Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What You Need to Know about Israel and Gaza to Understand Events Today

1. Hamas took over Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Israel had withdrawn all of its citizens including all of its military from Gaza in 2005 and Egypt has been in control of the Rafah Border Crossing since that time. Hamas believes that it is the duty of every Muslim to fight against the existence of the Jewish state and that terrorism against civilians, including women and children, is legitimate and will eventually work. Haviv Rettig Gur's article about Hamas' mindset is a must read. Hamas has conducted numerous terrorist attacks through the years in which it sends men and women with explosive belts into Israeli cities to kill themselves along with as many Jews as possible. Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States.
2. Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its ally, celebrated the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Later it came to both promote and support attacks, some by other militant groups, in the Sinai Peninsula against the current Egyptian government led by Al Sissi. These attacks including a particularly bad one in August of 2012 that left more than a dozen Egyptian soldiers dead resulted in Egypt launching a major operation in 2013 to close most smuggling tunnels into Gaza along with closing the Rafah border crossing into Egypt.
3. Hamas began to fire rockets, mostly mortars and relatively inaccurate Qassam  rockets, at Israeli communities beginning in 2006, after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and several years prior to the Naval Blockade enforced by Israel in 2009, only after longer range and much more deadly rockets were used by Hamas. By Winter of 2009, several thousand rockets had been fired at Israeli cities not just along the Gaza border but further afield. The Israeli city of Sderot received much attention because of its bomb shelters and programs for children with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in December 2009. This article by Alan Johnson in the Daily Telegraph does a good job of summarizing the history of events surrounding rocket fire and the blockade.
4. In May of 2010, the Free Gaza Flotilla sailed from Turkey to Gaza in an attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. While international attention was focused initially on such things as limited medical supplies, some of which were actually useless and primarily for symbolic value, later all attention came to be focused on the violence aboard the Mavi Marmara. The primary cargo carried to Gaza by the flotilla was cement [remember this because it is now extremely important].
5. In 2011, Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian Dictator and an ally of the Fatah Party and Mahmoud Abbas, was deposed in favor of Mohammed Morsi, the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Over the ensuing year, the border between Gaza and Egypt was entirely open.
6. Starting in March 2012, Hamas begin firing rockets including longer range Grad rockets into Israel.  Israel responded with Operation Returning Echo, a five day operation that ended with a ceasefire on March 14, 2012.
7. Over the course of that year, Hamas added medium range M-75 rockets capable of reaching the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to its arsenal. Initially, these rockets were brought in from Iran into Sudan, potentially having been assembled and/or stored at the Yarmouk weapons factory outside of Khartoum which the Israeli military struck in October 2012, and then into Gaza primarily via smuggling tunnels in the Sinai, though some fishing vessels may have also been used to deliver them. With the open border and possibly because of the destruction of the weapons it may have been expecting to come from Yarmouk, Hamas launched a new rocket based operation against Israel in November of 2012. The use of longer range rockets was the primary reason for Israel launching Operation Pillar of Defense (aka Pillar of Cloud) in 2012, an eight day operation that was highlighted by the effectiveness of the newly introduced Iron Dome anti-missile system. Hamas agreed to a ceasefire in November, 2012 that has been in effect for the past two years prior to June of this year.
8. Since the Winter of 2012, Hamas began trying to bring in Iranian/Syrian made M-302 extended range rockets capable of reaching 80% of Israeli cities from Gaza and doing substantial damage when they strike. In March of 2014, a ship known as the Klos-C carrying M-302s from Iran was captured by the Israeli navy while trying to deliver dozens of M-302S to Gaza, but it is clear that many more arrived via other means, most likely crossing the border from Egypt prior to the end of 2013 when Egypt began closing smuggling tunnels in earnest.
9. June 2, 2014 the Palestinian Authority announced the creation of a Palestinian Unity government that would include representatives of Hamas as well as those of Fatah, the primary party in the West Bank led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas' primary goal in joining the Unity Government was to open the door for funding to come to pay its 40,000 employees in Gaza.
