A spectacle for King Sheldon

There are no current kings in Israel. But there are kings in politics — and Jewish kings as well. Most prominent of these is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who, with his fortune, is the financial backbone of the Republican Party, along with the non-Jewish Koch brothers.

Last weekend, a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas became an Adelson love fest, as one potential Republican presidential candidate after another made his case before 400 Jewish Republicans. The main target of each presentation was Adelson, who spent a reported $93 million on the 2012 presidential race. Indeed, Ohio Gov. John Kasich made no bones about it and frequently directed his remarks to “Sheldon.”

If this smacks of political brownnosing — with presidential hopefuls focused on the money — it was. But that’s nothing new. Virtually everybody does it.

Since the Supreme Court struck down Citizen’s United in 2010, the pay-to-play voices belonging to the richest and most powerful have drowned out those of ordinary people. Public election finance is essentially dead. What is left are mega-givers, who hope to buy election results with their dollars.

It isn’t just the Republicans, of course — although Adelson and the Kochs are particularly prominent. The Democrats are just as addicted to big money. The fact is, big money is just about the only way to get elected. And although there may be fewer super-rich mega-givers in the Democratic Party, the liberal side does benefit from the deep pockets of George Soros and others.

Having to spend most waking hours in the “soul-crushing” pursuit of money is a situation no politician wants. Moreover, that process shortchanges the public.

There are some campaign finance proposals circulating that are designed to address the problem. Last year, Rep. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) introduced the Grassroots Democracy Act. It would match every donation of $100 or less with $5 in public matching funds. In addition, it would provide voters with up to a $50 tax credit for contributions to a political candidate.

That same public-private concept is behind legislation proposed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). Among its provisions is a 5-to-1 match on the first $250 of any contribution up to $1,250 for congressional candidates.

The problem is not a shortage of solutions. The problem is that no one knows when the public will get angry enough at the current state of affairs to demand that the system be changed. Last week’s Sheldon Spectacle should hasten that day.

A man apart

Bernard Madoff insists he “made more money for Jewish people and charities” than he lost.” (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom)

Bernard Madoff insists he “made more money for Jewish people and charities” than he lost.” (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom)

As he serves a 150-year sentence for running the biggest Ponzi scheme in American history, Bernard Madoff surely has a lot of time to think about his crimes and their ramifications. But in an interview last week with Politico, Madoff showed that he was a man apart — imperious, disconnected, unrepentant and surprisingly lacking in empathy. These troubling traits may help explain how he was able to maintain such a fantastically large fraud — estimated by investors to be as high as $65 billion — until it crashed in 2008.

Among the more prominent of Madoff’s victims were Jewish organizations and individuals. The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, Hadassah, Yeshiva University and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles were all hit hard. The American Jewish Congress was reduced to a shoestring organization. These and other organizations and individuals invested money with Madoff, a man who convinced himself and others that he was a devoted and caring Jew.

Based upon the interview, however, it doesn’t appear that Madoff feels particular remorse for what he did to the Jewish community he was a part of for decades, or to the Jewish institutions he had a hand in ruining, or for the predominantly Jewish retirees and investors who put their fortunes in his hands only to see them disappear. Thus, he told the interviewer: “I don’t feel that I betrayed the Jews; I betrayed people.” It’s almost as if Madoff thinks he ran an equal opportunity fraud.

And then he went further. “I don’t feel any worse for a Jewish person than I do for a Catholic person,” he said. “Religion had nothing to do with it.”

Not quite.

While it is true that Madoff betrayed “people,” the disproportionate impact of his fraud was on the Jewish community and on Jewish clients. Those clear results belie his rationalization. Madoff hurt Jews in many different ways, not all of them financial. But in the financial realm, the hurt to the Jewish community and to Jews was far greater than any other group.

Madoff did admit: “I betrayed people that put trust in me — certainly the Jewish community.” But he then muddied his confession with another rationalization: “I’ve made more money for Jewish people and charities than I’ve lost.”

Madoff’s claimed gains don’t bring much comfort. First, we don’t know whether he made that money or stole it. Second, we don’t really know whether the claimed gains are true.

Madoff comes closest to the personification of the hateful stereotype of the cheating Jew than anyone in recent memory. We wonder where that fits in his analysis.

