Survey: Israelis in the U.S. become more like American Jews


The longer Israelis live in the United States, the less critical of Israel they are likely to be, a new survey suggests.

The Internet-based survey of nearly 1,600 people divided respondents into two groups: those living in the United States for less than 10 years, and those living in the country for more than 10 years. Whereas 64 percent of the under-10-years group strongly agreed that when Israel is criticized they feel the need to defend it and show its positive side, the figure was 75 percent among the over-10-years group.

When asked if they were to talk about Israel to an American non-Jew, 67 percent of the under-10-years group said they would say positive things about Israel compared to 78 percent of the over-10-years group.

Though unscientific because all the respondents came from the lists of various Israel-related organizations in the United States, the results nevertheless suggest that Israelis’ political views become more like those of American Jews the longer they reside in the United States.

The survey was commissioned by the Israeli American Council and carried out by the Israeli firm Midgam, which asked respondents to complete an Internet questionnaire.

The survey found that the longer Israelis live in the United States, the more likely they are to be interested in Israel’s internal politics, believe that American Jews strengthen Israel, say that American Jews should publicly support Israel and take a candidate’s attitude toward Israel into consideration when voting.

Israelis living in the United States for more than a decade are nearly twice as likely as the under-10-years group to marry out of the faith (8 percent versus 4 percent), and their children are twice as likely to intermarry (17 percent versus 8 percent), according to the survey.

The survey also showed slight increases in synagogue attendance and day school enrollment among those in the United States for more than 10 years.

Crisis and opportunity — Reflections on the Pew report


Full disclosure: I have been thinking about the results of the Pew report for more than a decade. I understand that Pew didn’t release its results until last week, but these statistics and trends have been obvious to some in the Jewish community for a very long time. Four years ago, I made a major life change and became the president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles because of the revelations now appearing in the Pew report. It is what drives our board, our staff and me every day, and it is what has motivated our Federation’s major reimagination and transformation. It is at the core of our mission and our work.

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of reaction to the study’s findings, ranging from defensiveness to rejection with a smattering of thoughtful responses. The truth is that we can no longer afford to look the other way.  We must take a communal approach to building a Jewish community that will not just sustain but will flourish.

I love Judaism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.  I strongly believe that being Jewish adds immeasurable value to me, my family and our world.

We have a crisis. The numbers and the trending in the Pew report speak out loud and clear. Our crisis is not in the Middle East. It is in America. It is a crisis based on our success. We have truly succeeded in becoming American and in assimilating into this great country. 

The resulting loss of engagement, however, impacts every Jew and every Jewish institution.

But this crisis also offers us an extraordinary opportunity.

What got us here won’t get us there

Marshall Goldsmith, one of America’s preeminent executive coaches, wrote an insightful best-selling book titled “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” The book’s central tenet provides us with a solid piece of Torah.

We, as a people, have built great synagogues and great organizations. We have created enviable Jewish communities across the Diaspora.

It is clear that what we have built did get us here, but it is now equally clear that if we want to ensure a vibrant Jewish future, that infrastructure may not get us there.

I say this with caution. This is not a time for a knee-jerk reaction, and there are no “innovative” quick fixes. This is a time to take a break from our preoccupation with our history to take a long, proactive look at the future, the future we want for the next generations. They are the loudest voices in the study. These voices demand to be in our communal conversations.

We need to learn from Apple

Steve Jobs and his crew understood almost from the beginning that once a consumer is introduced to the power of technology, he or she would be hooked. Once hooked, it was up to Apple to continue to deepen the relationship between the consumer and that technology by listening to the consumer and being ahead of the competition in introducing both new products and new applications.

We need to see Judaism like new and evolving technology, and we need to be more like Apple. We need to create a two-way conversation with our consumers, and we need to reimagine our product line.

This analogy speaks directly to our Millennials and the generations to come.

There is another central change we need to make. We have promoted “episodic” Judaism based on lifecycle milestones and communal events. Our institutions have promoted powerful programs like PJ Library, Taglit Birthright and Jewish preschool.  Our Federation supports these important, highly successful programs. But what this study says loud and clear is that “episodic” Judaism is not enough.

We need to create a Jewish journey for every Jew, a journey that each Jew helps to create. Think of the iPod. Millions and millions of people use the same device to listen to their music but with customized play lists. They listen to their iPods alone, or they plug them into speakers and play for their friends in a communal experience.

We need to embrace our young people, not blame them

Our young people are redefining their Judaism. We need to be an active part of that redefinition process. It is up to the Jewish community to reach out, engage and embrace them. 

