The Jewish Agency after Sharansky

The day before Natan Sharansky was  appointed to a second term as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel in 2013,  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the former Soviet political prisoner and Likud party government minister a “symbol of Jewish unity and a symbol of the triumph of the Jewish people over  adversity.”

You can’t do better as a politician than to be considered a symbol. To Diaspora Jews who remember him as a Soviet prisoner after being denied a visa to Israel, Sharansky the refusenik is still a celebrity. Having a politician-symbol-celebrity as the head of a multimillion-dollar, quasi-governmental organization that connects Israel to Diaspora donors is quite an  accomplishment. And Sharansky brought his star power and prestige to the Jewish Agency, a body with whom most Jews in years past dealt directly only in the realm of making aliyah.

With Sharansky’s recent announcement that he plans to step down when his term ends next June, it is important to begin discussing what the Jewish Agency will be in the post-Sharansky era. Since Sharansky took the job in 2009, Diaspora fundraising for Israel — one of the Jewish Agency’s primary goals — has declined. So has the agency’s traditional role of encouraging and processing aliyah, despite the rise in aliyah in recent years. In North America, it has largely deferred to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the nonprofit whose chartered flights of olim earn headlines every summer.

As these aspects of the agency’s work have declined, Sharansky has raised Jewish identity and education in the Diaspora as a primary responsibility. The Israeli government has also decided that identity of Diaspora Jews is a priority. The result of such focus is the regular arrival of shlichim, those young, enthusiastic Israelis who come to be the face of Israel in our community for a year or two — through a program operated by the Jewish Agency. What makes that program so valuable is that it makes strengthening Diaspora identity a grassroots partnership between the agency and local communities instead of a centrally directed initiative from the corridors of power in Jerusalem. But not all of the Israeli government’s outreach and engagement activities in the Diaspora are being coordinated through the Jewish Agency. And that is the focus of much discussion and deliberation.

With so much in flux, this is a chance for the Jewish Agency to continue to redefine itself in the post-aliyah era. In so doing, the agency must find relevance both in  Israel and with its Diaspora partners. Should Netanyahu propose another high-profile candidate? Or will a solid, hard-working professional do the job best? Does the job need a well-connected international  personality? Or is it a teacher, leader and steady-handed visionary who should lead the effort? These are questions that the Jewish Agency and its supporters — and the prime minister himself — will be  considering as they select Sharansky’s  successor.

Pushing Back at the Wall

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was critical of American Jewish community leaders who were involved in staging a march to the Kotel, or Western Wall, on Nov. 2 as part of a protest to restrictions on egalitarian worship at the holy site. About a dozen Torah scrolls were carried into the women’s section for use during the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service, something that the site’s Haredi Orthodox custodians have prevented the group from doing for 25 years. The protestors were met with pushing and shoving by Haredi Orthodox worshipers, many of whom shouted insults.

Netanyahu’s response was to accuse the egalitarian Jewish groups of “unnecessary friction” and of “the unilateral violation of the status quo at the Western Wall.” The night before, knowing that the protest was planned, Netanyahu told 200 Diaspora Jews at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting to be patient. “Sometimes things require patience and tolerance. I’ve been dealing with this now for over 20 years. I can tell you I have patience and tolerance, and I hope you do too,” he said.

The polar ice cap is melting faster than the issue of religious pluralism at the Kotel is being resolved. A compromise agreement on the issue was reached by all the parties in January. It would have expanded the egalitarian section at the Wall and placed it under the authority of a pluralist committee while solidifying Orthodox control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section. Women of the Wall would have moved to the non-Orthodox section once the deal was implemented. After first agreeing, Orthodox leaders denounced the plan. Then in June, a group of Orthodox Jewish organizations filed a petition with Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent the  establishment of the egalitarian section.

This is the status quo that Netanyahu asked the protestors not to disrupt. And he added a tug on the conscience of his audience, citing the UNESCO resolution in which the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the holy places appears not to exist. “The last thing we need now to resolve this sensitive issue — while the world is saying that we have nothing, no patrimony there, at a place that has been our spiritual center for over 3,000 years — the last thing we need now is more friction,” he said.

