Star-Studded Sendoff

Joan Rivers (File photo)

Joan Rivers (File photo)

The funeral for legendary Jewish comedienne Joan Rivers, who passed away Sept. 4 at the age of 81, a week after suffering cardiac arrest during routine throat surgery, was a star-studded affair indeed.

“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh,” said her daughter, Melissa. And the tributes that were spoken at Temple Emanu-El in New York on Sunday certainly reflected Rivers’ joy for making people smile.

Howard Stern delivered the eulogy, Audra McDonald sang “Smile,” and bagpipers from the New York City Police Department played “New York, New York.”

“It was uplifting. We were celebrating her life,” said fashion designer Dennis Basso. Hugh Jackman sang “Quiet Please, There’s A Lady On Stage” at the end of the ceremony.

Among the attendees were Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, Kelly Osbourne, Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick, Bernadette Peters, Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera, Diane Sawyer, Kathie Lee and Donald Trump.

Known for never holding back when it came to providing her unfiltered opinions on everything from what Kim Kardashian was wearing on the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the standup comedienne — known for her catchphrase “Can we talk?” — was renowned for her fearlessness, tenacity and courageousness to say whatever was on her mind.

Rivers began her career as a standup comic in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, a time when the words “female” and “comedy” almost never went hand in hand. Rivers’ performances led to her first appearance on national television, which was a guest spot on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” a gig she said was responsible for launching her professional career.

In more than five decades, Rivers hosted two syndicated talk shows, recorded comedy albums, appeared in numerous films, TV shows and standup specials, had her own jewelry line on the Home Shopping Channel and was the author of 12 best-selling non-fiction humor, memoir and self-help books. Recently, she was best known for hosting “Fashion Police” on E!, a weekly program that launched in 2010 in which she, Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne, George Kotsiopoulos and a number of celebrity guests commented on the best and worst looks donned by Hollywood celebrities. Rivers also shared a reality TV series with her daughter called “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” (2011-2014) and launched a YouTube series in 2013, “In Bed With Joan,” where she interviewed celebrities and comedians, including her first guest, fellow Jewish funny girl Sarah Silverman.

In July, she appeared at Washington, D.C.’s Sixth & I Synagogue to discuss her latest book, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” with journalist Hanna Rosin. Washington Jewish Week reported on the event, noting that Rivers gave every ticket holder a copy of the book with an autographed nameplate, as she said it was “too cheesy” to ask people to buy it. During the talk, Rivers provided her thoughts on Heidi Klum, Helen Keller, the Kardashians, and her fondness for telling Jewish jokes.

Her opening joke was about Heidi Klum and the Holocaust: “I haven’t seen anything that hot since the Germans were pushing Jews into the ovens,” she said. “I’ll get [it] from the ADL for insulting the Jews, but if I had said the gypsies, the Jews would have complained they were left out.”

And her thoughts on Anne Frank? “I’m nothing like Anne Frank. She lived in a walk-up; I live in a penthouse. She stayed home all the time; I go out shopping.”

Rivers said she performed a lot of Jewish jokes “to remind people about who we are and that we’re still here … and to shake things up.” She went on to talk about the difficulties of becoming a successful comedienne as a young woman and how she remained grateful to Johnny Carson.

“I have never found being a woman in this age to be a hindrance,” she said. “Back then I couldn’t do an abortion joke. … I couldn’t even say I was pregnant on the air to Ed Sullivan. I had to say soon I will be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet.” She also told the audience that she never thought she ever went “too far” with a joke. “Every time I can make someone laugh, it’s like giving them a small vacation,” she said.

Commitment to Activism

Holocaust survivor Hedy  Epstein, 90, is arrested during a protest of the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis. (Nancy Cambria/MCT/Newscom)

Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 90, is arrested during a protest of the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis.
(Nancy Cambria/MCT/Newscom)

Hedy Epstein made headlines around the world last week when she was arrested at a protest in St. Louis.

The 90-year-old Holocaust survivor was one of nine people arrested in front of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s office at an Aug. 18 protest against the governor’s handling of the fallout from the Michael Brown shooting.

When she was taken to the police station for booking, a local friend was notified, and that friend called Epstein’s son, a call that Epstein said was probably not too surprising to her son given her history of political activism.

“In the past, when I’ve been arrested, my heart beat a mile a minute, and this time I was very calm, like I was going to a picnic or something,” the elder Epstein said of being handcuffed and transported to the police station for booking.

Epstein spent the first years of her life in Germany. When Hitler came to power, she was 8 years old, her personal website documents. Six years later, her family placed her on a children’s transport to England and within a few months, her parents and other family members were sent to a concentration camp in France. After two years of correspondence through letters, her family was transferred to Auschwitz, and she never heard from them again.