At the Federation, we are committed to not just engaging our young people, but engaging them in our reimagination and our transformation. They are not the problem. They are a part of the solution.

Many of our organizations have built models based on philanthropy first. We need to move away from “pay-to-play” Judaism. If young people are meaningfully engaged, they will become philanthropists. But we are pushing too many of them away by expecting them to give before they connect.

The challenge

Our future demands our attention. We need a strong, communal approach to build a rich, vibrant Jewish future. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has made the commitment to this process. Will you join us?


Jay Sanderson is president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

‘Gravity’ and the Pew study


I have one big answer to the depressing findings of the Pew poll, but you’re not going to like it.

The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews came out last week, and the American Jewish community reacted about the way Sandra Bullock does when her tether snaps in “Gravity.” Except our “Oy vey!” probably could have been heard in space.

The bottom line of the study: Jews are becoming less … and less … and less Jewish. We are drifting away from religion like, well, Bullock from that space station. 

The long-awaited Pew study, initiated with admirable foresight by Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, found that only 32 percent of these Jews say their Jewishness is a matter of religion. Fifty years ago, that number was close to 70 percent.

“That is a big and significant number,” said Greg Smith, the Pew’s director of U.S. religion surveys, in a statement accompanying the report. “The generational pattern suggests that it’s growing, and that’s very important, because the data show that Jews of no religion are much less connected to the Jewish community, are much less engaged and involved in Jewish organizations and are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish as compared to Jews who describe themselves as Jews by religion.”

We all know many Jews who are bagels-and-lox, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” types — what you might call Brunch Davidians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Jewish law and practice is the scaffold on which Jewish culture and identity are built. Without Judaism, Jewishness disappears.

To add to the worries, the Pew study found that 71 percent of younger, [non-Orthodox Jews] are marrying out. Before 1970, the number of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse was only 17 percent. Intermarried Jews, Pew found, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.

So, does this mean there won’t be any Judaism in the future? The short answer is: That’s up to us. 

There are three things we can, and must, do to stop the handwringing and reverse these trends.

First, we need to be very clear in our hearts why this matters. Each one of us who expresses concern has to be able to answer, clearly, this question: “So what?”

Now don’t skip ahead. Stay with that question. Why do you care that young American Jews are less and less Jewish, and if trends continue, their children and grandchildren will be even less so, or not at all? What is it that makes this religion, this culture, worth continuing? Funny how none of the discussions of the Pew study start with that question — because its answer is key to the solution.

Second, we must improve the experience of liberal Judaism. Not all synagogue services are boring, obscure and infantilizing, but too many are. Congregations that have innovated in their use of liturgy and music have been more successful in drawing people in than those that have not. This year, jewishjournal.com livecast the Kol Nidre service of Nashuva, the outreach congregation founded by my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy. At least 60,000 people around the world watched all or part of the service, and judging by their comments, the experience was anything but boring. When you rebuild it, they will come.

That leads me to my one, big suggestion: conversion.

When I made this argument in the past, people looked at me like I was saying we should establish a Jewish state in Uganda. True, we have not been, for historical reasons, a proselytizing faith, but it’s time to rise above our history.

According to the Pew poll, 2 percent of Jews said they had formally converted to Judaism, 1 percent claimed to have informally. That’s 100,000 people. Say we double it. Triple it — or even add a zero. 

Can we?

Of course. We have the money and expertise to fund a creative and consistent marketing campaign aimed at conversion. Web sites and social media offer a low barrier to entry. Virtual engagement would be reinforced by actual outreach and education on the local level.

 This isn’t brain surgery — it’s branding, marketing and education. These are three things Jews happen to excel at. Jewish marketing ingenuity brought the world Polo, GAP and Levi’s. Jews turned pomegranates and hummus from foods to phenomena. Hey, three Jews — Plouffe, Axelrod and Emanuel — even sold America on electing a black president. We can sell the world anything. Why not Judaism?

If we don’t invite the rest of the world to experience the beauty, meaning and connectedness of Jewish life, we will never truly flourish. 

“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis once told me. “Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time.”

The stories told by Jews-by-Choice reaffirm the opportunity to reach more like them.

“Judaism,” one once told me, “is the best-kept secret in the world.”

Meaning, connectedness, community and beauty — these are the essence of Jewish life, and they are what so many people long for. 

My suggestion: Put Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Lynda Resnick, Axelrod, et al. in a room and have them come up with a marketing plan for the world’s best-kept secret. Put Judaism out there, and just watch people gravitate toward it. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Engagement trends are negative, but Jewish funders see validation in Pew study


If you’re pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building, what do you do when a survey comes along showing that the number of U.S. Jews engaging with Jewish life and religion is plummeting?

