United Stand

At least four protests took place in Baltimore on Tuesday, Nov. 25, the day following the grand jury announcement, including those at Morgan State University, the University of Baltimore School of Law, McKeldin Square and Baltimore City Hall.

At least four protests took place in Baltimore on Tuesday, Nov. 25, the day following the grand jury announcement, including those at Morgan State University, the University of Baltimore School of Law, McKeldin Square and Baltimore City Hall.

Throughout the past four months, between officiating bar mitzvahs and weddings and leading her congregation, Rabbi Susan Talve, of St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation, has been traveling north to Ferguson, Mo., to join the protests.

“There was moral outrage,” Talve said of the nights immediately following last week’s announcement that charges would not be brought against police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in August. “I’m not calling it violence.”

Talve has been one of a group of St. Louis-area clergy who have made it their mission to be present at all of the protests. Dressed in matching orange vests, they march alongside community members day and night in an effort to show Ferguson’s citizens that they are not alone. They have even undergone training in de-escalation techniques.

“That’s our place. Our place out there is to lift up the voice of the young people, to keep them safe and to de-escalate when we need to. And we’ve been able to do that,” she said.

On Nov. 25, a day after the grand jury’s decision, a Washington University student protesting in Ferguson asked Talve why she was there.

“We’re here to make sure that everybody who messes with you knows that they are messing with us,” she told the young man. “We want the world to know, and we want St. Louis law enforcement to know, that when they profile you, that they have to be accountable to us.”

Talve is especially proud of the response of some in the Jewish community. In October, Talve said, the community hosted an event aimed at focusing on the moral message brought by the events in Ferguson. More than 20 rabbis attended the weekend rally from all over the country.

“We pray for peace. We pray that the voices of the youth will not be silenced by police violence and media ignorance. We pray for the day when people of color do not have to fear the police,” read a statement from T’ruah, a rabbinic organization that focuses on human rights and helped organize the rally. “We must use our resources to amplify those voices and to share their words with our own communities.”

“In the Jewish community, this is an issue for us because we know what it is to be profiled, even in America,” said Talve. “We know what it is to be profiled throughout the world and the reason we were involved in the civil rights movement 50 years ago is the same reason we need to be involved today.”

For its part, the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council has been working to collect books to send to the library in Ferguson for area children, many of whom have been out of school since Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Nov. 17. The council also worked in conjunction with another local synagogue and church to staff and supply a safe place for people to get food, charge their phones and pray, and it has started a #fergusonifnotuswho hashtag on Twitter to collect messages of support, said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, JCRC executive director.

In Baltimore, there were at least four protests on Tuesday, Nov. 25,

the day following the grand jury announcement. That morning, Morgan State University students marched around campus. At the University of Baltimore School of Law, students lay down in chalk outlines and chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” which has become a mantra at Ferguson protests.

Two protests were held that evening downtown, the first of which took place at McKeldin Square in the Inner Harbor and was organized by Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the People’s Power Assembly.

“We’ve got to send a message that what happened in Ferguson, Mo., was completely unacceptable, and it was a true miscarriage of justice,” said Elder C.D. Witherspoon of City Revival Ministries. “We hope to send the message that Jim Crow Jr. is indeed very much alive and well and that we have to double our efforts, lock arms and come together like never before to ensure that we fight the good fight of the faith.”

Others hoped the protests would bring to light problems in the criminal justice system.

“People of color are overwhelmingly affected by police brutality and law enforcement policies that treat them like the enemy, and I think that’s an unfair and terrible thing to have to live with,” said Baltimore resident Michael Hanes. “The mobilization around [Michael Brown’s] murder is bringing a lot of attention to it, and so I hope more people will look at the broader problem; this isn’t unique. It’s not about a bad cop; it’s about a police system that does this regularly, that regularly abuses people.”

“These are our people that are out on the streets and are not feeling safe,” said Talve, noting that the Jewish community includes many black and other minority members. “But even if it wasn’t our people, we need to be there for all of the people. This is an American value, a Jewish value, and I’m very proud of my city, I’m very proud of St. Louis, that the people here are giving voice to something people have called for a long time, and we’re taking the civil rights movement to a new level.”

 

hnorris@jewishtimes.com
mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

United Stand

Throughout the past four months, between officiating bar mitzvahs and weddings and leading her congregation, Rabbi Susan Talve, of  St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation, has been traveling north to Ferguson, Mo., to join the protests.

“There was moral outrage,” Talve said of the nights immediately following last week’s announcement that charges would not be brought against police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in August. “I’m not calling it violence.”

Talve has been one of a group of St. Louis-area clergy who have made it their mission to be present at all of the protests. Dressed in matching orange vests, they march alongside community members day and night in an effort to show Ferguson’s citizens that they are not alone. They have even undergone training in de-escalation techniques.

“That’s our place. Our place out there is to lift up the voice of the young people, to keep them safe and to de-escalate when we need to. And we’ve been able to do that,” she said.

On Nov. 25, a day after the grand jury’s decision, a Washington University student protesting in Ferguson asked Talve why she was there.

