Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

Field Report From Israel: Things Are Changing, Watch Events at the Western Wall

It’s different this time.  Why?  Because in Israel the reality of demographics is catching up with those who previously believed that wishful thinking makes for sound public policy.

AO5A3900It’s hard to distill into a sound bite what’s going on in Israel and the West Bank.  Knowledgeable pundits are fond of prefacing their answers to meaningful questions about the region with, “It’s complicated…”  And it’s true.  In Israel, especially in Jerusalem, everything is complicated, because politics permeate every crevice, from issues of local real estate to childhood education.

I’ve just returned from a week in Israel, including visits to Tel Aviv, Herzliya, East Jerusalem, and the fascinating work-in-progress at the ambitious construction project of Rawabi City, as well as other sites in the West Bank.

While I have been to Israel many times since my first trip in 2002, I was fortunate join an outstanding program sponsored by the Philanthropy Workshop West for this trip.  Among the highlights of our trip, we visited a wide range of community outreach programs for ethnic groups at risk (Israeli Arabs, the Ethiopian Jews, the Bedouins) sponsored by groups including the Portland Trust, the New Israel Fund, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

What struck me most about this visit was that Israel finally appears to be acting more introspectively to address its painful social and political contradictions, acknowledging that these can no longer be left to fester from salutary neglect.

Chief among these contradictions is the discrimination of Jews against other Jews, particularly by the ultra orthodox against Jewish women who seek the right to pray at the Western Wall, and by the State of Israel against Reform and Conservative Judaism (which define Judaism in the United States) by denying these branches of Judaism official recognition and fiscal support in Israel.

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I was not expecting to hear from multiple individuals what I have felt since I first visited Israel 11 years ago: that the country cannot allow the ultra orthodox to be exempt from military service and from carrying their economic share of public services.  And there is a sense of urgency that also surprised me, a sense that this must be addressed by the legislature now.  To wit, the newly formed government majority in the Knesset, for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, excludes the ultra orthodox block, effectively taking the keys to the religious car away from these intolerant and uncompromising constituencies.

The release of the Women of the Wall from arrest, without consequence, on April 11 brings this new political reality home.  The courts overruled the police and squarely placed the blame for public disturbance on the haredim at the scene.  This is a big deal! As reported by the New York Times:

“The judge said the people disturbing public order on Thursday were a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters who were demonstrating against the women. The police said an ultra-Orthodox man was also arrested after he grabbed a book from one of the women and burned it.”

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Job training centers for the ultra orthodox are springing up, supported by U.S. NGO’s and the Israeli government, and there are waiting lists because of excess demand from haredim who wish to change their lives to consist of more than Torah study.  I view continued progress or renewed failure to achieve change in this area as a canary in the coal mine in terms of handicapping Israel’s prospective trajectory toward broader achievements with the Palestinians.

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Returning to East Jerusalem…

 

 

April 7, 2013      East Jerusalem

Local time: 4:00 AM

The wailing chant of the muezzin woke me up.  As an outsider, this unfamiliar daily call to prayer for muslims reminds me that I am not just 7,397 miles away from my home in Napa, California; I am centuries removed from the familiar frames of reference that define my daily existence.  But there is also a familiarity to all of this for me…

I started this blog in early 2005 because of a chance encounter I had with an elderly Palestinian man in East Jerusalem on November 3, 2004.  Almost nine years later, I am back…

On the surface, East Jerusalem seems cleaner and quieter to me today than it did in 2004.  I’ve been here about 14 times since my first business trip to Israel in 2002.  This Spring the weather is dry, clear, and cool.  Walking through the Old City, things feel calm, not riddled with the tension of active conflict and imbalance that I have felt on many other visits.  I’ve been asking local friends for an update on the most pressing issues in Jerusalem and, so far, I’ve been told me that one social issue of increasing concern is the degree to which gender segregation has become more pronounced, even though the public buses are no longer segregated.  At the same time, the struggle for the recognition of reform and conservative in Israel continues unabated. Some progress has been made, but it remains painfully slow due to the entrenched political power in the Knesset of the ultra-orthodox minority.  I asked one friend what the “top of mind” political issue in Israel is likely to be in the short term this year, and she said “elimination of the exemption from military service for the ultra orthodox”.  Security and Iran were not on the top three list…

This is my first time back in Israel since December 2009.   I remember vividly my first visit to East Jerusalem in 2003, when I was introduced by Rabbi David Saperstein to Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Center and founder of Women of the Wall.  We met at the Jerusalem Hotel, and this led to a random meeting with a Palestinian man who spoke fluent Spanish outside of the Interior Ministry in East Jerusalem, an encounter that started this blog.

