Understanding the Iran Interim Deal in Seven Points


As negotiations closed last weekend in Geneva, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told reporters that he hoped this deal would “remove any doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” John Kerry painted the negotiations in a different light, saying that the deal “impedes (Iran’s nuclear) progress in a very dramatic way.” Some have called the deal a tectonic shift in the region, while others have scoffed and written it off as just another cog in a machine that won’t work. So what’s really going on? I’ve broken down the implications of the deal into seven key points.

Why does Iran want nukes so badly?

Nuclear weapons make countries relevant. Nations enrich uranium and seek nuclear capability so that they can attain a certain level of both national security and prestige among world powers. For an Islamic country in the Middle East, that sort national security would signal a permanence amid severe volatility and an ongoing upheaval of the status quo. As the centrifuges spin, and Iran hurtles closer to that dreaded 90 percent enrichment mark, it becomes more of a viable force and louder voice on the global stage. As one White House official said this week, it’s a matter of national pride.

(Additionally, a majority of Iranians believe that the nation should have a nuclear power program as an alternative form of energy.)

Obviously, that’s a deeply flawed mentality given the realities of Iran’s current predicament. The problem, of course, is that no one else wants Iran to have that “security” – at least for now.

Why are all these countries – many of whom have nuclear weapons themselves – so devoted to stopping Iran from having them?

The argument goes something like this: nukes aren’t the coveted bargaining chip that Iran thinks they are, nor are their attainment the threshold Iran needs to cross to be taken seriously. Iranians celebrated in the streets Sunday as the first round of negotiations closed and officials announced an interim agreement that would relieve up to $7 billion in sanctions. There’s a sense that the waters of Iran’s economy will begin to flow after years of self- and externally-imposed drought.

Economically robust countries with a clear future, strong infrastructure, and room for growth (and, yes, with the money to build a strong military) get a voice. Iranians are poor. Oil revenues have been cut back by half as crippling sanctions have taken effect in the last half-decade. And because of past choices and priorities, Iran is stuck. That’s the goal of sanctions: to force hostile nations to decide between continuing to implement its antagonistic policies and allowing the well-being of its own economic sectors.

Would Iran really bomb Israel?

Beyond smoke and mirrors and rhetoric to inflame the radicals, Iran has no real rationale to bomb Israel. In a region with no shortage of problematic countries, Iran is far and away the most ostracized in the international community. With a 20 percent global approval rating, it is more politically isolated than Syria and treated as a greater threat than are its neighbors. Statements by government officials, state-employed scientists, and others in positions of authority brim with rhetoric that scare Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state and disturb those with a stake in the region’s stability. But Iran wants a bomb for the same reason the United States, Russia, Pakistan, and India wanted one: to have a bomb. Organizations like United Against a Nuclear Iran and the diplomats who met in Geneva last weekend know that Iran very likely has no intention of bombing Israel.

What should I know about this deal?

  1. The UN’s premier nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), now gets to inspect the assembly of centrifuges and uranium mines through surveillance cameras and on-the-ground visits at Iranian nuclear facilities. These inspections will be daily at Natanz and Fordow and more sporadic at Arak.
  2. All uranium that Iran has been enriched to 20 percent must now be either diluted to a lower percentage or converted to oxide form.
  3. Iran can keep the centrifuges that exist, but can’t install new ones. In other words, the centrifuges that have been set up, but are not operating, can’t start operating.
  4. Iran can’t enrich any new uranium beyond 5 percent.

Cool bullet-points, but what do they mean?

They mean that in a perfect hypothetical, Iran is deciding through this deal that the health and prosperity of its people are more important than its production of nuclear weapons. The costs of sanctions outweigh the benefits of highly-enriched uranium.

Okay, but do you really buy that?

No, not really. Many – including Israel, Saudi Arabia, any many top American lawmakers – are skeptical of the suddenly-cooperative Islamic Republic, which has a history of wanting it both ways and refusing to compromise. Yossi Klein-Halevi wrote Monday of Israel’s belief that Iranian officials “will persist in doing what they’ve done all along: lie and cheat, but this time under the cover of a deal.”

In truth, the eased sanctions are only a small fraction of the billions in frozen assets and halted contracts that have piled up in recent years. But Bibi Netanyahu sees this deal as the world’s way of giving Iran a few months of carte blanche. Michael Doran, a Brookings Institution fellow who once ran the National Security Council, agreed on Sunday, writing that the agreement signals America’s implicit willingness to channel money to Iran’s terrorist proxies in the Middle East – Hezbollah and the henchmen of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Some commentators have also noted that the emergence of an Iran deal could very well be the point to the death of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an advisor to Mahmoud Abbas, said publicly that the American decision to facilitate the agreement in spite of Israel’s strong opposition sent “an important message to Israel” on the United States’ priorities.

