President Donald Trump. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

‘He’s not all bad’: A Democrat defends Trump


Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, I’ve been trying to decipher the indecipherable psyche of The Trump Voter.

I want to understand how a person of conscience could have voted for him and how such a person would defend the actions of his office. 

So I did a little research project by calling my Uncle Rich, a 76-year-old cardiologist and Trump supporter. As far as I know, he’s sane, rational and verifiably humane since he’s spent the last 47 years saving people’s lives.

Uncle Rich and I have been arguing about politics since I was 15. Last week, he emailed me an article about Trump doubling down against anti-Israel bias at the United Nations under the subject line: “He’s not all bad.” I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath and invited him to argue with me a little more — if not for the sake of heaven, then at least for the sake of my column.

First, I asked why on earth he’s a Republican.

“I am a registered Democrat and have been since I was 21,” he declared.

“I have voted both ways. I’m a great believer that America comes first and the parties come second. So, I’m open-minded to any candidate — Republican, Democrat, Black, white, Jewish, woman, etc.”

I asked him to describe his paramount political values, but he said they change with each election cycle. In 2016, his top concerns were: terrorism, the economy and health care.

“In the beginning, I was a little bit ambivalent about [Trump],” he admitted. “But as time went on, I began to see that he was serious. And he was willing to step out of an unbelievably successful business and into a job that I don’t know if I envy. I began to say, ‘Wow.’

“I felt this was a man who really recognized the problem of terrorism. I liked that he was vigorous and emphatic on the necessity of vetting people, particularly from certain areas. You know, profiling is a term I think gets a bum rap.”

This is only one area where Uncle Rich and I part ways. To me, profiling is a form of legalized discrimination that contributes in no small part to the mass incarceration of people of color and the poor.

“I profile in medicine,” he said. “If I see a person of a certain background, I’ll order certain tests based on their background. To say there aren’t certain groups of people who are more likely to be terrorists, that’s foolish. We need to be exquisitely careful in order to avoid a situation of tremendous, tremendous terror …

“As far as [economics], the man is a financial success.”

Never mind his bankruptcies? Or his record of failing to pay employees what he owed them?

“I’m a businessman myself. When I started in medicine, we were told not to be businessmen. We were told, ‘You’re a doctor, and you’ll work for oranges and grapefruits,’ which I would have. We were discouraged from negotiating with a hospital, for example. ‘Just take the job.’ [Trump] is a negotiator, and I became a negotiator.”

If Trump was such a negotiating wizard, I asked, what about his signature failure to “repeal and replace” Obamacare?

“Health care is an extremely complicated issue. At the end of the day, I think Republicans and Democrats want the same things: quality care, access and preventative medicine. Obamacare had great ideas — who could argue with what I just said? The problem is cost. This is a business problem.”

I argue it’s also a moral problem. Part of the reason the legislation failed is because its underlining interests were providing tax cuts for the wealthy and eliminating vital health care services for the nation’s most vulnerable: the old and the poor.

“I don’t think Mr. Trump wants a program where someone who is 64 can afford health care and someone who is 65 can’t. What makes America great is that we have the ability to create a system with some equality. Certainly, you’re going to have concierge medicine the way you can have a Mercedes or you can have a Chevy — but a Chevy is a good car!”

Then why don’t more rich people drive Chevys?

Still, I countered, the Great Negotiator failed to unify his party and pass his first major piece of legislation.

“You want to feel good about the fact that you were right? Come on! He’s been in office for three months. If you tell me three years from now that he’s failed in all his legislation, I’ll say, ‘You know, you’re right, I made a mistake.’ But not three months in.”

Well, what about Trump’s Russia ties? Should he get a pass on that, too?

“I’m not bothered yet because I come from a school of medicine where you have to deal with results. If we find out that Trump did things undercover with the Russians, then I’m gonna be upset about it. But I’m not gonna get caught up in the rumor mill. This stuff is still unsettled.”

It’s clear that where I see moral and legal transgression, my uncle sees a man who hasn’t yet hit his stride. Surely, though, he wouldn’t defend the terrible things Trump has said maligning women, immigrants and Muslims.

