Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Jerusalem: The Kotel and the Old City after 50 Years: A Schechter Institute Symposium

It has been 50 years since the State of Israel liberated Jerusalem and returned some of the holiest Jewish religious sites to Jewish control.  In honour and commemoration of the anniversary, the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem held a forum on June 6, 2017.  The program was entitled:  "Jerusalem: The Western Wall and the Old City In Perspective after 50 Years."  We were privileged to attend.

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Women of the Wall - from CNN site
I should note that this was not a broad political program designed to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict or the role of Jerusalem as part of that conflict.  Rather the program centred on the role of the Kotel (the "Western Wall") in Israeli and Jewish life and issues to be addressed going forward.

The evening featured an initial group of four academic lectures, which were intended to run about 20-30 minutes each.  Then the evening got really interesting and animated with a diverse panel discussing the issue of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel.

We first arrived to hear Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham trace 50 years of historical development in the area of the Kotel and the Old City.  She provided some fascinating historical information about events that have transpired since 1967.  She was followed by Dr. Shira Wolkoff, who spoke about the historical struggle between designating the Kotel site as a part of the Israeli national parks and historic sites portfolio versus handing over complete control to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.   Her lecture was subtitled "An (Un)holy View..."

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The Kotel and Temple Mount from Wikepedia
The third presenter, Dr. Kobi Cohen-HaTav, looked at the Kotel as an Israeli national symbol.  He discussed the evolution of the Kotel from a part Zionist national symbol and part religious site to one that has come to represent Israeli national religious society and has  come to be viewed in a much different light over the 50 years since the 1967 war.

Finally, Professor Alona Nitzan Chieftan spoke about the various archaeological issues that have been addressed over the 50 years including ongoing struggles over how to design the Kotel plaza and all of the various considerations and challenges that various committees and governments have faced in doing so.

For us, the final event was the most interesting.  It was a panel discussion moderated by Yair Sheleg, a reporter, on the topic of the State of the Kotel Compromise: Risk or Opportunity?

I have written blogs about this issue in the past.  This article was written in early 2012:  Woman Arrested for Wearing a Tallit at the Kotel.  I updated the issue in October 2012 here: Latest Arrests.
I provided a further update in May 2013: Latest Developments.  In a nutshell, as you might recall, the Kotel is currently operated as, essentially, an Orthodox synagogue.  There is a women's section and a men's section (the men's section is much larger).  Women's groups have been forbidden from praying out loud in the women's section, from reading from the Torah, putting on Tallitot and from wearing Tefillin.  The organization "Women of the Wall" has challenged this state of affairs, as have various other religious and pluralistic groups in Israel.  This has lead to a number of court cases, which have reached the Israeli Supreme Court.  There have also been ongoing political discussions and negotiations.  As you might know, a compromise deal was reached in January 2015 which would have allowed for a designated area of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel, the entry to which would be at the same location as the general Kotel entry.

However, the government that had authorized the plan collapsed and elections were called. Following the elections, a new government took charge in Israel in 2015. The plan was never implemented and court challenges ensued.  The Israeli Supreme Court has made some decisions but has held off making any final status decisions on the issue and things have been left in a state of legal limbo.

The symposium panel featured three different speakers, each with a different perspective.  All three were lawyers. The moderator began with each panelist by asking a very provocative question.  Gloves came off and sparks began to fly.

First off was Ms Rickie Shapira-Rosenberg, a lawyer and member of the management committee of the group "Women of the Wall."  The moderator's questions asked her to respond to the suggestion that Women of the Wall are simply a provocative, feminist group who lack any real authenticity or relevance.

In response, Ms Shapira-Rosenberg described herself as an Orthodox Jew and spoke about the personal importance of having a voice in Judaism at the Kotel and in her religious life generally.  She offered a spirited and powerful description of the struggle that women have faced to pray together, aloud at the Kotel as well as at other communal institutions.  She described the history of the Women of the Wall and emphasized how meaningful it is for women to have access to religious equality.

The second speaker was Yizhar Hess, the current Executive Director and CEO of the Conservative ("Masorti") movement in Israel.  He was challenged with a similarly provocative question, targeting the legitimacy of "liberal" religious groups in Israel.  Mr. Hess spoke primarily about the negotiations themselves, the process of reaching a compromise and the need to recognize and dignify all of the various stakeholders.  He emphasized that the Masorti movement had made quite a number of concessions to reach the compromise as ultimately agreed upon. However, given that it was never implemented, he has been left to second guess the correctness of the decision.  He seems resigned to the notion that the Israeli courts will ultimately be required to decide the issue.

