Author Archives: Ebony Brown


The Final Divorce?

Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestinian Authority's ambassador to the Netherlands, is less than than enthused at the P.A.’s plan to expose Israel to war crimes charges. It’s a “one way move, no way back,” he said. (Courtesy James Madison University)

Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to the Netherlands, is less than than enthused at the P.A.’s plan to expose Israel to war crimes charges. It’s a “one way move, no way back,” he said. (Courtesy James Madison University)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Loading a newly released video of a beheading in Syria on his smartphone, Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestinians’ ambassador here, shakes his head in disbelief.

“Look at those animals,” he said, referring to the fighters from the ISIS jihadist group who carried out the decapitation. “Do you think Israelis are immune from this craziness? Me, I’m even more scared of this fundamentalism.”

To Abuznaid, who has represented the Palestinian Authority in the Netherlands for the past five years, such barbarity is a sign that the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve their differences peacefully and stand united against the shared threat of extremism.

But on Abuznaid’s desk, under a life-size portrait of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, are documents connected to a move that could undo 24 years of efforts to find common ground: The Palestinian Authority’s plan to expose Israel to war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Abuznaid said he is advancing the motion with little enthusiasm. But if P.A. Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki is to be believed, within the year the Palestinian Authority will accede to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC in 1998, which would give the U.N. tribunal jurisdiction to probe war crimes investigations against Israel.

Both the Palestinians and Israelis consider the move a game-changer, a step after which a negotiated two-state solution may be all but impossible.

“This is not the Palestinian preferred choice because going to the ICC is the final divorce: one-way move, no way back,” said Abuznaid, 60, a former lecturer in international relations from Hebron who spent a few months in an Israeli jail in the 1980s for his membership in the PLO. “I don’t think Palestinians and Israelis are ready for a final divorce.”

If the Palestinians move ahead with their plans, it is Abuznaid who will be the P.A.’s point person on the matter. Abuznaid said his family is from Haifa, where they lived before Israel’s establishment in 1948, when they left along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven out of Israeli-controlled areas during the War of Independence.

As a young man, Abuznaid believed in the Palestine Liberation Organi-zation’s strand of radicalism. He was a self-described revolutionary who thought Israel had to be destroyed. But over time his politics have softened, and today even his Israeli detractors consider him a pragmatist.

“Let the person who is living in my family’s house in Haifa enjoy the beach there, and I will enjoy my life in Hebron and we can be friends,” he said. “There is no choice but todivide the land.”

Equipped with good English and a political science degree from James Madison University in Virginia, Abuznaid climbed the PLO ranks to become a personal adviser to Arafat, serving under him during the Oslo negotiations. Abuznaid later returned to the United States to serve as deputy head of the Palestinian Authority’s mission in Washington, D.C., among other positions. His wife, Lubna, and their two children are living in the United States.

“Abroad I’m a diplomat who receives the red carpet. But when I return home, I need to wait in my car for a boy the age of my son who’s treating me like I’m barely human,” he said of the soldiers who check his papers when he crosses the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and the West Bank.

Unlike his position on checkpoints — a longstanding Palestinian gripe — Abuznaid’s reluctant attitude to the ICC move seems out of sync
with Ramallah’s public defiance. Yet, despite the rhetoric, it’s not clear how eagerly the Palestinians are to play the ICC card.

In July, the Palestinian Authority’s justice minister and the general prosecutor in Gaza sent an official request for an ICC investigation of alleged war crimes committed by Israel this summer during its campaign against Hamas in Gaza. The following month, during Maliki’s visit to The Hague, he told reporters that
accession is “only a matter of time and will occur this year.”

But a letter from ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, leaked last month, states that Maliki was asked to confirm the request contained in the July letter and declined to do so.

“A decision was taken to go ahead with the ICC move, yes,” Abuznaid said. “But it’s not final until the papers are submitted. So it’s still something that can be avoided. Because if we realize the ICC option, what then? How would we go forward with the peace process? The day we sign, things will be different between us and the Israelis.”