That’s the question facing major funders of American Jewish life following the release last week of the Pew Research Center’s survey on U.S. Jews.

The study — the first comprehensive portrait of American Jewry in more than a decade — showed that nearly one-third of Jews under age 32 do not identify as Jewish by religion, that American Jews are intermarrying at a rate of 58 percent (71 percent if the Orthodox are excluded) and that most intermarried Jews are not raising their kids as Jews.

For many of the Jewish world’s biggest funders, the answer to this question is clear: Stay the course.

“We’ve known about these issues and many of us have been working in our own ways to address them,” said Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which with more than $2 billion in assets is one of the Jewish world’s largest foundations focused on bolstering Jewish identity and community among young people.

“We haven’t done it yet, and by no means is success assured, but I do think as a community we have identified significant ways to address these challenges,” he told JTA. “It’s too soon, I think, to see the immediate impact of what many of us in the community have been doing over the past five to 10 years.”

The logic to this approach is relatively straightforward: The findings in the Pew survey mostly upheld the assumptions upon which major givers in Jewish life already have been operating. In their view, the survey validates their own philanthropic priorities — even if they disagree about what to prioritize.

“This new study reinforces the idea that we need an energizing nucleus which is literate in Hebrew, and which is engaged in intensive and immersive education and committed to Jewish life and Jewish institutions,” said Yossi Prager, executive director in North America of Avi Chai, a major investor in Jewish education.

Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, drew a different conclusion: “Those that were investing heavily in Jewish culture and alternative venues for Jewish identity were right,” he said.

“Given that a lot of Jews define themselves as secular or atheist, it’s critically important that while investing in traditional venues in Jewish life, it’s important to explore and find and foster venues for encouraging Jewish identity through non-traditional ways — through culture, through arts,” Spokoiny said. “I think that’s a key message.”

Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, said the study demonstrates a remarkable failure to achieve many of the central goals adopted by the Jewish community in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed what many considered alarmingly high assimilation rates.

“As a community, we made a decision a couple of decades ago to focus on Jewish continuity and Jewish identity, and we don’t seem to have moved the needle by even one degree,” Charendoff told JTA. “I would love to tell you I think it’s a wakeup call, but I don’t think anyone’s waking up.”

Jewish foundations need to get on the same page to develop a comprehensive strategy to begin to reverse the negative trends, he said.

“Donors by and large are focused on particular efforts and not focused on the field as a whole,” Charendoff said. “There needs to be more coordination, more resources. We’re only going to have that impact if there’s alignment and not 10,000 people doing God’s work but without regard to what their neighbors are doing.”

Whether the Pew study will prompt a systemic response, or even an attempt at one by Jewish funders, remains to be seen.

Next month, the Jewish Federations of North America will convene its annual General Assembly, which draws fundraisers and leaders from federations throughout the United States. Jerry Silverman, the umbrella group’s CEO, told JTA that this year’s confab is not the place for beginning a communitywide conversation about the Pew study results.

This year’s G.A. will be held in Jerusalem and focus on the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The Pew study will not be on the agenda, he said.

“You really need to bring together thinkers and thought leaders who can really think this through. I don’t think that’s the G.A. population,” Silverman said. “That’s not the forum to think this through.”

Chip Edelsberg, the executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which has awarded about $280 million in grants for Jewish education and engagement since 2006, said his foundation needs more time to delve into the Pew data to figure out what changes are necessary, if any, to their strategies for engaging young American Jews.

“It will certainly animate our discussions and have a bearing on the foundation’s decision making, because it is actually good data,” he said.

Michael Steinhardt, the mega-philanthropist behind Birthright Israel, Hebrew-language charter schools and a host of other Jewish community programs, said the results of Pew are hardly news: Separate community studies over the last few years have made the trends clear.

“We should not need the Pew study to give us a reality check,” he said. “The question is what to do about it.”

Steinhardt says he isn’t optimistic that the Jewish community will respond effectively.

“Nothing’s a galvanizing event for the Jewish community,” he said. “I don’t see the community thoughtfully dealing with it.”

Hamas top official: Kill every last Jew and American [VIDEO]


A senior Hamas official said in a televised sermon that he wished for the annihilation of every single Jew and American.

The sermon by Sheik Ahmad Bahr, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was broadcast earlier this month on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV.

“Oh, Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters” and “the Americans and their supporters,” he was filmed saying. “Oh, Allah, count them one by one, and kill them all, without leaving a single one.”

