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.

A Step Backward

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a Trades Union Conference earlier this month. (Mary Turner/Getty Images)

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a Trades Union Conference earlier this month. (Mary Turner/Getty Images)

Britain’s Labour party recently took a major step backward when it elected Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader. Corbyn threatens to take Labour from a modern center-left party to one that is far left, and that makes us and many others very nervous.

There is good reason to be concerned. Corbyn has taken positions that are hostile to the United States, hostile to Israel and hostile to the European Union. He has said he would pull Britain out of NATO and unilaterally destroy the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal. He once introduced members of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends,” later explaining that it was a diplomatic term, not an endorsement of the implacably anti-Israel organizations. He admires the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Greece’s Syriza party — the party that had us all holding our breath over the threatened Greek exit from the European Union. None of these associations makes us very comfortable.

Beyond that, there is concern regarding Corbyn’s associations with those identified as anti-Semites — such as Holocaust denier Paul Eisen; Raed Salah, whom The Telegraph described as accused of “virulent anti-Semitism;” and Dyab Abou Jahjah, banned as an extremist from entering Britain — and that has worried British Jews. Almost seven in 10 voiced concern about Corbyn in a Jewish Chronicle poll. “Corbyn’s lack of interest in the concerns of British Jewry and his long association with extremists augur badly,” The Times of London columnist Oliver Kamm told the Forward.

Some see Corbyn’s rise as being fueled by dissatisfaction with establishment politics in the same way that those concerns promoted gains in the far-right National Front in France and the far-left Syriza in Greece. Similarly, after nearly a decade of recession in our country, followed by a weak recovery, an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else and a daily sense that politicians are ineffective and gridlocked, we have witnessed the surprising rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But even with those kinds of frustrations and concerns, what Britain and every other country needs is an elected government that offers a way forward, not a step backward.

It is possible that when Jeremy Corbyn gets the chance to stand opposite Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons he will moderate his views. But we’re not holding our breath.

Treating the Cause of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Migrants and refugees with temporary documents board a ferry to take them to Athens at the port of the Greek island of Kos.

Migrants and refugees with temporary documents board a ferry to take them to Athens at the port of the Greek island of Kos.

There is no question that Europe should take in refugees fleeing violence in Syria, as should the United States. Israel also could take in refugees, as opposition leader Isaac Herzog has called on the government to do — even though we recognize the issues of concern that must be addressed before such a move is made. But even before the world saw the heartbreaking photo of the body of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, the largest refugee crisis since World War II demanded more of the world community than the stop-gap refugee placement measures being discussed now in world capitals.

In the four years since Syria’s civil war began, 250,000 of its citizens have been killed and 4 million have fled. Most are in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan waiting for the world to act. Now Syrians are fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea to a hoped-for safe haven in Europe. But merely welcoming those who survive the harrowing journey is not enough, since it does nothing to address the cause of this human catastrophe.

The root of the crisis can be traced to the 2011 decision of Syria’s Assad regime to meet a peaceful protest movement with guns and tanks, and later, as the protests morphed into a radical Sunni-led insurgency, with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. That insurgency, which now wears the face of the so-called Islamic State, terrorizes the people, beheads its prisoners and destroys the country’s antiquities.

Who wouldn’t want to escape from such a terrifying environment?

There is plenty of blame to be shared for the outrages in Syria. The United States deserves its share, for setting red lines and not enforcing them, and for creating the impression with its tepid response to this crisis that the Middle East region is no longer of strategic concern to the White House. Russia is to be blamed for lending the Assad regime diplomatic support, just as Iran continues to support the regime militarily. To their own discredit, oil-rich Gulf states who backed rival Sunni militias have joined Egypt in refusing to take in refugees. And Europe has largely stood by as the death and destruction in Syria have continued for four years; only now is it just beginning to react.

A renewed international effort needs to be developed. But the plan needs to focus on more than just desperate refugees. Instead, the international effort must aim for a far more complex and difficult political solution in Syria. Let history be our guide — if the world community doesn’t solve the problems at the root of this metastasizing crisis, all we are going to get is more death and more refugees.

The Meaning of Religious Freedom

In the American folk-hero sweepstakes, Kim Davis doesn’t come close to Norma Rae or Rosa Parks. Davis is the clerk of Rowan County, Ky., who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and served five days in jail for contempt of court. In playing out her act of defiance, Davis was not speaking religious-freedom truth to power. Instead, she was flouting the law of the land, enshrined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized gay marriage.

We don’t question Davis’ claimed religious belief. Nor would we support an effort to force her to do something that violates her religious dictates. But there is nothing unique about Davis’ religious dilemma.

Our country has always made room in law and in custom for conscientious objectors. Be it Muslims who don’t want to distribute alcohol, Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t want to raise flags or Jews who don’t want to work on Saturday, we have supported “workarounds” — in which another worker performs the duties that the employee feels violate his or her religious conscience. These kinds of religious accommodations make the life of our citizenry more comfortable, without threatening the cohesion of our government or society. Just such a workaround could easily be implemented in the Rowan County Clerk’s office.