10. With the Egyptian closure of both the Rafah border crossing and most of the smuggling tunnels in 2013, Hamas has become increasingly weakened and faces the likelihood of losing any fair election to be held in Gaza at this point. Hamas is unable to convince the Egyptians to open the border or to persuade the Israelis to end the naval blockade. The Palestinian Authority's desire is to end independent Hamas control over Gaza and to restore the PA's control there in some fashion, if not completely.
11. Hamas' current plan according to Gershon Baskin, who has communicated directly with Hamas' leaders, is to force a compromise agreement upon Egypt and the Palestinian Authority by engaging Israel in a conflict that leads to many Palestinian deaths and brings outside pressure upon the situation. The primary goals of its current efforts are to attain a ceasefire agreement that would result in the opening of the Rafah Border Crossing currently closed by Egypt and the payment of the 40,000 Hamas employees what they are owed as well as ongoing payments. It is not inaccurate to say that Hamas is firing rockets at Israeli civilians and utilizing offensive military tunnels from Gaza into Israel in a manner requiring Israel to kill many Palestinian civilians so that Egypt and the Palestinian Authority respond to its demands.
12. Hamas not only locates its weapons and personnel in or nearby normally protected facilities such as UN SchoolsHospitalsMosques and civilian housing, but also encourages civilians to gather around its weapons and discourages them to flee when notified. It was discovered today that Hamas used a UNRWA School situated between two other UN schools currently housing 1,500 refugees each to house rockets. The combination of all of these things is a clear attempt to use human shields. Israel meanwhile feeds this practice by regularly calling off strikes against targets when civilians are present. By no means is it the case that civilians are not killed when they do not evacuate targeted sites. They are, and there are certainly also errors on Israel's part such as the tragic killing of four children near a Hamas target on a beach. Unfortunately, by embedding its personnel and weaponry among civilians, Hamas has created a situation in which Israel has no choice but to respond when Hamas attacks from targets where there are civilians present.
13. There is no reasonable argument to be made for Israel to relax its naval blockade of Gaza instituted because of rocket fire coming from Gaza from 2006-2009 because of the massively increased level and severity of rocket fire in the ensuing years. If anything, it is assuredly the case that such a blockade has now been proven essential to Israel's security.
14. Israel knew that there were "offensive" tunnels dug between Gaza and Israel that were primarily designed to attempt kidnappings of Israeli soldiers, but which also could be used to conduct damaging terror attacks (See this article from Yisarel Medad and this one from J.J. Goldberg for example). It did not, however, whether it should have or not, realize the extent, quality, or severity of the threat that it faced until July 17th, when thirteen Hamas commandos crossed through a tunnel into Israel near Kibbutz Sufa with the intent of either capturing or wiping out the population of the Kibbutz. Israel then launched a ground operation to find and destroy other similar tunnels. The US government estimates that at least sixty similar tunnels likely exist and that some are also more substantial. One tunnel into Egypt was 1.5 miles long, 66 feet deep, contained electricity and had provisions including food placed along its length to accommodate travelers. The basis of this argument is an understanding of Hamas' smuggling tunnels into Egypt and the fact that similar tunnels could be created into Israel. There are now jokes circulating that Hamas may have already completed a tunnel into the West Bank from Gaza.  The belief now is that Hamas has used tens of thousands of tons of concrete to build tunnels and bunkers in Gaza which cost it into nine-figures in dollars and that the threat from these is much greater than previously assumed. Israel has already stopped several attacks coming from these tunnels in the last week alone. It is important to note that such a tunnel would have almost certainly been used to move the three kidnapped Israeli teens into Gaza had they not been killed and that whether or not Hamas ordered its operatives to kidnap the teens, it certainly would have claimed the kidnapping had it succeeded.
15. On July 22, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways cancelled flights into Ben Gurion Airport. Following these decisions, the US FAA banned US air lines from flying into Ben Gurion for 36 hours because a Hamas fired rocket landed near the airport. This reaction may be an over-reaction based on the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines plane in Ukraine in combination with US issued travel warnings. Other airlines followed suit. Hamas is now firing rockets at Ben Gurion Airport in order to disrupt the functioning of the airport and Israel has held flights in holding patterns for periods of time when rockets are in the air. It turns out that there rocket that triggered the FAA ban was deliberately let through by the Iron Dome crew because it would not hit Ben Gurion or any vital targets. Israel's intercept policy has now been widened near Ben Gurion in response to FAA wishes.
