Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate

In the years since Democrat Chris Van Hollen won Maryland’s 8th District U.S. House seat in 2003, he has risen to leadership roles on Capitol Hill and within his party. He was once reportedly being groomed to be the next Democratic Speaker of the House should the party  regain the majority.

Now, Van Hollen, 57, comes to his bid for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski with a  reputation as a legislator who is dependably liberal as well as a team player who can get things done. In that regard, Van Hollen is a fitting bearer of Mikulski’s Democratic legacy.

His record shows him as willing to cross party lines to improve the country and serve his Maryland constituents. Often called a master of details, he served in 2011 on the “super committee” charged with crafting a deficit reduction plan.  Although the effort failed, Van Hollen got good reviews for his efforts to reach a compromise. And the need for deficit reform is just as necessary now as it was then.

Van Hollen has been a steady and consistent supporter of Israel, and his advocacy helped keep the case of Alan Gross in the spotlight until the Maryland resident, who spent five years in captivity, was released from a Cuban prison in December 2014.

His opponent, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), while from the same liberal camp as Van Hollen, comes up short in two significant areas. First, she does not have the reputation of being a team player, which is so crucial to consensus building in politics. And even more disconcerting, she cannot be regarded as  Israel’s friend — a particularly sensitive issue for our community. Edwards’ long record of refusing to sign congressional letters castigating Palestinian incitement (which were signed by Van Hollen) and her repeated refusal to back floor votes  in support of the Jewish state raise very serious concerns for us.

We note that others agree that Van Hollen is the preferred candidate. He has been endorsed by African- American leaders, including Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Rushern Baker, executive of Edwards’ home base of Prince George’s County. Progressive former gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur has declared her support for Van Hollen as has Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. State Sen. Cheryl Kagan of Montgomery County and former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have likewise given Van Hollen the nod.

This is not a tough choice. Based upon his exemplary record and his history of sensitivity to and support for issues of  interest and concern to our community, we enthusiastically support Chris Van Hollen for the U.S. Senate in Maryland’s April 26 primary.

The Perils of Social Media

An email exchange between the head of a pro-Israel organization and a “Voice of America” producer that appeared to degrade an Israeli-Palestinian journalist is a reminder, even now, that what you put into social media never goes away.

The exchange between former AIPAC official Josh Block, now CEO and president of The Israel Project, and Hooman Bakhtiar of VOA took place in October but was published last week in The Intercept. That outlet obtained the emails as part of a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy.

The underlying conversation was hardly newsworthy. Bakhtiar contacted Block in an effort to get suggestions for a pro-Israel speaker who could go up against former MSNBC foreign affairs analyst Rula Jebreal, a dual Israeli-Italian national who identifies as a Palestinian, in an on-air debate. In his reply, Block described Jebreal as a “crazy person” and said that the challenge is to find someone “who wants to fight with a slanderous anti-Semite and doesn’t mind imparting their credibility to a non-entity like her.”

Bakhtiar answered that “Lady Rula’s” credentials as a Middle East analyst “are quite questionable, but my editor was keen on having her on because of her looks (although she is hardly my type).” Block’s response: “Now that makes sense!”

Block was wrong to buy into Bakhtiar’s sexist comment and to have done so in writing no less. He then compounded his mistake by boasting of it on Twitter: “Read how to decline a @VOANews interview w/ a lunatic Jew hater while agreeing she is good TV!” he wrote above a screenshot of his original email. Perhaps that showed poor judgment. But the “journalism” behind The Intercept’s report — which sought to make a big deal out of the insults and commentary — and the follow-up stories by the English edition of Ha’aretz and The Forward, which repeated The Intercept’s claims, were worse. The outrage, finger-pointing and accusatory rhetoric in those articles was overstated and seems to have been driven more by Block’s longtime association with AIPAC than real concern over his comments or debate partner suggestion.

In fact, there is no underlying story here. Block wasn’t the one who denigrated Jebreal because of her looks; he castigated her for her politics — a time-honored practice of the movers and shakers in Washington. Nonetheless, Block should have been more careful in his response. And there is a clear lesson: While these kinds of exchanges between journalists and talking heads aren’t really news, the publication of trash talk and sexist commentary is simply bad form.

