A Call for Help

Friends and supporters of Alan Gross have long gotten used to bad news coming from his cell in a Cuban military hospital, where he is serving a 15-year sentence. Jailed since 2009 and sentenced for crimes against the Cuban state, the Potomac resident and U.S. Agency for International Development worker has been in poor health for several years.

Last week, we reported that Gross has become increasingly hopeless about his plight, perhaps suicidal. During an in-person visit last month between Gross, his wife Judy and daughter Nina, Gross was “saying goodbye,” according to his wife. “It was gut wrenching.”

We can’t confirm any of this. But it would be wrong to dismiss the report of “the gut-wrenching goodbye” as theatrics. Threats of suicide are often a cry for help, and Alan Gross has been calling for help from the U.S. government since the day the Cubans arrested him.

At least according to his family, Gross isn’t getting much help or support from the U.S. government. And they have been particularly critical of the State Department. Thus, according to Judy Gross, “I think he thinks the State Department … is useless in terms of information.” And she went on to say: “He gets nothing. He is very frustrated that no one is telling him anything.”

At the very least, the State Department should increase its communication with Gross to minimize his sense of isolation. Publicly, the government is saying the right things. For example, National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said last week that “we use every appropriate diplomatic channel to press for Mr. Gross’ release, both publicly and privately.”

But notwithstanding those comments, there is a palpable lack of urgency in the effort to win the release of a U.S. government contractor who was sent to Cuba, according to correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, with “no experience in semi-covert operations, no knowledge of Spanish and no particular training for this mission,” which reportedly was to deliver satellite Internet equipment to Cuban Jews.

In a recent letter to President Obama, 300 rabbis called securing Gross’ release a “moral imperative” for the United States. While so much about this case is unclear — was Gross indeed involved in espionage on behalf of the U.S. government, as Cuba claims? — the rabbis’ point is irrefutable. The United States must secure Alan Gross’ freedom now.

Spawn of Hate

081514_editorial

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using explosive rhetoric in his rants against Israel. (File)

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once a promising Middle Eastern leader. He had good relations with the West and a constructive, strategic relationship with Israel. And then it all fell apart.

In the span of a few short years, Erdogan morphed into a despot who promoted a nationalist opposition to the West and a visceral hatred toward Israel. As Erdogan now moves from serving as his country’s prime minister to serving as its president, he has moved freely from a troubling hostility toward Israel to an alarming bigotry toward Jews. Thus, in the midst of his recent campaign, Erdogan said of Israel: “Just like Hitler, who sought to establish a race free of all faults, Israel is chasing after the same target.” And he predicted that “one day they will pay for their tyranny. We are waiting impatiently to see the day of justice; I believe wholeheartedly that justice will be served.”

The apparent trigger for Erdogan’s anti-Semitic rant was Israel’s actions in Gaza. He is a friend of fellow Islamist Hamas and a champion of the Palestinian cause. But he uses his explosive rhetoric and politics of hate to distract Turks from his corrupt and increasingly authoritarian rule.

Erdogan’s departure from the path of moderation has not gone unnoticed in the United States. House members who have led the cause of U.S.-Turkish relations recently sent Erdogan a letter warning that his politics of hate were jeopardizing those ties. “Remarks you have made recently have been widely viewed as anti-Semitic and are most definitely anti-Israel,” the letter states. But those warnings changed nothing.

Indeed, it is doubtful that Erdogan understood the message from his Congressional friends. Rather, he seems focused on deflecting blame for his own mistakes. Thus, in May, he reportedly kicked a demonstrator who was protesting the deaths of hundreds of Turks in a coal mine disaster. Erdogan called the demonstrator “you spawn of Israel.” And, at another campaign rally, he attacked the American Jewish Congress, which asked him to return a prize it had given him in 2004. Erdogan’s response? “The American Jewish Association [sic] threatens me in their letter,” he said. “I will reply to their letter separately, but I want to call on them from here: They are killing women to stop them for giving birth to Palestinian babies; they kill babies so that they won’t grow up; they kill men so they can’t defend their country.”

Such hostility and hatred leaves little room for diplomacy. As a result, we may be settling in for a long, cold winter in our relationship with Turkey. Because, as the letter from the House members observed, Erdogan’s words of hate are now threatening his relationship with the United States.

