To Go or Not to Go: The Argentina Question

In college I had the option of going on a free trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I generally am on top of things but a lot was going on in my life, and I missed the deadline. Because of this, when I saw there was a trip run by UJA-Federation, I quickly signed up to go. I signed up at the same time that Prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead after accusing Argentina President Christina Fernandez of covering up a deal to shield Iran from responsibility in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires.

Corruption in Argentinian politics is nothing new. The country went through numerous scandals and leadership transitions in the 1990s. The January 18 mysterious death of Nisman as well as the alleged relationship between the Argentinian government and Iran got me to thinking as to whether I made the correct choice to join the Federation mission. Will seeing the good work that the Federation and Joint Distribution Committee does in Buenos Aires outweigh going to a country with massive government corruption and thinly veiled Anti-Semitism, as well as the country that was the refuge for numerous Nazis? I believe that it will and I look forward to reporting on my experiences during the mission.

Wisconsin as a Right-to-Work State

Having worked in Arizona and New York, the concept of a right-to-work state is nothing new to me. I am used to the idea that most employees have no contract and can be let go at any time on the spot. The way our employment system works is you do the job or if not we’ll find someone else to do it; or perhaps we’ll find someone younger or cheaper to do it. Thankfully I have never been faced directly with this situation, having had contracts in my previous two jobs. However, the concept of right-to-work or “at will” still makes me very uneasy because I know how many people are affected by it.

When I read that the state in which I was born would be joining the line of “at will” states, with Governor Walker is signing a bill, it frustrated me. I think of all those people who have been doing their jobs for years who now can be fired at a moments notice without benefits to get someone younger or cheaper in the door. I think is this the reality in which we want to live, where people are disposable and replaceable at the snap of fingers? Do we want a world in which people will be fired simply because they disagree with their boss or joined a union? Is this really capitalism at its finest or is this the exploitation of the working class?

When bus driver Jerry Papa said (as quoted in Newsday) “it’s going to take 25 to 40 years to correct problems Scott Walker’s done in 4.5 years” my sole disagreement is that I don’t believe these problems will ever be corrected. Unfortunately we are heading to an age where unions are being dismantled (as Walker began 4 years ago) where it will be every man for himself. I believe capitalism, like every system, should have its limits-for if it does not, we will continue to advance towards an era where workers are exploited and where jobs are outsourced just to make a few more bucks. Some might disagree, saying we live in a world of “survival of the fittest” but if that means that we throw devoted workers onto the street after 30 years on the job it is a world in which I want no part of. The eugenics movement also believed in “survival of the fittest” and we see where that got us. We’ll see if the rest of the country agrees or disagrees with me when Walker runs for President.

To Trust or Not to Trust: The Dilemma with Senator Menendez

I remember my first AIPAC Policy Conference in 2004 when Republican Congressman Tom DeLay spoke. He had a way with words and brought the crowd (Republicans and Democrats) to a standing ovation numerous times. I had always seen DeLay as a champion for Israel. In 2006, however, I was uncertain whether to applaud DeLay for being so pro-Israel or heckle him for his implication in a scandal with Jack Abramoff, in which Abramoff provided DeLay with trips, gifts and donations in exchange for favors to his clients. As one who tends to vote Democrat, it was easier for me to side against DeLay.

I have the same dilemma after hearing Democratic Senator Robert Menendez speak at the 2015 AIPAC Policy Conference. Menendez stole the show with his defense of Israel and his accusations against Iran. He proclaimed, “Give Iran the choice of nuclear weapons or the welfare of its people.” However, just five days later I read in Newsday about a scandal with Menendez and Salomon Melgan, in which Menendez defended Melgen against Medicare, after Melgen overbilled them. In return, Menendez received gifts and vacations from Melgen. http://www.inquisitr.com/1905024/senator-bob-menendez-corruption-scandal-bye-bob-petition-drive-launched/ In addition, Menendez is accused (separately) of hiring underage prostitutes  in the Dominican Republic. http://townhall.com/tipsheet/katiepavlich/2015/03/06/democrat-senator-bob-menendez-to-be-indicted-on-corruption-n1966815 

