Fragile hope for Ukraine

With breathtaking speed last weekend, the embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s agreement to enter a national unity government with the opposition was swept aside by his country’s Parliament. The legislative body then quickly dismissed Yanukovych from office, ending, at least temporarily, the popular uprising set in motion by the president’s rejection of a trade deal with the European Union.

The world watched with bated breath as the latest political moves took place without violence. That was universally viewed as a positive sign, since it came after four months of street demonstrations and bloody reprisals by government troops. But make no mistake — Ukraine remains a deeply divided country: between a Ukrainian-speaking population in the country’s west and midsection that looks to Europe and a Russian-speaking population in the east and south that looks to Moscow. There is also a generational tug in the mix, with many younger Ukrainians looking to the openness of Europe; older citizens, who lived in Soviet times, are drawn to the more familiar culture of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Yanukovych’s actions aggravated these divisions, but his removal will not make them go away. And while we applaud the quick transfer of power that took place in Kiev, we are deeply concerned about chatter within the press, fueled by apparent posturing by Russia, of an impending Ukrainian civil war. Just days ago, violence in the Ukrainian capital reached levels unseen since World War II. Renewed hostilities between supporters of the former president and those backing the opposition-cum-governing faction will do no one well, especially Ukraine’s growing Jewish population.

Nearly wiped out by the Holocaust, Ukraine’s historic Jewish communities — with roots dating to the 17th century and earlier — have been rebounding ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Scarcely a month goes by without news of some Jewish celebration taking place in cities such as Donetsk, Odessa or Zhitomir. And what is rumored to be the largest Jewish community center in the world is under construction in Dnepropetrovsk. The Jewish Agency for Israel estimates Ukraine’s total Jewish population at 200,000; other sources, meanwhile, say that between 67,000 and 70,000 is a more accurate figure.

Many younger Jews supported the opposition, leading to some strange alliances, such as the group of Jews who demonstrated against the government in Independence Square alongside members of the ultranationalist and anti-Semitic Svoboda Party. These strange juxtapositions remind us that nationalist movements and those opposing them — especially in that part of the world — frequently blame the Jews whenever they feel it supports their interest. We hope to see none of that scapegoating.

Instead, now that power has been transferred, what is needed is time — so that cooler heads may prevail. We are anxious to see what newly appointed parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Turchinov will do. And we hope, of course, that Russia won’t meddle in what should now be regarded as a purely Ukrainian affair.

An escalating stalemate in Syria

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi sent the Syrian people a heartfelt apology. (DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS/Newscom)

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi sent the Syrian people a heartfelt apology. (DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS/Newscom)

The second round of Syrian peace talks ended in Geneva last weekend with very little progress reproted. In recognition of that failure, the U.N.’s Arab League mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, sent an apology to the Syrian people: “I am very, very sorry, and I apologize to the Syrian people, [whose] hopes were very, very high,” that nothing happened.

Since the Syrian civil war began four years ago, a stream of apologies have gone out to the Syrian people. But those words haven’t made much of a difference. According to some reports, more than 140,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the fighting, including some 7,000 children. Millions more have been displaced and have fled the country, stretching resources and increasing instability in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Syria itself has been left in what has been called an “escalating stalemate,” where the only change in the conflict is that it gets uglier and bloodier.

While the U.S. intended the Geneva talks to address a transition to a post-Assad Syria, it couldn’t find a negotiating partner on the other side of the table. Indeed, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, rather than focusing on peace and transition, Assad’s forces have done “nothing except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country.” Kerry also observed that Assad continues his agression “with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia.”

In the face of these realities, can the diplomatic approach work? We think so, but only if the effort is accompanied by a new sense of urgency on the part of the U.S., Europe and Middle East friends. That urgency needs to face the stark reality that Russia’s political goals and efforts to preserve influence in the region shouldn’t be tolerated at the expense of a never-ending cycle of worsening violence. But in order to make that point, America and its allies need to feel, and then express clearly, the deadly reality that an escalating stalemate in Syria translates into both a humanitarian and strategic disaster.

