Four Questions

The controversy that erupted last week over allegedly anti-Semitic remarks by a local pastor raises, appropriately enough for this time of year, four questions.

As we were going to press last week, a by-now-ubiquitous e-mail was beginning to circulate exponentially. On Saturday morning, April 5, local philanthropist and Democratic activist Daphna Ziman sent some friends and contacts an e-mail recounting her evening at an April 4 awards dinner sponsored by a black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. There, just after receiving an honor from the fraternity for her efforts on behalf of foster children, Ziman sat down to listen to the next speaker, the Rev. Eric Lee, president and CEO of Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s L.A. office.

In her e-mail account, Ziman said Lee began his remarks by thanking Jesus for Sen. Barack Obama. He then went on, according to Ziman, to reject Jews as true partners and accuse Jews of oppressing black people by portraying them as rapists and murders.

“‘The Jews have made money on us in the music business and we are the entertainers, and they are economically enslaving us'” Ziman quoted Lee as saying.

In the days since this version was disseminated and passed on innumerable times, Lee has emphatically denied he made those comments. He has also apologized for any misunderstanding and issued a rejection of anti-Semitism as being against everything he believes in and works for.

In the old days — five years ago — an account like Ziman’s would have gone out over the phone, or through the mail, and there would have been some time for journalists to investigate the incident, likely before it became well known. There might have been time for the object of discussion, the Rev. Lee, to give his side of the story; time for everyone to, as the teenagers say, chill.

But now news travels faster than you can say BlackBerry. Ziman left the event in tears, went home, wrote her heartfelt account of the evening and hit “Send.”

And it has become a “Send” heard ’round the world. Within hours I got e-mails from Memphis, Israel, New York, Chicago. Within a half day, the e-mail was embedded in blogs, sent out as “news” by major Jewish organizations, and Ziman had become the subject of online video follow-up interviews.

During this time, our reporter, Brad Greenberg, was hurrying to dig out the answer to the most urgent question prompted by Ziman’s e-mail: Did what she said happen? Is it true?

Is it true?

When I wrote to one Jewish leader in town that we were still trying to ascertain what really happened in that banquet hall, he immediately shot back a snarky remark about the left-leaning Jewish Journal, and how if anyone would try to “rehabilitate” the Rev. Lee, it would be me.

Another major rabbi derided me in a long ALL CAPS e-mail for not realizing how serious the Rev. Lee comments were. He was alive in 1934 when the Nazis took over Germany, and this was damn close to 1934.

Still, I e-mailed back, Is it true?

I said that I don’t know the Rev. Lee, or have any reason to defend him, except journalistic fairness. For all I know he’s a lunatic anti-Semite who has finally been exposed. Or not. The truth is, from Greenberg’s reporting, it seemed no one who posted Ziman’s e-mail knew Lee either. No one stopped to wonder, what’s this guy’s side of the story?

Greenberg’s careful calls to people present, as well as leaders in both the Jewish and black community, revealed that Lee has a longstanding relationship with the Jewish community. He is scheduled to participate in a long-scheduled seder with the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have a history of black-Jewish comity that precedes that evening.

As the story developed, and Lee made his clarifications and, with Ziman’s help, his apologies for misunderstandings, and as his Jewish supporters have spoken up, what has emerged was not a black-and-white case of Mel Gibson-esque dementia, but what appears to be a miscommunication complicated by a misunderstanding.

We may never know for sure what happened in that banquet room, but I don’t think it’s a question of one person lying. Ziman told the truth as she saw it, and so did the Rev. Lee. Two smart, committed people, passionate in their causes, can speak and hear less than perfectly, and in that gap between what people mean to say and what people understand them as saying leaves room for real problems — even tragedy. Just ask any married couple. And blame for this lies not so much with Ziman and Lee, but with those among us who did everything to instigate and inflame, and nothing to investigate or defuse.

“Many have fallen by the edge of the sword,” Ecclesiastes wrote, “but not as many as have fallen by the tongue.”

