“Personal Torah”

A recent announcement by a respected Conservative rabbi has been trumpeted widely as evidence of his heroism. My take is somewhat different, and was published, to the periodical’s credit, by the Forward. You can read it here

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Misplaced Zeal

The powerful swell of voices on Broadway, thirteen stories below Agudath Israel’s offices, did more than disturb my concentration. A thousand people were blocking traffic and loudly chanting in unison, the roar less redolent of “Hashem hu ho’Elokim!” at Neila’s end than of what I imagine “Kill the Jews!” must have sounded like during pogroms. Which was ironic, considering that, in light of the cause and location, a large number of the shouters were likely Jewish.

The “Flood Wall Street” event was but a weak echo of what had taken place a day earlier, when an estimated 300,000 people (including members of close to 100 Jewish groups, parts of the “Jewish Climate Campaign”), participated in the “People’s Climate March” on the West Side of Manhattan. But the smaller demonstration was large enough and loud enough for me. I had to wonder what made the chanting seem so sinister.

It may have had to do with something the late writer Michael Crichton famously asserted, that people “have to believe in something that gives meaning” to their lives, and that “environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.” (And, I’d add, even for some who may believe in … Read More >>

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Malignancies

There’s nothing remotely funny, of course, about rabid Islamists beheading innocent Westerners they have kidnapped (or their fellow Muslims, for that matter).

Yet, there is something bizarrely droll about the characterization of such slaughter, and in particular its filming and the dissemination of the resultant videos, as a “recruitment tool.” According to experts like Peter Neumann, who directs a center for the study of political violence in London, that is the videos’ goal, based on past successes in attracting new recruits.

What I found almost humorous was the unthinkability (to put it mildly) of any group of normal human beings seeking adherents by murdering people on camera. Can you imagine the Mormon Church cutting off the heads of gentiles (its name for non-Mormons) in order to attract worshippers? The Republican party, to entice independents? The Rotary Club, to garner new members? The local Jewish Federation, to lure donors? You get the droll.

And then the all-too-serious question presents itself: What does it say about a cause that it attracts people by means of the gleeful shedding of innocent blood? And a corollary: What does it say about the people so attracted?

It is fashionable to seek to “understand” forces … Read More >>

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Letter in NYT

To the Editor:

Dr. Barron H. Lerner concedes that it was proper for medicine to abandon the medical paternalism that had doctors make “life-and-death decisions for patients by themselves,” but he asserts that doctors should be “bolder and more courageous,” seeing “their duty not simply as providing options” but as ensuring “the most appropriate care,” even if that means “saying no to specific demands.”

To be sure, patients and their families need to be well informed about treatments and prognoses. But it is not a doctor’s role to make ultimate decisions for his patients.

Dr. Lerner doesn’t like interventions that have “little or no chance of succeeding.” No one, though, has yet succeeded in surviving life indefinitely. And decisions about when, if ever, to give up on it are the province of patients and their religious advisers, not graduates of medical schools.

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN Director of Public Affairs Agudath Israel of America New York, Sept. 19, 2014

Other letters on the topic can be read here.

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Time After Time

Ever since the famous science fiction writer H. G. Wells penned “The Time Machine” in 1895, the notion of a protagonist traveling through time by means of magic or fantastic technology has captured the imaginations of countless writers and readers.

Wells’ famous work involved travel into the future. But many subsequent flights of fancy concerned going back in time to an earlier period and, often, tinkering with past events to change the future.

It might not immediately occur to most of us that our mesorah not only anticipated the idea of time travel but in fact teaches that it is entirely possible, an option available to us all. And, unlike so many popular fiction time travel fantasies where havoc is wreaked by intruding on an earlier time, Jewish travel to the past is sublime. And, in fact, required of us.

Is that not the upshot of how Chazal portray teshuvah, repentance? It is, after all, nothing less than traveling back through time and changing the past. The word itself, in fact, might best be translated as “returning.” We assume it refers to our own returning to where we should be. But it might well hold a deeper thought, that … Read More >>

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When Orthodox Jews Boycott Israeli Produce

The article below appeared in Haaretz last week.

