VP Pence in Jerusalem

I usually walk to the office on King David Street, but this week, I had to take an alternate route. US VP Mike Pence was in town at the King David Hotel and the street was completely closed to traffic and was more or less a sterile security zone, complete with cement roadblocks, security gates, and plenty of personnel.

Pence’s itinerary included speaking at the Knesset, visits with the President and Prime Minister, visiting Yad Vashem, and a trip to the Western Wall.  Diplomatically, this itinerary is a huge deal. Pence is the first vice president who has ever addressed the Knesset. Weirdly, the Israeli news noted that it was also one of the few times that a teleprompter was installed in the Knesset.  Visiting the Western Wall is also a big deal, and the visit was not without controversy – but not the controversy you might expect.

I may not have noticed much this week because of my cold, but this visit was hard to miss.



Several of the Arab members of Knesset disrupted the beginning of Pence’s speech by protesting and holding signs up that said “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine!” They were immediately ejected (zero-tolerance for heckling during a foreign dignitary’s speech) and Pence remarked on the “vibrant democracy” of Israel. Overall, the speech was extremely well-received by almost all the parties.  One reporter on Israeli news said that there were somewhere around 20 standing ovations. Personally, I was most impressed that when Pence referenced Israel’s 70th Independence Day, he recited the Shehecheyanu (“who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion”) with not-too-terrible pronunciation.

Jpost summary and Transcript of the speech.

Western Wall

Pence and his wife went to the Western Wall – he to the men’s side and she to the women’s side. The Western Wall plaza follows the rules of an orthodox synagogue, so women are not allowed on the men’s side. That was a big problem for the women journalists trying to cover Pence’s visit to the Wall.  Haaretz had a field day with it (and rightfully so).

The weird thing in my neighborhood

The Friends of Zion Museum tells the story of non-Jews who were friends and supporters of Israel – people like Lord Balfour, Orde Wingate, Harry Truman, and others (full disclosure: I haven’t visited it yet). The person who initiated the project is a well-known evangelical Christian Zionist. So the museum put these signs up all over my neighborhood.



cropped image

The weird part isn’t that the signs were put up. The weird part is that they are all in English. These signs are not for Israelis and they’re not for Arabs.  They are posted all over the hotel area of Jerusalem, so Mike Pence might have seen one or two, but the majority of people who saw these signs were tourists.


I have to question the sign that suggests that Trump could make Israel great. Trump is at most an ally of Israel. Allies don’t make a country great. The country has to be great on its own merits.


Ironically, all these signs on my street were probably never seen by the VP. The official route to the hotel was changed to a side street named George Washington (really!).

Unofficial reaction

When I spoke to other Israelis about the visit, the main reaction was: “Ugh! Traffic was ridiculous! Why do they have to close off so many streets?!? Can’t he just take a helicopter?”

And the next day, everything was back to normal as if it had never happened.

It’s not about the Wall

You know when you have an argument with a loved one about something and it turns into a really ugly fight and later you realize that this huge fight was not even about whatever you were fighting about?  It’s actually about something deeper in your relationship.  I think that’s what’s happening this week among the Jewish People with regard to the Kotel (the Western Wall).

What happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended the plan to expand the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.  The English language press in Israel went bananas and Jewish leaders in the US issued strongly worded statements of disappointment.  Op-eds were written that suggested Netanyahu snubbed the whole of Diaspora Jewry and is a liar, that this act will turn into a security threat because US Jewry will no longer support Israel and thus not push the US government to continue to support Israel, that US Jewry will pull their charitable giving, and on and on.

The Israeli press noted that the decision happened and moved on.

A little background

What is the Kotel actually?  It is an exposed remnant of the retaining wall that holds up the Temple Mount complex, where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa now stand.  It is *not* a remnant of the Temple itself.


Screencap: Source

Why do Jews face Jerusalem to pray? Jews pray toward where the Temple once stood; they are not praying to a retaining wall.  People place prayers in the Wall, but the Spirit of the Lord does not actually reside there.  He just picks up His messages from time to time.