What does this teach us, besides the fact that corruption can be found within both parties? For me it demonstrates all the more so the danger in believing politicians’ claims. If someone comes out in support of an issue, are they really just saying it to “buy votes”? Did Menendez co-sponsor a bill to increase Iranian sanctions because he believed in it or was it a political ploy to back a donor? Can I take Menendez at face value for what he said in his AIPAC speech on Monday (and what he has said at previous conferences)? Do Menendez’s words mean less now that his corruption has become evident? Once again I have more questions than answers.

Accusation of Genocide

Based on my post on Friday, one might correctly surmise that I strongly disagreed with Susan Rice’s calling Bibi Netanyahu’s speech “destructive” to the US-Israel relationship. I believe that such a speech was necessary given the grave dangers of a nuclear Iran, and I am glad that Bibi gave it. With that being said, I find deplorable the ad that “America’s Rabbi,” Shmuley Boteach, took out in the New York Times saying “Susan Rice has a blind spot: genocide.” How can a rabbi make such an outrageous accusation?! Susan Rice’s statement has NOTHING to do with perpetuating genocide against the Jewish people. Susan Rice did not stop Bibi from speaking nor is the administration’s attempt to make a deal singlehandedly going to lead to a nuclear Iran. Rabbi Shmuley went far over the line with this statement, and in my opinion anything he issues henceforth is to be discredited.

Golden Calf: Idolatry or Political Usurpation?

Because I lived my childhood in the Midwest, New Yorkers often have the misperception that I am from farmland, surrounded by cows.  In the past I have been teased about having a “pet cow” or about waking up at the crack of dawn to milk the animals even though I live a good 15 minute drive from the closest farm.  As I thought about this week’s Torah portion, however, I reflected on what it would mean to be in an agrarian society where cows were the main animal and resource in one’s life.

This Shabbat we see a cow of infamous mention: The Golden Calf.  When Moses was on Mount Sinai, the Israelites worried about him not coming down and threatened mutiny, stating “Make us a god who shall go before us.”  Therefore, Aaron took all their jewelry and formed it into a golden calf.  The Israelites sang and danced, bowing to this calf and saying “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”  This incident infuriated Moses so much that he shattered the 10 commandments by throwing them to the ground.  God sent a plague to punish the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf.

Rabbis have stated that this story shows the impatience and lack of belief that our ancestors have, which led them to sin.  Rather than trust in Moses’ return, they panicked and created an idol to become their replacement leader.  Similarities have been pointed out between the golden calf and the Egyptian bull which represented the Egyptian god El.  What interests me, however, is one line in particular: Exodus 32:4.  Whereas the common translation of this line reads “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt,” the correct translation is “These are your gods, O Israel.”  Since there is only one calf, why is there plural language?

A story from First Kings 12 might help us answer that question.  This section comes after the 12 tribes conquered portions in the land of Israel under Joshua and created a unified kingdom under David.  David’s grandson Rehoboam was ruling, and he afflicted the Israelites with hard labor.  10 of the tribes chose to separate under a new king, Jeroboam.  Jeroboam was concerned that the members of these tribes will continue to pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, so he created two golden calves, one in Dan and the other in Bet El, and said “You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough.  These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

The second line of Jeroboam’s statement is exactly the same as the one in our portion!!!  His reasoning, however, is completely different: the golden calves are not created for idolatry but are rather for Jeroboam’s political goal of diverting the Israelites away from Jerusalem.  Many contemporary biblical critical scholars think that this was the original context of the golden calf and the Exodus story in our Torah portion was a later insertion.  If this is the case, it indicates that things are not what they seem: the golden calf is not an alternative god but rather a symbolic representation of the Israelite God which demonstrates that God can be found in alternative locations to Jerusalem.  The calves in Bet El and Dan are emanations of the very same God that took the Israelites out of Egypt as the God whose Temple is in Jerusalem: they exist solely to show that God can be worshipped outside Jerusalem.

