Leaders of Jewish Right and left face off in revealing Las Vegas debate

Matt Brooks, left, and Jeremy Ben-Ami (Getty Images via JTA)

Matt Brooks, left, and Jeremy Ben-Ami (Getty Images via JTA)

A common debate tactic is to try to get your opponent to express his most extreme views — revealing what I call the “crazy aunt in the attic.”

This tactic isn’t as useful in the presidential primaries, which are more focused on being “holier than the pope” when it comes to party orthodoxy. But the Republican and Democratic nominees, whoever they turn out to be, will certainly seek out each other’s crazy aunts in the general election debates.

If they’re looking to brush up on how it’s done, they would do well to take notes on Wednesday night’s debate at a Las Vegas synagogue between the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Matt Brooks and J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami. Each managed to reveal a crazy aunt of the other, and in some cases  to get him to publicly dance with her.

The RJC and J Street have gunned for each other almost since Ben-Ami founded his liberal Israel advocacy group in 2008; he’s now the president. But Wednesday was the first time the Jewish leaders have faced off, and both brought their A game.

The first crazy aunt of the night was introduced by Brooks, the RJC’s executive  director. Jon Ralston, the doyen of Nevada political  reporters who was moderating, asked Brooks if he agreed with the notion peddled by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major RJC founder, that the Palestinians are an “invented people.”

Brooks started out by saying Adelson doesn’t “hurt” the prospects for peace by promoting his view, but then went ahead and bear-hugged the position, saying, “Up until 1948, there never was a Palestinian people.”

In fact, the Palestinians were defining themselves as such for at least decades before 1948. Realizing that Brooks had cracked the attic door, Ben-Ami pushed.

“So Matt, who were the people who lived in the land of Palestine when it was called Palestine?”

Brooks said, “Arabs,” and Ben Ami flung the attic door open.

“So we’ll agree they’re Arabs, they’re not an invented people, they lived in Palestine when my great-grandparents arrived in the first year of the First Aliyah,” he said.

Later, Brooks tried to get Ben-Ami to own relationships with anti-Israel groups like Students for Justice in Palestine. Ben-Ami answered that  J Street does not coordinate with such groups on policy, and that what Brooks was citing were instances where  J Street agreed to debate SJP and others like it in an effort to counter anti-Israel activism on campus.

“Believe, me we are at the top of the list of groups SJP does not like in the world,” Ben-Ami said.

When Ralston stepped in and asked Brooks whether he thought it was OK to block anti-Israel groups from campuses, Brooks said yes, “shut them down,” and the First Amendment “only goes so far.”

“What are your limits on the First Amendment?” Ben-Ami interjected.

Ralston looked shocked.

There is a deep-rooted tradition among Jews of putting non-believers in herem, banishing them, never engaging with them. But banishment only makes sense in the Old World context of the Jewish quest for survival against all odds. In a free society, where the prevailing belief about  extreme beliefs is that the best way to stop them is to expose them to the marketplace of ideas, shutting down speech becomes a crazy aunt.

Ben-Ami’s crazy aunt moment came in direct response to Brooks. After a couple of aborted probes (Sorry, Ben-Ami was never going to praise Neville Chamberlain), Brooks found what he was looking for.

“Who is the only prime minister in Israel to have done a settlement freeze?” Brooks asked.

Ben-Ami hemmed and hawed, allowing Brooks to answer the question himself. “Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Brooks said, correctly noting that the prime minister had paid a political price for deferring to President Barack Obama on the matter.

Ben-Ami went on to dismiss the freeze as inadequate, which is beside the point Brooks was making: Netanyahu, at least in one respect, has gone farther than any other Israeli leader in trying to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

The smart reply for Ben-Ami would have been to immediately give Netanyahu credit for the freeze before following up with the “but he could have done more” megillah.

Ben-Ami’s inability to praise Netanyahu exposed a crazy aunt hiding in many Jewish leftist attics: A visceral dislike for Netanyahu that is shocking to the Jewish mainstream.  Although Netanyahu has real differences with the left on the status of the West Bank, he  really was the only prime minister to freeze settlement — and he’s Israel’s elected leader.

Ben-Ami tried to make Donald Trump another crazy aunt for Brooks. I’m not sure he succeeded, because while Brooks didn’t directly say the RJC wouldn’t back the Republican presidential front-runner, he was able to note that the group had in the past  repudiated less than savory  Republicans, like Pat Buchanan.

That led to my favorite moment — the crazy billionaire aunt dance party — a supremely weird moment in an otherwise substantive and engaging debate. Ralston asked each leader about his major funders.

“You have your billionaires, we have our billionaire,” Ben-Ami said, acknowledging the support of George Soros, the hedge fund philanthropist  and major Democratic funder who has become a bogeyman for the right.

“I would take my billionaire over your billionaire any day,” Brooks said, acknowledging his Adelson connection and earning applause with the hometown crowd.

“The billionaire you’re stuck with is Donald Trump, and you’re going to earn your salary all year long defending Donald Trump,” Ben Ami said, and then added, “I would take my billionaire over your billionaire any day.”

Retorted Brooks: “I would take my billionaire — and his wife — over your billionaire any day.”

Ralston, thankfully, stepped in before Ben-Ami and Brooks were able to invoke extended families.