Among the options being suggested are nonlethal approaches. For example, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger called for imposing “carefully targeted sanctions on banks that finance arms shipments to the regime and on financiers of al-Qaeda.” It’s a wonder this isn’t already being done. But even if such sanctions were in place, could they succeed without unifed international support?

As far as possible lethal support is concerned, Americans and the Obama administration have been leery of getting tangled in “another war.” And even the effort to arm trusted rebel groups has been halfhearted. So what can be done?

Perhaps the administration should consider increasing support for trusted rebels and orchestrating symbolic actions that challenge the Assad regime, like dropping food on cities under siege. The goal here would not be to bring about the collapse of the Assad government, but to end the escalating stalemate and to help facilitate productive negotiations. We urge consideration of these and other creative approaches, because while Mr. Brahimi’s apology to Syrian civilians may have been heartfelt, it will take a lot more than words to halt the tragedy befalling the Syrian people.

After Abe Foxman

Abe Foxman’s announcement last week that he was planning to retire as national director of the Anti-Defamation League was inevitable. Yet, it somehow came as a surprise. For years, Foxman watchers suggested that he needed to groom a successor and, with that heir in place, step down. The fact that Mr. Foxman seemed to take no interest in being succeeded by anybody helped make his retirement announcement seem like it was something other than just an orderly transition. Perhaps for this reason, the resulting coverage had the quality of a eulogy.

But Mr. Foxman isn’t planning to fade away. The 73-year-old said he will remain at the helm of the Jewish defense organization until July 2015. His successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, is in for an interesting and challenging time.

Rising through the ADL’s ranks for 22 years before becoming its national director in 1987, Mr. Foxman has become synonymous with the ADL and its fight against anti-Semitism. His stature makes his pronouncements on what is or isn’t anti-Semitic authoritative among Jews and in the U.S. political system. Want the last word on what is good or bad for the Jews? Get Abe Foxman on the line.

The successor will have to build his or her brand, just as Mr. Foxman did. As his star rose, Mr. Foxman elevated the ADL brand through a unique combination of leadership, advocacy chutzpah and personality. But his successor won’t have that cache and will have to earn his or her own stripes. Thus, neither the Jewish community nor the media will be so quick to defer to the head of the ADL as they were with Mr. Foxman. Rather, whoever occupies the national director chair of ADL will have to earn and develop the trust and backing of the organized Jewish and political worlds.

That’s quite a testament to Mr. Foxman. Love him or hate him, agree with him or not, he has been a presence on the world scene and a force that cannot be ignored. Sometimes controversial, sometimes right on the mark, Abe Foxman will unquestionably be “replaced,”  but his replacement is going to have to earn that position.

The Presbyterian problem with Israel

Zionism Unsettled

Zionism Unsettled

The conciliation between Christians and Jews in recent decades has been so remarkable that, although most Jews can’t explain the differences between, say, the Lutheran church and the Methodist church, the general feeling is that all is well, or at least doing better.

This era of good feeling does not extend to Israel, however. Ironically, some of the liberal Christian denominations, the ones that most readily accept Jews as Jews, have the harshest criticisms of Israel. The Presbyterian Church, for instance, has been at the forefront of these criticisms. Indeed, we have begun to cringe whenever we see a headline about the Presbyterian Church’s latest act or statement — invariably combining support for the Palestinians with a deep hostility toward Israel.

Now comes a congregational study guide on Zionism published by the Israel Palestine Mission Network, an arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Zionism Unsettled argues that a “pathology inherent in Zionism” drives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and rejects theologies that uphold Zionism.

The text also calls for an “expanded, inclusive” understanding of the Nazi genocide, which would apply its lessons not just with respect to the persecution faced by Jews, but also to the plight of the Palestinians, among others.

The guide was released ahead of the church’s biennial General Assembly, scheduled to take place this June in Detroit. The gathering will once again consider recommendations that the church divest from companies that deal with Israel’s military. Similar resolutions have been narrowly defeated in the past.

The sentiment behind the ongoing drumbeat for divestment seems to be part of a general compulsion to delegitimize Israel. Last summer, for example, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian group, debated and finally endorsed a document arguing that there is no theological right for the State of Israel to exist.

