A Jewish commune and lessons of sharing
One of the hardest lessons to teach a young child is the value of sharing. How do you explain to your son or daughter that they should hand off their cherished teddy bear or toy truck to another child? The word “mine” is one of the first words to come out of a toddler’s mouth, and children see their toys as extensions of themselves.
Artist Joel Tauber, 43, ran into this dilemma while raising his 5-year-old son Zeke and 3-year-old son Ozzie. If Tauber wasn’t willing to let others borrow his expensive video equipment, why should Zeke have to share his prized toy guitar with a friend?
The challenge of teaching the value of sharing led to “The Sharing Project,” a 15-channel video installation at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, up now through July 19. Visitors will see a room full of screens, featuring 15 short films as well as 21 interviews with experts in fields ranging from evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, history, philosophy, and education. Through these experts, Tauber tries to get at the root of why humans choose to compete or cooperate.
“We applaud selfishness in so many ways. Probably the dominant narrative in our culture is, get as much stuff as you can. We’re bombarded by all this advertisement all the time, telling us to get more and more stuff,” Tauber said.
“It troubles me, seeing how we’ve become a really selfish culture. I don’t think that’s good for us as a whole. I try not to be that way. I’m conflicted just like everyone else though. There’s a part of me that wants good things for myself and for my kids and for my wife, and for us to live an easy life. But then I’m also really troubled by all this inequity.”
At the museum, Tauber encourages visitors to bring in toys to share and arrange in the space. When the project concludes, visitors are invited to take a toy with them and give it to whomever they’d like.
While investigating the idea of sharing, Tauber and his son Zeke turned to the forgotten Socialist Jewish commune of Happyville in South Carolina. Established in 1905 and disbanded in 1908, Tauber sought out the remains of the utopian community, hoping some of the mysteries of sharing would be buried in the ruins.
The central video in the installation tells the story of Happyville. The video features long shots of birds chirping, green leaves quivering and ripples spreading across a lake. Its tranquility seems to mask the incredible experiment that took place deep within its wooded folds.
In 1905, Jewish immigrant Charles Weintraub and other Eastern European families purchased a 2,200-acre plantation in Aiken County. They bought livestock, equipment and the buildings that were on the land. They cleared the sandy soil into pasture, and set about constructing a grist mill, saw mill and cotton gin.
But the colonists were beset by troubles. First, the Russian and Polish immigrants had little knowledge and experience in farming. Heavy rains washed out the fields and the dam built to power the ginnery. And most significantly, they incurred a heavy debt and were unable to attract patrons. In 1908, the 50 settlers living in Happyville auctioned off their equipment and livestock and sold the farmland, and left town. All that remains are an ancient tractor, a horse carriage and some crumbling foundations.
When he discovered the story of Happyville, he felt a kinship with the socialist pioneers. In Tauber’s video, he and Zeke (who was then 3 years old) use the boy’s brightly-colored plastic tools to “fix” the rusted tractor and a decaying house, a poetic metaphor for the concept of “tikkun olam” and for the desire to repair whatever caused Happyville to disintegrate.
“You’re doing a really good job,” Tauber tells the boy, with his mop of curly brown hair and his rain boots, as he attacks the spokes of a wagon wheel with his yellow plastic wrench. “We’re fixing a special place,” Tauber tells Zeke, as the boy bangs against a rusted door.
Tauber's son, Zeke, 'fixing' the door with his plastic tools
Tauber left Los Angeles in 2011 to develop a video art program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was startled by the economic inequality he saw in his new home. Census data shows that 23 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty level.
“It turns out that Winston-Salem might have the most childhood poverty in the whole country, and that’s while there’s all these really wealthy people there,” Tauber said.
Tauber brought Zeke to protests in Winston-Salem against unemployment and funding cuts to social programs, and filmed their participation in the protests as yet another lesson in sharing.
Tauber was raised as an Orthodox Jew in Boston and as a boy showed promise as a scholar of Talmud. But at 18, instead of continuing on to a yeshiva, he opted to spend a summer at Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz in Israel’s Beit She'an Valley, where he picked carrots and worked in a salami factory. That experience made him think a lot about communal living. He had planned to become a doctor, but decided to study art at Yale University and then at Art Center College of Design.
Another of Tauber’s projects is called “Sick-Amour,” in which he adopted and maintained a sycamore tree growing in the middle of a giant parking lot at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
“It was getting hit by cars, starved for water and oxygen, and eventually asphalt was removed, boulders were placed around it, then that started happening for other trees,” Tauber said. “Taking care of that tree, which is really ongoing, taught me how to love, how to become a husband, how to be a father.”
Tauber and volunteers planted seeds from the sycamore around the region. He estimates there are about 200 “tree babies” now growing from those seeds. He and his wife, Alison, even got married at the tree. “I think of the tree as part of my family,” he said. “It’s part of our family.”
All of his art projects revolve around ethical issues, Tauber said, whether it’s saving a tree or uncovering the roots of altruism. He traces it back to his Jewish education.
“I’m a secular man. We live a secular life. I’m happy that I had an education that encouraged me to think about ethics,” he said. “I’ve made all of my work about ethics. That’s what I’ve devoted my career and my life to. So as a parent, also, I feel that my responsibility is to help my children struggle with the idea of how to be a good person.”
Joel Tauber’s “The Sharing Project” is on display at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, through July 19, 2015. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, June 20, 6-8 pm, with a performance by Earth Like Planets. More information at
Iran, Israel cooperate in nuclear test detection drills
Iran and Israel have been cooperating under the auspices of an international body set up to monitor a ban on nuclear bomb tests, its director said on Monday.
