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.

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.

Restraint – Gilad Shalit’s Return to Israel


As featured on the Huffington Post:

After five years in the custody of his Hamas captors, it seems that Gilad Shalit’s painful and much publicized saga is finally winding down. The Israeli government has struck a deal with Hamas: Israel will release upwards of a thousand terrorists (most of whom were serving life sentences for murderous crimes) in exchange for one honest young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On a trip to Israel in August 2010, I had the opportunity to spend a few fascinating moments with Gilad’s father, Noam Shalit. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked what my tour group was doing in Israel. I explained. He nodded. Then I asked him what people like me could do to help his son’s situation.

He shook his head, and almost in a whisper: “Nothing.”

Slightly over a year later, I, indeed, haven’t done anything to help his son’s situation. With the exception of keeping informed and posting sporadic “Gilad” Facebook status updates, I’ve done nothing particularly profound to help bring about Gilad Shalit’s homecoming. Few have. In the end, as Noam Shalit foresaw and foretold, it has had everything to do with political negotiation tactics and diplomatic deals that surpass the powers of ordinary Israelis – let alone high schoolers in California.

Nevertheless, in the days following the announcement of the deal, the emotional investment of Jews internationally is visibly coming through. Some advocates of the exchange – certainly many in the global Jewish community – see Shalit’s return as a form of justice. Many see it as an inevitability that completes an era and finishes a story.

But to approach the deal as a justice implies some sort of return to equilibrium; an evenness, a moral balance between loss and gain. In truth, no such balance exists, nor will one.

Yesterday I heard Sharon Brous, a prominent Los Angeles rabbi, frame the Shalit exchange by describing the extraordinary nature of a country who is “letting love dictate policy.”

Indeed, Israel is that country. The trade is a present-day embodiment of the pervasive Talmudic adage, “to save one life is to save the whole world.” It restores confidence in the hearts of soldiers that regardless of circumstance, they will come home. Indeed, this trade, in all its controversy, seeming paradox, and ardent instability, is a consequence of a deep and overwhelming love of life.

But among those being released is a woman who – over the internet – lured a heartbroken Israeli teenager to a Palestinian city, where he was promptly murdered; a man who planted explosives in a Tel Aviv nightclub and killed twenty-one young partygoers; a woman who escorted a suicide bomber into a jam-packed pizza parlor where he blew up sixteen people; a man who orchestrated a hotel bombing that killed thirty people who were celebrating the Passover holiday; a man who bombed a bus in Haifa that killed seventeen travelers; the men who founded Hamas’ armed wing; a man who, along with several others, pulled an Israeli man out of his car in Ramallah and – because he was Israeli – lynched him.

The Shalit exchange is hardly justice. The songwriter David Ford puts it more eloquently: When victory comes at too heavy a price, there’s honor in choosing defeat. Undoubtedly, the world needs Gilad Shalit to fall into his mother’s arms; but it doesn’t take a skeptic to wonder if the price of that reunion is exorbitant.

I urge the global Jewish community to exercise delicate restraint in its recognition of Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel. Jews and Israelis and champions of peace worldwide have attained a goal, though not a victory. It is a time for joy, though not a time for celebration. We have seen a deal, but we have certainly not seen justice. “Nothing” is not a response we want to have to hear again.

‘Remember Now Your Creator’ – The Challenging Dichotomy of Faith and Reason


Last night, at my school’s back-to-school-night for parents, I delivered my “senior sermon.” Each senior at Milken writes and delivers a sermon at some point during his or her final year at the school. Here is mine, on the challenge of balancing faith and reason at a religiously affiliated high school:

Last week, I took the SAT in Portland, Oregon. My family was visiting relatives for Rosh Hashana, and the test happened to be that weekend. So that Sunday I went to the only place in Portland that offers the SAT to people who are shomer Shabbat: a school for Seventh Day Adventists.