It’s impossible to know if Abuznaid’s qualms may merely be part of a strategy that keeps the ICC option as a bargaining chip in the Palestinians’ diplomatic chess match with Israel or if he is expressing a genuine aversion to what could be a grand but ineffective gesture.

Haim Divon, Abuznaid’s counterpart at the Israeli Embassy in The Hague, believes it’s the latter.

“As a pragmatist, Mr. Abuznaid knows an ICC bid would lead nowhere and only poison the atmosphere,” Divon said.

Abuznaid and Divon know each other well from appearing together in so many forums that Divon once jokingly referred to the configuration as “The Haim and Nabil Show.” They have their disagreements, including over Abuznaid’s drawing of parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian exodus of 1948, but the relationship has remained cordial.

Asked about his relationship with Divon, Abuznaid said, “If it were only up to him and me, I think we would sign a peace agreement pretty soon.”


Prominent Rabbi, Towson Professor Arrested

Rabbi Barry Freundel has been suspended without pay. (File photo)

Rabbi Barry Freundel has been suspended without pay. (File photo)

Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in the 3000 block of O Street N.W. by Washington D.C. Metro Police. Freundel, 62, was charged with voyeurism, according to Officer Hugh Carew, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department.

Freundel, who was suspended without pay from the position he has held since 1989, was to have appeared in Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Wednesday. He was also suspended from Towson University, where he was a faculty member in the department of philosophy and religious studies.

A member of Kesher Israel with intimate knowledge of the case against Freundel confirmed that the investigation centers around a camera or cameras placed in the National Capital Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath located in a synagogue-owned building adjoining the congregation. The mikvah and the synagogue are separate legal entities, according to tax documents.

According to the D.C. criminal code, the crime of voyeurism exists when a person unlawfully maintains a peephole, mirror or any electronic device for the purpose of secretly or surreptitiously observing an individual who is: using a bathroom, totally or partially undressed or changing, or engaged in sexual activity, without the consent of that individual and in an area where a person would expect privacy.

Voyeurism is graded as a misdemeanor under most circumstances, but the charge can be upgraded to a felony if the defendant distributes the spied-upon material.

As a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty for voyeurism is imprisonment of no more than one year or a $2,500 fine or both. Graded as a felony, the charge carries a maximum penalty of not more than five years in prison and a fine of up to $12,500.

While Freundel has been charged with voyeurism, his mere arrest is not conclusive of his guilt.

To be lawful, an arrest must be supported by probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The government’s burden of proof to convict Freundel at trial, as with any criminal defendant, is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a much higher standard.

“This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community,” the synagogue’s board of directors said in a statement shortly after news of the charges broke. “At this challenging time, we draw strength from our faith, our tradition, and our fellow congregants.”

The statement acknowledged that the board was aware of allegations against Freundel prior to his arrest.

“Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the board of directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials,” said the statement, which went on to emphasize that the synagogue reamins open “as a place of learning, prayer and community.” “Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.”

The synagogue has retained the Gibson Dunn law firm, the same firm hired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the fallout over closures on the George Washington Bridge that were said to be politically motivated. As of press time, it was not known who represents Freundel.

Tuesday morning, uniformed police and plainclothes officers were seen leading away in handcuffs a man whom neighbors said was Freundel, according to Washingtonian magazine. Police were later seen removing computers and other items, according to that report.

Rabbi Herzl Kranz of the Silver Spring Jewish Center said he was saddened to hear the news.

“It’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for all Jews as well,” the rabbi said. He quickly added all the facts must be known before judging his fellow Orthodox rabbi.

Freundel received his ordination from Yeshiva University. He has served as an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a consultant to an ethics review board at the National Institutes of Health. He heads the conversion committee at the Rabbinical Council of America and is author of “Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response to Modernity” and “Why We Pray What We Pray.”

