Reaching Across the Aisle

Leader of the Israeli "Tnuah" party Tzipi Livni and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog have announced a unity deal.  (Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Leader of the Israeli “Tnuah” party Tzipi Livni and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog have announced a unity deal.
(Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom)

What should we make of the Dec. 10 “partnership” announcement by Israel’s Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Tnuah Party’s Tzipi Livni? Is Herzog a shrewd pragmatist who is willing to share power in order to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office? Or is he a just another politician who in an attempt at pre-election positioning has miscalculated by handing half of a planned prime minister’s term in office to the far more ambitious and self-serving former justice minister, whose party was expected to disappear in the Knesset elections scheduled for March?

Israeli commentators were arguing both sides of that point following the pair’s surprise announcement that their parties would run on a single center- left list. In a novel move, the two politicians agreed to rotate in the prime minister’s job: Herzog would assume the office in the first two years of the term and then cede it to Livni for the final two, or until the Knesset dissolved itself.

Early polling showed Herzog-Livni neck and neck with Netanyahu, who, while deeply unpopular, is viewed by Israelis as the most qualified for the job. In addition, the mathematics of coalition building favors Netanyahu, since the majority of Israelis vote for the center, right or Orthodox parties — the prime minister’s natural allies. But a meaningful attempt by Herzog and Livni to reach out to centrist voters who want a two-state solution and yet doubt that a secure agreement can be reached with the Palestinians could deprive Netanyahu of votes.

We will almost certainly see more political partnerships in the coming weeks. That’s what coalition government is all about. Indeed, there are reports of an agreement in the works between Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, who recently announced the formation of his own party. Some predict that such a Lapid-Kahlon move could lead Netanyahu to ally with Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett of the Orthodox Jewish Home Party. Bennett supports building settlements, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and would annex part of the West Bank to Israel, a move that would contradict Israel’s stance against unilateral moves. And a Netanyahu- Bennett alliance would drag Netanyahu further to the right and present some interesting international challenges for coalition leadership.

But there’s a long way from now until March 17. And while politics makes strange bedfellows in any democracy, Israel’s governing coalition system invites strained unions and magnifies the need to make compromises in order to win elections. To the extent coalition-building challenges bring everyone toward the center, the process can be productive. More dramatic moves right or left, however, will not likely create sustainable governing partnerships. You need only look to the string of failed governments in the past 20 years for proof.

‘It Cannot Go On Like This’

The disturbing attack on a young Jewish couple in a Paris suburb on Dec. 1 contained an element not seen in previous attacks thought to be motivated by anti-Semitism: the rape of a woman. This is an appalling crime against the 19-year-old victim and makes the attack qualitatively different from the disturbing attacks on Jews that we have recently seen in France. It is a stark reminder that, particularly in ethnic conflicts, rape is often used as a weapon to humiliate the enemy.

Police have detained three men suspected of breaking into the couple’s apartment with pistols, tying the couple down and raping the woman before stealing bank cards, jewelry and mobile phones. According to the couple’s lawyer, the assailants said, “You Jews, you have money.”

The trial of the perpetrators will reveal the facts of the case, which is being viewed as a racially motivated attack. But observers cannot help but see this ugly crime as part of the rising hostility against Jews throughout Europe — a trend that France’s interior minister acknowledges has resulted this year in more than a doubling of anti-Semitic attacks in his country.

Last Sunday, hundreds of Jews rallied in Creteil, the scene of the attack. The interior minister promised that “the Republic will defend you with all its force.” While those are comforting words, they will only be meaningful if the government and French society — in which so many apparently think it’s OK to attack Jews — back them up. We will see.

Whatever the immediate reaction, there might not be much of a Jewish community left in France to protect. For a republic whose motivating principles are freedom, equality and brotherhood, modern-day France seems to be anything but that to its Jewish residents. Indeed, that Jewish community, reacting to a steady stream of anti-Semitic vitriol and violence going back several years but increasing this summer during Israel’s offensive against Hamas, is fleeing France for Israel and Canada at a rapid pace. Should the emigration continue — an exodus, we should add, that is entirely justified by the climate French Jews find themselves in at the moment — France stands to lose a community and culture whose roots in that country date back more than a thousand years.

At the Creteil rally, Roger Cukierman, president of the Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, delivered his own warning to the government: “It cannot go on like this,” he said. We agree.

Addressing Racial Bias

Demonstrators in  New York protest after  a grand jury decided to not indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke-hold death  of Eric Garner.

Demonstrators in
New York protest after
a grand jury decided to not indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke-hold death
of Eric Garner.