“We’re here to make sure that everybody who messes with you knows that they are messing with us,” she told the young man. “We want the world to know, and we want St. Louis law enforcement to know, that when they profile you, that they have to be accountable to us.”

Talve is especially proud of the response of some in the Jewish community. In October, Talve said, the community hosted an event aimed at focusing on the moral message brought by the events in Ferguson. More than 20 rabbis attended the weekend rally from all over the country.

“We pray for peace. We pray that the voices of the youth will not be silenced by police violence and media ignorance. We pray for the day when people of color do not have to fear the police,” read a statement from T’ruah, a rabbinic organization that focuses on human rights and helped organize the rally. “We must use our resources to amplify those voices and to share their words with our own communities.”


Photos by Marc Shapiro


“In the Jewish community, this is an issue for us because we know what it is to be profiled, even in America,” said Talve. “We know what it is to be profiled throughout the world and the reason we were involved in the civil rights movement 50 years ago is the same reason we need to be involved today.”

For its part, the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council has been working to collect books to send to the library in Ferguson for area children, many of whom have been out of school since Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Nov. 17. The council also worked in conjunction with another local synagogue and church to staff and supply a safe place for people to get food, charge their phones and pray, and it has started a #fergusonifnotuswho hashtag on Twitter to collect messages of support, said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, JCRC executive director.

In Baltimore, there were at least four protests on Tuesday, Nov. 25, the day following the grand jury announcement. That morning, Morgan State University students marched around campus. At the University of Baltimore School of Law, students lay down in chalk outlines and chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” which has become a mantra at Ferguson protests.

Two protests were held that evening downtown, the first of which took place at McKeldin Square in the Inner Harbor and was organized by Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the People’s Power Assembly.

“We’ve got to send a message that what happened in Ferguson, Mo., was completely unacceptable, and it was a true miscarriage of justice,” said Elder C.D. Witherspoon of City Revival Ministries. “We hope to send the message that Jim Crow Jr. is indeed very much alive and well and that we have to double our efforts, lock arms and come together like never before to ensure that we fight the good fight of the faith.”

Others hoped the protests would bring to light problems in the criminal justice system.

“People of color are overwhelmingly affected by police brutality and law enforcement policies that treat them like the enemy, and I think that’s an unfair and terrible thing to have to live with,” said Baltimore resident Michael Hanes. “The mobilization around [Michael Brown’s] murder is bringing a lot of attention to it, and so I hope more people will look at the broader problem; this isn’t unique. It’s not about a bad cop; it’s about a police system that does this regularly, that regularly abuses people.”

“These are our people that are out on the streets and are not feeling safe,” said Talve, noting that the Jewish community includes many black and other minority members. “But even if it wasn’t our people, we need to be there for all of the people. This is an American value, a Jewish value, and I’m very proud of my city, I’m very proud of St. Louis, that the people here are giving voice to something people have called for for a long time, and we’re taking the civil rights movement to a new level.”

 

hnorris@jewishtimes.com
mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Welcome the Stranger

As partisans haggle over the legality of President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration, the American Jewish community is applauding an effort many Jews have long fought for.

Rabbi Michael Ramberg has been working with Philadelphia’s immigrant community since he was a rabbinical student.

“I’m glad he’s doing something,” Ramberg, who serves as immigration working group coordinator at Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in the middle-class neighborhood of Roxborough, said of the president’s nationally televised remarks last week. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to completely address the need that’s out there and, I think, fulfill our national values,” or Jewish values.

Obama’s executive order, announced in a Nov. 20 speech from the White House’s Cross Hall, could help about half of the nation’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants avoid deportation.

“If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes — you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation,” Obama said in the speech, which aired on English- and Spanish-language network affiliates and cable news channels.

The move allows many undocumented immigrants to work legally in the United States in addition to expanding access to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that allows those brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 to receive temporary work permits. It also ends the Secure Communities program that some said led to racial profiling.

Ramberg and other Mishkan Shalom congregation members recently accompanied an immigrant from Mexico as he faced deportation. They found the man a new lawyer and attended hearings on his status. The man, who had come to the U.S. as a teen and had children here, eventually received his visa.

“There’s still going to be a huge number of people who, in my way of looking at things, have needed to come here, didn’t really have a better option than coming here, and we need to honor the choices people make that are for the better future of their families, for their own safety, for their own dignity,” said Ramberg. “There’s going to be millions of people who’ve made those choices who are still subject to all the exploitation that being undocumented here exposes them to.”

Along with the rabbi, several large Jewish organizations praised the White House.

“For decades, inspired by the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and by our own lived experience as immigrants, the Reform movement has advocated for a more just immigration system,” read a statement released by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. “We have urged Congress and the president to work together to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, which, among other provisions, addresses the issues of border security, family reunification, the needs of employers and protections for workers.

“Unfortunately, Congress has not succeeded at passing legislation to send to the president’s desk, despite the fact that Republicans and Democrats have long agreed that legislative action is the best way forward,” the statement continued.

