Obama’s support lags previous Dems, poll finds

As he headed to Israel and the Palestinian Authority earlier this week, Sen. Barack Obama told reporters that as president, he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office. The presumptive Democratic candidate said, however, that both sides must work to make peace happen.

“There’s a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other, rather than look in the mirror.”

The Illinois senator is on a tour of Europe and the Middle East on what his advisers insist is a senatorial fact-finding tour. However, his campaign is also eager to build up his foreign policy credentials.

“The Israeli government is unsettled, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas, and so it’s difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace,” Obama said. “My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs.”

Obama was careful to point out that peace would not come about overnight and that a U.S. president could not “suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace.”

The good news for Obama is that U.S. Jews are still a pretty liberal group, especially when it comes to judging the Bush administration, according to a recent survey of Jewish attitudes on foreign policy. The poll found that 90 percent of American Jews believe the country is on the wrong track and 83 percent disapprove of Bush’s job performance.

Commissioned by the fledgling left-wing Middle East advocacy group, J Street, and conducted by Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications, the poll also found that nearly 80 percent said they disapproved of the president’s handling of the Iraq War.

But the surveys had bad news for Obama: If the U.S. presidential election were held today, American Jews would support the Illinois senator at a significantly lower level than they did his most recent Democratic predecessors.

The poll found that 58 percent of U.S. Jews said they would definitely vote for Obama, with another 4 percent saying they were leaning toward the presumptive Democratic nominee. In contrast, Al Gore and Bill Clinton both drew nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote in their respective runs for the presidency, while John Kerry garnered more than 75 percent in 2004.

Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they would vote for U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with 3 percent saying they were leaning toward the presumptive GOP nominee. That would top the 24 percent of the Jewish vote Bush drew in 2004.

Combined with similar results of polling done by Gallup, the J Street survey suggests that Obama has failed to increase his base of Jewish support since May, despite several significant outreach efforts.

In early June, Obama delivered a high-profile address to a crowd of more than 5,000 at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Since then, the Obama campaign has been organizing Jewish Community Leadership committees, often with the help of lawmakers who either had backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or decided to remain neutral during the primary.

Several observers predicted that if Obama’s Jewish numbers remain stagnant, it could have an impact on a few key swing states with relatively large Jewish populations.

“In places like Florida and Ohio, it could make a difference,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, during a conference call Monday with reporters.

Forman, however, was quick to note that a poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee in the late summer of 2004 had Kerry taking 69 percent of the Jewish vote — seven points lower than he ended up winning in November.

The general rule to keep in mind, Forman added, was that undecideds tend to break in equal proportion to the way the rest of the group voted — in the case of Jewish voters, the overwhelming majority will usually go Democratic.

But at least according to the J Street poll, very few voters are undecided, though about 6 percent said they are considering a candidate other than Obama or McCain.

The poll, based on interviews with 800 respondents, has a 3.5 percent margin of error.

“The Jewish community is responding to John McCain’s proven ability to reach across the aisle to try and solve America’s difficult problems in a bipartisan way,” said Suzanne Kurtz, press secretary of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “And most importantly, McCain has been a reliable friend and supporter of Israel and the Jewish community throughout his 25-year career in Congress.

“On the other hand,” Kurtz said, “the Jewish community is reluctant to gamble on Sen. Obama’s thin record and lack of experience.”

Kurtz also cited several lawmakers and policy experts who have been linked in varying degrees to Obama and criticized in some hawkish Jewish circles. She also mentioned Obama’s statement last year that he would be willing to meet with the president of Iran without preconditions.

Even while rejecting them as unjustified, Forman acknowledged that such lines of attack have probably had an impact on some Jewish voters. But he also noted that in the Gallup polling from May, Clinton registered 66 percent in a head-to-head matchup with McCain — only five points better than Obama and about 10 points worse than Kerry’s 2004 performance.

“My sense is that there are few Jewish Kerry voters, if any, who would not vote for Hillary because of Israel or foreign policy in general,” Forman said during an interview Tuesday. “There has to be another issue.”