16. How likely is a ceasefire soon? Here is the ceasefire situation in a nutshell. US Sec. State Kerry is in the region trying to promote a 5-7 day ceasefire during which negotiations on a longer term ceasefire could take place. At this point, there are two basic ceasefire proposals being proposed. 1. An Egyptian one supported by the Palestinian Authority and to which Israel has agreed that grants none of Hamas' demands and 2. A Qatari one which grants almost all of what Hamas wants. The Egyptian one is supported by all of the nationalist Arab governments including Jordan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia as well as by the United Nations and the United States. Israel has agreed to the Egyptian proposal already. The Qatari one is supported by the Islamist governments including Turkey. Each of these sides wants the other to concede and both sides are willing for the Israel-Hamas fight to continue if the other side does not concede.
17. The Kerry ceasefire initiative presented on July 25 granted Hamas both important immediate concessions and the increased likelihood of obtaining longer term ones. The immediate ones were the halt of very successful Israeli operations in Gaza against Hamas tunnels, the ability to relocate personnel and weaponry, and the time to establish new defenses against possible future Israeli efforts as well as to assess and prepare future offensive plans. In exchange for this brief ceasefire, Israel may have received 5-7 days without rocket fire, amounting to a simple delay in that rocket fire if no longer term agreement is reached. The long term proposal brought by Sec. Kerry was seen by Israel as essentially being the pro-Hamas Qatari ceasefire proposal "with adornments." Hamas was evidently leaning toward accepting this ceasefire which was clearly to its advantage to accept. The Israeli Cabinet, reacted with incredulity to it and unanimously rejected the proposal, but accepted a 12 hour humanitarian ceasefire that spanned 8 am - 8 pm on July 26. Israel unilaterally agreed to extend the ceasefire for several hours, but Hamas broke the ceasefire shortly into the extension. Further undermining trust in US mediation and adding to the harsh reaction from receiving the proposal which leaned heavily toward the Hamas position is the fact that following submitting it, Sec. Kerry went to Paris and met with representatives from Qatar and Turkey, Hamas' closest allies.Here are several important articles to read on this issue which will certainly affect future negotiations involving Sec. Kerry and the United States: Two articles by Barak Ravid of Haaretz (What was he thinking? and Kerry's Ceasefire Draft Revealed), one by David Horovitz (John Kerry: The Betrayal), and one by Elhanan Miller (Abbas Fumes at Kerry).
18. The rejection of the Kerry ceasefire proposal came as new information came to light concerning the nature of the tunnels and Hamas' plans for them. From a factsheet distributed by Omri Ceren, a senior advisor at The Israel Project, today, July 25, 2014.
Leaks have begun to trickle out on what Israeli interogators are learning from captured Hamas fighters. One plot in particular is getting overwhelming attention. Hamas was apparently a few months away from conducting a mass attack on Israeli civilians during the upcoming Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, on September 24. The raid would have been like something out of a movie: hundreds of heavily-armed Hamas fighters would have emerged from over a dozen underground tunnels in the dead of night, jogged 10 minutes to their targets, and then infiltrated a set of lightly-populated and lightly-guarded Israeli communities. Casualties could have reached the thousands, and some of the victims would have been taken back alive as hostages. The offensive attack tunnels seem to quite literally have been built for this kind of purpose. The IDF recently published a map of how they were dug to spill out on both sides of nearby communities. Israeli soldiers have been reporting that just inside some of the tunnels were storage units filled with tranquilizers, handcuffs, ropes, and so on. The reports on this are mostly in Hebrew right now. The Gatestone Institute's Lawrence Franklin has the best English-language version I've seen so far.
19. The timeline (also on the We Are For Israel website) from the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens, to the fight between Hamas rockets and Iron Dome, to the search for offensive tunnels shows how the conflict developed and morphed between June 12 and July 26 of this year.
20. Finally, the question being asked, based on what former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, suggested, is essentially, "Is it better for Israel to proceed now with what it may to have to do at some point in the future at a far greater human and economic cost?" Should Israel move ahead and, to use Oren's words, "crush Hamas?"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Being a Rabbi at Camp