The RAC statement dovetailed with recent remarks by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, who has criticized what he called Republican intransigence in failing to bring a bipartisan Senate bill to the floor of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives for a vote. A slew of Republican governors, among them Texas Gov. Rick Perry, were quick to denounce Obama for what they called an unconstitutional use of executive power that will undermine border security and overwhelm the nation’s social services.

But at the HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement agency, officials approved of the president’s move.

“President Obama’s new policies will prevent hardworking immigrants — some of whom have been in this country for decades — from being needlessly torn from their homes, jobs, communities and families,” the organization said in a statement. “HIAS also reaffirmed its position that the administration must prioritize finding a solution to help those who flee violence and come to this country seeking safety, and ensure that they are not needlessly detained or returned to persecution.”

The Jewish Labor Committee similarly endorsed the executive order.

“Aware that this is a pressing need directly affecting millions of people who work in the United States, their families and their communities, we therefore applaud President Obama’s efforts to take steps to ensure that families are not torn apart, that undocumented immigrants can emerge from the shadows, that those who have committed crimes are held to account for those crimes and that the borders of the United States are made more secure,” it announced.

ASA’s Hot-Button Issue

112114_boycottLOS ANGELES — Members of the American Studies Association gathered last year for their annual meeting and a vociferous debate on the wisdom of initiating an academic boycott of Israel.

One year later, the debate is over, and the boycott resolution has long since passed — but the aftereffects are still being felt.

Attendees at this year’s meeting, held last week in this city, reported receiving death threats and hate mail over their positions on the boycott. Others have been accused of anti-Semitism or spoke of colleagues cowed into silence for fear of hurting their careers.

The boycott debate and the subsequent public backlash have left advocates for both sides, as well as many in the middle, feeling besieged.

“When people make broad political gestures, as the ASA did with this action, the intent is to polarize the debate — and by that measure the ASA has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams,” said Micki McGee, director of the American studies program at Fordham University.

The tense atmosphere for the ASA’s annual meeting was apparent before it even started. A statement by the ASA leadership in December that it would not collaborate with “scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of [Israeli] institutions” led to questions over whether Israeli scholars could even attend. The ASA confirmed that they could, and three did, as well an administrator from Haifa University who encountered no difficulties.

The association also employed stringent requirements for media credentials, insisting on a photo ID and extensive verification that journalists and their publications covered higher education and were not “advocacy publications.”

All of this took place against a broader academic landscape beset by budget cuts and worries about diminishing job opportunities and curbs on academic freedom. The tone of the gathering was captured in a Friday afternoon session called “Scholars Under Attack.”

Still, ASA officials said they stood by the boycott.Curtis Marez, a past president of the association and chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of California, San Diego, said the ASA has experienced a net gain of individual members and no net loss of institutional members in the wake of the boycott. The organization also just completed the largest fundraising campaign in its history, bringing in $50,000.

“Passing and maintaining the boycott has been well worth it,” said Marez, who serves on the ASA Council and the organization’s executive committee. “Even with the boycott, the ASA is thriving.”

Asked about the death threats that he and other members of the ASA Council have received, Marez said, “Getting discussion of these issues going, if it means a few emailed death threats, is a worthwhile cost given what Palestinians face every day.”

Mohammed Wattad, an Arab-Israeli professor at the Zefat College School of Law in northern Israel, derided the boycott as an assault on democratic principles and suggested that the ASA was trying to have it both ways by saying that Israeli professors were still welcome.

“The trouble is that the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academia is fake,” Wattad said. “One has the feeling that the ASA is trying to tiptoe between the raindrops.”

Unlike last year’s meeting, there were no sessions this time debating the boycott. Instead, there was one modestly attended session opposed to the boycott and numerous others where speakers voiced criticisms of Israel as well as their support for the academic boycott and the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

For the critics, the boycott is a violation of academic freedom and the democratic ideal of free exchange of ideas. It is also, some say, outside the ASA’s zone of expertise.

“I’m not opposed to the ASA taking a political stance,” said Michael Rockland, who founded the American studies department at Rutgers University. But, he added, “I feel that Israel-Palestine has absolutely nothing to do with the study of American society and culture.”

Supporters of the boycott say that this is precisely why a boycott is needed — to raise awareness that the issues in Israel-Palestine are relevant to their discipline.

“It woke up American studies to the significance of Palestine in some of their own studies,” said Sondra Hale, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Hale said issues of Palestinian indignity can link to Native American studies and that Israeli settler colonialism links to the study of Africa and the African-American experience.

Debate over these issues on campuses has been anything but academic. Nancy Koppelman, a professor of American studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state and a boycott opponent, said she has “been accused of wanting to kill babies in Palestine.” McGee, at Fordham, said she received hate mail accusing her of anti-Semitism.

At the conference, too, both sides employed highly charged rhetoric. “The call for an academic boycott resembles an act of terrorism,” Wattad said. “You take innocent people, you impose fear on them, and you treat them as means in order to change the policies of the government. This is exactly what the ASA is doing right now.”