Forman essentially echoed Kurtz in speculating that the “other issue” is McCain’s reputation as a maverick and a moderate.

“It is probably helping him among some Jewish voters,” he said.

In the J Street poll, McCain finished with a significantly higher favorable rating and lower unfavorable rating than Bush or the Republican Party.

McCain finished with a 34-point favorable rating, compared to 22 percent for Bush and 29.4 percent for the party. His unfavorable rating was 57 percent, compared to 74 percent for Bush and 63 percent for the GOP.

Forman said he expected some of McCain’s Jewish support to fall when more voters realize that he opposes abortion rights and is a hard-core conservative on other domestic issues.

Jim Gerstein, whose firm conducted the poll, described McCain’s favorable-unfavorable rating as a “terrible” number.

“It’s only positive when compared to an extraordinarily unpopular president,” he said.

Gerstein noted that respondents by far ranked the economy and then the Iraq War as the two issues that would play the most important role in deciding their vote.

While the poll dealt exclusively with foreign policy issues, he pointed to various indicators and data from other surveys that suggest Jewish voters overwhelmingly side with Obama on economic issues.

On the question of Iraq, the J Street poll found that 64 percent of American Jews line up with the Obama-sounding view that “we have done everything we can in Iraq and must start to bring home U.S. troops in a responsible way.” Only 28 percent said that “we must achieve stability and finish the job in Iraq before we begin withdrawing U.S. troops.”

The breakdown on the Iraq question actually lines up with the Obama-McCain figures. But Gertsein said the most plausible reading of the data is that 62 percent is Obama’s floor and 32 percent is McCain’s ceiling.

“As people get to know Obama better, his support is going to rise,” Gerstein said. “We see that all the time with base constituencies.”

Meditating spies

Ah, so much chaos, so little time.

In this parsha we deal with the message of the spies; insecurity leading to depression and fear; rebellion and anger by the people, Moses and God; and several severe punishments, including the major one of wandering in the desert for an additional 40 years and the minor one (in size and scope, but not in significance) of killing the Shabbat wood collector. We end with a collective breath, and more importantly, a call for awareness and attention to the inner workings of our soul, with the final paragraph instructing us about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our garments and tallitot (prayer shawls), which is said daily as the third paragraph of the Shema prayer.

Why is there so much disillusionment, fear and unsettling behavior in this parsha? And what can we learn from the chaos?

In practicing and teaching Jewish meditation — a central focus of my rabbinate work alongside my passion for social justice and peace — I have come to understand that an awareness of our inner spirit can greatly affect how we interpret events in the world around us, as well as how we perceive ourselves and how Judaism can help ground us in lives of meaning and fortitude. After 12 years of almost daily practice, I understand that each day brings new challenges and new barriers, along with old habits and lifelong obstacles, all of which are trying to thwart my progress.

As we say in the liturgy: Just as God renews each day, so, too, must we renew. And this is what I see happening in Shelach Lecha, albeit in reverse order.

The lack of confidence that the spies bring back — embodied in the famous line, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33) — is a classic case of not being fully aware and awake. The fear that the spies bring back, which may have been justified, overtakes them and causes the entire Israelite people to lose faith, lose hope and react with chaotic perplexity.

In meditation, one can begin to develop a sense of connection to God, one’s own heart and the notion that the more awareness we have in our life, the better decisions we are able to make. We don’t read of the spies taking any time to process their findings, meditate on their experience before sharing it; rather, they blow into the camp, rally the fears of the people and cause a scene that cannot be stopped, one that will climax next week with the rebellion of Korah.

I find it fascinating that this one line about the grasshoppers speaks volumes about the inner life of the spies. Their real mistake was not in sharing their fears, but rather in not being present in their sharing, such that they conveyed not only physical fears, but also their own unprocessed and undifferentiated emotional and spiritual fears.

Moses loses control of the people and almost loses control of the whole exodus enterprise. According to the Talmud, the spies, and thereby the entire people, actually think that not only can’t they overcome the inhabitants of the land, but that even God is outmatched.