There is, however, one thing we can learn from the interview: Bernie Madoff needs to do a lot more thinking about what he did and who he hurt. He has plenty of time.

Strength in numbers

No one denies that Wayne Stephen Young murdered Esther Lebovitz, the 11-year-old girl who disappeared on her way home from the Bais Yaakov School for Girls in 1969. And in a perfect world, the question of Young’s freedom — he was sentenced to life in prison in 1970 — would not be an issue almost 45 years after the killing brought horror to Baltimore’s Jewish community.

But this is not a perfect world, a fact laid bare last week when an obscure legal precedent known as the Unger ruling set in motion a process that culminated in Young’s appearance before Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hardagon. The jurist will now decide whether Young, who admitted to the police officer administering his polygraph test years ago that he “killed that little girl,” will get to go free.

The judge’s decision will surely be driven by the law. But even he could not ignore the presence of 250 members of our community who carpooled and rode buses and trains to attend the hearing.

“It does not go unnoticed how many people are here,” Judge Hardagon said from the bench. “Thank you for coming.”

The busloads of concerned citizens, clutching books of Tehillim and listening intently to the proceedings, made a statement even in silence. Most of those in attendance didn’t know the victim, whose family moved to Israel shortly after her murder. Many weren’t even born when the murder occurred. But they somehow felt the impact of the events of almost a half century ago.

Why they felt compelled to attend — and why we feel compelled to applaud their attendance — is a testament to their shared humanity and to the idea that when the imperfections of the world place even one Jewish family in danger, ours is a community that can rise together to demand that justice be done.

Three little words

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,  pictured here with President Obama earlier this week, seems completely opposed to recognizing a Jewish state. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/Newscom)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,
pictured here with President Obama earlier this week, seems completely opposed to recognizing a Jewish state. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/Newscom)

Will Israeli-Palestinian peace come down to whether the Palestinians will acknowledge that Israel is “a Jewish state”? And if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t say those three little words, will we see the current negotiations end without a resolution?

In his defense, Abbas says that he recognizes Israel; that his predecessor, Yassir Ara-fat, already recognized Israel as a Jewish state; and that the 1988 PLO Declaration of Independence speaks of a Jewish state next to a Palestinian one. So why do the three words stick in the throat of the Palestinian leader?

At his White House visit this week Abbas spoke of the urgency of the peace process, warning that “time is not on our side. … We hope that we would be able to seize this opportunity to achieve a lasting peace.” So far so good. But why not seize the opportunity to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, as the original U.N. partition plan called it? Especially when Abbas is calling on Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners as agreed this month “because this will give a very solid impression about the seriousness of these efforts to achieve peace,” why not simply acknowledge Israel’s fundamental Jewish identity?

All parties to any negotiation know that confidence-building measures go both ways. By recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas would give up nothing tangible, while Israel will have taken a calculated risk to its security with the series of prisoner releases. Recognition would be a tremendous confidence boost. It would be a nod to the “Jewish soul” in “Hatikvah.” It would be an admission of what has become known as the “Zionist narrative” — that Jews have always lived in the land and are not interlopers or colonialists. And for the Palestinians and the Arabs to work past the Jewish state mental block, it would surely go a long way to help promote peace and reconciliation between the two peoples.

For now, Abbas seems dead set against Jewish state recognition. We hope that as President Obama did so very publicly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent Washington visit, he at least privately made clear to Abbas the serious problems the Palestinians will face if he lets these talks fail: a loss of Western financial support and obstruction of any unilateral Palestinian moves at the U.N. There is plenty of pressure Washington can bring to bear on the Palestinian Authority. And maybe Washington has done so behind closed doors. All we know is that it has so far failed to do so publicly.

Whether Abbas is prepared to say the three little words at this time or not, we believe the peace talks should continue. And we urge the Obama administration to do all it can to assure that they do. Without peace talks there will be no possibility of resolution. By continuing, the two sides can build trust, understanding and a relationship. Something may actually come from that.

Beit Shemesh has spoken

In last week’s mayoral election in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, incumbent Moshe Abutbul appears to have been returned to office fair and square. That wasn’t the case last fall, when the results of an earlier election went in Abutbul’s favor, only to be overturned due to voter fraud. While it appears that the voters of Beit Shemesh have spoken, it remains to be seen whether the vote was a victory for coexistence in the tense streets of the city. Beit Shemesh is home to a secular, traditional and modern Orthodox majority and a large haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, minority. Abutbul was the incumbent haredi candidate in the election. The ultra-Orthodox minority won the election.

