A Liberal Defense

Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems confident about the outcome of the indictment against him for abusing the power of his office.  (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems confident about the outcome of the indictment against him for abusing the power of his office.
(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Proudly flaunting the list of liberal pundits who have criticized his recent indictment on two felony charges, Rick Perry, the staunchly pro-Israel Texas governor and likely GOP presidential candidate, blasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East Aug. 21 in front of an audience of policy wonks and journalists more interested in his legal predicament than the topic he was originally scheduled to discuss.

Although Perry was booked to speak about the crisis on the United States’ border with Mexico by the Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, the governor spent the majority of his speech criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of Middle East issues and criticized the president’s actions against the militant jihadist group the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Yet, with his recent indictment, Perry spent some time satisfying the audiences’ curiosity on how he feels about the legal situation in which he now finds himself.

“There are a few public officials in Travis County who have taken issue with an exercise of my constitutional veto authority. These are, fundamentally, principles that are very important — namely a governor’s power to veto legislation and funding and the right of free speech,” said Perry enthusiastically, knowing that the majority of the audience was supporting him. “I am very confident in my case, and I can assure you that I will fight this attack on our system of government; and with my fellow citizens, both Republicans and Democrats, I aim to defend our Constitution and stand up for the rule of law in the state of Texas.”

On Aug. 15, a Texas grand jury decided to indict Perry, charging him with abusing the power of his office for his well-publicized attempts to force District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat and head of the Travis County public integrity unit, to resign from her position following an April 2013 drunk driving arrest for which she pleaded guilty.

Following Lehmberg’s arrest for driving three times over the legal alcohol limit and brief jail stay — from which a video surfaced of Lehmberg’s belligerent behavior toward police — Perry requested that she resign her position. Upon her refusal, Perry threatened and then followed through on defunding her office, exercising his line-item veto powers to cut $7.5 million of the state government’s share of the unit’s budget.

The charges against Perry would mean five to 99 years in prison if convicted. Yet, the governor appears confident and unconcerned — even playful. A mug shot that went viral last month shows the governor smirking. After posing for the shot at the Travis County Sheriff’s office, Perry went out for ice cream.

Perry’s confidence stems in large part from the outpouring of support he has since received — from his usual supporters, but more importantly from a number of prominent liberal politicos, pundits, legal scholars and publications.

“When David Axelrod, Lanny Davis, Alan Dershowitz, Jonathan Chait all say that this is ‘sketchy,’ ‘outrageous,’ ‘totalitarian’ and ‘McCarthy-ite,’ I agree with them,” said Perry to laughter and applause from the audience. “And that’s just on the Democratic side of the aisle!”

The surprise outpouring from prominent liberals in support of the governor has been essential in forming the public’s perception of the case. On Aug. 18, the editorial board of The New York Times, a common target of Republicans, denounced the pettiness of the charges against Perry despite slamming him for his political positions.

Dershowitz, a prominent Harvard law professor, critic of conservative policies and politicians, had even harsher words about the indictment in an interview with the right-leaning publication, Newsmax.

“The two statutes under which he was indicted are reminiscent of the old Soviet Union — you know, abuse of authority,” Dershowitz told the publication.

Dershowitz pointed out that the unit Lehmberg ran was also responsible for convicting former GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in 2010 for campaign finance irregularities — something Dershowitz called an “outrage.” DeLay’s conviction was overturned in 2013 by an appellate court.

With the indictment, Perry joins two other national Republican politicians considered likely contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, involved in an investigation into politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington bridge between New Jersey and New York City, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is being investigated on accusations of illegal campaign coordination with outside political groups.

“I think this indictment is a shandah! They’ve always said you can indict a tuna fish sandwich,” said prominent Texas businessman and Republican political donor Fred Zeidman, who has known Perry since
before he became governor. “There is absolutely no reason for it. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m not even sure they’re felonies that he arguably committed.”

From the moment the news broke, Zeidman thought that the indictment would backfire on the Democrats who are supporting it, mentioning that in most circles, especially among conservatives, Perry’s popularity appears to be growing as a result of the case.

“This won’t hurt him at all [politically] I don’t think,” Zeidman said. “In retrospect it’s going to cost [the state] a bunch of money.”

However, Zeidman suggested being careful because of the risk that something new might yet come out during a trial.

Caution is well advised, says Texas trial attorney and prominent Democratic donor, Marc Stanley.

“I generally have faith in the system. I haven’t seen the evidence that the grand jury has, and I’ve got to believe they wouldn’t have indicted him if there wasn’t something there,” said Stanley, adding that as long as Lehmberg’s drunk driving conviction went through the proper legal channels, it should be irrelevant to whether she is able to hold her position.

“We react to 30-second sound bites instead of looking at the evidence that the special prosecutor, a Republican, and the grand jury looked at,” said Stanley. “I think that’s probably more telling than the sound bites that we’ve seen.”

A measure of suspicion exists as to the governor’s motive to defund Lehmberg’s office in addition to her drunk driving conviction. Lehmberg was elected by the mostly Democratic Travis County voters, and her unit is tasked with investigating officials in public office, who are mostly Republicans, since they have a supermajority in the Texas legislature.

Although no candidate has yet officially announced his or her intention to run in the 2016 primaries, Perry has been one of a handful of national-level politicians considered likely to run and, during the past several months, has been a common sight on national media outlets.

During this time, he has visited and spoken favorably about Israel, even telling a New York Times Magazine reporter “I’m more Jewish than you think I am.”

