The Crowning Glory of American Pharoah

It’s not often that an American Jewish publication chooses to comment on a horse race. And we certainly claim no expertise regarding the coveted Triple Crown of horse racing. But American Pharoah is a rare hose. Having won the Kentucky Derby and Maryland’s Preakness Stakes last month, the thoroughbred stands to be the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, and only the fourth since 1948, when he runs at Belmont Park on Saturday.

That’s exciting, of course. But the Jewish angle here is American Pharoah’s owner. Ahmed Zayat, 52, is an Egyptian-born Jew who came to the United States as a young man. He made his fortune in the beverage industry and then turned to horses. His Zayat Stables were the top earners in North America in 2008. That he is also deeply religious, observing Shabbat even on the days his horses race — he apparently stays with family and friends in hotels near race venues, arranges catered kosher Shabbat meals and walks to the races — is a testament to the fact that in today’s world, religious conviction needn’t stand in the way of accomplishment.

“In addition to his faith, he brought some other important things with him from Egypt: a lifelong love of horses, a crazily competitive streak and an overflowing optimism often found in American immigrants,” according to a Yahoo Sports profile of Zayat. “Roll those traits together and you have a gregarious, emotive man who has risen to very near the top of the thoroughbred racing game — seemingly impervious to all the bruises he has absorbed along the way.”

In Maryland, horses are a $1.6 billion industry, with $826 million from racing alone, according to the American Horse Council Association. All of which has drawn our attention to American Pharoah, whose name seems to reflect Zayat’s Egyptian heritage and American home. Of course, there is the curious spelling of the horse’s name which, according to reports, was suggested by an Arkansas woman, who apparently misspelled pharaoh when she submitted it for a contest.

Neither the curious spelling of his name nor the rather unconventional characteristics of his owner have slowed American Pharoah down. We wish him and the Zayat family success at Belmont Park.

Tony Blair’s Mideast Exit

Tony Blair was the so-called Quartet’s Middle East envoy. (FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/EPA/Newscom)

Tony Blair was the so-called Quartet’s Middle East envoy.

Tony Blair stepped down last month as the Middle East envoy of the so-called Quartet — the group comprised of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. To the extent Blair’s assignment was the achievement of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, he clearly didn’t finish the job. But, how did he do?

The most charitable commentators argued that he did a relatively good job during his eight-year tenure, considering that he had been given an impossible task and that his job was unpaid and part time. Others were far more critical.

As the man dispatched in 2007 to foster Palestinian economic development as part of a revitalization effort, the former British prime minister scored some modest successes. The largest of these was the improvement of cellular service in the West Bank and getting the Israelis to remove some checkpoints around Bethlehem, which helped the town’s tourism industry.

But the strongest criticisms centered on how Blair apparently blurred his envoy responsibilities with his profitable consulting business. Thus, while noting that Palestinians gained better cell- phone service thanks to Blair, his detractors pointed to the fact that the improvement also benefited Blair client JPMorgan Chase, whose own clients include investors in the Palestinian mobile phone service.

Let’s also not forget Blair’s business dealings with the strongman regimes of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. While these have nothing to do with his status as Quartet envoy, and while Blair is not the first official of his standing to run a rather successful enterprise with questionable links to suspected human-rights violators, no less than Foreign Policy has commented upon the entrepreneurial side of Blair’s activities, observing that “the full extent of his fortune remains shrouded behind a byzantine corporate structure.” Making peace and making money are two laudable goals, but modern history is replete with examples of the one being sacrificed for the other, and with dire consequences.

The Quartet was formed in a moment of optimism in 2002 as a way for the international community to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. But that elusive peace will only be reached when both Israel and the Palestinian Authority see that they have more to gain from an agreement than from continued conflict. That point has clearly not been reached yet. And we suspect that it will not be reached without strong international backing and leadership from the United States. With Tony Blair becoming just another diplomat swallowed up in the abyss that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a brighter future will be contingent on the next envoy making peace his No. 1 objective.

A Birthright for Evangelicals?