In a challenging reading of the text, Sotah 35a says that Numbers 13:31, which reads, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we,” should be read, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than Him [God].” They translate the word memenu, as “than him,” rather than the traditional reading “than us.” So, in their fear, the spies not only reject the notion of conquering the land, they reject the whole premise that God is with them at all. Without a sense of presence and consciousness, God is lost to them.

And, it is this mentality that causes the overreaction to the man collecting wood on Shabbat. There is so much fear, so much confusion and lack of confidence that the people, including Moses, don’t know how to respond.

I don’t see this story as one telling us that we should kill all those who break rules on Shabbat — we would all be dead! Rather, it’s a parable of what happens when we don’t bring ourselves fully present to any situation in our lives, including religious practice. When we act out of fear, we don’t make good decisions.

It is for this reason that I see the final portion about the tzitzit fitting in. When we stop to contemplate the higher meaning and value in life, a connection to God and our souls, we find ourselves making more healthy decisions. Reading back the idea of tzitzit into the rest of the parsha, I see it as coming as a corrective to the series of fear-induced decisions that plague the people, leading to chaos, 40 years of wandering in the desert and killing someone for a small violation of a newfound religious practice. By taking time to breathe and notice the tzitzit, we find a way to operate more calmly, with greater confidence coupled with greater humility. This combination is a hallmark of Jewish meditation, one that is signified by the gathering of the tzitzit. Certainly, if our ancestors had practiced a bit more awareness meditation, imagine how differently things might have turned out.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

In lieu of perfection

Two Jews once came before the Talmudic sage Rav Yannai.

“The branches of his tree extend into the public domain,” one claimed. “They’re a public hazard,
interfering with the camel traffic. Master, you must surely rule that he is obligated to remove the tree.”

The tree owner fidgeted silently, hoping against legal hope that somehow the tree could be spared.

Rav Yannai sat silently in thought, and finally, cryptically ruled, “Go home today, and come back tomorrow.”

Puzzled but always respectful, the parties agreed to do so.

When they returned on the next afternoon, Rav Yannai issued a clear and definitive ruling.

“It is obvious that you are obliged to cut the tree,” he said to the tree owner with little doubt as to the accuracy of his ruling.

But the tree owner had one last appeal up his sleeve.

“But my master also owns a tree whose branches extend into the public domain,” he said.

Rav Yannai replied, “Go and see. If my tree is still there, you may keep yours. But if mine is cut down, then you must cut yours, too.”

Apparently, Rav Yannai had been busy with his saw overnight, anticipating the ruling he’d be issuing the next day. (For the record, the Talmud records that up to that point Rav Yannai hadn’t thought about the negative impact of his tree on public traffic, thinking instead that the pubic enjoyed the shade it provided.)

Right there, in the shadow of the ever-popular “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” another mitzvah quietly sits: “Thou shall surely rebuke thy friend.” And while this may seem rude or intrusive, the Torah regards the obligation of mutual rebuke as the engine of communal righteousness.

To be sure, the Torah immediately adds safeguards, prohibiting us from publicly humiliating our wrongdoing friend, and enjoining us from engaging in rebuke that we know will be futile. But carried out appropriately and with good common sense, rebuke is a vitally important activity. Both our sages and our own experiences have taught “a person cannot perceive his own flaws.” There is no way that any of us can achieve continuing moral and religious growth, unless we are willing to point out flaws to one another. (And unless we are willing to accept constructive criticism from others.)

But the story of Rav Yannai points to a nasty Catch-22 in the rebuke mitzvah system. The Talmud wonders why Rav Yannai was so particular about cutting his own tree before he issued his ruling. Couldn’t he have just as well done so immediately afterward? The Talmud then concludes that we learn from Rav Yannai that you must first “adorn yourself. And only then, tell others that they should do the same.”

It is not permissible, and it probably isn’t effective, to rebuke a friend for a flaw that we ourselves also possess. We need the system of mutual rebuke because we cannot perceive our own flaws. But if we cannot perceive our own flaws, then we run the constant risk of urging others to “adorn themselves” when we utterly lack the necessary credentials to so do.

