Mock Evictions Spark University’s Ire

Students for Justice in Palestine activists protest Northeastern University’s decision to suspend SJP for one academic year. (Northeastern SJP Facebook page)

Students for Justice in Palestine activists protest Northeastern University’s decision to suspend SJP for one academic year.
(Northeastern SJP Facebook page)

American universities have long been a place of political engagement, where rhetoric far from the sphere of mainstream political discourse is often the norm. But the recent suspension of a pro-Palestine student group has thrust Boston’s Northeastern University into a national debate on what constitutes free speech and what crosses into anti-Semitism and intimidation.

The situation gained national attention recently after the Northeastern chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine slipped 600 mock eviction notices under dorm room doors. SJP claims the fliers were intended to symbolize what they say to be arbitrary evictions given to Arab residents of Israel. The action, however, spurred a swift rebuke from university administrators, who suspended SJP for one academic year.

“The undergraduate Students for Justice in Palestine organization at Northeastern has been temporarily suspended for multiple violations of university policy over an extended period of time,” said a March 17 statement from the university’s administration. “This decision was handed down only after a careful and thorough review of the facts and only after repeated efforts by university officials to guide the leadership of the undergraduate SJP organization.”

According to Renata Nyul, director of communications at Northeastern, SJP’s violations spanned a period of two years and “included vandalism of university property, disrupting the events of other student organizations, not getting the appropriate permits when required, distributing unauthorized materials inside residence halls and sliding them under the doors of private rooms, not providing a ‘civility statement’ which was required after a previous sanction [and] not meeting with university advisers.”

Nyul pointed to the university’s Student Organization Resource Guide, which among other things, prohibits “dorm storming” — sliding fliers under residents’ doors.

Northeastern law student and SJP leader Max Geller does not deny that his organization distributed the flyers without permission. But he said SJP is careful in choosing which methods to spread its message and that the university does not enforce the rules for other organizations. He also denied SJP’s involvement in the vandalism accusations.

“We are calculated, and we would never do something so belligerent as defacing school property,” said Geller. “I would like to say, for the record, that it never happened, and we were never formerly charged with that [vandalism]. They are sort of tacking it on to make a scene like we’re out of control and we’re undisciplined with our decisions about where and when to engage in speech.”

According to Geller, student organizations at the university hand out unauthorized fliers all the time but are not suspended for it. Nyul denied Geller’s claim, saying that since 2008, 18 student organizations have either been sanctioned or suspended for failing to abide by “policies and procedures outlined” in the guide.

Still, SJP’s situation has attracted supporters such as the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The bottom line is our three legal organizations view this as interference with freedom of expression on a university campus,” said ACLU Massachusetts staff attorney Sarah Wunsch. “It’s totally at odds with the nature of what a university is supposed to be about.”

But Jewish organizations on and off campus are claiming that SJP’s actions are going beyond acceptable speech — crossing the line into intimidation of Jewish students on campus.

Kenneth Marcus, president and general counsel at the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and former director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says that SJP’s actions are part of a national trend among pro-Palestinian activists to create a hostile environment for Jewish and pro-Israel students. At first most visible at West Coast universities, such actions have spread to the East Coast, said Marcus. Some universities, he charged, are afraid to handle the problem.

Marcus said that under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the university could expose itself to legalaction if it does not prevent students being subjected to a hostile environment due to their ethnic or ancestral characteristics.

“One of our concerns … is that administrations have much more difficulty dealing with anti-Semitism when Israel is involved or when the perpetrators are members of other minority groups,” he explained. “We’re constantly hearing across the country that administrators are reluctant to take action against Palestinian or Muslim organizations for fear that they would be considered racist if they did so.

“The question for federal agencies is whether the situation has gotten so out of hand that a reasonable student in the position of a Northeastern undergraduate would have less opportunity to get an equal education,” he added. Although Northeastern is a private institution, it must still abide by nondiscrimination law because it receives federal funding.

Although the university acted in response to the February incident, Northeastern has been accused in the past of not fostering a welcoming environment for Jewish students.

In July 2013, the Zionist Organization of America conducted interviews of Jewish students at Northeastern and sent a letter to university president Joseph Aoun describing instances of singling out and intimidation of Jewish students by members of the student body and some professors. Aoun did not respond to the letter.

Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, commended the university’s latest action to enforce its rules.

“My understanding is that the university is holding that group [SJP] to the same rules and policies that apply to everybody on campus, and that’s the right thing to do,” said Tuchman.

Tuchman said the purpose of the 2013 letter was to encourage the university to take action, adding that the standard ZOA uses to describe the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is not just based on the organization’s beliefs. She pointed to a study released by the U.S. State Department in 2008 on what it called the “new anti-Semitism.”

“According to the EUMC [European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia] definition,” the report concludes, “regardless of the motive, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel criticism become anti-Semitic when they entail: denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; applying double standards to Israel; using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; or holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.”

Geller denied that Jewish students were specifically targeted by the flyer drop and said the organization purposely avoided the campus Hillel “and Jewish fraternity neighborhoods.” He also claimed that no one would mistake the message for an anti-Semitic one.

“You might look at the flier for an instant and think, ‘Uh oh, what is this?’” said the ACLU’s Wunsch, “but if you looked at it at all, it’s quite obvious that this is about the Palestinians and what happens to them and their housing by the government of Israel.

“Some people have said that Northeastern has responded this way to please some of its donors,” she continued. “And if that’s the basis on which they’ve chosen to suspend SJP, that’s really shameful for a university to do.”

