A Building Block at the Kotel

Controversy still surrounds the Western Wall, even with the compromise. (Deror Avi via wikimediacommons)

Controversy still surrounds the Western Wall, even with the compromise. (Deror Avi via wikimediacommons)

You can tell that a true compromise was reached on a matter by the number of people on both sides of the issue who are dissatisfied with the result. And so it is with the agreement on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall compound below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. While hailed as a breakthrough compromise by the government and many involved in the delicate negotiations, there are vocal critics who disagree.

Those Jews who do not recognize the validity of liberal Judaism, condemn the Israeli government’s agreement with the Kotel’s Haredi Orthodox leadership, the Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Reform and Conservative movements to expand the wall’s egalitarian section and place it under the authority of a pluralist committee, even though it solidifies Haredi control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section.

Thus, for example, the Haredi Agudath Israel of America responded to the compromise by  saying that allowing egalitarian prayer at the compound “defames” the site. And Moshe Gafni, a Haredi lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s Finance Committee, reacted by calling Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

Indeed, even the Muslim Waqf, which administers the Temple Mount above the Western Wall plaza, criticized the agreement for its “defaming” nature of allowing egalitarian and mixed-gender prayer.

But there was criticism from other sides  as well. Some maintained that the agreement  didn’t go far enough and were critical of the  second-class status of the egalitarian site. And then there were complaints from Orthodox women who yearn to pray in women-only groups at the Wall. Writing in Tablet, Phyllis Chesler  recounted a quarter-century of activism by Women of the Wall to do just that. They endured harassment and arrest for carrying a Torah to their monthly prayer services at the Kotel’s women’s section. And they complain that the Reform and Conservative movements sold out these women in their push for egalitarian space.

We prefer to see the agreement as a welcome first step — a kind of building block — but hardly the last, in the drive for religious freedom in Israel and the wresting of Israel’s religious apparatus from a narrow-minded and uncompromising Chief Rabbinate.

And there are signs that other compromises may be in the making. Commenting on an online criticism of the agreement, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., who chairs the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, proposed that at the pluralistic prayer area, time be set aside for all-women prayer. “Then it will truly be pluralistic,” he wrote. We agree.

Steps in Restoring Justice

Today, there are an estimated 100,000 Americans in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Ten thousand of them  are federal inmates. A fraction of those federal prisoners will benefit from President Barack Obama’s recent executive order to remove the most vulnerable from solitary  confinement.

The president’s directive is an important step but just a start, in reforming a U.S. criminal justice system that  imprisons 2.2 million people. Although the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent  of its inmates at a cost to taxpayers of some $80 billion  annually.

Obama’s order will remove juveniles and the mentally  ill from solitary confinement. Thus, rather than being  deprived of almost all human interaction “for their own protection,” minor and mentally ill prisoners will be  assigned to special units, where they should not be threatened. And prisoners with mental illnesses will have access to expanded treatment.

The policy change comes at a time when there is bipartisan interest in revisiting the harsh laws passed in the three-strikes-you’re-out days of the 1990s crime scare, which  resulted in lengthy prison terms for nonviolent (but third strike) lawbreakers, a disproportionate number of whom are African-Americans.

As a small way of rectifying that overreach, the president pardoned 46 prisoners last October. In announcing those pardons, he said: “These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years; 14 of them had been  sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses.” And he noted that if “they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have served their time.”

At the time, the pardons were welcome, but they were largely symbolic. Real reform is the job of Congress.  Members of the House and the Senate have introduced bills, but neither chamber has brought the legislation up for a vote. This could be a year for genuine progress in this area, if legislators on Capitol Hill decide to make it so.

Obama expressed hope that his orders will be the model for states and municipalities, where the majority of inmates in solitary confinement are held. Under this approach, the goal is justice, not perpetual or unnecessary punishment. With this standard in mind, we urge the Maryland state Senate to overturn Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a voting rights bill for released felons, who have served their time and seek a more complete reintegration into society. The House of Delegates has already voted to override  the veto. Similar Senate action would return a measure of justice to the system.