The final speaker was Ultra-Orthodox representative and lawyer, Dov Halbertal.  The moderator asked him whether there would actually ever be any possibility of compromise with these Ultra-Religious groups.

Mr. Halbertal used his time to attack the Women of the Wall, the Masorti, Reform and other "liberal" movements and to malign their motives.  His comments included derisive personal attacks on Ms Shapira-Rosenberg as well as the Women of the Wall generally.  He characterized the group as a bunch of publicity seekers who were completely outside of any definition of normative Judaism.  He asked the rhetorical question - whether we should also permit a group to come along claiming they are the "Adam and Eve Garden Group" who wish to pray at the Kotel naked with a Torah.  He argued that the idea of a group of women wanting to pray out loud, put on tallitot, wear tefillin or read from the Torah is as ridiculous as a group of women who wish to pray at the Kotel naked.  He attacked Conservative and Reform Judaism and argued that these movements are the direct cause of assimilation in the United States. Judaism will disappear because of women like Ms Shapira Rosenberg and the Women of the Kotel, he submitted.  He characterized "liberal Jewish groups" as "worse than the Holocaust" for the Jewish people.

He also noted (to the chuckling but shocked amusement of the audience) that he felt particularly proud, as a Jew, when he watched Donald Trump go the Western Wall, wearing a kippah, on the men's side of the Kotel without his wife and daughter who, obediently and honourably, went to the women's side.  He described that scene as far more respectful and authentic than the Women of the Wall, since Melania and Ivanka knew how to dress and how to behave at the Kotel.

When he was finally finished attacking his fellow panelists and most of the audience members (I assume), there was an opportunity for some further exchange.  To her credit, Ms Shapira Rosenberg chose not to take the bait and refrained from returning with an equally divisive response.  She responded to some of the points but in a more dignified manner.  Mr. Hess was similarly restrained. Perhaps it was because they both wanted to avoid having Mr. Halbertal get up and leave.  After all, his first comments were essentially an apology for agreeing to appear - and a statement that he has already been called out by at least one of his colleagues for appearing at a Schechter Center event.

There was one other special speaker in the audience.  A member of the sub-group, the Original Women of the Wall.  She spoke about her concerns about the political compromise that Mr. Hess had been instrumental in negotiating.  She argued that the negotiators had abandoned the Women of the Wall, who would be forbidden, under the compromise from praying out loud in the Orthodox women's section and would be required to do so in the pluralistic prayer section.  She noted that her group has always recognized the importance of women being able to pray together as women in a separate section of the Kotel.

A few of the audience members (including someone you might know quite well) were less charitable to Mr. Halbertal and attacked his horrible analogy more directly.  I should note that the whole evening was, of course, in Hebrew.  Although I understand everything quite well, I didn't feel comfortable enough linguistically to jump into the fray.  Though I certainly would have enjoyed taking some shots at Mr. Halbertal and his own motives.

As the debate become more heated, the moderator wisely jumped in and concluded the panel at an opportune time.  Although nothing was resolved, the vigorous discussion certainly highlighted the wide gap between the various stakeholders over the issue of how the Kotel should be treated by the State of Israel and more general religious issues.  What type of prayer should occur at the Kotel and who should be allowed to access it?  What should the State's role be in regulating religious sites? More significantly, what will the future bring for the development of religious life for Jewish women in Israeli society?

The discussion ended with the hope that some of these issues would be resolved favourably in time for the next Jerusalem symposium in 2018.  בשנה בשנה הבאה.  (To quote a well known song - B'shana b'shana habah - Next year....)


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Weapon Wizards: A Review

 The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot.  I suppose that my timing was particularly appropriate given that I had a daughter completing her military service and a son just beginning.  Might as well read a reasonably optimistic assessment of the Israeli Defence Forces and some of its key technological accomplishments.
I recently read

I am not generally an avid reader of military histories.  But I would not really put this book in that category.  While I was concerned that the book might be on the dry side, it certainly was not.  Rather than a military history, per se, the book looks at some key areas in which Israel has developed leading edge technology. It examines some of the leading Israeli figures who have had the vision to push forward major technological initiatives and it provides stories about how those leaders brought forward some ideas from the realm of the "impossible" to reality.

The Weapon Wizards is not a straight linear history.  It traces different developments - of the Israeli Air Force, the development of a drone program, the nuclear program, the satellite program, the missile defence systems and cyber warfare to name a few.  It provides surprisingly detailed accounts of some key successes of these different programs and it also emphasizes how some of these programs were started on shoe-string budgets.

