In Exile, at Home — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The stranger wore a threadbare black sports jacket that looked like it might have come from a second-hand shop and a dusty black kipah. He stroked his short beard as he walked up and down the rows of graves as the ox plows, stopping for a few beats at each to read the headstone. In the row in front of me he had to detour around t-shirt and shorts-clad twenty-somethings from a Birthright group, listening to a guide I couldn’t hear. Finally he arrived at the last full row, the one where I sat, with the lawn in front of it waiting for new tragedies.

He nodded at me, hugging himself. I nodded back. After a moment of hesitation he spoke.

“It’s cold here in Jerusalem,” he said

I shrugged. “Here we’re used to the seasons starting to change the week before Rosh Hashannah. You must be from someplace warmer. Tel Aviv?”

“Tiberias,” he said. “Also Sura.”

I looked at him quizzically. “You mean the one just west of the Euphrates?”

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Republicans and the Quality of Sodom (Chapter II)

It’s About Policy, Not Charity

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest at The Daily Beast, on why “getting government out of the way” defies Judaism’s insistence on social solidarity:

Allow me to talk about Sodom again.

A few weeks ago, I argued on this page that the Republican Party is committed to the “quality of Sodom” as that quality is described in Judaism: the conviction that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Sodom, I wrote, is Jewish shorthand for a polity where redistribution of wealth is seen as immoral, where the government’s role is to protect private property but not but not to insure the well-being of the people.

Despite provoking some fire-and-brimstone responses, I didn’t plan to look back at Sodom. But Mitt Romney has since chosen a veep candidate, Paul Ryan, who was an acolyte of Ayn Rand, apparently until he noticed her atheism. Together, they’re running on a platform of cutting taxes for the rich and cutting holes in the safety net for the sick and old. More than ever, what the Republicans are offering runs counter to a Jewish understanding of just politics. Allow me to answer a couple of objections to that claim.  …

The more trenchant and subtle criticism was that Republicans aren’t bad people. A blogger at Commentary argued that conservatives give generously to charity. They just want government to get out of the way so that individuals can do well and choose to help others.

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Republicans and the ‘Quality of Sodom’

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece, just up at the Daily Beast:

Eavesdropping from afar on the debate about how American Jews will vote this year is a slightly surrealistic business. Not just the claim that Jews will vote Republican because of Israel. Anyone who has passed Polling 101 knows that few Jews choose their presidential candidate based on the Israel issue. What’s truly strange about the idea of Jews–especially Jews connected to Jewish religious tradition–voting Republican is that the GOP is rather obviously committed to the quality of Sodom.

Sorry. Let me clear up the confusion caused by the English language and its religious history. I am definitely not referring to sexual orientation. The idea that sodomy has to do with sex is one more piece of evidence that Judaism and Christianity are two religions separated by a common scripture. In Judaism, Sodom stands for economic injustice, selfishness and refusal to redistribute wealth.

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How Not To Keep Israel Jewish

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The Daily Beast:

The great airlift is on. Around the time I tap out the last word of this post, a plane will take off from Israel carrying South Sudanese refugees—the people whom Benjamin Netanyahu calls “illegal infiltrators”—back to their home country. The “infiltrators” must go, the prime minister explained in the cabinet, lest they “inundate” Israel and “largely put an end to its character as a Jewish, democratic state.”

The Hebrew word for “infiltrator” connotes people slipping across the border to perpetrate terror. Nonetheless, such rhetoric puts Netanyahu on the mild side of his party and coalition.

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Samson, the Real Story (Guest Post)

The biblical figure Samson is often called Shimshon Hagibbor, “Samson the hero” in modern Hebrew. Writing in Hebrew for Netivot Shalom’s weekly publication on the Torah portion, my son examined what the biblical text actually thinks of Samson through a close comparison with the figure of Judah (Yehudah). Netivot Shalom has now posted  an English translation, reposted here:

Yehonatan Avraham Gorenberg

“And the woman gave birth to a son and called him Shimshon”

(Judges 13:24, from the Haphtarah of Parashat Nasso)

The story of Shimshon’s adult adventures begins with his departing his parents’ home: “And Shimshon went down to Timna” (Judges 14:1). Our sages were puzzled by this description, because in the story of Yehudah (Bereishit 35:13), Tamar is told that “Behold, your father-in-law has gone up to Timna”.