Trump’s Reality Candidacy

With mounting vehemence and desperation, Republican and conservative politicians and pundits are denouncing Donald Trump and his appeal to what is characterized as the lowest instincts of the American electorate. From Mitt Romney (“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud”) to columnists George Will (“Trump is a presidential aspirant who would flunk an eighth-grade civics exam”) and Michael Gerson (“Trump roots his intimidation in a worldview — the need for the strong hand”), the cry against Trump is rising.

A number of prominent Republican Jews were among the 60 conservatives in think tanks and alumni of Republican administrations who signed a letter last week listing the ways Trump would “make America less safe” including “hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric” that “undercuts the seriousness of combating Islamic radicalism.” “As committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head,” the letter said.

And according to former George W. Bush speechwriter Noam Neusner, Trump “has built within our party the nearest thing America has ever seen to a European nativist working-class political movement. Such movements, to put it mildly, have never been good for the Jews or allies of free thought and the free market.”

It is clear that the Republican establishment underestimated Trump. The rest of us shouldn’t. He appeals to a demographic that is frustrated and expanding. Like those European nativists cited by Neusner, Trump is tapping into a well of Americans, a number of whom are racist, who want to turn their backs on “outsiders” and bestow generous social benefits on the rest. If Republicans want to challenge Trump, they need to find a strong alternative — but it may be too late.

It remains to be seen how many Republicans will stick with Trump out of spite for the Democratic nominee, whether it be Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, or whether some will choose to support another party or stay home on Election Day. But the fact that these issues are even being raised shows what an unusual — and potentially treacherous — election year this is turning out to be.

No matter what your political affiliation, Trump is a force today. That is our new reality.

The Vanishing NJDC

Has the National Jewish Democratic Council run out of steam? The once vocal and visible lobbying organization that represented Jewish interests in the  Democratic Party and Democratic interests in the Jewish community has virtually vanished. Since its last full-time director, Rabbi Jack Moline, left the organization in 2014, the NJDC has been led by its chairman, Greg Rosenbaum. Last year, the organization eliminated its professional staff and began contracting out its operations.

At an upcoming conversation with the NJDC’s opposite number, the Republican Jewish Committee, one would expect an NJDC member or representative to be present to take on RJC’s CEO Matt Brooks. But that’s not the plan. Instead, Brooks’ sparring partner will be J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. While J Street and its PAC are more closely identified with the Democrats, Ben-Ami says his  organization is nonpartisan. But that’s only one reason why J Street should not be doing what appears to be NJDC’s heavy lifting.

The overwhelming majority of Jews vote Democratic. At a debate, they  deserve to hear the Democratic positions on a host of issues Jews care about — not just Israel. A September AJC poll found 42 percent of Jews they questioned named the economy as their principal concern, 22 percent identified health care and 15 percent said national security. U.S.-Israel relations — J Street’s bread and butter — was the top issue for only 7 percent of  respondents.

All of this leads us to wonder, what happened to NJDC?

And it’s not as if a higher J Street profile at NJDC’s expense is good for the Jews or the Jewish community. J Street — and Ben-Ami — make many Jews nervous, even many Democratic Jews. Many older Jews, in particular, who have supported Israel right or wrong all their lives, have not taken to J Street’s routine, very public disagreements with and challenges to the Israeli government. For them, being Democratic means being progressive at home and embracing of Israel abroad.

And even though domestic issues may top voters’ list of concerns, the U.S.-Israel relationship does matter. Much has been written about the mounting perception that with each passing year the Democratic Party appears to be falling away from strong support for the Jewish state. Part of the reason for the concern is that Republicans have succeeded in making Israel a political wedge issue. But the other part of it is a generational divide  between older Democrats who remember Israel as the startup nation and younger activists for whom the Jewish state is just another powerful institution that must be questioned and challenged.

Without NJDC to run interference,  Democrats need to figure out how they will close that political wedge before more and more progressive pro-Israel Jews are left without a political home.

