Liberal groups condemn religion bill as ‘government-sanctioned discrimination’

Some 22 liberal groups, most of them Jewish, condemned a bill that would protect individuals and nonprofits that oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds from government sanction.

The First Amendment Defense Act would prevent any federal agency from denying a tax exemption, grant, contract, license or certification to an individual, association or business based on their belief that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. For example, the bill would prohibit a federal contractor from losing its funding if it refused to serve same-sex couples.

The bill was introduced last month by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Ind.).


Hearings on the bill will take place Wednesday in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

In a letter to the committee about what they call the “unjust legislation,” the groups said that: “Although our beliefs and faith traditions hold different views about the nature of human sexuality and marriage, we all share a common teaching that all human beings deserve to live in dignity and with respect, and that we must treat all people fairly and equally. The ‘First Amendment Defense Act’ directly contradicts these principles and reflects a profoundly misguided understanding of religious freedom.”

“This bill falsely suggests that the protections of the First Amendment are certainly inadequate to ensure robust religious freedom,” the letter continued, saying that it “authorizes government-sanctioned discrimination against married same sex couples and persons having sexual relations outside of marriage.”

The legislation “violates the core constitutional principle that the federal government will not prefer a faith tradition or religious tenet over another by endorsing and privileging certain religious perspectives on marriage and sexuality,”according to the letter.

Among the groups that signed on to the letter are the Anti-Defamation League, Bend the Arc, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, Jewish Women International, Keshet, National Council of Jewish Women, and Union for Reform Judaism.

Is the New York State anti-boycott bill dead?

We’ve reported that the New York State Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill intended to prohibit colleges from using any state money to fund groups that boycott Israeli universities.

Companion legislation was under consideration in the State Assembly and seemed assured of passage, given that it had the backing of the speaker, Sheldon Silver. Sponsors in both chambers said the legislation was occasioned by the Israel boycott adopted in December by the American Studies Association.

In effect, the legislation would prohibit colleges from using state funds to pay for membership fees in the ASA or for faculty travel to ASA conferences (though the bill doesn’t specify Israel by name and would seem to apply to any boycotts of universities in other countries where universities are chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. Thanks to Mondeoweiss’s Alex Kane for the link.)

The Albany Times Union now reports — in a parenthetical update to an early blogpost — that an Assembly committee pulled it from consideration.

Ryan Karben, a former Assemblyman, says that this is rare for any bill backed by the speaker, and that its shelving by the committee means that the bill is “disappeared.”

The bill had influential opponents, according to the Times Union, including the New York State United Teachers union, which sees the bill as an affront to free speech.

For the same reason, the New York Times also is opposed to the bill.

Bill changing Israeli adoption law moves to full Knesset

A bill that would allow non-Orthodox Israeli parents to adopt non-Jewish children was sent to the Knesset.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the bill on Sunday. The measure, which would amend the adoption law, must undergo a preliminary reading in the Knesset and pass two more readings before becoming official.

Under law now, only Orthodox couples may adopt non-Jewish children, since it is understood they will convert the child to Judaism under halachic auspices. Non-Orthodox couples must either adopt Jewish children or offer proof that they will become religiously observant, convert the child properly and raise the child in a religiously observant home.

Adi Kol of the centrist Yesh Atid party submitted the bill.

Berkeley students vote to divest from Israel latest in a UC string

UC Berkeley student senators approved a bill on Thursday calling for the University of California system to divest of stock in American companies that provide technological and weapon support used by the Israeli military in the Palestinian territories.

After an emotional all-night debate involving hundreds of students, faculty, and community members, the pro-divestment bill passed by an 11-9 vote.

The Berkeley vote was the latest in a resurgence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, which appears to be a new rite of spring on UC and other college campuses across the country, but with different outcomes.

One week earlier, the student senate at UC Santa Barbara rejected a similar resolution, which charged that U.S. companies were profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine,” by a 11-10 margin, with one abstention.

In the checkered history of the BDS campus movement, Berkeley students earlier passed a divestment resolution in 2010, which was subsequently vetoed by the senate president.

Divestment bills have won on the UC San Diego and Irvine campuses, as well as at UC Riverside, but the UCR decision was recently rescinded in a second vote.

According to a report in The Daily Californian, the Berkeley campus paper, the 10-hour debate on Senate Bill 160, which called the UC system a “complicit third party in Israel’s illegal occupation and human rights abuses,” was marked by emotional arguments on both sides.

Kamyar Jarahzadeh, a third-year student, reportedly declared that “There are few experiences more traumatic than losing your home or being forced out of the place you call home. This university’s money — our money — is complicit in the deprivation of human rights.”

On the other side, opponents of divestment recalled the hostile campus climate Jewish students faced in the earlier divestment attempt. “Many said they felt alienated and unwelcome and warned that passage of SB 160 could affect Jewish students’ decision to come to UC Berkeley,” The Daily California reported.

Striking a middle note, Jason Bellet, a student senator, is quoted, “If we walk away with anything tonight, it’s that the conflict is nuanced…but divestment and the language set forth frames Israel as the sole aggressor. This is more than just divesting from three companies. Divestment is undoubtedly taking a side in the conflict.”

