With Friends Like This

Anyone who would like to know what a tell-it-like-it-is, shoot-from-the-hip president is like can look to the Philippines and its leader, Rodrigo Duterte. A 71-year-old populist, Duterte fought drugs while he was mayor of Davao by allegedly ordering death-squad killings. When he took office as president in June he promised more of the same. Since then, his crackdown has reportedly left more than 3,000 suspected drug dealers and pushers dead.

Duterte’s words and actions and his record in the area of domestic human rights have been criticized by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Duterte has not reacted well: “Instead of helping us, the first to criticize is this State Department, so you can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell,” Duterte said last week. Earlier, he called President Obama an S.O.B., using the full, unabbreviated form of the insult.

At a time when China is asserting its influence in the South China Sea region, and challenging smaller nations — including the Philippines, Duterte has thrown caution to the wind by focusing his pique on America and by threatening to break the ties with his country’s ally, military protector and former colonial ruler. “Eventually I might, in my time, I will break up with America,” he said, adding, “I would rather go to Russia and to China.” He has also said he wants the U.S. military out of the restive south and that, after this week, there will be no more joint naval exercises with the United States.

Last month, Duterte received additional international criticism when he compared himself to Hitler and his drug war to the Holocaust. As part of that pitch, he said: “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million, what is it, 3 million drug addicts [in the Philippines] … I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims, I would like [them] to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.”

The criticism for that outburst came quickly. The Philippine ambassador to Germany was called to the Foreign Ministry for a dressing down. And international  condemnation followed.

Although Duterte apologized to the Jews for the remark, the episode adds more reason for concern regarding his troubling history of threatening to kill all those who get in his way. That’s a problem for the Philippines, the region and the United States. The world just doesn’t need another despotic killer.

Is Caesar the Answer?

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act is a bipartisan bill designed to sanction the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for mass murder and crimes against humanity. The bill would also sanction entities that support Assad, namely Russia and Iran. The Obama administration is reportedly seeking to weaken the bill, in an apparent attempt to avoid complicating implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement or to close off any possible cooperation with Russia in Syria.

Not everyone agrees — including the bill’s sponsors. “There’s this delusional idea that you can have peace in Syria without an ‘or else.’ This [bill] is potentially that ‘or else,’” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of the original sponsors of the bill. The Democratic sponsor, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who is reportedly in negotiations with the White House, said, “For me, it’s this simple: We need more tools to crack down on the Assad regime and any person or government helping sustain Assad’s campaign of violence.”

The Obama administration has long wavered on intervention in Syria, fearing that any action could lead to an even worse situation. Yet, there has never been doubt that the Assad dictatorship is inhumane and brutal. According to numerous reports, there have been some 400,000 deaths and 14 million Syrians displaced during the ongoing civil war conflict, with the Syrian Network for Human Rights  attributing 94 percent of civilian deaths to the Syrian regime. And Assad is reported to have prevented United Nations  humanitarian aid from reaching those most in need.

The devastation in Syria is the reality behind the Caesar Act, named for the pseudonym of a Syrian defector who helped chronicle state-sponsored atrocities. The bill’s supporters argue that sanctions may be America’s only leverage left in the regional war being fought over Syria. But is it really clear that sanctions would push the parties into serious negotiations? Or would there be unintended consequences?

At a time when Russia is increasing its rhetoric against the West and Iran is continuing to undermine stability in the Middle East, what is the proper response that should come from the U.S. Congress?

Forty U.S. rabbis and nine rabbinic  organizations believe that the Caesar bill is a good first step and that the legislation should get an airing. Just before Rosh Hashanah they sent a letter to House  Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), urging her to allow a vote. “Our teacher, Elie Wiesel, taught us that wherever there is suffering, that is the center of the world. Syria is the center of the world today,” the letter reads.

We agree. And we would like to support what appears to be a humane and worthy bill. But before doing so, we would like to get some answers about its potential costs. We urge a prompt, full airing of the issues.

Hillary Clinton for President

Hillary Clinton (Photo via Facebook )

Hillary Clinton (Photo via Facebook )

The election of 2016 has thrown a light onto many aspects of the American Dream that have either been ignored or given short shrift in recent years. The unsuccessful primary campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders brought out the enthusiasm and frustration of young middle-class Americans burdened by school debt and fearful that a prosperous future is closed to them. And the renegade campaign of Donald Trump amplified the voices of older, white, conservative, religious, working-class Americans, who feel left behind in an increasingly interconnected world economy and diverse society and betrayed by a government that is not meeting their needs.