In a Sept. 18 article in Washington Jewish Week about the state of Orthodox Judaism, Freundel is quoted about the leading reasons for divorce. “The lack of sexual morality that pervades this society is all over the place, and the Orthodox community, no matter how traditional, is not immune from this, and it creates terrible problems,” said Freundel. “Pornography and its accessibility is wrecking marriages.

“It’s two keystrokes away,” he continued. “You get on the computer, you hit the button twice and you’re there. I have not counseled a couple in any level of relationship in the last five years where pornography hasn’t been an issue.”

Read our update on this story here.


Protective Order

A handful of Secret Service agents surround President Barack Obama after disembarking from Air Force One. In contrast, at a recent luncheon in New York, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was accompanied by nearly 30 security personnel. (Pete Souza/White House)

A handful of Secret Service agents surround President Barack Obama after disembarking from Air Force One. In contrast, at a recent luncheon in New York, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was accompanied by nearly 30 security personnel. (Pete Souza/White House)

What’s the cure for the recent ills of the United States Secret Service? American officials might consider taking some advice from their Israeli counterparts at the Shin Bet security agency.

White House security breaches have sent the Secret Service scrambling to restructure itself in order to prevent similar or more serious mistakes in the future. But former Israeli security and intelligence officials note that the Shin Bet, which also protects top dignitaries, has virtually the same tactics, rules of engagement and training procedures as its American equivalent — without experiencing the same hiccups, at least in recent years. In 1995, the Shin Bet did experience its own crisis following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“I don’t think [Israel’s protection of dignitaries] is different from what the Americans do,” said former Israeli Mossad agent Gad Shimron, who was never part of the Shin Bet’s VIP security service but is familiar with its operations. “It’s the same training, more or less. It’s like the training of an elite soldier, whether he is in the Israeli army or the American army. Maybe there are little differences, but the basic training is the same, the aim of the service is the same.”

Another former senior Israeli security official said that working on culture, rather than changing tactics or overhauling organizational structure, can help the Secret Service fix its problems.

“Every organization is built out of people, procedures and culture,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. “So if this is true, take out the written procedures, take out the people one by one as private individuals, and try to figure out whether there is something left.”

Shimron said that even if agencies such as the Secret Service are guarding dignitaries 24/7, all it takes is “two seconds of carelessness” for a disaster like an assassination.

“Or in this case, I’m sure that the White House normally is very well-guarded, but somehow, for reasons I can’t really tell you because I don’t know all the details, someone managed to jump over the fence and run into the White House,” he said.

Questions were raised about the effectiveness of the Secret Service after Omar Gonzalez, carrying a knife, on Sept. 19 jumped the White House fence, ran inside the front door and passed the presidential living quarters into the East Room, where he was stopped by an off-duty agent.

More embarrassment for the agency came when leaks to the media uncovered that President Barack Obama, while visiting the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, rode in an elevator with an armed security guard who possessed a criminal record and proceeded to take pictures of the president.

The last straw came with the revelation that the Secret Service delayed confessing that shots fired at the White House in 2011 hit their target. Initial reports on the incident had said that all of the shots missed the building.

After a heated House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Sept. 29 in which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed their lost confidence in the leadership of Julia Pierson, the Secret Service’s director, Pierson resigned. Her post was quickly given to former U.S. special agent Joseph Clancy, who came out of retirement to act as interim director.

Pierson, who assumed the position in March 2013, had succeeded Mark Sullivan, who resigned after it was reported that 11 agents engaged with prostitutes while they were on a trip with the president to a summit in Colombia.

The former Israeli security official commended Pierson’s resignation, saying that when a director of such an agency steps down, it sends the message to citizens that the concept of responsibility is still important.

In Israel, the Shin Bet has a dual role: part VIP security agency and part anti-terrorism organization. With a large portion of its members coming from other Israeli intelligence agencies, the anti-terrorism branch offers protective service agents on the ground with clear alerts on threats.

The Shin Bet’s meticulousness was recently demonstrated in a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to the U.S. to attend the U.N. General Assembly. Reporting on a dinner between Netanyahu and Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson at a New York City restaurant, a New York Post reporter mused about the 30 security personnel tagging along — closing off the block and making the restaurant’s patrons go through a metal detector.