Negotiated in the 1990s, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty enjoys wide global support but must be ratified by eight more nuclear technology states — among them Israeland Iran, as well as Egypt and the United States — to come into force.
In the interim, Middle East signatories have regularly held technical meetings, including in Jordan in November and December to practice detecting illicit testing.
“Iran took part in the drill. Egypt was part of this drill. I think all the Arab countries were represented in Jordan for this exercise,” Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), said during a visit to Israel.
“During the exercise, when we had our round-table discussions or dinner or lunches, you had Iranian experts and Israeli experts sitting at the same table,” he told Reuters. “It's not unusual that we see that in the technological field we have people who don't necessarily get together politically but who find things to agree on in the scientific framework.”
The CTBTO has established a system to detect any nuclear blasts, with more than 337 monitoring facilities in the world.
Among these are two seismic stations in Israel and another in Iran which, Zerbo said, has been inactive since 2006 when the international network was upgraded and sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program made taking equipment there difficult.
An April 2 framework deal between Iran and world powers clears the way for a settlement to allay Western fears that Iran could build a nuclear weapon, with economic sanctions on Tehran being lifted in return.
Zerbo voiced hope of getting the Iranian site back on line, effectively putting Iran on the same detection grid as Israel, which accuses Tehran of harboring designs on nuclear weaponry.
Israel — which is believed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, but neither confirms nor denies this — says it believes Iran is committed to its destruction.
Iran insists its nuclear projects are purely peaceful, a position Zerbo argued would be shored up by ratifying the Test Ban treaty. But, he said, “their approach is that diplomacy is always one step at a time.”
By not signing the voluntary nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran belongs, Israelhas kept its main nuclear facilities away from foreign inspection.
Italy, Israel cement relationship with cooperation agreements
Relations between Italy and Israel remain strong following a high-level meeting in Rome where Italy strongly condemned any attempt to “delegitimize and boycott” the Jewish state.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed a senior delegation that meet with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other Italian officials on Monday.
The two sides signed eight bilateral agreements on economic, cultural, technological and other cooperation.
They also issued a joint statement calling for a negotiated, two-state solution in the Middle East based on direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinian sides. The Italian and Israeli governments, it said, shared the conviction that there should be the state of Israel “as a Jewish state and homeland of the Jewish people, and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people” that would live “side by side in peace, security and reciprocal recognition.”
At a news conference after the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s opposition to a United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood, saying it would hamper negotiations.
“First, it would violate the agreements between the Palestinians and Israel but it would also harden the Palestinian position because if the U.N. General Assembly adopts the Palestinian positions in advance of negotiations why should they negotiate?” he said.
Meanwhile, “Unexpected Israel,” a 10-day celebration of Israeli culture, technology and tourism, opened in Milan’s central Duomo Square despite threats of protest from pro-Palestinian activists. Running June 13-23, Unexpected Israel includes an Italo-Israel business forum as well as exhibits, concerts, films and other events.
Proposed USC-Dubai journalism school concerns faculty and community
Faculty members at the USC Annenberg School for Communications are deep into a controversy that should be of interest to the Jewish community.
It concerns a proposal from USC for a $3 million contract for Annenberg to work with the American University in Dubai to create a journalism and communications school in the Middle Eastern nation.
Some on the USC faculty are concerned that Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will discriminate against student applicants and faculty who are not Muslim, including Jews. Critics also cite past United Arab Emirate opposition to Israel.
What makes this of interest to local Jews — even those not connected to the home of the Trojans — is the close connection USC has forged with the Jewish community over the years. The Jewish presence among students, faculty and the board of trustees is strong, USC’s Hillel is bustling and the university also has the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, which works with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, as well as the Shoah Visual History Foundation. In addition, Jews are among USC’s financial supporters.
The current university is far different than the old anti-Semitic USC. That era was recalled in a 1996 article by The Jewish Journal’s Tom Tugend, who described the school’s pre-World War II quota system that was “strikingly simple. One Jewish student was admitted to the medical school, one to the dental school and one to the law school.”
Today, Jewish faculty members are divided over the Dubai proposal. “So many of the people involved in this are Jewish,” said Ed Cray, a veteran journalism professor.
According to a proposed memorandum of understanding, Annenberg would receive $1 million a year for three years to provide the American University and its Mohammed bin Rashid School for Communication with curriculum advice and faculty assistance. Annenberg would also work with its Dubai partner to set up an international conference center and think tank there.
The memorandum states that neither USC nor the Rashid school would “discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, color, age, physical or mental disability, national origin, veteran status, marital status or any other category protected by law in employment or in any of its programs and/or activities.” But it’s unclear how this clause would be enforced.
Annenberg dean Ernest J. Wilson III told me that USC will be “providing training to a significant part of the journalists who will be distributing information all through the Middle East and into India.”
Annenberg professor Philip Seib, principal director of the project, said in an article on the Annenberg Web site, “The news business is much less mature in Arab countries…. We’re eager to contribute to the enhancement of journalistic fundamentals … by fostering appreciation of American journalism values — everything from ethics to professional production skills….”
Faculty critics with long memories recall a proposal in the 1970s for a USC Middle East Studies Center financed entirely, Tugend reported, “by Arab oil money.” The Jewish community, fearing creation of a nest of pro-Arab, anti-Israel academics, protested, and the proposal was killed.