The “ultra-Orthodox” are at it again. This time they’re aiding and abetting the BDS movement.

Well, not intentionally perhaps, but still. An early welcome to 5775!

The Jewish year about to begin, of course, is a shmita, or “Sabbatical,” year, and its implications are sticking in the craw of some non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A bit of background: The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant during each seventh year. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. The law is viewed as an expression of ultimate trust in G-d

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to Eretz Yisrael in the 19th century, some of the pioneering Jewish farmers endeavored to observe shmita; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including respected Haredi rabbis, approved a plan whereby land owned by Jews was legally transferred to the possession of Arabs for the duration of the shmita year, technically transforming Jewish farmers into sharecroppers and, with some conditions, permitting cultivation of the land.

During subsequent shmita years, many … Read More >>

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Stubborn Spirit

The birthday cake was ablaze with 105 candles, and many among the scores of people present at the Czech embassy in London this past spring for the party would not have been there – or anywhere – had it not been for the man in whose honor they had gathered.

Nicholas Winton, who remains in full possession of his faculties, including his sense of humor, saved the lives of 669 children, mostly Jewish, during the months before the Second World War broke out in 1939. There are an estimated 6000 people, many of those children, now grown, along with their own descendants, who are alive today because of his efforts, which went unrecognized for decades.

Born in 1909 in West Hampstead, England, Mr. Winton was baptized as a member of the Anglican Church and became a successful stockbroker. He lived a carefree life until December 1938, when a friend, Martin Blake, asked him to forgo a ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where Mr. Blake had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a group that was providing assistance to refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudetenland … Read More >>

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Immoral “Morality”

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

“It”?

The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have. Some of those who assailed the professor for his – let’s here reclaim an important adjective – immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus. Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that … Read More >>

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Decommissioning Emunah

“But I will confess…” read the subject line in a recent e-mail from a dear friend, a very intelligent Jewish man who claims to be an atheist. In the message box the communication continued: “…that the continued existence of Jew-hatred… baffles me.”

“And,” my friend added, “I am not easily baffled.”

His comment was a reaction to a recent column that appeared in this space (which he saw electronically; he’s not yet a subscriber to Hamodia) that alluded to how powerful an argument for the Torah’s truth is the astounding, perplexing persistence of anti-Semitism.

If only my friend, and all Jews, would honestly and objectively consider that other, independent, anomalies also lead in the same direction.

Like the perseverance of the Jewish People itself, despite all the adversity it has faced and faces; like the uniqueness of the Torah’s recording of sins committed by its most venerated personalities, in such contrast to other religions’ fundamental texts; like the seemingly self-defeating laws the Torah commands, like shmitah and aliyah liregel , which no human would ever have decreed, as they put their observers in great danger; like the predictions the Torah makes that have come to pass, like … Read More >>

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Kidneys, Cash and Caring

Over recent years, “Israelis have played a disproportionate role” in organ trafficking, The New York Times reported recently in a lengthy front-page story. Some Israeli entrepreneurs “have pocketed enormous sums for arranging overseas transplants for patients who are paired with foreign donors,” according to court filings and government documents.

The organs in question are kidneys. Most of us are born with two, although only one is necessary for living a normal life. Numerous people in renal failure have received kidneys donated by friends or relatives – even altruistic strangers.

But the supply of transplantable organs is estimated by the World Health Organization to meet no more than a tenth of the need. And so a market for kidneys has emerged, and thousands of patients receive illicit transplants each year, often facilitated by brokers, like the accused Israelis, who match potential donors wishing to sell one of their kidneys to someone who desperately needs one. The brokers maintain that they operate legally and are simply engaged in facilitating legitimate business transactions.

The unaddressed but poignant question here, though, is why the sale of kidneys is so widely perceived as immoral. Opponents of such sales say that since poor people, … Read More >>

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The End is Near

The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism across Western Europe and around the globe, complete with swastikas and “Death to the Jews” chants, is depressing and alarming. It should also, however, be inspiring.