Closed on Yom Kippur

Should the United Nations have the day off for Yom Kippur? An Israeli initiative to have the holiest day of the Jewish year recognized as an official holiday at the world body picked up steam last week, when 32 countries wrote in support of the proposal to a U.N. General Assembly committee. The group — including the United States, Canada and a host of small countries — noted that the U.N. “recognizes the major festivals of many of the world’s main religions, yet Judaism is not represented.”

We like the idea of U.N. recognition of the Day of Atonement, but we’re not quite comfortable with the suggestion that the failure to do so is religious discrimination. We were therefore a bit uncomfortable in May, when Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Ron Proser, launched the initiative and declared: “There are three monotheistic religions, yet only two are recognized by the U.N. calendar. Such discrimination at the U.N. must end.”

The purpose of the U.N. calendar is to regulate the organization’s business, much like a school calendar does. As such, its first priority is not to celebrate every religion’s holiday. Granted, Jews would find it convenient not to have U.N. business on a day when they won’t be working and are likely to be in synagogue. But religious discrimination?

Eight of the 10 U.N. holidays are American holidays — Independence Day, Labor Day, New Year’s and the like. The United Nations is closed when the post office is closed. The eight also include the Christian Good Friday and the Christian Christmas. Holidays 9 and 10 are the Muslim Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha — holidays that the local Muslim community is trying to get recognized by the public schools.

We would be proud to have even one Jewish holiday alongside these 10 “observed” by the U.N., and commend Israel for taking up the cause. But if the effort fails, we have much more important issues of “U.N. unfairness” to worry about — particularly the organization’s proclivity to blame Israel for virtually everything that goes wrong in the Middle East.

Double Standard on Gaza

President Obama called the civilian deaths in Gaza “indefensible.” (Polaris/Newscom)

President Obama called the civilian deaths in Gaza “indefensible.” (Polaris/Newscom)

Death in wartime is a given, and this includes civilian deaths. The death toll in Gaza has been high because Hamas has put its nihilistic “resistance” against Israel before the protection of the lives of its own civilians. And most of the civilized world seems to understand that point.

What strikes us as hypocritical, however, is the criticism of Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war and the resulting civilian losses. Frankly, we expect such criticism from Israel’s foes. But we expect more from Israel’s friends. So when friends say things that are hypocritical or unfair, it hurts even more. We felt that sting on Sunday, when State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that “the United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling” outside a U.N. school in Gaza that reportedly killed 10 people. And it hurt last week, when President Obama declared that others of Israel’s actions that resulted in civilian deaths were “indefensible.”

We want to be clear: Our complaint here is not with criticism of Israel. Our complaint is with the double standard of that criticism and the inherent unfairness of it. Quite apart from the fact that each of the civilian deaths in Gaza came in the course of unquestionably legitimate military action — most of it purely defensive — there is a streak of disturbing self-righteousness in the criticism that seeks to hold Israel to a higher standard of morality and military precision than the very countries that are expressing the criticism.

Would the United States, the European nations or any other country act differently if they were being threatened by terrorists next door? Can anyone expect a country at war for its survival to worry more about civilian losses on the other side than the safety and welfare of its own citizenry and military? Of course not, which is what makes the criticism of Israel so galling.

In war, the focus is never on civilian losses. It is on military victory and a country’s own military losses. In the eight-year U.S. involvement in Iraq, an estimated 500,000 Iraqis died, according to a 2013 study published in “PLOS Medicine.” Perhaps even more mind-boggling is the casualty count from the Vietnam War — 1.5 million to 3.8 million Vietnamese civilian and military deaths, according to a recent report in The Washington Post. Add to those more than 600,000 deaths in Cambodia and another 1 million in Laos, and you have a situation where the accusations and the outrage being spoken today seem to be wholly misdirected. And what about the historic civilian death tolls elsewhere in the Middle East?

Peace, and the people of Israel and Gaza, will be served by a vigorous diplomacy that demilitarizes Hamas, returns the Palestinian Authority presence to Gaza and eliminates the terror threat to Israel. Finger wagging and efforts to hold Israel to a different standard than any other nation just pushes that peace further away.

We, As IDF Widows, Orphans, Ask for Your Help

We are living through a difficult time: a time filled with worry and anxiety, a time of war. For the past decade we have lived from one military operation in Gaza to the next, from battle to battle, and there is still no end in sight. We have lost more than 23,000 soldiers in Israel’s wars, and we now find ourselves in the midst of yet another battle.

