Normal People Don’t Boycott Israel

This article appears in Lay of the Land:

Best-selling Irish author, Sally Rooney, exposes her prejudice – and gross hypocrisy by supporting boycotts against Israel.

Normal people don’t boycott Israel. At least, any normal person who would like to see a genuine, lasting peace between Israel and her Palestinian neighbours. The latest brouhaha over what is now seen as leftie, cause-du-jour, is best-selling Irish author, Sally Rooney’s decision to “not allow her books to be published in Hebrew”. After a global outcry, Rooney has decided she will allow her books to be published in Hebrew in Israel – as long as the publisher is BDS-endorsed Israel. Who wants to tell Sally Rooney that is the shortest list? Ever!

A Closed Book. The most popular Irish writer at present, Sally Rooney, a BDS supporter , does not want her books published anymore in Hebrew.

Sally Rooney is the author of the best-selling missive, Normal People, which was adapted into a highly successful TV show of the same name and various other novels which appeal to millennials. Over the years, Rooney has made no secret of her support for the Palestinian cause. In her books, characters have attended pro-Palestinian rallies and activities.

The latest storm revolves around her refusal to publish her latest novel in Hebrew which is not only one of Israel’s national languages alongside Arabic; but is sacred to the Jewish people.

Abnormal Attitude. The bestseller by Irish writer Sally Rooney who no longer wants her books read by Jews in Israel.

Rooney tried to rationalize her decision by accusing Israel of practicing Apartheid and trotting out justification for her decision by quoting BDS (whose stated end goal is the destruction of the State of Israel; Human Rights Watch (whose founder wrote an article for the New York Times citing his concerns that the once venerated organization has a decidedly antisemitic agenda) and Israeli NGO, B’tselem (who have been exposed as receiving funding based on as many anti-Israel stories they can drum up – true or not).

What Rooney fails to understand is that Israel is a robust democracy, where a variety of opinions and views about our ongoing conflict with the Palestinians exist. We are also a country with a healthy respect for the arts. Art is supposed to bring people together, it is supposed to inspire conversation. It is supposed to provoke. By excluding one group of people or one nationality from enjoying (or not!) her art, she could do more to bring people together rather than drive bigger chasms which is of course, what BDS and their supporters want.

They do not want conversation, discourse and cooperation – they want Israel, the national representation of the Jewish people branded a pariah and excluded and use the charge of “human rights violations” as the proverbial stick to beat the horse.

Israel is not an Apartheid state. We are not without our many problems but we are certainly not an Apartheid state. The BDS movement are well aware that the word Apartheid is provocative and emotive and that people invariably understand little about what it means. All BDS does is exploits the suffering of the true victims of Apartheid to push their own racist, exclusionary and antisemitic agenda.

Selective Sally. While more than 320 rights groups and other organisations have called on the UN to launch investigations into Beijing’s human rights abuses, Irish writer Sally Looney is happy for her books to be published in Chinese but not in Hebrew. (Photo: Getty Images)

What I find glaringly hypocritical is that Rooney is more than happy to be published in China, Russia, Iran and other human rights violation hotspots around the world. Could it be that it is easier to advocate boycotting the tiny, Hebrew speaking market because it won’t have that much of an impact on potential profits from sales of the books? Jews are very much the people of the book – but I guess not any of Sally Rooney’s!

We cannot pretend that this does not pose a problem. Decisions of this kind only serve to give a tailwind to those who want to propagate more anti-Israel division. This week, posters were put up on bus stops in London with the words “Normal people boycott Israel”. This was a play on Rooney’s successful novel – and endorsing her decision. London transport authorities denounced this as vandalism but the message was out there for everyone to see – without the benefit of history, context and nuance.

The conflict between Israel and her Palestinian neighbours is complex and won’t be solved through boycotts and demonization but rather through negotiation and compromise.

Several days ago, the former US Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell passed away. He had this to say about the conflict, “The quest for peace, however difficult, must not be abandoned. Israel needs to live in peace and security. The Palestinians need the same, as does the region.”

Peace, he added, “can only be attained by the parties themselves. The pursuit is not helped by international actions and resolutions singling out Israel for economic attacks, or human rights allegations while ignoring despotic nations far more deserving of condemnation. That is not justice and that is not acceptable.”

Wise Words. General Colin Powell who served as the USA’s 65th Secretary of State and who passed away this week, had cautioned against “singling out Israel …. while ignoring despotic nations far more deserving of condemnation. That is not justice and that is not acceptable.”

Rooney and her ilk should heed his wise words.

