Heilman’s Week in Review: Boycotts, embassy attacks, tragedy in Brooklyn


Liberals for boycotts: Israel’s Knesset managed to accomplish a rare feat this week when it passed a law that sanctions those who boycott Israel or West Bank settlements: It united American Jewish groups in opposition. From left to right, American Jewish organizations expressed concern about the bill, warning that it threatens to undermine Israel’s democratic character.

The reason for their opposition is ingrained in their Americanness. In America, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights has been a guarantor of Jewish liberties, safeguarding the free exercise of Judaism just as it affirms freedom of speech. Over the last century, anti-discrimination laws have strengthened those rights.

So when Israel passes a law that clearly limits freedom of expression, Jews in America see it as an assault on a basic civil liberty — something that, if happened in America, would bode ill for the Jews (not to mention the country as a whole). Israel’s anti-boycott law also effectively bans a critical tool American Jews historically have used to defend their community, as when American Jews launched a boycott of products from Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

This new Israeli law is a case study of what Peter Beinart warned about a year ago in his much-debated essay in The New York Review of Books when he argued that American Jews’ liberal values were increasingly at odds with their Zionist impulses. And it’s not just liberals who chafe at this new law, but those who believe in the principles of liberal democracy — which in America includes Jews from the entire politicial spectrum.

As Morton Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, told JTA’s Ron Kampeas: “Nobody was more appalled by the boycott of Ariel theater than me,” referring to an artists’ boycott last year of a newly opened theater in the Jewish West Bank city of Ariel. “But to make it illegal? I don’t think so.”

In Israel today, some Jews on the right promote boycotts of Arab businesses and Arab labor. On the left, there are boycotts of the settlements and settlement goods. So when Israel passes legislation that outlaws one kind of boycott but not another, it suggests that the Israeli government is concerned with promoting a particular ideology, not safeguarding democratic rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his position clear when he announced his support for the new law.

The motivation behind the legislation ostensibly is to fight back against those who seek to use boycotts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. But in passing this law (see here for full text of the measure), Israel risks undermining its reputation as a genuine democracy that safeguards basic rights.

Tragedy in New York: The gruesome murder and dismemberment of an 8-year-old Chasidic boy in Borough Park, Brooklyn, transfixed New York and sparked heart-wrenching discussion of how old kids should be before being allowed to walk around unsupervised. The murder also spotlighted Borough Park’s insular Chasidic community, whose members struggled to absorb the news that the boy, Leiby Kletzky, apparently had been killed by a fellow religious Jew.

In the hours after Leiby went missing Monday, the community mobilized hundreds of volunteers to search for him, including a group of Pakistanis. Leiby disappeared on his way home from summer day camp on the first day his parents let him walk the route by himself.

The suspect, an Orthodox Jewish man named Levi Aron, reportedly admitted to killing Leiby and led detectives to body parts he had hidden in his freezer and in a trash bin in Brooklyn. On Thursday, he pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder charges. “Monster,” screamed the headline in Thursday’s New York Post.

Earlier in the week, the Jewish handwringing in New York was focused on a fire at a prominent synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Kehilath Jeshurun. The shul, which is affiliated with the Modern Orthodox day school Ramaz, was in the midst of renovations when the blaze broke out. The congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, whose family has led Ramaz since its founding, vowed to rebuild. It’s still not clear what started the fire. The synagogue is insured.

Hands off my embassy! It’s one thing if you kill more than 1,000 of your own citizens in an effort to suppress a budding democracy movement. But when you start pillaging foreign embassies, woe unto you.

With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning Monday that Syrian President Bashar Assad has “lost legitimacy,” the Obama administration ratcheted up its opposition to Syrian repression after the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was attacked by a pro-government mob (how come there aren’t more pro-government mobs around the world showering their national legislatures with roses and chocolate?).

The White House has not yet formally called on Assad to step down, however, as some conservative groups have called on the president to do.

By contrast, on Friday the Obama administration formally recognized the Libyan rebels as the legitimate government of the Libyan people. The move opens the door for the U.S. government to give to the rebels Libyan assets frozen in the United States — like, for example, the keys to the Libyan Embassy in Washington.

Palestinian statehood, for and against: While a few new voices joined the opponents to the Palestinian plan to seek statehood recognition at the United Nations in September — including Canada and more than 100 members of the European Parliament — the Arab League threw its weight behind the bid for “Palestine.” The league agreed this week to petition the international body to grant full member status to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians already have permanent observer status at the United Nations.

Border patrol: While Israel’s territorial dispute with the Palestinians has been the subject of two intifadas, mini-wars and two decades of on-again-off-again peace talks, a new border dispute with Lebanon may portend the next war.

This week, Israel’s Cabinet formally set Israel’s northern maritime boundary, putting it in dispute with Lebanon. Where, exactly, the border runs in the sea wasn’t much of an issue until energy companies began mapping huge deposits of natural gas underneath the Mediterranean, and a land grab (well, water grab) ensued. Whether the matter will be settled in the United Nations or with the force of arms — or, perhaps, through talks — is unclear.

Further south, saboteurs in the Sinai waged their own natural gas war against Israel, again bombing the pipeline that transports natural gas from Egypt to Israel. It was the fourth attack against the pipeline since the Egyptian coup that toppled the Mubarak regime. Continued pipeline disruptions may lead to a severe energy shortage in Israel, officials warned.

Recommended from JTA