The Dilemma of Simone Zimmerman

Simone Zimmerman’s tenure as Bernie Sanders’ outreach director to the Jewish community lasted only two days. But in the hours between the announcement of her appointment last week and her suspension, reportedly over derogatory remarks she made on Facebook last year about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one thing became evident: The organized Jewish community — the Jewish “establishment,” in the terms of this election cycle — has been caught with no answer to the Simone Zimmermans of the world. And it needs to find one.

Zimmerman’s challenge is this: She is in her mid-20s, grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, went to Jewish day school and Jewish camp and was active in United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth organization. She has been to Israel a number of times, several as a leader of organized trips. In short, she is the Jewishly educated and Jewishly affiliated, engaged and passionate product of the organized Jewish community that we’ve been led to be believe does not pose a risk for harboring what many of us would consider distinctly anti-Israel views.

But she doesn’t sound like someone from the organized Jewish community.

She was president of the national student board of J Street U, which makes her suspect in the eyes of many. In 2014, she protested the Gaza war. And she is an outspoken opponent of the occupation, the Israeli government and what she sees as the organized Jewish community’s squelching of contrary opinions. “What we need is for the community to stop willfully blinding itself to the disastrous reality of holding millions of Palestinians under military occupation,” Zimmerman wrote. “Moreover, we need the community to stop policing and demonizing those of us who say these truths in public and are fighting for change.”

Zimmerman is not a disengaged millennial, possibly lost to the Jewish community. If she hadn’t used vulgarities about Netanyahu on Facebook, she might still be challenging us from a spot in the Sanders campaign.

From an establishment perspective, there is a serious problem. Initial reports said that Zimmerman supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. It turns out that she may not endorse boycotting Israel, but she sure springs to the defense of those who do. But the issue goes beyond BDS, beyond her consistently painting Israel as the aggressor in a conflict that finds the Jewish state facing down an enemy that uses civilians as a shield, aggrandizes terror and is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Zimmerman represents a generation raised from within “the system” that is frighteningly immune to Israel’s case. As she was reaching her formative years, hasbarah was predominantly focused on non-Jews and tangentially related Jews. That strategy has left us asleep at the switch. We better figure out a way to engage the Simone Zimmermans of the world, and fast.

Kasich Has Compassion, Competence, Experience

In a video that made the rounds last week, Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, while stumping in New York City, alternately quizzed and lectured a group of yeshiva students, who spend their days studying the intricacies of the Talmud. First he told them the biblical story of Joseph, then turned to Moses’ successor, Joshua. “Joshua was another great leader,” the Ohio governor said. “Do you know about Joshua?”

As cringe worthy as that moment was — and there have been others — we can only imagine how much worse it would have been if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz had been in Kasich’s place. Of the three men who remain in the race for the Republican nomination for president, Kasich is the only one who doesn’t scare us. Here is why:

Yes, Kasich wears his religion on his sleeve. But his faith also seems to have filled him with some humility. At the memorable first Republican debate last August, when Trump was attacking Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and Cruz was attacking President Barack Obama for not using the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” Kasich was refreshingly humane and upbeat about the country he wants to lead. For example, when he was asked about his opposition to same-sex marriage, he said, “The court has ruled, and I said we’ll accept it. …. [Just] because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. … We need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect and let them share in this great American dream that we have.”

No great big walls. No carpet-bombing swaths of the Middle East to “see if the sand glows” (Cruz). No lockdowns of people who happen to be Muslim (Trump).

Kasich also has the political experience that his competitors lack. Trump has never held elected office. Cruz is a freshman senator who has not shown an ability to work well with others. Kasich was first elected governor of Ohio in 2010. Before that, he spent 18 years as a member of Congress, including six years as chairman of the House Budget Committee. And, as he constantly reminds us, he can and has, when necessary, worked well with Republicans and Democrats.

In any other year, Kasich would be considered an extreme conservative. This year, he is the only Republican left in the ring that we would trust to have his finger on the nuclear button. Or to respect American institutions, including a free press. And his vision of America is the only one among the three remaining Republicans contenders that we can recognize as America.

In the upcoming primary, we urge those who will vote Republican to vote for John Kasich.