A vocal opponent of the Dubai plan is professor Jonathan Kotler, who was joined by a half-dozen colleagues. He told me he was concerned about UAE support for the PLO and its “civil rights record … in its treatment of foreigners, women, children and gays….” And he noted that Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, has been sued for forcing young boys into slavery to serve as jockeys in the popular sport of camel racing. The Dubai communications school was named for him.
“I don’t think we should get into bed with such a person,” he said, and he believes the proposal “besmirches the name of the university and the Annenberg school.” He was particularly concerned about past United Arab Emirate support for the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he considers a supporter of jihad and terrorism.
“As a Jewish American, I am offended,” he said.
Murray Fromson, an emeritus journalism professor and a longtime foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and CBS, sees it differently.
Fromson, who every year visits his daughter Aliza Ben-Tal, assistant to the president of Ben-Gurion University, in Israel, told me this is not a Jewish issue unless Dubai discriminates against Jews or academics who are involved in communications programs in Israel. “It’s a Jewish issue if we start a program in Israel and they [Dubai officials] say we can’t do it,” Fromson said.
He said his years as a reporter overseas taught him the value of such programs, a view that was reinforced when he headed a USC program in Mexico, in the days when the PRI political party clamped down on dissent in a brutal way, and the government bribed the press.
His students there learned about a free press. “Two of our students were among those who got the National Assembly to adopt a First Amendment [free press guarantee],” he said.
I’ve taught at Annenberg on and off for several years. As a part-time Trojan, here’s what I think:
Like Fromson, I believe a program such as this can do much good, even in a country with a poor human rights record. But USC should insist on ironclad anti-discrimination clauses in the contract to prevent the Arab rulers of Dubai from discriminating against Jews and other non-Muslims.
L.A. benefits from ties with Israel
Los Angeles has long had a special relationship with the state and the people of Israel. It is a partnership founded on innovation and common hopes; a bond defined by shared dreams for a future of peace, security, and sustainability; a connection that grows stronger each time we establish new ties with our counterparts in the Jewish state.
Over the past week, I led a delegation of civic, faith, business and community leaders on a trip that will help make Los Angeles stronger, safer, more secure and better stewards of the environment — and all Angelenos stand to reap the benefits of our efforts.
In just a few days, we signed agreements to strengthen security at our airport and enhance our counterterrorism capabilities. We initiated partnerships to protect our ports and reduce our carbon footprint. We took a series of steps to revitalize the L.A. River, expand the city’s water conservation and recycling initiatives and invest in the technologies of tomorrow. From homeland security and public safety to environmental innovation and green development, Los Angeles is set to receive the best Israel has to offer in the fields where the Jewish state leads the world — and Los Angeles will be better off as a result.
Some of the most memorable and moving moments of the mission came in our meetings with Israel’s top political leaders. President Shimon Peres told us about Israel’s drive to grow green and continue to rededicate its efforts to make the desert bloom. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert outlined the challenges of leading a democratic nation in a neighborhood of dictators and despots. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni engaged us in a discussion on the ongoing struggle for peace, while former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained what must be done to secure his country and develop a vibrant economy. Finally, the mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv shared their visions for prosperity and vitality in Israel’s largest cities.
Beyond the lasting impact of our security and green technology exchange, and beyond the extraordinary sessions with living political legends, there was one experience — one set of images — that will remain etched in my memory forever.
During the second day of the mission, we traveled to Sderot — a city devastated by years of rocket attacks and red alerts, and a town representing the front line of Israel’s fight against indiscriminate violence and causeless hatred. There, in the midst of the terror we all see on the nightly news and at the epicenter of fear for so many families, children expressed their desire for normalcy before a backdrop of bomb shelters in their schoolyards. Students demonstrated a commitment to a strong education in schools forced to invest in reinforced rooftops instead of new books and materials. Parents looked on with joy and pride as their kids got the opportunity to dance and sing and perform for their guests. And when we looked into the eyes of Sderot’s youth, we could see the hope, spirit, innocence and exhilaration that emanate from the hearts of so many young people worldwide.
After this visit to Sderot and throughout the entire state of Israel, I came away with a powerful reminder of the unique character and incredible story of the Jewish people. It is a tale of resilience in the face of adversity; of a determination to succeed despite impossible odds; of a commitment to innovation; of a will to preserve their homeland; of an unflagging and unwavering faith in “tikkun olam” and “tzedakah,” in repairing the world and pursuing justice, in the values that have sustained Jews for thousands of years and made Israel a true “light unto the nations.”
After 60 years of constant threat and endless challenges, I can safely say that Israel today is stronger than ever. It is a state that remains a beacon of light and a bastion of promise for nations and communities across the globe. It is a country that believes in what’s possible and never falters in its struggle for a brighter future. This mission and these experiences brought the history of the Jewish state into focus and gave us all reason to join our brothers and sisters halfway around the world in the hope — hatikvah — that, one day soon, Israel would once again be a free nation, a secure state and a peaceful homeland.
Israel’s Teens Get Ironic ‘Inheritance’
“Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East,” by Jennifer Miller (Ballantine Books, 2005).
Amos Oz has explored the subject in novels. Amos Elon has penned essays about it. Politicians as varied as Abba Eban, Mahmoud Abbas, Bill Clinton and even Ariel Sharon have tried to solve it. So, what can a 26-year-old Ivy League graduate add to the long and storied history of the region with the world’s most intractable political problem?
Plenty of inspiration, if we are to judge by Jennifer Miller’s new book, “Inheriting the Holy Land.”