While it is clear that not all Presbyterians are hostile toward Israel, the anti-Zionist rhetoric that spews from some very vocal elements of the movement suggests that Israel’s supporters need to do a better job of explaining the nuances of the Jewish state. And we need to lend our encouragement and support to those voices in the Presbyterian world who are speaking up against this one-sided approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In response to Zionism Unsettled, the Rev. Chris Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore and an ordained Presbyterian minister, wrote in an open letter to his church:

“To suggest that the Jewish yearning for their own homeland — a yearning that we Presbyterians have supported for numerous other nations — is somehow theologically and morally abhorrent is to deny Jews their own identity as a people. The word for that is ‘anti-Semitism,’ and that is, along with racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other ills our Church condemns, a sin.”

These words of conciliation are both accurate and welcome. We wish more of the reverend’s brethren felt the same way and had the confidence to say so.

Washington JCC draws a red line

The story of David Harris-Gershon goes a bit of the way toward answering the perennial question of whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it. In 2012, Harris-Gershon, a Pittsburgh Jewish day school teacher, “came out” about his support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement by writing a blog post about it for Tikkun magazine.

Harris-Gershon expected some blowback, but none came. He then went around the country to synagogues and JCCs to speak about his moving memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? The “no reaction” all  changed last month when Hillel at the University of California at Santa Barbara canceled an appearance by Harris-Gershon because of his support of BDS.

The resulting publicity got the attention of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center. Having heard the sound of the BDS tree falling, albeit belatedly, the agency’s leadership acted on its policy against hosting BDS supporters and canceled the author’s planned March appearance to discuss his book.

The BDS movement includes advocates who are working to delegitimize the State of Israel on the world stage, who reject the notion of Israel as a Jewish state and who reject the idea of a two-state solution. These opponents do not wish Israel well. And even though Harris-Gershon says he is motivated by Zionist and pro-Israel impulses, he has thrown in his lot with the BDS bunch and so finds himself on the other side of the principled red line.

The DCJCC’s “red line” against hosting BDS supporters is not a new policy. And it is one followed by all agency beneficiaries of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Having committed to this position in the past, the DCJCC has now lived up to the promise. This is similar to the line drawn by Hillel with its Swarthmore affiliate. We support these difficult but principled decisions.

Debate about Israel and how the state handles its presence in the West Bank is welcome. BDS and its undifferentiated discrimination against the Jewish state are not.

Cloudy skies in Sochi?

As much as the Olympic Games are about athletic excellence, they are also about pride: national pride for the host country and pride for the teams representing their homelands. No doubt there is pride among smaller groups, as Jews can attest. We wonder how the Israeli team will do at the 2014 Winter Games, which open tomorrow in Sochi, and if there will be any breakout Jewish stars who will bring us joy because we’re members of the same tribe.

But the Games in Sochi are opening under a cloud of concern. There have been terror threats against the Black Sea location at the western edge of Russia’s restive Caucasus Mountains. The United States has taken these threats seriously and has offered to help Russia with security. The Russians, in a display of national pride, rebuffed the offer. But the Munich Games in 1972 showed what happens when terrorists hijack the Olympics and inflict a terrible loss of life.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not the open society that a spectator, whether in person or watching TV, can feel warm and comfortable about. With its dismal human rights record, corruption and adversarial relationship with the United States on a host of major issues, including Syria and Iran, Russia is not an ideal venue.

Putin’s government has spent more than $50 billion to get Sochi ready for the world spotlight. There are reports of mud, unfinished hotels and cost overruns. And more than 300,000 of 1.1 million tickets are reportedly still available.

While the Olympics are getting more expensive, and the political implications of the venue selection and implementation process seem to be increasing, the Games themselves are appearing to diminish in importance. Sure, world records are still the focus, and individual achievements on any stage are always sources of high entertainment, accomplishment and national pride. But in a world of 24-hour sports reporting and play, and the proliferation of sports teams playing every game with intensity and skill, the Olympics is becoming just another set of games. It all seems a lot different than it was two decades ago.

Even acknowledging the foregoing limitations, however, we look forward to the pleasure of seeing the world’s finest athletes compete in skiing, skating, hockey and other cold-weather events. While Russia will remain Russia, we hope our security fears remain unfounded and that the Games take place under blue skies. Let the Games begin!