But wholesale disruptions are not the solution. Nor are vague, “leave it to me” promises or appeals to violence or bigotry against minorities, women and the disabled. But, unfortunately, that is almost all that Trump’s campaign has offered.

Trump, the Republican nominee for president, has shown a remarkable lack of preparedness, judgment or knowledge to take on our country’s highest office. In the course of the campaign, he has lied, and then repeated his lies. He has attacked real and imagined enemies. He has shown himself to be wholly unfocused, undisciplined and easily distracted. And he has built his strongman campaign on the disturbing image of an America warmed by Trump’s glowing sun, which treats Americans as props at mass events for the candidate. While many forgotten whites have been attracted to his call, Trump has alienated other left-behind groups — poor African-Americans and other people of color — with his retrograde calls to law and order, promises to deport millions of undocumented residents and to build a wall across the border with Mexico and his blanket  demonization of Muslims, including  American citizens.

This uninformed, uncurious, amoral,  vicious and vindictive man is not qualified to be president.

Some voters are considering third-party candidates. But they are no better. Libertarian Gary Johnson is, like Trump, uninformed and incurious about the world. As governor of New Mexico he was a disappointment. Green candidate Jill Stein, a Harvard-educated physician, traffics in pseudoscience, raising red flags about vaccinations the way Trump does about Muslims and Mexicans.

Democrat Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, for all of her faults — and we don’t ignore them — is the only qualified candidate running for the office of president and so she earns our endorsement. In this odd and frightening election year, Clinton is the only one running who can be considered a legitimate presidential candidate. A former advocate, first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, Clinton has the  experience and deep background in  domestic affairs and foreign policy to make crucial decisions. On the campaign trail, she has demonstrated an even temperament and focus required of anyone who truly aspires to occupy the nation’s highest office.

Like many, we have concerns about Clinton’s candor and trustworthiness. We are troubled by her use of a private email server for state business and her blasé  attitude toward that very clear mistake. And we also worry about whether necessary safeguards were and are in place between her governmental and political activities and the Clinton Foundation — which should have been addressed long before she joined the Obama administration in 2008 and certainly before she launched her run for the presidency.

But even with those concerns — which we don’t dismiss lightly — Clinton is a strong candidate. Her career-long devotion to public service and the championing of women and children is to her benefit. Her grasp of the issues — both domestic and foreign — is deep and solid. On the domestic side, she is a left-leaning centrist politician. And, in the international arena, she has the stature and experience to face foreign leaders where necessary, the skill and patience to stay focused on U.S. interests, the credibility to reassure our allies and the judgment to make the best decisions for the American people.

Our nation needs steady, balanced and thoughtful leadership. We endorse Hillary Clinton for president on Nov. 8.

Justice for 9/11 Victims’ Families

Americans have little warmth for Saudi Arabia. Despite its strong strategic relationship with the United States — its vital oil supplies acted as a counterbalance against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and now Iran — the desert kingdom shares little in common with American values. It exports Wahhabism, a radical form of orthodox Sunni Islam. Its human rights record is poor, as is its treatment of women. So when it was discovered that 15 of the 19 masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were Saudis, it seemed clear that the country was not on our side.

That lingering enmity could be one reason why Congress voted overwhelmingly last week to override President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. The president vetoed the legislation out of concern that it will set a precedent that will allow other countries to sue the United States for civilian deaths this country causes elsewhere in military attacks.

Some legislators shared that concern, but it wasn’t enough to sway others from handing Obama the first veto override of his presidency. And in our view, Congress acted correctly.

Giving victims’ families some measure of justice was the chief reason Congress voted to override the president’s veto. As Obama himself put it while voicing disagreement with the vote, “I understand why it happened. All of us still carry the scars and trauma of 9/11.”

Yes, we do. And no one, certainly not elected officials, are going to ignore that fact.

Indeed, legislators seem to have weighed the likely outcome of the override. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told The Washington Post that “he voted for the override because ‘concrete benefit’ for the 9/11 victims’ families outweighed ‘speculative detriment’ to American officials and foreign relations.” And many others agreed.

The vote came at a time when Saudi Arabia is being subjected to increasing scrutiny in Congress. Lawmakers recently approved a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding significant concern arising from the country’s involvement in the Yemen civil war, its record on human rights and its history of exporting extremist Islam.

