Israel union goes on strike, court limits scope

Israel’s main labor union declared a general strike on Monday, shutting down major sectors of the country’s economy, but a labor court intervened issuing an injunction that limited the strike to just four hours, officials said.

The Histadrut Labour Federation, the umbrella organization for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, was looking to strike for as long as it took until an agreement was reached with the government over the status of workers employed through employment agencies.

The union had threatened to shut down Israel’s airports, ports, banks and the stock market indefinitely, but the group’s leaders said they would abide by a court decision to limit the strike to Monday morning. It would end at 10 a.m. (0800 GMT), local media reported.

Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv was supposed to be closed from 8 a.m. the Histadrut had said, leaving just a two hour window for disruptions. Other shutdowns began at 6 a.m. and will end at 10 a.m, following the ruling.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday had called on the Histadrut to cancel the planned strike, which would also include trains, buses, universities, government ministries and municipalities.

Last ditch efforts have failed to find an agreement over the status of contract workers supplied by employment agencies.

The Histadrut wants the government to hire some 250,000 contract workers, who have inferior working conditions than those directly on government payrolls. The Finance Ministry has agreed their employment terms need to improve.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch

EU criticism of Israeli justice rankles

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has slammed the European Union’s foreign policy chief for criticizing an Israeli court’s conviction of a Palestinian protest leader.

Abdallah Abu Rahmeh, an organizer of the weekly Friday protests at Bil’in of the West Bank security fence, was convicted Tuesday in an Israeli military court of inciting protesters to attack Israeli soldiers and for holding protests without a permit. He will be sentenced next month. The 39-year-old schoolteacher has been jailed since December.

EU representatives attended every day of the trial, and the body’s foriegn policy chief, Catherine Ashton, released a statement Wednesday expressing concern at the conviction, saying, “The possible imprisonment of Mr. Abu Rahmeh is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest against the existence of the separation barriers in a non-violent manner.”

“The EU considers the route of the barrier where it is built on Palestinian land to be illegal,” it quoted her as saying in a statement.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Ashton “should respect the ruling of the Israeli justice system, and refrain from casting aspersions on a legal system that is lauded worldwide by its peers,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

“In Israel, where even those who openly support Hamas and Hezbollah enjoy freedom of speech, such accusations sound particularly hollow. Moreover, interfering with a transparent legal procedure of a democratic country is not just highly improper, but is hardly consistent with promoting European values,” Palmor said.

Shul’s Stormy Saga

With its prominent location at one of Hancock Park’s busiest intersections, at Third Street and Highland Avenue, Congregation Etz Chaim’s boxy, domed building constantly reminds area residents of a decade of ongoing tensions.

The current focus of the dispute is a lawsuit that has reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Neighbors sued in 2003, saying the congregation skirted due process and violated local zoning laws when it razed a 3,600-square-foot home and built an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary, a library and a mikvah (ritual bath) in the basement.

But the conflict has even deeper roots, to when the congregation still met at the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. Even then, neighbors contended that the daily and Shabbat services violated residential zoning laws. Then, in 1995, Congregation Etz Chaim moved from Rubin’s house, where it had been meeting for 30 years, since his father founded the congregation, to the house on Highland Avenue. In 1996, after the city, at the behest of the neighbors, tried to prevent the congregants from holding services on Highland Avenue, Etz Chaim sued the city in federal court for violating its religious freedom.

The zoning board, city council and federal court all ruled against Etz Chaim. But the shul got an 11th-hour reprieve by citing a federal law, enacted in 2000, that exempts religious institutions from local zoning. The city and Etz Chaim then entered into a settlement, permitting worshippers in the building. The pact also allowed for limited renovations that would retain the structure’s residential look.

In 2002, the congregation razed the 3,600-square-foot home. The city obtained a temporary stop-work order, saying the demolition and new construction violated the settlement, but courts later lifted that order. The congregation moved forward with the $1 million project, erecting its 8,200-square-foot structure, which its leaders say was designed to blend in with other homes – a claim some neighbors find laughable.

That brings matters to the current lawsuit, which is awaiting a trial date before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2003, the League of Residential Neighborhood Associations, composed of area residents, formed to sue Etz Chaim and the city. In the suit, residents assert that the settlement itself was illegal – that it went around city procedures designed to include neighbors in such decisions, since zoning laws should have forbidden the congregation from meeting in that location.