The video was edited and translated by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute.

“If the enemy sets foot on a single square inch of Islamic land, Jihad becomes an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim, male or female,” Bahr also said. “A woman doesn’t need permission from her husband, nor a servant his master’s permission,” in order to engage in jihad. This, Bahr said, is “in order to annihilate those Jews.”

The Islamist Hamas movement seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in 2006 elections.

Opinion: The myth of the Iranian-American Jew


This one’s for our children — the teens and 20-somethings who were born in this country or who’ve lived here most of their life, who have no memory of Iran except what’s been passed on to them or what they’ve constructed with their imagination. The kids who speak Persian with an accent or not at all, crack up at the way their parents pronounce their w’s and th’s, become wide-eyed and incredulous when they discover that we grew up without frozen yogurt, nonfat milk and broccoli. And who, more and more these days, find themselves having to define and defend that tangled nexus of nationality and religion, of likeness and singularity, of being and becoming that is their Iranian heritage.

I am speaking, of course, of the uproar within the Iranian community in reaction to a certain reality show over the past few weeks. I don’t know about everyone else, but it pains me to see our young people cringe and shudder at the thought of what the rest of the country is going to think of us after having seen this show. They’re in a strange predicament, these children of hyphenated parents. Iranian-American. Iranian-Jew. Iranian-American-Jew. Already, they’ve had to walk the tightrope from one component to the other every hour of every day. But for too long they’ve also had to endure the harsh judgment of Los Angeles’ larger society, fight negative misconceptions, shrug off the myth of what Iranian-Americans are like because they feel they have little power to change it. Why else would they be so hurt and offended by the pitiful portrayal of a handful of Iranians on a less-than-second-rate television show?

Once upon a time, an army of rich, spoiled and ill-mannered Jews, having exhausted all the sources of glee and merriment in Iran, sat around and hatched a plan to conquer the idyllic city of Beverly Hills, destroy its library and public schools, and lay waste to adjacent Westwood Corridor and Sinai Temple. One bright summer day in 1978 they packed up all their jewels, cash and “attitude,” traveled some 7,581 miles, and descended en masse onto the unsuspecting inhabitants of said city. Overnight, they evicted, expelled and dislodged the rightful owners of Beverly Hills by paying too much for their land, paying all cash, opening short escrows. The natives who weren’t forced to sell by outsized offers sold anyway, perhaps out of fear of the jewel-slinging Jews and their all-night displays of libertinism on Shabbat.

Sound familiar? It didn’t start with the TV show; it started more than 30 years ago, within the “native” American community of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.

Having planted their flag onto the “natives’ ” land, these Iranian Jews set out to expand their sphere of influence by infiltrating the four pillars of Beverly Hills’ community — the schools, synagogues, professional offices and Neiman Marcus. They spoke Persian to each other even when there were “natives” around. They invented shallowness, materialism, large houses and questionable business practices, and kept it all to themselves. All those unscrupulous bankers on Wall Street who rip off their own clients, the homeowners and real estate speculators who developed and built Brentwood Park and Holmby Hills, the international fashion houses and clothing stores that charge the equivalent of a midsize car for a wallet or a blouse — they must all be Iranian Jews. So must all the women prancing around this city with fish lips and Brazilian buttocks. And all the Americans who, no matter where they are in the world, speak English and expect everyone else to understand.

I shouldn’t have to, but I feel I must clarify that the above is, indeed, a myth. As with all myths, it has a kernel of truth buried somewhere within: Yes, a handful of Iranian Jews came to this country with a lot of money, though that’s hardly a crime; a few of their children own BMWs and drive too fast; a few come across as, or really are, impetuous and unpleasant.

But there are infinitely more rich, obnoxious, BMW-driving “natives” in this city than there are Iranians of that sort, and no one’s going around resenting their presence and blaming them for all the ills in the country. The difference is, when one of the “natives” commits a wrong, we blame him. When an Iranian commits the same wrong, we blame them all.

Sound familiar? It’s like what the world has done to Jews through the ages, except in this case, many of those wagging the finger and perpetuating the myth about the frightful Iranian-American Jew are — alas — “native” American Jews. At best, this is divisive and unhelpful.

So I’m here to tell you, lest it goes unsaid, that the real story of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles is vastly different from the one that’s being told — on television and off.