There’s plenty of justification for being suspicious of Iran’s intentions. In October 2003, representatives of France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, and Iran met in Paris and struck a deal that temporarily suspended Iran’s production of enriched uranium. This was intended to be something of an interim agreement, like the one announced Sunday – a liminal process that would eventually lead to the real accord.

There was no real accord. In early 2005, Iran’s parliament voted to resume the nation’s uranium enrichment program “for peaceful use” only. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president later that year, and nuclear facilities like Isfahan ratcheted up their production. That September, the IAEA condemned Iran and talks with the Paris group broke down.

In 2006, the UN Security Council’s permanent members and Germany (the so-called “P5+1”) reached out to Iran, offering to open new trade routes and allow for several light water reactors in exchange for the suspension, again, of reprocessing and enrichment. Iran turned down the offer and opened its heavy water facility at Arak later that year.

The P5+1 went through similar processes in 2009, 2011, and again earlier this year. Each time, talks broke down because Iran either failed to comply or reneged on a promise.

What’s different now?

Just the president of Iran, really. The only tangible difference I perceive is a newly open, non-hostile relationship between the Iranian leader – President Hassan Rouhani – and the leaders of the P5+1. Rouhani was involved in Iran’s earlier suspensions of enrichment and has generally been more of a mollifier and an appeaser of global interests than his direct predecessor, who advocated and embodied an outwardly antagonistic approach to the Western world.

One Week Later: Israel’s Right and its Responsibility


Written for the Emory Wheel:

Consider a hypothetical situation.

About a year ago, someone took a hammer to my kitchen window, leaving shattered glass strewn about the floor.

My family and I aren’t of retaliatory blood, so we swept up, replaced the panel, and put the incident behind us.

A few days later, we awoke to another mess. Our front lawn had been dug up, spilling dirt into the driveway and leaving the carcasses of daisies to shrivel in the sun. Again, we cleaned up quietly and went about our lives.

But it wasn’t long before my family couldn’t keep up with the damage.

We awoke each day to a new sordid surprise: paint scraped off of the side of our house; rain seeping through where roof panels had once sat; sewage pipes uprooted; damage with such consistency and such severity that the very foundation of our house began to rot away. Each time, we swept up the mess. Each time, we kept quiet.

You’re wondering: You allowed all this? You didn’t take legal action? You didn’t seek out the people who’d been carrying out an unprovoked assault on your home? It sounds, to you, absurd. Because it is absurd.

None of this happened to my family, nor to my home. My telling is diluted. In reality, the narrative was much worse.

Instead of a hammer, it was a rocket. Instead of a shovel, it was a rocket. Instead of a scraping tool, or an axe, or a jackhammer, it was a barrage of rockets. And instead of my family’s home, it was the schools and streets, playgrounds and homes of Israel’s southern region.

For anyone to live in constant fear that they may die by rocket fire seems a way of life unbefitting of the civilized.

It’s now been more than a week since Operation Pillar of Defense ended. We’ve had time to reflect. The regional conflict remains hazy and oft times complex – even impenetrable. But one thing is clear: Last week, Israel rightly defended itself against those who sought to bring its citizens into that shadow of constant fear.

Israel is not without profound, sometimes devastating flaws. It is a society whose legal statutes often pull from the norms of biblical antiquity; one which is deeply and continually invested in an occupation of the West Bank that poses threats to its own democratic principles and to its Jewish underpinnings; one with a system of government that proves inefficient time and again.

Because the Israeli government’s constituency extends far beyond the borders of the Jewish state, it has already begun to face criticism on these issues.

The era of a subservient global Jewish community has passed. These issues are difficult and important.

But the action that Israel took last week doesn’t fall under that umbrella of flaw. The sobering truth is that Israel’s use of force was warranted. Consider a concise sequence of events – a far cry, I hope, from the convolution of the news cycle:

Yielding to international pressure, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. The withdrawal granted Palestinians living in Gaza full power to assemble (by whatever means) its own governing body, its own internal legal systems, its own investments. A few months later, the people – whether by coercion or by choice – elected Hamas, who vowed to bring years of prosperity to Gaza.

Hamas is a terrorist organization. In its founding charter, it calls for the destruction of the Jewish people in the Jewish state.

Not a century ago, someone carried out a similar vision – a memory seared vividly into the collective psyche of the Jewish people. By absolutely no means is the Holocaust the basis for Jewish self-determination, but by all means is it a reason to shudder and recoil at Hamas’ words.