“He’s had this incredible passion for Israel,” Zeidman said. “He understands Israel —what it is and what it stands for, and that Israel is America’s only friend in the Middle East; and he was passionate about it when it meant nothing for him.”

Zeidman recalled that when Perry was Texas agriculture commissioner in the early 1990s, before he was considering national office, Perry used his office’s discretionary funds to subsidize the state’s Texas-Israel Exchange program after the legislature cut its share of the funding.

The Texas-Israel Exchange was a program jointly funded by Texas and the Israeli government focused on facilitating exchange and investment in Texas with Israeli technology.

“For him to cut into his own discretionary budget to fund something the state of Texas has cut, I think goes to show the depth of his belief in [Israel],” said Zeidman.

Perry’s efforts appear focused on revamping his national image after a disastrous performance in the 2012 GOP primaries. Perry, then considered the great Republican hope by many in the party, entered the race late but catapulted into the lead within days.

Just as fast as he peaked in early primary polls, a slew of disastrous debate performances led him to lose favorability and exit the race.

This time around, Perry looks to have changed the perception of him as a free-wheeling cowboy, into something close to an intellectual well studied in policy.

“He’s doing the things he’s doing now so that hopefully that [unsuccessful campaign] won’t be the case again,” Zeidman said.

JNS.org contributed to this story.

Islamic State Beheads Again

Steven Sotloff was covering the civil war in Syria and is said to have been kidnapped after entering northern Syria from Turkey on Aug. 4, 2013.

Steven Sotloff was covering the civil war in Syria and is said to have been kidnapped after entering northern Syria from Turkey on Aug. 4, 2013.

The Islamic State released a video Tuesday afternoon claiming to show the beheading of Jewish-American journalist Steven Sotloff, who would be the second American journalist beheaded by the terrorist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in two weeks.

The video, titled “A Second Message to America,” was released on online outlets. The video follows the Aug. 19 release of another video showing the beheading of American freelance journalist James Foley.

As of press time, the U.S. State Department was working to authenticate the video.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents Florida’s 23rd congressional district where Sotloff’s parents live and advocated for efforts to free the journalist and other American hostages, said she was devastated by the news.

“Steven was a dedicated journalist who committed his professional life to keeping the rest of the world informed about conflict and human suffering in the Middle East,” she said in a statement. “Just last week, his mother Shirley released a video pleading to the group’s basic humanity to release Steven, an independent journalist seeking to cover a conflict that has killed or displaced thousands of innocent people.”

Sotloff was capture on Aug. 4, 2013 while covering the civil war in Syria.

The video is similar to the video showing Foley’s beheading, according to reports. At the end of that video, Sotloff, 31, was shown on his knees and a voice could be heard threatening President Barack Obama that Sotloff would be next.

Tuesday’s video showed a man with a British accent dressed in black and holding a large knife with Sotloff on his knees in a desert. Before his execution, Sotloff blames Obama and his Middle East policy for his impending demise, and the man clothed in black blames Obama for not listening to the group’s demands. The video shows the fighter cutting Sotloff’s throat, then cuts to a severed head and a bloody body, according to reports.

The video ends with threats to David Cawthorne Haines, a British hostage.

Sotloff reported from Syria, Egypt and Libya and was published in Time, the “World Affairs Journal” and Foreign Policy.

Sotloff grew up in Miami’s Pinecrest neighborhood, where his mother taught early childhood education at Temple Beth Am. A synagogue employee who answered the phone declined to comment. Phone calls to the Sotloff family’s home in Pinecrest were not answered.


Steven Sotloff in his 2002 yearbook photo.

From his sophomore year of high school through graduation in 2002, Sotloff attended Kimball Union Academy, a college preparatory school in Meriden, N.H. In a statement released Tuesday, the school credited Sotloff with revitalizing the student newspaper and said he was honored with the Lawton Award for Journalism at graduation. At Kimball Union, he served on the student council, was an admission tour guide, was a member of the Kimball Union Fire Brigade, played varsity football and rugby and performed in the musical “Cabaret,” according to the statement.

He kept in touch with Kimball Union and exchanged emails with head of school Mike Schafer in the spring of 2011 when he was on the ground in Libya covering the Arab Spring. He returned to campus in April 2012 to share his experience.

“Steven was dedicated to putting a human face on the sufferings and hardships in some of the world’s most challenging conflict zones,” the school’s statement said. “His work became a humanitarian mission that helped others gain a more accurate and realistic global perspective on issues in the Middle East.”

Plans to honor Sotloff will be announced at a later date, the statement said.

He attended the University of Central Florida from 2002 to 2004, majoring in journalism, and left before earning a degree.

“Our UCF family mourns Steven’s death, and we join millions of people around the world who are outrage at this despicable and unjustifiable act,” said UCF President John C. Hitt.

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement underscoring the seriousness of the threat from the Islamic State in light of Sotloff’s reported beheading.

“Sadly, ISIS is bringing this barbarity across the region — beheading and crucifying those who don’t share their dark ideology. The threat from this group seems to grow by the day,” he said. “Working with key allies, the United States needs to be acting urgently to arm the Kurds on the ground who are fighting them and targeting ISIS from the air with drone strikes.”

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs also sent his thoughts and prayers to the Sotloff family and demanded action on ISIS.

“This murder, and that of fellow journalist James Foley less than a month ago, as well as the brutal treatment of those who live in areas controlled by ISIS, demands that the international community join not just in condemnation of ISIS but also in action to ensure this terror group is defeated,” he said in a statement. “If left unchecked, the threat ISIS poses to people in the Middle East and worldwide will only grow.”