Thanking Sanders, Voting Clinton

It is a good thing that, at the beginning of this presidential election season, Hillary Clinton was not automatically crowned the Democratic nominee-apparent. The former secretary of state and U.S. senator had no natural right to the nomination. And the unexpectedly serious candidacy of independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has energized the race and opened a window to a part of the Democratic coalition that the party has lost sight of since the days of Bill Clinton.

Without the relentlessness of Sanders and his supporters, the serious issues of disparities of wealth, health care, social security and the high cost of higher education might not have taken on the urgency that they have today. Young voters may never have been energized, and older, liberal Americans would not have breathed the familiar idealistic, hopeful air that Sanders somehow has preserved since the 1960s and ’70s.

Sanders is an American political oddity. He is also a most successful gadfly. Neither of those factors qualifies him to be president. So, given the choice of electing him or Clinton president, the choice is clearly Clinton.

With her role as perhaps the most energetic first lady during eight years in the White House and her terms in the Senate and as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, Clinton is by far the most experienced of any of the candidates of either party. Much fun has been made of her having a program for every problem. But Sanders’ problem is that the revolution he is offering is woefully short on details.

Sanders’ lack of interest in foreign policy has shown through during the campaign. His gaffe on Palestinian civilian casualties in the last Gaza war with Israel — he said 10,000, but the actual number was 1,473 — and his offensive observation that Israel used disproportionate force against Hamas, reflects at best an uninformed view of the conflict, or worse, an anti-Israel animus. In contrast, Clinton’s speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference last month was vigorous and hawkish (some say too hawkish) about America’s strong commitment to Israel’s security.

Sanders is an idealist. That’s commendable in a gadfly. But when you are running for president, you need something more. War cries like taking the country back from “the billionaire class” and shutting down Obamacare to set up a single-payer system are simplistic. And we have yet to see the substance of Sanders’ rhetoric match his admirable emotion.

The Sanders revolution won’t get anywhere with an intransigent Republican Congress. Nor would it benefit the United States if he somehow managed to get it through a Democratic Congress. The Democratic Party is better off with Sanders’ issues in the forefront. But translating them into reality will take a more nuanced, multidimensional politician as president.

We urge those who are voting Democratic to support Hillary Clinton.

Whither Diplomacy?

Former settler leader Dani Dayan got off to a bad start as Israel’s newly named consul general to New York. And in a series of tweets, he made things worse. The day before he got the official nod for the New York job, Dayan appeared on Israeli TV and made some undiplomatic remarks about J Street, the liberal pro-Israel American group: “I prefer the attitude of AIPAC to that of J Street that endorses all the anti-Israel candidates — the more anti-Israel you are, the more you are endorsed by J Street. That’s un-Jewish,” he said during the interview, which had been taped several days earlier.

We expect diplomats to be “diplomatic,” even when discussing sensitive issues. And regardless of his personal views regarding J Street and other “hot topics” related to the Middle East, it will be to Israel’s detriment if Dayan continues to offer shoot-from-the-hip opinions while serving as an Israeli envoy. Thus, for example, while Dayan’s personal political views may be representative of some quarters of the Israeli leadership, his diplomatic job is to represent the State of Israel, and will take a bit more finesse.

Dayan may actually agree. In one tweet following reactions to his interview, Dayan called his words “somewhat undiplomatic.” In another, he wrote, “I never called @jstreetdotorg ‘un-Jewish’ but only a specific action it took. Nevertheless, it was wrong.”

If that was an apology, it was a step in the right direction. And perhaps it will make Dayan rethink his view about what is and isn’t “Jewish,” particularly when he addresses that issue as a diplomat. This is bound to come up in discussion of his position on a possible two-state solution: Dayan favors annexing the West Bank and is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. The maintenance of that view will test Dayan’s diplomatic skills with a large segment of the American Jewish community with whom he is supposed to interact.

Dayan was lucky to get the New York post. Last August, he was tapped to serve as Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, but the Brazilian government was not willing to accept his credentials, signaling official rejection of his settler past. The appointment to the New York consul position ended the months-long standoff.