Since its ascent, Hamas has opted away from substantial investments in infrastructure or medicine. It hasn’t moved toward opening a robust competitive market. Instead, it has prioritized weaponry supplied in large part by its allies in the Iranian regime. Those weapons are katyusha and qassam rockets.

Hamas launches them from schools, mosques, and hospitals. The rockets land in Sderot, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon, Kiryat Malachi – Israeli towns where Israeli kids play on playgrounds and rush to shelter when their afternoons are pierced by warning sirens.

It’s easy to fall victim to certain western conceptions that compel us to view Hamas as a political opponent or ideological dissenter of Israel’s. But Hamas is not a righteous army of freedom fighters. Its militants are not “activists.” They are terrorists. Hamas does not protect its citizens. It plants fear in the hearts of both Israelis and Palestinians and dispatches the cursed and capable hands of death upon them.

Had my family taken action against simply the first act of aggression (the mere broken window) we would have been justified beyond doubt.

Israel has seen an average of three rockets per day over the last 11 years; more than 22 thousand pieces of burning metal crashing into small towns over the last year alone. Can you imagine even one rocket landing in your neighborhood – even one time?

I mourn for the infant whose only crime was serving involuntarily as a terrorist’s shield.

I thirst for a partner for peace who will cease to cloak itself in smoke and bullets. I pray that combatants in Gaza and in Israel will lay down their arms and labor for their own safety, their neighbors’ safety. But we aren’t there yet.

Last week, Israel carried out its obligation to unshackle Israelis from the chains of existential fear. In a heap of shattered glass, a hammer is not a valid partner for peace.

Barack Obama is Not Anti-Israel


Written for the Emory Wheel:

I hear the conversation everywhere.

Well, I suppose it isn’t so much a conversation as it is a statement. My Jewish friends say it all the time: “I’m voting for Romney because Obama doesn’t support Israel.” More often, the statement comes in a blunter form: “Barack Obama hates Israel.”

Each time, I cringe. Each time, I’m perplexed.

There is no nation on earth that this country, under this administration, supports more comprehensively and more fervently than it supports the State of Israel. Barack Obama does not hate Israel.

At a meeting in February 2011, the month’s U.N. Security Council president entertained a resolution condemning Israeli construction in the West Bank.

When more than 115 nations moved to pass the condemnation, only one delegate from one country raised her hand: American Ambassador Susan Rice. Because America’s status as a permanent member affords it veto-power (and as per the policy of Rice’s boss), the vote failed and the draft-resolution vanished from the international docket.

Last November, President Obama was recorded having what was meant to be an off-the-record conversation with French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Obama told Sarkozy that the United States would “have to impose economic sanctions” if the September 2011 Palestinian bid for statehood went through. In a room bereft of TelePrompTers and absent of television cameras, the American president affirmed his support for policies of the Jewish state.

That same month, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro – a de-facto representative of and spokesperson for the Obama Administration– delivered a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In his remarks, he declared that “Israel is a long time democratic ally and we share a special bond.”

Shapiro went on to note that “some skeptics are questioning whether that’s enough of a reason to continue to spend hard earned American tax payer dollars on Israel’s security.” His rejoinder was frank: “We don’t just support Israel because of a long standing bond,” he said. “We support Israel because…ensuring Israel’s military strength and its superiority in the region is (critical) to regional stability and as a result is fundamentally a core interest of the United States.”

The cash sum that the United States spends on aid to Israel has increased steadily since Obama’s first year in office. According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, in 2009, the administration spent about $2.81 billion on aid to Israel; in 2010, it spent about $3.04 billion; in 2011, about $3.49 billion. That’s an average eight percent increase in each of those three years – not to mention a 14 percent increase between the second and third years.

Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since the second world war.

Obama has preserved and prolonged that commitment; his budget request for the 2013 fiscal year consists of $3.1 billion in aid to Israel, which includes $99.8 million specifically allocated to joint American-Israeli missile defense development.

President Obama has also sculpted American foreign policy to quell the existential threat posed to Israel by Iran. In his first appearance at the United Nations as president, Obama asserted that if Iran chose to “put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability…then they must be held accountable.”

He echoed such sentiments in comments during his 2010 and 2011 U.N. remarks. And just last month, he told delegates, “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” and vowed that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

And if Obama’s words speak, his actions scream. During the summer of 2010, Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which enacted severe penalties for companies who do business with the Iranian petroleum sector. And under the Iranian Transactions Regulations as amended by the Obama administration in March 2012, anyone involved in breaching said laws may be slapped with up to a $1 million fine or jailed for up to 20 years.

