12 November 2009
This week was the annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, now called Jewish Federations of North America. Amidst important and surprisingly relevant plenaries regarding the current financial crisis, Israel-Diaspora relations, and communal engagement came the speech everyone wanted to really hear: PM Netanyahu. Enough of the reports of delegates wanting to hear the new JFNA CEO or the last-minute cancelled President Obama – Bibi is always the crowd maker among North American Jews.
His speech was so incredibly directed at the heart (and purse) strings of the audience, the more provocative parts of his speech were seldom mentioned in the Israeli media. No, I’m not talking about peace negotiations or a two-state solution; we’re all falling asleep from those headlines.
Rather, it was two snippets I managed to catch on the streaming webcast on cspan.org. The first was in the framework of decreasing the global thirst for oil, offering Israel’s famous innovations in solar energy and desalinization. While generous of the PM to offer this to the far-flung and malnourished, I was wondering why he can’t offer it to his own constituents back here in Israel. True, Israel has the highest per capita use of home solar water heaters in the world, but this accounts for only 3% of the country’s total energy consumption. Recently, plans to build a massive array of solar panels were scuttled by landowners and private interests, despite being located deep in the Negev Desert; we just love our coal-burning power plants too much to give up precious arid desert.
The desalinization offer really got me boiling. There’s a oft-told story in public planning courses about how Israel passed on building multiple desalinization plants in the 1970’s because of the perceived costs – refusing to think long-terms brings us to the present day situation of the drought. You’ll almost never see the word “drought” or “famine” appear in English-language news about Israel, despite the dire predictions for this country’s water supply. Citrus groves have been intentionally decimated due to their large water intakes, apple and cherry orchards in the North are routinely uprooted to help falling water levels, and at one point we were supposed to be importing potable water from Turkey.
Just like I previously wrote about the Israeli industry of exporting outsourced customer service, which we never see here as consumers, the PM’s American-tailored speech proves that as long as we Israelis don’t care about customer service and accountability, the more we are tightening the straps on our own straightjackets.
The other snippet was the PM welcoming all Jews in the Diaspora, “of all denominations” as potential Israeli citizens with the right to religious belief. Amidst the billowing applause from the audience, over here in Israel we heard the proverbial sound of a turntable needle scratching a vinyl record in midplay. Last time I checked, non-Orthodox institutions did not receive any State funding, while millions of NIS pour into yeshivot and school systems run by the ultra-Orthodox political parties. Shas, the party with whom I mince my words the least currently runs the Interior Ministry which decides, among other things, who is a Jew and who is allowed to stay in this country. Nevermind the outrageous comments from some of this party’s members, who compare Reform Jews to all sorts of animals and co-conspirators with our worst detractors; and forget for the moment the current plans to expel the majority of foreign workers in the country, the majority of whom were issued work visas while Shas ran the Ministry; focus on the notion of Shas carrying out the myth of “Sfardi Tahor” on the entirety of Israel and World Jewry.
“Sfardi tahor,” or “Pure Sephardi,” varies in examples but refers to a difference in those Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition versushose who converted and secretly practiced their Jewish beliefs. Its historiography is very hard to discover, its usage widespread, and in the hands of The Worldwide Sephardic Association of Torah Keepers (Shas) a moral hypocrisy for the Jewish people. Jews who haven’t practiced Judaism in generations and live in South American and northeastern India are brought here with taxpayer money and made to wear an Ashkenazi or Sephardi kippa, but God Forbid American Reform or Conservative Jews move here en masse and demand space for a synagogue.
Despite those who wallow in the Jews’ historic misery, and who mainly see an otherwise lachrymose Jewish history redeemed through the founding of the State, Jews aren’t defined by blood tests. Or at least, we shouldn’t define ourselves by them, thus negating the millions of Jews of color, Jews by choice, and Jews who have struggled to weigh modernity and tradition through a myriad of paths.
Probably by now you’ve deciphered how worked-up I got this week at the Jewish World, particularly with Israelis. Thankfully a bit of news from my hometown spread out the insanity. It seems a deer, one of the many which go into mating frenzy this time of year in Rock Creek Park, accidentally jumped into the lions’ den at the National Zoo. The gathering tourists wanted to deer the emerge from the lions’ den like some saintly victim in pre-Christian Rome; us filthy Jews (or at least me and my philosophic doppelganger Jeffrey Goldberg) wanted the tourists to shut up and let the lions have their Nature-apportioned meal in peace. Thankfully at least one Washingtonian is there to keep the turistas at bay.