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.

Sadly, More of the Same

Avi Weiss

Avi Weiss

The Orthodox Union has chosen a group of seven rabbis for the purpose of providing, according to the OU, “guidance regarding the ordination of women and related issues such as the broadest spectrum of professional roles within the shul that a woman can perform.” This initiative seems misguided.

First, while the issue of women in Orthodoxy makes for a critical conversation, the singling out of this issue raises questions as to the organization’s priorities. There were no such policy panels to address OU congregations who employ rabbis who are accused of sexual abuse or who do not use the prenuptial agreement which protects women against recalcitrant spouses. There are also no guidelines that address OU shuls not taking Zionist positions by reciting a prayer for the Israel Defense Forces and, for that matter, the U.S. Armed Forces. Why is there only a need to convene a commission to deal with women in spiritual leadership?

Second, the choice of rabbis serving on the panel is unfortunately unbalanced. While they are learned and ba’alei chessed (men of good deeds), they do not support women’s prayer groups in their communities, nor have they demonstrated openness to women as synagogue spiritual leaders. The panel does not present the breadth of modern Orthodox rabbis. It does not include outstanding Orthodox rabbis who are granting ordination or heter hora’ah (the right to give  halachic rulings) to women.

Perhaps most disturbing is that a panel formed to make decisions on the role of women includes only men. There are so many women, pious and learned, who would be eminently qualified to participate.

In short, the OU, which has prided itself on being an open tent for Orthodoxy, is now showing itself to be narrow when it comes to decision-making about women’s roles. It has chosen to engage in a process that will only increase divisiveness within — and alienation from — the Orthodox community.

In order to maintain relevance in the 21st century,  Orthodoxy must reflect as wide a spectrum of halachic conversation as possible. We live in a time when people are looking for meaning, purpose and spirituality. Orthodoxy has much to offer. What is  required is a bold, strong Modern Orthodoxy that allows for differing voices within the halachic conversation, and one that trusts the rabbis in the field who are in the best position to apply the Halachah to the situations and conditions that are unique to their  communities. We need an  Orthodoxy that is broader and more open, not more narrow.

What about Hillary’s Slur?

The JT’s Sept. 23 article in The Seen, “Transparent Director Wins Emmy; Compares Trump to Hitler,” was an obnoxious effort to once again malign Trump. This presidential candidate, a strong supporter of Jewish causes and Israel, deserves better.

Perhaps when running a story like this you should also run the reports of Hillary Clinton’s anti-Semitic slur  referring to an aide as a “f—— Jew bastard.” That comment should be more pertinent to your Jewish readers.

Will you even report it now? I’d go out on a limb and say no.

Peres Was More Than Just Another Dreamer

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

In “Like Dreamers,” the 2013 history of post-Six Day War Israel, author Yossi Klein Halevy traces the journeys of seven of the elite paratroopers who in 1967 liberated the Western Wall and the rest of the Old City of Jerusalem, using their stories to encapsulate the diversity of opinions that developed during the Jewish state’s evolution to become the economic powerhouse it is today. It takes its title from Psalm 126: “When the Lord returns the returnees to Zion, we shall be like dreamers.”

Though he was no paratrooper, Shimon Peres, the longtime head of state who passed away last week at 93, could have just as easily been one of Halevy’s dreamers. In 2004 during a visit to Philadelphia, the future president even described himself as such, telling me that though his  vision of a “new Middle East” may be a dream, all dreams of peace will come true in the end.

“You can see already the changing winds in the Middle East,” he told an audience at Temple Beth Sholom in nearby Cherry Hill, N.J., later that day.

That was 12 years ago, of course, back when America’s invasion of Iraq was still fresh and the Pentagon spoke openly of a realignment in the region. Turkey had decided to join the European Union, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the surge, the withdrawal and the rise of the  Islamic State would all lie  several years into the future.

Shimon Peres (Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Shimon Peres (Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Peres’ particular dream — of an Israel fully accepted as a regional partner by its Arab neighbors, of a Palestinian state and a secure Jewish state living side by side — has not yet come true. And while reasonable people may disagree about the assumptions inherent in Peres’ vision, no one can fault him, a one-time defense hawk who cemented crucial arms deals with the West and was an architect of Israel’s  unacknowledged nuclear program, for embodying the fervent hope of a people longing to live in peace. The strategic  implications of implementation aside, it is an intoxicating vision, and to contemplate what the region — and the rest of the world, for that matter — might look like if decision makers and ordinary people behaved according to common interest and mutual respect is to engage in what might ultimately be a messianic endeavor.