Growing up in England during World War II, Epstein began her political education at a young age, and when she moved to the United States in 1948, she was already very interested in human rights and social justice issues.

When she moved to St. Louis with her husband in the 1960s, she took a job with the local fair housing agency, working to ensure that everyone might have equal access to housing.

“It’s not only something I did 9-to-5,” said Epstein of her involvement in civil rights advocacy in St. Louis. “It was a 24-hour involvement.”

St. Louis, from her experience, has long been a troubled city, but with the shooting of Michael Brown, “the cup runneth over,” she said.

“If I walk down the street with my white skin and a policeman comes by, he’ll probably say, “Good afternoon, ma’am. How are you?’ [But] if an African-American walks down the street at the same time in the same place, he’s immediately suspected of having stolen something, having murdered somebody, having committed some kind of crime. And why? Only because he has black skin,” said Epstein.

“This kind of violence has to stop,” she said of the shooting of the unarmed Brown and police actions against protest attendees. “Because violence begets more violence, and it’s just, it’s really scary.”

In addition to her involvement in civil rights issues in St. Louis, Epstein is part of the speakers bureau of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center and has gained notoriety in the past for her involvement in pro-Palestinian causes, having made five trips to Israel, according to her website. She has opposed both Israeli settlements and the security fence along the West Bank.

While Epstein said the only thing that kept her from attending the rallies right from the start was the festivities her friends and family had planned around her 90th birthday, she noticed the vast majority of the Jewish community was not nearly as eager to travel north to Ferguson.

A letter with more than 50 signatures from St. Louis’ Jewish community condemning both racism and the looting that had plagued the protests was released by the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council on Aug. 19. But the smallness of the Jewish presence at the rallies was noted by one St. Louis Jewish Light guest essayist, who said in an Aug. 13 column that she had only seen three familiar Jewish faces when she attended. An Aug. 24 Jewish Federation of St. Louis-Jewish Community Relations Council event titled “A response to Ferguson” was canceled late last week.

For now, Epstein said her phone has been ringing off the hook with interview requests from around the globe, but she plans on heading back to the protest line soon.

By then, said Epstein, “hopefully, it won’t be necessary anymore.”

ADL Documents Rise in Global Anti-Semitism

The Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in central Paris, which was recently attacked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in central Paris, which was recently attacked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. (Wikimedia Commons)

A new report from the Anti-Defamation League details what it calls a “dramatic upsurge in violence and vitriol against Jews” related to Operation Protective Edge.

The ADL reported incidents linked to anti-Israel protests that involved attacks against Jews and Jewish buildings in Western Europe, South America, Canada, Australia and North and South Africa. The report did not include incidents in the U.S.

“There was a dramatic upsurge in violence against Jews and Jewish institutions around the world during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said in a statement. From France to Argentina, from Canada to Chile, synagogues were attacked, Jewish cultural centers were vandalized, Jewish shops were threatened, and identifiably Jewish individuals [were] beaten on the street. Anti-Semitism was in the air, and in the streets.”

The ADL will share its report with members of Congress and world leaders in effort to raise awareness of the problem. The ADL Global 100 poll, a survey of anti-Semitic attitudes, found that one-quarter of those surveyed in 100 counties harbored anti-Semitic attitude.

The ADL detailed some examples in a statement that included shouts of “Jews to the gas!” at an anti-Israel rally in Germany; a newspaper in Spain publishing an op-ed with blunt anti-Semitism; a sign that said “Well done Israel, Hitler would be proud” at a London protest; signs showing [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu drinking the blood of Palestinian children in various places; and pro-Palestinian protesters pelting Jews with cans and eggs and shouting at them in Manchester, England.

The Freedom Summer of 1964

Heather Booth protests for voting rights in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer. (Wallace Roberts)

Heather Booth protests for voting rights in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer. (Wallace Roberts)

At the Freedom Summer anniversary conference in Jackson, Miss., the activists who registered black voters and taught in Freedom Schools under the threat of violence 50 years ago stood up to introduce themselves.

It took three hours to hear what they did in the Magnolia State back in 1964 and have gone on to do in the half-century since.

“Almost everyone had a social justice connection,” said Heather Booth, who went to Mississippi as a college freshman from New York before moving on to a career as a nationally prominent liberal activist. “The former volunteers went on to work as teachers, environmental activists and in the field of health care.”

Organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Freedom Summer sent mostly white college students to Mississippi to confront the violent racism in the state.

In the summer of 1964, some 1,500 volunteers worked registering blacks to vote, teaching in Freedom Schools and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which aimed to challenge the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention that year.

