An Epidemic of Hopelessness

The health news last week from the federal government was startling. Overall, mortality is up and life expectancy has fallen for the first time since 1993, particularly for Americans under age 65. It appears that the progress in longevity that we have come to expect is reversible.

Some of the deaths may be linked to obesity. But experts are also looking at what might be called the hopelessness epidemic — the explosion of drug use and suicide, linked to a number of causes, including economic despair. But that’s not the whole picture. Much of America’s middle-class is now suffering from opioid addictions that some studies trace to uses that began with legal drug prescriptions.

Consider that heroin deaths now outnumber gun homicides for the first time, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “The epidemic of deaths involving opioids continues to worsen,” CDC director Tom Frieden said, referring to prescription opioid painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. “Prescription opioid misuse and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are intertwined and deeply troubling problems.”

Speculation abounds about what is causing this epidemic, but many believe it is at least partly fueled by poverty. And The Washington Post reported that the counties where Donald Trump’s candidacy outperformed the 2012 run of Mitt Romney, for example — largely rust-belt enclaves where jobs have long stagnated — had the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates. They were the poorest counties, the most economically hopeless.

While none of these relationships are causal, they are important considerations for designing responses. Remedies clearly need to focus on treatment and prevention rather than criminalization. And in that regard, we need to learn a lesson from “the War on Drugs,” which developed into a campaign against criminals and ended up putting thousands of nonviolent offenders in prison for decades.

The opioid epidemic deserves a smarter response. It’s easy to punish people and lock them away and declare progress. It’s also easy to make prescriptions for opioids harder to fill. But what about those already addicted, who in many cases were provided prescriptions for things like post-operative painkillers but received no guidance on how to safely wean themselves from the drugs? While we clearly need to give patients the treatment they need, we can no longer ignore the imperative of providing meaningful education and guidance about the ravaging effects of addiction.

And it’s vital to offer people the economic hope that will lift them out of their depression — both financial and psychological. If this epidemic is the result of poverty and hopelessness, then a raised standard of living and hope for the future must be part of the solution.

We call on the incoming administration to coordinate our national criminal, economic and health policy planning in order to address the opioid epidemic. Lives depend on it.

Illegal West Bank Construction

In a speech last week to the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, Secretary of State John Kerry noted that there are “about 11,000 demolition orders for Palestinian homes through the West Bank.” These homes have been built without permits, evidence that unauthorized or illegal building by Palestinians is an ongoing problem in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank solely under Israeli control.

Area C is where all Israeli settlements are located. We have long opposed illegal building by Israelis in the West Bank, such as at the outpost known as Amona, which faces a Dec. 25 evacuation order that even rightwing MK Yehuda Glick admits will likely not be reversed. We similarly oppose unauthorized construction by Palestinians and support the legal process being followed in response to it.

Some argue that there is a fundamental difference between the illegal settler construction in the West Bank and the illegal Palestinian construction. They argue that settlers are trying to bury the two-state solution by heading off any way to create a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, while much of the illegal Palestinian construction is driven by the failure of Israeli officials to issue timely building permits to Palestinians. That was the case Kerry made, telling the Saban Forum, “In 2014 and 2015 … there was one permit issued to Palestinians to build in Area C.” And EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen said at the Fighting the Boycott conference last month that “out of 2,000 applications lodged between 2009 to 2013, only 34 building permits were granted.”

If there is a problem with “feet dragging” by Israeli officials, that should be addressed. But the failure to issue permits doesn’t legitimize illegal construction. And, in any event, it is disingenuous to ignore that the majority of those engaging in illegal construction in the West Bank — whether Israeli or Palestinian — are doing it for nationalistic reasons. Both sides, whether in Amona or Silwan, are trying to change the “facts on the ground.”

In September, Israel’s security cabinet approved a number of construction projects for Palestinians in Area C. The plan was proposed by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in an effort to encourage coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Ha’aretz reported that the plans include “building permits for public structures and housing units for Palestinians in a number of villages in the West Bank.”

By expanding the system in which legal construction can take place, Israel is showing that it will not oppose Palestinian development. And by evacuating Amona, Israel is demonstrating that no one is above the law.

Both are very important steps if tensions are to subside in the coming years.