While important as indicators of campus political sentiments, the divestments bills have no concrete impact. UC’s governing Board of Regents decided in 2010 that the university would divest from American companies doing business with a foreign government only if that regime was committing acts of genocide. The U.S. State Department has never issued such a declaration about Israel.

Congress introduces bill to make Israel ‘major strategic ally’

A Republican and a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation that would make Israel a “major strategic ally,” a unique designation.

The bill, introduced Monday by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), was timed for the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, and 13,000 activists are expected to lobby on Tuesday for the measure and Iran-related bills.

The “major strategic ally” bill codifies a number of existing facets of the U.S.-Israel relationship, including annual defense assistance and cooperation on missile defense, energy research and cyber security.

It also calls for Israel to join the program that waives pre-arranged visas for select nationals entering the United States.

The Iran-related bills would tighten sanctions aimed at forcing that country to suspend its suspected nuclear weapons program and call for the president to support Israel should it feel “compelled” to strike Iran. The Islamic Republic insists its nuclear program is peaceful.

Speaker after speaker at the AIPAC conference called on the Obama administration to make clear that Iran faces a military option if it does not comply with demands to make its nuclear activities more transparent.

“We need to recognize that military action against Iran may become necessary to protect America, Israel and our allies,” Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, said in his address Monday night. 

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, sounded a similar call.

“If there is one lesson we have learned about the Middle East in recent years, it is that nuance is not only not effective but can be dangerous,” he said. “We must speak with unambiguous clarity: The United States will not accept a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran.”

Bill would ban entrance of hostile foreign government officials

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has sponsored a bill designed to ban entry into the country by officials of any foreign government complicit in violating the rights of imprisoned Americans.

Nicknamed Jacob’s Law, the bill was written in honor of Jacob Ostreicher, a haredi Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn who has been in prison in Bolivia since June 2011 for allegedly doing business with people in Bolivia who are wanted there for links to drug trafficking and money laundering.

Ostreicher invested millions in a rice-growing venture in eastern Bolivia.

The Justice for Imprisoned Americans Overseas Act, its official name, “is in direct response to several reports about U.S. citizens being held in foreign prisons around the world while their fundamental due process and human rights are being flagrantly violated,” Smith said in a statement to JTA.

“American citizens on travel anywhere around the world need to know that the United States will go to bat for them when they are being denied fundamental human rights or basic due process rights by foreign government officials who abuse the rule of law,” Smith said.

Ostreicher continues to maintain his innocence. Smith visited him in prison in June and also met with Bolivian officials on behalf of the father of five and grandfather of 11.

According to Smith, Ostreicher is imprisoned on the premise of guilty until proven innocent and has not been shown any evidence against him.  Also, Ostreicher has had almost $50 million worth of agricultural and financial assets stolen from his business.

Jacob’s Law has five cosponsors, including one Democrat and four Republicans.

House considering Jewish refugees bill

A bipartisan group of six Congress members is sponsoring a bill that would ensure recognition of the plight of 850,000 Jewish refugees displaced from Arab countries since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

Their bill in the U.S. House of Representatives also would recognize other displaced populations, including Christians from countries in the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf.

The legislation specifically calls on the Obama administration to pair any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees with a similar reference to Jewish or other refugee populations.

“The suffering and terrible injustices visited upon Jewish refugees in the Middle East needs to be acknowledged,” said U.S. Rep. Jerrod Nadler (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor of the measure. “It is simply wrong to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees without recognizing the rights of nearly 1 million Jewish refugees who suffered terrible outrages at the hands of their former compatriots.”

Joining Nadler as cosponsors are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Howard Berman (D-Cal.), Ted Poe (R-Texas), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Bob Turner (R-N.Y.).

“Jewish refugees who were forced to flee Arab countries and Iran endured unimaginable hardships,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a news release sent to JTA. “Their plight has been ignored by the United Nations, other international bodies and many responsible nations. Any comprehensive Middle East peace agreement can only be credible and enduring if it resolves all issues related to the rights of all refugees in the Arab world and Iran, including Jews, Christians and others.”

Both B’nai B’rith International and the World Jewish Congress were among those who applauded the proposed legislation.

“We want to ensure that the United States makes the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab nations a priority in multilateral discussions about the Middle East conflict,” said Eric Fusfield, B’nai B’rith’s international director of legislative affairs. “Any time refugee issues are discussed in the context of the peace negotiations, the rights of Jewish refugees need to be given their proper place.”

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has been pushing the issue for many years and was instrumental in obtaining a House resolution on the matter in 2008. The resolution noted that for any “comprehensive Middle East peace agreement to be credible and enduring, the agreement must address and resolve all outstanding issues relating to the legitimate rights of all refugees, including Jews, Christians and other populations displaced from countries in the Middle East.”

A similar resolution is being considered by the U.S. Senate.

Obama signs bill extending investor visa to Israelis

President Obama signed legislation that would that would add Israel to the list of countries eligible for non-immigrant investor visas in the United States.

The legislation, which was spearheaded by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), would grant Israelis E-2 investor visas, allowing them to live and work in the U.S. in order to be closer to their investments.

The legislation, signed Monday, passed the House and the Senate in recent months by wide bipartisan margins.

Seventy-nine countries are party to longstanding treaties with the United States that allow their citizens to apply for E-2 status.

House explicitly counts out Iran war nod in bill

The U.S. House of Representatives explicitly stated that tough measures it recommended for Iran in a major defense bill did not authorize war.