Unfortunately, tongues are sharper and looser during an election season. Somehow what Lee said or didn’t say became conflated with what Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright represent, even though the worst things Ziman said she heard in that banquet room had nothing to do with Obama. Although she is a Sen. Hillary Clinton supporter, she has told me her motives in this matter were absolutely not political. But those who hate, fear, suspect or just oppose Sen. Obama quickly spread her e-mail, adding it to the arsenal of lies (Obama is a Muslim); half-truths (his adviser is Zbigniew Brizenski) and disturbing truths (the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) piling up to influence the Jewish vote.

Let Obama answer legitimate charges, such as his acquiescence to Rev. Wright’s teachings. But how foolish and dangerous is it to play politics with the larger issue of black-Jewish relations? Will we use this Obama-moment as a way to bring blacks and Jews together, or drive them farther apart? Are gossip and innuendo, or, in this case, unconfirmed news reports, the best way to spread understanding in fragile times? Just what are any of us willing to destroy in order to win?

Those are my Four Questions, and, as you might guess, they’re rhetorical.

Happy Passover.

Gap grows between Orthodox and others

The growing ideological gap between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox threatens the long-term unity of the Jewish people, several communal leaders said at a forum to address the matter.

At issue were the results of a survey conducted in November by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), which found widening differences between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox on a range of issues.

The Jan. 31 forum convened by the AJC and the Orthodox Union (OU) also included leaders of the Reform movement.

The AJCommittee’s 2007

And now the ‘Jewish primary’ begins . . .

When California moved its presidential primary to Feb. 5, and other big states followed suit, the strategic role of Jewish voters in the nominating process was greatly enhanced.

Inadvertently, the states created a “Jewish primary.” New York, California, Florida, Illinois, Connecticut and Massachusetts will vote on or just before Feb. 5. (Florida’s primary was held on Jan. 29.)

In the more than 20 states that hold primaries or caucuses in that one-week span live 5,111,685 Jews, according to the American Jewish Committee’s (AJCommittee) 2006 American Jewish Year Book, representing nearly 80 percent of all American Jews.

Contrast this to the hugely watched Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Jews represent two-tenths of a percent of Iowa’s population and eight-tenths of a percent of New Hampshire’s.

The Jewish impact will be seen this week in both parties. The Democrats will feel it directly because the great majority of Jewish voters are registered as Democrats. While California’s Jews are 3.3 percent of the population, the Field Poll shows them to be 5 percent of Democratic voters. In New York, Jews are 8.4 percent of the population, but represent a much larger share of the Democratic electorate. In Florida, Jews are a key element of the Democratic vote, and the ties of many Florida Jews to roots in New York may have impacted a race with New York candidates centrally involved.

But Republicans will also be keeping a close eye on the Jewish vote. Even a relatively small bloc of Jewish Republicans can affect a highly contested Republican primary given the high turnout of Jewish voters. In the long run, Republicans hope to attract crossover Jewish voters and campaign donations in the general election. A Republican nominee who appeals to Jewish voters will be highly competitive in the fall.

When the primary season loomed on the horizon in late 2007, Jewish voters registered their preferences quite clearly. In an American Jewish Committee poll, Jewish Democrats strongly favored Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Jewish Republicans most preferred former N.Y.
Mayor Rudy Guiliani. These two New Yorkers towered over the other candidates. Sen. Clinton had overcome the suspicions of many in the New York Jewish community to prove her strong support of Israel, and as a known quantity had an edge over the other Democratic candidates. As mayor, Guiliani had been extremely popular among Jews in New York City, winning the great majority of Jewish voters in both of his victories. This popularity was expected to help him not only in his own state but also in Florida, with its many Jewish ex-New Yorkers.

Since that time, the paths of the two frontrunners have diverged. Clinton fell badly in Iowa but has since recovered to maintain a consistent if smaller lead over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Guiliani’s support deteriorated and he depended on a strong showing in Florida to stay in the race. Popular among Florida’s thousands of ex-New Yorkers and also with anti-Castro Cuban Americans, Guiliani had poured funds into the state. (It hurt him that most Florida Jews will vote in the Democratic primary.) When Guiliani finished a disappointing third in the primary, his campaign was finished. He withdrew the next day and threw his support to McCain. Evidence from the Nevada caucuses held on Jan. 19 suggests that Clinton is holding her Jewish support against Obama’s dynamic campaign. An NBC exit poll found that Jews represented a remarkable 5 percent of caucus-goers and were Clinton’s strongest single bloc of support. Jews backed her over Obama, by 67 percent to 25 percent. The only group comparable in its support for Clinton was the Latino vote, at 64 percent. In California, Jews also represent an estimated 5 percent of the Democratic electorate. If Jews and Latinos break the same way there as in Nevada, Obama will have a tough road ahead.

