Unparalleled Race

In case you haven’t noticed — or alternatively, you’ve noticed too much and have tuned out the endless headlines and reports over who said what and who insulted whom — the presidential election season, that quadrennial bacchanalia of wall-to-wall coverage, jingoistic slogans, sleazy ads and fever-pitched rallies, is firmly upon us.

Dear readers, welcome to 2016.

With just over a month to go before Republicans and Democrats pick their favorites in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, the JT is kicking off the election year with a look at how Marylanders, who, despite the fact the state’s primaries aren’t until April 26 are heavily invested as campaign donors and volunteers, are sizing up the race.

This promises to be an election for the record books, with a caustic businessman atop the GOP heap despite all predictions to the contrary and a former first lady beating out a Democratic field that includes a self-described socialist with a lower-case “s.” And yet, it seems that all anyone’s been hearing lately is the parsing of Yiddishized quasi-insults and the ravings of caricatured candidates speaking in 60-second sound bites, not detailed analyses of serious policy proposals.

That’s unfortunate, and the JT is committed to doing its part to help educate anyone willing to read. We’re not going to be able to digest an entire race in a single article, but over the course of the next 10 months, we’re going to devote a lot of energy to explaining why what the candidates are saying is important — to Baltimoreans and to Jews.

As it turns out, Jewish Marylanders have a lot riding on this election. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a former mayor of Baltimore, has a lot of friends in the community, for instance, but he hasn’t gotten the type of traction that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Jewish “democratic socialist” who is calling for a $15 national minimum wage and vows to declare war on Wall Street, has in rallying the left wing of the party. And then there’s Hillary Clinton, the popular former secretary of state and first lady who seems poised to become the first woman ever elected president.

On the Republican side, even though Donald Trump — who enjoys the backing of Pikesville resident and Baltimore County Republican Central Committee member Ruth Goetz — seems to have sucked up all the air with his tough-on-immigration stances and stream-of-consciousness delivery, polling data suggests that if bottom-tier candidates drop out in the next couple of weeks, potential voters may coalesce around an alternative. Who would that be? Dr. Ben Carson, the former Hopkins neurosurgeon who wowed audiences with a National Prayer Breakfast speech that took aim at the president sitting right beside him? Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the rising establishment star who as the son of Cuban immigrants might bring Hispanic voters back into the Republican fold? Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of two former presidents who brings a certain policy gravitas to governing? Or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative firebrand who speaks eloquently of constitutional principles?

This race, in shattering so many preconceived notions before the ball dropped over Times Square, has already made predicting its outcome a fool’s errand. So I’m not going to handicap it. But this much is for sure: With an economic recovery fighting tooth and nail to cement itself, an international arena repolarizing around emergent loci of power and a growing population questioning what it really means to be an American, this may well be the most important election in this generation’s history.


Is a Jewish Dentist a Security Threat?

The crime of practicing dentistry while Jewish would be funny if it wasn’t true. But by all appearances, that’s exactly what led a retired dentist, Dr. Gershon Pincus, to be denied a needed security clearance to continue treating patients at an off-base naval clinic in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. We would normally question such accounts as being rooted in the kind of much-ballyhooed conspiracy theories that appear in our spam filters or email inboxes every day. But in this case, at least some of the facts have been confirmed.

This much we know: Pincus, a New York City resident, found a federal job working part time at the clinic in 2014. Later that year, he underwent a routine interview to obtain a security clearance for civilian employees. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, “As part of the interview, [Pincus] made note of his familial connections in Israel.” Those connections include two siblings, his mother and a son, who had served in the Israel Defense Forces and died from a drug overdose. Pincus himself also visited Israel three times in the last decade but made clear that he is not interested in moving there. In September, Pincus was denied a security clearance and was forced to quit his job.

In explaining its decision, the Office of Personnel Management told Pincus, “Foreign contacts and interests may be a security concern due to divided loyalties or foreign financial interests, may be manipulated or induced to help a foreign person, group, organization or government in a way that is not in U.S. interests or is vulnerable to pressure or coercion by foreign interests.”

