End Run Around Congress

On July 13, the day before the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers was reached, the Obama administration began circulating a resolution at the U.N. Security Council calling for the chamber’s approval of the deal. That vote took place Monday, with the council backing the agreement on the heels of the European Union giving its assent and Germany moving to reopen trade with Iran.

But the vote at the United Nations is almost irrelevant to the outrage expressed by some members of Congress and the news media over the submission of the resolution itself. They rightly point out that the administration had already agreed that Congress would have 60 days to review the Iran agreement and give it an up or down vote. That would be how our country would decide whether to go forward with the deal. But by going to the United Nations first and offering a resolution that would bind the United States and other members, the White House effectively pre-empted Congress and rendered any decision legislators make on the issue moot.

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress asked President Barack Obama to delay the U.N. vote until Congress could weigh in. That request was consistent with the president’s own public defense of the Iran deal during a wide-reaching news conference shortly after its announcement, when Obama said he welcomed congressional review. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), respectively the chairman and the ranking member of the influential Foreign Relations Committee, were therefore justified in objecting to the White House’s U.N. maneuver. Corker went so far as to call the U.N. move an “affront to the American people.”

But now the U.N. resolution is legally binding on member states. Congress, which has placed economic sanctions on Iran, could cause the United States to be in noncompliance if it votes to maintain those sanctions.

The administration has argued that the U.N. vote in no way affects the congressional review period or the right of Congress to express its views on the Iran deal. But that’s silly. The fact is that the administration was disingenuous or worse for agreeing to the review process only to undercut it by pushing a U.N. vote.

One of the most recurring concerns expressed regarding the Iran deal is that the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted to meet its commitments. Do we now have the same issue with the White House?

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have said repeatedly that one of the benefits of the Iran deal is the administration’s ability to use its newfound “relationship” with Iran to address issues relating to that country’s destabilizing support of the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and others. And the president has said he will not let up on Iran.

Can he be trusted to meet his commitments?

Sobering Thoughts about BDS

In its annual survey of the Jewish world, the Israel-based think tank Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) considered the de-legitimization threat posed against Israel by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The think tank, which is chaired by longtime U.S. diplomats Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross, submitted its assessment last month to the Israeli government. And while it may achieve the same fate as many other blue-ribbon reports, the assessment represents a thoughtful, nuanced approach to BDS that declines to paint BDS supporters with the broad brush of anti-Semitism.

According to the JPPI assessment, Students for Justice in Palestine, the backbone of the BDS movement, has chapters on 300 U.S. campuses. And while “severe anti-Israel activity is limited to 20 campuses,” the report considers the threat of de-legitimization serious enough to recommend that Israel commence “an appropriately budgeted comprehensive strategy” to battle de-legitimization, led by a point person who reports to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and who will embark “on an offensive-minded campaign.”

But in an interview, Eizenstat didn’t stop there. He went on to present a conventional but focused three-part strategy to battle BDS: better education about Israel (traditional hasbarah); greater Jewish unity; and support for anti-BDS legislation. He then became a little more creative by recommending that Israel take steps to change the dynamic that now feeds the BDS movement, including the suggested announcement that Israel will not build outside of the settlement blocs that, by agreement, will likely formally become part of Israel when a peace agreement with the Palestinians is reached.

We have no doubt that Netanyahu’s government will approach negotiations with the Palestinians on its own terms and according to its own timetable. And no matter how well-meaning and well-informed JPPI’s thinking is, it remains to be seen how much Israel has to gain from making concessions when the other side appears wholly unwilling to make difficult choices of its own. That said, there is real value in the JPPI report and the sobering reality it paints: For all of the full-throated and high-pitched cries of alarm coming from across the Jewish community, JPPI confirms that the BDS movement is not the omnipresent phenomenon that many think it to be. In that sense, there’s no need to panic.

Nonetheless, BDS activity on 300 U.S. campuses is 300 too many. And although severe anti-Israel activity is reportedly limited to 20 campuses, those vocal centers of student unrest are making a lot of noise. There seems to be a growing consensus that the time has come for a coherent strategy to battle those who wish to make a pariah out of Israel. The JPPI report is a step in the right direction.