I say "surprisingly" because I was often left wondering if all of this information was really declassified at this time and whether it could or should be circulated in this fashion.  There are accounts of how Israel used cyber attacks to wreak havoc on the Iranian centrifuge system; what transpired when Israel sold high-end drones to the Republic of Georgia; how Israel managed to get a deal for nuclear material in the first place; and many other stories. Some of them are told anecdotally in a style that is interesting and, at times, even gripping. Knowing that the authors are both Israeli residents and journalists, I assumed that the information provided had been carefully vetted, though that may not be obvious to the reader.

A central theme is the urgent Israeli need to ensure a qualitative technological advantage over its numerous neighbourhood adversaries and how Israel has managed to do that with a limited budget and a variety of extremely challenging obstacles, including international political realities, limited availability of personnel and diplomatic minefields..  Among a number of personalities that it examines, the book highlights the incredible accomplishments and vision of Shimon Peres who played a key role in ensuring the development of the Israeli nuclear program, the air force and even many of the later technological achievements.  Here is a brief excerpt on Peres:

"If there was one Israeli who had seen it all, it was Peres.  He was at Ben-Gurion's side throughout the War of Independence and was later the fledgling state's key arms buyer.  It was Peres who persuaded Al Schwimmer to move to Israel and establish Israel Aerospace Industries, and it was again Peres who crafted Israel's strategic relationship with France, which culminated in the founding of the country's highly secretive nuclear program....In government, he served in almost every ministry-transportation, defense, finance and foreign...."

Is is Peres who serves, for this book, as the type of personality that has led to these incredible technological advances.  Chutzpadik, visionary, persistent and committed.  These are the qualities that the authors have found in many architects of Israel's technological successes.

The Weapon Wizards also addresses the manner in which Israel has used the global arms trade to push for improved diplomatic relationships with a wide range of countries.     One might feel jaded about Israel's role in the global arms trade, which the authors implicitly suggest is an "ends justifies the means" approach to financing Israel's own military needs.  The book does not shy away from covering some questionable sales escapades that have led to internationally embarrassing incidents.

Overall, the tone of the book is optimistic.  While there is a recognition that Israel will continue to face and address a range of military challenges, some of which may impact Israel quite severely in future battles, the authors exude a confidence that Israeli ingenuity will enable Israel to face these existential challenges successfully.  Many readers will probably arrive at a similar conclusion after reading about some of the incredible successes that have been achieved to date and that are chronicled in this book.. 


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari: A review.

Browsing around at Steimatzky's bookstore at the Ben Gurion airport, I came across a book by Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of humankind.  I considered it for a bit and then decided that it looked interesting.  I have to say, I made a great choice.

Sapiens is an incredible book.  It is a 400 page journey through the history of humankind.  It is well written, thought provoking and chock full of fascinating information.  Harari, a history professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, sets out to paint a grand picture of the history of humanity in a concise offering.  The book touches on a variety of disciplines with nods to biology, anthropology, philosophy, social history and many other disciplines, each of which could take up thousands of volumes.  Nevertheless, Harari succeeds beautifully in tying everything together on a multi-layered canvass.

The book progresses from revolution to revolution - the stages used as reference points.  From the "cognitive revolution" by which sapiens developed consciousness to the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution and, still later, the technological revolution.  Fundamentally, Harari is inspired by science and the scientific method.  Where he examines historical events and cannot come to a set conclusion, he sets out competing theories with underpinning facts and details.  Sometimes he concludes that there is overwhelming evidence in support of one theory or another.  On other occasions, he concludes that the answer is unknown.  The key is the lack of arrogance.  Harari repeatedly insists on the importance of human beings being prepared to admit ignorance, to go back to the drawing board with theories and to assess and reassess their perceived knowledge base.

He uses anecdotal and historical micro examples to illustrate broad ideas.  Although many topics are not dealt with in great detail, they are raised, considered and addressed at different levels.  The range is breathtaking.  The development of different religious movements, monotheism, polytheism and animism, to name a few are discussed.  The development of currency, agricultural methods, mobility, empires and nation states are all topics that Harari covers.  He also deals with slavery and racism, gender equality, homosexuality, treatment of animals and a range of other social issues.  So much ground is covered that the book really does leave the reader filled with questions, topics for discussion and new thoughts.

One example of a really interesting topic for me - compare and contrast the behaviour and development of the British Empire with the Spanish Empire.   Certainly, Israelis often conclude that the British made a big mess in so many areas of the world, the Middle East being a prime example.  Harari's take is a much more forgiving one.  It is contrasted with the often genocidal behaviour of the Spanish.