This is further complicated because Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States and, because of the Iran threat, appears to be growing closer to Israel in an unofficial way. This is making pro-Israel Jews take a new look, and perhaps soften their hearts about Saudi Arabia, after a lifetime of fairly open hostility.

In the end, Congress opted to provide victims and their families with their day in court. And in so doing, the decision was made to risk possible implications for our country’s strategic interests in order to satisfy the important moral imperative of doing the right thing. And that’s as it should be.

Shimon Peres

A cartoon by Israeli Amos Biderman making the rounds last week showed Shimon Peres climbing the steps to heaven. Waiting to greet him, wearing robes, wings and haloes, are three former prime ministers: Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, who is puffing on a cigarette and in front with arms outstretched, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and Peres’ mentor. “We thought you weren’t coming,” he says.

For a long time, Peres, who died at age 93 on Sept. 28, two weeks after suffering a stroke, seemed as much a permanent fixture in Israel as the Knesset and falafel.

Biderman’s cartoon showed Peres being welcomed into the prime minister’s club. It’s a group that also includes Likud leaders Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir; Ariel Sharon, who broke away from Likud; and early leaders of Peres’ Labor Party — Levi Eshkol and Moshe Sharett.

Although he spent nearly 40 years in politics, Peres was not a particularly popular politician or successful party leader. He didn’t win a single election that would have made him prime minister. But he served as prime minister twice — first, when an election stalemate led to him rotating the office with Shamir, during which time Peres proved to be a popular leader. His second stint followed the assassination of Rabin. But in the elections that followed, Peres lost to Benjamin Netanyahu.

While perhaps not a popular candidate in elections, Peres found his niche in the rarified sphere of diplomacy. And, as a diplomat, he helped secure a vulnerable Israel crucial weapons in its early years and helped build its nuclear program. But his most public diplomacy helped usher in a new era of peacemaking with the Oslo Accords, which enabled Israel to leverage the fostering of its security in  unconventional ways. That the Oslo  Accords have not led to the hoped-for peace does not diminish the legacy of Peres as Israel’s elder statesman: He was until the very end an important link  between Israel’s ideological past and its pragmatic present, and he helped shepherd the Jewish state through some of its most turbulent times.

Although Israel has had several prime ministers, Peres was the only one who  was also elected president. In that largely ceremonial position, he used the wisdom, relationships and prestige he had accumulated over a lifetime to project to the world an aspect of Israel that was sober, confident and hopeful. It was in that role where he  finally won respect at home, long after  becoming a prominent citizen of the world.

We will remember Shimon Peres as a leader with strong connections with  Israel’s past and the public embodiment of its aspirations. May his memory be for a blessing.

The Unvarnished Candidates

An estimated 100 million viewers had an unvarnished look at the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on Monday night. The nationally televised — and live-streamed — debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton showed the two for who they are and so gave the American electorate a chance to make a more educated decision on Nov. 8.

Trump was subdued at the beginning, but his brashness and his debate-from-the-gut style soon broke through. Whether that helped or hurt him is itself debatable, as the Republican nominee has enjoyed much of his success among his base for shooting from the hip and “telling it like it is.” Clinton, by contrast, presented the carefully prepared, policy-focused and temperate alternative and pounced on a number of opportunities to put Trump on the defensive.

Judging the candidates on their delivery — so-called style points that are not very important but have had an effect in close elections — it’s safe to say that we emerged from Monday night much as we were when the debate began. This election pits the hard-charging outsider against the politically seasoned and experienced policy wonk, and whether you believe the political system to be broken or in need of breaking will likely inform who you vote for in November.

Clearly, the two candidates have very different views of where the United States is and where it’s headed, and that was on full display during the debate.

Trump described the economy, trade deficit, inner cities, infrastructure, NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal as “a disaster” or some variation on “the worst deal ever,” brought about by incompetent politicians, including Clinton. His solution for most of these problems was a commitment to “get very tough” on each of them.

Clinton, the conventional politician,  offered specific policies for the problems she enumerated. On the issue of race and law enforcement, for example, she said  the country needs to “deal with mandatory minimum sentences. … We need more second-chance programs,” and she called on ending private prisons in the state prison system.

And then, of course, there were the  attacks. Trump, for example, took heat for not releasing his tax returns but returned the assault by saying that he’d do so when Clinton released the 33,000 missing State Department emails supposedly stored on her private server.

