Nasser’s Heir?

Egyptian Minister of Defense General Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi bids farewell to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry  earlier this year. (State Department/Public Domain)

Egyptian Minister of Defense General Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi bids farewell to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year. (State Department/Public Domain)

Will Egypt’s military strong man, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, become the country’s next president? And will the Egyptian leader he most closely resembles be Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army officer who established an aggressive, nationalist military-backed regime that sought to establish Egypt’s pre-eminence in the Arab world? There are good reasons to think so.

The trial of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, which began Monday and was quickly adjourned, shows just how fast things have changed in the four short months since Morsi was overthrown in a military coup led by al-Sisi. Until July, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood was the leading political force in Egypt. Since then, al-Sisi and the armed forces have conducted a brutal crackdown against the Brotherhood, not paralleled since the Nasser era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Al-Sisi’s effort to identify with Nasser appears to be deliberate. For example, al-Sisi had a prominent role at the recent 43rd memorial ceremony of Nasser’s death, and he includes Nasser’s picture with his own on political posters that appear throughout Egypt. What can we expect next from General al-Sisi?

Thus far, al-Sisi’s regime has been respectful of Egypt’s longstanding treaty with Israel. Perhaps that’s because al-Sisi has been so busy trying to neutralize domestic opposition to his regime and seeking to control the militants in the Sinai who threaten the military government. As a result, the common wisdom is that as long as Israel doesn’t challenge al-Sisi, the cold peace relationship is likely to hold.

Instead, al-Sisi appears to be trying to bolster his Arab world credentials by standing up to the United States. In doing so, al-Sisi is tapping into a deep well of suspicion and outright hatred of America among some Egyptians ñ which has been exacerbated by the U.S. opposition to the coup against Morsi, as well as the decision to withhold aid to Egypt. That al-Sisi-led Egyptian opposition is of concern to the U.S. and appears to have motivated Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprise stop in Cairo this week before his planned meetings with the Saudis. For their part, the Saudis, who have their own grievances against Washington, are pouring billions of dollars into Egypt. And the combination of Saudi and other Arab state largess to Egypt has virtually neutralized the financial impact of the U.S. decision to withhold aid.

So where is this all going?

We are witnessing a high-stakes political chess game in the troubled Middle East. The once-prominent and respected role of the United States in the region is diminishing rapidly. Those few friends the U.S. still has in the region are on edge. They need to see steady, reliable and credible leadership from Washington. And so do we.

Strange Bedfellows And Marriages Of Convenience

Former Saudi ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud confers with Israeli strategic affairs analyst Yossi Alpher at the National Iranian American Council conference in Washington on Oct. 15. (NIAC)

Former Saudi ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud confers with Israeli strategic affairs analyst Yossi Alpher at the National Iranian American Council conference in Washington on Oct. 15. (NIAC)

Is there really a serious breach between the United States and Saudi Arabia?  And if so, how far will it go? In the last two weeks, the Saudis have signaled that they want to put some daylight between themselves, on the one hand, and the U.S., the West and the United Nations Security Council, on the other. Just how much daylight remains to be seen.

The Saudis are reacting to what they see as a change in U.S. policy, and Washington’s strategic withdrawal from the Middle East. In the kingdom’s eyes, there has been a substantial weakening of America’s commitment to a military shield that protected close U.S. allies and kept the region more or less stable. That stability essentially guaranteed the security of Saudi Arabia and its oil wealth. But the times are changing.

In mid-October, the Saudis announced their refusal to take a seat on the U.N. Security Council. That announcement was reported to be driven by a series of Saudi concerns about the U.S. and the West, including the U.N.’s failure to intervene to stop the Syrian civil war because of veto threats by Russia and China, America’s confused response to the Syrian crisis and Washington’s recent overtures to Iran, the kingdom’s regional nemesis. Added to that, America’s support for Egyptian President Morsi after his overthrow, including the penalty imposed on the military government now running the country, makes the U.S. look undependable in Saudi eyes.

Saudi concerns with regard to Iran seem to put it in the same boat as Israel. Both countries worry that the United States will loosen its sanctions against Iran without forcing Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Each feels a genuine existential threat from Iran. Thus, while it is difficult to imagine the Arab theocracy and the Jewish democracy on the same side of any issue, the nature of the threats both countries feel from Iran could provide an impetus for some relationship of convenience.