Unquestionably, in any book like this, there are arguments that can be challenged.  There are topics that are not addressed at all.  For example, Harari barely mentions art, theatre or the role of sport in society, to name but a few.  Then again, this is not a social history, per se.  Sometimes, a great amount of attention is devoted to something that might ultimately be viewed as relatively insignificant, like one small island off the coast of Indonesia.  But all of these comments would necessarily be applicable for any book attempting to provide a macro view of human history in such a short volume.  In fact, Harari is exceptionally skilled at picking out human interest stories to illustrate broad historical concepts.

Harari's thrust is a scientific and technological one - that it is the scientists and inventors who will continue to lead world development in so many areas - providing new sources of energy, nourishment, medical advancement, and who will even change humans as we know them today.  Maybe, as Harari suggests, they will one day succeed in Ponce de Leon's quest to find the "fountain of youth," even if it is a proverbial and scientifically developed fountain.

There is little discussion about the philosophy behind some of these decisions - about how we decide which avenues to pursue and which priorities to support.  Perhaps that is due to the fact that Harari is clearly not a theist and has little time for imagined supernatural entities, as he might put it.  Not only does he downplay many aspects of the various major religions themselves, but he devotes little time to the ideas advanced by these religions.  I find that a bit ironic in a way, since Harari spends a chapter or so putting forward his own belief in the power of some age old Buddhist inspired meditation methods.

Where Harari tries to define human "happiness" and discusses different theories of it - he seems to suggest a version of Buddhism as holding one of the plausible answers to the question.  The ironic thing about that - is that he is so dismissive of other religious viewpoints and philosophies.  His chapter on Buddhist inspired meditation would not stand up to his own rigorously applied scientific standards that he uses to assess (and denigrate) so many other ideas.

Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed this book.  After reading it, I had a look to see what type of critical reception it has received.  I discovered that it has been highly acclaimed by a wide variety of sources.  Bill Gates has written about it, President Obama gave an interview about his take on the book and Chapters-Indigo president Heather Reisman has recommended it.  I also found out that my son has been reading the original version in Hebrew.

Most interestingly, I note that professor Harari has made available, at no charge, his entire history course in 26 segments on YouTube, each 90 minutes in length. They are of course all in Hebrew, but the first segment, at least, follows the outline of the first part of the book.  I have only had time to watch a chunk of one of the lectures, but it was terrific.

Professor Harari has also made available several interviews, lectures and discussions in English as well, all of which can be found on YouTube, for example this Ted Talks discussion on how human beings came to control the world.

But the starting point has to be the book, which is really a tremendous work.  And I would imagine that anyone who reads it will be all set for hours of provocative discussion and argument about many of Harari's observations.  I am, as always, happy to join in for those conversations.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom: A Review

Tuvia Tenenbom's new book, The Lies They Tell, is a natural follow-up to his 2015 offering, Catch the Jew, which I reviewed at that time.  The writing style is the same but this time the target is the United States, rather than Israel.  Tenenbom sets out for a trip across the United States to meet people, ask difficult questions and gather material for his assessment of the current American condition.  The book was completed before the most recent election but many of Tenenbom's observations and insights were certainly prescient.

Over the course of his six month travels, he manages to visit quite a wide ranging section of the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as a large number of states across the mainland. He meets and speaks with many different types of people including politicians, native American leaders, black and white Americans in all kinds of locations, church leaders and other categories.  He asks them pointed questions, and wittily summarizes the responses he receives with his running commentary.

This certainly makes for interesting reading in a style that is light, irreverent, entertaining and often, quite sarcastic.  Like Tenenbom's account of his trip across Israel, this is ultimately a pessimistic account, at times arrogant and even patronizing.  But it covers a great deal of ground in places where many readers may not have had the chance to visit.

Tenenbom describes his journey in open ended terms.  A curious adventure to meet all different kinds of people from Muslims, Jews and Mormons to rednecks, gang-members, religious conservatives and others.  Some of the book seems to fit the bill.  Daring to go where most people would not, Tenenbom amasses a fairly diverse range of interviewees.

That being said, midway through, I came to view this as more of a Socratic method journey, with questions that were intended to elicit certain responses as opposed to truly open minded discussions.

One of the interesting themes that Tenenbom aims to cover off is to categorize people based on a few select questions.  The obvious and easy first question is whether a person is "blue" or "red," in other words Republican or Democrat.  This type of starting question seems to get many of the people riled up and marks the discussion as a political one.  Some people will only express their opinion if Tenenbom agrees to hide their identity or not record the answers.  Others simply refuse to provide any detailed responses.