Israel’s Land Seizure

 Children play in the streets of the settlement of Gvaot on Sept. 2. Two days earlier the Israeli government declared part of the settlement,  located near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, as state land.  (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Children play in the streets of the settlement of Gvaot on Sept. 2. Two days earlier the Israeli government declared part of the settlement, located near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, as state land.
(Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

TEL AVIV — In the days after the war in Gaza concluded, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to bear left.

He spoke of a “possible diplomatic horizon” for Israel on Aug. 27 and suggested a return to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Reports emerged that Netanyahu had met secretly in Amman with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But on Sunday he took a sharp right turn, seizing nearly 1,000 acres in the West Bank as state land near the Etzion settlement bloc. The move is a prerequisite for settlement expansion and prohibits Palestinians from using the land for building or agriculture.

According to Israeli reports, the government seized the land in response to the nearby kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in June.

The land seizure — Israel’s largest in decades — drew condemnation from the Israeli left and from the international community. The U.S. State Department said it was “counterproductive” for the peace process. In a statement, the left-wing NGO Peace Now called the move “proof that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not aspire for a new ‘Diplomatic Horizon.’”

“Israel is trying to be territorially maximalist in the area and to deny territorial contiguity to the Palestinians,” said Hagit Ofran, the head of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch. “The message of this act is clear: The inclination of Israel is not to peace and compromise but to continuation of settlement.”

But some experts said that though the move hurts Israel diplomatically, critics overstate its importance on the ground. The area is a strip of land
adjacent to the West Bank that Israel intends to keep under any peace deal. Declaring it state land was, they said, a way for Netanyahu to placate his
allies on the right after opposing their suggestion to depose Hamas during the Gaza war.

“I think it falls in a certain pattern,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States. “The government does something that is unpalatable to the right wing, whether it be making concessions in the peace process or, in this case, agreeing to a cease-fire in Gaza, and then it attempts to palliate the right by building in Judea and Samaria or, in this case, reclassifying land.”

According to Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces’ Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the seizure is only the first step toward a potential settlement expansion.

Palestinians who claim the land have 45 days to challenge the decision in Israel’s courts. If the appeals fail, the government still has to make an additional decision to legalize building there before any construction can begin.

An illegal Israeli settlement outpost, Gvaot, already sits on a portion of the land. Several surrounding Palestinian villages, according to Ofran, have laid claim to the land. But Inbar said an Israeli investigation found the land has not been used for decades.

Netanyahu has backtracked before on settlement expansion plans following international criticism. In 2012, Netanyahu announced Israel’s intention to build in an area known as E1, which sits between the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, as well as between Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim. The United States opposed the plan, and nearly two years later the land sits empty.

But Sunday’s seizure does prohibit Palestinian use of the land. And Israeli politicians and commentators have criticized Netanyahu for alienating Abbas and Israel’s allies just as the sides could have restarted peace talks following the Gaza cease-fire agreement.

“[The] announcement, which wasn’t brought to the Cabinet, regarding 900 acres of land for building in the Etzion bloc harms the State of Israel,” Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party said Tuesday in a speech. “Maintaining the support of the world was already challenging, so why was it so urgent to create another crisis with the United States and the world?”

Meanwhile, the future of peace talks remains unclear. Negotiations ended in April after nine months as Israel reneged on a scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners. Abbas responded by applying for Palestinian accession to a range of international treaties, and talks collapsed as Abbas formed a unity government with Hamas.

According to reports, Abbas said he won’t return to talks unless Israel proposes a border in their initial stage. Should Israel refuse, Abbas reportedly plans to turn to the United Nations Security Council to call for an Israeli West Bank pullout.

Palestinian officials also threatened recently to apply for membership to the International Criminal Court, which could allow the Palestinian Authority to sue Israel for settlement building and allegedly violating Palestinian rights. But Abbas has yet to submit the application.

“Given that there’s no negotiations, trust with the P.A. and Abbas is not at a premium,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “If [Netanyahu] offers a fairly generous territorial offer, this will be irrelevant.”

Anatomy of a Cease-Fire

IDF soldiers rush injured Israelis to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba after evacuating them by helicopter on Aug. 26 following a mortar attack on Kibbutz Nirim near the Gaza border. The incident took place shortly before the latest  Israel-Hamas cease-fire went into effect.

IDF soldiers rush injured Israelis to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba after evacuating them by helicopter on Aug. 26 following a mortar attack on Kibbutz Nirim near the Gaza border. The incident took place shortly before the latest Israel-Hamas cease-fire went into effect.

After numerous failed attempts at achieving a lasting cease-fire between the Hamas government and Israel (there have been at least 11 as of press time), negotiators in Cairo on Tuesday claimed to have reached a new cease-fire agreement. Although details of the agreement have yet to be released, some experts are skeptical it will hold, as the talks leading up to the deal lacked, to a varying degree, the three major elements they say are required for a successful cease-fire: negative leverage, positive leverage and a credible third-party broker.

Prior to Tuesday’s development, a delegation of Israeli officials had shuttled between Israel and Egypt for weeks to participate in indirect talks with Palestinian Authority officials representing Fatah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, with minimal success. Israel believed Hamas’ demands were unrealistic. But, according to observers, both sides will have to go through a horse-trading process that will necessitate gains and losses.

“If you reach an agreement based on quiet-for-quiet, it is bound to be short-lived, because what concerns the people of the [Gaza] Strip and Hamas is that there is a blockade,” said Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Labor Party minister of internal security and foreign affairs and Israel’s former ambassador to Spain.