Much has happened in my life since then- professional successes, professional failures, the death of close friends, my own divorce.  And today I look ahead with renewed vigor as I open a new book, not just a new chapter, in both my family and professional lives: remarriage, personal renewal, new business ventures, and revitalized new and old friendships.

I feel fortunate to be back in Jerusalem this week as part of a trip with the Philanthropy Workshop West.  This extraordinary group has chosen to come to Israel this year for their international workshop for a series of meetings with thought leaders and experts on the region in order to better understand the complex social fabric that defines is at the center of the conflict that defines Israel. It is a privilege for me to join them.

 

Irshad Manji from the Aspen Ideas Festival on Ijtihad and Interfaith Marriage in Islam

Irshad Manji comments on the positive power of Ijtihad, the ancient tradition of critical thinking in Islam, and the importance of contemporary Muslim imams in justifying Muslim interfaith marriage.





Democracy in America Revisited– Defining America’s Current Political Identity [Seventh of a Series]

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You can’t stretch a shared political identity so far that it becomes overly abstract and therefore impossible for people to articulate in a way that everyone can easily understand it.

Think of this statement in the context of the Presidential debates in the current election. Why is the media obsessively focused on candidate mis-statements regarding their exposure to ‘sniper fire’ or commenting on how social alienation can lead to ‘clinging to guns and religion’. Why does it take 43 minutes into a debate for George Stephanopolous to ask the Democratic Party candidates the first substantive question on the economy, which he acknowledges as the most important issue in the election? Should candidate gaffes be defining elements of campaign momentum and qualifications for Presidential leadership? Not in my view.

American citizens span the spectrum from evangelical Christians to ardent atheists; from observant Muslims to secular and orthodox Jews. Ethnically, American citizens include Mexican Americans, African Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, European Americans, Russian Americans, and many other ethnicities. The definition of family in America now includes traditional marriages, same sex marriages, and no marriages. It is uneasy for societies to live with a complex narrative of citizenship forged from the richness of diversity that has made the melting pot of America historically great.

The rise of Evangelical Christian religious fundamentalism in America and Muslim fundamentalism in the rapidly modernizing societies of the Third World each share a reactive thread in opposition to the forced acknowledgement of diversity highlighted to all of us by the Internet. These movements, which are organized attempts to re-assert a single identity and to fight social complexity, trigger equally negative reactions form those that are left out of the picture. A complex world where differences are heightened because everyone is aware of everyone else requires nations to grapple with a complex narrative of citizenship. America’s great historical achievement as a pluralistic society stems from its immigrant melting pot roots and from the strong democratic institutions that have evolved over 232 years to embrace this complexity. Let’s not forget this in the 21st century.

Why We Need to Find Common Ground With Islam Through Education

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Babar Ahmed is a talented up-and-coming movie director ("Royal Kill") and the son of Professor Akbar Ahmed, who first taught me about the history of Islam at the Aspen Institute‘s Socrates Society.  Babar recently spoke about Islam at a gathering in Palm Beach.  The Palm Beach Post reported on his remarks:

"And so why are we seeing suicide bombings if Muslim history is so good?" he asked.

Because Islam is divided into three groups, Ahmed theorized, the conservative, the moderate and the extremist, the latter of which is "growing every single day."

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, Ahmed said, orphans were driven over the border to Pakistan, where they were taken in and educated by the most primitive tribal schools, run by illiterates who could not read or properly interpret the Koran.

"In driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan," Ahmed said, "the United States developed relationships with military dictators which continue to this day. That may have worked in the short term, but it left the orphans poor, desperate and angry, without any skills except how to use a gun."

The current movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, makes the same point, he noted.

The solution, Ahmed said, is education, because the majority of Muslims are young. In Pakistan alone, he said, 40 percent of the population is under 16, and more receptive to radicalism.

"One half of the world’s population is Muslim, Christian or Jewish," Ahmed said, "and if we don’t start finding this common ground, we are going to be heading for a very turbulent century."

