The Somali Connection Muslim, Jewish communities unite to combat terrorist recruitment

Andrew Luger (at podium), U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, leads his state’s initiative to combat terrorist recruitment that targets the Somali community. (Provided)

Andrew Luger (at podium), U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, leads his state’s initiative to combat terrorist recruitment that targets the Somali community. (Provided)

As the U.S battles Islamist terrorism abroad, cities such as Minneapolis, with its large Muslim Somali population, have emerged as ground zero in the psychological and sociological battles at home. Somali community groups there have joined forces with the federal government to prevent terrorist recruitment as well as anchor, educate and support young Somalis in hopes to assuage an identity crisis that can leave many susceptible to recruitment tactics.

At the recent three-day conference at the White House on countering violent extremism, leaders from Minnesota’s Somali community presented their plans to counter recruitment efforts, in conjunction with local clergy, educators and law enforcement. Andrew Luger, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and a prominent member of Minneapolis’ Jewish community, was asked to lead the initiative.

“From 2007 until today, our community has struggled with the cycle of recruiting by overseas terrorists,” Luger began, as he addressed the assembled group at the White House. After many months of meetings with hundreds of community members, “the Minnesota Somali community told us what it would take to combat this recruiting.”

Minnesota, and specifically its major metropolitan area of Minneapolis, is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, at approximately 33,000 people, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. It comprises about one-third of the total Somali population nationwide.

Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in their home country. Many landed in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which remains a densely Somali-populated area located a few miles from the downtown district and about midway between Minneapolis and its “twin city,” the state capital of St. Paul.

About a decade later, from 2007 to 2009, the FBI tracked more than 25 Somali Minnesotan young men traveling to Somalia to train and fight with the terrorist group al-Shabaab. That initial wave included the first documented American-born suicide bomber, who in 2008 detonated himself during the Somali conflict against occupying Ethiopian armies.

Since then, more than 20 of the men have been federally charged for their involvement, but others remain active, pursuing young Somali-American men with savvy social media-based recruitment tactics “to join the fight overseas or conduct an attack in the United States,” said FBI agent Rick Thornton, who provided current intelligence to the summit attendees. And in 2013, more young Minnesota-based Somali-Americans traveled overseas to join terrorist organizations, he continued, “only this time instead of al-Shabaab, it was [the so-called Islamic State], and instead of Somalia, the destination was Syria.”

In the presentation, which also included comments from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, Luger outlined the three main components of a proposed anti-recruitment pilot program that draws directly from the needs expressed by the Somali community.

The project intends to increase community engagement by local law enforcement, address the root causes of radicalization in the community — identity crisis, a lack of job opportunities, the need for mentors, a shortage of effective after-school programs and a widening disconnect between youth and their religious leaders were all noted as major factors — and develop community-led intervention teams trained to respond at the earliest signs of radicalization.

Now a year into his tenure as U.S. attorney, Luger didn’t realize at the outset he would take on such a high-profile initiative. But he said that following his instincts shortly after he was sworn in has paid off.

One of the first things he did was ask Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel, where Luger is a member, to introduce him to several of the local imams. Zimmerman holds close ties with many clergy as part of an interfaith group that meets monthly.

“Growing up Jewish, I’ve had a deep respect for clergy of any faith,” said Luger. “I knew it would be important for me, no matter what, to reach out to the Muslim community. … When I knew the recruitment from 2007 and 2008 was back, I needed to start to understand the Somali community here, to see how I could assist on civil rights issues and the efforts to stop the recruiting, so it made sense for me to start with the religious leaders.”

Meetings take place about every four to five weeks, he said.

Mohamed Farah, director of Ka Joog, is a leader among Minneapolis’ Somali organizations in his efforts to engage and connect young Somali men and women to the community. (David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Mohamed Farah, director of Ka Joog, is a leader among Minneapolis’ Somali organizations in his efforts to engage and connect young Somali men and women to the community. (David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

A month after Luger asked Zimmerman for assistance, Washington officials turned to him to coordinate anti-recruitment efforts in Minnesota. Luger, though, is the first to admit his is a community-driven effort. Joining Luger is Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog.

At the White House summit, Farah explained the mission of his organization to steer youth toward higher education, civic involvement and volunteer commitment by providing options and outlets for young Somalis. He relies on after-school programs, college preparation and leadership training to “break the cycle of recruiting and radicalization.”

“In 2007 and 2008, none of the community wanted to talk about al-Shabaab and that such things were taking place,” Farah said during an interview. “We didn’t have too many fans in the Somali community, but we did that because it was an issue that was a reality. Now more people realize it’s not just a Somali issue, but an American issue as well.”

Farah explained that about 80 percent of the young people he works with are American-born, but their Somali-born parents are “physically here, but mentally they’re back home.”

Parents encourage their children to become educated and return to help rebuild Somalia, he said. “So a lot of the kids have been confused, and a lot of the young people don’t know anything about Somalia, so that’s a big issue.” When conflicts arise, “the elders tend to use solutions that have worked in
Somalia, but because we’re in a different environment, that doesn’t work, so there’s a lack of understanding and a lack of communication between these two generations.”

Typically, parents don’t speak English well either, he added, “so there is a disconnect.”

It’s a dangerous and confusing situation if both parents and terrorist recruiters are telling young people to go back and take care of their home country, though obviously with very different motivations, he said. “But the idea of integrating into our society here in America is a lot better than it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. Now people are comfortable being here, thinking about the future of our community, and many nonprofits are making sure kids are graduating and giving back to their communities.”

Madeline Barnett, assistant director of community and public relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council, knows the challenges of dealing with ethnic immigrant populations well. BJC regularly hosts several interfaith programs, such as the Jewish Muslim Dialogue, that includes programming directed at young adults.

“We need to teach young people about different [media] outlets so they can interpret [the information] and think about it through a critical lens,” said Barnett. “They’re capable, but we need to give them the tools to do so. I think it’s 100 percent necessary and effective” in educating young people against persuasive messaging.

At Luger’s suggestion, Zimmerman invited Farah and other members of Ka Joog to speak at a Temple Israel study session during Yom Kippur last fall. The session is traditionally used to draw congregants in to participate in dialogue that can sometimes include “difficult conversations” said Zimmerman, adding that she is proud to be part of a congregation where “even if people might disagree, they understand that talking is the antidote to violence and that these are our guests.”