Non-Jewish Activists Link Arms with Hungarian Jews in ‘Symbols War’

The unveiling of a bust of anti-Semitic Holocaust-era lawmaker Gyorgy Donath in Budapest drew the ire of mostly non-Jewish protesters. (Adam Csillag)

The unveiling of a bust of anti-Semitic Holocaust-era lawmaker Gyorgy Donath in Budapest drew the ire of mostly non-Jewish protesters.
(Adam Csillag)

Hungarian officials likely anticipated some Jewish opposition to their decision to erect a monument in Budapest to a Holocaust-era lawmaker who promoted anti-Semitic legislation.

What they probably didn’t expect was that the Feb. 24 unveiling of a bust honoring Gyorgy Donath would attract a protest of mostly non-Jewish Hungarians. The protest would lead to the statue’s indefinite removal over vandalism concerns.

Hungary’s Jews have been fighting what one leading rabbi has called “the symbols war” against the government for years over the public veneration of Holocaust-era figures who promoted anti-Semitic laws. But the mostly non-Jewish protest, in which participants carried EU symbols and chanted anti-fascist slogans, was taken as a sign that the effort is winning allies beyond the Jewish community.

“This is not just the Jewish community’s fight,” said Anna Kovacs, 27, a non-Jewish translator and member of a Holocaust commemoration group. “It’s about the identity and future of this society. It’s our duty to ensure a second Holocaust doesn’t happen.”

Hungarian Jews launched the monument battle in 2014, when a statue seen as minimizing Hungarian complicity during the Holocaust was unveiled in Budapest’s Freedom Square. The monument, which depicted an angel (understood to represent Hungary) attacked by an eagle (understood to represent Germany), was vigorously opposed by the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz, which briefly suspended its ties with the government after its unveiling.

“It began with Jewish community activities but has spread beyond to a protest front with members of many affiliations,” said Adam Csillag, a filmmaker who has documented the protest since that unveiling.

That protest movement, which comprises a loose coalition of Christians, liberal political activists and Hungarian Jews, scored its first victory last year when Prime Minister Viktor Orban scrapped a plan to erect a statue of Balint Homan, another Holocaust-era politician who prompted anti-Semitic laws. The Faith Church, a Pentecostal body with 70,000 members, provided approximately half the 700 protesters who gathered at a site 30 miles west of Budapest in December to protest the Homan statue, which was canceled following an international outcry.

“Every time an anti-Semitic figure is honored, there is a significant resistance from the civil society, and the members of Faith Church often take part in these protests as anti-Semitism is contradictory to our moral values and faith,” said Daniel Kocsor, a 20-year-old church activist.

The symbols war comes at a time of rising nationalist fervor in Hungary driven by several factors: economic crises, opposition to EU interference in the country’s affairs, growing Russian assertiveness and the recent arrival on Hungary’s borders of hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants from the Middle East. Wary of losing support to the far-right Jobbik party, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has cracked down on liberal activist groups and increased efforts to celebrate figures like Donath and Honan, who are considered patriotic by the right.

Both wartime politicians supported legislation in the 1940s that targeted Jews. Homan, who served as culture minister, authored a law to limit the number of Jewish university students. Donath argued for a measure to bar any sexual relationship between a Jew and a non-Jew.

They died at the hands of communists and have been embraced by the far right as nationalist symbols of communist oppression. But critics of the government believe the effort to portray them as freedom fighters is merely a thin veil intended to obscure their virulent anti-Semitism.

Homan is “a marginal figure,” Kocsor said. “So the point of the monument … is to send a message because he’s a racist and an anti-Semite. That’s outrageous.”

Other partners to the anti-government coalition include Kovacs’ group Living Memorial, which started in the wake of the Freedom Square protest and now meets in the square twice a week to display alternative commemorations featuring Holocaust-themed artwork. Also participating is Dialogue for Hungary, a small opposition political party that took part in the Donath protest.

“There’s a nostalgia toward the good old Hungary” of the 1940s, historian Eva Balogh said. “It’s scaring a lot of people and driving them into action.”

In Flint Crisis, Jews Pitching In with Corned Beef, Dr. Brown’s — and Water

Volunteers loading cases of free water into waiting vehicles at a water distribution center in Flint, Mich., this month. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

Volunteers loading cases of free water into waiting vehicles at a water distribution center in Flint, Mich., this month.
(Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

FLINT, Mich. — At 86, Jeanne Aaronson is blind and lives alone, but she has seen a lot over the years.

She lived in Flint when it was a manufacturing powerhouse, a center of the automotive business and a symbol of American industrial might and ingenuity. She lived through the city’s decline in the 1970s and ’80s as the auto factories closed and the population decamped for better opportunities elsewhere. And more recently, she witnessed the beginning of its revival, with the opening of new businesses and a slew of brewpubs and coffee shops on Saginaw Street.

Now Aaronson is living through yet another difficult period in Flint history, as the city copes with toxic levels of lead in its drinking water that has made Flint a national example of failed governance. Like all the residents here, Aaronson is surviving on bottled water, which she must even feed to her elderly dog.

“Am I ticked? You bet I’m ticked,” Aaronson said. “I’m ticked at the stupidity of our governor for appointing that emergency manager who decided to save a few bucks by poisoning us. Just stupid. I’m ticked at everyone from the very top to the very bottom. Except our new mayor. Mayor Weaver’s doing a good job. But otherwise, I have no faith. None at all.”