From there, many of the discussions proceed to questions about Israel/Palestine and questions about global warming and environmentalism.  It is a fascinating linkage that Tenenbom proposes, aiming to group people with respect to their views on these two issues along with their approach to smoking restrictions.

Although Tenenbom claims that he "hasn't made up his mind" on the question of whether global warming is real (as opposed to a cyclical phenomenon, that has not been specially affected by human beings), he finds a consistent linkage between those who wish to take action against it and those who claim to support "Palestine" when asked questions about the Israel/Palestine conflict.  Splitting these groups on a right/left line, he adds smoking restrictions to the mix.

Tenenbom clearly has little time for those who advocate on the Palestinian side of the spectrum.  He views American leftists as hypocritical on this issue. In his view, they call for action against Israel while ignoring so many other conflicts around the world that are far more devastating and while ignoring so many serious U.S.issues including poverty and race relations.  Some of this scorn is directed towards American Jewish liberal groups, who spend more time worrying about attacking Israel than about supporting and building their own American Jewish communities. Even though Tenenbom purports to be coming at all of this from the left of the political spectrum, much of his derision is aimed at the left.  Quite a bit of it seems aimed at Obama and Kerry in particular.

Tenenbom ties "pro-Palestinians" in with environmentalists and the anti-smoking crowd.  It is a strange leap and one that seems awkward, at best.  While Tenenbom's explanation for his Pro-Israel leaning is cogent and analyzed reasonably, he has no explanation for his leanings towards anti-environmentalism.  His dismissal of global warming concerns seems to be based on gut reaction to the environmentalist crowd rather than any logical discussion of the issues. (And he repeatedly reminds the readers that there is lots of gut...)

But his glorification of smoking is even less compelling.  Since Tenenbom is a self-described chain smoker, his assessment of many of the people he meets and places he visits seems tied to whether not they support or oppose smoking limitations.  So Seattle, a place with a variety of smoking restrictions is very inhospitable for him.  Heck, you can't even smoke in your hotel room, imagine that.  On the other hand, in parts of the southern U.S., you can apparently smoke wherever you like, so Tenenbom is much more at home. 

As is evident in his first book, Tenenbom is somewhat of a narcissist.  His writing about some of his encounters is arrogant and even patronizing.  While he sometimes asks difficult questions out of interest, more often the questions are intended to attract a visceral, angry response.  He can then ridicule the subject simply by presenting the answers provided.

Tenenbom has very high standards for the type of food he is trying to find which goes along with his search for fine spirits, cannabis, places he can freely smoke and his mainly unsuccessful search for good coffee. There is also a great deal of discussion about his relationship with his car and about guns and gun control laws across the U.S.

Along the way, he also manages to visit a wonderful collection of American parks and natural landmarks.  Like in his previous book, these trips to beautiful sites (and to the really good restaurants) seem to be the highlights of his journey rather than the people he actually meets and the interviews he conducts, despite his protestations to the contrary. 

In fairness, Tenenbom does ask some pointed questions of those on right, including the religious right and the very far right.  Even though people on the religious right often claim to be "Pro-Israel," Tenenbom digs deeper to try and see if he can get them to state that only those Jews who accept Jesus are destined to avoid eternal damnation.  He sometimes succeeds. His point is that the veneer of pro-Israel support on the right side of the spectrum often masks a deep rooted anti-Semitism.  He also has some less than favourable things to say about Trump and references his own left-leaning political convictions on several occasions.

Interestingly enough, Tenenbom visits very few Synagogues or other Jewish institutions but seems to be in a Church just about every Sunday (as well as many days during the week).  He greatly enjoys trips to black churches that he portrays as inspired, spiritually uplifting and meaningful.  He is far more critical of other houses of worship, including the Synagogue or two and the many Evangelical churches that he visit.

Overall, the book is entertaining and, at times, insightful.  There are many other interesting encounters with places and people that this review does not describe.  But there are certainly some nagging concerns about Tenenbom's logic.  The hazy clouds of smoke that constantly surround him probably fog up some of his choices on places to choose, people to meet and conclusions to draw.  For example, visiting a few centrist, pro-Israel Jewish organizations would probably upset his characterization of American Jews as a largely self-hating.

That being said, one of his pessimistic themes is that America is filled with liars - politicians, everyday people disguising their animosity towards others and people who are simply afraid to stand up for their political views.  He warns of an America that has not well integrated its diversity and seems headed towards a boiling point.    Written all prior to November, much of this assessment turns out to be all too accurate and provides yet another reason to consider Tenenbom's escapades.