To borrow from the title of Rooney’s best-seller, Normal People, I would leave her with a few kernels of truth. Normal people want peace. Normal people pursue dialogue and inclusion. Normal people don’t discriminate. Normal people do not sow division and hate. Normal people look for solutions instead of propagating conflict.

This gross kind of antisemitism, practiced by people like Rooney should never be something that normal people do. I hope it is not too late.

Remembering Shimon Peres

This article appears in Lay of the Land:

It has been 5 years since the passing of one of Israel’s most beloved leaders – former President, Shimon Peres

He was a pioneer, and a founding father. He was both hawk and dove, warrior and peacemaker. He was an innovator and mediator. He was a Nobel laureate and visionary. He was a leader whose personal and political history was deeply woven with the story of Israel and the Jewish people.

It has been 5 years since the passing of one of Israel’s finest sons – and greatest leaders. We bow our heads in remembrance for our beloved Shimon Peres z”l, who passed away at 93.  He was the last of our original founding fathers and a true icon.

Date with Destiny. Shimon and Sonia Peres when they were dating. (photo credit: Government Press Office)

Shimon Peres, was the eternal optimist, a rare quality in this world. He had transcended a decades long career in politics where he held many of the top portfolios in government including the office of Prime Minister twice. His relationship at times with the Israeli public was very complicated. He had suffered many political losses and at times was deeply unpopular, more so after the signing of the Oslo Accords.  He endured a lot of criticism for his role in the signing of these Accords. Many had held him and Prime Minister Rabin z”l, responsible for the terror that followed in its wake.

Risk Takers. Following a daring raid, Defense Minister Shimon Peres (2nd left)  and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (centre)) greet hostages rescued by Israel from Entebbe in 1976. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S OFFICE/URI HERTZL TZHIK/IDF ARCHIVE)

Peres remained ever hopeful that peace is possible in our very volatile region. I cannot help but wonder what he would have thought about the historic signing of the Abraham Accords. Somewhere from on high, he is looking down with immense pride – and satisfaction at the manifestation of the once unbelievable.

But Peres transcended politics and in 1996, founded the Peres Centre for Peace with the intention of furthering his vision of people in the Middle East working together to build peace through socio-economic cooperation and development and people-to-people interaction.

Flight to Freedom. Prime Minister Shimon Peres greets newly released Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky at Ben-Gurion Airport where he was flown from Germany after being freed from a Soviet prison, February 11, 1986. (photo credit: GPO)

He was a great unifier and amongst his many accolades, received both a Knighthood from her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and honorary title of Sheikh by Bedouin dignitaries in the Negev for his work on behalf of the people of the Middle East.

The Tomorrow Man. Shimon Peres writes on a blackboard with Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, March 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS

A true Statesman, he shook the hands of Presidents and Popes, Kings, Queens and movie stars.  Every celebrity who visited, wanted an audience with our ebullient, eloquent and warm elder Statesman. His love for technology was legendary and I sheepishly admit that he was probably more proficient than I am. Who can forget his final message to the world on Facebook– “Buy more Blue and White” or his infamous job hunting clip on YouTube?

I was immensely privileged to meet President Peres when I participated in the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Young Jewish Diplomats course in 2007. Hearing that young leaders had come to hear him speak, he came over to meet us. He took his time greeting all of us and shaking our hands. When it was my turn he asked in his deeply accented English that had never lost its Polish inflection, “Where are you from?” This was at a time when South African President Mbeki had made such sweeping statements like HIV does not cause AIDS and expressed support for Iran. I responded (trying not to giggle like a teenager at a BTS concert) “South Africa, Mr. President”. After a very short exchange he was on to the next person but left a lasting impression with me who was extremely star struck.

Covering Common Ground. Having both fought for their  country’s freedom after years of colonization and racial persecution, South African President Nelson Mandela exchanges views with Shimon Peres in Cape Town, October 1996. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel’s government is once again paying their tributes as Peres continues to unite the most unlikely folk.  There will be many, many more for a man truly deserving of tribute and honour.

Meeting of Minds. After millennia of religious tensions, Pope Francis (left) and Israel’s President Shimon Peres engage in intense discussion at the Vatican. (photo credit: Courtesy)

There will be only one Shimon Peres – and from a grateful nation who bows its head in recognition and remembrance, we say:

 “Thank you Mr. President, for all you gave us, in the good times and bad, in times of strife and peace. May you look down on us one day as we achieve your dream – of a lasting peace.”

May your memory be forever blessed.

