Editorial Cartoon: The Sacramento Chainsaw Massacre

Briefs: Western Wall dig starts, Israel and U.S. back gays at U.N.

Israel Starts Western Wall Dig

Israel began a controversial dig in the Western Wall Plaza. Bulldozers from the Antiquities Authority broke ground Tuesday near a ramp connecting the plaza to the Temple Mount, with officials saying the aim was to search for historical artifacts before fixing weather damage to the structure. Footage relayed live on Middle East television stations prompted Arab leaders to accuse Israel of trying to undermine the Al-Aksa Mosque and another major Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount.

“I appeal to all our Palestinian people to be united and to rise up together to protect Al-Aksa,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said.The Antiquities Authority’s director of excavations, Gideon Avni, denied that such a threat existed.

“Nothing in the work touches the wall of the Temple Mount,” he told reporters.Israeli police went on high alert for possible riots and restricted Palestinian access to the site.

Adelson Gives $25 Million to Birthright

Billionaire Sheldon Adelson pledged $25 million to Birthright Israel. The money will allow the organization to double the number of free trips to Israel that it offers Jewish youth this summer, bringing the total to 20,000. The gift is being made by the Adelson Family Charitable Foundation, founded recently by the majority owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson.

According to a Birthright spokesman, the foundation anticipates making similar $25 million gifts for the next several years. In December, the Adelson foundation gave $5 million to Birthright to pay for 2,000 free trips for Jews aged 18 to 26. Adelson, whose net worth was estimated in September at $20.5 billion, is America’s third wealthiest man behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

“The Birthright Israel program is one of the best ideas our time has seen because it has the greatest potential for establishing Jewish continuity,” Adelson said.

Jewish Groups Urge Budget Fight

A coalition of Jewish groups urged Congress to fight President Bush’s budget cuts.

“We urge you to fight cuts that would be harmful to the vulnerable populations we advocate on behalf of,” said the letter sent Monday to every member of Congress and signed by 16 national groups and 62 local and state groups.

It identified programs such as the Social Services Block Grant, the Community Services Block Grant, Food Stamps, State Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program as “critical to the elderly, refugees, children and persons with disabilities. Please keep these populations in mind as Congress develops its budget resolution.”

The letter was spearheaded by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; signatories include the American Jewish Committee, United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, and the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams. Programs favored by the Jewish community that face significant cuts in the president’s budget released Monday include Medicaid and Medicare; a Housing Department program that funds independent living for the elderly; and block grants to states for social services that pay for adoption services, refugee assistance and other programs.

British Jews Urge ‘Independent’ Stand on Israel

A group of Anglo-Jewish notables urged Jews to take a more “independent” stance on Israel than do mainstream community groups. In a statement posted Monday on a Web site linked to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the left-leaning group Independent Jewish Voices called for equitable treatment of Israelis and Palestinians, and deplored anti-Arab bigotry as akin to anti-Semitism.

The group, comprised of dozens of Jewish intellectuals and celebrities including actor Stephen Fry and film director Mike Leigh, hinted that it sought to break from the umbrella Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has backed Israel in its recent conflicts with Hezbollah and the Palestinians.

Anti-Semitism Monitor Gets Top Radio Post

A scholar known for his work monitoring anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli activity in Europe was named president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Jeffrey Gedmin starts in March, according to a statement released last Friday by the congressionally funded pro-American radio network. In a 2004 interview Gedmin, who has headed the Berlin office of the influential Aspen Institute since 2001, said anti-Israel sentiment in Europe was rooted in the continent’s anti-Semitic past.

Group Mounts Bone-Marrow Drive

Ezer Mizion will hold a nationwide bone-marrow testing drive in Israel on Feb. 14. The largest Jewish bone-marrow testing registry is looking for a match for an 8-year-old Jewish leukemia patient. The Brooklyn-based organization hopes to screen some 20,000 people at dozens of testing stations around Israel. For information, call (718) 853-8400.

Israel, U.S. Back Gays at U.N.

Israel and the United States were among a minority at the United Nations in favor of accrediting a gay-rights group. The Coalition of Gays and Lesbians of Quebec applied this month for registration with the United Nations Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations, but was rejected by a majority vote of mostly Muslim countries. Voting in favor were Israel, the United States and four other countries. A motion to admit a second gay advocacy group, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, was deferred by the NGO committee.

Agudah Rabbis Call for Pollard’s Release

Agudath Israel of America’s rabbinical councils called on “all caring Jews” to appeal to President Bush to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life in 1987 for spying for Israel.