For, once again, we have witnessed how outrage ostensibly over the actions of a sovereign nation, Israel, so quickly and effortlessly festered into full-blown Jew-hatred – not Israel-hatred, not even Israeli-hatred, but Jew-hatred. That curious phenomenon might be discomfiting, but should also make us think.

Can anyone imagine the all-too-real repressive policies of China being laid at the feet of Europeans of Chinese ethnicity, with protesters wildly advocating their extermination?

Can we picture anger over the actual crimes committed by Iran’s leaders being taken out on Iranians living in Europe or the United States, with attacks on their homes and institutions?

Yes, to be sure, there are mindless individuals who, seeing terrorism being committed in the name of Islam, target innocent Muslims as complicit in the inhumanities perpetrated in their religion’s name. But such misguided avengers are generally lone wolves; and, in the end, it is a belief system, not a government, that they wish to attack. They think that being a Muslim automatically makes one a … Read More >>

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Enemies, Real and Imagined

1) Hamas is evil.

2) Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens.

3) Anti-Israel sentiment is usually simple Jew-hatred in (not very good) disguise.

4) The United States needs to be fully supportive of Israel.

5) It has been.

Some would take issue with that last sentence. They are wrong. And it behooves Klal Yisroel, which is meant to be imbued with the concept of hakaras hatov, to recognize that fact.

Over the past six years, some have come to imagine that the current occupant of the White House is some sort of adversary of Israel.

Anyone, of course, can disagree with President Obama on any or all issues, even, perhaps, to just dislike him for no good reason, as some apparently do. But for those of us who (even though we expected the worst, considering some of the baggage he brought to Pennsylvania Avenue) have carefully observed him, he has proven himself more than worthy of Jewish respect.

Yet he was pounced upon, after his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world for, well, the simple decision to address that world; and for basing the state of Israel’s legitimacy on the Holocaust. What seemed to be … Read More >>

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Ugly Times

It could well be, as some have charged, that the New York Times’ choice of photographs to accompany its reportage from Israel and Gaza has been skewed to emphasize Hamas’ grievances; or it could be that the imbalance of photos is merely a manifestation of the old journalistic adage “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Despite my general satisfaction with the paper’s actual reportage on the conflict, I lean to the former judgment. And I have similar misgivings about headlines that are created for dispatches. It’s not widely known that media have “headline writers” over whom reporters have no control. There have been several examples of headlines that didn’t truly reflect the articles beneath them, and in ways that led readers (of the headlines alone, at least – and that’s a lot of readers) to regard Israel negatively.

A recent Times report began with the following sentences: “Militant rockets can be seen launching from crowded neighborhoods, near apartment buildings, schools and hotels. Hamas fighters have set traps for Israeli soldiers in civilian homes and stored weapons in mosques and schools. Tunnels have been dug beneath private property.” Its headline? “Israel Says That Hamas Uses Civilian Shields, Reviving Debate,” as if … Read More >>

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The Punker’s Lesson

A Tisha B’Av-themed piece appearing in the Forward can be read here.

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Pain and Gain

Living lives of comfort and ease, it’s difficult for many of us to fulfill the direction of the first siman in the Shulchan Aruch to “be pained and distressed over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh.” Do we experience agony at the fact that the holiest spot in the universe lies in picturesque ruin, trampled daily by the feet of deluded masses? Do we feel sick over the reality that, no matter how nice the weather and the house and the bungalow and the cars, we are in golus?

It’s easier these days, unfortunately. We’re reminded.

It will be less of a challenge, too, to access the sadness of Eicha and our kinos this Tisha B’Av, when (unless we’re wonderfully surprised first by Moshiach’s arrival) we will focus entirely on the churban Beis Hamikdosh and its appalling offspring, the subsequent tragedies of Jewish history.

Because, no matter how one chooses to regard past weeks’ events in Eretz Yisrael, and no matter what may have been accomplished or might yet be, the situation is in fact dire and seemingly hopeless.