Miller, who will be discussing and signing copies of her book at the Jewish Community Library on May 9, considers herself to be from a privileged background.
She contrasts the “level of seriousness” of the Middle Eastern youth she has met over the years to the relatively carefree existence she had growing up in a tony Washington, D.C., suburb and going to Brown University.
Even if she is to the manor born, Miller has done dogged and intrepid work in reporting on the Middle East through a unique lens — that of a graduate of the Seeds of Peace program, a cultural and political awareness “summer camp” uniting teenage Israelis, Palestinians and other kids from the region.
She exposes the paradoxes of these young adults, the Palestinian boys who criticize the United States, yet wear Coke and American flag shirts and implore her for U.S. visas; the Orthodox Israeli girl, who prays apart from the men in synagogue, yet dresses in a sexy outfit when she is outside; the Israeli army officer sitting next to his ostensible enemy, a Jordanian college student, while drinking tea in Washington.
Not surprisingly, there are parallels to these stories — religious Israeli and Palestinian girls seem to suffer a similar kind of oppression; an Israeli boy decorates his room with weapons (“rusted knives and tarnished bullet belts hang on the walls”), while a Gaza boy tells Miller that he trades bullets as if they were baseball cards.
Miller has subtitled her book, “An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East,” and indeed she infuses the story with much optimism. But she says over the phone, “I don’t really believe in peace. The word, peace, the notion of peace, it’s an ideal. There’s never going to be harmony.”
Instead of peace, she looks for “pragmatic” steps, a future of cooperation on matters such as the region’s economy.
Her subjects, the Middle Eastern youth, have all lived together for a summer in Maine. While many Israelis in the Seeds program build a strong rapport with Arabs and vice versa, Miller avoids the cliché of suggesting that these relationships will last. She depicts the nascent friendship between Mohammad and Omri, a friendship that breaks off after the summer program ends.
Yet she points out that “it’s not so important whether they stay in touch.”What’s more important is that “they feel empowered for the first time.”
Sometimes, her book seems to reflect too much of a Generation Y mindset — Miller might have varied her metaphors; all of the references to J.R.R. Tolkien, Monty Python and “Star Wars” leave one wondering if today’s youth devote all their leisure time to fantasy epics.
However she spends her leisure time, Miller remains a dedicated journalist, braving trips to the Gaza Strip, where she interviews Palestinian security official Mohammad Dahlan, and almost gets stuck for the night; Ramallah, where she matches wits with and eats fresh vegetables off the finger tips of the late Yasser Arafat; and cafes in Jerusalem that a few days later are targeted by suicide bombers.
If she finds Arafat to be a charming liar, Miller portrays Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister who was voted out of office after agreeing to vacate more than 90 percent of the West Bank, as a defiant and somewhat belligerent man. She also visits with the forgotten people, Israeli Arabs, who endure a kind of liminal, inferior status, accepted as neither full-fledged Israelis nor as Palestinians.
Although Miller says over the phone that the “vast majority of the people [in the Middle East] want to be productive citizens,” her book suggests that we can’t forget others like the man from Gaza, who claims to be a Shakespeare scholar yet utters the basest and oldest lies that “Zionists control the mass media all over the world.”
No wonder Miller admits that she used to be “confused” about the Middle East, even though her father was a U.S. State Department negotiator who tried to broker peace agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians at Oslo and Camp David. She decided to write “Inheriting the Holy Land” to make the whole situation “more accessible and engaging” to Americans, whom she views as her audience.
Her next book project, she says, is motivated “by a cross-country motorcycle ride with the Rolling Thunder Vietnam Veterans.”
She chuckles when asked if she is following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson. She says she wants to inspire the same level of civic engagement in young Americans that she saw in Middle Eastern youth.
“Freedom is ubiquitous for us,” she says. “We don’t always appreciate that it’s a scarce resource.”
Jennifer Miller reads and signs “Inheriting the Holy Land” on Tuesday, May 9, at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 761-8644.
Harmony on the Table at Interfaith Events
At the Islamic Center of Southern California, each table had a word. There was “family,” “social action,” “prayer,” “rituals” and “holidays.” Participants were asked to move to the table that reflected how they viewed their faith.
The exercise was part of the second annual Jewish/Muslim Dialogue organized by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics. About 120 people participated in the program, which included a screening of three clips from a new documentary that emphasizes ongoing cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Last month’s event was one of several recent interfaith programs across the city, including one through the Sholem Foundation, where progressive Jews and progressive Muslims met to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. There also was an interfaith Shabbat service last week at Temple Kol Tikvah.
“The majority of Jews I have met in Los Angeles over the past eight years … have been extremely open and receptive about understanding Islam,” said Mehnaz Afridi, who helped organize the event with the Wallenberg Institute.
She added that, by contrast, Muslims were not as willing initially to participate in interfaith exchanges. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
“The only positive fringe benefit I can see out of Sept. 11 is that the Muslim community suddenly realized that they had to become open and visible and transparent,” said Ruth Broyde-Sharone, a Jewish producer and director who has been active in interfaith work for 20 years. She stressed the importance of people learning not to fear “that every mosque in the city was a breeding group for terrorists.”
While the people who took part expressed disagreements over Israel and Middle East policy, the prevailing sentiment was a desire for peaceful co-existence.
About the Middle East conflict, Bangladeshi Muslim Omar Huda said, “In my prayers, I keep saying, ‘God, please make it go away,’ because it covers the whole screen [of interfaith relations].”
Huda, who has known Broyde-Sharone for more than two years, said that although they have had disagreements when they talk about politics, there also is trust between them that solidifies their friendship.