Israel has previously accepted quiet-for-quiet cease-fires in which both sides agreed to end hostilities and default to the status quo without resolving any of the larger, underlying causes of the conflict. It is a strategy Israelis have favored, even if it leaves open the possibility of future hostilities.

In exchange for an end of hostilities, Hamas has continually put forward the same list of demands — an end to the Israeli naval blockade, a reopening of the Rafah border crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the opening of a Gaza seaport and airport, freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank and an end to the targeting of Hamas officials.

Israel is unlikely to agree to these demands, said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, without the assurance of both negative and positive leverage — military or economic pressure combined with carrot-stick diplomacy.

“The cost of continuing [to fight] for both sides,” or at least one side, he said, should be “too high.”

The lack of negative leverage is the biggest obstacle to sealing a long-term cease-fire with Hamas, said Sachs.

“Hamas has its back to the wall right now, severely,” said Sachs, “not just because of Israel, but also because of intra-Arab politics. The opposition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s support for Hamas results in Hamas having little to lose and therefore being more prone to fighting.”

Despite Israel dealing massive damage to Gaza’s infrastructure and despite the deaths of some 2,000 Gazans, as reported by the Palestinian Health Ministry, the Israeli bombardment may not be enough of a negative incentive to end Hamas’ rocket barrage.

“Hamas doesn’t have enough of a negative incentive partly because it doesn’t care enough about what happens to the people of Gaza,” said Sachs.

Ben-Ami believes that the current situation nevertheless provides Israel with an opportunity to push for its primary goal — the demilitarization of Hamas.

“I think that Israel is right not to give in outside of the broader context, which is demilitarization,” said Ben-Ami. “I think this is an opportunity for Israel also to get what it wants, not just Hamas. I think that it is in Israel’s interest that Gaza be opened to the world, that there is prosperity, well-being, stability. But they have to pay, and paying means demilitarization.”

If Gaza were prosperous, its citizens would feel they had something to lose if they continued fighting Israel. For example, if an open seaport could lead to a less desperate existence for civilians, the fear that Israel could close it again might make Hamas less likely to instigate a war.

Most of Hamas’ demands remain controversial among Israelis, who have historically seen even the slight loosening of import and export restrictions in Gaza exploited to rearm Hamas for its next fight against the Jewish state.

According to both Sachs and Ben-Ami, a loosening of trade restrictions would have to be accompanied by thorough oversight by either an international force similar to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which Israel is unlikely to concede to, or the Fatah-aligned Palestinian Security Forces, who are unlikely to be welcomed by Hamas.

The third element lacking in recent cease-fire efforts is a credible third party. So far, nearly every major effort to end the conflict has been spearheaded by Egypt. Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, relations between Egyptian and Hamas leaders have been tense, leading to questions of whether Egypt is in a position to play peace broker.

“There is an important role played by Egypt” because of its control of the Rafah crossing, said Itamar Rabinovich, president of the Israel Institute in Washington and former Israeli ambassador to the United States. “Egypt is in no hurry because … Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a big enemy of Egypt, and they don’t mind seeing them hurting.”

Rabinovich said that, in previous skirmishes, the United States’ role as peace broker was critical. This time, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s well-publicized attempts to intercede, the parties have pushed the United States to the sidelines.

“In a sense, Egypt is not really just a broker here, it’s almost a side in the conflict,” said Sachs. “The Egyptians are trying to do several different things: They’re trying to be brokers, but they’re also trying to get their way; and things that they see as in their own vital interest don’t always align” with the principals.

Yet, even if Egypt is against Hamas, it does not lean toward Israel in the negotiations. Sachs describes the actions between the two sides as playing “hot potato” with Gaza.

Egypt would prefer allowing free movement between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip instead of opening the Rafah crossing, as it believes doing so would move Gaza closer to the West Bank and Israel. Otherwise, if the only path into Gaza were through Rafah, Gaza would be pushed in Egypt’s direction

Without America to broker a cease-fire, Ben-Ami believes that the only chance for an honest broker lies in the form of a broad, international coalition.

“If Hamas is demilitarized, then the international arrangements will work regardless of whether Hamas is interested in a war,” he said. “That’s the point on which Israel should insist.”

A Second Family

Ron Gordon (left), who joined the Israel Defense Forces after growing up abroad, says lone soldiers act as surrogate family for each other after they leave the battlefield. (Courtesy Ron Gordon)

Ron Gordon (left), who joined the Israel Defense Forces after growing up abroad, says lone soldiers act as surrogate family for each other after they leave the battlefield.
(Courtesy Ron Gordon)

TEL AVIV — When Shir Kleyman, an infantry instructor for the Israel Defense Forces and a Los Angeles native, found out that someone named Sean had died fighting in Gaza, she knew the army had lost a fellow lone soldier.

The official announcement came soon afterward as Kleyman, 19, was sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe on furlough: The fallen soldier was her friend, Texas native Sean Carmeli.

“I asked Sean’s last name and said, ‘Please don’t be Carmeli, please don’t be Carmeli,’ “ Kleyman said. “You find this out and don’t know what to do with yourself. I didn’t know how to handle it. You feel it because you know that you’re one of them.”

Kleyman, who joined the IDF in January, knew both Carmeli and fellow Californian Max Steinberg, who died alongside each other in Gaza on July 20. Though Steinberg and Kleyman grew up in the same Los Angeles neighborhood, they met only when serving kitchen duty together in the army.

At Steinberg’s funeral, Kleyman stood in the honor guard across from Steinberg’s parents. She called the funeral “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life.”