ADL Seizes the Center

It’s not often that a Jewish organization  revises its position on a public matter. Most groups are beholden to an ideological slice of donors and members and are frozen on a single track. Yet, the groups that take nuanced and thoughtful positions are the ones that generally win the respect of the wider community.

So it was refreshing to see the ADL shift its position on Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading contender for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison, an African-American and the only Muslim in Congress, was immediately rejected by rightwing groups. The Zionist Organization of America was unrelenting: “If he becomes DNC leader, Ellison will likely be empowered to persuade even more Democratic congresspersons to join him in actions hostile to Israel’s security and Israeli civilians’ lives — wreaking enormous damage to the prospects for future bipartisan support for America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” it said.

Left-leaning groups voiced support for Ellison, who once defended and later  rejected the anti-Semitism of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and has built a mixed but largely pro-Israel record in Congress. The ADL remained silent on Ellison, saving its fire for President-elect Donald Trump’s adviser Stephen Bannon, whom the ADL regards as beholden to an alt-right movement characterized by anti-Semitism.

Then a short audio clip, recorded at a 2010 Ellison fundraiser, was released by the Investigative Project on Terrorism. In the clip, Ellison says that American foreign policy in the Middle East “is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people,” a reference to Israel. “Does that make sense? Is that logic?”

In response, ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt called the clip “deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” and joined those who believe Ellison will be a divisive DNC head and sour Jews on the party. Ellison responded, saying the tape was doctored. The Investigative Project on Terrorism released a full transcript of the video which they claim proves that the clip was not doctored.

While the job of the DNC chair has nothing to do with foreign policy, the  debate over who will be responsible for leading the fractured party further into the 21st century is a legitimate one. That said, we note that similar charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel beliefs were cast at Chuck Hagel, when he was under consideration as secretary of defense. To the extent that anything stands out from Hagel’s two-year tenure, it is not anti-Semitism or animus toward Israel.

We are concerned about a disturbing pattern of public debate, with groups on the right wielding the charge of anti-Semitism against the left and groups on the left wielding the charge of anti-Semitism against the right. In such an atmosphere, neither side gains credibility; the accusation itself is even cheapened. Anti-Semitism is serious stuff and cannot be tolerated. That  the ADL has demonstrated an air of evenhandedness in its ultimate response to the Ellison tape teaches all of us — left, right and center — that we must be vigilant against anti-Semitism, wherever it comes from.

House Support for Israel

It is rare to get the warring political factions in Washington to agree on anything. But last week, in a unanimous vote, the House of Representatives sent a clear message to President Barack Obama that he should oppose any U.N. Security Council resolution that seeks to impose on the parties a  solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In unmistakable terms, the bipartisan resolution called on the president “to oppose and veto … resolutions that seek to impose solutions to final status issues, or are one-sided and anti-Israel.” It even directed that proposed “parameters” of a settlement should be rejected.

Add to that a similar letter signed in September by 88 senators that urged Obama to veto any Security Council resolution that recognizes Palestine and it seems that Israel has wall-to-wall support in the Capitol for its position that negotiations should be bilateral and that solutions should not be imposed from the outside.

While these developments give comfort to Israel’s supporters, we can’t help but notice disconcerting moves coming from the Obama administration and troubling commentary from the left flank of the Democratic Party on the need for some kind of U.S. or international intervention. The concern seems to be based on the recognition that chances for a two-state solution are being eroded by facts on the ground — that toxic combination of Palestinian intransigence and Israel’s  expansionist policies in the settlement blocs. So, there have been reactions. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry  recently told the Women’s Foreign Policy Group that short of direct U.S. intervention, “there are other things we can do” to preserve a two-state solution.

What was Kerry talking about? Could it mean some effort to recognize a Palestinian state, if only in name? Does that make any sense? Well, that is exactly what former President Jimmy Carter called for last week in a New York Times op-ed. “This is the best — now, perhaps, the only — means of countering the one-state reality that Israel is imposing on itself and the Palestinian people,” Carter wrote. And he argued that “recognition of Palestine and a new Security Council resolution are not radical new measures, but a natural outgrowth of America’s support for a two-state solution.”

Carter has been battling Israeli settlements for more than three decades. He conveniently ignores the clear choice made by the Palestinians at the beginning of the millennium to disengage from the peace process and to embark on continued warfare against Israeli civilians. But while that may explain the logjam, it doesn’t excuse it.