Jews were represented among the young civil rights volunteers in numbers far exceeding their share of the population.

Debra Schultz, the author of “Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” said that like other SNCC activists, Jewish Freedom Summer volunteers were motivated by a desire to hold the country to its full promise of democracy. Many were inspired as well by their Jewish and often left-leaning backgrounds.

“Among particularly ‘Jewish’ motivations, we can cite: an identification with another racialized people and a passion for racial justice, born of the
recent experience with the Holocaust,” Schultz said.

Booth said that she came to Mississippi a year after visiting Israel, where she made a commitment at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to struggle for justice. Schultz noted that her synagogue had funded the $500 bail money required to participate in Freedom Summer in the case of an arrest.

The first days of Freedom Summer saw the murder of three civil rights workers — Jewish New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and black Mississippian James Chaney, who had been investigating the burning of a black church. During the weeks-long search for the workers, the bodies of eight murdered black men were found in the Mississippi countryside before the discovery of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner’s remains.

Tension and danger lurked throughout the summer.

There were another four people critically wounded, 80 activists beaten, 1,000 arrests, 37 churches and 30 black homes or businesses bombed or burned.

Booth recalls feeling frightened all the time that summer.

“But it was also very exhilarating,” Booth said. “There were nightly meetings at black churches, with a lot of singing.”

In Shaw, Miss., where blacks were neglected, Booth said she felt honored that her hosts generously gave up their beds for her and three other volunteers.

“In the black part of town, there were no toilets, no sewers and no street lights,” Booth said.

Booth continued her activism after Freedom Summer. She became involved in the women’s movement, founding Jane, an underground abortion counseling and referral service in Chicago. She went on to serve as the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund and Americans for Financial Reform. She also coordinated grassroots efforts to win passage of President Obama’s first budget.

Based in Washington, D.C., she currently consults for and advises a variety of liberal advocacy groups.

At the anniversary conference in late June, Booth was one of more than 200 former Freedom Summer volunteers in attendance. They met with nearly 2,000 younger activists.

Larry Rubin, a veteran labor movement activist who came to the reunion from Takoma Park, Md., worked on the SNCC staff as a young man from 1961 to 1965, first in southwest Georgia. In early 1964, he went to Mississippi to set up the infrastructure for Freedom Summer.

Rubin said that when he trucked donated books to the Freedom Schools, he was pulled over, roughed up and arrested by police who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. (But when he came back to Mississippi later as a labor organizer, he recalled, a policeman who had once threatened to kill him if he ever again showed his face in his town praised his efforts to unionize a local business.)

When local blacks faced harassment, he said, all the civil rights workers could do was offer to report it to the federal government.

Rubin left the SNCC in 1965 as it was turning toward Black Power and whites were being pushed out of the organization. Rubin recalls feeling a sense of relief, like he was dismissed and could go home.

He returned to university studies to learn more about his Eastern European Jewish roots, just as the Black Power movement was encouraging African-Americans to embrace their heritage.

Rubin, who grew up in Philadelphia, said his civil rights work was influenced by his parents, who taught him to fight for social justice because of what his grandparents went through fleeing Europe.

But while many volunteers were Jewish, their backgrounds were not necessarily at the forefront within the movement.

“In the 1960s we didn’t discuss being Jewish, and we didn’t bring up our motivation for getting involved in the movement,” Rubin said. “There was no space to discuss Jewishness.”

Bob Moses, the well-known black civil rights leader and Freedom Summer organizer, said that he was not aware at the time of participants’ Jewish identities.

“I didn’t know if Freedom Summer people were Jewish,” he said.

At the anniversary gathering, however, it was a topic of discussion, with a breakout session focused on Jewish participation. Also, concurrent with the reunion, the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life organized events on Jewish involvement in civil rights and social justice activism.

Freedom Summer volunteer Annie Popkin said her family was very aware of discrimination because her father was shut out of Harvard Medical School due to quotas that limited the numbers of Jewish students. At times her family embraced their Jewishness. Other times they turned away from it, seeing it as a painful liability, she said.

She said she was “so ready to go” south when organizers recruited students like her at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass.

Popkin started early in her activism. When she was 12 or 13, Popkin said, her mother took her to a picket line to demand fair housing in her hometown on New York’s Long Island after a black family who moved into the white section had their house burned.

Later, in ninth grade, she and a friend organized pickets of Woolworth’s in New York City in support of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South. Once when she was picketing, Popkin said, a woman shouted at her, “You’ll make my husband lose his job, and that’s not nice of you!”

“I realized I was not going to be a nice 1950s girl,” Popkin said in a telephone interview from her home in Portland, Ore., where she works as a counselor.