But that was how Peres thought. Over a career spanning more than six decades, the two-term prime minister and ninth president of Israel — he also occupied every Cabinet position — Peres was the pragmatist and the visionary all rolled up into one. In that sense, he was the quintessential Israeli, firm yet contemplative, a link between his nation’s meager pre-state past and its innovative present.

Back in 2004, Rabbi Steven C. Lindemann noted that while Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his leftwing  positions had by then earned him the derision of many in Israel and the worldwide Jewish community.

Over a career spanning more than six decades,
Peres was the pragmatist and the visionary all rolled up into one.

“Politics aside,” said Lindemann, “people have to  acknowledge this is one of the elder statesman of Israel. … To be in his presence is an honor.”

Lindemann was absolutely correct. For me, in particular, being able to converse with Peres and hear him, in his  Polish-accented English and Hebrew, paint a picture of a world without war, was most certainly an honor.

The lesson I got from that encounter is that no matter the realities of the moment, no matter the challenges, pressures and concerns that dictate a specific action, we as a people must never forget how to dream. It’s our dreams that keep us sane, that keep us  inspired, and it’s dreams like Shimon Peres’ that will prod us toward a future more  perfect than our current, compromised existence. You don’t have to agree with him to realize how badly needed such  optimism is today.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com

Hiding from Ourselves Parshat Vayeilech

The Chasidic tradition brings us the following story:

“One day Rabbi Ber was walking with some of his Chasidim when he saw a little girl standing behind a wall and crying. ‘Why are you crying, little girl?’ he asked. ‘I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends,’ said the little girl, ‘and they didn’t come to look for me.’ Rabbi Ber sighed and said to his Chasidim: ‘In that little girl’s reply I heard the lament of the Shechinah: I will surely hide my face. I hid, as it were, and no one came to look for Me.’”

In this week’s very brief Parshat Vayeilech, Moses prepares to hand over leadership to Joshua. One would think a message of comfort and assurance would be in order. Yet, after Moses urges Joshua and the people to “be strong and resolute,” God informs him that they will fall into idolatry anyway and threatens them with the ultimate Divine punishment: “Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.” Here, the text repeats a form of the word “hidden” (hasteir astir), giving the idea special emphasis that has inspired  commentary throughout the ages.

The Chasidic tale puts God’s warning in an everyday scenario; the game of hide-and-seek only works if the seekers  actively look for the hider. But let’s keep in mind the other tacit rule of the game: The hider shouldn’t hide so well that he or she cannot be found.

And so the Gerer tradition also brings us this message from its early 19th-century founder, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenberg Alter (The Chiddushei HaRim):

“The problem is where God’s ‘hiding’ is concealed, and people don’t even realize it. Then there is no seeking of God. That is the meaning of ‘I will surely [haster histir] hide my face’ — I will hide the fact that I am hiding from you, so that you won’t even realize that God is lacking in your lives.”

That is, in fact, our dilemma on this Shabbat Shuvah.

We have left Rosh Hashanah services with at least a feeling that we have engaged ourselves in the work of t’shuvah and approach Yom Kippur with the hope, if not the expectation, of full restoration with God. Yet somber music and penitential prayer — emptying our bellies and beating our breasts — are just the first step in that process. Our Days of Awe are the warm-up for the “regular season,” so to speak, which takes place all year round.

If our behavior has made us unaware of the Divine Presence for the past 11 months, God seems disinclined to make the first move. Rashi  offers this explanation of verse 17, “I will . . . hide my countenance. As if I did not see their troubles.” Abraham ibn Ezra comments on verse 18, “I will surely hide my face. If they call me I will not answer.”

But why is God so obstinate? Maybe because it’s we who both took to hiding first and must make the first move to seek. But it also opens us to God’s redemptive, nurturing Presence.

Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel  in Altoona, Pa.

Truthful Dialogue Needed

It was great to read “Get Your Facts Straight” in the JT’s Sept. 23 Your Say section, as the Jewish community needs to have a substantive, reasonable discussion about the security and future of Israel. The  two-state solution requires a truthful dialogue in which all views receive attention.

When Will the U.S. Stand with Terror Victims?

Terror victims and their advocates suffered a major setback Aug. 31, when a U.S. appeals court overturned a $655 million judgment that had been  obtained by Mark Sokolow and 10 other families against the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization. Families who had won a hard-fought courtroom victory 18 months earlier tasted the bitterness of defeat. I have had the same thing happen to me.

Factually and procedurally our cases are different, but the role of the U.S. government in our cases is the same — instead of supporting American terror victims, the government weighs in on the side of terrorists.