“We have something established now that no political discussion could rent asunder, because we have created something as human beings,” she said.
These interfaith dialogues remain works in progress. Huda said he does not feel comfortable, for example, talking about theology in the course of an online interfaith discussion with people he doesn’t know. And at gatherings, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb said that many dialogues suffer from “speaker syndrome,” bringing in speakers and not letting communities actually talk to one another.
Despite the differences, however, “we have a common heart,” said Abdul-Wahab Omeira, a Muslim chaplain for the L.A. County Department of Corrections. “We have a common goal. Help us further our cause, for it is your cause.”
Both Muslims and Jews understand what it is like to be the outsider, said Muslim minister Tasnim Hermila Fernandez: “We have all had the concept of being ‘the other.’ We have worn the other shoe.”
Israel-Turkey Ties Take Cooler Turn
Is Israel’s relationship with Turkey on the skids? Such fears came to the fore when a Lebanese newspaper, quoting sources in Ankara, reported recently that Turkey was freezing future military contracts with Israeli firms. According to the paper, the step was decided on by Turkey’s Islamic-oriented government, which rejects strategic military cooperation with Israel.
Turkish officials were quick to deny the claim, noting that a decision to cancel bids for weapons systems, in which Israel was competing, was part of an effort to boost local production and increase cooperation with European firms, as Turkey fights for a place in the European Union.
Israeli officials also denied that relations had deteriorated, noting a cordial exchange between the two countries’ foreign ministers at a recent conference in Dublin.
Despite the assurances, however, all is not necessarily well in the alliance between the two regional powers.
"For several weeks now we have seen the Turkish attitude become cooler toward Israel, particularly because of the policies of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon]," said Sami Kohen, a veteran columnist with the Turkish daily newspaper, Milliyet.
"We were in a period of warm relations. Now it’s cooling off," he said, citing the assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March as a turning point.
Turkey currently is ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known by the acronym AKP, a socially conservative party led by veterans of Turkey’s political Islam movement. While Turkey says it maintains a "balanced" approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the country’s prime minister and AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been harshly critical of Israeli actions against the Palestinians.
Israeli officials complain that Erdogan and his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, have yet to visit Israel, while Sharon’s requests to visit Turkey have been rebuffed. Cengiz Candar, a Turkish political analyst, said he didn’t expect high-level visits of that sort anytime soon.
"The ruling party doesn’t have positive sentiments for Israel," Candar said. "They have taken the relationship as a fact of life, but they have no intention of nourishing the relationship."
During the AKP’s almost two years in power, Turkey has vigorously pursued efforts to join the European Union, passing a number of human rights reforms and liberalization laws.
At the same time, Ankara has been working to improve strained relations with its Arab neighbors and other countries in the Islamic world. For example, relations with Syria have warmed up significantly in the past year, after the two countries almost went to war in the late 1990s, because of Syrian support for the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which was waging a guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey.
Last January, Syrian President Bashar Assad went to Turkey for a three-day visit, the first by a Syrian head of state. Assad reportedly asked Turkey to act as a mediator with Israel, an offer that Sharon rejected, because of Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah and several Palestinian terrorist organizations.
Kohen and other Turkish analysts say Erdogan saw Sharon’s refusal as an indication of an unwillingness to cooperate on peace efforts. Israeli officials said they thought Syria merely was trying to evade U.S. pressure to end its support for terrorism and wasn’t serious about restarting peace talks that had been abandoned in 2000.
"I think at this point, when Turkey is opening up to the Arab world, to the Islamic world and also to Europe, where there is such a wide consensus criticizing the Sharon government, Turkey doesn’t want to seem like it alone is supporting him," Kohen said.
The relationship between Turkey and Israel began to warm up in the early 1990s, when the two countries signed military cooperation agreements. Though it is predominantly Muslim, Turkey at the time was isolated in the Middle East and faced ongoing conflicts with several of its neighbors and with the PKK.
At the time, the alliance with Israel — also isolated in the region — made sense politically and militarily. But with several of its conflicts now resolved and as relations with its neighbors improve, Turkey may no longer consider its relationship with Israel as important as before, Candar said.
"Circumstances are different now, 180 degrees different," he said. "It’s not all dependent now on the image of a Turkish-Israeli axis in the Middle East."
Israeli officials point out that the two countries have moved beyond purely military relations to forge strong trade and tourism links. Still, for Israel, the relationship with Turkey remains a significant strategic asset.
Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said Turkey and Israel still have shared regional interests, such as the threat of Islamic extremism and concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
That should keep any cooling of relations from leading to a complete break, he said.
"Turkey is still in the Middle East, and they still have to worry about some of the same things that Israel has to worry about, and it needs allies like Israel," Inbar said.
Scandal Erupts Over Secret Arafat Funds
Those inclined to look on the bright side might say that Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is alive and kicking: Israelis and Palestinians allegedly joined ranks to make big money, until one of them woke up with a bad conscience.
The joint venture in question began in February 1997, when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat transferred official Palestinian Authority funds from the Arab Bank in Ramallah to private accounts in Swiss banks. The money was Palestinian, mostly customs and levies on products imported into the Palestinian Authority via Israel.
But, the intermediaries allegedly were Israelis, who in return allegedly received generous commissions — millions of dollars — according to reports in the Israeli media.
The key person allegedly was Yossi Ginossar, a former senior Shin Bet security service officer, and his partner, Ezrad Lev. Ginossar and Lev allegedly succeeded in opening the doors of Switzerland’s Lombard Odier Bank to the Palestinian money. The cooperation allegedly continued until the summer of 2001, well into the intifada.