I hate to leave camp. For the past thirteen summers, I have had the opportunity to spend time at the URJ's Goldman Union Camp Institute GUCI in Zionsville, Indiana with children from Temple B'nai Jeshurun. We have our largest contingent ever a camp this summer, fourteen students. The Temple's group of campers are found in twelve of GUCI's eighteen cabins. But it's more than as if I'm their rabbi. For two weeks, they're all my kids.

Whenever I go to a program, I look for them, at what they're doing, whether they're smiling or laughing (almost all  the time), whether they are coughing or sneezing (fortunately not this summer so far), and how well they've made new friends or renewed old friendships: very very well, I must say! I listen for what they say and watch what they do, sometimes cringing, often kvelling. What? I'm a parent!

I see them setting the tables in the Hadar Ohel (Cafeteria) and cleaning them. Yes, here they clean up! I see them covered in paint on Yom Sport, dressed up in crazy costumes for chug presentations, dancing silly dances like the Penguin Dance or Sieben Sieben, which is more like a crazed aerobic workout. I see all fourteen of my children singing and dancing multiple times a day with smiles as broad as their faces will endure. I hear them talk about Judaism and their world in general. I hear them question and doubt while they talk about their own faith and what they believe.

I see them hug friends who are sad and cheer them up. I see them learn from others and teach others what they know. I can see them grow from year to year, but also sometimes even from week to week. Having been at GUCI for camp for thirteen years, I have seen many campers from years ago turn into the counselors and staff with whom I now help to create programs. Some have even become rabbis themselves.

I have fourteen children at camp this Summer, three of my own, but all dear to me. Several already came up to me to give me a hug this morning (not my own so far), knowing that I will be leaving tomorrow. Tonight, I'll have the privilege of seeing their chug (elective) presentations: drama, dance, music, photography and more. I will have a huge smile on my face and, of course, I'll take a lot of pictures! Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Jubilees and Separation of Church and State

Jubilees and Separation of Church and State
May 9, 2014
Rabbi David Kaufman

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, is almost ideally suited to the Supreme Court’s decision this week concerning prayer at City Council meetings in Greece, New York. I do not say this simply because Leviticus Chapter 25 contains the words:

You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security.

These words, if applied to adherence to the US Constitution and Bill of Rights instead of religious doctrine, are the essential mission of the United States Supreme Court. No, instead I refer to the primary topic of this Torah portion, the Jubilee Year and what the Jubilee Year was all about. First, however, let me discuss the Supreme Court decision and its implications and then I will connect it to Jubilees.

Over the years, I have been and continue to become involved in advocacy for the separation of church and state. Reform Jews are particularly strong in their advocacy in that direction and many have expressed concerns about the recent US Supreme Court decision regarding prayers offered at city council meetings in Greece, New York. Such prayers have regularly involved the use of language specific to Christianity and often clearly appear to urge listeners to adhere to Christian beliefs. In fact, one would have to go out of his or her way to deny that Christianity is in fact the established religion of Greece, New York because all such prayers are given by Christians.

As I understand it, a solution was proposed in which it was argued that prayers could be offered as long as they did not advocate for a specific religion or that clergy of other faiths could be brought into Greece from other locales in order to provide diversity. The city challenged this argument which had been upheld by a lower court as a means to counter the de facto establishment of religion and the case went to the Supreme Court which decided in favor of Greece, NY, sending shock waves through the Separation of Church and State advocacy community.

In recent years, the discussion of Separation of Church and State has primarily focused on removing religious influence on state based functions. Essentially, such efforts have promoted the concept of a secular government, a government devoid of religious based action and bias. "Freedom from Religion" has been at the basis of this movement which argues that the basis of the anti-Establishment clause of the US Constitution mandates that view.

It would make sense based on this understanding to ban all official prayers in the context of governmental activities such as city council meetings or proceedings of state or federal legislatures for example. One must question whether or not prayer can ever be devoid of advocacy for a particular kind of faith if not for a particular faith. To argue that generic theistic prayers are acceptable but prayers that are specifically Christian are not would certainly raise concern about the violation of the free exercise clause at a minimum and potentially also the right of Free Speech.

The First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. 

Politically, Progressives tend to stress the importance of the anti-Establishment clause, whereas Conservatives tend to stress the importance of the Free Exercise clause. Our Supreme Court currently leans 5-4 Conservative and that almost by itself explains the decision handed down this week, though I will explain in more detail. There are many cases where the two clauses conflict and the case of Greece, New York is certainly one of them.