Yet, the Shin Bet is also no stranger to security failures, in particular the 1995 assassination of Rabin by an Israeli extremist.

“That was the equivalent of the JFK assassination in America, in terms of the shock waves domestically and worldwide — and the humiliation that the bodyguards experienced,” said Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent who co-authored the book “Spies Against Armageddon,” which offers a history of Israeli security and espionage. “Shin Bet veterans told me that they did not imagine that an Israeli Jew would murder his own country’s prime minister. They had, in effect, been on the lookout only for threats that Arab attackers might pose.”

Shimron said that Israeli intelligence became aware of a possible internal threat to Rabin after he signed the Oslo Peace Accords. That turned out not to be enough to prevent the assassination. After the murder, the Shin Bet went through its own upheaval, which included the resignation of its director and a change in tactics.

The Shin Bet shifted its focus when protecting dignitaries toward surrounding them with agents, preferably those who were taller and bigger than the individual they are trying to protect, so that a gunshot was more likely to hit an agent wearing a bulletproof vest than the dignitary.

The number of agents protecting the prime minister was also significantly increased after the Rabin assassination. Now, whenever the Israeli prime minister goes anywhere, “the whole regiment of security people are busy making sure that there will be as little contact and as little exposure as possible,” Shimron said.

In situations involving large groups of people, the Shin Bet now utilizes casually dressed agents among the crowd who look for potential threats — often using women for the job.

“Something interesting that we found was that women have a much better capability to detect strange behavior in a potential threat than men,” said the former Israeli security official. “They probably don’t have the physical power [as male agents], but when it comes to detecting suspicious behavior that might lead to a potential threat, they are much better than men.”

The official also pointed out that there are structural differences between the Shin Bet and the Secret Service that might contribute to varying degrees of effectiveness. In Israel, Shin Bet agents are usually much younger than their American counterparts and usually serve between five and seven years. In the Secret Service, the older average age means more seasoned agents, but they may lose some of their sensitivity and alertness.

Raviv said that lapses like the recent White House intrusion are less likely to occur with the Shin Bet.

“Would anything so ridiculous as what happened at the White House occur at an Israeli government building — or, specifically, at the home of the prime minister in Jerusalem? It’s not at all likely,” he said. “Israeli facilities have fences that are far more serious, including sensors that high-tech Israeli industries developed. And, frankly, Israeli guards — [who are] part of Shin Bet — would be
far more likely to open fire on an intruder.”


The Jewish Vote

101714_coverOn Tuesday, Nov. 4, Marylanders will head to the voting booths to decide who will be the state’s next chief executive.

While the Baltimore Jewish community is generally concerned about many of the same issues as others in the state, there are some areas Jewish locals are following closely.

Judging by interviews and anecdotal evidence, specific budget items, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, the economy and Maryland-Israel relations are weighing more heavily in some Jewish voters’ and advocates’ minds.

As a whole, Baltimore-area voters appear most concerned about the economy and jobs heading into the general election, according to a poll released by Goucher College on Oct. 7.

Twenty-five percent of respondents told pollsters that the most important issue facing the state today is jobs and the economy. Another 18 percent said taxes, followed by education, crime and the

Thirty-one percent of respondents described their current financial situation as worse than it was a year ago. That number is up from two years ago, when only 24 percent said their finances had gotten worse, and 34 percent reported being in a better financial situation than they had been in the year prior. In both 2012 and 2014, the highest number of those polled — 41 percent — reported no change.

The results bode well for real estate executive and Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, who has built his insurgent campaign on fiscal issues. Although overall, Hogan was trailing Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown by 7 percentage points in a recent Baltimore Sun poll — a Washington Post poll put the Republican 9 points back in the same time period — his narrowing of Brown’s lead in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 is impressive.