The whole system therefore grinds to a halt. Rabbi Tarfon bemoaned this paralysis, commenting, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in our generation who can deliver rebuke. If one says, ‘Remove the splinter from between your eyes,’ the other will respond, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.'”

How then are we to go about fulfilling this vital mitzvah? How then are we to enable the ones we love to grow and achieve greater moral and spiritual refinement?

Fortunately, there is another way to go about it. The tradition recognizes a way in which one can deliver rebuke without necessarily having to meet the criterion of being completely personally “adorned.” Love can take the place of perfection.

As we read in the parsha a few weeks ago, God specifically chose Aaron to be the one who diagnosed the skin condition tzara’at, which was an external manifestation of the person’s ethical flaws (in particular that of habitually speaking ill of others). God knew that Aaron, although not without blemish himself, overflowed with love for each and every one of the people. Aaron was the one who reconciled friends and spouses, pursued peace and loved all. If Aaron were to say to you, “Dear friend, there is flaw in your character that you need to repair,” you would not question that he was right.

Rebuke that is a function of and which flows from love avoids the Catch-22 altogether. Rebuke is the catalyst for moral and religious growth, and true love is the necessary prerequisite for rebuke.

“Be among the disciples of Aaron,” the legendary sage Hillel taught. There is realistically no other way to fulfill the mitzvah upon which all of our individual growth and development hinges, and, in the end, the mitzvah upon which human progress hinges.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Pearls respond to murder ‘confession:’ We’ll continue to fight hatred

The Pearls recorded this video to mark the fifth anniversary of Danny’s death.
Click on the BIG ARROW to view.

Judea and Ruth Pearl were notified late Wednesday evening that the suspected mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, has confessed to personally killing their son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” Mohammed is quoted as saying, the Associated Press reported.

The Pearls spent the night talking about their son, who was abducted in Pakistan in January 2002, Ruth Pearl said in a brief phone conversation Thursday morning.

In a statement released to The Jewish Journal on Thursday, the Pearls said, “It is impossible to know at this point whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s boast about killing our son has any bearing in truth. We prefer to focus our energy on continuing Danny’s lifework through the programs of the Daniel Pearl Foundation which aim to eradicate the hatred that took his life.”

Judea Pearl is a retired UCLA professor of computer science and his wife is an electrical engineer.

Mohammed’s written confession was read to a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on March 10, and released by the Pentagon in a 26-page transcript on March 14.

Mohammed also claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 operation “from A to Z” and for 30 other attacks and plots in the United States and other countries.Among them was the 2002 bombing of a Kenya beach resort frequented by Israelis and the failed missile attack on an Israeli passenger jet after it took off from Mombasa in Kenya.

The hearing was closed to the press and outside observers, a procedure protested by AP, while Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch questioned whether the confession might have been extracted through torture.

Scandals and war fallout cast doubt on Olmert’s leadership

Following the sudden but not unexpected resignation of the Israeli army’s chief of staff, pundits are asking how much longer Ehud Olmert, the country’s beleaguered prime minister, can survive in office.

Under investigation for corruption and with his approval ratings at an all-time low, Olmert is facing increasing public pressure to quit.

Things could get even worse for him if the Winograd Commission, which is investigating last summer’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, is critical of his role when it presents preliminary findings at the end of the month.

But Olmert is a tough customer unlikely to resign of his own accord. And the way the Israeli system works, it could be difficult to force him out.

The fact that Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz chose to resign clearly marks last summer’s war in Lebanon as a failure. And the fact that he has already gone puts the Winograd spotlight on those up the line — Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Olmert himself.

The Winograd mandate includes asking the big questions: Why did the prime minister decide to go to war so hastily, just hours after the ostensible casus belli, the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon? Why didn’t Olmert pressure the army to launch a major ground strike much earlier in the campaign to stop rocket fire on Israeli civilians? And why didn’t the government do more to move civilians out of the line of fire?

According to Yoel Marcus, the doyen of Israeli political analysts, the perceived failure in the war, the corruption clouds and the absence of clear leadership on peacemaking with the Palestinians or the Syrians has spawned a dark public mood that the Olmert administration will not survive.