Like some other former senior officers, Ginossar had been involved in business transactions between Israeli and Palestinian companies ever since the early days of Palestinian Authority rule under the Oslo peace accords. The Palestinians dubbed him "Mr. Five Percent," a reference to the commissions he earned on business deals.
The hidden Swiss accounts eventually grew to more than $300 million. The Israeli partners allegedly managed the accounts, though they were not authorized to make withdrawals.
But then, in August 2001, something unexpected happened: Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s closest financial adviser, suddenly withdrew approximately $65 million from the account, which then couldn’t be traced.
Lev told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that he suspected the money was going to finance terrorist activities. He decided that enough was enough, that there was no real control over the money and that it was politically unacceptable that Ginossar — whose extensive business ties had led Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak to use him as an unofficial emissary to the Palestinian Authority — should also be involved in controversial financial transactions with the Palestinians.
Lev, 42, went to the Ma’ariv and disclosed the secret deals in which Ginossar allegedly was involved. He even charged that Ginossar had paid millions of dollars to Rashid to ensure his continued involvement in the accounts.
There was nothing new in the fact that the Palestinian Authority handles its money as though it was the private property of Arafat and his colleagues. At his own discretion, Arafat has allocated funds to various projects — including the financing of terrorist activities — as the Israel Defense Forces learned from documents seized at Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters last spring.
Rampant corruption has enriched the Palestinian political elite, but it also has alienated the leadership from the masses and helped opposition elements, including Hamas, gain in popularity.
What is new is the depth of Israeli involvement in the accounts and the ways in which it undermined international pressure on Arafat to implement fiscal reforms and full financial accountability.
Earlier this year, that pressure forced Arafat to appoint Mohammad Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist, as his new finance minister. Absent drastic measures to make his financial management more transparent, Arafat knew, the international community might cut off his money supply.
The exposure of the Swiss funds and their alleged connection to Israel hasn’t helped Arafat’s already battered political stock or that of the Israeli left, which negotiated and, in some cases, benefited from the Oslo peace accords.
Ginossar, 55, came to Israel as an immigrant from Vilnius, Lithuania, at the age of 11. After his military service, he joined the Shin Bet, eventually becoming head of counterespionage activities.
He was forced to quit in the mid-1980s after the "Bus 300" scandal, in which Shin Bet agents killed two Palestinians they had taken prisoner after the terrorists hijacked a bus, then tried to blame the killings on top army officers.
For a while, Ginossar failed in his business activities. But the signing of the Oslo accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority allowed him to develop good business connections with the Palestinians. He became so influential behind the scenes, that Rabin began sending Ginossar on confidential missions to Arafat, even when other negotiating channels appeared blocked.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought of doing the same, until he realized that Ginossar — deeply involved in the July 2000 Camp David summit talks between Barak and Arafat — was too left wing for Sharon’s political taste. Sharon eventually chose his son, Omri, as his personal envoy to Arafat.
While the ultimate use of the funds in Arafat’s bank account is still unclear, the Ginossar scandal sheds light on the dubious character of financial relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Over the years, Israeli authorities approved the transfer of official Palestinian Authority funds to private accounts, though they knew the money could have been used instead to help hundreds of thousands of Palestinians suffering in the Palestinian territories.
The Israelis believed that financial interactions with the Palestinian Authority — even if not strictly kosher — ultimately would strengthen ties and lead to a peace agreement.
"They believed that the strengthening of the dictator would bring about a strong peace," Natan Sharansky, Israel’s housing and construction minister, said. "The money which was designed to serve the Palestinian people went, with the knowledge of Israel’s governments, to the private bank accounts of Arafat."
Barak used Ginossar’s services at Camp David, even though Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein had warned him not to do so, fearing that Ginossar’s business ties to the Palestinians could create a possible conflict of interests.
Ginossar defended himself as the revelations about the Swiss account surfaced late last week, saying that Israel had taken advantage of his business contacts, not vice versa. "I served the state" in political missions "voluntarily, and I made significant contributions not only to the security of Israel’s citizens but also directly saving lives," he said.
The exposure of the affair, just as the election campaign is kicking off, was like a ripe fruit falling into Sharon’s hands.
"This is an invaluable gift for the election campaign of the Likud, worth more than 1,000 election slots," analyst Aluf Benn wrote in the Ha’aretz newspaper. Like Sharon, the other Likud prime minister to serve in the post-Oslo period, Benjamin Netanyahu, also refrained from using Ginossar’s services.
Both can point to the affair as a foul product of the Oslo accord. Lev, in his Ma’ariv interview, already supplied the ammunition: "I do not blame Yossi Ginossar," he said, "I blame the Israeli leadership, the premiers who operated him, although they knew that he had interests with the other side. The first who identified the problematics of Ginossar’s operation was the current premier and his son. They limited this operation and did not allow it to continue."
Shortly after the story was published in Ma’ariv, Sharon instructed the Mossad to check whether the Swiss accounts were used to finance terrorism. Naomi Blumenthal, deputy minister of infrastructure from Sharon’s Likud Party, demanded the establishment of a state inquiry commission that would examine not just the Ginossar affair but "all those who took part in the negotiations with the Palestinians."
Palestinian Authority officials dismissed the allegations as a smear campaign against Arafat. But Israeli pundits predicted that the scandal would further weaken Arafat’s status among the Palestinians.
