Analysis from Israel

With the Palestinian Authority having formally launched its bid for UN recognition as a state yesterday, perhaps other countries ought to start thinking about what kind of state would come into being if they vote “yes.” Here’s a hint: It will be neither democratic nor peaceful.

With regard to democracy, consider just a few of the events of the last three months: The PA once again proved itself incapable of holding even local elections, canceling a scheduled vote for the fourth time in two years; on the national level, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is now in the 81st month of a 48-month term. It banned journalists from reporting the human rights abuses documented by an official PA body, the Independent Commission for Human Rights, which found that both the PA and Hamas (which govern the West Bank and Gaza, respectively) were guilty of torture and arbitrary detentions. It arrested a Palestinian professor who publicly criticized his university for failure to comply with a court order. It pulled a popular satirical television show from its state-owned TV channel because the show lampooned the PA’s security forces and civil service. (Don’t satirical TV shows usually lampoon their own governments?) Its official media blacklisted Palestinian union leaders who accused the PA of refusing to clamp down on corruption. It’s not exactly a shining picture of freedom of expression, regular elections and other pillars of the democratic order, is it?

As for the PA’s peacefulness, consider a few more events of the last three months: A Palestinian cabinet minister accused Israel of being the world’s “major harvesting and trading center” for organs, and specifically of harvesting organs from “the bodies of dead Palestinian martyrs”; the PA government neither denounced nor dissociated itself from this classic blood libel. A leading member of Abbas’s “moderate” Fatah party, one of Abbas’s close associates, declared that Fatah never has and never will recognize Israel.

The state-run television channel repeatedly glorified suicide bombers who murdered Israeli civilians (here and  here, for instance). A PA community center run by a senior member of Abbas’s party taught schoolchildren that pre-1967 Israel is stolen Palestinian land, and their mission is to reclaim it someday; Abbas himself  declared pre-1967 Israel to be occupied Palestinian territory just this week.

State-run television vowed the Palestinians would bulldoze the Western Wall plaza – where thousands of Jews from all over the world pray daily – if and when they gain control of East Jerusalem. It’s not exactly a shining picture of readiness to live alongside Israel in peace and security, is it?

One wouldn’t expect the UN’s many undemocratic states to care about Palestinian democracy, or its many anti-Israel members to care about whether “Palestine” lives in peace with Israel. But numerous countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia are proud democracies that genuinely seek Middle East peace. Isn’t it about time for those countries to think about what kind of state “Palestine” would be before they raise their hands to vote it into existence?

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In today’s world, Orthodox and Conservative Jews should be natural allies

Jewish tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred. Since we’re currently in the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of both Temples, which culminates in the holiday of Tisha B’Av, it’s a good time to consider a particularly counterproductive bit of baseless hatred: that between the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

Orthodox Jews tend to view Conservative and Reform Jewry as indistinguishable, lumping them both together as “non-Orthodox.” But in reality, there’s a yawning gap between them. The Conservative movement officially maintains that Jews must follow halachah (traditional Jewish law), including by observing Shabbat, kashrut, the Jewish holidays and so forth. The Reform movement rejects the very idea of binding halachah. Thus on the fundamental issue that has preserved the Jewish people for millennia—the binding nature of halachah—the Conservatives are formally on the Orthodox side of the divide.

Admittedly, most Conservative Jews don’t practice what their movement preaches, so one could legitimately ask what value this formal commitment to halachah has if most of its members ignore it. Moreover, this failure to produce and sustain observant communities has led many Jews raised in committed Conservative homes to switch to Orthodoxy (I’m one of them), and if the most observant continue leaving, I wonder how long even a formal commitment to halachah will survive.

But right now, the Conservative movement still contains a traditionalist faction that’s committed to observing halachah as the movement defines it. And because of this commitment, traditionalist Conservatives have far more in common with Orthodoxy than Reform.

Granted, Conservative interpretations of halachah diverge from Orthodox ones in nontrivial ways. But that strikes me as a less serious problem, because radically divergent interpretations of halachah have been common throughout Jewish history.

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