The test happened to be in a science classroom. In one corner I noticed a diorama of a DNA strand. In another was a stack of copies of the periodic table. And then I looked at the bulletin board: Several pictures of wildlife. A few snapshots of plants. And there, in middle of the board, in the middle of the science classroom: a painting of Jesus himself, and four words: “REMEMBER NOW YOUR CREATOR.”

Remember your creator? There I was, in a high school science classroom, about to take the world’s preeminent test of logic and reason. And all I could focus on was: remember your creator.

And through four hours of really difficult questions, I couldn’t get this one out of my mind: what’s Jesus doing on the wall of a science classroom? But the truth is, really, that question isn’t so different from the ones that Milken students grapple with every day. One moment we’re sitting, talking about Martin Buber and Rabbi Akiba in Jewish Thought class, and the next moment we’re in Physics, studying Newton’s First Law of Motion.

On this very campus, every day, we live with this challenging dichotomy: are reason and religion mutually exclusive? And what does one have to do with the other? Is that quotation on the walls of the science classroom in Portland that different from a mezuzah on the doorway of our chemistry lab, or even my orthodontist’s office? I’ve found three distinct answers from three distinct sources. One from the Jewish tradition, one from the era in which we live, and one from Cedars Sinai.

First, an answer from the Talmud. There’s a famous story: The rabbis were trying to decide if a particular oven was ritually pure (a debate I’m sure goes on in all of your households). All the rabbis agreed that the oven wasn’t pure – all except for one rabbi – Rabbi Eliezer. He was positive that his view was correct. Rabbi Eliezer kept offering proof by bringing about various supernatural phenomena. Still, the other rabbis weren’t convinced. Finally, a voice from the heavens resounded through the chamber and said: “Rabbi Eliezer is correct.” But the majority was outraged. Another rabbi looked up from where the voice was coming from and shouted: “It’s not for heaven to decide!” And the voice of God answered back: “My sons have defeated me.” Meaning that the rabbis were right: Just as we have faith in God, God has faith in us – to use the intellect God gave us.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his most recent book Why Faith Matters, puts it eloquently. He writes that “faith honors those who discover truth. For people of faith to turn their back on truth, whatever its source, is a reaction of fear, not an assertion of faith.” In other words: True faith sees the hand of God in the capacity for human discovery.

But that doesn’t mean that we rely only on our own intellect. Our belief in an almighty God, a God who created the universe, a God who spoke and the world appeared – a belief in that God grounds us. A belief, or even an acknowledgement of a force beyond forces – beyond the human intellect, beyond MD’s, beyond even iPads – is a blanket of humility over our pervasive human arrogance. And that acknowledgment alone carries with it another humbling truth: we are limited.

But often we can forget that humility. And that’s where I found my second answer. Almost exactly a month ago, we marked the tenth anniversary of a calamity executed by people who were convinced they were doing God’s work. Fundamentalists are people who have profound faith that’s unchecked by reason. Religion that’s deprived of the voice of modernity, that’s stuck in antiquity, breeds arrogance. It breeds the people who demand that you must agree theologically, that you must see eye to eye – And it’s not just in other religions; we sometimes see it in Judaism, too – a stringency that defies reason. As someone who reads and writes about the news, I hear almost daily about the damage wrought – whether in Israel or here in California – by those who use faith as a rationale to carry out a radicalized approach. Our faith needs to be accompanied by reason and progress – which leads me to the third – and perhaps most powerful – place where I saw faith and reason interact.

A few years ago, a family friend was diagnosed with Leukemia. Some of you may have known Joel Shickman. He was a rabbinical student at the American Jewish University. And his situation would have justified complaining, crying, even grieving. But instead, Joel built a holy community.

We’d gather in his hospital room, a group of adults and a few kids, and put our arms around each other. And to the rhythm of Joel’s guitar, we’d sing. We’d sing the Beatles, and American Pie, and whatever anyone wanted to hear. We’d chant the prayer for healing and create harmonies that I’m pretty sure touched God’s own angels. And as I pounded on the drums and prayed and prayed, I watched the IV-tubes pump through Joel, the nurses coming in and out of the room, the heart monitor beeping – each one keeping Joel alive.