When did the Plaza become a synagogue? In 1967, when Jerusalem was reunified, the alleyway that was in front of the exposed section was expanded and became the Western Wall Plaza.  That small section of the retaining wall was conveniently located and it was turned into an open-air Orthodox synagogue (it was not a synagogue before).

How holy is it? Based on the logic of holiness bestowed upon the Western Wall, every part of the retaining wall should be considered equally holy: the southern wall (I’ve seen people praying there), the eastern section (on the Mount of Olives side), the Via Dolorosa (the first few Stations of the Cross starting at the Lion’s Gate), the route of the Tunnel tours, and even a little alley called “The Little Kotel,” which is apparently even closer to where the Temple stood.

So what’s the question? Why should anyone demand that an open-air Orthodox synagogue near an exposed section of a retaining wall accommodate Reform and Conservative practice? To my knowledge, no one has blasted into the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and demanded that it be converted to accommodate Reform and Conservative practices.  There is a Conservative synagogue across the street and everyone seems to be fine with that.

Perhaps we should ask a different question? Why is there any kind of synagogue at all?  Why not just keep the practice of individual contemplation and personal prayer for all people of all denominations of all religions?

The bottom line

This kerfuffle is not really about access to the Kotel.  Just like the fight you had last week with your loved one wasn’t about who would put the dishes in the dishwasher and how you always do it wrong.

This is about acknowledgement and acceptance.

It could start with the rabbinical authority in Israel acknowledging that there are other visions of Judaism – they may need to negotiate about the different ideas of halakha (Jewish law) – but they should also try to square it a bit more closely with the Law of Return (anyone with a Jewish grandparent on either side is entitled to Israeli citizenship, which is not the halakhic definition of a Jew).

Jews living outside of Israel will also have to accept that Jews living in Israel have their own ideas about how to run the country and preserve holy sites and that donations to Israel and putting your name on buildings doesn’t actually bestow the right to dictate policy here.

Fiddler on the Roof starts with Tradition (video above) and by the end a few things get changed in line with the times.  But we keep our balance, like a fiddler on the roof!

My radical proposal

The question of acknowledgement and acceptance is real and I don’t want to minimize it.  It is symbolized in the questions of access to the Western Wall and that is indeed legitimate.

However, the bigger issue facing all of the Jewish people is that UNESCO continuously and repeatedly calls the Western Wall Plaza “The Al-Buraq Plaza” and calls the Temple Mount only by its Muslim name.  If we want to continue our internal family discussions about access to the Western Wall, we need to ensure that it remains a Jewish site.  And we must also remember that the Temple Mount – where Jews are forbidden to pray and are arrested for doing so – is the actual holy site.

It’s my pleasure to be the messenger

As I was walking to the Western Wall this morning it occurred to me that I live in one of the most special places on earth.  The Old City of Jerusalem is just part of my neighborhood, so I often forget to take a moment and enjoy my surroundings.

After a rainy and cold week, the sun was shining this morning.  It was the perfect day to deliver a small note to the Western Wall on behalf of a friend and take the opportunity to say a few words of gratitude for all the blessing I have in my life.


A note for a friend (the blue-green one)


Looking up




Recent excavation at the Western Wall Plaza of a Roman era street


Tower of David, Jaffa Gate

How History will remember

There’s a theory that the same amount of bad things are happening in the world as there ever were, but now that we live in a global village and the media coverage is instantaneous, we simply hear about it sooner and more often.  I’m not sure that is true, but I do wish that we would demand that the media stop functioning on a 24-hour news cycle that drops stories as soon as something bloodier comes along.  The terror attack in Nice is today’s top story, but how quickly will we move to the next thing?  France plans to mourn for 3 days.  Will we?  Or will something else catch our attention?


Headline scanning means that we’ll only catch the big stories and so seemingly little stories get swept aside.  I imagine that very few people know that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, this week.

I am not an expert on the workings of UNESCO and this is not meant to be deep research.  I just want to point out a few facts and try to put them into context.  I’ve provided links at the end of the post.

