(JTA) — A woman from a secular kibbutz on the Gaza border shouts the Shema as she celebrates the release of Israeli hostages. Hundreds of sets of ritual fringes — hanging off combat-green garments — are distributed to soldiers on the front. The mother of a rescued hostage attributes her return to a challah ritual she performed the previous day.
To Rabbi David Stav and others across Israel, those anecdotes and more demonstrate that, in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and the ensuing war, Jewish Israelis who are not observant have been turning to their religion and marshaling it to create a sense of solidarity during the fighting. Stav, a leading liberal Religious Zionist rabbi, has dedicated much of his career to making Jewish ritual more accessible and appealing to secular Israelis. The war, he thinks, may be a turning point in that mission.
But speaking last month to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Stav said he worries that the day after the war, Israel will fall back into the acrimonious political divisions that defined 2023 before Oct. 7. And for him, that concern is secondary to the worry he feels for his seven sons and sons-in-law currently serving in the Israeli military.
Stav is the co-founder and chairman of Tzohar, a liberal Israeli rabbinic association. He is also the rabbi of the central Israeli town of Shoham and ran unsuccessfully for chief rabbi of Israel in 2013. His goal, he said, is to promote a “normal” Judaism that is less dogmatic and more accepting of the varied ways many Israelis practice the religion.
His professional focus in large part is on drawing secular Israelis closer to their Jewish identity, and that was what he stressed when he spoke to JTA. But the religious revival extends beyond secular Israelis, he said: He also sees Religious Zionist Israelis coping with wartime by filling synagogues and adding onto their prayers.
That embrace of Judaism, Stav hopes, will lead Jewish Israelis to come together and stay united. By the same token, he worries that a widespread lack of faith in the government may draw Israelis back into the sparring ideological camps they recently inhabited.
“I think the past month has created a significant crisis of faith regarding the government, the state, the army, but it has also raised very foundational questions in terms of defining our identity,” he said. “And we’re seeing more and more people who understand that the concept of being a Jew has a meaning they’d forgotten.”
This conversation has been translated from Hebrew and edited for length and clarity.
JTA: What message do you hope to send to American Jews?
Stav: I think that the message that I want to send here is, first and foremost, after an argument lasting almost a year that split Israeli society and almost broke Israeli society apart, we see a different spirit: a spirit full of solidarity, full of love of Israel, full of willingness to sacrifice.
But there’s something deeper: Israeli society is in the midst of very difficult questions about defining its identity. What are we more: Israelis or Jews? I think the events of Oct. 7 demonstrated to Israeli society, first, the mutual support between Israeli and world Jewry. But second, and no less, [it showed] that regarding our enemies — Hamas and its partners — there’s no difference between right and left, religious and secular. We’re all Jews, and given that we’re all Jews, we are obligated to feel like Jews, to identify as Jews.
I believe that for many Israelis, that’s a moving experience because many of them thought that we were enlightened, Israeli, western — and suddenly they realize that before they’re western and Israeli, they’re Jewish.
It’s not just one instance. It’s thousands of instances. I can’t even tell you how many stories I’m talking about… More important than all that is people’s willingness to talk in the language of Judaism.
What message do you hope to take back with you to Israel?
Israelis must understand that what happens in Israel doesn’t just influence Israel. It influences the United States, and antisemitic incidents here are a direct result of what happens in Israel. Just like American Jews know that if in Israel it isn’t safe it won’t be safe here, we need to understand that also, that what happens to us influences not just us.
Many, many Israelis felt in recent years that they were more Israeli than Jewish, that their Judaism has no meaning. They were Israelis because they were born in Israel, so their connection to the Jewish Diaspora or to the Bible was incidental, random, not meaningful.
Now we understand that it’s much deeper than that. Suddenly we see the lone soldiers [soldiers, often from abroad, without close relatives in Israel] who have been killed in Israel. Now the story is much more Jewish than Israeli. To a great extent, the fact that Hamas killed men and women, right and left, lovers and haters of Palestinians, cast the story in a new light.
What do you see as the role of Religious Zionist rabbis like yourself in this moment?
The central role, first of all, is to strengthen unity in Israeli society — not to accuse this person or that person, not to ask the state or the army to do something unrealistic.
What do you mean by that?
To demand right now to rebuild Gush Katif [the Israeli settlements in Gaza that were evacuated in 2005] — even if it’s a moral or religiously justified claim, even if it’s right, and I’m not sure it is, would split Israeli society. It would break it now. We need to bolster our unity, to strengthen Israeli society, to believe in our ability, in our vision, in our morality, in the need to break Hamas, to destroy it. Not to make demands that will tear the state apart again. We suffered enough from division — part of which was created by the Religious Zionist community because of the judicial reform. Enough is enough.
What are people in your community struggling with?
I’ll start with worry. When I speak to my family, our family, every family is worried about its kids. That’s the first thing every family is worried about: their kids in the army.
We should also say honestly — the situation now, the crisis is so great that even if God willing we win… no one knows how it will end, no one knows what will happen in the north with Hezbollah and no one knows what will happen with the Palestinians and no one knows how the state will manage the issue of Gaza.
The second worry of course is economic worry. The crisis in Israel is creating an economic crisis in Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people [in the military reserves] aren’t working. If they’re not working they don’t make money. I was in Ben Gurion Airport — when you see Ben Gurion empty, it’s great for people who are flying because there are no long lines… but you understand it’s a problem. It’s a tourism problem, it’s a problem for the industry.
The third problem is a feeling of a general lack of trust in the government and the state’s institutions. That really troubles people, who don’t feel there’s a unifying leadership. We would have expected the leadership to broadcast unity, empathy, sensitivity. There’s a problem with that.
How do you address that?
Israel society has demonstrated spirit, volunteerism, initiative and action at the highest levels. Regarding the worry about our kids, we’re increasing our prayers. The number of prayers spilling forth in Religious Zionist synagogues is incomparable to what was in the past. Many synagogues say [the High Holiday prayer] Avinu Malkeinu, this prayer, that prayer. There’s a lot of people waking up to prayer because we understand that we need salvation.
In addition to worrying about the safety of your sons and sons-in-law in the army, what keeps you up at night?
Beyond that, the crisis of Israeli society, the crisis of faith in the state and in its institutions, and the fight that will be here between each side. Each side accuses the other of being culpable for what happened: The left at the right, the right at the left, supporters of Bibi to opponents of Bibi. I worry that the war is tamping this down but the day after the war — I always ask myself, what can we do so this doesn’t happen?
How do you plan to celebrate Simchat Torah, the holiday when Hamas’ attack occurred, next year?
I want to take this question off the agenda — not because we don’t need to think about how to celebrate Simchat Torah next year, but because now we’re focused on how to win the war. Then we’ll talk about Simchat Torah.
South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism
South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.
“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”
CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”
First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.
Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.
Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination
Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.
Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.
“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”
“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.
The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.
“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”
300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.
The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.
More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.
Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.
“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution
The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.
“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.
It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.
The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.
“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.
Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.
“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”
Other council members voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.
Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.
“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”
University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.
“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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