About 2,800 soldiers are serving in the Israeli military despite not growing up in the country, according to the Lone Soldiers Program, which provides them with social and other services. Three have died in the current conflict with Hamas: Along with Carmeli and Steinberg, French immigrant Jordan Bensemhoun was killed on July 20.

Most native Israelis, for whom army service is both a national obligation and a rite of passage, have networks of family and friends who served before them to help handle the deaths of comrades in war. But military volunteers whose families remain abroad say their strongest support is each other.

“They become your second family,” said Ron Gordon, who joined the IDF in 2012 after stints growing up in Europe, Atlanta and East Asia. “You don’t have anyone else here. You live with your friends.”

Because of the shared experience of joining an army while struggling with a new language and culture, lone soldiers say they relate to each other even if they never served or lived together. For those who join the army soon after moving to Israel, fellow lone soldiers are often their first friends in the country.

Infantry instructor Tal-Or Cohen joined the IDF five years ago after growing up in Maryland. When she was called to reserve duty during the current conflict, Cohen made sure to befriend and help out younger lone soldiers serving with her.

“Culturally, the army is a place we’re not raised to know,” Cohen said. “The different sects and cliques, we don’t know what to do with them. Who do we trust? When I meet other lone soldiers, there’s an automatic connection because it takes a lot of strength and determination to be here and continue to be here.”

Many lone soldiers meet each other through Garin Tzabar, a program that houses groups of lone soldiers together on kibbutzim and provides a framework for guidance and support. Cohen left the program three years ago, but she remains in near-daily contact with her cohort. During her reserve duty last month, she would often check in with fellow lone soldiers by text message.

During fighting, Gordon says the distinction between native Israeli and lone soldier stops mattering because everyone is focused on staying alive. But the divide returns, he said, once soldiers take leave.

“The first thing you want is to throw off your uniform, get in the shower and eat mom’s food,” Gordon said. “For lone soldiers at the kibbutz, you don’t have that.”

Josh Flaster, who runs the Lone Soldier Center, said the first weeks after returning from the front are critical. His organization, which was founded in memory of Philadelphia native Michael Levin, who died in combat in 2006, has hosted barbecues in recent weeks to help returning soldiers begin to unpack their experiences.

“There’s lots of stigmas in the army and society about therapy and mental health,” said Flaster, a former lone soldier who joined the IDF in 2006. “If you don’t start talking about it and dealing with it, this type of stuff can mess up your life for decades.”

A Long Time Coming

082914_art-lootFour deputies of the French National Assembly visited Washington, D.C., and New York City last month, but this was no sightseeing holiday.

The French officials met with representatives of B’nai B’rith International in the District and visited New York State’s Department of Finance, two very different organizations that share the same expertise sought by the French lawmakers: restoring stolen Nazi art to its rightful owners.

Almost seven decades after World War II, some 2,000 works of looted art are hanging in French museums. The politicians’ visit was part of a
renewed push by the French government to find the owners — most of them Jews or their descendants — of the collection of unreturned works, known as the Musees Nationaux Recuperation, or MNR. The restitution process has proceeded by fits and starts since the Allied victory over Germany in 1945. Some familiar with the story of the MNR collection say that the French have been reluctant to do much that would remove art from the walls of their museums.

Representatives of the French Embassy in Washington, which arranged the politicians’ visit, could not be reached for comment.

The MNR collection includes work by art-world celebrities: Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and Edgar Degas among them. It also includes paintings by lesser-known artists such as Marie Laurencin, Othon Friesz, Maurice Utrillo and Maurice de Vlaminck.

As the Nazis systematically murdered the Jews of Europe, they also spent money and manpower looting the Jews’ artwork, warehousing it to be sent to a museum in Austria planned by the art-loving Fuhrer.

“Some of this stuff may have come from families that are or were important, or conversant with art,” said Ori Soltes, former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. “I would imagine that the lion’s share belonged to people who were not big collectors or a family that had one painting for some reason.”

Today’s masterpiece was probably yesterday’s speculation, he said. “In the 1870s, you could get a Monet for a fairly small amount of money.”

But returning the art to its rightful owners is no easy task, said Eric Fusfield, director of legislative affairs for B’nai B’rith International.

“Most survivors are deceased now. We’re really talking about descendants now, and most don’t have documentation. They have anecdotes and might not be able to name a specific work. That’s part of the challenge.”

Are the French not only withholding works of beauty from owners, but also depriving them of a fortune? Works by big-name artists could “easily be in the multimillion dollar” range, Soltes said.

In 1999, the Seattle Art Museum returned “Oriental Woman Seated on Floor” by Henri Matisse to the descendants of the influential French Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg after the family filed suit in federal district court. As the Nazis advanced on France, Rosenberg attempted to hide part of his extensive collection. He ultimately failed and spent the postwar years until his death in 1959 trying to reclaim the lost works.

Marianne Rosenberg, Rosenberg’s granddaughter, subsequently sold the painting for $9 million, Soltes said. “Today, it would easily command twice that.

“But plenty are not at that level,” he added.

Not just a French problem
As the story of the Matisse painting in the Seattle Museum of Art attests, looted paintings are not solely a French problem. It is one of the unintended consequences of the Allied victory in World War II.

Faced with a devastated continent, the Allies decided they did not have the resources to return the items to their owners. So they decided to
return the art to their countries of origin and let the various governments sort out ownership, a policy called “external restitution,” according to Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, which did not participate in meetings with the French parliamentarians last month.

The approach had mixed results. The Soviets took the paintings that fell under their control and shipped them to hang in their museums.