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel invites her congregants to engage in “difficult conversations” because she believes communication is an antidote to violence. (Provided)

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel invites her congregants to engage in “difficult conversations” because she believes communication is an antidote to violence. (Provided)

The hall was packed with about 300 people, with many standing on the periphery of the room, said the rabbi. Since there is nominal interaction between Jewish and Somali communities and a lot of press about terrorist recruitment activity, “it’s important to be based in facts. It’s important to confront [the issues], but also to know that the majority of Somalis want to be American and integrate into society and retain their culture, which Jews understand historically.

“We also wanted [the Somali community] to understand the Jewish perspective,” she added, “and if no one is at the table, then you can’t understand it.”

The members of Ka Joog spoke for about an hour, said Luger, who was in attendance, and “people were just fascinated to learn” about their lives in refugee camps, what it was like to come to Minnesota and what they’re doing to combat recruitment and actively build up their community.

“I think the Jewish community has a natural affinity for other communities that are developing their infrastructure and that want to succeed and pursue the American dream,” said Luger, “and you could feel it that day at Temple Israel.”

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Radioactive Affairs Netanyahu and AIPAC make full-court press on Capitol Hill

The signs at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual Policy Conference were emblazoned with the words “This is Israel,” but the overarching message to the record-setting crowd in Washington, D.C., was clear: Stop Iran now.

On the first night of the three-day conference, which ended Tuesday, March 3, Brad Gordon, director of policy and government affairs at AIPAC, told the 16,000 attendees that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon was their one and only goal in lobbying legislators on Capitol Hill.

“When we go to the Hill on Tuesday, we will stress the urgency of the Iranian nuclear issue. And we will ask Congress first to support diplomacy by increasing economic pressure on Iran [and] second to insist on a good agreement, one that truly prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”

Gordon, a former U.S. ambassador who worked on nuclear nonproliferation issues in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, said that a third emphasis would be for Congress “to play a key role in reviewing any agreement” reached between U.S. and Iranian negotiators at talks in Geneva.

Before AIPAC sent teams to lobby representatives and senators on Capitol Hill, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told a joint meeting of Congress that the contours of a deal being drafted with Iran prior to a summer deadline portend doom to not only the Jewish state, but to the United States as well.

It is a “very bad deal,” said Netanyahu. “We’re better off without it.”

Typically, AIPAC lobbies for three issues. In recent history those items have been securing foreign aid for Israel, lobbying for a negotiated peace on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

But with the Iranian negotiations looming large, longtime AIPAC member Ellen Lightman of Baltimore, who served as a lobbying group leader, called Iran “the issue of the conference.”

“In Maryland, we are very fortunate that our members of Congress are understanding of the issues,” said Lightman. “Nobody loves Israel more than [Sens.] Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski,” who on Monday announced her decision not to seek a sixth term in 2016.

Lightman continued by touting the organization’s good relationships with Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes but cautioned that such relationships should not be taken for granted; continuous advocacy on U.S.-Israel relations are key, she said.

Iran dominated the speeches of nearly every guest invited to the main stage of the morning and evening plenary sessions.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke for nearly 30 minutes Monday about the importance of the U.S.-Israel bond and reiterated a commitment to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

“Talks, no talks; agreement, no agreement — the United States will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our national security and that of our closest allies,” she said.

Power won over the audience by addressing how the United States supports Israel at the U.N.

“Before the United States joined the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009, more than half of the country-specific resolutions adopted there were focused on Israel,” she said. “Today, we’ve helped lower that proportion to less than a third.”

Power also touted America’s lone dissenting vote against a resolution to create a commission to investigate alleged human rights violations during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas last summer.

But the speech by Power, who urged attendees to hear the Obama administration out before pronouncing judgment on the Iran negotiations, addresses from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and well-received remarks from foreign dignitaries including former Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman were merely a prelude to the man everyone had gathered to see: Netanyahu.

As Bob Cohen, president of AIPAC, began his introductory remarks, the audience got to its feet before the prime minister even stepped foot on the stage.

Clearly in his element, Netanyahu, whose presence in Washington and push to derail a nuclear deal between the West and Iran earned rebukes from the White House as well as from Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, his challenger in the country’s March 17 parliamentary elections, showed off the English he polished growing up in Philadelphia and as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

He teased the crowd by calling out to competing whoops and cheers, “Anyone here from California? Florida? New York?”

“You’re here from coast to coast, from every part of this great land. And you’re here at a critical time,” he exhorted the crowd. “You’re here to tell the world that reports of the demise of Israeli-U.S. relations are not only premature, they’re just wrong.”

After thanking a litany of guests, including Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prossor and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister attempted to downplay the political furor of his congressional address.

“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both,” Netanyahu said. (He echoed that point a day later in Congress.)

Getting to the heart of his approximately 20-minute AIPAC address, Netanyahu said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the purpose of my address to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel.” He further emphasized his contention with a projection of a world map detailing areas where Iran has been accused of sponsoring terrorism.

“Now disagreements among allies are only natural from time to time, even among the closest of allies. Because there are important differences between America and Israel,” he said. “American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”

In Congress, Netanyahu contrasted the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to Iran’s charter, which he said guarantees “death, tyranny and a pursuit of jihad.”

“The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons,” he added.

He called on the world to demand of Iran three things: “First, stop aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country Israel, the one and only Jewish state.” Each statement was met with thunderous applause.

He cautioned that a bad deal would spark a nuclear arms race.

“A region where small skirmishes can start big wars would turn into a nuclear tinder box,” he said before refuting the notion that the failure to achieve a deal would result in Israeli military intervention. “The alternative to a bad deal is a much better deal,” he said, “a better deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live.”

After referencing the horrors of the Holocaust and addressing Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in the gallery directly overhead, Netanyahu promised, “Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel, I know that you stand with Israel.”

Dr. Gary Applebaum of Pasadena, Md., attended both of Netanyahu’s speeches. He agreed with Netanyahu’s assessment that any current disagreement would not cause lasting damage, particularly when the U.S. and Israel have common “values, mission and purpose.”

“For better or worse, the world was listening. … I think he made his case,” said Applebaum. “Who else but the prime minister of Israel can stand there and say ‘never again’ and really mean it?”