For 66 years Israel has been fighting for its existence. Of course, we all enjoy quiet times when we pursue a busy public agenda in the spheres of education, industry, commerce, economics, science, culture and art —largely thanks to our dear ones who never came home to the ongoing hard work of the IDF and the other security forces. However, at the end of every quiet interlude there comes a new war.

We, the IDF widows and orphans, carry the trauma of bereavement and sadness with us every step of our lives. And from within our world that has been destroyed around us, we find the strength to tell our husbands and fathers that they did not die in vain. It is specifically for this reason that we support the IDF and the defense establishment in the operation that they have embarked upon.

We know that in war there are no victors; there are always casualties on our side too. The endless war for our independence and our day-to-day life exacts a heavy price: soldiers who have fallen in the line of duty; soldiers who went out to the battlefield to protect, with their own lives, the citizens of our country.

Among the soldiers who have been enlisted there are sons of IDF widows. These soldiers, orphans themselves, don their uniforms and step out of the safety and protection of home to take their place on the front lines.

Israel finds itself in a difficult political and military situation. On the one hand, there is international pressure to reach a cease-fire; on the other hand, there is a desire to adopt further military measures to ensure quiet for the years to come. We must behave with responsibility, caution and restraint and stand behind our leadership, which sees the bigger picture.

Speaking as a woman who has lost her husband in battle, I am certain that the political and military leadership take all this into consideration. In recent days we have buried some of our finest sons. With great pain, we are joined each year by more widows and orphans, more bereaved parents and more friends and loved ones.

Dear friends, your support is so much appreciated, every day — but especially now. We at the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization call on you to keep us in your prayers, to spread the word in your communities of the work we do in Israel and to embrace the families of our fallen soldiers. We are here for our widows and the orphans, 24/7, but it is with your assistance that we are able to provide them with crucial activities and the support network they so much need. Together, we can make their days and nights just a bit brighter.

For more information and to donate, visit idfwo.org.

The writer is chairwoman of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization.

Saperstein for Religious Freedom

On Monday, the State Department issued its annual religious freedom report. The results were sobering: “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory,” the report said. “In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs.”

The State Department added Turkmenistan to its list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” which includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan, as states which routinely violate religious freedoms. At a press conference on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry also cited anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe and a 2013 poll that revealed that anti-Semitism had led about half the Jews in some European countries to consider emigrating as among the worldwide symptoms of religious intolerance.

The report’s release came hours after President Obama announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, filling a position that has been vacant since October. Rabbi Saperstein, who was a longtime head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is highly qualified for the position, which involves monitoring and promoting religious freedom around the world.

As ambassador for religious freedom, Rabbi Saperstein will have his work cut out for him. In addition to the obvious need to address religious persecution around the world, the new ambassador will have to work hard to convince the U.S. government to put teeth and money behind its support for international religious freedom.

If confirmed, Saperstein would be the first non-Christian in the position, which was created in 1998. That historic accomplishment will be reason for communal pride, even as we note that service by Jews in the top levels of government is no longer an anomaly. Indeed, Rabbi Saperstein is more likely to draw scrutiny for his liberal politics than for being a Jew.

Because of Rabbi Saperstein’s sensitivity to religious freedom, his advocacy for religious rights and his credibility as a man of religious faith, we urge the Senate to confirm him quickly.

We’ve Seen This Before

French Jews fighting pro-Palestinian rioters on the Paris street where the Synagogue de la Roquette is located, July 13, 2013.  (YouTube)

French Jews fighting pro-Palestinian rioters on the Paris street where the Synagogue de la Roquette is located, July 13, 2013. (YouTube)

The scourge of anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head in Europe. And a troubling number of people aren’t even pretending anymore. Gone are the days of the false explanation that “I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m just anti-Zionist.” Instead, the haters are clear: They hate Jews.

Case in point: The sign in a Brussels café is written in two languages. In Turkish it reads, “Dogs are allowed in this establishment, but Jews are not under any circumstances.” The French translation next to it replaced “Jews” with the word “Zionists.” And no one seems terribly embarrassed.