At the Scholars Under Attack panel, Steven Salaita, who became a cause celebre of the BDS movement after his tenure offer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was revoked over some anti-Israel tweets, mocked the university’s assertion that the withdrawal resulted from concerns about his incivility.

“Civility is the language of genocide,” Salaita told an appreciative crowd. “It’s inherently a deeply violent word. It’s a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not as racist.”

The onslaught of charge and counter charge left some feeling frustrated by the lack of reasoned interaction, yet there were few signs that the issue was going to let up anytime soon. Anti-boycott activists discussed forming a caucus to promote academic exchanges with Israeli and Palestinian universities, while boycott supporters planned further steps to advance BDS on campuses and encourage other academic groups to pass their own boycotts.

“We’ve been debating for so many years,” said Hale, a boycott supporter. “We haven’t had the floor. And we’ve got the floor now.”

Getting to Know Each Other

112114_israelWASHINGTON — There were bagel breakfasts, a Friday night kiddush in English and Hebrew and plenty of talk about how to keep the grandkids Jewish.

In some ways, the inaugural conference earlier this month of the Israeli American Council was much like other Jewish gatherings, except the Jews were Israelis and a lot of what makes Jewish America what it is remains alien to them — for instance, bagels, bilingual blessings and fears of assimilation.

“We need to know each other better,” said the IAC’s chairman, Shawn Evenhaim, pronouncing what might have been the conference theme.A sense of tentativeness pervaded the conference, the first since the IAC was founded in Los Angeles seven years ago. Last year, the organization began opening chapters across the country. The conference is part of its bid to integrate Israelis into the American Jewish community.“Israeli-Americans — No Longer Bystanders?” was the title of one session. “Israeli-American Double Identity: Comfort vs. Conscience?” was another.

Sessions frequently became emotive confessionals that addressed an array of obstacles to Israeli assimilation into the American Jewish community — among them a distaste for community life formed around a house of worship, the liberal political leanings of U.S. Jews and a lack of Israeli familiarity with fundraising.

At times, the conference seemed to veer into psychodrama.“Our two homelands are like mother and father, we want them to love one another,” said the narrator of a slide-show that included animations of falafel and Israeli flags.

“I think a certain regrettable loneliness among many Israelis living here longer than they anticipated is being addressed,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who heads Washington’s Chabad office and led the Friday night kiddush.
Some 600,000 Israelis live in the United States, according to the IAC, which now has six chapters across the country. U.S. Census figures report about 100,000 Americans born in Israel. The conference drew over 750 participants from 23 states.

Shula Bahat, who promotes the Israeli museum Beth Hatfutsot-The Museum of the Jewish People in the United States, said the community has come a long way since her arrival in 1973. In those days, Israelis back home tended to view them as having abandoned the country — Yitzhak Rabin, then a hero of the 1967 Six Day War, called them “lowlifes” — and American Jews didn’t know what to make of them.

Since then, as Israel has integrated fully into the global economy, necessitating studies abroad and careers overseas, the stigma has receded, she said. “Every Israeli family has a member of the family who lives elsewhere now,” Bahat said.

That has stirred a longing to become involved, but there have been obstacles.At a session on the role of Israeli-Americans in the U.S. Jewish community, Gil Preuss described how Israelis in Boston wanted a more robust show of support for Israel’s recent war against Hamas than the broader community was prepared to offer.

“They had a particular strategy,” Preuss said. “We thought that strategy was wrong.” Israelis also resist American Jewish traditions, conference-goers said, particularly the tendency to center life around the synagogue.

“For Israelis, synagogues do not have a good connotation,” said Sarit Ron, who directs Chofshi b’Manhattan, an Israeli outreach initiative of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side. “Their attitude is you’re going to try and convert me.”

Ron said she has managed to build a community at the synagogue by peddling a low-key approach, emphasizing the range of activities, including concerts by Israeli performers. Another draw has been sessions for children focusing on Israeli song and dance — a response to parental anxieties about the loss of Israeli culture in the next generation.

This was a repeated theme at the conference, with Israelis voicing concerns about their kids losing both their Israeli and Jewish identities. Shmuel Rosner, the Israeli journalist who blogs about the American Jewish community and who appeared on a number of panels, enjoyed asking Israelis in the audience why they wanted to remain Jewish at all.

“It doesn’t matter if I want to forget I am Jewish,” one older man said. “There will be somebody there to remind me.”

Another obstacle is the lack of Israeli familiarity with fundraising for charitable causes, even those that fulfill their own needs. Rachel Davidson, a former New Jersey judge now on the IAC board, said social pressure was an avenue to getting Israelis to give.

“Making being philanthropic the price for social acceptance can be very effective,” Davidson said.

With Israeli-American now referring to the children of Israelis, some of whom no longer speak fluent Hebrew, activists also faced a dilemma of when to switch content to English. On the conference’s last day, a young man approached Benhaim as he passed breakfast tables laden with bagels.