Why is Obama having trouble winning Jewish votes? To many Jewish voters he is an unknown on matters of vital interest to Jews. As a result, he has been placed on the defensive by viral e-mails claiming he is a Muslim, by a leaked memo from the American Jewish Committee that raised doubts about his position on the Middle East, and in general by the tendency to fill in the blanks about Israel and the Jewish community when it comes to a “new” African American candidate, especially one who is more inspirational than detailed and concrete on policy.

Obama’s campaign began as one that was above the racial divide, but the increasingly racialized debate (spurred on by the Clinton campaign) has suddenly placed new tests on him that are familiar to other black candidates seeking Jewish (and Latino) votes. Republicans Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and Guiliani in New York put together winning coalitions of white, Jewish and Latino voters against black or black-supported opponents, and that is not an easy combination to overcome. Obama has aggressively fought back against the shadowy e-mails, and major Jewish organizations and leaders have spoken out publicly against the attacks. The hawkish New York Sun ran an editorial that defended Obama’s record on Israel and the Jewish community.

But time is short. Obama is probably where Hillary Clinton was in 2000 with New York’s Jews, before she took the time to reintroduce herself slowly and quietly to the Jewish community. Obama has a week to do the same thing in the limelight. If he is the party’s nominee, he will have that time. But to become the nominee, it’s going to be very tight. If he can draw on the history of Black-Jewish-Latino coalitions that powered a number of winning campaigns, he may yet pull it off. He may also benefit from a backlash among Democrats against the effort by the Clinton campaign to isolate Obama on racial grounds in the same way that Clinton benefited from women voters’ anger at the media dismissal of her campaign after the Iowa caucuses.

On the Republican side, the pitch to Jewish voters has intensified. With Guiliani out, Jewish Republicans (and crossover voters in the fall) are back in play for McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney. (It is hard to imagine Gov. Mike Huckabee doing well with Jewish voters in either party.) McCain’s favorite “Democrat,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), stumped with him in Florida, an alliance that has fostered talk of Lieberman running as vice president with his friend. While McCain lacks the intense connection that Guiliani has had with Jewish voters, his appeal to moderate and independent voters give him a real chance to win support from Jews. If California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is popular with Jews, weighs in on McCain’s behalf at some point, that would be another positive signal. Guiliani’s departure eases the path for the governor to move to McCain’s side, since he had previously spoken positively of both men’s campaigns.

Latest poll bad news for Jewish Republicans

The Republican Party continues to lavish money on Jewish voters, arguing that only their candidates are reliable on critical questions like support for Israel and terrorism. Jewish Democrats are firing back, blasting their GOP counterparts for undermining the longstanding bipartisanship of the pro-Israel coalition by tainting the entire Democratic Party for the sins of a few.

That’s producing a lot of noise as Nov. 7 approaches — and a nice revenue stream for the Jewish newspapers that run their broadsides as advertising.

But a new poll suggests no signs of a seismic partisan shift in the Jewish community. There are openings for the Republicans, but so far their candidates have been unable to take full advantage of them.

This week the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) released its annual Survey of Jewish Public Opinion, based on interviews conducted between Sept. 25 and Oct. 16. For all the talk about partisan shifts, the survey shows a community that has remained remarkably stable in terms of its politics as the nation goes through a whirlwind of political change.

On questions of party identification, 54 percent identify with the Democratic Party, 16 percent with the GOP, close to last year’s figures. Jewish Republicans point out that their figures have climbed sharply from the 2000 level, about 9 percent; Jewish Democrats tout a six-point increase in Democratic identification since the last midterm election in 2002.

About 29 percent identify as independents; once again, the Republicans hope they can pull in some of them with the argument that President Bush has been Israel’s best friend in the White House. But the poll responses on specific issues suggest that the GOP strategy has not penetrated much beyond its own Jewish core.