It is offensive and unfair that OPM has raised the question of Pincus’ dual loyalties merely because he has family in Israel. How many Jews would be deemed poor security risks on that basis? Is it now necessary for Jews seeking security clearances who have relatives there to renounce Israel? And must those Jews also refrain from traveling to the Jewish state or risk being denied security clearances? Indeed, are all Jews inherently suspect when it comes to Israel?

Pincus has appealed the OPM decision to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The OPM isn’t talking about the case. But just from the contours of the whole affair, we must cry foul. Pincus was filling cavities and doing other dental work in Upstate New York; he wasn’t working on the Manhattan Project.

What is it about Pincus’ ties to Israel that have disqualified him? The government better have a very good answer. And, unless he is somehow complicit in illegal activity, Pincus should be reinstated immediately with back pay and an effusive apology.

In these hypersensitive times, OPM can ill afford to make a stupid mistake.

Justice, Not Vengeance, for Freddie Gray

A protester carries a sign outside the City Circuit Court House during jury deliberations in the trial  of William G. Porter.

A protester carries a sign outside the City Circuit Court House during jury deliberations in the trial of William G. Porter.

The mistrial of Baltimore Police Officer William G. Porter, who was on trial for the death of Freddie Gray, likely satisfied no one. Most disappointed appear to be those who wanted to see Porter convicted of the charges against him: involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

The fact that there was no rioting following the announcement — as there was after Gray’s funeral in April — is a testament to the commitment of the residents of Baltimore to see the Gray case through the justice system. Five more police officers remain to be tried in Gray’s death, and the prosecution has scheduled a retrial for Porter.

The day before the mistrial was announced, civic leaders called for a peaceful response to whatever was to come. “We, who struggle for greater justice in our society, must be prepared to do justice as well,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-District 7). “We must be just whether we agree or disagree with a jury’s verdict in a single criminal trial.”

In calling for justice, Cummings and others were also encouraging all members of the Baltimore community to respect the system, even if they feel that the system has long been stacked against them. A similar sentiment was expressed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake after the mistrial was announced, when she declared: “All of us, if we believe in justice, must have respect for the outcome of the judicial process.”

Yet, in some of the protests following the announcement of the hung jury, there were some who asserted that anything less than a full conviction on all counts was a miscarriage of justice. And there were others who were even more provocative and who sought to equate justice with vengeance. We disagree, and we believe that most Baltimoreans disagree. Our system of morality and justice continues to believe that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. That is so no matter how deep the sense of wrong actually is or how forcefully a community believes that crimes have been committed.

Thankfully, the calls for justice drowned out the calls for vengeance, and our community is fortunate that the protests were peaceful. There is still a long way to go to secure justice for Freddie Gray, but one thing has become very clear: The complex and deeply divisive problems facing Baltimore will not be solved by sending six police officers to prison. Rather, resolution of the problems will depend on a comprehensive overhaul of the entire system, starting with a mismanaged police department.

Progress in the Absence of Peace

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin: “Cultivating channels of communication … improves our situation.” (Itzike via Wikimedia Commons.)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin: “Cultivating channels of communication … improves our situation.” (Itzike via Wikimedia Commons.)

In an op-ed in The Washington Post last week, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin outlined a kinder, gentler right-wing approach to the Palestinians living under Israeli control that would focus on improving basic services and quality of life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the absence of “a viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he wrote, “Israel must take steps to improve the situation independent of the geopolitical territorial debate.”

Rivlin’s recommendation set the stage for his U.S. tour, which included an audience with President Barack Obama, an appearance at one of the White House’s two annual Chanukah parties and stops at major Jewish institutions in Washington and New York. By all accounts, his pronouncements fell on eager ears.

Rivlin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, touted the new planned Palestinian city of Rawabi as an example of the progress that can be made even without negotiations toward a final settlement of the conflict. Rawabi, a green, tech-savvy middle-class town, was constructed almost entirely in “Area A” — land which is under full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority and, according to the defunct Oslo accords, will become part of the Palestinian state.

While the Israeli government initially delayed connecting Rawabi’s water pipeline to Israeli sources as a concession to settler demands, Netanyahu intervened last spring to bring water to the city. That’s a good thing, Rivlin wrote, because fundamentally, a city such as Rawabi is in Israel’s interest. “Likewise, it is clear that cultivating channels of communication and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian businessmen, educators and cultural figures improves our situation.”

