Tackling Race by the Cup

Employees on the front lines of the service economy are compelled to say a lot of things to customers at corporate behest, whether it’s “Would you like to supersize that?” or by responding to “Thank you” with the unnatural “My pleasure.”

As of Sunday, baristas at Starbucks will no longer have to worry about following up an order for a vente caramel flan latte with a discussion on racism in America, a topic whose solution has eluded the country’s greatest minds. It was Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s idea for his staff to open up a national discussion on racism by writing #RaceTogether on customers’ cups. It took just one week for the initiative to sink under the weight of criticism and satire, making it only slightly less well received than New Coke.

Racism is America’s enduring shame, but there was something awfully gimmicky about the #RaceTogether initiative. Corporations are right to try to do good, but sometimes these efforts seem to be focused more on increasing the bottom line than repairing the world. On top of that, the effort to reduce a nation’s struggle with race to a pithy hashtag just seemed naive.

Starbucks has done phenomenally well, and Schultz has used the chain’s notoriety and ubiquity in a series of activist political and social initiatives. In 2011, he led 100 corporate executives in pledging to halt campaign contributions until politicians “stop the partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C.” In 2013, he urged customers to support a petition calling for an end to the government shutdown then underway. The same year, the chain advised customers that they were no longer welcome to bring their guns when they stop in for a coffee.

In the future, Schultz said in a company memo, Starbucks will continue hosting events on racism, hiring 16- to 24-year-olds who aren’t in school or employed, and “expanding our store footprint in urban communities across the country.” These actions are likely to do more to help close the economic divide in this country than by seeking to engage and influence customers who just want a jolt of caffeine.

Besides, aren’t the lines at Starbucks long enough?

Netanyahu’s Victory

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by his wife and Likud Party supporters, has a lot of fence-mending to do. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by his wife and Likud Party supporters, has a lot of fence-mending to do.
(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In last week’s election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defied polls, surprised pundits and confounded expectations by pulling off a clear victory. We congratulate him as he negotiates a coalition for his historic fourth term as prime minister.

We are concerned, however, that there was a heavy price for Netanyahu’s victory. His last-minute renunciation of support for a two-state solution and his warning that Arab Israelis were going to the polls “in droves” were very troubling. Although we are heartened that Netanyahu appears to be walking back his opposition to a future Palestinian state, we remain concerned that the pre-election declarations have done Israel and its supporters serious damage. In that regard, we agree with U.S. Mideast peace negotiator and former ambassador Martin Indyk, who said, “On his way to election victory, Netanyahu broke a lot of crockery in [Israel’s] relationship [with the United States].” While we have faith that that relationship is fundamentally sound, we may soon find out what the broken crockery consists of.

Netanyahu’s post-election Washington “to-do list” is long — beginning with the need to do whatever he can to reset his relationship with the Obama White House. On the international level, we are concerned that Netanyahu has handed the world what appears to be proof that the Jewish state and its leader are not serious about the peace process. He needs to address that issue clearly and directly. Further, those who question Israel’s democratic bona fides will find ammunition in the pre-election words of a prime minister who appears to fear Arab Israelis exercising their right to vote rather than welcome it.

But that’s not all. There is collateral damage that could prove even more challenging. Beginning with his decision to embrace Mitt Romney in his presidential bid and continuing with his public spat with the White House over his recent speech to Congress, Netanyahu’s overtly political moves have exacerbated the wedge between Jews in this country when it comes to support for Israel. While some take comfort in Netanyahu’s explanations about his controversial actions and statements, others do not. Some will defend him to the hilt, but others, fatigued by these apparently avoidable episodes, express anger, frustration and lessened support. This is most unfortunate.

Israel is central to Jewish identity and survival. We need the prime minister of the State of Israel to serve as a uniting force for world Jewry and to do everything he can to stay away from partisan bickering and pettiness. It is time for the prime minister to push the reset button, and mean it. That’s what leadership demands.

