Popular Israeli singer wishes death to Obama in new song

The popular Israeli singer Amir Benayoun released a song that wishes for the death of President Barack Obama, whom he refers to as a “treacherous creature.”

Benayoun, who previously has been accused of racism and incitement, posted the song Monday on Facebook. He deleted it after receiving negative feedback on his page.

“I was glad to receive your responses to the song I posted. As an artist, it is important to me to express my opinions fully. But for now, I decided to consider your responses, which I appreciate, and take my thoughts, musings and songs … elsewhere,” he wrote on Facebook.

According to the Times of Israel, the song lyrics include passages such as “I bought myself a crow with a fabulous little mustache, even though there are many like those available for free, Because of my fondness for Obama, I’ll just say that I named him after the ugly president” and “the reason I bought a cruel crow was to try to inject this treacherous creature with a bit of heart, [but] in the meantime, I’ve lost an eye, I suffer from idiocy … and wish for the death of the corrupt creature.”

Last November, Benayoun was disinvited from a performance at President Reuven Rivlin’s official residence because of a recent song he had written called “Ahmed Loves Israel,” which calls an Arab-Israeli student “ungrateful scum.”

In a Facebook post in February, the mainstream Israeli artist compared Israel’s liberal politicians to the “devil.”

Met opera scores a ‘fail’

About five months ago, it was revealed that the NYC Metropolitan Opera had scheduled the performance of the opera titled, the “Death of Klinghoffer”.  I, along with many others, wrote the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, and urged him, due to the opera’s humanizing of terror and the current upsurge in terrorists and anti-Semitic/anti-Israel events taking place around the world, to replace the two weeks of Klinghoffer performances with a different operatic production.  In my naivety I imagined that the Met would want to be socially responsible.

My letter received no response. Upon writing to Gelb a second time, I received a very short “form letter”. The response was disappointing not because it was a form letter, but because the letter ignored addressing, as well as showing any thought or consideration for, the serious issues which I and others had raised.

Days later, it was announced that the Met decided to cancel its 2,500 simulcast HD theater showings of the Klinghoffer Opera which would be seen around the world. In this cancellation announcement, Gelb stated that the Klinghoffer Opera was neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. However, since there was a worldwide rise in anti-Semitism, the opera might incite additional anti-Semitic violence. Therefore, it was decided that the Klinghoffer opera live performances at the NYC Met would not be cancelled, as if anti-Semitism anti-Israel sentiment were not American problems.

Gelb proclaimed the Klinghoffer opera to be a modern day musical masterpiece written by one of the finest composers of our time. The twenty-three year old opera had not been performed in many venues due to constant community protests against the opera’s offensive fictionalized content that gives credence to terrorists.  However, thirteen years after 9-11, for the 2014 Met Season, Gelb felt compelled, as if it was a religious calling, for him to bring this contested opera to the famed NYC’s Met stage.

Within days of Gelb’s announced decision to ignore the community protest and move forward with the opera’s performance, the Klinghoffer libretto was sent out over the Internet.  Except for Abe Foxman at the ADL, key Jewish leaders who read the opera’s words found the text to be highly egregious, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, promoting a deceptive ahistorical narrative which is being popularized by today’s anti-Israel protests and boycott movements, on the internet, in the news media, and at universities across America and throughout Europe.

Who in their right mind would ever have thought that the abhorrent PLO murder of Leon Klinghoffer would become the story for an opera? How did that happen? Who would have imagined that the ugly and tragic Klinghoffer story would be fictionalized to the extent that the terrorists would be humanized and the helpless victim would be shown to be flawed?  Who came up with that idea?

 If anything, the Klinghoffer Opera would have been titled, “The Murder of Klinghoffer” since the event was a cold blooded murder and not a passive death. The opera would have been a complete condemnation of PLO terrorism and all terrorism.  The opera would have been a clear message of abhorrence at any and all terrorist murder of innocent human beings.

But, who decided to make this opera into the fictionalized opposite of what actually took place and why would that be done? Who tirelessly fought and pushed this idea through all the necessary hurdles in the music and entertainment performance industry? Who pitched this opera to investors and opera funders and effectively argued that this opera would make money for the investors and for the opera houses? Who selected the writer and what qualifications were sought for the person who would create this story?  

The answers to the above questions would provide a profound insight into this opera production.

What is known is that the words to the opera were written by Alice Goodman, a woman from a Reform Jewish home who from childhood disagreed with her Zionist parents. Goodman’s thinking about Israel denied any historical basis as an acceptable justification for its existence. Goodman claimed in an interview published in the Guardian that “romantic nationalism” was the worst and most dangerous evil in the world.  Goodman’s powerful feelings on this topic were specifically targeted at Israel and Zionism’s 3,400 year romance with the Land of Israel.  In the interview, she made no comment on Arab romantic nationalism which apparently didn’t bother her if she even noted its overwhelming presence during it’s less than fifty year existence. 

While writing the Klinghoffer opera, Goodman officially disconnected from Judaism, converted to Christianity and joined the Church of England where she became an Anglican Church Rector.

In the same interview, she indicated that she offended her Jewish parents with this opera and it was a problem to her that her parents were still alive when she published the libretto.

Furthermore, Goodman disclosed that a film was made of the Klinghoffer opera and submitted to a Palestinian Film Festival. Anticipating high praise for the film and the opera, to Goodman’s surprise, the festival rejected the film. The Palestinian Film Festival judges rejected the film not because it immorally justified the PLO murder of an innocent person, but because the film stated some pro-Israel positions.

In the same interview, Goodman admitted that her mistake in writing the opera’s libretto was that she made the terrorists too human and she showed the victims to have significant flaws in their personalities. Her position was that the terrorists were not all bad and the victims were not all good.

She also erred in her story’s attempted moral logic. Ideally, the PLO needed to have murdered a young Israeli “occupier”. But they didn’t.  Instead, they murdered a defenseless, wheelchair restricted, 69 year old American Jew who had nothing to do with the anger and outrage and demands of the PLO terrorists.   Even with the total lack of logical or moral connection, Goodman still made peace with the terrorist murder and completed her libretto.

Goodman took elements of a real story and made it into a fantasy story designed to state her political message. Her artistic effort was to normalize, explain and nuance terrorist intent and thereby provide a justification for murder by negating the qualities of decent, innocent people.

Hours after the opera’s opening night performance in NYC, a Hamas/Fatah member terrorist in Jerusalem turned his car into a live guided missile and attempted to run over and kill as many Israelis and Jews as he could.  Does this terrorist killer, as Alice Goodman’s Klinghoffer opera teaches, have a human face and the three month old infant and twenty year old Ecuadorian tourist who he successfully killed have justifying personality flaws?

To Peter Gelb and the Met, in our country imbued with freedom of speech, you certainly have the right to perform and produce any opera that you so please and exercise artistic freedom. No one wants to take that right away from you.

If our current society was strong and solidly sane, and was not worrying about the continued success of ISIS recruitment efforts, your Klinghoffer masterpiece of the 20th century opera would pass with little more than a yawn and not a trace of citizen protest.  But our world is not so sane with several hundred million people in support of radical terrorism and the murderous call for death to all infidels.

Those who opposed the Klinghoffer opera were not treading on your freedom of speech that you and other media frequently claimed.  The protest against the presentation of the Klinghoffer Opera was a protest against your freedom from responsibility.  It was not about your right to make this performance happen, it was only about your wisdom to pursue this goal at this time and under the current circumstance.

Alice Goodman perhaps didn’t understand that the terrorists’ dream was not just about destroying the borders of Israel and ridding the world of Israel’s evil romantic nationalism.  Today, it is known that the terrorists’ goal is to destroy the “evils of Western civilization”, which includes music, opera, dance, art and our freedoms.

Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera and Alice Goodman, you may not get it, but you, innocent you, are the so-called humanized enemy’s target, not just wheelchair restricted Jewish Mr. Klinghoffer and his make believe personality faults.

Perhaps your opera choice would be appreciated as benign art if it were a wordless painting hanging on the wall of a world-class museum. But the Klinghoffer opera is a political statement asking compassion and understanding for terrorists at a time in human history when innocent Western journalists’ heads are being removed, innocent young women are being kidnapped and forced into sexual enslavement, communities are being murdered, civilized civilization is being targeted for its demise, Israel is being internationally isolated and boycotted and Jews around the world are living under threats unknown since Nazism.

Virtually every review of the Death of Klinghoffer states that the opera lends support to the terrorists by presenting their side and claim of oppression that can be used to justify their actions. No published review of Klinghoffer states that the opera served to condemn and stop the terrorizing murder of innocent civilians or that it left the audience with a message not to accept any justification or rationalization for such actions.

Many concerned citizens, along with the appalled Klinghoffer family members who begged you and the Met not to present this opera, felt that your performance of the Death of Klinghoffer at this time was grossly irresponsible and insensitive to today’s current concerns.

Those who protested the Klinghoffer opera can’t understand your profound lack of wisdom which ignores that collective guilt has been indiscriminately placed upon all of our heads.  The protesters can’t relate to your pride and your boast of success claiming that this opera will open the audience’s mind to compassion and sympathy for those who want to end our culture. It is understood by many who care about art, culture and our civilization that our existence is now under direct terrorist threat and any conjure up excuse is clearly unacceptable. This is why, in the eyes and hearts of many, your proclaimed “Death of Klinghoffer” performance “success” merits a grade of “FAIL”.

Dr. Daryl Temkin is based in Los Angeles and frequently writes and lectures of topics of Judaism, Israel, technology and innovations. He is the Founder of the Israel Institute for the Advancement of Alternative Energy which serves to teach and promote Israel based innovations for advancing the world. He can be contacted at: DarylTemkinPhD@Gmail.com.

Gingrich sticks by Palestinian comment, draws rebukes from GOP candidates

Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich stood by his assertion that the Palestinians are an “invented people,” drawing criticism from other GOP candidates.

“Is what I said factually correct? Yes. Is it historically true? Yes,” Gingrich said during a GOP debate Saturday night in Iowa. “We are in a situation where every day rockets are fired into Israel while the United States—the current administration—tries to pressure the Israelis into a peace process.”

“Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth,” he continued. “These people are terrorists, they teach terrorism in their schools.”

Gingrich added that “it’s fundamentally the time for somebody to have the guts to say enough lying about the Middle East.”

He first made the “invented people” comment in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Channel.

In response to Gingrich’s comments at the debate, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said, “That’s just stirring up trouble.”

Many prominent Jewish Republicans view Paul as an isolationist whose opposition to tough anti-Iran actions and foreign aid, including for Israel, would be bad for the Jewish state. But Gingrich also drew criticism from GOP candidates with records of strong support for Israel.

Mitt Romney, who stands first or second in most polls, said he agreed with Gingrich’s comments about Palestinian terrorism, but said the former House speaker went too far in publicly questioning Palestinian peoplehood.

“I happen to agree with most of what the speaker said,” Romney responded. “Except by going and saying that the Palestinians are an invented people. That I think was a mistake on the speaker’s part.”

Romney warned against throwing “incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot”—and that doing so could make things harder for Israel.

Another candidate with strong pro-Israel credentials, Rick Santorum, followed Romney’s comments with similar criticism of Gingrich.

In recent days, Gingrich’s campaign issued a statement stressing that despite his comments on Palestinian peoplehood, he still favors the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. The statement, released by spokesman R.C. Hammond, declares that “Newt Gingrich supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.”

Hammond added, “However, to understand what is being proposed and negotiated, you have to understand decades of complex history, which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview with The Jewish Channel.”

Gingrich’s comment has been criticized in even stronger terms by an assortment of Palestinian spokesmen and liberal commentators.

What’s really wrong with Israel’s ad campaign

The ads calling for Israelis to return home recently produced by the Israeli Ministry of Absorption and subsequently killed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are being criticized for all the wrong reasons.

Exactly a year ago this month, I was invited to a meeting in the office of the Israeli Ministry of Absorption to provide an hour of consultation regarding this campaign.

My first question to the team in charge was, “Which Israelis?”  And my second question was, “If you run this campaign, what will be your measure of success?”

As I teach my graduate students in the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, knowing how to ask seemingly simple but invasive, laser sharp questions at the very beginning of any campaign determines the professionalism of the nonprofit marketer. And the willingness of the client to grapple with the answers to those questions, which are never simple, determines the viability of the process.

I didn’t receive satisfactory answers to either question from the Ministry of Absorption. But being a good-hearted Zionist and wanting them to succeed at what they were resolved to do, I instead launched into a strategic education session about how they needed to travel this course, in order to achieve success.

I predicted, based on my years of experience in the advertising business and, subsequently, marketing the nonprofit world, that if the Ministry made TV commercials, they would risk becoming emotionally entangled in the creative excitement of the process and overlook finding the strategy that could lead to results. And that is what happened.

As far as 30-second spots go, the ones they made are exceptional. They do not, however, truly demonstrate how Israelis view their relationship with World Jewry, as so many pundits have been writing. These spots are, rather, simply the manifestation of an ad agency copywriter and art director developing a concept to create a series of simple but clever, potentially award-winning spots to add to their portfolio. That is how the industry works. Each spot is professionally conceptualized, poignant, powerful, dramatically executed, emotional, well-lit, beautifully shot, finely acted and artistically edited. Their message is crisp, clear and memorable.

So the Jewish Community in America is insulted and up in arms.

But as a community we can, and will, get over the strategic stupidity of these spots, which didn’t take into consideration or research how they would make Jewish Americans or Israelis married to Americans feel. The truth is, we’re not suffering from any consequences. Ultimately, the Israeli Ministry of Absorption will regain its credibility. Everyone will get over it.

More important, those, is the fact that these misguided spots indicate a far deeper problem, in which not only Israelis, but also the nonprofit Jewish world as whole, continually errs, wasting millions of dollars and shekels. The problem comes from using both the wrong marketing strategies and the wrong implementation.

The Ministry of Absorption, just like the Israeli government itself and many worldwide Jewish organizations, wanted a quick fix. They wanted an instant buzz. They wanted to see their cause in lights. They wanted to make a name for themselves.  They wanted to work with award-winning ad agencies that know how to sell cars and hamburgers, but not how to advocate for issues that can help change the course of the Jewish community or Israel.

In other words, they wanted magic.

It is a recurring problem, from which the Jewish enterprise is suffering greatly. The proof is that our good causes are not advancing. They are continuing to shrink. Aside from the ever-growing depth, texture, creativity and excitement within our vibrant core, more and more Jews continue to choose to pay less and less attention. Look at the shrinking involvement in federations, synagogues and day schools.  In the world of international Israel advocacy, we’re seeing a miserable failure. And on the fundraising front, we had issues way before the economy went south.

Most of the Jewish organizations that contact me believe marketing should create magic. When I first entered the nonprofit world, they requested and expected the magical solution to take the form of Public Service Announcements (PSAs), which end up airing on television during the remnant hours—around midnight. Years later, they thought magic would emerge from Case Statements—voluminous full-color brochures with deep human stories about their cause. (Most recipients threw those brochures away.)  Then, the magic was supposed to come from branding, logos, taglines and clever headlines. Now, the magic bullet is supposed to be social marketing – spreading a message via all the young people who know how to move their way around the Internet.

In their time, all these have been necessary and required outlets. But they don’t produce magic. And no one strategy or tactic can be the whole marketing solution to any hope for success.

Issues and causes, and the nonprofits or government entities that make them their mission, are complex organisms reflecting the soul of a society. And their marketing needs to reflect that complexity.

Marketing is about passion, both for the cause and for a love of humanity. It is about the art of focus. It is about critical thinking and big ideas. It’s about identifying influencers and their networks. It’s about segmentation. It’s about the rigors of community organizing. It’s about human labor, budget and a commitment to be ongoing from the client. It’s about patience and an ability to stay the course, to be flexible and aware of a changing society.  It’s about creativity. It is about sensitivity to your market, especially in the Jewish world.  It’s about many complicated actions and collaborations. 