There is no question that Israel can do something to create a better situation in which to make peace. But it would be foolish to do so without a willing partner with whom to negotiate. And until one appears, Congress seems to be telling the president that we need to step back and let the parties chose their own course.  Because that’s what self-determination is all about.

Wrong Address for Political Statements

In the series of demonstrations that followed the election of Donald Trump, one of the targets of Jewish protestors has been the Jewish Federations of North America. The JFNA building in Washington, for example, was a stopping point in a Nov. 14 march of IfNotNow, a group that until the election focused on opposition to Israeli settlements. Since then,  it has tried to rally mainstream Jewish  organizations to condemn Trump, his  adviser Stephen Bannon and the rightwing extremism that has been associated with camps supporting them.

A change.org petition launched by Jewish Community of Action Against Hate, meanwhile, had garnered 3,800 signatures as of last week, urging the JFNA to condemn Trump’s choice of Bannon. Supporters of the effort have participated in an email and phone campaign directed toward  volunteer and professional leaders of JFNA, urging them to pressure their  organization to come out against Bannon.

Why have these groups chosen to  target JFNA?

JFNA is the umbrella organization for the system of Jewish federations across the United States and Canada. Jewish federations are often viewed as the local community’s central address, since they play a major role in raising funds for communal institutions, communal concerns and the State of Israel.

JFNA has not responded to the individual calls for action, but it did release a statement: “As with every democratically elected official in America, we believe that President-elect Trump needs to be given an opportunity to lead. We are hopeful that his actions align closely with the American values that we hold dear.”

That position probably satisfied no one. But it probably outraged as few people as possible. And that was the idea. The fact is, it isn’t the job of the JFNA — or any local federation, for that matter — to make  political statements or to get involved in political issues, particularly since whatever position it takes could offend thousands of donors or policymakers.

JFNA is a fundraising organization,  focused on the local, national and international needs of the Jewish community. It is not an organization that should join issue with a presidential administration even before it takes its first steps.

There is no shortage of Jewish organizations that readily take political positions, including those whose job it is to track anti-Semitism and hate in general. The ADL, for example, has been doing just that, and has reaped the benefits of those public efforts. Thus, the day after Trump’s election, ADL reportedly received 50 times the number of donations it usually gets in a given day.

We do not oppose peaceful protest. And we are not among those who give Bannon a clean bill of health. But there are people, including Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks, who swear that Bannon “doesn’t have an anti-Semitic bone in his body.”

We are prepared to wait and see.

The Effect of a Thwarted Attack

How do you measure the impact of a thwarted terror attack?

Last week, French authorities arrested seven men after an eight-month investigation, averting what the interior minister said may have been a “coordinated attack aimed to hit several sites simultaneously.” Just think back to the coordinated terrorist attacks around Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people and the July attack in Nice where 86 died and you can get a sense of the bloodshed and destruction that the arrests likely prevented.

Terrorist incidents happen every day somewhere in the world. Most don’t penetrate our consciousness. Even harder to gauge is the effect of the attacks that are thwarted. While successful attacks make us feel threatened and angry, what of the  unsuccessful ones? Is there a way to measure our response to something that doesn’t happen?

Consider: Last month, the head of Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence agency said that police and intelligence services had disrupted 12 plots to attack Britain since June 2013. In October, three members of a Kansas militia were arrested with nearly 2,000 pounds of firearms and  ammunition. They were allegedly planning to blow up an apartment complex occupied by more than 100 Somali residents. In January, a Milwaukee man was arrested and charged with illegally possessing machine guns. According to the FBI, he had planned a massacre at a  Masonic temple.

And there are more. Indeed, according to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, terror plots are disrupted “all the time.” And according to one report from a senior official at the Rand Corporation: “Local law enforcement … have foiled all but a handful of terrorist plots — they are batting .900,” And that’s a very good thing.

So how did authorities manage to  accomplish this revolution in public safety? According to a Rand report, it is largely through better policing. “The same close connections to the community that allow for the prevention and investigation of general crime also allows officers to identify individuals or behavior in their  jurisdictions that are out of the ordinary and could be terrorist-related as well as prompt citizens to report suspicious behavior to law enforcement.” By contrast, federal agencies empowered by the Patriot Act have not cracked a single major terror case, according to the Washington Times.