A new program to bring young evangelical Christians to Israel on an 11-day subsidized trip has been dubbed “Birthright for evangelicals” because it was inspired by the successful Birthright Israel program open to Jewish young adults. And it’s a testament to that success that other groups seek to copy it.

But comparisons between the two should not be drawn too closely. The Christian program, whose actual name is Covenant Journey, is sponsored by the evangelical Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain and backers of the Museum of the Bible that will open in Washington, D.C., in 2017. It is also sponsored by the Philos Project, a pro-Israel group whose goal is “positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.” Its largest backer is Jewish hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer, according to Forward.

Evangelical Christians have long been among the strongest supporters of Israel, evidenced by the numbers who travel there each year and the unwavering backing they’ve given to the Jewish state in various political arenas. According to Steve Green, Covenant Journey “will create a foundational platform from which [participants] can become goodwill ambassadors for Israel and the Jewish people.”

On that score, we applaud the Green family, other evangelicals and their Jewish supporters who wish to fund trips to Israel. They are more than welcome, and Israel needs all the friends — and tourist dollars — it can get. But we must also stress that what makes Birthright Israel — the term and the trip — unique is that the program has given more than 400,000 Jewish 18- to 26-year-olds a 10-day Jewish and cultural exposure to Israel, without a political agenda.

In strengthening a Jewish man and woman’s love and support of Israel, Birthright Israel has operated from the fundamental premise that the Jewish state is literally a birthright to members of the tribe. That’s why religious and secular camps, left, right and center are represented on Birthright trips. Israel, in other words, is a matter of Jewish identity, not an external target of support.

Covenant Journey, in contrast, tied in as it is to conservative politics and religious dogma, is entirely different. For evangelicals, it will almost certainly strengthen their support of the Jewish state. And that is a good thing. But let’s not pretend that Israel will ever be a birthright for anyone other than Jews.

The Pope’s Recognition

Under Pope Francis, the Vatican announced an agreement with the “State of Palestine.” (Massimiliani Migliorato /CPP/POLARIS)

Under Pope Francis, the Vatican announced an agreement with the “State of Palestine.”
(Massimiliani Migliorato /CPP/POLARIS)

As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is also the head of a political entity called the Vatican. It was that entity that on May 13 announced an agreement with the “State of Palestine” about churches under Palestinian control. The use of “Palestine” was a shift away from the Vatican’s prior reference of the “Palestine Liberation Organization” as a diplomatic interlocutor.

Since the announcement, American Jews have struggled with the implications of the Vatican’s move. The confusion was compounded by the fact that the Vatican has been referring to Palestine for at least a year in official, but non-diplomatic documents. And it was aggravated by the pope’s much publicized praise of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace.”

Reactions among Jewish groups were somewhat predictable. The Zionist Organization of America attacked the move as a reflection of “the historical Catholic enmity toward Jews.” Given the many warm expressions of friendship toward Jews and the Jewish people by Pope Francis and his recent predecessors, the ZOA reaction appears to be stuck in a prior century. But that doesn’t mean the Vatican’s move was a wise one.

Most American Jewish organizational responses were more somber and reflective. For example, the Union for Reform Judaism offered a typical analysis: “We believe a solution will be best achieved as a result of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and not through unilateral actions,” it said, in a clear reference to the Vatican’s nod to Palestine.

That said, the URJ noted, as did others, that with peace talks moribund since last year, and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s on-again off-again commitment to a two-state solution as he leads a solidly right-wing government, unilateral acts of recognition of the State of Palestine are likely to continue.

The move by the Vatican was particularly troubling for another reason. Pope Francis isn’t just any international leader. His moral and symbolic power make him influential far beyond the Catholic Church and the tiny Vatican City. It would have been better had he used his influence, diplomatic skills and evident warm feelings for both Israel and the Palestinians to nudge them both toward a peaceful path forward. Perhaps he still can. But, unilateral moves that embrace one side and alienate the other make the hoped-for process of reconciliation much more difficult.