Over the last few election cycles, voters began to question the value of presidential debates. Monday’s debate proved their value. There was nothing hidden on that stage. And if there was little in the way of theatrics, it was because the candidates were playing themselves. That’s not a bad thing.

Barack and Bibi: The Finale

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit all the right notes in their public comments before their 35-minute meeting in New York last week during the United Nations General Assembly. Obama declared the bond between the two countries “unbreakable.” He thanked former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who recently suffered  a stroke, “for his friendship and his leadership.” And of the just-signed Memorandum of Understanding and its $38 billion in U.S. military aid to the Jewish state over the coming decade: “We want to make sure that Israel has the full capabilities it needs in order to keep the Israeli people safe and secure.”

Netanyahu said the agreement “greatly enhances Israel’s security.” And he praised the “extensive security and intelligence cooperation” between the two countries. “I don’t think people at large understand the breadth and depth of this cooperation, but I know it,” he said.

It was a valedictory moment that was memorable for its blandness, coming after years of public rancor and sniping between the two leaders and their teams. In their private meeting, of course, Obama and Netanyahu were reportedly more candid about their differences. While we believe in the public’s right to know, we are  relieved that they discussed their differences away from the cameras. And after the acrimony that surrounded the Iran nuclear deal, it was okay that the two leaders ended their forced relationship with lame jokes about golf.

In his address to the General Assembly, Netanyahu repeated his praise for American support. But his main point was that the world body — “the U.N., begun as a moral force, has become a moral farce,” was one of his best lines — was fated to lose its hostility “because back home, your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes toward Israel. And sooner or later, that’s going to change the way you vote on Israel at the U.N.”

That would certainly be a positive  development. The marginalization of Israel was a product of Cold War politics and Arab enmity. Now even that enmity is cooling in the face of the region’s strategic threat from Iran. “Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS,” Netanyahu said. “Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace. I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals.”

The unanswered question that lingers is whether the Obama administration will make a last-ditch lame duck push for peace. As we’ve learned time and again, 11th-hour initiatives never work out, all the more so when the burden of peace is designed to fall disproportionately on Israel’s shoulders.

To the extent that a new era of cooperation between Israel and the United States has begun, we embrace it. And we welcome the sense of optimism that has been rekindled by that effort.

Congregational Collaboration in the New Year

Here’s a thought to take to High Holiday services next month: Collaboration  between congregations can be a good thing.

In an article in eJewish Philanthropy, Larry Glickman, the director of network engagement and collaboration for the Union for Reform Judaism, questioned the spirit of competition in the synagogue world. People go “shul shopping” and ultimately support just one synagogue above others, he observed.

“To what extent do we want all Jewish families in our area to join our congregation, even at the expense of neighboring congregations?” Glickman asked. “Do we want other congregations to close?”

A Reform movement survey found that congregations were happy to use others’ ideas and materials, “but they’re hesitant to share their own valuable intellectual property with neighboring congregations,” he wrote. “They fear their ideas may be copied, that people may decide to join neighboring congregations instead and that their  congregational membership (and ultimately income) will decrease.”

If there is a twinge of recognition in any of this, the holidays may be a good time to consider whether this is the proper mindset.  Although Glickman’s article is titled “Why Congregational Competition is a Good Thing,” he actually argues that synagogues should be “competitive and cooperative while still maintaining a strong sense of community and individuality.” Organizations that reach out and work with each other “stay sharp and focused, always moving forward.”

Glickman, a former synagogue executive director, offered three ways that synagogues can reach out to their Jewish neighbors:  Collaboratively advertise the benefits of affiliating to whatever synagogue serves the needs of a person’s family; send members with children to another synagogue’s early childhood program if your synagogue doesn’t have one; and “create curriculum and programming” together and “then share it.”

Do any of these ideas have a chance? Maybe. They’re certainly worth considering, especially since congregations nationwide, including here in this community, are feeling the pinch. Every year comes the news of local synagogues merging or cutting back on staff and services, even as a handful of more successful ones report growing membership.

There will always be failed and failing congregations, but the competition between those that make it and those that don’t does not have to be a zero-sum game. Everyone can work together to ensure a community with more affiliated Jews tomorrow than exist today.

Glickman explains the possible consequences of every congregation only looking out for itself, with a variation on the old Jewish joke about synagogues. He tells the story of the last two Jews in Afghanistan. Each belonged to his own synagogue and refused to step inside the other. We cannot let that happen here.