To over simplify the situation, what happens in Greece, New York regularly appears to violate the establishment clause with regular clearly Christian prayers being offered, while not violating the free exercise clause because every minister chooses his or her own wording for the prayer offered. Whereas the solution proposed by those opposing the City Council's practice would appear to adhere to the anti-establishment directive, preventing a situation in which only Christianity is represented or would violate the free exercise clause by mandating the absence of faith specific language.

In this specific case, the practice of offering a prayer at all was never questioned. The Greece, New York case did not address whether or not such prayers should ever take place, the question before the court was based on the proposed solution and seems to have been about how one may pray rather than being about whether or not one may pray in that context.

To put this general argument into the context of Separation of Church and State specifically, two concerns arise:

1.                 Should there be prayer at state functions? This action clearly violates "separation", but does not necessarily violate "anti-establishment," unless no diversity is present in which case it would appear to do so.
2.                 Should there be restrictions imposed on the religious content of prayers offered? Doing so would appear to violate the Free Exercise clause.

Here's a direct quote from Justice Kennedy's opinion in the Greece, NY case:

To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and sensors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.

This is in accord with the Free Exercise clause, i.e. keeping state out of religion. Telling a minister that he cannot represent his tradition would in fact be state interference in religion and, I would add, which Kennedy does not, in the context of both mandating prayers and requiring basic God language, could functionally in so doing establish Deism as the state religion which would be a violation of the anti-Establishment clause as well.

As I see it, the question for advocates of Separation of Church and State is truly focused on whether or not such prayers should take place at all with the clear understanding that the context of such prayers being offered overwhelmingly or even exclusively by Christian clergy will necessarily promote the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the government.

The fact that it is not within the court's purview to require the council to bring residents of other cities to offer prayers so as to provide diversity and avoid de facto establishment of Christianity as the faith of the city and that the court rightly defends the free exercise of religion does not excuse the fact that without diversity, the existence of prayers of similar nature from a single faith establishes that faith as the government's religion. In other words, the court cannot demand diversity or determine the content of prayers, but neither can it allow the establishment of a government backed religion which is the case in Greece, New York.

This case was about how prayers were offered. It was a Free Exercise case, even though many observers put it in the context of Establishment. The next case will argue that without accommodation for diversity, the allowance for prayer in this type of context is de facto establishment. My belief as both an advocate for the Separation of Church and State and for the Free Exercise of religion, is that in order to follow the US Constitution's directive, a city council will have to either provide diversity, something that the courts cannot and honestly should not mandate that it do, or not hold such prayers at all as such prayers offered without religious diversity necessarily results in establishment, something that the court could in fact demand based upon the anti-Establishment clause.

So how does this all connect to the Jubliee Year? The Jubilee Year was in theory a time of restoration. Land that had been sold would be returned to its original owner, debts would be forgiven, slaves simply declared free. The text tells us, “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me,” and “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt.”

The Jubilee Year is about the understanding that things change over the years, that what should be, often is not. It is unquestionably true that it has become traditional for the primary prohibition of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution to be given lip service while being egregiously violated. There is no doubt that it has been the custom in many places in America for Christian prayers, regularly with a limited range of types of Christianity represented, to be offered at events and meetings held by institutions which in theory should be subject to the both the liberties and their restrictions enunciated in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The argument that custom and tradition makes law is certainly one found within the Jewish tradition. The rabbis of old treated established customs as if they were dictated by Moses at Sinai. But that is precisely where Jubilees comes into play.

The Jubilee Year is about warning us that what should be is not what is, that what has developed over the decades is not necessarily the way things should be, that customs that have developed over time, particularly in regard to the treatment of those with less power by those with more power, should not be allowed to violate the laws upon which they were based.

Sabbatical years, the seventh year, and the Jubilee year, the 50th year, may have been part of adjusting the calendar to bring the 364 day solar calendar into line with the reality of the cycling of days and seasons. There is no historical evidence that the Israelites ever put the rules of the Jubilee year into practice, e.g. that slaves went free or that land was returned. We have no evidence of that.

What we do know is that the idea that original intent matters in our tradition and that the Torah, unlike later rabbinical tradition, maintained the concept that customs that have developed over time should not be allowed to defeat or obfuscate the original intent of the laws upon which they were based. How much more directly could a Torah portion be in regard to this week’s Torah portion in which Justice Kennedy, offering the majority opinion, quoted an earlier case, Marsh vs. Chambers saying, “the Establishment Clause must be interpreted ‘by references to historical practices and understandings’.” This is, of course, similar to the fact that the concept of “people” in the Constitution not all that long ago did not necessarily include those who by many were deemed less than people, slaves.