By the time of her Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had already disappeared. Freedom Summer organizers feared the worst.

But Popkin remembers feeling optimistic as hundreds of black and white SNCC volunteers locked arms, held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

“Just imagine if everyone in the country could feel this spirit and see this vision. Wouldn’t people want to end segregation?” she recalled thinking.

Popkin calls her optimism naive.

“It was so moving to be part of the embodied vision of beloved community we were creating in working together, singing together, risking our lives together, believing together,” she said. “We knew what was right, and we spent our days and nights organizing for it.”

She went to Vicksburg, Miss., where she gathered signatures for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She witnessed the threats and reprisals — economic and physical — that kept blacks from attempting to register to vote.

“We got to see the strong consequences of what we were doing,” Popkin said.

Popkin, who went on to become involved in the women’s movement and teach women’s studies at various universities, pointed to the value of recalling the experiences of rank-and-file civil rights activists like her.

“There’s been a media emphasis on leaders in the civil rights movement and not the individuals who participated,” Popkin said. “All of our stories can be inspiration. If we could make change at 18, 19, 20, so can others today.”

Is the GOP the pro-Israel party?

RNC’s Matt Brooks sees a  shift in Democratic support  away from Israel.

RNC’s Matt Brooks sees a
shift in Democratic support
away from Israel.

A new Pew Research Center poll showing Republicans more sympathetic than Democrats to Israel has Republican Jewish activists crowing and their Democratic counterparts questioning whether the poll gives an accurate picture of support for Israel.

“For years, public opinion polls have documented the large gap in support for Israel between Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans being far more supportive of Israel,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Committee, said in a news release. “This poll shows a gap of 27 points.”

Conducted from July 8 to July 14, the week Israel began its air operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip but before its ground invasion, the poll asked, “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more — Israel or the Palestinians?” Possible answers were: Israel, Palestinians, both, neither, don’t know or refused to answer.

The survey of 1,805 respondents showed that 73 percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel in the conflict compared with 44 percent of Democrats.

The results mark a change from the same question asked in a poll in April, when 68 percent of Republicans sympathized with Israel and 46 percent of Democrats did.

A closer look reveals further divides. Respondents who consider themselves conservative Republicans support Israel by 77 percent, compared with 68 percent of moderate Republicans. Among Democrats, 48 percent of moderate Democrats support Israel, compared with 39 percent of liberal Democrats.

Brooks, in the news release, issued July 15, called the poll results during a time of war “a sad and sobering confirmation of the Democrat party’s shift over time away from support of Israel, especially at its grassroots. If support for Israel ceases to be bipartisan, the U.S.-Israel relationship — which is of so much benefit to both countries — will suffer.”

But Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that while Middle East hostilities continue, it’s more important to highlight the unity of the Jewish community than discord. “I think that talking about polls and policies now, in the midst of a crisis, is a misdirection of energy.”

Moline said that he recently spoke with Brooks, his RJC counterpart, and that they both agreed that Jewish unity should trump political brinksmanship at the moment.

Still, he said, “it doesn’t surprise me that, having found a single piece of news that fits their agenda, the Republican Jewish Coalition put out a news release. It doesn’t surprise me at all. But I don’t think this is the time for us to start debating how you get a poll to shift one way or another.”

Other Democratic supporters of Israel suggest that the poll’s wording distorted the results. U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is Jewish and one of the strongest pro-Israel voices in the House, questioned the use of the word “sympathize.”

“The word sympathy tends to ask: ‘Who do you think is downtrodden and having a difficult life?’” said Sherman. “Look, the average Israeli lives a pretty good life [compared to] our image of the average Palestinian.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) agreed that some Democrats are siding against Israel for well-meaning, but ill-informed, reasons.
“I think people on the left side of the political spectrum are moved by the sight of innocent civilians getting killed and injured,” said Waxman. “More of that has happened on the Palestinian side and [voters are] seeing people that were not combatants” being injured or killed.

“They may not have the perspective that Israel cannot tolerate a constant bombardment that is coming in from Gaza and [the Israelis] have no other choice than to hit back,” Waxman said.

He added that the opinions reflected in the poll numbers are not shared by his House colleagues on both sides of the aisle, who consistently and, usually unanimously, pass bills and resolutions in support of Israel.

Sherman said, contrary to the poll results, threats to support for Israel come from both right and left.

“You have on the Republican side the Rand Paul isolationists, who are probably the greatest threat as a practical matter to U.S. support for Israel. And you have on the left, and have always had on the left, people who are misguided because they want to support the underdog and they think that because the average Israeli is richer than the average Palestinian, and because Israel is the most powerful military west of the Jordan,” they need to sympathize with the Palestinians.