These findings are important and should help deter would-be killers and give all of us some well-deserved peace of mind. Law enforcement agencies deserve our praise for doing an ever-better job of preventing terror crimes. And we also must praise the civilians on whom law  enforcement depends for information, for helping in the protection effort.

“If you see something, say something” is more than just a catchy phrase. It literally helps keep us all a bit safer.

Feeling Thankful

There can never be too much gratitude. And Thanksgiving is a powerful opportunity for all Americans to join with their family and close friends to share a festive meal, maybe to watch football and hopefully to count their blessings. Communities do this, as well, and the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service has long been the opportunity for congregations of differing faiths to come together and affirm their commonality as children of God who enjoy the multiple blessings and abundance of their shared American home.

Such interfaith activity is an outgrowth of the Christian post-Holocaust acceptance of Jews as mainstream Americans, as well as the Roman Catholic Church’s adoption of Jews as members of the “elder brother” religion, rather than Christ killers. For these changes Jews can be thankful.

Now, with the growth of Muslim communities, Jews throughout the United States can pay it forward by reaching out to Muslims and including them in traditional interfaith activity. And in the process, we might even say a word of thanks that, with the growth of minority communities, we are not alone as a religious minority.

That effort would be particularly meaningful this year and at this particular time. Over the past year, there have been so many threats made against ordinary people — to deport 11 million Latinos, to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods, to ban Muslims from entering the country — that many people stopped taking American stability and rule of law for granted. Anti-Semitic tropes entered the mainstream, Jewish journalists were threatened, and suddenly many Jews, too, began fearing for their safety.

This year, the interfaith Thanksgiving service will be a place to connect with allies, to address the fear, to begin the process of healing and to strengthen one another. Those who gather, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or from any other group, will celebrate their commitment to a pluralistic, tolerant America — a wide-open American tableau, not a fear-filled land of us and them.

Our message is simple: We are thankful that “this land was made for you and me.”

Settlements Again

Donald Trump’s win in the presidential race, and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, have signaled to some members of Israel’s government that hard times are over with regard to American disapproval of settlement building in the West Bank. In their euphoria, pro-settler party leaders have pursued two very different approaches to moving forward with the settlement effort.

One leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Orthodox Jewish Home party, declared that Trump’s victory was “an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the center of the country” and that it signaled that the “era of a Palestinian state is over.”

In pursuit of that goal, a government ministerial committee on Nov. 13 unanimously passed a bill designed to retroactively legalize outposts that sit far from established settlements. The bill, which was approved despite the objections of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and significant legal concerns raised by his attorney general, would effectively enlarge Israeli-controlled areas throughout the West Bank. It would create a situation that diplomats fear would make a contiguous Palestinian state all but impossible.

Another pro-settler leader, however, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman — head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party — counseled caution in fulfilling the dream to settle all of the historic Land of Israel. Lieberman proposed a deal in which Israel would not build on the Palestinian side of Israel’s security fence, in exchange for the right to unrestrained building in the settlement blocs along the Green Line. “In the messages we received from the Trump team, they asked us to act modestly. We will wait and we won’t establish facts on the ground,” Lieberman said.

We welcome Lieberman’s recognition that provocative actions regarding settlements will not build trust. That was part of what soured Netanyahu’s relationship with President Barack Obama. Any activity that closes off the possibility of a two-state solution is likely to engender strong international opposition and would not appear to be in the longer term interests of the Palestinians or Israel.

Lieberman’s proposal is consistent with his goal of carving out a Palestinian state through land swaps. In the past, he has favored Israel annexing the Israeli settlement blocs on the West Bank and then ceding heavily Arab populated areas of Israel proper — specifically in the Galilee — to the Palestinians. However, he hasn’t explained how he proposes to get Israeli citizens to agree to become part of another country.

Notwithstanding some bravado, both Lieberman and Bennett understand that the Palestinians exist and that they cannot be wished away. Whether they are willing to acknowledge that settlements and land swaps are the stuff of negotiations, and that the Palestinians need to be a part of that effort, is another story. We hope that sensibility and sensitivity to these issues will prevail under a Trump administration as efforts move forward with respect to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian puzzle.

