All About Shmuley

What’s with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and why is he attacking Eric Fingerhut, the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life?

We have watched with interest as Boteach has expanded his areas of influence and claimed expertise. He moved from serving as a Chabad rabbi at Oxford University to styling himself an expert on sexual relations; he was a spiritual adviser to the stars and a Republican congressional candidate and is now is a pro-Israel activist with a rightward-leaning agenda. He is also a man of significant intellect, committed activism and remarkable self-promotion, who has branded himself “America’s rabbi.”

Writing in the New York Observer on Sunday, Boteach said that if Fingerhut “fought Israel’s enemies as ferociously as he fights its defenders, perhaps he wouldn’t be losing the war for Israel on campus.” Those are pretty strong words. Which made us wonder what Fingerhut did to deserve such harsh criticism.

According to Boteach’s own telling of events, not that much. Fingerhut, a former congressman, Ohio state senator and chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, has been the subject of much debate since he took the Hillel job in 2013 over how inclusive the organization is regarding student attitudes toward Israel. Fingerhut has essentially declared war on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and has refused to allow programming on campus that tolerates BDS advocacy. These are all positions with which Boteach would presumably agree.

As it turns out, Boteach’s attack in the Observer had nothing to do with any of Fingerhut’s positions. Instead, it was based on New York University Hillel’s decision not to co-sponsor a Boteach-promoted event featuring Ron Proser, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. According to an earlier op-ed in the Observer, Boteach’s This World: The Values Network “has arranged for Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor to give a major speech on the growing global demonization of Israel at Cooper Union’s Great Hall,” the same location as a speech last fall by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Boteach asked for the local Hillel chapter to co-sponsor the event or, barring that, to blast out the details to its email list. Hillel chose not to and apparently told Boteach that it was more interested in bringing Prosor to a later panel discussion on anti-Semitism.

Apparently, one rejects Boteach’s invitation at his peril: His latest suggestion is that the decision not to co-sponsor the event, which he lays at Fingerhut’s feet, will lead to Israel’s doom on college campuses. That’s a pretty harsh conclusion, no matter how strongly one chooses to advocate.

Not Just ‘a Bunch of Folks in a Deli’

Flowers fill a street next to a synagogue in Copenhagen, where a Jewish guard was  killed on Saturday.

Flowers fill a street next to a synagogue in Copenhagen, where a Jewish guard was
killed on Saturday.

Was last Saturday’s deadly attack outside a Copenhagen synagogue during a bat mitzvah celebration resulting in the murder of a Jewish guard an anti-Semitic act?

The question must be raised in light of the similarity to last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, where gunmen killed four at a kosher market and another 12 at the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper. In Copenhagen, the killer also fired on a café, where a debate on free speech was being held, killing one.

Anyone with common sense would answer the question of anti-Semitism’s role in these attacks with an unhesitant “yes.” But in a lapse of such sense, President Barack Obama didn’t come out and call the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris an act
of anti-Semitism. Instead, he referred to the victims as just “a bunch of folks in a deli.”

Pressed for an explanation, White House spokesman Josh Earnest, instead of walking back the president’s careless choice of words, doubled down on the offense, noting that “there were people other than Jews who were in that deli.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later dug the hole even deeper. When asked if the attack at the market was against Jews, she said, “I don’t think we’re going to speak on behalf of French authorities and what they believe was the situation at play here.”

Really? What are they all afraid of? And is it the president himself who is dictating this ridiculous refusal to acknowledge the intentional killing of Jews as acts of anti-Semitism?

You read it here: The attacks at the market and the synagogue were deliberate attacks against Jews, just like the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the free-speech discussion were attacks against prominent purveyors of Western values. All were victims of home-grown criminals espousing a worryingly popular strand of extreme Islam. The killers were radical Islamic terrorists. Let’s
acknowledge that as well.

It is important for the West to respond to both the criminal and ideological elements of these crimes, even as it might search for some understanding of the motivating factors for them. When Jews are targeted because they are Jews, let’s be honest about it. Ignoring clearly anti-Semitic actions and trying to talk around them insults the victims as well as the public. Western values are under attack. Jews are under attack. We have a duty to recognize and acknowledge that painful reality. That duty extends right up to the president of the United States.

The Jordanian Option

Has the gruesome execution by immolation of Jordanian air force Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh tipped the balance in the Arab world against the Islamic State? The swift calls in Jordan for revenge and “relentless” war, apparently part heartfelt and part orchestrated, and the kingdom’s new openness about its airstrikes against Islamic State targets suggest that some change is underway.

The Jordanian moves were matched by an announcement that the United Arab Emirates would resume the airstrikes it suspended after the Jordanian pilot’s capture in December. This is a promising development, as visible Arab participation in the U.S.-led coalition’s offensive against the Islamic State gives the
attacks a regional legitimacy.