Unnecessary Provocation

Controversy over the massive, bipartisan customs bill that President Barack Obama signed into law last week has boiled down to the question of “conflation.” The law, which deals with international trade  enforcement, includes language opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and also applies restrictions against entities  employing the practice to those seeking to boycott goods produced in the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Obama opposes BDS, but he also  opposes the application of the law to  “Israeli-controlled territories.” The president explained in a signing statement, “Certain provisions of this act, by conflating Israel and ëIsraeli-controlled territories,’ are contrary to longstanding bipartisan United States policy, including with regard to the treatment of settlements.” He indicated he would not enforce the section of the law treating  settlements the same as Israel proper.

Liberal pro-Israel groups, including Americans for Peace Now and J Street, whose focus is on ending much of Israel’s presence in land outside of the so-called Green Line, praised Obama’s opposition to the provision. But the president’s critics say it is he who is conflating Israel proper and the settlements. The two are mentioned separately in the law, indicating they are not the same. According to law professor Eugene Kontorovich, who wrote about the issue in The Washington Post: “The law treats Israel and the settlements as distinct. [The president and his supporters] have  conflated opposition to settlements with openness to using boycotts against them.”

The president’s position has no effect on the law itself. The effect of the signing statement is purely political. But with whom was the president trying to score those political points? At a time of heightened sensitivity to the unnecessary tension between his administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, why did Obama feel the need to make this an issue? Worse yet, many Israel supporters who oppose the advance of BDS on any front see this move as a giveaway to the boycott movement.

Six prominent Democratic senators have criticized Obama’s interpretation of the law. Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) said in a statement that the wording in the law is not about conflating, but about discouraging commercial actions “aimed at delegitimizing Israel and pressuring Israel into unilateral concessions outside the bounds of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. … These provisions are not about Israeli settlements.”

The law is the law. Roiling the waters over it does neither Israel nor the United States any good. The president should have known better.

How to Answer Strange Questions

When strangers come to your synagogue, how should they be treated?

At least one congregation in the Miami area has put that question to the test, and it turns out that the answer isn’t so simple. According to reports, two women wearing hijabs and identifying themselves as Muslim twice visited a North Miami Beach synagogue. They asked questions such as, “When are services?” “How many members belong to this synagogue?” and “When is Yizkor?” In the course of her questioning, one of the women pulled out a Koran.

There is no crime in carrying a holy book, of course, but the logistical nature of the pair’s questions raised concern with one of the congregants who spoke to them. After accompanying them to the synagogue door, he called security.

The synagogue member was 100 percent correct in doing so. Though the women committed no crime — questions are, after all, how we learn things — today’s environment requires utmost vigilance at our communal institutions. Strange or awkward questions by unexpected visitors can quickly turn into the attacks of tomorrow.

Being cautious when someone knocks on the door is always prudent. And in light of the uncertainty of exactly what was going on, the Miami synagogue showed proper caution without overreacting.

“We have been teaching the people in our congregation, if you see something, say something,” said Rabbi Donald Bixon, who leads one of the synagogues in question.

Authorities see it that way as well. They praised the synagogues for alerting authorities of the issue, even though, after an investigation, North Miami Beach police said the two women “pose no threat to anybody.” One of the women, Nabila Ouakka, told a television reporter that she has terminal cancer. Why did she visit the synagogue with her daughter? “I wanted to meet new friends. I wanted to get in touch with my brothers and sisters.”

In commending the police response, ADL Florida regional director Hava L. Holzhauer said, “This incident highlights the real struggle synagogues, churches and mosques find themselves in when trying to keep an open and welcoming environment while at the same time being vigilant.”

Wifredo A. Ruiz, of the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations, agreed: “If I see a stranger walking into an Islamic center in Jewish garb, asking what time we congregate? How many people go? That’s strange behavior and is going to be reported.”

We hope for a time when interfaith dialogue reaches the point where innocent or curious interactions don’t seem strange. But until that time comes, stay vigilant. And, if you see something, say something.

What Is Disability Inclusion?

February is Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Which prompts the question: What is disability inclusion?