“He’s sometimes quick to speak,” Uncle Rich allowed. “He’s a hand-to-mouth guy, and sometimes what he says doesn’t go completely to his brain.

“What I was thinking when that was going on was: If we lived in a dictatorship, I would have been much more worried about Donald Trump than I am in the system we are in, which is a checks-and-balances system. Because a man who sometimes speaks like that may try to act like that.” 

Finally, Uncle Rich, we agree.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Wall Street in 2016: What could possibly go wrong?


By all rights, 2016 should be a good year for the U.S. stock market.

The Federal Reserve's recent rate hike signals confidence in the economy and presidential election years typically reward investors. Most experts are predicting a seventh year for the current bull market, with strategists in a recent poll expecting the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index to end 2016 at about 2,207, roughly 8 percent higher than it is now. 

But a lot could go wrong. The same strategists have cataloged a long list of worries – everything from a destabilizing U.S. election to a meltdown far away – that could hit stocks hard.

Here is their laundry list of concerns. For those who'd rather stay optimistic, remember the old chestnut: Wall Street climbs a wall of worry. 

COMPANIES MIGHT STOP EARNING PROFITS

Most of the 30 strategists polled by Reuters cited weak earnings as their prominent concern. With S&P earnings growth projected to be flat in 2015, stocks already are pricey. The market is trading at roughly 19.3 times trailing earnings, well above its 15 average. Any stumble in earnings would make stocks even pricier.

Thomson Reuters analysts now expect revenue to grow 3.9 percent in 2016, meaning any increases in costs could keep earnings flat for a second year in a row.

“If labor costs start moving up a bit and interest expense is moving up … it's going to be hard to keep margins up,” said Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Nuveen Asset Management in Princeton, New Jersey.

STRONG DOLLAR COULD KEEP INFLICTING PAIN

The dollar, up 8.4 percent against a basket of currencies in 2015, is expected to see further gains next year as the United States hikes rates while other countries continue easy money policies.

That could further pressure sales of U.S. companies with heavy international exposure because it makes U.S. goods more expensive overseas.

“If we have a similar movement to last year, then we're going to have roughly a $28-billion hit to corporate America,” said Wolfgang Koester, chief executive of currency risk consulting firm FireApps. He said he expects the dollar to shave 3 to 4 cents from first-quarter earnings of U.S. companies with foreign exposure. 

THE PUBLIC COULD ELECT A FRINGE CANDIDATE

Stocks historically do well in a presidential election year, with the S&P gaining in 13 of the 16 presidential election years since 1950, regardless of which party won, according to the Stock Trader's Almanac.

But strategists wonder if 2016 might be one of the exceptions to the trend, with outliers like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders running this year.

“The more extreme the candidate, the less well-received the candidate typically is by the stock market,” said Kristina Hooper, U.S. investment strategist at Allianz Global Investors. She said she expected election activity throughout the year to contribute to market volatility. 

THE FED COULD GET AGGRESSIVE

The stock market rallied on Dec. 16 when the U.S. Federal Reserve announced its first rate hike along with strong hints that it would move slowly on future increases.

But if the central bank continues to raise rates without seeing higher inflation or an earnings pick-up, that could dent stocks. “Rate hikes should be a consistent worry,” said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Group in Bedford Hills, New York. 

As rates rise, stocks could become less attractive compared with other asset classes like bonds.

COMMODITIES COULD FALL

The continuing decline in oil prices, which has hurt energy companies and the banks and investors that lend to them, has some investors spooked.

“The commodity picture could get out of control to the downside,” said John Manley, chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management. 

U.S. crude is now about $37 a barrel, down more than 65 percent since June 2014. Should the prices of oil and other commodities fail to firm, the risk is of spreading deflation, as declining earnings in those sectors spread to financial firms, suppliers and more, said Manley.

THE CONSUMER COULD BAIL 

Even with gasoline under $2 a gallon, consumers have resisted spending sprees and higher interest rates may entice them to tilt even more towards saving. 

