Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s comments on President Obama’s speeches.

Friends – here are some words by Rabbi Eric Yoffie that, I believe, offer some important insights to President Obama's recent speeches to the State Department and AIPAC.


Dear Friend:

These past few weeks have been trying ones, here at home and in Israel.

Many of our North American communities have been battered by devastating weather. Our thoughts are with the victims and we continue to work closely with our congregations in the affected regions. Please check the URJ Disaster Relief page for updates and, if you wish, to make a donation. Together, the entire Reform Movement prays for the welfare of all those impacted by these terrible tragedies. May God grant them comfort and healing in the days, weeks and months to come.

And while some of our communities in North America fight physical storms, our brothers and sisters in Israel fight political ones. Despite its military strength, Israel is a small and vulnerable state, and is now facing especially difficult times. The United Nations will vote in September on whether or not to recognize Palestinian statehood, and if the resolution passes, it will be a distressing sign of Israel's isolation on the international stage. Uprisings throughout the Arab world create hope for democracy and change, but could also pose serious threats to Israel's security. And Iran continues its efforts to develop nuclear weapons that will threaten Israel and the world.

Against this backdrop, we have had five tumultuous days of meetings and speeches from President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on issues related to Israeli-Palestinian peace. President Obama spoke once to the State Department and once to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby; Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to AIPAC and before a joint session of Congress; and the President and Prime Minister met in the White House last Friday.

(Prime Minister Netanyahu also met with a small group of Jewish leaders during the AIPAC Conference, a meeting attended by the Union's President-designate Rabbi Rick Jacobs.)

There have been no end of commentaries on these developments, but I would like to offer a few reactions of my own.

In his two speeches, the President expressed in the clearest possible terms the unshakable support of the United States government for the State of Israel (and in some cases went well beyond what had previously been said by him or previous administrations). He said for the first time that a Palestinian state must be a demilitarized state. He insisted that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people. He warned the Palestinians against bringing their statehood resolution to the UN. He expressed deep concern about the Hamas-Fatah pact. He affirmed that peace could not be imposed from the outside but must be agreed upon by the parties.

It is difficult to imagine, in fact, a more ringing endorsement by the President of America's traditional support for Israel. This support was obscured, in some measure, by the bizarre claim that the President had called for a return to 1967 borders; such a step would indeed be impossible and unacceptable, but the President said no such thing, as was clear from his call for secure and recognized borders arrived at through negotiation and mutually agreed exchanges of land. As noted by Ehud Barak, Israel's Defense Minister, a statement that negotiations start with discussions of the 1967 borders is very different from saying that that is where they end up.

The central premise of the President's message was that if peace is to come, it will be through the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside a Jewish state. The principle of a two-state solution, of course, has been supported by the last three U.S. administrations and by both major parties; it is also the policy of the State of Israel. The Reform Movement has supported a two-state solution since the early 1990s.

The President also deserves our appreciation for his current efforts to convince our European allies to oppose the UN resolution on Palestinian statehood. Both of his speeches, which affirmed Palestinian rights to a state of their own, have been well received by our allies and should assist in these efforts. As noted, passage of the statehood resolution could seriously undermine Israel's diplomatic standing.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's powerful statement to Congress expressed gratitude to the United States government for its support and promised painful compromises for peace. The Prime Minister reviewed the policies of his government and gave special emphasis to security threats that Israel is now confronting. He spoke of Hamas' commitment to terror and to Israel's destruction; of the need to confront the dangers posed by Iran to the international community; and of the possibility that democratic stirrings in the Arab world could, if they take a wrong turn, lead to hostile governments rather than democratic ones. These threats are real and deeply troubling. The need for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not less important on their account but more important; still, they remind us that true security must be an essential component of any peace agreement.

Is there a possibility now of genuine negotiations and progress toward peace? I am far from certain. I believe that the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority is generally moderate in outlook, but is surrounded by mostly unreasonable voices; the presence of Hamas makes progress far more doubtful still. Nonetheless, we know that every effort must be made. Israel has pledged yet again to do its part, and the Administration has pledged to help move the process forward. We are thankful for these efforts because President Obama is surely right that the current situation is unsustainable, and if peace does not come, Israel's situation will be more grave 5 years from now than it is today. For that reason, my hope is that if the Palestinian Authority is not forthcoming, Israel's leaders will take what steps they can take to separate themselves from the Palestinians in order to preserve Israel's Jewish and democratic character.

