Let’s bring the others home too

To free or not to free.

“Every circumstance is different,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in explaining why the U.S. trade of Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl does not necessarily mean that Washington will make trades for other Americans in enemy hands.

The list of Americans held includes Potomac resident Alan Gross, who is imprisoned in Cuba. Last week, supporters of the so-called Cuban Five — Cuban intelligence officers arrested by the United States in the late 1990s — held a series of events in Washington to lobby the U.S. government to negotiate with Havana over releasing, in exchange for Gross, the three remaining Cubans held in American prisons on espionage charges.

There is also Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007, and Warren Weinstein, like Gross, a Maryland resident and a USAID contractor who was kidnapped by al- Qaeda in 2011 in Pakistan. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has called on the Obama administration to pursue talks to free both Weinstein and Gross.

In North Korea, Kenneth Bae is serving 15 years of hard labor on charges of trying to overthrow the government. And let’s not forget Caitlan Coleman, who was pregnant when she disappeared with her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, in Afghanistan in 2012. In the wake of the Bergdahl release, the families of the missing couple said they were disappointed that the pair and their child weren’t included in the same deal that freed the U.S. soldier.

Deciding whether or how to negotiate for the release of a citizen held hostage must be agonizing for any democratic leader. We see Israel go through national convulsions and intense soul-searching every time it trades prisoners for an Israeli held hostage. Ultimately, Israelis console themselves with the rationalization that paying a high price to bring a compatriot home is a more important ideal than never negotiating with terrorists. How many people recall now that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was traded for the release of 1,027 Palestinian and other prisoners?

And so the full-throttled criticism on Capitol Hill of Bergdahl’s release sounds a bit harsh. As does the threat by some Republicans, like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who are talking of legislation to halt additional releases and even raising the issue of impeachment should the White House again neglect to inform Congress of impending prisoner swaps.

The administration has publicly defended its efforts to free Bergdahl, as it should, even if Bergdahl is ultimately tried for desertion, as some predict. But first, he needed to be freed and brought home.

Our country’s greatness lies in part in its determination to leave no soldier behind. Now is certainly the time to honor that commitment to all the others who, in the service of their country or its ideals, are being held by those who would do them harm.

Hamas has to change

The Palestinian unity government that was sworn in Monday has been denounced in Jerusalem and met with an official wait-and-see in Washington. To soften the effect of his partnership with Hamas, President Mahmoud Abbas filled his cabinet with lawyers, businessmen and academics — none of whom proclaim to have direct connections to Abbas’ Fatah or to Hamas. Still, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that he does not consider the new government to be far enough removed from Hamas. “Today, Abu Mazen said yes to terrorism and no to peace,” he said, using Abbas’ nickname.

The paradox here is that because of the “unity government” moniker, Abbas can now claim to speak for all Palestinians in any peace negotiations with Israel, possibly making the rejection of any agreement less likely. And at the end of the day, Israel wants to make peace with a single party, not two.

But in reaching unity with Hamas, which the U.S., Israel and several other countries have designated a terrorist organization, Abbas puts outside support of the PA at risk because of Hamas’ continued rejection of Israel. Hamas continues to refuse to recognize Israel and refuses to renounce terror. And it continues to maintain thousands of rockets in Gaza. The technocratic unity government’s cabinet changes none of that.

The West and Israel have long called on Hamas to recognize Israel, renounce terror and honor previously signed agreements in order for it to be accepted as a legitimate player. If Hamas continues its refusals, U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority could be in jeopardy. Voices on Capitol Hill are already calling for a cutoff.

For its part, Israel has already said it will hold Abbas responsible if any rockets are launched into Israel. And Israel possesses the tools to damage the Palestinian economy through such means as the withholding of tax receipts Israel collects for the PA. Ambassador Ron Dermer summed up Israel’s position on the new government on his Facebook page: “With suits in the front office and terrorists in the back office, it should not be business as usual.”

Clearly, Hamas needs to change. The question that remains, however, is how to make Hamas want to change?

It sure isn’t art

060614_editorialsEverything in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have two narratives. Even in art. Even in Pittsburgh. That’s the lesson of the exhibit of Israeli, Palestinian and American artists, which was to have opened Sunday at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory museum but was canceled at the last minute.

“Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship” was to be the culmination of a joint multimedia project begun a year ago by a group of nine artists, composed of three Americans, three Israelis and three Palestinians. It was to be proof that art can be a point of creative contact between Israelis and Palestinians who want to engage with one another. As part of their own passage, the artists traveled together last year in the West Bank.

But last week, according to the show’s curator, the Palestinians began receiving threatening messages in Arabic on Facebook. The description of the exhibit used the words “collaboration” and “dialogue” — words that apparently have different meanings to artists and to Israel rejectionists — and the Facebook critics declared that the exhibit was a violation of the Arab cultural boycott of Israel, a serious offense.

To their credit, the Israelis tried to pull their Palestinian partners out of a tough spot. With magnanimity, they withdrew from the show on May 28 in an effort to remove the taint of the Palestinians being “collaborators.” Apparently that wasn’t enough. The Palestinians themselves pulled out the next day, and the project was abandoned. The museum and a related exhibition site, Filmmakers, followed up by posting an apology to “all Palestinians everywhere for the misunderstanding of this exhibition” on their websites. To Israelis and everyone else, they said nothing.

That was the first narrative. And that was bad enough.

The second narrative arose this week when one of the Palestinian artists blamed the city’s “Jewish lobby” for the cancellation of the show. He explained that after the Israelis withdrew, the Palestinians realized it wouldn’t be enough, because the “Zionist media” would “feed additional lies and stories” against the Palestinians.

As to what this artist could have been referring, we have no idea but feel it necessary to point out that until they withdrew, the image of the Palestinians was who they claimed to be: politically conscious artists whose feelings of injustice were backed by politically conscious Israelis.

In any event, regardless of the narrative, the Israeli artists showed sensitivity in trying to make the best of a bad situation. And the Palestinians, whether due to threats or otherwise, instead of letting their art tell their story, fell into the unfortunate image of hatred and bigotry, which in turn has been repeated in the media.

Everyone lost in this experiment: Pittsburgh’s philanthropic community that bankrolled the venture; the Israelis who went out on a limb only to be branded the enemy; and the Palestinian artists themselves, whose blind embrace of intolerance has undermined the very freedom of expression their artwork was meant to embrace.

Pope in the Holy Land

Pope Francis is greeted by Israeli president Shimon Peres at a ceremony held at the president's residence in Jerusalem. Pope Francis recently completed a three-day visit to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Pope Francis is greeted by Israeli president Shimon Peres at a ceremony held at the president’s residence in Jerusalem. Pope Francis recently completed a three-day visit to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank was not merely a religious event. He is, after all, the head of a state. And even more than the charismatic John Paul II, Francis is everyone’s pope. He came, as one commentator put it, “mostly to do what he does best — project friendliness to the world.”

He seems to have succeeded. His visit balanced countries and faiths with a kindness and humility that we have come to expect from Francis during his short tenure. From Jordan, where he met Syrian refugees, the pope went to Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He held mass at the spot on Mount Zion where Christians believe Jesus held his last supper and also prayed at the Western Wall, visited Yad Vashem and made a special trip to Israel’s national cemetery on Mount Herzl and to the grave of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl.

These were potent symbolic acts of reconciliation — recognizing the Jewish connection to the Holy Land’s holy places, paying respect at Israel’s memorial to the Shoah and affirming the State of Israel. His message was clear and most welcome.

But the pope also veered off the expected course, telling a crowd gathered in Bethlehem that he prayed for the “State of Palestine” and then, a short time later, stopping his entourage to pray alongside Israel’s security barrier, his arms outstretched alongside graffiti with the words “free Palestine.” While it is hard to be critical of a man who preaches peace and who exudes kindness and compassion, these two events, coming on the heels of the latest failure of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, understandably raised the hackles of Israelis and their supporters throughout the world.

Before ending his pilgrimage, Francis extended an offer to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join him next month at the Vatican for a peace/prayer summit. While the invitation was a nice gesture, no one appears to be terribly optimistic about this papal initiative. Indeed, it borders on naive to expect much to come from the planned Vatican visit.