Another question in the Goucher poll asked Marylanders which party — Republicans or Democrats — is most apt to deal with each of the issues facing Maryland residents. Respondents were split evenly on which party they had confidence in when the issue was taxes and economic development; crime saw the Democrats ahead by only a slim margin.

Baltimorean Sherlynn Matesky has been following the gubernatorial campaign closely but said she thinks Anthony Brown is a shoe-in, something she doesn’t mind.

Matesky said she is most concerned with global terrorism. While she said she knows the governor’s office does not have power over foreign policy, she said she wants the state’s next leading executive to be vocal in his opposition to terrorism, and she is encouraged by Brown’s record of military service.

“We’re just a stone’s throw from D.C.” she said, adding that she wants a governor who will work to influence Congress.

Sonia Schindler, a Democrat, said she wants change in Annapolis after two terms under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley. She said she intends to vote for Hogan because of his focus on the economy.

The Democrat:  Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (File photo)

The Democrat: Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (File photo)

“People are disgusted with O’Malley, but Brown is going to do the same thing,” said Schindler, adding that she is tired of tax hikes in the name of schools. “Democrats spend money on schools, but then they say they don’t have money for schools.”

Eddie Steinberg, owner of J.S. Edwards men’s clothing store in Baltimore, has been keeping a close eye on the issues that most affect his business.

“When taxes go up, people think twice about buying,” said Steinberg. In talks with other business owners around the country, he said he has noticed that Maryland’s recovery from the Recession has lagged a little behind that of other states.

“It’s better, but during the recession [business] dropped, customers dropped,” he said. “It has come back, but I don’t think it’s as good as other states around the country.”

However, Steinberg doesn’t think the new governor, no matter which candidate voters pick, will have an immediate impact on the business climate. He said he has focused his attention on determining which candidate will be best for business in the long run.

The politically involved members of the Jewish community have a set of issues on which they tend to focus each year. For the Baltimore Jewish Council, eyes are always on the governor’s budget.

“The budget, I would say, is the No. 1 concern for the community,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director at the BJC. “Our agencies are providers to Maryland at large in a variety of different ways.”

Funding for agencies and their programs, as well as capital projects, is at the top of BJC’s agenda each year, and it’s essential to have a governor receptive to the council’s needs, she emphasized.

“We really depend on the governor, his views, what he supports and his support for the Jewish community,” echoed BJC president Lainy LeBow-Sachs.

Budget issues and capital projects on the BJC’s agenda have included the Sinai Family Violence Prevention Program; the domestic violence program at Northwest Hospital, which trains medical staff on how to identify victims; the Hillel Center for Social Justice at the University of Maryland; the Medical Home Extender Plan, which helps the uninsured and underinsured; the Elder Abuse Center; the Supportive Community Network, which helps seniors stay in their homes; and the Maryland/Israel Development Center.

The council has also been a major proponent of the Maryland Education Credit, which would provide a tax credit to businesses that donate to nonpublic schools.

Both LeBow-Sachs and Tolle said Israel, anti-Semitism and the BDS movement are also at the forefront of the issues the BJC is watching.

The Republican: Larry Hogan (Marc Shapiro)

The Republican: Larry Hogan (Marc Shapiro)

Although LeBow-Sachs said she’s not sure what anybody can really do about anti-Semitism, having officials who vociferously denounce it is important.

Through the BJC’s advocacy, Tolle pointed out, the budget passed by the General Assembly this year included language denouncing the BDS movement.

“It was the only language of its kind in the entire country that was passed,” Tolle said.

When BJC officials spoke with Brown about the BDS issue, Tolle said, “he dropped everything and picked up the phone and started working on the issue.”

She is confident that both Brown and Hogan would be advocates for the Jewish community, referring to meetings she’s had with both candidates.

“[Hogan] sat down with us on multiple occasions to talk about our priorities … and he said, ‘Unequivocally, I’m here with you,’” she said.

In addition to the BJC’s priorities, Abba David Poliakoff, first vice president, said issues such as the economy, crime and education have their own effects on the Jewish community.

