For better or worse, the newsmakers of the year.
Delegitimization. Flotilla. Park51. Settlement freeze. Loyalty oath. The BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement.
These words and phrases recall some of the challenges and controversies that cropped up for Israel and the Jewish community in 2010, a year of increasing assaults on Jerusalem’s legitimacy on an international scale, and blame from Washington for the lack of progress in Mideast peace efforts.
Here’s a look at some of the key newsmakers of the past year, aside from the obvious players like President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — influential Jewish men and women whose names became more widely known in the last 12 months and whose actions could have a major impact in 2011.
Until six months ago, Peter Beinart was best known in the Jewish community as a talented young writer and editor for The New Republic, where he worked from 1995 to 2006. He was named editor in 2001 at the age of 28.
His article in The New York Review of Books last May on “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment” came as a shock because of its strong critique of major Jewish organizations. Beinart asserted that their refusal to challenge Israel’s policies — chiefly on the occupation of the West Bank — was a major disappointment to young American Jews whose Western values of freedom and human rights clashed with the reality of Jerusalem’s actions.
The article became a touchstone of debate within the community, and Beinart grew increasingly strident in his subsequent writings and talks, asserting, as he did at the 92nd Street Y last month, that “the government of Israel represents an active threat to democracy.”
While Jews on the right were upset with such talk, proponents of J Street and other groups that characterized themselves as pro-peace and pro-Israel see Beinart as a champion of their point of view, an articulate critic of Israeli policies who is a serious, practicing Jew espousing a liberal Zionism they believe is disappearing.
One of Beinart’s chief targets is Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, who is the founder and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. It is Lieberman, more than his former ally and current political rival, Netanyahu, who appears to be driving the political agenda for the country rightward. The 52-year-old, Soviet-born politician is one of the most polarizing figures in Israeli society today.
Despite being under investigation for corruption for the last year and a half, Lieberman has been quite vocal in resisting U.S. calls for a settlement freeze, and he introduced legislation that would require Israeli citizens to pledge a loyalty oath to maintain the right to vote. He has long been accused of harboring racist attitudes toward Israeli Arabs.
His party, made up primarily of former Soviet immigrants, is key to the Netanyahu coalition, and though he is viewed as thuggish in the West — he rarely visits the U.S. — he is a popular figure in Israel and prides himself on being controversial.
“For me to be controversial I think is positive,” he says, equating it with fostering new ideas.
Of all the politicians jockeying to succeed Netanyahu, Lieberman may have the best shot.
One of Yisrael Beiteinu’s members, David Rotem, became a household name in Israel as the author of a controversial conversion bill that sparked outrage among liberal Jews in the U.S. this year.
A Jerusalem native who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, Rotem, 61, created a bill whose aspects pleased and infuriated people at the same time. Intended to help resolve the fact that some 300,000 Russian immigrants in Israel are not halachically Jewish, Rotem’s bill allows for municipal rabbis to perform conversions, widening the process. But as result of a political deal to help ensure the bill’s passage, Rotem along the way agreed to a provision that would give the Chief Rabbinate sole jurisdiction over conversions.
This is offensive and worrisome to Conservative and Reform Jews whose movements have made inroads in the Israeli Supreme Court against such a monopoly. And the bill came at a time when the Chief Rabbinate has acted particularly narrowly, setting the highest standards for conversion and alienating the great majority of Jews.
At year’s end, a six-month moratorium on Rotem’s bill is about to expire, with no clear solution emerging — and he insists on going forward.
One unlikely source of hope and compromise on the conversion issue is a learned Sephardic rabbi whose tenure in the Knesset until now has been under the radar. But Chaim Amsalem, a 51-year-old native of Algeria first elected to the Knesset in 2006, has been increasingly assertive this year in scholarly and political pronouncements stating that conversion standards should be eased for those who have Jewish lineage, and especially if they have shown their loyalty by serving in the Israeli army and risking their lives for the Jewish state.
Though a member of the haredi Shas party, Rabbi Amsalem has also said that only the most qualified of scholars in kollels [rabbinical schools] should be exempt from army and work, that religious schools should offer a secular core curriculum and that Shas leaders should not be emulating the narrowness of the Ashkenazi (Lithuanian) yeshiva world.
As a result of such talk, Shas leaders expelled him from the party, though he refuses to give up his Knesset seat, and they denounced him in the strongest terms, even comparing him to Amalek, the biblical personification of evil, who Jews are commanded to destroy.
The American Jewish Committee praised the maverick rabbi for his “innovative, courageous and farsighted position on matters that affect the entire Jewish people.”
In the coming year we will learn which approach to conversion, if any, can help solve Israel’s societal problem without alienating diaspora Jewry.
On the home front, three women associated with New York made national news for very different reasons.
Sara Hurwitz of the rabbinic faculty of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was given the title of “rabba” by the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Avi Weiss, setting off a controversy over the role of women in Orthodox Judaism that is sure to continue for years.
Born in South Africa and now 33, Hurwitz was given the title of “maharat” in 2009 to signify her accomplishment of completing the full rabbinic ordination process. She served in a rabbinic capacity at HIR, a Modern Orthodox synagogue with little fanfare. But when Rabbi Weiss decided to upgrade her title, the synagogue and much of the movement was divided for a variety of reasons, from personal to political to halachic.
Much of the controversy has focused on Rabbi Weiss for his seemingly impulsive decision. He reached a compromise of sorts with the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic arm of the Orthodox Union, by agreeing not to confer the title on anyone else.
Throughout the ordeal, the world’s only rabba maintained her quiet dignity as she went about her duties, including that of dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which describes itself as a “pioneering venture … to be the first institution in Jewish history to train women to be fully integrated into the Orthodox community as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities.”
Another woman pioneer was Elena Kagan, 50, who joined the Supreme Court this summer, bringing the number of Jews on the current bench to three (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer) and adding a liberal voice to a right-of-center court.
Kagan displayed her independence and interest in Judaism as a youngster, requesting the opportunity to become the first formal bat mitzvah at Lincoln Square Synagogue in 1973. Shlomo Riskin, founding rabbi of the Modern Orthodox congregation, recalled that young Kagan “felt very strongly that there should be ritual bat mitzvah in the synagogue,” and paved the way for many others.
Praised by colleagues as having strong personal skills as well as a keen legal mind, Kagan is seen as a potential consensus-builder on the court.
Pamela Geller, by contrast, has been described as one of the most “outraged and outrageous” personalities influencing public policy in the U.S.
Her website, Atlas Shrugs, portrayed Kagan in a Nazi helmet; she has written a book about the dangers of Obama’s presidency, and has called for removing the Dome of the Rock from the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem.
But Geller, 52, a Manhattan Jewish day school mom, is best known as one of the strongest public critics of Islam, asserting that it is prone to violence and hate, and for galvanizing opposition to Park51, the planned site of an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero.
Geller is credited, or blamed, for making the center a national and international issue this year. She was hailed by supporters as prophetic for warning of the dangers of Islam, and attacked by critics as strident and abusive in seeing no distinction between the Muslim religion and its most militant adherents.
Before walking out in anger during a Jewish Week interview this summer, she asserted: “There’s no gray area with me.”
At a moment of particularly strong polarization, in Washington and in the American Jewish community, there was little gray area in most political and religious disputes this year. Time will tell if there will be “climate change” in those discussions in 2011, but it seems certain the seven Jewish men and women cited here will play key roles in the debate.
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