Abutbul received 51 percent of the vote, just 458 votes more than his opponent, Eli Cohen, who was endorsed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Turnout was high at 76 percent, higher in fact than the overturned results. The Jerusalem Post reported that groups of haredim, who traditionally boycott the elections, and haredi women, whom some sects forbid from voting, were given special dispensation by their rabbis to vote. While not illegal, it does seem like a cynical use of democracy from at-times extreme Jewish groups that don’t recognize the State of Israel but are willing to benefit from the public dime.

This is the same constituency whose members made headlines by spitting on a modern Orthodox schoolgirl, attacked a public bus after a woman passenger refused to move to the back in order to accommodate ultra-Orthodox male passengers and, a couple of years earlier, threw parts of the city into chaos with daily riots. Abutbul himself displayed either ignorance of reality or a close reading of his constituency when he claimed that no gays lived in his city, adding, “Thank God, this city is holy and pure.”

At least one Israeli commentator suggested that the local political drama in Beit Shemesh is being amplified into a national issue for partisan reasons. But we have our own interest in Beit Shemesh. For the last several years, the city has been the home of choice for a flood of English-speaking olim. Down I-95, the Greater Washington Jewish community has partnered with the city for more than 18 years. Millions of communal dollars from well-intentioned Americans has been invested in social service and educational programs to benefit the citizens of Beit Shemesh.

So while Beit Shemesh has spoken, and we respect the results, the question now is whether the growing city can fulfill its image as an Israeli success story or whether it will continue to be emblematic of the deep divides in Israeli society.

Michael Oren’s Unilateral Withdrawal

Michael Oren: “We do not  outsource our fundamental destiny to Palestinian decision making.” (Justin Tsucalas)

Michael Oren: “We do not
outsource our fundamental destiny to Palestinian decision making.” (Justin Tsucalas)

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, recently suggested that if negotiations with the Palestinians fail, Israel should unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank. If the suggestion was a trial balloon, it deserves to be deflated. That approach was partially adopted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview on Israeli television over the past weekend. He argued for an extension of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians and stated that he did not favor unilateral actions. But he concluded by stating that he didn’t rule out the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal.

So what are the details of the Oren plan? Well, there really are none.

Oren explained that his idea is to put his Plan B into action if the Palestinians launch their own post-diplomatic Plan B by appealing to the United Nations and the international community to pressure and isolate Israel through boycotts and delegitimization. Notwithstanding the sequenced timing of his proposal, however, Oren framed his plan not as a tit for tat, but as a way for Israel to take control of its future. “I’m aware there’s no perfect solution here,” he said. “Every option involves risks, untold circumstances. But I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having what I refer to as the Zionist option: We do not outsource our fundamental destiny to Palestinian decision making.”

That’s a nice piece of rhetoric. But everyone remembers the problems caused by Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza and the difficulties that followed from a lack of agreement with the forces taking over those territories. Oren’s calm insistence that this time Israel would protect its security interests rings hollow. Wasn’t that what Israel thought it was doing the last time around? And how would unilateral withdrawal square with Netanyahu’s pledge over the past weekend not to force settlers to evacuate settlements in the West Bank?

But maybe Oren’s suggestion is not really so much of a plan as it is a statement and warning — both to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to President Barack Obama — about Israel’s attitude if current negotiations end without an agreement.

As a warning, the Oren suggestion might make people take note. But as a plan of action, Oren’s proposal is full of holes. He spoke neither about specific borders nor about what will happen to settlers should Israel pull back behind their settlements. And the proposed move will do nothing to arrest the movement to boycott and isolate Israel. Moreover, a unilateral withdrawal could strain relations with the United States, and, most fundamentally, the move would leave Israel without a security partner on the Palestinian side; in other words, it could create another Gaza or Lebanon.

Calls for unilateral action come in times of deep frustration and reflect a feeling that there is no alternative. We understand that. But it is important to remember that there is an alternative — the one that most of Israel agrees upon: negotiations. The two-state solution is the best Zionist option. No matter how frustrating the process may be, a diplomatic agreement is the best way to tie Israeli and Palestinian security interests together and to make it in each side’s interest to preserve the peace.

