Can a Jew Legally Cancel his Jewishness?

JSPAN Newsletter - June 3, 2011

Jewish Social Policy Action Network
In This Issue:
Newsletter: June 3, 2011
JSPAN Annual Meeting - June 16, 2011
On Thursday, June 16 the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) will hold its Annual Meeting at the offices of Montgomery McCracken, located in the Wells Fargo Building, 123 South Broad Street in Philadelphia.

The event will begin at 5:45 pm with the June Board meeting for all JSPAN Board members, including continuing board members and new inductees. The Board will formally welcome the new members and incoming officers with an induction ceremony. This year JSPAN will be welcoming eleven new board members increasing the board to 50 directors. Following the Board meeting, there will be a dinner for the entire board. The Board meeting and dinner will take place on the 28th floor.

Following the Board meeting the evening's public program will commence at 7:30 pm in the Justice Roberts Room, located on the 29th floor of the Wells Fargo Building, with the featured guest speaker, Joe Sestak.

Sestak, a former three-star admiral, represented Pennsylvania'’s Seventh Congressional District from 2007 to 2011. He also served as Director for Defense Policy on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. The topic of his talk will be "An Outsider’s View of Washington: Policy without Trust"

The cost of a ticket is $100; however the Annual Meeting is open to all JSPAN members without charge. Please contact JSPAN's Executive Director at 215.546.3732 or for more information and to purchase tickets. Join JSPAN on our website today and enjoy the saving!


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Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population
New York Times
May 23, 2011

WASHINGTON - Conditions in California's overcrowded prisons are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday, ordering the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision that broke along ideological lines, described a prison system that failed to deliver minimal care to prisoners with serious medical and mental health problems and produced "needless suffering and death.” Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. filed vigorous dissents. Justice Scalia called the order affirmed by the majority "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." Justice Alito said "the majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California."

The majority opinion included photographs of inmates crowded into open gymnasium-style rooms and what Justice Kennedy described as "telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets" used to house suicidal inmates. Suicide rates in the state's prisons, Justice Kennedy wrote, have been 80 percent higher than the average for inmates nationwide. A lower court in the case said it was "an uncontested fact" that "an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies."


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Battle over Circumcision is Shaping Up in California
By Sue Fishkoff
May 30, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- In November, San Franciscans will vote on a ballot measure that would outlaw circumcision on boys under the age of 18.

Although experts say it is highly unlikely the measure will pass -- very few state propositions pass, much less one this controversial -- the mere fact that it reached the ballot, and in such a major city, has caused much concern for Jews and their allies.

Opponents of the bill see it as a violation of the Constitution's protection of religious rights and an infringement on physicians' ability to practice medicine. More than that, however, the measure is being seen as a frontal attack on a central tenet of Judaism.

"The stakes are very high," said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs. "Circumcision is a fundamental aspect of Jewish ritual practice and Jewish identity. While we certainly hope the prospect of its being enacted is remote, the precedent it would set and the message it would send would be terrible, not just in the United States but around the world.

"We don't just want it defeated," he said, "we want it defeated resoundly."


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Abolish the Debt Ceiling!
It's a pointless, dangerous historical relic.

By Annie Lowrey
May 16, 2011

Today, the United States officially hit its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, meaning the country can no longer issue new bonds to finance its debt. The Treasury Department has already started undertaking "extraordinary measures" to keep the country's bills paid. Eventually, though, the United States will need to do one of three things: default on its obligations, start making drastic cuts in federal spending, or raise the debt ceiling again.

But perhaps there is a fourth alternative, one that will spare us from endless partisan bickering and protect the markets from uncertainty: The United States should just get rid of the debt ceiling, once and for all.

The ceiling is entirely unnecessary for managing the country's finances. Every year, Congress determines the government's rates of taxation and spending, and therefore its surplus or deficit. Annual deficits accrue to the overall national debt, which Treasury finances by issuing bonds. The ceiling relates only to the total amount of debt the Treasury is allowed to issue. In and of itself, it does nothing to constrain spending, raise taxes, or otherwise improve the country's fiscal situation.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office may have explained the dangerous pointlessness of the debt ceiling best: "By itself, setting a limit on the debt is an ineffective means of controlling deficits because the decisions that necessitate borrowing are made through other legislative actions," it writes. "By the time an increase in the debt ceiling comes up for approval, it is too late to avoid paying the government's pending bills without incurring serious negative consequences."


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Can a Jew legally cancel his Jewishness?
The Jerusalem Post
May 26, 2011

A famous Israeli author's (Yoram Kaniuk) recent court request to be categorized as 'without religion' raises many issues concerning the existential definitions on what it means to be Jewish.

