Sunday, June 14, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech

I've waited a while to discuss this topic, mostly to not get overly excited and let that cloud my judgment, but as it's been a week and a half now, I think I can talk about it a little bit. Here's the text and video.

Here in Israel people are mostly upset. Most of the critiquing comes from Obama's "settlement freeze" demand. Israelis can't seem to read the rest of the speech after they hear that or alternatively that's the only part of the speech that matters to them. Many point to the fact that the President was in Cairo, a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Jerusalem and didn't stop by, though this is his 2nd visit to Saudi Arabia since inauguration. Though he did go to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp after the speech, it's not the same.

Here's my view:
It's important to recognize who he was talking to and where. It's also important to remember that he's the President of the United States not the King of the World. He made some very important statements regarding the US and Islam "America is not - and never will be - at war with Islam" - Islam isn't what the US is fighting against, it's terrorist and extremists. And that's something that should be said more times and in more Arab capitals until they believe him. I, however, reject the notion that settlements are the inhibitor to Israeli-Palestinian peace and therefore the sole prevention to world peace - it's just stupid, so can we stop suggesting it? Okay. I also don't think peace is the most important problem facing Israel right now: we need to decide who we are and what kind of country we want. We have social problems that are much more important that peace, since we'll have peace when we are given peace and even if we do make a deal with the PA and Hamas, there are tons of other groups excluded that wont agree to it. Anyway, back to Obama...

Regardless of the brilliance of parts of the speech, he made some serious blunders in the speech regarding Israel.
America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
Even if, as I do, believe that President Obama was talking about the destruction of the Temple and not only the Holocaust; the problem here is that he doesn't get it. Our connection to Israel is not based upon a tragic history, it's based upon Judaism itself. The Reform movement in its heyday (late 1800's and early 1900's) tried to remove Israel from "Judaism itself" and it failed miserably, hence why it is now becoming one of the most Zionistic groups found in Judaism (and I commend them greatly for that). Yes there is a tragic history, but that is not why we are here. Yes, it is very much a part of what goes on here (one has only to go to the Kotel or really anywhere in this country to see part of that history), but there's a reason why all that tragedy happened here.

It wasn't just stam (it didn't just happen), this land is our homeland, it is the land to which Abraham walked, it is the land where King David built two capital cities, which Solomon built a Temple. It is the land upon which the Prophets lived and the Spies sinned, and to which Moses died looking at, but could not enter. It is the land to which we were dispersed from and desired to return to. None of that is due to tragedy, we are here because this land is part of Judaism itself, you cannot remove Israel from the Jew.

The connection between the Holocaust and the suffering of the Palestinians was morally wrong. Yes they suffered and continued to suffer, but annihilation is not what they are experiencing.
The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
As Clinton has since made clear, Obama meant to include all construction - including "natural growth". This I find to be the most ridiculous part of the speech vis-a-vis Israel. I'm not against giving up land, I can't say that I'm totally for it either, but his demand to halt all construction is unjust and unnecessary. There is no reason whatsoever that building in Beitar Ilit and Maale Adumim is problematic. Everyone, and I mean everyone, agrees that the final settlement will definitely include these places.

Here's what Charles Krauthammer says (and I don't usually like him):
What's the issue? No "natural growth" means strangling to death the thriving towns close to the 1949 armistice line, many of them suburbs of Jerusalem, that every negotiation over the past decade has envisioned Israel retaining. It means no increase in population. Which means no babies. Or if you have babies, no housing for them -- not even within the existing town boundaries. Which means for every child born, someone has to move out. No community can survive like that. The obvious objective is to undermine and destroy these towns -- even before negotiations.
This is our land, it is more Jewish than Tel Aviv. In fact, Tel Aviv is built on the ruins of at least six Arab villages, yet no body is demanding that. Yet for Jews to live the the areas specifically mentioned as Jewish land in the Bible - oh no, that's the single issue that's preventing world peace? Right.

Most of my feelings about Obama's speech can be summed up this way, expressed eloquently by Daniel Gordis:
Too many analyses of the speech have ignored the fact that it was addressed primarily to the Muslim world, and was delivered in Egypt. And in that setting, Obama insisted that the US-Israel relationship could not be upended. He mentioned the Holocaust, (implicitly) berated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his Holocaust denial, quoted the Talmud and called on Hamas to recognize Israel and abandon violence.