In Ferguson, Mo., and again in Staten Island, N.Y., the widely reported decisions by grand juries not to indict white police officers accused of killing unarmed black men has brought protesters into the streets. The Jewish community, while not silent on the decisions, has been spotty in its response, perhaps reflecting the view that as white middle-class Americans, Jews are not affected by racial profiling and police abuse of power.

In a sense that’s true in this relatively comfortable time and place for Jews in our county. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be sensitive to the issue. In that light, St. Louis-area Jews who went to Ferguson to offer aid and comfort after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown are to be commended. So, too, are those who joined in peaceful solidarity in New York against a grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer shown on a video holding Eric Garner in a choke hold.

In response to the Ferguson decision, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center called on communities “to assess whether victims of law enforcement shootings are disproportionately people of color” and if so, to respond with an “action plan.” Bend the Arc called on Americans “to dismantle the systemic racial injustices underlying” Michael Brown’s death. And following the decision in the Garner case, the ADL said, “We must all come together to address the persistence of racial bias.”

A few individual voices have also risen up in the last week, seeking to focus our community on the fact that that Ferguson and Staten Island are closer to our Jewish community than we all might think. Writing in Ha’aretz, University of Maryland undergraduate Benjy Cannon said Jews must “challenge the system” under which Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed. “We must do so out of moral conviction,” he wrote.

Jewish African-American blogger MaNishtana pointed out in Tablet magazine that not all Jews are white and that he faces the same risks of racial profiling and police brutality being highlighted in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “And it’s not OK for you to be OK with it,” he wrote.

But most Jewish organizations, which issue a steady stream of statements on a wide variety of issues, were silent on this one. We all choose our causes, and we respect the right of organizations to choose issues on which they think their input will make a difference. That said, it is worth considering that while we may not be able to prevent an act of terrorism in Jerusalem, we are all ready to make our views on the issue known. How much more so should we be willing to do what we can to help influence a system in which justice seems to elude unarmed black men felled by officers charged with keeping the peace?

A Bad Bill for the Jewish State

Israeli Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu
(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In what has largely been seen as a political move by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved a controversial bill that would declare Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people. Such legislation, coming at this time, is not in Israel’s best interests.

Sunday’s vote was the result of heated negotiations within Netanyahu’s own government. Right-wing proponents of the so-called “nation-state bill” agreed to shift their support in a future vote to a “softer” version proposed by the prime minister. His version doesn’t declare Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language and also omits the call for continued settlement within undefined Israeli borders. But that does not mean it is good legislation.

Supporters of the bill say Israel’s inherent Jewishness must be codified into law. Opponents say the law gives Jewishness priority over Israel’s dedication to democracy and human rights. One critic said the law will make it easier for discriminatory laws to pass the Knesset and stand up in court.

Notwithstanding the debate, the Cabinet vote is little more than a gesture — a defiant poke in the eye against those, such as the Palestinian leadership, who have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that Netanyahu has demanded as a condition to further negotiations. Similar nation-state bills have been suggested by various parties for years. And if the bill presented a simple solution, it would have been resolved a long time ago.

So why bring up such a divisive issue now, when tension in the Middle East continues to mount and when violence and anger within Israel itself has reached distressing heights?

We sympathize with the contention that Netanyahu’s sharpest critics have proposed to put democratic principles above Jewish values as the defining core of the State of Israel. Indeed, one might wonder whether those critics even show appropriate sensitivity to Jewish values. But Israel doesn’t have the luxury of debating those issues at this time. Rather, today’s debate should focus on how to extricate Israel from the security and foreign policy difficulties in which it unquestionably finds itself. Those life-and-death concerns are more important than the debate over how to synthesize the country’s Jewish character with its democratic ideals.

For these reasons, while we support open debate regarding the substance of the proposed nation-state bill, we don’t think now is the time to do so and encourage the Israeli leadership to give itself more time to consider the best course of action.

Obama Goes It Alone

President Barack Obama’s declaration that he will enact immigration reform by executive order has generated much comment, including near universal approval from Jewish groups. According to the administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill, the president made his move because the House of Representatives has refused to take up immigration reform, specifically the version of a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in 2013.

Government inaction on a problem that has left in legal limbo millions of undocumented people who nevertheless work, pay taxes and raise children here has angered and frustrated many Americans, including many within the Jewish community. Last summer’s influx of children who crossed the border and turned themselves in to authorities was a reminder that immigration is a continental and human-rights problem, not just a matter of better patrolling ever-hardening borders.

Clearly, something has to be done. But while the White House’s go-it-alone, Congress-be-damned approach is energizing Democratic bases around the country, it is also generating tension, confrontation and uncertainty. Any executive action taken now can easily be reversed by Obama’s successor — who will take the oath of office in little more than two years; and taking potshots at a divided Congress for political gain has infuriated Republicans who will control both legislative chambers come January.