And he encouraged more comprehensive services for residents in East Jerusalem, asking rhetorically: “Does anyone think that dealing with the sewage, roads, schools and medical centers of eastern Jerusalem can or should wait until the end of the conflict?”

It is heartening to hear Rivlin’s focus on the welfare of the Palestinians under Israel’s control. And his urgings make sense. In doing so, he joins other prominent Israelis who are suggesting ways to respond to the absence of formal peace negotiations: For example, retired Brig. Gen. Udi Dekel, the lead Israeli negotiator in the failed 2008 round of talks, was also in D.C. last week. At a J Street presentation he suggested that Israel unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. While that suggestion goes further than the Palestinians themselves seem to want, and isn’t particularly practical, it highlights the desperate need for some movement in the absence of peace negotiations.

We applaud Rivlin’s focus on improving the lives of Palestinians in the here and now, even without granting them a state, since doing so will make the path to a future state much easier once both sides are ready to return to the bargaining table.

Key to Student Success?

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last week, was a triumph of bipartisan cooperation between Congress and the administration. The successor to No Child Left Behind, the new law will affect some 50 million students and 3.4 million teachers.

Like No Child Left Behind, which President George W. Bush proposed to reverse the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in education for poor and non-white students, ESSA continues to require mandatory testing. But unlike the earlier law, ESSA returns to the states the ability to develop methods to assess school quality.

“The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones — high standards, accountability, closing the achievement gap, making sure every child was learning,” Obama said at the signing ceremony. “But in practice, it often fell short. … It led to too much testing during classroom time, [forcing] schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t produce the kind of results that we wanted to see.”

We applaud the bipartisanship of the ESSA effort. Notwithstanding the all-too-familiar political bickering on other issues, Congress and the administration came together on this effort for the purest of reasons: our children. They recognized that an educated citizenry is key to a prosperous future and a secure country and that depriving young Americans an adequate education is an injustice.

We are also encouraged by the enhancement of local control over education under the new law. Local government is better able to effectuate change than the federal government. But that power comes with a responsibility and accountability.

The unfortunate history of education in this country is that those tasked with preparing future generations for an uncertain world often fail at the task. For example, it wasn’t the federal government that wasted taxpayer money, time and other precious resources to pursue false-science and social-
engineering approaches in curricula. Rather, it was the very same local school districts who are now going to be invested with new responsibility under ESSA.

The primary reason for No Child Left Behind was that states were leaving millions of children behind. Now that control has returned to municipalities, we urge them to rise above the social wars of the past. Under ESSA, there must be no backsliding. For if we can’t educate our children, what good is everything else?

Donald Trump and the Jews

Donald Trump waves to an  appreciative audience at a  campaign rally in September. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Donald Trump waves to an appreciative audience at a campaign rally in September. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Last week’s daylong Republican Jewish Coalition-sponsored candidates’ forum generated a fair amount of interest and comment. While the “mainstream” Republican presidential candidates largely pitched their cases as expected, two of the current “leading” candidates did not. In the case of Donald Trump — who is now said to be leading his closest competitor by at least 20 percentage points — his presentation  included the use of questionable, unflattering Jewish stereotypes along with a remarkable tone-deafness on foreign policy issues regarding Israel. And in the case of the quickly disappearing  Ben Carson, his address to the 700 Republicans  appeared to get some of its statistics from the darkest reaches of the blogosphere.

While some pundits have used Trump’s boorish remarks as evidence that he is anti- Semitic, we disagree. But he has, once again, shown himself to be a nondiscriminatory  demagogue who lacks a sensitivity filter. Thus, while it is nice that Trump’s daughter is an  observant Jew — and explains why he complained to the RJC crowd that he can’t call his daughter on Saturdays — that doesn’t give him a pass to insult his Jewish audience by telling them things like: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” since Jewish voters “want to control” their politicians; or what savvy moneymakers they are. “This room negotiates deals,” he said, “perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to.”

And then there was the matter of Israel and Jerusalem. Just a couple of hours after he told the Associated Press that he had some doubts about Israel’s will to compromise for peace, Trump was asked a direct question at the  candidate forum about the status of Jerusalem in a final peace deal. In his response, Trump  refused to answer the question and didn’t pledge to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s  undivided capital, which earned him boos.