The real story is that by far the great majority of Iranian Jews who settled in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and in the ensuing decade were anguished and traumatized refugees escaping the very real threat of extinction in a homeland where their roots stretched back thousands of years. Most got away with only the proverbial shirt on their back. What money they had made in Iran was the result of decades of hard work and ingenuity; whatever part of it they managed to bring to the United States, or to make here, helped contribute to the health and vibrancy of this economy.

The real story is that nearly no one, not even the most fortunate, was spared emotional loss and psychological hardship in the turmoil of migration. From the owners of the closet-size stalls on Santee Avenue who worked seven days a week selling quinceañera dresses, to the wives who took a job for the first time in their life because their husband couldn’t find one, and the children who were sent here alone to become the ward of a sibling, an aunt or a Jewish charitable entity — just about every Iranian here has earned whatever living he’s managed to make. To this day, most of them are not rich — not by Los Angeles standards. They don’t live in Beverly Hills, but in Pico-Robertson, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Northridge. Their kids don’t go to private school; they work nights and weekends, take loans to finance their higher education. That they manage to get into Ivy League colleges and succeed in medicine and art and law and technology puts the lie to the idea that they live and breathe to party, drink and spend their parents’ money.

They’re a splendid bunch, these young people who know, perhaps better than many “natives” of their generation, what a gift it is to wake up every day under the American sky. They take little for granted. They’ve learned to appreciate the salient parts of each piece of their identity and to tolerate the rest. That’s a gift they’ve been blessed with and a cross they’ll have to bear. But this other cross — being singled out as “foreign” by their fellow Americans, held to account for the flaws and failures of others, having the good in them overlooked and their faults magnified — this is a burden they’ve neither earned nor deserve.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

What makes a ‘real’ Jew?


After being alive for 16 years, I would think it would be easy to classify myself into a certain category, and that by now I would know what, who and why I am what I am. But as I grow older, it has become more complicated for me to label myself — secular, religious, Jewish American Mexican, Mexican American Jew.

This is probably a result of the fact that the older I get, the more in-depth I learn about my religion and the more I begin to formulate my own thoughts and opinions about it and about myself. While for a long time I have been able to articulate thoughts on certain religious matters, I have to admit that those opinions were, for the most part, strongly or loosely based on those of my parents and teachers. For example, I was a secular Jew because my mother told me that she was a secular Jew. I considered myself to be a Mexican American teenage girl, who happened to be Jewish, as well, because that was the way I was raised. We would celebrate Shabbat when it was convenient to, and would observe only the “famous” Jewish holidays — Chanukah, Pesach, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

I considered a Jew to be a person who knew about the Torah, kept kosher, celebrated Shabbat and who went to temple every Friday night — and anyone who did not, was, in my eyes, not a “real” Jew. This consequently meant that I was not a “real” Jew. The thought of this not only made me hate the religion’s standards — which I myself had set — but it caused me to feel very confused about myself. I wasn’t sure which temple I liked, how to celebrate each holiday, and even how to eat. Everyone I met seemed to have different views than I did, and no one was able to help me understand where I fit in best.

When I started Milken Community High School’s middle school after finishing the sixth grade at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, I further realized how unacquainted I was with my own feelings toward my religion. Although we had Judaic studies every year, I felt unable to drift away from my parents’ beliefs and create my own.

Then, in 10th grade this past year, I was accepted into the Tiferet Israel Program, for which I left the comfort of my parents’ home and lived in Israel on my own for four months, along with 38 other Milken 10th- graders.

I was relieved to find that one of my friends, Tali, happened to be in Israel at the same time, on a separate school program. Tali, a girl I met at tennis camp, was one of the only people I knew who shared my beliefs — we both agreed that it was not necessary to follow all of the rituals of the Jewish religion. It was not until we reconnected in Israel that I found out her father is an Orthodox rabbi who works at Chabad. This immediately made me wonder how a rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi, a “real” Jew, could raise a “fake” one. I asked Tali what she considered herself to be, and whether or not she felt comfortable with her decision of moving away from her family’s opinions and creating her own. She answered that she respected her parents’ beliefs but did not completely agree with what they stood for. When I asked her if she felt as Jewish as her father, she responded without any hesitation, “I am just as Jewish as my father and mother and you are just as Jewish as them as well.” Hearing those words finally come out of someone’s mouth besides my own was like lifting the world off my shoulders. From that point on I no longer felt uncomfortable with my beliefs, and I no longer felt out of place.