Well, yes and no. Two weeks ago we  addressed the offensiveness of the UNESCO resolution and called its historical fantasy an outrage. And we commented upon how the UNESCO vote had the rare effect of uniting nearly all Jewish groups in  opposition. But UNESCO’s outrage cannot excuse Israeli government intransigence or lack of sensitivity to religious pluralism. Besides, we don’t see why the prime minister cannot work on both problems at once — particularly since there is so much to be gained from a Kotel resolution that unites all Jews around the holy site.

A Return to Civility

Americans used to talk about election- related violence and contested balloting in other countries with a degree of smugness, confident that it couldn’t happen here.

Not anymore. This year’s presidential race not only has seen the thin veneer of civility torn apart, it has also raised the disquieting specter of something less than a peaceful transition of power — giving new meaning to “the war of politics.”

Recent polls reflect the concern of election-related violence — and the rising fear that the voting will be rigged as a supposed reason for a violent response. USA Today on Oct. 26 published a poll that found “a 51 percent majority of likely  voters express at least some concern about the possibility of violence on Election Day; one in five are ‘very concerned.’” Meanwhile, the same report concluded, “more than four in 10 of Trump supporters say they won’t recognize the legitimacy  of Clinton as president, if she prevails,  because they say she wouldn’t have won fair and square.”

These numbers are cause for significant concern. But if history is any guide, there will likely be a peaceful acceptance of the results of Nov. 8, and a peaceful transition on Jan. 20. Indeed, just 16 years ago, in the wake of a heated election that was “too close to call,” and in the midst of recounts and a court battle, the 2000 election did not precipitate a constitutional crisis, a  resort to violence or any interference with implementation of the result.

But there is an element to this year’s race that presents a far more immediate concern: How will we as a nation emerge from the scourge of uncivil discourse that has plagued the run-up to Election Day? As we have learned this year, civility has two levels. One is politeness and respect among people and a belief that one’s  opponent’s motivations are good, no matter how wrong her or she may be. That kind of civility has largely been ignored in this year’s race and has frustrated the free and open exchange of ideas and views in our election process.

That loss is significant, and weakens our social construct.

There is a deeper level of civility, however, that most of us never actively consider: that the durability of our larger social contract is only as strong as our faith in it. One president turning over power to the next is not an automatic thing. The Constitution is not necessarily the animating and guiding force of our republic. But when we lose faith in these and other things we have taken for granted, the ugly threat of violence may move in, and we are all the worse for it.

And so we call for a return to both levels of civility on Election Day and beyond. The system is not rigged, and the results of the vote must be accepted. The continued success of our democratic enterprise  requires that we unify behind the result of our process — no matter which way it comes out.

The Perils of Zero Tolerance

When Hillel International announced last week that it was canceling a speaking tour featuring Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, we ran a thought experiment. Shavit, widely lauded for his 2013 book “My Promised Land,” had publicly admitted that he was the man who a Jewish reporter said sexually assaulted her in 2014.

Hillel’s response was swift, almost as if it was waiting for Shavit to hit “send” on his admission of unwanted groping on Danielle Berrin.

“In light of recent circumstances, and in keeping with our strong position against sexual assault, Hillel International has suspended Ari Shavit’s campus tour,” the group said in a statement. “We  actively oppose rape culture and sexual assault on campus and are committed to supporting survivors.”

Other Jewish organizations followed suit: A spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America told JTA that had JFNA been arranging a speaking tour for Shavit, “he would be suspended immediately based on his admission of harassment alone.” AIPAC reportedly cut its ties with Shavit. And the JCC Association of North America told JTA that its policy of zero tolerance for sexual assault extends to speakers.

We think the behavior that Shavit is  accused of is appalling. Like Hillel and every other organization that has gone public on the issue, we are disturbed by and wish to see remedies for the incidences of sexual attacks on campus, in the work place and throughout society.

Given all of the above, this was our thought experiment: What if former President Bill Clinton wanted to address Hillel? Or the upcoming General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America? Or your local JCC? Would they turn down Clinton, whose affairs and accused sexual assaults were revisited during this year’s election campaign, but who remains immensely popular?

Are some people too big to ban? Are we talking about zero tolerance for just the act — or for the act and the person?

