Syria approves new constitution amid bloodshed


Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad’s government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent did manage to enter the besieged Baba Amro district of Homs and evacuate three people on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said. Foreign reporters trapped in the area were not evacuated and the bodies of two journalists killed there had not been recovered, it said.

While foreign powers argued over whether to arm the rebels, the Syrian Interior Ministry on Monday said the reformed constitution, which could keep Assad in power until 2028, had received 89.4 percent approval from more than 8 million voters.

Syrian dissidents and Western leaders dismissed as a farce Sunday’s vote, conducted in the midst of the country’s bloodiest turmoil in decades, although Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.

Officials put national voter turnout at close to 60 percent, but diplomats who toured polling stations in Damascus saw only a handful of voters at each location. On the same day, at least 59 people were killed in violence around the country.

Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups” and his main allies – Russia, China and Iran – fiercely oppose any outside intervention intended to add him to the list of Arab autocrats unseated by popular revolts in the past year.

But Qatar joined Saudi Arabia in advocating arming the Syrian rebels, given that Russia and China have twice used their vetoes to block any action by the U.N. Security Council.

“I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Oslo.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe criticised the U.N. Security Council’s “impotence” on Syria, shown by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and accused the Syrian authorities of “massacres” and “odious crimes.”

In a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Juppe said the time was ripe for referring Syria to the International Criminal Court and warned Assad he would be brought to justice.

“The day will come when the Syrian civilian and military authorities, first among them President Assad himself, must respond before justice for their acts. In the face of such crimes, there can be no impunity,” Juppe told the 47-member Geneva forum, which will hold an emergency debate on Syria on Tuesday.

HOMS BOMBARDED AGAIN

Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad’s forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.

The ICRC has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.

ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said a team from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent team had entered Baba Amro. “They have been able to evacuate three persons, including an aged woman, and a pregnant woman and her husband,” he said.

The trio were believed to be Syrian and did not include four Western journalists trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. A U.S. reporter and a French photographer were killed there on February 22.

International consternation has grown over the turmoil in Syria, but there is little appetite in the West for military action akin to the U.N.-backed NATO campaign in Libya.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Western powers hoped diplomacy could change minds: “We are putting pressure on the Russians first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto.”

The European Union agreed more sanctions, targeting Syria’s central bank and several cabinet ministers, curbing gold trading with state entities and banning cargo flights from the country.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any military intervention in Syria.

“I very much hope the United States and other countries … do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council,” said Putin.

The new constitution drops a clause making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allows political pluralism and limits a president to two seven-year terms.

But this restriction is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46 and already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.

The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer, saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now the new U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, was holding separate talks in Geneva with Juppe and Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.

Iran is Assad’s closest ally. The main Shi’ite Muslim power, it has religious ties to Assad’s Alawites and is confronting the Sunnis who dominate the Arab League – both the Sunni Islamists who have done well out of the past year’s democratic changes and autocratic, Western-backed leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Walter Gibbs in Oslo, Peter Griffiths in London and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, David Stamp and Andrew Heavens

Aid to Israeli Families Serves Dual Role


Good can come from every situation, Judaism holds, and so does Irvine’s Rabbi Joel Landau. The Beth Jacob Congregation leader has searched for good amid the unceasing bloodshed in the Middle East and found that empathy for victims of violence could be the sympathetic lifeline that tugs American Jews closer to their religious roots.

“On a theological level, God is using Israel as a way to preserve Judaism,” said Landau, whose Orthodox synagogue has a membership of about 300 families.

Acting on that premise, in May Landau used Beth Jacob’s newsletter to ask congregants to provide financial aid to an individual Israeli family from among the 700 killed in terrorist attacks since September 2000. Brief biographies in the newsletter convey in compelling detail the lifestyle of impoverished survivor families, doubly traumatized by Israel’s economic depression.

All4Israel of Long Island, N.Y., provided the newsletter information. Such Israel support groups have proliferated in the United States, with activities ranging from hosting Israeli merchants for local shopping opportunities to raising funds for the Israel Emergency Fund, which has received $349 million in contributions since fall 2001.

Set up by the United Jewish Communities’ federations, the fund has underwritten after-school children’s programs, security guards and medical equipment. Orange County’s residents have donated $636,514 as of June 13.

In a grass-roots approach, Landau’s first appeal raised $8,000 for Miriam and Yosef Ben Hanan, whose 21-year-old daughter died in a bus attack last year. Two days after rising from shiva, the couple insisted on proceeding with the planned wedding of their eldest daughter.

Unemployed for two years, Yosef Hanan lost his teeth due to lack of dental care and cannot eat solid food. Their Lod home is without basic necessities — furniture, hot water, a phone, adequate food or clothing for their three young children.

In June, Landau’s appeal yielded $6,000 for widowed Eva Dolinger of Pe’at Sadeh and her six children. Nisan Dolinger, a founding member of the farming community begun in 1988, was shot last year by a Palestinian laborer. Eva then reduced her work hours and pay to be home with her children. Their home now lacks hot water or outgoing phone service; their furniture and car were repossessed.