An Untimely Objection

State Department  spokesman John Kirby (DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett/Public Domain)

State Department spokesman John Kirby
(DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett/Public Domain)

Why did the State Department move from celebrating President Barack Obama’s legislative victory a day after the passage of the Trade Promotion Authority bill to “clarifying” a provision in the legislation that treats Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories” as a single economic entity?

The provision in question, spearheaded by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and approved by all members of the Senate Finance Committee, was aimed at discouraging European countries from supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) moves against Israel. It received strong backing from AIPAC. But critics of the amendment, including J Street, complained that the wording erased the 1967 border known as the Green Line that effectively separates Israel from “controlled territories” subject to negotiations for the creation of a Palestinian state. Those concerns were well known to the administration before the bill was passed yet the provision was kept in the bill nonetheless and is now part of the law.

That foreknowledge and acceptance make it all the more curious that State Department spokesman John Kirby went out of his way to point out that “by conflating Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories,’ a provision of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy toward the occupied territories, including with regard to settlement activity.” Was that observation really necessary?

The trade bill was designed to grant the president the fast-track authority he needs to wrap up negotiations on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that is supposed to herald a new age in American trade in Asia. In tacking on the anti-BDS amendment, Congress seized an opportunity to chip away at the threat of the BDS movement. However, because the BDS provision includes no enforcement mechanisms, the amendment allowed the administration to strongly oppose BDS against Israel and still maintain a separate policy for the West Bank. And that’s what Kirby “clarified” in his comments.

But why say anything at all? Why turn the discussion away from trade issues and an administration victory lap and focus instead on Israel? If the administration had concerns about the language, why didn’t it push for the removal of the phrase “Israeli-controlled territories” from the amendment when it was being debated in Congress rather than wait until after its passage tocondemn it? And if the provision was left in as part of an effort to get votes to support the bill, why not honor the deal or at the very least remain silent?

The State Department knows well the sensitivity surrounding and the careful evaluation of every utterance it makes about Israel. Nothing of this nature is said without pre-clearance and purpose. Which makes us wonder, what exactly is Foggy Bottom trying to accomplish?

Order in the Court

It is one of Israel’s paradoxes that, while the country accepts any conversion made abroad for purposes of aliyah, not even many Orthodox conversions made abroad are sufficient to render a future Israeli Jewish for personal status purposes. That’s because only Orthodox conversions made in the country under the
auspices of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — or conducted abroad by Orthodox rabbis on an “approved” list — are considered kosher.

For quite some time, this fact, worsened by increasingly strict conversion requirements, has been a thorn in the side of non-Haredi Israelis and large portions of the American Jewish community. Now, we can add the Jewish Agency for Israel — the quasi-governmental body responsible for, among other things, recommending people for aliyah according to Israel’s Law of Return — to the list of those who have had enough. Its board of governors has recommended the creation of traveling conversion courts, panels of rabbis to perform conversions in the Diaspora, where other options don’t exist.

The proposal was hailed by many Jewish organizational leaders, both for its attempt to preserve Jewish unity and for its pushback against the rabbinate, whose restrictions are becoming so onerous that an increasing number of rabbis — including many who are Orthodox — have expressed significant concern over the delegitimization of religious conversions in the Diaspora. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, praised the Jewish Agency for ensuring that Jews “are no longer held hostage by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on matters of Jewish status.”

But Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, told The Jerusalem Post that the plan “will lead to precisely the opposite of Jewish unity.” Israeli Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, meanwhile, said that an easier fix would be for Israel to recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed in the country.

Details on how the Jewish Agency plans to create, organize and administer its planned conversion courts are slim, and one wonders if the vote was taken for purely symbolic purposes. Even so, the move by the Jewish Agency’s directors should be applauded as yet another step in the effort to limit the worldwide religious power grab on the part of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

As we have pointed out numerous times in this space, Israel should be a nation of laws, not religious dictates. We join with those who assert that religious pluralism is not merely an issue for Diaspora Jews. Israeli Jews also have a right to religious pluralism. We hope the conversion court idea gains traction and will provide strength to the growing movement within Israel to chip away at the dominating political force that the rabbinate has become.