“The one thing that was made poignantly clear by a number of governors, including Gov. O’Malley, is that the infrastructure in the Jewish community provides resources for community members that would other- wise be a burden that would have to be borne by the state,” Poliakoff said. “I want to see that infrastructure
remain strong.”

That means he wants to see opportunities for high-skilled jobs and Baltimore City’s help to promote the creation of those jobs.

“I have to wonder what the future’s going to be like,” said Poliakoff, whose family has been in Baltimore for six generations. “We’re not a manufacturing town, we’re not a financial services town, we’re not a corporate headquarters town. What are we? The industry here in Baltimore is
basically life sciences and high tech.”

While he’s seen the state help out these industries, he would like to see more of that emphasis in Baltimore City. And he would like to see the city better deal with crime so companies can recruit workers to a safe city. He alluded to what some in the Jewish community call “massaging statistics,” accusing police of under-reporting or downgrading certain incidents in reports.

“It really is a city issue, but the city affects the state, and it would reallybehoove the state to ensure that its biggest city is a safe place for residents,” Poliakoff said.

On Israel, as the former chair of the Maryland/Israel Development Center, Poliakoff said he’s confident the next governor will be a good partner for the organization. A good partner, Poliakoff said, would promote and facilitate business development between Maryland and Israel “so that Maryland companies can do business in Israel, and notably Israeli companies and Israeli technologies can find their way into the United States through Maryland.”

O’Malley was active with the MIDC, he said, and went on several trade missions to Israel.

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue said his congregants are very politically engaged, and many have been following the election for governor closely, some even volunteering on campaigns.

“It’s a very diverse place, as all congregations are,” said Burg of the Reservoir Hill synagogue. “I suspect that it skews left in the way that the Jewish community broadly tends
to skew left, especially on social issues. But when it comes to more fiscal policy, I’m not sure.”

Over the past few years, Burg has been active in advocating for social change in the state when he sees a connection between an issue and his Jewish values. But with legislation now in place for tightening gun control, raising the minimum wage and outlawing the death penalty, immigration is the only topic that still must be settled, he said, although Maryland has done a good job so far.

Additionally, he said he has heard a lot of discussion about taxes, but that is not something he discusses with congregants in his role as rabbi.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation said issues such as the economy, taxation, the business climate, gun control and birth control have come up in conversations at his synagogue. Politically, his congregants are diverse.

“There are some who feel that their tax dollars are certainly being used effectively to fund things like education, and we have a top-notch education,” he said. “And then there are others who feel we have too much of a heavy tax burden. It’s split.”

While political and social issues are sometimes discussed during Torah study because a passage will remind someone of a contemporary issue, Sharff said he doesn’t advocate for candidates or political positions but will add a Jewish voice to the conversation when relevant.

“I’ll talk about collective responsibility but not tax policy,” he said. “I will never publicly endorse candidates, but I’ll tackle issues as I perceive them through a Jewish lens.”

Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that recently expanded to Baltimore, highlighted several issues on the legislative docket this coming year. JUFJ, which works for social, racial and economic justice, supports paid sick leave benefits for “everyone who works,” the HOME act, which would prevent income-based housing discrimination, and the Trust Act, which would prevent local public safety resources from being used to implement discriminatory federal deportation programs, the group said in a statement.

The group also hopes the next governor will take on issues such as criminal justice reform and environmental justice.

“We are alarmed and outraged by discriminatory policing and policies that put stumbling blocks in the way of citizens returning from incarceration,” the statement said. “Finally, we hope the new governor will listen to the voices of citizens and communities — rather than moneyed corporate interests — when considering issues impacting the environment and our climate.”

Early voting begins Oct. 23 and continues through Oct. 30.


Referendum Stalemate

Residents of Ramapo vote during a special election in September 2014. (Melissa Gerr)

Residents of Ramapo vote during a special election in September 2014. (Melissa Gerr)

All electronic and paper ballots from a Sept. 30 referendum vote in Ramapo, N.Y., were impounded and then ultimately nullified last week by the state’s Supreme Court on allegations of election fraud. Town lawyer Michael Klein has appealed the ruling.

