Woodmont Not Playing its ‘A’ Game

“Yeah, you go ahead and bar the first black president from your country club. Forget what the 1950s felt like.”

This tweet followed the news, first  reported Jan. 10 by the New York Post, that the historically Jewish Woodmont Country Club in Rockville was debating — “at each other’s throats,” was the Post’s description — whether to welcome soon-to-be ex-President Obama among its members, or to snub him.

The report suggested that some want to punish Obama for his treatment of Israel, “with many saying he deserves to be snubbed for not blocking an anti-Israel vote at the United Nations, according to the sources.”

The article quoted an unnamed “official in a Washington Jewish organization” who “fumed”: “Can you imagine how angry I would be if I had paid $80K to have to look at this guy who has done more to damage Israel than any president in American history?”

We don’t know the provenance of that quote. But it does reflect real tensions within the club that now are on view around the world. In this sense, the tweeter hit the nail on the head. The situation is bad because it looks bad, and it makes the larger Jewish community party to a matter that appears so small-minded that it shouldn’t be happening at all. Woodmont effectively has no easy out at this point but to publicly invite the  departing president to apply for membership.

Have we forgotten what the 1950s felt like? And have we forgotten all the decades going back to 1913, when Washington Jews established Woodmont  because their coreligionists — and blacks — were barred from membership in gentile clubs? And now we’re treated to the sight of a mostly Jewish golf club blackballing not just any African-American, but the president, the golfer-in-chief.

Woodmont needs to respond to Obama, to the tweeter and to all of us who feel a combination of shock and shame over this episode. We trust that the club’s membership will do what is ultimately in the best interests of the club — although even if Woodmont publicly offered him a membership, we doubt that Obama would take it after what has happened. That’s a shame, because for a country club — which runs on status — and the community it represents, the inclusion of an ex-president, a person of color and a well-known golfer among the membership and on the links is priceless.

The Cost of Staying Tight-Lipped

We are thankful that last week’s bomb scares were only that — there were no  casualties, no damage and no bombs found at the 16 Jewish community centers in the East and South, including the Jewish Community Center in Park Heights, which received threatening calls on Jan. 9. We praise the institutions that followed security protocols and hustled adults and children out of the building, in some cases into the bitter cold, and to safety.

While investigations into what happened are ongoing, it seems that with the aid of robocalls, the perpetrators were able to transform what might have been a scattered scare into what appeared like  a mass threat. Just who the culprits are and what their motivations were is still  unknown. But there’s no reason something like this couldn’t happen again. Or something worse.

With the help of the Secure Community Network, the group affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America that coordinates security for most of the Jewish community, our local institutions have gained expanded access to federal funding to upgrade their security posture. Such disbursements under the Nonprofit Security Grants Program operated by the Department of Homeland Security now total millions of dollars a year and fund such things as the installation of security cameras, crisis training, perimeter hardening and other nondisclosed activities.

We believe that the Jewish community is safe. But we encourage those who are monitoring communal security, advising our institutions and implementing security protocols to communicate more fully with the public in order to help put people’s minds at ease when they should be at ease.

Thus, for example, we don’t think that David Posner, vice president for strategic performance at the JCC Association of North America, went far enough in his upbeat assessment of the bomb scare. In a 16-paragraph opinion piece, “Bomb threats won’t derail the vital activity of JCCs,” distributed by JTA, Posner devoted only two sentences to the immediate  responses to the phone calls. And even then, he was vague: “JCCs handled the situation professionally, taking the advice of security staff and local law enforcement and executing well-rehearsed safety plans. JCCs were able to do this seamlessly, working together with police and reopening by the end of the day.”

We are not suggesting that JCCs tweet their security plans or that day schools should detail on Facebook how to isolate an intruder. But we are saying that the mere invocation of “you’re safe” is not enough. Instead, there are many areas of safety preparation that could be shared without compromising safety protocols. For example, information regarding the frequency with which the staff of a Jewish organization receive security training; the broad situations they prepare for; the broad communication protocol that is  followed during safety exercises; and designation of a central spokesperson for the dissemination of timely information would all be helpful additional points to share.

We have no doubt that Jewish institutions are serious about protecting the people inside their doors. Better communication will help get that message out and will help us all feel a bit safer.

Hier Will Honor the Presidency

A presidential inauguration has always been a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power. This year, after a crude and divisive election campaign won by Donald Trump, the idea of a peaceful transfer has emerged in high relief.

