President Donald Trump on Aug. 22. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Why Trump is right on DACA


President Donald Trump’s decision on “Dreamers” actually reflects a broadly held, nuanced consensus regarding the status of immigrants brought into this country as children of parents who entered illegally.

First, legal immigration is good for the United States, and the U.S. takes in more legal immigrants than any other nation. But there must be reasonable, debatable and annual limits.

[TRACY ESCOBEDO: When will Dreamers be seen as Americans?]

We are a nation of immigrants, and all Americans, born here or not, are equal citizens entitled to the full protection of the law and every opportunity to enjoy the American Dream. 

The administration has proposed prioritizing immigrants for our nation’s economic benefit and limiting the scope of family reunification to leverage the economic merit of applicants.

Silicon Valley, for instance, suggests we not deport tech graduates here on student visas once they have computer science degrees in hand. We invested in them, now they can invest in the U.S.

Next, illegal immigration is unlawful, as are sanctuary cities that violate federal law. No country allows illegal immigration, and many countries are much tougher than the U.S.

Illegal immigration results in human rights abuses by coyotes against suffering poor people and invites countries to dump their poor into the U.S. It’s corrupt and nefarious.

Businesses must not be allowed to hire illegals. This distorts the economy and drives down wages in the economy.

And Mexico, one way or another, should reimburse the United States for the decades-long purposeful strategy of exporting Mexican workers in return for importing hundreds of billions of dollars of remittances back to Mexico.

Third, our country will not round up 10 to 20 million unlawful residents and deport them. Our country will also not deport 800,000 Dreamers who work, pay taxes and go to school.

And fourth, Congress must reassert its constitutional authority and obligation to protect our borders and set immigration policy, denying federal aid to “sanctuary” states and cities.

Congress must clarify if Birthright Citizenship — which meant Black slaves and their progeny in the 19th century were full Americans — should continue to reward “birth tourism;” whether illegal immigrants may earn a path to citizenship, voting rights or the ability to run for office; and, finally, the federal penalty for employers hiring illegal workers.

States must decide on the welfare, educational and health benefits to be afforded undocumented workers and their families.

The Dreamers have already won. They have made it to America, built lives of generally good citizenship and are unlikely to be deported in big numbers due to the compassion and common sense of the American people, who respect the rule of law, with fair and reasonable policies regarding immigrants here illegally via border crossing or by over-staying visas.

But the critics of illegal immigration have also won the debate: No blanket amnesty or citizenship status for illegal entrants, except perhaps enlistees of the armed forces; and no patience for violent criminals, many of whom are repeat border violators who must be deported (along with a bill to the countries of origin for our troubles).

Advocates for resolute border security make economic, rule-of-law and national-security arguments for tougher standards and controls of both legal and illegal immigration.

Americans support both a border wall and advanced technologies to increase security in a world of jihadism and weapons of mass destruction.

President Trump, who has asserted his “love” for the Dreamers, is balancing his “America First” / “The Business of America Is Business” policies with the facts on the ground and his knowledge that legal immigration is American.

President Barack Obama repeatedly asserted he lacked unilateral authority to keep the Dreamers, but he did so anyway. President Trump has been well advised to return the policy issues to Congress.


Larry Greenfield has been a Fellow of the Claremont Institute, the Tikvah Advanced Institute, and the Wexner Heritage Foundation. He is former executive director of the California Republican Jewish Coalition, the Reagan Legacy Foundation, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Israel and religious hypocrisy


Last week, along with the enlightened world, we celebrated the dramatic ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. The cause of same-sex marriage enjoys wide support in the Jewish community, and in Israel the majority of the Jewish population also supports it. Thirteen American-Jewish organizations were among the 25 organizations that supported the petition via amicus brief.

Marriage freedom is a key pillar of our advocacy efforts at Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel. The United States’ recognition of same-sex marriages encourages all supporters of religious freedom, and reinforces our commitment to achieve marriage freedom in Israel as well. After all, doesn’t Israel pride itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East? And yet, how is that Israel is the only Western democracy in the world that denies its citizens the right to marry? Not only same-sex couples are discriminated against, but also every couple that does not meet the approval of the state’s official religious functionaries. This includes non-Orthodox marriages (because only Orthodox rabbis are recognized as legitimate marriage officiants by the state), as well as civil marriages, leaving hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens deprived of the right to marry and millions more denied the right to marry in a ceremony of their choice. 

Even as we celebrate with our brothers and sisters in North America, we are disheartened that only some of the Jewish organizations at the forefront of this battle for equality and defense of marriage have been active or even supportive when it comes to advocating for marriage freedom in Israel. After all, religious prejudice has also been translated into Israeli civil law, but worse, it is Jewish religious prejudice. Further, some organizations that publicly profess their commitment to religious freedom and the upholding of democratic principles trample these very principles or choose to stand idly when they are denied in Israel. 

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, we noted with great satisfaction the public statement of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), America’s largest Orthodox Jewish organization, which, while expressing its religious opposition to same-sex marriage, nevertheless professed great respect for and acceptance of the Supreme Court ruling. The OU invoked core democratic principles, including, “We recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic,” “Judaism teaches respect for others,” and “We are grateful that we live in a democratic society.” This is a profound exposition of the right balance between religious convictions on the one hand, and democracy and respect for civil liberties on the other.

The question we feel compelled to raise, though, is whether the OU would also apply these principles to the challenges facing Israel in the confrontation between Israel’s established religion and the people’s civil liberties, let alone respect for others’ religious or secular choices. The unholy alliance of religion and state in Israel is based on the exact opposite view, namely, that religion does have “the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic” and will do so if and whenever it can. The result is that not only are same-sex couples denied the right to marry, but so are masses of other Israeli citizens. As of yet, the OU has kept its peace regarding this drastic deviation from the principles it espoused last week.

This episode brings to mind the hypocrisy of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, the sister religious movement of Israel’s Agudath Israel, which uses political clout in Israeli government coalitions to impose religious coercion, discriminate against non-Orthodox Judaism and deny hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens the right to family. However, when the movement’s own rights as a religious minority were threatened in the U.S. or Europe, it sung religious freedom’s praises. In 1993, for instance, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Agudath Israel had strongly advocated for in an attempt to undo the Supreme Court ruling that curtailed religious freedom in the case involving the use of peyote in religious rituals of Native Americans. 

Agudath Israel publicly proclaimed at the time: “This is a proud and auspicious day for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in this country. … The Supreme Court’s majority in the peyote case asserted, astoundingly, that America could no longer ‘afford the luxury’ of treating religious liberty on par with other fundamental freedoms. Congress and the president have now utterly rejected that disheartening attitude, and have declared with resounding affirmation: religious liberty is a fundamental freedom of the highest order.”

Frankly, we could not have put it better: “Religious liberty is a fundamental freedom of the highest order.” The challenge is that Agudath Israel seems to only apply this principle to defend its own religious rights. In Israel, where it has political clout, it has no inhibitions about denying that liberty to others, especially to fellow Jews. To date, this hypocrisy has never been seriously challenged by America’s Jewish communal leadership, which Agudath Israel surely sees as an acceptance and legitimization of its double standard. 

Agudath’s conduct brings to mind the immortal account we find in Judah HaLevi’s classic text, “Ha’Kuzari” (written circa 1140):

Engaged in a debate with the King of Khazars, a rabbi expounds upon Judaism’s moral superiority. In response, the King challenges him, saying, “That might be so if your humility were voluntary; but it is involuntary, and if you had power you would slay,” to which the rabbi replies: “You have touched our weak point, O King of the Khazars.”

