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.

Conversions and Politics

Immediately after Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel Congregation was arrested and charged with placing hidden cameras in the changing room of the ritual bath adjacent to his synagogue, the question arose whether the conversions he oversaw over many years were still valid. The response from the Rabbinical Council of America, on which Freundel served, was “yes.”

Thus, despite Freundel’s removal from positions of authority on the issue of conversions, those whose conversions he oversaw should not have to worry about their identities as Jews. And yet, because of the disturbing allegations of the Freundel case, many of his former colleagues have begun a serious process of introspection and forward thinking to address sensitive issues relating to mikvah use and the conversion process.

In Israel, an effort is underway to localize conversions the way they are handled in the diaspora. Like all personal status issues, conversions in Israel have historically been controlled by the chief rabbinate, a centralized political-religious office held primarily by haredi Orthodox rabbis. Earlier this year, a Knesset member in the centrist Tnuah party introduced a bill to allow local Orthodox rabbis to create panels to perform conversions. While the bill does not mandate religious equality, it does introduce flexibility and accessibility into what is currently a tightly controlled top-down system. The bill passed one reading in the Knesset in the summer.

Not surprisingly, the chief rabbinate opposes the measure. So do the modern Orthodox Jewish Home Party and Israel’s haredi parties. Despite that opposition, the government’s plan was to implement the change through a cabinet vote. But last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew his support for the bill. Critics charged that he did so to appease Israel’s haredi parties, who are not in the governing coalition, but are considered to be the prime minister’s natural partners.

Tnuah can continue to push for passage of the bill in the Knesset, where it reportedly has a good chance to pass its second and third readings, whereupon it would become law. We strongly support this effort. While passage of the bill will not bring religious pluralism to Israel, it will serve to decentralize the power of the chief rabbinate. The result will be an easing of a pressure point between Israel and diaspora Jewry and represent another step toward allowing the majority of Israelis to live their Jewish lives as they choose, rather than being told what they must do by a political agency.

For Maryland, Brown and Frosh

103114_editorial_lgIn the races for the top two state positions on Tuesday, Brian Frosh for attorney general and Anthony Brown for governor, both Democrats, are more experienced and more in tune with mainstream Maryland voters than their opponents.

Frosh, a proud member of the Jewish community, has been a state senator representing District 16 since 1994. For 11 years, he has been the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. During the three-way Democratic primary in June, the Gazette quoted him as pointing out that as attorney general, most of the laws he’ll be enforcing, he has written.

A mainstream liberal, Frosh has earned high ratings from consumer groups and high votes for his work to protect the environment, particularly the Chesapeake Bay. He also gets good marks on civil rights. Unsurprisingly, considering his leadership in restricting who can have access to firearms, he received an “F” from the National Rifle Association. These are among the reasons we believe he should be Maryland’s next attorney general. His Republican opponent, attorney Jeffrey Pritzker — who is also a proud Jew and a past board member of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville — lacks Frosh’s stature and experience.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown has admittedly run a lackluster campaign in his bid to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley. It is perhaps the lack of dynamism and policy specifics from the Brown camp that has allowed his Republican challenger, businessman Larry Hogan, to close the wide gap between them to fewer than 10 percentage points.

But Brown has crucial experience that Hogan lacks: eight years as lieutenant governor, another eight as a state delegate, and military service including a 10-month Army Reserve stint in Iraq while serving in the statehouse. Brown’s Jewish running mate for lieutenant governor, Ken Ulman, is impressive in his own right, having served two terms as Howard County executive after one term as a councilman.

Hogan, meanwhile, has no elective experience — neither does his running mate, former USDA official Boyd Rutherford — and we do not believe the governor’s chair is a place for on-the-job training. We are also leery of Hogan’s call to make Maryland “more business friendly” — which Pritzker has done as well — without just as strong a commitment to building a state that is more affordable, cleaner and livable for its working and middle-class residents, who need access to better transportation and sustainable wages in order to thrive.

