Archive for the ‘Religion’ 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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Major Victory for Jewish Religious Pluralism in Israel: Reform and Conservative Conversions Will Finally Be Recognized by The State of Israel

Congratulations to the Israel Religious Action Center for their tireless efforts!  This is a big deal! I am the product of an inter-faith marriage, and my mother completed a Reform conversion in Canada over 50 years ago; I grew up in a Conservative congregation in Puerto Rico; and I have been a leader in the Jewish Reform community in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 17 years. I am very gratified to see this day.

From the press release:

On Tuesday, May 19, 2009, the Israeli High Court of Justice, in a ground-breaking case, awarded equal funding to Reform and Conservative Jewish conversion programs. The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, originally filed this petition in 2005 against the Immigration Absorption Ministry for discrimination and today the Supreme Court agreed.

To date, the State of Israel funds privately-run conversion centers alongside state centers; however, only Orthodox centers are recognized and therefore only Orthodox centers received state funding.

The State defended its position in court based on the fact that Reform and Conservative conversions are not recognized in Israel.

The Court noted that most converts in Israel immigrated by the Law of Return, but are not Jewish according to halacha, traditional Jewish law. They wish to convert in order to embrace their Jewish identity and to become more integrated into Israeli society, a goal achieved in conversion programs of all Jewish streams.

The Court called the State’s practice of favoring only one Jewish stream discriminatory and contradictory to the State’s responsibility of ensuring freedom of religion: “The duty of the State to pluralism is not only a passive duty, but an active one as well.” They also sited their previous ruling (Naamat and IRAC in 2002) that “Jews in Israel cannot be seen as only one religious sect.”

The verdict in this case calls for all private non-Orthodox conversion programs to be reimbursed retroactively for the years 2006-2009 and for all future funding to be given equally to conversion programs of all Jewish streams.

Attorney Einat Hurvitz, IRAC’s Legal Department Director, responded to the Court’s ruling: “Today's verdict reaffirms the fundamental right to equality and religious freedom by ruling that the State may not discriminate between people based on their choice of Jewish stream. Today, the Court set a precedent, mandating State-funding for religious services of the Reform Movement and other non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. We hope that this clear message from the court leads to a change in government policy and puts an end to the exclusion of the Reform movement by the State."

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.

Kissinger Eulogizes William F. Buckley and Comments on Knowledge and Faith

Anthony Ramirez of The New York Times published an article on April 5 describing the funeral service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for William F. Buckley, who died on February 27th at age 82. One of the most influential American political conservatives of his generation, Buckley is widely respected for his powerful intellect. The founder of The National Review, he is recognized for the central role he played in shaping the blend of anti-communism and libertarian economics that became the core american political ideology of President Ronald Reagan.

Speaking at the funeral service, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made emotional comments about how Buckley had come to reconcile the gap between objective knowledge and religious faith:

‘Over a decade ago,” he [Kissinger] said, clearing his throat, ”Bill and I discussed the relationship of knowledge to faith. I surmised it required a special act of divine grace to make the leap from the intellectual to the spiritual. In a note, Bill demurred. No special epiphany was involved, he argued. There could be a spiritual and intellectual drift until, one day, the eyes opened and happiness followed ever after. Bill noted that he had seen that culmination in friends. He did not claim it for himself.”

I was struck by these comments, both because of the speaker and the context. Secretary Kissinger, himself a man of powerful intellect and a German Jew whose parents fled the Holocaust, has clearly considered deep questions of God and religion and was touched by the loss of a long-time friend. It is interesting to me that he focuses on the notion that, for individuals who are intellectuals and very data driven, perhaps an epiphany or revelation of some kind is necessary to bridge the gap between faith in the existence of God and knowledge of objective reality.

As I think of this perennial debate, the oft-repeated motto of the New New Atheists comes to mind– “I don’t need to believe in God to have a moral conscience.” The atheists, in my view, totally miss the irony of their own assertion. That little voice in your head that tells you the difference between right and wrong is evidence of a little bit of God that’s inside every one of us. No epiphany required. Henry_kissinger_2
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Blaise Pascal On Man’s Ability to do Evil in the Name of Faith

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‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction’.
Blaise Pascal
French mathematician, physicist (1623 – 1662)

My namesake is also known for Pascal’s wager, a pragmatic or decision theory-based approach to faith– resolving that it is better to have faith in God because if you don’t and God does, indeed, exist, you would have considerable downside in being wrong.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Pascal’s Wager” is the name given to an argument due to Blaise Pascal for believing, or for at least taking steps to believe, in God. The name is somewhat misleading, for in a single paragraph of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a ‘wager’ — it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as "Pascal’s Wager". We find in it the extraordinary confluence of several important strands of thought: the justification of theism; probability theory and decision theory, used here for almost the first time in history; pragmatism; voluntarism (the thesis that belief is a matter of the will); and the use of the concept of infinity.

Unaffiliated But Not Agnostic– The Number of Americans Outside of Organized Religion Continues to Swell

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The New York Times reported today on the latest Pew Research Center demographic survey on religion in America

Highlights from the report–

* Over 16 percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth largest "religious group."