Flint has been facing a public health emergency since April 2014, when the city, under the direction of a state-appointed emergency financial manager, began to use the Flint River as its water source. The city used to get its water from Detroit’s water system, which relied on Lake Huron and the Detroit River as water sources. After the switch, the state chose not to use phosphates as an anti-corrosion agent, which caused lead to leach from old pipes into the drinking water.

The crisis was featured prominently in a recent Democratic presidential debate, with both candidates addressing the water situation in the opening minutes. Clinton described meeting mothers terrified for their children. Sanders spoke of his broken heart at hearing of a child now developmentally delayed as a result of lead poisoning.

“Whether this happened because of sins of omission or sins of commission doesn’t matter,” said Steve Low, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, which has been helping deliver bottled water to local residents. “It doesn’t make the poisoning of Flint’s water supply any less heinous.”

Aaronson’s is one of only 66 identified Jewish households left in Flint, a city of 100,000 people 60 miles northwest of Detroit. About 200 more Jewish families live in the Flint area but outside the city limits, where the water hasn’t been affected.

Like Aaronson, many Jews in Flint are elderly, and they’ve been particularly battered by the crisis. For some with arthritic hands, merely opening the bottled water that is now an essential commodity here can be a challenge. Others have had difficulty getting assistance because they don’t have Internet access or are hesitant about opening their door to strangers in a high-crime city.

“For me, this is one giant pain. And yes, I am plenty angry. But I can take care of myself,” said Sue Ellen Hange, 61, a member of Flint’s Temple Beth El who got skin rashes from showering in the contaminated water. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be homebound and dealing with this.”

The Flint Jewish community has responded with support both moral and material. To ease the fears of the city’s older Jews, familiar faces from the federation’s senior services division often accompany the water delivery. Two of Flint’s synagogues have held informational meetings and offered special prayers for healing. Synagogue social action committees have also reached out to local residents to remind them they’re not alone.

Support has also come from further afield. The Metro Detroit Federation made a cash contribution of an undisclosed sum to the community. Several Detroit-area congregations joined forces and made the trek 60 miles north with a truck full of water. The Yad Ezra Food Pantry, a group of Detroit-area Chabad houses and the Jewish Federation in Toledo, Ohio, also made water donations.

From Indianapolis, Shapiro’s Deli sent a complete Shabbat meal for 150 in January, including corned beef, pastrami, knishes, chicken soup with matzah balls and even Dr. Brown’s soda. The Jewish relief effort even reached as far as California, where San Francisco chocolatier and Flint native Chuck Siegel sent over an array of sweets and beloved Flint nostalgia foods like Vernors ginger ale and Koegel’s hot dogs. In Los Angeles, Flint native and Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman helped stage the Hollywood Helps Flint fundraiser on Feb. 21, which has so far raised $33,000 for the city.

“We may have left Flint,” Bragman said at the fundraiser, “but Flint never left us.”

Steve Low, center, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, takes a delivery of food from a kosher deli in Indianapolis. (Flint Jewish Federation)

Steve Low, center, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, takes a delivery of food from a kosher deli in Indianapolis.
(Flint Jewish Federation)

The crisis comes at a particularly unfortunate moment for Flint. After decades of mounting poverty and crime, the city had recently begun to rebound. Businesses as varied as a small maker of hip eyeglass frames to corporate giants had set up shop in the city. Renovated dowager buildings downtown are now trendy loft apartments. The Michigan State University Medical School opened a new campus downtown, and Kettering University and the University of Michigan-Flint both dramatically expanded their footprints in the city.

“If it’s possible to see the good in this,” Low said, “it’s that the water crisis threw a big net over the community and has drawn us together. Going back to the 1950s, Flint’s Jews and the African-American community have always worked together. Lately, not so much. But the water has rekindled some of those passions we both share for social justice.”

The crisis has also drawn the Jewish and Hispanic communities together. At a recent meeting at Flint’s Temple Beth El, congregant Melba Lewis pointed out that many local Hispanics are undocumented and are loath to open their doors to uniformed officers to distribute water. The synagogue wound up partnering with a large Hispanic church to distribute a pallet of water to the church for distribution.

But whatever silver linings Flint residents might find in the crisis, their faith in elected officials seems unlikely to be restored anytime soon. Low saw signs of racism in the crisis, likening the decisions that created the crisis in this majority-African American city to other government moves — like the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling invalidating a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and the nationwide trend to implement voter identification laws — that have disproportionately impact on minorities. Aaronson simply feels abandoned.

“I was listening to the Republican debate last night, 70 miles from here in Detroit, and there’s one question about the water,” she said last week. “One question! That’s so wrong. It should have been on the top of the list.”

David Stanley is a writer based in Flint, Mich. He served as a member of the Flint Jewish Federation board of trustees from 1990 to 1992.

Refocusing Baltimore Despite last year’s unrest, city’s future has much in its favor

Baltimore Inner Harbor (Photo by David Stuck)

Baltimore Inner Harbor (Photo by David Stuck)

With memories still fresh of last April’s unrest surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, the young African-American man from Sandtown who sustained fatal injuries while in police custody, organizations throughout the city are working to erase the disgrace that national headlines heaped upon Baltimore, even as the upcoming trials of the officers involved generate almost daily news.