But more than anything, creating great marketing requires the courage to take a risk and stand up to all the mavens who think they know better and who insist that marketing is magic and your job is to provide it.

So because of the ill-considered belief system and the pressure for instant results, everyone continues to reach for magic—as did the Ministry of Absorption.

Did they really think that 30-second commercials alone could convince people to pick up their lives move back to Israel?

The one thing the Ministry of Absorption did get right is that they need to market their cause and they need to create a budget to make it happen.

Until the Jewish world and Israel get serious and open themselves to the complex discipline of nonprofit marketing, and and until they commit their resources to doing it right, they will be wasting millions of dollars and shekels on the expectations of magic.

Gary Wexler, a former ad agency creative director, is the Adjunct Lecturer in Nonprofit Marketing in the Masters Program at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California (USC)

New book stirs controversy about British chief rabbi

A new book that criticizes Britain’s chief rabbi is opening old wounds and sparking a new debate about whether the institution of the British chief rabbi has outlived its usefulness.

“Another Way, Another Time” examines the tenure of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, known formally as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.

Author Meir Persoff, who has written two academic studies on the Chief Rabbinate, argues that despite Sacks’ pledge at the onset of his tenure to be inclusive—Sacks is Orthodox—the position has become divisive in an increasingly diverse Jewish community.

“The Chief Rabbinate has run its course, and an alternative form of leadership is called for which recognizes the plurality of the community,” Persoff wrote.

The book has reignited a long-simmering debate in Britain’s Jewish community about Sacks, who declined to be interviewed for the book as well as this article.

Some staunchly defend both the office and the influential role he has played for the community; Sacks recently was inducted into the House of Lords. Others say the position should be eliminated when Sacks retires in three years because no one person can represent the multifarious viewpoints of Britain’s Jewish community.

The position of chief rabbi emerged in the 18th and early 19th centuries among the Ashkenazi Jews of London as a form of representation to English authorities—the Jewish equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The position gained formal recognition by an act of Parliament in 1870. Within the Jewish community, the chief rabbi has authority only over the United Synagogue, the Modern Orthodox movement and Britain’s largest synagogue movement.

Nevertheless, both the office and the stature of those who have held it have given the chief rabbi the appearance and de facto authority over the years of representing Anglo Jewry, particularly in the eyes of the non-Jewish British public.

This is what so irks many non-Orthodox Jews, particularly in cases where they believe that Sacks does not represent their perspective or interests.

“My main critique of the office is that it doesn’t allow for the plurality of the community to express itself,” said Jonathan Wittenberg, a leading Conservative rabbi. “To say that the one figure represents the whole community is misleading. Better would be an office that offers a more shared sense of both the diversity and the strength of Jewish leadership that exists in this country.”

Defenders of Sacks, whose philosophical books are popular and whose advice has been sought by non-Jewish religious leaders and even prime ministers, say the need for an eloquent spokesman for the Jews is paramount at a time of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in Britain.

“Few Jews are as well known and highly regarded by the non-Jewish world, a fact not insignificant in determining our relations with others,” Sigmund Sternberg, one of Britian’s chief financial backers of the Reform movement, wrote in the London-based Jewish Chronicle.

The president of the United Synagogue, Simon Hochhauser, said the notion that the chief rabbi speaks for all British Jews is false. The chief rabbi’s true role, he said, is as a bastion of centrist Orthodoxy in a movement increasingly dominated by right-wing Orthodox and the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox.

“The strength of the Chief Rabbinate is its flexibility throughout its history in maintaining a middle ground,” Hochhauser said. “He is not the chief rabbi of the haredi community any more than he is chief rabbi of the non-Orthodox movements.”

Coloring the debate over the chief rabbi are several controversial episodes during Sacks’ tenure. The latest was when an internal communal dispute over the admissions policy of a Jewish school reached the unwanted spotlight of England’s Supreme Court. The result was a ruling that labeled the admissions policy of the school—which is Orthodox, state supported and operated under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate—as discriminatory. The school had refused to admit a student who was not Jewish according to traditional halachah, or Jewish law.

“The difficulties that have arisen during the Sacks era are on such a scale that it may be time to abolish the office of chief rabbi entirely,” Jonathan Romain, a Reform rabbi, wrote in the Guardian. “It is a misleading title, as it gives the impression that the chief rabbi represents British Jewry as a whole, whereas he only represents the Orthodox, and not even all Orthodox Jews.”

Sacks’ critics say his record contrasts sharply with the expectation of inclusivity that he set when he took office in 1991. At the time Sacks said that he wished to reach out “to every Jew with open arms and an open heart.”

Two years later he published “One People?,” a book in which he championed “inclusivism.” Acknowledging there was no prospect of a return to traditional Jewish observance by the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews, Sacks wrote that it therefore was necessary for Orthodox Jews to be inclusivist rather than exclusivist, to seek “a nuanced understanding of secular and liberal Jews,” and to attach “positive significance to the fact that liberal Judaisms have played their part in keeping alive for many Jews the values of Jewish identity, faith, and practice.” The stance was welcomed by non-Orthodox Jews in Britain.

But by the mid-1990s Sacks’ efforts at inclusivity ran aground. He canceled a planned appearance at a memorial service for Reform leader and Auschwitz survivor Rabbi Hugo Gryn, one of Britain’s most popular Jewish public figures, after the haredi Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations protested.

The controversy intensified when the Jewish Chronicle published a leaked copy of Sacks’ reply to the head of the union, Rabbi Chenoch Padwa, in which Sacks portrayed himself as an “enemy” of the non-Orthodox movements.

The affair exposed the internal divisions among British Jewry. Of the approximately 70 percent of British Jews who are affiliated, some 47 percent are Orthodox, 16 percent are Reform or Liberal, 4 percent are haredi, 2 percent are Sephardic and 1 percent are Conservative, according to the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

The Gryn affair eroded support for Sacks and sparked the creation of a commission to examine who speaks for British Jewry. The result was the Community of Communities report published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in 2000, which without directly singling out the Chief Rabbinate, affirmed the need for an “independent, cross-communal coordinating structure” to represent British Jews on religious and secular matters.

Persoff’s book, while mostly a detailed and scholarly review of Sacks’ 20-year tenure, has sparked new conversation about abolishing the chief rabbi position. Based on the reaction playing out on the pages of the country’s main Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, it appears that most British Jews believe that in these times of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, it’s important to have an eloquent spokesman for British Jews.

Jewish Agency wants changes in Israel conversion policy

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Jewish Agency Assembly adopted resolutions calling on the Israeli government to establish an independent authority on Jewish conversions and special courts of Jewish law to “allow the conversion process to move forward.”

The twin resolutions were adopted by the world body Sunday after heated debate and a crossfire of amendments and counteramendments. The issue has long aroused the ire of Diaspora Jews, who have been upset at the refusal of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities to recognize conversions performed by rabbis in the Diaspora.

The assembly defeated a stronger resolution, submitted by delegates from Los Angeles, that would have called on the Israeli government to “recognize and accept as Jews” all those converted under the supervision of rabbis from the four major Jewish religious movements, as well as those from “other religious streams of Judaism.”

Yaakov Ne’eman, who has been appointed by successive Israeli governments to resolve the controversial issue, had threatened to quit if the stronger resolution was adopted.

One of the adopted resolutions cited “a deep crisis within the conversion process” brought on by the arrival in Israel of some 300,000 new immigrants not considered Jewish by the Orthodox religious establishment. It calls on the government to establish Jewish religious courts that “will base themselves on appropriate moderate and tolerant prior halachic decisions to allow the conversion process to move forward.”

Noting that Israel’s Supreme Court already has recognized “conversions by the different streams of Judaism for civil matters,” the other resolution calls on the government to “establish immediately an independent conversion authority to resolve and deal with the conversion issue.”

Chabad, Getty and neighbors square off over Palisades school plan

Rabbi Zushe Cunin, head of Chabad of Pacific Palisades for 16 years, is accustomed to “overcoming and embracing all challenges,” he said. But the uproar surrounding his plans to relocate Chabad’s Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center to a vacant building off Los Liones Drive — in a canyon below an affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood and off a service road leading to the Getty Villa — has surprised him.

In support of the school’s nature-based curriculum, Cunin, 38, believed he had found an ideal new location when he came upon an empty 3,000-square-foot former storage facility at the base of a hillside property. He tracked down the owner, longtime Pacific Palisades resident Gene Gladden, who agreed to lease the property to Chabad.

Cunin (photo) was making preparations to turn the site into a preschool, planning to open in September, when an attorney from the J. Paul Getty Trust sent a letter denying Chabad’s right to access the property via the Getty Villa’s service road.

Around the same time, members of the neighboring Castellammare Mesa Home Owners Association, which has 141 member families, began a flurry of e-mails and telephone exchanges questioning Chabad’s right to access the property alternatively through Gladden’s backyard off Bellino Drive and also raising concerns about other safety and noise issues.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has become involved, as has the Palisades Mormon Church, to which Cunin turned with a request for access through the church’s parking lot.

This might seem just an ordinary land-use dispute with, on one side, a preschool hoping to operate in a residential area — which can be allowed with a conditional-use permit — and on the other objections from neighbors who don’t want increased noise and congestion. But there is a history of high-profile, contentious disputes in this neighborhood: The Getty weathered its own heated and drawn-out legal battle with local Pacific Palisades homeowner associations, which began in 1997 when it announced plans for an extensive renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa. The clash centered on plans for a outdoor amphitheater. The much-delayed opening of the Getty Villa didn’t happen until January 2006, following years of negotiation with neighborhood associations.

Enter Chabad, an organization whose name is a Hebrew acronym meaning wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and which, as part of Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the largest sects of Orthodox Judaism worldwide. Known for its evangelical outreach and zeal, Chabad has its own history of controversy in many circles.

Rabbi Cunin had been successfully operating Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center in various locations in Temescal Gateway Park without conflict since the preschool was founded in 2000. The school enrolls approximately 50 children, ages 2 to 5, who, Cunin said, come primarily from Pacific Palisades and other Westside locations and from all levels of religious observance.

Last year the Santa Monica Conservancy, which oversees the park, voted to end the lease of the Chabad preschool as well as that of the private Little Dolphins preschool, ruling that public park area should no longer be walled off for private endeavors.

On Jan. 29, 2008, Cunin signed a three-year lease with a 20-year option on the building owned by Gladden, which sits near the service entrance to the Getty Villa, next door to the Mormon Church and across the road from Topanga State Park. Cunin began making some of the necessary renovations to the property.

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Everything went smoothly until April 2, when Getty Trust attorney Lori Fox informed Cunin that Chabad does not have the right to approach the building via a private Getty service road — which Chabad disputes. As a result, Cunin said, Chabad officials, teachers and workmen began accessing the property through Gladden’s driveway off Bellino Drive and down a steep stairway in Gladden’s backyard.

Neighbors became aware of the activity, as well as of the building, which was newly painted inside and staged with small tables and chairs. An outdoor area now sported playground equipment to enable prospective parents and state inspectors to better visualize the future preschool. Cunin believes that many residents assumed, erroneously, the preschool was already open for business.

Homeowners began an exchange of e-mails, and one homeowner, whose child had attended the school, contacted Cunin to clarify the school’s status. He assured her that he didn’t plan to use Gladden’s home as access for the school. She shared this information with the other neighbors.

Chabad’s attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, argues that the preschool location is “brilliant.”

“It’s a building that’s safe and appropriate. It’s got a nice, flat garden around for the kids to play outdoors, and it’s got nice access: The parents can drive right up,” Reznik said.

The Getty, however, sees the site differently. Getty attorney Fox sent a memorandum to area homeowner associations on May 9 summarizing the Getty’s communications with Chabad and objections to the location.

“We have serious concerns about the proposed use of both the warehouse and access via our service road,” Fox stated in the memo, emphasizing safety concerns for the children.

The dispute over use of the service road is not surprising, given its complicated history.

Access along the service road to the Getty guard booth, which sits just above the driveway to the Gladden building, uses an easement granted by the Mormon Church, which bought its three-acre property in 1970 from a private developer, according to David Lacy, who founded Senior Realty Advisors of Covina, and who has assisted Chabad in property acquisitions for more than a decade. It was originally a dirt road, which the Getty paved and later widened, as required for its renovation.

But Gladden was granted the necessary permits in 1981, he said, to construct a building on the lower part of his property for recreation and storage. He also received permission from the Getty to access the building via the service road. Gladden subsequently rented the building to the Getty for 25 years for storage purposes, a lease which ended approximately six months ago, according to Gladden.

Because Gladden has been allowed access to his building for the last 26 years and because the Getty has never revoked that right, Lacy believes that Gladden as well as Chabad, as his representatives, “has a legal right to a prescriptive easement” on that property.

Iranian Jews still awaiting apology from Muslim singer

Dariush live in Las Vegas 2007

The concert at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas was advertised as a “night to remember,” and it lived up to the hype.

During the Dariush Eghbali concert on Dec. 23, which drew about 5,000 Iranian Americans, local Iranian Jewish fans were shocked when the popular Iranian Muslim singer made what some considered to be an anti-Semitic remark between songs.

Despite a recent meeting with Eghbali, the controversy continues, more than three months later, as the Iranian Jewish community awaits an official apology from the singer.

During the concert, Eghbali quoted an alleged passage from a book he attributed to Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran, best known in the United States for the book “The Prophet.”

In a video clip (since removed) from the Las Vegas concert posted to Eghbali’s Web site, dariush2000.com, the singer speaks in Persian, saying, “Different people have different talents.” He elaborates, saying that Iranians notice one bad tree in a beautiful park; Germans are power-seekers; Italians are fashion-oriented; and Jews are “mochareb,” which is the Persian word for “saboteurs.”

After making the statement, Eghbali reiterated that the words were Gibran’s and told the audience he had a message of harmony and peace for all peoples.

Iranian Jews who attended the concert began circulating e-mails denouncing the singer, calling for boycotts of his shows. Others called on Calabasas-based concert promoter Tapesh to pressure Eghbali into making a formal apology. Tapesh issued a written statement to the media indicating they were not responsible for the comment he made and did not endorse it.

In late February, Iraj Shamsian, a close Iranian Jewish friend of Eghbali, brokered a meeting between the singer and nine leaders from the local Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF).

“At the meeting Dariush said he really didn’t think Jewish people are saboteurs and it was something he read in a Farsi-translated book,” Shamsian said. “At the meeting he clarified that he never meant to hurt anyone and was sorry some people were hurt by what he said.”

Elias Eshaghian, chairman of the IAJF, said that while he and other Iranian Jewish leaders were initially pleased with the outcome of the meeting with Eghbali, they are awaiting a formal letter of apology from the singer.

“We are surprised that even though he expressed his regret over his statement … he has still not released a written apology to start healing the wounds in our community,” Eshaghian said.

Shamsian said the 57-year-old singer, who lives in Los Angeles and Paris, was shocked by the allegations of anti-Semitism and disappointed with the e-mails circulated about him.

“He was very hurt when he received those e-mails,” Shamsian said. “He told me it was one of the worst experiences of his life, because after 40 years of being a beloved performer in the Persian community he never thought Jewish people would think he was anti-Semitic. He’s always had a message of harmony amongst all people.”

The controversy surrounding Eghbali’s statement briefly unified the local Iranian Jewish community, which is often plagued by infighting. During a Jan. 2 meeting, nearly 70 Iranian Jewish leaders from different organizations gathered at the IAJF synagogue in West Hollywood to discuss the community’s response to Eghbali’s comments.

The community leadership agreed that a tempered response to the incident would be needed once the singer issued a formal apology.

“We need to respond to [Eghbali] properly but also calm our community because emotions are running high,” said Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “We need to use our energies in more productive ways to help resolve other more serious issues the community faces.”