Scarlett Johansson takes a stand

Scarlett Johansson (SodaStream Facebook page./JNS)

Scarlett Johansson (SodaStream Facebook page./JNS)

The skirmish over actress Scarlett Johansson’s relationship with the Israeli company Soda-Stream seems to have ended in a draw — although a largely satisfying one — with some short-term winners and losers but no real change in the fundamentals that are driving the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

The big winner was SodaStream, which the BDS movement has targeted because it has a factory in the settlement of Maale Adumim to produce its at-home seltzer makers. Soda-Stream couldn’t have bought the publicity that the humanitarian group Oxfam gave it when Oxfam tried to pressure Johansson to break her ties with the Israeli company, including a much-touted ad during the Super Bowl. The actress had been a world ambassador for Oxfam for eight years, during which time she raised money and traveled the world to highlight the problem of global poverty.

Bur Oxfam opposes trade with Israeli settlements, so it pushed Johansson to make a choice: SodaStream or Oxfam. Johansson chose SodaStream. In choosing not to buckle to the boycott, Johansson is another winner. She has won plaudits for demonstrating her backbone against the bullying of the BDS crowd. She has also maintained what must be a lucrative relationship with SodaStream. And if there is a loser, it is Oxfam — although it is questionable whether the group sees it that way.

This was a feel-good moment for the pro-Israel crowd, after weeks dominated by votes for academic boycotts of Israel. And yet, as Johansson was making her stand, Norway’s government instructed a state-run pension fund not to invest in two Israeli firms because of their activity in eastern Jerusalem.

The Israeli government has been talking about a response to the BDS effort, but it can’t seem to agree what the response should be or even how serious the situation is. A faction led by Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz contends that Israel’s “delegitimization is a grave, widespread trend” and recommends a PR counter-campaign, Haaretz reported. The foreign ministry, however, looks on decisions such as Norway’s as legitimate criticism to Israel’s policy in the territories, something Israel needs to manage rather than fight.

All of which is to say that the BDS campaign is likely to continue. As long as it does, we’ll need as many Scarlett Johanssons as we can get.

Birthright Welcomes the ‘Veterans’

013114_editorialBirthright Israel was created with the idea that every Jew is entitled to a free trip to Israel. It operates on the premise that if a Jew experiences the Jewish state as a young adult, between ages 18 and 26, he or she will develop an attachment to the country and become a more committed Jew.

And it works. Since 2000, Birthright has sent more than 300,000 Jews to Israel. A 2012 Workmen’s Circle study suggested the existence of a Birthright “bump” in Jewish identity and attachment to Israel after participation in the program.

But until now, young Jews who had previously visited Israel — on a high school trip, for instance — were not eligible for the 10-day Birthright trip. Last week, though, the Taglit-Birthright Israel steering committee voted to change the rule and to welcome Jews to the program regardless of their past Israel experience. The change will go into effect this summer.

It’s a good move. It means that several thousand more young Jewish adults will become eligible to participate in the program each year, according to Birthright. And not only will there be a larger pool that will benefit from the Birthright experience, but each Birthright group can be seeded with Israel “veterans,” who can lend a greater depth to the first-timers’ experience.

And these veterans will not be taking opportunities away from the unaffiliated Jews who are Birthright’s traditional focus. The trips of the second-timers will be funded solely by donors; the trips of first-time visitors to Israel are one-third funded by the Israeli government.

The new policy should answer the concerns of the operators of high school programs in Israel. They had complained that the heavily subsidized Birthright trips have hurt enrollment in their programs. Now there will be no Birthright penalty for having visited Israel previously, a penalty that was in nobody’s interest.

Birthright’s decision is a good one for everyone.

Morocco’s Arab Street Maneuvers

King Mohammed VI of Morocco (PDN/SIPA/Newscom)

King Mohammed VI of Morocco (PDN/SIPA/Newscom)

Morocco is a stable, Western-oriented Arab monarchy, which is also known for its cooperation with Israel dating back decades. Last fall, King Muhammed VI came to Washington as part of an effort to deepen the relationship between the U.S. and Morocco. At that time, Ambassador- at-Large Serge Berdugo, president of the Jewish community of Morocco and former minister of tourism, told the Washington Jewish Week that Morocco has always been “a player of goodwill, trying to do our best to promote peace [between Israel and the Palestinians] and two states with security and dignity — security for one, dignity for the other.”