Last August, Obama signed yet another set of crippling sanctions against Iran. The law, according to the Wall Street Journal, “closes loopholes in existing sanctions law on Iran, and adds penalties…(and) broadens the list of available programs under which sanctions can be imposed on Iranian individuals and entities.”

A representative of AIPAC recently told me that these Obama administration policies are “the most severe sanctions the U.S. has imposed on any country – even the Third Reich.” Barack Obama does not empathize with the Iranian regime.

The Obama years have seen no adverse change in the way of American policy towards Israel; and yet, Obama’s stronghold on Jewish voters (who traditionally support Democrats overwhelmingly) slips from his grasp each day.

The president’s support among Jewish voters has dropped 19 percentage points since last election season, from 78 percent in 2008 to just 59 percent today.

Why is there a disparity between steps Obama has taken and the approval he’s gained? In truth, today’s underlying “tensions” between Israel and the United States amount to a handful of personal gripes between leaders, a series of ultimately trivial comments on West Bank settlements, and hyperbolic questions surrounding Obama’s ties to the Islamic religion.

These conditions have acted as a frustration in the realm of PR and messaging, but by no means have they given rise to a real shift in policy.

Every day, I hear it from close friends, in op-eds by billionaire Jewish donors, pervading the blogosphere: President Obama is anti-Israel; he exercises evasion in the face of the Iranian threat; his policies are crippling or harmful to Jews, Israelis, or Zionists. I respond to my Jewish friends in a voice that I hope will resound: Any such claim is a rash one, based on perceptions plagued by exaggerations and misreadings. We know anti-Israel; we have seen anti-semitism. President Obama embodies neither.

If you intend to support Governor Romney in this election because you believe that the top 2 percent of the American populace should see its taxes decrease, or that women should have their bodily decisions checked and regulated by wealthy men, or that immigration reform should begin by way of expulsion, I wish all the power to you. But if your allegiance to Israeli security is holding you back from casting your ballot for the Democratic ticket, it’s time to rethink your vote.

The Right Questions After the March of the Living


Written for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:

I’m standing with my back against a brick wall at Auschwitz. Monise Neumann points to an area just beyond her and tells a story.

When Freddy Diament arrived at the forced labor camp, she says, he was stripped of his material possessions. That was, of course, what happened when Jews arrived at the Auschwitz camps. But Freddy managed to keep hold of one invaluable possession: his little brother.

Hitler’s henchmen made a practice of public executions. When Freddy’s brother tried to escape, he met a cruel fate. “Freddy was forced to look, helplessly, as his young brother was hanged,” Neumann says, looking to her left and pointing. “Right over there.”

Each year, the March of the Living brings thousands of Jewish high school students to visit Auschwitz and other sites in Poland, and on to Israel for Yom HaAtzmaut. Freddy — a long-time Angeleno — accompanied the trip for many years. Since his death in 2004, Neumann, head of the L.A. delegation, has perpetuated his memory by telling his stories to each year’s group.

Today, the countryside to which that child tried to escape is lush and verdant. The stark contrast it presents between what now is and what once was cripples our capacity to grasp the Nazi atrocity. We visit Shoah sites to witness and understand, but connection and comprehension are difficult to achieve.

When we visit Chelmno — where Nazis herded Jews into gas vans — white butterflies dance with eerie ubiquity. Along the road to Treblinka — where they exterminated 900,000 — the riverbanks overflow with life. Near Lublin — where city-dwellers had a clear view of Majdanek — the only shadows are from the branches, and the only echoes come from the birds.

At each site, we strive to be witnesses. But when we can’t hear the screams of mothers or see the smoke rising above crematoria, what is there, really, to witness? As the sun spills out from each layer of twiggy woodland, aesthetic beauty sedates our heavy hearts.

Still, raw emotional reaction is not entirely out of reach. It is when the grieving ceases to be for the “Six Million” and shifts toward the individual — when the gargantuan becomes the particular, and the past resurfaces in the palms of our own hands — that the bloodstains on that picturesque countryside come into focus.

For me, that shift happens at Majdanek. The savage concentration camp’s several dozen barracks are still intact and house historical exhibits. Standing in those barracks, I can smell the Jews.

The aroma is of something expired, moldy, vomitous. The sweat and bile of the Jews seeped into the wood, and crawled between the cracks and onto the beams, and perched themselves in the air inside the barracks. They have since stayed there, and I can smell them.

I can smell the final “Shema Yisraels,” the final gemilut chasadim, the last conversations and desperate tefilot in that air. It seems that those in the barracks recognized that, tomorrow, they would trudge down the pebble road and into the chamber. So their stenches and memories and auras decided never to leave. It all still levitates above the floorboards, and reminds me that the wood underneath my feet is blotted with the terror and tradition of individuals.