[W]e live in a universe of personal choice unprecedented in Jewish history, both in Israel and especially in other parts of the world. Our Jewishness competes in a marketplace of affiliations and choices; and needless to say, sometimes it wins and sometimes it loses. Kaniuk [author seeking to abandon his Jewish identity] represents the instinct of many Jews to see their Jewishness as ornamental or - put differently - merely a fragment of an identity much more complicated than belonging to a 'people' usually demands. It is disappointing when this happens, and to my mind reflects a misunderstanding of a key - if at times exasperating - feature of Jewishness: being Jewish entails belonging to something more than a set of personal choices.

The people of this people, our communities, must find better ways to tolerate within its parameters a diversity of political and ideological positions, including those we might find completely repugnant. The Jewish nation has always countenanced extraordinary diversity of thinking and behavior; it is just perhaps that at other times in our history the explicit boundaries between 'us' and 'others' were high enough that we found ways to co-exist by necessity. Now, we find ourselves frustrated on one end by desires to shunt a complex identity into becoming a vestigial adjective; and on the other, by those who stay in our midst but voice ideas and expressions of their Judaism, credibly developed from within the same tradition, that we find problematic.

For about a quarter-century, the American Jewish community has done a decent job at building a culture of pluralism around issues of religion: community day schools have sprouted up, Hillels model the ability of diverse religious communities worshiping under the same roof, fellowship programs bridge denominational divides. Increasingly, pluralism - especially for non-orthodox Jews - is somewhere between 'taken for granted' and the defining Jewish identity for many American Jews. Functionally, religious issues like diversity of practice and differences of faith are the underlying reality of Jewish life rather than a challenge that must be overcome.


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Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite
Is it enough to have merit based college admissions if only the wealthy can afford to actually attend? - Ed.

New York Times
May 24, 2011

The last four presidents of the United States each attended a highly selective college. All nine Supreme Court justices did, too, as did the chief executives of General Electric (Dartmouth), Goldman Sachs (Harvard), Wal-Mart (Georgia Tech), Exxon Mobil (Texas) and Google (Michigan). Like it or not, these colleges have outsize influence on American society. So their admissions policies don't matter just to high school seniors; they're a matter of national interest. More than seven years ago, a 44-year-old political scientist named Anthony Marx became the president of Amherst College, in western Massachusetts, and set out to change its admissions policies. Mr. Marx argued that elite colleges were neither as good nor as meritocratic as they could be, because they mostly overlooked lower- income students.

For all of the other ways that top colleges had become diverse, their student bodies remained shockingly affluent. At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution. At some private colleges, the numbers were even more extreme.


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Months Later, Jewish Groups and Israel are Still Helping a Tsunami-Devastated Japan
By Sue Fishkoff - May 23, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- In northeastern Japan, the area hardest hit by the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a team of Israeli post-trauma experts guided local teachers and officials through their lingering pain.

One kindergarten teacher broke down in tears as she related how another teacher saw the great wall of water approaching her school and tried in vain to save her young pupils. Eight of the children were washed away, along with their valiant teacher.

"People were not aware how much the disaster affected them," said Shachar Zahavi, the founder and executive director of IsraAid, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that is running post-trauma courses in the town of Watari, as well as providing other much-needed material and emotional aid in the region.

More than two months after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resultant tsunami destroyed thousands of homes, entire towns and countless lives in Japan, Jewish groups from North America and Israel continue to offer a helping hand to the Asian island nation.

"It's not like the scene in Haiti," said Zahavi, referring to the many international agencies, including several from Israel, that poured into the quake-stricken Caribbean island in 2010. "Most of the other agencies have left Japan by now. A lot of people, in Japan and Israel, are amazed we're still there."

The Jewish Federations of North America has raised more than $1 million for Japan. More than $800,000 has come from individual federations; the rest has been raised through donations to the parent organization. Most of the money is funneled through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and its local agencies on the ground.


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Memories After My Death, by Yair Lapid
Book Review by David Broida, JSPAN Board Member

This book is unusual - it's a memoir of Tommy Lapid, former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, journalist, member of the Knesset, husband, father, and friend, written in his voice after his death, by his journalist and writer son Yair Lapid. From his early days in Yugoslavia and Budapest, where Tommy's father and other family members were taken away never to return, to his escape from Europe to pre-state Palestine, to becoming an adult in Israel - his story is compelling, always interesting, and just fun to read. Like many memoirs, of course, his ego bounces off the pages, but not to the detriment of this book.

Readers who don't mind reading one more story of survival - cunning, strength, and luck all played a part - will be captivated by Tommy's escape from Eichmann's reach in Budapest. Equally important is his take on events. He's a keen observer of the Jews, his neighbors, the Hungarian collaborators, and his family whose comfortable lives were changed forever. He observes the Hungarian police, no longer collaborating with the Gestapo now that the Russians are at the gate now dressed in civilian clothes and mixing in with Jews, actually posing as Jews, and hoping to fool the Russians when they arrive.

