Author Archives: Ebony Brown

Joshua Runyan

Let the Refs Make the Call



If you were lucky enough to catch Sunday’s NFC matchup between divisional rivals the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles — most Baltimore-area television sets were tuned to the Ravens’ field-goal-clinching 23-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns — it either came across as old-style football or thuggery run amok.

One thing’s for sure, though: The Week 3 rough-and-tumble defeat of Washington, 37-34, in which a post-down tackle of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles led to a bench-clearing sideline fight and the ejection of the Redskins’ Nick Baker and the Eagles’ Jason Peters, will go down as one of the most interesting battles of the NFL season.

To football fans, the game is a microcosm of life, and in the great Jewish tradition of finding larger lessons in the mundane, the antics of that particular Sunday offer some telling truths. To the green-clad Eagles’ faithful, Baker’s launch upon a none-the-wiser quarterback amounted to the kind of dirty pool that harkened back to previous seasons’ pay-for-blood scandals. But to citizens of Redskins Nation, Foles was a legitimate target; who could blame a 325-pound lineman for a well-placed tackle?

As in politics, sometimes it all depends upon whose ox is gored.

As the two teams clashed in Philadelphia, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched a couple of hours north in New York City. Timed to coincide with a U.N. climate panel, the Manhattan march demanded action on global warming, but more than one participant — their angry cries broadcast the following day on National Public Radio — decried the “evil” corporations of the world for putting profits above the good of the earth.

In truth, industry titans are no more evil than the Ivy League-educated, fashion-clad protesting class who hold them in contempt are communists. (Although, there were probably more than a few die-hard actual communists scattered throughout the march.) Political discourse frequently invokes the tactic of demonizing the other side, but at the end of the day, a corporation’s job is to remain true to its core principles, profit motives among them, just as a defensive lineman’s job is to aim for the quarterback.

The sacrificing of objective truth for political posturing can also be seen in Israel. To hear the rhetoric emerging out of both the Jewish state’s ruling and ruled classes — as featured in this week’s cover story — is to witness the wholesale maligning of groups.

At issue is the fate of thousands of Africans who have made it from war-torn nations to Israel to seek asylum. To several politicians, these potential refugees — a High Court decision Monday reverses policies of indefinite confinement and gives the government 90 days to close an unpopular detainment facility in the Negev — are criminals and vagrants. But who would really fault a person for fleeing horrific dangers back home?

To many of the Africans’ advocates, Israeli politicians’ stances are malicious and run counter to the Jewish people’s history as refugees seeking protection as well as Judaism’s exhortation to pursue justice in all its forms.

It took a judicial body to settle the dispute. Perhaps we should all tone down the rhetoric, whether in sports, in politics and in our relations with each other, and realize that an arbiter is needed to dispense justice.


Yom Kippur Without Fasting

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson sayshealth takes top precedent in Judaism, even when it means deferring from tradition. (Provided)

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson sayshealth takes top precedent in Judaism, even when it means deferring from tradition. (Provided)

Each sect of Judaism has its own way of observing the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, but there is at least one custom observed across the board: fasting.

As members of the Baltimore Jewish community spend the day in synagogue with empty stomachs beginning the night of Oct. 3, some observing the holiday won’t be able to take part in the ritual.

“I have Stage 3 kidney failure,” said Pikesville resident Mike Solomon. “They don’t want me not drinking or eating, because the kidneys could shut down.”

While Solomon said his condition is stabilized and that he is not on dialysis anymore, he and his doctors would like to keep it that way.

Solomon’s condition is just one of many that exempts him from fasting, according to rabbis and physicians.

“In Judaism life always takes priority over anything else,” said Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, director of pastoral care and chaplaincy at LifeBridge Health. “If fasting is going to get you sicker, then you shouldn’t be fasting.”

Dr. Elliot Rothschild, an internist at Pikesville’s Baltimore Suburban Health, said patients who can’t fast include those who are frail, have heart conditions, take medications that require food, some diabetics and those with acute conditions such as pneumonia that could worsen from fasting.

“I tell somebody not to fast if I think it will destabilize their condition, particularly someone who is frail,” Rothschild said.

Perfectly healthy people, such as some pregnant women, don’t fast either.

“It’s just generally not a good idea,” said Daniela Levine, an expectant mother. “You don’t want to deprive the growing fetus of nutrients.”

Levine, who is modern Orthodox, still plans to celebrate the holiday and said she will miss fasting.

“It gives you a chance for introspection, it gives you a chance to really think about all the things you’ve really done over the past year,” she said. “Although difficult, I think it takes away that little bit of pleasure you get from eating, and it gives you a chance to really think about all the things that Yom Kippur is about.”

Owings Mills resident Dennis Duell said he last fasted about 10 years ago. He and his wife both have medical issues that prevent them from fasting.