Iranian Jews who have seen the online video of Eghbali’s Las Vegas concert said his statement may have been insensitive but was not intended to be anti-Semitic when placed in context, since he was calling on all people of the world to set aside their differences and unite in harmony.

“There is no benefit in him [Eghbali] saying something negative about Jews,” said Bijan Khalili, an Iranian Jewish publisher. “Unlike Ahmadinejad who wins support in the Arab streets by bad-mouthing Israel and the Jews, Dariush wins nothing by make any alleged anti-Semitic statement — so it’s obvious there was no negative intent by him.”

Karmel Melamed has more on this story in the Iranian American Jews blog.

Khalili said Eghbali is not known to have made anti-Semitic remarks in the past and has enjoyed a strong Jewish fan base for 30 years.

Shamsian also defended Eghbali, saying the singer “does not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body [nor] have I never heard Dariush say anything anti-Semitic or express hate for any religious group.”

Eghbali, who is on tour in Europe, did not return repeated calls for comment.

Iranian Jews, for the most part, have enjoyed warm relations with their Muslim compatriots since both groups immigrated to Southern California following the 1979 Iranian revolution. Khalili and other local Iranian Jews said they did not want isolated incidents like the one involving Eghbali blown out of proportion and jeopardizing their existing friendships with Iranian Muslims.

Dariush Fakheri, one of the founders of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, said he was disappointed with the IAJF for missing the opportunity to really engage Eghbali and educate local Iranian Muslims about anti-Semitism through help from Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League.

“We are not radical Islamic leaders to issue fatwas against people who insult us,” Fakheri said. “We as Jews are a peace-loving people and should have put together seminars to educate Muslims about issues of anti-Semitism — after this incident we see the importance of gatherings such as these.”

Iranian Jewish activist Noorollah Gabai (left) and Iranian Jewish publisher Bijan Khalili at IAJF meeting on January 2. Photo by Karmel Melamed

The many sides of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s Jewish identity has long been a point of conflict and controversy. His short-lived conversion to born-again Christianity dismayed many, heartened a few and confused all. But at least two commentators are certain that Jewishness and Judaism inform the core of the former Robert Zimmerman’s beliefs and music.

Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman, the director-writer and co-writer, respectively, of the new Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” which opens theatrically in wide release on Nov. 21, are convinced, after living with their project for many years, that Bob Dylan remains a Jew.

“I’m Not There” is part of a mini-floodlet of new Dylan filmed material that is hitting theaters and DVD stores this month. Also being shown for the first time are Murray Lerner’s compendium of concert footage from Dylan’s folkie days, “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan, Newport, 1963-1965,” and an hour-long collection of outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal “Don’t Look Back,” called “65 Revisited.”

But “I’m Not There” is stirring the most controversy. As practically everyone seems to know by now, Haynes’s film divides Dylan’s life into six personae, each represented by a different actor. We see Dylan progress in fragments from a 12-year-old African American boy (the wonderfully serious Marcus Carl Franklin) through a soft-spoken poet (Ben Wishaw); an earnest folkie who eventually is reborn as a Christian preacher (Christian Bale); a troubled actor, father and husband (Heath Ledger); a snarky pop star (Cate Blanchett); and a mellowed outlaw (Richard Gere). For each of these aspects of Dylan, Haynes devises a different visual style, ranging from the black-and-white faux-cinema-vérité-cum-Fellini of the Blanchett sequences to the amber twilight of the Gere passages.

By all rights, this should feel gimmicky, even foolish. But Haynes invests each of his “Dylans” with a powerful presence that is the perfect counterpart to the music of each period in Dylan’s career, and at the same time links all the personae to a central humanity. In its own oddball way, “I’m Not There” is among the best pieces of music criticism I’ve seen or read on the subject of Bob Dylan. It is a jigsaw puzzle, with its various pieces scattered around the table by a deft, if quirky hand. It’s a film that rewards close attention and deserves repeated viewings.

The film’s one significant omission is the place of Judaism in Dylan’s life.

“That is the most secret and well-preserved of his personae,” Todd Haynes replied when asked about that gap at the New York Film Festival. “I think Dylan’s relationship to his Jewishness is much more private than any of the other roles he has played; it’s kept close to his relationship with his family life, and I don’t think we’re supposed to know more about it than that.”

“[Judaism] is the one central thing in his entire biography,” Moverman said in a telephone interview last week. “Whether it is overt or not, it is there. Even the Christian period occurred as a reaction against his Jewishness, and that lasted only three years, and the next thing you know, Dylan is doing Chabad telethon appearances.”

One could argue, I suppose, that Moverman and Haynes are biased. Moverman is an Israeli now living in Brooklyn, for whom, in his words, “being Jewish and Israeli are a huge part of my identity.” Haynes is half-Jewish by his mother, and when it was pointed out to him during an interview last week that halachically he is a Jew, he sat upright on a sofa and said with a huge grin, “And I’m damned proud of it.”

Haynes acknowledges that he didn’t have a religious upbringing. Raised in the San Fernando Valley in a largely Jewish community, he notes that “I never felt like a member of a minority group. I didn’t understand jokes about Barbra Streisand’s nose. I thought she was glamorous and sexy.”

Although he is not religious, Haynes feels he is deeply imbued with a sense of his own Jewishness.

“I identify it, and its manifestations, through an innate sense of the role of the entertainer and the comic; the origins of popular theater and the role of humorist are at their heart Jewish phenomena, and the leftist historical associations, the commitment to progressiveness that are the historical associations with Judaism in America,” he said, adding “I see that in Dylan as well. For all his desire to efface himself, he is the natural inheritor of the role of the Jewish performer. It’s there in his wit, his politics and his performances — the way he throws himself into them.”

Haynes admits he can’t identify with the performer side of Dylan: “That’s the big difference between us. As a performer he is insistent on living in the moment, and a film director’s job is about as far from that as possible. He’s not reflective in nature; I am. The job of a director, of necessity, requires all kinds of planning and preparation.”

In fact, Haynes believes that his own most Jewish trait is his inclination towards reflectiveness.

“The history of Jewish thinking is analytical and reflective,” he said.

Murray Lerner has been filming pop music performances for several decades now, and in recent years he has begun to make the results more widely available for both theatrical and home video use. His Dylan film, centered on the singer-songwriter’s appearances at the 1963 and 1965 Newport Folk Festivals, shows how each of those performances represents a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career. The first was his coronation as the “king of the protest singers,” a label Haynes makes clear Dylan loathed. The second performance was one of the most famous of Dylan’s career, the moment when he first played with an electric band, tossing aside the too-heavy crown of folksong royalty in exchange for the colorful robes of rock ‘n’ roll prophet. If you wanted to see two early Dylan performances preserved, these would be on the short list.

Lerner’s method is utter simplicity. He plants the camera where it can see the performer, usually just far enough away to show him in the larger physical context of the stage; he is sparing in his cuts to different camera angles, never imposing his own rhythmic choices on the music, and shows us audience reactions only between numbers. The result is an intense focus on the artist as creation takes place, and, in this case, the results are compelling.

Rabin memorial rally draws 100,000, Coulter controversy escalates

Israelis Rally in Memory of Rabin

More than 100,000 people rallied in memory of Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. An unusually large demonstration, marking 12 years since the former Israeli prime minister’s assassination, drew people to Rabin Square last Saturday night for the annual event.

Commentators suggested that public interest in preserving Rabin’s legacy has been boosted by the prospect of a resumption in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that he launched in the early 1990s.

“Rabin’s way will prevail,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the crowd.

Many Israeli left-wingers also want to counteract the spread of sympathy for Rabin’s imprisoned assassin, Yigal Amir. Polls show that a growing number of rightists would seek clemency for Amir who, though sentenced to life in prison, has had conjugal visits and started a family. Amir’s first child, a son, was to be circumcised in a jailhouse ceremony last Sunday. The assassin earlier failed to win Supreme Court permission to conduct the circumcision with relatives outside.

Coulter Escalates War of Words With Jewish Groups

Ann Coulter escalated her war of words with Jewish groups. In a Nov. 1 column, the conservative pundit blasted the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for condemning her earlier remarks suggesting that Jews would be “perfected” by Christianity.

Coulter suggested the ADL was soft on Iran and Islamist extremists.

“The ADL is more concerned with what it calls the ‘neo-Nazis’ and ‘anti-Semites’ in the Minutemen organization,” she wrote, referring to an anti-illegal immigrant group that has drawn support from right-wing extremists, “than with people who behead Jews whenever they get half a chance.” The ADL is at the forefront of lobbying for tougher anti-Iran sanctions and monitoring pro-terrorist activity.

She also blasted the ADL for defending Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim in Congress, for taking his oath on a Quran instead of a Bible.

“Do they have Ellison on the record acknowledging whether the Holocaust happened?” she wrote.

Ellison joined resolutions in the Minnesota Legislature condemning Holocaust denial and attended Holocaust commemorations.

ADL dismissed the column as “little more than a desperate attempt to deflect attention from her own bigoted and hateful views and her mistake in giving vent to anti-Semitism on a national cable broadcast.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) renewed its call on broadcast networks to stop using Coulter, dismissing her claims that she is a true defender of Jewish interests.

“Jews for Coulter?,” Ira Forman, the NJDC’s executive director said in a statement. “You could hold that convention in the backseat of a Volkswagen Bug.”

Interim Steinhardt Foundation Head Named

Robert Aronson has been named the acting president of Michael Steinhardt’s Foundation for Jewish Life.

Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, had become a consultant to Steinhardt in recent years, most recently working on the philanthropist’s Areivim project, a $100 million fund to transform Jewish education. Aronson replaces Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who left the foundation — then called the Jewish Life Network — in the spring amid some acrimony.

Steinhardt, the ex-hedge fund maven, has given away some $125 million to Jewish causes since 1994, most notably helping to found Birthright Israel and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. In an interview with JTA last summer, Steinhardt said that aside from funding for Birthright, he thought that most of the money spent on projects during Greenberg’s tenure had been wasted.

Steinhardt said that going forward he wants to focus the bulk of his energy and resources on follow-up programs for young adults upon their return from Birthright trips, the Areivim fund, and early childhood and informal education initiatives.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Loving our passion

It’s been a rather tense couple of weeks since my good friend and neighbor Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky spoke his mind on the sensitive subject of Jerusalem. His Op-Ed on Oct. 26 caused a firestorm to erupt in the Jewish world, and now, everywhere I go, people are still charged up about it.

And when you consider the stakes, who can blame them?

On one side, you have the incredible, visceral attachment to a holy city that Jews have yearned to reclaim for 1,900 years that represents the heart and soul of the Jewish people. On the other, as Kanefsky laid it out, you have all of that plus the incredible, visceral attachment to the values of “speaking the truth” and “honest self-appraisal.”

It doesn’t stop there. On one side, you also have the conviction that because the enemy is not really interested in peace and couldn’t deliver on it even if it were, any “honest self-appraisal” at this stage only emboldens the enemy and makes a peace agreement even more remote.

Then, on the other side, you have the conviction that Jews must always look at “the complete story” and internalize not just our “rights and demands,” but also our obligations to those we have wronged, as well as “speak the language of compromise and conciliation.”

There’s also division over key facts and assumptions. For example, there’s a debate on whether or not Israel has violated international laws with its reunification of Jerusalem — and, even if it did, whether it necessarily follows that the only way to repair this is to consider splitting Jerusalem. One side argues that because Israel has significantly increased human rights and the respect for all religions since it reunified Jerusalem in 1967, a lot of “repair” has already occurred.

But the other side argues that because the story of Jerusalem has many sides, we should be more honest about this and not push Israel to take the city off the negotiating table.

I can go on, but you get the picture. We have a collision of forces that has touched raw Jewish nerves and put a community on edge. No one should be surprised. This is Jerusalem we’re talking about. If we can’t fight over this, we can’t fight over anything.

I also have strong views on the subject, but I think we should all calm down. I know Rabbi Kanefsky well, and knowing him, I can assure you his intent was never to promote a division of Jerusalem. From what I gather, his intent was to convey that the Jerusalem story is more complicated than it seems, and that his argument is against tying the hands of the Israeli government in any future negotiations. The headline (which, by the way, he didn’t write: “An Orthodox Rabbi’s Plea: Consider Dividing Jerusalem”) was needlessly incendiary. It should have read something like: “Allow Israel to Figure Out Jerusalem.”

Of course, even that is the subject of sharp debate: Since Jerusalem belongs to all of the Jewish people, why shouldn’t all Jews have a say in its future?

The article touched another raw nerve. The Orthodox community is proud of its tradition of keeping a united public front in the face of a hostile and dishonest enemy. As a Sephardic Jew who was raised in an Arab country, I was also taught that when an enemy is out to harm you, they don’t deserve to see your doubts or insecurities. Many non-Orthodox also feel this way, but Rabbi Kanefsky broke an Orthodox taboo by challenging this tradition.

A big problem for me is when the article suggests that all this “honest self-appraisal” among Jews will bring us closer to peace.

That’s a stretch.

As I see it, the inconvenient truth in the Middle East today is that while Israel can deliver peace, its enemy’s leadership cannot. Yet, somehow, we have reached this absurd point where the enemy keeps raising the price of peace even though they don’t even have it to sell.

Why does the price of peace keep going up? Because we’re so desperate to buy it — even if we know it’s a fake. Ironically, the more we offer to pay, the higher the price goes, the further we get from a deal.

When we nobly admit our mistakes and “speak the language of compromise and conciliation,” the enemy, unfortunately, does not respond in kind. In fact, all this does is perpetuate the peace charade and jack up the price of an already fake peace.

As long as Palestinians teach and preach hatred for Jews in their schools, media and mosques, they will have nothing of value to sell to us.

But we do have something valuable to sell to them: real peace. Israel is the one party that can control its army and guarantee peace. Yet, we keep acting like desperate buyers instead of confident sellers. Until we learn to stop being so insecure and start to value what we are offering, Israel should be extremely careful about offering any more concessions.

So, from a spiritual standpoint I might share Rabbi Kanefsky’s faith in confronting our own errors and moral lapses, but when it comes to trying to make a deal with a wily foe, I’m all for watching my mouth — and my back. And I don’t mind telling the Israeli government that.

Having said all that, there’s something more important to me than whether Rabbi Kanefsky and I might have differences on how to approach Israel’s messy problems.

This whole episode reminded me how passionate we are as a people. Sure, we might yell and argue and blow a fuse, but we’re alive! And we care deeply. I’ll take that any day over the “whatever” generation. If anything will keep Judaism alive, it will be this passion.

Rabbi Kanefsky is as passionate a Jew and lover of Israel as I’ve ever met. By lighting up a firestorm of passion in other Jews, he reminded me why I so passionately love my people, even — and sometimes especially — when I disagree with them.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Girlz in the hood

‘Miriam’ and ‘Shoshana’ live in the Pico-Robertson area. They’re seniors at a religious girls’ school, they study Torah, dress modestly and keep the Sabbath.

But Miriam and Shoshana are not your ordinary Orthodox girls. They rap. They use foul language. They fantasize about professional wrestler Bill Goldberg. And they head up a dreidel-rolling gang.

The two faux frumsters are the comedic creations of Kara Luiz and Deena Adar.

The hosts of an online radio show “The Love Drop,” on

Museum of Tolerance expansion plans controversy continues at City Hall

A long-running dispute between homeowners and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance (MOT) and Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YOLA) entered a more formal stage last week, with a hearing by the Los Angeles City Planning Department on Oct. 24 at City Hall.

At issue are plans by the MOT/YOLA complex at Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive to adapt and expand its facilities to accommodate the museum’s increasing attendance and activities.

Most controversial is a proposed two-story addition for the existing MOT, which would cover most of the memorial garden, now used for occasional ceremonies.

A good number of the 144 homeowners in the adjoining, and predominantly Jewish, North Beverlywood neighborhood have strongly objected to proposed changes in operating hours, parking arrangements and the addition of the previously denied ability to rent facilities to outside groups.