The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 5:13) offers several explanations for the seeming contrariety. Outstanding is Rabbi Simon’s solution: “Going up for Yehuda from whom will come kings; going down for Shimshon who betroths a gentile woman”.

Rabbi Shimon’s solution itself demands explication. The Bible tells us that from Shimshon’s very beginning, hidden processes are at work (“For this is from God” [Judges 15]), whereas the hidden processes affecting Yehuda – from whom came kings – is only hinted at, in Jacob’s blessing of Yehudah, and its meaning becomes clear only later on in Scripture, in the stories of Shmuel, Ruth, and Chronicles. And just as Shimshon married a gentile woman, so did Yehuda marry a Canaanite woman, something forbiddened to the Patriarchs. His very going to Timna led him to seduction by Tamar, his daughter-in-law who had disguised herself as a harlot. The Babylonian Talmud solves this contradiction with a more general formulation: “Shimshon was disgraced through her; therefore, in his case it is written went down. Judah was elevated by her; therefore in his case it is written “went up“.

It would seem that comprehension of the midrash lies in a wider comparison of the Yehuda and Shimshon narratives, one which establishes Yehudah as a hero but raises questions about Shimshon.

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Why simply cutting subsidies to haredim will cause suffering, not employment

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

In our last episode, dear viewers, we watched as Israel’s main opposition party, Kadima, sold out its centrist voters and joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—thereby providing the prime minister a reprieve of over a year before he must face the voters. This allows Bibi more time to raise regressive taxes, evade negotiations with the Palestinians, and deride diplomatic efforts to solve the Iranian nuclear issue.

But perhaps there’s a bright spot in this dark plot line. To paraphrase a question I’ve heard repeatedly over the last couple of weeks: Since the new coalition is broad enough to maintain its majority in parliament even if clerical parties walk out, can it finally end one of the strangest and best-known aberrations of Israeli life? Can it end the bizarre pork-barreling that allows most ultra-Orthodox men to spend their life in religious studies rather than working?

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Jerusalem Disunited: What’s Missing From the Celebration

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at the Daily Beast:

Out for my morning bike ride Sunday, I looped up the ridge to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel on the south edge of Jerusalem. Two flocks of teenagers were coming down: the first dressed in white shirts, dark pants and crocheted skullcaps, the second in knee-length skirts and modest blouses. They carried many Israeli flags that waved in a cool mountain breeze, the kind of breeze that is much more common in myths about Jerusalem than in real life and that seemed to have been ordered up special for Jerusalem Day, which is all about myth and not reality. They headed toward the center of town, presumably for the procession into the Old City—a Jerusalem Day custom observed mainly by youth from the religious Zionist right, who inherit hand-me-down Israeli mores when everyone else but right-wing politicians tire of them.

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Argument Is a Jewish Ideal. With No Exemption for Israeli Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

And here’s my new column from Moment Magazine:

The incident repeats itself with small variations. A rabbi somewhere in America writes to ask if I’ll come speak to his congregation about Israeli politics and my recent book, The Unmaking of Israel. Afterward I receive another email: At a meeting of the Israel Committee or the board, he has encountered worry that inviting me could offend right-wing Jews. He asks how I respond to such concerns. Here’s one abridged version of my reply:

Dear ___,


Your note reminds me of the apocryphal story about the new rabbi of an American Orthodox congregation who asks the shul president what he should talk about for his first Sabbath sermon. The president says, “Something to do with yiddishkeit.”

“Maybe I’ll talk about Shabbos,” the rabbi says.

“Well,” says the president, “a lot of our members drive to shul. They might take offense.”

“All right, I’ll talk about kashrus,” says the rabbi.

“Actually,” says the president, “some of our members eat in Chinese restaurants. Maybe you should skip that.”

“Fine. I’ll talk about taharas mishpuche,” the rabbi suggests, referring to the laws regarding ritual immersion for women.

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Never Before v. Never Again (Professorial Pride Dept.)

My former student Sumit Galhotra has an excellent piece up at HuffPo on marking Armenian remembrance day in Jerusalem:

JERUSALEM — As dusk settled over the Old City one evening recently, Noemie Nalbandian stepped into the dimly lit cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter. Hundreds of oil lamps hung from the vaulted dome like an army of parachutes in the evening sky. In one corner, Nalbandian lit a candle, performed the sign of the cross, closed her eyes and offered a prayer.

