Happy 5769!

As 5769 begins there are certainly a lot of “challenges” around us – the global economy in turmoil, Iran rattling sabres, a lot of fear and uncertainty in the air – yet despite it all, regarding the status of Israel and life in Israel in the new year, I am cautiously optimistic. Outgoing (outgoing in the sense of “he’s leaving,” not outgoing in the sense of being friendly!) prime minister Ehud Olmert gave an interview on Monday, reported in the NY Times, (you can read it by clicking here) in which he said a lot of things that made a great deal of sense. Critics on the right say he’s a traitor; critics on the left wonder why he waited until he’s on his way out of office and powerless to start talking sense.

He talked about what it will take to achieve peace. He said Israel needs to give up the land in the West Bank—he said that those who believe Israel’s security depends on having another hill top another 100 meters into the West Bank are deluded (basically living in the past – Israel’s military, and Israel’s threats, have changed a lot in the last 60 years). He also said Israel can not take on Iran alone, and Jerusalem will need to be divided (as if it’s not already divided). He was apologetic about his former right wing views. I agree 100% with everything he said.

Politics in Israel are very strange. The political situation here is a reminder that the most important single trait in a political leader is one that Americans all too often take for granted – integrity. One of Tzipi Livni’s greatest claims to fame is that she has never been under investigation for wrongdoing. Which is quite a sad commentary. It’s not that America has not had its share of politicians involved in financial scandals – Jack Abramoff brought down several politicians, and Sarah Palin’s home state of Alaska has seen several recently – but those financial scandals have generally not involved the White House. Sex scandals, on the other hand…

I’m hoping that Livni will succeed in putting together a coalition – I’d like to see her able to continue the momentum she has going in peace talks with the Palestinians. If she fails to put together a coalition, it will mean elections in the spring, and unfortunately Netanyahu will have a good chance of winning, and I think a Netanyahu victory would probably set the peace process back. Netanyahu recently declared that if he was elected prime minister he would expand the settlements. I can’t think of anything that would be more counterproductive. I hate to be a “single issue” voter, but peace with the Palestinians is definitely my dominant concern regarding how I would vote in the next elections in Israel.

On Iran, having lived in Iran for a year (1978-1979), I seriously doubt there would be a lot of Iranian support for attacking Israel. Most Iranians I know are more interested in living normal lives. It’s too bad the international community can’t get its act together on sanctions, because I think there’s a reasonable chance they would work. Ahmadinejad’s position is not all that strong, and the people could probably pressure the ruling council to have him thrown out. Failing that, I would not offer an opinion about whether or not Iran’s nuclear capability should be thwarted militarily. I do not have access to any of the intelligence reports that one would need to see to be able to make a proper assessment of the outcome of such an action. It all depends on both how effective a military action would be, and what the likely Iranian response would be. Not something I think anyone can effectively figure out without access to a lot more intelligence information than what you read in the newspapers.

The economy in Israel seems to be weathering the world’s economic crisis pretty well so far. Banks in Israel require pretty hefty down payments when issuing mortgages, so there has not been any kind of significant mortgage meltdown here, or plunge in home prices. The shekel remains high, employment is strong, generally things are going well on the economic front.

In August, Rabbi David Forman, one of the founders of Rabbis for Human Rights, wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the Jerusalem Post about RHR’s 20th anniversary (you can read it here). He wrote:

“This week marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR). In many ways, this is a sad occasion for the organization and the original nucleus of rabbis there at its inception. Not long ago, when RHR dedicated its new office, much more spacious than its previous one, I remarked: “We have failed, because our ultimate goal was to go out of business; and yet we find ourselves having to expand our field of operation to engage in seemingly never-ending human rights challenges.”

Sadly, he’s correct – the human rights challenges in Israel are massive and getting worse, and a small group of extremist settlers are becoming increasingly violent, not just against Palestinians, but against the police, the IDF, and civilians, like leftist Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, who was lightly injured in a bomb attack at his home a few blocks away from mine.

Adjustment to life in Israel proceeds apace. The kids are becoming more Israeli every day, while Lauri and I continue to live in an English-speaking bubble for the most part. But English speaking bubble or not, it’s a blessing to be here and an incredibly place to live.

May 5769 be filled with much joy and gladness, peace and prosperity, for you and your loved ones!

Shana tova,

Rav Barry


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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