First Amendment Provides the Muscle

The University of Missouri community and millions of YouTube viewers got a painful civics lesson last week as the campus was convulsed by protests against racism, leading to the resignation of two top university officials. While all that was going on, a  student journalist was prevented from photographing a temporary encampment by a group of students on the university quad. “You do not respect our space,” he was told, followed up by, “You lost this one, bro.”

The photographer, Tim Tai, was not intimidated and stood his ground. “Ma’am, the First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine,” he said at one point, noting a basic fact that seems to have been lost amid the bullying. More worrisome, the  reciprocal basic rights issue was also lost on three faculty members who confronted Tai at various points during a six-minute video of the activity. There is much about the video that is troubling. But its lowest point is when assistant professor Melissa Click — with an appointment at the university’s noted journalism school, no less! — is shown calling out, “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!”

Click has since apologized. But as the supposed adults present, it is disturbing that she and the other faculty members didn’t even attempt to mediate the student confrontation. They seem to have been blind to the obvious: The quad of a public university  is public space, and a journalist has the same  free-speech rights in that space as do the protestors.

Click’s “I need some muscle” moment is a twisted outgrowth of the protests at the university, where legitimate charges of racism met a slow and unempathetic response from the administration. And it is part of a national discussion on how far free speech goes on campus and how far students should be expected to tolerate speech they find offensive or upsetting.

The university is society’s laboratory, which is why we should be watching and evaluating incidents such as those at the University of Missouri. It is also a  truism that people tend to get riled up when it is their ox that is being gored, and in their excitement they sometimes lose sight of the very objective for which they may be advocating.

But there is a universal message: While sensible protections need to be in place to protect students from discrimination, the answer does not lie in trampling upon inoffensive free speech, even if it doesn’t advance a protester’s agenda.

A Low Bar for Netanyahu’s Visit

President Barack Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a prior visit to Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama speaks with
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a prior visit to Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

In a conference call with reporters last week, aides to President Barack Obama set fairly low expectations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on Monday. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, it appears that much was accomplished — from the prime minister’s declaration that Israel would always be committed to peace with the Palestinians to the president’s declaration that Israeli security would always be paramount in American calculations in the Middle East.

But if anybody was hoping for a revolutionary rapprochement between two world leaders whose relationship has been described in press reports as caustic, that clearly didn’t happen. Instead, the most important thing to come out of Netanyahu’s first visit to the United States since his vocal opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal that sailed through Congress without a real legislative fight is that the White House has made a crucial reassessment of how it will view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thus, as the seventh year of the Obama presidency ends, we now know that there will be no more attempts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by this administration.

That announced position by the White House is a sober acknowledgement of reality. Whether driven by a lack of desire on the part of Netanyahu and/or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or either’s inability to sell crucial concessions to their own constituencies, peace is just not possible between Israel and the Palestinians in the near term. Having seen the negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry collapse in 2014, Obama does not appear tempted to use the elusive goal of an Israeli- Palestinian agreement to burnish his legacy.

Even so, the violence that has spiraled out from the Temple Mount since September is the latest reminder that this piece of land in the Middle East cannot be ignored for long. And Obama seems to realize that. Thus, even as the administration announced its hands-off approach, it made clear that Washington has no intention of ignoring the bloodshed and demanded that Palestinian incitement and terrorism must stop. And, the announcement made clear that a two-state solution remained an administration objective.

What is lacking, however, is a clear way forward. Acknowledging that reality is perhaps the greatest American foreign policy achievement in more than two decades, because it recognizes that peace cannot be imposed from the outside. Instead, any plan for peace must be developed through direct and focused efforts by the parties. In laying out a newly defined objective for the United States in the resolution process, the president seems to want to give space to Palestinians and Israelis to create their own peace rather than trying to impose one by fiat. Let’s see how that works out.

A Test for the Big Tent

What is an individual’s responsibility for decorum inside an open tent of the Jewish community? And how should the community respond to peaceful demonstrations within its walls? These questions were put to the test recently at a public event in Pittsburgh, where Israeli Consul General Yaron Sideman spoke at the Jewish Community Center.

In advance of the event, members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which opposes the policies of the Israeli government and supports an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, including through the international pressure of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, used social media to encourage protests of the event. Nonetheless, organizers allowed JVP to attend and participate.

At the beginning of the evening, audience members were warned not to disrupt the proceedings and were informed that police officers were on hand to maintain order. As the diplomat spoke, however, two JVP members stood at their seats and silently displayed letter-sized signs with words such as “Lies” and “Another Jew against the occupation” printed on them. And when the protesters ignored police requests to sit down, they were removed from the hall.