Symbols Matter

The Confederate battle  flag flies outside the South Carolina State House

The Confederate battle flag flies outside the South Carolina State House

The racially motivated shooting of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston has added new focus to the national conversation on the question of what it means to be an American. That we are inheritors of dual legacies of freedom and slavery makes this Independence Day weekend a good time to consider issues relating to the Confederate battle flag.

The Charleston massacre may provide the necessary public pressure for South Carolina and other Southern states to cut their ties to the Confederacy by removing the flag from public property. Some say the focus on the flag — which white supremacist groups and some states adopted in the 1950s in reaction to the civil rights movement — is misdirected, because the real issues are the persistence of race hatred and easy access to guns. Sure the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, posed in photos with the Confederate battle flag, but flags don’t kill people; guns and people do.

But symbolic speech does have implications. The most serious is if the government endorses speech that is seen as hateful, thereby leading to questions about equal justice under the law. That’s the problem presented by Confederate flags flying on state capitols. And it’s why Texas went to court to affirm the right to reject a license plate design with the Confederate flag on it. Indeed, as you’re reading this,
other states — including Maryland — are moving to ban such state-sanctioned displays of what is now recognized as hateful speech.

But when it is a matter of hateful symbols displayed by individuals, the First Amendment is clear: They are protected. Whether it is the Confederate flag, the Washington Redskins name and mascot or the Hamas flag, for that matter, one’s offense to them is not enough to deny another individual the right to display them. Sometimes the marketplace decides when a symbol is beyond the pale, but results can be uneven: Amazon.com ended the sale of Confederate flags but not of items with swastikas on them.

We believe those who say the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of their heritage and accept their right to display it. That flag and its message should not, however, be a symbol of their government.

One for the ‘Nones’

First the good news. The American Jewish population has stabilized in size after decades of decline. That’s the positive glimmer from the recent Pew Research Center survey that found American Christianity is shrinking, but that the number of those who identify as Jewish in the United States is growing slowly.

But Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who has focused much of his career on examining Jewish demographic trends, finds the numbers behind the headlines unsettling. According to Cohen, the growth in the Jewish community is occurring at the edges — in the Orthodox community, whose above-average birthrate makes up for those lost in other streams, and among what Pew termed “Jews of no religion,” who are sometimes referred to as the “nones.”

In a spirited and often wonky discussion of Jewish population issues and implications on his Facebook page, Cohen argues that the great center of the Jewish community, roughly corresponding to the Conservative and Reform movements, continues its rapid decline. According to Cohen, “We are losing the variety of Jews who are committed to being Jewish in ways other than Orthodoxy.”

In Cohen’s estimation … and it should be emphasized that he is not Orthodox himself — the danger in the growth of the “nones” is that denominational affiliation directly correlates to such community-sustaining positions as support for Israel and objection to intermarriage. That correlation is strongest among the Orthodox, less so among those who identify as Conservative, even less among the Reform and, presumably, close to nonexistent among the unaffiliated, who tend to be the youngest cohort.

It is unfortunate that we have settled on the term ‘nones’ for those who say they don’t identify with current institutional Judaism. This is so because it makes it tempting to write off an entire heterogeneous population simply because it doesn’t identify with a religious denomination. That could be very misleading, since there are Jews of no denomination who are deeply spiritual and who care about the survival and continuity of the Jewish people even if they don’t fit into a traditional denominational category. Thus, we know that groups of “nones,” while not official members of synagogues, will frequently organize Friday night dinners and even minyanim. Others are strongly committed to Jewish culture or other aspects of Jewish peoplehood.

As we move forward and focus on the macro-demographic picture of the Jewish people, let’s continue to keep an eye on the “nones,” hear their stories and provide opportunities for them to be a part of and to help enrich Jewish life. They’ve probably been doing their part under the radar for a long time, and they deserve to be counted.