“That’s what happens when you get into your golden years,” he said.

He takes medicine for his rheumatoid arthritis that requires food. And although they can’t fast, Duell sees the value in the tradition. He explained it as a way of connecting to past generations and their hardships.

“We didn’t suffer as other people suffered prior to us, so [fasting is] really little compared to what other people went through before us,” he said. “It’s an important thing because it’s symbolic.”

Rothschild said some patients do fight him on not fasting but joked that it’s no different than any other time he gives them instructions. Some, he added, can fast with precaution and consume small snacks and drinks. For those who fight him, he cites a story a rabbi at his synagogue, Suburban Orthodox Congregation, told about a man whose wife told the rabbi he wasn’t following doctors’ orders to not fast.

“The rabbi visits him [and says], ‘I just want to let you know I won’t be able to give you an aliyah in shul anymore,’” Rothschild said. “The rabbi says, ‘You have decided to practice a different religion. The law is you have to eat.’”

Rabbi Ackerson has dealt with similar situations. Although those admitted to the hospital generally understand why they can’t fast, there’s one population that sometimes has trouble with the notion of not taking part in the ritual.

“It takes more effort in terms of that emotional side, particularly with some of my very elderly Holocaust survivors,” he said.

“They’ll say, ‘I fasted in Auschwitz and now you want me to eat?’ That’s a very different situation.”

So what does a rabbi say to that?

“For most, it was their deep faith, that’s what allowed them to make it through,” he said. “We tell them, ‘That deep faith is what tells you to make your life a priority.’”

At the end of day, even though it means missing out on a lifelong practice, Solomon said there really isn’t another option.

“It’s just one of those things where you have to go by what the doctors and the rabbi says,” he said.


Experts for Hire

U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Martin Indyk has been hit by critics for accepting money from a supporter of terrorism. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Martin Indyk has been hit by critics for accepting money from a supporter of terrorism. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Many think tanks, those collections of scholars who issue reams of reports and whose members help shape public opinion and government policy, take pride in being independent research organizations whose academics and former officials do rigorous, unbiased work.

But thanks to revelations that some of the most widely known of such groups, including the Brookings Institution, are benefiting from foreign dollars even as they educate policymakers in Washington, their rise-above-the-fray reputation is now in question.

Think tanks are a quintessential American institution. When a committee on Capitol Hill holds a hearing, think tank scholars often provide expert testimony. These scholars occupy a territory between policymakers and academics and often move freely between those professions.

“It’s a long tradition in America to put our trust in outside experts,” said Jim McGann, founder and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “So the most important policy issues facing the country were entrusted not to civil servants, not to government officials, but to think tanks.

“If you look, for example, at the 9/11 commission, virtually everyone had an affiliation with a think tank.”

A recent New York Times article pointed out the potential for foreign-influence buying at policy shops such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development. The Times charged that think tanks are taking tens of millions of dollars from foreign donors while advocating their positions with the U.S. government.

Those donors range from Norway to Japan to Canada. But in what was a bombshell for many Israel supporters, the Times revealed that former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Martin Indyk accepted $14.8 million from Qatar for the Brookings Institution, where he now is director of its Foreign Policy Program. Other Qatari money funds Hamas, against which Israel fought a war this summer and which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.

Critics hit Indyk both for his revolving-door role in both Brookings and the U.S. peace team and for accepting money from a supporter of terrorism.

As the storm over the Times article peaked last week, the House of Representatives began to consider a proposed rule that would require think tank scholars who testify on Capitol Hill to disclose any support they receive from foreign governments. The proposal received bipartisan support.

What happens at Brookings, which has a center in Doha, Qatar, sets an example for other think tanks. Brookings — its motto is “Quality. Independence. Impact” — was named the most influential think tank in the world by the “Global Go To Think Tank Index,” an annual survey compiled by McGann of the organization’s global influence.

According to the Times, “12 percent of the annual budget at the Brookings Institution and as much as 20 percent of the funding at the Atlantic Council come from foreign governments.”

Many other think tanks receive corporate funding. One is the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which lists as donors Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Nestle and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others. Peterson was rated two stars (out of five) for transparency by Transparify, an international initiative advocating greater think tank transparency.

The Peterson Institute is to economic and trade expertise what Brookings is to foreign policy.

Writing in Inside Philanthropy, editor David Callahan asked, “Just how much intellectual integrity can the institute have, considering its dependence on donors with a strong financial stake in the issues that it works on?”

Callahan went on to describe the chilling effect corporate donors might have on the institute’s work.

McGann isn’t worried. He said that most of the older, more established think tanks have conflict of interest, peer review and donor guideline procedures already in place.

Nevertheless, he said that there have been incidents where individual think tank scholars were caught doubling as lobbyists, but it is rare.

The solution to conflict of interest is transparency, according to Hans Gutbrod, executive director of Transparify.

