Category Archives: Religion

US Elections & Israeli Religious Tensions

It’s been a strange two weeks in Israel, clearly the most important news has been happening abroad and not here.  That is frankly very nice.  Of course the news abroad been either bad or very strange.  Bad of course, is the repeated terror attacks.  As I have written before my fear is there are no solutions at least any time soon.  It’s the fear of terror that might bring the far right to power in Europe,  and it’s the fear of terror that might further destroy the European Union, and it is the fear of terror that might bring Donald Trump to the White House.  The Donald Trump story is the strangest, the fact that he is the nominee of the Republican party is astounding, and frankly the fact that I know people who are actually thinking of voting for him is even more astounding to me.  To me the policies that Presidents come to office with is not of great consequence.  I wrote biographies of both FDR and JFK and what made them both in my opinion great Presidents, was two things, the first and most important their ability to analyze new situations, draw on both their own knowledge and  that of their advisors as well to come up with the best solution to the problem.  Does anyone truly believe that Trump is capable of that?  There is nothing in his history that would show him qualified to be President, and just the opposite it’s unbelievable that his actions and statements have not disqualified him to date to run and be taken seriously.  But I guess these are not normal times, and the hatred that has been directed at Hilary is not normal hatred.  I hear from people she is a liar, but than hear they are going to vote for Trump who by all accounts does not even know the difference between the two.  Furthermore, while people may or may not like the expected policies that Secretary Clinton might bring to the Presidency, at least we can anticipate what they are going to be.  When it come to Trump it’s completely unknown.  The world is fragile place at the moment, what it does not need is a “bull in a china shop” which in the best case will be what Trump will be.  The second trait that FDR, JFK and for the matter Reagan shared was a fundamental belief in the greatness of America- something they do not seem to share with Trump.


While these have been relatively quiet weeks in this country, the are certainly not weeks without local news.  Most of that news has been taking place on the plain where religion and state meet.  It’s been taken place on two levels.  On one between the mainstream of the country and the what are called “Chardal ” Rabbis.  These are not Charedim who wanted nothing to do with the state, but rather people who consider themselves Zionist, who believe that our return to the land is part of gods plan.  But they are much more rigid in their interpretation of orthodoxy, thus they are called Chardal. Two weeks ago one of the Chardal Rabbis who runs a pre army school, called homosexuals degenerates and objected to some of the policies of the army relating to homosexuals and related matters.  That same week the writing of the newly nominated Army Chief Rabbi came out, in which he condoned the rape of captive women in war, and wrote against having women in the army. He claimed that he was merely answering theoretical questions and does not share those beliefs today.  Both events  created a domestic firestorm that lasted for a day or two

This week with a little less controversy, the Knesset under the prodding of the government passed two laws that the Charedim (Ultra Orthodox) demanded.  The first  barred Conservative and Reform Jews from using public mikve ( ritual baths)for conversions.  The second removing the requirement from Ultra Orthodox schools that receive government funds from teaching Math and English.  One thing became perfectly clear this week, this government is so dependent on the Ultra Orthodox that even if its decision have a strong negative  impact on relations with diaspora Jewry they will give in to their demands.

A final note, this week while testifying in the Knesset Army Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot stated that the greatest threat the IDF faces is not from external threats, but by elements of the Israeli society that seem to be trying to delegitimize the IDF.

Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot
Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot




The Wedding Tape

I’m glad it’s Christmas and I’m glad yesterday was Christmas Eve my editor is not working  for this  story should be written for  Newsweek, I can’t and I’m glad.  I know it’s a digital world and whatever you write goes everywhere however, the events of the last few days need to be written. I cannot ignore the events of the last few days, but I am happy they will be appearing on my blog and not in Newsweek.  The New York Times has a story this morning and it does a reasonable job of the describing  the events of the last two days, but ultimately it’s missing a little context. Two nights ago Israel channel 10 broadcast a video of a wedding that took place two weeks ago, in which the young celebrants were dancing with guns and knives celebrating the burning of the Arab family Dawabsha.  In the attack an infant and his Mother were burned to death while others were inured

Here you can see the video

The tape had undoubtedly been leaked by the Shin Bet, who was being criticized for their aggressive interrogation of the suspects in the killing. The Shin Bet  has received court approval to use physical means to obtain the cooperation of those being held, and there were rumors that they have finally confessed. Protests took place in front of the home of the head of the Shin Bet and violent demonstrations have also taken place at the entrance to Jerusalem and other places.  A number of right wing politicians attacked the actions of the security services.  The service often uses physical means to obtain the cooperation of Palestinian prisoners and while the Israeli supreme court has outlawed such interrogations they created a loophole for the “ticking bomb theory”. That loophole has been generously interpreted by the Israeli security services and courts.  In this case, they used the theory that those being held were planning additional attacks something that is more than likely although whether it was a ticking bomb or not is certainly up for interpretation.

