From Iran to Mallorca and some things in between

Thoughts on everything from Obama's political thinking on Iran to Mallorcan Jews and their history.

Mallorcan Chueta_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mallorcan Chueta_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I. Washington’s announcement this week that it would not try to suffocate the Iranian economy with sanctions is evidence that little will change as a result of highly publicized International Atomic Energy Agency report on Tehran’s nuclear program.
In the long term, a nuclear-armed Iran poses a clear threat to American interests, but short-term political realities will prevent the Obama administration from taking stronger action against Tehran. Shutting down Iran’s economy would mean jeopardizing the European Union’s 28.7 billion euros in bilateral trade ties with Tehran, to say nothing of endangering the supply of oil from the fourth largest producer of crude oil in the world. Endangering either, especially at a time of global financial upheaval, is not a battle the president, or any president, is going to fight.
As Yediot Aharonot columnist Alex Fishman wrote on Wednesday, the international community “will continue to play games with the regime in Tehran. Assuming that no Western country is preparing to attack Iran, Israel had better resign itself to a truly New Middle East.”
II. An ultra-Orthodox young man asked me politely to change seats with him on an El Al flight to Zurich, so as to avoid sitting next to a woman.
Ordinarily I would have gotten into a discussion with him about the topic and probably have refused the request. But I’d been seated a couple of rows behind my traveling companion and welcomed the opportunity to sit together. So I traded seats, let the issue drop and forgot about it for several days, until I read former Mossad director Efraim Halevy’s remarks about the threat of Orthodox extremism to the State of Israel.
Halevy may have overstated the case, but he is hardly a lone voice when it comes to criticizing the fanatic gender separation that has come to define the haredi world.
Even Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the American rabbi whose rulings are considered both groundbreaking and definitive for Diaspora Orthodox communities, would agree that forced gender separation in the public arena is an indication that something in that community is not quite right. “A man who becomes sexually aroused by merely sitting next to a woman in this context should indeed avoid public transportation,” wrote Feinstein in 1960.
“But it is not appropriate for people to be so highly sexually charged [from such a mundane encounter].”
III. It is important to remember that, despite the indictment of Rabbi Mordechai Elon on charges of sexual assault, accused individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
This is particularly true in cases where the crimes are of a sexual nature, when the mere suspicion of wrongdoing could easily spell the end of a career.
In this case, due to media publicity, even if Elon is proven innocent, his name and career have been irreparably damaged.
The case should also serve as a starting point for the modern Orthodox community to discuss the growing phenomenon of guru-ism.
Years ago, as the head of the Horev yeshiva high school in Jerusalem, Elon was considered religious Zionism’s leading light – he is a scion of a top Zionist family, and his weekly talk on the Torah portion at the Yeshurun Synagogue in downtown Jerusalem was broadcast around the country and attended live by hundreds of young people for years in the mid-to-late 1990s.
But although he had many admirers and students, he did not have followers. There was no Rabbi Elon personality cult, no Elon groupies.
In those years, to the best of my knowledge there were no accusations of misconduct.
But by the early 2000s, that started to change. Elon removed himself from his prior public role, left the Jerusalem area and spent several years out of the spotlight. During those years a select group of students who see themselves as Elon disciples began to spend long hours, often late into the night, with the rabbi, and a guru-type culture did begin to develop. Eventually, so did the allegations.
Elon is certainly not the first rabbi from the religious Zionist community to sustain misconduct allegations.
He is also not the first person so accused to say his actions had been misunderstood. But while the personalities and teaching styles of many of those individuals vary widely, one common denominator is that many of the accused have been seen not only as teachers and leaders, but as charismatic gurus.
Rabbi Elon certainly deserves the benefit of a fair trial in court, and he should not be tried in the newspaper, but the growing issue of personality cults inside religious Zionism should become a topic of conversation in that community.
IV. Living in Israel it is easy to lose sight of what this country means to Jewish communities around the world. Take the Jewish community of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, for example. Although the community was destroyed at the height of the Spanish Inquisition in 1435 and the island declared Judenrein, Jewish families have lived there continuously since then. Known pejoratively in Spanish as Chuetas (a similar term to the better-known word marrano), these families managed to cling to whatever bits of Judaism they could despite the inherent danger.
Today, very few of the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Mallorcans with Jewish family roots are still connected to Judaism, but for the ones that are it would be tough to overstate how central a role the State of Israel plays in their Jewish identity. At a seminar last weekend hosted by the Shavei Israel organization and its chairman, Jerusalem Post columnist Michael Freund, participant after participant spoke about the intense sense of pride they have in Israel, its accomplishments, the beauty of the land and the people. For a group of Jews who have lived in secrecy for six centuries, the living, breathing Jewish country is both a source of tremendous inspiration and strength and a tangible sign that their sacrifices were not for naught.
It’s something to bear in mind.
The writer is the opinion editor of The Jerusalem Post.