When Ben Carson got his chance, he came up short. First, he literally read his presentation to the audience. And in the portion about  Israel, he attempted to downplay Palestinian suffering with dubious statistics. According to Carson, of “11 million” Muslims killed in violent conflicts in that region, “only 35,000 have been killed” as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict. Where did that come from?

Trump and Carson are the men leading the polls to be the Republicans’ next presidential nominee. This should worry Jewish Republicans. If the Republican Party doesn’t nominate a mainstream candidate, there is good reason to be concerned that the Jews who the Republican National Committee says are drifting to the GOP may seek refuge among the Democrats 11 months from now. And, in doing so, they won’t be alone.

Iran’s Effort to Build a Bomb

Throughout its negotiations over an agreement to restrict its nuclear development program in exchange for economic sanctions relief, Iran insisted that its historic nuclear activities were for peaceful purposes only. Some may have taken the Iranians at their word, but at the time it would have been naïve to assume that a regime that sponsored terrorism around the worldand kept Western journalists prisoner in a labyrinth of secret judicial proceedings was being truthful about anything.

The doubters of Iran’s veracity were proved right last week with the release of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which confirmed that Iran had a “coordinated effort” to develop a nuclear weapon until at least 2003 and that it conducted uncoordinated experiments until 2009. Since then, according to the report, there is “no credible indications of activities.”

There are two broad conclusions to be taken from the IAEA report. One is that Iran lied. As the United States and others have long insisted, the report confirms that Iran was developing a bomb. The second conclusion is that Iran is not now working to develop such a weapon.

“With this report, the IAEA says unequivocally that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and that it has been discontinued. Both of those are incredibly important conclusions,” James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Washington Post.

Iran’s critics say that since the country lied in the past, it cannot be trusted in the future. But even those who approved of the recent nuclear agreement with Iran agree on the need for comprehensive inspections to verify Iranian compliance. And according to one report, the United States will not rely solely on what Iran willingly reveals in the inspection process. Rather, the United States is reported to have independent sources of information regarding Iran’s ongoing actions.

Based upon the IAEA report, it appears that Iran now considers the matter closed. But the West should not rush to that conclusion. Since Iran did not cooperate fully with the IAEA in its investigation, the agency itself may still have open issues it wishes to explore. But even if the IAEA has finished its investigation, the confirmation of Iran’s years of past lies makes clear that Iran still has a long way to go to win trust and credibility with much of the world community.

Mindfulness While Practicing Yoga

One current buzzword in academia is “cultural appropriation,” which has been defined as “taking an element from a disenfranchised group and turning it into a commodity or entertainment.” Think, the Washington Redskins’ name and mascot. Being sensitive to others in an increasingly inclusive society is generally a commendable thing.

The laboratory for this social change is the college campus, and in that lab the test tubes will sometimes bubble over. We saw it happen last month at the University of Missouri, where students and faculty tried to block a student journalist from reporting in a public space. And we’ve seen it again at the University of Ottawa, where a volunteer yoga teacher’s free sessions at the university’s Center for Students with Disabilities were canceled by the Student Federation due to “cultural appropriation.”

Teacher Jennifer Scharf was told in an email exchange by a member of the Student Federation that “yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.” Those cultures “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy,” the email said. “We need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga.”

Like in Missouri, the test tubes have again bubbled over. But rather than try to clean up the mess, we suggest that it is time to end the experiment and move on to something else. “People are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find,” Scharf rightly told the Ottawa Sun.

In the race to combat injustice, real and imagined, some people will go to extremes. At the University of Ottawa, the students apparently forgot that fighting the fact that culture has no borders can lead to the creation of a culture police. And that move makes no sense.

The Ottawa Student Federation so lacked empathy and a sense of humor that its email exchange with Scharf looks like the draft of a comedy spoof. Taking the Ottawa students’ argument to its next logical step, salsa — the most-popular condiment in North America, having surpassed ketchup years ago — would be banned as a culturally misappropriated foodstuff. So, for that matter, would hummus and cornbread.

It’s not often that the satiric newspaper The Onion knocks one out of the park, but a recent headline on this topic pretty much says all there is to the kind of nonsense that has taken place in our neighbor to the north: “Report: Majority Of Nation’s Civic Engagement Centered Around Oppressing Other People.” We urge would-be members of a future culture police to be more mindful.