Hussein Sheik, secretary-general of Arafat’s Fatah movement in the West Bank, demanded a commission of inquiry "to bring to trial the corrupt people who hide away public money."
Rashid claimed Israel has deliberately used the affair to demonize Arafat in the eyes of the Palestinian public and prevent a smooth process of reform in the Palestinian Authority.
Maybe something positive will come out of the current crisis in Israel after all. Perhaps the arrival of many groups from communities all over the world will help further the understanding between Israelis and Diaspora Jews and lead to greater cooperation.
If the 150 Angelenos who took part in the seventh solidarity mission organized by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) Dec. 8-12 have anything to do with it, that’s already happening. Led by Sharon Janks, a dynamic veteran of many Israel missions, and by John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the group did its best to visit many of L.A.’s Partnership 2000 projects and listened to a variety of perspectives on the situation, all with the idea that American Jews have the responsibility to carry Israel’s message to the American public and can leave their imprint on Israeli society .
It’s a message, the Angelenos say, that needs to cut both ways. At a briefing prior to setting off to L.A.’s twin city, Tel Aviv, Fishel pointed out that one goal of the visit would be to lend support to the projects emphasizing religious diversity and tolerance. He warned the L.A. visitors about the “great divide” within Israel and noted that “Judaism as it’s practiced in the U.S. has not been on the agenda in Israel.
“Israelis are missing a great deal if they’re not exposed to our culture,” Fishel added.
In Tel Aviv, the group was divided along denominational lines to visit schools involved in twinning relationships with their L.A. counterparts. The Conservative track visited one of Israel’s most prestigious high schools, the Gymnasia Herzliya. Most U.S. high schools are not as well-equipped as Gymnasia Herzliya, with its state-of-the-art library, science wing and beautifully landscaped grounds.
The group heard from well-dressed, articulate students involved in exchange programs with Calabasas High School, as well as members of the Young Entrepreneurs group who are running a fledgling business with Arab students from Jaffa.
L.A. mission participants asked about the experimental Tali Jewish Studies curriculum, which is funded by a three-year Federation grant. Liad, an affable 12th-grader, answered that he did take a Jewish studies class in 10th grade, but “most kids don’t keep a lot of traditions and don’t know a lot about it. I learned a lot about moral Judaism.”
David Zisenwine, a professor of education at Tel Aviv University who serves as national chair of Tali, said the Tali’s main purpose is to show that Orthodox Jews aren’t the only ones who can teach Jewish texts. “Creeping Orthodoxy is a problem in Israel,” he explained.
At a more informal discussion with Israeli students active in the L.A.-Tel Aviv Partnership who maintain regular contact over the Internet with Jewish high schoolers in California, the discussion turned political. A few of the L.A. visitors took issue with the profoundly secular views expressed by the students.
“I think it’s a very good idea to give up the Temple Mount,” said Ido, a handsome, brown-eyed 10th-grader.
“Not for one second should we give it up,” countered Yoav Peled, an L.A. visitor.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox group traveled to the Ironi Het high school near the Azrieli Center. Rabbis Yosef Kanefsky and Elazar Muskin, with the predominantly male Orthodox participants, listened to an explanation of the Yesodot program, which operates on seed money from Federation.
Yesodot was conceived in the wake of the Rabin assassination to advance education toward democracy in religious schools. The project provides in-service teacher training on the subjects of halacha and the rule of law, human rights and civil rights.
But by afternoon, the mission participants were getting tired. One mission leader expressed disappointment at the low-key response.
“There’s nothing that’s grabbed them yet,” she said, complaining that a visit the day before to the embattled Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo was a letdown. “I don’t know what I expected, but it didn’t do anything for me.”
The next stop provided the emotional punch she was looking for. All three L.A. buses visited projects in the Arab neighborhood of Ajami in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv.
At the Toulouse Day Care Center for the Elderly, some 40 middle-aged and elderly chador-clad Arab women sat waiting for the group in the pleasantly appointed meeting room. A few men lined the walls fingering their prayer beads as the Orthodox L.A. group walked in.
The center is attached to a large, attractive newly built three-story old-age home funded by the Tel Aviv municipality to serve the Arab residents of Ajami.
Fishel introduced the L.A. visitors, explaining that they were there to listen to their concerns. Instead of a lecture, Gabi Abd, a native of Jaffa who is now a neighborhood social worker and actor, dressed up as an elderly Arab and delivered an entertaining monologue describing the history of Jaffa’s Arab community.
“Jews and Arabs have the same father, just a different mother,” he notes. Abd described how some Arabs are waiting for the right of return to replace the Jews from Arab and European countries who moved into the area after the Arabs fled in 1948.
Ghnem Yakubi, a younger, English-speaking community activist, followed with a discussion. He explained Jaffa’s demographics. There are 54,000 people in Jaffa, of whom 34,000 are Jews. In the Ajami neighborhood, only 5 percent are Jewish. Sixty-six percent of the population is under the age of 29, so education and jobs are major concerns.
The women who had been sitting with sullen looks on their lined, dark faces started to mumble amongst themselves. Then one started angrily yelling and gesticulating. According to the translation we received, she was bitterly complaining about the lack of decent housing and the fact that Jews are spreading out into the area, buying up land. “Is this true democracy?” she asked.
Yakubi took the opportunity to explain that the Angelenos needed to understand that Jaffa’s violent outbreak last October was “100 percent tied to a civil rights movement.” It had nothing to do with nationalism, he claimed. “What happened in Jerusalem was just a trigger which centers around civic issues,” he asserted.