“In this grim atmosphere, the public is not going to sit back and allow the chief of staff to take all the blame for the second Lebanon War while the political leaders who initiated and planned it are let off the hook,” Marcus wrote in Ha’aretz. “Maybe there won’t be a Yom Kippur War-style earthquake. But Labor MK Avishai Braverman is right in predicting that the pair of duds known as Olmert and Peretz are living on borrowed time. Sooner or later they will be toppled from government by the Domino effect.”

Although nothing has been proven against Olmert, the accumulation of corruption scandals involving him or close members of his administration has eroded public confidence in the prime minister. Olmert is being investigated on suspicion of rigging a tender for the sale of Bank Leumi, Israel’s second largest bank, when he was finance minister in 2005-06.

Olmert says the changes he made were to maximize state profits from the sale. The prosecution has ordered the police to investigate whether the changes were meant to help his billionaire friends, American S. Daniel Abraham and Australian Frank Lowy — although in the end they did not make a bid.

Olmert also is suspected of giving preference at the Investment Center to clients of a former law partner and of making dozens of political appointments in the Small Business Center when he was minister of industry and trade in 2003-05.

He also has been tainted by suspicions of corruption by association: His close friend, Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, is suspected of involvement in a sick-fund scam, and his longtime secretary, Shula Zaken, is suspected of helping to appoint cronies to the National Tax Authority in return for tax reductions for pals.

Even if Olmert is innocent, critics say he won’t be able to govern because he’ll be too busy trying to clear his name.

Olmert also is under fire for a perceived lack of political leadership. He says he doesn’t have the political power to make major diplomatic moves, but critics say he doesn’t seem to have an agenda for peacemaking with the Palestinians or the Syrians, or any unilateral alternative either.

The resulting loss of public confidence in the prime minister is reflected in recent public opinion polls. A mid-January survey in Ha’aretz gave Olmert an approval rating nationwide of just 14 percent. A few days later the news for the prime minister was even worse: A poll aired on Israel’s Channel 10 TV claimed that 69 percent of Israelis actually wanted Olmert to resign.

Ironically, although Olmert is probably the most unpopular prime minister in Israeli history, he has one of the strongest coalitions based on the support of 78 of the 120 Knesset members.

So how could he be forced out of office? One way would be for a majority of 61 Knesset members to vote for early elections. But since many of them are unlikely to be re-elected, pundits reckon the chances of that happening any time soon are remote.

A more likely move is a vote of “constructive no-confidence” in which 61 Knesset members coalesce around an alternative candidate for prime minister, thereby installing a new national leader without holding new national elections.

Here pundits see two possibilities — a split in Olmert’s Kadima Party in which half the Kadima legislators return to their Likud origins or at least make a pact with Likud, bringing its leader Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

The second constructive no-confidence scenario involves Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a coup in Kadima in which she replaces Olmert as leader. Polls show Livni with a 51 percent approval rating to Olmert’s 14 percent, and see her as three times more likely than Olmert to win a new election.

Another scenario that could bring down Olmert would be Labor leaving the coalition, but that’s unlikely to happen before Labor elects a new leader in May. If Labor does pull out then, it would leave the Likud in a position to decide whether to join Olmert in Labor’s place or to force new elections.

Most pundits agree that the countdown on Olmert’s government has begun, but they differ on how long it will take before it falls. And despite his obvious weakness, most pundits think Olmert will be able to stumble on for some time yet.

But where Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, was able to ride out a rebellion in the Likud and a string of corruption scandals, most pundits believe that even if he gets by the Winograd Commission, Olmert does not have the political clout in the longer term to emulate his illustrious predecessor.

The Aftermath

“Are you sure we won’t scare him off?” my aunt asked when I called to formally ask whether my boyfriend could come to our crazy seder.