UNESCO – United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization – was on the news radar in Israel in April because of a draft resolution that subtly denied Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.  The headlines were pretty bold, but when I went to the document itself (which no news site linked to) it refers to Israel as “Israel, the Occupying Power,” does not once use the term “Temple Mount” but only “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” and mentions the “Buraq Plaza ‘Western Wall Plaza’.”  This draft didn’t pass – of 58 votes, 33 were for, 17 abstentions, 6 against (the other 2 were not in attendance).  Another draft related to the Old City and its Walls uses the same terminology, except refers to “Buraq Plaza (Western Wall Plaza).”

At the conference this week the item was pulled off the agenda at the last minute because of the uncertainty of the votes and it’s pretty unlikely that the resolutions will pass.  So, no big deal, right? Well, I’m not so sure about that.

The present is the future’s past

As a historian, I’m thinking about researchers going through documents at some unspecified time in the future.  Let’s say, at least 150 years from now.  UNESCO doesn’t decide what history is, but as the arbiter of World Heritage Sites and a name that suggests global neutrality, how will historians see these documents in the future?

First of all, if you go through the documents, you will find references to Jerusalem in the “Arab States” section of the agenda.  Other geographical designations are Europe and North America, Latin America and Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Pacific.

Screenshot agenda
As an academic editor, I know that quotation marks are used for quotations, of course, but they are also used as a substitute for the words so-called, which suggest a distance from the term.  Above, I’m using quotation marks because I’m quoting the text.  Within the resolution, the only reason to use quotation marks (also known as scare quotes, I don’t know why) is to say the so-called Western Wall Plaza.  If you say the words so-called in front of anything, your voice naturally picks up a sarcastic tone.  It’s even more sarcastic if you make air quotes with your fingers.  So here we have a UNESCO draft resolution that gives Arabic names with capital letters, but Jewish names with quotation marks or in parentheses.

How we got from there to here

There may be those that say, “Well, you know, that big golden dome is up there now and possession is 9/10ths of the law.”  Since the Jordanian Waqf administers the site and forbids Jews to pray there, I think that point is moot.  Even subtly rejecting any Jewish connection is simply changing history.  Before Islam, there were two Jewish Temples that stood on that site.  Without the Temple, Jesus would have had no place to overturn the tables and attack the money lenders.  Titus’ Arch in Rome would have no story to tell.  Millions of Jews coming to Israel to visit a bunch of stones, a retaining wall actually, would also seem a bit weird if they lack a connection.

The point I want to make is that it matters now and today how we respond.  US Jews were very happy to have a mixed-gender prayer site created at the Western Wall, but in the big picture isn’t it a more important issue if UNESCO votes to effectively erase the Jewish connection to any part of the area?  Can UNESCO be allowed to vote on the narrative of history? If we decide to lay out narratives next to each other, we can say that there is indeed a Muslim connection to the site (third holiest site), but we must say that there is a Jewish (most important site) and Christian (Jesus’ final days) connection to the site.

What will our researcher find 150 years in the future when looking through the UNESCO documents? I hope she finds a multi-colored patchwork of truth and not obvious propaganda.

Epilogue:  The UNESCO response to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) bombing parts of Palmyra, a World Heritage Site in Syria, was that the head of UNESCO did declare the acts war crimes, but after UNESCO experts went in, their preliminary finding was that it wasn’t as bad as they thought.  A language comparison of the two resolutions is enlightening.  Daesh is just Daesh, not an Occupying Power or anything else.  Their actions are condemned, but Israel’s actions are strongly condemned, firmly deplored, deeply decried, and disapproved.

Draft resolution on the Al-Haram Al-Sharif and its surroundings.

Decision on Jerusalem and its Walls from 2015.

Report on the vote in April.

Possible revision to the drafts.

An in-depth review of the issue.

Draft resolution on Palmyra.

Press release on Palmyra.

