic debates in the history of our people" took place. I wrote about it for Tablet, on the day of its anniversary:
What happened, and what can we learn from it today? Find out here.
There are many things one would expect an Israeli Prime Minister to bring up on a state visit to the Vatican. The Spanish Inquisition is not one of them. But that's exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu did this week when he met with Pope Francis, gifting the supreme pontiff with a copy of his father's history of the inquisition.
Over at Tablet, I explain why this was actually a pretty savvy move:
[T]his isn’t your typical history of the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, Ben Zion Netanyahu’s revisionist account of the event was so controversial that when he passed away in April 2012, the New York Times chronicled the debate over it in his obituary. Understanding the book’s unique argument enables us to understand why Netanyahu chose to give such an ostensibly undiplomatic gift to the Pope.
As the annual United Nations gathering of heads of state kicks off in New York today, I profiled Israel's ambassador to the body, who may just be the world's funniest diplomat:
One Thursday morning this past July, Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, holed himself up in his office with his communications team. He was supposed to be chairing a staff meeting, but Iran and Syria had just announced their candidacies for the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, and Prosor wanted to make sure that the absurdity of two of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers running for its highest human rights body was not lost on the press. “The staff is still waiting for the meeting to start, and nobody has any clue what’s going on,” said Avishai Don, one of Prosor’s former speechwriters. “So, the crowd in his office slowly gets bigger, as we’re thinking of a funny way to say the inmates have taken over the asylum.”
At the end of August, Peter Beinart published an essay titled "American Jewish Cocoon" in the New York Review of Books, arguing that American Jews haven't sufficiently opened themselves to dialogue with Palestinians. His piece is sharp, sometimes harsh, and certainly worth reading in full. Over at Tablet, I offer a response aimed at filling in the other side of the story:
When I was an undergraduate, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance invited the Palestine Solidarity Committee to the movies–specifically Boston’s Jewish and Palestine Film Festivals. It was a creative concept for a coexistence event. The response from the PSC, however, was less inspired. The organization explained that while PJA was welcome to join them at the Palestine Film Festival, and that some PSC members might be interested in attending the Jewish one, under no circumstances could the fact that Palestinians accompanied PJA to the Jewish Film Festival be advertised. PSC would not officially co-sponsor such an outing. In other words, the Jewish community was welcome to offer its empathy and legitimacy to the Palestinian perspective, but the Palestinian community would not reciprocate. The event did not take place.
Read the whole thing and learn about how many young Jews are, in fact, reaching out to Palestinians, only to be rebuffed by an ascendant rejectionism among their interlocutors.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is infamous for his bombastic takedowns of critics in public forums, from union leaders to school teachers. His antics, though dubbed "bullying" by his opponents, have made him a hero among many conservatives across America.
Yair Lapid, the second most powerful politician in Israel, seems to be following a similar rhetorical playbook as he works to fulfill his campaign pledge to wrest control of Israel's political establishment from the country's ultra-Orthodox. Over at Tablet, I write about his latest sparring match with his Haredi opponents:
This past week, Yair Lapid delivered his first speech as Finance Minister of the new Israeli government. In most countries, this might not sound like edge-of-your-seat material. But Israel is not most countries. What began as an effort by Lapid to explain his austerity budget quickly devolved into a shouting match with the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) members, who accused Lapid of unfairly targeting their community with his cuts.
Read the whole thing here, including subtitled video of Lapid's biting ripostes in the Knesset.
My latest at Tablet uncovers a remarkable historical artifact:
On Yom ha-Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, in 1955, Albert Einstein was scheduled to address the American people on ABC, NBC and CBS. His speech--a passionate plea for peace and defense of the fledgling state of Israel--had been written in conjunction with the Israeli consulate and famed Ambassador Abba Eban. But on April 18, eight days before Einstein was to deliver it, the physicist died suddenly at the age of 76.
What did Einstein intend to say? Find out here.
I spent half of last week covering the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It's a political pageant that draws over half of Congress, dozens of administration officials, scores of dignitaries, an army of journalists, and thousands of delegates from across America.
So naturally, the first thing I did when I got there was design a bingo board. Since there are particular buzzwords and catchphrases that the speakers are pretty much contractually obligated to say ("Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East," "all options are on the table for dealing with Iran"), it's a fun game to play. Certainly, attendees thought so--some even tweeted pictures of their boards during the speeches.
One thing you couldn't help but notice at the conference was the visible presence of Orthodox Jews. Regular readers (ok, my mom) will recall that I first wrote about the increasing political engagement of this group at the Republican National Convention. At AIPAC, I talked to the major movers in the Orthodox Union, among others, to get a sense of the Orthodox involvement in the country's largest pro-Israel lobby:
“The official buzz is Iron Dome, but the unofficial buzz might be velvet dome,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a longtime Chabad emissary in Washington, D.C. (who famously kashered the White House kitchen), referring to the velvet skullcaps worn by the numerous Chabad attendees. “You used to see maybe a couple dozen yarmulkes at the AIPAC conference. Now there are many hundreds.”
The media tends to report about Israeli politics through the lens of foreign policy--the peace process, the conflict with Iran, and so on. This makes sense from a reporter's perspective, because international readers are most interested in, and will be most affected by, a country's foreign policy rather than its local domestic concerns like the economy, or religion and state relations.
But it's not a particularly good way to actually understand Israeli politics, or the politics of any democracy for that matter. Domestic issues matter--they shape elections and help determine who comes to power. Today in Tablet, I show how one such issue--the Jewish state's entanglement in religion--is driving Israeli politics today:
This past summer, out of view of the press and the spotlight, an unlikely cabal of secular and religious politicians began plotting to shake up the Israeli chief rabbinate. The conspirators: Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and a renegade rabbinic organization called Tzohar—three of the strangest bedfellows in Israeli politics. Their plan, if successful, would break the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on the country’s rabbinate and install a moderate religious Zionist chief rabbi for the first time in decades...
But why would the leaders of Yisrael Beiteinu—a party known chiefly for its hard-line nationalist stance, rather than for any religious commitment—take an interest in reforming the chief rabbinate? And how did Tzohar, a small liberal Orthodox splinter group dedicated to that cause, find itself with the political clout to go head-to-head with the ultra-Orthodox establishment that has long dominated the institution?
Over the past five months, interviews with prominent Israeli politicians, rabbis, academics, and activists make it clear that there is an emerging alliance of religious and secular ideologues who seek to upend the status quo of religion and state in Israel. Through legislation, backroom deals, and public pressure campaigns, this political coalition hopes to make Israel’s rabbinate more responsive to its citizens, eliminate the bureaucracy and corruption endemic to it, and give Israelis greater control over their own lives.
Read it all in Tablet.
I see journalism as an excuse to interrogate people who interest me under the guise of professional obligation. So when I report, I tend to collect a lot more information from my sources than can fit into my pieces. Here I post some of the greatest hits for your entertainment, along with other brief thoughts on religion, politics and culture. Well, that and funny YouTube videos.