That’s what we read into the words of Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who explained why he accepted the invitation to offer a prayer at the president-elect’s inauguration on Jan. 20, and why he will not accede to the demands of Trump’s Jewish critics: “There are no tanks, no planes, no guns, and that’s the way it is, so I was deeply honored and I accepted.”

Although our country was founded on principles that did away with the bowing and scraping before monarchs, we have developed our own pomp and circumstance relating to our elected leader, with particular emphasis on the president’s installation ceremony, called the inauguration. That process has more to do with honoring the office of the president than with the person elected to that role and is one that has played out for nearly four dozen men who have filled the position, irrespective of their party, their religion, their particular personalities or even their policies. Quite simply, the inauguration celebration focuses upon the presidency itself. And, while individual office holders come and go, the presidency remains.

For that reason, we agree with Hier’s decision to accept the invitation of the president-elect and to bring a Jewish voice to the peaceful transfer of power.

We recognize that Hier could have gone the other way. He is the founder of a well-known and respected organization that teaches about the Holocaust, confronts hate and promotes human rights. The Jewish critics who want Heir to reject the inaugural invitation say he should do so because Trump’s presidential campaign fostered the very hate and anti-Semitism that the Wiesenthal Center fights against every day.

Last summer, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, was sharply criticized when he agreed to deliver an invocation at the Republican National Convention. He ultimately withdrew his acceptance under intense pressure from congregants and his past and present students. Whether you agree with Lookstein’s decision or not, we are no longer at the convention. The presidential inauguration is different.

On Jan. 20, our nation will turn to the steps of the Capitol as we install our new president and honor the office in which he will serve. Heir said that he gladly accepted the invitation (along with five other religious leaders) to participate in the festivities because it “was the mentschlikeit thing to do.” He added, “I am proud to do it.” He should be.

Sgt. Azaria and the Rule of Law

Last week, Sgt. Elor Azaria, 20, of the Israel Defense Forces was convicted on a charge of manslaughter for killing a prone Palestinian man who had earlier lunged at Israeli troops with a knife. A three-judge military panel rejected Azaria’s defense that he acted out of fear when he shot Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, 21, in the head while he was lying immobile on a road in Hebron last March. The court ruled that Azaria, an army medic, was motivated by a desire for revenge. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 15. Azaria’s defense team said it will appeal the conviction.

There are legitimate questions regarding the wisdom of trying an IDF soldier in court. But regardless of one’s view on that issue, or on the outcome of the trial and its appeal, deference to the legal process and respect for the rule of law is an important abiding principle of any democratic society.

It is for that reason that we find the politicization of the Azaria case to be so disconcerting. Right-wing politicians from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down are calling for Azaria to be pardoned by Israel’s president, although Netanyahu has not explained why he favors a pardon. And he is joined in criticism of the military court verdict by other government ministers, including Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party and Likud Party minister Miri Regev. The left has been split, with former Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich calling for a pardon and others criticizing the charge of manslaughter, saying that Azaria should have been tried for murder.

The Azaria case has attracted so much attention because it touched Israel’s third rail: the army.

In sympathy for the army and its soldiers, many felt that a soldier who was protecting his country while in uniform should not be tried for killing a Palestinian attacker. Indeed, that appears to be the view of many of the 250 people who turned out on Jan. 4 to protest the verdict. Some clashed with police. And part of the demonstration got ugly, when some protesters chanted death threats to IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot: “Gadi, Gadi, watch out: Rabin is looking for a friend,” they said, referring to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. The same day, a 22-year-old woman allegedly wrote on Facebook, referring to Col. Maya Heller, the head of the judges’ panel: “Take a grenade and blow up the judge and scatter all of her parts in different places, let the dogs eat her.”

These very disturbing death threats may well only involve extreme members of the protest movement, but they show how volatile the situation is. Given the circumstances, it is the responsibility of Israel’s leaders to calm the situation and to stress the merit, value and significance of a country that observes the rule of law, rather than looking for ways to evade it.

So Much for Friendship

Secretary of State John Kerry (File photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry (File photo)

Conventional wisdom holds that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in a two-state solution and that the United States will always have Israel’s back through the peace process. In one speech last week, Secretary of State John Kerry turned that wisdom on its head.

On their face, Kerry’s remarks seemed to be nothing more than a recitation of timeworn policy positions: He condemned Palestinian violence and criticized Israel’s ongoing civilian and military presence in the so-called West Bank.