Agudath Israel proves the King’s point, as the American historical experience has proven as well. (The early pilgrims, escaping religious persecution in Europe, lost no time before persecuting others such as Quakers, Jews, etc. Thus, America came to understand the need to safeguard religious freedom, passing the First Amendment to the Constitution. Israel still needs to learn that lesson!)

Will the OU rise above this hypocrisy and join with forces for democracy in Israel in realizing its own statement of values? Will it join the efforts that have been launched by the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, Hiddush’s Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel and others in promoting its own very laudable principles, not only within the borders of the United States, but in the Jewish state as well, and not only when Jews are a minority seeking protection but also when they are a majority in their own state?

Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, Inc., a trans-denominational Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality in Israel.

Constitution and torah


In his speech that became known as “The Spirit of Liberty,” delivered in New York City’s Central Library, in the midst of World War II, the preeminent judge and judicial philosopher, Learned Hand, asked, “What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty?  I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts.  These are false hopes; believe me these are false hopes.  Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”  (As quoted in Time magazine, July 4, 2011)  There is a great deal of talk these days about the Constitution, about liberty and American values. 

In a cover story a few years ago in Time magazine, editor Richard Stengel asks if the Constitution still matters.  Of course it does, but how we interpret it, how we try to understand what the framers meant, and how we apply it today is presenting us greater challenges than perhaps it did in the past.  Stengel writes, “As a counterpoint to the rise of constitutional originalists (those who believe the document should be interpreted only as the drafters understood it), liberal scholars analyze the text just as closely to find the elasticity they believe the framers intended.  Everywhere, there seems to be a debate about the scope and meaning and message of the Constitution.  This is a healthy thing.  Even the framers would agree on that.” (ibid.)  On this July 4th weekend, as we celebrate our country and all of the amazing contributions it has added to the world, including the ideals and values of the Declaration and the Constitution, I wanted to share some thoughts about how this struggle to understand the meaning of an original document, formulated in a different time, in a different era, by very different people, is a very Jewish idea, one that we in fact gave to the world thousands of years before 1776.

We don’t have a constitution, but we do have a Torah.  And, like the debate we are having today in regard to understanding what the framers meant when they crafted the Constitution, Jews have been arguing about the original intent of the Torah pretty much since…well, since the Torah itself!  There are laws, statutes and directives in the Torah that have been subject to debate, discussion and overruling, starting with the daughters of Tzelofchad, which we will read about next week, who question the Torah’s earlier ruling about inheritance only being for sons, and Moses inquires of God and the rule gets altered.  There are verses in the Torah that were explained away by the rabbis of the Talmud as either not applying any longer, never applying or they get made so complex to enact that they eventually fall away.  What the Jewish tradition has that almost no other religious tradition shares, and which a great deal of modern jurisprudence is based on, is the Talmud and all the subsequent later codes, all of which work to explain the meaning of the original document, the Torah, and what it’s framer (or framers depending on your view) meant.  The Torah condones the death penalty while the Talmud pretty much outlaws it.  The Torah tells us to take our malcontent children to the gates of the city and if they can’t be reformed by the elders, to stone them to death.  The Talmud tells us that never happened and never should happen.  Sorry! 

And, in the reverse, the Torah is pretty clear about what keeping kosher should look like, and it is pretty simple, while the rabbis of the Talmud and later codes expanded the laws and made them quite complex.  We have a long history of interpreting our Torah, redefining its meaning, and using very advanced and creative hermeneutical tools to either alter, or in some cases, downright change, what the original meaning seems to have been.  We have the principle of PARDES, which is a rabbinic literary invention, whereby each word of the Torah has four levels of interpretation: the literal meaning, peshat, a more subtle or hinting reading, remez, a creative commentary, drash, and a totally hidden or mysterious meaning, sod.  Through this technique, and many others, commentators, most famously Rashi, 11th century in France, have sometimes completely changed the text from what it literally says.  Our tradition is incredibly fluid and flexible and always has been.

Today, both in American life and in our Jewish life, we are facing challenges from those that want to read both of our foundational texts, the Constitution and the Torah, in a literalist manner.  I will leave the legal aspects of the Constitution and how to understand it to the lawyers and experts, but from what I have read and studied, the framers seemed to want a document that would grow and develop in meaning based on the growth and innovation of the new country they were founding.  As Stengel writes in his Time article, “There have been few conflicts in American history greater than the internal debates the framers had about the Constitution. For better or for worse — and I would argue that it is for better — the Constitution allows and even encourages deep arguments about the most basic democratic issues.”  The Torah, I would argue, has a similar make-up, namely that we have been arguing about, discussing, and interpreting the meaning of the text for thousands of years.  And, we know that the times were different for the framers of the Constitution as they were for the authors of the Torah.  Cultures were different, practices were different, perhaps we might even say that morals were different.  The framers of the Constitution, while giving us freedom of religion and speech, also thought blacks were 3/5’s of a human and slavery was okay.  The Torah also thinks that slavery is okay, even as it seeks to give rights to slaves that never existed.  And, in interpreting text for today, we are called upon to use our own minds, hearts and experiences to understand and apply meaning.  Just as the Constitution didn’t know from healthcare, military drones, the internet or globalized commerce, and now, according to the Supreme Court, legal gay marriage, so lawyers and judges must figure out how to legislate on these matters based on what they think the intent of the framers was, along with later precedent and case law. 

So too the Torah didn’t know from many of the cultural and religious issues facing us today in modern American life: from end of life decisions that involve modern medicine to using technology to bring Shabbat services to homebound seniors.  And, because it is so timely with the landmark decision in marriage equality law passed just last week, I believe that the Torah verse from Leviticus that has been used for generations to deny LGBTQ Jews their equal rights in our tradition, must be finally read away with the same Talmudic logic and thinking that was used to read away killing our wayward children.  We have changed, evolved, moved as a society and culture, even if some don’t agree.  Remember, plenty of people thought slavery was still okay, and the Civil War didn’t finish the job when it comes to racial discrimination.  As Judge Hand told us, we must sometimes trust our hearts and not our texts.

And so, as we celebrate this 4th of July, let us be grateful that we live in one of the freest countries ever to exist, yet we are not perfect.  The Constitution must never be allowed to become an idol, just as the Torah must never be allowed to become an idol.  One midrash teaches that Moses shattered the first tablets as a reminder of that notion.  We must always do battle between fear and liberty, between power and freedom.  That is the great gift, and great challenge, of being human.  Thomas Jefferson said it best, when he wrote, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.”  That is our great challenge, as Americans and as Jews.  May we ponder deeply on this, our nation’s birthday.  Shabbat shalom and God bless America.

After lavish Chavez funeral, Maduro sworn in as interim president of Venezuela


Nicolas Maduro, the handpicked successor of the late Hugo Chavez, was sworn in as the interim president of Venezuela amid opposition calls that the choice was unconstitutional.

Maduro, the former foreign minister, took the oath of office on Friday night promising to uphold the legacy of his political patron.

“I take the sash of Chavez to complete his oath and continue his way, the revolution and forward movement of independence and socialism,” a solemn Maduro vowed.