Every day it became clearer to me that there was not one specific way to define a “real” Jew. By observing the amount of pride and devotion that all the Jewish Israelis felt toward their religion, I began to understand that simply believing in God and being proud of the fact that you are Jewish automatically makes you as Jewish as you can get. I was able to see on many different occasions the variety of Jews, and how I did not have to fit into any one of them in order to be Jewish. When our group went to the Kotel, for example, I was able to see ultra-Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews, and Jews that don’t fit into any of the categories praying toward the Wall, and every one of them accepts the other as a member of the Jewish faith.

All of my experiences in Israel made me able to officially classify myself under a category that I fit into. I now consider myself to be a Jewish Mexican American teenage girl, and I am proud to have it be in that order. I no longer feel disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people, and for the first time in my life, I feel as Jewish as any rabbi who works at Chabad — or any Jew in the world.

Rebecca Suchov just completed the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.<BR>

Don’t Think Of Me As Different — I’m Not


My name is Rachel, and I am a Jewish American girl who was born in China. I was adopted. I am finishing the fifth grade, and I go to a Jewish school where I am not the only Chinese girl — there is one other girl from China named Willow, who is in the fourth grade. We are friends.

Sometimes I do not want to be different from the other kids,

Never Been Mugged


This piece was excerpted from the writer’s “Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada” (Other Press, 2005).

Over time I have learned to drive to a few locations in Jerusalem, but I am never sure when I start out if I indeed will reach my destination without getting lost, circling, poring over maps and asking person after person for directions. I have succeeded in mastering the twists and turns of Tel-Aviv, but driving into the hodgepodge of Jerusalem is as daunting as facing the illogic of Boston’s one-way streets after the comforting geometric symmetry of Manhattan.

In the door pocket of my car I have one road atlas of Israel, one map of the streets of Tel Aviv, one map of the Galilee and, at last count, no fewer than five of Jerusalem. I am always apprehensive of taking the wrong road, and winding up where I might be perceived as an unwelcome intruder.

One day my apprehensions were borne out in a way I couldn’t have predicted. All my life I have seen myself as a civil libertarian, a liberal, a peacenik. In sum, a Democrat. But my behavior proved me no better than the most hypocritical old salon communist.

I had driven to the capital to attend an evening meeting, but was delayed in traffic. Night had fallen and I was late. A double outsider, I was frightened of crossing the invisible borders of the “unified” city into intifada territory where, with my poor mastery of direction, I felt I might be an easy target.

I suddenly recalled advice given to me by a fellow American also based in Tel-Aviv: When in doubt in Jerusalem, leave your car in the guest parking lot at the old Hilton Hotel at its periphery and hop into a cab.

With relief, that’s what I did. Opening the back door I slid into the first cab of the taxis lined up waiting to collect passengers at the hotel entrance. I was just sitting back in the seat, starting to relax, when — through his accent — the driver revealed his nationality.

“Blease,” he repeated my destination back to me, “Hillel Street.”

In the mouth of a native Arabic speaker the English “P” turns into a “B”.

I froze, managed to mumble, “I forgot something,” then fled the cab.

Half panicking, I accosted the astounded hotel doorman and pleaded with him, “Get me another taxi.” I groped for words. “I want a driver with, with–” I searched for a euphemism.

Finally I blurted it straight out: “Find me an Israeli driver.”

Even as I stammered the words, I felt waves of shame rising. I was ushered into the next cab in line, obligingly driven by a Jew.

I kept my eyes focused on the ground, but I felt the dark stare of the Arab upon me as he stood idle beside his idling motor. Humiliation aside, he must have hated me for his lost fare. But however he judged me, it could be no harsher than my own verdict on myself.

My years of so-called convictions hadn’t proved strong enough to hold up a feather when it came to reality. I was too chicken to take a 10-minute drive in a registered taxi through western Jerusalem with an Arab driver at 8 p.m. And I was only going from the Hilton to Hillel Street — not from Jenin to Ramallah.

They say a liberal is a bigot who hasn’t yet been mugged, but my anxiety anticipated the unthrown stone. Unassisted, I put the dagger in the driver’s hand. By my blatant action and blunt words in those brief seconds, I did more damage to the cause of co-existence than I could ever counterbalance by a lifetime of dues to the Association for Civil Rights.

It’s no justification protesting that it was the prudent thing to do, an excusable overreaction, that “you never know,” or that I have a responsibility to my family as well as my ideals. For when I heard that driver speak and saw his dark eyes in the rear-view mirror, I was light years away from any convictions. When push came to shove, I was handed the opportunity to show where I stood, and I did. I failed the taxi test.

And I am doubly damned. For I know that, presented with the same test, I might again refuse the ride, again feel relief as I got out.