But coming just days after the United States withheld its powerful veto to allow passage of a one-sided resolution in the U.N. Security Council that declared Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria an affront to international law, Kerry’s speech should more properly be seen as the final parting shot (some would say betrayal) by an outgoing administration that up until this point — owing to the largest military aid package in the history of U.S.-Israel relations — was reasonably regarded as solidly on the side of the Jewish state.

Ever since the U.N. vote, we’ve wondered why the United States waited until now to act upon its condemnation of the Israeli settlement enterprise and to help orchestrate a Security Council declaration that Israelis living on the other side of the 1967 borders — including those living in a good portion of Jerusalem and the entire Old City — are outlaws.

If Kerry’s speech was intended to provide a good answer, it failed. “The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution,” the secretary said in his Dec. 28 speech, “but his current coalition is the most right wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements.” Translation: The Obama administration has been battling Benjamin Netanyahu for years, and now, weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump, the White House feels the need to lay out its vision for the Middle East.

The bare-knuckled tactics chosen by Obama and Kerry are more fitting for a Chicago alderman race than for the implementation of foreign policy. But even more disconcerting, Kerry’s speech was also incredibly naïve. The Israelis predictably rejected it out of hand, but so did the Palestinians, who objected to the language criticizing terror attacks. Russia and the United Kingdom also joined the chorus of dissenters — an amazing development, given that just days earlier both nations voted for the anti-settlements resolution at the Security Council. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May summed up her beef with Kerry’s speech by calling improper an attempt to impugn the government makeup of a democratic ally.

To May, we say, “Hear! Hear!” And for Kerry, we have one question: If the U.S. position is so sound and necessary, why did the U.S. abstain on the Security Council vote?

To us, Kerry’s explanation seems more in keeping with the new conventional wisdom: From Ukraine to Iran, to Syria and to Israel, foreign policy under the Obama/Kerry regime has been feckless, ineffectual and uninspiring.

Justice for Rubashkin

(Screenshot)

Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin (Screenshot)

President Barack Obama has been using his waning days in office to cement his legacy as the most merciful president in recent memory. Two weeks ago, he commuted 153 sentences of primarily low-level drug offenders ensnared in statutorily mandated minimum sentences, bringing his overall commutation total to the highest of the last 11 presidents combined. Although that’s not the total picture — if no more action is taken, Obama will leave office this month as the second-least-likely president in history to grant pardons — it’s hard to question whether the outgoing president’s embrace of clemency is genuine.

But amid all of the mercy being doled out on nonviolent drug dealers and addicts, absolutely none has so far come the way of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. For those unfamiliar with his case, Rubashkin was the disgraced chief executive of what was the nation’s largest kosher meat processing facility — Postville, Iowa-based Agriprocessors — who was caught in 2008 allegedly violating U.S. immigration laws by providing fraudulent documents to migrant workers. He was ultimately convicted of bank fraud and other financial crimes that were revealed during the course of the investigation, including mishandling a business loan from an Iowa bank. In 2010, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

There is no question that Rubashkin broke the law and deserved to be punished. But 107 former Justice Department officials have joined with legislators from Capitol Hill and Orthodox Jewish leaders to argue that justice was far from served by dispatching an aging father of 10 — at 57 years old, Rubashkin still has 20 years left of his sentence — behind bars for close to three decades. Their charge is that overzealous prosecutors improperly influenced the sentencing phase of Rubashkin’s trial, effectively inflating the punishment handed down by Judge Linda Reade.

As outlined in a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Philip B. Heymann, a former deputy attorney general from the Clinton administration, evidence not shared with Rubashkin’s defense has surfaced implicating prosecutors in unfairly driving down the value of Agriprocessors by threatening possible buyers after the firm declared bankruptcy. Because bank fraud sentences are determined based upon the value of the overall loss to creditors, had the company fetched the price it should have, Rubashkin’s bank would have recouped more of its mishandled funds and Rubashkin himself would have faced less time in prison.

Accusations of prosecutorial misconduct are quite common in campaigns that seek sentence reductions and the granting of new trials. But the scope and prominence of the groups and individuals backing Rubashkin’s pleas is impressive. And the fact that the Justice Department has refused to listen to their grievances is quite troubling.