But Landau’s newsletter did not mention that Pe’at Sadeh is located in Gaza, home to approximately 6,000 Jewish settlers amid 1.2 million Palestinians.

The issue of sending money over the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders) has plagued many Jewish organizations in America, such as the Federation, which does not officially send money to the West Bank.

“The money is to exist, not for settlements,” said Landau, insisting the effort is humanitarian, not political. “I don’t think it’s relevant.” But Landau said he would provide details on where future recipients live, should anyone ask.

“The program is meant to nurture Jew to Jew long distance,” said Landau, who grew up in Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and is the only one of four brothers not to remain there. He last visited Feb. 1 for the 80th birthday of his mother.

Eventually, he expects to share with congregants the impact of their contribution. “No matter how much we give them,” Landau said, referring to the Ben Hanans, “hopefully he’ll get teeth, but nothing will bring his daughter back.”

“Unfortunately, there are a lot more candidates after today,” said Landau, shortly after the grisly June 11 bus bombing on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road that claimed 17 lives.

Overlaying a human face and story with every death statistic is the mission of All4Israel, founded in December 2000. The group maintains an online archive containing short profiles and photos of hundreds of victims. The group also buys newspaper advertising using the photos and exhorting readers to remember victims, said a spokeswoman and co-founder, who asked not to be identified because of security concerns

Families of those killed in terror attacks are supposed to receive government-funded subsistence income and an evaluation by social workers. Donations have helped bridge delays in processing before subsidies arrive, she said. All4Israel’s individual family reports are culled from the findings of social workers.

Around the United States, about 100 synagogues, like Beth Jacob, have “adopted” Israeli families by providing them financial stipends of varying duration, the spokeswoman said.

So have at least 100 teens, who have devoted a portion of their b’nai mitzvah cash-gifts to Israeli families. Money is transferred electronically into the family members’ bank account.

“Getting a check from a stranger, it’s a huge emotional boost,” the spokeswoman said.

Landau may have to wait to gauge if his effort pays off until the synagogue attempts another congregational mission to Israel. Last year, he didn’t succeed.

Vouchers for Life


“Murderous explosion at Sbarros”

“Three dead in fatal drive-by shooting”

For me, like for most American Jews, reading the morning
newspaper is an event that fills me with dread. Over the last two

years I have conditioned myself to hope for the best. But,
after reading and hearing about so many horrific events, deep down it seems
that I have come to expect the worst.

In addition to the terrible loss of life, there are other
fatal results: the tourists are gone; retail stores and other businesses are
closing. Tragically, the Israeli economy is in shambles.

And like most American Jews, my family and I felt depressed
about the situation, and helpless regarding our lack of ability to do anything
about it. Sure, we wrote our checks to the federation and bought Israeli bonds,
but we wanted to do more.

So last October, my family and I organized our own bikur cholim
(visit the sick) mission to Israel. Our goal was simple — to bring financial
and emotional support to different groups of people living in Israel.

Like other synagogue-led missions, we wanted to visit and
help the victims of terrorism and their families. But we also wanted to
revitalize businesses facing closure or dramatic downsizing due to both low
tourism rates and a local population that is scared to shop in areas where
there have been bombings, such as Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street.

Two of my sons, my brother, his wife and I together with Yossi
Goldberger, the director of Hatzalah of Judea and Samaria, visited all types of
stores and restaurants in Jerusalem. At each place, we purchased between
$500-$1,000 worth of gift vouchers. At first, the owners of the establishments
were suspicious.

“Who are you? Why are you doing this?” the owner of Cafe Rimon,
located in the heart of the Ben Yehuda, asked me the first time I met her. “How
do I know your money is real?”

At a small children’s toy store on Jaffa Road, the owner
asked, “Who are you going to give these vouchers to?”

When they realized that the vouchers were going to be
distributed to victims of terror and their families, the business people became
speechless.

“I can’t believe it,” the toy store owner said.

On many occasions, they even agreed to give us an additional
10 percent in coupons — as their own contribution.

We found a lovely restaurant in a hotel near the Jerusalem
Central Bus Station, which was on the verge of closing. We purchased dinner for
90, and gave it to people who lived in a settlement in the West Bank — they had
not been in a restaurant for almost two years. The local municipality agreed to
send two buses to bring them to Jerusalem for dinner and entertainment and then
take them home.

Armed with our gift vouchers, we began visiting the injured
at Share Zedek Hospital, Hadassah Hospital, Tel Hashomer and Rabin Medical Center.
But nothing could prepare us for the emotional experience we were about to
encounter.

Like the shopkeepers, the victims and their families were
initially suspicious and skeptical. They kept asking, “Why are you doing this?”

“I can’t believe that you are like a miracle coming to visit
a complete stranger and bring gifts,” said the driver of the bus that was blown
up in Ariel on Oct. 21, killing 14 people. The 35-year-old father of eight was
incredulous: “How did you find me?”