Successive pairs of JVP protesters similarly stood and displayed their small signs and were each quickly ejected. Sideman continued to speak over the orchestrated interruptions. No one was arrested. But as the demonstration continued, some in the audience became irritated and, according to news reports, “a few in the audience shouted at them and tried to grab their signs.”

If members of JVP wanted to criticize Israel’s policies and engage on the issues, they would have done better to raise their concerns during the question-and-answer session. Indeed, they were implored to do so but chose not to. On the other hand, if their objective was to make a scene, a vocal protest outside the JCC with big eye-catching signs would have been far more effective.

But this situation presents a more fundamental question: How open and patient does the community need to be? The sponsor of the event — the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — thought they solved that problem by allowing JVP to attend and by asking audience members to write questions on index cards in advance. But did that create another problem, making it seem like the questioning process was too controlled?

We regularly confront the issue of whether our communal tent is sufficiently open to divergent views. That debate played out in full color when the Conference of Presidents voted in May 2014 to deny membership to J Street. And it is an issue regularly raised by JVP. But in Pittsburgh, JVP was welcomed into the tent.

JVP’s deliberate effort to disrupt the proceedings was a slap in the face to event organizers and can only make others more cautious about future efforts to open the communal tent.

Raising Breast Cancer Awareness

Isn’t everyone already aware of breast cancer and the threat it poses, particularly to Ashkenazi  Jewish women? Not yet. And that’s why Breast Cancer Awareness Month, being marked in  October, is so important. It is the time designated to focus attention on the disease and steps that should be taken for early detection.

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. Ashkenazi  Jewish women are more susceptible because of the higher incidence of mutations to the BRCA gene, which under normal circumstances suppresses the growth of tumors. One in 400 women are BRCA-positive. But among Ashkenazi Jews, there is a 1 in 40 chance of having a BRCA mutation, which increases that person’s lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer up to 84 percent.

So it is necessary to be aware, and we urge  Ashkenazi Jewish women in particular to consider getting tested for the BRCA 1 and 2 mutations.  Experts advise that one should do her homework first to learn about family history and the options available if the test results are positive.

While BRCA testing involves complicated emotional and medical considerations, there are other ways to limit the chances of getting breast cancer that do not. Regular exercise, healthy  eating and getting enough sleep help avert the  illness. “Only up to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are due to a genetic mutation,” says Dr. Marisa Weiss, president of Breastcancer.org. “Ninety percent are due to how you lead your life.”

We and our readers are all too familiar with the toll breast cancer takes on those who are  diagnosed and on their friends and their family members. Almost all of us know someone  who has either suffered or now suffers from the disease. At a time when almost any challenge seems conquerable, the gold standards of 100 percent early detection and 100 percent effective treatment remain far away.

So if you or your loved one hasn’t considered the threat from breast cancer, consider getting tested. Make lifestyle changes. And above all, do what you can to help make future victims survivors.

The Democrats Debate

From Left: Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee at the CNN-moderated Democratic presidential debate (Josh Haner/NYT/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

From Left: Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee at the CNN-moderated Democratic presidential debate (Josh Haner/NYT/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Although there were no breakout moments in last week’s Democratic presidential debate, there was palpable relief that five politicians, each with long public-service experience, could remain poised adults and talk about issues for a greater-than-two-hour period.

They explored important topics, including gun safety, financial reform and national security, and gave voters insight into some of their differences. This early in the race, we couldn’t really have hoped for more.

Some observations: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for all of his economic ideas and his passionate  critique of socioeconomic inequality, is weak on foreign policy, has a confusing position on guns and appears to have difficulty giving concise  answers in a debate format.

Hillary Clinton emerged by most accounts as the evening’s winner and will be tough to beat. Her performance was impressive. The former first lady, senator and secretary of state displayed a fluency in domestic and foreign policy issues and a remarkable level of comfort in the debate format. This confirmed pre-debate reports that Clinton was preparing carefully for the event; and that work paid off. But even the most thorough preparation couldn’t have predicted Sanders’ life-line response to one of the lingering challenges to Clinton’s  candidacy, when in the night’s most-popular answer he said voters didn’t care about her “damn emails.”

Finally, while our region’s native sons, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, did not appear to  distinguish themselves from the pack, at least one group of debate watchers reached a different conclusion. NPR reported that the nationally ranked debate team at the College of William and Mary in Virginia unanimously voted O’Malley the winner. They concluded that, as a virtual unknown on the national platform, he probably changed the most minds and stuck to the issues the most.

For those counting, Israel only came up once in the debate — when Webb, in the context of  denouncing the Iran nuclear deal, spoke of “our greatest ally Israel.” We hope the candidates will  be encouraged to discuss the topics of Israel and Middle East peace at upcoming debates.