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran,” said an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that directs defense spending, passed in the House on Friday.

The act includes substantive references to Iran, among them a “declaration of policy” that the United States shall “take all necessary measures, including military action if required, to prevent Iran from threatening the United States, its allies, or Iran’s neighbors with a nuclear weapon.”

It also authorizes combat assessments of Iran’s forces and sufficient forces in the Persian Gulf to face Iran.

A number of dovish groups, including several within the pro-Israel community, have been lobbying lawmakers to include explicit denials in various legislation that such proposals authorize war.

The amendment counting out a war authorization was initiated by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Walter Jones. (R-N.C.).

Americans for Peace Now and J Street praised the amendment’s inclusion.

“Having urged Congress since the inception of these Iran-related motions to clarify that they are not aimed at authorizing the use of force against Iran, we welcome the adoption of this amendment, as well as other important verbal statements,” Ori Nir, APN’s spokesman, told JTA.

Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs, said the amendment “slams the brakes on those in Congress who would drive the United States toward a third war in the Middle East.”

House members urge Obama to advance 2-state solution

A J Street-backed letter from 74 Congressional lawmakers urged President Obama to reaffirm support for a two-state solution in the Middle East.

The members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all Democrats, signed on to what was the key agenda item during J Street’s advocacy day on March 27, which coincided with its annual conference.

“In our view, support for a two-state resolution is inseparable from such support for Israel, its special relationship with the United States, and its very survival as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people,” the letter said.

Seven Jewish members signed on to the letter, including two of the letter’s chief sponsors, Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). Other notable Jewish members to sign the letter were Reps. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Bob Filner (D-Calif.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Another signatory was Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member of the budget committee.

In a press release announcing the letter’s signers, J Street’s director of government affairs, Dylan Williams, noted that the lawmakers “are making clear that to be pro-Israel is to support active U.S. engagement in achieving a two-state solution.”

“If the U.S. Congress does not make a viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a cornerstone of foreign policy in the region, then we are not truly helping Israel to face one its most critical challenges,” Williams said in the press release.

House committee backs visa bill for Israeli investors

The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would add Israel to the list of countries eligible for non-immigrant investor visas in the United States.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and approved Feb. 28 by the House of Representatives committee in a voice vote, would grant Israelis the ability to acquire the E-2 visa if similarly situated U.S. nationals are eligible for non-immigrant visas in Israel. The E-2 visa permits Israeli investors to live and work in the United States in order to be closer to their investments.

“We should be doing everything we can to bring additional Israeli innovations and technologies to the United States,” Berman, who is the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in his remarks before the Judiciary Committee vote. “Israel is a global leader in security and defense technologies, medicine, agriculture, high-tech, and clean energy advancements. Our nation will benefit from bringing their business to our shores.”

The House bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Judiciary Immigration Policy Subcommittee.

Knesset rejects bills requiring all Israelis to serve

The Knesset rejected two bills that would have required all Israeli citizens, including the haredi Orthodox, to serve in the military or national service.

Both the National Service bill and the Defense Service bill, proposed by the opposition Kadima Party, were voted down Wednesday by a vote of 55 to 27.

Debate on the bills came a day after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the Tal Law, which allows yeshiva students to delay their military service, is unconstitutional. The vote was 6 to 3.

The law, named for retired Supreme Court justice Tzvi Tal and enacted in 2002 under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, allows full-time yeshiva students to delay their army service until age 23. At that time, students either can continue to study full time or perform a shortened army service or a year of national service. Afterward they may choose to join the workforce.

Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed a Cabinet vote on extending the law, which is set to expire in August. If the law expires without something to replace it, haredi Orthodox will be required to enlist.

“The law, which has already been found in violation of the right to equality as part of the right to dignity, does not meet the proportionality standard and is therefore unconstitutional,” Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote in the majority decision.

Barak, now the defense minister, reportedly welcomed Tuesday night’s verdict. He has said that he would like to end the Tal Law and have a fairer system put into place.

Israel advances bill aimed at halting prostitution

A Knesset committee unanimously approved a bill that would levy severe punishment on consumers of sexual services in Israel.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation advanced the measure to the full Knesset on Sunday; a preliminary vote is scheduled for Wednesday.

Under the bill, first-time offenders are required to attend a class on public health that would include presentations by former prostitutes. Repeat offenders could face six months in prison.

Based on laws that have been enacted in Sweden, Iceland, Norway and most recently in France, the model works on the principle that in order to combat sex trafficking and prostitution, the demand for sexual services must be confronted.

The Kadima Party’s Orit Zuaretz, the chair of the Knesset’s Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women, introduced the bill.

More than 15,000 individuals are estimated to be working in the prostitution industry in Israel, including 5,000 minors.

Bill would provide financial aid to youth who leave haredi world

A Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party has authored a bill that would provide financial aid to young people who leave the haredi Orthodox fold.

The bill being advanced by Zehava Gal-On would provide a financial aid package similar to one given to a new immigrant to the country, Haaretz reported.

Hundreds of youth who leave haredi Orthodoxy each year face financial hardship and difficulty in getting a higher education because their schools do not teach all the core subjects required for a matriculation certificate, according to Haaretz.

The aid would amount to more than $13,000, according to the report.