While the question of how to interrogate prisoners is an important one and certainly deserves its’ own attention for the moment this is not the heart of the story. For the heart of the story is the celebration itself and what it means.  It first and foremost says that A, those who burned the Dawabsha family were Jews, B that they have supporters.  The film immediately received almost wall to wall condemnation, with even Prime Minister Netanyahu criticizing what was depicted there, although he was quick to say that Palestinian incitement is worse.  Naftali Bennet the head of the right wing Bayit Hayehudi came out with the strongest condemnation claiming that people like that were the greatest threat to goals of the settlement movement. Some of the right wing spokesmen were a little more circumspect in their attacks, with Minister of Justice Shaked decrying the fact that the film was shown, with some still attacking the actions of the Shin Bet.  A group of National Religious Rabbis issued a statement calling on the Shin Bet to stop interrogating suspects and asking that their confessions be thrown out.

The real question facing the Israeli public is whether those shown on the film are a small isolated group or in fact, represent a much larger group of people.  I have no way of answering that, not living in their circle or almost ever visiting the West Bank.  I fear however, it is. How much of the hatred has come from an education that emphasizes our superiority, or how much we are the “chosen people”?  How many of the “true believer” think that they are doing gods work on earth?  How different is that then the killers of ISIS?  Furthermore,  I always opposed the occupation not because of what we did to the Palestinians, ( who as a group I always felt were one of the least deserving of statehood of any national group) but rather what it did to us, what it did to our soldiers.  You can’t be an occupier for three years and return unaffected.  You cannot live in the middle of the West Bank in “hostile “ territory where you are hated and develop a love for your neighbors.  People like to say that Jews do not do these sort of things, but Jews have also never in our recent history been occupiers.  I don’t have answers, as anyone who reads me regular knows, we cannot make peace with ourselves, but we must understand that 45 plus years of occupation leads us down a path where some of our children turn out unrecognizable.  The mutual hatred is very real.  They hate us and many of us hate them, but we are the ones in power, and we must find the ways to insure that our children do not hate , that our children do not engage in hideous actions, that somehow despite 100 years of warfare we remain true to the values that make us  deserving of being a people.

My beautiful picture


Why both Obama and the Republicans are Getting it Wrong About ISIS

Neither President Barack Obama nor the Republicans seem to understand the threat presented by radical Islam. According to an article published last week in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart, the President believes that radical Islam, as practiced by ISIS, is “a small toxic strain within Islamic civilization.” Moreover, Obama does not believe radical Islam is a true ideological competitor to democratic capitalist societies. In contrast, some Republican presidential candidates consider radical Islam the single greatest threat to western civilization – with Mario Rubio warning we are at war with people who “literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future.” Unfortunately, each of these perspectives completely misses the point – albeit for very different reasons. Obama’s view completely overlooks the pull of religion, while the Republicans, whose base is comprised largely of evangelicals dare not  raise the issue of religion at all.

The true challenge facing the west is not as President Obama states – whether the ideology of radical Sunni Islam will be more compelling than the ideology of the west. Rather, the daunting clash surrounds whether extreme religion is more compelling than the ideas and tenets of western democratic thought. The fight over communism was eventually determined by economics (since communism turned out to be an inefficient engine of economic development in the second half of the 20th century). It is harder to see how a battle with fundamentalist religion can easily be won.

In 1999, Thomas Friedman wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Friedman’s underlying question was whether the world – and especially the Muslim world – would pick the path of the “Lexus” (i.e. technology, education, and a better future for their children), as opposed to fighting to retain control of their olive trees. Friedman’s visionary book was the first to correctly present the dilemma we face today. Friedman book had one weakness he understated the central role of religion in determining the existential importance of the olive tree, placing too much emphasis on the role of nationalism.

Regrettably, over the course of the past 16 years the “Olive Tree” has won. From bus bombings here in Israel, to the attacks of 9/11; from the massacres carried out by Boko Haram in Africa, to the genocide going on Syria; fighting over olive trees in the name of religion has taken hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide – almost all of these terrible loses have been in the Middle East.

President Obama’s position that radical Islam is merely a passing phenomena, which if only contained will disappear, might have been justified – had the Muslim Brotherhood not successfully hijacked the Arab Spring in Egypt (even if temporarily). History might have taken a different turn had the fall of Mubarak brought a liberal democracy to power in Egypt. However, that did not happen and for a year we witnesses the rise of a religious theocracy in the center of the Arab world, until it was overthrown.