The concept of “zero tolerance” while at first apparently sensible and understandable — to tolerate sexual assault would be to encourage it, after all — is troubling. Drawing the line at zero sounds clear and cleansing and morally pure. But reality is not so clear or so clean. In the case of Shavit, his admission of involvement made the drawing of lines easier. But what about someone who denies the accusation? Does zero tolerance extend to them as well?

We hope that those who that have rightly used the Shavit incident to state their serious opposition to sexual harassment and assault will not succumb to one-size-fits-all responses to allegations that deny people due process.

Iran’s Finger Prints

An article in Al Arabiya last week dropped a small bombshell. It reported that Hassan Fariuzabadi, military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, boasted to the semiofficial Fars news agency that his country had “sent, in the past years, military advisers to the Gaza strip and trained the ‘Palestinian forces’” there. The fact that Al Arabiya is owned by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archrival, suggests that the report should be taken with a grain of salt. But there’s no doubt that Iran has been and remains active in the region by opposing, thwarting and threatening American interests and allies. That it could send advisers or cash to Hamas or one of its more radical competitors is certainly plausible.

Iran was also implicated in a missile attack last week on U.S. ships in the Red Sea. U.S. Central Command leader Army Gen. Joseph Votel said, “Iran is playing a role in some of this” after the ships were apparently targeted from rebel Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen. Iran has largely supported the Houthis, who are fighting to oust Yemen’s Western-backed government. Others, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), believe that the missiles were provided by Iran. In retaliation, U.S. missiles destroyed three radar sites in territory controlled by the Houthis.

Iran is already deeply involved in the conflicts in Syria, where the Assad regime is increasingly dependent on Iran’s military and financial support, and in Iraq. In Lebanon, it backs the Hezbollah militia that is pointing what Israel says is 120,000 missiles at the Jewish state. Iran has been implicated in the unsolved 1984 bombing at the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and injured hundreds. Iran has also ruled out negotiations with the United States on any issue beyond last year’s nuclear deal. But if Iran is responsible for firing on U.S. ships, it raises the question of what the U.S. response will be.

A year and a half ago we accepted the Obama administration’s argument that a nuclear-armed Iran was inherently more dangerous than one made $150 billion richer in exchange for forswearing nuclear weapons. But is the White House ready to live up to its part of the implied bargain? Or, is President Obama more concerned about the possible implications of action on what appears to be his increasing focus on his legacy?

Secretary of State John Kerry has made clear commitments that the United States would work to counter Iranian attempts to destabilize the region, endanger Israel and achieve Middle East hegemony. We believed him. Isn’t it time to live up to those promises for serious action and consequences?

UNESCO Cannot Change History

There was at least one piece of good news after votes by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, over the last two weeks that effectively denied the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount: The body has made clear just how feckless U.N. diplomacy is.

More countries opposed or abstained on the resolution than voted for it in the UNESCO executive board’s preliminary balloting on Oct. 13. In that vote, France and Sweden, which had previously announced support, abstained. Those abstensions denied the Palestinian-backed resolution any European support. (On Oct. 18, the executive board formally approved the resolution.)

Voting “no” were the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Estonia. This is far from the unequivocal denunciation that Israel’s outraged friends would have liked to see. The resolution was brought by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan. It ostensibly concerns the “safeguarding of the cultural heritage of Palestine” and affirms “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions.” But throughout the text of the resolution, Jews and Judaism are absent — the Temple Mount is referred to only by its Muslim name. The text refers to Buraq Plaza, placing its English translation, Western Wall Plaza, in quotes, and criticizes Israel for its decision to build an egalitarian prayer area there.

To their credit, U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova, distanced themselves from the resolution. Said Bokova, “To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site.” Mexican ambassador Andres Roemer, who refused to support the resolution, even appears to have lost his job over the affair, although (after he was fired) his country changed its vote from one of approval to an abstention.

The resolution is part of the Palestinians’ nonviolent agitation against Israel. But by erasing the Jewish presence in and connection to Jerusalem, beginning with King David’s conquest in the Bible — holy scripture for three religions — and continuing to the present day, the supporters are playing a zero-sum game with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that will not encourage a solution.