The parties to the ongoing peace talks are engaged in serious work. We hope they continue their efforts to a successful conclusion. But as they go about their work, it is probably better not to distract them with balloons.

Women of the Mall?

Until now, the Women of the Wall were known as a group that has been working for decades in an effort to obtain equal prayer rights for women at Judaism’s holiest site. But last Friday, group members moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. They set up a table at the entrance to Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market and began approaching other women and asking if they would like to put on a tallit and tefillin — a prayer shawl and the leather straps and boxes that traditionally accompany men’s morning prayer.

In their demonstration on the eve of International Women’s Day, the Women of the Wall appear to have taken a chapter from the Chabad movement and its well-known outreach effort to encourage men to take part in the tefillin ritual. But this new activity begs the question: What is Women of the Wall? The group achieved a long-desired victory this year when a Jerusalem district judge ruled that the group’s monthly prayer service at the Western Wall was legal, a move long opposed by the rabbinic authority at the Wall. The group is also negotiating with the government of Israel over a pluralistic prayer space at nearby Robinson’s Arch. Consistent with their name and monthly prayer service activities, the group’s efforts have heretofore focused on equal access issues at the Kotel.

Having won hard-fought victories, one might think the group would move to deepen and strengthen its new found rights at the Kotel. By branching out to Tel Aviv and tefillin, however, it appears that Women of the Wall are searching for new controversial areas of religious activity. It also gives the appearance of a group seeking publicity for publicity’s sake, as opposed to making a positive contribution to religious expression.

In liberal Judaism, women donning tefillin is becoming more common. Even some American Orthodox day schools have started to allow their young women students to perform these rituals. Clearly, women and tefillin is an issue that Jews are considering and rethinking.

So is that Women of the Wall’s new mission?

It is not uncommon for an issue-focused organization to expand into new, related areas once it has accomplished its founding goal. But if, in taking tefillin to the Carmel Market, Women of the Wall has decided to become a permanent advocacy group on an array of religious observance issues that affect women, they should probably say so.

A Kingdom Too Weak To Let Fail

President Barack Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah II met last month in California. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah II met last month in California. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The Kingdom of Jordan has made a virtue of its weakness. Ruled by a canny monarchy that manages to balance competing forces within the country and kept afloat by international aid, Jordan has always seemed fragile.

Yet, Jordan is pro-Western and a close and reliable friend of the United States (the notable exception being Jordan’s siding with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War). Jordan and the U.S. have close military and intelligence ties. The kingdom is one of two Arab states to have a peace treaty with Israel, and it has long served to secure Israel’s eastern flank. Surrounded by more powerful neighbors, Jordan is strategically vulnerable yet a valuable buffer in a volatile neighborhood. Simply put, it is too weak to let fail.

The importance of continued stability in Jordan was reinforced by the recent visit of King Abdullah II to the U.S. to meet with President Barack Obama and other officials. The chief threat to Abdullah’s rule is the Syrian civil war, which has driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries, including half a million into Jordan. That influx has increased the country’s population by 10 percent. A single refugee camp has become Jordan’s fourth largest city.

Jordan is resource poor. Its official unemployment rate is 13 percent but thought by many analysts to be 25 to 30 percent, according to a congressional report. It is clear that continued strong U.S. support is vital to maintain Jordan’s stability and its pro-Western, pro-Israel stance.

A five-year deal for the U.S. to provide $660 million in annual foreign assistance to Jordan is ending and is due for renewal. Last summer, the House of Representatives passed a resolution expressing a “firm commitment to support the Government of Jordan as it faces regional challenges and works toward a more peaceful and stable Middle East.” And a section in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2014 authorizes up to $150 million on a reimbursable basis to Jordan for security along its border with Syria.

As important as this monetary and moral support is in its own merit, it is also an indication that the U.S. is not staging a strategic withdrawal from the Middle East. We encourage that continued involvement and the exercise of a consistent policy with clear objectives in the region.