Sure, it will be nice to see Peres and Abbas talk and pray together. And we expect Francis to be an active, welcoming host. But peace rests on a lot more than recognition of each side’s aggrieved status and joint prayer. Indeed, as we have learned from the past many efforts to bring the parties together and to an agreement, it will take a sustained effort to get them back to the same negotiating table that fell apart so unceremoniously last month.

At the end of the day, however, Francis’ soothing words and gestures, coupled with his warm personality, resonated with all those he visited. As noted by Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a colleague of Francis’ from Argentina who accompanied the pope on his visit, “This was a very delicate trip.” Yes it was.

Ugly Muslim Bashing

As in some secret society, the thought and logic driving the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), led by Pamela Geller, are becoming increasingly difficult to understand. Certainly, the anti-Muslim message in the group’s new bus ads, which, although confined to Washington, have earned national headlines, are clear: They urge, in no uncertain terms, that the U.S. should suspend aid to Muslim countries.

But there is more to the ads than this simplistic demand. They include a picture of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in a meeting with Adolf Hitler along with the words, “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Koran.”

To boil down the entire Muslim civilization to the relationship between two despicable men, and in the process seek to discredit the entirety of the Muslim holy book, makes no sense. The ads are AFDI’s answer to earlier bus ads sponsored by American Muslims for Palestine (AMP). Those ads sent the message that Israel was living the high life and taking it easy at the expense of American taxpayers. For the record, we opposed that message, which sought to recycle old anti-Semitic tropes of venal Jews into AMP’s anti-Israel message. And with AFDI’s response ads, we have the classic example of two wrongs not making a right.

Beyond the outright offensiveness of AFDI’s response — which supposedly is in defense of Israel — the ads have a fundamental problem: Muslims are not a monolithic group. To condemn all Muslims because of the hateful views of some of their co-religionists is no less offensive that those who condemn all Jews because of the hateful views or criminal activities of some Jews.

Moreover, bashing Muslims indiscriminately in the name of supporting Israel is simply ineffective. It also undermines our response to anti-Israel groups that defend their anti-Semitic positions by saying they are only being anti-Zionist. When people seek to “explain” their anti-Semitism by saying they just hate Israel, we need to call them out. And when groups such as AFDI spew anti-Muslim hate in the name of defending Israel, we need to repudiate them, as well.

Israel has a strong, compelling and morally satisfying story to tell. Her supporters should focus on those positive, uplifting and meaningful messages and engage Israel’s critics on the merits of their arguments. Group hate has no place in that discussion.

ADL’s blurred snapshot of anti-Semitism

On its face, the conclusion reached in the ADL’s worldwide survey of anti-Semitism is chilling:  One-quarter of our species is anti-Semitic — 26 percent to be precise, or 1.09 billion adults, according to the “ADL Global 100,” released last week.

ADL calls the report  a snapshot of the moment — a baseline against which future surveys can be compared. But is it important to know how many people think Jews have too much power in the business world? (Thirty-five percent of those surveyed believed this stereotype was “probably true.”) Obviously, New York philanthropist Leonard Stern, who funded the study, thought so. The ADL declined to say how much the survey cost.

There is no question that the findings are food for thought, even if we don’t take them as the last word on anti-Semitism in our world. Consider the following:

Some 70 percent of those deemed anti-Semitic never met a Jew. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said they had never heard of the Holocaust. Of those who had, roughly one-third said it is either a myth or greatly exaggerated. And according to 41 percent of those surveyed, it was “probably true” that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country/the countries they live in.”

The headline-grabbing findings are a mixed bag. That Laos, a hermitic communist dictatorship, is the least anti-Semitic place on earth, provides little comfort. But the finding that Greece is the most anti-Semitic place in Western Europe apparently got the Greek government to sit up and take notice. And we hope that country will figure out a way to address  the problem.

And then there are the parts of the report that seem totally  out of focus. The survey found Sweden to be one of the least anti-Semitic countries anywhere, at a reported 4 percent. Yet, in the city of Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest, there was a record increase last year in documented anti-Semitic attacks on its small Jewish community.

The overwhelming anti-Semitism in the Middle East might not come as a surprise.  (Iran had the lowest level with 56 percent; the West Bank and Gaza the highest, with 93 percent.) But the study leaves open the question of the relationship between enmity against Israel in the Middle East and belief in anti-Semitic stereotypes.