The price-to-sales ratio of the S&P has already topped previous peaks, says Jeff Weniger, senior portfolio strategist at BMO Private Bank in Chicago. Without sales, the whole growing economy-growing-earnings-improving-stock-prices structure could go south.

CHINA LANDS HARD; OTHER COUNTRIES DON'T DO MUCH BETTER

“China is the 800-pound gorilla,” said Allianz's Hooper. 

In August, Chinese stocks fell and the U.S. market swooned in response. With the outlook for the world's second-largest economy still weak, investors worry that it could hurt demand for commodities, currency balances and more. Furthermore, weakness in China could ripple across the globe, hitting emerging markets and the United States as well. 

SOMETHING BIG AND TERRIBLE COULD HAPPEN

At least nine of the strategists polled listed terrorism or Middle East instability among their biggest concerns for the stock market in 2016.

“The obvious risk is some sort of geopolitical event that freezes up travel and trade. It could happen,” said Steve Auth, chief investment officer for equities at Federated Investors. Consumers, too, could be kept at home by any public events perceived as terrorist in nature.

While free-falling oil has proven bad for stocks, the reverse would not necessarily help. A systemic crisis in the Middle East could easily spike oil prices, raising costs for consumers and businesses.

Not dark enough? Manley of Wells Fargo says he worries about “the risk that the vital spirit has gone out of the world's economy.” 

He said, “The deepest darkest fear I have is that we didn't really fix it six years ago, we just delayed it for a while. And rather than being sunk by a gash we are being sunk by a slow leak. It's not what I think, but it is what I worry about.”

U.S. job growth stumbles, raising doubts on economy


U.S. employers slammed the brakes on hiring over the last two months, raising new doubts the economy is strong enough for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates by the end of this year.

Payrolls outside of farming rose by 142,000 last month and August figures were revised sharply lower to show only 136,000 jobs added that month, the Labor Department said on Friday.

That marked the smallest two-month gain in employment in over a year and could fuel fears that the China-led global economic slowdown is sapping America's strength.

“You can't throw lipstick on this pig of a report,” said Brian Jacobsen, a portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

The weak job growth took Wall Street by surprise and U.S. stocks sold off while the dollar also weakened and yields for government bonds fell.

Bets on interest rate futures showed investors only saw a 30 percent chance of a Fed rate hike in December, down from just under 50 percent before the job report's release.

“(With) a weak report here, in combination with some of the other weakness that we are seeing across the globe, the odds get dinged for December,” said Tom Porcelli, an economist at RBC Capital Markets.

Investors saw virtually no chance the Fed would end its near-zero interest rate policy at its only other scheduled meeting this year, to be held later in October. Futures prices indicated investors were betting the Fed would probably hike in March.

U.S. factories are feeling the global chill and shed 9,000 jobs in September after losing 18,000 in August, according to the Labor Department's survey of employers.

“We saw events in China lead to some global financial turmoil and you're seeing that in the data here,” White House chief economist Jason Furman told Reuters.

New orders received by U.S. factories fell 1.7 percent in August, the Commerce Department said in a separate report. .

Paul Ryan, a top Republican lawmaker in the House of Representatives, said the weak turn in the economy should be a wake-up call for Washington to reform the national economy with new tax laws, free trade agreements and policies to get people off welfare.

“This recovery continues to disappoint, but we can't accept it as the new normal,” Ryan said.

The recent pace of job growth should have been enough to push the unemployment rate lower because only around 100,000 new jobs are needed a month to keep up with population growth.

But the jobless rate held steady at 5.1 percent. The unemployment rate is derived from a separate survey of households that showed 350,000 workers dropping out of the labor force last month, as well as a lower level of employment.

The share of the population in the work force, which includes people who have jobs or are looking for one, fell to 62.4 percent, the lowest level since 1977.

Average hourly wages fell by a cent to $25.09 during the month and were up only 2.2 percent from the same month in 2014, holding around the same levels seen all year and pointing to marginal inflationary pressures.

The report did have a few bright spots that might be welcomed by Fed chief Janet Yellen, who said last week the economy was doing well enough to warrant higher rates this year.