“Ani rotzeh lehagid,” the man said, using American-accented Hebrew for “I want to say.” Then he paused and finished in English: “This was amazing.”

Hurtful Words

Obama Administration officials attempted to distance themselves from administration officials’ insults aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after those comments set off a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers, organizations and pundits.

In an article written by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, anonymous administration officials used choice words to denounce Netanyahu for what the article claimed was the administration’s belief that the Israeli leader lacks vision, leadership and courage to make tough political decisions necessary to handle the region’s problems.

“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chicken—-” one official is quoted telling Goldberg. “The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars, the bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. … He’s got no guts.”

Confronting the outrage prompted by those undiplomatic comments, along with further allegations in the article describing the administration’s internal disdain for the Israeli prime minister as having recently reached a boiling point, National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey denied that there was anything unusual in the relationship between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.

“Certainly, the comments in the article do not represent the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counterproductive,” Baskey said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu and the president have forged an effective partnership and consult closely and frequently, including earlier this month when the president hosted the prime minister in the Oval Office.”

Although the White House’s response was timely, it fell short of a complete disavowal of what the officials unartfully tried to tell Goldberg — that members of the administration are angry at recent reports that Israel was moving forward with plans to build additional housing units in East Jerusalem.

“Obviously, despite the extremely close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, we do not agree on every issue,” Baskey said. “For instance, we have repeatedly made clear the United States’ longstanding view that settlement activity is illegitimate and complicates efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest delivered a message that was almost identical to Baskey’s but added that Senior National Security Advisor Susan Rice will be conducting numerous meetings with Israeli officials in Washington, D.C., which Earnest believes is proof of continuing friendly relations.

When asked whether the White House will investigate the source of the comments like it had in other national security leak cases, Earnest was unclear in his response, telling the reporters that such news media leaks were not unusual. Yet, Earnest did not deny that the comments were made.

But beside the list of incendiary words used to express their frustration, little of what the officials in Goldberg’s article said surprised security experts and others who closely follow the diplomatic developments between the two nations.

There were many indicators of the icy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu throughout much of the president’s administration, including disparaging comments by the president himself when he was caught on a hot mic in 2011, complaining to then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy about having to deal with Netanyahu every day.

Most recently, the White House refused to grant requests from Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to meet with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Rice in an apparent snub during his visit to the United States last week.

“What is shocking here is that these comments were not made off the record but on background — meaning the White House official knew they would be printed and linked to the White House,” said Elliot Abrams, who served as a top national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “That was deliberate, a deliberate ad hominem attack on the elected prime minister of a close ally. This is sophomoric behavior of a sort we have a right to expect no White House official will engage in and no president will tolerate.”

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers also chimed in to condemn the insults.

“We know that relations between allies can be strained at times.

But there is no excuse for Obama administration officials to insult the prime minister of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, the way they did,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement. “Apparently, the Obama administration does not believe it has enough problems on its hands dealing with America’s enemies in the Middle East. It also wants to insult and alienate our allies. That does nothing but harm to America’s national security interests, and President Obama must put an end to it immediately.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed alarm at the anonymous comments, saying that he was “shocked” and “disappointed” and called on the administration to put an end to such damaging leaks.

“I realize that two allies, such as the United States and Israel, are not going to agree on everything, but I think it is counterproductive and unprofessional for administration officials to air their dirty laundry in such a public way,” Engel said in a press release. “I am getting tired of hearing about the leaks and denials. This ought to be the last time we hear of such talk because it is getting to a point where nobody believes the denials anymore.”

For his part, Netanyahu took the attacks in stride, reminding the people of Israel that a majority of Americans unequivocally support them, despite administration grumblings.

“As prime minister, I am responsible for Israel’s security. I care about the lives of every citizen and soldier,” he said in an address to a special Knesset session in memory of former Tourism Minister Rechavam Zeevy, who was assassinated in 2001. “I have been on the battlefield many times. I have risked my life for the country, and I am not prepared to make concessions that will endanger our state.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

Fighting the Prejudice

The American Studies Association’s 2014 annual meeting, to be held  Nov. 6-9 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel (pictured) in Los Angeles,  has garnered criticism for a policy  of excluding Israeli academics.

The American Studies Association’s 2014 annual meeting, to be held Nov. 6-9 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel (pictured) in Los Angeles, has garnered criticism for a policy of excluding Israeli academics. Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons

About a year after the American Studies Association’s (ASA) widely condemned vote to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the organization’s policy on Israel is receiving renewed scrutiny over a practical application of that vote.

The ASA’s 2014 annual meeting, to be held Nov. 6-9 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, has garnered criticism for a stated policy of excluding Israeli academics. In December 2013, a resolution passed in a vote among the 5,000-member ASA, the oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, marked the group’s initial foray into an Israel boycott. That vote was publicly criticized by more than 200 university presidents.

According to the ASA’s Frequently Asked Questions webpage, the organization’s current boycott of Israel “targets institutions and their representatives, not individual scholars, students or cultural workers who will be able to participate in the ASA conference or give public lectures at campuses, provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents, etc.), or of the Israeli government.”