The problem of fundamentalist religious sects is not limited to the Muslim Sunni world. Here in Israel democracy has been under assault by those who believe God gave all of the land of Israel to the Jewish people, and no man has the right to return any of that gift. Fundamentalist interpretations of Judaism led to the assassination of a Prime Minister, as well as a concerted and successful program to undermine any chance of reaching peace. The impact of Jewish zealots could also result in changing some of the fundamental values of a nation founded to be a secular democracy, with Jewish culture informing its national character.

That all being said, one should not stop after only examining Islam or Judaism. Why are the Republican presidential candidates as misguided as President Obama? The answer is the same reason that 90 years after the Scopes trial (a trial during which John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school) almost none of the Republican candidates are willing to say they believe in Evolution – for fear of offending their fundamentalist base; a base that believes the literal word of the Bible must be believed and cannot be reinterpreted based on modern knowledge.

The liberal democratic world is engaged in a fight, and its a fight that is as all encompassing as the fights against Communism and Fascism. It is a fight over our very values, proclaiming we are all equal, regardless of whether we are men, woman, gay, straight, black white, or anyone else. This is a fight over the very concept that a woman’s life is her own, as is her body. This is a fight over who possesses the ultimate authority in a nation – elected officials or religious leaders.

Nearly 220 years ago the brightest minds in America met and wrote the U.S. constitution. America’s founders understood how dangerous it would be for religion and government to mix.  They understood that it was the responsibility of the democratically elected government to ensure the rights of the people. As such, they composed a constitution, creating a mechanism that could be amended to protect the rights of all people. Today, the real confrontation is the conflict between those who believe that both men and women have “inalienable rights”, among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and those who believe that religious leaders who follow the dictates of texts from previous millennia should decide what rights individuals retain. Today, the nexus of the fight is with ISIS, the most extreme of the Muslim groups. Ten years ago the battle was with Al Qaeda. Before that the challenge was with the theocrats in Teheran. It should be clear that our struggle today is also with those who blow up abortion clinics, and those who try to stop the teaching of evolution in the schools, and with those who deny women education and freedom of choice in their lives.

I say to President Obama: ISIS may or may not be contained in the coming months. However, the fight against the very ideas that have spawned ISIS cannot be so easily contained. This contest is not (as too many Republicans claim) against radical Islam. Our fight is against anything radical, (or more correctly fundamental religion), regardless of which religion it is a part. We are capable of achieving tactical victories over ISIS or any other one group. Yet, in order to achieve a strategic victory over the forces of darkness, who push to return us the middle ages, we must recognize our true enemy – and that is religious fundamentalism, regardless of its stripes.

President Barack Obama receives an update on the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., from Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, as National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice listens, in the Oval Office, Dec. 2, 2015
President Barack Obama receives an update on the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., from Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, as National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice listens, in the Oval Office, Dec. 2, 2015

Reflections on Radical Islam- and oh unrelated President Riviln

Today my regular column in Newsweek is about President Rivlin and how a right wing politician became the favorite of the people of Tel Aviv.  One of the things that I left out was how unassuming he is.  He flies on regularly scheduled flights, economy and on this visist he arrived in New York and took Amtrack to Washington.  Could anyone imagine Bibi traveling in any other way than in his leased plane? Rivlin represents what we would like to be and is the antithesis of Bibi- that is part of the reason we love him.NTarnopolsky_2015-Dec-08

I  have not written until now my reactions to events in America, the actually bombing and the American reaction.  The bombing engendered in me a profound sense of sadness.  I understand the attacks on us here in Israel.  We can deal, and although I believe the underlying reason we have not been able to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians has a great deal to do with Islam, its still at its core a fight over land a fight that one can understand.  I also understand the total frustrations of a young Palestinian who has grown up knowing only our occupation, and the only Israelis he has gotten to know are the members of our army or other security services.  It is not unreasonable to that they would lash out and try to do something, anything.  I also do not consider attacking Israeli soldiers as acts of terror.  Attacking civilians clearly is and we should learn to differentiate.  But I am deviating from my main point, something that I will not do in an article but feel free to do on my blog- I find it so hard to understand how someone who grew up in America could turn his guns of innocent people and slaughter them in the name of Islam.  I might understand it if they were attacking government building or other symbols of authority- don’t get me wrong I would not condone it in any way, but at least, I might understand it.  But a group of regular people at a holiday party?  Some of the other mass shootings, however inexcusable and horrendous at least seem to have some logic- a kid or kids who feel picked on at school lashing out at his classmates or even the attack on the Planned Parenthood Clinic- spurred on by lies told by politician a slightly deranged person attacks.  But here a husband and wife team give up their child and kill the innocent?

