(JTA) — I started reporting on North American Jews and Israel in the last century, and for years covered the debate over whether Jews in the Diaspora had a right to criticize the Israeli government in public. The debate sort of petered out in the early-1990s, when Israel itself began talking about a Palestinian state, and when right-wing groups then decided criticizing Israel was a mitzvah.
Nevertheless, while left-wing groups like J Street and T’ruah have long been comfortable criticizing the Israeli government or defending Palestinian rights, many in the centrist “mainstream” — pulpit clergy, leaders of federations and Hillels, average Jews nervous about spoiling a family get-together — have preferred to keep their concerns to themselves. Partly this is tactical: Few rabbis want to alienate any of their members over so divisive a topic, and in the face of an aggressive left, organizational leaders did not want to give fuel to Israel’s ideological enemies. (The glaring exception has been about Israeli policy toward non-Orthodox Judaism, which is seen as very much the Disapora’s business.)
In recent weeks, there has been an emerging literature of what I have come to think of as “reluctant dissent.” What these essays and sermons have in common, despite the different political persuasions of the authors, is a deep concern over Israel’s “democratic character.” They cite judicial reforms that would weaken checks and balances at the top, expansion of Jewish settlements that would make it impossible to separate from the Palestinians, and the Orthodox parties that want to strengthen their hold on religious affairs. As Abe Foxman, who as former director of the Anti-Defamation League rarely criticized Israel, told an interviewer, “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”
I read through the various ways Jewish leaders and writers here and in Israel are not just justifying Diaspora Jews who are protesting what is happening in Israel, but providing public permission for others to do the same. Here is what a few of them are saying (with a word from a defender of the government):
‘I didn’t sleep much last night’
Yehuda Kurtzer: Facebook, Feb. 8
Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, the New York-based branch of the Israeli think tank that promotes a diverse, engaged relationship with Israel. In a recent blog post, he neatly describes the dilemma of Diaspora Zionists who aren’t sure what to do with their deep concerns about the direction of the Israel government, especially the concentration of power in a far-right legislative branch.
Centrist American Jews who care about Israel are caught between “those to our right who would see any expression of even uncertainty about Israel’s democratic character as disloyalty, [and] those on the other side who think that a conversation about Israeli democracy is already past its prime,” he writes. He is also concerned about the “widespread disengagement that we can expect among American Jews, what I fear will become the absent majority — those who decide that however the current crisis is resolved, all of this is just ‘not for them.’”
Kurtzer likens Israel to a palace, and Diaspora Jews as “passersby” who live beyond its walls. Nonetheless, he feels responsible for what happens there. “The palace is burning and the best we can do is to tell you,” he writes. “It is also how we will show you we love you, and how much we cherish the palace.”
An open letter to Israel’s friends in North America
Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis: Times of Israel, Feb. 7
Three high-profile writers who moved to Israel from North America and who often defend Israel against its critics in the United States — Gordis, for one, has written a book arguing that American Jewish liberalism is incompatible with Israel’s “ethnic democracy” — now urge Diaspora Jews to speak out against the current Israeli government. They don’t mention the territories or religious pluralism. Instead, their trigger is the proposed effort to reform the Supreme Court, which they say will “eviscerate the independence of our judiciary and remake the country’s democratic identity.” Such a move will “threaten Israeli-American relations, and it will do grave damage to our relations with you, our sisters and brothers in the Diaspora,” concluding, “We need your voice to help us preserve Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic.”
All Israel Is Responsible for Each Other
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: Sermon, Jan. 27
Buchdahl, the senior rabbi of New York City’s Reform Central Synagogue, isn’t looking to Israeli writers for permission to weigh in on Israel’s political scene. In a sermon that takes its name from a rabbinic statement of Jewish interdependence, she asserts without question that Jews everywhere have a stake in the future of Israel and have a right to speak up for “civil society and democracy and religious pluralism and human rights” there. She focuses on the religious parties who are convinced that “Reform Jews are ruining Israel,” as you might expect, but ends the sermon with a call to recognize the rights of all Israeli citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, “and also those living under Israel’s military control.” Of those Palestinians, she says, “We can’t feel comfortable sitting in the light of sovereignty next to a community living in darkness and expect to have peace.”
And like Kurtzer, she worries that concerned American Jews will simply turn away from Israel in despair or embarrassment, and urges congregants to support the Israeli and American organizations that share their pluralistic vision for Israel.
On That Distant Day
Hillel Halkin: Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2023
In his 1977 book “Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic,” the translator and author Hillel Halkin made a distinction similar to Kurtzer’s image of Israel as a palace and the Diaspora as passersby: Jews who don’t emigrate to Israel are dooming themselves to irrelevance, while immigrants like him are living on the stage where the Jewish future would play out. His mournful essay doesn’t address the Diaspora, per se, although it creates a permission structure for Zionists abroad to criticize the government. Halkin sees the new government as a coalition of two types of religious zealots: the haredi Orthodox who want to consolidate their control of religious life (and funding) in Israel, and a “knit-skullcap electorate [that] is hypernationalist and Jewish supremacist in its attitude toward Arabs.” (A knit skullcap is a symbol for what an American might call the “Modern Orthodox.”) Together, these growing and powerful constituents represent “the end of an Israeli consensus about what is and is not permissible in a democracy — and once the rules are no longer agreed on, political chaos is not far away. Israel has never been in such a place before.”
Halkin does talk about Israeli expansion in the West Bank, saying he long favored Jewish settlement in the territories, while believing that the “only feasible solution” would be a two-state solution with Arabs living in the Jewish state and Jews living in the Arab one. Instead, Israel has reached a point where there is “too much recrimination, too much distrust, too much hatred, too much blind conviction, too much disdain for the notion of a shared humanity, for such a solution to be possible… We’re over the cliff and falling, and no one knows how far down the ground is.”
Method to Our Madness: A Response to Hillel Halkin
Ze’ev Maghen: Jewish Review of Books, Jan. 10, 2023
Ze’ev Maghen, chair of the department of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, is hardly a dissenter; instead, his response to Halkin helpfully represents the views of those who voted for the current government. Maghen says the new coalition represents a more honest expression of Zionism than those who support a “liberal, democratic, egalitarian, inclusive, individualist, environmentally conscious, economically prosperous, globally connected, etc., etc., society.” The new government he writes, will defend Israel’s “Jewish nationalist raison d’être, and keep at bay those universalist, Western-based notions that are geared by definition to undermine nationalism in all its forms.” As for the Palestinian issue, he writes, “I’d rather have a fierce, hawkish Zionist in the cockpit than a progressive, Westernized wimp for whom this land, and the people who have returned to it after two millennia of incomparable suffering, don’t mean all that much.”
The Tears of Zion
Rabbi Sharon Brous: Sermon, Feb. 4, 2023
Brous, rabbi of the liberal Ikar community in Los Angeles, doesn’t just defend the right of Diaspora Jews to speak out in defense of Israeli democracy and Palestinian rights, but castigates Jewish leaders and communities who have been reluctant to criticize Israel in the past. “No, this government is not an electoral accident, and it is not an anomaly,” she says. “This moment of extremism has been a long time in the making and our silence has made us complicit.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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