Oren’s Un-Diplomacy

Michael Oren’s op-eds haven’t been kind to President Obama. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

Michael Oren’s op-eds haven’t been kind to President Obama.
(Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

American-born oleh Michael Oren, author of the critically acclaimed “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” removed his historian’s hat in 2009 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed him ambassador to Washington. Upon returning to Israel in 2013, Oren donned a politician’s hat and was elected a member of the Knesset for the center-right Kulanu party. He is now a member of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

He just published another book, but it is no longer clear which hat Oren is wearing as he publicizes the new memoir, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israel Divide.” According to some, his hat is white and pure. According to others, his hat is black and vindictive. But it just may be that it is the simple green of money.

In a series of prominent opinion pieces published at the same time as the book, Oren’s attack on the Obama administration raised a number of eyebrows. First, in The Wall Street Journal, Oren charged that the administration purposely damaged U.S.-Israel relations. In The Los Angeles Times, he critiqued Obama’s contention that Iran is a rational actor in the current nuclear talks. And in Foreign Policy, Oren traced the source of Obama’s failed outreach to the Muslim world to the influence of scholar Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and to Obama’s “personal interactions with Muslims,” including his abandonment by his mother’s “two Muslim husbands.”

In this country, reactions to the Oren charges seemed to fall along party lines. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and others have discounted Oren’s pieces as transparent efforts to hawk his book. And Oren’s nominal boss, Kulanu party leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, sought to distance himself from Oren’s writing and sent a letter of apology to Shapiro. But Netanyahu has remained silent.

Which begs the question: Why should anyone be forced to distance themselves from Oren’s analysis? The attacks by Shapiro and other Obama allies sound almost shrill, especially considering that this is an administration that has made no secret of its disdain for Netanyahu. At the same time, these kinds of attacks on a sitting U.S. president are highly unusual — all the more so when coming from a diplomat.

There is much blame to go around for the foundering of U.S.-Israel relations, and Oren is certainly entitled to his opinion. But we are troubled that nothing in his book appears to be designed to improve relations between the two countries. Add to that what has been described by others as Oren’s “amateur psychoanalysis” of Obama and his veering “into the realm of conspiracy theories,” and we are left with a work that is both undiplomatic and a-historical. All in all a disappointing turn of events for a respected historian and a former ambassador.

A Mega-Million Gamble on BDS

Somewhere between $20 million and $50 million is reported to have been pledged at the recent Campus Maccabees Summit convened in Las Vegas by billionaire Sheldon Adelson to fight against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses.

The exact size of the pledges is unknown, and precisely what transpired at the two-day meeting is unclear. That’s because the summit was closed to the press, except to Israel Hayom, which is owned by Adelson. In attendance was a carefully selected roster of donors and Jewish organizations, largely from the right and center of the political and religious divide. Some centrist groups chose not to attend, and many pro-Israel groups on the left were not invited.

Still, it is significant that Adelson was joined at the summit by fellow billionaire Haim Saban. Together the pair present a bipartisan front in opposition to economic boycotts of Israel — Adelson is a Republican mega donor and Saban a Democratic one. The pair also appeared together last November at the Israeli-American Council’s Washington conference, where Adelson famously said “who cares” if Israel is not a democracy and Saban said Israel should “bomb the living daylights” out of Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear bomb. These are clearly men who care deeply about Israel and are not afraid to speak their minds.

The planned campus effort will be led by another well-known Jewish name, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is closely associated with Adelson and with Republican politics, and who has been the focus of much comment since the project was announced. Among the questions being raised: Will Campus Maccabees reach the grassroots of Jewish campus life and deliver support to students that speaks to their reality? Can the effort open itself to the organized Jewish community and dispel concerns that decisions will be made solely by the super rich rather than by campus and communal professionals (and students) on the ground? Will Campus Maccabees be flexible enough to include the community’s center and liberal left, who believe that what fuels part of the BDS movement is the lack of progress toward a negotiated two-state solution and the continuation of settlement-building?

We applaud the sincere commitment that has driven the Campus Maccabees effort and are impressed by the significant sums that are reportedly being committed to it. We will, however, wait to see how the program plays out and how these lingering questions will be answered before we reach a judgment about whether to cheer for Campus Maccabees.