Homeowner activists Susan Gans and Daniel Fink have argued that the proposed plans violate the conditions under which MOT and YOLA were given permission to build and operate in the first place, and that the changes would lower the neighborhood’s quality of life through growing traffic, noise, crowds and parking problems.

The Oct. 24 hearing was an initial step by city planners to hear both sides of the case and present their findings to the decision-making City Planning Commission, said hearing officer Sarah Rigamat and senior planner Maya Zaitzevsky.

The two-hour hearing gave the Wiesenthal Center, which had chafed under the homeowners’ charges and in response to a report on the confrontation in The Journal (Oct. 19), a chance to roll out its high-profile supporters.

According to interviews with participating city planners and spokespersons for the Wiesenthal Center and homeowners, the hearings included extensive testimony on behalf of the Weisenthal Center’s work.

Susan Burden, the center’s chief financial and administrative officer, and Kathy King, an outside consultant, submitted a sheaf of letters, all written within two days of the hearing, enthusiastically praising MOT’s impact in promoting tolerance, social responsibility and Holocaust education in Los Angeles and throughout much of the world.

Among the supporting correspondents were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, as well as officials representing school districts, peace officers, UCLA and others. In addition, there was live testimony by two Holocaust survivors and two rabbis.

Gans, a lawyer and a leader of the homeowners’ group, argued that the letters and testimony, however sincere, were beside the point. “I am willing to stipulate right now that MOT performs a valuable public service,” she said. “But what we’re talking about here is the enforcement of zoning regulations.”

Countering previous letters by residents critical of the museum, the Wiesenthal Center also introduced letters from supportive neighbors.

One, by Alan Willner, said in part, “The minor inconveniences that any close neighbor may have to living proximity to the institution are clearly offset by the many important benefits that we all derive from the very impressive work that they do.

“I fully endorse their efforts to expand their facilities that are so importantly needed and look forward to many more years of living in their close proximity.”

The Wiesenthal Center also found a champion in Jack Weiss, the area’s city councilman, who spoke at the hearings.

In a phone call to The Journal after the meeting, Weiss argued that the The Journal’s reporting had exaggerated the dispute, which he described as not particularly noteworthy.

He added that the operating and building conditions for the museum were “set over 20 years ago, and it has become more successful than anybody could have imagined.”

Weiss also noted that “MOT’s plans will go forward; it would be irresponsible to do anything else … it would be perverse to punish the city and the Wiesenthal Center for its extraordinary success.”

Neighborhood activists have complained for some time that they cannot get a meting with Weiss, but the councilman said that he would call a mediation session and try to narrow the gap between opposing views, if homeowners “stop telling us that the sky is falling.”

However, the hearing also had some cheer for the residents, as city planners told the Wiesenthal Center to submit more detailed plans, suggested revisions, expressed concern about the center’s past violations of its conditional use permit, and stressed the need for MOT and YOLA to act as good neighbors.

In addition, Psomas & Associates, a land use consultant for the Wiesenthal Center, introduced a modified plan, meeting some neighborhood objections in access and parking, including possible changes in the size and shape of the addition.

The hearing officer indicated that she might tentatively recommend approval of another controversial request by MOT to take over two stories of the yeshiva.

The next step in the process is consideration by the City Planning Commission, which is not expected to take up the matter until a meeting in early January or February.

In the meanwhile, North Beverlywood homeowners hope to enlist the support of the wider South Robertson Neighborhood Council at a meeting on Nov. 6.

Bratz : They’re cool, hot and controversial

Depending on whom you ask, Bratz are odd-looking multiethnic dolls with big eyes and skimpy clothes – or they’re, like, the coolest things ever.

The dolls — with their “passion for fashion” demonstrated through midriff-baring tops and micro-miniskirts — have been criticized by many parents as being overly sexualized and therefore bad examples for little girls.

But ask a 6- to 10-year-old girl about them, and she’ll say they’re sooooo awesome. The sales of Bratz nearly rival that of Barbie — topping more than $2 billion by 2006 — and now, with the wide release last summer of the live action Bratz feature-length film, they’ve secured their place as pop-culture icons for the pretween set.

Bratz were created in 2000 by Isaac Larian, an Iranian Jewish immigrant turned toy entrepreneur, who had set out to create an anti-Barbie. Legend has it that Larian was turned off by the swollen-head prototype a designer showed him, but his then-11-year-old daughter, Jasmin, was enthralled by it.

Thus, the first of the Bratz pack, Yasmin, was born. Soon afterward, her totally multicultural BFF (that’s “best friends forever”) followed, including Jade, Cloe and Sasha — all of whom are characters in the live-action film, which is scheduled to be released on DVD Nov. 27.

Unlike Barbie — with her WASPy blond hair, penchant for pink and lame steady boyfriend, Ken — Bratz represents a different type of feminine ideal. They reflect the mixed messages that are fed to young girls today: a “girl power” mantra combined with a tarty, sexed-up image, a la Britney Spears. With ethnicities ranging from Asian to African American to a unique blend of Jewish Latina, the dolls trumpet their message loud and clear: It’s OK to be yourself, as long as you look totally hot when the boys are around.

Perhaps it is no accident that this new, aspirational doll had a Jewish creator. After all, back in 1959, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler — the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants — created Barbie.

Back then, assimilation was not the dirty word it is today; it was a goal. As such, Handler, a savvy businesswoman, convinced her husband to turn his Lucite and Plexiglas furniture-making hobby into a lucrative business. It resulted in the creation of Barbie, the ultimate American fantasy: the leggy, buxom blonde who remade herself as the notion of the ideal American woman and changed with the times, from stay-at-home mom to the uber-careerwoman who does it all and still looks good.

Still, despite Mattel’s attempts to diversify the line, Barbie has had trouble keeping up with the times. Larian’s dolls speak to the girls of the 21st century, a time when the melting pot has given way to multiethnic stars like Jessica Alba and a hybrid like Chrismukkah is practically a national holiday.

That Larian — a Sephardic Jew who arrived in the United States at age 17 with $750 in his pocket — is this new arbiter of kiddie cool also reflects the normalization of Jewish culture in American society at large, where today, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has a national television show, bagels can be bought coast to coast and Yiddishisms like “oy vey” are a part of everyday American dialogue.

But somehow muddled up in the Bratz phenomenon is the notion that image is everything. And many don’t approve of the tarted-up image they see.

In her latest book, “Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good,” author Wendy Shalit takes Bratz to task for its overtly sexy image.

Decrying the come-hither fashions of Bratz Babyz — a spin-off of the original Bratz line — and the emphasis on looking hot in the Bratz books, Shalit agues: “If a little girl is young enough to be coloring and wearing glitter stickers, then she’s probably still too young to be worrying about boys and looking hot.”

“I think it’s a very confusing time, and Bratz is reflecting this confusion,” Shalit said. To really get at the root of the problem, she said, “we need to address the whole ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’ philosophy, which many mothers continue to believe in.”

Even Sean McNamara, director of the Bratz film, saw the challenges in transforming pint-sized plastic hoochie-mamas into wholesome, real-life teenage girls.

McNamara, executive producer of the Disney Channel TV hit, “That’s So Raven,” was unfamiliar with Bratz when he was approached to direct the project, so he took a trip to his local toy store.

“I was blown away,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There were two full walls of Bratz stuff. But when I saw them, I thought, ‘These aren’t cute dolls — they look like sluts.'”

“Bratz,” the movie — while keeping its stars clothed and chaste — bends over backward to hit home its message of diversity, often resorting to cliche.

Half-white, half-Asian Jade, for example, is a science geek who, under pressure from her parents to be a good little girl, totally rebels by secretly wearing the hottest fashions. Then there’s half-Jewish, half-Latina Yasmin — played by 25-year-old Nathalia Ramos, herself the daughter of a Spanish father and a Australian Jewish mother — who inexplicably has a mariachi band in her kitchen and sings “La Cucaracha” with her grandmother (played by Lainie Kazan), whom she inexplicably calls Bubbe.

The movie centers around the four Bratz as they enter high school, totally sworn to be BFF. Soon, however, thanks to the devious Meredith Baxter Dimly — the queen bee who is not only the school president but the daughter of the principal — they are forced into cliques that tear them apart.

With Meredith employing the divide-and-conquer thing, Sasha soon hangs only with the cheerleaders; Cloe is a jock; and Yasmin, the loner, gets saddled with the label of “journalist.” (As if!)

Two years later, thanks to a massive food fight and an all-important talent show, the girls are brought back together. Without giving away too much of the plot — which borrows liberally from far better teen movies — the Bratz, with their awesome performance and their totally hip style, break down the barriers at Carry Nation High.

But with all the “likes,” the “omigods” and the rampant commercialism — after all, a love of makeup and shopping are what bind these girls together — what kind of message is Bratz sending to young girls?

Larian, traveling in Africa at press time, was unavailable to comment. Back in 2005, however, he told Business Week magazine, “Kids don’t want to play with Barbies anymore.”

One has to wonder: Is that necessarily a good thing?

Israel cuts power and fuel to Gaza in bid to stop rocket attacks

Critics may be describing Israel’s controversial policy of cutting fuel supplies to Gaza to deter Palestinian rocket attacks as collective punishment, but government leaders in Jerusalem see it as something else: humane.

In the face of unceasing rocket attacks on Israeli towns, cities and kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip, Israeli leaders approved the new policy to reduce fuel and electricity to the territory as the most humane way of trying to persuade Gaza’s terrorist Hamas leadership to keep the peace.

Critics at home and abroad accused the government of ulterior motives and blasted the policy as immoral and counterproductive.

They say the policy’s real aims are to prepare the way for a large ground invasion of Gaza to destroy Hamas’ burgeoning military infrastructure, to start a process of separating Gaza from Israel economically and to maintain a wedge between Hamas-dominated Gaza and the Fatah-led West Bank, which is administered by the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli critics warn the policy will rally Gazans around Hamas and lead to more rocket attacks by Palestinian terrorists, not less.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the policy last week after the army’s top brass had urged further sanctions on Gaza following a particularly heavy rocket and mortar attack by Gaza terrorists on Israeli civilian populations nearby.

On Tuesday, Barak appeared to confirm some critics’ suspicions.

“The time is approaching when we’ll have to undertake a broad operation in Gaza,” Barak told Army Radio on Tuesday. “We are not happy to do it, we’re not rushing to do it and we’ll be happy if circumstances succeed in preventing it.”

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai drew up recommendations to impose limits on the supply of fuel, services and goods, and to cut electricity sporadically from the Beit Hanoun area in northern Gaza from where most of the rockets are fired.

Vilnai argues that these steps are in keeping with Israel’s Sept. 19 decision to declare Gaza a hostile entity.

After a daylong debate Monday on legalities, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz approved the new measures but ruled that the move to cut off electricity be deferred until a more detailed plan can demonstrate that no harm would be caused to essential services such as hospitals.

Israel has five electricity lines into Gaza, four of which deliver power to a nearby army base and to hospitals in the Gaza area and cannot be shut down. The fifth line to Beit Hanoun, the source of extensive rocket fire, is where government leaders plan to interrupt power on a random basis for between 15 minutes and an hour at night.

The government already has begun cutting fuel supplies by 5 percent to 11 percent.

Israeli officials argue that it is absurd to supply your enemies with fuel and electricity that they use to fire rockets at your civilians.

Hamas says withholding supplies is a form of collective punishment and a violation of international law. Hamas spokesmen claim they could stop Islamic Jihad terrorists from firing at Israel, but why should they if this is Israel’s response to their offer of a long-term cease-fire?

On the West Bank, Fatah leaders may secretly be pleased at the pressure Israel is putting on Hamas, Fatah’s rivals, in Gaza.

In public, however, Fatah leaders have been fiercely critical of the new Israeli steps.

In a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last Friday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas argued that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for Gaza’s estimated 1.5 million Palestinians, not the Hamas usurpers who drove Fatah out in June.

Saeb Erekat, a chief Fatah negotiator with Israel in the run-up to the planned Annapolis peace parley, called the Israeli decision to sever power and fuel supplies “particularly provocative given the fact that Palestinians and Israelis are meeting to negotiate an agreement on the core issues for ending the conflict between them.”

Fatah leaders contend that the tough Israeli measures in Gaza will make it much harder for Abbas to show the necessary flexibility to reach a deal with Israel in Annapolis.

The international community also is taking a strongly critical line. In a tense meeting Monday with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Benito Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union’s commissioner for external affairs, urged Israel to consider the possible humanitarian consequences of its action.

Earlier, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued that although Israel had withdrawn from Gaza, it still is responsible for what goes on there. Cutting off supplies would be “contrary to Israel’s obligations toward the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law,” he declared.

In Israel, several human rights organizations have petitioned the Supreme Court urging its intervention.

The plan also has sparked a lively media debate, most of it critical of the government.

The most scathing comments came from Nahum Barnea, the doyen of Israeli political pundits and recent recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize. On the front page of Monday’s Yediot Achronot, Barnea called the government plan “stupid.”

“Rather than severing Israel from the occupation, at least with regard to Gaza, it reinforces Israel’s image as a cruel occupier,” he wrote. “It is incompatible with the effort to reopen dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and the moderate Arab regimes.”

Writing in the left-leaning Ha’aretz, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff claimed that while Israeli defense officials say the tough measures will reduce rocket attacks, they know full well the opposite will occur.

Therefore, they conclude, “the real aim is twofold: to spark a new escalation to justify a major Israeli military operation in Gaza and to prepare the way for clear separation from Gaza, limiting to an absolute minimum Israel’s obligations to the Palestinians there.”

Israeli officials disagree. They say that the new policy does not look for an excuse to invade Gaza but constitutes an attempt to avoid an invasion.

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer argues that in combating the rockets, Israel had only two choices: cutting the supplies to Gaza or “tomorrow or the next day” sending “three or four divisions into Gaza.”

He added, “And if we do that, won’t innocent people be killed?”

“Maybe this time the people that are responsible for the chaos in Gaza,” Ben Eliezer said, “will start thinking differently.”

Federation may face lawsuit over fundraiser Prizant’s firing

A looming lawsuit is threatening to shake up The Jewish Federation ofGreater Los Angeles — causing a blanket of silence to descend on the city’slargest Jewish philanthropic organization.

The former top fundraiser for The Federation is reportedly planning to filesuit against the agency over his dismissal, possibly as early as this week,alleging that a friendship between The Federation’s president and asubordinate was the reason for his firing. As of The Journal’s press deadlineTuesday, no decision on the lawsuit filing had been made.

Craig Prizant served as the agency’s executive vice president for financialresource development from 2003 until he was fired on Jan. 12 by John Fishel,president of The Federation since 1992. In a memo to staff, Fishel gave noreason for the decision, and no replacement has been named. Prizant alsoserved as the Federation’s senior vice president for marketing andcommunications for two years.

The Federation is an umbrella agency that supports local and internationalprograms with a broad range of humanitarian efforts.

During Prizant’s tenure, contributions to the agency have increasedsteadily. From 2003 to 2006, donations to The Jewish Federation’s annualcampaign increased from $42.4 million to $48 million. In 2006, TheFederation surpassed its fundraising goal by $500,000.

Attorney Fredric N. Richman, who is representing Prizant, told The Journalthat “The Federation had made an unacceptable offer [for severance payment]and litigation will ensue shortly…. I am certain that my client’s rightswill be vindicated.”

One person familiar with the case said that if the suit goes to trial, asseems very likely at this point, “it will be a blockbuster.”

Over the past week, The Journal has spoken to 15 Federation lay leaders,donors and present and former staff members, in addition to lawyers forPrizant and for The Federation. Four additional persons did not returncalls.

Most members of The Federation’s executive board declined comment, citing anedict from Federation lawyer Wayne S. Flick that no one discuss the casewith outsiders, particularly the press. Almost all sources insisted onanonymity as a precondition for speaking at all.