Yet, the distinction between a “representative,” “ambassador” or “scholar who is affiliated with an Israeli academic institution” is a vague one.

In at least one letter, addressed to the administration at the University of California, San Diego, the ASA said that it meant “deans, rectors, presidents and others” in the explanation of its policy, the Times of Israel reported.

After the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) civil rights group contacted the Westin with a letter informing the hotel that the ASA policy regarding its conference could violate the state of California’s civil rights laws, the ASA amended its policy with the addition that “in accordance with the ëyes’ answer immediately above, Israeli academics will be in attendance at the 2014 convention. The ASA will not prohibit anyone from registering or participating in its annual conference.”

John Stephens, the ASA’s executive director, responded to the ACLJ that the organization “does not bar Israelis, it does not bar Israeli institutions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can attend [the Los Angeles conference] if he wants to.”

The ASA has since issued a formal statement that reports of its exclusion of Israeli academics from the conference are “erroneous.”

Upon further examination of the ASA conference program, the gathering’s participants do include at least three Israelis: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Neve Godon and Ahmad Sa’di, both of whom critical of Israel, and Mohammed Wattad of Zefat College School of Law, an Arab academic who in the past has spoken out against a boycott against Israel and the classification of Israel as an “apartheid state.”

“There will not be discrimination of any sort against anyone [at the conference],” the ASA statement said. “We welcome Israeli academics to attend, and in fact, several are already scheduled to participate in the conference program. Subsequent reports also stated, erroneously, that the ASA had changed our policy regarding support for the academic boycott. We have not. Last year, after careful consideration by its membership, the ASA overwhelmingly endorsed an academic boycott to call attention to the violations of academic freedoms and human rights of Palestinian scholars and students by Israel. This limited action means simply that the ASA on an institutional level will not engage in collaborative projects with Israeli research institutions, and will not speak at Israeli
academic institutions.”

Yet, Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, argued in an Oct. 18 article for the Washington Post, “Even the [ASA’s] belated claim to waive the boycott for the annual conference would not pre-empt legal liability. Academic conferences are organized, scheduled and registered months in advance. The discriminatory effects of their policy have already been realized.”

Additionally, the fact that the ASA’s boycott policy “was selectively not enforced” for the Los Angeles gathering “does not mean [the policy] was not otherwise enforced,” wrote Kontorovich, who mentioned Wattad’s inclusion in the conference but not that of the two other participating Israeli academics, Godon and Sa’di.

“Having adopted their boycott to much public fanfare, they (ASA) want to be able to quietly deny it — when it suits them,” Kontorovich wrote.

Pro-Israel groups, meanwhile, have been mobilizing on the ASA conference issue. The Israel Project (TIP) issued an action alert email, calling on its supporters to tell the Westin that “playing host to bigots is unacceptable.”

“Otherwise Westin Resorts, in violation of California’s anti-discrimination laws, will rent the rooms while the ASA keeps Israelis out of them,” stated the TIP action alert. “No other country is being subjected to this exclusionary bigotry.”

Samantha Rose Mandeles, editor-in-chief of CAMERAonCampus.org for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, said that the “recent backtracking and dishonesty by the ASA is not surprising” and represents “another example of the dis-ingenuousness that characterizes BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) efforts as a whole.”

“As is common for BDS supporters, the ASA did not honor their own boycott policy — they invited several Israelis to participate in the conference, showing that, yet again, Israel BDSers will only abide by their own injunctions when it suits their needs,” she said. “BDS proponents will claim to boycott Israel, but actually only do so half-heartedly, when it is convenient and part of symbolic, theatrical gestures that have no effect on the conflict.”

Roz Rothstein, CEO of the Israel education group StandWithUs, said that “clearly the ASA cannot even clarify its own newfound bigotry against
Israeli Academics and institutions.”

“Thankfully, the ACLJ has forced the issue into the open and placed ASA in this position where they cannot defend themselves, because there is no defense,” Rothstein said.

“Time and again, when held up to practical reality, the boycott movement against Israel has proven to be incapable of sustaining itself. This shows how important it is for groups to align to fight the prejudice that the BDS movement represents.”

Freundel Planned to Take More Female Towson Students on Tour

Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)

Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)

A Towson University senior who is taking a class Rabbi Barry Freundel taught prior to his arrest said she and “a couple of other girls” were invited to tour his synagogue.

“I had never planned on doing the mikvah, but going to the synagogue sounded like a cool experience,” Karen Berry, who is a student in the “Judeo-Christian Perspectives in Medical Ethics” class, said Thursday afternoon outside the classroom.

Freundel was arrested on Oct. 14 for allegedly setting up a hidden camera disguised as a clock radio in the National Capital Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath next door to his Washington, D.C., synagogue, Kesher Israel Congregation, in Georgetown. He is charged with six counts of voyeurism, to which he has pleaded not guilty. He is suspended without pay from his synagogue and suspended from all faculty responsibilities at Towson.