One side effect of the resolution was a rare wall-to-wall denunciation by all American pro-Israel groups. On the left, Americans for Peace Now urged “United Nations agencies, when referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to avoid exclusionary and inflammatory language.” On the right, the Zionist Organization of America called the resolution “part of the Palestinian, Arab and, indeed, international campaign to delegitimize Israel’s existence.”

The resolution paints a picture that neither Israel nor her supporters recognize. The jump from criticizing Israeli behavior to erasing Jewish history is outrageous. But the resolution cannot change reality. The response of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin went right to the point: “We can understand criticism,” he said, “but you cannot change history.” Amen.

Cummings, Ruppersberger, Sarbanes for Congress

Elijah Cummings (File photo)

Elijah Cummings (File photo)

With U.S. Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-District 7), Dutch Ruppersberger (D-District 2) and John Sarbanes (D-District 3), the Baltimore area is represented in Congress by a trio of moderate, seasoned legislators. We heartily endorse them in the Nov. 8 election.

The three often act together, as in June, when they attended an event on the steps of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore to press Republicans, in the wake of mass shootings in schools and churches and against police, to permit Congress to vote on gun-control legislation. It was also Cummings and Sarbanes who were prominent at the 2015 funeral of Freddie Gray, whose death

Dutch Ruppersberger  (File photo)

Dutch Ruppersberger (File photo)

while in police custody sparked riots. Cummings told those gathered that he put his own nephew “in the grave four years ago … blasted away, still don’t know who did it.”

When it comes to the scourge of gun violence and ensuring accountability among police, these are the legislators who deserve our trust to lead the nation toward a solution.

The three men share similar voting records. All voted in favor of the Iran nuclear agreement and against the suspension of sanctions on Iran; the apparently discordant stances reflect our own view, that ensuring a nuclear-free Iran must be a top priority.

John Sarbanes  (File photo)

John Sarbanes (File photo)

Cummings has a special tie to the Jewish community. His Elijah Cummings Youth Program, a partnership with the Baltimore Jewish Council, has for 17 years sent African-American teens from his Baltimore district to Israel with the goal of building bonds between African-Americans and Jews.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Ruppersberger has been a trusted voice on support for Israel, the fight against terrorism and other issues the Jewish community holds dear.

And it is Sarbanes, running for a sixth term, who has been a leader on Capitol Hill in the fight for stronger corporate oversight. A Greek Orthodox lawyer, he was also among the founders of the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, a nonprofit organization in Towson that works to advance inter-religious dialogue and understanding. And he continues to have a sensitive and supportive voting record on issues of concern to our community, including support for the State of Israel.

Our region will be well served by Cummings, Ruppersberger and Sarbanes returning to Congress.

Van Hollen for U.S. Senate

Chris Van Hollen (File photo)

Chris Van Hollen (File photo)

In seeking to fill the U.S. Senate being left by retiring Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Democratic candidate Chris Van Hollen, a longtime member of Congress, comes with a reputation as a legislator who is dependably liberal as well as a team player who can get things done. We supported him in the primaries against opponent Rep. Donna Edwards, and we support him now against Republican state Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, minority whip in Maryland’s House of Delegates.

Van Hollen’s record shows him as willing to cross party lines to improve the country and serve his Maryland constituents. Often called a master of details, the Montgomery County resident served in 2011 on the “super committee” charged with crafting a deficit reduction plan. Although the effort failed, Van Hollen got good reviews for his efforts to reach a compromise. And the need for deficit reform is just as necessary now as it was then.

His opponent, Szeliga, is known as a conservative but not a hard-liner. She has an 87 percent lifetime approval rating from the American Conservative Union. But her continued support for presidential nominee Donald Trump is disturbing. Her loyalty to the head of the ticket would be commendable in normal times, but, as first lady Michelle Obama put it last week, “this is not normal; this is not politics  as usual.”

But most important for us, Van Hollen has always been a stalwart supporter and defender of our community, a voice on Capitol Hill we’ve come to count on  regarding Israel’s strategic edge in the Middle East and other issues near and dear to American Jews. When Alan Gross languished in a Cuban prison, Van Hollen’s advocacy was a key factor in his eventual December 2014 release.