In many respects, Saudi Arabia is well versed in the development of alliances based upon shared interests, rather than shared values.  That is what has defined the U.S.-Saudi relationship: The U.S. wants regional stability and oil; the Saudis want security. And both countries want to fight terrorism. Those interests haven’t changed. But there are now questions raised by the Saudis and others about how committed the U.S. remains to issues that affect certain aspects of regional security.

In light of these developments, a new alliance of convenience could be developed between the Saudis and the Israelis as they both see the waning of Western support for continued sanctions against Iran. Stranger things have happened.

Conservative Judaism at 100

Rabbi Steven Wernick says the Conservative movement “only exists ... to perpetuate a worldview of Jewish life.” (David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Wernick says the Conservative movement “only exists … to perpetuate a worldview of Jewish life.”
(David Stuck)

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism just observed its 100th birthday. And even according to its most ardent supporters, it is suffering serious signs of old age. At its Centennial conference this week here in Baltimore, the movement’s leaders sought to play up Conservative Judaism’s strengths and energize the faithful, while using new language in an effort to deal with a quickly changing Jewish reality.

Quite simply, the new Jewish reality is challenging the future existence of United Synagogue, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm, which serves some 800 synagogues. For one, the number of synagogues that choose to affiliate with the group is in decline. And in the process, United Synagogue is losing touch with some of the movement’s up-and-coming rabbis.

Second, the organization finds itself in a multiyear budget hole — more than $1 million in the red in 2013. That’s less than in previous years but almost twice as much as projected. Budget concerns have forced the group to take a hard look at how it deploys dwindling resources and has led to the decision to cut the movement’s college outreach program, Koach. Meanwhile, the number of Solomon Schechter day schools, a Conservative institution not under the United Synagogue umbrella, has fallen sharply.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, affiliation with the Conservative movement is dropping fast. Indeed, according to a Pew Research Center study published earlier this month, only 18 percent of U.S. Jews currently identify as Conservative, which is a significant decline from 43 percent in 1990.

Seeking to address the concern with an upbeat message, Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s CEO, argued that affiliation with the movement is not the top priority. Rather, “the movement only exists in order to perpetuate a worldview of Jewish life,” and that is the focus of United Synagogue on a going-forward basis.

While it is unquestionably refreshing for an organizational leader to argue for the primacy of an idea rather than an institution, the new approach is not without risk. That gambit will only succeed if leaders can convince stakeholders, including ordinary synagogue-goers, to embrace the attitudinal changes now being advanced. We hope they succeed. But a change in view is not going to pay the bills. And given the sharp falloff in affiliation with the movement over the past decade, the challenges are clear.

There was much talk at the Centennial conference about the switch to intangibles — relationships and worldviews — and how the ideas of the movement are as strong and vital as ever. That sounds good, and we hope the claims hold true. But at the end of the day, a movement is about people. And unless the movement succeeds in attracting more followers, the marketplace will speak in ways that leadership fears most.

Tyranny Of The Minority

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) watches as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) addresses the press following a House Republican party meeting on Capitol Hill earlier this week. (JASON REED/REUTERS/Newscom)

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) watches as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) addresses the press following a House Republican party meeting on Capitol Hill earlier this week. (JASON REED/REUTERS/Newscom)

The government shutdown, which is now in its second week, is an outrage. And the continued dysfunctionality of the legislative branch of our federal government is an embarrassment. With accusations, threats and sound bites being exchanged by frustrated leadership on both sides, one sometimes loses focus on the real culprits in this sad story.

The truth is, we are being held hostage by some 40 Tea Party Republicans, whose allegiance to their ideology surpasses their interest in democracy or the public good. So, with their narrow focus on the evils of the Affordable Care Act and their commitment to stymy anything associated with President Barack Obama, the Tea Party faithful have forced what the local media has labeled a “shutdown breakdown.”

Government funding bills are not rocket science. And in the absence of a manufactured crisis, a “clean bill” would have sailed through Congress this year, as it does almost every year. Thus, while politicians may have legitimate differences of opinion on programs, focus and the proper functioning of government, all used to agree that it was best to argue about those things while the government was actually still operating. Not so for the Tea Party faithful. They saw an opportunity for making another grand statement and grabbed it. And in the process they have caused more hardship, displacement and waste than even they likely imagined.

Our Jewish community has made the best of the situation by offering financial help for those who need it and by opening synagogue doors and school study halls for those affected to gather socially or to use the extra time for Torah study. While these responses are constructive, they should not lull us into forgetting how nearly unprecedented the situation is. In very simple terms — the shutdown is a mess.