A defendant doesn’t have to be innocent in order for a serious miscarriage of justice to have resulted in his trial and sentencing. The outgoing president seems to understand this basic fact. It is most unfortunate, however, that his administration appears unwilling to apply that lesson to Rubashkin.

Obama Abstains on Israel

At the recent White House Chanukah parties — the last such affairs under the outgoing Obama administration — there were smiles and warm feelings all around between the president and American Jews. That was in keeping with the administration’s oft-repeated assertion that it is the most supportive of Israel in history. That the White House has been so vocal on this point throughout some rather public disagreements with the Jewish state, particularly over the Iran nuclear deal, was a phenomenon frequently explained and supported by the high level of cooperation between Israel’s defense establishment and the Pentagon.

Given the events of late last week, however, one can’t help but wonder just how deep and how sincere the administration’s professed support of Israel really is. More to the point, what exactly was President Barack Obama thinking when less than a month before leaving office — and with all the death and destruction being wrought in other parts of the world — he refused to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that declares Israeli settlements
in lands acquired in the Six Day War as a “flagrant violation [of] international law”? What drove the U.S. abstention on what was so clearly a one-sided resolution? And what caused the reversal of established and repeatedly confirmed U.S. foreign policy, which maintained (up until last week) that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict lies in negotiation?

Could this dramatic departure really have been driven by so petty an issue as Obama’s personal animosity toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Frankly, we’re not sure. But there doesn’tseem to be any better explanation.

The administration has gone to great lengths to try to justify its actions, amid reports that Washington greenlighted the resolution and encouraged its presentation to the Security Council. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the resolution made sense, since it was designed to preserve the two-state solution. The assertion was almost universally challenged by pro- Israel supporters on the left and the right who all argued (for different reasons) that
the resolution likely destroyed any remaining prospects for peace and will likely drive Israelis and Palestinians further apart.

Opinions abound on what drove Obama to do what he did, what other things he might do before he leaves office and the likely success of efforts on Capitol Hill to undo Obama’s parting shots. And no one knows what actual steps will be taken by President-elect Donald Trump, his new foreign policy team and his new ambassador to Israel, although trends seem to point in a generally more pro-Israel direction.

This much is certain: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon admitted earlier this month that the international body
unfairly targets Israel. Yes it does — and this time with the support of the U.S. president. Although Trump promises to usher in a new era of American and Israeli cooperation, the outgoing administration seems hell-bent on making that a tough climb.

Treating the Wounds of Aleppo

The Syrian city of Aleppo is 400 miles from the Israeli border. It is closer to Turkey, Cyprus and Lebanon than it is to any hospital in Israel. That’s one reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement last week that his government is looking into ways to bring thousands of Syrian civilians who were wounded as Aleppo was pulverized to Israel for medical treatment is such a big development.

Israel has studiously stayed out of the Syrian civil war, although it tacitly leans toward President Bashar al-Assad as the best-known of bad choices among the players there. And the Jewish state has responded to nearly every incident of cross-border mortar or gunfire attacks, while coordinating with Russia, the power behind Assad.

But Israel has also treated thousands of wounded Syrians along the common border in the Golan Heights. at humanitarian practice was a local affair compared towhat the prime minister suggested on Dec. 20: bringing thousands of wounded civilians — “women and children, and also men if they’re not combatants,” Netanyahu said — from the far north of a country at war with Israel to the heartland of the Jewish state. “We’d like to do that,” Netanyahu said. “Bring them to Israel, take care of them in our hospitals as we’ve done with thousands of Syrian civilians. We’re looking into ways of doing this; it’s being explored as we speak.”

We applaud this humanitarian initiative. While it will not turn the tide of the civil war or eliminate the suffering of the millions who have been displaced in the last five years, it will be of immeasurable benefit to those who do receive treatment and will bring relief to their families. At the same time, we note that others have called for wider action. In September, opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on the government to let thousands of Syrian refugees into the country, out of the estimated one million refugees on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. But we recognize that the well-intentioned humanitarian proposal is fraught with security and political concerns that are dramatically more immediate and potentially more consequential than the similar policy debate playing out in our own country.

We acknowledge the obvious: The civil war in Syria has been a tragedy for the Syrian people and destabilizing for its neighbors and for every country where refugees have fled. It has given immigration opponents in this country another reason for denying the tempest-tossed a haven here. In the face of that international reality and reaction, Netanyahu’s offer is remarkably compassionate and generous. And it may offer some Syrians a way out of their ruined country.