In France, about 100,000 stolen artwork claims by French citizens, most of them Jews, were filed with the French government, Fisher said. By 1949, about three-quarters of the claimed artworks had been returned to their owners, Fisher said. That left about 15,500 works whose owners could not be found. Of those, 13,500 were sold. The remaining 2,000 “better quality works” became the MNR collection, he said.

The French have mostly paid lip service to restituting those works, say Fisher and others. That’s why in the 60 years since the bulk of works were returned to their owners, only 100 of the MNR pieces have been restituted.

“They claimed for the longest time that they were doing a lot about the MNR collection,” Fisher said. “But they were hiding the fact that they hadn’t really done research on the collections in their museums.”

Added Soltes: “They like having the stuff in their collections. Which is why the Renoirs and Monets were there for so long.”

Hollande’s new initiative
Interest in France in returning the art has grown and ebbed over the decades. There were attempts in the 1990s and 2000s to make progress in restitution, with few results. Hector Feliciano’s book “The Lost Museum,” about the wartime looting of art, caused a furor for a while when it was published in 1997. A 2008 exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem showed 53 looted paintings and invited rightful owners to take them home.

Last year, French President Francois Hollande announced a new initiative to track down families rather than wait for them to come forward. But how do you do that? That’s one of the questions the French delegation was asking in Washington and later in New York, in meetings with Sotheby’s and New York State’s Holocaust Claims Processing officials.

Fusfield said that in meeting with the French legislators, he was “mindful that there are difficulties, such as how to find survivors and heirs and how to ease legal and bureaucratic obstacles.”

The question of determining a record of ownership, or establishing “provenance,” was the subject of the group’s meeting at the National Gallery of Art, said Deborah Ziska, chief of press and public information.

“During the meeting some members of the delegation inquired about our WWII provenance research project, and we briefed them on this,” she said.

But with B’nai B’rith, the group talked about specifics, according to Gerard Leval, the organization’s general counsel, who took part in the meeting.

“It was good to hear people who sincerely want to do the right thing,” he said. “Almost nothing during the Holocaust was random [including the theft of art]. We said, ‘Go to your documents — when it was taken, from whom it was taken and from where it was taken.’”

The B’nai B’rith group suggested that the French advertise in publications with Jewish readers in the United States and Argentina, Leval said. They also pointed out that with anti-Semitism and xenophobia flaring up in France, the government could score propaganda points by showing that it “was doing its very best in areas where it can help the Jewish population,” he added.

Fusfield isn’t ready to declare victory yet. He recalled the March ceremony in Paris where the French culture minister returned three looted works to the grandchildren of the original owners. The restitution coincided with the French premiere of the George Clooney movie “Monuments Men,” about GIs working to recover looted art.

“So that’s three,” Fusfield said.

“Hollande has opened the doors and that’s great,” Soltes said. “But there is other stuff, French decorative arts — tables, chairs, Louis XIV,
XV, XVI owned by Jewish families. The French have stonewalled on them. You can see how interestingly self-contradictory this whole effort can be.”

The tag MNR means nothing to most people, he said, and someone visiting a French art gallery would likely have no idea that the painting they are enjoying was stolen from a Jewish family seven decades ago. Likewise, a descendent of that family would have no tipoff that the work, with its MNR tag, might have been the painting that hung in the parlor before the war.

Clock Ticking

An El Al plane. The Israeli airline has been among the companies receiving loan guarantees from the United States Export-Import Bank, which faces an uncertain future. (Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons)

An El Al plane. The Israeli airline has been among the companies receiving loan guarantees from the United States Export-Import Bank, which faces an uncertain future.
(Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons)

For the first time in 80 years, the United States could find itself without an international export credit agency if Congress does not reauthorize the charter of the United States Export-Import Bank, which is set to expire on Sept. 30.

Little controversy surrounded the bank’s reauthorization process before 2012, but the slow recovery from the world’s financial crisis, the rise of Tea Party politicians in Congress and allegations of bribery and corruption within the bank by former employees have led a growing chorus of voices to argue for the bank’s abolition.

House and Senate Democrats want to see the charter extended with a $20 billion increase in the bank’s lending authority requested by President Barack Obama, but many Republicans are opposed, including new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House Financial Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

The list of detractors also includes members of the Senate, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who called it a “corrupt crony-capitalist fiasco” and urged Republicans to “kill it” in an op-ed for USA Today.

There, Cruz argued that even though the Ex-Im Bank claims to serve American interests, its record shows instances where subsidies may interfere with American companies and are in conflict with American principles.

“Contrary to the values that keep America strong, safe and free, the Export-Import Bank has facilitated lending to governments in Congo and Sudan, countries with horrific human-rights records,” Cruz wrote. “It has financed Chinese power plants and backed Russian billionaires buying luxury planes. And, it has provided lots and lots of financing to oil companies in Russia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that compete directly with America’s energy companies.”

The bank is what’s known as an export credit agency — international, government-run organizations that makes loans to companies to help them compete in the heavily subsidized global marketplace.

For example, if a foreign airline needs to purchase additional aircraft, an American firm like Boeing can’t compete with foreign manufacturers that can undersell Boeing with the use of subsidies from their own countries’ export banks.

In order to give a company like Boeing a fighting chance in these circumstances, the Ex-Im Bank can do the following: make a loan to the foreign company looking to purchase from Boeing; lend money to Boeing to cover production costs of making its planes if the purchaser is unable to pay up front; or, in another alterative, it can insure loans made by private lenders to facilitate these deals.

The bank’s goal is to increase exports by U.S. companies, especially to markets in rapidly developing regions such as the Middle East, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Supporters of the bank argue that it is an essential tool enabling U.S. exporters to compete with countries such as China, whose outreach in the developing world, using its own export credit agency, has given that country a sizable head start.