No, it is not reasonable to argue that “historical practices and understandings” or customs and traditions have a veto.

All this said, if you wonder whether or not the framers of the US Constitution understood the meaning of the Jubilee year or that it had importance to them, this much is beyond dispute, the words of Leviticus 25:10, from this very Torah portion, are etched on the Liberty Bell:

Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.

The words that immediately follow them, “It shall be a Jubilee for you.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Prayer, the Supreme Court, and Separation

Over the years, I have been and continue to become involved in advocacy for the separation of church and state. Reform Jews are particularly strong in their advocacy in that direction and many have expressed concerns about the recent US Supreme Court decision regarding prayers offered at city council meetings in Greece, New York. Such prayers have regularly involved the use of language specific to Christianity and often clearly appear to urge listeners to adhere to Christian beliefs. In fact, one would have to go out of his or her way to deny that Christianity is in fact the established religion of Greece, New York because all such prayers are given by Christians.

As I understand it, a solution was proposed in which it was argued that prayers could be offered as long as they did not advocate for a specific religion or that clergy of other faiths could be brought into Greece from other locales in order to provide diversity. The city challenged this argument which had been upheld by a lower court as a means to counter the de facto establishment of religion and the case went to the Supreme Court which decided in favor of Greece, NY, sending shock waves through the Separation of Church and State advocacy community.

In recent years, the discussion of Separation of Church and State has primarily focused on removing religious influence on state based functions. Essentially, such efforts have promoted the concept of a secular government, a government devoid of religious based action and bias. "Freedom from Religion" has been at the basis of this movement which argues that the basis of the anti-Establishment clause of the US Constitution mandates that view.

It would make sense based on this understanding to ban all official prayers in the context of governmental activities such as city council meetings or proceedings of state or federal legislatures for example. One must question whether or not prayer can ever be devoid of advocacy for a particular kind of faith if not for a particular faith. To argue that generic theistic prayers are acceptable but prayers that are specifically Christian are not would certainly raise concern about the violation of the free exercise clause at a minimum and potentially also the right of Free Speech.

The First Amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. 
Politically, Progressives tend to stress the importance of the anti-Establishment clause, whereas Conservatives tend to stress the importance of the Free Exercise clause. Our Supreme Court currently leans 5-4 Conservative and that almost by itself explains the decision handed down this week, though I will explain in more detail. There are many cases where the two clauses conflict and the case of Greece, New York is certainly one of them.

What happens in Greece, New York regularly appears to violate the establishment clause while not violating the free exercise clause, whereas the solution proposed by those opposing the City Council's practice would appear to adhere to the anti-establishment directive, but would violate the free exercise clause. In other words, in this specific case, which does not address whether or not such prayers should ever take place, the question, based on the proposed solution, seems to have been about how one may pray rather than being about whether or not one may pray in that context. The practice of offering a prayer at all was never questioned.

To put this argument into the context of Separation of Church and State specifically, two concerns arise:
  1. Should there be prayer at state functions? This action clearly violates "separation", but does not necessarily violate "anti-establishment," unless no diversity is present in which case it likely does.
  2. Should there be restrictions imposed on the religious content of prayers offered? Doing so would appear to violate the Free Exercise clause.
 Here's a direct quote from Justice Kennedy's opinion in the Greece, NY case:
To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and sensors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.
This is in accord with the Free Exercise clause, ie keeping state out of religion. Telling a minister that he cannot represent his tradition would in fact be state interference in religion and, I would add, which Kennedy does not, in the context of both mandating prayers and requiring basic God language, could functionally establish Deism as the state religion which would be a violation of the anti-Establishment clause as well.

As I see it, the question for advocates of Separation of Church and State is truly focused on whether or not such prayers should take place at all with the clear understanding that the context of such prayers being offered overwhelmingly or even exclusively by Christian clergy will promote the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the government.

The fact that it is not within the court's purview to require the council to bring residents of other cities to offer prayers so as to provide diversity and avoid de facto establishment of Christianity as the faith of the city and that the court rightly defends the free exercise of religion does not excuse the fact that without diversity the existence of prayers of similar nature from a single faith establishes that faith as the government's religion. In other words, the court cannot demand diversity or determine the content of prayers, but neither can it allow the establishment of a government backed religion which is the case in Greece, New York.