On Wednesday, the university began its own investigation into whether or not Freundel violated Title IX guidelines that pertain to sexual misconduct, university spokesman Ray Feldmann said. His office in the university’s liberal arts building was searched by police the previous day.

“There are parts of the Title IX law that pertain to sexual misconduct and behavior that creates what’s called an ‘impermissible hostile environment,’” explained Feldmann. A violation would mean Freundel’s actions interfered with a student’s ability to continue his or her education at Towson. “We’re certainly not accusing Dr. Freundel of having done these things, but we’re looking at whether or not he did.”

Feldmann said university officials felt they had enough reason to investigate Freundel based on information from students, which the university has been collecting since the arrest.

He said the university probably won’t make a decision on Freundel’s long-term status at Towson until both the Title IX investigation and the criminal investigation have concluded.

Berry said Freundel, who first started teaching at Towson in 2009 as a tenured professor, seemed knowledgeable.

“He was very prominent in the Jewish community so I figured he would be a good professor,” she said.

At least a half-dozen other students used the National Capital Mikvah during class trips, according to an unnamed woman who helped Freundel with the mikvah from late 2013 through May, The Washington Post reported. She wasn’t sure if students were recorded, but is afraid they might have been, she told the newspaper.

Another woman told The Post that she noticed a clock in the bath area as far back as 2012. According to reports, there was also a fan in the mikvah, and a manual for a fan with a hidden camera was found at Freundel’s home.

Nicole Coniglio, a senior mass communication major, told student newspaper The Towerlight that she toured the synagogue for a religious studies class she was taking with Freundel. While on the tour, she and other students were asked to shower in the mikveh, and while she declined, two of her Jewish classmates accepted.

Towerlight editor-in-chief Jonathan Munshaw, who is in the same class as Berry, said students came to class the day their professor was arrested and waited about 20 minutes before leaving.

“The arrest occurred in D.C., so even as a reporter, I was, frankly, behind the story,” Munshaw said. He wrote a piece later that afternoon, but since removed himself from reporting on further developments. He said the next class was “emotionally draining.”

That class resumed on Tuesday with Rabbi Avram Reisner of Chevrei Tzedek teaching.

“At the end, he just said, ‘This is obviously a very unfortunate situation. I’m very disappointed,’ and just opened the floor to everyone who wanted to share their thoughts,” Munshaw said of the new professor on Wednesday.

Reisner said that first day of teaching Freundel’s classes was somewhat difficult, but his job was to get things back on track academically.

“When I walked in, there was a little bit of discomfort among the students,” he acknowledged a day later. “Today, I’m teaching a normal class.”

Feldmann said that in addition to gathering information, the university is offering resources to those with questions or having difficulty processing what happened.

“A lot of students are very upset, feel like he was a good professor,” Feldmann said, “somebody they admired and looked up to.”

The university is also encouraging students who may have information that could aid in the police’s criminal investigation to report it to university police, who may then refer them to Washington, D.C., police.

“Anything Dr. Freundel is accused of doing in D.C., we don’t believe he did anything like that at Towson University,” Feldmann said.

While there have been no complaints against Freundel in the past — the university even looked at past student evaluations — and learning opportunities outside of class are encouraged, Feldmann said taking students to the mikvah was “where it would have crossed the line.”

“We encourage our faculty to create off-campus learning activities for our students,” he said. “The mikvah portion of a class trip is something we would not have condoned or sanctioned had we known about it.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Freundel Took Towson Students to Mikveh

Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)

Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)

A rabbi and Towson University professor who was arrested on Oct. 14 on voyeurism charges for allegedly setting up a hidden camera in a mikveh had at least two students take part in the bathing ritual, according to a former student.

Nicole Coniglio, a senior mass communication major, told student newspaper The Towerlight that she toured Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown for a religious studies class she was taking with Freundel. While on the tour, she and other students were asked to shower in the mikveh, and while she declined, two of her Jewish classmates accepted.

Freundel is accused of setting up a hidden camera disguised as a clock radio in the mikveh. He is suspended from all faculty responsibilities at Towson and suspended without pay from his synagogue.

Towerlight editor-in-chief Jonathan Munshaw, who was in Freundel’s honors seminar on Judeo-Christian medical ethics, said certain students were supposed to discuss a trip to Kesher Israel on the day Freundel was arrested, but the professor never showed up to class.

“The arrest occurred in D.C., so even as a reporter, I was, frankly, behind the story,” Munshaw said. He wrote a piece later that afternoon, but since removed himself from reporting on further developments. He said the next class was “emotionally draining.”

That class resumed on Tuesday with Rabbi Avram Reisner of Chevrei Tzedek teaching.

“At the end he just said ‘this is obviously a very unfortunate situation. I’m very disappointed’ and just opened the floor to everyone who wanted to share their thoughts,” Munshaw said of the new professor.

University spokesman Ray Feldmann said the university is currently gathering information from current and former students of Freundel and offering resources to those with questions or having difficulty processing what happened.

“A lot of students are very upset, feel like he was a good professor,” Feldmann said, “somebody they admired and looked up to.”