“Transparency communicates confidence in the integrity of your research,” he said. “If you know that your research can withstand critical scrutiny, there is no reason to hide that your donors may have particular preferences. So it is a key component.”

There are a number of other best practices, according to Gutbrod. They include “informing donors and clients early on what they will publish, independent of what the result is.”

“Some institutions have a strong code of conduct, which can become a point of reference for researchers who insist on their independence,” he said. “As the majority of think tanks are 501(c)3 organizations, practically all of them have a written conflict-of-interest policy. They are being asked to affirm this in their annual IRS 990 tax declaration form … and are asked whether they monitor and enforce that policy ‘regularly and consistently.’”

Mark Rom, director of the master’s in American government program at Georgetown University, said that he has confidence in the independence of think tank researchers.

Yet he admits that unlike in previous decades where think tanks like Brookings usually had a “pot” of funding that would finance all its research equally, he sees a greater push for scholars to fund their own projects.

“More scholars and think tanks have to raise their own funding, and when you’re raising your own funding, there is a least a possibility that you will research things in ways that would please those who fund it,” Rom said.

He also pointed to the proliferation of think tanks that have open political agendas, though not necessarily because of who funds their work.

What doesn’t seem to be changing is government reliance on think tanks and what McGann called the “revolving door” between think tanks and government service.

In the Indyk case, it can raise questions of propriety. In other situations, it helps government run more effectively.

“During the transition [between the Bush and Obama administrations] and the economic crisis, Obama was able to rely on the staff of think tanks, many of whom came into his administration before he took office,” McGann said. Because of that, Obama “was able to hit the ground running and respond to the crisis in a way that would not be possible elsewhere and is unusual in terms of the seamless transition from one administration to the other.” contributed to this article.


Caught on Camera

Hillary and Bill Clinton share a laugh during an Iowa event benefiting the campaign of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. (Karen Murphy)

Hillary and Bill Clinton share a laugh during an Iowa event benefiting the campaign of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. (Karen Murphy)

Former President Bill Clinton caused controversy last week when off-the-cuff remarks appearing to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were caught by C-SPAN cameras.

While greeting attendees at a campaign event for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) headlined by Bill and Hillary Clinton, the 42nd president had a small conversation with a man who questioned Netanyahu’s ability to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“Netanyahu himself said that he does not want peace,” the unknown man is heard telling Clinton in the video. “If we don’t force him to make peace, we will not have peace.”

“First of all, I agree with that,” Clinton responded before saying that in 2000, he got former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to “agree to something that I’m not sure I could have gotten” former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin “to agree to, and Rabin was murdered for giving land to the Palestinians.”

Pushed again to admit that Netanyahu isn’t the right leader by the attendee, Clinton agreed.

Some observers pointed to the candid comments as indicative of a break from support of Israel by the mainstream left and as a predictor of what his wife — a former secretary of state and a likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate — and President Barack Obama privately think of Netanyahu and Israel.

“In public, Hillary Clinton, like Obama, will recite her pro-Israel credentials, but her words and action in [private] are more revealing,” Jennifer Rubin wrote on her blog for The Washington Post. “Like so many other Democrats she tends to view Israel as an irritant.”

But longtime Clinton supporters such as Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton administration official who now runs his own public relations firm in Washington, D.C., say that the exchange shouldn’t be taken as a serious reflection of how U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers work to get things done.

“Bill Clinton and Bibi Netanyahu have a tortured but very mature relationship where they got a lot of business done to their countries’ mutual benefit,” said Rabinowitz. “The people who care about what someone says under his breath are really people who don’t like the guy in the first place. [Clinton and Netanyahu] didn’t get along perfectly personally, but they’re both pros and they figured it out.”

Rabinowitz believes that support for Clinton among Jews is still high. If he ran for president again, he said, Clinton would still get 80 to 90 percent of the Jewish vote.

“Bill Clinton could get elected president of Israel too,” Rabinowitz said.

One staffer with the Ready for Hillary PAC who declined to speak on the record said that too much weight should not be put into one unartful comment by the former president.

“I think no matter what, the peace process is really difficult and there are a lot of emotions and a lot of history involved,” said the staffer. “I think that for anyone it would be very difficult, and I think Netanyahu is someone who could [bring peace], but it will always be hard.”

The former president wasn’t the only Democrat last week whose comments upset the Jewish community.

Speaking at a 40th anniversary conference of the Legal Services Corporation on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden recalled a story his son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, told him about unethical banks taking advantage of military personnel when they were fighting abroad.

“That’s one of the things that he finds was most in need when he was over there in Iraq for a year,” Biden said. “That people would come to him and talk about what was happening to them at home in terms of foreclosures, in terms of bad loans that were being … I mean these Shylocks who took advantage of, um, these women and men while overseas.”