That question echoed through my head as I introduced him to the gaggle of cousins and family members who greeted us at the door. Most of them had read my previous column for this page, in which I deliberated whether bringing him would be a good idea. I could read their thoughts, “Wow, he actually came!” While I’m sure some others were thinking, “Brave soul.” I could see the question, “Who is he?” in the eyes of some of my younger cousins, but all I did was introduce and smile. Once the initial surge was over, we pushed our way into the living room, which had become a makeshift dining room for oodles of family members. I could sense the engineering talent that it took to transform the space, as all 42 of us — family members, friends and guests — took our seats.

I had prepped my boyfriend for what he was going to encounter. From a Hebrew 101 lesson the night before, to a quick 1-2-3 seder crash course in the car ride over. With my sister as my partner-in-crime, we introduced the flight to Japan (yeah, don’t ask), our Mr. Potato Head chant (really not sure where that one came from), our sandpaper-clapping-won’t-stop-until-everyone-does-it L’Shana Haba’a routine and a lesson about the correct pronunciation of “Dayenu.”

The night began and as we sat around with sparkly crowns on our heads, since we are supposed to feel like royalty (great addition by the way, Leora!), I kept stealing glances at my guy. He did have a slight deer-in-headlights look, especially after we had heard the “Mah Nishtana” in Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian, French, Yiddish and Klingon. OK, kidding about the last one, but it’s close enough. But the look quickly faded into a silly grin, especially once the frogs started flying.

Frogs here, frogs there, frogs were flying everywhere!

It was about that time that I realized I had forgotten to warn him about the other plagues. He was definitely surprised once the “hail” — pingpong balls — were launched. One whizzed by and landed in front of us. I looked over and was met with a smile, so with a playful glint in my eye I tossed my pingpong ball…errr… hail backward over my head and turned around just in time to see it land perfectly in my cousin’s cup. Of course I asked if in true pseudo-Purim carnival fashion I had won a goldfish for my marvelous abilities — I’m still waiting for the answer. He definitely took it in stride when handfuls of “lice” (slimy glow-in-the-dark insects) were tossed around and landed inside more than one person’s crown, and he grabbed at the chance to don a zebra mask in tribute to the disease of the livestock.

Dinner came into fruition around 11 p.m. (so early!) and we all ate, talked and enjoyed ourselves. The night was going famously, and I hoped it would last through the third and fourth cups of wine, when the kids start falling asleep, and the adults become even more boisterous — if that’s possible.

As the night continued we pounded the tables, spilled many cups of wine, and turned the floor into an indefinable mish-mash combining plastic frogs, pieces of matzah, pillows that had slipped off chairs and a young child or two who had crawled beneath the tables to snooze.

I know for a fact that my boyfriend thought we were nuts as we “ooh-ah-ahhed” our way through the second-to-last song. But he didn’t just stare at me with concern in his eyes, he didn’t look at me like I was an escapee of the Hagaddah House of Horrors, he joined in. Perhaps he was a bit shy at first, but as he looked around and saw that we were all doing it, that we were all participating in these crazy traditions, he gained an inner confidence and began to mimic our movements. He adopted our mishegoss for a night, our sounds effects for “Chad Gad Ya,” meowing, bamming and “watering” along with the rest of us.

Was he tired after his first marathon seder? You bet. Was he amazed that it was past 2 a.m. when we finished? I know I was. Was he wishing he didn’t have to wake up at 7 a.m. to go to work the next day? I have no doubt. But he did it all with an open mind and a smile on his face, which is all I could have ever wanted, or asked for.

And yes, he even called me the next day. Did we scare him off? Nope — or should I say, not yet? I wonder when I should start prepping him for cousins’ camp “beach days”…. Hmmm. I think I’ll give him some more time.

Caroline Cobrin is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She can be reached at Carolinecolumns@hotmail.com

Never Been Mugged

This piece was excerpted from the writer’s “Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada” (Other Press, 2005).

Over time I have learned to drive to a few locations in Jerusalem, but I am never sure when I start out if I indeed will reach my destination without getting lost, circling, poring over maps and asking person after person for directions. I have succeeded in mastering the twists and turns of Tel-Aviv, but driving into the hodgepodge of Jerusalem is as daunting as facing the illogic of Boston’s one-way streets after the comforting geometric symmetry of Manhattan.