Unnecessary Fighting Words

So clear was the line between good and evil during World War II that it virtually obliterated the idea that Jews could ever be on two sides of the same international conflict. The fact that in World War I there were Jews who fought for Germany while other Jews fought for the Allies seems hard for us to understand now. And it might be why it’s hard to understand why the remnants of Eastern European Jewry are lining up on either side in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

A hint of how divisive and dangerous this conflict could be came last week when a prominent Russian Jew said that if he had a chance he would hang two prominent Ukrainian Jews in the public square. On the surface, the threat made by Yevgeny Satanovsky, a former president of the Russian Jewish Congress, against Joseph Zissels, leader of the Vaad Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, and Igor Kolomoisky, a Jewish billionaire who is the governor of the district of Dnepropetrovsk in Eastern Ukraine, is about the interpretation of history. Satanovsky accused the Ukrainian Jews of downplaying the role of a Ukrainian nationalist leader in the massacre of Jews during World War II.

But the contemporary context is how the conflict between Ukraine and Russia — and the latter’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine — are turning the region’s Jews against each other. Satanovsky’s threat of vigilante justice is a reminder of how words matter and how they have the potential to incite violence. It came days after Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s undiplomatic foreign minister, announced at a campaign rally that Israel’s Arab citizens “who are against us” should be beheaded.

And, of course, the United States is not immune to rhetorical battles. In keeping with the highly partisan approach to everything in Washington, the arguments over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress became almost fighting words. And within the Jewish community, J Street, which is holding its annual conference in Washington beginning this weekend, is under constant bombardment from those who are violently (rhetorically at least) opposed to how the liberal group shows its support of Israel.

Even those who are not on one side of an international divide can poison the atmosphere with vicious, self-serving, blanket attacks. It’s time to cool down the rhetoric.

Troubling Anti-Semitism at UCLA

Questions put to a Jewish student in her bid for a judicial board spot were highly offensive, to say the least. (Mark & Audrey Gibson Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom)

Questions put to a Jewish student in her bid for a judicial board spot were highly offensive, to say the least.
(Mark & Audrey Gibson Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom)

Rachel Beyda is a UCLA sophomore who recently sought a seat on the judicial board of the school’s Undergraduate Students Association Council. During questioning by the Council on her application, four members voiced concern that Beyda might have a conflict of interest in adjudicating issues brought to the judicial board because she is Jewish. Thus, she was asked: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community … how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” And yes, the questioners were serious.

We’ve watched the growth of resolutions that favor the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel come up for votes at universities around the country. Israel Apartheid Day is a regular event on many campuses, and many pro-Palestinian groups refuse to engage with pro-Israel groups because to do so, in their view, would legitimize or normalize the Israeli occupation. Increasingly, many Jewish students on college campuses, regardless of their opinions on Israel, feel like they are under siege.

But at Beyda’s hearing, the offensiveness reached a new height. There, the virus of noxious speech moved from murky anti-Israelism to flat out anti-Semitism. Israel was never mentioned. At issue was whether Beyda was innately biased, simply because she is a Jew.

During 40 minutes of discussion about Beyda’s application — which included an initial vote to reject her candidacy — a faculty adviser pointed out that being Jewish does not disqualify an applicant for the post. Indeed, council members agreed that Beyda was otherwise clearly qualified. In the end, they approved her appointment unanimously. The four council members wrote a letter of apology, saying they did not mean to “attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people.”

So, was this a “learning opportunity” for the students, as the director of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, Todd Presner, told The Atlantic, or part of a slide into the kind of anti-Semitism common in the pre-Holocaust European academy, as Rabbi Daniel Gordis suggested in The Jerusalem Post?

Both can be true. And both are troubling. On university campuses — particularly public ones where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at a fever pitch — concerted efforts need to be pursued to institute the kind of anti-hate, anti-discrimination programs about Jews that are already being developed for other minorities. And communities in and around campuses, including ours, need to monitor the situation and offer support to affected Jewish students.