Some may take heart in the elimination of terrorists who, in their happiest dreams, and all too often in … Read More >>

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Worth a Read

Below are remarks by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice to the National Jewish Leaders Assembly today (July 28) at the National Press Club in Washington.

I thought they might be of interest to Cross-Currents readers.

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you so much Bob for that incredibly generous introduction. I also want to thank my friend Malcolm and express my personal gratitude for this invitation. And it’s good to be back at the Conference of Presidents and seeing so many friends and familiar faces. Many of you have come from Jewish communities across this country in a strong show of support for Israel.

These are indeed difficult days. Today, together, all of us who care about the State of Israel are again confronted with the challenges of a dangerous and imperfect world: Of sirens and shelters. Young people called yet again to war. (Audience interruption). Of a land where, in the haunting phrase of Yitzhak Rabin, “parents bury their children.”

Today is the first day of Av, the month when Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It’s a reminder that the Jewish people have endured much worse than rockets and survived much … Read More >>

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Something is Wrong With Gazans

The solution to the long and ongoing war between Hamas and Israel is an obvious one, and it consists of two words: Gazan Spring.

Everyone knows the facts. Hamas, pledged to Israel’s destruction, is the de facto government in Gaza. In the Palestinian parliamentary elections of January, 2006, it won 74 out of 132 seats. Even though the United States and the European Union refused to recognize Hamas’ right to govern any area of the Palestinian Authority, it took control of Gaza and, began to fight with Fatah, its Palestinian rival. Over subsequent years, clashes and truces between the two groups became the recurrent reality. Many hundreds of Palestinians have been killed there by their fellow Palestinians.

Just before the recent spate of violence between Hamas and Israel, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas entered into an agreement with Hamas to form a unity government. That latest attempt to heal the rift between the Palestinian faction that aims to eradicate Israel and the one that professes to back a two-state solution was widely expected to eventually meet the fate of previous, similar Fatah-Hamas pacts, which fell apart as a result of the two groups’ inherently diametric stances.

Now, with Israel’s … Read More >>

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Agudath Israel Statement on Recent Global Anti-Semitism

As Israel applies itself to the task of rooting out terrorists in Gaza, and destroying their tunnels and rocket launchers, there have been, as always when Israel acts to defend herself, condemnations of her effort to protect her citizens from an enemy bent on murdering them.

Seizing on the tragic consequences of even as just a war as the one Israel is conducting against Hamas, the condemners vehemently protest Israel’s actions – and, in the time-honored tradition of Jew-hatred, wax violent against Jews, wherever they may be.

And so, we have come to witness over recent weeks hatred and violence directed toward Jewish communities in France and other countries. Such incidents are reminiscent of an earlier, darker time in our history when hatred of Jews was openly and unabashedly expressed both verbally and physically. Witnessing these attacks today is a stark and chilling reminder that the scourge of anti-Semitism remains a malignant reality in the modern world.

Without questioning the sentiments or actions of the French government, or of the other governments involved, the fact that these incidents have primarily taken place in Europe, where just decades ago many “ordinary citizens” were complicit in the persecution and extermination … Read More >>

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“Of Public Record” – 2

A second offering of interesting quotes from recent days’ media reports can be seen here.

For future such postings, occasionally check out rabbiavishafran.com

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Fresh Air Amid The Reek

Even more remarkable than the article itself was where it appeared.

Written by Elissa Strauss, an essayist and a “co-artistic director” of a “non-religious Jewish house of study for culture-makers at the 14th Street Y” in New York, the piece – “What Did the Orthodox Do Now?!” – graced the pages of the Forward, where Ms. Strauss is a contributing editor.

The essay’s focus was the non-Orthodox Jewish media’s “fixation with Haredi Jews”; those organs’ “hunger for sensationalism” in their reportage on the Orthodox community; the “crude laziness” evidenced by such tunnel vision; and the reduction of “a whole community of Jews” to “a kind of caricature in stories that often traffic in stereotypes.”