Ultimately, such broad-based support and force is necessary in order to defeat the Islamic State, even if U.S. activity dwarfs that of its Arab coalition members. Thus, according to NPR as of last week, “the U.S. mounted 946 strikes in Syria, while Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE completed 79 total.” These kinds of numbers are likely part of President Obama’s calculus in asking Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State.

But there is something else at play here. Jordan’s new stance draws it closer to Israel in what has long been a strong security relationship. On Monday the kingdom returned its ambassador to Israel, whom it withdrew three months ago, after violence flared on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The growing relationship is not new, as Israel has long been part of Jordan’s strategic umbrella — even if it has had to act as a nearly invisible partner that cannot risk seeming to be involved.

Yet, as horrific as the execution of the Jordanian pilot was, no one should rely on
revenge as a strategy for waging war. As retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks told CNN, “If emotions brought [the Jordanians] in, that’s fine. But at this point, it needs to be a relentless, aggressive attack … objectively controlled so that you can achieve results on the ground. And it needs to be sustained.”

Anyone who enters the fray has to be “in it to win it” and prepared to stay until the end.

Schabas Rests

As chairman of a three-person U.N. human rights panel appointed to investigate violations during last summer’s Gaza war, Canadian law professor William Schabas was deemed by many to be biased against Israel. Last week, the Israeli government, which had not cooperated with the panel, prompted Schabas’ resignation by publicizing a legal opinion he wrote on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2012.
This, Israel said, was “a blatant conflict of interest.” Schabas, who was paid $1,300 for his legal work, said he was resigning to avoid becoming “an obstacle and distraction” to the panel’s work.

Schabas’s resignation will not likely derail the panel’s report or delay its scheduled March 23 release. According to reports, most of the work is done, and there already is a new chair to oversee its completion. The day after Schabas’ resignation, the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed panel member Mary McGowan Davis, a former justice of the New York State Supreme Court, as Schabas’ replacement.

Davis is viewed as a moderate, based upon her role on a U.N. committee appointed to monitor Palestinian and Israeli compliance with the Goldstone Report that probed human rights violations in the 2009 Gaza war. While Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone panel, much as it boycotted the Schabas commission, it did cooperate with Davis. Judge Richard Goldstone, who lent his name to the committee report, later
credited the information that Israel gave Davis for his repudiation of parts of his own report.

When Schabas was appointed chairman last August, we acknowledged criticism of him and of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has a dismal record in its treatment of Israel. But we nevertheless urged Israel to cooperate with the Schabas commission, in the hope of avoiding another Goldstone debacle. That hasn’t happened, and the Israel Foreign Ministry is said to believe that the new report will be highly critical.

We hope that Davis, as chair, will strive for fairness and balance in her commission report. But if Israel hasn’t told its side of the story or otherwise cooperated with the
investigation, is it really fair to blame the expected report for being one-sided? Perhaps now with Davis at the lead, Israel will feel it has a sympathetic ear, if not a sympathetic audience, and be more forthcoming with the other side of the Gaza war story.

No Closure Yet for Kesher Israel

Leading and running a congregation is a labor of love requiring much hard work and a certain amount of selflessness. The leaders, members and staff of Kesher Israel in Georgetown have demonstrated that and more since the arrest in October of Rabbi Barry Freundel and his subsequent firing.

The sensational nature of the charges — that he videotaped women in the synagogue’s mikvah — brought a national spotlight to the Orthodox congregation in the historic Washington, D.C., neighborhood. No doubt everyone in the Kesher Israel community wishes to go back to being a normal congregation, with normal joys and normal problems, just as we all wish to return to a time when women did not need to fear for their privacy when using a ritual bath.

Yet, there are significant legal issues that will keep Kesher Israel and Freundel’s alleged crimes in the news for many more months. There is the uncertainty about additional charges against the rabbi. There are civil suits that have been brought against the congregation and other organizations. And most recently, there is the new wrinkle of Freundel refusing to move out of his synagogue-owned residence and the synagogue seeking to compel eviction through a rabbinical court. This latest twist returned attention on the synagogue and its efforts to disentangle from Freundel and also spawned a collective sigh among observers near and far who yearn for an end to the sordid affair.

Under the unforgiving glare of national and international scrutiny, the congregation will continue in its effort to do the important work of healing, community building, searching for a new rabbi and finding a way to close this disturbing and painful chapter in its history.