The Freundel Sentence

Was justice served in the 61/2-year sentence Rabbi Barry Freundel received last week? In handing down the sentence, D.C. Superior Court Senior Judge Geoffrey Alprin told the former rabbi of Kesher Israel: “You repeatedly and secretly violated the trust your victims had in you, and you abused your power.”

The sentence — about six weeks for each of the 52 women Freundel pleaded guilty to videotaping — was longer than many predicted and well less than the 17 years the prosecution asked for. But it clearly reflected the intensity of the hurt that Freundel caused his many victims. It registered the extent to which Freundel abused his position and power and reflected the judge’s sense of the enormity of the offenses.

In secretly recording women as they were preparing to enter his synagogue’s mikvah, or ritual bath, Freundel exposed his victims at moments of maximum vulnerability. And although legally his acts were misdemeanors, the crimes struck at the very fabric that ties our entire Jewish community together.

Because he was a rabbi whose authority in Jewish law had been unquestioned, his actions shook the faith of many of those he videotaped, and many others, as well: faith in religion, faith in Judaism, faith in rabbinic leadership, faith that a conversion overseen by Freundel was valid. With the loss of faith came loss of trust: in powerful religious authorities, and that private, vulnerable moments are inviolable.

“I’m sorry, truly sorry,” Freundel said at his sentencing hearing. “I apologize from the depths of my being.”

The long road toward healing, for Freundel’s victims, for the Kesher Israel community and for the rabbi himself will likely outlast his stay behind bars. We pray for meaningful healing for all.

It’s About the Funding

Eight riders were killed and more than 200 injured in last week’s Amtrak crash. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS/Newscom)

Eight riders were killed and more than 200 injured in last week’s Amtrak crash.

Investigators are still determining the cause of the Amtrak crash that took eight lives and injured more than 200 riders of the northbound train in Philadelphia on May 12. But when asked whether Congress shared the blame because it underfunds the rail system, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shot back: “Are you really going to ask such a stupid question? … Obviously, it’s not about funding.” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) seemed to agree, when he told CNN: “I believe it’s shameless that we have colleagues trying to exploit a tragedy like this for funding.”

Boehner’s and Shuster’s point is that, as the train was going 106 mph when it hit the Frankford curve, it was speed — and, presumably, human error — that was the primary cause of the tragedy. That may be true. But it ignores the underlying question of whether the errors might have been avoided if more funding, training and better equipment were made available.

The fact is that Amtrak is underfunded and has been underfunded for years. That reality is felt with particular acuity in Amtrak’s busy and vital Northeast Corridor that affects us all. And that reality was pointed out quite clearly by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, last September as he voted with reservations for the reauthorization of Amtrak: “We cannot lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we are still woefully underfunding Amtrak and passenger rail,” he said. “We spend more than $50 billion per year on highways and transit and over $15 billion on aviation, while Amtrak gets just $1.4 billion or less than 2 percent of federal transportation spending.”

We have a direct interest in this debate. Our region is a major piece of Amtrak’s north-south line that carries more than 750,000 commuters a day. Members of Congress and their staffs are regular passengers, as are tourists and business professionals. And while it is perhaps a random, unfortunate statistic, two of the eight who died in last week’s derailment were Jews — Rachel Jacobs, a 39-year-old executive with an education startup, and Justin Zemser, a 20-year-old midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. It only goes to show how much our Jewish community is tied into this vital artery.

We hope the exact cause of the crash will be determined soon. But inquiring into the link between the accident and the amount of funding made available for the crumbling public rail transport infrastructure in this country is not “stupid.” It was being asked long before the Amtrak train derailed. And it isn’t at all inappropriate to ask the question now.

Free Speech on Z Street

Z Street, the pro-Israel group that says it was denied 501(c)(3) tax status because of its views, got its day in court last week. While the outcome of the case is far from certain, during oral arguments, a three-judge panel from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals criticized the IRS and the Justice Department for its handling of the organization’s application.