We Are All Jews, and More

President Barack Obama: “We’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past. And that means rejecting indifference.” (AUDE GUERRUCCI/UPI/Newscom)

President Barack Obama: “We’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past. And that means rejecting indifference.” (AUDE GUERRUCCI/UPI/Newscom)

President Barack Obama delivered a historic address last week at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Speaking on International Holocaust Remembrance Day as medals were given to families declared righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem, Obama spoke passionately about “the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise,” even going so far as to repeat the defiant words of imprisoned U.S. Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, who, when his Nazi captors sought to separate the Jews from non-Jewish prisoners, replied, “We are all Jews.”

“When we see some Jews leaving major European cities, where their families have lived for generations, because they no longer feel safe; when Jewish centers are targeted from Mumbai to Overland Park, Kan.; when swastikas appear on college campuses; when we see all that and more, we must not be silent,” Obama said. And he spoke, as well, about the need for heightened support of aging Holocaust survivors: “Meanwhile, governments have an obligation to care for the survivors of the Shoah — because no one who endured that horror should have to scrape by in their golden years. So, with our White House initiative, we’re working to improve care for Holocaust survivors in need here in the United States.”

Obama is the first president to deliver an address at the Israeli Embassy, although then-President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, visited the compound in 1995. In his speech, Obama highlighted that the Holocaust’s first and foremost goal was the genocidal elimination of the Jews. But without watering down that message, he also spoke of the Holocaust’s universal lesson.

“We’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past,” Obama said. “And that means rejecting  indifference. It means cultivating a habit of empathy and recognizing ourselves in one another; to make common cause with the outsider, the minority, whether that minority is Christian or Jew, whether it is Hindu or Muslim or a nonbeliever; whether that  minority is native born or immigrant; whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian.

“It means taking a stand against bigotry in all its forms,” he added, “and rejecting our darkest impulses and guarding against tribalism as the only value in our communities and in our politics.”

Yes, we are all Jews, and proudly so. But our memory of the millions of Jewish lives lost is not diminished by also saying — particularly in this election year of scapegoating and fear mongering — we are all Muslims, all Latinos, all African-Americans, all immigrants. Doing so will help us recognize ourselves in one another and might just forestall  future genocides.

A Day School Umbrella

On many levels, Jewish day schools are flourishing in the United States. Notwithstanding our nation’s many good public school  systems, high-quality private school opportunities and a history  of integrating immigrants, Jewish day schools have successfully  offered an alternative that seeks to balance Jewish knowledge and culture with quality secular education and an involvement in and appreciation of the wider world. But despite its many successes, all is not well with the day school movement.

First, high-quality Jewish day school education doesn’t come cheap. And with the exception of Haredi Orthodox day schools, Jewish day school enrollment is flat or declining.

In an effort to stanch the flow of students and money to other private schools, five prominent national day school organizations representing 375 Reform, Conservative, modern Orthodox and nondenominational schools, where collectively 100,000 students are enrolled, announced last week that they will combine into a single umbrella association. (This association of the Jewish  Community Day School Network, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, Yeshiva University School Partnership, the Schechter Day School Network and Day Schools of Reform  Judaism does not include Torah U’Mesorah and other Haredi yeshiva day school associations, which account for the remaining 125,000 Jewish school-age children who are enrolled in those schools.)

The merged organization will advocate for the day school movement and provide professional training and other services in the hope of saving as much as $1 million in efficiencies. In a larger sense, the new umbrella organization will demonstrate Jewish unity by emphasizing the commonality these Jewish schools share. After all, there are no theological controversies in pedagogy, professional training, special needs students, fundraising, networking and IT support.