* In the 1980s, the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center indicated that from 5 percent to 8 percent of the population described itself as unaffiliated with a particular religion.

* In the Pew survey 7.3 percent of the adult population said they were unaffiliated with a faith as children. That segment increases to 16.1 percent of the population in adulthood, the survey found.

* The unaffiliated are largely under 50 and male. "Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13 percent of women," the survey said.

*Protestantism has been declining, from two thirds of the U.S. population in the ’70′s to about 51% today– with evangelicals accounting for a slim majority of Protestants.

*Catholics have remained steady at 25% of the population, but the influx of Catholic Latin Americans into the U.S. is largely responsible for what looks like stability in this group.

*Affiliated Jews have declined slightly to 1.7% from 1.9%

So what does this mean?  The New York Times article quotes a Pew researcher who concludes that these religious affiliation changes do not mean that Americans are becoming less religious: "Contrary to assumptions that most of the unaffiliated are atheists or agnostics, most described their religion "as nothing in particular."  I’m sure that the new-new atheists will conclude differently. 

Religious Pluralism Scores a Major Victory in Israel– For Jews

Over the past three years, I have posted multiple times on the subject of religious discrimination and intolerance BETWEEN JEWS in Israel.  In America, this is a widely under-reported problem which, in my view, strikes at the heart of the socio-religious problems in the State of Israel and also threatens the future of Judaism in mainstream society.  In America, where tolerance and pluralism are central pillars of our society, it is a given that there is more than one way to be a Jew.  In Israel, which heretofore has only recognized Orthodox Judaism, there are the Orthodox and Ultra-Othrodox (which account for roughly 15% of the country’s Jews vs. 6% of Jews in America), there are emerging Conservative and Reform Jewish congregations that receive no State support, and then, of course, there is the vast majority of unaffiliated or so-called ‘secular’ Israeli Jews.

I suport a vibrant Jewish State of Israel that embraces religious pluralism– and we can now score a major victory for the forces of pluralism in Israel, thanks to the Israel Religious Action Center ("IRAC").  The following excerpts are from IRAC’s most recent weekly newsletter:

"In Israel, where there is no separation between religion and State, the government cultivates and supports Jewish life and Jewish institutions. From the beginning of the State, and in fact up until last month, the government of Israel had granted land and buildings to hundreds of Orthodox synagogues, but never to a Reform or Conservative congregation. Kehilat YOZMA, a vibrant and rapidly growing community in the modern suburban city of Modi’in, is the first in a group of young Reform congregations who will now, thanks to IRAC, receive synagogue buildings from the State.

The year 2008 marks the beginning of a change in the attitudes of the National Authority of Religious Services, the Ministry of Construction and Housing, and several municipalities with respect to the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. …  In 2008, at least four non-Orthodox congregations will proudly erect their synagogues with the help of governmental funds. This is the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, that the State is funding the construction of non-Orthodox synagogues. This is a groundbreaking accomplishment which sets a precedent for future cases of similar background. Public funding is an irrefutable sign of recognition by the State, which indicates a desire, however restrained, to move forward towards reconciliation between the various streams of Judaism in Israel.

The importance of this event can not be underestimated – the transportable synagogue in Kehilat YOZMA is the very first non-Orthodox synagogue being subsidized by the state in all of Israel’s history."

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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…

Marc Benioff and Warren Hellman Advocate Corporate Philanthropy at Jewish Community Federation Business Leadership Council Event

Jcf_txt2_splashSfjcf_logoOn February 7th, 300 people attended the third annual gala breakfast hosted by the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s Business Leadership Council (BLC) to hear Warren Hellman, chairman and co-founder of Hellman and Friedman, and Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, speak about the power of business leaders to produce positive social change. 

20080207_094622 20080207_100120 20080207_100258    The speakers moderated their own discussion, which focused on the positive role that the proactive advocacy of corporate philanthropy can play throughout an organization.  In response to a question from the audience as to whether promoting corporate philanthropy is inconsistent with creating sharholder value, Benioff forcefully replied that "doing good" absolutely builds shareholder value.  I strongly agree.

Warren Hellman, who serves on the board of Salesforce.com’s charitable foundation, asked Marc to talk about the 1:1:1 model which he established at the early inception of Salesforce.com.  1:1:1 represents a pledge of 1% of the company’s equity (when it was still private); 1% of profits (once you have them); and 1% of employees’ paid time (6 business days per year) to charitable purposes.  Today, the Salesforce.com foundation employs 16 full-time staff and manages "tens of millions" of dollars.

The Business Leadership Council (BLC), which I currently chair, reaches out to over 1,500 Jewish professionals in the Bay Area through close to a dozen events each year.  We host smaller seminars (30 to 80 people) on topics ranging from current trends in real estate to protecting intellectual property; and larger networking events (200+ people) designed to bring people together to meet in a community that shares both business and philanthropic goals.  We have barely scratched the surface in reaching out to the 6th largest Jewish community in America.  If you want to learn more about the BLC, go to www.sfjcf.org and click on the Business Leadership Council.