“The publicity made it look like the city was in flames, when in reality only a few areas were directly affected by the violence,” said Bob Merbler, a resident of Federal Hill for more than 30 years and a real estate agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty.

Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Synagogue in East Baltimore’s Jonestown neighborhood met with a group of rabbis immediately following the unrest to provide support to the areas heavily affected by violence. The reactions from his congregants varied based on their backgrounds.

B’nai Israel Rabbi Eitan Mintz leads a Jonestown neighborhood vigil in 2015. (Melissa Gerr)

B’nai Israel Rabbi Eitan Mintz leads a Jonestown neighborhood vigil in 2015. (Melissa Gerr)

“Some people remembered living through this [kind of violence] in the 1960s,” said Mintz. “Some people were focused on the injustices and the question of police accountability. Other folks had a sense of anger because they saw people burning down their city. It definitely gave the city a bad image.”

Despite this, Mintz added, people didn’t necessarily feel the urge to abandon Baltimore but rather wanted to ensure the city would come out stronger after self-introspection.

“Nothing happens in a day. Communities, organizations and governments need to work together to find a mutually beneficial solution going forward,” said Rabbi Ariel Fishman, director of JHeritage, an urban educational and social organization for young Jewish adults at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “I think that what we can do on a practical level is build a positive outlook. When you have a situation where there’s been a lot of baggage and pain, the only way you can start to develop that in a positive direction is with acts of kindness.”

It’s a challenging time for Baltimore but also an opportunistic time because people are looking to have an impact.

— Rabbi Jessy Gross, founder, Charm City Tribe

Mintz added that many of his congregants wanted to enact positive change and see the inequities and systemic problems addressed. “There was a real sense of wanting to make a difference,” he said.

Fishman, who regularly speaks with prospective students, has a message for those on the fence about coming to the city for school or employment.

“Baltimore isn’t just about something that you want to [avoid] because there were some issues in the past,” he said. “There are still issues that we need to take care of, but there are [also] opportunities for change. [These are] opportunities where we can work together as a community, both within the Jewish and the general community to try to find a way to go forward.”

Steven Gondol (provided)

Steven Gondol (provided)

Live Baltimore is an organization, founded 18 years ago, that focuses on portraying the city through positive marketing.

“I do respect and realize there is a crime problem,” said Steven Gondol, its executive director. “We had one of our worst years [in 2015], but I don’t think it affects every neighborhood to the same degree. We recognize we have a problem. We recognize it’s not the whole city, [but] it does paint the image [of the city] as being violent.”

Live Baltimore studied the city’s real estate market following the unrest by examining factors such as number of homes being sold, who is buying homes (traditional homeowners or investors) and the number of days a home is on the market.

Joe Quinn (provided)

Joe Quinn (provided)

Baltimore’s population has declined for several decades since hitting its peak, just short of 1 million in 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gondol, who studied urban planning at the University of Cincinnati, explained that Baltimore’s initial decline in population was not unique.

Following World War II, many American cities experienced population decline due to housing policies that supported suburban migration for returning servicemen and safety issues in cities that stemmed from unbalanced employment opportunities and neighborhood destabilization, among other issues.

While Baltimore’s real estate market did lag shortly following the unrest, according to Merbler, the market did not falter as much as people may have expected.

Gondol said when cities experience disruptive events, such as in Baltimore, the first red flag is a large influx of new homes being listed — a signal that people are panicking and trying to leave. Home sales and values would drop, and the average days of homes on the market would rise.

Bob Merbler (provided)

Bob Merbler (provided)

But “fewer homes were being listed, so people weren’t panicking. We saw home values [and the number of sales] go up and days on the market drop,” said Gondol on the months following the unrest. “It defied everything that a textbook would say would happen after a major incident like that. That baffles people; they would have expected this huge drop, [but] it followed the trend of [the previous year].”

Gondol added that not only were home sales up 25 percent from May 2014 to the beginning of 2015, but 60 percent were being financed — rather than being purchased with cash — which is a sign that the property is being bought by a traditional homeowner instead of an investor.

 Scott Lederer (provided)

Scott Lederer (provided)

“We look at inventory in the real estate world and gauge it by the number of months to deplete everything on the market for sale,” said Scott Lederer, broker and Maryland regional president at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty. “In a normal market we would expect six months of inventory. We’re closer to four in Baltimore City, which means we don’t have enough homes to sell right now.”

Gondol attributes the market’s behavior to the power of social media and distribution of information that kept Baltimoreans well informed on the reality of the situation in a way that was unavailable in 1968, when riots broke out across the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Prospective mayoral candidates, in anticipation of the upcoming election, have cited the need for population growth in the city as a platform issue.

But Donn Worgs, associate political science professor at Towson University, said the challenge of bringing in new residents is a balancing act.

“[A mayor has] to create a sense that the city is growing and evolving and is an attractive place for these newcomers,” Worgs said. “The challenge is, can you do that while not losing existing residents?”

Domino Sugar Factory (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

Domino Sugar Factory (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

Worgs added that depending on the economic profile of new residents and where they choose to live could cause gentrification, which can lead to tensions that drive longstanding residents away.

“The mayor is the chief salesperson for the city, [but] at this particular time, the mayor’s race will be decided by how people [already here] manage things inside the city,” said Worgs. “It’s kind of like getting your house in order before you [have an open house].”