Some might be concerned that in the merging and streamlining of the various (and sometimes conflicting) religious philosophies of the constituent schools and their associations, the defining character of each of the respective Jewish streams will get lost. We trust that those building the new organization are keeping those concerns in mind. But at the end of the day, we all win when all Jewish schools, no matter their affiliation, improve their functioning,  increase their enrollments and strengthen their bottom lines. That was one of the significant takeaways from the latest round of Pew analyses — which made clear that so many things correlate with attending a Jewish day school, from identification with Israel to synagogue attendance and Jewish generational continuity. Indeed, in light of that long-known reality, it’s a wonder that it has taken this long for the kind of communal support to materialize to make this new umbrella organization possible.

So far, the initiative is going by the placeholder name “NewOrg.” But it might just signify a new horizon ahead. We look forward to NewOrg contributing to a flourishing day school world.

Vice President Biden’s ‘Moonshot’

Vice President Joe Biden goes on the attack against cancer. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Vice President Joe Biden goes on the attack against cancer. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last year, cancer killed an estimated 589,430 Americans. And despite recent advances in treatment, it stubbornly remains a leading cause of death. Can Vice President Joe Biden lead an American offensive that will vanquish the dreaded disease once and for all?

We hope so. And while we acknowledge the danger of buying into the “moonshot” symbolism of the initiative that President Barack Obama announced in his recent State of the Union address, we are also encouraged by the energy with which the  administration is pursuing this initiative, sending Biden across the country to unite and support researchers and physicians seeking cures.

Admittedly, putting an American on the moon was a relatively straightforward challenge compared to curing cancer — which is actually a group of diseases and  requires a personalized treatment for each patient. But when President John F. Kennedy focused the nation’s attention on the earth’s natural satellite, he was promising the  unthinkable. We are similarly challenged here.

Nonetheless, where the strengths, talents, imagination, creativity and unbounded resources of our country are focused on an objective and brought to bear, there is hope. And if Biden, who just last year tragically lost a son to cancer, remains at  “mission control” even after his term as vice president ends, there is the possibility that his clout and deal-making abilities may aid the search for and availability of treatment. And even if America doesn’t cure cancer “once and for all,” as Obama urged, maybe we can cure some cancers and manage others.

One way the vice president can lead the effort is by helping to secure much-needed funding for research and testing. He was influential in getting Congress to increase the National Institutes of Health cancer funding by $260 million this year. Keeping cancer research as a national funding priority is key to intensifying the effort.

So is breaking down barriers, otherwise known as eliminating silos, in the medical world. Biden has said that researchers who work on their own and don’t share information with other researchers are holding back progress. Perhaps he can help build incentives to make such cooperation and sharing a reality. In doing so, technological advances are likely to be an important component in such an effort. For example, cloud data storage could help scientists compare notes. Rural providers could have  access to national centers and their test results. And knowledge could be spread to parts of the world that don’t have the resources to launch their own “moonshot” programs.

That’s the promise of this initiative, and we embrace it. And though the results will not yield a single dramatic “one small step for man” moment, they are likely to help bring something that will last even longer and touch more people.

We wish the effort and the vice president Godspeed.

Obama’s Regret

President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address to appeal for unity. (Evan Vucci/Newscom)

President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address to appeal for unity. (Evan Vucci/Newscom)

In his final State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama reminded the country that optimism and hope are the tried-and-true American responses to hard times and to demagogues. Although he didn’t refer to a specific Republican candidate by name, it was clear that in attempting to return to the grand philosophical vision that defined the hope of his original campaign, Obama’s  remarks were aimed at those battling to occupy the White House after he leaves next January.

“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation and turning against each other as a people?” Obama asked. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for and the incredible things we can do together?”

The president appealed for unity and  inclusion. And, refreshingly, he refrained from offering a long list of initiatives that no one believes will get off the ground in this election year.

But when he cited “one of the few regrets” of his presidency — “that the rancor and  suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better” — he seemed to ignore his own role in contributing to the calcifying  gridlock in Washington and the retreat of  liberals and conservatives into two warring camps.

Obama’s handling of partisan battles in such areas as the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, the stimulus package and how to respond to gun violence was not  a model of congeniality, cooperation and  compromise.