An awareness that the Shoah was the murder of a series of people, not just an unfathomably large group, powers my empathy: I find a tiny blue button in the soil of what was once a storage barrack; it occurs to me that my autistic younger brother would have fallen victim to Hitler’s euthanasia program; a survivor accompanying us on the trip breaks our silent visit to a mass grave, bursting out, “Why? Why?!”

I leave Poland with an overwhelming sense of bafflement. I, like that survivor, want to ask “why?” But the lessons of the Shoah lie not within the crimes of the monsters who commissioned the Sonderkommando; they lie within the thoughts and choices of those who now visit and remember.

Days later in Israel, gazing out the bus window in Jerusalem, I notice a stone wall emblazoned with graffiti, Hebrew letters that read: “Az?” — in English, “So?” The graffiti poses a more important question than “why?”: Now what? Judaism has invariably survived calamity. What comes next?

During our visit to Birkenau a week earlier, the universe had answered that eternal question. The L.A. delegation had been seated on the grass as the sun began to set and the infamous brick entrance cast a shadow on the train tracks.

Among the countless groups present was a delegation of nearly 200 officers of Mishteret Yisrael — the Israeli national police force.

As we knelt on the grass, just when the air became frosty, I heard: “Smol, yamin, smol.” In English: “Left, right, left.” I craned my neck to spot the entire Mishteret Yisrael delegation, in full uniform, marching along the tracks leading out of Birkenau.

Through my psyche flashed the painful notion that, had their organization (or the nation it protects) existed just 70 years earlier, history might have unfolded very differently.

That was Mishteret Yisrael’s answer to “Az?”: to create a potent symbol of Jewish life within the most harrowing valley of Jewish death.

If we are to plant our seed in what once was, the next step, in its glaring simplicity, is to practice vigorous Judaism. It is to not allow the Jews murdered in Majdanek to become merely odor; to say the Shema, to wear a tallit, to pray, and argue, and engage about Israel because there is a Jewish state. The next step is not only to march from the camps in memory of Freddy Diament’s brother, but also to emulate his holy defiance, and bring it to life.

But There is No Peace – Why the Mideast “Peace Process” Needs to End


It was at my Uncle Mark’s fourth grade parent-teacher conference in 1970 that my Bubbe and Grandpa began to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mark had brought home his Chapter 2 math test, pressed with a ripe, shiny “78%.” There had been no teacher’s note, no call home, no indication that Mark had been struggling. The C+ wasn’t a failing grade, but it certainly signaled a fundamental misunderstanding of the material at hand. Why, my grandparents wondered, was there such a glaring lack of constructive follow-up?

By the time the conference came around, my Grandpa – whose charming frankness has bolstered a long career in business – was prepared to leave any sense of evasion at the door.

“Why did my son get a C on the last math test?” he asked Mr. Johnson.

The teacher explained that math grading was on a numerical basis, and the test had been worth a total of fifty points. Mark had scored thirty-eight of them, a C+. “We just present the material,” Mr. Johnson told my grandparents, “It’s up to the students to grasp it.” The teacher, it seemed, viewed his own reasoning as sound and effective.

My grandparents, however, saw a stark and damaging problem – one that could lead easily to more severe problems: Mark hadn’t been asked to study again or re-take the test, nor had Mr. Johnson made an effort to remediate the lessons of which his student had demonstrated such misunderstanding. Mark had likely not been the only fourth-grader to perform at a sub-par level. And yet, the class had continued on to Chapter 3.

There was no mention, at that fateful conference, of either Israel or Palestine. When I hear my Grandpa recount the story, I imagine the walls of the room being plastered with alphabet posters, shelves stacked with The Wind in the Willows dioramas and sheets upon sheets of smudged cursive letters. Admittedly, never, upon hearing that story, have my thoughts turned to the Middle East.

Until last week, when I sat in the back of a jam-packed ballroom at the Beverly Hilton hotel. There, I listened as Shimon Peres, Israel’s celebrated and articulate president, addressed a crowd of hundreds of supporters of Los Angeles’s Jewish Federation. The moderator of the discussion asked Peres about Palestinian feelings of irrelevance. “Peace is a process,” Peres said, “not just a decision.” As I thought about that, my mind flashed to the parent-teacher conference. The following is where my mind wandered.

“Peace,” as an ideal, is Chapter 7, where all key figures – political entities, leaders, militaries, religious and societal groups – wear Mark’s shoes, hardly keeping hold of chapter two. Pushing them toward peace is akin to asking an out-of-shape toddler to swim the length of an Olympic pool. Peace, its very essence abstract, nondescript, and romanticized, connotes almost nothing concrete. By its nature, it is conceptual, not tangible. Its pursuit has propagated seasons of volatility, unrest, frustration, and regression on which the sun has yet to set.