Several L.A. participants politely questioned his assumptions. The discussion heated up but remained respectful. As the group drove away on the bus, our guide Mark Reitkopp, a former American living on the secular kibbutz Elrom told us how difficult the meeting was for him.
“I really had to bite my tongue in there,” he said. Because of Arab violence and the complete cessation of tourism, he exclaimed, “I’m worse off economically now than they are!”
The evening ended on a lighter note as Tzeirei Tel Aviv, an energetic and professional teenage song and dance troupe, provided the group’s after-dinner entertainment. Jean Friedman, enthusiastic chair of the L.A.-Tel Aviv cultural exchange program, introduced the program and spent a few moments explaining the variety of cultural activities shared by the two cities. Politics intruded again as two members of the Theater Workshop of the Peres Center for Peace performed a couple of skits on Arab-Jewish coexistence.
Those who came on the mission from L.A. generally gave the tour top marks. Many had not visited Israel for a number of years and appreciated the opportunity for a whirlwind trip at a reasonable price. “I came because it was a convenient time to get away from business,” said Frank Ponder, who was last in Israel 16 years ago.
The standard visits to the Kotel and an air force base and the opportunity to listen to Israeli politicians from across the spectrum gave them something with which to inform their discussions about Israel back home.
The important tourism industry will benefit greatly from the visit, as will the growing cultural ties between L.A. and Tel Aviv. But for many in the group, the greatest impact has been the outward display of solidarity that the trip represents.
“Only after I came to Israel did I realize how important it is to be here,” wrote Metuka Benjamin, Stephen S. Wise Temple education director, on the mission Web site ( www. realitytoday.com/tour ). “Every group we met thanked us for coming here. I have never felt this before. My plans are to return to Los Angeles and work hard to encourage people and youngsters to come to Israel.”
The Cardinal Comes to the Board of Rabbis
In a historic address to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California last week, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, called for the elimination of centuries of Catholic and Christian anti-Semitic teaching and a new era of Catholic-Jewish understanding and cooperation.
Praising pioneering efforts of Los Angeles Catholics and Jews in ongoing dialogue between the two faiths, Mahony told about 70 rabbinical, church and Jewish community leaders at the Los Angeles Jewish Federation that “the prospects for Catholic-Jewish relations in the 21st century are more promising than at any other point in our shared history.”
In earlier periods, Mahony admitted, “the Christian conscience vis-à-vis the Jews had been lulled.” But the doctrine of “Nostra Aetate” — the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration on the church’s relations with non-Christian religions — articulated for Catholics a new understanding of Jews and Judaism, an understanding in which there is not the slightest hint of contempt, and not an iota of a ‘conversionist’ agenda,” he said. Even though this new Catholic understanding had yet to be fully implemented, the cardinal conceded, “I can assure you that we are well under way.”
In his half-hour of prepared remarks, Mahony suggested several goals for Catholic-Jewish relations in the next century. Among them: the elimination of all vestiges of anti-Judaism and anti-Jew — commonly known as “the teaching of contempt” — from Catholic preaching and teaching, as well as deeper Jewish understanding of Christianity; just as Christians are correcting ancient stereotypes about Judaism, Jews must overcome deep misunderstanding and ignorance of church life and practice, Mahony said. Since both the Catholic and Jewish communities have long histories of responding to the needs of impoverished immigrant groups, Mahony suggested the two groups join in helping Los Angeles’ vast numbers of inner-city poor. In the wake of the controversial Vatican Document — “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah,” issued last March — the two faiths should undertake joint studies as well as institutionalize Holocaust studies in elementary, secondary and college schools and religious education programs, Mahony said. “The goal,” Mahony declared, “is nothing less than the healing of memory in order to frame a common understanding upon which to base educational programming for future generations.”
Beginning with the Lenten season 1999 through 2000, Pope John Paul II is going to be “much more specific about asking for forgiveness,” Mahony said in response to a question on why the church hadn’t spoken out more forcefully against clerics who actively aided Hitler or stood idly by while Jews were deported.
Mahony also roundly condemned the murder of a New York doctor who performed legal abortions. “How anyone in their right mind could be ‘pro-life’ and shoot somebody is such a complete contradiction that it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
The cardinal’s address, at the invitation of Board of Rabbis President Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, marked the first time that a Los Angeles cardinal had spoken to the religious body, Goldmark said. “I think it says a lot about this one man that not only did he come to this Jewish group… but he was very open to being asked serious, if not difficult questions.”
Having someone of Mahony’s stature address the rabbinical body “is a gesture that can’t be overstated,” observed Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. “He was willing to come to us and spend generously of his time with us because it’s important to him, and it’s important to where the church is today.” The cardinal’s suggestion that Jews reciprocate Catholic efforts at tolerance and understanding by learning more about Catholicism is well founded, Artson added. “We have demanded of Catholicism that it reassess its position about Jews and Judaism, and [yet]… many Jews treat the Catholic Church as if it’s still the year 1492.”
In a written response to the cardinal’s speech, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom praised Mahony for being “one of the first individuals to lend his name and prestige to the organization of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous which helps support over 1,500 Christian rescuers who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi predators.” Since Jews and Catholics are “family,” Schulweis said, “we can expect in the coming millennium many irritants that come from families such as those we have experienced in the question of the crosses and churches of Auschwitz and the canonization of [Jewish-born nun who perished in Auschwitz] Edith Stein.” But, he cautioned, it is also important to hold onto hope and not to focus exclusively on the tragic and bitter past.