And when Joel left his wife and his three young sons, and met God at heaven’s gates, he also left what so many of us strive to build: a community uplifted by his faith, enlightened by God’s presence, blessed by the miracles of science, and humbled by its very real limitations. When science couldn’t keep Joel’s body alive, his faith, and God’s own presence in the hospital room kept his neshama alive, and raised ours.

On Wednesday night, we’ll begin the sukkot holiday – a period that implores us to reflect on life’s fragility. And during sukkot, we’ll read the Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, a book about the fleeting nature of life. And in that book, we’ll read this verse in hebrew: U’zechor et borecha. In English: “remember your creator.” The same verse from the wall of the science classroom in Portland.  And when we’re sitting in synagogue, or under the fragile canopy of the sukkah, that very verse should remind us of the potential of our intellects, of the greatness of the divine, and of our imperative to live our lives aware of and challenged by both.

Thank you.

Obama at AIPAC – The Speech that Worked (in Theory)


On Sunday morning, I arrived in Washington, DC with a medium-sized group of high school students for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – the United States’ pro-Israel lobby.

My views don’t always correlate to those of AIPAC. I often find myself questioning the lobby’s stringent and unbreakable conservative nature. But AIPAC itself is officially nonpartisan and its primary goal is to defend and protect the State of Israel and its policies – during every and any administration.

As a result, severe apprehension gripped the conference’s attendees when it was announced that President Obama would be a keynote speaker. In the wake of recent events, there had been much build-up to the speech – irritation from the American Jewish community as a result of the President speech Thursday and his word choice regarding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (“pre-1967 borders”), excitement from my friends and classmates who eagerly awaited the unique opportunity to hear their President speak, and my unwavering anxiety and concern at the prospect of a room full of ten-thousand Jews hissing or booing at the Leader of the Free World.

Before Obama emerged on the garish AIPAC stage, a friend and I decided to make a bet on the language the President would use. “He’ll say ‘1967’,” my friend told me. “He’ll stick to the same language.” I was less sure. I told him that I thought Obama was at AIPAC to appease the Jewish community, to make up for Thursday’s speech, or to backpedal on the words he had chosen. The anxiety grew thicker – I could almost feel it in the air.

President Obama delivered an eloquent and meticulous address. As he approached the podium, he was met with gracious respect and cautious appreciation. He began by acknowledging universal truths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the kind of statements thats the American Jewish community eats up like a fresh batch of cookies.

“A strong and secure Israel is in the national security interest of United States,” he said – and there was applause. He went on. “America’s commitment to Israel’s security also flows from a deeper place – and that’s the values we share.” More applause. Then, he asserted that he has “made the security of Israel a priority.” And, of course, more applause.

But once he’d warmed up the crowd, he cut to the chase. With absolute intrepidity and unmitigated integrity, Obama reaffirmed what he had defined as United States policy on Thursday: the 1967 borders of Israel should serve as a guideline for peace negotiations.

And the applause waned. But this time – during this speech – it was clear that the President had learned from his mistakes. He told the AIPAC audience that those who had reacted radically to his previous statement hadn’t been fully listening. “There was nothing particularly original in my proposal,” he said. “This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties.”He asked the audience to listen to his proposal in context. He clarified that he didn’t only wish for Israel to revert back to previous borders, but that he believed that “mutually agreed upon swaps” were necessary.

The speech was a statement about the President’s resolve: it didn’t matter to whom he was speaking. He was there to deliver a message. It was clear that he knew that those who disagree or doubt him will never agree and will always doubt him. But “if there’s a controversy,” he affirmed, referring to his ‘1967’ statement “then, it’s not based in substance.” He did not appease the American Jewish community. He did not backpedal upon established US policy. With candor, with truth, and with poise, he stood before an unjustifiably irate crowd and proved exactly why their anger was groundless.