Babar is right on point.  One of the few successful models of bilingual interfaith educational success in the Middle East is Hand in Hand in Israel— the madrassas have a long way to go, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we can act to make sure that it is not on oncoming train…

Hand in Hand Update– New Students, New Campuses, Continued Growth

Amin Khalaf, co-founder of Hand in Hand, the groundbreaking, highly successful, bilingual Jewish-Arab school system that educates close to 1,000 students in Israel, reports on the achievement of several major major milestones:

"*A dream came true on January 13th when students, teachers, and staff moved permanently to our new Max Rayne campus in Jerusalem. The journey has been a long one, and we will take many fond memories of the old campus with us as we settle in at the state-of-the-art Max Rayne School. A two-story library, a large indoor gymnasium, improved computer connectivity, and dedicated spaces for the arts and music are among the many highlights of the new campus. My thanks go to the Jerusalem Foundation for assisting Hand in Hand to construct the multimillion dollar facility.

*Hand in Hand worked with Merchavim and the Abraham Fund to prepare a position paper advocating the strengthening of bilingual education that was presented at a special conference held in Jaffa on December 27, 2007. Among those present was Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who expressed her personal support for expanding bilingual education options in the country.

*In February, Hand in Hand will organize Israel’s third annual conference on bilingual education in the multicultural city of Haifa. The international event, to be realized in cooperation with the University of Haifa, will bring together experts to discuss the mechanics and theory of bilingual education, one of the fundamental pillars of Hand in Hand’s work.

*Hand in Hand’s new fourth school in Beer Sheva has been operating with great success. Our 49 students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten are enjoying their studies, and we are currently planning an expansion to the first grade next year. Kudos to the Hagar parents’ group for helping make the Beer Sheva School another Hand in Hand success."

The continued growth of this educational organization in a highly segregated society that experiences emotional stress and turmoil on a daily basis shows the integrity of the vision that inspired it over a decade ago.  Bravo!

Confusing Common Sense with Cultural Sensitivity– Are We Staring into the Orwellian Chasm?

A friend of mine recently brought to my attention an article originally published April 2, 2007 in the The Daily Mail which revealed the following highly disturbing trend among teachers in England:

"Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government backed study has revealed. It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial. There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades – where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem – because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques. … The study, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, looked into ’emotive and controversial’ history teaching in primary and secondary schools. It found some teachers are dropping courses covering the Holocaust at the earliest opportunity over fears Muslim pupils might express anti-Semitic and anti-Israel reactions in class. "

Every blog comment or follow-on article that I’ve read on this topic condemns this "sidestepping" approach to the unpleasant historical truths that make up the Human Journey as fundamentally flawed.  But it’s not enough.

We need to be outraged at the lack of leadership that allows spineless fear of difficult discussions to bury reality.  We now live in a digital world where anyone with a keyboard can falsify history or advocate hate on the Internet and remain largely unfettered in the name of free speech.  In societies where the Government monitors and controls Internet content, we are more likely to see this control used to suppress dissent, force conformity. and paint a thin veneer of social harmony over underlying currents of instability and unrest.

We are increasingly buried under an avalanche of unverifiable data that can be manipulated to suit unscrupulous ends by groups with wide ranging hidden agendas.

Ignoring the truth of global history condemns us to ignorance and opens our societies to manipulation which, left unchecked, could send us back to the world of Hobbes.

"If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?"

George Orwell, 1984 Stopbush3272b20nov03

To learn more about the truth of the Holocaust, go to http://www.adl.org/education/edu_holocaust/default_holocaust.asp

   

International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Jerusalem in May 2008 Promotes Interfaith Collaboration and Coexistence

Poster1_2 My friend and college classmate, Mark Gluck, continues to promote inter-faith tolerance and cooperation in Israel through adult education.  In cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Mark has organized the second US-Israeli-Palestinian Brain Research Conference, which will be held next May in Jerusalem and at Al Quds University in the West Bank on the Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Mark is a Professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers, and his efforts are bringing together students and academics from around the world for this important collaboration.  In my view, this is positive change, unlike the misguided academic boycott of Israel that a group of British professors continue to promote.  to contact Mark about the conference, email him at gluck .@pavlov.rutgers.edu

Young Adult American Jews Can Reverse a Trend of Indifference and Alienation by Visiting Israel

An increasingly large proportion of American Jews under the age of 35 is becoming increasingly indifferent to and alienated from Israel.  Why?  Primarily because these people have not visited Israel. 