Not bad.

To be sure, it was not the speech that many Israelis would have written. Obama’s articulated position on Iranian nuclear power is unacceptable, just as an absolute freeze on natural growth in “settlements,” even in places where settlements are essentially cities, is both unfair and thoroughly unrealistic. And linking Israel’s right to exist to the Holocaust is a significant intellectual and moral mistake.
That Goridis agrees with my initial feelings is nice, but not important. It's where he goes to from there that is the important part for me. Obama wants us to be honest, wants us to get ready for a potential peace deal. But what are we willing to do?
Are we ever willing to give up the West Bank? For a moment, let’s set aside the obvious security issue and the devastating consequences if Kassam rockets start flying from the West Bank as well. Let’s assume for a minute (a wild assumption, I admit) that the Palestinians decide that it really is time to move on, to abandon terror and accept a division of the land. Are we willing?

I believe that we don’t know anymore. Our unwillingness to state our position is not a reflection of dishonesty or of hiding. It’s simply a result of the fact that we have for so long seen no possibility of progress on the Palestinian front that we’ve stopped asking ourselves what we would do if we could.

So let’s be honest: What would we do?
He wants us to have a public debate regarding what we are actually capable of doing. Are we really willing to give up parts of the West Bank that have more importance than Tel Aviv (e.g., Shilo)? I don't know and what's scarier is that Israel has no idea and we need to figure that out. So, if the world will force this peace down our throats when it's not what we need to be focusing on now, fine. I'll bite, but before we do we need to know what we're willing to live without. So let's figure it out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Yeshiva Year has come to an End

This week we celebrated the end of the Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah school year. The "goodbye" festivities began with Shabbat, programing provided by yours truly!

We had a cookoff for both dessert and Cholent. It was amazing, not only was the food great, not only did it run very smoothly, but we connected with guys that we had been having trouble connecting with all year (only shame is it is the end of the year). From 8am to just after shabbat started on Friday, we had boys coming and going to and from our apartment. We had boys cooking in our apartment, coming to take pictures, and coming to just hang out. It was quite exhausting to prepare for this cookoff- having to run all over town for all the supplies they requested, but as Shabbat came along, we saw how worth it all of the hassle truly was. Friday night was the dessert competition, and for the first time all year, 95% of the guys came to the Friday night tish- dessert and singing (it was where the taste testing would be and the awards distributed). It was amazing to have so many guys giving Divrei Torah, singing, and just enjoying their time, all together. The room got a bit hot, but no one seemed to complain!

Shabbat day, at lunch was the cholent cookoff, and the guys seemed to enjoy it so much. All but three guys came for lunch, (usually we only have about 1/3 of the yeshiva) and they all were rooting on their cholent or their friends cholents. After the competition was over we played a parshah game, distributing candy as the prizes, and everyone participated!

In the afternoon, after the competition was over there was an "Ask the Rabbi" session with some of the Yeshivas Rabbis. A lot of the guys came and there was active participation the entire time. Some of the questions the guys were asking made us realize how far they had come this year, and how much influence we had truly had on them.

Sunday and Monday included the staff vs. boys basketball game and the Goodbye Luncheon. The STAFF of course won the game (and even Nate played), and I say of course since they have won every year so far. The luncheon, I heard, was very nice, included sushi and a distribution of Awards to students who were deserving. It ended with a touching tone when the guys took a bus to the kotel for the last time as a group, to say goodbye. A lot of the guys got emotional, finally realizing the year had come to an end.

For the past few days we have been collecting cell phones, blankets, linens, and other assorted lent out items of the year. The boys where packing, so as they realized there was only so much they could take in their suitcases, Nate and I collected a lot of toiletries, books, and other fun stuff. The bulk of what the guys were leaving was donated to a local shelter, but we still got a few things here and there (Nate got speakers for his ipod).

Last night was the first night we slept in an empty building, and despite all the frustrations of the year, we were truly sad it was over. We can not wait for a new group of boys for next year, and after this weekend, we have some really great ideas on how to connect with them earlier in the year!

See you all in a few weeks, as we will be in the US starting June 24th.