Another problem, according to Sherman, is what he calls the “Kent State Rorschach test.” The shooting of students at Ohio’s Kent State University who were protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by the Ohio National Guard was a defining moment for many liberals, he said.

“There are some liberals who don’t bother to figure out who’s right or wrong in any conflict. They just root for the scruffy-looking students and root against the uniformed military. Because they see everything as a Rorschach test reminding them of Kent State,” said Sherman.

According to Sherman, voters lacking information could easily jump to conclusions based on their bias.

“When I see a bar fight, I don’t bother to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong,” joked Sherman, who is bald. “I just root for the bald guy.” contributed to this story.

Right Man for the Job

Rabbi David Saperstein (World Economic Forum)

Rabbi David Saperstein (World Economic Forum)

After being vacant for nearly a year, the role of America’s top representative for religious freedom in the world will soon likely be occupied by a leader well known to the Washington, D.C. Jewish community.

President Barack Obama on July 28 announced that he is nominating Rabbi David Saperstein, director and chief counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to be the United States’ ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country,” the president wrote in a statement. “I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.”

Named the most influential rabbi in the United States in Newsweek magazine’s 2009 list of  the Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America, Saperstein has been on the forefront of the Reform movement’s campaign for social justice and a prominent voice in the Establishment Clause and religious freedom debate in the United States.

If confirmed by the Senate, his new position will put Saperstein at the head of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which was created by the overwhelmingly bipartisan passing of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The act was designed to combat growing religious persecution around the world, with the ambassador’s main role being to promote religious freedom while monitoring and holding violators accountable.

The ambassador is also principal adviser to the president in religious freedom matters and can make policy recommendations for the United States to enact toward nations violating the individual’s right to freedom of religion, belief and practice. Changes in the level of aid a country receives from the United States, economic cooperation and even sanctions can be recommended by the ambassador, although all are subject to presidential review.

Despite Saperstein’s liberal political views putting him at odds with more conservative Jewish organizations on some issues, most believe that his experience on international religious freedom issues makes him a good fit for the positon.

“He, although obviously on the liberal, progressive side of the political spectrum, has excellent relationships across the religious spectrum, [not only] in terms of different religions and denominations but also in terms of from liberal to conservative in many faith communities,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy at the Orthodox Union. “That wealth of experience and that wealth of knowledge are unsurpassed in someone who could fill this position.”

Diament highlighted Saperstein’s efforts to pass the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993; the International Religious Freedom act, which created his future position; and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000.

Diament said that his organization would disagree with Saperstein on issues relating to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in the fight over what constitutes a too close relationship between the federal government and a religion, but rarely has it disagreed on religious freedom issues.

Saperstein and Diament both served on the president’s faith advisory council and, said Diament, “in many of those discussions, [Saperstein] and I were on the same page.”

Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, called the nomination an “outstanding choice” and noted the decades he has witnessed Saperstein’s work with religious freedom.

“I think David got nominated to this position because of his experience, his expertise, his caring, his sensitivity to these issues and his being able to speak out,” Mariaschin said. “The commendatory part of this is that someone who is so deserving and who can do so much good has been nominated for the positon. David is very well connected internationally, and his reputation, his writings, his speaking — all of those things are known in so much of the world in which we operate and [in which] we’re going to operate, so I think that’s a big plus.”

So far, there have only been three others who have held the post, and Saperstein will become the first rabbi to occupy it.

Although the post had broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill when it was created — something Ambassador Robert Seiple, the first person to hold the post, said was unusual during at the time due to the Monica Lewinsky fight — its creation was not initially supported by the State Department and still lags on the priority list compared with other ambassadorships.

“The State Department’s concern was: ‘Look, we have these bilateral relationships that are complex at best, and now you’re going to throw in this huge new issues of religions,’” said Seiple. “Well, 95 percent of the world’s problems today take place at the intersection of politics and religion, so the State Department very definitely has to understand this issue.”

Seiple said that he was close to Saperstein and said that like many across religious lines, he considers him his favorite rabbi. Seiple recalled that during his tenure, he and Saperstein joined each other on a trip to Africa and Europe. From his interactions, Seiple said that Saperstein was the right choice and should have been announced sooner. He also said that Saperstein’s experience could help raise the position’s profile and effectiveness.

“He understands Washington. He’s not intimidated by it,” said Seiple. “He understands the issue and can articulate it. He’s a listener which will make him a good negotiator when tough issues have to be confronted in other countries. He’s not a grandstander, he can work quietly behind the scenes, but he’s very effective. And I think in terms of his moral courage and the ethical dimension of the man, he’s the gold standard.”