As a snapshot, the ADL report is like a picture taken from a satellite. But even if it gives an unclear  image of anti-Semitism around the globe, the report does make clear that anti-Semitic stereotypes endure. It seems that the fertile soil for anti-Semitism is humanity itself.

How will Modi lead?

Narendra Modi (Narendra Modi Offical Flickr)

Narendra Modi
(Narendra Modi Official Flickr)

A youthful nation and growing economic powerhouse, India has long been forging strong business relations with Israel. Those ties are expected to grow stronger following last week’s landslide election of India’s conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader Narendra Modi.

As chief minister of Gujarat state in Western India, Modi, 63, oversaw a pro-business climate and expanded trade with Israel. In fact, according to recent reports, Gujarat signed an agreement within the last year with an Israeli company and two others to build two semiconductor fabrication plants for a total cost of almost $10.4 billion. Trade between the two nations is $5 billion a year, not counting defense trade.

Modi reportedly wants to continue to improve India’s relations with Israel, which is good news for the Jewish state. It doesn’t hurt for a small nation with eight million people to have the world’s second most populous nation in its corner. And India and Israel clearly have security interests in common, as Islamic terror threatens both countries.

But it would be a mistake for the two countries to base their relationship on an anti-Muslim platform. And we hope that doesn’t become the focus of further efforts to bring the countries closer. A large percentage of the population of both countries is Muslim — indeed, India is the second-largest Muslim nation in the world after Indonesia. But defining your country as anti-Muslim doesn’t make sense and is no way to lead a nation forward

Yet, that is what India’s BJP has done, at least in some respects. The BJP has sought to identify India with the Hindu religion and has vocally rejected the country’s secular tradition of the last 67 years. And within its pro-Hindu promotional activity, the party has vocal anti-Muslim elements. Although candidate Modi has distanced himself from his more radical party supporters, many recall the religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslim. Then-Chief Minister Modi has been accused of looking the other way during that dark episode.

Today, incoming Prime Minister Modi is a man who promises to pull India out of its economic torpor. Clearly, his message has resonated among India’s youth, its business class and millions of others who saw this election as an opportunity to change direction and leadership with an eye toward a brighter economic future. If  Modi chooses to lead as an Indian and operates as a pro-business conservative, he will be someone with whom both Israel and the United States could work. But if the prime minister designate begins to voice and act on the dark chauvinism at his party’s heart, he should expect a much rougher ride.

Relying on the sensitivity of others

As a minority in every land but one, many Jews and Jewish groups expressed discomfort with or outright condemnation of last week’s Supreme Court ruling to allow sectarian prayers at local government-sponsored town hall meetings. The fact that Jews comprised three of the four justices in the minority in Town of Greece v. Galloway was noted by more than one commentator.

The case was brought by Susan Galloway, a Jew, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, against the governing council in the Upstate New York town of Greece, which since 1999 has opened its meetings with a prayer, almost always by a Christian clergyman who at times charged across the line of religious respect and into the territory of outright proselytizing.

The court’s majority ruled that assuring that the invocations were nonsectarian would require, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion, governments “to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.”

While the court has left it to individuals to appeal publicly to God in the manner they choose, it made clear that the decision does not allow for coercive behavior or otherwise permit behavior that infringes on the religious beliefs of others. How well this succeeds depends on how sensitive those giving the invocation and the town government that chooses them are to the minorities in their midst. In the case of the Town of Greece — or closer to home in Carroll County, Md., where the Board of Commissioners has taken to invoking the name of Jesus at the start of their meetings — our expectations for such high-minded sensitivity are low.

The arguments of some Jewish constitutional law scholars in favor of the court’s decision suggest that the Jewish community is not monolithic. And there is a view expressed by supporters that Jews are better off in an America that allows accommodation for greater sectarian religious expression.

