Nation & World Briefs

Scholar, Not Rabbi, to Head Conservative Seminary

With Conservative Judaism at a crossroads, the movement’s flagship institution has chosen a scholar of American Jewry to guide it. The new leader of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), announced this week, is Arnold Eisen, a Jewish studies professor and chairman of Stanford University’s religious studies department. Eisen will succeed Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who steps down June 30 after some 20 years.

Eisen’s ascent was greeted with excitement and relief by many Conservative Jews who were hoping for a dynamic leader in difficult times. The news also prompted some raised eyebrows because Eisen, in his 50s, is not a rabbi. He has spent his professional career in academia, outside the leadership of the Consevative movement.

“The appointment of professor Eisen comes at a moment of transition for the Conservative movement,” said Gershon Kekst, chairman of JTS’ Board of Trustees and co-chairman of the search committee. “I am … confident that he is the right person, with the vision and leadership to ensure the vibrancy of JTS, the Conservative movement and the Jewish people.”

Once the dominant religious stream on the U.S. Jewish scene, the Conservative movement faces dwindling numbers as it struggles to articulate a coherent message. It has been losing ground to the Reform movement and critics say that it has sometimes seemed feckless in the face of an energized Orthodoxy. It also is being roiled by a battle over the place of gays and lesbians in the movement. For more on Eisen’s appoinment, see Michael Berenbaum’s opinion piece on Page 10.

Israelis, Palestinians to Meet in Morocco

Israeli and Palestinian public figures will hold informal peace negotiations next month in Morocco. Senior Labor Party lawmaker Ami Ayalon will lead Israel’s delegation to the talks in Casablanca, scheduled to begin in the first week of May. He faces a delegation led by former Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of the architects of the informal Geneva accord peace proposal. The talks, which will be hosted by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, aim to establish a dialogue on prospects for coexistence in the absence of formal ties between Israel and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. According to political sources, Ayalon, whose party looks likely to enter Israel’s coalition government, has the blessing of Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert because no Hamas members will take part.

Separately, Israel has announced plans to shun any foreign dignitaries who maintain contacts with the Palestinian Authority government under Hamas. The new policy was initiated by Olmert in a bid to increase the radical Islamic group’s international isolation.

“We need to press the policy already in place, and get the world to close ranks around the understanding that a terrorist government, even if it is democratically elected, is no interlocutor,” Olmert confidant Ze’ev Boim told Army Radio. Olmert and top ministers decided that a freeze on handing over taxes levied on behalf of the Palestinian Authority would remain in place, but that funds would be siphoned off to pay Israeli companies to continue supplying the Gaza Strip with electricity and water.

European Leaders Meet on Iran

European foreign ministers met this week to discuss sanction options against Iran. But Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said sanctions against the Islamic republic for its nuclear activity are not imminent. Possible sanctions could include travel bans on Iranian officials and restrictions on Iranians studying sensitive technologies in Europe. The meeting comes as an article in this week’s New Yorker magazine claims that the United States has begun planning for possible military strikes against Iran if diplomatic efforts to rein in its nuclear program fail.

Sharon ‘Permanently Incapacitated’

Ariel Sharon is expected to be declared permanently incapacitated. The move by the Cabinet would formally end his premiership and give Ehud Olmert the job, which he has held in an interim capacity since January.

Pope to Visit Auschwitz

Pope Benedict XVI said he would visit the Auschwitz death camp in May. The trip will take place from May 25-28, Vatican officials said Saturday. Benedict has emphasized the importance of interfaith discussions and respect for Judaism since taking over as pope last year.

Jordanian Journalists Threatened

The Jordanian Press Association threatened to punish journalists who plan to travel to Israel for a conference. The association made the announcement after reports that 40 Jordanian journalists planned to attend a three-week training course at Haifa University designed as an attempt to spread “peace culture,” the AFP news agency reported. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but many parts of Jordanian civil society oppose the treaty.

Slain Astronaut’s Son Becoming Pilot

The eldest son of late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon is following in his footsteps. Asaf Ramon passed the qualifying tests for the Israeli Air Force and last week began training as a combat pilot, Yediot Achronot reported Sunday. The newspaper quoted Ramon as saying he wanted to emulate the career of his late father, who served as an F-16 pilot before being selected to become Israel’s first astronaut, aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Asaf Ramon was 15 and living in Texas when he saw Columbia disintegrate upon re-entry into the atmosphere in February 2003. He recently returned to Israel to do his military service, Yediot reported.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency