Judaism in the 21st Century
Contemporary Issues
The Temple Mount
For many Jews the defining event of the twentieth century and the overwhelmingly tragic event of Jewish history was the Holocaust, the murder of almost six million European Jews by the Nazi leadership of Germany during World War II. These Jews constituted over a third of the Jewish people in the world and half of all Jews in Europe. ... No modern Jewish thinker can ignore the challenge that the Holocaust poses to traditional Jewish beliefs of an omnipotent and caring God. Elie Wiesel (b. 1928), who as a boy survived a Nazi death camp in Poland but lost all his other family members and suffered great atrocities, writes of a bitterness so deep that it could prevent him from uttering the traditional prayers to God:
Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many othe factories of death? How could I say to Him: “Blessed art Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end up in the furnaces?”
Wiesel says that we cannot turn away from the questions about how it could happen, for genocidal actions are being undertaken against other minority groups in our times as well. (Living Religions, 272-4)
The Trial of God (Elie Wiesel)
The following video is from a television play called God on Trial, which is based on an event in Elie Wiesel’s book The Trial of God that Wiesel actually witnessed as a teenager in Auschwitz.

The Atheist Rabbi
In a blog that he describes as “A secular, humanistic, non-theistic, rational approach to Judaism, Israel and the world,” Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism critiques Rabbi Alan Lurie’s response to the question of how God could have allowed the Holocaust. Lurie’s position can be abbreviated as follows:
Rabbi Alan LurieGod does know the choices that we will make because our consciousness is in constant connection to God, and for God time is not a limitation, so our future choices are not hidden. Yet God deliberately does not interfere  not out of indifference, but out of great love. God must “watch” in pain as we commit atrocities, because to interfere would negate free will, terminating the relationship and hence the very purpose of creation. This is the reconciliation of Rabbi Akiva’s famous paradox, “All is foreseen, yet free will is given”. ... Where was God in the Holocaust? As God knew the terrible choices made by too many, and wept at the horrific consequences, those who chose love and service in the face of this horror were strengthened and consoled. Good eventually did win over evil, by our own hands. (The Atheist Rabbi)
Falick’s response may be summarized as follows:
Rabbi Jeffrey Falick[W]ho says that the Jewish God doesn’t interfere? In the big book about him and much of the commentary that accompanies it, he interferes all the freaking time. We can’t move right or left (or even eat shrimp for that matter) without him interfering. And a lot of what he tells us to do, in the bible anyway, is to commit the very atrocities that he supposedly watches in so much pain. ... The faithful like to assert that non-believers are angry at God. How can we be angry at a non-existent being? If we are angry at all  and everyone should be able to get their hackles up about some injustice in this world  it’s that some people keep waiting for God to make the big difference. Notably and to their credit, Lurie and most liberal rabbis have had the good sense to drop that part of our ancient fiction. They now rightfully place all of the burden on human beings, reducing God to no more than a moral inspiration. Why they continue to waste their time on that is beyond meNo matter how much we are drawn to ascribe it to an outside source, morality comes from within us. It is an evolved behavior. And in ITS absence, holocausts occur. (The Atheist Rabbi)
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Painting of Israeli Flag
Zionism & Contemporary Israel
The horrors of the Holocaust brought increased attention to the cause of Zionism, the Jewish movement dedicated to the establishment of a politically viable, internationally recognized Jewish state in the biblical land of Israel. While political Zionism was a reaction to increasing anti-Semitism in Europe in the late nineteenth century, it is a movement with deep roots in Judaism and Jewish culture. The desire to end the centuries-long exile from Zion (the site of the Jerusalem Temples) was a central theme in all Jewish prayer and in many religious customs. Jewish messianism is focused around a descendant of King David who will return his united people to the land of Israel, where Jewish sovereignty will be eternally re-established in an atmosphere of universal peace. ... In the period before the Holocaust, not all Jews supported the Zionist movement. Most Reform Jews of that time believed the destiny of Jews was to be lived out among the Gentiles, where the Enlightenment had fueled hopes of a freer future. Some support for Zionism came from traditional Orthodox Jews, but not all of the traditional community embraced the idea. Many felt it was God who had punished the people for their unfaithfulness by sending them away from the promised land and that only God would end the exile.
Zionists with Israeli Flag
Nonetheless, by a United Nations decision in 1947 after World War II, Palestine was partitioned into two areas, one to be governed by Jews and the other by Arabs, with Jerusalem an international zone. The Jews accepted the plan, and in 1948 declared Israel an independent Jewish state with full rights for minorities. However, the Arabs did not accept the partition and as soon as British troops moved out, Israel was attacked by its Arab neighbors — Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Outnumbered, Israel nonetheless managed to gain control of a larger area than was allotted to it in the partition plan, thus bringing many Arabs under its rule. Those Arabs who fled to avoid violence were not allowed into the surrounding countries; they were instead kept in refugee camps, in which for generations people have continued to live in distress and with growing hatred for Israel. Egypt and Jordan kept sending guerrilla troops, known as “fedayeen,” to attack the Israelis, whose sovereignty they refused to recognize. ...
Israel-Palestine: Two-State Solution
From time to time, a negotiated peace has seemed almost possible, but it has not yet happened. Frameworks for Palestinian-Israeli settlement have offered some hope of decreasing hostilities in the region by creating two independent states of Palestine and Israel, but they have not satisfactorily dealt with major sticking points. One of these is the “right of return” sought by Palestinian refugees from the 1948-1949 war and their descendants. Countering this demand, some Jews point out that more than one million Jews had to flee Arab lands before and after the creation of Israel because of severe persecution. There is also Palestinian concern that the new state of Palestine would consist only of isolated, dependent enclaves under Israeli control. Yet another problem is control of, and access to, sites that are holy to both Muslims and Jews, such as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known to Muslims as the place from which the Prophet Muhammad began his Night Journey to the seven heavens but also the most sacred place in Judaism, as the site of the former Temples. (Living Religions, 274-6)
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Jerusalem's Holy Sites
"If Americans Knew" Founder Alison WeirAlthough the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is largely a conflict over land and can be resolved through the application of international law, religious groups do play several important roles in the ongoing crisis. Fanatical religious groups use their religions to perpetuate the conflict, while peaceful religious groups use the teachings of their religions to call for peace.