Z Street was founded in 2009 in a self-declared effort to counter the influence of the liberal, pro-Israel and Democratic Party-allied J Street. Z Street says its mission is Zionist education. Nonetheless, when the organization sought tax-exempt status, its application was flagged for scrutiny by the IRS. The group then sued the IRS, claiming that the investigation violated Z Street’s freedom of speech. The IRS’s motion to dismiss the suit was rejected last year by a federal judge.

Last week, the judges reviewing the case came down hard on the IRS’s assertion that it could delay granting tax-exempt status because of Z Street’s policy views. And they questioned the IRS contention that groups may only sue to obtain their tax-exempt status if no action has been taken for 270 days. In other words, Chief Judge Merrick Garland said, the IRS is saying that it “is free to discriminate on the basis of viewpoint, religion, race” for 270 days.

It was a mistake for the IRS to “investigate” the tax-exempt status entitlement of Z Street, which says it does no lobbying, just as it was wrong for the IRS to probe groups with “tea party” or “progressive” in their names — both of which have been cause for criticism of the IRS in the past. But in arguing that it has a statutorily protected ability to delay an application for at least 270 days, the IRS has revealed itself to be far from the apolitical arbiter it was intended to be.

A group’s viewpoint should not be the criterion on which to judge its qualification for tax-exempt status. That’s not just wrong from a constitutional point of view — speech should be protected, not burdened by the government — it’s also bad policy.

Our political environment is polarized enough without the government getting into the business of deciding winners and losers. We look forward to a decision from the D.C. Circuit that makes clear to the IRS that in determining the bona fides of a tax-exempt applicant, the focus needs to be on what the applicant does, rather than what it says.

Netanyahu’s New Government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with haredi Orthodox Knesset  members, in the rear of the parliament in Jerusalem last week. (JIM HOLLANDER/EPA/Newscom)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with haredi Orthodox Knesset
members, in the rear of the parliament in Jerusalem last week.

Despite being a coalition comprised of the “right” and the “religious,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government, which was scheduled to be voted in on Wednesday, does not appear to be united or stable. With a razor-thin, one-seat Knesset majority, the new governing coalition could easily be toppled by a single, rebellious coalition partner. Avoiding that result will take some delicate internal diplomacy from the prime minister.

Netanyahu attracted the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism parties by agreeing to reinstate funding to large haredi families and by promising a rollback in the reforms passed by the last government on conversion policies and the military draft of haredi Israelis. Those reforms were championed by the modern Orthodox and Zionist Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett, another coalition partner. In agreeing to join the new government, Bennett has seemingly abandoned these issues in favor of others.

One of Bennett’s big issues is settlements. Jewish Home will be given the Agriculture Ministry, which controls funding for settlements. And the ministry will be given authority over the part of the World Zionist Organization that funds settlement infrastructure. The attorney general’s office is reportedly seeking to block the settlement-funding piece of that agreement.

The Bennett inducement also calls for Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked to become justice minister. During last summer’s Gaza war, Shaked posted a call on Facebook for the destruction of the Palestinian people. Pundits are anxious to see whether she will moderate her speech and how she proceeds to exercise her considerable authority in the new government — particularly with respect to the controversial law to declare Israel a Jewish state. That issue, the Jewish nationality law, becomes even more complex, since it is opposed by another coalition partner: Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party.

Given all of these conflicting agendas and positions of his coalition partners, Netanyahu’s historic reluctance to take bold steps may prove to be this new government’s saving grace. Through deft handling of procedure, he is engineering an expansion of his cabinet from the legal maximum of 18 ministers, in what is seen as an effort to dilute each minister’s influence, thereby making it more difficult for the government to lurch in any one direction. But while that move may help Netanyahu stay in office, it also means that Israel will continue to drift away from religious pluralism and away from trying to find some compromise with the Palestinian Authority. Both are issues of increasing importance to a broad segment of Diaspora Jewry. On top of that, there is unfortunately no reason to look for warming ties with the Obama administration. And no matter what your politics, that’s not good.

So through at least the end of 2016, we predict stormy weather ahead for Netanyahu, for the coalition he leads and for Israel’s relations with its neighbors and the United States.