In Israel as an adult, his dislike of anything religious, the Haredim in particular, seems to define his public life more than anything else. He writes that he is no less of a Jew than any rabbi in Jerusalem whose children "cannot find China on a map or turn on a computer, and who do not serve in the army or repress their wives or refuse to work, living off the taxes I pay instead." It's a caricature, of course, but it rings true.

Tommy writes of "the end of the period of silence" in Israel, regarding survivors finally speaking out when Eichmann was captured and put on trial. "Fifteen years of mute silence had ended," and then survivors began to speak out "in an unstoppable flood." His observations (he covered the trial as a journalist) highlight the importance of Eichmann's capture and trial, and the centrality of that event in Israelis coming to terms with the Holocaust (if that's ever possible, of course).

As the 1982 Lebanon War went sour, especially with Israel's role in the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla, Lapid's opposition is firm. He felt the war was wrong. At the same time, he remained a friend of Ariel Sharon the rest of his life. He did not let differences interfere with friendship. The same when Sharon dumped him from his government. He served as head of the IBC - Israel's broadcasting arm - and he writes of his conflicts with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who wanted more and better television coverage of his government. From Begin to Arafat, he's got one interesting anecdote after another. In the case of Begin, he did not yield.

Lapid addresses an IDF issue - is the State responsible for the soldiers, or are the soldiers responsible for the State? He seems to say that the soldiers looking after the State comes first, but the 1982 Lebanon War changed his mind. He felt that the state's responsibility to the soldier is understated.

Early in the book, he foreshadows his daughter Michal's death at age 33, but he does not say how she died until a few chapters later. From my visits to Israel and readings over the years, it seemed to me, war aside, that the most likely cause of death was an automobile accident. And that's what happened, revealed many pages later.

He expresses his disdain for the Israeli left, because it combines Zionism with Socialism. Coming from Communist Eastern Europe - Yugoslavia and Hungary - it's easy to understand his impatience with socialism. But he says "The Israeli Right has lost its way, too, as it has thrown its fate in with the vision of a Greater Land of Israel that could not be actualized". I think the key phrase here is "could not be actualized". And he seems to be saying that neither the right nor the left is for him. He can find fault with anybody and any party, so it's easy to understand why he led his own party (Shinui).

He wrote a famous essay in Israel, "To Live in New Zealand," which includes this line: In New Zealand, when a parent refers to "a child who fell, he is referring to a playground". So true - and, also true is that IDF deaths of soldiers are so painful to think about and to endure, that the popular euphemism, "fell," is a common term to describe death. Not just in Israel, of course. "He fell in battle," etc., is said in many countries.

He grew up in a cultured and educated home, and he has a keen eye for irony, for history, and for hypocrisy, too. He notes that the German language that was the language of Schiller and Heine (a Jew, of course) and Goethe was also the language of Hitler and Himmler. Nothing new there - it's been said before, many times. But he reminds readers that Herzl wrote The Jewish State in German as well.

From an American Jewish point of view, there is a line that I like, because it shows a human being, and a sensitive liberal approach to a difficult subject. He refers to the "cruelty of some Arabs." Good for him! He does not demonize all Arabs for the vicious crimes of some. And he calls on Israel to be "an enlightened Western democracy, humanistic and free." He says, "In the short run, we must give up our need for retaliation. It is painful, but essential." This comes from someone who is NOT a naive liberal American Jewish cousin (me), but rather a survivor of the Holocaust and an Israeli citizen for 60 + years.

Tommy Lapid led a full life. I enjoyed seeing him break away from his mother, join the army, go to school, get his first job, and climb up the ladders of Israeli journalism and politics. He was bright, energetic, and especially - cultured. You can see his European parents and their culture and education in all his quotes - the Greek gods, European literature, etc.

Some Europeans Jews who lost everything never recovered. Tommy Lapid did, and then some. What a life he led! Maybe he was a difficult public figure, husband, father and friend - who knows. The picture we get of Tommy is through his son Yair. And maybe he was difficult in other ways - egotistical. I imagine he was. People who rise to power usually are. But still - his story is an inspiration to any reader who feels he or she can contribute more to their society or country. And he's also an inspiration to those who need to listen to their own voice, who do not follow the herd.

Perhaps his success in Israeli public life can be traced to his survival in Budapest. As a teenager, had to rely on his own skills and ability to make quick decisions in order to survive. He learned independence at a young age. It served him well all his adult life.

Note: The book has not been published in English in the U.S. It is available from from a UK publisher.


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