The real threat from the Davis situation comes from those who have tried to exploit the case and tried to elevate it into a threat to religious freedom. For example, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has described the Davis case as “the criminalization of Christianity in this country,” saying that “we must defend religious liberty and never surrender to judicial tyranny.” Huckabee’s call against “judicial tyranny” is demagoguery, and his claim that that Christianity is under attack rings false. Obergefell v. Hodges is no more tyrannical than the landmark campaign finance case Citizens United, with which many people disagreed. But not every disagreement needs to be elevated to an existential confrontation.

Polls show that more religious Americans approve of same-sex marriage than not. Whether the Kim Davises of the country are in the majority or the minority, their rights must be protected. But that protection cannot come at undue cost to everyone else.

Argentina’s Unsolved Mysteries

Argentina is saddled with two unsolved mysteries. The first is the source of the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing attack in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, for which the government has never brought charges.

In January, prosecutor Alberto Nisman was hours away from presenting evidence of a government cover-up of the attack when he received a bullet in the head. The death of Nisman, who was Jewish, is the other mystery that now embroils the South American nation.

Nisman had accused Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who is Jewish, of covering up Iranian suspects in the AMIA case. Fernandez rejected the accusation. Nearly a year after Nisman was found dead on his kitchen floor, it has not been determined whether he was murdered or committed suicide.

Last week at a public event that included politicians, businesspeople and foreign ambassadors, the president of DAIA, the umbrella organization of Argentine Jews, said it was high time that Argentines got some answers from their government about the twin mysteries. “At least we should know what happened to the prosecutor,” Julio Schlosser said, adding that “21 years after the AMIA Jewish center bombing we have no one guilty, no one paying for the crime in jail.”

If Iran was responsible for the AMIA bombing, that should be made clear and dealt with. If Iran was not involved, the Argentinian government should reveal the evidence that absolves Tehran of blame. In either event, Argentina needs to move more quickly.

The Obama administration has indicated that notwithstanding a nuclear agreement with Iran, the United States and its allies will continue to counter Teheran on non-nuclear issues. One of those issues is Iranian support of terror. If Iran had a hand in the AMIA bombing, this would be a good time for the U.S. government to make good on its promise to address the issue, and it would send a strong message to Argentina that the rest of the world is watching.

Let the Senate Vote

All that remains now is the vote. With Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s announcement last week that she will support the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama has enough committed votes to sustain his promised veto of congressional legislation to oppose his signature foreign policy initiative.

Now, the White House is counting heads of the remaining undecided senators — a group that got smaller by one Sept. 4, when Ben Cardin, the other Democrat of Maryland, came out against the deal — to determine whether there are 41 senators willing to join together to prevent a vote on the agreement. While the filibuster is a time-honored Senate tradition, its use in order to avoid an up-or-down vote on the Iran deal would be a mistake.

It was just two short months ago that the Obama administration promised critics that the proposed Iran agreement would be fully vetted by Congress and negotiated with the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to provide a timetable for that analysis and vote. Any move to limit the agreed review or to prevent the promised vote would not only violate that very publicly agreed protocol, but would also raise serious questions about the good faith of the administration’s approach toward the whole review process.

Secretary of State John Kerry has argued that a congressional vote of disapproval (even if overridden by a presidential veto) would hurt America’s image abroad. Kerry argues that other nations would perceive a president who couldn’t keep his legislature in line as inherently weak, and that would
impact American influence in other areas. But the nature and the extent of American opposition to the Iran deal is already well known. And the use of a procedural maneuver to avoid congressional review would do nothing to bolster the president’s image, while it would severely disappoint those who were promised a comprehensive review and an up-or-down vote.

Given the importance of the Iran issue, and the rancorous debate over it, any effort to prevent a vote threatens to remove a last chance for America’s political representatives to give voice to the public’s concerns.

The president and his supporters have won this battle. The Iran deal is going forward. We strongly encourage the “winners” to move through the agreed review and approval process with dignity, confidence and grace. Any effort to cut legislative corners or to invoke procedural maneuvers would reflect an insensitivity toward the intensity of the opposition and a reneging on the agreed protocol for the deal review. Were that to occur, we have less concern about how the administration would be perceived abroad and would be much more concerned about the credibility and trustworthiness of the administration.

The vote must go forward.

A Year of Quiet in Gaza

Aug. 26 marked a year since a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza went into effect, ending 50 days of rocket fire into Israel and Israeli air-and-ground military retaliation. While the possibility of another war breaking out soon appears to be low, little is being done to rebuild Gaza, home to 1.8 million Palestinians and long one of the world’s poorest spots. “Not a single one of the nearly 18,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza is habitable,” The New York Times reported last week.

The reasons for inaction in Gaza appear to be several. One is the political rivalry between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Another culprit is the international community, which pledged $2.5 billion but has only delivered $340 million. Still another is the black market in Gaza, which has diverted the concrete meant for building, some of it winding up in the tunnels that Hamas and other groups have used to launch attacks intoIsrael.