“It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness”

JD east of edenMy favorite James Dean movie is East of Eden.  The story moved me so much that I decided to read the book by John Steinbeck.  I had the pleasure of visiting the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA, where I learned that Steinbeck considered East of Eden the culmination of his life’s work.  He struggled with it all his life because he wanted to truly understand the fundamental ability to choose light or darkness.


God said to Cain, “If you do well, shall you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7)  Steinbeck’s East of Eden tells us that no matter what happens, you always have a choice.

The power to choose

There’s so much awful news: Tel Aviv, Orlando, the Stanford rape case, a British MP gunned down, and plenty more that I don’t know about.  In each case someone made a choice to do evil; they chose darkness.

Debates are raging right now about why these tragedies happened. I’m not qualified to give an opinion about changes that need to be made in society and I’m not going to try.  This post is about the power to choose.

Choosing compassion

The family of a police officer saw someone running from the scene of the Tel Aviv terror attack.  He was badly shaken and could hardly speak.  They brought him in and gave him water.  The officer ran to the scene and when he saw that the detained shooter was dressed exactly like the man in his house, he rushed back, fearing the worst.  Indeed, the family had sheltered the second shooter.  The officer arrested him in the living room.

This family chose to help someone who looked to be in shock.  Without a doubt, the situation could have ended tragically, but instead we have an example of what compassion to one’s neighbors looks like.

Unsung heroes

At Stanford, two Swedish graduate students pulled the rapist off of his victim and held him down until police arrived.  The victim was completely unconscious, could not defend herself, and likely would not have been able to remember the events of what happened in order to bring her attacker to justice.

It was late at night.  The two students could have passed by and done nothing.  Instead, they chose to protect a young woman in a horrible situation.

Choosing to stand together

Sometimes you can’t save the person in danger, but you can stand beside the mourners.  Two stories I came across – and surely there are many more – remind us that it’s fine to “Je suis …” and change your profile pictures, but actions are so much more powerful.

A rabbi brought members of his congregation to grieve with mourners of the Orlando terror attack.  Just showing up was enough.

A flight crew found out that a passenger was on her way to her grandson’s funeral.  He was one of the victims in Orlando.  All the passengers wrote notes and when they deplaned, every person stopped to personally give their condolences.

Shavuot in Israel – Standing together

This week also marked Shavuot in Israel.  Shavuot is the fiftieth day after Passover and marks the date that the Israelites received the Ten Commandments at Sinai.  It’s a pilgrimage holiday meaning that when the Temple stood, people came to offer sacrifices.  Today, we aren’t offering sacrifices, but we still stand together, raise our voices in song, and choose life.




Here’s a video I took while watching the sunrise on Shavuot at the Western Wall

From a single candle, thousands can be lit

When I watch the sun rise over the people and hear them singing, I know that the world is going to be okay.  Some people choose to do evil.  This is a fact and we see plenty of evidence of it.  But more people choose to do good.  More people choose light.  Sure, there may be moments .of regret, but every day we have a choice.  We can choose light and keep choosing it until we break down the power of darkness.

Wishing all the fathers a Happy Father’s Day!

And remembering my Dad z’’l

A simmering pot

Last week Israel’s cabinet agreed to have a mixed gender prayer area near the Western Wall plaza that would be administered by Israel’s government not the (ultra-Orthodox) foundation that administers the Western Wall .

Yay for plurality! Hoorah for equality!

This is widely seen by the Jewish community outside of Israel and many inside Israel as a good thing because it feels more inclusive and is more open to the non-Orthodox communities who don’t feel connected to the Orthodox vibe of the Western Wall open air plaza. Now they have their own place. It’s close to the plaza, but at the same time they are not in each other’s faces about how they choose to commune with God.

But hang on…

First of all, this space has existed for quite a while. It’s not new. What is new is the entity that would administer it and the fact that it would be expanded. Until now, it was just a tacitly agreed upon space for Reform, Conservative, and various other streams of Judaism to gather and pray as they wish (mostly by not separating the genders).