A Turn to the Right Boteach hosts shadow conference during AIPAC

Panel host Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (second from left) stands between  featured guests Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and Elie Wiesel.

Panel host Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (second from left) stands between
featured guests Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and Elie Wiesel.

WASHINGTON — While thousands of attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference milled around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington, D.C., awaiting a speech by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, a who’s who of right-leaning pro-Israel leaders, donors and supporters filled the large main-floor committee hearing room of the Dirksen Senate office building to listen to a panel featuring Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Guests at the Monday event, “The Meaning of Never Again: Preventing a Nuclear Iran,” numbered in the hundreds, watching the two panelists — with host Boteach acting as sometimes moderator, sometimes panelist — holding court in the cavernous room. Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat who announced her retirement earlier that day, often presided over that room in her role chairing the Senate Committee on Appropriations, discussing federal funding legislation that includes foreign aid to Israel.

But on this night, the show belonged to the other side of the aisle, in the person of audience member and billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson and Boteach, who, in 2012, won a New Jersey GOP primary for a House of Representatives seat but came up short in the general election. Illuminated by bright television lighting and recorded by several cameras, the panel discussed the danger of a nuclear Iran and expressed support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress.

As the elder statesman, Wiesel provided the philosophical backbone for the event, which sought to equate Iran with Nazi Germany and illustrate the danger it poses for Jews and the State of Israel.

“We have America today. In my time, we didn’t have America,” said Wiesel, highlighting the need for the United States to take an active role against Iran rather than merely participate in negotiations.

Cruz’s remarks drew the biggest applause, as he reflected on the issue with his usual red-meat conservative rhetoric and rhythm of speech more reminiscent of an actor performing a monologue than a politician trying to work a crowd.

Iran’s leaders “have not been subtle in any regard about what their objectives are in the nuclear program. This is not about powering the lights,” said Cruz. “The father of the Iranian nuclear program, who thankfully has now met his maker, involuntarily, I might add, in his last will and testament he explicitly provided what he wanted on his tombstone. He specified that his tombstone would read, ‘Here lies a man who has sought to annihilate the nation of Israel.’

“What matters is what we do right now to address the single greatest national security threat facing both the nation of Israel and the United States, what we do right now to ensure that in no circumstances will the nation of Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capability,” he continued. “The gravity of this threat cannot be overstated.”

Most of the audience had come from the AIPAC Conference but were not the normal collection of bipartisan AIPAC attendees. This was a crowd that wouldn’t mind if they missed Rice’s speech back on the main stage of the convention center. The room on Capitol Hill was full of leaders from a number of right-wing pro-Israel organizations — a detail not lost on members of the leftist anti-war organization Code Pink.

Demonstrators wearing their trademark color set the tone of the meeting early when they unfurled large anti-Israel, anti-AIPAC posters in front of the room and began chanting, shocking some audience members. The audience responded with shouts of its own, first in unison with “Get out, get out” and followed by “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.

Code Pink, a familiar sight in this committee room, typically shows up to hearings to heckle witnesses for a few minutes until they are led out by police. But due to the event’s last-minute location change, Capitol Police were not in the room. The police were notified through Cruz’s aides, and the long response time led to a brief period of confusion.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who sat in the front row, ended up in an altercation with the protestors, being pushed and threatened with a lawsuit, he said, after he tried to take one of the group’s signs.

Part of the reason for the crowd and the event may have been the result of a recent controversy embroiling Boteach. The previous weekend, Boteach and the organization he leads, This World: The Values Network, took out an advertisement in The New York Times that featured images of skulls and bones of victims from the Rwandan genocide next to a picture of Rice and comparing the United States’ decision not to interfere in the Rwandan genocide to the Holocaust.

“What matters is what we do right now to address the single greatest national security threat facing both the nation of Israel and the United States, what we do right now to ensure that in no circumstances will the nation of Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capability.”

Boteach’s ad was roundly criticized by Jewish communal organizations of all denominations.

The panel was originally intended to be a bipartisan discussion, with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) representing the pro-Israel left, but he quickly withdrew after the controversial ad was published.

“Since 1998, I have taken advantage of every opportunity to urge the toughest sanctions on Iran, including nearly 20 presentations at AIPAC policy conferences,” Sherman said in a statement to explain his decision to withdraw from the event. “I cannot appear at a forum that was advertised using an unwarranted incendiary personal attack. I will be working with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and others to create appropriate forums to focus on the danger posed by Iran.

“Nothing has done as much to unify the Jewish community, and nothing has done so much to bring the Jewish community in agreement with the Obama administration, as this ad,” Sherman added. “J Street and AIPAC, the Obama administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the leading organizations in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish communities, all agree — this ad is a harmful distraction from efforts to combat Iran’s nuclear program.”

Boteach mentioned the ad briefly during the event but later clarified his position in an interview. He said that he did not go after Rice the person, but a high-level national security official and her role in underestimating the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s.

“What we wanted to demonstrate was, given that human rights has this record … she should be extra sensitive to Israel’s defense,” said Boteach. “Now, was that communicated effectively? A lot of people thought that it wasn’t. … We weren’t communicating in any way that this was personal; we were speaking of her as the national security advisor of the United States.

“But to the extent that we communicated it and it was personal, that’s what I apologize for,” he added. “I have nothing against Susan Rice. I don’t know Susan Rice. Why would I dislike Susan Rice?”

New Blood Missouri’s secretary of state, who is young and Jewish, challenges longtime incumbent senator

030615_missouriNational Democrats looking to take back the Senate in 2016 scored what they considered a victory on Feb. 19, when Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, 33, who is Jewish, officially announced his candidacy to challenged first-term incumbent Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in his hometown of Columbia.

For many Missourians, even Democrats, the announcement by Kander, a fifth-generation Missourian who served eight years as an Army officer, came as a surprise. With so much time left before voters go to the polls in late 2016, very few candidates for any office and of any party have so far officially begun their campaign. Even more, Kander’s position as secretary of state is an important office for Missouri Democrats, and political analysts in the state considered him a shoe-in for re-election.

Having won the narrow surprise victory over his Republican opponent in 2012 for the office he currently holds, Kander, his relatively brief political career notwithstanding, is undaunted by the odds in going against Blunt.