According to Ex-Im’s 2013 annual report, cited in this month’s report by the Congressional Research Service, there are an estimated 60 export credit agencies around the world. With the landscape so skewed by international subsidies, critics here have argued that the federal government should actively engage in ending all international lending subsidies and that Ex-Im only exacerbates the economic arms race.

“There’s a very strong case here for unilateral disarmament. Basically what we can do is say that we’re going to eliminate our subsidies, and if other countries then eliminate their subsidies, that’s great,” said Matt Mitchell, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “If they don’t, we can say that instead of bringing our subsidies to [their level], we’ll do something like put a retaliatory tariff for countries that don’t cooperate.”

But would getting rid of Ex-Im be a prudent move by the United States if other nations subsidize their companies’ exports?

“Other export credit agencies throughout the world are supporting their country’s exporters, and those countries are not going to close their export credit agencies if Ex-Im’s charter expires,” said Lawton King, spokesman for the Ex-Im Bank. “Just the opposite. They’re going to move into our market share and back sales that otherwise would have gone to American companies and therefore would have supported American jobs.”

Another GOP complaint is that the bank favors large companies over small businesses, making it harder for smaller businesses to compete and that the federal government begins to choose winners and losers, something they believe should be determined by the free market.

Although the Ex-Im Bank is charged with supporting small businesses, the numbers show that despite a greater number of small businesses working with the bank, most of the money goes to approximately 10 large corporations.

According to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service from Ex-Im reports, 90 percent of the bank’s loans in fiscal year 2013 were made to small businesses. But those loans represented a very small amount of money.

More than 80 percent of the bank’s funds were disbursed last year to corporate giants such as Boeing and Caterpillar.

“The bank is demand driven. Though 90 percent of our transactions are small businesses, those small businesses are not requesting the large amounts of credit that the larger businesses are,” said King.

King said that even though it is easy to brand large corporations as not contributing to the strength of America’s small business environment, the figures exclude the often thousands of small businesses that make up their supply chain, giving Ex-Im a larger footprint.

Mitchell said that despite the bank’s claim of contributing to the growth of jobs and small businesses, the negatives outweigh the positives.

According to Mitchell, subsidized loans to foreign buyers, loan securities and production loans to companies raise prices for American purchasers by increasing demand on the product.

“The problem is that there are losers. The first group of losers are anybody else who tries to buy airplanes, they end up paying higher prices,” said Mitchell. “Every other American carrier also buys airplanes. So Delta, Southwest, United — all of them end up having to pay a higher price because Air India or Air Nauru or whatever foreign buyer” creates greater demand due to the loan those foreign companies received from the Ex-Im Bank.

“So that ends up making airplanes more expensive, and it ends up making air travel more expensive for you and me,” he said, adding that these American air carriers are hurt a second time when they have to compete on shared routes against companies that received loans from the U.S. government to purchase their airplanes.

Diane Katz, research fellow in regulatory policy at the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, believes that the economic benefit from the bank on U.S. foreign trade is highly overrated.

“The vast majority [of U.S.-based] exporters, more than 98 percent, don’t get Ex-Im benefits and rely strictly on other financing” from private lenders, she said.

According to Ex-Im Bank’s annual report, in fiscal year 2013, Israeli companies received $105.5 million in direct loans and $256 million in loan guarantees from Ex-Im. Most of the loan guarantees went to El Al Israeli Airlines for purchasing planes from Boeing — more than $190 million. The rest of the loan guarantees supported the purchase of General Electric turbines by Mashav-Initiation and Development Ltd., an Israeli construction supply manufacturing company.

The direct loans were given to Space Communication Ltd. for the purchase of satellite launch vehicles and launch insurance from SpaceX, a private space exploration company based in California, but with large offices in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Qatar, which sponsors Hamas, received $775 million in loan guarantees within the same period; $4.3 billion in loan guarantees and $883.7 million in direct loans went to Turkey, whose president has threatened Israel and U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Congress’ additional appetite to hinder Ex-Im’s reauthorization is further fed by allegations of corruption — both among employees and borrowers.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, held a hearing to look into the allegations on July 29, with Katz testifying.

“There has been building opposition to the bank, and this year it has culminated like it hasn’t before,” said Katz. It “represents general public vexation with cronyism and corporate welfare.”

“Anytime you have a policy that benefits a small group but harms a widely dispersed group, then we would predict that it would persist, and the reason is that small, concentrated groups have an advantage in getting organized and lobbying,” said Mitchell, pointing to the strong presence of major company offices in the Washington D.C. area. “Those firms have a very strong incentive to get organized, hire lobbyists, and contribute to the right political action committees and to do expensive campaigns in favor of these.

“There’s no such thing as an effective taxpayers’ alliance,” Mitchell continued, and, he said, it’s the taxpayers who lose.

JNS.org contributed to this story.

Enough’s Enough


Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs and his wife, Bluma, by the glass window of their home damaged in an attack on July 17, 2014.
(Cnaan Liphshiz)

AMERSFOORT, The Netherlands — After the latest attack on his home, Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs sat down on his couch, picked up the phone and made three calls.

A chief rabbi of the Netherlands, Jacobs first phoned police and a Jewish community leader to tell them that late on the night of July 17, just more than a week after the onset of a round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, four bricks were hurled through a window of his home. It was the fifth time in recent years that Jacobs’ residence had been attacked.