Seiple nevertheless believes that the task appears more daunting than ever, made more unpredictable by the Arab Spring and the increased strength of Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Seiple, American influence has declined in much of the world making it harder for the ambassador to be persuasive.

“When I was there, I think the U.S. flag had a lot more power and commanded a lot more respect. So in that sense, it’s going to be a little bit harder today,” said Seiple. “The world is a lot more dangerous than it was when I was there.”

Yet, he holds out hope for Saperstein. “I think David will change all of that because he’s not a small thinker and he’s not a small-ball player,” he said.  “I think he’ll have some visionary approach to the issue, and I think it’s possible that in the next few years you’ll see some real changes.”

A new religious freedom ambassador “is going to be welcomed in a lot of places, and in those places where religious freedom is being abridged, they should know that they’re going to have in our [ambassador] someone who is keeping a very close eye on what they’re doing,” said Mariaschin. He listed the proliferation of violence against Christians in Iraq, Syria, Africa, South Asia and Iran as top priorities for Saperstein.

“It’s almost as if you don’t know where to start, and unfortunately the list is long and it is growing longer,” he added.

Seiple’s advice to Saperstein for his new position would be keep his goals to around two to three.

“The thing that can sink you pretty quickly is if you have a 12-item agenda and you’re trying to operate sort of like John Kerry and you end up getting criticized by everybody,” said Seiple. “So find a few things that you want to change during the time you’re there … and go for it.” contributed to this story.

Supporter of Israel?

Rand Paul (File photo)

Rand Paul (File photo)

Although the 2016 presidential election is still a long way off, prospective candidates are already more than testing the waters for their presidential bids — primarily in the open Republican field. A potential presidential campaign means greater attention is being focused on past campaign promises by a hungry media eager to pick up on every possible contradiction in a candidate’s record.

Which is why many in the pro-Israel community took notice when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of the most visible potential presidential contenders in 2016, told Yahoo News political reporter Chris Moody on Aug. 4 that he never attempted to cut foreign aid to Israel.

“I haven’t really proposed that in the past,” Paul, who was campaigning for a Senate candidate in Nebraska before embarking on a multicity Iowa tour, told Yahoo News. “We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. … That has not been a position — a legislative position — we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid. That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours, and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome[anti-missile system], so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel.”

That statement from Paul, though possibly unintentional after having been caught off-guard by Moody’s question, contains little truth and, unfortunately for Paul, there are videos and documents to prove it.

Shortly after Paul’s comment, his office doubled down on the statement, saying: “Sen. Rand Paul has never proposed any legislation that targeted Israel’s aid and just last week voted to continue and increase funding to the State of Israel. Sen. Paul is a strong supporter of the Jewish state of Israel.”

As Moody pointed out, Paul’s proposal in his first year as senator in 2011 to balance the U.S. federal budget called for cutting foreign aid entirely — and though it did not specifically “target” Israel, Israel was also not spared.

Paul and his staff’s claim that he voted for $225 million for emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome system is likewise misleading, though much less so. Although additional Iron Dome funding was passed by the Senate on July 1, it was done by “unanimous consent.” That tactic is used by senators to pass uncontroversial pieces of legislation without resorting to the time-consuming roll-call vote. The senator, in this case Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), asks if there are any objections to passing the bill in the usually empty Senate chamber. On the morning Iron Dome funding was passed, there was no vote, Paul merely did not object. Nor was he in the Senate chamber like all but a few senators as most were flying out of town to begin their August recess.

“In 2011, Sen. Paul proposed a budget resolution that did not include certain foreign assistance programs in an effort to balance the budget in five years,” said the statement from Paul’s office. “Subsequent budget proposals made by Sen. Paul have included up to $5 billion for foreign assistance to account for U.S.-Israel security interests.”

Even if it was later amended, Paul’s early budget did not make any exceptions for Israel. Paul even defended his not including financial assistance to Israel when being interviewed on national television.

“I have a lot of sympathy and respect for Israel as a democratic nation, as a fountain of peace and a fountain of democracy within the Middle East,” Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in a Jan. 2011 interview. “But at the same time, I don’t think funding both sides of the arms race, particularly when we have to borrow the money from China to send it to someone else, [makes sense]. We just can’t do it anymore. The debt is all-consuming, and it threatens our well-being as a country.”

Paul made a similar argument to ABC’s Jonathan Karl, though qualifying his statement by noting that he was not singling out Israel, which indeed he wasn’t.

“I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don’t have. We can’t just borrow from our kids’ future and give it to countries, even if they are our friends,” Paul said. “I think they’re an important ally, but I also think that their per-capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world. Should we be giving free money or welfare to a rich nation? I don’t think so.”