As far as we’re concerned, whereas we’ve come to know and trust Van Hollen, we as a community know little about Szeliga, save for her conservatism and  illogical loyalty to the GOP’s new standard-bearer. Given the many years that Van Hollen has had our back, it makes sense for us to have his. So we repeat  what we wrote before the April primary: This is not a tough choice. Based upon  his exemplary record and his history  of sensitivity to and support for issues of interest and concern to our community, we enthusiastically support Chris Van Hollen for the U.S. Senate on Election Day.

Grounding a Billboard

The Israel Action Center this month  focused attention on a topic we wrote about here two years ago. The Reform movement-affiliated organization tried unsuccessfully to post a billboard in the waiting area of Newark Liberty International Airport that read: “Ladies, please take your seat … and keep it!”

At issue was the recurrence of Haredi Orthodox men who were seated next to women on El Al flights to and from Israel, asking them to move elsewhere because it is immodest for a Haredi man to sit next to a woman who is not his wife. The Israel Action Center, a public and legal advocacy organization, determined that such incidents spiked around Passover and the High Holidays, so the group sought to post the sign to point out that “requiring passengers to switch seats because of gender is illegal.”

Days before Yom Kippur, the Port  Authority of New York and New Jersey  rejected the ad. And debate over the ad became caught in a thicket of guidelines, partly over what kind of messaging the billboard constituted. We are confident that the billboard issue will be resolved. But the bigger question is how to handle situations that could infringe on someone’s rights.

In recent years there have been increasing complaints by women who have been asked to switch seats. In one example,  an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor last December sued El Al after she was asked to change seats on a flight from Newark Liberty to Tel Aviv.

We wrote two years ago that passengers have a right to request specific accommodations at the time of booking — which, apparently, many of these men did not do — but no one has a right to demand gender separation in a public arena. If people want a gender-segregated plane, they should charter one.

We noted too that this story is really about prejudice against an entire class of people. It would be equally offensive if  passengers tried to keep from having to sit next to African-Americans or Orthodox Jews.

While we have our own misgivings on the religious justifications for this kind of behavior on a public flight, we won’t quibble over reasonable interpretations of  religious law. Still the onus clearly is on the Haredi Orthodox male travelers to find a solution that does not pressure or shame anyone else. Anything less would be foisting one interpretation of Judaism on another, a prospect we can never condone.

Preparing the People for Peace

When President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia won the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 7, his country had just narrowly voted to reject the peace treaty he had negotiated to end a half-century of civil war with the Marxist FARC guerilla movement.

On the surface, it seemed like the Nobel Prize Committee was somewhat out of step with reality. But the committee explained that it was recognizing Santos for his “resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians and displaced close to six million people.”

Those efforts cannot be denied. And the country’s rejection of the peace agreement didn’t diminish Santos’ accomplishment in the eyes of the Nobel committee. As the committee explained: “What the ‘No’ side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement.”

Does the Colombia experience provide a lesson for Middle East peacemaking?

Since the Oslo Agreement in the 1990s, Israel and the Palestinians have come close to agreements, only to have them collapse at the last moment. But what would happen if the two sides, like the Colombian government and the FARC, do reach an accord? How would the electorates react?

From past experience, we know that any agreement or unilateral act by Israel that involves giving up territory leads to rightwing opposition and that any removal of settlers leads to acts of civil disobedience and the threat of civil violence. And while there will always be a part of the Israeli population that opposes an agreement with the Palestinians, it is worth noting that for all of its past concessions, Israel has gotten little in the way of peace.

If the two peoples are to someday make peace, their leadership must prepare them. And on that score, neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders have done much. The last time Israeli leaders began paving the road toward peace was during the Oslo period under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Nothing more has developed since.

But there is ample blame to go around. While there has been little follow through on the Israeli side, the Palestinian side never had anyone who undertook the  important groundwork. Yasser Arafat, who remained a terrorist until the day he died, did nothing to prepare the Palestinians to live in a world with Israel as a neighbor. And Mahmoud Abbas has done absolutely nothing to make things better.

Peacemaking takes imagination and an ability to see how a change from the status quo can be in the national interest. Both Israel and the Palestinians need leaders who seek peace and who educate their citizens on the benefits it offers. Otherwise, when the two peoples finally reach their Colombia moment, their voters won’t be sufficiently prepared to embrace peace.