The key word here is “consistency.” We need that consistency with regard to Israel, we need it in Jordan, and we need it to manage events in Egypt. We needed it, but failed, with regard to Syria, and a consistent policy is necessary in order to stay the course in Iran. Far from making the Middle East a lower priority, the United States will need to be engaged there — with adroit diplomacy — for the foreseeable future.

A Draft For The Greater Good

To a small group of the reported hundreds of thousands of haredi protesters that demonstrated in the streets of Jerusalem this week, the prospect of a law drafting haredim into military service is no different than what the Nazis subjected Jews to in the Holocaust. That a thinking person could even compare the two is very troubling and shows just how far some in the haredi camp are from reasoned thinking on the issue. These fringe elements are clearly in the wrong.

Even without the radical views of a small group of the demonstrators, however, the massive protest shows a deep distrust of the Israeli government and its institutions by a growing group of citizens. They simply want to preserve the status quo and aren’t interested in any effort to “equalize the burden” of defending Israel.

Military service is considered a rite of passage for a majority of Israelis. With the exception of the existence of small haredi units in the Israel Defense Forces, the wholesale exemptions granted to the haredi community for the past 65 years seems to most to be an unacceptable state-sanctioned exceptionalism. According to that view, a military draft of haredim makes sense and goes hand in hand with haredi efforts to achieve political representation and to benefit from governmental largesse.

But even that argument can be taken too far. For example, some supporters of the bill, which last month passed a critical legislative committee and is expected to soon pass the full Knesset, tend to blame haredim for all of Israel’s problems. That’s nonsense. Many haredim play an active, positive role in the life of the state, just as many are willing enlist in the IDF. But the notion that a certain segment of the Jewish state’s population is not shouldering all its responsibilities remains a problem.

The bill under consideration is designed to address that issue, even if it will not penalize haredi draft dodgers until 2017. The hope is that during a multiyear transition period, the haredi draft will go from being viewed as evil incarnate to something closer to a duty to defend one’s family and home.

In order for Israel to function as an integrated society, all segments of that society need to make the same effort to work for the greater good. To the extent that the haredi draft bill is meant to bring the haredim into Israeli society’s mainstream, we support it.

The morning after AIPAC

The list of high government officials who will speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference, which opens Saturday night in Washington, is long and impressive. It includes Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The presence of these and other notables on the stage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center reinforces AIPAC’s reputation as a major force in the political world, and the place to be to address the pro-Israel community.

But the cause of Israel’s security is not helped when politicians tell Jewish audiences what they want to hear at an AIPAC plenum, only to clarify or retract their declarations the next day. Yet, in keeping with AIPAC’s bipartisan balance, “morning after clarification” is a sin that both Republicans and Democrats have committed.

At the 2008 policy conference, for example, then-candidate Barack Obama called for moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, and declared that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel. The applause Mr. Obama received to those pronouncements was thunderous; but the criticism was swift. And the next day, Mr. Obama amended his view, saying that the final status of Jerusalem would be decided in negotiations.

In 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush pledged to the AIPAC conference that he would begin moving the embassy “as soon as I take office.” But like Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush’s administration found reasons not to follow through on something it probably was not going to do anyway.

We’ve noticed a clear trend. When at the AIPAC Policy Conference, politicians tend to be generous with the use of words like “always” and “never,” even when addressing elements of what they recognize to be a complex international situation. Indeed, many politicians who are normally quite careful with their public pronouncements seem to get caught up in the AIPAC moment, and read lines or freelance commentary that goes beyond what they would otherwise be comfortable saying.

To be sure, an audience of 13,000 or more pro-Israel activists, who are anxious to hear a pro-Israel message, is an inviting venue and an intoxicating opportunity for speakers who are unquestionably supportive of a strong American-Israel relationship. The thrill of endorsement and acceptance by the crowd is invigorating. But it often leads to pandering, or the making of statements designed to win over the crowd rather than reflect the speaker’s actual beliefs or positions. Overstatement is then followed by clean-up explanations and excuses the next day, which don’t do anyone any good.

We encourage those speaking at AIPAC’s Policy Conference to express their support of the American-Israel relationship in the strongest terms. We encourage each speaker to say what he believes. But we ask the speakers to be honest and realistic in what they say. AIPAC’s delegates and the public will all be better served by honest, straightforward rhetoric. And we will all be able to respect the speakers the next morning.