Businesses play a large part in attracting new residents through recruitment. Joe Quinn is the chief human resources officer for LifeBridge Health.

When asked about how he reconciles Baltimore being between major cities such as New York and Washington, Quinn said he considers Baltimore’s geography an advantage because it has ease-of-access into other larger cities.

“If someone is looking at a different [city], they are looking at the opportunity [of the job] rather than what does Baltimore have to offer,” said Quinn.

Baltimore neighborhoods (Photo by David Stuck)

Baltimore neighborhoods (Photo by David Stuck)

Visit Baltimore generates economic benefits through the attraction of convention, group and leisure visitors. This includes overseeing the Baltimore Convention Center.

One tool the organization uses to gauge its success is “definite future room nights” booked within its fiscal year. These include different events such as conventions, meetings, family reunions, weddings and group tours.

A room night is the equivalent of a single night stay by a visitor.

“The unrest of April 2015 and resulting negative media attention was felt in a slower than usual [fourth-quarter] sales figure, with several major citywide groups deferring their booking decisions to fiscal year 2016,” according to Visit Baltimore’s financial report. “While total room nights booked in fiscal year 2015 fell below prior years, Visit Baltimore is still outperforming our [peer cities] and booking convention center business at a rate to maximize the Baltimore Convention Center’s impact.”

Washington Monument (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

Washington Monument (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

From 2010 to 2014, Convention Center activity generated 337,877 room nights per year on average; and it only booked 225,777 room nights in 2015. Despite the drop, said Visit Baltimore president and CEO Tom Noonan, the deferred business puts the company ahead of schedule at the start of its fiscal year.

“People are not being scared off by unrest,” said Noonan. The question that remains unanswered is, how much better we would have been without unrest?”

Rabbi Jessy Gross, founder of Charm City Tribe, an organization that is part of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jewish Community Center, works to bring Jewish young professionals together who live in Baltimore City.

Gross said the group’s strength comes from what others might consider a deficiency. Since it has no official residence, CCT meets in public spaces around the city, which results in attracting people who may not seek out a Jewish experience, to come and learn.

She sees Baltimore’s size and challenges as something that actually attracts people.

“[Baltimore] is a small enough city that you can be somebody but large enough that you have options,” Gross said. “It’s also in a state of transition and people are interested in [making a change]. It’s a challenging time for Baltimore but also an opportunistic time because people are looking to have an impact.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Clinton, Trump to Headline AIPAC Gathering

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016. (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016. (Gage Skidmore)

The 2016 presidential campaign will make a stop at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington next week, where front-runners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will address an expected 18,000 attendees at the pro-Israel advocacy organization’s annual event.

The conference, March 20-22 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center, comes after AIPAC’s defeat in its bid to stop passage of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by the United States and five other world powers. Iran will still be on the agenda, with sessions that discuss its compliance with the deal and likelihood of it continuing to develop a nuclear weapon.

This will be Clinton’s fourth address to the conference. The Democrat spoke twice when she was a senator and more recently when she was secretary of state. Trump has not addressed an AIPAC conference. But in December he addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition and described himself as “a negotiator like you folks” and insisted that he would be able to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The conference comes after AIPAC’s defeat in its bid to stop passage of the Iran nuclear deal.

All Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been invited to speak, said an AIPAC source, who spoke on background. This is key in seeing where a potential president believes the U.S.-Israel relationship stands, the source said.

Iran was the key issue during the last two conferences. Both featured addresses from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly condemned any agreement between the United States and Iran.

Netanyahu had planned to speak at this year’s conference in conjunction with a scheduled visit to the White House. However, last week, he canceled his trip to Washington and will speak to AIPAC via satellite.

Netanyahu said his office determined that he would not be able to meet with Obama ahead of the president’s trip to Cuba on March 21. But National Security Council spokesman Ned Price disputed this rationale, saying that the White House had offered to arrange a meeting between the two leaders on March 18.

Other Israeli speakers include Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Knesset member Ofer Shelah and former ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor.

Other topics to be discussed will be U.S. security assistance to Israel; the two countries are negotiating an increased defense aid package beginning in 2018. The potential for bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians is also on the conference agenda.

AIPAC’s actions, particularly working with Republicans and Congress to oppose the administration-supported Iran nuclear deal, revived criticisms that the once bipartisan pro- Israel group is now firmly aligned with the GOP.

Last summer, AIPAC spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign that was carried out by the group Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. AIPAC also lobbied members of Congress to oppose the deal.

When the Senate voted, all Republicans and four Democrats came out against the nuclear agreement.

Former AIPAC executive director Morris Amitay said AIPAC remains a bipartisan organization, but Obama’s foreign policy has complicated American support for Israel.

“As far as partisan, [the conference] is partisan because we have a Democratic president who’s been the worst president on Israel we’ve ever had.”

“A lot of the senators were under incredible pressure to go with [Obama],” Amitay said. “It’s not the first big fight that AIPAC or the pro-Israel community has lost.”

Clinton supported the Iran deal, as did Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md), and both will also speak at the conference. Vice President Joe Biden also is scheduled to speak.

Longtime AIPAC member Steve Sheffey of Chicago said he thinks Clinton’s presence is simply an attempt to “create the appearance of bipartisanship”.

He said AIPAC is committing “political malpractice” by punishing Democrats who supported the deal but are otherwise pro-Israel.