The number of workers with part-time jobs but who want more hours fell by 447,000 in September to 6.0 million.

Yellen has signaled that the elevated number of these workers points to hidden slack in the labor market that isn't captured by the jobless rate. A measure of joblessness that includes these workers and is closely followed by the Fed fell to 10 percent, its lowest level since May 2008.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected job growth of 203,000 in September.

All told, revised estimates meant 59,000 fewer jobs were created in July and August than previously believed.

In another grim sign, the number of hours worked in the country fell 0.2 percent, raising the specter that some broader softness might have gripped the economy last month.

Some of the strongest headwinds on the U.S. economy come from the commodity sector, which has slowed in part because of weaker demand from China.

The price of oil has fallen nearly 50 percent over the last year, and U.S. mining payrolls, which include energy sector jobs, fell by 10,000 in September, the ninth straight month of declines.

Why Israelis will vote on the economy, not security


Last summer, Israel endured its longest war in decades and saw missiles fall across the country. A string of terror attacks followed in Jerusalem. A year ago, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed again. Meanwhile, there’s increased unrest on Israel’s northeast border, and world powers are negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

So in next week’s election, national security is the top issue, right? Wrong. A poll last week showed that, when they vote on Tuesday, most Israelis will think first about Israel’s high cost of living. Security comes in second.

It’s not that war and peace aren’t important to Israelis. They just don’t think the elections will make much difference. A February poll by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that Israelis don’t hold their government responsible for the impasse with the Palestinians or the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.

According to the poll, more than two-thirds of Israelis think Israel depends on the United States regarding defense, foreign policy and economics. But only about a quarter of Israelis hold the Netanyahu government primarily responsible for the deterioration in relations with the White House, and only 43 percent said the U.S. administration would be friendlier to a center-left government.

When it comes to the Palestinians, Israelis say there’s little any government — left or right — can do. Fifty-eight percent moderately or strongly agreed that “the peace process with the Palestinians will not advance, because there is no solution to the disputes between the sides.” A similar number said that if the center-left forms a coalition, the Palestinian Authority still won’t show more flexibility in negotiations.

The leading parties have been less than clear about how they’ll approach the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud has doubled down on its opposition to a Palestinian state but hasn’t presented an alternative plan. Netanyahu’s opponent, Isaac Herzog, supports two states and a partial settlement-building freeze, but about the peace process says only that he’ll try hard to negotiate with the P.A.

On economics, many of Israel’s political parties have been somewhat more specific. Several have presented plans for dealing with Israel’s housing crisis and the high cost of living.

And economic issues are more present for Israelis. While wars may happen every couple years, Israelis pay bills every month. An ad for the economics-focused Kulanu party drives this point home, asking voters, “How many times have you gotten a call from the White House? How many times have you gotten a call from the bank?”

As Israeli election nears, peace earns barely a mention


In a rare TV debate ahead of Israel's tightly contested election on March 17, eight party leaders from across the political spectrum held forth for 90 minutes in a noisy, argumentative discussion of Israeli policy.

While social issues and the economy were grappled over at length, the conflict with the Palestinians and efforts to forge a two-state solution to the crisis — the issue which much of the world has looked to the region to resolve for the better part of 30 years — drew little new comment or insight.

The word “peace” was mentioned five times, three of those by the only Arab candidate taking part, while Naftali Bennett, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, declared he would never let the Palestinians have their own state.

In part, the focus was understandable — Israeli voters are most concerned about house prices and the cost of living. But it underlines how dim prospects now are for any progress in resolving perhaps the world's most intractable conflict.

“The Palestinian issue, as much as it is crucial, is not perceived as existential, which is the case with Iran,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University and a specialist on the Middle East.

“And it is not perceived as manageable over the next three years, which something like the economy is.”

Instead, the election has become a two-horse, two-issue race, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking a fourth term, emphasizing the threat from Iran and regional Islamist groups, and the center-left opposition criticizing his perceived failures on social and economic policy.

The latest polls published on Tuesday put the center-left ahead, predicting it will win 24 or 25 seats in the 120-member Knesset, against 21 for Netanyahu's Likud party.