“Like a lot of Americans, I hoped things would change in Washington,” Kander said. “I hoped that the politicians there would finally remember that they were there to work for their constituents, not their campaign donors. But that hasn’t happened. We clearly need a different group of people there to get the job done.”

Although Kander is a Democrat, much of his rhetoric steers away from partisan issues; in the first weeks of his campaign, he is instead attempting to paint his opponent as a Washington insider, beholden more to government insiders, lobbyists and his Capitol Hill Republican colleagues at the expense of representing Missourians.

“This election is going to be about whether or not Missourians are happy with how things are going in Washington, and it’s going to be a stark choice between someone who has been there almost 20 years and has become a part of the problem and someone who served this country in Afghanistan and came home to serve his state.” Kander said. “I think most Missourians are ready to give someone else a chance.”

Kander’s campaign of fresh, young outsider versus the monolithic D.C. establishment, which includes differ-entiating himself from President Barack Obama, is closer to the electoral strategy used by the GOP, especially since the rise of the populist Tea Party movement. This, according to Kenneth Warren, professor of political science at Saint Louis University, is just what Democrats do when they run in Missouri.

“If they run statewide, they run on a very conservative platform, like Southern Democrats,” said Warren.

According to Warren, Missouri had long had a strong Democratic party, one that he believes is still strong in the state today. A shift in attitudes among religious rural voters, however, has made Republicans currently dominant in a majority of the state’s electoral districts.

“One of the reasons for it recently has been the reawakening of the evangelical vote, which is enormous in Missouri. Absolutely enormous,” Warren said. “In the two elections I compared — 2008 and 2012 — the evangelical vote accounted for 38 percent of the vote. The national average is 23 percent.”

Kander did not spare the Obama administration in his criticisms of Washington, especially in his belief that both Congress and the administration are not doing enough at keeping national political debates and partisanship out of prescient foreign policy decision-making. Kander included the U.S.-Israel relationship in this critique.

“I think no matter whose fault it is, the relationship with the leader of our country’s most important ally in the war on terror has to be better than this,” he said. “And I would hope that the president could put personal feelings aside and be a partner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the sake of both of our countries.”

Attempts to contact Blunt for this story were unsuccessful.

Kander, like other military veterans who enter politics, sees his services for the state and candidacy as an extension of a will to serve, which he attributes to his Jewish upbringing. Jewish through his father’s side, he was raised Reform. He and his Ukrainian-born Jewish wife plan to raise their infant son, True, with the same religious ideals.

“I was raised in a tradition of always trying to make the world a better place,” said Kander. “And I’ve always believed that that had a lot to do with our faith.”

dshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Pulling No Punches

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point during his forceful speech to Congress. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point during his forceful speech to Congress.
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, in the end, was about reminding Americans that the enemy of your enemy may still be your enemy.

He may have lost some friends in the process.

Netanyahu spoke before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, March 3 following a six-week buildup that spurred questions about the propriety of an Israeli prime minister using Congress as a platform for his views two weeks before elections in his country and resulted in a rupture, for now, between the Obama and Netanyahu governments.

“To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle and lose the war,” Netanyahu said during his 45-minute address, using an acronym referring to the so-called Islamic State, the terrorist group targeted by a U.S.-led coalition. “That is exactly what would happen if the deal currently being negotiated is accepted by Iran.”

Netanyahu spoke at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who in a breach of protocol did not consult the White House, congressional Democrats or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. No Obama administration officials attended the speech, and Vice President Joe Biden, who conventionally co-chairs such events with the House speaker, was out of the country.

“I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy,” the Israeli leader said early in his address. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.”

Netanyahu praised President Barack Obama for his support of Israel, eliciting a rare standing ovation for the president from both sides of the aisle. (Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is a patron both to Netanyahu and the Republican Party and was present, did not clap.)

It was clear, however, that there were those on the Democratic side who remained unhappy with the speech. At least 60 lawmakers, including one Republican, chose not to go, and applause was often perfunctory on the Democratic side.

When Netanyahu strode up the center aisle of the House of Representatives chamber, it was mostly Republicans who rushed to shake his hand. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and one of the most prominent Jews and outspoken Israel supporters in the party, studiously hung back. So did Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader in the House.

“As one who values the U.S.-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’ s speech,” Pelosi said afterward. “Saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”

The P5+1 is the acronym for the six major powers negotiating with Iran: the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Great Britain.

Netanyahu received multiple standing ovations. However, at the point in which he came out most forcefully against the deal being negotiated, most Democrats remained seated, with some clapping politely, while many Republicans stood, whooped and hollered.

“This is a bad deal, it’ s a very bad deal, and we’ re better off without it,” Netanyahu said.

Republicans said Netanyahu’s speech was a necessary tonic for talks that they say have been conducted without transparency.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear how dangerous the direction of these negotiations really is,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said in a statement. “With two deadline extensions behind us, with the administration’ s acquiescence to enrichment, and with a potential sunset clause of no more than 10 to 15 years in the agreement, we now know once and for all this is a bad deal.”

Earlier in the week, there were reports that the Obama administration was worried that Netanyahu would reveal secrets that its negotiators had shared with the Israelis. Netanyahu in his speech said that the two main areas of the emerging agreement that concerned him were easily found in a Google search.

As one who values the U.S.-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech.

He said that the two likely outcomes — allowing Iran a limited uranium enrichment capacity and letting the deal lapse after a period of at least 10 years — would leave Iran a nuclear threshold state. Netanyahu instead counseled a deal that would require Iran to moderate its behavior, ending its regional troublemaking and backing for terrorism, and its threats against Israel.

Obama administration officials have said that demanding the dismantling of Iran’ s enrichment capacity would collapse the talks, in part because it is seen as unrealistic by some of the major powers now squeezing Iran with sanctions. Additionally, the administration has said that any deal must have a period of duration, and it has resisted attaching non-nuclear issues to the talks, including Iran’ s behavior in the region.

On Monday night, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Susan Rice, the U.S. national security advisor, confirmed reports that any deal would lapse after a set period. Rice said the term would be at least 10 years.

“I know that some question a deal of any duration,” she said, pre-empting whatever surprise Netanyahu may have reserved for his speech. “But it has always been clear that the pursuit of an agreement of indefinite duration would result in no agreement at all.”