Following the recent outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, anti-Israel protesters in Paris didn’t march on the Israeli embassy. Instead, they surrounded a synagogue, where they chanted “Death to the Jews” while the members of the congregation were locked down inside. Days later, in a Paris suburb dubbed “Little Jerusalem,” a kosher grocery and a Jewish-owned pharmacy were torched by protesters who were incensed by Israel’s actions. “Anti-Semitism today is hiding behind anti-Zionism,” Paris Rabbi Salomon Malka told The New York Times, “and hate speech has become uninhibited.”

While it may be true that anti-Semitic agitation and violence in Europe have increased sharply since the Gaza hostilities began, the current round of Mideast fighting is hardly the cause of Muslim and neo-Nazi violence in Europe. The killing of three at a Jewish Museum in Brussels earlier this year and the 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse both occurred long before the current hostilities between Hamas and Israel.

So where are the governmental leaders? And what happened to law enforcement? While it is somewhat encouraging that French President Francois Hollande decried the hate and promised that he would not allow places of worship to be threatened, is that really enough? Saying the words without forceful enforcement of the law raises real questions about the level of governmental commitment to religious freedom and rule of law.

Let’s be clear. Chants to kill Jews are not manifestations of free speech. They are frightening calls to genocide that are reminiscent of a pre-World War II Europe that is chilling. Offenders should be arrested and prosecuted. And political leaders need to step forward with more than words to address the rising problem.

Jewish Agency President Natan Sharansky recently observed that “we are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in Europe.” We hope he is wrong. But unless European leadership does something to stem the tide of hate, discrimination and growing anti-Semitism, it is only a matter of time until European Jews will leave of their own accord or be forced to leave under pressure.

We have seen this movie before. And we didn’t like the ending.

What It Means to be No. 1

For many Jews who are concerned about rising anti-Semitism in Europe and attacks on Israel by Hamas rockets, a recently released survey from the Pew Research and Public Life Project may be confusing. Add the fact that the survey’s conclusions appear to conflict with our own perceptions about how others view Jews, and you understand the mixed reactions that have been expressed to the finding that Jews are America’s favorite religious group.

The new Pew survey is titled: “How Americans Feel About Religious Groups.” And in it, Jews came out on top.

Asked to rate groups on a “warmth feeling” scale of zero to 100, with 50 being where cool feelings turn to warm, survey takers gave Jews a mean rating of 63, just ahead of Catholics (62) and Evangelicals (61). Even when you subtract the high scores that Jews give themselves, the rating is virtually the same.

The report is particularly interesting, however, since it adds a dimension to the much-discussed 2013 Pew Report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which focuses in part on how Jews view themselves. That 2013 report found that 94 percent of U.S. Jews (including 97 percent of what Pew called “Jews by religion” and 83 percent of “Jews of no religion”) are proud to be Jewish, suggesting that even those without strong religious and community ties are comfortable with their Jewish selves in America. And now it appears that we are not just comfortable with ourselves, but that others are very comfortable with us, as well.

Many 2014 respondents (54 percent) also reported that they do not think there is a lot of discrimination against U.S. Jews. According to those respondents, there are large numbers of other minorities — particularly gays, lesbians, Muslims and African-Americans — who face more discrimination than Jews.

So what are we to make of these good feelings? Frankly, we’re not sure.

The new report raises a lot of questions. For example, what does it really mean to be America’s most popular religious group? Is popularity a fad, and are Jews just the flavor of the month? Or has America truly gotten comfortable with Jews? And how that does all this warmth fit with the Jewish self-conception of being an oppressed and harried people?

More important, what brought about the change? Fifty years ago, Jews were much less visible and vocal in American society, yet anti-Semitism was prevalent and institutionalized. How did things change so dramatically in so short a time? One theory, expressed by an online commentator, is that although Jews were not accepted, they have been able to blend into society much easier than other minorities.

We are not so sure. But whatever the reason for the somewhat surprising survey results, it is fair to say that being the most favored religion is something new for the Chosen People.

Sharpening Operation Protective Edge

An Israeli soldier directs a Merkava tank at an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 17. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

An Israeli soldier directs a Merkava tank at an army deployment area near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip on July 17.
(Gili Yaari/Flash90)

This week, the combat in Gaza grew increasingly deadly, as Israeli ground troops sought to pursue the elimination of “terror tunnels” and Hamas fought back and increased efforts to infiltrate Israel through those very tunnels. By press time on Monday, Israel had suffered 25 military deaths, and 565 Palestinians had been killed since fighting between Israel and Hamas began on July 8.