Israel has long been a leader in the humanitarian arena. It’s a shame that the Jewish state doesn’t get the recognition and credit it deserves.

Trump’s Man in Jerusalem

Donald Trump says he wants to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and in David Friedman, the president-elect has nominated an ambassador to Israel who reflects the belief that Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital — nothing more and nothing less.

Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has for years represented Trump and his real estate development business, speaks Hebrew and intends “to work tirelessly to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region,” the president-elect’s transition team announced in a statement. He also looks “forward to doing this from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

It is always good news when someone who has been so clear in his support for Israel has attained the position of ambassador. But, as everyone knows, Middle East problems defy easy answers. Friedman has funded building in West Bank settlements and supports Israel annexing part of the West Bank, positions that put him to the right of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Friedman has voiced frustration with Israel’s perceived failure to jail for treason Muslims who engage in alleged incitement. And he has called liberal American Jews who support a two-state solution as “worse than kapos,” a reference to Jews who were forced to serve the Nazis.

We understand that things are said during campaigns — by candidates, their proxies, of which Friedman was one, and supporters — that are sometimes more extreme than really intended in order to make a point. We hope the same holds true with Friedman. We hope he and the president-elect keep an open mind regarding possible solutions to what is clearly one of the most vexing international puzzles, rather than support some of the more one-sided approaches with which Friedman has been associated in the past.

But we really don’t know what to expect, since, as with many things regarding Trump, we are short on specifics about the president-elect’s plans. In late October, Friedman published an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post in which he outlined what Hillary Clinton was likely to do in her first 100 days as president — and then warned that if Clinton was elected, life in the United States for pro-Israel Jews would become as threatening as life for Jews in France. In the lengthy piece, however, Friedman said very little about what Trump would do if he was elected, other than move the embassy.

The U.S.-Israel relationship — and Israel’s survival — depends on so much more than a diplomatic mission’s address. There are complex policy, security and diplomatic issues that present a veritable minefield for even the most experienced statesmen. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. We anxiously await details of the president-elect’s plans for the long-term strengthening of the U.S.-Israel relationship and his plans for bringing security to Israel and peace to the region.

The Ballad of Julia Ioffe

Julia Ioffe is, by all accounts, a sharp and insightful journalist. If her name is familiar to you, that may be because she spent a good part of 2016 chained to the rise of Donald Trump. Her April GQ profile of Trump’s wife, Melania, led to a torrent of abuse and threats against the 34-year-old Jewish reporter from neo-Nazi and alt-right Trump supporters. She received anonymous phone calls playing Nazi music and tweets calling her a “filthy Russian kike.”

This hate attack was part of a campaign against Jewish journalists by Trump-supporting rightwing extremists in the months leading up to the election. Unfortunately, Trump did not condemn the threats or admonish his supporters, and Melania Trump blamed Ioffe for provoking the death threats she received by writing the article.

All this provides some context with which to view Ioffe’s reckless and crass tweet last week in response to news that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, will be receiving the White House office usually occupied by the first lady: “Either Trump is f—ing his daughter or he’s skirting nepotism laws. Which is worse?” Ioffe wrote.

With the prominence of discussion about whether or how Trump may divest himself from his businesses; lingering concerns about Trump’s tax returns; and his apparent plan to bring his relatives into government service, Ioffe’s focus on nepotism laws was relevant. (It should be noted that Trump would not be the first president to have secured jobs for his kin: When he was vice president, John Adams secured a diplomatic post for his son and future president, John Quincy Adams, who continued to serve when his father became president; and John F. Kennedy famously made his brother the attorney general.)

But relevance is not the only lens with which to view Ioffe’s tweet. Until now, Ioffe was a respected journalist. The tweet was beneath her and unprofessional — and remarkably offensive. Yes, she did a walk back: “I guess my phrasing should have been more delicate.” But serious journalists — those who seek to get to the bottom of things, as opposed to the journalism of partisan hacks — cannot afford to cross the line of fairness and propriety, as Ioffe unfortunately did.

Her employer, Politico, was not overreacting by firing her. “Incidents like this tarnish [the publication] and the great work being done across the company,” it stated. There may, however, be some sleight of hand here, since the Atlantic just announced that Ioffe will begin work there early in 2017. However that reshuffling works out, after this tumultuous year, we look forward to seeing Ioffe back in form. But it will be hard to forget the ugliness of her words and her incredibly poor judgment in last week’s tweet.