How does the world fight this? I truly do not know.  We are fighting  religious people.  Yes we are not fighting all of Islam, but there is clearly a strong strain in Islam that has condoned violence- and has condoned violence against the innocents.  How do you fight this. The numbers speak for themselves, even if only 5% of the Muslim condone these acts you are talking about 50,000,000 people.  There is a very real problem when religions think they should move from the spiritual to corpereal world.  We can see that with our own right wing religous groups.  It is something that needs to be addressed and discussed openly, but the problem with the more extreme Islamist is very real and very difficult to address.  If we look at almost all the violence in the world in the last 20 year with a few exception ( Ukraine being one) they have all and are all taking place where Islam meets the west.  Why is that? How do we fight it? It’s not enough to say that the Islamic world will have to work that out on their own, for while Islamist are killing fellow Muslims in larger numbers then they are killing others, as we have seen in Paris and now in San Bernidino, others are dying as well. I do not have the answers or even a thread of an answer.  I am tired to hearing we must first identify the cause, or if only Obama would say what the problem is.  Well we have all known what it is, and I certainly have said what it is, but now what?  I truly do not know and that is scary!




Impressions of Moscow- Encounters with Two Charedi Young Men

I am writing this on the second leg of my flight from Tel Aviv to New York, via Moscow on Aeroflot .  This is the first time in 40 years that I have been to Moscow or flown Aeroflot . Boy have thing changed.  On my last Aeroflot flight the woman next to me pulled out an umbrellas before tale off, I looked at her strangely, and she said with her eyes you will see.  Sure enough as the plane accelerated for takeoff water started coming down from the ceiling.  Today Aeroflot flies a fleet of modern Boeing and Airbus aircraft .Their crew is friendly and helpful and the inflight entertainment good. Not so sure about the food, I ordered vegetarian as is my habit and received the exact same food for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, it was not bad but.. As an minor airplane buff, it is really nice to see they are doing what one of the U.S. Airlines proposed to do in the 70’s give the passengers a live feed from the nose of the plane during takeoff and landing.  The U.S. Airline concluded that it would scare the passengers, I guess Russians are made of stronger stuff.

I spent the night in Moscow with Russian friends.  Having been there in 1975 in the waning years of Communism, all I can say is how much it has changed.  One of my strongest memories of that visit was the lines that seemed to form in stores when something was available.  Today there are stores, many high end everywhere.  The people especially the women are all smartly dressed, and based on stickers on bags and in other places seem proud to be Russian.  Putin remains very popular.

In the Moscow Subway
In the Moscow Subway

Physically one can’t help by being struck by the how large the city is, and how every is built big.  In a matter of a couple of hours we traveled by train, subway cab and foot and covered vast areas of the city, which is full of old and new buildings, including a completely new downtown full of skyscrapers.  At 1 am in the morning as the evening came to an end, I found myself having a snack with my hosts and sharing a brandy, discussing the nature of man and life, somehow that seemed so very Russian.

On the first leg of the flight from Tel Aviv to Moscow the plane was full of charedim(ultra Orthodox Jews).  Most were on the way to Uma in Ukraine to celebrate Rosh Hashannah, at the grave of Rabbi Nachmun.  Sitting in next to me in the plane was a young boy he looked 12 but was actually 15, he seemed bright and engaging, so after helping navigate his receiving kosher food, I decided to engage him in a little conversation about his beliefs.  That discussion began with whether or not he could drink “unkosher” coffee.  While some of the discussion was expected, only the Jews have survived through the centuries, as well as his lack of knowledge even about his own community-he had no idea that the Haredi communities are only a few hundred years old, one thing he said was downright unsettling.  He said he was taught by his Rabbis that the holocaust was a miracle brought about by God to stop assimilation.  He said the holocaust had forced Jews to be Jews and thus it was a miracle.  When I asked him how could any miracle include the death of 1,000,000 children he was of course speechless.  He was surprised when I told him that the holocaust did not stop assimilation and told him what the inter marriage rates are in the U.S. Today.  When I told him that yes, he was right that the intermarriage rates were high in Germany before the war, but it was not high where most of the victims lived he asked me for the percentages.  It’s clear why the Haredi world fight so hard to keep knowledge out of the hands of their young, for what they are taught is so full of lies and inaccuracies that it is clear that a little real knowledge would seriously upset their society.  Somebody need to make it their mission to get that knowledge to these kids.