Countering BDS at the Ex-Im Bank

Senators from both parties have inserted a rider into the transportation bill to counter the BDS movement against Israel.

Senators from both parties have inserted a rider into the transportation bill to counter the BDS movement against Israel.

The Export-Import Bank of the United States is the country’s official export credit agency. It is an independent, self-sustaining agency of the U.S. government, with the mission to support American jobs through the facilitation of the export of American goods and services by providing financing tools for U.S. companies to compete for global sales. The role of the agency has been the subject of much criticism by conservatives and some establishment Republican lawmakers, and its authorization was allowed to lapse in July. Because of its importance as a driver for international trade, however, and as a consequence of a growing move toward bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, the Bank is slated to be reauthorized this month as part of a must-pass transportation and infrastructure bill.

Senators from both parties have inserted a rider into the transportation bill designed to counter the so-called boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. President Barack Obama, who supports the Bank, is expected to oppose the anti-BDS language. We urge passage of the bill with the anti-BDS language intact.

The anti-BDS language, proposed by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), calls on the agency “to consider whether applicants for loans oppose ‘policies and actions that are politically motivated’ and [that are] meant to inhibit ‘commercial relations specifically with citizens or residents of Israel.’” Similar language was included in the Trade Promotion Authority legislation that passed in July and led to the Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated between the United States and eight other nations.

There has been criticism from some who believe that the proposed language unnecessarily injects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the transportation bill. And after the gloves-off fight over the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year, few are in the mood for another drawn-out Middle East battle in Washington. But the anti-BDS language is reportedly popular among both parties in Congress, and it is a fitting answer to the recent European Union guidelines prohibiting products from the West Bank and Golan to be labeled as “made in Israel.”

It is unfortunate that the White House seems to have difficulty calling out the evil of BDS for what it is. In light of that reluctance, however, it is left to individual members of Congress to insert anti-BDS language at every opportunity and to insist upon inclusion of that language in order to allow the bill to pass. So, in this case, if the president wants to save the Export-Import Bank — and we think he should — some on Capitol Hill are insisting that they get the anti-BDS language in return. That Israel will benefit from that deal causes us no concern.

The anti-BDS language should remain in the Export-Import Bank provision of the transportation bill.

The Truth about Labeling

The deadly terror attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 and their  aftermath have overshadowed a decision made by the European Union two days earlier: that all member states must label products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights as originating from those locations, rather than as “made in Israel.” While the move does not amount to a boycott, as some critics contend, the decree is more than just a push for truth in labeling — it is a direct attempt to impose economic pressure on Israel in order to effect a political result.

In releasing its guidelines, the EU has declared where it believes the line between Israel and a future Palestine should run. That political declaration is wrong for two reasons: First, it is not the place of the EU to substitute its judgment for that of the participants in any peace talks. And second, the EU’s offensive “settlement” designations include places such as Ma’ale Adumim and the Etzion bloc, which likely will be ceded to Israel, thereby reflecting an ignorance of geographic reality.

The Israeli government has properly condemned the EU’s move, as have a number of Jewish groups, arguing that the guidelines represent a double standard that will discourage the Palestinians from returning to peace talks. The announcement won praise from the Palestinians and support from Peace Now, which declared the guidelines “a means to  oppose the occupation and, thereby, support Israel.”

We disagree. By treating the West Bank and the Golan as generic territories, the EU ignores the significant differences between them. Why penalize products from the Golan, when absolutely no one is seriously proposing that Israel talk peace with Syria? In addition, the guidelines can easily be understood to be a part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Such confusion does nothing to advance peace and can only hurt Israel.

Finally, any loss of business to settlement companies will also be felt by the Palestinians who are employed there.  SodaStream, for instance, pulled out of the West Bank this year after being targeted by international protests. It relocated on the other side of the Green Line but left its old  employees behind.

Although the economic pain the new EU labeling decree will inflict on Israel will be marginal, it is still offensive. More importantly, the EU’s move will not bring the Middle East any closer to peace. Compared to the security threat posed by the Islamic State, labeling produce from the  settlements seems like an incredibly trivial issue on which the lawmakers in Brussels have chosen to spend their time.