A nuclear deal with Iran must include access to its nuclear facilities even after the expiry of restrictions “to provide the international community the assurance that it was not pursuing nuclear weapons,” Rice said.

Jewish Groups Slam Boteach Ad on Susan Rice

WASHINGTON — An array of Jewish groups condemned an ad by a foundation associated with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach accusing National Security Adviser Susan Rice of turning a blind eye to genocide.

“Susan Rice has a blind spot: Genocide,” said the advertisement appearing in Saturday’s New York Times, touting a talk on Iran this week in Washington hosted by Boteach, the New Jersey-based author and pro-Israel advocate.

As soon as the Sabbath ended, Jewish groups rushed to condemn the ad by This World: The Values Network.

The American Jewish Committee called it “revolting,” the Anti-Defamation League called it “spurious and perverse,” the Jewish Federations of North America called it “outrageous” and Josh Block, the president of The Israel Project, said it was “entirely inappropriate.”

Marshall Wittmann, the spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will host Rice on Monday at its annual conference, said, “Ad hominem attacks should have no place in our discourse.”

On Sunday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement blasting the ad.

Other condemnations came from the Orthodox Union, J Street, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement. In a combined statement, the leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism and Reform’s Religious Action Center called the ad “grotesque,” “abhorrent” and a “sinister slur.”

The ad notes Rice’s recent complaints about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Tuesday, which was organized without consulting the White House. Netanyahu plans to speak against the nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers, which President Barack Obama backs. Rice said last week that the way the speech was organized was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The ad also notes a controversy from the 1990s, when Rice was on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff and reportedly advised against describing the mass killings in Rwanda as “genocide.”

“Ms. Rice may be blind to the issue of genocide, but should treat our ally with at least as much diplomatic courtesy as she does the committed enemy of both our nations,” it said.

In an interview, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who directs the Rabbinical Assembly, said Rice deserved an apology from Boteach.

The ad “is completely inconsistent with the record of friendship and loyalty this public official has shown Israel and the Jewish people,” Schonfeld said.

Rice grew close to pro-Israel and Jewish groups during her stint as U.S. envoy to the United Nations, in Obama’s first term, through her efforts to head off attacks on Israel and protect vulnerable populations in Sudan.

“It is not up to Shmuley Boteach to make it appear this is the way the Jewish community treats our friends,” Schonfeld said.

Boteach in an interview said he stood behind the ad.

“The stakes could not be higher, and our ad rightly points out that Susan Rice has gone beyond any mandate in condemning the prime minister for simply speaking out,” he said. “Condemnation should be directed not at those who seek to give Israel a voice but to those who seek to deny it.”

Boteach, whose talk on Monday will take place in a Senate office building and will include Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memoirist, as well as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has appealed to AIPAC activists to attend.

Sherman condemned the ad on Twitter, but did not say if he was still participating in the event it was promoting.

“This ad is outrageous and harms the U.S.-Israel alliance,” he said. “It should be denounced in every forum.”

AIPAC, like many of the groups that have condemned the ad, is skeptical of the Iran nuclear talks.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, a group that has been pronouncedly skeptical of the talks, on Twitter described the ad as an “inappropriate ad hominem attack” that “doesn’t advance discourse on key issue of Iran.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, who heads the JCPA, the public policy umbrella for the community, said the ad was a blow against bipartisan support for Israel.

“It’s a sad moment for the Jewish community to have this ad appear,” he said in an interview.

A Funding Fight

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson hosts the media on Feb. 23 to discuss the need for a clean, full-year Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler.)

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson hosts the media on Feb. 23 to discuss the need for a clean, full-year Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler.)

As attacks on and threats levied against Jewish communities are on the rise around the world, a fight is raging in Congress over the funding of the Department of Homeland Security.

Now, Jewish communal officials and security experts in the United States are beginning to worry that the possibility of a departmental shutdown would strip away significant support that the DHS provides to help domestic Jewish communities monitor and safeguard against impending threats. A DHS shutdown puts in jeopardy the points of communication that keep Jewish communities informed of threats and would end the Nonprofit Security Grant program, for which Jewish organizations have long lobbied.

“No other government department in the United States has provided more precious resources to the Jewish community than [DHS] from a security standpoint,” said Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, a faith-based threat-assessment and advising organization affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America focused on protecting the American Jewish community.

“It’s a matter of record that over the past six weeks Jewish communities in Westernized nations are under attack, and they’re under attack from a sophisticated, well-trained, well- inspired and well-funded assailant,” said Goldenberg.

According to Goldenberg, although there is no current imminent threat, violence against Jewish communities in the United States and Europe have increased dramatically, pointing out incidents such as the recent murder of a guard outside a Copenhagen community center during a bar mitzvah celebration, the attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris last month, the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France and, here at home, last year’s deadly shooting rampage at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kan.

Goldenberg said that the Jewish community in the United States has become the quintessential “soft target” and that in most cases when a terrorist attack is committed, Jews and Jewish institutions, although not the primary target, are often the assailant’s secondary target.

“There isn’t a day that I’m not in touch somewhere in the United States connecting members of the DHS directly with members of the Jewish community who are providing expertise and resources on the ground,” he said. “We are at a very, very sensitive time and a very challenging time, where our assailants and those who desire to kill us are having great success.”

There’s never been a more important time than now, he added, “where we have a need for an entity or an enterprise like the DHS, and for Congress to think about not funding it at a time in history when we have enemies who are extremely sophisticated and desire to hit the homeland is absolutely absurd.”

Angry over President Barack Obama’s executive order last November to grant amnesty to millions of undocumented aliens, Republicans in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives prevented DHS from being funded for the entire length of fiscal year 2015 during the 113th Congress, providing DHS with a short-term extension until Feb. 27. Their hope was that a majority in both legislatures in the following year would allow them to pass a DHS funding bill with amendments that block funding for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to implement the president’s executive order.

Conventional wisdom of legislative tactics on Capitol Hill used to mean that both parties might continue to fight bitterly on such issues, but at the last minute they would come to an agreement through a process of backdoor negotiations and the exchanging of political favors — thus avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation where both parties could face a backlash from constituents.