Earlier in the day, the heads of 55 states attended Chavez's lavish funeral at the military academy in Caracas.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, the leader of the opposition, held a news conference calling Maduro's swearing-in unconstitutional. Radonski, who lost to Chavez by an 11-point margin in elections held last October, read aloud a passage from the constitution drafted by Chavez's party in 1999 that called for the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, to fill the position.

“Nicolas, they did not elect you,” said Capriles, who identifies as Catholic and is the grandson of Holocaust survivors.  “The people have not voted for you, kid.”

The constitution calls for new elections within 30 days; no date has been set for a vote.

David Bittan and Efrain Lapscher, the leaders of CAIV, Venezuelan Jewry's umbrella group, said on Friday that their group's mission would not change regardless of the victor of the expected presidential race.

“In the future, we'll have elections and we can change governments or the same government will stay, but we will have the same issues,” Lapscher said. “We will try to give the best Jewish life possible and we will combat anti-Semitism if it comes from the government, their supporters or outside.”

During his 14 years in office, Chavez championed Venezuela's poor, setting up an elaborate welfare system with the country's vast oil wealth while haranguing the opposition. An avowed critic of what he called “U.S. imperialism,” he severed ties with Israel and formed alliances with countries such Cuba, Iran, Libya and Syria.

At Chavez's funeral, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kissed the coffin of the late leader, who once called him a “kindred spirit.” Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as the last dictator of Europe, shed tears.

The ceremony's host made special mention of the presence of representatives of Palestine, which drew particular applause, and Bashar Assad's embattled government in Syria.

In a eulogy, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson described Chavez as a champion of the poor and called for better ties between the U.S. and Venezuela.

Maduro placed a gold sword — a replica of the one that belonged to 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar, one of Chavez's heroes — on the late president's coffin.

State-owned TV channels broadcast images from the funeral live under a banner that read “Chavez, forever.”

“It's just his body, just his body,” gushed an anchor. “Chavez lives on.”

Egypt’s contentious Islamist constitution becomes law


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed into law a new constitution shaped by his Islamist allies, a bitterly contested document which he insists will help end political turmoil and allow him to focus on fixing the economy.

Anxiety about a deepening political and economic crisis has gripped Egypt in past weeks, with many people rushing to buy dollars and withdraw their savings from banks. The Egyptian pound tumbled on Wednesday to its weakest level against the U.S. currency in almost eight years.

The new constitution, which the liberal opposition says betrays Egypt's 2011 revolution by dangerously mixing religion and politics, has polarized the Arab world's most populous nation and prompted occasionally violent protest on the streets.

The presidency said on Wednesday that Morsi had formally approved the constitution the previous evening, shortly after results showed that Egyptians had backed it in a referendum.

The text won about 64 percent of the vote, paving the way for a new parliamentary election in about two months.

The charter states that the principles of sharia, Islamic law, are the main source of legislation and that Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia – a source of concern to the Christian minority and others.

The referendum result marked yet another electoral victory for the Islamists since veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, following parliamentary elections last year and the presidential vote that brought Morsi to power this year.

Morsi's government, which has accused opponents of damaging the economy by prolonging political upheaval, now faces the tough task of building a broad consensus as it prepares to impose austerity measures.

CRISIS ATMOSPHERE

The atmosphere of crisis deepened this week after the Standard & Poor's agency downgraded Egypt's long-term credit rating and warned of a possible further cut. The government has imposed currency restrictions to reduce capital flight.

The pound traded as low as 6.1775 against the dollar on Wednesday, close to its all-time low of 6.26 hit on October 14, 2004, on concerns that the government might devalue or tighten restrictions on currency movements.

“All customers are rushing to buy dollars after the downgrading,” said a dealer at a Cairo-based bank. “We'll have to wait to see how the market will operate with the U.S. dollar, because as you know there is a rush at the moment.”

Keen to be seen as decisive, the government is now in talks with business figures, trade unions and other groups to highlight the need for tax increases to resolve the crisis.

Morsi has committed to such austerity measures to receive a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

However, Al-Mal newspaper quoted Planning Minister Ashraf al-Araby as saying the government would not implement the tax increases until it had completed the dialogue with different parts of society.

In Cairo's bustling centre, people openly expressed their frustration with economic instability as they went about their daily business.

“The country's going to the pits. Everything is a mess,” Hamdy Hussein, a 61-year-old building janitor, said angrily. “It's worse than ever. Mubarak was better than now. People were living and there was security.”

Ashraf Mohamed Kamal, 30, added: “The economic situation will be a mess in the next few years. It already is. People will get hungrier. People are now begging more.”

TURMOIL CONTINUES

Morsi, catapulted into power by his Islamist allies this year, believes adopting the constitution quickly and holding the vote for a permanent new parliament will help to end the long period of turmoil and uncertainty that has wrecked the economy.

Morsi's government argues the constitution offers enough protection to all groups, and that many Egyptians are fed up with street protests that have prevented a return to normality and distracted the government from tackling the economy.

The charter gives Egypt's upper house of parliament, which is dominated by Islamists, full legislative powers until the vote for a new lower house is held.

While stressing the importance of political stability to heal the economy, Morsi's government has tried to play down the economic problems and appealed for unity despite the hardship.

“The government calls on the people not to worry about the country's economy,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mohamed Mahsoub told the upper house in a speech. “We are not facing an economic problem but a political one and it is affecting the economic situation. We therefore urge all groups, opponents and brothers, to achieve wide reconciliation and consensus.”

Morsi is due to address the upper house on Saturday in a speech likely to be dominated by economic policy.

Sharpening people's concerns, the authorities imposed currency controls on Tuesday to prevent capital flight. Leaving or entering Egypt with more than $10,000 in cash is now banned.

Adding to the government's long list of worries, Communications Minister Hany Mahmoud has resigned citing his “inability to adapt to the government's working culture”.

The opposition has condemned the new basic law as too Islamist, saying it could allow clerics to intervene in the lawmaking process and leave minority groups without proper legal protection. It said this month's vote was marred by major violations.

Nevertheless, major opposition groups have not called for new protests, suggesting that weeks of civil unrest over the constitution may be subsiding now that it has passed.

The United States, which provides $1.3 billion a year in military aid plus other support to Egypt and sees it as a pillar of security in the Middle East, called on Egyptian politicians to bridge divisions and on all sides to reject violence.

Additional reporting by Patrick Werr; Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by David Stamp

The speech President Obama should have given after the Connecticut school shooting


When news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School first broke, President Barack Obama stood before the nation, felt our grief and shed a tear.

It was a beautiful, touching moment — and I resented it.

I’m all for grown men crying. I’m all for presidents, in times of unexpected, shocking national tragedy, serving as a kind of pastor-in-chief, expressing our pain through their words.  

But the Sandy Hook massacre was neither shocking nor unexpected. Gunmen shooting at innocent children? Seen it — several times this year, actually. Deranged white male with access to an arsenal? As common as snowflakes. SWAT teams leading children out of schools? Grief-stricken parents arriving at the scene? Agonizing, senseless funerals? Teddy bears piled up along chain link fences? Check, check, check.

I’m not blasé — I’m angry. And Obama’s tears were exactly what I didn’t need. For comfort, I have friends and family. When I want pastoral care, I’ll see my rabbi — hey, she’s also family. What I want from my president is this: action.