Democrats quickly seized on Paul’s seeming flip-flop on an issue that can be considered one of the most bipartisan in the hyper-partisan universe of Capitol Hill.

“Sen. Paul can claim that he wants to be a friend of Israel, but the consequences of his actions would threaten the security of Israel and its ability to defend itself,” said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and National Jewish Democratic Council executive director Rabbi Jack Moline in a joint statement. “This is part of a troubling pattern with Senator Paul — from civil rights to foreign policy, Paul has said one disturbing thing after another for years and now that he’s running for President, he’s trying to rewrite history. Voters are smarter than that and can see right through his deceit.”

Paul’s camp is standing by his rhetoric, though pointing out that Paul’s more recent budget proposals do include Israel funding. Paul’s spokesman, in an email, referenced a 1996 speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, predicting that Israel would not need financial support within a few years.

Paul’s national campaigning has required him to evolve on a number of other issues, even if only slightly.

Recently, the National Journal reported that Paul had been courting prominent Jewish conservatives in an effort to distance himself from the isolationist rhetoric of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) who railed against U.S. involvement in the Middle East and against the Israel lobby.

The younger Paul appears more open-minded when it comes to issues related to Israel, heading there on a trip in January 2013 and later visiting an Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J.

“I think he has, in his own words, a new appreciation of the true security needs of Israel, and I don’t think there’s any issue about him voting against any specific military aid to Israel,” said Texas businessman and Republican activist Fred Zeidman, who has met with Paul to discuss his stance on Israel, among other important campaign issues. Israel “wasn’t an issue that he had focused on before, and I [don’t] think now, that he has spent a lot more time trying to understand that issue, we’ll have a problem with regard to Israel.” contributed to this story.

Police Still Searching for Clues in Miami Rabbi Murder

Police have ramped up patrols in the Northeast Miami neighborhood where Rabbi Joseph Raksin was murdered last Saturday on his way to a local synagogue in the hopes of catching Raksin’s killer or killers.
On Monday, hundreds attended the funeral in Miami for Raksin, an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn who was shot on his way to Sabbath services in North Miami Beach.
Following the funeral Sunday at the Bais Menachem Chabad synagogue, where Raksin was headed when he was shot by two assailants on Saturday morning, the body was taken to the airport, the Miami Herald reported. A funeral and burial took place Monday afternoon in Brooklyn.
Raksin, 60, had arrived on Thursday in Miami for a weeklong visit with his daughter and her family, the New York Post reported. Raksin is the father of six and a leader in the Crown Heights community, according to the Post.
Police said Raksin was shot several times following an altercation, though witnesses told NBC reporters that there was no altercation and the assailants were African-American males. Raksin was airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center, where he died.
Miami-Dade police have said they do not believe the murder was a hate crime but rather a robbery gone bad. Members of Miami’s Jewish community are offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Raksin’s assailants, according to the Miami Herald.
A nearby synagogue, Torah V’Emunah, was the target of vandalism on July 28, with swastikas and the word “Hamas” spray-painted on the front pillars.