Next up is the Oct. 17 deadline to raise the debt ceiling. Will this piece of routine business be turned into another manufactured crisis? In addition to hurting or inconveniencing roughly 320 million Americans, the Tea Party minority is forcing attention and time away from the serious work the government should be doing.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. Some see a revolt brewing within Republican ranks against the Tea Party. That would be a good thing — for Democrats and Republicans alike. The two parties need to be able to do business with one another and to work through issues with good faith, compassion and reasonableness. That’s never been more clear than today.

The Hard Reality Of The New Pew Report

The latest study by the Pew Research Center put on paper a lot of what our communal leaders already knew. Intermarriage is on the rise (71percent of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarried) and younger Jews are opting out of ritual and affiliation (1/3 of Millenials identify as Jews of no religion).

But it also reported other striking numbers which deserve attention. For instance, notwithstanding the troubling assimilation statistics, it does not appear that the Jewish population is getting smaller.  In fact, when compared to a 2000 Jewish Federation study, the North American Jewish population is now larger or at least the same size as it was more than a decade ago.  So what does that statistic tell us?  And what segment of our community is growing?

According to the report, those Jews identifying as Orthodox remained 10 percent of the population, those identifying as Conservative 18 percent, and as Reform 35 percent. And those identified as “Unaffiliated” rose to 30 percent of the Jewish population. Add to that the number of children in Jewish homes — an average of 1.7 in Orthodox home versus .3 to .4 in all other Jewish homes — it appears that the likely trajectory of growth in the North American Jewish community will be toward the right of center. Should that statistical projection hold, future retention rates should also improve, since the report indicates that Orthodox retention rate is improving, with “only” a 17 percent fall off among 18- to 29-year-olds, with the majority of de-identification and denominational switching occurring in the less traditional streams of Judaism (11 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Orthodox, versus 6 percent over 65). In contrast, Reform and Conservative are on the decline (11 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Conservative versus 24 percent of those over 65; 29 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Reform, versus 38 percent over 65).

Adding to the issues of concern, however, is that an increasing number of Jews appear to identify themselves as “Jewish” based on conventional moral values that are not tied to religious belief or practice.  The concern being that such “morality-based Judaism” lacks the unique Jewish character to promote future generations of engaged Jews.

The good news for Jewish Baltimore is two-fold. Comparing our community’s 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study with the Pew report, we are trailing behind on some of the less-than-comfortable national trends. For example, Jewish Baltimore has much less intermarriage (20 percent), and a much higher affiliation rate (46 percent belong to a congregation).   But while those numbers should give us some communal comfort, the trends — even in Baltimore — are troubling.

We all agree on the goal:  To strengthen and grow our Jewish community, to assure the continuity of the Jewish people and to promote Jewish identification and affiliation.  And, by and large, we also appear to agree on some of the best means for assuring those results:  day school education for our children, Jewish camping programs and Israel experiences.  We urge further investment in these activities, and a focused effort to expand recruitment of more of our children into one or more of these program opportunities. The problem is that those efforts alone are not enough.  Even within those segments of the population that are exposed to those programs, we are seeing too high a fall-off rate.

The Orthodox community’s statistics appear to be far more impressive than those of the other streams, though there has been some attrition there, too. Orthodox leadership should not be satisfied when Pew reports that only 48percent of those raised Orthodox are currently Orthodox. This is so even if the Orthodox community is found by the Pew report to be “much younger, on average, and tend to have much larger families than the overall Jewish population [which] suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow.” Losing a reported 52 percent of your population is unacceptable. But the problems are far more pronounced in the other streams.

Given these statistical realities, we urge a comprehensive communal self-evaluation, focused on means for promoting those issues which unite us rather than evaluating those which pull us apart.  Let’s invest our communal resources in those activities and programs which promote Jewish continuity, survival and growth, rather than those which simply support the status quo.

See related story, “Pew Survey of U.S. Jews.”

We’ve Seen This Before

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Law enforcement officers form a staging area on the streets outside the scene of a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS/Newscom)

We mourn for the 12 victims of Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard and wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured. And we thank the police officers who ended the killing spree before the number of casualties grew even higher.