Other polls show a tighter race, with each of the main parties expected to win 23 or 24 seats. As has always been the case in Israel's 67-year history, no party will secure a majority, making coalition negotiations critical.

Given his experience of cobbling together partnerships and the fact that there are more parties on the right around which to build an alliance, Netanyahu could still return as prime minister, even if his party does not win the election.

The center-left Zionist Union would need to bring one or two ultra-Orthodox parties, the centrist Yesh Atid movement and Kulanu, a breakaway party from Likud, into its camp to be able to form a working coalition, a possibility but a slim one.

NO TIME FOR PEACE

If Netanyahu returns, the chances for a resumption of peace talks, which last broke down in April 2014, are low, not just because analysts believe Netanyahu does not want them, but because the Palestinians, beset by internal divisions, are not seen as willing partners either.

What's more, the most powerful figure alongside Netanyahu in any new right-wing government is likely to be Bennett, the 42-year-old Jewish Home leader, who advocates the annexation of most of the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians want for an independent state, along with East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Bennett's party is expected to capture 13 seats and he himself is lined up to be defense minister if Netanyahu wins again, a position with direct oversight of Palestinian issues.

Another complicating factor is settlements. Despite U.S. and European opposition, Netanyahu has continued to expand the building of Jewish homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and that policy is unlikely to change.

Both Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, the outgoing foreign minister and head of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, are ardent supporters of settlement expansion and would press that line hard in any future Netanyahu government.

When it comes to the center-left getting into power, the chances of a resumption of peace talks may be better — especially with the White House adding pressure in the last 18 months of Barack Obama's presidency — but the first priority would be to deliver on their economic and social promises.

And on settlements, the center-left is adopting a line not far distant from Likud's, saying it would continue building in existing settlement blocs, a policy in defiance of the United States and Europe, not to mention the Palestinians.

Gilead Sher, a former Israeli peace negotiator, believes a regional approach is needed, with the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations bringing Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states into efforts to conjure a solution.

Even then, he favors small, interim steps rather than a “big-bang” approach to two states, Israel and Palestine, side by side, which he acknowledges is a tall order at this stage.

As a result, and barring a dramatic turn of events, the coming years are unlikely to bring any progress in resolving the conflict. Instead, unilateralism will be the watchword: Israelfocused on its domestic and regional concerns, the Palestinians seeking to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court.

Economic issues whip up Israelis in chocolate pudding election


Israel's high cost of living is set to dominate a March 17 election that could shake up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, with voter anger symbolized by an overpriced dessert.

In a country where the influence of small parties makes elections notoriously hard to forecast, many experts still expect rightwing leader Netanyahu to keep power. But the focus on domestic policy and economics, rather than on security and Palestinian peacemaking, means the outcome is even more difficult to predict than usual.

Some Israelis are speaking of an election that could sweep away the familiar political order, in which left and right have jockeyed for power by appeasing interest groups while doing little to reform an economy dominated by big conglomerates.

“I now believe we have a chance to exile our failed leaders. We have a moment to change the direction Israel goes,” said Naor Narkis, a 25-year-old former intelligence officer who became an unlikely overnight national celebrity when he posted a photo on Facebook showing a chocolate pudding in Berlin selling for a third of the price of a similar “Milky” dessert in Israel.

The cost of living has been at the top of the domestic political agenda since 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protests sparked by the rising price of cottage cheese, a popular staple.

In the last election 18 months ago, the issue helped propel TV personality and political newcomer Yair Lapid to the post of finance minister after his centrist party placed second.

But since then, many Israelis say Lapid failed to deliver on promises of economic reform, and voters say they are now more serious about holding politicians accountable. Polls predict Lapid's Yesh Atid party will shrink to about half its size.

Netanyahu's own Likud party could also lose votes. It might even win fewer seats than a left-center bloc led by opposition Labour leader Isaac Herzog and centrist former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, though Netanyahu could remain prime minister anyway if they have difficulty forming a coalition.