Although the American media is rife with articles on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, it is important to be aware of the role of two other fanaticisms — Jewish and Christian — in this conflict.

According to the late Israeli professor Israel Shahak, Israel denies Palestinian Christians and Muslims their basic human rights due in large part to a virulent strain of Jewish chauvinism. Shahak states that, “The State of Israel officially discriminates in favour of Jews and against non-Jews in many domains of life, of which I regard three as being the most important: residency rights, the right to work and the right to equality before the law.” This discrimination is arguably the largest blockage to peace between the two parties.

Israeli Settlements

The Israeli settler movement, in particular, which is responsible for stealing a huge portion of Palestinian land, is primarily based on this chauvinism. Particularly disturbing is the description of their land theft as ‘redeeming’ the land — transfering holy land from non-Jewish ownership to Jewish hands. Shahak explains that, “[t]he logical conclusion of such an ideology is the expulsion, called ‘transfer’, of all non-Jews from the area of land which has to be ‘redeemed’.


In recent years there has been a bizarre marriage of fanaticisms. Some prominent members of the American Christian Right have joined with Jewish Zionists in their discrimination against non-Jews (primarily Christian and Muslim Palestinians) in the land that is holy to all three religions. Some of these Christian Zionists adhere to a previously rare theology called “Dispensationalism,” in which select scriptures from the Old Testament are interpreted to predict a series of violent events that will lead to the “second coming” of Christ. This Dispensationalist belief calls for all Jews to “return” to Israel/Palestine, which will then bring a cataclysmic “rapture,” in which 120,000 Jews will convert to Christianity and the millions remaining will be killed in a cruel and bloody battle, which will then, in turn, bring the return to earth of Jesus Christ.

Most Christians consider such violence the antithesis of the teaching of Jesus Christ. Even groups who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible largely believe that the Second Coming will happen “in God’s way” and “in God’s time,” not through human intervention, and emphasize New Testament teachings of love and compassion. Nevertheless, the Dispensationalist interpretation is being promoted on numerous religious radio stations and elsewhere, appears well-financed, and is a significant factor.

Interview with Anti-Zionist Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss

Among the Jewish religious community there is a similar split, with religious opposition to Zionism found across the spectrum of Jewish belief. In fact, originally Zionism was a minority position among the Jewish population worldwide, only attaining its present large proportions after World War II and the Nazi atrocities.  Today, a growing number of Jewish organizations and individuals consider Zionism deeply contrary to Judaism. For example, members of Neturei Karta believe that Jews “are a people in exile due to Divine decree,” and that their “banishment from the Holy Land will end miraculously at a time when all mankind will unite in the brotherly service of the Creator.” These many groups feel that Israel’s violent policies are not only counterproductive but contrary to the ethical traditions they view as the core of Judaism. (If Americans Knew)

Map of the Gaza Strip
I asked a Palestinian friend, Ali Abusheikh, to share a statement with the class about what it’s like to live in Gaza, which is a small self-governing territory on the Mediterranean Sea that borders Egypt and Israel. Together with the West Bank, it constitutes the Palestinean territories; however, the borders with Egypt and Israel are both closed and there is a sea and air blockade, so that it is extremely difficult for Palestinians living in the Gaza strip to leave the territory. According to Wikipedia:
Despite the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, the United Nations, international human rights organisations, and the majority of governments and legal commentators consider the territory to be still occupied by Israel, supported by additional restrictions placed on Gaza by Egypt. Israel maintains direct external control over Gaza and indirect control over life within Gaza: it controls Gaza’s air and maritime space, and six of Gaza’s seven land crossings. It reserves the right to enter Gaza at will with its military and maintains a no-go buffer zone within the Gaza territory. Gaza is dependent on Israel for its water, electricity, telecommunications, and other utilities. (Gaza Strip)

I think the saddest current thing in the conflict is Gaza blockade. It’s unfair and unlawful. We have been blockaded for ten years and this leads to many crises. Life here is very bad and unbearable. There’s a real shortage of gas, medicine, electricity and sometimes fresh running water along with many other things. And of course a lack of life as the rate of unemployment is insanely high. People rarely get jobs here. And you know, I guess the worst two things ever is the lack of electricity and medicine as well as being trapped and not having the chance to travel. We have electricity for almost 3-4 hours a day. It’s crazy. We even struggle keeping our food fresh in the fridges and it gets worse when the weather is hot. We can’t even use air conditioners because there’s not enough electricity for them. And it’s even worse for hospitals who really need electricity all day long. The max that we might have of electricity would be from 6-8 hours. We never have it for more than 8 hours and it scarcely comes for 8 hours anyway. Besides, we completely lose electricity for more than 10 days straight when there an Israeli war/assault in Gaza like what happened in 2014 was that lasted for 51. It was the most horrible war ever. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed and many neighbourhoods were levelled to the ground by the Israeli forces.

What saddens me most is cancer patients who are usually not able to leave to get their medical treatment abroad. Moreover, it’s very hard for students to leave to continue their education abroad as the Egyptian and the Israeli crossings are almost permanently closed and we don’t have an airport, neither a seaport. The students who would get the chance to leave to study abroad are usually those who get accepted to scholarships sponsored by either the American or the British governments. They help them to get an Israeli permit to leave Gaza for Amman and fly from there. However, not all students get their permits approved by the Israeli government. Many students who got accepted to international competitive programs were not able to leave, and the problem is still continuous.

We are not independent at all and it saddens me that we can’t even see “The State of Palestine” on our passports. It says the Palestinian Authority as we don’t have an independent country. Palestinians in the West Bank suffers too because illegal Israeli settlements are spread there and there are Israeli checkpoints between most Palestinian cities there. This means that there are movement restrictions.

For more of Ali’s writings on life in Gaza (highlighting “the beautiful and positive parts of Palestinian culture and everyday life that is overlooked in Western media”), visit his blog on the We Are Not Numbers website.