So I sat down and typed out the speech I wish the president had given that afternoon, while the wounds were fresh and the nation looked to him for direction. Would the pundits have cried, “Too soon!” and accused him of politicizing the massacre? Probably, but so what? The right speech — the one I wrote — goes beyond partisan politics. 

This is the speech Obama should have given in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Dry-eyed and tear-free:

My Fellow Americans:

“I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do. … But while we will shed tears with you, and lead this nation in mourning — again — my duty as your president does not stop there.

“My sworn duty is to protect and defend American lives, and in the wake of yet another shooting tragedy, that is what I intend to do.

I stand before you today, and face the grief-stricken parents of Newtown, and the traumatized children who survived the killer’s rampage, and I make this vow to you: I will do everything in my power as president to stop gun violence in America.

“What does this mean?

It means attacking the problem through our laws, our courts, our social services and our media.

“Make no mistake, this is a deep, festering problem that generations of politicians — including myself — have preferred not to confront head-on. There is no one simple solution. Our approach will be all encompassing and thorough. And our goal is clear: the end to gun violence in America.

 

“First, we will change the laws. We will enact smart and effective legislation that targets the most dangerous guns and keeps all guns out of the hands of the people most likely to use them to commit crimes. These laws will vastly improve criminal background checks to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to buy guns. We will push for a law that requires these checks for all gun sales. Right now, background checks only apply to sales by licensed gun dealers, who only account for 60 percent of all gun sales. That means 40 percent of all gun sales — via private parties and gun shows, for example — take place with no background check. 

“There are over 200 million guns in this country today. The Second Amendment protects the lawful ownership and use of firearms, and that is a constitutional right we hold dear. The vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens. The goal of our legislation is not to reduce the safe, legal ownership of guns, but gun violence.

“Second, we will ensure that in every court throughout this land, those who commit violent crimes with guns, as well as those whose guns are used through negligence to commit a crime, will face maximum, mandatory penalties.

 

“Third, we will increase our support for intervention programs targeting the mentally ill, domestic abusers, gangs and other underlying causes of gun violence. In cases where there is inadequate funding or oversight, we will immediately fix it. Since too many of these mass shootings involve long-simmering hostilities that burst out into mayhem, we will educate communities to identify the risk factors and create swift intervention procedures before violence erupts. To focus solely on guns as the problem will not solve our problem: America is not the only country with high rates of gun ownership. Switzerland and Israel have a high percentage of gun ownership but low or negligible amounts of gun-related homicide.

“Finally, we will focus on the media. We will use all forms of media to educate our young people away from violence, to stop its relentless glorification, and to teach ways to recognize and thwart violent behavior. While we hold the First Amendment and right to free expression as sacrosanct, we must strive to use the power of the media to solve, and not exacerbate, one of our country’s gravest problems.

“My fellow Americans, as a parent, I mourn with you today. But as your president, I cannot stand idly by while the blood of my countrymen is wantonly shed.

“There are 35 victims each day in this country from gun violence. About 86,000 people are either killed or wounded by firearms each year, of which 12,612 people die. That means that 10 days after this tragic day, guns will have killed another 350 people.

“I stand before you as a parent and shed tears. I stand before you as president and say: ‘Enough!’ ”


Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Tribe Media Corp. Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.  If you approve of this message, please forward to comments@whitehouse.gov.

Egypt’s opposition protests draft constitution


Egypt's opposition said it would continue to protest an upcoming referendum on a draft constitution even after President Mohammed Morsi cancelled decrees that gave him virtually unlimited power.

Late Saturday night Morsi withdrew the decrees that gave him immunity from judicial oversight. But he continues to insist on going forward with the scheduled Dec. 15 referendum.

The opposition, led by the National Salvation Front, objects to the draft constitution in part because it would enshrine Islamic law.

Demonstrators have been protesting outside of the presidential palace, and the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, were set on fire.

A million man march demonstration opposing the draft constitution has been called for Tuesday.

Bosnian politicians mull ending constitutional discrimination of Jews, Roma


Politicians from Bosnia and Herzegovina discussed changing the country’s constitution to end discrimination against Jews and other minorities.

The politicians met on July 13 but did not come up with a concrete plan. Two days earlier, an Irish minister had urged Bosnia’s government to allow Jews, Roma and other minorities to run for high elected office. Ireland is the 2012 chair of the Organization for Security in Cooperation in Europe – an intergovernmental body.

“There is no excuse to discriminate against anyone, especially minorities,” Irish European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton said during a visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. “This is especially important in a post-conflict society.”

The Bosnian Constitution, drafted during peace talks in 1995, restricts the highest offices of state to members of three ethnic and religious groups – Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats. The constitution was devised to avoid ethnic strife, following a bloody civil war which ravaged the country from 1992 to 1995.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2009 that the exclusion of Jews and Roma from Bosnia’s highest state offices is unlawful discrimination.

Jakob Finci, a Bosnian Jewish lawyer who filed the lawsuit, told JTA that “nothing has been done” since the ruling. He filed it along with a Roma colleague.

“Being a small group of 1,000 Jews, we do not have any power to change this,” Finci said. “[It’s up to] the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which we do not have even one representative.”

Proposition 8 and ‘the will of the people’ — an historical perspective


Californians are acutely aware that to many political observers, our initiative and referendum process remains a mystery at best and a menace to democracy at worst.

Take the hard-fought battle over a proposed discriminatory amendment to our state Constitution. It has been called the most bitterly fought issue in the nation’s most populous state, generating more intense public interest than the presidential election on the same ballot.

It posed the question, “Can the people override a previous action intended to end unequal treatment between citizens and amend the state Constitution expressly to permit such discrimination to continue?”

Even some minority communities, despite their own bitter experience, split on the issue. After intense internal debate, the Mexican Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles ultimately endorsed the amendment as a matter of individual rights and personal choice.

Further complicating matters, the amendment itself was confusing, with a counterintuitive “yes is no/no is yes” construction that led some people to vote against their intentions, codifying discrimination instead of eradicating it.

A costly advertising campaign helped ensure the measure’s approval, touching off a new round of anger and recriminations when it was immediately challenged in court. After all, the people had spoken. Time for us all to move on.

Astute readers may have guessed that I refer not to Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage prohibition that voters narrowly approved on Nov. 4. I’m recalling instead a similar controversy from another era, one of the seminal anti-discrimination battles waged in California 44 years before.

In November 1964 — the same presidential election when liberal Lyndon Johnson handily defeated conservative Barry Goldwater — California voters reversed field and passed Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment intended to counter the Rumford Fair Housing Act enacted the year before. Strongly supported by then-Gov. Pat Brown and carried by Assemblyman W. Byron Rumford, Northern California’s first black legislator, Rumford prohibited most racial discrimination in housing.

A well-funded coalition of realtors and landlords, intent on protecting white neighborhoods and their attendant property values from feared black incursions, immediately mounted a campaign to amend the state Constitution and guarantee property owners’ continued ability to deny minorities equal access to housing.

After a heated battle, and editorial support from some leading newspapers, the measure passed with 65 percent of the vote. As the head of the archconservative California Republican Assembly explained, in that Cold War era, “the essence of freedom is the right to discriminate…. In socialist countries, they always take away this right in order to complete their takeover.”

But Proposition 14’s passage was only the beginning, not the end. The measure’s opponents were bloodied but unbowed, and quickly filed suit. As the issue ground through the courts into 1965, the Watts Riots soon engulfed South Central Los Angeles, further shaking the city’s racial complacency to its very core. By the spring of 1966, the California Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision rejected Proposition 14 as a violation of the state Constitution’s equal protection and due process provisions.