Those in charge of the Northeastern SJP’s Facebook group have apparently endorsed Wunsch’s contention, posting a political cartoon that depicts Aoun nailing boards on the door of the student group. A disembodied arm from the sky with a Star of David and “The Lobby” written on its sleeve pats him on the head. A voice belonging to the arm says, “Good boy!” contributed to this story.

What Happens in Vegas

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas.
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — The GOP Jewish faithful descended in force on Sin City, turning out in record numbers and striking a feisty, combative tone at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference.

According to organizers, some 400 people attended the gathering, where they were feted with poker and golf tournaments and wooed by presidential hopefuls.

“In Jewish crowds, I’m tired of keeping my political views quiet,” said Barry Sobel, an asset manager from College Park, Ga. “It’s nice to be in a room of like-minded people.”

Jewish Republicans make up a distinct minority of American Jewry — President Obama won 69 percent of Jewish votes in the 2012 elections, according to exit polls — and a tiny proportion of the national electorate.

However, they wield a political clout that far exceeds their numbers, in large part because Jewish Republicans are some of the GOP’s most important donors. And no donor is more important than the host of this year’s conference, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

The conference was held in the Adelson-owned Venetian Hotel and Casino, and his presence loomed large over the gathering.

National media dubbed this year’s conference the “Sheldon Primary,” in recognition of the many potential Republican presidential candidates who arrived not only to address the crowds, but also for private sit-downs with Adelson, who spent a reported $93 million on the 2012 presidential election and has announced he will spend much more in 2016. He also is backing an effort to bring the 2016 Republican National Convention to Las Vegas.

Along with a Shabbat dinner address by Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Ron Dermer, and a scotch-tasting with Israeli venture capitalist Jonathan Medved, this year’s conference featured a cattle call of sorts for GOP presidential hopefuls. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke to an exclusive dinner held at Adelson’s private airplane hangar on Thursday. On Saturday, Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, as well as John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, addressed attendees.

As they gathered beneath the glass chandeliers, painted ceilings and gold leaf ornaments of the Venetian’s palatial surroundings, conference-goers echoed many of the hot-button concerns that have dominated the GOP discourse — creeping socialism, the IRS, Benghazi. But one issue consistently stood out: Israel.

Conferees could be overheard sharing tales of the Democrats’ fecklessness toward the Jewish state, and it was invocations of Israel that drew the loudest applause during the speeches.

“This administration has played Jews for suckers,” Sobel said, accusing the Obama administration of “trying to put Israel in its place.”

“Right now, Jews need to be one-issue voters,” he added.

Adelson, too, has long declared that Israel is his top political issue, above even banning online gambling.

Sensitivities surrounding Israel landed Christie in a bit of hot water during his otherwise well-received speech. The New Jersey governor was holding his audience spellbound with a rapturous description of his recent trip to Israel when he tripped a rhetorical landmine.

“I took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across, and just felt, personally, how extraordinary that was to understand the military risk that Israel faces every day,” Christie told the crowd.

Although Christie received a standing ovation at the end of his speech, his use of the phrase “occupied territories” upset some attendees who felt that such wording casts aspersions on Israel’s claim to the West Bank.

“Chris Christie either does not understand the issues affecting Israel or he’s not a friend of Israel,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Klein said he brought up the remarks with Adelson, and Politico subsequently reported that Christie had later apologized to Adelson in a private meeting.

The RJC’s executive director, Matthew Brooks, dismissed Christie’s remark as “a slip of the tongue.”

“I have every confidence that Gov. Christie is an unabashed, unequivocal supporter of Israel,” said Brooks.

Christie was not the only candidate making an effort to connect with the crowd on a Judaic level. Walker spoke of how his son’s name, Matthew, translates from the Hebrew as “a gift from God” and of lighting menorah candles at the Wisconsin governor’s mansion. Kasich described his effort to build a Holocaust memorial on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse.

Bolton brought the crowd to its feet with his fierce denunciations of the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy and his call for the United States to firmly back the Jewish state, even if Israel should choose to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But the candidates also touted their broader appeal, with Christie and Walker citing their experience as governors of traditionally Democratic states and Kasich defending his decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, though without explicitly referencing Medicaid or the health care act.

All the speakers also pledged, with varying degrees of specificity, to pursue a muscular and assertive foreign policy.

“Unfortunately, we see within our own party a rising tide of what can only be called isolationism,” said Bolton.

That more isolationist strain in the GOP is particularly associated with a presumed presidential hopeful who was not at the Las Vegas conference, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Brooks said that Paul had been invited to attend but declined in favor of a family commitment.

Brooks said the RJC’s focus was on this year’s midterm congressional elections rather than 2016. Like many Republicans, he is hopeful the party can take control of the Senate. Brooks said the RJC was aiming to broaden its outreach as part of the campaign.

Some of the politicians in attendance seemed to be tailoring their pitches more narrowly. Kasich made it clear that he had a particular target in mind as he concluded his speech to the conclave: “Hey listen, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me.”

Flash in the Pan?

Underdog Republican candidate David Jolly’s victory in Florida’s 13th congressional district on March 11 is being hotly debated by both sides of the aisle on whether the contest is an indicator of things to come in the 2014 midterm election later this year.

The district west of Tampa is like many in Florida, home to a plethora of retirement communities, senior citizens hailing from states farther north and a higher-than-average Jewish population — at 2.73 percent, compared with 2.18 percent nationally, according to a 2013 study by Joshua Comenetz for the Berman Jewish DataBank at the Jewish Federations of North America.