We trust that, as governor, Anthony Brown will be equal to that challenge.

Three for Congress

In the Nov. 4 elections, Baltimore has three outstanding members of Congress who deserve re-election. Democrats Dutch Ruppersberger in District 2, John Sarbanes in District 3 and Elijah Cummings in District 7 serve their districts well, and we endorse them.

Ruppersberger is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, where he has been outspoken about the excesses of electronic surveillance by the government following the Edward Snowden revelations. But he also was among those clamoring for a coherent strategy to battle the Islamic State long before the White House committed itself to airstrikes, and he backed Israel in its fight against Hamas last summer.

Cummings is a leader in the fight against inner-city poverty and a champion of social mobility. He is known for working across the aisle, particularly with Rep. Zev Chavetz (R-Utah), and is the sponsor, along with the Baltimore Jewish Council, of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, which sends African-American teens from his Baltimore district to Israel with the goal of building bonds between African-Americans and Jews.

Sarbanes is the author of the Government By the People Act to reform campaign finance and dilute the influence of major donors. House Minority Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) introduced the bill in February. It remains in committee. Earlier this month, along with Ruppersberger and Cummings and Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, he also called for a federal investigation into “allegations of brutality and misconduct by the Baltimore Police Department.”

All three represent our area well. And from the apparent lack of serious competition for their seats, it appears that others recognize that as well.

A Matter of Trust, Sanctity

Kesher Israel, where Barry Freundel was a respected rabbi.

Kesher Israel, where Barry Freundel was a respected rabbi.

The arrest last week of Rabbi Barry Freundel on six charges of voyeurism has shaken his congregation, Kesher Israel in Georgetown, as well the Jewish community of greater Washington and the Orthodox world at large. Freundel had influence far beyond his synagogue and the mikvah, or ritual bath, next door, from where he allegedly videotaped women undressing and showering, and the allegations — the rabbi pleaded not guilty to the charges last week — have understandably led many women to question an ancient Jewish practice for fear of being violated when they are most vulnerable.

But what has not been noted is that in contrast with the years-long cover-ups that typically accompany clergy misdeeds, the Freundel case was not swept under the rug. When the leadership of the National Capital Mikvah became aware of suspicions surrounding Freundel’s behavior, they reported the matter to the police and cooperated fully in the subsequent investigation.

After the rabbi’s arrest on Oct. 14, organizations with which he was associated quickly issued condemnations and cut ties. The synagogue suspended him without pay, while the mikvah removed him as its rabbinical supervisor. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), through which Freundel wielded power over the state of Orthodox conversions in the United States, suspended his membership and ousted him from positions of leadership. His name no longer appears on the website of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, where he was vice president.

The very troubling charges against Freundel have apparently shocked relevant organizations enough for them to rethink their operations. In addition to announcing that Freundel’s conversions are indeed kosher, the RCA will now appoint a woman or a group of women to act as ombudsmen on every woman’s conversion case, since Orthodox conversion court judges are all male.

And the Mikveh Emunah Society, which oversees two Washington-area mikvahs, issued new policies and security arrangements that show they are serious about not letting what happened in Georgetown happen in suburban Maryland. From now on, any male volunteer or maintenance worker must be accompanied into the ritual bath facility by a woman; the society will also employ an independent security firm to inspect its facilities and offer guidance on future security needs.

We approve of these developments and see in them a model for how ritual baths around the country can cleanse the stain of the Freundel case and protect their users from further invasions of privacy. It would be an unquestionable betrayal of conscience to allow the sanctity of a time-honored Jewish practice to be forever tarnished by failing to learn the lessons of what allegedly occurred in Georgetown.

Searching for Opportunities Among Contradictions

In the Middle East today, the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy, and every action — including doing nothing — produces a negative reaction.

For example, American disengagement in Iraq and refusal to intervene in the Syrian civil war have been identified as the root causes of the rise of the so-called Islamic State terrorists. Now American air attacks in support of those fighting those terrorists are being blamed for strengthening the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad of Syria as well as for stirring anti-American sentiment among Syrian rebels enough to make them join forces with the Islamic State.