“Mr. Pollard’s life sentence — a penalty far more severe than that imposed upon others who committed similar or even more serious crimes — is difficult to comprehend,” said the statement issued Monday by the fervently Orthodox group’s Council of Torah Sages, Rabbinic Presidium and nearly 100 signatories from its Conference of Synagogue Rabbis.

“At this time, it appears that all legal avenues through the judicial system have been shut off. Only the president of the United States, by granting Mr. Pollard executive clemency, can save him from spending the rest of his life behind bars.”

Agudath Israel says it will join other Jewish organizations in asking its members to phone the White House daily between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EST until Passover.

The phone-in is primarily organized by the National Council of Young Israel.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Math Problem

It’s spring in Sacramento, and that means the Capitol steps are jammed again with protesters against government cuts — the first protesters to show up in mid-March were thousands of community college students demanding that California taxpayers continue paying the nation’s steepest college subsidies per student.

In light of his March 2 election victories, some say the governor can withstand the emotions that will crescendo this summer, as they have in recent years, with large numbers of wheelchair-bound recipients of state monies zipping through halls to stare down uncomfortable legislators in tense hearings.

He may be able to withstand the emotional pressure, but a bigger question may be whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can withstand the math.

Last year, facing a historic deficit that dwarfed the budgets of some smallish countries, the Legislature cut very little — roughly $4 billion from an operating budget of nearly $80 billion. Now, the governor has proposed $7 billion to $9 billion in cuts for fiscal year 2004-05.

But the Legislature won’t give him all the cuts he wants, and he needs to close a gap of $14 billion. So his 150-person performance review team is scouring the state to identify waste, abuse, fraud and duplication for further cuts.

Mindful of the governor’s popularity, Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles, a savvy negotiator, is smoothing the waters between the anti-cut Democrats and the anti-tax Republicans. He’s joined Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), the unapologetic big government liberal, in saying the Democrats won’t repeat 2003 by digging in their heels for taxes and failing to seek cuts — the stubborn legislative stance that sacrificed their governor.

In a highly unusual shift, the Democrats are holding hearings into how efficiently state programs operate. Nunez said the hearings are designed to cut waste and abuse.

Maybe that’s what the Dems are doing — or maybe not. A major hearing March 15 was on child care, an area with little potential waste.

The hearing seemed designed to make the governor squirm, as people testified about how badly low-income families need child care. Were legislators really trying to show the governor planned to save billions by making sure nobody gets extra milk and cookies?

But there’s still room for optimism. Daniel Pellisier, chief of staff for Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Granada Hills), said, “It’s heartening to see that the Dems will look toward eliminating waste and inefficiency in the budget before asking taxpayers to pay more money.”

The fresh-thinking Richman, a socially moderate Jewish pol, is one of very few leaders in Sacramento with moderate ideas, so the governor seeks him out regularly.

“Hopefully,” Pellisier said, “in the weeks ahead, the Democrats will look at things that will generate significant savings in areas such as health care administrative costs, the Department of Corrections and the education bureaucracy.”

Still, it’s instructive to look back at December, before Democratic leaders witnessed Schwarzenegger’s last success, when twin Propositions 57 and 58 to refinance the state’s huge debts and put a spending cap on the Legislature won by landslides.

Back in December, Democratic leaders rejected Schwarzenegger’s request to place a true spending cap on the March ballot. The spending cap voters approved, which makes it difficult but not impossible for the Legislature to overspend, was fashioned by the Democrats.

In arguing for a softer spending cap, Burton said, “It is our job to implement our own vision, and that of voters…. We owe voters not just what they think is right at the moment but also our independent assessment of what is best.”

Deploying that philosophy, Burton was the fiercest fighter in Sacramento against budget cuts in 2003. He emerged victorious — if you could call it that.

Californians should expect that by about May or so, after the Democrats’ hearings have failed to find a whole lot of cuts that don’t create fury among the well-padded public employee unions, the two parties’ divergent philosophies will reassert themselves.

As one Republican insider noted, “The Democrats started their waste-cutting hearings with child care? C’mon. What about waste at Caltrans, which we’re told doesn’t have enough money now to pursue many transportation projects? Why do we still pay 7,000 state engineers? Are they sitting, like, with their little pencils poised in the air?”

Sacramento is so resistant to trimming down, that state department heads are notorious for refusing to say where savings exist in their own departments. Richman sued former Gov. Gray Davis’ Department of Finance to get access to reports Davis ordered from department heads showing where they would make 20 percent budget cuts if they had to.

Davis vowed to cut the size of government but later lost his nerve. He refused to show the 20 percent-cut documents to the Legislature for fear of angering public unions.

Recently, Richman lost his suit. The Legislature never did learn what California’s department heads said about where they’d cut.

Schwarzenegger has access to those reports. Among his other difficult tasks, he may become the first governor in years to seek big layoffs or wage cuts from a work force of about 230,000.