The Rumford Act and Proposition 14 became a central issue in Gov. Brown’s re-election campaign that year. One would-be Republican challenger, William Penn Patrick, thundered that Brown’s “hand-picked Supreme Court” had overturned the will of 4.5 million Californians, declaring that the real issue was not race relations, but the abolition of property rights, “the cornerstone of freedom.” Patrick’s opponent in the Republican primary, Ronald Reagan, ultimately prevailed and went on to victory in the fall by dodging the issue, taking no stand on the fate of Proposition 14 but supporting modification or repeal of the original Rumford legislation.

Proposition 14’s days, however, were numbered. In June 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court again struck down the measure, this time as a violation of federal equal protection and due process guarantees, among the most fundamental of our constitutional rights. Its most fervent supporters vowed to fight on, but by then — with urban unrest sweeping the nation’s major cities — the more pragmatic conservative politicians increasingly realized it was a lost cause.

Gov. Reagan himself plainly recognized that the times were a-changing. In a spring 1968 press conference, he vowed to veto any legislative attempt to repeal Rumford, and would also oppose any fresh ballot initiatives to eliminate it. The law had taken on symbolic importance with minorities in California, he explained, conceding that “they have got some just grievances.”

For all the white-hot political heat generated at the time by the Rumford Fair Housing Act, the efforts to override it and the epic court battles that followed, the matter now seems little more than a curious relic of a bygone age. And so it will be, I believe, with Proposition 8’s attempt to similarly deny equal protection and due process to another persecuted minority in California today.

It is barely 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the kind of state anti-miscegenation laws that once barred the type of union that produced our current president-elect. Long after the courts have similarly struck down Proposition 8, and same-sex marriage prohibitions have rightly joined Jim Crow laws on the ash heap of history, our children will look back with wonder at how it could ever have been otherwise. May that day come soon.

Zev Yaroslavsky is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and represents the western portion of the county. He was an opponent of Proposition 8.

There’s too much religion in presidential campaign, says ADL’s Foxman


NEW YORK (JTA)—The political campaign season is now in high gear as the curtain falls on the Democrats in Denver and the Republicans in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

While much of the media’s focus has been on handicapping the candidates and their chances in November, we would like to call attention to one less-publicized aspect of the U.S. political scene in 2008, which we find troubling.

This year, there have been increasing signs that the presidential race will present the American public with a profoundly unsettling infusion of religion and religiosity.

The trend toward this growing insertion of faith into the presidential race was first evident in Denver, and then equally so in the Twin Cities.

At the Democratic National Convention, the program included panels on “How an Obama Administration will Engage People of Faith,” “Moral Values Issues Abroad,” “Getting Out the Faith Vote” and “Common Ground on Common Good.”

Members of the clergy from across the religious spectrum had a significant presence, conducting Scripture readings at a multifaith “kickoff event” and offering invocations and benedictions. There was a clear effort to be interdenominational, but it was also apparent that the Democrats felt compelled to infuse religion into their convention in order to be politically viable.

At the Republican convention, religiously themed events played a prominent role as well. Members of the clergy led the convention in prayer each day, and there was considerable time devoted to discussing subjects such as “faith-based initiatives and family values,” which one Republican spokeswoman recently identified as being “at the heart of our party.”

There was less focus on religious diversity and less of an effort to call public attention to the convention’s religious content, probably because it was less of a departure from past Republican programs.

In raising our concerns, we mean no disrespect to religion or to family values. But there comes a point when being open about faith crosses a subtle line into pandering.

Some of what we have been seeing in this campaign is excessive and aggressive. It goes beyond a candidate’s discussing how religion shapes his or her worldview. Rather, it’s saying, “Vote for me because I’m a person of faith”—and that is directly contrary to the constitutional principle that there shall be no religious test for public office.

Both parties seem to have reached the conclusion that appealing to religious voters is good politics. But what kind of message does it send, in our religiously diverse society, when the two major presidential candidates sit in a church and forthrightly answer Pastor Rick Warren’s questions about their personal relationship with Jesus?

Renewed faith-based initiatives, religious outreach teams and religious programming at the conventions all work to curry favor with those who care which party is most favorable toward the religious.

This may be good politics, but it is not healthy for our nation.

This is not to say that Americans should oppose candidates who are religious, or that candidates shouldn’t feel free to discuss their religious beliefs with the body politic. It is understandable that candidates, from time to time, will want to express their religious beliefs—and how their faith will inform and influence their policymaking. And there’s nothing wrong with a candidate expressing his or her religious perspective—especially when confronted with misinformation, innuendo and rumor.

However, appealing to voters along religious lines can be divisive, and it is certainly contrary to the American ideal of including all Americans in the political process.

It is deeply troubling when religion is no longer just an element in understanding the character of a candidate but becomes a central part of a party’s efforts to win votes or to pander to a certain religious group or constituency. Government should not endorse, promote, or subsidize religious views—and particular religious views should not be the determining factor in public-policy decision making.

Anyone who legitimately aspires to public office in the United States must be prepared to set an example and to be a leader for all Americans, no matter his or her faith, or whether he or she even has a faith.

When candidates campaign, they should be encouraging voters to make decisions based on an assessment of their qualifications, their integrity and their political positions, not on how religious they are.

The next time a debate moderator asks the candidates to discuss their personal relationship with God, it would be refreshing to hear an answer similar to the one President Kennedy gave nearly 48 years ago, when he confronted questions about his Catholicism: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Religion, he was saying, is part of him, but it does not define him, and it should not be the primary lens through which Americans view him.

In this season, it is important to remind all political players that in this religiously diverse nation, there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling.

(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”)

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — Knesset Member Ophir Pines-Paz


Exclusive interviews with Israeli Knesset Member Ophir Pines-Paz and Iranian Jewish philanthropist Parviz Nazarian. Topic: changing Israel’s form of government

” title=”Iranian American Jews”>Iranian American Jews blog.

Moves to reform Israel’s political system on the rise


Are Israelis constitutionally incapable of agreeing on a constitution to govern their country?
 
Possibly.
 
“Throughout Jewish history, we have always been a disputatious people, and in Israel, everyone thinks he or she is a prime minister. It’s part of our nature,” observed historian Tuvia Friling of Ben-Gurion University, a former state archivist and head of the Ben-Gurion Institute for Humanities and Social Studies.
 

The State of Israel, which has struggled since its inception to balance the often conflicting demands of national security and democratic rights, has some valuable lessons for a United States wrestling with the same problems since Sept. 11.
 
“Israel has been a laboratory on how to fight terrorists while maintaining civil rights and the rule of law,” according to Uri Dromi.
 
Retired Col. Dromi has observed the lab experiment from different perspectives. A 25-year Israeli air force veteran, he served as chief government spokesman under Prime Ministers Itzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and is now director of international outreach for the Israel Democracy Institute, a liberal-leaning private think tank.
 
“Before 9/11, America, the FBI and the CIA were laid back,” observed Dromi during an interview in his Jerusalem office. “Since 9/11, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme.”
 
He finds it ironic that Israel, long criticized by U.S. journalists for not observing legal “due process” in battling terrorists, may now be more observant of due process than Washington.
 