Women of the Wall have been advocating for plurality and equality and part of the organization agreed to the mixed-gender space. The members who don’t agree feel that they should be allowed to pray in the women’s section as they wish – they don’t really want a mixed gender space. The problem they’ve been facing is that the Orthodox do not agree that a woman can be allowed to put on tefillin, wear a prayer shawl, or read from the Torah. They have fought this battle in court (and won), but have been harassed by both men and women at the wall and arrested for disturbing the peace for gathering at the Western Wall to pray.

Then there are the archaeologists who say that the new construction would damage the archaeological evidence that exists there – specifically, evidence of stones from the wall that fell during the Roman conquest.

Like any other decision, it’s complicated and there are naturally positives and negatives. Decisions get made with compromise and everyone has to give a little.

But there’s more. And this is why this article is called “the simmering pot.”

The violence (aka the knife intifada) that began last year is based on a perception that Israel is trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. In October 2015, UNESCO voted on a draft proposal that tried to declare the “Western Wall an ‘integral part’ of the Al Aqsa mosque compound.” That was eventually dropped, but in November Mahmoud Abbas insisted that Israel was trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount by protecting “settlers” who were “violating” Muslim and Christian holy sites. (The “violation” being prayer. Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount and are arrested by Israeli police for doing so.) And now, with the vote on the mixed gender prayer site, the Waqf (the Jordanian authority administering the Al Haram al Sharif [Temple Mount]) has declared this vote Israel’s newest intention to change the status quo by “Judaicizing the holy site.” The “holy site” in this case being the Western Wall.

Let’s look back to September 2000. Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount to show that all Israelis have a right to visit the site. And then we had the Second Intifada. (Yes, that is a wild oversimplification.)

A vote for a mixed gender prayer site seems like a small thing. But this is Israel. The Western Wall supports the Temple Mount compound where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand. Context and interpretation are everything. And so the pot simmers on.

At the Kotel on Yom Kippur

It’s my tradition to go to the Western Wall (the Kotel) on Yom Kippur in the morning before it gets too hot and too crowded.  I use this special time to be grateful for all the blessings in my life and think about the upcoming year.  I try to limit my asking for requests for other people.

Here’s what I saw and experienced:

  • It’s always hot on Yom Kippur – no matter the weather the day before or after.
  • The streets were gorgeously quiet and empty.
Yom Kippur 8:45am

Yom Kippur 8:45am

Overlooking the valley outside the walls of the Old City 9am

Overlooking the valley outside the walls of the Old City 9am

  • When I arrived at the women’s section, I saw two female soldiers praying, in uniform and with their guns.  Later one of them went up to the wall and said a few prayers, with her gun.
  • At the wall, the woman to my left was praying in a romance language (Italian, Spanish?) quite loudly.  I heard her say “gracias a Dios,” which seemed fine, and then “benedictus Christos.”  Hmm.  Probably not Jewish.
  • The woman to my right was reading a bible in Chinese.  Status unknown.
  • When I sat down, I looked around more carefully.  More than half of the people there were drinking water and didn’t quite fit.
Bird's eye view 10am

Bird’s eye view 10am

  • When I left, there were large tourist groups – with their cameras – entering the Western Wall plaza.
  • I wondered if all these non-Jews thought that God was only answering calls at the Kotel on Yom Kippur; perhaps the connection wasn’t as good at other holy locations.
  • I didn’t see as many people in the Jewish quarter as I expected, but it might have been too early.
Not the Jewish quarter.  This is Jaffa Gate at 9am.

Not the Jewish quarter. This is Jaffa Gate at 9am.

  • There was a police presence.  At around 9am, it was calm and relaxed.  By 10am the Border Police were stationed with a much stronger presence.  (It hasn’t been calm, so they were expecting trouble.  In the end, it was a quiet day.)

I completed the fast and even though I didn’t spend the entire day in reflection, I did feel renewed and ready to start a new year.

I promised a post about my trip in Romania, but I had such a great time that I think the trip would be better served in several short entries (coming soon!).

Until then, Shabbat Shalom!  May we all have some peace and quiet, renewal and reflection.  And birthday cake.  We should all have some cake.