I can no longer whitewash my true colors. I, too, am a casualty of the occupation and the intifada it caused — and for that I ask the driver’s pardon. I used to just be waiting for peace. Since that abortive ride, I am also waiting for my conscience to give me peace.

 

On Winning the Terror War


Readers’ Quiz No. 2: Test your knowledge of Middle East terrorism. Simply identify the following incident:

It was one of America’s most controversial “victories” against international terrorism: a negotiated settlement with a gang of Arabic-speaking hijackers who were holding American hostages. After military action proved ineffective, a U.S. diplomat in the region decided — apparently without authorization — to pay off the hijackers. The hostages were released, but, in the ensuing furor, the diplomat, a Jew, lost his job.

Pencils ready? Name the year, the place, the terrorists and the diplomat, for five points each. For extra credit, explain the lessons for future terrorist confrontations.

Time’s up. Figured it out?

Answers: The year was 1815, the place Tunis. The hijackers were seagoing bandits known as the Barbary pirates. The diplomat was Mordecai Manuel Noah, U.S. consul in Tunis and the first Jew ever to head an American diplomatic mission abroad.

Extra credit: If you said nothing much ever changes in the Middle East, add five points. If you said things have a way of changing without seeming to, add 10 points. Fifty points if you said nothing is as it appears in the looking-glass war of terrorism.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Noah went to Tunis. America’s relations with the Moslem world have risen and fallen many times over. Jews have moved from center stage to the margins and back. America has become a world power. The Middle East has gone through independence, Arab nationalism, Islamic revolution and the discovery of oil. Yet here we are again, caught in another looking-glass war against shadowy Middle Eastern thugs who play by their own rules, or no rules. And, as always, Washington and the West are divided over how to respond.

The tactical dilemmas vary from case to case, but they boil down to one basic question. Should the fight against terrorism follow the niceties of civil society, or the cruder rules of the battlefield? Put differently, is terrorism a matter of statecraft or simple law enforcement? Are terrorists an international enemy, or common criminals?

It’s not clear-cut. Criminals enjoy elaborate protections from the moment of arrest, while battlefield foes are shot on sight. But enemies can sit down after the fighting and negotiate for their position. Criminals don’t get to have a position.

The United States today is fighting the shadow war on a half-dozen fronts, from interdicting terror at home, to chasing the Saudi-born terrormaster Osama Bin Laden, to making Libya give up the suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Critics say the war lacks a clear vision. “The Clinton administration and, to some extent, the Bush administration basically look at terrorism as a law enforcement problem, but it doesn’t really work,” says Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of anti-terrorism operations at the CIA. “On the other hand, the sporadic attempts at some kind of military response don’t really work either. You’re not going to destroy a terrorist infrastructure by bombing their barracks.”

Still, there have been victories. Just last week, the U.N. Security Council rejected a bid to lift the sanctions imposed on Libya after the Pan Am bombing. Some Europeans wanted the decade-old sanctions lifted because Libya has agreed in principle to surrender the suspects under a compromise deal. Washington wanted the sanctions kept in place until the suspects are actually delivered. The council backed Washington.

It was the second victory inside a week. Two days earlier, the Supreme Court upheld the Justice Department’s 12-year struggle to deport eight members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, detained in Los Angeles in 1987 for fund-raising for the terror group. The eight claimed that they were singled out for deportation because of their beliefs, violating their First Amendment rights. The administration replied that since they were in America illegally, they had no First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled for the administration.

Victories like these send a firm message to terrorists and their supporters: You can run, and maybe you can hide, but the long arm of American justice will eventually reach you, if you don’t die of old age first.

The problem is that terrorism doesn’t really fit either a military or police mold. Military strikes are too blunt a weapon. Traditional police work is too polite and too slow. Terrorists slip across borders, kill with abandon and don’t mind dying. What’s needed is a third way.

Some experts say the answer is to rescind the mid-1970s executive order that bans assassination by U.S. agents. “We’re caught in this ridiculous position,” says conservative scholar Michael Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute. “If somebody kills an American and runs away, you have a choice of bombing them or asking Interpol to arrest them. What you can’t do is go out and shoot them.”

Washington hasn’t returned to assassinations, but it has moved toward finding that third way. The solution: unconventional legal doctrines. One is extraterritorial jurisdiction, the startling notion that the United States can punish crimes committed on others’ soil. Another is the 1996 Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act, which limits the rights of terror suspects to lodge appeals, view the evidence against them, even talk to lawyers. Civil libertarians howl about the erosion of democratic rights. So far, the courts haven’t agreed.