In early 1775, on the eve of the birth of a nation that would become the world’s flagship demonstration of progressive thinking, one colonial leader conceded that the notion of “peace” was naïve – that his revolutionary brothers were better off acknowledging antagonism as an inevitable constant. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Patrick Henry told his compatriots, “But there is no peace.”

History dictates that diplomatic agreements in the Middle East serve to carry out specific regional tasks, almost never an inkling of broad, blanket “peace.” Camp David created a military and economic alliance between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Oslo curbed the First Intifada in 1993. The disengagement from Gaza was a step toward Palestinian independence, even if at the cost of Hamas’ rise. In each case, the ideal of “peace” fell victim to its abstract nature, instead moving toward a concrete, more humble, and feasible goal. Peace is too vague to attain.

When dignitaries allude to “peace in the Middle East,” they do so with an equivocal pseudo-idealism – a diplomatic irony of sorts. Any “necessity” for a peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an illusion. Reaching for peace is futile. The Middle East needs a stability process.

Stability begins with the agenda. A Palestinian government, Mahmoud Abbas wrote in his application for admission to the United Nations, would devote itself to continuing talks on “final status issues” once a state existed. In his purview, those constitute “Jerusalem, the Palestine refugees, settlements, borders, security and water.” But, through an Israeli lens, a comprehensive resolution will ride on negotiations that seek to rectify the Jewish state’s own distinct existential challenges, most of them demographic.

A “two-state solution” is achievable only where stability exists; stability will exist where the raging fires that are the above issues are quenched. If they continue to burn even after the allowance of Palestinian state, a two-state solution will not have been reached; rather, the region would take on a two-state existence with perpetual two-state troubles.

Suppose that the agenda for the stability process had room for only two issues. One must be a primarily Palestinian issue, one a primarily Israeli issue, and one that truly requires bilateral policy decisions. Those two issues – which, if resolved responsibly and with a necessary degree of compromise, could usher in the beginnings of regional stability in this era – are that of Palestinian national governance and Israel’s West Bank settlement policy.

There are those who call themselves “Palestinians” living in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank – a disunited constituency. In the aforementioned document, however, Abbas refers to the Palestinian Liberation Authority (PLO) as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

For the last several days, the towns on Israel’s southwest side have fallen prey to an incessant rocket barrage by terrorists. On Sunday afternoon, two of the weapons fell in Be’er Sheva; one struck a school, and the other a car parked just outside of a home.

Hamas governs Gaza. A separate parliamentary coalition governs Israel. Under whose sphere of influence do those terrorists fall? Which leader, which government, is responsible for punishing those who commit such egregious acts, for deterring Palestinians from carrying out future attacks? Indeed, another state will come – stability will come – once all Palestinians know whom to call “Mr. President.”

By no means are settlements in the West Bank the sole roadblock to peace, but building and extending them only further agitates an ever-agitated people. House renovations in East Jerusalem needn’t end, but the Israeli government’s slews of new housing projects continue to edge more and more deeply into the West Bank and, thus, into the collective Palestinian psyche.

There is a legal statute in many American cities that states that if two neighbors have lived by certain property lines for a number of years, those lines become the lawful boundaries – even if they weren’t originally articulated as such by city plans. If Palestine is to be, effectively, the West Bank, then, before the state is established, Israel must act as though those lines already exist, and, accordingly, stop preemptively infringing upon national sovereignty. As of now, Israel has the right to establish its own housing projects in the West Bank, but it also has the power to cease.

This conflict is rife with more perplexing contortions than is an Escher painting, more hidden crevices than the canyons of Yosemite. I would never claim that this is the one and only way to solve this. That would reflect an arrogance that could have unsafe repercussions in this debate. For those reasons, I don’t call this a plan for peace; it is merely a few steps that might lead to more stability in a world in which “there is no peace.” Bubbe and Grandpa were right: Where we are Uncle Mark, a stable region is Chapter 3.

When Jews Criticize Israel – Why Cautious Rebuke is a Mechanism of Defense


Earlier this month, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles ran an article entitled “Wolpe vs. Beinart.” The piece was Rabbi David Wolpe’s passionate and compelling response to an email Peter Beinart recently sent to supporters of J-Street.