In the door pocket of my car I have one road atlas of Israel, one map of the streets of Tel Aviv, one map of the Galilee and, at last count, no fewer than five of Jerusalem. I am always apprehensive of taking the wrong road, and winding up where I might be perceived as an unwelcome intruder.

One day my apprehensions were borne out in a way I couldn’t have predicted. All my life I have seen myself as a civil libertarian, a liberal, a peacenik. In sum, a Democrat. But my behavior proved me no better than the most hypocritical old salon communist.

I had driven to the capital to attend an evening meeting, but was delayed in traffic. Night had fallen and I was late. A double outsider, I was frightened of crossing the invisible borders of the “unified” city into intifada territory where, with my poor mastery of direction, I felt I might be an easy target.

I suddenly recalled advice given to me by a fellow American also based in Tel-Aviv: When in doubt in Jerusalem, leave your car in the guest parking lot at the old Hilton Hotel at its periphery and hop into a cab.

With relief, that’s what I did. Opening the back door I slid into the first cab of the taxis lined up waiting to collect passengers at the hotel entrance. I was just sitting back in the seat, starting to relax, when — through his accent — the driver revealed his nationality.

“Blease,” he repeated my destination back to me, “Hillel Street.”

In the mouth of a native Arabic speaker the English “P” turns into a “B”.

I froze, managed to mumble, “I forgot something,” then fled the cab.

Half panicking, I accosted the astounded hotel doorman and pleaded with him, “Get me another taxi.” I groped for words. “I want a driver with, with–” I searched for a euphemism.

Finally I blurted it straight out: “Find me an Israeli driver.”

Even as I stammered the words, I felt waves of shame rising. I was ushered into the next cab in line, obligingly driven by a Jew.

I kept my eyes focused on the ground, but I felt the dark stare of the Arab upon me as he stood idle beside his idling motor. Humiliation aside, he must have hated me for his lost fare. But however he judged me, it could be no harsher than my own verdict on myself.

My years of so-called convictions hadn’t proved strong enough to hold up a feather when it came to reality. I was too chicken to take a 10-minute drive in a registered taxi through western Jerusalem with an Arab driver at 8 p.m. And I was only going from the Hilton to Hillel Street — not from Jenin to Ramallah.

They say a liberal is a bigot who hasn’t yet been mugged, but my anxiety anticipated the unthrown stone. Unassisted, I put the dagger in the driver’s hand. By my blatant action and blunt words in those brief seconds, I did more damage to the cause of co-existence than I could ever counterbalance by a lifetime of dues to the Association for Civil Rights.

It’s no justification protesting that it was the prudent thing to do, an excusable overreaction, that “you never know,” or that I have a responsibility to my family as well as my ideals. For when I heard that driver speak and saw his dark eyes in the rear-view mirror, I was light years away from any convictions. When push came to shove, I was handed the opportunity to show where I stood, and I did. I failed the taxi test.

And I am doubly damned. For I know that, presented with the same test, I might again refuse the ride, again feel relief as I got out.

I can no longer whitewash my true colors. I, too, am a casualty of the occupation and the intifada it caused — and for that I ask the driver’s pardon. I used to just be waiting for peace. Since that abortive ride, I am also waiting for my conscience to give me peace.


Rabbi Retracts Claim Against Hahn


A Los Angeles rabbi has retracted his charge that Mayor James Hahn’s reelection campaign was “dishonost and manipulative” in claiming endorsements from Jewish community leaders. Rabbi Steven Weil says he now believes that Hahn volunteers within the Jewish community were to blame, and that Hahn’s professional staff had nothing to do with it.

In recent weeks, eight prominent Jews have come forward alleging that their signatures were forged on Hahn endorsement forms, including Weil, who angrily denounced the Hahn campaign at a March press conference. But Weil now insists that the campaign staff was not responsible.

“After having researched this and having seen the [endorsement] forms, in my mind it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the mayor’s campaign did absolutely nothing wrong and is beyond reproach,” Weil said on Wednesday.