Indirect talks between Israel and Hamas toward a long-term cease-fire are reported to be underway, mediated by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, something Israel has denied. Hamas still calls for the destruction of Israel, and Israel still considers Hamas a terrorist organization. But beyond Hamas, there are even more extreme groups in Gaza that resemble the so-called Islamic State. For that reason, Israel doesn’t want Hamas to collapse. And observers hope that an agreement could lead to a period of stability that would see Israel and Egypt at least partially lifting their economic blockades of Gaza.

Gaza needs relief. Israel needs security and an end to threats by rockets and through tunnels. If all parties can work with the needs of the people — not political goals — in mind, there might be hope for Gaza, and the area might avoid another devastating war. Of course, if history is any guide, the chances of stability cementing its presence in that corner of the world are slim. We won’t hold our breath.

Pew Views Orthodox Jews

090415_editorialThe Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released two years ago, provided a snapshot of the community that immediately became the basis for vigorous discussion and soul searching. Last week, Pew released “A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews,” based on the same 2013 data. It shows a population — 10 percent of the Jewish community — that is younger and more politically conservative than the general Jewish population. Orthodox Jews also marry at a younger age and have more children.

“If the Orthodox grow as a share of U.S. Jews, they gradually could shift the profile of American Jews in several areas, including religious beliefs and practices, social and political views and demographic characteristics,” Pew suggests.

It’s a simplistic distillation of what has become conventional wisdom in many corners of the Jewish community. Yet, Orthodoxy is not a monolith, a fact that all too often gets unrecognized in the non-Orthodox sectors of American Jewry. Pew rightly makes a distinction between Modern Orthodoxy (31 percent of the Orthodox population; its adherents follow “traditional Jewish law while simultaneously integrating into modern society”) and Haredi Orthodox Judaism (62 percent of U.S. Orthodox Jews, “who tend to view their strict adherence to the Torah’s commandments as largely incompatible with secular society”).

One takeaway from the report, which its authors caution should not be overemphasized, is the similarity between Orthodox Jews and white evangelical Christians. While the theology of these two groups could not be more different, large majorities of both say religion is very important in their lives. Both attend religious services more often than Americans as a whole. And more than 80 percent believe Israel was given to the Jewish people by God. (A related takeaway, though not explored in the report, would be the similarities between non-Orthodox religiously affiliated Jews and mainline Protestant Christians.)

The Holocaust and the rise of Israel served to unite Jews as they never were before. We live in the time of the big tent, and at first glance the differences between Haredi, Modern Orthodox and liberal Jews make them look like strange tent-fellows. But for those of us who believe in the tent of the Jewish people, both our differences and similarities can strengthen us. For that to happen, there needs to be an acknowledgement that each faction has its own strengths that can enlighten us all.

Matisyahu’s Litmus Test

Matisyahu performs at the Rototom Sunsplash Festival.

Matisyahu performs at the Rototom Sunsplash Festival.

The Rototom Sunsplash Festival is a well-known, popular, annual venue for reggae music in Spain, drawing talent from all over the world. The musician
Matisyahu — the one-time “Chasidic Reggae Superstar” and current mainstream performer born as Matthew Miller — was scheduled to perform at the festival’s prestigious closing-night event. But before he would be permitted to do so, organizers of the festival, under pressure from a local boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement group, demanded that Matisyahu declare his support for a Palestinian state. He refused. The festival then canceled his performance.

When news of the cancellation and the reason for it was made public, the reactions were quick, pointed and powerful. Jewish organizations condemned the actions. The U.S. embassy expressed its displeasure. And the Spanish government itself criticized the move. In response to the intense international condemnation, the festival reversed its position, reinstated Matisyahu and apologized. “Rototom Sunsplash rejects anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination toward the Jewish community,” said a statement.

As welcome as this apology is, it misses a larger point. Matisyahu is a performer, not a politician. What place does the litmus test of Palestinian statehood have in determining whether he should perform? And what is to be gained by restricting the performance of an accomplished music star because of his political beliefs? More importantly, why was it that of all the hundreds of performers, crew members, ticket takers and refreshment-stand workers at the festival, only the American Jewish performer was subjected to the pledge demand?

Perhaps Matisyahu’s closing performance offers a clue: As seen on clips circulating across social media, the singer didn’t hold back as he belted out his popular “Jerusalem” — its refrain, taken from the Psalms of King David, promises to always remember the holy city — in front of an audience that included some waving Palestinian flags. Was there something about fealty to the city of Jerusalem that evokes particular political animus? Is it worse than the flag wavers in the audience who were clearly expressing their own political views?

Perhaps the Matisyahu experience can serve as a reminder that, so long as the art in question is not hateful and does not promote violence or harm to others — and objectively, there is nothing hateful or threatening in any of Matisyahu’s songs — we should let artists be artists. If people have a problem with a performer’s politics, lyrics or statements made in interviews, the remedy is not to ban the performer. Rather, those who don’t like the performer’s views shouldn’t buy tickets to that performer’s shows.