Whether it was the recent Hobby Lobby case, in which some Jewish groups supported that company’s religious opposition to birth control mandates in the Affordable Care Act, or the court cases of the 1970s that opened the way for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s ubiquitous public menorah displays, there is a sizable stream in American political life that reads in the separation of church of state plenty of room for religion in the public square. While we admire the embrace of religion by so many Americans, as well as by so many of those who govern the hamlets, cities, states and agencies of this great country, Jews know all too well how quickly the religion of the majority can be used as a weapon with which to inflict its will against the minority.

For those who feel a religion-blind government is best for Jews, including those who are uncomfortable with the Town of Greece decision, we hope the public square can accommodate them as well.

Bringing openness to JNF

American Jews have historical, idealistic views of Zionist institutions. And the Jewish National Fund is no exception. For many, JNF conjures up the warm images of placing coins in blue pushkes, planting trees in Israel and generally making the land of Israel bloom. It is this image that has sustained support of the organization for generations.

But the JNF also has a major say in Israel’s land policy. It owns 13 percent of the regulated land in Israel and reportedly holds more than $1.1 billion in liquid capital — most of it raised through the sale of that land in deals that are not open to public review.

Despite its large public role — which includes the power to expropriate Israeli land — JNF is not a public institution, and there is no public scrutiny of its records or operations. Not until last week, that is. On May 5, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein changed JNF’s status to a public corporation, effective in 60 days. The move, which will force JNF to file annual financial statements, was opposed by the organization, which argued that as a governmental body it could lose its tax-exempt status in several countries.

The JNF issue has moved concurrently along political and legal tracks. On the political side, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for a committee to study the issue, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni proposed a bill to allow the state comptroller to audit JNF and to publicize its transactions, operations and financial records. On May 4, the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation struck down the bill by a narrow margin.

The next day, Attorney General Weinstein, operating on the legal track, changed JNF’s status and put the company under his supervision. He based his action on an opinion by his deputy, who wrote, “The JNF wields great power. This power requires balance and supervision, and therefore, from a practical standpoint as well, it’s appropriate to apply the higher standard of conduct that the legislator stipulated for a public benefit corporation.”

Critics of the change worry that as a public company, JNF could become a politician’s plaything. But supporters say that already is the case, with widespread political appointments being made in the shadows. Such behind-the-scene deals are far from the image of the blue-and-white pushke, a reality JNF unintendedly experienced when it recently issued new coin boxes whose image of Israel seemed to negate the possibility of a future Palestinian state.

As its name implies, JNF belongs to all Jews. That’s good. And if its workings are now going to be made transparent to all Jews, that’s even better.

Daylight falls

The whole world looks forward to daylight, except when it concerns the U.S.-Israel relationship. There, we have grown accustomed to the refrain that “there is no daylight” between the United States and Israel as the metaphor for the rock-solid relationship between the two countries. So, when daylight starts to appear between the public pronouncements and positions of the two countries, we pay attention.

The reason for that is clear: Daylight implies that the two countries’ policies are not in synch. And with the United States as the chief guarantor of
Israel’s security, that’s cause for concern.

The failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last month takes the spotlight off that conflict for now. But what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gains from being able to put the focus back on Iran he may lose in the uncertainty of daylight. For example, the two countries are clearly not in synch on Israeli-Palestinian issues, and they also view the tensions between Ukraine and Russia differently. In the latter case, the U.S. is a strong defender of Ukraine in the face of Russian provocations and its annexation of Crimea, taking the lead in voicing Western condemnation of Russia’s activities. Israel, on the other hand, with a growing relationship with Moscow bolstered by the ties of hundreds of thousands of Russian-Israeli olim, has declined to join Western denunciations.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t agreement on other important ongoing political, strategic and security concerns. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant interests and ties between the U.S. and Israel that hold them very close together. But it’s the differences that, over time, could push the two countries further apart.

The existing differences probably won’t affect overall U.S.-Israel relations, or even foreign aid considerations. But they may allow the Obama administration a little more latitude in its dealings with Iran and its nuclear program, leaving Israel a little more vulnerable than we all would like.

None of this is new, of course. Israel has made it clear that it views Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an existential threat while the U.S. sees it as a strategic concern. But more and more, the break of daylight in Israeli-U.S. relations has been laid bare for all to see. Until now, the perceived differences appeared as merely a clash between Netanyahu and Obama and their governments. But what happens now, when it seems to have gone beyond that?