“In Israel, an enemy prisoner can be held only for a specific time, all executive decisions are subject to judicial review and any Palestinian can appeal his case to the Israeli Supreme Court,” said Dromi.
 
There would be a national wave of protests if the Israeli government forced phone companies to turn over the records of private citizens, he predicted.
 
That is not to say that Israel has a perfect record and hasn’t made any mistakes, which could be fruitfully studied in Washington.
 
“For many years, we demolished houses belonging to the families of terrorists,” Dromi said. “We learned that for the long haul, this didn’t work as a deterrent to terrorism, and the Supreme Court eventually put an end to the practice.”
 
Criticism, even by outside parties, is healthy, Dromi believes, an opinion that may not be shared by many of his countrymen.
 
“We should be grateful to the criticism by Amnesty International, which forced us to examine what we are doing,” he said.
 
Israel, which has nowhere near the resources of the United States, has learned to make a virtue of necessity.
 
“We can’t afford a number of competing intelligence services, so we have only a single unified one,” he said.
 
Most of the Israeli efforts in this field are directed toward human intelligence on the ground. If Dromi had one piece of advice for President Bush, it would be to stop spending billions on high-tech surveillance methods and put the money into old-fashioned agents, spies and infiltrators.
 
Dromi also feels that Washington spends too much money on the Department of Homeland Security, “mainly to impress the public. In Israel, the work is mainly handled by the established police department.”
 
In some areas, the United States does better than Israel.
 
“You have a more efficient chain of command than we have, and our military has too much influence,” he said. “The most influential person in the country is not the prime minister but the chief of staff.”
 
Above all, Dromi said, the chief weapon in any nation’s arsenal is the high morale of the people.
 
“A government has to see to it that the people don’t become paranoid,” he said. “If they panic, you have to calm them down. It is vital to create an ongoing public debate on the proper balance between security and democracy.”
 
— TT

“To produce a constitution also requires a certain process of maturation,” added Friling. “Maybe in 200 years, we’ll be ready.”
 
Friling, one of a number of political analysts and scholars interviewed for this story in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, may sound a mite pessimistic. On the other hand, it’s been 60 years since the United Nations inserted a condition in the Palestine partition vote demanding that the new Jewish state draw up a constitution. Lack of such a fundamental document frustrated founding father David Ben-Gurion’s repeated attempts to change Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system.
 
“Basically, the Israeli political system was designed in the 19th century by a small group of Zionists, who represented 2 percent of the Jewish people,” said professor Gideon Doron of Tel Aviv University, president of the Israeli Association of Political Science.
 
Underlying many of Israel’s problems, argued Doron and others, is the instability inherent in the Jewish state’s system of proportional representation, in which voters cast their ballots for national parties, rather than for individual local candidates. One result has been that no single party has ever won a majority of voters, small parties proliferate and the survival of any government is dependent on unstable coalitions.
 
Thus, in the state’s 58-year history, Israel has had 31 governments and only two prime ministers (Golda Meir and Menachem Begin) out of 12 who have served their full four-year terms of office without having to reconstruct their coalitions.
 
No less a figure than Israel’s President Moshe Katsav complained last February that “the moment a government is elected, there is talk of turmoil, instability, insecure coalitions and apprehension of its dissolution.”
 
In addition to its inherent instability in a country facing constant existential dangers, the system weakens government accountability to its citizens.
 
“Knesset members are not elected in specific districts and therefore are not responsive to constituents. There are no petitions to redress grievances and very little grass-roots democracy or private civic action,” said Doron. “We have no town hall meetings or PTAs.”
 
One explanation for the lack of private civic initiative was given by this writer’s sister-in-law, Shoshanah Gaatone, in Tel Aviv, whose street fronts the entrance to Tel Aviv University, where her husband and many of her neighbors work.
 
A few years ago, the municipality decided, without hearings or announcements, to change the street’s name from University Avenue to Chaim Levanon Street in honor of a Tel Aviv mayor of the 1950s. Gaatone organized a small local group to protest the name change but quickly grew frustrated and gave up. The Tel Aviv City Council is also elected by party slates, rather than by neighborhood districts, she explained, so no one in the municipal government felt responsible for addressing the issue of responding to her letters.
 
Since Israel’s establishment, there have been numerous advocates for electoral reform and the drafting of a constitution, but given the country’s constant military, political and social crises, it has been close to impossible to focus the attention of the citizenry or the government on such long range issues.
 
The encouraging news is that a growing number of think tanks, many supported by American philanthropists, have stepped up their lobbying efforts to reform the system. They have achieved some modest success, although they have not coalesced into a national movement.
 
In September of last year, Katsav established the President of Israel’s Commission for Examination of the Structure of Governance in Israel and appointed 71 commission members, representing most sectors of Israeli society.
 
At the time, Katsav warned that “the mounting elitism of the power structure and power instability can undermine the strength of democracy more than security threats.”
 
Last month, the commission gave its report to Katsav, who will present final recommendations to the Knesset at the end of October. In addition, the president has received this year separate and voluminous analyses from the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, Israel Democracy Institute, the Institute for Zionist Strategies and the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee.
 
While the experts generally agree on the shortcomings of the present political system, there are considerable disagreements on solutions, not only among different reports but also among the authors of the same report.
 
On the key issue, some argue for adoption or adaptation of the American presidential system, others for the British parliamentary system and still others for variations or combinations of these and other democratic procedures.
 
Among the top priorities of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) is the inclusion of a bill of rights for individual citizens, as well as clarification of Shabbat and marriage laws, Uri Dromi, an IDI director, said during an interview at his Tel Aviv office.
 
While IDI advocates a “constitution by consensus,” with lots of give and take among conflicting interest groups, the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI) urges more drastic intervention.
 
Doron, a leading figure in both CECI and the Katzav presidential commission, believes that political stability is Israel’s foremost need. To achieve it, CECI has embarked on a national educational campaign to familiarize the public with a proposed electoral system that would divide Israel into six regions and 120 districts, each district electing its own representative to the Knesset.
 
Doron also proposes a stricter separation of powers to raise the standing of the legislative branch, now considered by many as too dependent on the executive and judicial branches. He also urges stronger individual property rights.
 
“Today, 96 percent of the land is owned by the state, which means that homeowners can only rent from the government the land their houses stand on,” Doron said.
 
CECI was founded and is largely underwritten by Los Angeles entrepreneur and philanthropist Izak Parvis Nazarian. He is a native of Iran, was wounded as a tank driver in Israel’s War of Independence and has made a fortune in the high-tech industry and as a venture capitalist.Israel’s reformers hope that more Diaspora figures like Nazarian will support their efforts through financial and intellectual contributions.
 
Inscribing a copy of his book for an American reporter, Doron wrote, “Help us to help ourselves.”
 

Alito Protects Minority Rights


It’s axiomatic that Jews tend to view all news through the lens of “but is it good for the Jews?” It’s therefore no surprise that this filter now is being brought to bear on my former boss and mentor, Judge Samuel Alito Jr., who has been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Based on my experience working closely with Judge Alito, I can answer unequivocally that yes, Judge Alito will be good for the Jews — and, by extension, for all Americans.

I’m a pro-choice, registered Democrat who supports progressive candidates. I’m also a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and an observant Jew who is active in my community. Notwithstanding numerous areas of commonality I have with the liberal groups opposing Judge Alito’s nomination, I wholeheartedly disagree with their position on the nomination.