By most accounts, the race shouldn’t have gone the GOP’s way.

Jolly, who had no name recognition, worked as a lobbyist, had recently gone through a divorce and had been campaigning with his girlfriend, narrowly edged a candidate the Democrats placed their hope — and sizable funds — behind in a special election to fill the seat of longtime Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who died last fall.

Jolly’s Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, was a polished candidate who had served as Florida’s chief financial officer and ran a strong campaign for governor, losing to Rick Scott by 1 percent of the vote in 2010. With her name recognition and personal appeal, she sailed through a primary unopposed; Jolly, by contrast, had to clear a field of three primary challengers to emerge for the general election far behind Sink in campaign funds.

And although the district had been represented in Congress by a Repub-lican for nearly 40 years, it voted twice, in 2008 and 2012, for President Barack Obama. With no incumbent, this year’s contest was Sink’s to lose, owing to her superior name recognition and war chest.

Were it not for the visceral opposition to Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, say some analysts, Jolly’s come-from-behind victory would have been surprising. Largely following a script used by the GOP in the 2010 midterm elections, Jolly focused most of his campaign toward attacking the health care law and calling for its repeal. Sink, meanwhile, positioned herself as a moderate willing to fix the law.

Many Republicans are pointing to the race as proof of the strategy’s effectiveness.

“There’s no doubt Florida 13 has Democrats increasingly worried about losing the Senate,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, wrote in a column posted to the Breitbart website. “And they should be worried. Not only did it show that their policies — especially Obamacare — are unpopular, but Republicans were able to benefit from the RNC’s new voter engagement strategy, which includes the new data tools, new technology and new permanent ground game that we’re using all across the country.”

With the success of the health care platform, the GOP is clearly anxious about the strategy’s chances in other competitive races throughout the country. In addition to the Senate, a number of House districts may also be at play, and Democrats reacted to the loss in Florida by characterizing the Jolly effort as a flash in the plan. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, herself from Florida, said that a Republican focus on undermining the Affordable Care Act would “alienate” voters around the country.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said there’s no surprise in the prospect of a Republican surge later this fall.

“If you look at the historical trends for going into a midterm [election], there’s the fact that there’s a Democrat in the White House and that Democrat doesn’t have great approval ratings,” explained Kondik. “That in and of itself sort of tells us that Republicans are set up to have at least an OK year.”

Kondik was quick to caution against drawing solid conclusions from a special election in a politically balanced district — where the margin of victory was not great — but he acknowledged that the GOP will try to “milk it for all it’s worth.”

“The national environment isn’t all that great for Democrats right now, but that’s not written in stone,” he said. “Then again, I think at this point you’d rather be the Republicans than the Democrats in this midterm.”

Being a midterm election, there will be no presidential coattail effect on the congressional and Senate races. This year, without Obama at the top of
the ballot, Democrats will have to absorb the Republicans’ attacks on the president’s record.

“I think that the Jolly victory reflects a historical trend that there tends to be a hubris that kicks in when one party dominates, when one party holds power, and six years into an eight-year term, the party out of power usually does quiet well,” said Frank Scaturro, a constitutional attorney, author and one of the two GOP candidates competing for the nomination to run for retiring Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s seat in New York’s 4th congressional district, which encompasses Nassau County’s Five Towns and surrounding areas. contributed to this story.

Synagogue to Press Charges

A California synagogue is expected to file criminal charges against its former executive director, Eric Levine, a Bethesda resident who most recently worked for Adas Israel Congregation in the District, for allegedly stealing almost $400,000 over a five-year period.

“We anticipate that criminal charges are going to be filed,” said Sonia Israel, president of Congregation Beth El in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla. “We are preparing a police report.”

Israel added that charges should be filed “within the next few weeks.”

Levine only worked at Adas Israel for about a month, and synagogue officials there are confident that he did not steal any money while there. He reportedly admitted to the Beth El theft and deceptive record keeping last month after synagogue officials there discovered discrepancies in their financial records; he also told Adas Israel officials of the issue and resigned from his executive director position at the Cleveland Park synagogue.

Between 2008 and Levine’s resignation in December 2013, he stole at least $390,000 from the synagogue on an ongoing basis, said Israel. “It was a regular pattern, every month.”

Assuming the alleged theft took place over the course of 60 months, the take would have amounted to roughly $6,500 per month. Although Beth El had a part-time bookkeeper, Levine was protective about the way the synagogue’s financial records were handled, explained Israel. “He kept a lot of it to himself,” she said, adding that “we are very confident he worked alone.”

Because of this incident, an independent task force has been established to make sure no one will embezzle money from the synagogue funds again, she said. The task force consists of three synagogue members, two nonmembers and one board member who is a nonvoting member. Among the task force members are CPAs, auditors, attorneys and “people who understand nonprofits,” said Israel.

The synagogue held a town hall meeting to update congregants about what happened. About 185 people attended.

Israel said she was especially hurt.

“I never suspected anything,” she said. “That was the whole problem. We were duped.”

Also expressing concern was the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Diego.

“We are profoundly shocked and saddened that a trusted staff member of a leading community organization would behave in this manner,” said a spokeswoman at the organization. “We have confidence in the leadership of Congregation Beth El to determine what happened and to take all corrective action necessary, and [we] are ready to help and support the congregation and its leaders in every way possible.”