Instead, his mistiming, miscues and mismanagement promoted partisan rancor and distrust, even as both sides may have been trying to address real issues and concerns. Thus, while we applaud Obama’s expressed concern about the fear and anger that characterizes so much of what passes for civil debate today, we are troubled that he appears to have completely ignored that the way he went about the job of president contributed to making such fear and anger possible.

Obama’s aspirational rhetoric of 2008 promised Americans hope and change. His last State of the Union address promised Americans an optimistic future. Both are important and worthwhile messages. The president has had seven years to build hope, effect change, promote optimism and to work in a bipartisan manner. He needs to do a better job in his  remaining year in office.

Responding to North Korea

Last Friday, South Korea resumed its high-decibel loudspeaker propaganda attack against North Korea, which two days earlier had tested a nuclear weapon in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As the hermit nation led by Kim Jong Un suffered the ear- popping onslaught of K-pop songs and weather reports, talks were underway elsewhere on how to respond to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test since 2006.

The Security Council immediately condemned the test as “a clear threat to international peace.” But what response will reduce or eliminate the threat? The  Security Council, never a body that acts speedily, promises more sanctions. The key, however, lies with the United States — the lone superpower — and China, North Korea’s neighbor and patron. A day after the nuclear blast, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart and told him, in Kerry’s words, “We cannot continue business as usual.” But it remains to be seen whether China’s desire to “really step on North Korean necks,” as a former U.S. negotiator told NPR, will outweigh its fear of the collapse of the buffer between it and U.S.-backed South Korea.

North Korea’s flagrant violation of international norms could bring the United States, China, Japan and South Korea — where 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed — closer to a common response. There is room to  extend international sanctions. China could cut energy supplies to Pyongyang, something it has done in the past. Until now, the United States has targeted North Korea’s military and weapons programs and has not tried to cut off trade with Pyongyang, as it has with Iran. That could start to change. According to recent reports, the House of Representatives is likely to consider legislation that would stiffen fines on foreign companies doing business with Pyongyang, and there are those who are suggesting that an international  effort might also be considered.

But North Korea has not responded to carrots or sticks in the past. It remains insular and suspicious, with its small economy isolated. International pressures could lead to compliance or to further defiance. When it comes right down to it, North Korea may not want to part with its de facto membership of the  nuclear club under any circumstances. Anyone  advocating action beyond loud pop music must bear that in mind.

Balance of Rights

President Barack Obama has set his sights on the rights that gun violence has taken away. (PHILIP COBURN)

President Barack Obama has set his sights on the rights that gun violence has taken away. (PHILIP COBURN)

In announcing executive action to reduce gun violence across the nation last week, President Barack Obama called for balancing Second Amendment gun rights with other liberties. As he did so, he recited a litany of those whose elementary rights were taken away by gun violence: The “right to worship freely and safely … was denied to Christians in Charleston, S.C., and that was denied to Jews in Kansas City, and that was denied to Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek,” the president said. “They had rights too.”

That simple truth has been lost in the endless debate over gun safety and gun rights. The president’s attempt to close some loopholes in existing law through a package of executive orders hardly justifies the “Obama wants your guns” frenzy that has greeted the announcement. A major provision of the package requires those who sell guns on the Internet and at gun shows to be  licensed and to conduct background checks on prospective buyers, a position with which 80 percent of Americans agree.

A number of Jewish organizations have  announced support of the president’s action. We commend the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Religious Action Center of  Reform Judaism and Jewish Women International for speaking out, and we add our voice to theirs. We encourage more Jewish groups — which seem to have a position on every issue great and small — to take a stand in favor of this one. At the end of the day, we should all stand firmly behind policies that will make our country safer.

The president’s move was sensible and certainly within his prerogatives. While there is a clear constitutional right to own guns, that doesn’t mean the government doesn’t have an interest in keeping weapons out of the hands of killers. One of the fundamental rights we have as Americans and as people is life. We challenge Congress to get serious about gun reform with that right in mind.