While we disagreed with Brazil’s heavy-handed approach — particularly since many communities now considered “settlements” are destined to be incorporated into Israel proper, so residence there should not be a disqualifying condition for a diplomat — the saga points to another problem: Israel has no foreign minister. As a result, some have observed that Israeli diplomacy is not quite as focused and as careful as it should be. That shortcoming can be seen in the blunt way Israel handles friendly critics, let alone the unfriendly ones. If Dayan’s tenure follows that course, the Israeli-American relationship could suffer. We don’t need that.

It Is Bigotry, Not Religious Freedom

They are called “religious freedom laws” by their backers. But the recent bills signed by the governors of Mississippi and North Carolina are anything but that. Critics rightfully call them anti-gay laws, but they are more than that. The new laws are licenses to discriminate at will — to deny service and jobs, to ostracize — while hiding behind the pretext of the free exercise of religion.

The legislation signed by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on April 5 gives businesses, state employees, individuals and organizations protection if they choose to deny services to someone based upon “religious objections.” We all know the test case by now: A wedding cake maker refuses to sell pastry to a gay couple because their lifestyle violates the baker’s religious convictions. That kind of discrimination is now protected in Mississippi.

In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a hastily drafted bill to block the city of Charlotte’s new ordinance outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Charlotte ordinance also denies transgender people access to bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

It is noteworthy that much of the negative reaction to state efforts to legalize bigotry is coming from the business community — which threatens a state’s bottom line. One of the first things to happen after North Carolina passed its law was that PayPal canceled its planned move to the state. And it was pressure from Disney and the NFL that persuaded Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the “religious liberty bill” sent to his desk. Then in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a similar bill, calling it “bad for business.”

The truth is that these laws are more than just bad for business. They are bad for every state in which they have been passed and seek to do nothing more than permit discrimination under a flimsy veil of “religious freedom.” We hoped there would be an end to efforts to treat people differently based upon their sexual orientation when the Supreme Court decided last year to make marriage equality the law of the land. But not everyone has embraced equality for LGBT Americans. And they are trying to use the inviolable First Amendment as a way to roll back the rights LGBT people now enjoy. It won’t work. And it shouldn’t.

Once you start permitting discrimination based upon claimed “religious beliefs,” what is to stop a restaurant or hotel from declaring that, for religious reasons, it won’t serve Jews? Or blacks. Or Muslims. The days of hateful signs that read “No dogs or Jews allowed” are thankfully behind us. Someone better tell the wedding cake maker.

Trump Stands by His Man

When it comes to the historic candidacy of billionaire Donald Trump, the Republican firebrand whose march to the White House has caused us all to rethink this nation’s political order, there are clear differences of opinion. Trump’s distasteful comments about women and abortion, his lack of depth when it comes to foreign policy, his seeming lack of respect for this country’s institutions, even his bluster and bravado — they all make many cringe to contemplate Trump as GOP nominee, much less Trump as president.

But looking at the events of the last week, a week in which the glorified sheen of Trump’s campaign seemed to be losing some of its luster — if polls at press time are to be believed, he will lose the Wisconsin primary to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — there is one aspect of Trump’s persona that even his critics can respect. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is consistent in his loyalty to those around him.

When Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields accused Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of grabbing her at a campaign event in Jupiter, Fla., Lewandowski initially denied it. Then an eyewitness came forward and corroborated Fields’ story. That was followed by police surveillance footage that appears to show Lewandowski grabbing the reporter.

Trump’s responses? “Mr. Lewandowski is absolutely innocent of this charge. He will enter a plea of not guilty and looks forward to his day in court,” campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement after Lewandowski was arrested and charged in Jupiter with simple battery.

In an interview, Trump dismissed the incident as “very minor,” saying that “practically nothing happened.” Elsewhere, he denied it happened at all. “She’s got no evidence. She made up the story,” he said.

While it would have been easier (and more conventional) for Trump to issue a simple statement respecting the legal process and letting the chips fall where they may, one can’t help but respect Trump’s embrace of Lewandowski and his effort to defend him. And that the whole dust-up — the filing of charges, and all — is over what seems to be a zealous reporter who broke out of the scrum to get a quote is troubling. Some of our own reporters have been similarly manhandled in the heat of covering campaigns; they never considered filing charges.