Despite aggressive advertising on the issue, only 28 percent of the Jewish respondents believe the Republicans are “more likely to make the right decision when it comes to dealing with terrorism.” 51 percent say they trust the Democrats more on the terror issue.

Nor are many Jews buying the GOP argument, featured in major newspaper ads including in The Jewish Journal, that opposition to the Iraq war is linked to leftist anti-Israel sentiment. 65 percent of the Jewish respondents said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, with only 29 percent saying the country did “the right thing.” Only 22 percent say they think the Republican Party is more likely to “make the right decision about the war in Iraq.”

The Republican administration fares a little better on the issue of Iran — but not much. 33 percent approved of the Bush administration’s handling of the confrontation over Teheran’s nuclear program; 54 percent disapproved. Interestingly the same majority — 54 percent — say they oppose U.S. military action against Teheran.

The same pattern holds on the few domestic issues surveyed by the AJCommittee. Only 27 percent say they believe the Republicans are more likely to “ensure a strong economy,” with 60 percent saying the Democrats will.

The survey shows that the largest bloc of Jews — 32 percent — identify as “moderate, middle of the road.” But it also shows a slight increase in those identifying as “liberal,” a number that seems to have come at the expense of the category “slightly liberal.” That suggests a slight shift to the left, although the shift is close to the three percent margin of error.

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) was quick to tout the AJCommittee poll as confirmation that efforts by the Republicans to “switch the political affiliations of Jewish voters has floundered,” according to a statement by the group.

Maybe. But it also shows that the Republicans aren’t without hope. The 29 percent of Jewish voters who identify as independents represent a significant opportunity for the GOP. In recent elections selected Republican candidates, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, have done well with Jewish independents and even with some Democrats.

The Republicans who have drawn significant Jewish support have been relative moderates who have focused on close-to-home issues in their appeals to Jewish voters, not Mideast bombast, and conducted extensive, on-the-ground outreach in the Jewish community.

The Republican strategy of “all Israel, all the time” may appeal to those already inclined to vote for their candidates, but it seems to be having little impact with the majority of Jewish voters who steadfastly reject single-issue politics.

And Republicans who do well with Jewish voters are rarely those most associated with the Christian right, a faction that many political scientists say is the most important reason why so much Jewish-GOP outreach has been ineffective.

Single-interest, pro-Israel politics is a proven nonstarter with the Jewish center; the religious right remains a deal breaker for many Jews who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Republicans.

Once again, this year’s AJCommittee poll points to a Jewish community that is resoundingly centrist, but with a stubborn streak of liberalism that years worth of aggressive GOP outreach and concern about Israel have not really dented.

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low

Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

“We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

“We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

Edmund Case, publisher of, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

“I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

“The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

“I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.


College Ad Misses the Point

As a historian of Jewish-Christian relations in Germany, and as a professor who has taught at several German universities, hostility toward Jews and Judaism in university settings is certainly nothing new to me.

Yet the recent New York Times ad condemning anti-Semitism at American colleges neither reflects the reality of most campuses nor provides assistance to those of us in the field of Jewish studies who are, in fact, confronting serious problems.

The full-page ad, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) and signed by 300 university presidents, does mischief and might actually harm the position of Jewish studies at universities.

The ad calls for campus debates without "threats, taunts or intimidation," which all of us support, but fails to define what constitutes intimidation.

For Daniel Pipes, who has started the Campus Watch Web site, scholars siding with Arabs or criticizing Israel merit his condemnation.

The vagueness of the Times ad may be a major reason so many university presidents, including Harvard’s Lawrence Summers, refused to sign the ad.

Nothing stated in the ad is itself a problem; the problem is what is not stated. For example, the ad declares: "In the past few months, students who are Jewish or supporters of Israel’s right to exist — Zionists — have received death threats and threats of violence." The ad then speaks of Jewish property that is being "defaced or destroyed."

No responsible citizen supports threats and violence against persons and property. All of us condemn anti-Semitism, whether physical, directed against property or verbal. That such acts have occurred on campuses, places of free speech, is worse than their occurrence on city streets.

The problem is defining intimidation when it stops well short of rejecting Israel’s very existence or threatening Jews with violence. When does criticism of Israeli government actions cease to be a legitimate expression of political opinion and become anti-Semitism? How can we Jews speak out on behalf of human rights for Palestinians as well as Israelis and not be labeled traitors? Do not Campus Watch ads and Web sites themselves intimidate free speech?