Shortly after the statement, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman rebuked Biden for referencing “Shylock,” a character from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” who is based on popular anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Later, the vice president called Foxman to apologize for his remark, admitting that it was a “poor choice of words.”

Foxman then issued a statement thanking Biden for his apology and praising the vice president for “turning the rhetorical gaffe into a teachable moment.”


Seeking Refuge

092614_coverstory1Mutasim Ali fled the Darfur region of Sudan in 2009 seeking refuge from a government undergoing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

“I’m ashamed to see that happening in my country, but because of your race, you feel you don’t belong to that place anyway,” he said. “That’s one of the major problems we face there.”

So Ali, 27, like many other non-Arab Sudanese people and Eritreans, journeyed to Israel, the nearest democratic country. Five years later, Ali is, by his description and that of monitoring groups, a “prisoner” at the Holot detention center in the western Negev, about 37 miles from the nearest city, Beersheva. While he and about 2,000 other detainees are free to come and go, they must check in with authorities three times a day and are subject to a 10 p.m. curfew at the facility; failure to follow the rules leads to imprisonment.

The detainees, say activists, remain in a state of sociopolitical limbo in a country largely unreceptive to an approximately 44,000-strong group of African immigrants; Jerusalem takes little action on granting asylum seekers the legal and social protections of refugee status.

On Monday, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the closing of Holot within 90 days and voided a measure the Knesset passed last December that allowedincarceration without trial for those who illegally entered the country. Asylum seekers and advocates counted it as a small victory in an uphill battle for refugee rights.

“While we are content with the court’s ruling, the Right Now coalition will continue to advocate for greater change and more protections … including a fair Refugee Status Determination process, a cessation of Israel’s deterrence policy of coercing asylum seekers to ‘voluntarily return,’ social residency and the right to work, including work permits, health care and welfare benefits and the condemnation of all racist rhetoric and violent incitement towards the asylum seekers,” said Maya Paley, co-founder of the Right Now coalition, a volunteer-run group working to raise awareness of the issue in the United States.

Mutasim Ali (left) at a news conference in Tel Aviv in January. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Mutasim Ali (left) at a news conference in Tel Aviv in January. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Paley’s comments alluded to life outside of Holot, which is still rife with obstacles for African asylum seekers.

“We didn’t expect this from Israel,” Ali said, explaining that he and other asylum seekers thought Israel’s history and democratic government would make it a welcoming place for those seeking refuge.

That people like Ali have received anything but a welcome embrace from the Jewish state has sparked protests within Israel and spurred activists and rabbis in the wider Jewish community, including in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to take notice. And while Israel determines what to do with the influx of asylum seekers, more than 6,000 have reversed course and headed to their home countries where, according to a new 83-page report by Human Rights Watch, they face possible criminal charges, torture and imprisonment.

Israeli law

Israel’s 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Act, also known as the “Anti-Infiltration Law,” referred to Palestinians trying to cross into Israeli territory from neighboring countries, as well as all sub-Saharan Africans who entered Israel illegally, as infiltrators.

Bill Frelick, refugee program director at HRW and editor of the organization’s recent report, said the language in the law itself may be part of the reason Israel has been so unwelcoming to those seeking asylum.

“These are not people that have any intention of doing any harm to Israel,” he said. “The legal framework in the statute itself frames this as a security and legal issue.”

In January 2012, the Knesset passed an amendment to indefinitely detain anyone entering Israel illegally. This was struck down by Israel’s High Court in September 2013, but other regulations have since allowed for the arrest and detention without trial of anyone entering the country suspected of committing certain crimes.

092614_coverstory3Detainees would end up at Holot. As of mid-June 2014, HRW determined, there were 2,369 of them there.

Israelis and the Jewish community should demand better, said Columbia native Anna Rose Siegel, coordinator of the Right Now coalition’s regional activities in Baltimore and Washington.

“As Jews our commitment is to those who have experienced parallel persecution,” she explained. “Israel was founded as a refugee nation.”

Rabbi Sid Schwarz of Rockville similarly keeps human rights at the forefront of his concerns. He is on the board of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, is a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and serves as director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a one-year educational program on Judaism and human rights for young professionals. For the last couple of years, the fellows have spent a day of their study tour in Israel exploring the issue of African refugees.

Whether drawing from halachic, rabbinical or historical sources, Schwarz said, they all point to Israel being a place of refuge.

“We are a people who in our history oftentimes needed refuge. The Holocaust is the most recent example, perhaps even more recently that Israel has been a haven for Jews from the Soviet Union, Argentina and France,” he said. “I think just from the perspective of history, a Jewish state should have as compassionate a policy towards refugees as possible.”

He also cites the Passover story, in which Jews were strangers in Egypt, as demonstrating why Jews should be sensitive to other strangers.