“AIPAC’s past work has earned it the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last fall, “but there is a limit to how long voices like mine can be marginalized.” JT

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Annual CJC Book Fair Is Kick Start to Passover

While Jewish children have opportunities to learn about the tradition of Passover each year, the classroom can be  a challenging place for the youngest members of a synagogue’s congregation.

In an effort to create a more engaging atmosphere around the study of Passover, Columbia Jewish Congregation will host its third annual Passover Book Fair at the Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City.

“[The book fair is] a great opportunity for parents with little kids to expose them to music, to Jewish culture and to celebrate the holidays when their kids are young,” said Gail Goldstein, who has been a member at CJC for 15 years.

Goldstein added that while her children are a bit older, they still attend the book fair when able to help with the event.

The congregation holds the book fair on March 13 to  ensure it doesn’t conflict with other events and holidays leading up to Passover. CJC will host an additional event also connected to Passover in April called Journey to Freedom.

“[We’ll be] engaging our youngest students in music and singing. Some of our preschool teachers will lead us in song, and there’s going to be crafts to make an Elijah’s Cup or bookmarks,” said Karen Russell, membership director at CJC.

Goldstein said the Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City has a small stage the event can  utilize, which, along with  decorations, helps to provide a fun and engaging atmosphere for younger ages.

While there is a fundraising element to the event — the book fair raised just more than $150 combined in the past two years — the main goal is to  engage not only young children, but also entire families and give them an opportunity to connect with each other.

“I enjoyed taking [my kids] to things like this because it’s an opportunity to expose them to music and crafts,” said Goldstein. “But when they are surrounded by something that is in their heritage, culture and religion, it adds an extra depth to fulfilling my responsibility as a mother.”

The holiday of Passover,  Russell said, still holds relevance today not only as a religious  tradition, but also as a lesson in migration and immigration. She hopes the event will echo for people, Jewish or not,  issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis, where even today people are “searching for their freedom.”

Russell said, “I think those are topics that are not going away and are very relevant and important, regardless of religion. And that also happens to be our story of Passover.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com


 

Passover Book Fair
4300 Montgomery Road, Ellicott City
10 a.m. to noon
Call Robin Rosenfeld for more information, (410) 730-6044, ext. 4

BJC Adocates in Annapolis

More than 200 Jews from across Maryland gathered in Annapolis Tuesday, March 1 for the annual Jewish Advocacy Day — a day where constituents from the Jewish community meet with legislators to lobby for the legislation they hope will pass in the current session, which runs through April 11. This included several members of the Baltimore Jewish Council who were pushing for legislation dealing with disability rights, harassment and universal voter registration.

Throughout the day, constituents had a chance to meet with their elected officials. In the District 11 delegation meeting, Dels. Shelly Hettleman and Dan Morhaim made brief appearances.

“Your being here is helpful. Your writing to us, your calling us, your letting us know about what is important is incredibly important,” Hettleman said.

Morhaim echoed those sentiments and directed part of his encouragement toward a young boy sitting in the front of the room.

“If you’d like to come down to testify in Annapolis, you don’t have to be 18, you don’t have to be a citizen, you don’t have to be a lobbyist. All you have to be is patient and wait your turn, but we will listen to you,” he said.

BJC director of public affairs Madeline Suggs said constituent meetings are a critical component of Advocacy Day.

“Even though a lot of our constituents are meeting with their local legislators while they’re at home, there’s a huge power in numbers in Annapolis,” she said. “And to get a huge group coming down to Annapolis, talking about what’s important to them really has a powerful effect to make sure the legislation gets passed.”

Among the legislation  important to the BJC is a bill that would widen the definition of stalking and harassment to anything intended to cause “serious emotional distress to another.” The law currently only considers stalking when there is “malicious,” intent.

Members of CHANA were on hand in the District 11  delegation meeting to make their case for the bill, which they feel would help some of their clients who are struggling with issues — such as in one case when a client received 100 texts in quick succession from a former spouse.

“The key part of the stalking bill that has been of most  importance has been to add a component of seeing serious emotional distress as harm that would elevate this to a crime,” said Lauren Shavitz who serves as the program  director of CHANA. “Often, people who are victims of stalking might not have issues that rise to the level of what the current law says.”

Shavitz said that the bill is important because it seeks to dispel the notion that a victim of stalking or harassment must have a serious injury or constantly be living in fear in order to receive protection under the law.

“It’s not always the typical stalking behavior that people think of where there’s someone lurking behind the bushes and then jumps out and might attack or scare them,” she said.

BJC director of government relations Sarah Mersky added that this bill is a priority since CHANA and BJC are both agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “That bill is specifically important to us because we represent CHANA,” she said.

The BJC also advocated for the ABLE Act, which allows states to establish a tax-advantaged savings program that would allow eligible people with disabilities to set up a separate account earmarked for qualified health-related  expenses such as medical or dental care, transportation and housing without losing Medicaid or Social Security benefits. Currently, if a person with disabilities holds more than $2,000 in assets, he or she does not qualify. The ABLE Act is similar to a college savings program. BJC board member Elizabeth Green, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, said creating a savings fund is key to the success of this population.

“The biggest piece of what those with disabilities need is health insurance,” she said. “If they could get health insurance without paying for other things that they need to pay for, then they could put aside savings for other things. But unfortunately they’re all tied together.”