Much of the Jewish community’s past and current gains in American political life, as well as its future vis-a-vis such issues as civil rights and economic and military ties to Israel, depends on legislative achievements enshrined as law, not regulations promulgated by executive fiat. While securing momentary political gain on pet social justice issues is tempting, we should be supporting bipartisan work that involves both the executive and legislative branches. That’s a better solution in the long term, for immigrants and for the Jewish community.

Wealth Versus Democracy

112114_editorial_lgIn the world of politics and diplomacy, we are accustomed to understatement and a fair degree of obfuscation in much of the public discourse that unfolds around us.

So when someone says what’s really on their mind, and does so in a direct and unvarnished fashion, it gets our attention. That is so particularly when the speaker is a politically active billionaire. Recent incendiary comments by one in particular presents a case in point.

At the Nov. 9 Israeli-American Council Conference in Washington, D.C., Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and longtime Republican supporter, repeated the inflammatory claim that the Palestinians are an “invented people” and questioned the need for Israel to remain a democracy. “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state. … Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”

So what? Really?
By belittling Israeli democracy, Adelson undercut one of the pillars of U.S. and American-Jewish support for Israel. But, according to a report in The Forward, not a single significant beneficiary of Adelson’s largesse was willing to comment publicly on his outburst. That includes such noteworthy national and international organizations as Birthright Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Israeli-American Council — none of whom are normally bashful about expressing opinions. The exception was the sometimes equally outrageous Mort Klein, national director of the Zionist Organization of America, who suggested that Adelson was joking.

The only rebuff from the organized Jewish world came from the ADL’s Abe Foxman, who called Adelson’s comment “disturbing on many levels.”

“The founders of Israel got it exactly right when they emphasized the country being both a Jewish and democratic state,” said Foxman. “Any initiatives that move Israel away from either value would ill serve the state and people of Israel.” We agree.

And on the issue of Israeli democracy, there is an ironic note: A recent bill in the Knesset designed to shut down the Adelson-owned Israel Hayom newspaper sailed through its first reading. Those favoring the measure argue that Adelson is unfairly trying to sway public discourse by distributing a free periodical. Those opposing the measure accuse it of being anti-democratic.

We encourage Adelson, as we do the Jewish state, to err on the side of democracy.

Let School System Do Its Homework

Montgomery County’s Board of Education was not being a Grinch when it removed the names of religious holidays from the school calendar and replaced them with secular names such as “winter break.” The board vote drew national attention and became an instant cause for extremists, hatemongers and conspiracy theorists. But with its vote, the board bought some time — the next school calendar will be drawn up over the course of the coming year — to figure out how to address the scheduling needs of an increasingly multireligious and multicultural community.

The school district maintains that it must have a “secular, operational reason” for closing schools — not a religious reason. Absences of teachers and students is the district’s explanation for why it closes schools on Christmas, Good Friday and Easter and, since the 1970s, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. Those planned closures will not change under the new approach. It is only what the days are called on the scheduling calendar that will be changed.

When members of the Muslim community first called for schools to close on the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, they caused the county to look more carefully at its standards for school closures. Just what level of absenteeism should trigger the closure of schools? There is no county handbook that gives the answer. The closest thing the county has to solid data is that school attendance was down 5 percent in October 2013 on Eid al-Adha — not enough, it said, to close the schools.

The move by Montgomery County is not unique. Communities across the country — including in Baltimore City, Virginia’s Loudon and Fairfax counties and in the City of Pittsburgh — manage their calendars without reference to religious holidays. That doesn’t mean that the school board should ignore religious communities. Those communities should be consulted, so that the views and needs of all factions can be understood and addressed, including those of the Muslim community.

We have little patience for the voices of extremists, who seized upon Montgomery County’s effort to fan the flames of bias and confrontation. The Muslim community did not “force” the school board to cancel Christmas and Yom Kippur. Those incendiary accusations are simply not true.

Our school boards have enough to worry about in their ongoing efforts to provide quality education to our children. We need to let our school districts focus on that all-important task and stop distracting school leaders and others in the community with bias, prejudice and manufactured controversy.

Working with Governor-Elect Hogan

Larry Hogan

Larry Hogan

Maryland’s Republican governor-elect, Larry Hogan, sailed to his historic victory Nov. 4 on the tide of a poorly run campaign by his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, and fatigue after eight years of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley. Yet, little is known about Hogan, other than that he is pro-business, that he wants to cut taxes and that he is a nice guy.