Polls show voters shifting to a new centrist party led by Moshe Kahlon, one of the few politicians with a reputation as a successful economic reformer. As communications minister two years ago he was behind a plan to allow new mobile phone operators into the market, which helped bring down prices.

Netanyahu held onto power in the last election despite a campaign that critics said focused too much on his familiar theme of national security, and not enough on economic issues.

This time around, he is making the economy a central theme. On Sunday he proposed raising the minimum wage for civil servants and marketing more lower cost apartments. He has promised to lift the 18 percent value added tax on milk, cheese, eggs and bread.

Even his bedrock issue, national security, depends on “economic strength and economic growth”, he says. “It's for the needs of our lives, the quality of our lives. To secure the future of our youth, all this requires a strong economy.”

YOUNG WILL LEAVE

Israel is a rich country, but its prices are higher and wages are lower than in the United States and Western Europe. Since becoming a star over the “Milky” pudding, Narkis has argued that unless Israel becomes more affordable, young Israelis “will just leave”.

After military service, he asked himself, “'What does this country have to offer me?' The answer was not a lot. Even if you work here in a full time job you are not able to buy an apartment,” he told Reuters.

“Israel is a country for very rich Jews and the rest can go,” he said. “The biggest threat to Israel is that young people won't want to live here.”

Fixing the cost of living problem requires deep reforms of an economy dominated by a few powerful conglomerates that have stifled competition. Big companies are slated to be broken up, but the process will take years. The government has formed many committees to study the problem, but few changes have been made.

A government survey in June found that 4 in 10 Israelis are not able to make ends meet and 47 percent are not satisfied with their economic situation.

A basket of basic products was 12 percent more expensive in Israel than the OECD average last year, according to the Bank of Israel, while gross salaries are $10,000 lower. While Israel's consumer price index rose 23 percent in the past 11 years, food prices jumped 39 percent.

HIGH TAXES

The business sector puts much of the blame for high consumer costs on Israel's VAT and high import taxes aimed at protecting farmers and producers.

Uriel Lynn, who heads the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, called this intervention “anachronistic”.

“Stop wasting so much time and complicating things in making more laws … and interfering so intensely in the way the business sector functions. Just expose the total industry to importation,” he said.

Economy Ministry director general Amit Lang also favors expanding imports while easing regulation. There are 37 different regulators in Israel checking imports, he noted.

“If we open the market … it will be much more competitive and local producers will have to become more efficient and prices will fall,” said Lang, who chaired a government panel that examined measures to cut food costs.

Retailers say they are addressing the cost issue by bypassing big importers to carry out their own, cheaper imports, and by selling more products under their own labels that are cheaper than big brands.

Retailers and producers blame each other for high prices. Israel's largest supermarket chain, Shufersal, said half of the products it sells come from only 10 big suppliers. Suppliers say big grocery chains impose high markups.

$1 = 3.8913 shekels

Israel flight cancellations tip of economic iceberg


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Esther Olive, a French Jew who lives in Israel, is stranded at the Istanbul airport and is petrified.

“People from the airline screamed at us and said that we couldn’t stay in the airport and had to go to a hotel,” she told The Media Line by phone from Turkey. “As a Jew, I just don’t feel safe here.” 

Olive, a tour operator who brings French tourists to Israel, was on her way back from a family vacation in France on Pegasus, a Turkish charter airline. She said she was with a group of 70 Israelis and Jews that was stranded in Istanbul after almost all international carriers cancelled their flights in and out of Ben Gurion International, Israel’s primary gateway outside of Tel Aviv. The drastic response came after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed inside a community nearby the airport, destroying a house. Until then, during the two-week old hostilities between Israel and Hamas, all rockets that came close to the airport were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. Olive and the others went to a hotel for the night and then returned back to the airport.

“Why isn’t anyone helping us?” she asked nervously. “Why isn’t El Al sending a flight for us?”

Israeli government officials told The Media Line they were aware of the situation and were working to solve it. The Department of Transportation issued a statement saying that four aircraft would fly to Turkey to bring thousands of stranded Israelis home. The Ministry's statement said in part that, “the Israelis in Turkey need to stay calm. We are working to bring you back as soon as possible.”