We need to draw very clear lines, and our communities need to speak up. Political differences over Israel or other issues could be legitimate, even if not welcome. But bigotry and efforts to impugn an entire people, as the UCLA students attempted to do? That is beyond the pale and cannot be tolerated.

Good Deeds, Great Results

Who benefits from Good Deeds Day, the day of community volunteering that will take place in Baltimore and around the Jewish world on Sunday?

Certainly the residents of the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital who have a playdate with toddler volunteers. So will the Oliver Neighborhood in East Baltimore, when volunteers arrive for an area clean-up project and to work on the community farm.

These are just a taste of the activities that members of our community can take part in during Good Deeds Day. Helping others, known traditionally as gemilut chasadim — or performing deeds of loving kindness — is one of three pillars upon which Jewish tradition says the world survives. In our time, tikkun olam, or repairing the world, has become the banner under which Jews reach outside themselves for the benefit of the wider society.

But there is another beneficiary of Good Deeds Day, which is sponsored by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and a host of other organizations: the Jewish community itself. By coming together, we strengthen the community, our ties to it and our sense of being Jews. That’s crucial at a time when ties to the community are weakening for younger Jews, but surveys are finding that we all want to participate in activities that reflect our values. More than anything, members of the millennial generation want to volunteer for a good cause.

Seen in this light, the projects that will be undertaken on Sunday may establish someone’s connection to the Jewish community simply because the activity reflects that person’s values. So whether it’s assembling dry soup ingredients for a senior home or packing lunches for the homeless, we hope to see you on Good Deeds Day.

Answering Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  addresses the AIPAC policy conference a day before his controversial speech to Congress on March 3.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC policy conference a day before his controversial speech to Congress on March 3.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Now that some of the political dust has settled over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress last week, we join those who have tried to focus on what Netanyahu actually said and whether the issues he raised should impact Washington’s continuing negotiations with Iran. Although the headlines regarding the speech focused on Iran’s continuing nuclear development — clearly the speech’s central theme — there was more in Netanyahu’s presentation that deserves attention.

In addition to focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and likely capabilities, Netanyahu pointed to Iran’s repeated rejection of Israel’s right to exist and Tehran’s ongoing support of global terrorism. Neither of those two issues is part of the talks to rein in Iran’s nuclear capability. But both issues represent a threat to Israel and to American interests in the Middle East. The same holds for U.S. cooperation with Iran in battling the so-called Islamic State.

The Obama administration has apparently concluded that the Islamic State is a greater threat to the region than Iran. American allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries see Iran as just as much of a threat, if not more, as it seeks to dominate the entire region. But the United States appears to be looking the other way on the collateral issues as it pursues a nuclear agreement with Iran. We aren’t sure why. And, unfortunately, no one is doing much explaining.

The Iran negotiations in Geneva will resume on March 15. In the meantime, Netanyahu has stated his case. His arguments have been thoroughly analyzed and debated. No such public discussion of U.S. objectives and vision is being pursued by the White House or the State Department. We are told that progress is being made; we are assured that appropriate verification mechanisms will be in place and that Iran will never get nuclear bomb-making capabilities. We need to know and understand more.

Specifically, we want to hear the administration’s best argument for the deal that is unfolding. Why is a deal that allows Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure a good thing? And is it realistic to assume that the current regime will not last another 10 years as the administration appears to be projecting? Or that what will follow will be a new Iran acting as a responsible international player? And what are the disincentives to an Iran continuing to seek regional hegemony, pursue nuclear weapons capability and continue to threaten its neighbors, as the current regime is doing?

These are all issues that deserve public discussion and explanation. And if an agreement is reached, it needs to be laid out clearly to Congress, which should weigh in with an up or down vote.