First, while the Jewish community may be suspicious that certain statements made when Judge Alito worked in the Reagan-era Justice Department show him to be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative intent on enacting a conservative agenda, I believe such fears are misplaced.

Regardless of Judge Alito’s personal beliefs or positions that he advocated while a litigator with the Justice Department, he takes great pains to set aside his personal opinions when judging. To be frank, he did such a good job of setting aside his personal beliefs that I did not know what they were when I clerked for him.

In this era in which nearly everything is subject to partisan politicization, it is hard to understand that someone can put aside one’s personal views. Yet Judge Alito is so committed to the judicial process, including the principle of respecting prior precedent, that he succeeds in doing so.

Contrary to attempts to paint Judge Alito as a conservative ideologue, I can attest to the fact that Judge Alito is an open-minded judge who does not come to cases with preconceived notions. One time, while working on a criminal appeal, I made the mistake of commenting that the case should be fairly easy to decide in favor of the government, in light of the extremely slipshod brief submitted by defense counsel.

Even though he was a former federal prosecutor with considerable experience with criminal cases, Judge Alito rebuked me for my attitude, and made it known that we were to carefully read all briefs and the appellate record, and conduct any additional research needed to ensure that all parties received fair hearings before the court of appeals. Like Judge Alito, we were expected to keep an open mind and not prejudge any case.

Second, in areas of religious freedom, Judge Alito has a proven record of being sensitive to the needs of minority religions. It’s often said that Jews are the canaries in the mineshaft of civilization: One can tell how well a civilization is doing by the way it treats the Jews.

I would extend that metaphor to all minority religious groups. Judge Alito has considerably more sensitivity to members of minority religions than some of the conservative justices currently serving on the Supreme Court.

The current Supreme Court standard for determining religious discrimination cases under the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause is Employment Division v. Smith, in which Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that a law that does not target religion does not violate the First Amendment. In other words, if the statute is not targeting a religious practice, it’s constitutional even if it has the effect of banning that practice.

Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism declared that the Smith line of cases would “go down in history with Dred Scott and Korematsu as among the worst mistakes this court has ever made” — Dred Scott was the case that held that slaves were not people and Korematsu was the case that allowed the U.S. government to intern Japanese-Americans without suspicion of wrongdoing during World War II.

By way of contrast, Judge Alito has written numerous opinions protecting the right of minority religious groups to be free from religious discrimination. One example of his greater sensitivity to religious discrimination cases is a case involving Muslim police officers in Newark, N.J. In that case, Judge Alito held that the city violated police officers’ Free Exercise rights by requiring them to shave their beards in violation of their Sunni Muslim religious beliefs.

In another case, Judge Alito wrote an opinion stating that a university could not discriminate against a Shabbat-observant professor, since “criticism of an employee’s effort to reconcile his or her schedule with the observance of Jewish holidays delivers the message that the religious observer is not welcome at the place of employment.”

In another case involving a member of a Native American religion, Judge Alito wrote that a civic ordinance may not “target religiously motivated conduct either on its face or as applied in practice.”

The American Jewish community owes its vibrancy and continued viability to the constitutional protections of the First Amendment. These cases clearly demonstrate that Judge Alito is more protective of the rights of members of minority religions than some justices currently on the court.

As someone who believes that the Jewish community is best served by judges who limit their roles to deciding specific cases and not enacting their personal agendas, I’m convinced that Judge Alito is by far the best person for this position. Is he good for the Jews? Absolutely.

Jeffrey Wasserstein was a law clerk for Judge Samuel Alito Jr. from 1997-1998. He currently is a principal in the law firm of Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, P.C., in Washington.

 

Right the Wrongs


Last January, I breathed a sigh of relief. The new domestic partnership law went into effect in the state of California, giving senior citizen and same-gender couples a range of state rights nearly equal to the rights given married couples in California.

In so doing, California became second only to Massachusetts in seeking to extend the civil rights of its residents, and many members of the Los Angeles Jewish community, myself included, knew we finally had the legal protections in place that are so critically important to the security of our families.

Then, last week, the California attorney general approved petition language for a ballot measure that would amend the California Constitution to repeal and permanently ban those vital new protections. The brief and frightening summary of the proposed measure, which will easily garner the nearly 1 million signatures required to put it on the ballot in 2006, calls to amend:

“The California Constitution to provide that only marriage between one man and one woman is valid or recognized in California, whether contracted in this state or elsewhere. Voids and restricts registered domestic partner rights and obligations, for certain same-sex and heterosexual couples, in areas such as: ownership and transfer of property, inheritance, adoption, medical decisions, child custody and child support, health and death benefits, insurance benefits, hospital visitation, employment benefits, and recovery for wrongful death other tort remedies.”

In this week’s Torah portion, God and Moses modify the inheritance rights they had recently given to Zelophehad’s daughters — Mahla, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noa — who, having no brothers, petitioned successfully to inherit their father’s property (“And God said to Moses, ‘Zelophehad’s daughters speak right.'” Numbers 27:7).

This week, at the end of the Book of Numbers, the uncles of these women complain that if their brother’s daughters were to marry outside their tribe, then the tribe would lose the legacy that belongs to it.

This time Moses speaks for God, saying, “The tribe of the sons of Joseph speaks right,” and he amends the earlier law by requiring Zelophehad’s daughters to marry into the family of their father’s tribe. They do so, marrying their uncles’ sons, and in so doing ironically pass along their inheritance to the families who would have inherited it originally if the sisters had not spoken up.

Whatever the biblical base for it, most Jews these days don’t expect to enter arranged marriages. With interfaith marriage rates continuing to grow, fewer and fewer Jews are observing any Jewish constraints on their freedom to marry, and would be rightly outraged if any state or federal government tried to interfere with their legal and civil right to marry.

Even American Jews who favor Jewish marriage over interfaith would not likely deny any interfaith couple the civil right to marry. And yet, the people proposing or supporting this new constitutional amendment would make certain that thousands of their peers never have such rights and, moreover, would strip them of important civil rights already duly conferred by California law. Like the brothers of Zelophehad, they stand for their privilege, and willingly put restrictions on the lives of other people.

What motivates a drive to amend a constitution now dedicated to fairness and equality into one that recreates a true second-class citizenry? How do these proponents benefit? Just as race laws did in America, such proposals galvanize emotionally motivated and fear-based voters into a firm voter base for leaders with other economic and power agendas. We need only look at the long history of anti-Semitism to remind ourselves that we’ve seen all this before.

This last Torah portion in the Book of Numbers concerns itself largely with the establishment and maintenance of boundaries as the Israelites prepare to move into the land of Canaan after their 40 years in the wilderness. God-given geographic boundaries, inheritance rights, appointment (not election) of leaders, provision for the establishment of sanctuary cities (six cities are needed in order to protect the lives of people who kill unintentionally, lest they be killed by avengers) — all contribute to a rather rigid atmosphere.

For a people who has lived in the wilderness and moved 42 times in 40 years (Rashi on Numbers 33), knowing as they do that Moses — their leader for all 40 years — is about to die, we can perhaps understand the desire (even God feels it) to get everything firmly in place as the Israelites prepare for entry into the Promised Land. But in our day, cui bono — to whose advantage is it to deny or remove (or even propose removing) rights from certain citizens? In our day, what’s our excuse?

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

Peace ‘Map’ Fears


Israel backers are raising numerous concerns about the latest version of the U.S. "road map" for Middle East peace.