About 45 days after Levine had stopped working at Beth El, officials discovered that the money was missing. In a joint telephone call to Levine on Feb. 9, he “apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” said Israel.

The California synagogue is still reviewing its report to police, and Levine could be charged with state or federal charges. Solomon Wisenberg, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Nelson, Mulins, Riley and Scarborough LLP, said that with many embezzlement cases in which large amounts of money are stolen from a nonprofit, interstate bank, mail or wire fraud is involved.

If Levine is found guilty of fraud, he is likely to serve time in jail, explained Wisenberg. Also, in this case, it could be argued that every congregant who pays membership dues was harmed, making the penalty more severe, he said.

Potential federal charges could include tax evasion if Levine took $390,000 and never reported it on his taxes.

Levine has not returned messages, including one left in the door of his Bethesda home. A woman who answered the door at that address said, “No thank you” when asked about the case.

Prior to working at the California synagogue, Levine was associate director/director of planning and allocations at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County from April 2005 to July 2007. He is married with young children.

Not a Passing Hobby

Hobby Lobby’s challenge cites owners’ “sincere religious beliefs.” (DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons)

Hobby Lobby’s challenge cites owners’ “sincere religious beliefs.” (DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 25 on two prominent cases that could have far-reaching effects on Jewish-owned businesses and their employees. Both challenge the legality of an Affordable Care Act mandate requiring firms with more than 50 employees to provide contraception coverage as part of their insurance policies.

Jewish organizations have staked out positions on either side of the issue, filing amicus briefs in what has become the Hobby Lobby case and a similar suit invoking religious freedom protections on the one hand and reproductive rights on the other.

A national chain of arts-and-crafts stores operating as a closely held corporation by the Green family, Hobby Lobby was founded by the family’s patriarch, David Green, a devout Christian, in the 1970s. He and his children, who claim to run it in adherence tobiblical principles, are challenging the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and its secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, for what they see as the new health law’s undue burden on religious businesses. The case mirrors elements of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, which deals with a Mennonite-owned wood cabinet manufacturer in Pennsylvania. The court linked the cases; attorneys will argue both simultaneously on Tuesday.

Hobby Lobby’s owners’ “sincere religious beliefs prohibit them from covering four out of 20 FDA-approved contraceptives in their self-funded health plan,” the retailers’ attorneys wrote in their brief to the court.

The Affordable Care Act, however, prescribes financial penalties for violators of the law, which Hobby Lobby maintains is a violation of its owners’ rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. That law forbids the government to establish laws that “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless a compelling government interest is served and the law represents the “least restrictive means” of doing so.

So far, HHS has granted exceptions to the contraception mandate to nonprofit organizations such as religious charities, which Hobby Lobby and its supporters are quick to invoke as proof that alternatives exist to achieving the goal of universal contraceptive coverage for religion.

In response, HHS — backed by friend-of-the-court briefs by the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and the American Jewish Committee — claims that a for-profit corporation such as Hobby Lobby, whose business of selling arts and crafts is not a religious undertaking, should not be granted an exception, as the values are not necessarily those of its approximately 13,000 employees.

“I actually think that this is a situation where religious free exercise rights are better protected by not allowing Hobby Lobby and Conestoga to do what they want,” said attorney Hope Freiwald, partner at Dechert LLP and author of the brief on behalf of JSPAN, a Philadelphia-based organization that calls itself the “progressive voice” of the Jewish community. “In this context, the corporations have positioned themselves as holding the mantle of religious free exercise, but I would argue that if you think about the importance of protecting the rights of religious minorities, if you think about the importance of protecting the interest of peoples whose practice of their faith may not conform to what is accepted at major institutions in this country, you’re much better off with the government’s view.”

Freiwald drew a comparison to recent actions in Arizona, where companies were invoking a state law similar to the federal Religious Freedom Res-toration Act to claim that “they could refuse to do business with homosexuals if it offended their religious free exercise.” Corporations already are forbidden to discriminate in hiring and promoting based on gender and religious beliefs, he pointed out, so they’re already used to certain governmental restrictions.

“The Jewish community knows about discrimination; it knows about the challenges of being a minority religious voice,” said Freiwald. “The best way to protect free exercise is to make sure that you’re protecting individual rights rather than corporate rights.”

In its filing, the AJC asserted that there was no feasible alternative to ensuring that women receive access to contraceptive coverage if companies decide not to provide it through employer-sponsored health plans.

“The hard question is, as it should be, whether the government has a compelling need to override your religion,” said AJC counsel Marc Stern. “We think [that] in the equality of women and protecting their ability to make choices, there isn’t any other way to make sure that most women have access to whatever form of contraception they either need or choose to use other than this.”

The perspective of many in the Orthodox Jewish community in these cases is reflected in a brief filed by the Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs by famed Orthodox attorney Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin LLP. His brief is joined by seven Orthodox organizations: Agudas Harabbanim, Agudath Israel of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, Rabbinical Council of America, Torah Umesorah and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

In an interview, Lewin called the brief original in its intent to bring a strictly Orthodox perspective on the issue as opposed to interpreting precedent.

“Basically, I’m challenging the government’s theory that there should be a distinction between whether you run a business individually and whether you run it as a corporation,” said Lewin. “I want the Supreme Court to appreciate that there are religious observances, like Orthodox Jewish religious observances, that make no difference in terms of the burden on the person who is engaged … whether it’s through a corporation or not through a corporation.”