But as sequestration and the 2012 government shutdown has shown, Congress’ division makes it not entirely unlikely that an agreement on DHS funding is not reached, which would force a shutdown of all nonessential DHS services. This leads some observers to ask, if lawmakers once shut down the whole federal government, what incentive do they have when it is only one federal department on the chopping block?

With the deadline fast approaching, Congress has a number of ways it can proceed. The House passed H.R. 240 on Jan. 14, providing $39.7 billion for the department, but that included amendments that would restrict any federal funds, fees and resources to go toward the president’s immigration initiatives.

But Senate Democrats, now the minority, successfully blocked consideration of the House version of the bill. Instead, they introduced S. 272, which is identical to the House bill but without the anti-executive order amendments. Even if the House version passed the Senate, as it stands now, the GOP would not have enough votes to prevent a presidential veto.

With less than a week left until DHS loses funding, the possibility of shutting down the department responsible for domestic security in the event of a terrorist attack or national disaster is very real. Though essential activities will still continue, some fear the strain on the organization would make the United States vulnerable to ever-growing terrorist threats, and many in the often-targeted Jewish community feel especially concerned.

After years of lobbying by the Jewish Federations of North America, Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel and other Jewish advocacy organizations, the DHS established the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provided capital grants of up to $75,000 to nonprofit organizations to harden their facilities. Funding for this program has ranged over the years from between $9 million to $25 million annually and helps cover security measures such as video surveillance systems, reinforced locks and blast-proof windows in sensitive areas.

Jewish community centers, synagogues, schools, federations and other institutional facilities throughout the United States have been successful in leveraging this aid, and according to the Orthodox Union, 90 percent of the $13 million program funds for fiscal year 2014 went to 186 Jewish nonprofits.

“From my perspective, from JFNA’s perspective, this is a critical resource, and it’s something that we fight for every day, knowing how difficult it is with the budgets and how competitive the whole appropriations process is,” said Robert Goldberg, senior director of legislative affairs at JFNA. “There’s not a day [I haven’t been] working on this program for 10 years.”

Rabbi Abba Cohen, head of the Washington, D.C., office of Agudath Israel, a group representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, was part of the coalition that created the grant and said that even though the $13 million divided to organizations throughout the country may not seem large, the grants help communities of all sizes prioritize the their resources on charity and other communal objectives.

The community itself is already invested in its own security, “because we know that these grants don’t go to every city and they don’t go to every institution,” said Cohen. But the grant’s “funds are meant to go, and they do go, to things like concrete barriers, security cameras to harden the site. And really, that is our most immediate need, and that’s exactly what the program provides.”

Beyond such funding, DHS does more to secure the Jewish community that is rarely noticed by community members, said Goldenberg.

These programs include DHS agents who develop and implement training exercises to help Jewish communities know how to respond to various threats such as an active shooter situation; protective security advisers who advise on how to strengthen a community’s security; and offices throughout the country that communicate real-time threat intelligence to help Jewish organizations make correct security decisions.

“The sad part is that these members of Congress, when they think of DHS, they’re thinking TSA, they’re thinking ICE, they’re thinking the border; they don’t realize that DHS is on the ground with these communities and [that] these services and are essential,” said Goldenberg, calling DHS officials unsung heroes. “Right now, we have never been in a more challenging time with regard to threats against Jewish communities globally. We need these partnerships to be strong. And DHS is our greatest partner. If DHS is not strong, then we may not have the resources that we need to stay resilient.

“This is the wrong time to do this,” he added, referring to the partisan fight.

Desperation to prevent a DHS shutdown has entered the GOP’s ranks with some — such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — calling for the GOP to support passing an unamended bill, known as a “clean” bill, and then deal with immigration separately.

These calls have intensified since last week, when a federal district court in Texas struck down the administration’s immigration initiatives, forcing DHS to suspend the executive action’s programs while the issue is fought over in the courts.

With the president’s immigration program suspended, even if a clean bill is passed, the immigration policies that the Republicans oppose might not even be implemented at all if higher courts find the president’s executive actions unconstitutional.

But other Republicans are not convinced because of the chance the president’s executive action could proceed if the administration wins its appeal. To them, the Texas court’s ruling confirms that the president went beyond his authority in issuing the executive order, and now that the administration itself suspended the program, the Senate should pass the amended House bill.

“It wouldn’t make any sense for any senators to hold up funding the Department of Homeland Security because they want to fund an executive order that isn’t being enforced and was ruled as being improper by the courts,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who also took issue with some who call a bill that does not include amendments “clean.”

“A clean [Continuing Resolution] in my opinion does not include funding an illegal executive order,” said Zeldin. “I would not support an ‘unclean’ C.R. that funds an illegal executive order.”

Yet, Zeldin is confident that the department will not close because both parties support the work DHS does beside immigration.

“I put the onus on the Senate to pass it,” he said. “It’s a responsibility of Congress, regardless of the letter next to your name. Regardless whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, it seems to be everyone’s very strong preference that it’s in our best interest for the [DHS] to be funded.”

dshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

BDS with a Twist California campus divestment measures target more than Israel

Demonstrators take part in a boycott, divestment and sanctions protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia.

Demonstrators take part in a boycott, divestment and sanctions protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia.

While two recent student resolutions initiated by boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement advocates in California ultimately had different fates, the episodes share a common twist: lumping additional nations and political entities with Israel as divestment targets.

A resolution urging Stanford University to “divest from companies violating human rights in occupied Palestine” by a BDS movement-affiliated group at Stanford University was defeated Feb. 10 in a 9-5 vote, with one abstention, by the school’s undergraduate student senate. Needing 66 percent of student senators’ votes to pass, the resolution — initiated by Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine — got 64 percent. Two days earlier, the University of California Student Association passed a similar resolution to divest from Israel, in a 9-1 vote and six abstentions.

The UCSA passed a second resolution calling for divestment from companies involved with the governments of Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Turkey, Sri Lanka and the United States, accusing those countries of violating human rights. Meanwhile, the Stanford resolution targeted “companies that violate international humanitarian law by … facilitating Israel and Egypt’s collective punishment of Palestinian civilians” and by “facilitating state repression against Palestinians by Israeli, Egyptian or Palestinian Authority security forces.”