One major donor to The Federation, Richard Lewis, said he had asked personalfriends on the executive board for information after learning of Prizant’sdismissal. “I found out, zero, zero, zero,” he said.

However, by piecing together various interviews, primarily with thoseobjecting to Prizant’s dismissal, it is possible to form a general pictureof their version.

Since top Federation executives declined to speak to The Journal, theirversion of events is unknown.

According to the pro-Prizant explanation, the root cause of his firing wasprofessional friction between him, as the chief campaign professional, andSue Bender, who had been hired by Fishel to direct The Federation’s primephilanthropy office, a program geared to “elite leaders in our community whopossess the capacity to make a significant, multiyear commitment to fund anexisting program or create a new one that addresses their passion,”according to The Federation Web site.

Bender’s job was to cultivate the largest donors, those able to make giftsin six figures and above and to fund new programs. Both Prizant and Benderreported directly to Fishel, but as the friction continued, Bender wasallegedly able to count on her friendship with Fishel to favor herviewpoint, culminating in Prizant’s dismissal.

Prizant’s defenders allege that his firing was for personal, notprofessional, reasons and assert that fundraising totals grew steadily underhis stewardship.

The case is now in the hands of two lawyers, Flick for The Federation andRichman representing Prizant. Both are specialists in employment law, andRichman used to serve on behalf of The Federation in its labor negotiationsfor many years.

Flick initially declined comment, but on Monday he e-mailed a statement toThe Journal that emphasized that “neither the specifics of Mr. Prizant’semployment nor any ongoing discussion between him and The Federation areappropriate for public consumption or discussion at this time.”

The statement continued, “The Federation is aware that, unfortunately,certain unsubstantiated allegations and inaccurate assertions may have beendisclosed to persons outside The Federation, by individuals who do not haveknowledge of all relevant facts.

“In keeping with its intent to treat personnel matters confidentially …The Federation will not at this time comment specifically on thoseallegations or attempt to correct what appear to be numerous inaccuracies.

“After a careful review, The Federation is confident that no employee hasbeen treated unfairly or improperly. The Federation will address any and allcontrary allegations in the appropriate forum, and not in the press.”

Informed of Flick’s statement, Richman responded, “It is regrettable thatThe Federation, through its counsel, decided to go public with respect tothe claim of our client, Craig Prizant, who had requested that the matter behandled privately so as not to cause The Federation and its officersembarrassment.

“But there is no doubt in my mind that by going public, ultimately andregrettably, the efficacy and vitality of The Federation and its campaignwill be mortally wounded.”

One Federation board member, who did not wish to be identified, called thedismissal “an injustice, which is being swept under the carpet, while theold guard [on the board] doesn’t want to be bothered.

“The morale of The Federation staff is low; they’re scared to speak out,scared of losing their jobs, everybody is walking on eggshells,” the boardmember said.

Prager shouldn’t lose his museum post

For decrying a Muslim congressman who wished to take a ceremonial oath of office on a Quran instead of a Bible, should KRLA-AM radio host Dennis Prager be punished?

Specifically, should he be kicked off the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council?
That is what a diverse range of Prager critics — from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to former New York Mayor Ed Koch — have demanded.

Someone outside the Jewish community might not grasp what serious business this is. In our crazy, mixed-up Jewish world, with the Holocaust being the object of veneration that it unfortunately has become, to be elevated to the U.S.

Holocaust Memorial Council is the equivalent of honorary knighthood.

However absurd the symbolism, revoking Prager’s Holocaust credentials would be a way of revoking his status as a communal leader. Which would be a sad mistake.

For Prager is one of a handful of America’s most valuable Jews. Why? Because of the role he has taken as a foremost Jewish spokesman for the Bible. I don’t mean he’s some sort of radio preacher. But when appropriate, in his daily discussions with callers on political and cultural subjects, he often brings in a scriptural perspective — without apology, always with a light touch, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

That is what it means to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), as God commanded us to be. However, it’s rare indeed to hear a Jew on the radio or on TV invoking actual Jewish values before the world.

This explains the Quran controversy, in which Prager has objected less to Rep Keith Ellison’s (D-Minn.) photo-op swearing-in on the Muslim holy book than to his not swearing on the Bible.

Admittedly, Prager’s emphasis on the Bible has a downside. For one thing, strangely, he argued that even a Jewish officeholder should swear on the holy Bible, including the Christian Bible. But while Muslims revere the personalities in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Jews do not revere the principle figure in the Christian Bible, Jesus.

Equally eccentric, Prager’s personal biblical theology holds the five books of Moses to be God’s word, while relegating the ancient oral Torah that explains Scripture to the status of mere rabbinic opinion.

Recently, at the Orthodox Union’s West Coast convention in Los Angeles, he participated in an amiable debate with a local Orthodox rabbi. Prager detailed those Jewish laws deriving from oral tradition that he finds irrational or irrelevant. The rabbi responded graciously but, alas, in piecemeal rather than philosophical terms. I’d love to debate Prager on this myself. I would show that the very essence of Judaism is not the written but the oral Torah.

And yet, Prager’s emphasis on Scripture may work to his advantage as a Jewish “priest.” It helps him clarify and simplify the important debate going on in American culture about the authority of biblical teaching.

Another highly valuable Jewish radio commentator, Michael Medved (who likewise may be heard on KRLA), has admirably summarized that debate. It turns upon the question of whether secular culture should be the gauge by which biblical religion is judged or the other way around.

Apart from these general considerations, Prager also makes a defensible point about the Quran. Again, we come back to the Bible. Prager, in effect, asked if the Quran deserves positive recognition of the kind it would receive in a swearing-in ceremony, the same way the Bible does. The answer is no. The Muslim scriptures do not deserve that recognition.

That is because what has made America so special, so attractive to immigrants of all faiths and nationalities, may be traced back to a unique blending of Christian and Jewish beliefs. In one’s personal spiritual life, combining traditions may be suspect. It certainly is in Jewish theology.

But in American history, it resulted in something wonderful. For about 12 centuries, from the time Christianity entered into political power with the rule of Emperor Constantine until the founding of the British colonies in North America, Christianity was not notable as a force for moral good in the world.

That changed with the coming of American democracy, a most enthusiastically Christian country with a secular government. Goodness seemed to reenter the history of Christianity on the public stage. Since then, morally speaking, Christianity has been getting better and better.

What changed in the religion to produce the miracle of the American founding?

Answer: American history has consistently highlighted Christianity’s Hebrew heritage. As historian Robert Royal writes in his excellent book, “The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West” (Encounter, 2006):
“The Puritans who fled the king’s persecution in 17th century England arrived in America and consciously compared their freedom in the New World to the [Jews’ in] the Promised Land…. When the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the first modern democratic constitution, were written in 1638, they did not refer to Greece, Rome, John Locke’s works (he was only 6 years old at the time), the Enlightenment (a century in the future) or any of the other commonly cited sources for the idea.

“They were inspired by Thomas Hooker, a preacher, who pointed out to the Hartford General Assembly God’s commandment in Deuteronomy that having left Egypt and now being about to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites choose their own judges…. References to the Jewish Exodus as parallel to the American situation were frequent in the writings of the American founders over the next two centuries.”

The precious gift of America was determined by a fusion of Christian and Jewish ideals, the Christian Bible with the Hebrew Bible. The Quran played no role whatsoever.

No one — including Prager, as he has since clarified his position — would want to see a congressman legally forbidden from swearing on any holy book he may choose.

However, the spectacle of Ellison with his Quran is at best confusing, at worst an affront. It should be recognized as such.

Prager merely reminded of us these truths. In the almost total absence of other prominent Jewish voices of any denomination defending the relevance of the Hebrew Bible to our public and private lives, I’m proud of and grateful for him.

David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Herzog Wine Cellars

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

Our Hollywood moment: An article in three acts


One of many things that I’ve learned over the last several years is that many roads in L.A. lead to Hamilton High School. Hamilton sits at the strange but fertile delta of Beverlywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City and a couple of markedly less fortunate neighborhoods. It is a school at a crossroads, much like Alan Kaplan was himself. A founder of the school’s humanities magnet, Kaplan had run into a critical mass of trouble. His fiery teaching style and philosophical emphasis on racial inequality as a foundation of American history had always fueled admiration among most students and consternation among some parents. The parents most unsettled were African Americans who felt that Kaplan’s focus on slavery and its modern legacy was inappropriate and ultimately demeaning. By the spring of 1999, a group of about a dozen parents had organized and charged Kaplan — a Jewish man — with racism, calling for the school district to take action.

The newspaper I worked for, the L.A. Weekly, dispatched me to Hamilton to see what I could find out. Kaplan did not want to be interviewed, but I kept asking.

Finally he agreed to talk, on a Sunday afternoon. I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to open the door when I rang the bell at his place in Encino. I found him blunt, wary, impolitic, impulsive, bull-headed, but also gracious and idealistic, fascinating and fiercely committed to his students. I decided he was not a racist. I wrote my story. He kept his job.

That initial meeting, as it happened, was the start of something entirely unexpected. Within a year, we were engaged. That was the fairy-tale ending of one story, but the prelude to another — our Hollywood moment.

Dramatis personae:
Erin Aubry Kaplan — a writer, black
Alan Kaplan — a schoolteacher, Jewish
Michael Siegel — a literary agent
Michael Maren — a screenwriter
Various skeptics and supporters

ACT I: The Proposition

(Scene 1: A cubicle at the L.A. Weekly)

The phone on my desk is ringing. It’s late. I don’t want to answer. I have an uneasy, semi-permanent feeling it’s the parent group that once wanted me to write about the awful transgressions of Mr. Kaplan. The Mr. Kaplan who is now my fiancé. The parents are probably still fuming, and objectively speaking, I don’t blame them. I hardly understand it myself. When I first met him, I could see right off that Mr. Kaplan — Alan — had a roguishness and rough-edged charm that hooked pubescent students, but I didn’t think it would work on me. Of course, I didn’t think I would work on him. The last person he wanted in his life was a black reporter. The last impression I thought I’d get was of a sincere, sensitive but remarkably unguarded white man who offered me dinner in the middle of a very tense interview at his place in Encino. The dinner — a large cube of lasagna and a salad — turned out to be the only food he had left in the house. He set the table and everything. He didn’t eat, just watched me. I was moved. That was the first movement of many, the first movement of an entire symphony. Now we were engaged.

“Erin Aubry? Hi, this is Michael Maren.”

It’s not the parent group. I relax a little.

“I know this is sudden, and that you don’t know me. But I’m a screenwriter, and I live in New York. And I read your piece in Salon magazine today, and I thought it was really terrific.”

For Salon.com, I’d written, “The Color of Love,” a concise account of my unlikely romance with the guy who was falsely cast as the West Coast incarnation of David Duke. Alan was not a mercenary like David Duke, plus he was a lot more chivalrous. I thank Michael for his feedback. Nice way to end the day.

“There’s something else.” Michael pauses. “I think this would make a great screenplay.” Another pause. “It’s got all the elements — love, race, conflict, story arc, resolution. And it says a lot about L.A., things that don’t normally get said. I’d like your permission to shop it around.”

“Shop it around?” I hear myself say the words. I’m sitting up straight. I glance out my window at the Hollywood Hills. I listen.

“Yes. You know, pitch some studios and networks. I’m thinking HBO would be a good bet. They do original ideas, and I’ve written for them before…”….
He’s a former journalist, now a full-time screenwriter, a real one, who wants my story. Our story.

I start to feel floaty, giddy. A tiny bit self-important.

“I think that’ll be fine,” I say. “But I need to talk it over with Alan. It’s his story, too.”

(Scene 2: The kitchen of the writer’s apartment)

I have to break this to Alan the right way. My future husband is an idealist who likes movies but hates Hollywood, at least as a concept. Parties, paparazzi, Oscar fashions, actors dating models, models dating actors, celebrity hangouts, production trailers that screw up street traffic — he hates all of it.

Like me, he’s a native Angeleno. That’s part of our connection. He grew up in Sepulveda, a rarely filmed part of town; I grew up in equally unglamorous South Central. His favorite places to eat are old-line diners like Norm’s, which has twilight meal deals and takes coupons. He also likes the eternal two-tacos-for-99-cents special at Jack in the Box. To Alan, the pretensions of Hollywood and the film industry exist purely to threaten a better, simpler, more straightforward L.A. that’s disappearing by the acre, like the Amazon rainforest. One of his biggest fears is that one day, Hollywood will discover Jack in the Box and make it chic.

“Honey,” I call out, “you’ll never guess who called me at work today.”
Alan looks at me over his reading glasses. He’s in the kitchen, a newspaper spread on the counter, his fist in a box of dry granola. He hates milk.

After Agoura eruv dismantled, residents ask ‘What’s up with that?’

Construction of an eruv in the Conejo Valley was nearly complete last month when area residents began complaining to public officials about aesthetics and safety concerns as well as a lack of proper permits. Last week the eruv’s organizers ordered all remaining portions along the enclosure’s 5-mile perimeter be dismantled.

“We are sorry that mistakes were made and that the eruv was put up in an incorrect way,” Eruv Committee spokesman Eli Eisenberg told a hostile crowd of about 60 Conejo residents during the Oak Park Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) meeting on Jan. 23.

The Agoura Eruv, a project conceived by a small group of local Chabad congregants, covered portions of Agoura Hills and Oak Park, as well as a small sliver of Westlake Village. The Oak Park segment of the eruv had been taken down prior to the Jan. 23 meeting, and on Jan. 25 the Eruv Committee officially ordered the elements in Agoura Hills and Westlake Village dismantled.

Emotions have died down considerably since the removal of the eruv, a project that took three years of planning and cost at least $25,000. Still, questions linger about how such a commitment of time, money and expertise could have ended so badly. And after the Oak Park MAC meeting, many Conejo residents are wondering whether the Eruv Committee will try again.

“I’m happy now that it’s down,” said Tom Hughes, president of Morrison Estates Owners’ Association, representing a development of 360 luxury homes in Oak Park. “Nobody liked it,” he added, calling it a “blight” and questioning its safety.

An eruv, which literally means “blending” in Hebrew, uses a monofilament line strung across utility poles as well as existing boundaries, such as mountains and freeway walls, to transform a public space into a symbolic private one.

Observant Jews put up eruvs to allow themselves boundaries in which they can carry children and keys, for example, or push strollers and wheelchairs without violating the laws of Shabbat.

Consultant Howard Shapiro, who served as project manager of the 50-mile Los Angeles Eruv and consulted on three others, was contracted by the committee to design the Agoura Eruv. Shapiro used existing boundaries whenever possible and noted that up to 70 percent was contained by such borders.

Construction on the Agoura Eruv began during the last week of December 2006. Shapiro hired a contractor who installed the eruv, giving the contractor’s name as Rafael Farias of Coast to Coast Installation, and saying he had worked with Farias on four previous eruvs.

In Oak Park, where the utilities are buried underground and only light poles edge the roads, additional 20-foot poles, called lechim, had to be erected to string the monofilament line. Residents objected to the obtrusive appearance of the poles, especially along Jacobs Court near Lindero Canyon Road. Plus, several poles were placed on private property without prior permission and others were attached to street signs. Residents also felt the line itself, in an area with few overhead wires, was unsightly and hazardous.

Shapiro attributed part of what he called the “lynch mob” reaction of many residents to a clash of cultures.

“This is a different community,” Shapiro said. “In L.A., there are overhead wires everywhere. No one’s going to care. Here it’s very noticeable.”

Shapiro also said that he thought Tom Block, an Agoura Hills resident who initiated the eruv and organized the committee, understood how the finished eruv would look, having toured the area several times together.

“But it’s one thing to talk and another to see,” said Shapiro, who maintains that the eruv was installed correctly.

Block, a formerly secular Jew who has become more religiously observant over the past 15 years, admitted that in hindsight he didn’t really understand what a “lechi,” or pole, was.

