Nu, democracy

Joseph Aaron

Sometimes, I find myself fantasizing about being a right winger.

Sometimes, I wish I could just be totally convinced that I am right about everything, that there are no shades of gray, only black and white, that I know exactly what G-d wants and know for sure that every other Jew who doesn’t see what G-d wants exactly like I do, is not really a Jew, that there are simple answers for everything, that things will stay as they are forever, that I am being noble and justified in belittling, mocking, name calling and attacking any and all Jews not like me.

After all, for the moment, everything is going as the right wing would have it, which only cements their sense of self-righteousness, of knowitallingness, of doing G-d’s work, of always being right.

Trump is in the White House, insulting allies, upending the international trading system, badly eroding American morals, faith in the media and the FBI and the intelligence community, making it seem that it’s okay to lie and cheat and call names and make stuff up and insult, because after all he’s rich and he won the election. So those things must be okay, smart even.

And Trump has made the Jewish right wing deliriously happy. He moved the embassy to Jerusalem. He blew up the Iran deal. He put three Orthodox Jews in charge of crafting a peace plan, the three wise men of Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, who kind of have a favorite among the competing parties of Israelis and Palestinians.

So it’s a great time to be a right winger. But right or left, what’s so scary is not that very scary things are being done in both the United States and Israel to seriously erode democracy, but that half the population in each country dismisses any and all such talk as fake news by the corrupt media.

And what’s so scary as a Jew is this fact. That about 85 percent of Israeli Jews think Trump is the greatest thing since the invention of potato knishes, while about 80 percent of American Jews think precisely the opposite. That there is such a wide gap between Jews here and Jews there does not bode well for Jewish unity and for the unshakeable support American Jews have always shown Israel.

Still, when democracy is being threatened, especially in Israel, which so proudly has called itself the only democracy in the Middle East, it’s important to speak up. Many American Jews have done so about the recent ‘Nationality Law’ passed by Israel, a law which I’m sure has Ben-Gurion turning over in his grave.

I’m not going to get into that law, however. I want to point out two smaller, less noted incidents that I think are very telling about the anti-democratic actions being taken more and more by the Bibi government, which is feeling totally free to live out all its fantasies now that it has a useful idiot in the White House.

Scary exhibit one, as reported by the Jewish news service JTA. A prominent Jewish philanthropist says he was aggressively questioned by Israeli airport security after going on a Jewish tour of Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

Meyer Koplow, chair of Brandeis University’s board of trustees and a longtime donor to pro-Israel causes, was delayed for 30 minutes by a security agent at Ben Gurion International Airport before being allowed to board his flight. Koplow’s visit to Israel included a trip to the West Bank with Encounter Programs, a nonpartisan organization that brings Jews to Palestinian areas to meet Palestinians and see their society firsthand.

He believes he was called for questioning after security personnel found a brochure in his luggage titled “This Week in Palestine,” which he had picked up in a Bethlehem hotel lobby. Agents had placed a note in the same pocket of his luggage informing him that the bag “was opened for the purpose of carrying out a security check.”

“The best way I can describe it is a badgering form of questioning where before you finish giving one answer, you’re being asked the same question again as if what you said is not credible,” Koplow said. “She asked what purpose could possibly be served by people visiting the territories. She asked that several times.”

Koplow said he appreciates Israeli personnel checking luggage for the purposes of security, but he feels that the questioning he experienced “goes a level beyond that.”

“I applaud the careful security, including examining people’s luggage,” he said. “But not for materials that they’re taking with them out of the country that aren’t in the nature of what you would call classified materials. Why would you do that other than to send a message that the government doesn’t welcome your engaging in any kind of inquiry.”

Koplow was disturbed as well by “the manner of the continued implication that I wasn’t telling the truth or all of the truth,” he said. He added that describing his past involvement with Jewish and Israeli causes did not change the tenor of the interrogation, which was conducted in public view.

In addition to his position at Brandeis, Koplow is a board member of the UJA-Federation in New York and has served as the president of his synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle. He has given millions of dollars to Israeli causes.

“The most disturbing question she asked me, and she asked me more than once, was what was I going to do with the information I learned in the territories,” Koplow said. “What business is it of security at departure as to what I’m thinking or what I might say?”

Precisely. There is too much of that going on in Israel now. Attempts to stifle the media, strip power from the Supreme Court, not allow other points of view to be heard in schools, efforts to deprive left wing organizations of funding. When a prominent American Jewish official is stopped for a pamphlet he has in his suitcase and is subjected to intimidating interrogation, the only threat to Israeli security is the increasing intolerance of any opinion not shared by the government.

Scary exhibit two. Rabbi Dov Haiyun awoke at 5:30 a.m. at his home in Haifa to a knock on the door from two police officers who detained him, put him in the back of a van and sought to question him. His crime? Conducting a Jewish wedding outside the auspices of Israel’s haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

“I feel disappointed in my state that this is what’s happening in my country,” Haiyun said. “The only country that discriminates between Jews in the entire Western world is Israel. In the United States, I can perform weddings and they recognize me. “The police don’t catch criminals this quickly,” he added.

The law that landed Haiyun in a police van outlaws any traditional Jewish marriage performed outside the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, the state-sanctioned body dominated by haredi Orthodox rabbis that controls all recognized Jewish marriage, divorce, burial and conversion in Israel. Weddings performed in Israel outside its purview — including all Conservative and Reform marriages — are not recognized by the state.

According to the law, rabbis that perform any non-sanctioned weddings in Israel could also be subject to prosecution — so can the bride and groom. When the measure was passed in 2013, a Chief Rabbinate spokesman said that non-Orthodox weddings would only run afoul of the law if they were performed using traditional Jewish rites. Haiyun uses a traditional Jewish ceremony in his weddings, so a religious court in Haifa invoked the law and ordered the police to interrogate him.

UJA-Federation of New York, the country’s largest Jewish federation, called Haiyun’s detention “dramatically inconsistent with Israel’s promise as the home of the entire Jewish people.” “I believe in Zionism and believe in its vision, and what concerns me is how far away from that vision the country, under its current government, is headed,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said.

Arresting a rabbi for performing a traditional Jewish wedding in Israel. This is where things are today. Look, I know all the arguments, but the fact is that the vast majority of American Jews and the vast majority of Israeli Jews are being alienated and pushed away from Judaism. The new nationality law is almost certain to ensure that religious pluralism will be a target of Israeli government action.

With all Israel has to deal with – Syria, Iran, Hamas and more — why is it eroding Judaism’s very foundations and strengths, namely its tradition of democracy and of respecting all Jews?

I know, I know. Right wingers and the religious will just blow all this off, attack me, punish me, and try to shut me up. They never listen, they don’t want to hear, they are not able to see, let alone hear, that there is another side, that there are a lot of Jews not like them and that when you begin to erode democracy and religious tolerance you do more harm to Israel than any missiles could.

And yet right wingers hearing about the prominent American Jew being harassed for a pamphlet, will just say it was right to do so, what business does he have paying attention to the Palestinians, what kind of Jew thinks they have anything of value to say. And they will similarly dismiss the arrest of the Conservative rabbi for performing a traditional wedding and indeed celebrate the arrest because he is, well, Conservative, crime enough.

I know I’m just wasting my breath trying to stand up for democracy in Israel, respect for all Jews in Israel. Still I’m going to keep doing it, no matter the price I pay, no matter how vicious are those who think themselves pious. Because if we don’t speak up now about threats to Israeli democracy and civility, one day we might all wake up and find they are both gone.

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