Through it all, Trump has proven that he’s guided by his own inner compass. And he has shown, once again, that he’s got a backbone. We don’t yet know how Trump will fare in the remaining challenges leading up to or during this summer’s Republican convention, but for his loyalty to those loyal to him, we say, “Bravo!”

The Human Rights Smoke Screen

Contrary to what you may have heard, the United Nations did not name Israel as the world’s top violator of human rights.

Nonetheless, the world body and its commissions and councils remain disproportionally focused on and critical of the Jewish state.

On March 18, the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women passed a resolution blaming “the Israeli occupation” for the lack of advancement of Palestinian women in their society. The vote on the resolution, sponsored by the Palestinian Authority and South Africa, passed 27 to 2 with 13 abstaining. The two votes against the resolution were Israel and the United States. The abstentions were countries from the European Union.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Human Rights Council concluded its 31st session after adopting 37 resolutions. One called on Myanmar “to end all remaining human rights violations.” Another extended “the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” A third concerned the “human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic,” and a fourth condemned “in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations committed” in North Korea.

In contrast to one resolution each for four world leaders in human rights abuse, five separate resolutions were directed against Israel. One castigated the Jewish state for “human rights in the occupied Syrian Golan,” while another endorsed “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” The other three lambasted the “human rights situation” in the “occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem,” cried for “justice” in East Jerusalem and excoriated Israel for its settlements in the Golan and areas east of the so-called Green Line.

Frankly, the imbalance of these resolutions comes as no surprise. Although we have come a long way since the days of “Zionism equals racism,” and the audience Israel faces at the United Nations today is not as vicious as it was decades ago, the anti-Israel bias remains. The fact that Israel’s alleged misdeeds are considered by the United Nations to be on par with the severe human rights violations in North Korea, Iran, Syria and Myanmar makes clear that the analysis is flawed and makes it difficult to take the accusations seriously. Moreover, the same reports’ repeated failure to call out the miserable record of the Palestinian Authority in addressing political dissent within its jurisdiction raises further question about the honesty of the reports.

While it is comforting that the United States can still be counted on to speak truth and to act as Israel’s friend in such votes, it remains very disconcerting that the Jewish state has a world of enemies beholden to the same tired tropes of blaming the Jews for the miseries of the Middle East.

When will it end?

The Political Olive Branch

Merrick Garland (The White House/Public Domain)

Merrick Garland (The White House/Public Domain)

In nominating federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, President Barack Obama has met Republican senators at least halfway. The 63-year-old nominee does not appear to present an ideological challenge to the Senate majority, so there appears to be little for them to fear. But even without that, the GOP leadership’s denial of an up or down vote on the nomination — exactly the kind of advice and consent that the Constitution requires — abrogates the Senate’s responsibility and will further diminish Congress’ standing in the eyes of the American public.

A short few hours after Scalia’s death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky drew his line in the sand on a replacement: “The American people? should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” he  declared. But what McConnell called “a check and a balance” — waiting nearly a year for new elections, a new Congress and a new president — is an abuse of “majority” power and a failure to live up to a constitutional mandate.

McConnell also famously said years ago that he was working to make Obama a one-term president. Look where that strategy got him (and us): a government shutdown, sequestration, failure of commonsense gun control and seemingly endless failed attempts to repeal the  Affordable Care Act. With their stubborn refusal to consider the Garland nomination, Republicans are continuing down the same path of obstruction. And there will, undoubtedly, be consequences.

What is ironic is that not only is Garland considered a moderate, but he  already has received favorable votes from some who would now deny him a hearing. Seven of the Republican senators who confirmed Garland for the federal bench in 1997 are still in office. One of them,  Judiciary Committee member Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah recommended days before Obama made his announcement, “[Obama] could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man.”