An example Lewin pointed to is Judaism’s prohibition on working on the Sabbath. That prohibition extends to non-Jewish workers in the employ of a Jew; Judaism makes no distinction, Lewin argued, between a Jewish employer and a Jewish-owned business. Through that lens, the government distinction between for-profit and nonprofit corporations would fall apart.

“There have been very, very, few briefs in the Supreme Court that have cited Jewish halachic authorities,” said Lewin.

Both sides said the case will be a close decision. As in similar controversial issues, they believe that when the court hands down its decision at the end of the term in June, the outcome will likely be 5 to 4.

Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute and editor of the Cato Supreme Court Review, said that the law should not hold corporations and individuals to different standards.

“The basic idea is that individuals don’t lose their rights when they engage in social activity, when they associate in groups or when they incorporate their business,” explained Shapiro, who also filed an amicus brief in the cases. “So in the case of Hobby Lobby, where religious business owners try to conduct their business in accordance with their faith, they shouldn’t be forced by the government to pay for certain procedures or medicines with which they have a religious disagreement.” contributed to this story.

Paul Charts a Conservative Way

Sen. Rand Paul’s speech was the best received, especially among college students. (Provided)

Sen. Rand Paul’s speech was the best received, especially among college students. (Provided)

In striking a more libertarian tone than in previous years, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference might be taking the constituency represented by American Conservative Union down a path that is alienating to some in the Jewish community.

According to some observers, the conference’s apparent toning down this year of foreign policy concerns certainly played to the base of Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who won the March 6-8 gathering’s straw poll of presidential contenders but could prove a liability in the effort to win over moderate Jewish voters for the Republican Party.

“The most important thing is to find a candidate who speaks to all these people,” said Eric Rappaport, director of “I think a lot of Jews are Reagan Democrats who are more centrist, and what the Republicans really need instead of rhetoric is someone who can garner those votes and bring them into the fold.”

Though Jews make up a small minority of CPAC attendees, their number in recent years has been increasing. This year, the invocation at the beginning of the conference at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor near Washington, D.C., was given by an Orthodox rabbi.

“Everybody knows him here,” David Keene, former CPAC chairman and current opinion editor at The Washington Times, said of the choice to have Rabbi Chaim “Nate” Segal of Staten Island, N.Y., deliver the invocation. “Rabbi Segal is our rabbi.”

Keene also mentioned how recent elections show a growing number of Jews voting Republican.

“The Jewish vote has begun to shift, but it’s mostly younger people because that’s who you have to get [to change voting trends],” he argued. “You either have to get younger people, or there has to be some cataclysmic event.”

Whereas in previous presidential election years, the Jewish Republican vote at the top of the ticket hovered in the 20 percent range, exit polling data in 2012 indicated that upward of 30 percent of Jewish voters chose Republican nominee Mitt Romney for president. Historic highs in the GOP’s share of the Jewish vote came in the 1956 re-election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 1988 election of then-Vice President George Bush.

Because CPAC always runs Thursday through Saturday, attending each conference has traditionally been difficult for observant Jews. In 2012, the Young Jewish Conservatives began hosting a Shabbaton at or near the conference so that religious Jews could attend sessions in between prayers and meals. This year’s Shabbaton drew about 120 attendees, who were addressed by former GOP presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), former Rep. Allen West of Florida and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.); each in their own way expressed their support for Israel.

Though Franks received the greatest response from Shabbaton attendees, Santorum came in a close second, delivering a thinly veiled attack at the conference’s prevailing message of isolationist foreign policy.

But among attendees of the general CPAC conference, the momentum undoubtedly belonged to Paul and his brand of libertarianism, which, until this year, has not seriously threatened the loyalty of the GOP elite on the boards of organizations such as the ACU that project a mainstream mix of conservative fiscal and social policies.

Paul’s speech was the best attended and best received by attendees — especially among college students — than any during the entire conference, including a keynote address by former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who read from a Dr. Seuss book to rail against Democrats.

Key points in Paul’s address focused on the ideals of liberty and freedom, referencing National Security Agency wire-tapping programs to military drone strikes, an issue on which he conducted a filibuster on the Senate floor last year.

“Will we sit idly by and let our rights be trampled on?” he asked. “Will we be like lemmings, rushing to the comfort of Big Brother’s crushing embrace, or will we stand like men and women of character and say, ‘We are free, and no man, no matter how well intentioned, will take our freedom from us?’ “

Among Jewish attendees backing Paul was Joseph Strauss, 24.

“I think that his message is the most refined message that traditionally isn’t reached by the Republican Party,” said Strauss, a consultant and native of Washington, D.C., who spends half the year in West Virginia. “I think it’s the most expansive message of liberty and freedom. I think that that’s attractive to everyone, and I think that the outreach would provide for a larger voter base than we normally have access to.”

Strauss said that although Paul raised eyebrows in September by apparently suggesting in an interview that hawkish Republicans were backing military action because of concern for Israel and the Jewish people, he could tolerate the senator’s isolationist approach. In Strauss’ view, presidential intervention in conflicts around the globe has only led to mistakes.

“I’ve watched president after president — whether on the right or the left — stumble in foreign policy,” he said. “They’re always supposed to be these experts, and they hire all these academia types and consistently they underperform.”

Rabbi Yitzhok Tendler, co-founder of the Young Jewish Conservatives, acknowledged a divide in the part of the Jewish community that hews close to conservative politics, saying that those who tend to identify as Zionist side more with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who finished a distant second in last weekend’s straw poll — but that Paul appeals to the younger generation.