We mourn the mounting loss of life. At the same time, neither the legitimacy of this war nor its success can be measured based upon a simple number count of military and civilian casualties. This conflict is not a numbers game.

Growing Palestinian losses do not make Hamas righteous or its cause sympathetic. Hamas has engaged in a cruel and blindly hateful series of attacks, which have brought Palestinians under its control nothing but calamity. Hamas encourages the death of its own civilians as a mark of martyrdom and directs (and sometimes forces) civilians to stand directly in harm’s way, knowing they will be killed by Israeli defense activities.  That callous disregard for its own citizenry and perverse encouragement toward “glory and martyrdom” debases the value of human life.

And while Israel was fortunate to be able to minimize the loss of life through the protective shield of Iron Dome, the ground offensive and extended rocket attacks increasingly jeopardize Israeli lives.  Each loss is painful, and the mourning for each loss is deep. But Israel has no alternative.  It must protect its citizens and eliminate the ongoing threats.

More than in any of its recent conflicts, Israel successfully has taken control of the narrative of Operation Protective Edge with a clear, focused message — a stated goal to remove the terror threats of rockets and tunnels. And while there have been protests  against Israel, international support for the effort appears to be holding, at least for now. This is due, in large part, to Hamas’ diminished support in the West and even in the Arab world. Other Arab states might not like Israel, but they seem willing to look the other way while Hamas is battered.

When the fighting began, many predicted it would soon be brought under control by a cease-fire agreement. This was a war neither side wanted, the thinking went. But the ongoing dynamics — including Egypt’s failure to negotiate a cease-fire agreement (agreed to by Israel but one that Hamas would not endorse) — have confounded the early predictions.

World support for Operation Protective Edge will eventually run out. The longer the fighting continues and the more lives that are lost, the more pressure will be placed on Israel (even from the United States) to stop its effort — even if the job isn’t finished. Israel clearly understands this and appears to be making every effort to remove the terror threats with speed and precision. We support that effort and pray for a rapid conclusion.

Support for Our Beleaguered Israeli Family

The scene of a gas station in  Ashdod that was hit directly by rocket fire from Gaza on the fourth day of Operation Protective Edge, July 11, 2014. The rocket caused explosions and three people were injured, one of them critically. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The scene of a gas station in Ashdod that was hit directly by rocket fire from Gaza on the fourth day of Operation Protective Edge, July 11, 2014. The rocket caused explosions and three people were injured, one of them critically.
(Hadas Parush/Flash90)

We are all glued to news sources for information about Israel’s ongoing Gaza war. While there is some sense of déjà vu in the daily reports of the conflict — reminding us of a similar war fewer than two years ago — this one is different. This time, Hamas’ rockets have a far greater range and have put a larger part of the country under threat. That threat requires a more comprehensive response.

Israel has every right to defend herself and her citizens and to do what is necessary to remove the ongoing threat to her safety and security. But the reality is that such activity comes at a tremendous price, on every conceivable level.

So, what can we do to help and support Israel? While the violence and uncertainty have led to a drop in general tourism to Israel, targeted programs such as Taglit Birthright are still going full force. And several Jewish organizations have launched “solidarity missions” to Israel to demonstrate Diaspora concern for Israel’s well-being. Members of our local community have gone on those solidarity missions, and their reports from Israel are inspiring.

To that same end, major Jewish organizations and local Jewish federations have commenced campaigns to raise funds to support the mounting social needs generated by the ongoing conflict.

Locally, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has set up an Israel Emergency Relief Campaign for trauma relief, to care for those at risk, including the elderly and vulnerable populations, and for the immediate mobilization of those vulnerable populations to safer environments.

The Associated’s effort is part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Stop the Sirens Campaign, which is leading a major North American effort to raise and to distribute funds to provide emergency aid. That campaign is also supported by the Union of Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. The Orthodox Union has set up a separate emergency campaign, as has B’nai B’rith International.

Each of these efforts is worthwhile. They present members of our community a direct means to help Israelis in need, to express support for the Protective Edge effort and to strengthen connections with the Jewish state. We endorse and encourage participation in these and other similar efforts designed to bring comfort and support to our Israeli family.