In the meantime, our task as North American Jews is to offer Israel our love and support; to do everything possible to deepen the friendship between Israel and her most important ally, the United States of America, keeping in mind always that the goal of Israel advocacy is for American – and Canadian – support of Israel to be broad, inclusive, and bi-partisan; and to send the message that Israel's fate rests not only in the hands of her citizens but in the hands of Jews everywhere.

As I wrote on Yom Ha'atzma'ut, let us pray, today and everyday, that peace and redemption will come to Israel's borders and that harmony will hallow Jerusalem's gates, bi'meheira u'viyameinu—speedily, and in our day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reflecting on President Obama’s recent overtures to peace in the Middle East

I'm sure that, by now, everyone has heard that our president has recently had a lot to say about Israel. Last Thursday he gave a substantial policy address and he spoke on Sunday the AIPAC conference.
Although many people heard the speech, what he actually meant by his words is the topic of fierce debate. Presidential speeches, like tractates of Talmud are studied zealously. We look for nuances and shifts. We try to hear both what was said and what WASN'T said so as to try to understand the impact of any policy changes or additions.
Depending on whom one listens to, President Obama is either an friend of Israel, a naïve idealist, or a sworn enemy who has been drinking State Department "Arabist Kool-Aid" (to quote a recent OpEd piece by right-wing commentator, Cal Thomas).
The fact that the President referred to the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations was troubling for some.  For others, the fact that he omitted any references to the Palestinian demand for a law of return was worrisome.
Although I was unable to attend the AIPAC policy Conference this year, I did follow the president's speech to the plenary as it was broadcast online.. I also followed many of the comments posted by people who were "live blogging" it on Twitter and Facebook. It was fascinating to see how so many people, hearing the exact same words, had such different interpretations.
On Tuesday, May 31 from 7:00- 8:30 pm I will be sitting on a panel discussing the following topic: "Israel and Obama's Vision For The Middle East." The program will be sponsored by "Stand With Us Israel" and will take place at the   Hebrew Educational Alliance (3600 S Ivanhoe). I will be joined by Professor Shaul Gabbay, Rabbi Bruce Dollin, Rabbi Selwyn Franklin and Rabbi Richard Rheins.
Even the title of the forum can be understood in multiple ways. For example, does the word "and" imply that Israel and President Obama share the same vision, or does it mean that they differ?
In preparation for my remarks, I would love to hear your thoughts on the following:
  • President Obama's Speech and subsequent need to clarify his remarks at the AIPAC conference
  • The state of your own personal relationship with Israel;
  • Do you feel that Obama is a friend of Israel?
  • Are his policies and pronouncements radically different than those of previous administrations?
  • What are the effectiveness of our governmental policies (or lack thereof…) vis-à-vis Israel
I'm happyto hear thoughts on others issues as well.  Feel free to post your comments on this blog, or reply to me in private. (

Todah Rabbah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

P.S. – for more information about the community forum on 5/31, contact

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Shades of Dreyfus?

In a recent post on a Rabbinic Listserv to which I subscribe, a colleague of mine, Rabbi Dan Gropper, posted the following:

"With the news of the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for raping a woman in NYC, do we need fear a reprise of the Dreyfus affair? Will another Herzl emerge from this?"

An interesting and frightening question. For those who aren't familiar with my colleague's reference here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article entitled: "Dreyfus Affair" (

The Dreyfus affair (French: l'affaire Dreyfus) was a political scandal that divided France in the 1890s and the early 1900s. It involved the conviction for treason in November 1894 of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil's Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement.[1]

After the trial, it became clear that Dreyfus was innocent of all charges. During the trail and the scandal that emerged in its aftermath, anti-Semitism in France rose to new heights. Emil Zola, in his famous essay, J'accuse, shined a light on the hypocrisy and bigotry that rose to the surface during the affair. A young journalist named Theodore Herzl was covering the trial for an Austrian newspaper and, as a result of what he saw in France, decided to dedicate his life to the creation of a Jewish State. Herzl, of course, is now known as the Father of Modern Zionism.