These times appear to require the United States to wield its military and diplomatic prowess with the subtlety of a neurosurgeon, teasing out opportunities among the high-stakes contradictions. Which begs the question: Is our current leadership up to the task? While we have been told that the fight against the Islamic State will take a long time, we see little evidence of any meaningful plan or pursuit of a long-term solution. Although President Barack Obama announced on Sept. 10 a four-part “comprehensive and sustained counter terrorism strategy” to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, our prevalent strategy does not appear to be all that well developed and is certainly lacking in clarity or consensus.

The recent crisis over the Syrian town of Kobane, across the border from Turkey and whose residents are threatened with slaughter by Islamic State fighters, is a case in point. While the Islamic State is at the gates, Turkey refuses to engage its powerful military because a weakened Islamic State will strengthen the hated Assad regime.

Turkey has long called for a no-fly zone against Assad along the border. The Obama administration has resisted that option. Now that U.S. fighter planes are flying over Syria, the idea is worth revisiting. Would such a move bring Turkey into a more active role in the fight? That is a question probably worth testing.

Over the weekend, Turkey agreed to make its air bases available to the U.S.-led coalition and to be a training ground for Syrian opposition fighters. But even with that encouraging move, this war has an obvious lack of boots on the ground. While we donít think American troops should become directly involved in the conflict, we do think that American leadership is essential. But any such leadership needs a coherent and credible plan. We encourage the U.S. to step forward with such a plan. Thousands of lives depend on it.

Staying Ahead of Crises

 hazardous material crew cleans the apartment of Thomas Eric Duncan. Duncan was the first Ebola case  diagnosed in the U.S. He died on Oct. 8.

hazardous material crew cleans the apartment of Thomas Eric Duncan. Duncan was the first Ebola case diagnosed in the U.S. He died on Oct. 8.

Recent news of the first transmission of the Ebola virus in the U.S. — a nurse in Texas infected by the disease while treating the now-deceased Thomas Eric Duncan, with the CDC attributing her infection to a breakdown in protocol —
is spreading fear in a way that the reality of the 4,000 dead in West Africa did not.

With no cure, the highly contagious Ebola has an 80 percent kill rate. Every victim appears to infect another two people. And according to some, the disease could become a pandemic to rival the influenza outbreak of 1919 or the Black Plague. If so, it is sobering that officials, always at the ready to urge calm and profess to have things under control, have appeared surprised at each new twist in the Ebola story.

What the spread of hemorrhagic fever is demonstrating is that while an interconnected world of free trade, electronic networks and porous borders offers tremendous promise, it also presents fearful dangers. We’ve been seeing a lot of those dangers lately, and Ebola is just one of them. Whether it’s the continued growth of the so-called Islamic State, aided by the unimpeded flow of Western recruits, or the mass migration of tens of thousands of undocumented children across a wide-open border in the American Southwest, recent events have underscored the seeming inability of the United States to stay ahead of developments here at home, let alone half a world away.

The surge of the Islamic State, which has enslaved and beheaded its way through the Middle East, seems to have surprised the West. Some of the foreign fighters who have filtered through porous borders into the war zone are bound to return to their home countries, including the United States. Should they still possess their nihilist zeal, they will pose a worrying terror threat. Is America’s security apparatus ready for that?

Earlier this summer, a lack of planning seemed to surround the influx of children escaping deadly gang violence in Central America. Although the gang violence was not a sudden phenomenon, our government was apparently caught off guard, as 10,000 children crossed the border per month and turned themselves in to authorities. Some of the blame can be placed on Congress, which has spurned immigration reform since the George W. Bush presidency. But what this summer’s crisis showed is a U.S. leadership that appears unprepared.

Whether responding to threats of public health or national security, those in power should be anticipating threats that loom on the horizon. And because perception is reality, we need leadership that not only is thinking three moves ahead, but also is believed to be doing so by the American public and the world.