Meanwhile, an organization that works to help former haredim to reconcile with their families is putting together a class-action lawsuit against the state that says the ex-haredim should be compensated for their lack of a basic education in the core subjects, necessitating them to spend a large amount of money to catch up on the material, Ynet reported.

The Maavar Association told Ynet that it would file the lawsuit in the next two weeks and that the case would be handled on a pro-bono basis.

“Whoever studied in haredi schools without core issues (including those who are still haredi) and has been forced to complete matriculation or psychometric exams, losing years of work or suffering any other financial damage, is invited to send us his personal details,” Maavar said in a post on its Facebook page, according to Ynet.

An estimated 200 plaintiffs are expected to join the suit.

Dems fail in bid to block bill they say rewards Iran-linked mining company

House Democrats failed in their attempt to block a bill that they say allows a stake in the largest U.S. copper mine to an Iranian-affiliated mining company.

The bill, backed by Arizona’s Republican delegation, would swap public lands in Arizona with lands owned by Resolution Copper, allowing for the establishment of the largest copper mine in the United States.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday mounted a vigorous offense against the bill, saying that Resolution Copper was owned by London-based Rio Tinto, and that that company is partnered with the Iran Foreign Investment Company in mining uranium in Namibia.

“The Iran Foreign Investment Company is wholly owned by the Iranian regime, and last summer the Treasury Department added it to the list of Iranian entities in violation of sanctions law,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said during debate on his motion to return the bill to committee. “We are about to reward a company that partners with the Iranian regime to mine, of all things, the uranium it needs to become a nuclear-armed power.”

Deutch’s motion failed along party lines, 237-187.

Officials at Rio Tinto said that the Iranian company has held a 15 percent stake in the Namibia mine, Rossing, since 1975, before the Islamic takeover in Iran; that Iran is banned access to nuclear technology at the mine and to its uranium; and that its dividends have been put into a trust.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who sponsored the original bill, did not return requests for comment.

Calif. legislature approves bill to prevent circumcision bans

California’s state legislature approved a bill that would prevent the state’s municipalities from banning male circumcision.

The California Assembly approved the bill Tuesday. The bill comes on the heels of two attempts in California to place circumcision bans on the November ballot.

The bill now goes to California Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature and would take effect immediately. Brown has not taken a position on the bill, according to the Sacramento Bee.

A state Superior Court judge in California ruled in July that an anti-circumcision measure in San Francisco be stuck from the ballot because the city lacked the authority to regulate a medical procedure. Activists in Santa Monica then withdrew an identical proposal that had not yet made it to the ballot.

If passed, the San Francisco initiative would have made the practice of circumcising a minor a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail, and offered no exemption for religious ritual. It would have been the first time that such a measure appeared on a ballot in a U.S. city, according to the Anti Defamation League.

Bill would cut U.S. funds to backers of Palestinian state

Legislation that would cut off U.S. funds to countries that support granting the Palestinians a state unilaterally was introduced in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act on Tuesday.

The bill, which has 57 co-sponsors, would cut off U.S. contributions to any U.N. entity that grants membership or any other upgraded status to the Palestinian observer mission. The legislation also would withhold some U.S. dues to the United Nations if it does not change its funding system, making dues voluntary rather than assessed.

“It is time to use all our leverage to stop this unilateral Palestinian scheme—for the sake of our ally Israel and all free democracies, for the sake of peace and security, and for the sake of achieving a U.N. that upholds its founding principles,” Ros-Lehtinen, a longtime critic of the U.N.‘s operations, said in an Op-Ed in the Miami Herald in which she described the legislation.

Ros-Lehtinen pointed out that in 1989, when the Palestine Liberation Organization pushed to have a Palestinian state join the United Nations, that then-President George H.W. Bush “made clear that the U.S. would cut off funding to any UN entity that upgraded the status of the Palestinian observer mission in any way. The UN was forced to choose between isolating Israel and receiving U.S. contributions, and they chose the latter.”

The Palestinian Authority reportedly will ask the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an independent state on Sept. 20, the first day of the body’s new session.

Knesset considering bill recognizing Israel as ‘Jewish state’

The Knesset is considering a bill that will officially recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people.

Avi Dichter of the Kadima Party and Zeev Elkin of Likud introduced the bill Wednesday and have received 42 supporting signatures. The measure needs 61 votes to be signed into law.

In a section that has garnered controversy, the bill aims to elevate Hebrew to the only formal language of Israel. Arabic would be afforded a “special status” in the country.

In addition, the legislation will grant “constitutional status to State symbols, national holidays, the flag and the national anthem.” It also confirms the State of Israel as having a democratic government.

If the bill passes it will become Israel’s eighth basic law. Israel, which has no formal constitution, uses basic laws as a way to legislate government issues and civil rights.

“Cementing issues that seem basic in a basic law has become doubly important these days, when there are those who wish to annul the Jewish people’s right to have a national home in their own country,” Dichter said.

New momentum for bill to allow lawsuits against Holocaust-era insurance companies

It’s becoming a D.C. perennial: Every two years, a new Congress is ushered in and lawmakers from Florida herald a bill that once and for all will bring insurance companies to account for swindling Holocaust survivors.

And every two years, congressional staffers and Jewish community professionals who negotiate Holocaust restitution say the bill’s chances of passage are nil.