But perhaps most problematic were the permits. Block submitted permit applications to the cities of Agoura Hills and Westlake Village, both in Los Angeles County, and, for Oak Park, to the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

He also submitted a plan to Southern California Edison, which has jurisdiction over all the light poles that would be affected, with a detailed map of the entire area to be enclosed by the eruv. On the permit itself, however, only the city of Agoura Hills was listed, with Oak Park and Westlake Village left off.

“Everyone was on the same page and knew it was for the whole area I had mapped out,” Block said, calling it an “accidental omission.” But when a few vocal neighbors in Oak Park started making a fuss, Ventura County revoked the permit, saying it had been contingent on Southern California Edison’s permission.

Some residents were also upset that three red-tailed hawks, which are protected by the Migratory Bird Act, had been downed, one fatally, by injuries that could be consistent with flying into a wire. The birds were discovered between Dec. 28 and Jan. 7, according to Oak Park resident Peggy Abate, which correspond to eruv construction dates.

“To me, it’s not an issue of whose fault it is. There were mistakes made by everyone involved,” Block said. “I’m willing to take responsibility.”

The Agoura Eruv would have served the bulk of families who attend Shabbat services at Chabad of Agoura Hills and Chabad of Oak Park, both part of Chabad of the Conejo. But committee spokesman Eisenberg emphasized that construction of the eruv was not a Chabad undertaking.

“Rabbi [Moshe] Bryski made it clear from the very start that he would only support the eruv if it is done outside of Chabad as a community-based effort,” said, referring to Chabad of the Conejo’s executive director.

Since the Eruv Committee never officially incorporated, Bryski agreed to lend Chabad’s name to the permit and insurance applications and to provide rabbinic advice as needed.

Eruvs are not new to Los Angeles. In addition to the Los Angeles Eruv, which comprises a large portion of the San Fernando Valley, smaller ones exist.
Also, after four years of negotiation, an eruv was recently approved for the Venice area, extending along the coastline. In the West San Fernando Valley, an eruv enclosing a 25-square-mile area is expected to be completed in late February.

Release of ‘Alpha Dog ‘ reopens Markowitz family wounds

The film, “Alpha Dog,” based on the 2000 kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old West Hills resident Nick Markowitz, has received mixed reviews but growing notoriety. The fictionalized Universal release has become increasingly tied to the very case it portrays — the manhunt for Jesse James Hollywood, whom prosecutors allege ordered the hit on Nick Markowitz, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave outside of Santa Barbara.

The film and the controversy surrounding it have reopened wounds for the Markowitz family, who have yet to see alleged ringleader Hollywood stand trial. And now one of the real-life figures who served as a consultant on “Alpha Dog” has had his role used against him in a case that horrified the L.A. Jewish community almost seven years ago.

According to published reports confirmed by Jeff Markowitz, the victim’s father, Santa Barbara County D.A. Ron Zonen, in an attempt to “do whatever he could to circle the globe” to catch Hollywood, provided “Alpha Dog” writer-director Nick Cassavetes and co-writer Michael Mehas with access to his notes and other court material. A state appellate court recently removed Zonen from the case after Jesse James Hollywood’s attorney, James Blatt, argued that the district attorney had compromised himself.

Markowitz, who runs a family-owned aerospace company in the San Fernando Valley, counters the notion that Zonen did anything wrong.

“It is so offensive to take a wonderful human being and turn what he did into a negative…. Ron Zonen is my son Nicholas’ champion,” he said.

Adding to the controversy surrounding the film was the presence on the film set of Jack Hollywood, the convicted drug dealer father of Jesse James Hollywood. Of the senior Hollywood, who allegedly supplied marijuana to his son and helped him escape to Brazil, Jeff Markowitz says, “He was the cancer in our neighborhood…. I don’t think he’s ever taken responsibility.”

“Alpha Dog” is an ironic title about Johnny Truelove, based on Jesse James Hollywood, a meekly built young man whose so-called alpha standing is based entirely on nepotism. His “leadership” derives solely from the plentiful drugs and free room and board provided by his father. Assisted by his gang, Truelove ends up kidnapping the younger brother of a man who owes him drug money. The younger brother, Zack, is the character based on Nick Markowitz.

The filmmakers changed the names of the participants and the locale. They moved the home base from the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel Valley and the destination from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs.

The film was first shown in 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, but its release was delayed a year after legal problems following the capture of Jesse James Hollywood, who was extradited in 2005 from Brazil. Defense attorney Blatt tried to block the film’s release last year, claiming it would taint the jury pool of Hollywood’s upcoming trial.

Jeff Markowitz, who attended the “Alpha Dog” premiere earlier this month, says that the name change was “very frustrating” and that during the movie “all I wanted to do was scream out my son’s name.”
He called the film “poor,” “not entertaining” and “depressing,” although he thought that the portrayal of his son by Anton Yelchin was fairly accurate. “Nick wasn’t as naive or as soft-spoken” as the character in the film, he said, adding that Nick’s “mannerism was probably more forceful.”
But Jeff Markowitz said that Yelchin likely captured Nick’s “emotional state.”

The film itself only touches briefly on Jewish themes. There is home movie footage at the opening, which shows Zack having a bar mitzvah. (Nick Markowitz did, in fact, have a bar mitzvah.) The older half-brother, Jake, based on Ben Markowitz, is shown with Hebrew letters tattooed on his chest. Finally, Truelove uses the term “kike” on more than one occasion.

Despite the use of the epithet, Jeff Markowitz does not think that there was any ethnic or religious animus motivating Jesse James Hollywood and his gang against their son.

Jeff Markowitz, a one-time practicing Jew, no longer belongs to a synagogue, although he says, “I still believe Judaism is the answer.”

His daughter Leah, Nick’s half-sister, approached Jeff a few years ago, asking if he wanted his grandchildren raised Jewish. Jeff Markowitz says that at the time he didn’t “feel strong enough” to support that decision but he is glad that they are being raised Catholic. “The fact is that the kids are in a good organized religion.”

While Jeff Markowitz does not like the film, he says that his wife, Susan, was deeply moved by Yelchin’s depiction of their late son. Susan Markowitz has been suicidal at times over the past six and a half years, but her husband says that she is doing better now.

There may never be closure for the Markowitzes even though the defendants have all so far been brought to justice. Jesse James Hollywood, whose trial will reportedly take place later this year, may face the death penalty. The triggerman in the case, Ryan Hoyt, is on death row, and the three other conspirators are all serving either life in prison, although one, a minor at the time of the crime, received a reduced sentence.

None of those convictions may fully change how the Markowitzes feel about their loss. As Jeff Markowitz says, “You feel guilty for not having the same depth of pain” as Nick, “you feel guilty for not going to the cemetery.”

“Alpha Dog” is in theaters now.

The Jewish Journal also Books: Max Apple is a bard of the background

Arab’s nomination to Israel’s Cabinet stirs up simmering controversy

The naming of the first Arab minister to the Israeli Cabinet was billed as an event underscoring hope of securing racial harmony in the Jewish state, though it may long remain mired in regional conflict.

But the nomination of Raleb Majadele instead has merely served to uncover Israel’s often messy personality politics and the latent racism of some of its citizens.

Majadele, a veteran Laborite, was chosen last week by the party’s leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, for the science, culture and sport portfolio. He is to replace Ophir Pines-Paz, who bolted in November to protest Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s inclusion of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party alongside Labor in the governing coalition.

Peretz was quoted as telling Majadele that in government, he would “help improve relations between the various sectors of Israeli society” — a reference to Jewish-Arab ties strained by the Palestinian intifada and allegations of institutional discrimination.

Seemingly the nomination was a brazen bit of inverse race-baiting by the dovish Peretz: Pines-Paz left because of what he perceived as Yisrael Beiteinu’s anti-Arab platform, only to have his place taken by an Arab.

Asked how he would deal with sitting in government with Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who has proposed ceding Israeli Arab areas to a future Palestinian state and ousting Arab lawmakers from the Knesset, Majadele said, “It won’t be simple.”

But he added, “I think that my appointment strengthens the Israeli government and constitutes a step in the right direction toward the Arab public.”

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised Majadele’s nomination. But its ratification, which was expected to take place at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, was postponed for a week.

The prime minister told his Kadima faction that the appointment of an Arab minister “is a significant act whose time has come.”

“But the move must be made while keeping in mind the big picture of vacancies in the Cabinet and the demands of Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu,” Olmert said.

Israeli media quoted Olmert confidantes as accusing Peretz of failing to consult with the prime minister before putting Majadele’s name forward. Sources close to the defense minister charged Olmert with delaying the appointment in order to help Ehud Barak, whom Olmert is said to prefer for Labor leader, gather support ahead of that party’s May primary.

Condemnation of Majadele’s appointment was quick to come from both Jews and Arabs.

Esterina Tartman, a senior Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker, accused Peretz in a radio interview of threatening the Jewish character of Israel by encouraging “assimilation.”

She was further quoted by Israeli media as calling Majadele’s nomination a “blight” on Zionism — language that drew censure from across Israel’s political spectrum.

Some Israeli Arabs, meanwhile, accused Peretz of an attempt at tokenism and patronage.
“In the existing situation, the ability of an Arab minister who is a member of a Jewish-Zionist party to influence the condition of the Arab population and central issues, such as the Palestinian question, appears to be nil,” said Asad Ghanem, a Haifa University professor who recently helped put together a manifesto arguing that Israel’s Jewish character was inconsistent with full civic participation for its Arab minority.

“I think that Majadele, as an Arab minister, won’t even work as a fig leaf,” Ghanem said.

Others saw an even more partisan ploy by Peretz, whose standing in Labor has been at a nadir since the summer war in Lebanon, the failings of which are blamed by many Israelis on the militarily untested defense minister.

Enlisting the support of Labor’s sizable Arab electorate could help Peretz fend off challenges in the primary by Barak, a former Israeli prime minister and military chief, and Ami Ayalon, a former Navy admiral and Shin Bet director.

“This appointment is exclusively for the purpose of the primary and is characteristic of a confused government that is only dealing with its survival,” said Pines-Paz, another contender in the Labor race.

Unlike Tartman, Lieberman said he had no problem with an Arab joining the Cabinet, but he echoed the charges against Peretz.

“The problem here is in the timing and the fact that a minister in the State of Israel is using the tools at his disposal wrongfully in order to promote himself politically,” Lieberman said.

Majadele, a 53-year-old father of four from Baka al-Garbiya, would not be the first non-Jew to serve as an Israeli Cabinet minister. Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, appointed Salah Tarif, a Druse, to his Cabinet. Tarif stepped down in 2002 amid corruption charges.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council distances itself from Prager

Leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council,
ensnared in a raging controversy over one of its
members, this week moved to distance themselves from the cause of the furor.

Conservative commentator Dennis Prager, a member
of the Council that oversees the Holocaust Museum
on Washington’s Mall and the nation’s chief
academic center for Holocaust study, ignited a
firestorm of criticism when he wrote that Keith
Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat about to become the
first Muslim member of Congress, should not be
allowed to be sworn in on a Quran.

Allowing congressional oaths on a Quran, Prager
wrote, “undermines American civilization.” If you
are incapable of taking an oath on (the Bible), don’t serve in Congress.”

Prager was slammed by groups as diverse as the
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and
the Anti-Defamation League both for his lack of
tolerance for Muslims and for his inaccuracy;
House members are sworn in by the Speaker,
without any holy books, although many use Bibles
at private photo-op ceremonies after being sworn in.

Last week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, also a
Council member, called for Prager to step down
for the good of the Museum, and promised to
introduce a resolution critical of Prager at this week’s Council meeting.

But the showdown was averted when neither Prager
nor Koch showed up. Council officials, wary of
heaping new fuel on the controversy, ruled that
Koch’s resolution would not be taken up.

“I did not go because I was told the matter would
not be put on the agenda,” Koch said in an interview.

At Monday’s meeting, Council chairman Fred
Zeidman read a statement acknowledging the
controversy but stating that the press of other
issues — including the genocide in Darfur and
the situation in Iran — made it inappropriate to
bring up the Prager matter at that time.

Zeidman told members that he is “heavily
involved” in the issue and expected a resolution shortly.

After the meeting, Zeidman worked with fellow
executive committee members to work out a
statement distancing the panel from the controversial talk show host.

The statement, issued on Friday, cited the
Museum’s role as a “living memorial to the
victims of the Holocaust devoted to teaching the
lessons of the Holocaust for the benefit of all
mankind,” and stated that Prager “has recently
publicly expressed and disseminated certain
statements which have been widely interpreted as being intolerant.”

Therefore, the executive committee, “while
recognizing that Dennis Prager has the right to
express his personal views freely, disassociates
itself from Mr. Prager’s statements as being
antithetical to the mission of the Museum as an
institution promoting tolerance and respect for
all peoples regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity.”

A Museum source said he hoped Prager would get
the message and resign — but said he had no
indication the controversial commentator would do so.

Members of the Council are appointed by the
President, and can only be removed by the White House.

With Friends Like These…

I didn’t show up to see Jimmy Carter sign any of his other 20 books, but I have a feeling none of those signings drew quite the crowd of the one Monday night in Pasadena.

At the other appearances, I bet there weren’t angry protestors from the Jewish Defense League waving signs saying: “WORST PRESIDENT EVER!” and counterdemonstrators — mostly from a group called “LA Jews for Peace” marching under signs saying “PEACE NOT APARTHEID!”

At the other signings, I bet a security guard didn’t have to ask three attractive dark-haired young women holding an Israeli flag to step back from the entrance to Vroman’s Bookstore, where the 39th president was inside signing books. I asked one of them what organization they represented.

“We’re our own group,” she said. “Call us Shirlee, Aviva and Michele United.”

Carter was scheduled to start signing copies of “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” (Simon and Schuster 2006) at 7 p.m. By 1 pm the store had sold every book and had passed out all 1,800 tickets. Ticketholders stomped their feet in the chilly night in a line that ran down Colorado, around the block and back up.

“It’s a big one,” said a cashier. “But we had more for Howard Stern.”

Sure, a lot of the people showed up for the celebrity factor — parents taking their young children to see a real president; many people holding any of the Carter oeuvre just to score an autograph, a “good Christmas gift,” said one elderly lady.

But the television news trucks, the young woman in kaffiyehs passing out flyers demanding a “Just Peace in Palestine,” the heated arguments by the magazine racks over who started the Six-Day War — the general circus-like atmosphere was solely due to the partisan passions the book has stirred.

“He’s right on the money,” said Bob, a middle-aged studio musician in a coat and tie waiting in line. “I think he’s being kind in calling it ‘apartheid’ and not ‘genocide.'”

I have a feeling the protestors — pro and con and just plain strange — will be following Carter for as long as the 82-year-old former president is out flacking “Palestine: Peace or Apartheid.”

Write a factually sloppy, unfairly partisan polemic about a complex and sensitive issue and you get just what you’d expect: controversy at every whistle stop, major face time with Larry King and a book that shoots up the best-seller list. By Tuesday there wasn’t a copy to be had at a single L.A. bookstore. It’s like “A Million Little Pieces” for the foreign policy set.

I read the book and found it remarkably shallow. Carter’s bottom line: Israel is to blame. America, urged on by the “Jewish lobby,” is the co-conspirator.

By now numerous intelligent, detailed critiques of the book are available — The Journal printed Alan Dershowitz’s dissection several weeks ago — and former friends and allies of Carter have distanced themselves from this book.

Professor Kenneth Stein resigned his post from the Carter Center last week. The book, he wrote, “is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments.”

On Monday, I phoned Los Angeles attorney Ed Sanders to get his reaction.

When Carter was President, Sanders was his liaison to the Jewish community. He flew seven missions to the Middle East. Sanders was with Carter at Camp David and was an official witness to the Camp David Accords.

“I bet I know what you’re calling about,” Sanders said.

He said he hadn’t read the book — he still can’t find a copy to buy — but he read an op-ed Carter published in The Los Angeles Times summarizing his arguments and has followed the controversy closely. And his reaction?