Confirming Our Fears

The results of a new Pew Research Center study finding that global harassment of Jews has reached a seven-year high didn’t come as much of a surprise. With attacks against Jews in Paris and Copenhagen fresh in our minds, the conclusion seems self-evident. What was somewhat surprising, however, is that the years analyzed end in 2013, the last year for which data is available. One can only imagine how upsetting the results for 2014 and 2015 will be.

Pew found that in 2012, Jews reported being harassed in 71 out of 198 countries and territories. The number in 2013 was 77 countries. Europe was a dark spot on this world map, with Jews harassed in 34 of 45 European countries, or 76 percent. That compares with just 25 percent of countries in the rest of the world. However, because there aren’t large concentrations of Jews in more than a handful of countries, the fact that Jews are harassed in places where they are not well known only points to how common, and serious, the problem is.

This particular Pew study looked at worldwide religious discrimination, not just against Jews. But it is the discrimination and harassment of Jews that is getting the headlines. Of large countries in the report, the United States makes out well, with only “moderate” levels of “social hostilities” and “government restrictions” of religions; Japan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa fare better.

Interestingly, Israel is among the countries with a “very high” level of social hostilities involving religion (as are the Palestinian territories). Israel also has a “high” level of government restrictions on religion, a rating it shares with Germany. In reviewing these statistics, one can’t help but wonder whether the former reflects the unsettled relations between Jews and Palestinians and between Israel’s haredim and the rest of its Jews. And perhaps the latter is a sign of the lack of religious pluralism in the public sphere and the control of personal-status issues by the Chief Rabbinate.

Granted, we don’t need a study to know these things. But the report can be used to shine a light on the need to increase focus on the fight against anti-Semitism in Europe and on the need for religious pluralism and social equality in Israel.

Mikulski: Our Friend

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Melissa Gerr)

Sen. Barbara Mikulski
(Melissa Gerr)

Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s surprise announcement on Monday that she would not seek a sixth term in the Senate in 2016 has thrown Maryland politics wide open. But whoever succeeds the much-admired, forceful and energetic Mikulski will find it difficult to break as much ground as the Baltimore native.

The longest-serving woman in Congress, Mikulski in 1986 became the first woman to be popularly elected to the Senate. Later, she became the first woman to join the Democratic leadership and then the longest-serving woman in the Senate.

Mikulski, 78, has been a strong liberal voice on Capitol Hill. As the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee until Republicans took control in January, she oversaw, among other things, U.S. funding to Israel. Last summer, as Israel was fighting the second Gaza war against Hamas, Mikulski’s committee approved $225 million in extra funding to Israel. At that time she wrote, “It’s crucial that Israel has the opportunity to defend itself while others are working on cease-fires or political solutions.”

A daughter of Baltimore’s Polish-Catholic community, Mikulski began her career as a social worker and community organizer, and she never forgot her blue-collar roots. As a politician, she focused on the rights of women, children, seniors, veterans, federal workers and the disadvantaged — never losing focus on her constituents and their local needs. And she has been a reliable and forceful advocate for issues of interest and concern to our Jewish community.

At the news conference where she announced her plan to retire, Mikulski admitted that the line was already forming to succeed her. “Maryland has a lot of talent, and they’ll be telling you about it within the next 10 minutes,” she said, provoking laughter. Reps. Chris Von Hollen, John Delaney and Elijah Cummings, as well as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have already topped handicappers’ lists.

We can only hope that Mikulski’s successor will be as attentive, understanding, strong and reliable on issues relating to Israel and of concern to our community as our dear friend has been. She will most certainly be a tough act to follow.

Answers, Please, on the Mideast

We know a lot more now than we did in 2001, when Congress authorized President George W. Bush to go to war against al-Qaeda in the highly charged aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Since then and a later 2002 resolution to authorize the Iraq war, we’ve seen executive powers used well (the 2006 troop surge) and questionably (the Iraq war).