What’s missing is help with a pervasive problem many Jewish professors and students face: intimidation and threats from other Jews. Many of us on campus are deeply critical of what we consider to be gross violations of human rights committed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and yet we are strong Zionists. Unlike the Likud Party, we believe two states need to be established, Israel and Palestine, for reasons of politics, security and morality.

Thus we face two battles: defending Israel to those who oppose Israel’s very right to exist, and arguing our political views to right-wing Israelis, Jews and, increasingly, Christians. We often hear that criticism of Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism — which, if true, would turn most Jews and most Israelis into anti-Semites.

Ironically, the many nasty comments and one violent threat I have received on campus came from right-wing Jewish students and faculty who were angry at me for publicly siding with Israel’s Labor Party platform and opposing Sharon. Jewish colleagues and students at other institutions have reported the same thing: being threatened by fellow Jews after criticizing certain Israeli policies.

I’ve also heard about informal, sometimes secretive boycotts of Jewish professors critical of Israel that have been organized by Jewish students and faculty, sometimes assisted by Jewish professional organizations.

Most troubling about Pipes’ Campus Watch’ Web site is its one-sidedness. Pipes, who has strong political views, stands in judgment of those who differ and claims they dislike America, exaggerate the faults of Israel and side with Arab countries. Scholars who stand accused by Pipes have no opportunity to defend themselves, and the evidence against them is not contextualized for readers to judge for themselves. The effect is threatening and dangerous.

The most common difficulties faced by Jewish professors are not violence or physical intimidation — which are quickly addressed by campus security forces, but the isolation we often experience in our support for Israel. In my experience, it is often Arab and Muslim students who most appreciate our concern to create peace for both Israelis and Palestinians, and who know enough of the region to appreciate its complexities.

Most of us are well-aware, too, that Arab and Muslim students are often treated on campus with condescension, as exotic, primitive creatures. We want to bring our communities together, speak on behalf of one another and unite in facing our common political concerns about the long-term and sustainable future of two states. How do we open the conversation and speak to those we fear may be our political enemies?

As much as peace needs to be negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, we need to negotiate peace on our campuses. Indeed, the Tikkun Community’s Campus Network that was established this weekend in New York seeks to do just that — inaugurate communities of dialogue and peacemaking at our universities.

Neither the AJCommittee newspaper ad nor Pipes’ Web site assist us. Instead, they inhibit conversation through their intimidation tactics. No one wants to be misunderstood as an anti-Semite; better not to talk. A common fear expressed by my colleagues in Jewish studies is that if they express any criticism of Israel, funding will be withdrawn from their programs — not by their universities, but by the local Jewish community. That kind of anxiety is utterly intolerable in a university setting, which can only thrive on a free exchange of ideas.

The wonderful Jewish studies programs at American universities are participating in the intellectual debates of the academy, and are not simply outposts of Jews on campus.

At Dartmouth College, the Jewish studies program, which I chair, has worked hard to encourage discussion of Middle East issues at the highest academic level. We have tried to avoid speakers who are extremists, politicians or propagandists, preferring scholars, and our lectures and seminars take place in an atmosphere of openness that attracts students and faculty from all groups on campus — Jewish, Arab, Asian, Muslim, Christian.

Our courses present all aspects of Jewish studies — history, philosophy, literature, religion — as topics of interest and intellectual challenge to everyone, not only to Jews, and our success is reflected in our course enrollments, which are remarkably pluralistic.

Colleges that are not experiencing similar success might want to have a look at the Dartmouth model. We have had disagreements on campus about the Middle East, to be sure, but they have been conducted in an atmosphere inclusive of all sides, with respect and calm.

It’s all very well for the AJCommittee and other organizations to spend thousands of dollars for a full-page newspaper ad or Web site, but it would have been far more useful to articulate how a Zionist can be legitimately critical of some Israeli government policies, support a Palestinian state and worry about the human rights and political futures of all people.

There is no peace for one side in a conflict; there is either peace for all, or peace for none.

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black associate professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, and is serving this fall as visiting professor in the Jewish studies program at Princeton University.