Beinart’s e-mail scolds the American Jewish community for failing to develop a link with West Bank Palestinians similar to that which it maintained with the freedom fighters of the 1960s. In the email, Beinart asserts that “the great Jewish question of our age is whether a people who for millennia lived as strangers—and spun visions of justice that inspired the world—will act justly now that we wield power.” Rabbi Wolpe denounces and questions the categorical nature of Beinart’s words, painting them as arrogant and presumptuous. Feigning the knowledge of the steps Israel must take toward peace, he writes, displays “a strutting lack of humility.”

The following is my response to that exchange:

There may, in fact, be no single “great Jewish question of our age.” Many observers of the Jewish state argue that the preeminent “question” is that of a nuclear Iran. Others assert that Jewish survival depends on a peoples’ capacity to renew its tradition and re-contextualize it in the modern era. Still others view remedying the Israeli government’s relationship with its ultra-orthodox population as a burning necessity. A claim like Beinart’s, which labels one challenge as “the great Jewish question,” and offers definitive answers to any of these questions, is irresponsible and does, as Rabbi Wolpe suggests, reflect a degree of arrogance.

Beinart’s comments, however, propagate another important question, or line of them: Is it acceptable for Jews not to glorify the core tenets of Israeli society? Can one be a Zionist – learn about, teach about, or love Israel – through a non-idealistic and sobering lens? Does “criticism” carry an unconditionally detrimental connotation?

I find few moments more fulfilling than standing atop Mount Arbel as the sun peaks over the Sea of Galilee. My Jewish soul overflows with pride when Israel is the first to respond to a natural disaster in a country who condemns its very existence. I feel profound spiritual connection among the ancient, towering walls of the Old City. I am an ohev tzion – a lover of Israel.

Even so, Israel is a political entity, and, like all other political entities, its government makes mistakes – militarily, economically, religiously, and politically. Rabbi Wolpe, in his admonition of Beinart, writes that “honest dissent” is necessary, and acknowledges that “Israel has sometimes done bad, misguided, even terrible things.” Challenges pervade the contemporary  discussion: Israel may have the right to build settlements, but does that make the settlements unequivocally moral? Is every military maneuver in the state’s best interest? Should the Haredi population always have such an overwhelming say in decisions of governance?

It was at a pro-Israel conference last Spring that I brought up some of these questions with the Jewish father of a friend.

His response was vitriolic. “You think your views are valid?” he yelled, with more rebuke than wonder. “You’re just a naïve kid who’s read a few articles. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I was taken aback, but hardly surprised. It wasn’t the first time that a conversation of this sort had taken a turn for the worse. In many circles within the American Jewish community, much that verges on criticism of Israel is considered taboo. Those who call Netanyahu or Lieberman policies into question are often scolded with a vengeance.

There is a distinct and often forgotten line between self-loathing and self-serving.

Henry Kissinger may fall under the former category, while Israel supporters who dare to point out, with prudence, the state’s ill-considered decisions qualify as the latter. If Zionism is engrained in our collective identity, we carry a weighty responsibility to be our own watchdogs.

When we chide the Obama administration for one of its policies that we perceive as being contrary to American interest, we aren’t renouncing our American citizenship. Rather, we are exercising our democratic prerogative. Yet, for whatever reason, when the conversation moves to the Middle East, constructive criticism becomes synonymous with betrayal.

In truth, the American Jewish community’s criticism of Israel is not fully comparable to that of most other groups in most other countries. Examine Israel’s disparate function within the community of nations: The constituency of the United States or France, for most practical purposes, ends at the borders of Canada and Mexico. The constituency of a state founded on religious doctrine extends far beyond any geographical border.

But Israel is often labeled the only “true democracy” in its very unstable region. Democracy functions through constituent response; if constituents support the policies, they support the candidates. If they don’t, they do the reverse. Israeli citizens take advantage of democracy by voting. We make the best of a free and open Israel by voicing our opinions of which policies Netanyahu should keep, and which ones he should change. The American Jewish community, collectively, is a constituent of the State of Israel.

Peter Beinart’s public anxiety that ours may be “the generation that watches the dream of a democratic Jewish state die” seems not to be – at least linguistically – the sort of cautious rebuke that can elicit any sort of tangible response.

Daniel Gordis, the prominent commentator on Israel, compares Jews closed to criticizing Israel to parents who never critique their children: They’re in an unproductive covenant. Loving Israel, he recently wrote, “means loving unconditionally but knowing that love does not mean overlooking serious flaws.” Like effective parenting, our criticism needs to be present, but it must also be constructive and intentional.