But for the individual lives lost and the particular location of the rampage, we can’t help thinking that we’ve seen this before. There was a resigned element of deja vu in President Barack Obama’s announcement on Monday that “we are confronting yet another mass shooting.” And there was something practiced in the media’s two-steps-forward-one-step-back coverage as the details of the killings grew and changed over the course of the day. Were there three suspects? Two? Finally there was only one — 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, who had been discharged by the Navy Reserves and was described as having “anger-management problems” and “mental issues.”

Boston, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown — and for our region, add to the list snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, anthrax and the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon — all have conditioned us to an almost rote reaction: Is this terrorism? If not, what would cause someone to pick up an automatic weapon and fire indiscriminately?

Each horrific shooting leads to calls for a ban on assault weapons and other gun-control safeguards, only to have the effort beaten back by the National Rifle Association, until each renewed effort toward gun-control legislation dies from exhaustion.

After the shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., last December, the high level of public outrage encouraged the White House to propose gun-control legislation. At the time, we said that “the president’s emphasis on universal background checks and a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is a good place to start.” But nothing happened.

So, what have we learned? We’ve seen this before, and we still have no meaningful legislative or other governmental response. Without further restrictions or controls, we know it is going to happen again. Which raises the question of how many outrages people will watch before they stop looking?

Resolve And Hope On Yom Kippur

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The National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York

With the High Holidays falling at the earliest time since 1899, they also coincide with the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In the dozen years since that fateful day of horror and tragedy, the initial sense of dread and helplessness has in many ways given way to resolve, hope and a greater understanding and acceptance of this country’s religious minorities — with Jews being among the smallest.

The 9/11 attacks led to an immediate response by President George W. Bush that U.S. Muslims were not guilty by association and that Islam is not America’s enemy. That set the standard for acceptance and, despite the added scrutiny they underwent and continue to undergo, American Muslims began to step out of the shadows as a community.

The interfaith Unity Walk in Washington on Sunday was another outgrowth of the 9/11 attacks. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Baha’is, Buddhists and others gathered at Washington Hebrew Congregation to begin their walk to demonstrate that religious differences can lead to curiosity and friendship, not just death and war.

While the walk had its seed in the attacks, 9/11 wasn’t a prerequisite for the increase in interreligious activity. Much the same can be said of the Yom Kippur War 40 years ago. The attack by Egypt and Syria on an unprepared Israel on Yom Kippur took 2,600 Israeli lives, shook Israel’s self-confidence and devastated the country’s economy. It also led to a peace treaty with Egypt that still stands and security understandings with Syria that has kept it out of war with Israel. But the Yom Kippur War wasn’t necessary to achieve those results.

As thoughts inevitably turn to these tragic events on Yom Kippur, it is important to remember that fate has no place in Judaism. Among the teachings of Yom Kippur is that human actions can turn a life, or a situation, around. So as we take stock we must ask, are we doing enough to make the world a better place? Are we treating our neighbors as we would ourselves?

Progress can be made without tragedy. On this Yom Kippur, let’s resolve to make things better before they get worse.

Red Lines, Green Lights And Mixed Messages

President Bashar al-Assad has threatened to retaliate against Israel if the U.S. strikes Syria with missiles. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Bashar al-Assad has threatened to retaliate against Israel if the U.S. strikes Syria with missiles. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The past week has been witness to a dizzying array of political brinkmanship, even in a town like Washington, D.C., where changing strategy can be as commonplace as changing shoes.

More than a year ago, President Obama dec-lared that if Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons to attack his own people, he would be crossing a red line, and the United States would be required to take action. Last Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry gave an eloquent, impassioned and persuasive speech that outlined the case for an American response to the horrific atrocities carried out by the Assad regime against innocent civilians, including many young children. American destroyers carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles were placed within striking distance of Syrian targets. Israelis lined up for gas masks, in anticipation of potential retaliation by either Syria or Iran. An American response to Assad’s actions seemed imminent.

Then on Saturday, in a Rose Garden appearance that even surprised many in his own administration, Obama pulled back from authorizing the anticipated attack. Instead, after confirming that, as the nation’s commander in chief, he had the authority to make the decision on his own, the president announced that he would let Congress decide whether an attack on Syria should be pursued. But notwithstanding the urgency of the situation, the president did not call on Congress to come back early from its summer recess. As a result, Congress will not take up this issue until the week of Sept. 9, at the earliest.

The mood in this country is clearly against becoming embroiled in another conflict in the Middle East. And there is real concern that any potential move to punish Assad for his actions is complicated by the need to send a clear message without igniting a further conflagration that could spill over into other countries in the region, including Israel.