But this year, proponents of the bill say, the stars are aligned differently: A passionate congressional advocate is now in a position of considerable power. And for the first time, the bill has bipartisan Senate backing.

“The survivors are determined to speak for themselves,” said Sam Dubbin, the lawyer who for years has shepherded versions of the bill into Congress only to see them disappear into a twilight zone of parliamentary procedure. “They have an irrefutable legal and moral claim to have their rights restored.”

At issue is whether Holocaust survivors and their families should be allowed to sue European insurance companies for failing to pay on the policies of Jewish policy-holders killed at the hands of the Nazis. Except in extraordinary cases, such as lawsuits against state sponsors of terrorism, Americans cannot use U.S. courts to sue foreign entities.

In the late 1990s, Jewish groups including the Claims Conference reached settlements with European insurance companies that resulted in some $306 million being disbursed for survivors and survivor institutions through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, known by the acronym ICHEIC (pronounced EYE-check). These groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization see protecting the insurance companies from individual lawsuits as key to the strategy of getting European nations and institutions to agree to negotiated restitution settlements that result in money for needy survivors.

But Dubbin and some survivor groups, like the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, say the ICHEIC agreements never legally precluded individual lawsuits, and that legislation allowing such lawsuits against the insurance companies would correct a historic injustice. They say the ICHEIC process, which officially ended in 2007, was irredeemably weighted toward the insurers.

Opponents say that if Congress passed a bill that would allow individual U.S. lawsuits against the insurance companies, it would upend the executive branch’s exclusive control over foreign policy. Essentially, they say, it’s a jurisdiction issue.

“It would be a cruel and unrealistic increase in expectations to have people go to court to try to sue companies against whom they would have great difficulty getting jurisdiction,” said Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s special representative for Holocaust issues at the time the ICHEIC settlements were being negotiated. Today, Eizenstat is a top negotiator for the Claims Conference.

The battle between the two sides abounds with allegations of bad faith and greed, and even the threat of elderly survivors picketing a fundraiser for a politician once seen as sympathetic to their cause.

The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the U.S. Senate, would allow courts to proceed over executive branch objections in litigating claims aimed at insurers. Ros-Lehtinen, who has championed similar bills for years, is now able as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to expedite the bill.

Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a group that is associated with Dubbin, told JTA that he wants courts to compel insurers to produce documentation that litigants believe to be secreted away.

“Survivors were children during the Holocaust years, and we do not have information” about parents’ claims, he said.

Advocates of the legislation say billions are potentially at stake. Some survivors say ICHEIC denied claims even when they had evidence.

“Even though I have papers showing this policy existed, the ICHEIC commission allowed Generali to deny my claim without giving any proof,” Suzanne Marshak wrote to JTA, referring to a policy she says her uncle had with the Italian insurer.

Eizenstat says ICHEIC’s standards were “relaxed,” in that applicants were not required to provide legal standards of proof that they were beneficiaries.

The latest dustup between the two sides followed a June 1 story in The New York Times that alluded to allegations by Dubbin, who is based in Florida, that Jewish groups backing the ICHEIC process have profited from opposing the legislation.

The Jewish groups fired back with a June 13 letter to Nelson and Ros-Lehtinen outlining their arguments against the bill: It would raise unrealistic expectations among survivors; reopen a negotiating process that a number of Western European nations had presumed was closed and “call into question the U.S. ability to abide by its commitments.” Such uncertainties, they said, would inhibit Eastern European nations now negotiating to settle Holocaust-era claims.

Roman Kent, a survivor and treasurer of the Claims Conference, says the legislation gets in the way of helping needy survivors now, noting Germany’s recent commitment to increase its funding of home care for elderly survivors to $180 million in 2012. This year, the figure is $156 million.

“Litigation is costly and prolonged, and there are negotiations going on that will actually produce benefits for survivors now,” he said.

On June 17, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which supports the legislation, said in response that separate negotiations should not impinge on the right of individuals to litigate claims and that Western European nations are unlikely to renege on separate agreements.

The largest and more established survivors group, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, also has weighed in supporting the bill, with a caveat: Cap lawyers’ fees. Max Liebmann, the group’s senior vice president, said an overriding consideration was a recent spate of scandals that exposed lawyers ostensibly representing survivors as making unseemly profits.

“Dubbin is trying to cut in on this and make money,” he said.

Dubbin’s clients vouch for his integrity.

“He helps us with everything for so many years, not just insurance, with getting information, with filling out papers, and he never got paid,” said David Mermelstein. “If I go to court and win, shouldn’t he get paid?”

Rep. Brad Sherman will introduce bill outlawing city circumcision bans

Reacting to recent efforts to advance ballot measures banning circumcision of underage males in California cities, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) is set to introduce a bill that would prevent municipalities nationwide from prohibiting the procedure.

“Religious freedom is a federal issue, and medical practice is a state issue, maybe a federal issue as well,” Sherman said today. “Neither of them is in the proper realm of cities.”

The exact language of Sherman’s bill, the Religious and Parental Rights Defense Act of 2011, hadn’t been released as of press time, but Sherman said the bill would be presented to the House Judiciary Committee today or tomorrow. Sherman also said that he was gathering co-sponsors. “One of note is Keith Ellison,” Sherman said, referring to the Minnesota Democrat, the first Muslim American to be elected to Congress.