“Young people in general identify with those [libertarian] ideas and typically identify with people who express their beliefs in an articulate and unambiguous fashion” said Tendler. “Though the more strongly Zionist young Jews identify, the more likely they will have questions about Rand Paul’s foreign policy.” contributed to this story.

U.S. News Names Best Nursing Homes

The Health Facilities Association of Maryland has announced that 29 of its members have been included on the list of the country’s Best Nursing Homes by U.S. News & World Report.

HFAM members that rank among the best skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers in America are in communities all across Maryland, including Baltimore City and County and Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

U.S. News determines its annual rankings through data collected from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The federal agency assigns each nursing center certified by the government a rating of one to five stars through its five-star rating system. U.S. News names all those with a five-star rating a Best Nursing Home.

AIPAC 2014: Iran Tops Agenda

030714_coverstoryThe world may have been absorbed Sunday morning by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but inside the Washington Convention Center, the country on everyone’s mind was Iran.

From speakers and panelists, in crowded meeting rooms and an arena-sized hall, the reported 14,000 Israel supporters attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s three-day annual policy conference in Washington heard a steady message again and again: Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, is a threat to Israel and the world. It was a message AIPAC supporters would take to Capitol Hill on Tuesday when they lobbied Congress for the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda.

Yet, if the goal of a diplomatic agreement among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany and Iran was to reduce or eliminate that threat, from the opening of the conference, speakers viewed the possibility of reaching a satisfactory accord with something approaching scorn.

“We must distrust and verify,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). That distrust may have been the rationale for scheduling nine sessions on Iran during the conference. As at last year’s conference, Iran was the chief issue discussed.

Coons’ position puts him in line with AIPAC but at odds with the Obama administration, which wants to let negotiations with Iran play out before announcing additional sanctions or coercive action.

On Sunday, it was Treasury Secretary Jack Lew who reiterated the administration’s position. He said that legislation mandating additional sanctions on Iran should nuclear negotiations fail could endanger those negotiations.

“We do not need new sanctions now,” he said to a tepid response. “The sanctions in place are working to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and passing new sanctions now could derail the talks that are underway and splinter the international cooperation that has made our sanctions regime so effective.”

Last month, in the face of stiff administration opposition, AIPAC ended its intense lobbying for a Senate bill calling for new sanctions on Iran.

But on Monday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), renewed the call for new sanctions.

“I believe we have to keep the pressure on,” he said. “I believe the Senate should pass new bipartisan sanctions legislation that would take effect if the current negotiations don’t succeed.”

By that time, AIPAC’s new Iran sanctions offensive was already underway. On Sunday, it released a letter to President Barack Obama signed by a bipartisan group of senators, which echoed the tropes heard throughout the conference.

“Should an acceptable final agreement be reached, your administration will need to work together with Congress to enact implementing legislation to provide longer term sanctions relief beyond existing waiver authorities — either through suspension, repeal or amendment of statutory sanctions,” the letter read.

“We believe that Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” it continued. “We believe any agreement must dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevent it from ever having a uranium or plutonium path to a nuclear bomb.”

The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) as well as Coons and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

Photos by Marc Shapiro

At the session, which included Coons, former Sen. Joe Lieberman argued for a strong congressional hand in the Iran nuclear issue.

“If Congress does not get involved, diplomacy has zero chance of success,” he said to applause.

“Across the table in Vienna today sit the representatives of a radical, revolutionary regime, ideological, unyielding, unapologetic to its very core,” AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr told the conference on Sunday. “At least to this moment, there’s one thing Iran is not. From everything we know, Iran is not armed with nuclear weapons. And it must be kept that way.”

As his audience knew, that is easier said than done. And at a session called “The Middle East in 2014,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that no matter how favorable the outcome of negotiations, “the Iranians have won.”

“These negotiations are about how much time we have to detect Iran’s cheating,” Satloff said. “These negotiations are not about denying Iran the ability to cheat.”

Looking to the civil war in Syria, Satloff considered the question of who was more dangerous, Sunni extremists in the Syrian opposition or Shiite extremists in the form of Hezbollah.

“The U.S. has to worry most about an Iranian victory in Syria,” he asserted. “That would be a huge blow to the United States.”

“The question is, which kind of extremists are closer to having a nuclear weapon?” offered Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic and Bloomberg. “Hezbollah is closest to this.”

In a session on “Possibilities for a Final Nuclear Deal With Iran,” panelists focused more on the effects of a nuclear Iran than on reaching a deal.

Iran maintains it will be fully transparent and do everything but build a bomb, said Yuval Steinetz, Israel’s minister of intelligence. But as a “threshold nuclear state,” Iran will continue to make its neighbors nervous. Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will conclude that “sooner or later Iran will get the bomb” and will develop nuclear weapons programs of their own, he argued.


“An Iranian bomb will lead to proliferation all over the world — and to the first nuclear war,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, (D-Calif.). “How far away is Iran from making a bomb? The answer now is months. If any treaty now is successful, the answer would be years.”

Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted the advantages the United States has over Iran in negotiations.

Iran is a mid-sized power with a troubled economy, hated throughout the region and without networks of international alliances, he said. “A super- power ought to be able to coerce a medium-sized power to meet its [Iran’s] international obligations.”

Those obligations arise from Iran’s signature on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. In a session called “The Global Implications of a Nuclear Iran,” Emily Landau, senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, agreed that a nuclear Iran would lead to an unravel-ing of the movement toward nonproliferation globally.