Ten Things Palestinians Can't Do
For a list of 10 things that Palestinians can’t do, click the above image.

Hamas Logo

On the other hand, the de facto government of the Gaza Strip is Hamas, which is widely regarded as a terrorist organization. According to Wikipedia:

Hamas (Arabic: حماس‎‎ Ḥamās, an acronym of حركة المقاومة الاسلامية Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah Islamic Resistance Movement) is a Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist organization. It has a social service wing, Dawah, and a military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. It has been the de facto governing authority of the Gaza Strip since its takeover of that area in 2007. During this period it fought several wars with Israel. It is regarded, either in whole or in part, as a terrorist organization by several countries and international organizations, most notably by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Hamas was founded in 1987, soon after the First Intifada broke out, as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which in its Gaza branch had been non-confrontational towards Israel, refrained from resistance, and was hostile to the PLO. Co-founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin stated in 1987, and the Hamas Charter affirmed in 1988, that Hamas was founded to liberate Palestine, including modern-day Israel, from Israeli occupation and to establish an Islamic state in the area that is now Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The group has stated that it may accept a 10-year truce if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders and allows Palestinian refugees from 1948, including their descendants, to return to what is now Israel, although clarifying that this does not mean recognition of Israel or the end of the conflict. Hamas’s military wing objected to the truce offer. Analysts have said that it seems clear that Hamas knows that many of its conditions for the truce could never be met.

The military wing of Hamas has launched attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, often describing them as retaliatory, in particular for assassinations of the upper echelon of their leadership. Tactics have included suicide bombings and, since 2001, rocket attacks. Hamas’s rocket arsenal, though mainly consisting of short-range homemade Qassam rockets, also includes long-range weapons that have reached major Israeli cities including Tel Aviv and Haifa. The attacks on civilians have been condemned as war crimes and crimes against humanity by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch. A 2017 Palestinian Center for Public Opinion poll in the Palestinian territories revealed that Hamas violence and rhetoric against Israelis are unpopular and that a majority of Palestinians would rather Hamas “accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.”

In the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas won a plurality in the Palestinian Parliament, defeating the PLO-affiliated Fatah party. Following the elections, the Quartet (the United States, Russia, United Nations, and European Union) made future foreign assistance to the PA conditional upon the future government’s commitment to non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements. Hamas rejected those changes, which led to the Quartet suspending its foreign assistance program and Israel imposing economic sanctions on the Hamas-led administration. In March 2007, a national unity government headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was briefly formed, but this failed to restart international financial assistance. Tensions over control of Palestinian security forces soon erupted in the 2007 Battle of Gaza, after which Hamas took control of Gaza, while its officials were ousted from government positions in the West Bank. Israel and Egypt then imposed an economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, on the grounds that Fatah forces were no longer providing security there. In 2011, Hamas and Fatah announced a reconciliation agreement that provides for creation of a joint caretaker Palestinian government. Progress stalled, until an April 2014 agreement to form a compromise unity government, with elections to be held in late 2014.
Reflection Paper Icon
Choose one of the following two topics:
  1. In the wake of the Holocaust, Jews have had to grapple with issue of how an all-powerful God could have allowed the Nazis to brutally murder six million innocent men, women, and children. Elie Wiesel and the “Atheist Rabbi” Jeffrey Falick responded by questioning God’s existence; the character in the television play “God on Trial” accepted God’s existence but questioned His morality; Rabbi Alan Lurie suggested that God does not intervene in human events in order to preserve human free will, which he regards as the very purpose of creation; finally, the Jewish anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta believes that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the collective failure of the Jewish people to live according to the strict demands of their covenant with God. Choose one of these positions (or develop a position of your own) and explain why you feel that it is an appropriate Jewish response to the Holocaust.
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  1. In 1947, the United Nations partitioned Palestine (which at the time was controlled by the British) into two states — one controlled by Jews, the other controlled by Arabs. Although most Jews came to support the existence of this Jewish state, certain “anti-Zionist” groups, such as Neturei Karta,  are opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state on religious grounds. Explain the Jewish anti-Zionist position and reflect on its proposed solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
PollEverywhere: Judaism