The new law plays a key role in Washington’s current hunt for the Bin Laden gang. Indictments were drawn up last fall against 11 members, including Bin Laden himself. Six are in custody so far. Over the last three months, they’ve filed countless pretrial motions, claiming infringement of their rights in jail. The courts haven’t agreed.

The bottom line, then, is that for all the screaming headlines, we’re not losing the terrorism war. The Palestinians have largely abandoned terror in favor of negotiations. As for Libya, “it hasn’t directed terrorist actions against the United States in recent times, because the sanctions are working,” says Cannistraro. “The answer is a coherent, integrated approach that combines diplomacy and politics. You can’t let law enforcement drive the train.”

As for the remaining terror, get used to it. “Terrorism is a chronic phenomenon,” Cannistraro says. “But it’s not a serious threat to our national security. Someone like Bin Laden kills people, but he’s not going to cause the destruction of the United States.”

Cannistraro’s sanguine view, common among professionals, isn’t popular with politicians or the public. “The problem is that everyone wants to treat the symptoms and not the causes,” he says. “It’s a common problem in terrorism-expert circles.”


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

Feeling the Heat


The ad, which pictures a small child with a worried expression, is one way the UJF is trying to tackle the unfolding “Who is a Jew?” debate in Israel and to limit its impact among American donors to the UJF.

According to Bill Bernstein, an associate executive vice president who oversees the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles’ UJF campaign, donor discontent hasn’t affected local giving. The $30 million plus raised so far this year is on par with the 1996 campaign. But that doesn’t prevent Bernstein and other Federation staff and lay people from worrying about whether that support will remain strong.

Of particular concern is a bill currently making its way through the Israeli Knesset. The measure says that any person converted by a Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbi in the Diaspora could become an Israeli citizen but isn’t considered Jewish in religious matters, such as marriage, burial, divorce and conversion.

“Through all the years that American Jews have supported Israel, there has never been a question about anybody’s Judaism,” Bernstein said. “Now, for the first time, this is becoming a reality — and a problem.”

Todd Morgan, the 1997 UJF general chair, said that the distress signals tend to come from the older donors — those who have intermarried children and grandchildren whose spouses have been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis.

“These are people who have given money to Israel forever,” said Morgan. “They have a grandchild who wouldn’t qualify as a Jew there. And they say, ‘How can they tell me my grandchildren aren’t Jews? They go to synagogue. And Israel says they can’t be married or buried there.'”


“You can’t expect

American philanthropists who

have given their emotional

heart and soul

and financial resources

to Israel not to feel

offended in some way

by this bill.” Bill Bernstein


Although, for many, the feelings are heartfelt and based on knowledge, for others, the conversion bill may provide an excuse not to give, some Federation leaders believe.

“Some say, ‘If I’m not Jewish, I don’t have to give to the Federation,'” said Herb Gelfand, Federation president. “They say it jokingly, and they know they’re Jewish. But we hear a lot about it.”

While UJF totals remain unaffected, fund-raisers are beginning to hear from contributors who say that they’re considering not giving, reducing their contributions, or not making good on pledges that have already been made. Many are loyal supporters of Israel, “who feel that this is the only way to express their frustration, anger and absolute concern for what Israel might become,” Bernstein said. “You can’t expect American philan-thropists who have given their emotional heart and soul and financial resources to Israel not to feel offended in some way by this bill.”

But, Bernstein stressed, few are aware of how little of their contribution actually goes to support Orthodox-affiliated groups in Israel. In fact, only one-half cent of every dollar contributed to the UJF here goes to such groups. Most money distributed through the Jewish Agency go to humanitarian and service programs, such as aliyah, resettlement and education.

In Israel, as in Los Angeles — where about 60 percent of UJF contributions are spent — much of the spending is on programs that are based not on ideology, politics or religion but on human needs, said Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel. “We have to continuously remind our donors of that.”

Even so, there are those who simply want to send a message with their money. Several donors believe that by withholding their contributions to humanitarian causes in Israel, the government will then have to ante up the difference and will then have less to spend on Orthodox programs.

The problem is much more one of perception than of reality, Bernstein said. “Unfortunately, the Orthodox community has been targeted,” he said. “Many who are Orthodox here and in Israel don’t support this legislation.”

The Federation, so far, has resisted allowing any but the largest donors to earmark part of their contribution to specific local programs. But just this week, the United Israel Appeal, the U.S. governing board of the Jewish Agency, approved allocating an additional $1 million to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel this year and another $5 million in 1998. The money, some of which comes from UJF dollars, was welcomed by the Federation’s Bernstein as supporting the movement toward greater pluralism in Israel.

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