Ben Limonchik, a leader of the student group Stanford Coalition for Peace, said that “to criticize Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority in one breath shows that these BDS proponents have no interest in promoting peace in the region.”

“If they did, they would instead look to encourage constructive engagement between the parties and promote a
negotiated, mutually agreeable two-state solution,” Limonchik said. “Over 1,600 members of the Stanford community did just that when they clearly stated that they stand for peace. We hope that moving forward, we as a community can echo this sentiment embracing peace and put these troublesome tactics behind us.”

The Stanford and UCSA resolutions are not the first BDS measures to include nations other than Israel. In 2012, the Arizona State University student senate passed a bill encouraging the school to “divest from and blacklist companies that continue to provide the Israel Defense Forces with weapons and militarized equipment or are complicit with the genocidal regime in Darfur.”

As many as 300,000 people have been killed in the Darfur conflict and genocide since 2004, according to United Nations estimates. The tactic of a BDS resolution grouping a massive atrocity like that of Darfur with Israel echoes a common anti-Israel strategy — analogizing Israeli actions to those of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The Anti-Defamation League explains on its website, “In contrast to Holocaust and more recent examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Rwanda and Kosovo, there is no Israeli ideology, policy or plan to persecute, exterminate or expel the Palestinian population — nor has there ever been. Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are based on its need to defend its population and combat threats to Israel’s security, while promoting a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Andy Borans, the executive director of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Jewish fraternity, said that grouping other countries with Israel in divestment resolutions “is a tactic to confuse others about the real anti-Israeli — and, often, anti-Semitic — motivations.”

Roz Rothstein, CEO of the Israel education organization StandWithUs, expressed hope that academic institutions will start realizing that BDS advocates’ targeting of countries other than Israel “is the result of allowing themselves to be hijacked by anti-
Israel extremists.”

“While StandWithUs supports government accountability across the board, the UCSA’s resolution has made it clear that symbolic calls for divestment from America and other governments are a misguided overreach, and will not advance human rights or justice in any meaningful way,” said Rothstein.

Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, said that “the lumping together of Israel with the U.S. and other nations in divestment resolutions indicates a shift in the BDS movement toward even more radical positions and an attempt to create an even more radical coalition.”

Yet, despite the BDS movement’s shifting tactics, a newly released ICC report reveals that pro-Israel activity on U.S. campuses has increased in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas last summer and a rise in terrorism against Jews in Israel last fall.

The number of both anti-Israel and pro-Israel rallies on college campuses was significantly higher in the fall of 2014 than it was in the fall of 2013, according to the report. The study, which details activity trends over the last three years, also shows that the number of campus events in support of the Jewish state continue to widely outnumber anti-Israel events. There were more than 1,500 Israel-supporting activities held last fall on campuses, an increase of more than 400 from the same period in 2013. By comparison, anti-Israel events, though they also rose, remained under 800 last fall.

The primary focus of BDS groups is still Israel, and “we continue to see BDS as a fundamentally anti-Semitic movement,” said Baime.

“In our view, no group or cause should get involved with the BDS movement, which has a proven record of creating conditions for campus hate speech, bullying, and divisiveness,” he said. “Our goal is to educate every member of the campus community on what BDS represents — a movement dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish homeland.”

Israel advocacy groups working on campus have pointed to what they see as the absurdity of the second UCSA-passed resolution’s targeting of the U.S. The resolution argued that America “engaged in drone strikes that have killed over 2,400 people in Pakistan and Yemen, many of them civilians.”

“The [U.S.] government oversees, by far, the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, and racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement agencies, particularly for drug-related offenses,” the resolution stated. “Four-hundred thousand undocumented immigrants are held in detention centers every year, and millions have been deported since the current Administration took office, and the government is directly supporting and propping up numerous dictatorships around the world with weapons sales and foreign aid.”

Samantha Mandeles, editor-in-chief of CAMERAonCampus.org for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting media watchdog group, took issue with the UCSA grouping the U.S. and Israel “with some of the worst human rights abusers in the world,” calling the move “merely a smokescreen, meant to hide the true anti-Israel bigotries and aims of its proponents.”

“This amendment is an attempt to hide from legitimate critique of BDS as unfairly focused on the one Jewish state in the world — which, in large part, it is. The inclusion of several abusive governments as part of a system of worldwide human rights abuses does not excuse the counter-factual castigation of Israel,” Mandeles said.

StandWithUs’s Rothstein said, “If the principle behind BDS is truly to remove any investments that can be tied to human rights violations, then the illogic of an American university divesting from America is the only possible conclusion this movement can reach.”

Hope and Appreciation Inaugural Times of Israel Gala focuses on best, brightest

In what was decidedly planned by organizers as a nonpolitical event, former Israeli President Shimon Peres raised eyebrows Sunday night at the inaugural Times of Israel Gala in New York City when he seemingly lambasted current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent calls for Jews under attack in Europe to settle in Israel.

“Don’t come to Israel because of a political position,” he said during a question-and-answer session with Times of Israel’s founding editor, David Horovitz. “Israel must remain a land of hope and not a land of fear.”

The comment appeared to be a rebuke of Netanyahu, who earlier in the day urged Jews in Denmark to make aliyah after the murder of a Jewish guard outside a Copenhagen synagogue. That call dovetailed with a similar statement the prime minister made after the attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris.

Peres, though, offered a vision not of fear, but of a world that would eventually embrace Jews and all minority peoples. If Peres’ 20-minute session during the gala’s banquet at the Waldorf Astoria hotel could be boiled down to one word, it would be hope, with the former president and prime minister — who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts alongside the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to bring peace to the Middle East — invoking the principle of “hope” several times.

“I believe we will have peace with the whole Arab world,” he said. “A person has a choice: Either be a person of hope or be a coward.”

When the topic turned to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he again seemed to contradict Netanyahu, who has sparked the ire of the White House by pursuing a March 3 speech before Congress to personally plea for increasing sanctions on the regime in Tehran.

“I don’t think any single country can stop Iran from having bombs,” said Peres, who accepted the evening’s Lifetime Leadership Award from World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder.