Anti-Semitic Vandalism Appears in Miami

Set back from a main street on one side, and obscured by trees and shrubbery on another, it’s easy to miss Torah V’Emunah, an Orthodox temple in a residential North Miami Beach neighborhood.
“We don’t even have a sign in front of the synagogue,” said Miriam Bensinger, the rabbi’s wife. “People in the Jewish community know what it is.”
The synagogue may be ordinary, but it’s become a center of controversy this week after authorities say vandals spray-painted a swastika and the word “Hamas” in bold red letters early Monday morning. Over the weekend, a Miami Beach family’s two cars were defaced in another anti-Semitic incident.
“It’s very painful,” said a soft-spoken Rabbi Yerucham Bensinger of Torah V’Emunah. “Right now, there are a lot of angry and upset people for the desecration that took place.”
The vandalism comes amid persistent tensions in the Middle East. Since Israel’s ground incursion on the Gaza strip began on July 8, more than 1,400 Palestinians have been killed and 6,700 injured. Israel has suffered 59 casualties, including 56 soldiers and three civilians.
Now, members of Miami’s Jewish community fear the conflict is stirring anger locally. On Thursday, July 31 at 6:30 p.m., the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and local partners plan to hold an Israel solidarity rally at the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach.
Authorities have not made any arrests, but the police have increased area patrols. “These separate crimes, just like a lot of other crimes, depend on the community getting involved and helping us by calling into the Crime Stoppers line,” said Detective Alvaro A. Zabaleta with the Miami-Dade Police Department.
In the first incident in Miami Beach, a vehicle was egged and a second was smeared with cream cheese and the words “Hamas” and “Jew” written on a rear and side window. The owner, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Rachel, said she was headed to synagogue at 6:30am Saturday when she walked into a crowd of people surrounding her family’s vehicles.
“We live in America; we don’t expect this to happen here,” said the 22-year-old. The family’s faith is no secret. The vehicles bore stickers indicating they are Jewish. “It’s sad, but we have to be careful wherever we are.”
Although the incident is being investigated as a hate crime, the defacing of the synagogue has been considered “criminal mischief,” according to police reports. The Florida Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is working with police to classify the second incident as a hate crime also.
“Hate starts with an idea; it starts with words, images,” said Hava Holzhauer, the ADL’s Florida regional director. “What we get concerned about is when these images and these words become inflammatory.”
Members of the Jewish community applaud the police for their efforts, but don’t expect them to nab any suspects.
“The people who do these kinds of things are cowards,” Miriam Bensinger said. “They hit and run and come out in the dark of night. I don’t think it’s a preventable thing.”
But leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities are trying by working together behind the scenes, said Syed Faisal, a founding board member of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations.
“We stand together as one when it comes to protecting the places of worship,” Faisal said. “We’re trying to take a more calm stand, a more peaceful stand, because at the end of the day, the violence is not going to help anyone.”
Local Jewish activities continued this week, as synagogues across North Miami Beach welcomed congregants for the all-male Tefilot service on Wednesday evening.
At Young Israel of Greater Miami, a popular Orthodox congregation near Torah V’Emunah, Eli Maman arrived early. He wasn’t concerned about vandalism.
“There are cameras everywhere, inside and out, so we won’t have that problem,” said Maman, an elderly man who shuffled about the building confidently.
Besides the act down the block was pretty foolish, Maman said. “They have a lot of delusional people,” he said.
Blocks away, Rabbi Bensinger led a full service at Torah V’Emunah, where cars filled every parking space and surrounding greenery.
The 30-year-old congregation started in a small home before raising funds to build the modest temple three years ago. They’re good neighbors and citizens, members said. So why would anyone do this?
“We all know each other,” Miriam Bensinger said. “It’s a family, and it’s a bad feeling when your family is violated.”

Cruz Takes Aim At Iran

In a lengthy speech on the Senate floor this month, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) slammed the Obama administration’s stance on the Israel-Gaza conflict and nuclear negotiations with Iran — indicating that he will  present a bill to reimpose the sanctions on Iran previously lifted by the United States.

Cruz said that U.S. efforts should be focused on supporting and ensuring the security of Israel and backing Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket
attacks from Hamas, not forcing Israel to make security concessions to the Palestinians in pursuit of a cease-fire.

“Only when the Palestinians take it upon themselves to embrace their neighbors and eradicate terrorist violence from their society can a real and just peace be possible,” Cruz said. “Until then, there should be no question of the United States’ firm solidarity with Israel in the mutual defense of our fundamental values and interests.”

Up until the start of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Israeli officials were clear that their main priority was to ensure that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not create a nuclear bomb — often putting itself at odds with the United States and Secretary of State John Kerry, who sought a more moderate approach that included allowing Iran to maintain a level of enrichment capability as part of a final deal.

In his speech, Cruz linked his position on Iran to the safety of Israel, noting that Iran is considered to be a significant sponsor of Hamas. He called Kerry’s Joint Plan of Action, an agreement with Iran limiting its nuclear ambitions to energy production only, that after an extention will expire on Nov. 24, a “historic mistake.”

“The connection between Hamas and Iran is a sobering reminder of the larger context in which the events of the last month have taken place,” Cruz said. “They are not an isolated local issue that could be managed if only Israel would act with restraint. Both the United States and Israel want the Palestinian people to have a secure and prosperous future free from the corrosive hatred that has so far prevented them from thriving.”

Cruz’s proposed bill, which he said he will be introducing later this week, will include strong sanctions and mechanisms for their enforcement as well as calling for a dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program.

“A negotiated settlement is not an absolute prerequisite to Israel’s security, as the administration has claimed,” Cruz concluded, “but rather establishing Israel’s security may well be the only way to eventually reach any such settlement.”

Cruz is also the sponsor of another pro-Israel bill presented two weeks ago which would require the U.S. State Department to offer a $5 million reward for capturing the Hamas terrorists responsible for the murder of a dual American-Israeli citizen, Naftali Fraenkel, along with two other Israeli teens. The bill is co-sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and includes a version in the House co-sponsored by Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).

That bill, along with another bipartisan Senate resolution in support of Israel’s operation in Gaza, appeared in front of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.