Fighters for Freedom.  “The man, the life that we honor tonight is nothing short of extraordinary,” President Obama said honouring Shimon Peres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2012.  (photo credit: GPO)

Education is Eternal – Netzach Yisrael

This article is featured in Lay of the Land:

Improving the education system for Israel’s Haredi community will help to improve their economic situation – and the country’s

Rabbi Menachem Bombach is a man with a mission. The charismatic Rabbi, raised in the ultra-religious neighbourhood of Jerusalem known as Mea Shearim and who did not speak Hebrew until the age of 20, has a plan to bring about significant change to the Haredi approach to education.

The statistics speak for themselves.

According to the Israeli central Bureau of Statistics, the Haredi community makes up about 12% of the population, with an estimated size of roughly 1 million people – and is amongst the most poor, with 50% living below the poverty line. The Haredi community is also the fastest growing community.

The employment rate of Haredi men is at 51% compared to secular men at 87%. The rate for Haredi women in the workplace is 76% but many are forced to take low paying jobs as a result of their lack of skills.

Even though there is a larger percentage of Haredi women who are employed in the work force, it does not necessarily ensure an improvement in living conditions and the economic situation for the community.

It is clear that this cannot continue – if it does, the effects will be catastrophic.

Enter Rabbi Bombach.

Rabbi Bombach has identified a crucial element to ensuring that this alarming trend is corrected. The Rabbi believes that the key to fixing this growing problem which perpetuates the cycle of poverty, is reforming the Haredi education system. The more members of the community who are educated and receive a matriculation certificate, with skills in significant subjects like maths, English and even Hebrew, the more they will be able to enter into the workplace – and get better jobs. He believes that the current economic situation would not continue if members of the Haredi community were more integrated and productive in society.

Inspired by this, Rabbi Bombach started “Netzach Yisrael”. Established in 2017, Netzach is an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) network of educational institutions (elementary through to post-high school) whose mission it is to provide its students with an outstanding education and in parallel, work towards a bagrut (matriculation) certificate, which is a prerequisite for higher education in Israel. These studies include mathematics, English, the sciences and civics for both elementary and high school students.

Rabbi Bombach has always been drawn to education. When he was just 12-years-old, he would often lead his peers in Shabbat afternoon prayers. He knew that education would be part of his future.

The Rabbi would go on to study after he finished his schooling and met other students from different communities and societies, including Arabs, secular Jews and others. It was eye-opening. Integrating with other people went a long way to breaking down pre-conceived stereotypes and prejudices and opened his eyes to the ability to stay Haredi – while meeting other people.

Bombach believes in the philosophy that “Jews need to radiate light to each other”.

And so Netzach Yisrael was started. At first, many in the community were skeptical and did not want to send their children to school, but slowly it started to grow and now there are over 1000 students at 11 different educational facilities, with at least 3 700 students attending virtually.

Time for Change. Through a new yeshiva system that he founded in  in Israel, Rabbi Menachem Bombach is determined on reducing poverty in the Haredi community through education, preparing them to attend college and enter the workforce.

There have been several notable success stories. One young student is excelling as an activist talking about climate change, a topic that one would not expect members of the Haredi community to be vocal about. At least 95% of the students who have come through the Netzach Yisrael programme are fully integrated and have gone on to university. This aligns with the focus of having modern, pragmatic Haredim and will improve the economic situation of the community.

Netzach Yisrael’s vision is that the academic programme empowers graduates to create a strong, financially viable future for themselves, their future families, and the Israeli economy, while remaining strongly connected to their core values of Torah observance.

The ethos and values of the Netzach Yisrael programme are very clear – Torah and the worship of G-d by instilling the foundations of faith, worshiping G-d, and the study of Torah as a way of life, Education furthering Derech Eretz, truth, virtue and love of Israel, imparting knowledge, life, social and learning skills and striving for excellence and cultivating personal and social responsibility that is reflected in working for the common good and involvement in the community.

Bombach in Action. This Hasidic Educator is changing the face of Haredi education in Israel

Over seventy years ago, when the State of Israel was formed, the only choice for Haredim was to study Torah,” says Rabbi Bombach. “This was not good for the majority. We can combine religious and secular studies, while maintaining the connection with the community,” he says.

Bucking Tradition. Despite being vilified by his co-religionists, Rabbi Bombach teaches secular subjects to boys.

Today, the proof of success is in the growing statistics of students who have thrived in the Netzach Yisrael programme and continue to excel in tertiary education and beyond. The once skeptical parents are writing glowing testimonials and there is no doubt that Israel will benefit. This truly is proof that a great education, combined with dedications and knowledge of your roots and community – is eternal.

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