Is it not “inclusion” when a program is organized for people with disabilities around the time of the Jewish holidays so they can learn about their heritage. But it is “inclusion” when a mitzvah program is developed in which teens of all abilities come together for discussions and learn about philanthropy and social action through fundraising, grant writing and giving of their time. And it is inclusion at a summer camp where teens of all abilities work together to help someone else.

Inclusion, in other words, is when people with disabilities are encouraged to participate just like everyone else. It is when the person with a disability is not the mitzvah project.

That may be the most important takeaway from this year’s disability awareness effort. Inclusion activist Pamela Rae Schuller elucidates the point well in an op-ed making its way through social media. “Sometimes I hear people talking about how much of a ‘mitzvah’ they are doing by opening their doors to people with special needs in their community,” writes Schuller, whose Tourette syndrome was particularly disabling in her adolescence. “Maybe they allowed a child with autism in their youth group or religious school or hosted an ‘inclusion’ service.

“But here is the thing: It is not a mitzvah to let me in the door. It’s not. Opening your door to those with disabilities is not enough,” she continues. “Because there is a critical difference between tolerance and full inclusion. If we are practicing full inclusion, our communities should be celebrating each person and what they bring to the community, not just what they demand of it.”

There’s a political element as well. Many disabled people need caregivers to help them navigate through daily life. Last week, advocates went to Washington to support two bills that would ensure fair treatment of all people living with disabilities and their caretakers. The Transition to Independence Act (S.1604) promotes fair wages and opportunity by supporting integrated employment programs. The Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 3913) funds essential respite care programs that provide needed services to caretakers and their loved ones.

The Jewish community has made progress in some areas toward disability inclusion over the past year. We hope we can report even more progress a year from now. But above all, we know that if we are going to create lasting change, it will only be when we treat everyone as equals.

And when you think about it, that’s the real mitzvah.

Modulate the Outrage

It is well known that Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is soliciting and receiving support from evangelical Christians. And if it turns out that some of them are blinkered and offensive, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Every group has its crazies.

Cruz is being supported by Kansas evangelical Pastor Mike Bickle, who intimated in 2011 that Jews will be hunted and put in death camps before Jesus returns. Bickle also runs a project whose goal is “partnering with Messianic Jews for the salvation of the Jewish people.”

It is clear that Bickle does not live in the same world as most Americans or most American Jews. But what may be more important is the response to Bickel of Cruz himself and the campaign he oversees. Asked whether Cruz embraces the pastor or repudiates him, Nick Muzin, a senior adviser to the senator’s campaign, told Washington Jewish Week, “This whole thing is being used by people who are predisposed to oppose our campaign, when there really is no comparison to this being a Rev. Wright moment.”

The mention of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s controversial former pastor who the then-candidate was forced to renounce, might indeed be gratuitous, as it is only relevant to people who were disposed to oppose Obama. But it is unfair to demand a candidate condemn every questionable theological view of those who are supporting him. At the end of the day, it is pastors such as Bickle who are endorsing Cruz, not the other way around.

And when reaching a judgment about the man who won the Republican contest in Iowa and came in a dead heat for third in New Hampshire, what should be considered are his record and positions. Cruz believes that life begins at fertilization and is opposed to abortion in the case of rape and incest. He advocates overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. He is “fully committed to repealing every single word of Obamacare” and famously conducted a 21-hour filibuster against the Affordable Care Act during which he read Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.” None of that has anything to do with Bickle, and if you agree with these and other Cruz positions, you should vote for him.

There will always be Pastor Bickles on the right and the Rev. Wrights on the left — just like there will always be people like Ted Nugent, author of last week’s other outrage du jour. The gun-toting rocker (and board member of the National Rifle Association) shared a graphic featuring images of 12 Jews branded with images of Israeli flags below the words: “So who is really behind gun control?”

Outrageous — but fleeting. Let’s hold our powder dry, and save our outrage for debates that really matter.