This case was about how prayers were offered. It was a free exercise case. The next one will argue that without accommodation for diversity, the allowance for prayer in this type of context is de facto establishment. In order to follow the US Constitution's directive, a city council will have to either provide diversity or not have such prayers as the latter without the former necessarily results in establishment.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Zombies in Annie? Yes! This is "Thriller" from our Purimspiel

In our Purimspiel this year, based on Annie, there were Zombies. You really have to see the whole thing to understand how it all worked, but the scene is very funny.
video

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why You Should Care About Crimea

Those who forget or never learned history are doomed to repeat it.

On September 30, 1938, Neville Chamberlain returned from Berlin and said:
My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. 
We know of course that the wish for "peace for our time" did not come to fruition. Often overlooked is the fact that this was the second time that a British Prime Minister had returned from Germany with such an assurance. The first was Benjamin Disraeli in 1878 returning from the Congress of Berlin. That conference concerned fighting between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Heavily influenced by German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark and seeking to maintain the interests of Britain and other European nations, the Conference of Berlin created a solution that limited Russia's influence to the west while increasing Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. The failure of the Conference of Berlin to achieve a complete solution to the problems in the Balkans and differences between the nations of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia eventually led to World War I and one could argue continued in part with World War II. Even the Cold War could be seen as being based upon this conflict. But it did not begin in 1878 with the Russo-Turkish War. It began with the Crimean War.

During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, Russia lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia, aided by an ostensibly neutral but functionally allied Austria. The focus of the conflict was on the rights of Christians in the Ottoman controlled Holy Land. The French promoted the Catholics. The Russians the Orthodox. Meanwhile Britain and Austria were primarily concerned with keeping the Ottoman Empire alive so as to limit the growth of Russia. Fighting began with Russia destroying the Ottoman fleet in 1853 and finally ended when Russian allied Sevastopol fell in 1856.

Today, Sevastopol is considered by many to be a Russian city within Ukrainian borders. It is a focal point in the ongoing civil strife in the Ukraine. Concerns grow that Russia may use force, perhaps even invade, in order to protect its allied citizenry in the Ukraine and particularly in Sevastopol. Additionally, the Russian navy maintains a major naval base there with a lease expiring in 2042. 15,000 Russian naval troops and support personnel are stationed there.

This conflict did not begin this month or last or last year or last decade. It didn't begin with the fall of the Soviet Union or the aftermath of World War II. It wasn't created by the events of World War I either. This conflict between Europe and Russia in the Crimea has been ongoing since 1853. It isn't a matter of Russian meddling in a neighboring country as much as it is truly about internal conflict within it.

Ukraine is a nation of divided identity. For the country to be maintained as a single nation, it will need to respect its dual nature. If it cannot do that successfully, history tells us that violence is all but guaranteed. Russia is poised to act in its best interests. It is more than questionable as to whether or not European nations along with the United States are prepared to respond as they have for the past 161 years. What is at stake is the same thing that has been at stake throughout that time, the balance of power between East and West and the security of Europe or lack thereof which is dependent upon it.

Friday, January 10, 2014

My Version of the Classic Sea of Reeds Joke

Mother: “What did you learn in Religious School today?”

Child: “I learned about the crossing of the sea in the Exodus story.”

Mother: “Tell me the story?”

Child: Well, when the Israelites came to the shores of the sea they saw that the Egyptian army was closing in on them. So Moses posted a Tweet and then updated his Facebook status asking for reinforcements and soon thereafter a fleet of drones appeared and attacked the Egyptian army, holding them off. That gave the Israelites time to build a pontoon bridge across the sea. As soon as the Israelites had finished crossing, Miriam and the women danced, taunting the Egyptians. I don't think they were twerking, but it was pretty offensive, I guess. The Egyptians got angry and stormed across the bridge, but Moses and the Israelites used remote detonators to blow it up before they could reach the Israelite’s side. The Egyptians couldn’t swim and there were crocodiles. It wasn’t pretty.”

Mother: “Is that really what they taught you?”

Child: “Well…not exactly, but if I told you what they really taught me, you’d never believe it!”