Today’s Middle East is a different place. Syria and Iraq, which were unitary states in 2002, are now places of civil war, overrun by Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State. On the other side, there is Iran and its Shiite proxies, Hezbollah and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In light of the dramatic change in the political reality in the region, it makes sense for President Barack Obama to seek a fresh mandate to fight the Islamic State. Earlier this month he asked Congress for a new war-powers resolution but made clear that he was seeking authorization that would not lead to an “enduring offensive.” What exactly does that mean? As best we can tell, no one seems to know for sure.

Some on the right fear the president’s request is so restrictive that it will tie the military’s hands and prevent it from fulfilling the objectives of U.S. strategy. On the left, there are complaints that the wording of the request is vague and, despite the president’s pledge, offers a loophole that could lead to a full-scale ground war fought by American “boots on the ground.”

We hope that a vigorous discussion on Capitol Hill will encourage the administration to clarify its strategy in the Middle East. For example, we would like to know: Does the administration believe that the Islamic State can be defeated without American ground troops? The Islamic State’s recent loss to Kurdish forces of a stretch of a critical supply route shows that the jihadist militia is vulnerable. But can a regional coalition be made robust enough to take advantage of the momentum and make a meaningful contribution to the allied cause? How can these goals be met while at the same time restraining Iranian influence and its nuclear ambitions, hastening the end of the Assad regime and permanently weakening Hezbollah?

None of these questions has an easy answer. And there may be valid strategic reasons to keep some of the answers secret. Nonetheless, as a new chapter in U.S. involvement in the region appears to be opening, it is important that we get a better understanding of what the administration has in mind, and that we get at least some clear answers.

Icon Makes Political Statement

Eli Wiesel has joined the Netanyahu debate with full-page newspaper ads. (World Economic Forum)

Eli Wiesel has joined the Netanyahu debate with full-page newspaper ads.
(World Economic Forum)

Elie Wiesel has taken out full-page ads in The Washington Post and The New York Times in support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to address both houses of Congress. In the ads, the Nobel laureate says he will attend Netanyahu’s appearance “on the catastrophic danger of a nuclear Iran.” He then asks President Barack Obama and others: “Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?”

For nearly two generations, Wiesel, 86, has been the face and voice of Holocaust memory: soft-spoken, dignified but iron-willed; pained but unvanquished, a moral conscience — like a prophet from the land of the dead. He is the man who famously spoke with unmitigated moral conviction to President Ronald Reagan in 1985, before the president’s planned visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in West Germany, where 49 Waffen-SS soldiers are buried. His words were memorable and penetrating: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

So what do we make of Wiesel’s entry into the political debate surrounding Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress in the face of the tension the plan has created with the White House?

Liberal writer Peter Beinart was critical and wrote in Ha’aretz that Wiesel made two assertions in the ad that are accepted as common wisdom, but for which he failed to provide evidence — that the United States and Iran are on the verge of “a terrible deal” and that a nuclear Iran would likely mean “the annihilation and destruction of Israel.” Others argue that the confrontation over the speech was not necessary and express concern about making Israel a political rather than bipartisan issue.

Republicans and many Netanyahu supporters see things differently: Wiesel’s endorsement of Netanyahu’s address legitimizes its moral necessity. They argue that now is not the time to quibble over diplomatic niceties. They see Iran as a clear and present danger to Israel and the United States.

Thus, according to Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), who met with Netanyahu last week in Jerusalem, “[Netanyahu] is a Churchill. … He is trying to tell the world, particularly the United States, the grave threat we have in this adversary, and our president is Neville Chamberlain, who is in denial about even terrorism.”

There are good-faith, meaningful arguments on both sides of this debate. But it is largely a political dispute. Depending upon who you ask, Wiesel is either a principled voice joining in the fight against an existential threat to the State of Israel and the West or just another talking head in the political fray.

Perhaps that is the way it should be, for as Wiesel himself has taught us, no one is above criticism — certainly not an icon.