The lesson that each of us can take from the golden calf is that things are not always what they seem.  What seems like an idol representing an alternative god might instead be a symbolic representation of God created for political reasons.  Similarly, what sounds foreign to us (a statue of a calf) may not have been foreign to our ancestors, as cows were the primary sacrificial object as well as the main animal utilized in their agrarian lifestyle.  While a legitimate claim can be made by saying that our ancestors were idol worshippers, a deeper look and comparative approach reveals that not everything we consider an idol might have been an idol to them.  It is easy to jump to conclusions or take the traditional line, but I would urge each of us to step back, reexamine situations or texts with a critical lens and make our own conclusions.  We may continue to feel that our original conclusion is correct yet it is important that we take the time to carefully examine what we read and what we hear rather than taking it at face value.

The Speech

I had the privilege of hearing Bibi Netanyahu speak on Monday at the AIPAC Policy Conference before he addressed the joint session of Congress. I did not post on this originally because I had conflicting views. On the one hand I felt Boehner made a mistake in not consulting Obama and that this was a serious breach of trust. On the other hand I felt that Bibi’s message was extremely important to convey and I’m glad he did despite pressure not to. I strongly agree with him that Iran cannot be trusted and can see them making an agreement while covertly continuing their stockpile of uranium to make a bomb.

Bibi’s “speech of a lifetime” was extremely compelling to me. The alternative that he gave, that sanctions for Iran will have to be ratcheted up in order to cripple the regime, would work, as sanctions is what brought Iran to the table in the first place. At whatever the cost, this government, which threatens to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, must be eliminated. There is no alternative if we want to maintain stability in the Middle East.

One could argue against me that Bibi insulted the United States by coming to “lecture.” It’s not that I fault US intelligence, which alongside Israel’s is second to none. It’s that I believe that negotiating with someone who wants an Islamic caliphate and who wants to destroy Israel is a grave mistake. Yassir Arafat illustrated to us the dangers of “double speak”: saying one thing at the negotiating table and quite another to your own people. I am afraid that is being amplified here, that “playing nice” at the negotiating table will lead to buying time to create a nuclear weapon.

One could also argue that Bibi’s speech was an “election ploy” for Israel’s March 17 elections. Perhaps that is the case. However, Bibi did not choose to come before Congress two weeks before Israel’s elections: he was invited in what he was told was a bipartisan invitation to address Congress. We will have to wait and see if the timing (which clearly was opportune for Bibi) will impact the Israeli elections.

I am AIPAC

Being one of 16000 members and 700 rabbis at the AIPAC Policy Conference March 1-3 was an incredible experience. I had the opportunity to hear Bibi Netanyahu, Robert Menendez, Mitch McConnell, Samantha Power and Susan Rice, as well as to lobby Senators Chuck Shumer, Kristen Gillibrand and Congressman Steve Israel. I heard Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird speak about how he turned Canada from voting anti-Israel to pro-Israel. There was also a major concert featuring Rita, David Broza and Matisyahu.

One of the most moving sessions for me was a breakfast with Donniel Hartman where he shared with us that the lesson of Purim is not to become Ahashverus. Ahashverus was indifferent to the fate of the Jewish people, letting Haman do his will with them. Very few of us have the danger of becoming Haman and vindictively deciding to annihilate a people. We do have the danger of becoming Ahashverus,of being indifferent to the plight of people.

What I love about AIPAC is its bipartisan nature. You can be a Democrat or Republican, a progressive or a conservative, and find a place to AIPAC (as a matter of fact there is a progressive track at AIPAC). AIPAC’s focus is keeping our Congress informed and passionate about Israel no matter who has the Congressional majority. This is done through regular lobbying and relationship building between Congressmen and their constituents.

I plan to be back in Washington DC for the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference next March.