Weil’s change of heart is the latest dramatic turn in one of the most bizarre stories associated with this year’s city elections. Weil was among the most outspoken of the Jewish community leaders who inspected endorsement forms kept on file by the Hahn campaign and who then asserted that their signatures had been forged. Weil stood center stage during the March press conference. The bad endorsements had appeared in Hahn-for-mayor advertisements; the ad ran twice in The Jewish Journal prior to the March 8 primary.

In the primary, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa placed first and Hahn finished second, just ahead of challenger Bob Hertzberg. Villaraigosa and Hahn will meet in the May 17 runoff. Hertzberg, who is Jewish, was the candidate favored by most of the Jewish endorsers who said their names were misused. The matter did not surface publicly until a March 18 article in The Journal.

The Journal, in this week’s print edition, updated the story by noting that the number of alleged forgeries had increased from

Why Not Lieberman?

What a difference two and a half years make. When Democratic
presidential candidate Al Gore selected Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman as his
running mate in 2000, there was a surge of Jewish pride and
support. Now that Lieberman has announced his own candidacy in the 2004
presidential race, there’s a surge of Jewish doubt and ambivalence. Why?

The objections to the Lieberman candidacy reveal a nice mix
of Jewish fears and neuroses. However, they don’t withstand serious scrutiny.

A Jewish president would provoke anti-Semitism. Actually, one
of the most heartening aspects of the 2000 election was precisely that having a
Jew on a major party ticket for the first time was a big yawn among non-Jews.
We braced ourselves for the backlash — and nothing.

Lieberman’s seeking the presidency itself shouldn’t change
matters. Besides, the risk is exaggerated: If Lieberman weren’t president, then
the anti-Semites wouldn’t accuse the Jews of controlling the government? Since
anti-Semitism is irrational, there’s no use trying to placate it.

A related claim is that if a Lieberman presidency messes up
any time, any place, “the Jews” will be blamed. I suppose that’s possible; but,
carried to its logical conclusion, it’s an argument against Jewish excellence
and leadership generally. Ultimately, it’s wrong for Jews to let our enemies
determine how high we can climb and how far we can go in America.

Because Lieberman is Jewish, he would (a) favor Israel; (b)
bend over backward not to favor Israel. Take your pick — each scenario has its
fans, and they make equal sense. The fact that one is as likely as the other is
the clue that neither is likely at all.

Lieberman has a public record of saying what he thinks and
pursuing policies that he believes in. He has strongly supported Israel in its
quest for peace and security. For a decade, he has urged the overthrow of
Saddam Hussein. He has also recognized that the Palestinians have interests,
and refused to demonize Islam. You might or might not find this moderate
approach appealing, but there’s little reason to fear that Lieberman will
change his tune in the Oval Office.Â

Lieberman is too religious. This is another way of saying
that he’s too Jewish. It’s a bit of a puzzle, this Jewish discomfort with PDJ
(Public Displays of Judaism). Jews who value the separation of church (or shul)
and state more than the Torah squirm when Lieberman speaks of his faith. But
the left has not always been so nervous around religion — think of Martin
Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson.

Lieberman is too conservative. This is the odd converse of
the previous complaint, and means that he isn’t Jewish enough, for those who
equate being Jewish with left-wing politics.

Now, look. If you voted in 2000 for Ralph Nader (and thanks
a lot), I understand that you are not likely to be too crazy about Lieberman.
But Voltaire’s aphorism remains apt: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Yearning for ideological liberal purity is a big part of the reason George W.
Bush is president today. Most of the electorate is politically in the middle. Lieberman’s
centrist posture, particularly on national security, is exactly why he’s been
voted the Democrat Most Likely to Give Bush Nightmares.Â

Privately, even Jews who like Lieberman whisper to each
other, “But he can’t win.”

Why? Granted, he probably can’t get the Muslim extremist
vote, the neo-Nazi vote or the anti-Zionist, left-wing lunatic vote. But on the
whole, gentiles are ready for America’s first Jewish president. It would be a
shame if American Jews, for truly flimsy reasons, were not. Â

Paul Kujawsky is the president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. The opinions expressed are his, and do not represent those of the organization.