While Peres’ remarks provided a high point for politicos and foreign policy experts, the rest of the event was dedicated to honoring two citizens who gave their lives in defense of the Jewish state — American-born Max Steinberg, who died during Operation Protective Edge last summer, and Druze policeman Zidan Saif, who was shot during a terror attack on a synagogue in the Har Nof section of Jerusalem — remembering the three teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists and highlighting Israeli accomplishments in the entertainment, sports, defense and scientific disciplines. Honorees included actress and model Gal Gadot, legal expert Alan Dershowitz, Danny Gold, known as the “Father of the Iron Dome,” and Israel’s singer of the year, Miri Mesika.

“I thought we needed to spend some time reminding ourselves why Israel is worth fighting for,” said Horovitz. “This evening was about taking a rare pause to appreciate Israel.”

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com

The Resilience of Alan Gross

Alan Gross and his wife, Judy, attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 20. (Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Alan Gross and his wife, Judy, attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 20. (Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom)

At The President’s State of the Union address on Jan. 20, Alan Gross raised his hand high in the air in a sign of triumph as television cameras zoomed in. At a welcome-home event at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville that same month, the man who spent five years in a Cuban prison wore a perpetual smile and drank Champagne toasts to his freedom with more than 400 well-wishers at his side. And on his Facebook page, Gross has shared smaller joys, including visiting Starbucks for the first time since 2009, eating at Ben’s Chili Bowl and obtaining a learner’s driving permit.

Yet, it was just this summer that the District resident was giving up hope, refusing all visitors to his cell but his wife. He had lost 100 pounds and was suffering from numerous health ailments. The 65-year-old man was serving his fifth year of a 15-year sentence for crimes against the state when suddenly on Dec. 17, he became a free man.

Gross is not speaking publicly about his incarceration in the Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in Havana. But at Temple Beth Ami, Gross told the crowd he maintained his sanity by composing songs, drawing, creating word puzzles and reading.

Five years is a long time to be locked up in a foreign country, isolated from loved ones and denied the comforts of home.

What kind of psychological outcome can Gross can expect?

People who suffer acute, or short-term, trauma, tend to recover quickly. But when it comes to chronic, or long-term, adversity such as Gross endured, it is harder to recover, according to several trauma experts.

“Sometimes after a chronic adversity,” a person can adjust and move on, “but it takes a while,” said George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. Bonanno also heads the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Columbia.

Adjusting so quickly after spending five years imprisoned in Cuba would make Gross “an unusual man,” Bonanno said. “Just to be right-away OK, that’s pretty quick,” Bonanno said.

The fact that Gross was working to bring Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community as an employee of the Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, which receives funding and contracts from the U.S. Agency for International Development, may indicate that Gross has the strength to cope with adversity, Bonanno said. Working in those difficult circumstances takes a strong person, he said.

There are ways to cope and adapt to adversity that enable someone to recover more quickly than others, said Manuel Reich, a Pittsburgh psychiatrist who is Jewish. “If you have a very strong will to live, a healthy optimism, if you are able to do that, someone like that figures out how to live in prison and adapt.” Some people just know how to take lemons and make lemonade, Reich said.

Gross may have weathered the experience by finding someone to confide in there — a prison guard or one of his two cellmates — and that could have been the key to his seemingly quick recovery, Reich surmised.

Gross has displayed on his Facebook page some of his drawings, both current and ones created while in Cuba, that show him interacting, or at least being, with other people. Even in the drawings where he is by himself, “he is staring at someone” not shown in the picture, Reich noted.

“Engagement with others — I assume that’s how he survived. Engaging with others, keeping busy” are important, Reich said. “When someone is in a survival state of mind, they become very creative with their activities and their thinking.”

In another drawing, Gross is seen sitting on a hospital bed, a cigar in a nearby ashtray. The phrase — there is not much more time — is written in Spanish on the wall. Gross is fiercely staring out at something not in the picture frame. His arm that is holding a cane has a series of numbers drawn in black that strongly resemble the tattoo etched into the arms of Holocaust victims sent to Auschwitz.

“I think he was very deliberately trying to describe himself as a victim. A tattoo on the arm is kind of iconic in terms of 20th-century Jewish thinking,” Reich said. “Everybody cringes” when they see someone with a number tattooed on their arm.

He may be expressing his feelings on paper rather than in public. Many who have spoken with him since his release are amazed by his sense of humor.

It’s possible that sense of humor never left Gross throughout his ordeal. “He may have been joking and smiling in prison” in his efforts to keep speaking with other people, Reich said.

However, Gross may be experiencing a short-lived state of euphoria, Reich said. Not only is he enjoying his freedom, but he also has become a celebrity in not just the local Jewish community but also a wider arena in which he was featured during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union.

The incredible high that Gross may be feeling may result in “a letdown,” Reich said.

Reich sees this letdown in children who receive organ transplants. For a while they are the center of attention, sometimes their town holds fundraisers to pay for their medical needs, and then all of a sudden, they are no longer in the news and no longer a celebrity.

“Many of them become depressed,” Reich said, adding, “You see that with celebrities” no longer in the limelight.”

Pointing to the seven-day Jewish mourning period, Reich said being with others helps a person in the short term, delaying the pain caused by the death of a loved one until they have finished sitting shiva and are alone.

There also is a possibility that Gross is experiencing reaction formation, which Reich described as a defense mechanism whereby a person portrays the opposite of what he is feeling.

Without ever meeting or speaking with Gross, it is impossible for him to know what Gross is experiencing, and it is likely he may be experiencing a mixture of many of these emotions, Reich said.

For now, Gross appears to be doing quite well. Dr. Steven Sharfstein, president and CEO of the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore, called Gross’ upbeat attitude “unusual. Probably, he’s a very resilient person. There are people with very strong personalities who can go through a lot” and still be able to return to their normal life.

“There are a substantial number of people who are like this, but they are not the majority,” Sharfstein said. “Most people are not like that.”

The psychiatrist said even if the conditions Gross lived under were not horrific, he still must have undergone “real stress and deprivation.” He may have suffered depression, but “underneath it all is this real resiliency,” which Sharfstein said can be attributed to a combination of genetic makeup and prior life experiences.

If Gross is quickly returning to his old life, Sharfstein said it means Gross is naturally resilient. “He has that personality, and it is a great personality to have,” he said.

spollak@midatlanticmedia.com