But she said there is no agreement among experts about what Iran is aiming for with its nuclear program. Iran wants to look ambiguous, Landau said. “The way they move forward is by exploiting ambiguity.”

On Monday night, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to convince the conference that the administration is pursuing the right policy with its diplomatic push. “We will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, period,” he said.

The administration is testing Iran’s motives through “forceful negotiations,” he said, rejecting criticism that the interim agreement the P5+1 nations signed with Iran in November has resulted in the unraveling of sanctions.

“We have not changed one piece of the sanctions architecture,” he said. “And yet we are able to negotiate. Our eyes, my friends, are wide open. … And you can be sure that if Iran fails this test, America will not fail Israel.”

An agreement will pass the test if it can answer yes to three questions, he said. “First, will it make certain that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon? Second, can it continuously assure the world that Iran’s program remains entirely peaceful, as it claims? And third, will the agreement increase our visibility on the nuclear program and expand the breakout time so that if they were to try to go for a bomb, we know we will have time to act?”

Reiterating his slogan that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” Kerry said that if negotiations fail, it would take Congress “two hours” to pass new sanctions.

“President Obama and I support those sanctions under those circumstances,” said Kerry.

Closing the conference on Tuesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his long-standing position that the world must prevent Iran from acquiring the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. This differs from the U.S. position, which is to prevent Iran from building a weapon.

“That means we must dismantle their heavy water reactor, underground enrichment facilities, get rid of stockpiles of enriched uranium and their centrifuges,” he said. “Unfortunately the leading powers of the world are talking about leaving Iran with the capability to enrich uranium. I hope they don’t do that, because that would be a grave error. It would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power.”

Netanyahu pledged to the Israel supporters, “I will do whatever I must to defend the Jewish State of Israel.”
Ian Zelaya contributed to this article.

AIPAC 2014: Baltimore Goes To AIPAC

030714_balt_goes_aipacWhen he took the dais Monday morning to kick off that day’s installment of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke with urgency about the tumultuous situation in the Middle East, the importance of Israel on the world stage and the threat of a nuclear Iran.

The message struck a chord with the 24 students from the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School who had trekked to Washington, D.C., to join the expected 14,000 fellow attendees as one of the conference’s larger high school delegations. For 10th-grader Daniel Goldman, the speech from the 2008 Republican nominee for president typified the energy AIPAC works to harness every year.

“I personally liked everyone’s passion, especially John McCain,” said Goldman. “It was really empowering.”

The day before, the students danced onstage with an African-American preacher from Detroit, who turned the conference into a hands-clapping gospel frenzy, and had lunch with other Baltimore-area AIPAC attendees. On Monday, in addition to McCain’s foreign policy talk, they heard from Israeli tech company representatives and attended talks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the state of Israeli innovation.

For the students, who were in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, AIPAC gave them a chance to hear about the benefits of the U.S.-Israel relationship, technological innovations and political issues and, for some, to further their support for Israel.

“It makes me really want to look at the situation with a more optimistic point of view,” said Emma Silverman, a 10th-grader. “I think it’s incredible to see so many people come together for Israel.”

The students would meet with six different federal representatives on Tuesday.

Max Meizlish, a Beth Tfiloh graduate who is now president of Terps for Israel at the University of Maryland, College Park, was attending his fourth AIPAC policy conference this week. When he attended his first with Beth Tfiloh, he was reeled in by the diverse crowd that came together for the cause of Israel. He continues to be inspired by the beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Israel, he said.

Meizlish, whose organization was named as student activists of the year by AIPAC, hopes to secure some kind of public policy position, perhaps in lobbying.

“The point [of the activism] is to show people there is a strong community out there that supports this relationship,” he explained. “It’s much more than what you see on the news.”

For Meizlish and others, the U.S.-Israel relationship isn’t just a Jewish issue, it’s an American issue, and one in which he hopes to engage other campus leaders.


Photos by Marc Shapiro

“They see they can make a substantive impact on [others] the rest of their lives,” he said.

The adult leaders from Baltimore took a similar approach. Pro-Israel activist Bill Fox said a huge part of the AIPAC gathering is education on the issues, the facts and the movement’s strategies. Fox, who sits on AIPAC’s national council, is chairman of the mid-Atlantic region of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and chairman of Maryland for Israel Bonds; he said he leaves AIPAC armed with the right information.

“Far too many of our co-religionists do not feel that connection [to Israel],” he explained. “I feel it’s very important to do whatever I can do to try to help Jews connect and reconnect with Israel and the importance of Israel.”

Connecting with Israel, for some, means being aware of certain realities in the Middle East.

“People don’t grasp that in Iran, America is the big Satan,” said P.J. Pearlstone, vice chair of the Baltimore District Council of AIPAC, a member of the board of directors of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and incoming chair of the Pearlstone Center. “Before they say death to Israel, they say death to America.”

Ellen Lightman, co-chair of the Baltimore-Israel Coalition, said Iran is a major source of frustration among activists, but AIPAC is reinvigorating.

“Coming to the policy conference not only puts things in perspective, but also re-energizes one’s spirit to continue activism,” she said. “A nuclear Iran will change the world; it will not only change Israel. Coming here underscores the big picture of why we do what we do.”


And AIPAC is more than just an educational opportunity, attendees were quick to point out. With an opportunity to interact with and lobby legislators, attendees see their convictions in action.

“I feel like I can actually make a difference,” said Pearlstone. “Here, we can really see moving the needle.”