The current U.S. quandary with respect to Syria is plagued by bad judgments and worse choices. The U.S. and its allies clearly misjudged Assad’s staying power and the level of support he has received from his benefactors in Iran (through their proxies in Hezbollah) and from Russia and China. The president’s declaration of a red-line policy that he is not willing to execute is puzzling. And it isn’t at all clear that the alternative to Assad’s regime will be any better or more reliable. For example, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra rebel group would hardly bring peace and stability to the region.

Are all of these issues now going to be the subject of congressional debate before any responsive action decision is made? If so, what is the message that the Obama administration is sending to our allies — and to our enemies?

President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was guided by a simple principle: Speak softly and carry a big stick. By becoming entrapped in his own rhetoric and then publicly backing down from a declared plan of action, Obama may have done precisely the opposite.
See related story, “Take Action.

Hamas’ Sudden Vulnerability

Palestinians demonstrate in support of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in the Hamas-controlled southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Aug. 23.  (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinians demonstrate in support of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in the Hamas-controlled southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Aug. 23. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The chaotic changes in the Middle East have had at least one positive result at the moment: the weakening of Hamas, the terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip. Because of alignment decisions made by the Islamist group in both Egypt and Syria, Hamas has emerged as a big loser. (See related story, “The Mideast Game”)

Having been a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was first ignored and then targeted when the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi last month. Following the coup, Egypt closed hundreds of smuggling tunnels into Gaza, cutting off vital supplies, depriving the Hamas government of much-needed tax revenue and compounding the territory’s budget deficit. And because it took the side of the Sunni rebels in Syria’s civil war, Hamas also lost its patrons in Damascus and Tehran and the support of its former ally, Hezbollah.

Hamas’ newfound vulnerability has encouraged some homegrown opposition. A group called Tamarod Gaza, which took its name from the Egyptian protest group that collected millions of signatures in the days leading to Morsi’s ouster, posted a YouTube video and Facebook page calling for the overthrow of Hamas and for mass demonstrations. In response, Hamas detained 50 Tamarod Facebook fans, which appears to be a harsh response that reveals apparent concern over the possibility of a social media-supported uprising in Gaza.

We don’t feel bad for the weakened Hamas. In fact, it is hard not to feel some sense of satisfaction that Arab-world financial support for the hate-mongering terrorists has dried up.  But while we have no love for Hamas, the sober reality is that it is the only group currently strong enough to keep the peace in the simmering Gaza Strip and to stop the rockets from being launched into Israel.

And so, it is with a profound sense of irony that Israel and Hamas are reported to be coordinating with one another on security issues, and Hamas is helping to keep the peace. Adding to the confusing new reality is the description of the situation by Amos Harel, chief military correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz, who told The Washington Post:  “It’s been
like a honeymoon these days between Hamas and Israel.”

In the Middle East, it appears that strange bedfellows take honeymoons together.

More Than A Timeout Needed With Russia

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U.S. President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland on June 17. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

With the cancellation of President Barack Obama’s meeting early next month with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the administration’s hoped-for political reset with the Russians has suffered a further setback. Obama canceled the planned bilateral meeting in Moscow shortly after Putin granted political asylum to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The grant of asylum to Snowden was an aggressive, although not unexpected, move by Putin. Obama’s more passive response, while predictable, continues to feed the already-spirited debate over his foreign diplomacy and style.

There is a lot at stake in the U.S.-Russian relationship. The United States and Russia disagree on the ticking time-bomb issues in Syria and Iran. And it is clear that the two Security Council members have not made much progress on issues of arms control, trade, missile defense and human rights. These important issues beg for discussion. We are hopeful that face time between the two leaders at some point in the not-too-distant future might help move them toward agreement on these most serious international problems.

But at least for now, that isn’t going to happen. The macho Russian president believes he has more to gain at home by playing the nationalist card and by standing up to the United States. And he acts as if he doesn’t really care what the U.S. thinks, says or does. On the other hand, Obama, ever outwardly calm and cerebral, seems reluctant to confront Putin directly and prefers to assess the situation while imposing a “timeout” in the relationship before moving forward.

The issues at hand are critical to the U.S. and Russia and too much of the rest of the world. While Putin and Obama have chosen very different paths to express their leadership and to engage with one another, we urge them to find a path that leads to measurable progress on key issues and to do so soon.