The governor has one modest escape hatch. Borrowing can close part of the gap. The $15 billion bond issue approved by voters March 2 to refinance the Davis debt included $5 billion or so in unassigned borrowing. The governor wants to use it over the next three years to close modest budget gaps that persist as he hacks away at deeply embedded overspending.

He might, for instance, direct the money toward the huge Medi-Cal program, now that the courts have said California can’t further reduce the fees it pays doctors without conducting lengthy studies.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger and his finance czar, Donna Arduin, are actually seeking out waste and abuse in government. If the Dems launched their efficiency hearings with less than honorable intentions, they will look like phonies and obstructionists by summer, just as several Democrats face down tough legislative races.

If that happens, the students may be the ones on the Capitol steps now, but it is the Democrats who could get an education.

Community Briefs

Cooper Visits Sudan, DiscussesSlavery

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, spent an eventful 21 hours in Sudan in mid-February when he met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to discuss the country’s ongoing slave trade and a peace treaty with Sudanese rebel.

“The whole notion of enslavement in the 20th and 21st century really has sparked concern and anger in many, many corners,” Cooper told The Journal.

That could change through negotiations to end two horrific decades of civil war between the Muslim-dominated government in Sudan’s north and Christian rebels in the south. At the Sudanese presidential palace in Khartoum, Bashir listened to Cooper’s recommendation to allow anti-slavery activists free reign in traveling across Sudan, seeking to help end slavery.

“Whatever can be done to speed that along,” he said.

Mohammed Khan, a second-generation Pakistani American in Los Angeles and adviser to the American Sudanese Council, traveled with Cooper.

“The Sudanese government is making it very clear that they have nothing to hide,” Khan said.

Decades of civil war mean that “the Sudan was viewed by the U.S. as a kind out outpost and welcome mat for terrorists,” Cooper said. “With all of the bloodshed and everything else that’s taken place, number one, the terrorists are gone.”

The rabbi said he felt comfortable walking around war-torn Khartoum.

“It’s been a long, long time since the people over there have seen any Jews,” he said — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

JFS to Give More to Russian Outreach

Following complaints from elderly ex-Soviet Jews, JFS Family Service (JFS) has scaled back its planned shutdown of a decade-long Santa Monica program of entertainment, social services and twice-monthly meetings for about 150 Russian and Baltic Jewish senior citizens.

JFS instead is allocating more money to the Russian Outreach Program, but the program coordinator has quit because JFS cut her weekly hours from 15 to four.

“I will not work four hours a week and I don’t know who can,” Lina Haimsky said. “There is no possible way anyone can run the program working four hours a week.”

JFS Executive Director Paul Castro said that following a Feb. 16 meeting with concerned senior citizens, JFS decided to cut Haimsky’s hours, but increase the Russian Senior Program’s annual activity fund budget from $1,500 to $2,000 and increase JFS case management for program participants.

“This essentially reinstates the program, but at a smaller level, a lower level,” Castro said.

Retiree Rachel Flaum, who lobbied JFS to save the outreach program, said, “On the one hand, it’s very good because they gave us more money for our activity. But on the other hand, they cut the salary for the coordinator, so she quit. For a short time, we will try to do something without a coordinator, just to keep the people together.” — DF

Social Services Battle SacramentoCuts

Jewish social service agency leaders are planning a spring Sacramento pilgrimage to seek mercy from state legislators planning extensive cuts in health and welfare budgets.

“This is a pretty tough year in Sacramento; there aren’t too many people who are really speaking for the poor and the underrepresented,” said Coby King, association director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee (JPAC). The statewide coalition of mostly Federation-based groups led a Feb. 11 delegation to Sacramento and is a planning a similar May 10-11 lobbying trip, King said, “to try to lessen some of the damage that’s being done up there.”

Paul Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service, said JPAC’s Feb. 11 trip had Jewish agency leaders meeting with state Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), plus senior staff from state senators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office to discuss medical service cuts.

“Everybody’s sympathetic. I don’t think there’s any clear solution,” Castro said. “There’s a little bit of guarded optimism [about Schwarzenegger]. I guess there’s a sense that he’s not tied into one place or another.”

H. Eric Schockman, executive director of the West Los Angeles-based MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, did not attend the Feb. 11 trip but is monitoring proposed budget cuts in the food stamp and child-care programs.

“Cuts into child care force families to spend more on food resources,” Schockman said. “These all have rippling effects in both our economy and our social fabric. Food is a basic building block for everything else.”

For information about JPAC’s May 10-11 Sacramentolobbying trip, contact Coby King at (310) 489-2820 or visit www.jpac-cal.org . — DF