The Garland nomination is what a political olive branch looks like. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress have missed the point or are ignoring the proposed compromise. “Under our Constitution, the president has every right to make this nomination, and the Senate has every right not to confirm a nominee,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

True enough. But “the right not to confirm” should follow careful consideration of the nominee. The president has exercised his right. Now, it’s the Senate’s  responsibility to vet Garland and, after proper hearings, to approve or disapprove of the nomination. By ignoring the nomination and denying Garland a fair and open hearing, Republicans are living up to their reputation as the party of “No!” It is very hard to respect that.

Is ‘Separation’ a Step toward Peace?

Will a wall around Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem help protect Jewish  Israelis from the violence that has plagued the city since last fall? Haim Ramon, a former government minister who spent much of his career in the Labor Party and later joined the Kadima Party, made that assertion on a tour of the city last week with  several defense officials and politicians.

While not officially sanctioned, Ramon’s initiative dovetails with a proposal by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog for a unilateral “separation” from the Palestinians until a peace process is possible and the two sides can hammer out the details of a negotiated two-state solution.

In Herzog’s separation plan, which Labor endorsed last month, Israel would retain the settlement blocs close to the Green Line; 28 Palestinian villages on the north and east sides of Jerusalem would be separated “physically and politically” from the city; Israel would stop settlement activities and turn daily control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority; and a regional conference would bring  Israel together with Arab countries to eventually work on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Herzog promotes his plan as a way to do something while there is no movement in bilateral peace talks, which he blames on the intransigence of both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But there are elements of Herzog’s plan that make some Israelis nervous. While Israelis have grown tired of peace proposals that bear no fruit, they are also distrustful of unilateral  withdrawals. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 indirectly led to Hamas coming to power in that territory and the rockets that have rained down on Israel in the years since. It is therefore understandable if some look askance at Herzog’s proposal.

Yet, the status quo is not the answer. A binational state with Jews either not in charge of their destiny or being in charge at the expense of the Palestinians is not an acceptable solution. What everyone agrees on is that there must be some confidence-building measures put in place. But there is disagreement on what those measures should be.

Israel could go a long way by stopping settlement expansion. It won’t bring peace the next day. But it will be a big first step.

Pew’s Portrait of Israel

The 2013 Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” touched off discussions, head scratching and soul searching about where American Jewry was headed. Even those who saw no revelations in the findings attested to the report as a particularly clear snapshot of Jewish reality. Pew’s serious reputation as a research center, plus its status as an observer rather than a participant of Jewish America lent the report authority. Two-and-a-half years later, people still say, “According to the Pew report …” when discussing some aspect of American Jewish life.

It’s too early to tell if last week’s Pew  report on Israel, “Israel’s Religiously  Divided Society,” will have that kind of lasting authority. But its findings occasioned shocked headlines and disbelief: Almost half of Israeli Jews said they  favored Arabs being “expelled or transferred from Israel.” Among self-described right-wing Jews, 72 percent agreed with that statement, along with 71 percent of religious Zionists. Four out of five Israeli Jews said Jews should get preferential treatment in Israel.

No political party in the Knesset calls in its platform for the expulsion of Arabs. So, where did this sentiment come from? The survey was taken between October 2014 and May 2015, following the war with Hamas in Gaza and before the recent lone-wolf attacks began. Did Pew capture the cry of Jewish Israelis who are tired of a decades-long struggle with the Arabs? Is this how one people desires to deal with a dehumanized other?

Whatever the explanation, the implications are chilling. President Reuven Rivlin, acting as the moral voice of the state, did not waste time before he termed “unconscionable” the idea that Israel “could be a democracy for only its Jewish citizens.” Like an ancient king calling for a public fast, Rivlin called on the public to engage in “soul-searching and moral reflection.”

Some have inquired whether the question that drew the “expulsion” response was faulty. Nevertheless, the shock caused by the study has, for the moment at least, focused attention on the issue. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen called it a “warning sign” for Israeli and American leaders.

We agree. Although Israelis and American Jews see the world differently, those differences are often healthy and constructive. But were Israel to retreat from being either a Jewish state or a democracy, it would severely fray our common connections. That said, as much as we in America would like to castigate Israelis for their views, we don’t live there. We are not targeted or subjected to daily threats, and we are not raising future soldiers.

Perhaps it’s best to not draw too many conclusions from this latest Pew report. Instead, let’s value the report as a sober look at a complex society.