That mission was not lost on the conference’s younger attendees. Alex Friedman, an eighth-grader at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore and son of former president and chairman of AIPAC’s board, Howard Friedman ñ who is also the chairman of the board of The Associated ñ was excited to hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak firsthand about Israel and its issues.

“The security of Israel and America’s health is essential to the world for generations to come,” he said.

For high school students going to college in the fall, they said, walking into each of the plenary sessions and seeing the thousands of like-minded attendees offers a sense of the enormity and unity of AIPAC.

“Last year [at AIPAC], I left with a sense of ‘wow!’ “ said Avi Shidman, a senior at Pikesville High School. “I feel that every American Jew owes Israel a part of their spirit.”

Shidman, along with fellow Pikesville senior Jory Parson, felt armed with the skills and knowledge to serve as ambassadors of the Jewish people and Israel. Parson will attend the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall, which has an active and large Jewish community. Shidman will attend the University of Alabama, where he knows he will be among the minority.

“It’s very inspiring as an 18-year-old male going into the world, into college, next year,” said Parson. “We’ll be able to articulate who we are and stand up for our people.”

$390K Theft Discovered

The just departed executive director of Washington, D.C.’s Adas Israel Congregation has admitted to intentionally stealing at least $390,000, deceptive record keeping and the illegal transferring of funds from a California synagogue during the time he was executive director there.

Eric S. Levine, who was asked to resign on Tuesday from Adas Israel after being executive director for about a month, “apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” Sonia Israel, president of the Beth El Congregation in La Jolla, Calif., announced in a letter sent to congregants Feb. 12.

Levine, of Bethesda, allegedly stole the money over a five-year period, beginning in 2008, Israel noted. He likely will face time in jail if the California congregation decides to press charges and Levine is found guilty.

Adas Israel’s president also sent a letter to members of his congregation.

“While there is no indication of any improprieties during Eric’s short time at Adas, we have nonetheless commenced a thorough review of our financial and administrative records,” wrote Arnie Podgorksy.

Right now, Adas Israel is satisfied that no money has been taken from its synagogue, as there were no irregularities found during the audit, a source close to the synagogue said.

After being confronted by the leadership at Beth El, Levine not only admitted what he had done, but he also informed the leadership of Adas Israel of the theft. Adas Israel is not contemplating legal action as the synagogue has not been harmed, the source said.

However, the leadership at Congregation Beth El is considering pressing charges.

“We are consulting with experts in the appropriate areas of law to determine how to proceed with the authorities,” Israel wrote. The synagogue also is investigating how to recover the money from Levine, if possible.

In an effort to keep congregants informed, a town hall meeting has been set for Feb. 26.

Solomon Wisenberg, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough LLP who specializes in white collar criminal defense, said that Levine is likely to face federal charges.

Wisenberg is not familiar with the case, but when told the details, he said that it probably would be a federal case, as embezzling almost always involves interstate bank, mail or wire fraud.

“That’s serious,” he said. “He’ll probably do some time” in jail unless the synagogue decides to keep the matter quiet. But considering the entire congregation has been informed and a meeting is planned, Wisenberg said it didn’t sound like that is what Beth El had in mind.

In cases like this, a judge must follow guidelines but is allowed leeway. The final amount of money stolen and the number of people harmed play a role in the sentencing, he explained.

“Presumably if you are stealing from a congregation, you are stealing from all the members who contribute,” said Wisenberg.

Under federal guidelines, a loss of less than $400,000, combined with the harming of more than 250 people, could translate to a sentence of between 21 months to 63 months. A source close to Adas Israel, however, said on Feb. 12 that Levine’s alleged theft could be closer to $500,000.

Considering that Levine confessed right away and assuming he cooperates with any law enforcement investigation, said Wisenberg, his sentence may be lighter.

According to Beth El’s president, Levine’s financial irregularities “came to light” at the end of January, about 45 days after he stopped working there. Then, in a phone call on Feb. 9, Levine was confronted by synagogue officials.

“He admitted that the deceptive record keeping and illegal transfer of funds was intentional. He then apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” Israel wrote in the letter to congregants.

While not everything is known, Israel noted that “Eric was budgeting for improperly used funds. Therefore, we anticipate that our current cash balance and projected receipts for the rest of the year will cover our operating expenses.

“It is never easy to learn that someone you trusted has violated that trust,” continued Beth El’s president. “It is never easy to learn that someone you relied on to guide and protect an institution’s financial security has instead stolen funds for personal use and then covered up his misdeeds. When the institution is a religious organization, a community held together in part by moral and ethical bonds, such a betrayal is even more painful.”

Rabbi Philip Graubart also sent a message to Beth El congregants, questioning how a community recovers from betrayal and calling the time since he learned of Levine’s misdeeds “a dark several weeks for me personally.”

“We made serious mistakes in trusting Eric,” wrote Graubart. “We were victimized by a skilled liar. We will carry the brokenness with us for a long time.”

Prior to working at the California synagogue, Levine was associate director/director of planning and allocations at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County from April 2005 to July 2007.

When asked about Levine, Michael Sonduck, president and CEO of the Federation in San Diego, told the Washington Jewish Week, “I am not going to have any comment at all regarding this matter.”

Calls and emails to Graubart, Israel and others on the rabbinical and staff leadership at Congregation Beth El were not returned.

Levine started working at Adas Israel last month; he had been executive director at Congregation Beth El from July 2007 until December 2013.

Levine is married with young children.