The ABLE Act will provide funding for people with  disabilities who receive assistance from agencies of The  Associated including SHEMESH and CHAI, Mersky said.

The BJC also has secured funding for a number of budget items including $2 million for fiscal year 2017 and $4 million over the course of 2018 and 2019 that will go  toward the construction of a primary and specialty care complex at Sinai Hospital.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Israel Touts Gay-Friendly Climate, But Rights Fight Faces Religious Firewall

Thousands march during the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Thousands march during the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

TEL AVIV — As the last Tuesday in February ended, it felt like Israel’s gay community had taken a major step forward.

On Feb. 23, eight separate Israeli parliamentary committees convened to discuss a broad set of issues facing the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Lawmakers from a range of parties talked about protecting LGBT Israelis in the classroom, at home, in government offices and in the army. That afternoon, the parliament officially recognized “Gay Rights Day in the Knesset.”

But 24 hours later, the  atmosphere was markedly  different.

On Feb. 24, the Knesset voted down a cluster of bills aiming at increasing LGBT rights. The defeated bills —  including measures to establish civil unions, provide government benefits to the same-sex partners of fallen soldiers, prohibit gay conversion therapy and mandate training for health care professionals  in LGBT issues — were all proposed by opposition legislators and rejected by Israel’s governing coalition.

“It’s historic that on one day, our issues were discussed in depth in all of the committees,” said Chen Arieli, co-chair of Aguda, an Israeli LGBT rights group. “What happened the next day was very sad.”

The contrast points to a dissonance in how Israel treats its LGBT community and their legal rights. For years, Israeli leaders have trumpeted the country’s welcoming climate toward gays and lesbians,  especially when compared to Israel’s neighbors. Tel Aviv in particular is known as a mecca for gays, complete with a gay beach and a raucous annual pride parade.

But in the halls of government, gay Israelis have long faced a firewall of religious parties that have blocked  pro-LGBT legislation. Gay couples cannot marry, adopt children or have surrogate pregnancies in Israel, though the government does recognize adoptions and gay marriages performed abroad.

Speaking Feb. 24 in the Knesset, Israel’s haredi Orthodox health minister, Yaakov Litzman, invoked the biblical story of the golden calf in expressing his rejection of the pro-LGBT bills.

Mickey Gitzin, founder of Be Free Israel, which promotes religious freedom, spoke of  “a big gap between the legal situation and the social situation.”

“Socially, Israel is a liberal state. To be LGBT isn’t so bad or terrible,” he said. “But legally, we’re among the most backward states in the world.”

Personifying that tension is one junior lawmaker, Amir Ohana, who has borne much of the criticism for last week’s about-face at the Knesset.

Socially, Israel is a liberal state.  To be LGBT isn’t so bad or  terrible. But legally, we’re  among the most backward  states in the world.
— Mickey Gitzin, founder of Be Free Israel

 

Ohana, who is gay and lives in Tel Aviv with his partner and two children, was previously seen as an LGBT success story. A former army officer, Shin Bet intelligence agency official and lawyer, Ohana  entered the Knesset with the ruling Likud party in December. He is the only gay lawmaker in the coalition, and one of only two in the 120-seat Knesset.

But though he supports  increased rights for LGBT  Israelis, Ohana exited the plenum for the Feb. 24 votes. When LGBT activists accused him of hypocrisy, Ohana  attributed the move to his  responsibility to the coalition.

In a Facebook post that day, Ohana defended himself as  a fighter for LGBT rights,  describing his decision to  exit the Knesset as a principled move to avoid voting against bills that were going to  fail anyway.

“Members of the coalition are obligated to observe coalition discipline,” he wrote. “They’re not masters of their own fate. Israel has almost no freedom to vote, nor is there a freedom to be absent.”

In Israel’s parliamentary system, coalition lawmakers are expected to vote with the government when it decides to support or oppose a bill. If  individual lawmakers deviate, they can be taken off committees or have other privileges taken away.

Responsibility for determining which bills gain coalition support lies with the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a Cabinet panel composed of representatives of the coalition parties. The committee determines which bills to bring to the Knesset and which opposition measures to support.  Because the coalition represents a majority of lawmakers, the committee essentially determines which bills become law.

Hovav Yannai, Knesset  coordinator for the Social Guard, a nonprofit aiming to increase Knesset accountability on social issues, says this is the reason Israel’s laws don’t match its reputation on gay issues.  Majorities of Israelis support pro-LGBT reform, and Yannai estimates that at least two-thirds of Knesset members would support equal rights for LGBT Israelis if they had the freedom to do so.

But the fact that a handful of committee members determines which bills gain coalition support grants outsized influence to smaller parties, which can bring down a government if they don’t get their way.  Israel’s current coalition  government includes the haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which oppose LGBT rights.

“Governments work according to political agreements, not for the wider public,” Yannai said. “I don’t see positive change coming for the LGBT community in the near future as long as the Israeli government includes non-liberal religious parties.”

Absent improvements in gay rights, Arieli suggests that coalition Knesset members are being hypocritical by praising the LGBT community while stymieing its legislative agenda.

“You stand on our stages, march in our marches, give us speeches,” she said. “It’s time  to walk the walk. We want  actions, not just words.”