We applaud the care and sensitivity shown by Kesher Israel leadership as it has dealt with the many issues implicated by the Freundel story. We wish the leaders continued strength and wisdom as they navigate this difficult situation, waiting for justice to be done and working toward closure.No Closure Yet for Kesher Israel

The Fallout from Dermergate

Ron Dermer (JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/Newscom)

Ron Dermer (JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/Newscom)

As Benjamin Netanyahu’s man in Washington, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer has succeeded in identifying himself more closely with his prime minister than any other envoy in the nation’s history. That may be why the criticism that has hit Netanyahu for his planned address to Congress in March has spilled over to Dermer. As the top Israeli in Washington, he has been castigated for arranging Netanyahu’s appearance with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) without the courtesy of giving more than a few hours’ notice to the White House, congressional Democrats or American Jews, all of whom have a stake in U.S.-Israel relations.

If strengthening U.S.-Israel relations was a goal here, along with Netanyahu’s “sacred duty” of taking his warning on Iran “straight to the American people,” the attempt backfired. Not only have relations between Washington and Jerusalem reached a new low, but the episode has turned broad-based support of Israel into a partisan issue and has turned attention away from the West’s negotiations with Iran on limiting its nuclear program.

We recognize that the attacks on Dermer and Netanyahu are not entirely fair. The White House has criticized the temerity of a foreign head of state for injecting himself into a domestic legislative issue. But Netanyahu was invited by Boehner. Who can really blame the prime minister — who has addressed both houses of Congress on several other occasions — for accepting such an open door to speak about Iran, whose nuclear aspirations are very much an existential threat? Even more, there’s practically no difference between Netanyahu coming to Washington and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent personal lobbying on behalf of Obama: In the lead-up to the State of the Union addressed, Cameron called legislators and urged them to defeat any Iran sanctions bill.

Nonetheless, because a nuclear-armed Iran is such a pressing danger and because the invitation is centered on a policy disagreement with the president of the United States, Dermer and Netanyahu should have known better and should have been more careful in responding to Boehner’s invitation. And now, by insisting that he will appear before Congress — even after the political uproar that continues to boil over — Netanyahu has trapped himself in what looks like a pre-election photo op when he could make exactly the same speech at the AIPAC policy conference just blocks from Capitol Hill the same week.

As things stand now, Netanyahu is in a no-win situation. If he moves forward with the speech, he risks coming into a poisoned atmosphere and further insulting the president. If he pulls back, he risks looking weak.

Which brings us back to Dermer. He needs to do what he can to defuse this confrontation and repair Israel’s image in the eyes of its allies in the United States.

Obama’s Word About Israel

It has become President Barack Obama’s custom in the last several years to include a word about Israel in his State of the Union address. In 2013, he promised that America “will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.” In 2014, with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks underway, he said the goal of American diplomacy was “to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.”

Last week, Obama spoke of Israel in the context of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program: “Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.”

As the president enters his last two years in office, he properly noted that Israel’s security is closely tied to a successful solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The fact that Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appear to have very different views about how to achieve that solution doesn’t change the existential nature of the Iranian threat to the Jewish state.

It may well be that, unlike his recent predecessors, Obama will not attempt to make an Israeli-Palestinian accord his legacy. Indeed, Obama was not terribly enthusiastic about launching the last round of peace talks. And the fact that the talks collapsed isn’t likely to encourage the president to push harder.

Recent presidents have been drawn to making Mideast Peace part of their legacy. Until nearly his last day in office President Bill Clinton was pushing Ehud Barak and Yassir Arafat toward an agreement. Late in his term, President George W. Bush announced that America supported the founding of a Palestinian state and convened the Annapolis Summit to work toward negotiations.

Unfortunately, the conflict hasn’t gone away. Israel’s war with Hamas was only last summer. While the issue of peace efforts didn’t make it into the State of the Union address, that doesn’t negate the need for some solution nor does it diminish the value of active American engagement in those efforts.

A New AMIA Bombing Victim

With the death by gunshot wound of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the investigation into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires has ground to a halt. Nisman was hours away from presenting his evidence to an Argentine congressional committee when he was found dead at his home on Jan. 18. Some have called Nisman, who was Jewish, the 86th victim of the AMIA terrorist attack, the most deadly in Argentina’s history.

Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who had accused  Argentine President Cristina  Fernandez of orchestrating a cover-up in the investigation  of Iran over the 1994 bombing  of the AMIA Jewish community center, was found dead in  his apartment.

Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who had accused
Argentine President Cristina
Fernandez of orchestrating a cover-up in the investigation
of Iran over the 1994 bombing
of the AMIA Jewish community center, was found dead in
his apartment.

The evidence has long pointed to Iranian officials as planning the AMIA bombing and Hezbollah operatives as carrying it out. A decade of inept and fruitless investigations went by before Nisman was appointed prosecutor in 2004. Before his death, he was preparing to bring charges against Argentina’s president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, and foreign minister, Hector Timerman, for hiding Iran’s role in the bombing in exchange for favorable oil prices for Argentina.