With so much warm feeling, it might be surprising to learn that Israel and Morocco do not have diplomatic relations. According to most analyses, neither the Arab street nor the people of Morocco would tolerate the monarchy making that move until at least the more active leadership of the Arab world does.

In light of the monarchy’s quiet peace with Israel, it is troubling to see that within Morocco things are moving in the wrong direction. Last summer, five parties in parliament put forward legislation that would criminalize contact with Israel. The two bills make it illegal to trade with Israeli entities. And at least one bill proposes to make it illegal for Israelis to enter Morocco. The legislative trend clearly reflects hostility to the Jewish state and its citizens, tens of thousands of whom are of Moroccan descent.

The bills’ sponsors are not fringe parties. Two are leading parties in the government, and another is associated with the king. This suggests that the legislation could not have moved forward without tacit support of the crown.

Yet the bills are not expected to become law. Although the king has the final word on any such legislation, he is not expected to act openly upon the bills. Indeed, since his Arab street credibility depends upon his not appearing too close to Israel and the West, he needs to orchestrate a different path to stop the bills. Thus, it is anticipated that parliamentary factions with Arab bona fides will withdraw support for the bills, and the status quo will continue. Even so, the whole situation reflects a decline in relations between Israel and Morocco and is cause for concern and caution.

The United States has chosen to remain silent on the legislation, apparently waiting for the storm to pass. But not everyone else is. Last week, the Dutch foreign minister, perhaps acting as a surrogate for the West, criticized the bills. “The very headline of these bills is alarming,” Frans Timmermans told the Dutch parliament, adding the king and government of Morocco should act to prevent them from passing into law. We agree.

Inadvertently Offensive

The Economist made some waves recently with an editorial cartoon showing the difficulty the U.S. and Iran are having coming to terms. President Hassan Rouhani is depicted reaching over a chasm to President Obama, but is being held back by a variety of hardline figures, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, is shown shackled by the U.S. Congress, whose seal is lined with Stars of David.

The implication on the U.S. side of the picture, of course, is that the Jews control Congress and are preventing the president from reaching out to a willing Rouhani. The cartoon — which managed to hit a bad taste double play by depicting an African American U.S. president in leg irons — drew the inevitable complaints, and was replaced online with a note-cum-apology, that it “inadvertently caused offence to some readers.”

You have to wonder what the editors of The Economist had in mind that made the cartoon only inadvertently offensive. The hackneyed repetition of anti-Semitic accusations — Jews control the government, Jews control the money system, Jews are behind difficult-to-understand events — are intentional, not “inadvertent.” And a lame post-publication statement of inadvertence hardly excuses either the offense or the discriminatory bias that prompted publication.

There was once a time when cartoons like the one in The Economist, and many others much worse, were printed on picture postcards. If you were in the United States, England, Europe or Nazi Germany, you could jot a quick message to a loved one on the back of a card showing a big-nosed Jewish pawnbroker taking advantage of a poor gentile. In his new book Hatemail, Salo Aizenberg has assembled a truly appalling collection of cards, ranging from the late 19th century to the contemporary Arab world, which documents the anti-Semitic activities that conflate Jews and Israel, and identify them with the Nazis.

The ongoing repetition of these offensive proclamations and accusations, and their routine acceptance in certain parts of the world, may help explain the persistence of anti-Semitism in places where there are next to no Jews. For example, a national survey in Poland found that 63 percent of Poles believe in a Jewish conspiracy, Haaretz reported. Yet a full 90 percent of Poles said they have never met a Jew. In response to the troubling survey results, members of the Polish parliament have suggested education measures to combat prejudice. We think that is a good idea.

The open-minded and constructive reaction of some within the Polish parliament to that countryís endemic anti-Semitism is welcome. We hope it will become more than lip service to doing the right thing. At the very least, such education can lead to fewer incidences of people being “inadvertently offensive.” And, if successful, maybe the Polish parliament can offer some of its educational materials to the editors of The Economist for their edification.