Diane Rehm’s Loyalty Oath

Diane Rehm, National Public Radio host  (BILL GREENBLATT/UPI/Newscom)

Diane Rehm, National Public Radio host
(BILL GREENBLATT/UPI/Newscom)

Public radio host Diane Rehm is known for running a genial, intelligent and well-informed talk show. But during her interview with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders last week, something went very wrong. Prompted by a listener’s post on Facebook, Rehm stated that Sanders, who is Jewish, had dual citizenship with Israel.

“No, I do not have dual citizenship with Israel; I’m an American,” Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, replied. “That’s some of the nonsense that goes on in the Internet. But that is absolutely not true.”

Rehm then asked the Vermont senator: “Are there members of Congress who do have dual citizenship or is that part of the fable?”

The Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups have properly blasted Rehm for the exchange. The question of dual citizenship is akin to the charge of dual loyalty, of which Jews have perennially been accused. Rehm fed into that canard, and put Sanders in the position where he had to restate that he is an American and had to reaffirm his loyalty to our country. By doing so, Rehm ventured into the dark territory of conspiracy theorists. She should have known better.

Rehm has apologized for, among other things, stating Sanders’ dual citizenship as fact rather than posing it as a question. And she said she regretted not going with her gut instinct when the listener’s Facebook post looked suspicious. The list of members of Congress with dual citizenship that the listener referred to was, in fact, a hoax. “I should have probed further. I should have looked into it myself when the doubts came into my own mind,” she told NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen. But she didn’t, and that’s a shame.

We’ve come to expect conspiracy mongering from talk radio and from the fringes of the American left and right. But for it to come from an otherwise reputable host on public radio was jaw dropping. Whether Rehm’s fact checkers are at fault is not the point. That she presented a conspiracy theory as a legitimate topic of inquiry — forcing Sanders to respond — reminds us that being intelligent and well- informed does not immunize a person from being misled by the convoluted logic or made up facts of anti-Semitism. The fact is, Rehm chose to launder hate speech and attempted to pass it off as intelligent discourse. That is as sad as it is dangerous.

Rabbi Riskin Under Fire

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbi

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is a well-respected and accomplished modern Orthodox

rabbi. In the 1960s and ’70s he was among the leading voices in the Soviet Jewry movement and led the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a hub for the area’s young modern Orthodox population. He made aliya in 1983 and became the chief rabbi of Efrat, a large settlement outside Jerusalem that he helped found. His municipal chief rabbi position is a government job, under the jurisdiction of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Riskin has been an influence in a brand of Orthodox Judaism that, while conservative by outside standards, is progressive in the Orthodox world particularly in the areas of women’s rights and conversion. He has taken positions on issues that are at odds with those of the Chief Rabbinate’s haredi leadership. And now, the Chief Rabbinate appears to be trying to silence him.

Riskin recently turned 75. Under a little-used rule, any extension of a municipal chief rabbi’s position beyond that age requires the Chief Rabbinate’s formal approval. Riskin has been summoned to a hearing on June 29 to discuss his reappointment.

The Chief Rabbinate has been the subject of much discussion in the Diaspora and in Israel over its control of personal-status issues for Israelis in such areas as marriage, divorce and conversion. It is also charged with the supervision of Israel’s holy sites. Over the last several years, it has been accused of intolerance toward pluralism, of de-legitimization of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and of injecting politics into religion.

In a similar vein, critics accuse the Chief Rabbinate’s treatment of Riskin as driven by purely political concerns and part of a larger effort to address dissention in their own ranks as well as the growing influence of leftwing expressions of Judaism in Israeli society.

If there are legitimate reasons to question Riskin’s capacity to continue to serve in the municipal chief rabbi position he has held for more than three decades, those concerns should be fully considered. But if the invocation of the obscure rule of procedure is part of an effort by the Chief Rabbinate to silence debate over its controversial haredi-led policies, the effort to remove a lion of the modern Orthodox movement for something as petty as his age will likely be a major misstep.