“I’m shocked and dismayed,” he said. “It’s unacceptable.”

Sanders can’t understand why Carter couldn’t at the very least present the Israeli argument for the barrier it has erected between the country proper and the Palestinian territories. “The wall is being erected because Israeli citizens were being murdered,” Sanders said.

He is flabbergasted that Carter could present the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as little more than a kindly old man, when it was Arafat’s duplicitous, kleptocratic rule that helped derail peace efforts and destabilize Palestinian society.

“Arafat couldn’t make a deal if his life depended on it,” Sanders said.

Sanders was the national president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee when he resigned to serve the president. Doesn’t that prove Carter’s point on the influence of the pro-Israel lobby or, as Carter now repeatedly refers to it, “the Jewish lobby?”

Sanders doesn’t see it that way: “There was never any restraint on a discussion of the facts.”

That discussion led to the Camp David Accords, an outstanding legacy of peace. But Carter evidently sees no difference between the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who came to Jerusalem to make peace in full recognition of Israel, and the leaders of Hamas who have at most offered Israel a cease-fire on the way to Armegeddon. Between Hamas and Egypt, Sanders said, “there is a difference.”

Dismay and disappointment are Sander’s gentlemanly, judicious way of saying the book is a huge missed opportunity. What’s so disappointing to me is that by the last thin chapter, Carter finally proposes the best possible course for Israel: a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s security and allows the Palestinian a viable state.

But one-sided diatribes don’t engender the kind of debate that can help bring that solution closer. Israel is far from perfect, and its policies in the West Bank and Gaza have, as the conservative Ha’aretz columnist Shmuel Rosner pointed out, amounted to apartheid. But Israel’s enemies are far from blameless in this tragic history, and in his book, Carter all but sanctifies their heinous methods and awful aims. A fair deal can’t begin from a false premise.

“This book,” Sanders said, “doesn’t help.”

Ed Koch wants Prager out — will ask him to resign from Holocaust Memorial Council next week

(WASHINGTON, D.C., Dec. 12) The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council faces
continuing questions over recent statements by
one of its members, local commentator and writer Dennis Prager.

But the panel, which oversees the Holocaust
Museum on Washington’s Mall, has no answers,
since it had no role in appointing Prager and no
way of removing him. Prager was appointed to the
Council in September, but has not attended any
meetings since it has not met since then, and has
not been appointed to any committees.

Prager generated protests from across the
political spectrum when he wrote that Keith
Ellison, elected to the U.S. House on November 7,
shouldn’t be allowed to take the oath of office on a Quran.

In January Ellison will become the first Moslem
in Congress; although members do not get sworn in
on any holy book, he has said he would bring a
Quran to the private ceremony that many members use as a swearing-in photo op.

That offended the conservative Prager, who wrote
that allowing congressional oaths on a Quran
“undermines American civilization. “If you are
incapable of taking an oath on (the Bible), don’t serve in Congress.”

A long list of Jewish leaders quickly condemned
his comments, and former New York Mayor Ed Koch
demanded that he quit the Council.

Koch is also a Council member, and in an
interview he said he will seek Prager’s
resignation at the December 18 Council meeting.

“If they permit it, I will introduce a motion to
condemn him,” Koch said. “I am hopeful he will
resign, because I think he can’t do anything
other than discredit the Museum with what he has said.”

Koch said Prager’s comments undermine the basic
message the Museum was created to disseminate.

“I believe it is the duty of members of the board
to spread the message that attacks on people as a
result of their religion, ethnicity, race, are
all to be condemned wherever we have an
opportunity to raise our voices,” he said.

Prager, he said, is doing just the opposite by
“creating such an attack on a Muslim.”

Koch — a former member of Congress himself —
said he would have “no objection if sacred books
were used” for swearing in purposes — including the Bible or the Quran.

One Council member expressed frustration at the
position Prager’s comments have put the Museum in.

“We are caught in an impossible situation,” this
source said. “Because the controversy has gone so
public, it is hurting the Museum and its mission
— but we have no control over who is on the
board, we have no way of getting Prager to resign
other than simply asking him to.”

This source said that far from resigning, Prager
has asked fellow Council members to support him.

The White House has declined to comment on the
Prager controversy, and several Council members
said this week that they do not believe any of
their colleagues are lobbying the administration to remove him.

One of the Museum’s founders said Prager was
probably a poor choice for the panel.

“A pundit’s job is to stir up controversy,” said
Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, a former
Council member and Museum official. “Prager
views himself as a great ethicist, as a moral
voice, but on this issue he has gone off on a
profoundly alienating tangent. He sure doesn’t help the Council.”

Berenbaum said Prager’s comments suggest a
“religious test for public office. And that’s
wrong; it goes against the whole thrust of Jewish activism in this country.”

The issue is especially nettling because the
Museum, caught up in several explosive
controversies in its early years, has largely
steered clear of public flaps under the
leadership of Fred Zeidman, a Bush confidante and the current Council chair.

An (Israeli-American) Voice in the Wilderness

Jonathan Tasini’s name, in Israel, would be pronounced more like Tazini. It’s related to a command in classical Hebrew that Moses uses with his people: Ha’azinu. That is: You should listen.

And at the very least, Tasini wants voters to get a chance to listen to him. He offers himself up as a new kind of Jewish American anti-war candidate for Congress, the only one who, as this summer’s news about the miseries of Iraq merged with that of the Lebanon blow-up, critically addressed both situations. He’s using his small corner of New York’s political stage to speak about these two wars of vital interest to Jews, even as it goes scarcely noticed that Tasini is the closest any candidate has come to being an Israeli American running for the U.S. Congress.

His full name is Jonathan Yoav Tasini, and he’s challenging Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York’s Democratic primary on Sept. 12. He’s asked Clinton to debate him — an event that, following Ned Lamont’s win against Sen. Joe Lieberman, would likely be a national story — but so far she hasn’t accepted. Publications as different as The New York Times and the New York Post recently urged Clinton to engage the 49-year-old Tasini, the articulate former head of the National Writer’s Union, saying that a Tasini-Clinton match-up would give her a chance to clarify her muddled position on Iraq.

On Iraq, Tasini — along with a broad range of progressive positions — favors an immediate pullout. On Lebanon, as recent violence surged, he quickly echoed calls elsewhere for a cease-fire and joined in criticism of Israel’s bombing campaign in civilian areas. Tasini spurred a midsummer ripple of controversy with remarks that included his lament of Israel’s “many acts of brutality and violations of human rights.” He didn’t back down, reminding his critics that his comments did not stray from civil rights reports and charges by Israeli leftists.

Still, many people haven’t heard of Tasini, and the Jewish world has barely taken note. His Italian-sounding name stops even some supporters from realizing he’s Jewish, although he’s clear enough about it on his Web site, TasiniforNewYork.org. The New York media — including the Jewish press — have also not covered him with anywhere near the interest accorded Lamont, who bought his share of outsider glamour for $4 million.

Tasini’s raised about $200,000 so far, compared to Clinton’s $22 million. After a recent boomlet of press, he’s polling at 15 percent of New York Democrats. Few think he’ll win. But his positions on the Middle East distinguish him as part of a new generation of Democratic mavericks who reflect this country’s sense of political crisis over Iraq and a measure of disillusionment about Israel’s conduct in the Lebanon War. One could even call his campaign groundbreaking, given the freshness of his views and the novelty of his biography.

“I absolutely view him as an Israeli American,” said Joel Schalit, managing editor of Tikkun Magazine. “He certainly spent enough time in Israel and he certainly has enough connections there.”

Born in Houston, Tasini has two families: an American one from the marriage of his father, Betsalel Tasini, to a woman who lives now in Los Angeles, and an Israeli side, stemming from his father’s second marriage to a New Yorker who emigrated to Israel in 1968. Tasini, a UCLA graduate, lived with his father and stepmother in Israel for seven years and speaks fluent Hebrew.

I recently talked to Rita Tasini, the candidate’s stepmother, by phone as she sat in her home in Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv, a few days after a Hezbollah missile had fallen in Hadera, not far away.

“He has roots in Israel that are very, very deep,” she said of him. “He was here, not last year, but the year before. He was here for Pesach.”

Tasini, she said, “was left wing at 16. He was always left.”

And his support for a two-state solution for the Palestinians, his objections to the Jewish settlement movement reflected familial views.

“Jonathan’s father was against it,” said his stepmother, “and so was I; none of us believed that they should be living over there.”

Tasini’s late father, a computer scientist, was born in Palestine, and fought in the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state army, and its strike force, the Palmach, his widow told me. He lived for a time in the United States during his American-born son’s early years, then returned to Israel. Rita Tasini described how a teenaged Tasini, having joined his father, volunteered in a hospital, helping wounded Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War.

Yet Tasini told me it was the Vietnam War and the perspective of his father, the independence fighter, that largely shaped his anti-war views. “I remember very specifically watching the news of the Vietnam War and every week they’d have the body counts,” Tasini said, as we talked near his tiny office in New York’s West Village. “This one week, the number of Viet Cong killed were more than Americans and I said, ‘Good,’ and my father said, ‘Why is it good?’ I said, ‘It is better that more of them die than Americans,’ and my father said, ‘It is about much more than that.’ He said that no country wants to be occupied by another country, and liberation movements are very strong. My father was not a deep ideological left-winger, but it was based on his history of having fought against the British.

“Gandhi means a lot to me, Gandhi and Martin Luther King,” he added.
While he said he believes fighting is sometimes necessary, and firmly deplored Hezbollah’s actions at the start of the recent crisis, he questions why, given previous deals Israel made to release Palestinian prisoners for captives, it wasn’t done this time.

The openness of such skepticism may make Tasini seem foolishly bold (or boldly foolish) in the context of a New York political race. But it is of a piece with his controversial past as president of the National Writer’s Union, a time that included taking The New York Times to court to win payment to freelance writers for electronic reuse of their work. He won in the U.S. Supreme Court.

But critics say he misapplied his chutzpah this summer in the middle of the fighting in Lebanon. In an interview with the political blog, Room 8, Tasini was asked whether he believed Israel was a terrorist state. He answered: “It is painful to say that, but when you fire missiles from sophisticated aircraft on unarmed civilians in Gaza, those are again, the definition to me of….” He paused, searching for the next words.

“Terrorism is a very heavily laden word. But to me, what the key thing is, what are you doing? Are your actions in violation of the international norms of the Geneva Convention, and so on? And I think it’s sad to say, but it’s clear, yeah.”

While he quickly stated, on his campaign Web site, that did not view Israel as a terrorist state, he held to his critical stance. The Clinton campaign denounced the remarks, and several Jewish organizations fired back. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), a Jewish Democratic group in Washington, called the remarks “outrageous” and “downright offensive.”

I asked NJDC Executive Director Ira Forman what made the remarks so wrong — beyond the “terrorist” label, which was pushed at Tasini and about which he wavered — given that human rights groups have issued reports saying more or less the same things.(Amnesty International has just issued a report critical of the Israeli bombing of civilians during the Lebanon conflagration.) Forman said the comments were “inappropriate,” and then added: “Inappropriate may not be the most accurate statement. The accurate statement is ‘very much out of the mainstream for the American Jewish community.'”

Forman’s objection — he was one of those who said he could not remember another congressional candidate who had as full an Israeli background as Tasini — goes to the heart of what makes Tasini an interesting new presence.

Said Tikkun’s magazine’s Joel Schalit: “If Israel comes across as being more fallible, dysfunctional and morally-in-trouble than previously perceived, then American Jewish opinion is going to have some kind of crisis. I think it is about time that an Israeli American entered the process. His timing couldn’t be better.”

Tasini has a political example to aim for in Los Angeles.

“I thought he was courageous to be critical of the Israeli actions in Lebanon, given Hillary’s gestures to win out the Jewish vote,” said Marcy Winograd, a Jewish anti-war progressive who took 38 percent of the vote in her recent primary run against Jane Harmon in California’s 36th Congressional District.
Tasini called the West L.A. campaign “the model” for his.

Tasini pointed out that critics of the Zionist Left who live in Israel tend to feel stronger in their right to question policies there than American Jewish critics in this country because their devotion to the survival of the state stands beyond reproach.

“American Jews feel they are living here in comfort and protection,” he said, “and they don’t really know what is going on, and they can’t criticize Israel. I have never had that. I can say what I say with authority, and I say it because I have a stake there.”

But interesting positions alone won’t get him into the same room with Hillary Clinton. At campaign stops recently she has dodged reporters who more and more often ask whether she’ll debate Tasini. She would only tell a CBS reporter, “We’ll see how the campaign develops over the next weeks.”

Of course Moses, with whom Tasini shares a linguistic legacy, sometimes had problems getting people to listen. But even he didn’t face the mighty logic of American incumbency — that you can deny an under-funded opponent a chance to be heard, if you simply don’t respond.

Allan M. Jalon is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

Gunter Grass Admits to SS Past

Gunter Grass Admits to SS Past

Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass’ admission that he was an SS member has drawn both rage and defenses of the writer.

While some say the revelation devalues his life’s work, others are showing more understanding for the pressures faced by the teenager who later would write such modern German classics as “The Tin Drum.”

Grass, 78, whose autobiography is due out this fall, told the Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung in an interview published last Friday that he was drafted into the Waffen SS in the final months of World War II.

The Waffen SS was the elite fighting force of the SS, the Nazi Party’s quasi-military unit, and was declared part of a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials. Grass was interned briefly in a POW camp in Bavaria after the war.

Literary critic Helmuth Karasek told the radio program BDR that Grass should have revealed the truth sooner, and suggested that the Nobel Prize committee might not have honored someone “whom they knew had been a member of the Waffen SS and had long denied it.” Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

Grass biographer Michael Juergs said he was “personally disappointed,” and has called into question the validity of Grass’ life work. But German writer Erich Loest told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that Grass’ admission should be “accepted without condemnation. He was very young and there was no one to influence him in the opposite direction,” he said.

Grass told the Frankfurt paper he was drafted as a 17-year-old following a stint in a support unit for the German air force, and was brought to serve in a Waffen SS tank division in Dresden. In the forthcoming autobiography, “While Skinning an Onion,” he writes that the past had “oppressed him. My suppression of this through the years was among the reasons why I have written this book. It had to come out, finally.”

Grass said he originally had volunteered to serve in a Nazi submarine unit, which was “just as crazy.”

Until now, his biography has shown that Grass was drafted in the support unit for the air force in 1944, then served as a soldier. In the new book, he writes about how he was 15 when he tried to volunteer with the submarine corps and was rejected because of his age. He was called up in 1944, as were all boys born in 1927.

He was assigned to the Waffen SS, which “in the final year of the war took draftees, not only volunteers,” he said in an interview with the German Press Agency.

Grass said he never had tried to hide the fact that as a youth he was vulnerable to Nazi propaganda. He also told the Frankfurt paper that he never actually served in the Waffen SS division to which he had been assigned. He ended up behind the Russian front on reconnaissance patrols, witnessing what he described as gruesome scenes and surviving by pure chance. During his brief internment as a POW, Grass says he met the similarly interned Joseph Ratzinger, who now is Pope Benedict XVI.

Israelis Arrested for Allegedly Running U.S. Hooker Ring

Two Israelis are under arrest for allegedly running a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar prostitution ring in four Western states, employing up to 240 women.

Boaz Benmoshe, 44, and Ofer Moses Lupovitz, 43, the alleged leaders of the ring headquartered in Palm Springs, are now in a local jail, Sheriff Bob Doyle of Riverside County announced Monday.

Also arrested were two Russian nationals, Moti M. Vintrov, 33, and Eliran Vintrov, 28, together with their spouses.

According to authorities, the two Israelis ran the sex ring under the cover of Elite Entertainment, an adult escort business, which dispatched prostitutes to clients in California, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon.