We told him and the other victims that as fellow Jews, we
simply wanted to share their grief, and in some small way, to try to ease their
burden. Their skepticism gave way to gratitude, blessings and, sometimes,
tears, as we distributed the gift vouchers.

At Tel Hashomer Hospital, a 19-year-old man, who had been
injured in a suicide bus bombing, had just received vouchers to buy toys — and
immediately he began thinking of how he could get gifts for his younger
siblings.

Our last visit took us to the Hadassah Hospital. We visited
a man in his early 30s who had been taken by ambulance to the hospital after a
terrorist bombing. While he was in surgery, another ambulance came to the
hospital bringing the lower portion of the man’s leg, which had been recovered
at the site of the explosion. The doctors were able to reattach it, but the man
was required to stay in the hospital for five months. We gave him, his wife and
three children vouchers for every type of store and restaurant. His wife began
to cry; her parents, who were also there, began to cry as well. Then all of us
joined in the crying. We couldn’t help but feel their plight. Again and again
they blessed us, saying that they never expected anything like this, and
admitting that very few people except friends and family ever visited them.

As our plane took off to return to America, we looked at the
skyline of Israel, knowing that we gave an emotional and financial lift to the
local merchants, and that we encouraged the local population to feel that it
was safe to visit and shop in that area. But more importantly, even as we had
touched the lives of the victims and their families — they had touched ours
more. Â


Norman Ciment is a former mayor of Miami Beach, Fla.

Learning Lessons


One of the most riveting – and controversial – photographs to have emerged from the recent violence in Israel was that of a bloodied and dazed young man with an angry Israeli policeman standing behind him shouting. While the young man was first identified by the Associated Press, the photo’s source, as a Palestinian, it soon became clear that he was an American studying in an Israeli yeshiva – a victim of Palestinians, who had dragged him from a car, beaten and stabbed him; the policeman had been shouting at the Arab assailants. The New York Times, which ran the photo and mistaken caption, published a subsequent correction and follow-up article. Grossman, who is recuperating and undergoing physical therapy for his wounds, feels not only blessed to have escaped his would-be murderers, but richer in a sense for his harrowing experience. He penned the piece below for Am Echad.

As the violence in the Middle East continues, we all have our opinions about the Arab uprising, the peace process and what might be done to halt the bloodshed. There are many lessons we might learn from the events of the past weeks, but an important one is the one I personally learned in a rather unwelcome way.Shortly after the violence first broke out, I happened to be traveling in a taxi in Jerusalem with two friends when our car was attacked by a mob of Arabs who stoned it, forcing us to stop. The crazed mob then dragged us out of the vehicle and proceeded to severely beat and stab us. Somehow – miraculously is the only way I can understand it – we were able to break away and escape to an Israeli Army position down the road.

As a Jewish American student studying in a Jerusalem yeshiva, I had little experience with the hatred that so many Arabs seem to have for Jews. Indeed, I had conflicted feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But none of that would have made any difference to those who assaulted me and my friends. They wanted, to put it simply, to kill Jews. What they ended up doing, though, was to put me on the path to a lesson I will never forget.

The first indication of the lesson came as I lay in my hospital bed, recovering from a stab wound in my thigh, multiple gashes to my head, and a broken nose. I started receiving phone calls from Jews all over the world, each offering support and compassion. Total strangers showed up at the hospital to visit me and asked what they could do to help me. What I began to realize then is what it is that characterizes us Jews as a nation. The Hebrew word is achdut (unity): a connection that binds us all. As I learned in yeshiva, the sages of the Talmud teach that “kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh” (all Jews are intertwined with each other).That concept includes not only all Jews alive today, but all who ever lived, a thought central to the holidays we Jews celebrate. On Passover we are required to imagine ourselves as redeemed from Egypt along with our forefathers; the matzahs and bitter herbs we eat connect us – and have connected every Jewish generation – to the Jews who actually labored in and escaped ancient Egypt. On Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, we rejoice with the same happiness as if we ourselves were standing at Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah today.

When my picture was published in The New York Times and countless other newspapers and magazines with the distorted caption identifying me as a Palestinian being beaten by the soldier who had actually saved my life, a powerful outpouring of complaints from Jews around the world compelled many of those papers, including The Times, to republish the photograph with a corrected caption and accurate story.I feel that the overwhelming response to the photo that led to that correction was born of the very aspect of achdut that I first realized in my hospital bed. Jews around the world felt that the bond holding us together had been somehow violated by the misidentification of one of our people, and simply refused to allow it to go unchallenged. It was as if the misrepresentation of any Jew was the misrepresentation of every Jew.That is the lesson I learned, the lesson I am still learning, the lesson all we Jews so need to learn. Even if we feel somewhat removed from the situation in Israel, we must all realize that the suffering of any Jew is the suffering of us all. The whole Jewish nation felt assaulted by my assault, and all of us must feel that we, not just our brothers and sisters in Israel, are under siege, threatened and despised. It is not, in other words, “what goes on in Israel”; it is what goes on in all of our hearts.

And as we share in each other’s suffering, may we merit to share in common rejoicing as well.