And then there was the elephant outside the room. What about Vice President Joe Biden?  According to some, Clinton’s success made it harder for Biden to enter the race as the warm, spontaneous un-Hillary. Maybe not. Indeed, there are those who maintain that Biden still has plenty of time to decide and that he could even wait until after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire  primary to make his move. We’re not sure about the timing question. But we do know that while Biden’s entry into the race would give voters  another seasoned option, if he really doesn’t want to run, he shouldn’t.

Putin Steps In

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar Assad’s regime provides a stark contrast to the fuzzy U.S. policy that promised to strengthen moderate rebels fighting Assad as part of an effort to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State group that has taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq. The psychological and practical impact of Russia’s moves are even more powerful at a time when American allies — including Israel, the moderate Sunni Arab states and Ukraine — all appear to have lost faith in the Obama administration’s commitment to them.

Russia’s presence in Syria is much more than a decision to back an ally and help secure its strategic military sites. Its very active presence in the skies and on the ground in Syria is a direct poke at Washington and further undermines U.S. influence in a region where that influence has appeared to be receding. Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity and grabbed it.

Four years ago, President Barak Obama called for Assad to step down, then did little to hasten the day. A $500 million U.S. plan to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels was recently deemed a complete failure. What we have seen in Syria and in Ukraine is American words — threats and promises — without actions. But words alone cannot do the job on the world stage. A leader must back up his rhetoric with tangible actions, up to and including the use of force, if necessary. Obama either disagrees with that view or didn’t have the confidence to follow it.

For all of his faults — and he is by no means a leader we as Americans should be looking up to — Putin’s actions make clear that he understands this truth about power politics and that he is prepared to take advantage of opportunities wherever he can. A year ago it was Ukraine, today it is Syria.

Which begs the question: Where will it be tomorrow? While Putin may find himself in a quagmire in Syria — quagmire being the reason Obama has likely been cautious about committing American troops there — his aggressive moves show the inherent danger in the United States being perceived as weak. Russia’s moves in Syria have literally backed Obama into a corner. He must now find a way to increase the perception of U.S. power or risk further destabilization in the Middle East.

Avoiding an Intifada

Masked Palestinian girls take a break while throwing stones during a clash with the Israeli army north of Ramallah. (Mohammad Alhaj/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Masked Palestinian girls take a break while throwing stones during a clash with the Israeli army north of Ramallah. (Mohammad Alhaj/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Calming the cycle of violence that has taken Israeli and Palestinian lives and set the two communities closer than ever to the abyss since the last intifada will require a level of leadership that few believe either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or President Mahmoud Abbas possesses. While both men have called for calm, each has put the blame entirely on the other party — in a clear display of different messages for different constituencies.

But regardless of the motivations, finger pointing and name calling are not tactics that will defuse a situation that appears to be spiraling out of control.

“Is this the Third Intifada?” many have wondered — meaning, is this another top-down Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation? Netanyahu wasn’t ready to go that far. He has said Israel is facing a “wave of terror” that is mostly unorganized. Analysts also noted that Abbas has directed the Palestinian Authority police to keep working with Israelis on security.

Still, the Hamas terror group has called for an intifada in the West Bank.

Civilians on both sides must be protected from violence. And that requires the judicious application of security measures coupled with a lowering of rhetoric from all corners, particularly from the Palestinian leader, who continually blames, without evidence, Jewish bogeymen seeking to imperil a Muslim presence on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount-related accusations appear to be the immediate cause of the surge in Palestinian violence that has claimed several Israeli lives. And Abbas appears to know exactly what he is doing when making those kinds of accusations in an atmosphere that has been
looking for a spark since the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to reach a settlement in last year’s U.S.-backed peace negotiations.

So, what is the answer? While many voices are proposing a return to some form of talks, most people in the region and beyond rightfully view a return to the old ways of an overzealous State Department seeking a deal at any costs as a fool’s errand. Particularly since neither Netanyahu nor Abbas appears to have the political backing — or even the desire — to reach a settlement, that assessment seems right. But with no hope of a settlement and the interactions that flow from such efforts, what will bring the calm we all pray for?

The burden here clearly shifts to leadership. While this may not be a Third Intifada, it could become one if cooler heads do not prevail.

Extremism in the Defense of, What?

Thus far, the Republican presidential sweepstakes has resembled a video game, where the contenders shoot each other with invective, and the score is tallied by opinion polls and the size of supporter donations. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s score appeared to be approaching zero last week when he declared he was ending his quest for the presidency.

Retired neurosurgeon and Christian motivational speaker Ben Carson, on the other hand, is rising in both categories. Support apparently increased after he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Asked by host Chuck Todd if he thought Islam was consistent with the Constitution, the Republican candidate said, “No, I don’t.”