The referendum, which would have reconfigured voting districts from citywide to a ward system and increase the town’s board from four to six members, pitted elements of the area’s large Jewish community against each other and against other residents.

Two of Ramapo’s several villages are predominantly Chasidic or haredi Orthodox. Critics of the referendum said the redistricting would weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole. Proponents of the ballot measure said it would level the playing field of the diverse town, which is home to large Latino and Haitian communities.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey’s court order was directed at town clerk Christian Sampson and the lack of clear communication by the local election board regarding absentee vote counts and the eligibility of nonregistered voters to cast a ballot through the use of an affidavit of residency.

“They had 400 people who signed affidavits [to vote] at the Town Hall polling place,” said Bob Rhodes, chairman of activist group Preserve Ramapo and a longtime Jewish resident of the town. “We’ve also heard people were coming in and not even filling out the affidavit [when a poll site ran out of the forms]. They were just voting. No I.D., nothing.”

Soon after Garvey’s ruling calling for a new election, Klein appealed the decision. Klein did not respond to request for comment, but Robert Romanowski, who spent two years petitioning to have the referendum vote and also filed the lawsuit on election day alleging election fraud, said the town contended in its Notice of Appeal that Garvey lacked the jurisdiction needed to invalidate the special election, the lawsuit was improperly filed prior to the counting of ballots, and the charges leveled in the suit lacked merit.

“They’ve put a stay on the election. … They want to sit on it indefinitely to perfect their appeal,” Rhodes said of the town. “We’re going to ask the judge to expedite the appeal, to force them to file their papers.

“On top of a blatantly fraudulent election that they created,” he added, “they’re doing everything possible to keep it in the courts forever.”

For her part, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, a Democrat whose district includes Ramapo, said that election integrity should be the primary concern.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the town moved to appeal,” she said. “The judge made her decision. … A democratic election works to make sure the results are reliable, and that is a concern here. We have to restore voter confidence so we need to move forward with the judge’s ruling.”

Jaffee, who is Jewish and lives in the predominately Jewish village of Suffern, is one of several people working to prevent election confusion in Ramapo from happening again. In question is the difference, according to state law, between a special election and a general one and how that affects the use of absentee ballots, affidavits and poll watchers. Some observers pointed to all three issues as unclear in the Sept. 30 special election, and many attributed the confusion to miscommunication by election officials.

“We’ve been discussing legislation that would apply general election laws to all municipalities with populations over a certain size, perhaps 25,000,” Jaffee said of efforts on the state level. “We feel this would give more confidence to the communities regarding how elections can move forward.”

Town zoning is a hotly contested issue in Ramapo, and the recent referendum outcome would have affected zoning processes. Critics blame Orthodox developers for obtaining questionable zoning permits that allow large multi-unit structures to be built on sites originally zoned for single units and say town resources cannot sustain that level of growth.

Rhodes said of the Preserve Ramapo group, “We are not opposed to building. We are opposed to irresponsible building.”

While the court case proceeds, attention has turned to an anti-ward group with direct ties to the town government that raised about $130,000, most of it from developers, in an effort to defeat the referendum. An email reportedly sent from the personal account of Mona Montal, the town’s director of purchasing and a member of the Orthodox community in Suffern, appears to solicit money to pay for anti-referendum materials.

“We really really (sic) need your help,” the email reads, according to a copy provided to the JT by Preserve Ramapo member Mike Castelluccio. “As I mentioned most of the developers are contributing between $10,000 and $20,000 — some consultants have given 5K.”

Rhodes and Preserve Ramapo would like to see the electronic ballots counted from the original vote or at least to conduct a repeat election in a timely manner with proper regulations in place.

“We don’t want to take over the town or do the Chasidim in, we just want a responsible board, one that will create a decent place to live for the community,” said Rhodes. “I hate to say these things … this is such a terrible embarrassment to the entire Jewish community.”