The Press-Enterprise news service in Riverside described the ring’s Palm Springs headquarters as a glass-walled office in a quiet open-air business complex, which also included the district office of U.S. Republican Rep. Mary Bono.Elite Entertainment allegedly operated 80 phone lines, over which clients ordered sexual services through their credit cards. Rates varied from $200 to $2,000, “depending on what you’re getting done,” Doyle said.

Local authorities and U.S. Secret Service agents arrested the suspects after a two and a half year investigation and seized $5 million in assets and more than a dozen computers.

The suspects used their income to fraudulently obtain loans to buy luxury homes in the Palm Springs area, authorities alleged.

An arraignment is scheduled for Aug. 21.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

AIPAC Judge Won’t Broaden Case

The judge in the classified information case against two former pro-Israel lobbyists rejected a prosecution attempt to broaden the indictment. Prosecutors had sought to redefine as classified a document described as unclassified in the original indictment.

Judge T.S. Ellis III rejected the request last Friday, saying it would unconstitutionally alter the indictment.

Keith Weissman, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s former Iran analyst, asked Larry Franklin, a Pentagon Iran analyst who since has pleaded guilty, for the document in June 2003.

It’s the only document that Weissman or his former boss, Steve Rosen, actively solicited, according to their August 2005 indictment.

In pre-trial rulings, Ellis has made clear that at trial he will expect a higher bar of evidence to prove that defendants knew they were hearing classified information in conversations, as opposed to receiving documentation.

Holocaust Cartoon Exhibit Opens in Iran

Iran opened a competition for the cartoons in reaction to last year’s controversy over the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. One of more than 200 cartoons displayed shows the Statue of Liberty holding a book on the Holocaust in one hand and giving a Nazi-style salute in the other, The Associated Press reported.

Scandal Over General’s Stocks

Israel’s military chief drew fire following revelations that he sold an investment portfolio when the Lebanon war erupted. Within hours of a Hezbollah border raid July 12 in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two abducted, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz sold off some $25,000 worth of stocks, Ma’ariv reported Tuesday. Halutz confirmed the sale, which came shortly before markets tumbled at the prospect of major unrest in the Middle East, but said he did not know at the time that there would be a war. Ma’ariv’s revelations further stoked Israeli ire at the military’s handling of the offensive against Hezbollah, which ended this week in a cease-fire. Lawmakers from across Israel’s political spectrum called for Halutz’s resignation, and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz was asked to investigate whether the stock sale constituted a criminal breach of trust.

Jewish Greeks Advocate for Israel

Jewish fraternities and sororities are launching an Israel advocacy push on college campuses this fall. Alpha Epsilon Pi and Alpha Epsilon Phi, the two largest Jewish Greek organizations, brought 90 students to Louisville, Ky., from Sunday through Tuesday to learn about building support for Israel.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Letters to the Editor 07-07-06

As a convert to Judaism, I was reassured to read your series of articles on those like me who chose to become Jews (“Did It Stick?” June 2). A lapsed Catholic with many Jewish friends growing up on Long Island, early on I was attracted to the ethics and worldly focus of Judaism. Following a course of study at Temple Emanuel in New York City, I converted in 1967, and my first wife and I raised our three children in the Jewish tradition.

In 1992, on the eve of her bat mitzvah, my youngest daughter asked if I would be bar mitzvahed with her. That glorious day came to pass at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, with Rabbi Harvey Fields observing that in the 130-year history of the temple, there was no record of a father and daughter having a b’nai mitzvah. At the party afterward, when Tessa and I greeted everyone, I said that I had checked around the room, and I was the only person who had had a first holy communion and a bar mitzvah.

In my life in Los Angeles with my wife, Wendy, inspired by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA and through my work with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, enriched by interfaith activities, Judaism has strengthened and complemented my struggle for civil liberties, human rights, peace and justice.

Stephen F. Rohde
Los Angeles

From reputation and general veneration, I had always believed Rabbi Jacob Pressman to be an intelligent and reliable community leader. Reading his foolish letter June 16 convinced me I was wrong on all counts (“But Is It Kosher?” June 9).

Pressman would have us believe that there is some Orthodox cabal controlling the purse strings of the literally hundreds of kashrut supervising agencies; that a group of black-hatted, white-bearded rebbes control the bank accounts and policies of these “for profit” groups — this is America after all — shades of the protocols! And all that has to be done to properly fund day schools is to divert these funds to cover the schools’ budgets, how simple and how asinine and misleading. Shame on you Rabbi Pressman. You do know better!

Growing up in Los Angeles I know that neither Pressman nor his Conservative (and Reform) colleagues contributed one whit to kashrut observance in this city. There were no restaurants or widespread bakery products available while he was in his prime, so he has nothing to say.

As regards high and truly unbearable tuition rates in our city, there is a simple solution, one that both the secular rabbinate and The Jewish Journal oppose — vouchers. I and my fellow community members pay thousands in taxes to fund a public school system that we choose not to use. Can’t we get some credit?

Howard Weiss
Los Angeles

I enjoyed reading Rob Eshman’s article that detailed the controversy that followed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) with the Orthodox Union over kosher slaughter practices, and AgriProcessors’ questionable treatment of its own workers. Most interesting to me was the latter part of the article, which tried to discuss the nature of kashrut.

The article quotes scholar Meir Soloveichik as calling the nature of kashrut “mysterious and obvious … the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Torah-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God.” In other words, it is to let the non-Jew know that we are special and follow laws meant to “set us apart and elevate our souls.”

Then in the last breath of the article, Eshman recommends that “the kosher label should not just imply the humane, responsible treatment of animals and the just treatment of food industry workers, it should certify it.”

In other words, kosher should mean that universal standards of humane treatment are being met, standards that any reasonable person would want.

So, which is it? Do we follow kashrut to set ourselves apart from the rest of the world or to encourage the rest of the world to join with us? It can’t be both.

Les Amer
Los Angeles

Finkelstein Syndrome
Roz Rothstein’s article on the anti-Semitic Jew, [Norman] Finkelstein, highlights a major lapse in common knowledge about Jewish history (“Beware the Finklestein Syndrome,” June 9). While every effort is made to inform the world about the Holocaust, very little information is disseminated about the history of lies and hate against the Jews, or its relationship to the Holocaust. I have seen history books that devote two pages to Anne Frank but fail to mention that Jews were patriotic Germans and no threat to Germany.

Theobald of Cambridge, a 12th century apostate to Catholicism, created the “blood libel” which has lasted to this day and caused thousands of Jewish deaths. If there was general awareness of the history of hatred against the Jews, then when people hear a Finkelstein, they can wonder, is he a whistleblower or a modern-day Theobald?

Those who wish to spread vicious lies against Jews today do not convert to another religion; their venom is more credible when they remain Jews, especially if they can claim to be from a family of survivors.

Ronnie Lampert
Los Angeles

DaVinci Code
Enjoyed your articles on “The DaVinci Code,” (May 19), but only the first three gospels of the New Testament (Mathew, Mark and Luke) are synoptic gospels. They are synoptic because they are similar to each other and different from the writings of the fourth gospel of John.

Brett Thompson
via e-mail

John Fishel
While the article titled, “A Private Man,” about John Fishel that ran May 26 was informative, it did not highlight one of Fishel’s key strengths.

Expert after expert has declared that a vital dynamic causing growth and change in 21st century Jewish life is directly proportional to the successful rise of entrepreneurial, Jewish, social venture startups. Jewish Los Angeles has spawned more of these new and creative organizations that address the myriad interests and needs such a diverse population requires than any other area outside of New York.

A great deal of these initiatives are being adapted and re-created in cities across the country, such as new spiritual communities, organizations that decry global genocide and serve the special needs of Jewish children among many others. Fishel has consistently taken the position that new organizations can and should arise and that their existence alone adds immeasurable value.

This is not true in most places. I believe the prolific number of creative ventures attest to the success of this position and must be noted.

Rhoda Uziel
Executive Director
Professional Leaders Project


Torture? Nah, Just a Tantrum

A new billboard depicting Jill Greenberg’s photographs of sobbing toddlers might raise the profile (and debate over) her controversial exhibition at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery.

The ad, hovering above the intersection at Highland and Melrose avenues, presents images from her “End Times” series. The portraits, the Jewish artist says, reflect her fears of the Bush administration’s Christian, apocalyptic views.

“They’re about the hysteria these toddlers might feel if they could understand the world we’re leaving to them,” Kopeikin said.

Seeking greater exposure for the show, Kopeikin accepted the billboard owners’ offer to trade two to three Greenberg prints for space June 10 through early July. He also extended the show six weeks, until July 8.

While the few published reviews have been positive (Blogcritics.org called the luminous portraits “striking” and “powerful”), debates raged on at least three Web sites. Thomas Hawk’s Digital Connection accused Greenberg of “child abuse”; a man on BloggingBaby charged her with “bullying these children for profit and … trying to justify it by saying it’s ‘art.'” Many other bloggers — including several of the toddlers’ relatives — defended the work.

Greenberg, also a prominent commercial photographer, said she was upset by the derogatory remarks because “I honestly did not feel my technique was controversial or questionable.”

The series began when she photographed a friend’s son, who spontaneously began crying, soon after Bush’s 2004 re-election.

“When I saw his mortified expression, I decided to call the [photo] ‘Four More Years,'” Greenberg, now 38, said. She went on to shoot some 35 toddlers (including her own daughter), two-thirds of them models. She said she chose children 3 or under because she could easily make them cry by using a common show-business technique: taking away a lollipop or asking their mothers to leave the room. She said the images are shocking because toddlers tantrum — as if they’re being tortured — over small things. They cried for about 10 minutes.

“Seconds later, these children were fine,” she added.

Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-0765.


Rabbi Gafni Ousted for Misconduct

Mordechai Gafni, 46, a rabbi whose charisma and brilliance dazzled students and large audiences in spiritual renewal communities in Israel and America, even as he dodged rumors and accusations about improper sexual behavior for more than 25 years, has been dismissed by the leadership of Bayit Chadash in Israel, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study group he co-founded and where he served as teacher and religious guide.

Gafni also has had a large following in Los Angeles, where he frequently preached and served as a scholar-in-residence at the Stephen S. Wise Temple. During one such stay, 1,000 people came to hear him even on the second day of Rosh Hashanah — traditionally a low-attendance day at Reform congregations — and hundreds more came to evening lectures during the week.

Gafni’s dismissal came last week after four women, including students of his and a staff member, filed complaints of sexual misconduct against Gafni with the police in Israel.

“We feel we were deceived,” Jacob Ner-David, a co-founder of Bayit Chadash, told The Jewish Week, which first reported on allegations against the rabbi in September 2004.

“He should not be called a rav [rabbi], his was not the behavior of a rav and he should not be in a teaching or counseling position,” said Ner-David, who noted that the incident “is my worst nightmare come to life.”

He added that Gafni is “a sick man, and has harmed so many.”

A statement issued by Ner-David and his Bayit Chadash co-founder Avraham Leader said “there is no place for relations like this between a rabbi and his students or between an employer and his employees, whether consensual or not. It would seem that this is the opinion of Mordechai, since he swore all the women involved to eternal and absolute silence.”

Gafni achieved much attention here and in Israel as a leader of the New Age Jewish movement. He taught classes, led retreats, wrote several books and appeared in a PBS documentary about the quest for spirituality.

In a statement this week to his followers, he took blame for his actions and said he was “infinitely saddened and profoundly sorry” for the pain he had caused. He acknowledged that he was “sick,” and said he planned to enter a treatment center and leave his “rabbinic teaching capacities.”

Gafni, who was divorced from his third wife about a year and a half ago, said in 2004 that he had “made mistakes in my life” and had “a sense of exaggeration” and was “too ambitious.” But he insisted he had done teshuvah (repentance) and was the victim of a longstanding “witch hunt” from a small cadre of women accusers and Orthodox rabbis jealous of his success.

“I am moral and ethical,” he said during a series of conversations with this reporter in 2004, during which he asserted that he was sharing his “deepest truth.”

Ner-David said that one of the women involved with Gafni over the last 18 months came forward to Leader, and that soon after, another woman spoke out about her relationship with the rabbi.

“And then we discovered there were two more,” he said.

Leader and Ner-David asked the women to give sworn statements to an attorney, which they did. At this point the police have not acted on the complaints, which address the boundaries of relationships between teacher-student and employer-employee.

“We have no doubt that they [the women] speak the truth, and willingly risk our personal credibility and integrity in support of their testimony,” Leader and Ner-David said in their signed statement.

“For us it was a complete surprise,” Ner-David said, noting that as recently as a month ago he had a conversation with Gafni affirming that immoral behavior could never be tolerated within Bayit Chadash.

Ner-David, who first met Gafni when he was a 13-year-old at summer camp in the United States and the rabbi was his counselor, said he had long known of the allegations about the man born Marc Winiarz in the Midwest. Winiarz moved to Israel in 1991 and took the Israeli name Gafni after a series of controversies about sexual improprieties dogged him when he was a youth leader and later a rabbi in several U.S. communities.

He was ordained by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City and now chief rabbi of Efrat, in the West Bank. Riskin revoked his ordination in 1994 after his former student, in a lengthy interview in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, called for restoring a balance between the erotic and the spiritual in Judaism.

Gafni’s response was that he had other ordinations and had moved beyond Orthodoxy.

Ner-David said he was guilty of having relied on information from others in seeking answers to questions about Gafni’s past. Several prominent Israeli educators hired the rabbi as a teacher despite complaints from some women and rabbis who asserted he was unfit to work with students. Those who hired Gafni said he was a gifted teacher, that he acknowledged past wrongdoings (though he was vague about them) and that they could find no current cases of women with complaints against him.

Some of the charges went back more than two decades.

Ner-David said he realizes now that Gafni was “a master manipulator,” but in the past he had felt justified in working with him because no one had come forward with recent complaints about the rabbi’s behavior.

Rabbi Saul Berman, the founder and director of Edah in New York, has been an outspoken defender of Gafni. In a letter taking this reporter to task for writing about the controversy in 2004, Berman, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and ethicist and author Joseph Telushkin said they had looked into past allegations and found them “totally unconvincing.” They described the article as “unfair” and “scandalous.”

This month, Berman said he is “deeply regretful” of his prior support for Gafni, and worried that his past defense may have prolonged the rabbi’s “predatory behavior against women.”

“I was clearly wrong in stating that Rabbi Gafni’s continued role as a teacher within the Jewish community constitutes no risk to Jewish women,” he wrote in a statement.

Berman said he had felt the earlier accusations “were not justifiable foundations for public disgrace and exclusion,” and noted that he will “continue to struggle with the ideal line between presumption of innocence and protection of potential innocent victims.”

He said the Gafni case underscores the ongoing need for a mechanism to investigate allegations against rabbis “in a way that the community has confidence in, so that when it’s over, it’s over.”

He said that rabbis are “not capable of enough objectivity to handle such matters themselves,” and called for a collaborative effort of rabbis, lay leaders and professionals in the health care field who deal with abuse.

Other institutions and individuals who had supported Gafni in the past also spoke out this month. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia said he felt “sad, angry and betrayed” by Gafni’s behavior, noting that it “raises questions once again about how to walk that thin line between spiritual ecstasy and the domineering frenzy that is not only damaging in itself but sometimes even leads to sexual abuse.”

One of the criticisms of the spiritual renewal movement is that its emphasis on charismatic teachers and the search for religious bliss lends its members to being emotionally manipulated.

Ner-David, acknowledging that he will be asking himself “for a long time what lessons can be learned” from the Gafni episode, said that Bayit Chadash “must make sure not to allow anyone to become a guru.”

He said the members of the group, which includes hundreds of Israelis who pray and study together, are determined to go on with their work even though Gafni, their spiritual leader, has been removed.

As for whether Gafni truly understands the pain he has caused and can be rehabilitated and return, Ner-David said it was too early to say.

“It is hard to tell if he really means it or not,” he said.

This article appears courtesy The Jewish Week.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.