A proposition banning circumcision in San Francisco will appear on that city’s ballot in November. An effort to put an identical proposition before voters in Santa Monica was abandoned by its proponent on June 6.

Sherman did not coordinate his legislative efforts with the local organizing effort to defeat the San Francisco ballot proposition, which is being led by the Jewish Community Relations Council. He said he does not expect the measure to pass in San Francisco, nor does he expect any state to enact such legislation. Nevertheless, he was moved to act by the anti-Semitic comic book “Foreskin Man,” penned by Matthew Hess, an anti-circumcision movement leader.

Asked about the precedent for using federal legislation to restrict the types of laws that may be enacted by cities, Sherman cited a 2000 law that prevented cities from enacting zoning laws that would inhibit the construction of houses of worship. “Even when it is a city issue, such as zoning, the federal government steps in when we think cities are unduly burdening First Amendment rights,” Sherman said.

Ultimately, Sherman said, the decision over whether to circumcise “should be left up to the parents. I’m not going to propose a mandatory circumcision bill.”

Senators introduce enhanced Iran sanctions bill

U.S. Senators introduced an enhanced Iran sanctions bill matching one recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The crux of both bills is a ban on business with any entity that does $1 million in a single trade with Iran’s energy sector, or $5 million over one year. The current threshold is $20 million in business per year.

Like the House bill introduced earlier this month, the bill introduced May 24 by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) includes sanctions on materials used by Iran to crush its democracy movement and expands funding for democracy groups.

It also requires the Obama administration seek further sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.

Members of both parties say the Obama administration has not sufficiently exploited enhanced sanctions passed and enacted a year ago. Authors of the bills in the House and Senate have said that the legislation is in part a bid to force the president’s hand.

Maryland Senate committee passes Holocaust disclosure bill

A bill requiring recipients of state contracts to fully disclose their ties to any operation responsible for transporting people to Nazi concentration camps, was passed unanimously by a Maryland state Senate committee.

The Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee approved the bill, aimed at the French rail company known as SNCF, on March 3. The full state Senate is scheduled to take up the measure this week. A state House committee also heard testimony last week.

Holocaust survivors and their families testified before the committees last week in favor of the bill, which would prevent SNCF, through its subsidiary Keolis, to bid to run two lines of the Maryland Area Regional Commuter train service.

Keolis submitted a bid last July to the Maryland Transit Administration for a new five-year deal, but the MTA canceled the bidding in the same month, saying the offer had not attracted enough competition. Bidding is expected to open again in the coming months, and both Keolis and CSX are likely competitors for the deal. CSX currently has the contract, which ends in 2012, the Baltimore Jewish Times reported .

SNCF trains transported 76,000 Jews and other prisoners from the suburbs of Paris to the German border from 1942 to 1944, and the company was paid per head per kilometer, according to reports. Critics say that since the war, the company has refused to apologize for its actions.

The Maryland bill would in part require any entity and its majority owners pursuing a procurement contract with the Maryland Department of Transportation to provide train service to disclose what, if any, activity it undertook in the deportation of individuals to extermination camps or death camps during the period between Jan. 1, 1942 and Dec. 31, 1944. It also asks those companies to disclose any records in their possession and whether they have ever provided restitution or reparations, the Baltimore Jewish Times explains.

The California state Legislature passed a bill similar to the proposed Maryland one, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the measure.

Israeli students protest yeshiva stipend

Thousands of Israeli university students gathered in Jerusalem to protest a bill that would provide stipends to yeshiva students.

As many as 10,000 students from universities throughout the country arrived by chartered buses to the capital Monday evening for the protest march from the prime minister’s official residence to Zion Square.

The protesters carried signs reading “We’re not suckers” and “Haredim—go to work” and chanted slogans such as “Students are worth more” and “We’re hungry for bread, too.”

The demonstration was protesting Knesset approval of the first reading of the 2011-12 state budget, which includes stipends for married full-time yeshiva students.

The amendment to the budget granting the stipends, proposed by Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party, comes after an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in June that paying stipends to yeshiva students and not to university students constitutes discrimination.

VIDEO: JTA’s Wednesday Convention Summary

Eric Fingerhut and Ron Kampeas summarize the jewish events of the day at the election, while attending a jstreet function in downtown Denver.


Briefs: The Milken JCC pool; Valley Cities JCC fundraiser; Iran divestment bill moving forward

Federation Asks Milken JCC to Relinquish Property Rights

With little notice, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles closed the Olympic-sized swimming pool at The New JCC at Milken on April 25, citing possible mold damage but having already been issued a permit on April 11 by the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety to demolish and fill in the pool.

Now The Federation appears to have more extensive plans for the financially troubled JCC, offering them a one-time supplemental allocation of $350,000 in return for signing a quitclaim deed relinquishing their historic right to be the major tenant on the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills.

After June 30, 2008, the JCC’s space and budget could be greatly diminished as The Federation intends to rent the space to former tenant New Community Jewish High School, giving them a substantial portion of the Milken campus.

In response to that proposal, which was faxed to the JCC on May 22, the JCC board of directors has scheduled a membership meeting on Sunday, June 10, 2 p.m., to present and vote on The Federation’s rescue plan. Prior to that meeting, however, JCC officials are hoping to raise $500,000, giving them the ability to consider other options.