On El Al, We Are One People

El Al made headlines when several haredi men refused to sit next to women on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

El Al made headlines when several haredi men refused to sit next to women on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv.
(Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Airline travel is difficult enough without passengers making a scene. But that’s what occurred on an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv just before Rosh Hashanah, when a number of haredi men went so far as to try to pay other passengers so they would not have to sit next to women and refused to leave the aisles when they could not switch seats. This behavior not only publicly shamed the women involved, it reflected the arrogance of these men, who apparently felt that their particular “need” trumped that of all the other passengers.

The story grabbed media attention in part because it involved haredim, who are exotic to some. But this story is really about prejudice against an entire class of people. It would be equally offensive if passengers tried to pay others to keep from having to sit next to African-Americans or Orthodox Jews.

According to at least one commentator, the incident also raises the question of whether the airline was abetting the men. Writing last week, attorney Rabbi Iris Richman cited a federal law, 49 U.S. Code 40127, that states, “An air carrier or foreign air carrier may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry.” Is that what El Al was doing?

Nevertheless, an online petition started by Sharon Shapiro, a Chicago-based blogger and Orthodox Jew, called on El Al to “stop the bullying, intimidation and discrimination against women on [its] flights!” Within days, her petition garnered more than 3,000 signatures. Among Shapiro’s suggestions for fixing the problem was to let those who want gender separation request a seat behind a mechitzah, or divider, at the back of the plane.

We are not sure whether Shapiro was being flippant. But it is unreasonable to assume that people won’t mix on crowded transportation. Just as haredi men have no right to insist that women be excluded from crowded rush-hour subways, they have no right to redirect other passengers from their assigned seats on an airline.

We do not see this as a choice between the rights of woman passengers and a haredi man’s religious needs. Other than the length of travel time, an airplane is not substantially different from any other method of mass transportation. Passengers have a right to request specific accommodations at the time of booking — which, apparently, many of these men did not do — but no one has a right to demand gender separation in a public arena. If people want a gender-segregated plane, they should charter one.

Sweden’s False Steps

Whether it was a declaration of diplomatic independence or a move designed to give the peace process a boost, the announcement last week by new Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven that his country plans to recognize the state of Palestine is unwelcome. While it is true that more than 130 countries have already recognized Palestine as an independent state, the European Union in general has not. (Some E.U. members, such as Poland, did so before joining the E.U.) If Sweden does extend official recognition — no timetable was announced — it would be the first E.U. state to do so.

In announcing the planned recognition, Lofven said it was in line with Sweden’s belief in a two-state solution with mutual recognition between the parties. The Israeli government rejected that argument, and Sweden’s ambassador to Israel was given a dressing down Monday by a Foreign Ministry official who said that “not only does the move not promote the diplomatic process, but rather harms it, and leads to a deterioration of the situation on the ground and reduces the prospects of reaching an agreement because it creates false expectations among the Palestinians that unilateral steps will solve the conflict.”

Israel’s opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, also criticized the announcement, telling the Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, “Your policy challenges the principle of mutuality. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do.”

Sweden and Israel enjoy warm relations. And while Sweden’s declaration on Palestinian statehood is problematic, there is nothing in the decision that will greatly harm Israel. Rather, the decision, and discussions about it, are a distraction from the core issues of the conflict — recognition, violence, settlements — issues that Sweden can’t solve on its own. What worries us, however, is that Sweden may be a precursor of a general European move away from Israel, a development that the current Israeli leadership does not seem very focused upon or able to head off.

Lofven told Herzog that Sweden will not recognize Palestine without discussions with all the relevant parties. We take Lofven at his word and hope that his government will give careful consideration to the potential negative ramifications of its planned decision. And, during those discussions, we hope that American and Israeli representatives who talk with Sweden will voice clear concern about something the new government in Stockholm is actually in a position to do something about: the growing anti-Semitic threats to Sweden’s Jews.