Points well taken, and the Forward, of course, is a good example of such invidious ink-spilling. It has some excellent reporters but also maintains a stable of writers and bloggers with chronically jaundiced views of the charedi world. And so it deserves credit for publishing Ms. Strauss’ piece, which was essentially a rebuke of its own journalistic bent with regard to our community.

Ms. Strauss attributes the obsessive negativity displayed by some non-Orthodox writers for charedim to a desire to feel a “moral superiority” … Read More >>

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COJs, not OTDs, may be our bigger problem

An article I wrote about “Cultural Orthodox Jews” in the Forward can be read here.

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Letter in Today’s NYT

To the Editor:

“A Damaging Distance” (news analysis, Sunday Review, July 13) may well be right that the reduced interaction between Arabs and Israelis is lamentable. But to attribute Israel’s erection of a barrier wall between Palestinian land and Israeli land to “the common wisdom that the two nations needed not greater intimacy but complete separation” ignores something rather important.

The wall was built for one reason: to prevent terrorism. In the three-year period after its erection, only a handful of murderous attacks were carried out in Israel. In the three-year period before it was built, 73 such attacks took place, and 293 Israelis were murdered as a result.

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN Director of Public Affairs Agudath Israel of America New York, July 13, 2014

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AIA Statement on Ground Action in Gaza

With the news that a ground invasion of the hornets’ nest known as Gaza is underway, Agudath Israel of America calls on all Jews to pray for the safety of the soldiers and the citizenry of Israel, and to undertake meaningful acts of kindness, charity, Torah-study and special observances to help merit Divine protection of our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, on the front lines and everywhere else.

As has been the practice in many shuls over past years, in response to the call of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the recitation of Tehillim (Psalms) 83, 130 and 142, followed by the tefila of Acheinu, is recommended. But our every prayer should include entreaties on behalf of our fellow Jews.

May our tefillos be received in mercy by Hakodosh Boroch Hu, and help usher in days of peace and security.

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Mr. Obama, Phone (My) Home

I just can’t seem to remember whether President Obama telephoned me last night. It was a busy evening. I had a chasuna, a seder and davened Maariv.

No, I’m quite sure I didn’t get a call from the White House. But the father of murdered Arab teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir did receive one the other day from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which the Israeli leader expressed his deep condolences for what authorities have described as a nationalism-inspired killing, and pledged that the “perpetrators of this horrific crime” would face the full severity of the law. “There is no place for such murderers” in Israeli society, Mr. Netanyahu said.

Asked later by the Jerusalem Post about the call, the father said that he had received dozens of phone calls and couldn’t recall if Mr. Netanyahu had been among the callers. Ishaq Abu Khdeir, a representative of the Arab victim’s family, denied outright that the Prime Minister had telephoned the family. “This is a false claim,” he said.

The family also refused, according to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, to allow Israeli president Shimon Peres to pay a condolence call in person. When security personnel arrived to prepare … Read More >>

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Agudath Israel Statement on Hamas Cease-Fire Rejection

Today’s news brought the report that Hamas has rejected an Egyptian-brokered cease fire, while Israel’s cabinet has expressed its willingness to abide by its terms. Once again, Hamas has shown what it truly is — a terrorist organization bent on wreaking death and destruction, not only upon Israel, but upon its very own people. Its aim is to reject peace and coexistence and its violence is intended to take Israelis and Palestinians further from the negotiating table.

We express our deep appreciation to President Obama for his strong support of Israel during this difficult and desperate time. The U.S.-funded Iron Dome defense system has proven to be invaluable asset and has saved countless lives. The close military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel that has taken place over these past years has clearly played a critical role in assisting Israel in responding to the terrorist threat it faces now and on an ongoing basis. As both Americans and Jews, we are proud that our country remains a stalwart friend of Israel.

In light of Hamas rejectionism, we urge President Obama to strengthen even further American resolve in dealing with the terrorist threat it poses. We should make clear to … Read More >>

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