According to a new white paper- Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel, by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “the erosion on Israel engagement has taken place over the entire age spectrum, from elderly, to upper-middle-aged, to lower-middle-aged, to young adult. … We see a pattern of shifting (declining) attachment to Israel stretching over 50 years, from those who are now 65 and older down to those in their 20s.”

Funded by the Jewish Identity Project of Reboot and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, this paper’s conclusions are based on a survey of 1,828 Jewish respondents between December 2006 and January 2007 and focuses on non-Orthodox respondents.
    
What does Jewish American alienation from Israel mean?  It means that the majority of American Jews under the age of 35 do not believe that the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy and do not talk about Israel to non-Jewish friends.  Over 40% of American Jews under the age of 35 and almost 40% of American Jews under the age of 50 describe their level of Israel attachment as Low.  60% of the respondents have never been to Israel, and only 15% have been more than once.  48% of respondents believe that there is either a moderate amount of anti-Semitism in the U.S. today; 38% believe that there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in the U.S. today (62% believe there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in Europe today).  More importantly, 47% believe that anti-Semitism will increase in the U.S. over the next several years (62% believe so in Europe).       

Among the paper’s most important observations, intermarriage has an important influence on the distancing of American Jews from Israel.  However “contrary to widely held beliefs, left-liberal political identity is not primarily responsible for driving down the Israel attachment scores among the non-Orthodox.  If left-liberal politics were influential, we should see significant differences between liberal-Democrats and conservative-Republicans.  The absence of such a pattern, and their inconsistent variations within age groups, run contrary to the assertion that political views are the prime source of disaffection from Israel.”

I am the son of a Holocaust survivor with a strong Jewish religious education, but I was largely indifferent to Israel for much of my life because I didn’t have the perspective that you gain from actually going there.

I first visited Israel in early 2002 and have now been there 11 times.  Going there has completely changed my perspective about the importance of the State of Israel.  Today I am actively involved in direct philanthropic initiatives in Israel that promote religious pluralism.  I care deeply for Israel while being highly sensitive to the country’s many faults and contradictions.  I care about preserving the Jewish State of Israel in the face of great challenges, and I respect the deeply passionate people who make the commitment to live in Israel, even though I may not share their social or political views.

If you are a Jew who is indifferent to or alienated from Israel, you should visit the country and see for yourself why it is the center of so much global controversy.  Don’t be a bystander in this developing story.  The Business Leadership Council of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation is leading a business professionals Mission to Israel next April 30—in my view, this is a great opportunity to gain a new perspective on Israel and on your Jewish identity.       

My Summer Reading

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I admit to having a particularly eclectic reading list this summer.  Here it is, in no particular order:

Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason is an important, factually supported indictment of the Bush Administration.  A must read, regardless of your political affilation.

Three books on Maimonides:

Kenneth Seeskin’s Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed, is a clearly written, relatively short monograph that ties together some of the key themes in The Guide for the Perplexed— such as why literal iinterpretation of the Bible is not only senseless, but is contrary to G-d’s intention.  Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s The Faith of Maimonides, and David Bakan’s Maimonides on Prophecy.   If you are into Maimonides (yes, there are a few of us who aren’t Rabbis), philosophy, or general deep thinking, you will enjoy these books, which were recommended to me by a new friend who is a Maimonides expert.

In the "I wish it really was fiction" category, I read, in one extremely long sitting (while flying across the country) Khaled Hosseini’s powerful A Thousand Splendid Suns.  This novel takes you through 30 years of Afghanistan’s chaotic history, as experienced through the personal tragedies of several families.  The novel combines factual historic detail with an emphasis on the abrogation of women’s rights under Shar’ia as applied by the Taliban.  I agree that it is better than The Kite Runner, which I also devoured and found disturbing and enlightening.

On the lighter side, for the fisherman in you, there is Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing, by John Gierach, who is the great scribe of all that makes trout-fishing a religion, as opposed to a recreational sport.  What do I mean by that?

"The wool sweaters and millar mitts came off shortly aftrer the sun was up, and we were squinting and sweating by nine-thirty when the Callibeatis mayfly spinner fall should have started,  but wouldn’t.  Not in that heat and piercing sunlight.  That’s why we were up so early in the first place."

Comprende?  If not, don’t read this book.

And finally, for paperback Ludlum-style mystery lovers who also enjoy a religious conspiracy that ties together the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII, professional assassins, the Mossad, Bernini, and the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, read Daniel Silva’s The Confessor— it’s actually quite good.

Looking back at this reading list, I can see why I don’t feel that I rested much this summer.