Then Jacobs called his friend, Roger van Oordt, director of the Netherlands-based Christians for Israel organization. Within an hour, van Oordt, his wife and two of their children were at the rabbi’s door, with its prominent mezuzah and Hebrew sign bearing the name of the Chabad Hasidic sect to which Jacobs belongs.

“They didn’t allow Bluma, my wife, and me to touch anything, they cleaned up all the mess,” Jacobs said in an interview at his home 25 miles southeast of Amsterdam. “The attacks do not inspire much hope. The response by Christians, Muslims and other friends do.”

To Jacobs, a 65-year-old rabbi who has worked intensively to build bridges between non-Jews and Holland’s Jewish community of 40,000, the latest
attack sharpens the dilemma facing Dutch Jews.

A perceived rise in anti-Semitic incidents this summer has led many Dutch Jews to consider leaving the country, according to Jacobs. Yet, the country’s reputation as a liberal bastion has not entirely dimmed their hopes that the situation can be reversed.

After the latest attack, Jacobs shocked many Dutchmen when he told local media that if not for his obligations to the communities he serves, he would leave, in part because of the anti-Semitism problem. His statement grabbed headlines and generated a passionate response from other religious leaders.

“No one will tell us when to leave Holland,” Jacobs said. “I’m staying here because it’s my shlichut, or mission. But would we stay here if we were private people? I don’t think so.”

Anti-Semitism is only part of the problem, Jacobs says. Along with intermittent threats and violence, much of it sparked by events in the Middle East, he cites the 2011 passage of a law that effectively banned kosher slaughter — a measure later reversed by the Dutch Senate.

“And then there’s assimilation in a liberal society where many people have anti-religious sentiments,” Jacobs said. “It all comes as part of a package.”

Immigration from the Netherlands to Israel has remained relatively stable over the past decade, with an average 63 new arrivals in the Jewish state each year. Still, the growth in anti-Semitism has created significant unease for Jacobs and his family, who now have six police cameras installed outside their home.

In 2010, a stone was hurled at his front window, missing him by a few inches. Jacobs says he tries not to walk near schools in his middle-class neighborhood and elsewhere in Holland because he doesn’t want to be cursed at by children.

“It’s a very uneasy feeling when someone attacks your home like that,” said Bluma Jacobs, the rabbi’s British-born wife. “When I come to the door at night, I switch on the light of my cellphone so people think I may be filming.”

Six of the Jacobs’ eight children live outside the Netherlands.

Jacobs was born and raised there and is the country’s senior Chabad emissary. He also serves as president of the Rabbinical Council of Holland. In 2012, he became an officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau, a civic honor similar to British knighthood, for his interfaith efforts, among other activities.

His comments about leaving the country prompted a passionate response from the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, the country’s second largest church. On July 28, the church’s secretary, Arjan Plaisier, published an open letter in which he vowed to oppose anti-Semitism with other church leaders.

Plaisier concluded with a plea: “Chief Rabbi Jacobs, please stay in the Netherlands.”

Esther Voet, director of CIDI, the Dutch watchdog on anti-Semitism, says she is confident of Dutch Jewry’s ability to weather the storm. Dutch authorities are taking the issue seriously, she says, as are other civic groups.

But Voet acknowledges that Jacobs encounters a different reality.

“I’m not recognizably Jewish and I live in the Jordaan,” she said, referring to her central Amsterdam neighborhood. “But Rabbi Jacobs, in his travels across the country and in his own neighborhood, faces a different set of problems.”

Christian Leaders Travel to Israel to Show Support

A dozen leaders from the National Religious Broadcasters traveled to Israel last week to make public their support of Israel.

The Christians in Solidarity with Israel trip, which was organized through a partnership between NRB, an international organization of Christian media professionals, the Israel Ministry of Tourism and EL AL Israel Airlines, took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and the Newark Liberty International Airport on Aug. 17 and returned Aug. 22.

“Countering rising anti-Semitism in the international press and on the streets, this friendship visit will communicate to Israel and to the Palestinians who stand in opposition to Hamas that we, leaders who represent the Christian community, stand with them. It will also show the world that Christians in general support the Jewish people and their right to security,” said NRB President and CEO Jerry Johnson.

“In addition, this visit should serve as an example to all followers of Jesus Christ, specifically encouraging them to pray for the peace of Jerusalem so that the lives of all those living in this region can be secure” Johnson continued. “We are thankful to the Israel Ministry of Tourism for coordinating this trip.”

The NRB has a close relationship with Israel, said EL AL spokeswoman Sheryl Stein. In addition to regular sponsored trips to Israel for NRB leadership and board members, the group also includes a large Israel pavilion at its annual convention and hosts an annual Israel breakfast attended by hundreds of members.

Mumbai Jewish Center Reopens

Almost six years after terrorists stormed the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Mumbai, India, and murdered its directors and four guests, the storied building known as the Nariman House officially reopened Tuesday during a celebration attended by rabbis from across Asia and their guests.

“Today, as we look to the future, our message is one of perseverance and unshakable belief in the power of light over darkness,” Rabbi Yisroel Kozlovksy, the new director of Chabad of Mumbai, announced, according to Chabad.org. “We’re not moving into a new building. … We are returning to our original building, and we will be continuing all of the activities that took place here, and, hopefully, grow even more.”

The website reported that the reopening paves the way for the building of a $2.5 million museum in the apartment where the late Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg lived. Having arrived in Mumbai in 2003, they served an eclectic mix of Jewish business travelers and Israeli backpackers from the Nariman House. They and their guests fell victim to gunmen the night of several attacks across Mumbai that claimed 164 lives.

Their 2-year-old son, Moshe, famously escaped in the arms of his nanny, Sandra Samuel.