“We have a lot of financial problems and some mismanagement. Nobody’s denying that,” former JCC president Bonnie Rosenthal said. “But we do serve people and it seems that Federation is not interested in the people we serve.”

Those people include 125 preschoolers, many from single-parent, working-parent and immigrant families who depend on the extended daycare hours. Additionally, the JCC serves more than 700 seniors who come for classes, cultural events and fitness programs.

Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said that it is a coincidence that the pool closure happend at the same time as the JCC’s financial distress. She added that The Federation wants to see the best communal use of the property and intends to work with the JCC to continue a downsized version of its early childhood and senior programs.

Dragon and Andrew Cushnir, Federation vice president of planning, said that without signing the quitclaim deed, the JCC will not receive supplemental funding and, like all Federation agencies, must apply for a 2008 allocation, with no guarantee.

“The JCC is losing members in droves because of the pool closure and the lack of information that Federation is giving out,” said Marty Rosenthal, JCC treasurer and past president.

Meanwhile, the pool remains closed with no set demolition date.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Valley Cities JCC Holds Fundraiser

In what could be a last hurrah, the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC) will hold a BBQ social on Sunday, June 10, 2-7 p.m., complete with a bounce house for children, face painting, bands and silent auction. The entrance fee is $10.

The center, which uses property owned by the Jewish Community Centers Development Corp., is facing closure as soon as June 15. The development corporation had agreed in principle to a Burbank philanthropist’s $2.7 million offer to buy the property and turn it over to Valley Cities JCC. But in April everything fell apart.

“We keep making them offers, and they just keep turning their backs on us,” said Michael Brezner, the center’s board chair. “They are not nice people.”

The BBQ is part fundraiser, part public relations initiative.

“We want people to know we are here. We want to stay,” said Lori Brockman, a concerned parent who helped organize the event.

Valley Cities JCC is in Sherman Oaks at 13164 Burbank Blvd. For more information, call (818) 786-6310.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Staff Writer

Iran Divestment Bill Passes Assembly Appropriation Committee

[SACRAMENTO] — A proposed California State Assembly bill that would require state pension funds to divest an estimated $24 billion from more than 280 companies doing business with Iran, took one step closer to become law on May 31 after being approved by the Assembly’s Appropriation Committee.

The bill, also known as AB 221, was first introduced by freshman Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon) and unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee on April 24. Anderson has said the primary goal of the legislation is to secure the California Public Employees Retirement and the State Teachers Retirement pensions with wise investment strategies, since both are valued at nearly $400 billion and funded by taxpayers.

AB 221 has received wide support from 14 national and state Jewish organizations and dozens of Los Angeles-based Iranian Muslim groups opposed to Iran’s regime, as an economic means to bring down the already crippled Iranian economy. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington D.C.-based pro-Iran lobby as well as the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have been the only groups opposing AB 221. The Assembly will have a final vote on the bill in the first week of June and supporters said they expect it to become law by January 2008.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Tough Choices for Hate Law Boosters

For Jewish leaders, lobbying sometimes involves tough choices between winning and doing the right thing. That dynamic is very much in play this week as many Jewish groups, with a boost from President Bill Clinton, fight desperately to save a new hate crimes law that has become cannon fodder in the nation’s culture wars.

The bill has been blocked by Republicans because of provisions that are not central to the Jewish groups that support it. But Jewish leaders haven’t even considered changing the bill to advance the parts that would most directly benefit the Jewish community. To do so, they believe, might produce short-term gains but at a terrible long-term cost. And to do so, many believe, wouldn’t be right.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act has several components.

The first is one Jewish groups have long advocated. It would expand on earlier legislation and make it easier for federal authorities to investigate and prosecute local cases when bias is suspected as the cause of violence.

The rationale isn’t to create special categories of protected citizens, but to make up for obvious inequities in the way laws are enforced in different areas of the country.

The second component expands existing hate crimes laws by adding crimes based on the victim’s gender, sexual preference and disability to the categories covered by earlier laws — race, ethnicity and religion.

It is this part of the legislation that has caused such an agonizing dilemma for many Jewish leaders.

From the outset, they supported this expansion because a hate crimes measure that does not seek to protect all those most likely to be victims is a sham.

But the inclusion of gays and lesbians, predictably, incensed Christian right forces and their friends in Congress. Suddenly, the measure was redefined by politicians, preachers and an impressionable media as a gay rights law, written to provide “special” protections for gays and lesbians.

Those who opposed the measure for other reasons, including their opposition to anything that expands federal powers at the expense of the states, found this a convenient hook on which to hang their political hats.

Gay rights groups, understandably, focused on the gender preference aspects of the bill; their militant press releases and public statements became ammunition for opponents.

Almost lost was the idea that this law is meant to protect all minorities who have been subjected to hate violence and victimized again by halfhearted local prosecution.

Lost, too, was the fact that it was crafted in large part by the Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights all forms of racism and bigotry, but whose first commitment has always been to battle anti-Semitism.

Advocates point out that sexual preference is only the third most common basis for hate crimes, behind crimes based on race and religion. Calling it a “gay rights” measure, they say, is a straw man set up by those who oppose all hate crimes laws — or those who seek favor with conservative voters by slamming gays and lesbians.