Understanding the U.S.-Israel MOU

It’s being billed as historic — the largest-ever U.S. military aid package. The Memorandum of Understanding, which was signed Sept. 14 and will go into effect in 2018, will provide Israel with $3.8 billion in aid a year for 10 years. The increase in aid from the previous MOU’s annual $3.1 billion sends important messages: To enemies like Iran, it says that the United States has Israel’s back; and to America’s Middle East allies,  it says that that the United States is not withdrawing from the region.

The agreement was generally welcomed by Jewish institutions, including AIPAC. But in the days after the signing, critics were out in force. Some criticism came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s  political adversaries. Left-winger Ehud Barak and right-winger Moshe Yaalon, both military men (one of them, Barak, a former prime minister), argued that Netanyahu could have gotten a better deal if he hadn’t been such a thorn in President Barack Obama’s side, particularly in his very public opposition to the Iran deal.

Whether that’s an accurate assessment or political positioning is the subject of legitimate debate. But once we get past that question, there are two parts of the MOU that have generated significant comment. First, it prohibits Congress from increasing the amount of aid to Israel in non-emergency appropriations and spells out Israel’s commitment to return any such excess grants; and second, it gradually reduces  Israel’s ability to spend portions of the military aid on the Jewish state’s own defense industry. The one has a potentially significant impact on congressional activity  regarding Israel, and the other could have a significant impact over time with respect to continued financial support for the growth and support of Israel’s military defense.

The limitation on congressional largess provoked the ire of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “The idea that the MOU is binding on us, I’m going to fight violently,” Graham said, adding that he was going to propose a $1.5 billion one-time emergency aid package for Israel to prove his point.

We are sympathetic to Graham’s concerns and to the underlying discomfort in Israel. Indeed, we are skeptical of anything that hampers Israel’s ability to raise money when needed and to spend it where it sees fit. But Israel agreed to the MOU’s terms, and further bickering over the issues is not good for anyone. Neither is Graham’s grandstanding, which smells more like the Republican rejection of all things Obama that has stalled government for nearly eight years.

Alas, the domestic grumbling was  not limited to Republicans. For example, when the news broke about the agreement’s hamstringing of Congress, former peace negotiator Martin Indyk tweeted that “AIPAC can retire.” Perhaps that remark was, as some have suggested, simply friendly ribbing rather than bad form, but we would have expected more from a man who was once the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Come to think of it, we would have  expected more from pretty much everyone involved.

Bring on the Judges

In order to maintain public confidence in the legal system of a diverse country, those who uphold and enforce the laws must be from equally diverse backgrounds.

Before the Civil War, when sectional differences were acute, the Supreme Court was composed of justices who were chosen, in part, to maintain a regional balance. More recently, beginning in the late 20th century, the executive branch placed a premium on opening up the federal bench to women. So it is not surprising that today presidents sometimes strive to shape the judiciary in ways that are reflective of America’s religious and ethnic diversity.

If the Senate confirms Abid Qureshi, who President Barack Obama nominated last week to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Washington attorney will become the first Muslim appointed to the federal bench.

This is a welcome development. Especially at a time when a ban on Muslim immigration has been proposed and, despite the fact that Islamic jurisprudence plays no part in the U.S. legal system, at least nine states have passed laws to ban the use of Sharia law in American courts, the public’s confidence in our legal system  will benefit from the addition of otherwise qualified Muslim judges.

Who is Qureshi? He was born in Pakistan, became an American citizen and has degrees from Cornell University and Harvard Law School. He is a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP, where he works on health care fraud and securities issues. He also chairs the firm’s pro bono committee and has worked to defend Muslim clients’ civil rights. (Stuart Kurlander, a member of the Mid-Atlantic Media ownership group that publishes the Baltimore Jewish Times, is a partner at Latham & Watkins.)

Qureshi should not be confirmed merely because he is Muslim. He should undergo exactly the same quality and character analysis as every other federal court nominee. And if he otherwise merits the appointment, the Senate should confirm him. But therein lies a problem larger than Qureshi’s religion.

The Republican-led Senate, which had been dragging its feet in considering Obama’s federal court nominees, announced earlier this year that it will not act on any more appointments until the president’s term ends in January. That effectively put Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination as Supreme Court justice in deep freeze and does the same for every other judicial nominee. That makes no sense. There are 96 vacancies in the federal judiciary and 58 nominations pending. It is the Senate’s job to act on those nominations and not to use its constitutional role for political purposes.

Each of the nominees deserves a hearing. The Senate should fulfill its mandate to advise and consent.