Muhammad as a Red Flag

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) had an idea worth trying in response to the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest, which was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and held in the Dallas suburb of Garland, Texas on Sunday.

“We are not paying any attention to this at all,” Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR spokesman, told the Dallas Morning News. “The thing [Pamela Geller] hates most is being ignored.”

Pamela Geller is the Jewish founder of AFDI, a hate group whose particular obsession is the threat Muslims pose to free speech and to Israel. The AFDI contest promised to award $10,000 to the winning cartoon of the prophet. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. And Geller and everyone else knew precisely what would likely happen.

It is not yet confirmed whether the two gunmen who first wounded an unarmed security guard before being killed outside the building where the contest was being held acted in response to the contest’s subject matter. They probably did. But it provided Geller with confirmation that free speech is under threat.

Last May, when AFDI placed ads with anti-Muslim messages on Washington buses, we condemned them. More recently, the New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority banned “political ads” in an effort to stop a new AFDI series that says, “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.”

While we sympathize with the MTA, we believe that hate speech, ultimately, is better when it is drowned out by other speech or ignored. That was the response when the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church came to picket at Temple Rodef Shalom in Northern Virginia. Westboro is to Christianity what AFDI is to freedom advocacy. Westboro was ignored, and it went away.

There is no question that the actions of the gunmen in Garland were criminal and cannot be tolerated. But in bringing her circus to Dallas after earlier stops up north, Geller effectively painted a target on her back and dared the Islamic fanatics of the world to respond. That’s not advocacy, and it’s certainly not behavior worthy of being called “Jewish.” It is, plain and simple, hate baiting.

On this, we agree with the Council on American-Islamic Relations: The most effective deterrent to hate-speech peddlers such as Geller is to ignore them. Hopefully, she will go away.

The Hope of Ethiopian-Israelis

Several thousand people march  to protest police violence against Israel’s ethnic Ethiopians. (NurPhoto/REX Shutterstock/Newscom)

Several thousand people march to protest police violence against Israel’s ethnic Ethiopians.
(NurPhoto/REX Shutterstock/Newscom)

It would be a mistake to try to draw too many comparisons between Sunday’s protest in Tel Aviv by Ethiopian-Israelis and the upheavals resulting from the line of demonstrations stretching from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore. Indeed, the origins and nature of the demonstrations are markedly different — even if the Israeli protests against the April 26 beating of a uniformed Ethiopian-Israeli soldier by two police officers bears a superficial similarity to the killings of unarmed black men by American police.

Instead, what led to the march in Tel Aviv and an earlier one in Jerusalem more closely resembles societal tensions throughout Israel’s history in welcoming and integrating what might now be called “Jews of color.” The patronizing and sometimes traumatic mistreatment of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries by the Ashkenazi founders of the state, for instance, are well known.

To this latest eruption of frustration by Israelis of color, President Reuven Rivlin, a descendant of the Ashkenazi founding generation, responded with the right words on Monday. While condemning the violence as night fell, he said the protests “revealed an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reflected the same conclusion and said after a three-hour meeting with Ethiopian-Israeli leaders: “We will have to change things.”

Some have noted with sorrow how the spirit of idealism that accompanied the secret airlifts of the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel in the 1980s has been dashed. But the problems today’s Ethiopian-Israelis are marching against — including systematic mistreatment and profiling by the police — were a generation in the making. According to Israeli government reports, Ethiopians, who are 2 percent of the country’s population, account for a third of youth in detention. They also have higher rates of poverty, suicide, divorce and domestic violence.

The demonstrators — who largely belong to the generation that was born in Israel — are making their presence and anger known precisely because they are fully Israeli. In singing “Hatikvah,” as they did in Tel Aviv on Sunday, they are seeking the opportunity and dignity owed to every citizen. The process of change will require more than a promise by the prime minister. But there is nothing in Israel’s short history as a state to suggest that such change will not occur. We join our Ethiopian-Israeli brothers and sisters in welcoming it.