St. James is the center of Armenian life in Jerusalem. Each year on April 24, Nalbandian and hundreds of other Armenians living in Israel gather at the cathedral to commemorate the Armenian genocide. After prayer services, they march to the Turkish consulate singing songs and holding posters demanding that the Turkish government recognize the mass killing of 1.5 million Armenians living under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. No Israeli officials were expected at the commemoration; indeed, the Israeli government is itself an unmentioned target of the protests since it, too, refuses to recognize the Armenian genocide.

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Bibi as Pharaoh

To distract attention from his economic policies, Netanyahu blames the victims

Gershom Gorenberg

My new Daily Beast piece is up:

Spring in Israel this year brings not only Pesah but a whiff in the air of renewed economic protests, like those that swept the country last summer. Activists believe that after a long winter of empty government promises, they can bring Israelis back to mass demonstrations. On the eve of Passover, Benjamin Netanyahu previewed his strategy for coping with popular anger: Turn it against social outsiders. Exploit prejudice. Learn from the European far right, or from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman or perhaps —in the spirit of the season—from Pharaoh.

In a pre-Pesah interview to Ha’aretz, the prime minister referred to the poverty among Israel’s Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, and then asserted, “The middle class that went out to the streets feels that it’s paying for the two sectors I mentioned… They’re not always wrong.” (Hebrew text)

'People before Profits'
'People before Profits' Jerusalem, July 2011 (Gershom Gorenberg)

Let’s parse this. Last July, a few young Israelis, organizing through Facebook, started a tent encampment on the center island of a Tel Aviv boulevard. By August, one out of every 20 Israelis marched on the same night against the government’s economic policies—the equivalent of Occupy Wall Street bringing out 15 million Americans out to demonstrate.

According to the prime minister, those protesters’ unhappiness was aimed at Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews—or at least it should be aimed at them for freeloading while the middle class works. So please, protesters, stop chanting, “What’s the answer to privatization? Revolution!” Don’t demand to know why state-owned companies ended up in the hands of a small cadre of oligarchs. Stop noticing that the country that once had the lowest rate of inequality in the West now has one of the highest, nearly matching America’s. Don’t use the expression “piggish capitalism,” with the connotation of treif, for Netanyahu’s dogmatic neoliberalism. Just blame Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. 

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The Bitterness of Egypt, in Memory of Niot

Haim Watzman My thoughts on the significance of the bitter herbs, on the anniversary of my last night with my son Niot, appear in this week’s “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah portion sheet put out by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. It’s available in both Hebrew and English Thanks to Kaddish Goldberg of Tirat Tzvi for giving … Read more

Reborn Jews

Haim Watzman

This article was solicited last year by the Jewish Review of Books but got cut in favor of material on the summer protest movement. I forgot about it and just yesterday found it in my computer. I hope it will interest SoJo’s readers

I had two adoptive families in Kiryat Shmonah, Israel’s northernmost town, when I lived there for three months at the end of 1978. I was 22 years old, I’d just arrived in Israel, and I was attending the ulpan that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would not only teach me Hebrew but lead to my decision to make my life in this country.

Talmud study at Bina

The ulpan set me up with a middle-class family that lived in one of the relatively spacious apartments halfway up the mountain slope on which Kiryat Shmonah lay. The loquacious mother, in her early thirties, had a job with the city; the father, a square-shouldered, silent veteran of the Yom Kippur War, was a manager at one of the factories that were the town’s major employers. They were model scions of the country’s Ashkenazi, labor movement elite—generous, dedicated to family and country—and strangely un-Jewish to this green American newcomer. If I stopped by at lunchtime, when the family’s two small daughters came home from preschool, I’d be invited to partake of a square, if unexciting, chicken dinner. (They ate dinner at lunchtime, a practice then so universal in Israel that my wife, who grew up here, still calls the main meal of the day “lunch,” even though we eat it in the evening.) If I went by on Friday afternoon or Saturday afternoon I’d get the same freshly-cooked meal. On Friday nights they had omelets, finely-diced vegetable salad, and nine-percent white cheese. There was no wine and no ha-motzi blessing. They didn’t even fast on Yom Kippur.

On my own, I made friends with another family.

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