Of course, the Constitution contains no religious test for president. Thus, in both its historical context and as measured by common decency, Carson’s statement was bigoted and incorrect. But when viewed in the context of businessman Donald Trump’s continued stirring of the “birther” pot regarding President Barack Obama’s origins, Carson appears to be pandering to a segment of the Republican Party and the conservative camp that is paranoid about Muslims in America. Although we have seen this paranoia before — directed at one time or another to Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Italian, Irish and German immigrants and African-Americans — it remains a disquieting phenomenon and needs to stop.

The stakes in the Republican primaries are high, which may explain some of the commando tactics of the contenders. But those actions have consequences. For example, we have seen some of the themes of the presidential primary competition being played out by hardline conservatives in Congress, including the most recent threat to shut down the government if they cannot cut off funding of Planned Parenthood. While we understand the sentiment of the “pro-life” movement, we question the judgment of promoting a government shutdown over the dispute. Fortunately, it appears that the Republican leadership in Congress is working to craft a bill that will avoid the unnecessary confrontation.

There are those who see the xenophobia of Carson and Trump and the social wars in the halls of Congress as separate phenomena. We don’t. Each has its roots in a political extremism that is affecting political debate, and that’s not good. We realize that extremism makes good press. And in a crowded primary battle, the noisiest and most extreme positions seem to attract the most attention. But at what price?

Each time a major political voice expresses an extreme position, we seem to lose a bit of our humanity. While scaled-back rhetoric may not have the same shock effect, it will help focus the debate and make us all feel a little better about the process, as we address the merits of our differences.

The Pope’s Prescription for Congress

Pope Francis’ visit to Capitol Hill brought much praise and generous applause. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

Pope Francis’ visit to Capitol Hill brought much praise and generous applause. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

One of the most widely reported highlights of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was his historic visit to Capitol Hill last Wednesday. In the first-ever address by a pope to a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis tackled several humanitarian subjects that he urged U.S. lawmakers to address. On immigration, he told the  assemblage of some of the highest- ranking officials in our country: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of  foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” That statement generated applause.

The challenge faced by Pope Francis on the immigration issue was significant,  because he was addressing a Congress that offers an immigration policy focused upon the construction of a wall along the  Mexican border. Nonetheless, he urged lawmakers not to “be taken aback” by the numbers of the “thousands of persons [who] travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones. Rather view them as persons,” he said, “seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”

According to Pope Francis, what stands in the way of congressional action and what causes so much of the unnecessary suspicion and hatred in the world is what he called “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”

To some, it seemed inappropriate for a foreign head of state — which, as the leader of the Vatican as well as the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is — to tell the freely elected U.S. Congress how to do its job.  But that is exactly what he did, and he supported his remarks by citing the Book of Exodus, and the Jewish prophet and lawgiver Moses: “Moses provides  us with a good synthesis of your work,” he explained. “You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Pope Francis chose to speak truth to power. And he is to be commended for that. In turn, Congress showed deep  respect and genuine delight in its hosting of the immensely popular “people’s pope.” But now that the celebration has subsided, we wait to see whether Congress actually follows the pope’s guidance or simply  satisfies itself with more applause.

Ann Coulter, the Hateful Bigot

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter has a reputation for sharp words and jarring rhetoric. But she went too far in a Twitter post during the final minutes of last Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate. Following a number of references to Israel by debate participants, Coulter tweeted: “How many f—-ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?” In doing so, not only did she join two words that should never go together, she went over the line of what constitutes appropriate speech and into the territory of offensive, hateful drivel. Coulter should be ashamed of herself — but she appears to have no shame.

The ADL called Coulter’s remark “ugly, spiteful and borderline anti-Semitic.” We will go further: Coulter’s remark was anti-Semitic, plain and simple. Although Coulter markets herself as someone “who stirs the pot,” her outrageous, very public utterance crossed the line of decency and reflects a level of disrespect and hatred that cannot be tolerated.

For some, Coulter’s foul-mouthed anti-Semitism comes as no surprise. They point to the fact that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Coulter proposed: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” And in 2007, she told an interviewer that she wants her dream America to be completely Christian, with “Jews to be perfected, as they say,” meaning that Jews should be converted to Christianity. And there is more — but none of it worth repeating.

Unfortunately, Coulter’s most recent ugly rhetoric obscures the fact that that a lot of substantive policy discussions actually took place among the presidential contenders at the second debate. But that didn’t seem to be of much interest to Coulter. She was much more focused on the “f—-ing Jews.”

We condemn Coulter’s remark and condemn her bigotry. Ann Coulter is a hateful noisemaker who should be ignored.