The university is also encouraging students who may have information that could aid in the police’s criminal investigation to report it to university police, who may then refer them to Washington, D.C., police.

“Anything Dr. Freundel is accused of doing in D.C., we don’t believe he did anything like that at Towson University,” Feldmann said.

Freundel started teaching at Towson in the fall of 2009 as a tenured professor, Feldmann said. At some point, the university will have to determine if that status will continue, he added.

While there have been no complaints against Freundel in the past – the university even looked at past student evaluations – and learning opportunities outside of class are encouraged, Feldmann said taking students to the mikveh was “where it would have crossed the line.”

“We encourage our faculty to create off-campus learning activities for our students,” he said. “The mikveh portion of a class trip is something we would not have condoned or sanctioned had we known about it.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

The Heat’s On

A now common sight in Southern California are dried-up rivers. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A now common sight in Southern California are dried-up rivers.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Devorah Brous’ San Fernando Valley home is shaded by green trees, studded with 19 fruit trees and patrolled by a pair of affable chickens that strut around the backyard. But at the moment, she is eager to show a visitor her dying lawn.

Comparing the withering grass with a thriving orange tree a few feet away, Brous, the founding executive director of the Jewish environmental organization Netiya, says, “It’s survival of the fittest.”

For Netiya — Hebrew for “planting” — and other Jewish environmental groups, California’s debilitating drought has tied together a number of issues that have been gaining prominence in the Jewish activist community: sustainability, social justice and ethically and environmentally responsible food production. Their efforts range in size and scope.

In San Diego, the local branch of Hazon had children paint rain barrels that will capture rainwater for irrigation as part of the environmental group’s Sukkot festivities.

Meanwhile, in Pescadero, south of San Francisco, the environmental education group Wilderness Torah hosted a panel discussion on water usage as part of its annual Sukkot on the Farm festival. After the panel, there was a ceremony based on an ancient Temple rite in which the high priest would draw water from the spring and offer it at the altar in hopes of bringing seasonal rains.

Participants circling around a fountain “bless the waters of the world and call in the rain,” said Suzannah Sosman, festivals manager for Wilderness Torah. Last year’s Sukkot festival came amid a downpour.

But the main thrust of the work of Jewish groups working on drought relief is water conservation, capture and reuse.

“I don’t think people are necessarily aware of how to save water other than turning off their faucets when they’re brushing their teeth,” Sosman said.

Netiya, which organizes religious communities to create sustainable gardens on underused institutional lands, has installed gardens at 11 congregations around Los Angeles, including at Ikar, where Brous’ sister, Sharon, is the founding rabbi. All the gardens include drip irrigation, a technique invented in Israel to conserve water during the irrigation process.

This summer, Netiya conducted a series of five workshops focused on water conservation and gardening.

Devorah Brous and her son play with one of their chickens. Brous always begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah. (Anthony Weiss)

Devorah Brous and her son play with one of their chickens. Brous always begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah.
(Anthony Weiss)

At a recent workshop, volunteers helped install a water-capture system that will disperse rainwater on the grounds of a Los Angeles church.

At another Netiya event, attendees helped put in place a greywater irrigation system at the home of Devorah Brous that recycles used water from her washing machine and funnels it to her herb garden.

“Every time I turn on the faucet, I’m thinking about all the water that’s not going back into my landscape,” Ashley Sullivan, who is Jewish and who attended the greywater installation, said. ”We use so much perfectly good water once, just rinsing our hands.”

For other organizations, water conservation is not simply a response to the drought but a perennial concern.

Urban Adamah, an urban farm and educational center in Berkeley, not only uses drip irrigation, but also began roughly a year ago to grow some of its plants using aquaponics, a system that utilizes 80 percent less water than conventional agriculture.

“Even though we’re in a drought now, we’re sort of in a perpetual state of drought in California,” said Adam Berman, the executive director of Urban Adamah. “Our mission is to teach sustainable agricultural practice, of which water conservation is a key part, even in good years.”

Brous, in turn, hopes to spark a broader conversation in the Jewish world about the relationship between food and the environment. In the process, she plans to reach out to Stewart and Judith Resnick, billionaire residents of Beverly Hills, in a bid to bring them into a conversation about food and resources.

The Resnicks are among the largest landowners in California’s Central Valley, as well as among the largest growers of water-intensive crops such as almonds, pistachios and pomegranates. (A request for comment placed with the Resnick-owned Roll Global Corp. was not returned.)

“Are these boutique perennial crops things that we should be growing in California, or should we grow something else?” Brous asks rhetorically. “There are questions we should be asking.”

Judaism originally grew out of the life of a desert people, and though much of Jewish life has long since moved into towns and cities, its foundational texts still speak of ethical principles for caring for land and water. Brous begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah, as well as the Koran and the Christian Bible, and she hopes that they can serve as the basis for a renewed Jewish conversation about water, food and environment.

“It’s still in the text,” she said. “It’s extraordinary spiritual soil to grow from.”