Followers of the American Jewish relationship with Israel often argue that criticism of the Israeli government’s decisions should, for the most part, take place behind closed doors – outside the eye of public scrutiny. I agree; the Jewish State has no shortage of bad luck with the media. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who has been called “Israel’s single most visible defender,” has written that this criticism must be proportional and contextual, asserting that “what is missing (from the equation of diplomatic criticism) is the comparable criticism of equal or greater violations by other countries and other groups.” The American Jewish community is safe in deciding to publicize its positive interactions with Israel and shroud its denunciations of the state. But the quiet steps we do take toward improving Israel (by way of expressions of dissatisfaction) must be real and palpable.

There is, as Rabbi Wolpe contends, “room for honest dissent.” When the Israeli government is wrong, we have a holy imperative to criticize it. Our criticism must be deliberate, constructive, specific, and concise, not categorical, nor arrogant, nor presumptuous; it must provide a foundation from which to build stronger policy, not tools with which to dismantle a nation. Our Jewish responsibility is to defend our only homeland. To criticize is to clarify, and clarification is – without doubt – a mechanism of defense.

The Force of Apathy – A Piece for the National Journal Sh’ma


As featured in Sh’ma, a national journal of Jewish ideology, alongside articles by former Senator Russ Feingold and Brandeis Professor Jonathan Sarna:

Last spring, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. It was a routine visit: He was to deliver a few brief remarks, answer a handful of questions, and in the process court a soon-to-vote portion of his constituency. That morning, as students were still shuffling into the gym, I spotted the congressman and approached him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said, as I extended my hand to shake his and tell him about a project I’d helped create on our campus. Our “Global Response” team had made buttons to raise funds for Japan’s earthquake victims. The congressman’s eyes glazed over. When I handed him one of the buttons, he rolled his eyes and shook his head, muttering, “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things.”

The congressman’s response shouldn’t be read as a sob story. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to the national Jewish community: My generation is plagued by a glaring apathy toward the political process and a crippling passivity with regard to civic engagement. Various outside factors — represented here by the congressman — are hindering our ability to grow beyond that apathy.

Empirical data paint a daunting picture. In the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972, 72 percent of eligible adult voters (ages 30 and above) cast ballots. More than half of eligible young voters (ages 18-24) participated in that same election.1 In the election of 2000, the number of adult voters remained unchanged. The statistic for young voters, however, suffered a rapid and now consistent decline. A marked indifference has crept swiftly over the youngest segment of the electorate.

That decline continues to persist. Recent reports2 estimate that only a quarter of all eligible people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. (The 2008 election is, no doubt, a political, societal, and statistical anomaly). Another survey3 found that only one in 20 teens and one in twelve young adults read a newspaper on a near-daily basis. Aside from the obvious changes in reading patterns, apathy about world events and voting — the clout of each vote — is growing exponentially.

I can’t speak to the byproducts of apathy in other communities; to theorize about how the rest of “my generation” contributes to these trends would be hollow speculation. But, as the fruit of a modern American Jewish upbringing, I can shed light on the broader ramifications within my own social microcosm: I study at the largest Jewish community high school in the country, taking classes in Jewish thought, Hebrew, and American government. I’ve spent summers at Camp Ramah, walked through the dimly lit pathways beneath the Western Wall, and chanted kaddish amid the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz — all alongside my American Jewish contemporaries. I am someone who engages, quarrels with, and appreciates young adult American Jews on a consistent basis.

Some of my peers don’t know the name of our vice president; others are amused to discover that my Internet homepage is CNN.com; many make lofty, irresponsible, or erroneous claims about the State of Israel — often built on a blind acceptance of their parents’ or teachers’ opinions. In school and synagogue, among my peers, I watch teenagers lay claim to beliefs that are not their own. It isn’t that they’re indoctrinated; it is that they’re indifferent.

That indifference is precarious: Neither passion nor advocacy can grow from the reflexive adoption of someone else’s ideas. My generation is growing up without a sound skill-set or mechanism for expressing or defending statements. Belief without basis is futile; we are writers without a story to tell.

Although several Jewish high schools around the country offer classes like Model United Nations and Model Congress, and even advanced placement courses in government and economics, ignorance wears a stubborn armor. Young people remain uninterested in and unknowledgeable about current events.

It is my contention that in these months of fervent national conversation — and into the foreseeable future — Jewish professionals who teach, motivate, influence, and interact with Jewish youth must consider a paradigm shift. In the impressionable eyes and hearts of my generation, modern Judaism — at least for the time being — is in need of recontextualization. A focus on the spiritual is valuable, but a focus on the experiential, practical, empirical, and political — exposure to civic responsibility and our role as global citizens — is invaluable and imperative. Such an investment may help to usher out an era of apathy; it can drive the perseverance of a people and their values. We are the youngest members of the American Jewish electorate. Educate us: Teach us to use our collective, vital, and ever-potent voice.