One final note on the last leg of the flight I  had a half an hour discussion with a Habadnik, who was going through the plane asking people if they were Jewish and then asking them to put on Tefillim.  As opposed to my normal discussion on the importance of the mitzvah of Tefillim vs other things, this discussion was center around the question of the appropriateness of asking the question are you Jewish on Aeroflot plane going from Moscow to New York as opposed to on the streets.  I tried to explain to the young man that going around on a plane asking if you are Jewish has a great deal of historic baggage, that interfering with the privacy of people on a plane was not an acceptable behavior. I was helped by an orthodox passenger who seemed to be a supporter of habad, but close to my age and had more wisdom then the young man.  We may have convinced him to instead of asking are you Jewish, to ask do you want to put on Tefillim? Stopping him seems to high a mountain to climb.


Some Days It’s Embarrassing Being an Israeli

I was going to write this yesterday, but yesterday I became a grandfather for the first time, so on that happy day, I could not get myself to write the downer that is to follow.

While I certainly have never been a great supporter of our Prime Minister yesterday I felt embarrassed to be an Israeli.  Opposition leader Herzog yesterday suggested Israel accept a number of the refugees from Syria, the idea seems a little problematic considering the bad job we have been doing with the African refugees that we already have. On the other hand its cleary the right thing to do, both morally if not just for the PR.  However our Prime Minister who is totally tone death (except maybe to the rhetoric his supporters like hearing) rejected the idea of accepting any refugees and instead told the Europeans that if the had followed our example of building high fences they would not have this problem. He said we are a small country with no strategic depth and thus could not take any refugees. Our defense minister not to be out done said no one should try to teach us morality, we helped enough.

When it comes to reality I thinks it would be ridiculous for us to try to take any of the refugees before we find a solution to the 50,000 Africans who are here.  Something I think we are morally obligated to do, and if our PM would say that at the moment we wish we could be we are working hard to absorb the African who came- Ok- but to once again to say we are a small country with no land depth who cannot- is really hard to hear.  I am sure the Swiss thought the same thing when they turned away Jews, at their gates. Last week I wrote an article about the lessons of the holocaust and how the left and right seem to have learned very different lessons, the events of this week only strengthen those differences.  How can we continue to blame the world for indifference for our plight when, when the tables have turned we are just as bad.

We cannot keep up this schizophrenic attitude towards the world, on one hand be proud of the fact that we have highest number of start ups, that Tel Aviv is considered by many as the best city in the world  for ex pats, that we are a member of the OECD, and then on the other play the poor embattled country who cannot help, cannot even abide by its responsibility under international law, law that we helped draft , to help refugees.

A final thought as we near the period of the Jewish High Holidays.  Where are the Rabbis? Once again, the Orthodox ones those who are in control of religious life in this country continue  to show how morally bankrupt they are.  They worry about whether people can rent bicycles on Shabbat, but are indifferent to the suffering of others in the world.  They are concerned how many Yeshiva students are studying Talmud every day, but are unconcerned for others in the world.   It is the Catholic pope who speaks out demanding that his flock care for the refugees.   A Palestinian who I follow on Twitter  Iuyad El-Baghadad retweeted the tweet of MJ Rosenberg – “Strange being a Jew right now. The Pope & the Germans are moral exemplars & Israel is the opposite. Times change.”

I hope that by the time my one  day old grandson grows up we once again have leader in this country  who he will be proud to call his leaders.



Tisha B’Av

It’s Tisha B’Av in Tel Aviv as it is in the rest of the world.  Last night Tel Aviv exhibited is normal schizophrenia to religious holidays, with all the bars closed, but some restaurants were closed and some were open, with no particular pattern.

When I was 17 and still considered myself religious during a summer I spent in Israel, I concluded that it was wrong to continue the fast day, now that we had Jerusalem and certainly in those days felt like  we had the Temple Mount.  To me it was just another example of the unwillingness to make fundamental changes now that we had the state.  Of course for many years I continued to fast, until I could stop myself.

As my religious affiliation changed over the time and for many years I identified more with the Conservative movement, I was particularly upset at that movement- after all the Orthodox movement does not really have the means of making changes, the Conservative movement does not have the guts to make any changes.

Talking to a friend in the park today, who is more conservative than me (politically) but not any more religious, he defended the continued observance of the day by saying, that is one of the beauties of Judaism, its unchanging.  That of course in my mind is one of its biggest failings; Orthodoxy does not have the means to changes ( and of course the Haredi world follows the views of Chazon Aish ” if it’s new it’s bad”) the Conservative world does not have the guts to make changes, and the Reform world does not seem to know what to change.  For those of you fasting I hope you have an easy fast- for the rest of us it’s another work day here in Israel.