Because of that opposition, the measure was recently stripped from the Commerce, State and Justice appropriations bill. This week, Jewish activists were working frantically to get it reinserted. President Bill Clinton said his recent veto of the spending bill was due, in part, to the removal of hate crimes language; Jewish activists are hoping it could be revived as part of a budget agreement.

Still, this week’s lobbying represented a longshot rescue effort.

So what are Jewish leaders to do? Most continue to view the new hate crimes bill an essential element in their effort to protect Jews and other minorities, but they also see the handwriting on the wall: the inclusion of gays and lesbians makes the measure highly vulnerable, especially in this Congress.

Despite that reality, Jewish groups seem disinclined to seek changes that would scale back or eliminate the inclusion of gays and lesbians under the bill.

“It might be politically pragmatic, but it would be impossible to justify in the face of what we have always said is the compelling reason for this law — the existence of hate crimes, and disparities in the way they are treated,” said one Jewish activist who has been involved in the fight. “Changing the sexual preference language would be a clear signal that Congress believes some kinds of hate crimes are more okay than others.”

Changing the legislation would blow apart a broad hate crimes coalition that has been responsible for the slow but steady accretion of new laws that Jewish groups say are clearly benefiting the Jewish community, as well as other minority groups.

And giving in to the political pressure would boost politicians, who come perilously close to endorsing outright bigotry and even violence when they play to conservative voters, by branding every initiative that would benefit gays and lesbians as beyond the political pale.

The Jewish community is not monolithic in supporting gay rights; Orthodox organizations, for example, refused to take a position on the current legislation because of the inclusion of gays and lesbians.

But those groups have avoided the overt gay bashing that continues to be heard on Capitol Hill — bigotry tidied up and legitimized by the full force of Congress, dangerous to homosexuals today and possible other minority groups tomorrow.

Jewish Hot-Button Issues

After a summer marred by anti-Semitic violence, Jewish lobbyists are vowing to push lawmakers to enact stricter laws to combat hate crimes and control guns.

As Congress returns from its August recess, both efforts are likely to garner a high profile, although it remains unclear whether meaningful changes will be adopted.

Ensuring greater protections for free religious practice and maintaining current spending levels for social-service programs are also key domestic concerns for the Jewish community, while efforts to contain Iran and secure funding for Israel and the Palestinians to implement the Wye River land-for-peace deal will be the focus of activity in the international arena.

Gun control, meanwhile, is shaping up as the toughest battle.

The Senate has already adopted a juvenile-justice bill that would subject individuals purchasing guns at gun shows to background checks, ban the import of magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds and require that trigger locks or other safety devices be sold with handguns.

But the House of Representatives, following a fierce lobbying effort by the National Rifle Association, rejected those proposals in June.

While most Jewish activists continue to back those proposals, some are urging Congress to go much further, particularly following the recent spate of deadly assaults across the country — including shooting rampages targeted at Jews in Illinois and California.

One effort, led by the American Jewish Congress, seeks to build grass-roots support for sweeping federal gun control legislation.

The group hopes to rally the religious community and members of Congress around proposals for requiring all gun buyers to pass background checks and for all guns to be licensed and registered, much like cars.

“The problem is that Congress has failed to enact effective gun control legislation, and we believe, as many do, that there are a substantial number of lawmakers who would support meaningful gun control legislation if they had the chance to do so,” said Matthew Dorf, director of the AJCongress’ Washington office.

The organized Jewish community has been calling for more stringent gun control measures for years, but what was once considered something of a low-priority issue has taken on a new sense of urgency.

“There were lots of members of the Jewish community who had glazed eyes when we talked about gun control and gun safety issues in the past, and, unfortunately, I think Buford Furrow and Benjamin Smith have gotten the attention of the Jewish community as to why gun control is a Jewish issue,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel, Michael Lieberman, referring to the white supremacists suspected in the shootings of Jews and other minorities in California and Illinois.

At the same time, recent hate crimes have also generated momentum for legislation aimed at strengthening the federal hate crimes statute. In July, the Senate unanimously approved the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes sparked by sexual orientation, gender and disability.

Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin. The House has already held hearings on the measure, but it remains unclear whether there will be enough support to overcome opposition from conservative Republicans, who have argued that the bill designates special classes of citizens who are already protected under existing state laws against violence.

On the religious freedom front, the Jewish community’s long-standing goal of ensuring that Americans can practice their religion free from government intrusion faces an uncertain fate.

After the House passed the Religious Liberty Protection Act in July, activists will be turning their attention to the Senate.

The bill, crafted following a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the protections for religious practice contained in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, appeared at the outset to be relatively noncontroversial. A wall-to-wall coalition of religious and civil liberties groups, including every major Jewish organization, formed in support of the bill.

But as the measure moved through the House earlier this year, support began breaking down among Democrats amid a dispute over whether religious liberty or civil rights laws should take precedence when the two come into conflict.

The coalition now also risks fracturing over the same concern.

At issue is the question of whether the proposed legislation could be used to justify violations of state or local anti-discrimination laws. Opponents argue that landlords and employers in states and cities with laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals could invoke their religious principles as a defense for refusing to rent to or hire gays and lesbians.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., an original sponsor of the bill who ultimately voted against it, encapsulated the concerns many have expressed over the legislation when he said, “RLPA should be a shield for the religious liberty of all — not a sword against the civil rights of some.”