The Sokolow case was filed in 2004 following a series of terror attacks in Israel in which Americans were murdered  or injured. Relying on the  Antiterrorism Act of 1992, the victims and their families went to court in Manhattan against the Palestinians. They proved in court that the terrorists who carried out the attacks were PA employees. They showed how the PA recruited known terrorists into its police and so-called “security” forces, gave those terrorists weapons and, using the PA-controlled media, urged them to kill Jews. This all resulted in the terror war that came to be known as the “Al-Aqsa Intifada.”

Our case, which we brought after my daughter, Alisa, was murdered in Israel in a 1995  suicide bombing, came under the provisions of the Antiterrorism Act of 1996. We were able to pursue Iran because it had been named a “state sponsor” of terrorism. That designation stripped away the “sovereign immunity” that any foreign country would normally enjoy in a U.S. court. We proved to the court that Iran committed terror through proxies such as Islamic Jihad, who murdered Alisa, and we were awarded $250 million in damages.

We collected approximately $22 million of that award through a law passed during the Clinton administration. That money was paid from the U.S. Treasury and was to be reimbursed from $400 million that Iran had on deposit in the  Foreign Military Sales Act  account. We now know that neither the Clinton, Bush nor Obama administrations took money out of that account to reimburse Treasury. In fact, the Obama administration has released the money in that  account to Iran.

The Sokolow case did not  depend on any type of terrorism designation. The 1992 law  allows any American citizen injured “by reason of an act of international terrorism” to sue and obtain treble damages in “any appropriate district court of the United States.” It doesn’t distinguish between individual actors and states or similar governmental entities.

Eleven years after filing their case and winning many courtroom battles, the Sokolow plaintiffs proved to a jury that the PLO and PA bore responsibility for the attacks. The jury awarded them $218.5 million in damages that, when trebled under the law, became $655.5 million.

Before the ink on the judgment dried, the PLO and PA announced they would appeal the verdict. As is the custom in civil cases, the defendant has a right to appeal but has to post a bond, in this case 111 percent of the judgment, in order to do so. This is done to ensure that the defendant doesn’t remove assets from the court’s jurisdiction and that money will be available to the plaintiffs if the defendants lose their appeal.

It was during the lead-up to the bond hearing that the case took a turn for the worse,  because at this point the federal government intervened in the case, not on the side of the American victims as one would hope, but on the side of the PLO and PA. The government’s position in its filed Statement of Interest was that imposing a cash bond on the defendants would “severely compromise” the PA’s ability to operate as a governmental  authority, and that a crisis would occur if the PA collapsed financially. Message received. And the district court bowed to the government’s request and imposed a ridiculously low bond payment requirement.

On appeal, things only got worse: The defendants claimed that the case should never have been tried in the United States, because neither the PLO nor the PA had “sufficient contacts” — in other words, didn’t do business — in the United States. Despite the determination of the trial court judge  that there was jurisdiction, the  appeals court bought the Palestinians’ argument and voided the verdict. The United States was silent.

Did the federal government force the appeals court to make that decision? Of course not. But at the same time, it did nothing to stand up for the victims and tell the court that the wording of the 1992 law doesn’t require any showing of “sufficient contacts” in the United States for the court to have jurisdiction.

In Alisa’s case, when we went to enforce our judgment against Iran, we were opposed in open court — Justice and Treasury department lawyers on one side of the room, me on the other. In the Sokolow case, the government files a document. In both cases, it’s clear the victims don’t stand a chance.

Again and again, victims and their families avail themselves of existing federal law designed to allow citizens to pursue those who murder and severely injure their children, spouses, mothers, and fathers. Again and again, the U.S.  government protects those who have murdered and injured its citizens. Again and again, victims are forced to ask: When will the U.S. stand with us?

 

Stephen M. Flatow is a New Jersey  attorney. A version of this column first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News.

Today’s Deportation Talk Evokes Echoes of Hitler

Donald Trump’s proposal to use a national Deportation Force to evict 11 million illegal residents is an odious and  repugnant idea of draconian proportion. It will neither be “fair nor humane.” It will impact American values, interpersonal relations and America’s perception around the world. Sadly, Trump’s bombastic tone demonizing these illegals sounds not too different than Hitler’s rhetoric castigating German Jews as the cause of Germany’s problems.