Seeing Through the Transparency Bill

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s bill most certainly would promote intimidation. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s bill most certainly would promote intimidation. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Under a bill introduced by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing Jewish Home party and approved by the Israeli Cabinet on Dec. 27, new rules are going to be imposed on Israeli nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive funding support from foreign governments.  According to supporters, the Shaked bill is a “transparency bill” designed to expose foreign  involvement and influence in Israeli groups. Indeed, according to the Zionist Organization of America (itself a “foreign” group), the legislation is necessary because “foreign governments” infusions of millions of dollars and euros into hostile-to-Israel NGOs are extremely insidious.” But opponents charge that the bill is aimed at intimidating and silencing progressive Israeli nonprofit organizations, which tend to support the current governing coalition’s political opposition.

Should the Shaked bill be approved by the Knesset, significant intimidation of opposition forces will almost certainly follow. Under the bill, NGOs will be required to disclose details about their foreign funding in any communication they have with elected officials. Even worse, the bill will require NGO members to wear special identifying badges when in the Knesset, essentially branding affected nonprofits and their workers as agents of foreign governments.

Is such a law really necessary? Israel already has a transparency law that requires NGOs to disclose any foreign funding in their quarterly reports and on their websites, and that information is fully available to the public. But if there is value and purpose in full disclosure of foreign funding for Israeli NGOs, why limit that disclosure to foreign government funding? Why not also require the full disclosure of NGO funding by foreign individuals? That would include public disclosure of the millions of dollars from foundations and  individuals that are permitted to flow in secret to right-wing Israeli nonprofits. If the Shaked bill  becomes law, no such disclosure of private funding would be required.

While touted as a “transparency bill,” the proposed law is hardly universal in its reach. It seeks to shine sunlight on only one corner of Israeli society — the corner that sits in the opposition. The labeling of  opposition groups as anti-Israel and deserving of  censure is bad policy. And the Shaked bill is bad law.

Nothing good can come of a law that is unbalanced, overtly partisan and seeks to punish the dissenting minority. That said, early indications are that the Shaked bill will pass in the Knesset, albeit with some softening or modifications.

In moving forward with this dangerous precedent, the governing coalition would be wise to remember that today’s minority could well be tomorrow’s majority. And the value of sunlight and transparency may appear to be a lot different when the focus of the effort changes to victimization of rightist NGOs.

No Reason to Spy

One of the many surprising revelations made by  Edward Snowden in 2013 was that the National  Security Agency was tapping the phone conversations of world leaders, most famously German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key U.S. ally. That led President Barack Obama in January 2014 to announce that the United States would no longer spy on world leaders and foreign officials. But there was an exception: Leaders would be monitored if doing so served a “compelling national security purpose.”

Last week, a Wall Street Journal investigation  revealed that while the NSA presumably stopped  listening to Merkel’s phone calls, it continued to spy on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the president’s promise not to. If there was a compelling national security purpose to tap Netanyahu’s phone, we don’t see it.

The spying came in the lead up to and during  negotiations with Iran on a nuclear agreement, a high-priority initiative for the president and one forcefully  opposed by Netanyahu. In the process of that spying  activity, according to the Journal, there was collateral damage: “The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.” In other words, despite the fact that the NSA scrubbed the identities of the non-Israelis, the agency stumbled into spying on U.S. citizens, including members of Congress.

And what did the NSA learn? According to the  report, which referenced unnamed officials, “stepped-up NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations — learned through Israeli spying  operations — to undermine the talks; coordinated  talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes.”

It is unseemly that the United States engaged in spying on Israel to this level. Was getting Israel’s talking points for AIPAC really a matter of national security? We doubt it.

Cynics in the United States and Israel have brushed off this affair. “Everyone knows that the entire world spies on the entire world,” according to Israeli commentator Eitan Haber. But that misses the point. There is an asymmetric relationship at play here that cannot be forgotten. Israel is a small country that faces numerous enemies. The United States is the world superpower. The United States can afford not to tap the phones of allied heads of state. Without exception. Besides,  Netanyahu isn’t the one who promised not to.