We don't know if Strauss-Kahn is guilty or innocent of the charges that have been brought against him. What is quite clear, however, is that there will be those who will use the fact that a prominent Jewish economist and a (formerly) rising international political star has been brought down by accusations of sexual impropriety. The racist/anti-Zionist blogosphere is already filled with posts about Jewish conspiracies - fueling their rants with ancient stereotypes lifted from the pages of the notorious 19th Century forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In addition, the images of coordinated attacks on Israel in conjunction with Palestinian commemorations of the "Nakhba" – a Palestinain day of mourning that takes place on the Israel Independence Day – make it very clear that Syria, Iran, Libya, Hezbollah and the Palestinians are eagerly seizing on any opportunity to deflect world attention from the revolts that are taking place on the streets of Arab capitals around the world.

History does tend to repeat itself – especially in a climate where memories are short and easy answers are the norm.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Remarks for the Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)Survivors Service

I had originally intended to post the following remarks on my blog today.  I hadn't intended to post twice in one day - obviously other events got in the way.  Yesterday I gave the keynote address at the Annual Yom HaShoah survivors service in Denver.  This service has been held every year on the first Sunday after Pesach since 1950.  This year, three local cantors sang and three generations of survivors and their children gave their powerful testimony.

Remarks for the Yom HaShoah Survivors Service
May1, 2011
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel - Denver, CO

As a child, I was different than most of the other kids in my class.  You see, it wasn’t until I was in 3rd or 4th grade that I realized that most people in America didn’t have grandparents who spoke with a Yiddish accent.  I grew up in a sheltered world.  With the exception of my father’s family – who lived far away in Boston -  most of my grandparents’ generation came from Europe.
My mother was born in Leipzig Germany, in 1926.  An only child, she and her parents escaped the machinery of Nazi death in December of 1938 – shortly after living through Krystallnacht – the infamous “Night of Broken Glass that took place on November 9, 1938.  They were among the last who were able to leave.
The Shoah always has been a central part of my life.  My mother’s lost childhood in Germany has been replayed over and over again in the stories she has shared with my sister and me of growing up with the rise of Nazism; in the memories and faded photographs of the friends and relatives she lost, in the guilt she felt – and still feels – over being one of the lucky ones – one of the ones who got out before it was too late.
She and my father came from different worlds.  He was born in Boston – in the center of a thriving Jewish community.  Most of his extended family had come to America in the late 19th and early 20th century from Lithuania.  He was a second generation American Jew who grew up in a large community.
My mother loves to tell the story of the first time she met her future in laws – she was amazed at how loud everybody was.  They were all yelling at each other!  She didn’t understand what was going on – she had never been in the midst of an American, Eastern European Jewish family who who loved to argue.  That was the way they lived their lives.  They weren’t afraid of being themselves.  They never had to hide the fact that they were Jewish. 
Several years ago, I wrote the following poem about my parents:

My father -
Boston bred,
Cabbage fed,
Well read -
grew up in a 3-flat -
playing stoop ball and kick-the-can,
chased by bullies,
sneaking cigarettes behind the Shul .
He lived with aunts, uncles, cousins sprawled 
like so many pillows perched
on the overstuffed furniture -
the kinds you weren’t supposed to sit on -
unless company -
real company-
was coming.

He knew them:
Mavens every one.
Cheek pinchers,
A house of garlic--
yelling and hugging
speaking and feuding -
coming and going all the time.

(He longed for silence.)

My mother came here with glass in her shoes;
peeking through the curtains at the American Jews -
with their strange accented English,
marveling at their boldness,
cringing at their-complements.

Hers was a childhood of stubborn isolation -
of silence and significance,
culture and compromise
of being seen and not heard
watching P’s and Q’s -
of remembering and holding on
to the few mementos of a distant past long gone.

It was a good life,
and yet, there were times when it would have been wondrous
to complain about a cousin who
embarrassed her in front of her friends.


Growing up in Evanston and Skokie IL, our community was filled with men and women with numbers tattooed on their arms.  As I think back to my childhood of the 1960’s and 70’s, I now realize that many of my Hebrew school teachers were survivors.   I remember the fervor that they infused into teaching us Hebrew and, I also now realize the passion and the pain that they instilled in all of us as they taught us the language for which they suffered so much and whose syllables, consonants and vowels meant more than simply words on a pageI remember their tears, and sometimes their rage when we didn’t behave (which was all too often) – when we didn’t share their enthusiasm for Hebrew.

I remember the haunted eyes of those who stood to say kaddish at shul; who lost everyone and every thing that they loved.  I also remember those who could no longer pray – for whom the concept of God was destroyed in the smokestacks of Auschwitz.