Large Shoes to Fill

This year’ s presidential primaries have been intense. There is, of course, a lot at stake. And while some may have hoped that the shouting, finger pointing and recriminations might abate as the field of contestants narrows, the sudden passing last Saturday of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia changed all that. Scalia, an iconic figure of great intelligence and influence, was a leader of conservative jurisprudence throughout his colorful tenure on the court. He prided himself in being “an Italian kid from Queens,” but he was much more than the first Italian-American appointed to the Supreme Court.

His passing leaves a void that will be felt for a long time, but the opportunity politicians in Washington now have to mold the court by appointing a successor cannot be ignored. And it isn’t clear just how it will all play out.

Barely an hour after news of Scalia’ s death spread across social media, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky made a bold pronouncement, warning President Barack Obama against nominating a replacement for the late associate justice. “The American people? should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” he said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Apparently, McConnell forgot that the American people did have a say: In 2012, they re-elected Obama by a wide margin. Two years later, the same American people granted control of the Senate to the Republicans. So what the people have set up is a checks and balances reality whereby the president and the Senate will have to work together to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.

We urge both sides to work quickly to appoint Scalia’ s replacement. Doing so would demonstrate trust in a value Scalia himself held dear: the rule of law. As a strict constructionist, Scalia knew what the Constitution says about Supreme Court vacancies. He would have laughed at the suggestion that the country should wait until a new president is elected for a replacement to be nominated — even though he would have been very aware of the political calculations in the suggestion.

Once the president makes his nomination known, we hope the Republican-controlled Senate will take its job seriously, rather than react with knee-jerk opposition or follow Donald Trump’ s suggestion of “delay, delay, delay.” Instead, they should vet the nomination fairly and honestly. With a host of consequential cases pending before the court, a 4-4 split among justices isn’t in anyone’ s interests.

While the likely heated political process that will follow Obama’ s nomination will create great theater, it will threaten good government. And it is anyone’s guess which segment of the electorate will become more antagonized by the opposition’ s actions. Wouldn’ t it be ironic if in a push to replace the iconic Scalia with someone just as conservative, Republicans unwittingly galvanized the electorate to vote for a Democrat for president?

Bernie Sanders and the Jewish Question

Thanks to Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the early Democratic presidential primary races, America is finally having its Jewish moment. While American Jews are relatively well-to-do and integrated into the country’s social, political and economic fabric, the Vermont senator’s predicted win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary has raised questions of what role his being a Jew will play in a campaign and a possible Sanders presidency.

America — and Jews generally — had no problem understanding what kind of Jew Joseph Lieberman was when he ran on the ticket with Al Gore in 2000, nor when he made his own run for the White House four years later. Lieberman is a religious Jew. He believes in God, keeps kosher and doesn’t work on Shabbat. Viewed through that lens, Sanders is a different kind of Jew — one who doesn’t go to synagogue and doesn’t identify with organized religion.

Yet, Sanders’ lack of practice and identification makes him like most American Jews. And we easily identify him as a particular kind of Jew — the leftist, crusading, civil rights Jew of the 1960s and ’70s. He’s a Jew defined by his political beliefs, actions, associations and his ethnic heritage, but not by his religion.

But will America get it? And are Sanders and his supporters ready for a tidal wave of inquiry, misdirection and character assassination that is likely to develop about his Jewishness? Some worry that the answer is “no.”

But whether they are ready or not, the scrutiny has already begun. Last summer, radio host Diane Rehm asked Sanders about his Israeli citizenship, even though he has no Israeli citizenship. And just last week, after President Barack Obama’s address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders, “You, of course, are Jewish. Do you think that potentially could be a problem working with the Muslim world out there and trying to get help, for example, in this war against ISIS?”

Later, CNN’s Anderson Cooper pointed to Sanders’ Jewishness and secularism: “You’re Jewish, but you’ve said that you’re not actively involved with organized religion,” Cooper said. “What do you say to a voter out there who … sees faith as a guiding principle in their lives and wants it to be a guiding principle for this country?”

This kind of scrutiny will increase the longer Sanders’ run continues and the more successful his  effort. Some of it will shed light on Sanders’ fitness to lead and what it means to be a Jew in 2016. But some will be wholly inappropriate and malicious. The question is, are Sanders and his supporters ready for that questioning? They need to be.