Meanwhile, the city also sued the congregation, saying the new construction violated the settlement agreement. That suit is also before the Ninth Circuit.

Etz Chaim, for its part, is arguing that the settlement is valid, that it did not violate the settlement and, that, in any case, federal law exempts it from zoning regulations.


Red Tape Ties Up Shoah Payments

Living in the Radom ghetto in central Poland, Saul Friedman applied for work in 1942, and for the next two years cleaned a building and labored in a peat bog for the German army.

He earned no money, but received something much more valuable extra food rations. When the ghetto was finally liquidated in 1944, he was sent to an Auschwitz satellite camp, then to Mauthausen, and after liberation came to the United States.

Friedman, 85, is one of thousands of other survivors in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, who are now entangled in a bureaucratic hassle over a recent German law meant to benefit a little known class of survivors.

The so-called ZRBG law, the German acronym for Payment of Pensions from Employment in a Ghetto, was established two years ago to give German Social Security benefits to those who worked voluntarily, or "at will," in the ghettos of Eastern Europe.

Although the law is well meant and the benefits are significant, in practice eligible applicants are facing long delays, a high rejection rate and a bureaucratic process defined as "highly erratic."

For instance, Mark Rothman, the Holocaust services advocate for the free Bet Tzedek Legal Services, reports that among 135 applicants in the Los Angeles area, 13 have waited for more than a year for an initial response, 47 have been waiting between six months to a year and all but five of the remainder have received rejections.

Similarly, an 80 percent rejection rate has been reported from New York and Florida.

Following protests by the Claims Conference (Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany), Bet Tzedek and a group of five U.S. Congressional representatives from Los Angeles, German authorities have launched an investigation to determine whether the ghetto pensions law is being interpreted too narrowly and restrictively.

"This law was meant to be generous, but if the investigation shows that there has been a hiccup in the implementation, we will take corrective measures," said Michael Wolff, the German consul for legal affairs in Los Angeles.

Wolff noted that there appeared to be some confusion by a number of applicants between compensation for forced or slave labor, which is handled under a different law and by a different ministry, and for voluntary "at will" ghetto labor, which is administered by the Social Security departments of the individual German states.

Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said he had encountered two basic difficulties with the ZRBG law: one in the way it is administered and the other in the way it was written.

An example of perplexing administrative decisions is the case of Westwood resident Saul Friedman. While his application was turned down, that of his wife Bella, who worked as a seamstress for the Germans in the same ghetto and at the same time as her husband, was approved.

She has received an $18,000 back payment and now gets a monthly $250 check from the German Social Security system.

An example of some of the law’s provisions criticized by Taylor, Rothman and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) is that only workers who were over 14 years old at the time are eligible for ghetto pensions.

Under that restriction, the application of Helen Korb was turned down. As an 8-year-old in the ghetto of Mir (now in Belarus), Korb worked alongside her mother doing cleaning and laundry at a German garrison.

"When I was in the ghetto, they wouldn’t let me be a child, and now they say I can’t get a pension because I was a child," Korb, a North Hollywood resident, said bitterly.

The ghetto pension law is the latest chapter in the history of Nazi era reparations, but it’s not the end of the book.

"We are always looking for more liberal interpretations of existing laws," Taylor said, "and we are now receiving the first allocations from Germany for home care for elderly survivors."

In another Holocaust-related development, three Los Angeles-area survivors suffered a legal setback in their suit against an international commission dealing with wartime insurance claims.

In their suit, the survivors accused the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) of, in effect, serving as a front for Italian insurance company Assicurazoni Generali to lower or deny claims by survivors or their heirs.

The suit was first filed almost a year ago in Los Angeles Superior Court under California’s unfair business practices statue. At ICHEIC’s request, the case was transferred to a federal court, because of claimed foreign policy aspects.

A federal judge sent the suit back to Superior Court, where Judge William Highberger ruled last week that the state had no jurisdiction in the case.

Attorney William Shernoff, representing survivors Dr. Jack Brauns, Manny Steinberg and Roman Rakover, complained that he was caught in a Catch-22 dilemma between federal and state courts and said he would take the case to the California Court of Appeals or state Supreme Court.

New York attorney Constantinos Panagopoulos, representing ICHEIC, applauded Highberger’s decision, saying that it validated his argument that because of international political implications, the case was a matter for the executive, rather than judicial, branch of the government.