Those of you who are survivors –who bear witness: by your pain, your dignity, the fleeting moments of triumph and the memories of horror – you who have striven to rebuild your lives – your very presence, your strength, your courage, and pride stand as a powerful reminder of the ability of the human spirit to withstand almost anything.  All of us here today pledge to carry your legacies into the future.

Those of you who are the children of survivors - you understand how pain can be passed on from generation to generation – and yet you also are the salvation of your parents – you who live in freedom.  You who are proud to be Jews – to proclaim your faith, to bear witness to the words:  “Am Yisrael Chai.” 

And those of you whose grandparents or even great-grandparents are survivors – who have learned of the legacy of love and loss that is a part of your personal history – it is to you that we dedicate not only this service of remembrance – but every day of our lives – so that you will, in turn teach YOUR children the importance of memory – the necessity to stand tall in the face of evil and speak out when injustice, bigotry or ignorance creeps into our consciousness – or that of our nation – and spreads its contagion throughout the land.

My dear friends, today we acknowledge the power of memory – and the legacy of martyrdom that is encoded into the fabric of our lives – the spiritual DNA that shapes our hopes and dreams – and the fears and pain that accompany them.

When, in the next decades, those who bore witness to the events that shaped our history are gone – it is we who will continue to tell their stories and, in doing so, work to bring nearer the day when all hatred, suffering and violence will disappear from God’s creation.

In the Mishnah we find the following:
“ Lo Alecha Ha-mlacha ligmor – v’lo atah ben chorin l’heebateyl mimenah
“It is not up to you to finish the task – but neither are you free to desist from carrying it out.”
Our sacred duty is to remember, to teach, and to live our lives in such a way that we honor the memory of all those who perished – and cherish those who survived.  No more and no less.
Ken yehi ratzon. – May it be God’s will.  AMEN

Reflections on the death of Bin Laden on Yom HaShoah

Last night, like most of us, my family and I were transfixed by the scenes playing out on our TV screens. The celebrations that were taking place outside of the White House, at Times Square, at Ground Zero and throughout the world following confirmation by President Obama that Osama Bin Laden had been killed were spellbinding. It was as if a cloud had been lifted from our national consciousness. The jubilation and spontaneous demonstrations of national pride that these (mostly young) revelers were displaying was both wonderful and disconcerting. Chants of "U.S.A!!! U.S.A!!!" filled the air and reporters were interviewing survivors of the 9-11 rescue operations that are indelibly linked into our consciousness.

At last, we had some positive news in the war on terror. American commandos had broken through the seemingly impenetrable wall of invincibility that Al Qaeda had created. The mass murderer of thousands had finally been eliminated.

And yet, waking up this morning, however, I don't feel too much like celebrating. Bin Laden died a violent death. He deserved to die. But while I am relieved that Bin Laden no longer poses a threat, I have no illusions that his death will put an end to terror. On the contrary, most of us are bracing ourselves for the inevitable reaction of Al-Qaeda and the myriad of terrorist offshoots that it has spawned.

In addition, the image of celebrating the death of another human being – no matter how evil he may have been – doesn't fit my image of the highest ideals for which we, as a nation, stand. In the book of Proverbs 24:17 we find the following: "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles."

My son, Ethan, beautifully captured this duality of feeling in his Facebook status when he wrote:

"Regardless of how despicable or evil an individual might be, we as Americans never celebrate the death of another. We instead celebrate the end to an era of fear and terror. We celebrate the individuals who keep us safe from those who want to harm us. Most importantly, we celebrate the universal ideals of freedom and justice."

The fact that Bin-Laden was killed on Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and on the anniversary of the death of Adolph Hitler was not lost to many of us. Yesterday afternoon, I participated in a somber commemoration at the JCC where three generations of survivors spoke about their lives and experiences. Each person spoke of how the Shoah colored their worldview –but not one spoke of revenge. Instead, the message was one of healing – of seeking beauty in a world that was all too often filled with ugliness.

This morning, the world is a different place than it was last night – not because a terrorist has been killed – but, rather, because we have been given an opportunity to heal. One man's death, however justified, will not bring back the thousands upon thousands who have died due to hatred. Perhaps we can utilize this moment to concentrate on bringing Shalom: peace and wholeness to a world that is incomplete.