Nisman reportedly lived under threat for his life by Iranian agents and was under constant pressure from the Argentine government about his work. In 2013, he spoke out about an Iranian “intelligence and terrorist network” in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia and Guyana, among others. And he continued his work despite the announcement that year of an Argentine-Iranian “truth commission” created to investigate the AMIA attack.

Argentina’s Jewish community criticized any investigation that included the Iranians. It smacked of collusion between the two governments rather than a genuine search for the truth. Collusion is the charge Nisman leveled against Fernandez and Timerman, who is Jewish.

Fernandez first called Nisman’s death a suicide. She then reversed herself and said it was murder. Polls showed that a majority of Argentinians already had reached that conclusion.

We hope the true cause of Nisman’s death will be revealed soon. If it was murder, there must be justice. For now, Nisman’s suspicious death only underlines the sad truth that two decades later, there has been no justice for the victims of the AMIA bombing.

Making Education Affordable

President Barack Obama speaks about  community college education during a visit to Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tenn.

President Barack Obama speaks about
community college education during a visit to Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tenn.

Americans are facing three realities regarding higher education: the rising cost of college, onerous student loan burdens and an increasing demand for a college education. With an undergraduate degree now considered the minimum ticket to the middle class, attaining one has become more difficult and often prohibitively expensive, particularly for lower-income students.

President Obama’s proposal to make a two-year community college education tuition free could help alleviate the pressure. While it is by no means a cure for what ails the higher-education system, it has a finite and achievable goal and the potential of joining federal and state efforts to promote higher education.

Under the plan, the federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost of tuition — some $60 billion over 10 years — with the states picking up the rest. Critics say that instead of across-the-board free tuition, the money should be targeted to the truly needy. Supporters welcome the reinvestment of state funding under the plan, as funding cuts are one of the drivers of tuition increases.

The high cost of education is an issue on the elementary and secondary school levels as well. Hence the support of some in the Jewish community for publicly funded vouchers to help pay for a day-school education. As a strong education from elementary school through college is a necessary component to communal success, it is worth seriously considering plans that will make education more affordable.

But cost is only part of the problem. For far too long, our nation’s education system, driven by federal policy focusing on test scores and similar results-driven strategies, has missed the forest for the trees. The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to be an answer, but it gets very mixed reviews. Many of the cutbacks in public school courses in humanities and extracurricular activities have been blamed on the focus on test results mandated by NCLB. And it still isn’t clear that our public education system is any stronger or more effective as a result of the program. There is unquestionably more work to be done.

Thus, while we endorse the president’s proposal in principle, we hope it opens a national dialogue on education that results in our society reaffirming a core truth: Education is a right that should be afforded to all. We will be a stronger nation for it.

No Hoax in Paris

There is a disturbing counter-narrative about who was behind this month’s terror attacks in Paris that led to the deaths of 14 innocent people. Listen to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “The duplicity of the West is obvious,” Erdogan told reporters. “As Muslims we have never sided with terror or massacres. Racism, hate speech, Islamophobia are behind these massacres. The culprits are clear.

French citizens undertook this massacre, and Muslims were blamed for it.”It is true that the suspects in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket were French. But Erdogan chose to ignore their radical Islamic beliefs that saw both free speech and being Jewish as crimes worthy of death.

Others have also put forward conspiracy theories about the origins of the attacks and the reasons behind them: “It’s certain that Mossad is behind these kinds of incidents,” Ankara’s longtime mayor, Melih Gokcek, said in an indictment of Israel’s intelligence’s apparatus. “Mossad enflames Islamophobia by causing such incidents.”

Like those who say the 9/11 attacks were inside jobs carried out by the Mossad or the CIA, these conspiracy theories are short on proof and ignore the contradictory evidence. More to the point, these concocted narratives are offensive and can only serve to further incite hatred and violence.

Erdogan has traveled far from the reformer he was when he and his moderate Islamist AKP party came to power in 2003. He has gone from a democrat to a Putin-like strongman whose pronouncements need not conform to international realities. He has taken Turkey, a NATO member, from an alliance with Israel to a champion of Hamas. And he is a consistent, vocal critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he charges with committing genocide.

So, should we just ignore Erdogan’s ravings and dismiss him as a fringe hater? While we would certainly like to do so, it’s not so simple. And the reason for that is that Erdogan and his supporters are not alone in their narrative. In Russia, for example, the source of the French attacks was also questioned, for much the same reason. The Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper asked: “Did America stage the terror attack in Paris?” The reasoning? The United State was punishing France for President François Hollande’s urging the European Union to lift sanctions against Russia. Or

because “for the last 10 years, so-called Islamist terrorism has been under the control of one of the world’s leading intelligence agencies.”

The accusations may be spurious, but they are no hoax. To the extent that they reflect the beliefs of a sizable population, they must be taken very seriously. Many a war has begun using a lie as its pretext.