Seventy-five years ago, the Nazis enacted their infamous deportation laws. I learned of their impact on German Jews from 400 pages of handwritten letters sent by my paternal grandparents to my father. Gradually, their comfortable upper-middle-class life in Dusseldorf, Germany ended in social and economic ruination when the Reich’s anti-Semitic laws marginalized them and their fellow Jews. When S.S. troops viciously destroyed their home on Kristallnacht, they realized that Jewish life in Germany was no longer sustainable. Miraculously, my  father, then 18, fled to England in April 1939. My grandparents were not so fortunate.

My grandparents’ letters, dated April 29, 1939 through Nov. 7, 1941, offer insights into their lives, character and ultimate destiny. Each poignantly penned letter expressed cautious optimism about being reunited with their only child, but also revealed fears, anxiety and desperation about rapidly  deteriorating conditions that later included Hitler’s “relocation plan,” aka deportation plan.

In late October 1939, my grandparents were ordered to prepare for “relocation to the East,” ostensibly to bolster Hitler’s labor force for the war effort. They could bring 50 Reich marks, a suitcase, a set of clothes, suitable shoes, bedding, tableware, eight days of food and a 2.2 kilo handbag. They had to pay all outstanding taxes, surrender house keys and list bank accounts, property and valuables. At Germany’s border, Nazis forced them to  authorize the State’s expropriation of their belongings.

The above packing list was credible for its hint of a “normal” life in their new home.” While it served to coopt my grandparents’ compliance, it was nothing more than a ruse and cruel lie foreshadowing their eventual murder.

In their last and uncharacteristically short letter of Nov. 7, 1941 they wrote, “We will be leaving our dear old home and going away, so there is an  incredible amount to do and think about, i.e. how we will be living in the future. … As soon as we have a new address, you will get it.” Little did they know what awaited them.

Two days later they appeared at “Dusseldorf’s municipal  offices,” which, ironically, was the city’s cattle and horse slaughterhouse. They then joined 990 other Jews on the freight terminal platforms. There, Nazi soldiers, with guns and barking dogs, indiscriminately beat men, women, children, the elderly and the infirm. They herded the Jews, without water to sustain them, into cattle cars for a brutal 96-hour trip in freezing temperatures. Police captain and SS member Wilhelm Meurin, the transport supervisor, wrote his Gestapo superiors that the journey had “softened up the Jews” by the time they arrived in Minsk, i.e. the Jews were too weak to resist and  defend themselves even in the face of utter betrayal.

Once at the infamous Minsk ghetto, my grandparents experienced incredibly inhumane conditions. In the first eight months of deportations, one-eighth of the arrivals died of malnutrition, cold or contagious diseases such as typhoid fever and pneumonia. A few kilometers northeast of Minsk, upward of 60,000 Jews including my grandparents were either shot to death at the Maly Trostenets massive pits or they died in mobile gas vans.

Fast forward to 2016. Trump’s claim of a “fair and humane” deportation plan is a contradiction in terms. Will his  Deportation Forces descend on unsuspecting targets in the middle of the night to escape the glare of cellphone scrutiny and media coverage? Will parents, with frightened children in tow, be herded into police vans and trucked to deportation hearings? Will judgements in these cases sidestep due process and result in similar outcomes? “All undocumented illegal residents have to go back to their country of origin.” No mitigating circumstance justifies a plea for mercy because “the law is the law, and it must be obeyed.” So what if families are callously broken up, employers lose valued employees, lifetime friendships are severed and the fabric of communities is irrevocably torn apart?

Obviously, Trump’s Deportation Plan does not remotely approximate the Nazis’ sinister plot. Still, even the most  ‘humane’ Deportation Plan will inevitably result in unconscionable human suffering. Forcibly evicting 11 million people will indelibly blemish our democratic institutions and our country’s honor.

The Torah teaches: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:34). How we treat  fellow humans says a lot about who we are as a people. A  deportation plan, no matter how benignly designed, would be a travesty, an embarrassment and an admission that we Americans have not learned anything from recent history.

Rabbi Michael Meyerstein is founder and president of The Aleph Group, a fundraising consulting firm.

Way Off Target

The JT’s Sept. 16 editorial “J Street Crosses the Line” badly misses the mark. The proliferation of settlements on the West Bank not only incites the Palestinians, but also is a major barrier to a two-state solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by depriving the Palestinians of land they would need to create a viable state.

The fact that J Street is fighting this process by condemning Jewish organizations that abet the settlement process  does not put the organization outside of “the big tent of the Jewish community” as the JT asserts, but squarely in the center of it because the majority of American Jews oppose settlement expansion  in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

It is organizations such as Regavim, Eldad and the Hebron Fund  that put themselves outside “the big tent of the Jewish Community” by supporting the expansion of settlements.