 
Certainly, Maryland’s General Assembly remains firmly in Democratic hands, although no longer with a veto-proof majority. But it is the governor who draws up the budget in the Free State, so his support of Jewish communal needs is crucial. During his two terms, O’Malley’s administration made room in the budget to support a steady stream of programs and projects that were of significant interest to our community, such as the Maryland/ Israel Development Center and subsidized housing for low-income seniors. There’s no guarantee that Hogan will do the same, but there is also no indication that he won’t.

 
About one-third of Maryland Jews voted for Hogan, including a significant number of crossovers who never warmed to the lieutenant governor.
So the work to support Jewish priorities now becomes bipartisan. Maryland has suffered in recent years because of dysfunction at the federal level, and the national election results do not guarantee an end to the partisan fights that resulted in the fund-slashing sequester and government shutdowns. That leaves it to the states, Maryland included, to make up for much of the difference.

 
With that in mind, we welcome the message of bipartisan cooperation that Hogan sounded at his first news conference as governor-elect. But we hope that he will make his specific priorities known in the near future. Our community had strong, meaningful relationships with the Democratic O’Malley administration and with the Republican Ehrlich administration before that. As we get to know Maryland’s next governor, we look forward to an equally strong, mutually beneficial relationship with the Hogan administration.

The Mighty Dollar at Brookings

Martin Indyk. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Martin Indyk
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In September, news that Martin Indyk, a director of the prestigious Brookings Institution, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and U.S. Mideast peace negotiator, had accepted a $14.8 million gift from Qatar on behalf of Brookings raised the question of foreign-influence peddling in Washington.

At the time, critics of the gift pointed out that Qatar funds Islamist fighters in Syria and supports Hamas in Gaza. But Qatar, which seems to want to be friends with everyone, is also home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East and is one of the few Arab states with official relations with Israel (albeit at a low level). Indeed, because Qatar plays so fast and loose with its allegiances and relationships, it is sometimes difficult to tell whose side Qatar is on other than its own.

Now a recent Washington Post study raises the question of whether donor money influences the policy recommendations made by Brookings, whose reputation for academic independence and influence in setting government policy is unparalleled among think tanks.

The Post noted Brookings’ growing reliance on donations, “powered by a new era of corporate influence in Washington, in which wealthy interests outside government are looking for new avenues to reach policymakers on the inside.” It cited “a few key issue areas” in which “Brookings’s public seminars, research papers, congressional testimony and op-eds often correspond to the interests of donors.” It named “heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune” and energy companies as two groups that have made donations to Brookings programs that support their views.

Indyk, like many in Washington, appears to work through a revolving door — today, he might function as a high-level government negotiator, and tomorrow, he will appear as a high-level think-tank policy adviser, offering suggestions to the administration. Were it not for the influence of money in the process, such a state of affairs might not be so bad and would mirror the similar revolving door between government service and private enterprise that marks many other K Street industries, including law firms, lobbying shops and other influence peddlers. But things get a lot more complicated when money and outside forces influence the development and execution of America’s foreign policy — a dangerous arena, where the lives of millions are potentially at stake.

Although Indyk and others at Brookings can argue that outside funds do nothing to sway their academic judgments, the new revelations in The Post challenge that view and are troubling. One of the outcomes of the Watergate scandal more than 40 years ago was a national discussion on the limits that should be imposed on the influence of money in domestic elections. Perhaps it’s time to have a similar discussion on the propriety of foreign powers, and their agents, having significant influence on how the United States engages the rest of the world. Our country’s foreign policy is not for sale. We need to make sure that stays a guiding principle.

Jewish Community Recharger

On Sunday, close to 3,000 Jewish professionals and lay leaders will gather at the National Harbor on the Potomac River to discuss Jewish issues, to network with other active Jews and to learn how to be more effective community leaders.

The three-day General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, billed as a retreat for those engaged in Jewish philanthropy, is a chance for the organized Jewish community to address some of the most important issues facing Jews in North America, in Israel and elsewhere around the world, to recharge and to go back to work with new ideas and support.

Federations have long been the central fundraising, allocation and planning agencies of local Jewish communities. The umbrella JFNA organization is the national voice of the federation system, and it has drawn a host of influential Americans and Israelis to address the G.A., including Vice President Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan and Israeli Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog.

This year’s theme emphasizes the interconnectedness of the Jewish world, and the G.A.’s discussions will focus on such diverse subjects as Israel, Jewish education, Jewish life in Europe, making the Jewish community more inclusive for people with disabilities, preparing for the retirement of baby boomers, interfaith marriage, fundraising and getting young adults more actively involved in the Jewish community.

Our community is fortunate to have the G.A. close by for the second time in three years. The topics are timely, the speakers outstanding and the networking opportunities unparalleled. We encourage you to attend and participate in the G.A. and to support the vital work of our federation system.