Analysts and Jewish leaders say the latest version, currently being hammered out in Washington, diverges from President Bush’s June 24 speech, in which he called for new Palestinian leaders and said a Palestinian state could be created only after significant institutional reforms. They also say Israel has not been consulted enough in the preparation of the document.

Also of concern is the fact that the State Department, which is considered to be softer on the Palestinians, is working on the plan, rather than the White House, whose views on the conflict are considered closer to Israel’s.

"The concern is that some of the key players credited with crafting Bush’s speech are now focused on Iraq," said one official with a Jewish organization. "Some of the other folks in the State Department have moved to fill the vacuum."

Israel has complained that it learned about the revised road map only from news reports. Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky raised some of Israel’s concerns during a visit to Washington last week.

Conceived in conjunction with America’s "quartet" partners — the United Nations, European Union and Russia — the road map has been under revision for more than a month, addressing concerns raised by all sides.

It is expected to be released when quartet leaders meet in Washington on Dec. 20. Israeli officials want the release postponed until after Israeli elections on Jan. 28.

The road map calls for a three-stage approach leading to an interim Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip next year, and the creation of a permanent state by the end of 2005.

In the first stage, the plan demands the appointment of a new Palestinian Authority Cabinet and the creation of a prime minister’s post. It also demands that Israel improve humanitarian conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and dismantle any settlement outposts created under the Sharon government.

Later, it would require the Palestinians to write a constitution. It also calls for a monitoring system led by the quartet to ensure that the two sides meet their commitments. In addition, the road map calls on Israel to withdraw troops from all areas occupied since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000 and to freeze all settlement activity.

The second phase, which would run through the end of 2003, begins with Palestinian elections in January and an international conference to form a provisional Palestinian state. The third phase, due in 2004 and 2005, calls for a second conference and negotiations toward a final peace agreement.

The new version does not address some of the fundamental concerns that Israel raised last month. Specifically, Israel is concerned that the road map does not repeat Bush’s demand for a change in Palestinian leadership and does not set standards that the Palestinians must meet before the sides progress from stage to stage.

Israel wants the steps to be performance-based, not dictated by a timeline that runs regardless of how well the Palestinians honor their commitments, as was the case under the Oslo peace accords.

"We’ve had very negative experiences with timelines in the past," an Israeli official said.

Israel is also not happy that quartet members — three of whom it considers biased toward the Palestinians — will serve as monitors, playing a role that until now has been filled by the United States.

The new version speaks of moving through the process with the "consensus" opinion of the quartet — essentially giving the United States veto power — but Israeli officials argue that isn’t enough. They want any monitoring to be left solely to the United States.

Several analysts say that, unlike Bush’s June 24 speech, the road map essentially allows Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to remain in power. Bush also said that no Palestinian state could be created until the Palestinian leaders "engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure."

Israel has complained that the security steps the plan demands of the Palestinians are too vague.

"The road map is not faithful to Bush’s June 24 speech, which makes crystal clear that removal of Yasser Arafat is a prerequisite of any American diplomatic initiative," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Also of concern is the lack of consequences for Palestinian noncompliance.

If the road map is released next month, it will come during national elections in Israel, where Haifa’s dovish mayor, Amram Mitzna, will lead the Labor Party. The Likud leadership was to be decided in a Nov. 28 primary, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a heavy favorite to defeat his challenger, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli officials have been asking for the release to be postponed until after the Jan. 28 national elections. Sharansky made the request in Washington last week, but so far the United States has resisted.

"We haven’t made any decisions in terms of announcements or anything," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said last week.

Releasing the road map during the election campaign would be seen as a gift for Mitzna, who has said he will meet with any Palestinian leader, including Arafat. Sharon has refused to meet with Arafat because of Arafat’s ties to terror groups.

However, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Monday that postponing the release would be as much an act of interference in Israeli politics as releasing it. He also suggested that Sharon would not be hampered by the road map.

"He needs to show the Israeli electorate not only that he can fight terrorism, but that he has a way out of the process," Indyk said at a forum at the Brookings Institution, where he is a senior fellow. "He needs to support it."

Indyk also said that based on the fate of other peace plans presented over the past two years, Sharon knows there is little chance the road map will be implemented. Therefore, Indyk said, he has little to lose by supporting the plan.

Makovsky speculated that the United States may be insisting on releasing the document quickly to strengthen U.S. attempts to woo Arab support for a potential attack on Iraq.

"Introducing the document at such a sensitive juncture, very little can be accomplished," he said. "It makes me wonder if Arab states are seeking to insist upon the quartet’s passage of the road map as a prerequisite for their acquiescence to the American actions in Iraq."

Jesus Day Flap


The dust-up over Jesus Day is turning into a firestorm. Thanks to the Internet, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush cannot shake continuing criticism for the role that his religious faith might play in his presidency.

Bush, the governor of Texas, signed a proclamation calling June 10, 2000, Jesus Day in Texas. The American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) said the proclamation violates the “spirit and intention of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

Bush’s proclamation stated that “throughout the world, people of all religions recognize Jesus Christ as an example of love, compassion, sacrifice and service.”

Bush has previously been criticized for remarks he made stating that only Christians go to heaven and his naming Jesus as the political philosopher or thinker with whom he most identified. After the signing, Bush officials and some Jewish groups engaged in heated back and forth. The matter might have been dropped by all sides were it not for the Internet. A paragraph taken from news reports on Jesus Day has been flying from e-mail to e-mail. The paragraph relates only the fact that Bush signed a Jesus Day proclamation, but fails to bring up the pointed criticism of liberal Jewish groups, the Bush response, or the larger national context.

The principal problem with the Jesus Day proclamation, said AJCongress Executive Director Phil Baum, “is not that it acknowledges the important civic contributions of a particular faith, but that it assumes the profound regard in which the teachings and person of Jesus Christ are held by the Christian community are the norm for all the residents of the state of Texas.

“Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, members of other faith groups and nonbelievers, all of whom are entitled to equal respect, would have difficulty responding to the governor’s call to practice civic responsibility by ‘following Christ’s message’ on June 10,” said Baum.

AJCongress notes that while such proclamations have become “customary and routine” – saying that Congress and many states have, for instance, issued proclamations commemorating the life and teachings of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Schneerson – “all such statements are offensive and erode the protection afforded minority beliefs” by the First Amendment.

A spokesperson for Bush’s office provided a number of examples of other recent Bush proclamations concerning religion.

They included proclamations honoring the 100th anniversary of the Baha’i faith in North America and the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa, “a community of Sikhs committed to defending and upholding their faith.”

Bush also has signed proclamations declaring Honor Israel Day and a week of Holocaust remembrance, and honoring the Austin Chabad House.

A Bush campaign spokesman said that while Bush is “sensitive” to AJCongress’ concerns, “he does not fully share them.”

“The governor recognizes the importance of the separation of church and state,” said Ari Fleischer. But he said “it is a long American tradition” and “an appropriate function for governors to issue proclamations honoring groups both religious and secular in nature for important events, adding, “It doesn’t mean the governor endorses those causes.”

AJCongress called the proclamation “a recent and egregious example” of the common practice by elected officials “to seek to accommodate the religious view of their constituents by issuing proclamations endorsing or commemorating the view or practices of various sectarian groups or denominations.”

Eric Fingerhut is a staff reporter for Washington Jewish Week.