The Need to Move Forward

Last week’s presidential election revealed not so much a nation divided, as it did a society whose residents inhabit two very different realities — with the apparent inability of those who live in one to understand the perceptions and beliefs of those who live in the other.

Which begs the question: How do we move forward in the face of that newly exposed reality?

What can our community, which largely supported Hillary Clinton — reportedly, 70 percent of Jews backed the Democrat for president — learn from the rude awakening early in the morning of Nov. 9 when Donald Trump was declared the winner? And while we understand that half the electorate does not share many of our views, is it really so clear that “the other half of the electorate” is that much different from us?

Post-election polls report surprising statistics regarding many aspects of the vote, including that a majority of college-educated white men and women voted for Trump. And that’s in addition to the blue collar and working middle class vote that most understood to be favoring Trump.

So, how should we react? While street demonstrations against the lawful winner appear to be a waste of time, acceptance of the result doesn’t mean that anyone needs to compromise or abandon core beliefs and moral principles. Rather, even as we accept that the country wants change, we see no reason not to continue to insist that our leaders show the kind of compassion, concern, sensitivity and respect that has been the hallmark of American exceptionalism since the birth of our republic.

But rather than complain, call names, accuse and point fingers, we suggest that the wisest course is to wait and see. Will the president-elect move smoothly from rhetoric to planning to action? That is not going to be easy, even with both houses of Congress and the executive branch in the hands of one party. Indeed, the Republican Party, considered as good as dead a few weeks ago, is very much alive but clearly divided. Nonetheless, the responsibility is now theirs to improve the economy, fix the national infrastructure, improve the health care system, make college affordable, provide retraining for the unemployed Americans whose jobs will not be returning or bring those jobs back, save the social safety net, reduce the debt, keep relations with our allies — including Israel — strong, manage relations with adversaries such as Russia and China, remain involved in the Middle East and lead the way to blunting the environmental catastrophe caused by global warming.

It’s a long list. But no longer than it was during the last eight years. Trump has promised to solve most of these problems. We hope that he can. And it is because of that hope that we pray that Trump and his team will move to heal the fissures of our society as they make the White House theirs. We wish them well, and we are ready to do what we can to help.

Stop the Madness

“The world has gone mad,” Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, told G.A. participants.

“The world has gone mad,” Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, told G.A. participants.

“The world has gone mad,” Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, told the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America meeting Sunday in Washington. Sacks’ message was ultimately hopeful, but the madness to which he referred certainly includes the rise in hate crimes across the country since Donald Trump’s election.

“We’ve seen a big uptick in incidents of vandalism, threats, intimidation spurred by the rhetoric surrounding Mr. Trump’s election,” Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., told USA Today. “The white supremacists out there are celebrating his victory, and many are feeling their oats.”

The results are disturbing to Jews and anyone made vulnerable by the appearance of swastikas and Nazi slogans. A synagogue in Missoula, Mont., requested a police patrol after American Nazi Party fliers accusing Jews of controlling the media were dropped in residential areas of the city. In a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, a swastika was painted on a sidewalk. A large swastika and the words “Make America White Again” were painted on a softball dugout in Wellsville, N.Y. A South Philadelphia storefront was spray-painted with a swastika and the words “Seig Heil 2016.” And a swastika was found in the bathroom of a middle school in Bethesda, Md.

Over the weekend, Trump said he was “surprised” to learn of the hate crimes. “I am so saddened to hear that,” he said. “And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it — if it helps. I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it.”

That’s a needed start, but it’s going to take a lot more to stop this train. And Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon as a top White House adviser only fortifies the impression that the new administration will be influenced by people and ideas that were, until Trump’s campaign, considered too extreme for acceptable American politics. Some major Jewish groups criticized the Bannon appointment, including the Anti-Defamation League, which argued that Bannon’s association with “unabashed anti-Semites and racists” is disqualifying.

Even granting the president-elect the presumption that his adviser is not an anti-Semite, now is the time for Trump to send the right signals to not only his supporters, but also directly to the people who, come January will be his constituents. He needs to take on the issue of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia directly, forcefully and convincingly. This will help allay broader concerns regarding intolerance and bring comfort and a sense of security to segments of the population who are feeling vulnerable and at risk. To paraphrase the president-elect and Sacks, this madness has to stop.