Gloria Harris, Mentor and Matriarch

Gloria S. Harris (provided)

Gloria S. Harris (provided)

Gloria Harris, a founder of the Edward A. Myerberg Center who spent much of her life  involved in Baltimore’s Jewish communal organizations, passed away on Feb. 22. She was 91. Her family and friends remember her as a decisive leader and true matriarch.

“She was a ball of fire, and she burned to be of service,” said Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. “She said what she meant and she meant what she said. If you had a problem with it, then that was your problem, not hers.”

Harris grew up in Windsor Hills and, aside from attending Northwestern University, was a lifetime Baltimorean. Shortly after graduating, she married Sanford Harris, to whom she was married for 58 years.

“She really was the hardest working person that I ever knew, and she never really had a job,” said Harris’ son, Edward. “She was a professional volunteer.”

Harris was an active member, and at one point president,  of the Ladies Auxiliary of Levindale (now known as the Levindale Auxiliary), a community group that organizes and hosts events for the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital.

“I learned so much after the fact — in terms of what she did,” said her grandson, Bobby Harris. “She was truly the  matriarch of our family.”

Harris was active in The  Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, acting as the women’s campaign chair in 1970 and 1971. She also was the Associated Women’s president from 1979 to 1981 and was honored with the Elkan R. Myers Memorial Award for “dedicated leadership and  devotion to the highest ideals of community service.”

She was a ball of fire, and she burned to be of service. She said what she meant and she meant what she said. If you had a problem with it, then that was your problem, not hers.
— Beth Tfiloh Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg

 

Harris was also presented in 1983 with the Hannah G. Solomon Award for her time as the chair of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“She has inspired me to pursue my career path [because] she was dedicated to volunteering and helping people in need,” said her granddaughter, Lindsey Harris. “I have pursued a career in special education, and I have her in mind when I’m working with students.”

Lindsey had a special relationship with her grandmother, being the first girl to be born in the family in two generations, and has taken on many of her grandmother’s attributes.

“She was a woman who  enjoyed glitz and glamor, and she treated me to those kind of things,” said Lindsey. “Everyone calls me ‘Little Gloria.’ It’s  kind of an honor for me to be called that.”

One of Harris’ best known endeavors was her work toward the opening of the Edward A. Myerberg Center in 1976, an adult health and wellness center that boasts 1,200 members.

“Gloria has been my mentor, and she’s almost been my mother too,” said Deverah Routman, who met Harris through the Myerberg Center and knew her for 12 years. “She was my Baltimore friend and my Florida friend. My friends in Florida went out with her like she was part the gang.”

Harris and husband Sanford regularly traveled between Baltimore and Florida each winter.

“After my father passed away, she was worried about how she was going to [travel] without Sandy,” said her son, Donald. “But she went down there [alone], and [made] many new friends.”

Those close to Harris all  remember her for her personality and character.

Grandson Zachary Harris said, “I’ll remember her as a very generous lady who was not afraid to speak her mind.”

Gloria S. Harris (née Sagner) is survived by sons Donald (Janice) Harris and Edward Harris; grandchildren Robert, Zachary and Lindsay Harris; and by many loving nieces and nephews.

She is preceded in death by her husband, Sanford Harris and sister Elaine Wasserman.

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Delegate’s Bill Holds Life Insurers Accountable

Del. Sandy Rosenberg’s bill is based on similar legislation adopted in Colorado. Photo by Melissa Ger

Del. Sandy Rosenberg’s bill is based on similar legislation adopted in Colorado. Photo by Melissa Ger

A two-year quest by Maryland state Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) to pass a law that would crack down on life insurance companies that attempt to limit coverage based on an individual’s travel destinations is making progress in the General Assembly.

House Bill 803 would prevent insurers from charging different rates or refusing coverage to anyone based on future travel plans. It passed the House on March 4 and went to the Senate for consideration.

Rosenberg worked on similar legislation in 2005 that prevented insurance companies from discriminating against clients based on prior travel. The issue of future travel came up when a constituent, Ken Birnbaum, an agent with New York Life, approached Rosenberg about difficulties he was having in securing coverage for a client who planned to travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Rosenberg first introduced his bill in the 2015 session. It died after receiving an unfavorable report in the Senate Health and Government
Operations Committee.

This year, Rosenberg remodeled it, based on similar legislation adopted 10 years ago in Colorado.

“I put the bill in last year, and it did not pass, and then around the same time decided to model the bill after the one that had passed in Colorado,” said the 33-year House veteran. “I was violating one of my own principles of bill drafting, which is don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Rosenberg said that this session he sold the bill to House members by explaining that discrimination from an insurance company against a client based on travel plans to a country deemed “unsafe,” must be backed up by a travel advisory from the State Department and include data that illustrates the degree of danger visitors to that country face.

It is unclear how widespread the practice is. But in 1996, Israel-bound clients of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. were denied coverage. Then-New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver co-sponsored legislation similar to Rosenberg’s. Met Life soon reversed its policy.

In 2004, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that would have declared any discrimination by insurance companies based on travel a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. At the time, several major life insurance companies were denying coverage to Israel-bound clients. The bill died in committee.

Birnbaum said in an interview that he believes insurers have a bias against travel to Israel. Rosenberg did not accuse insurance companies of singling out Israel.

“My recollection is that there was testimony at last year’s bill hearing that a similar action had been taken regarding travel to another country,” he said.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com