Following announcements by individual airlines that their Tel Aviv flights would be cancelled, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) directive to avoid Ben Gurion Airport for at least 24 hours, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appealed to Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in the region trying to mediate a cease-fire, to convince US airlines to start flying again. Coincidentally, Kerry’s own State Department plane presumably landed at Ben Gurion during the time stated in the FAA advisory.

“Canceling flights to Israel was a disaster for the country,” Mark Feldman, the CEO of Jerusalem-based Ziontours, told The Media Line. “It is the worst thing that has happened to tourism here since 9/11.” Feldman noted that even during the previous two Israeli military incursions the present operation is being compared to, in 2008 and 2012, the airport remained open.

Even before the FAA decision, economic damage to Israel’s tourism and hospitality industries was estimated to be at least $500 million, spurred by a 34 percent drop in the number of foreign visitors in the third quarter of the year – the key tourism months of July, August and September. A further predicted loss of $25 million will come from a decline in domestic tourism as many Israelis who had planned vacations inside of Israel cancelled them, typically after a family member was activated into reserve army duty. At the moment, some of Tel Aviv’s most popular hotels are almost empty, although properties in the southern Red Sea resort town of Eilat and hotels on the Dead Sea, remain near capacity.

How much time it will take for a tourism rebound when the dust settles remains to be seen. Yaakov Fried of Da’at Educational Expeditions, told The Media Line that it depends on how the hostilities end. “If there is a clear resolution and the rockets stop, it will happen quickly,” he opined. “But if the ceasefire is uncertain and there are still rockets, it will take longer to rebuild.” November and December are key indicators according to Fried.

Despite the pinch being felt by small businesses, some experts are relying on Israel’s historic resilience in bouncing back after such campaigns. 

Adrian Filut of the economic newspaper Globes says that losses are evaluated in the categories of military expenditures; indirect and direct costs. He told The Media Line that he believes if Operation Protective Edge extends another week, the total cost to the Israeli economy will be $2.1 billion, including the loss of trade and services and other ancillaries. 

The Pastry Shop – Baked from the Heart is a chain of three coffee shops/bakeries, one of which is located in the central Israel Tel Aviv-area Ra’anana, while the other two are in the southern towns of Ashdod and Netivot, both within the most frequent range of missiles from Gaza. Owner Binyamin Maimon says business is down by 50 percent because of the situation in Gaza. 

“Because of the rocket attacks, people are not going out to have coffee,” Maimon told The Media Line. “Some of our workers have to get to work under missile fire. But we are opening every day and trying to have business as usual.” 

After The Pastry Shop’s name and number appeared in an Israeli newspaper, Maimon received dozens of calls from Tel Aviv area residents placing orders. While the amounts so far have been symbolic rather than substantive, he said he is touched. 

“It is like getting a big hug,” Maimon said. “It is really heart-warming.”

A spokeswoman at Israel’s tax authority said they had extended the July 15 deadline for paying taxes as long as needed and were preparing to compensate businesses for damage and lost revenue. 

In the coastal Mediterranean city of Ashkelon, hotels and beaches are empty. Residents spend most of the day inside bomb shelters or safe rooms, as hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza have landed here or have been intercepted by the Iron Dome in the skies above. Prior to the current conflict, Ashkelon was one of the up and coming real estate markets in Israel.

“Now business is down by 50 percent and everything is completely on hold,” David Zwebner, an American-born entrepreneur told The Media Line. “People are home eating chocolates, going to funerals, and waiting.” 

During the past two operations Israel fought in the Gaza Strip, most of the Hamas rockets landed in southern communities like Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon. This time, however, despite the majority falling there, Hamas has made good on its threat to reach all parts of the country with its rocketry.

Ro’i Gafni, the head of sales and marketing for Afridar, a large construction company, is in the midst of building a mall and two luxury housing developments in Ashkelon. He was called up for reserve duty and confirmed that purchases have been put on hold for the duration of hostilities. 

Yet, there is reason for optimism for Israelis who fear the long period of time it could take to rebuild economic sectors such as tourism. Globe’s Filut points to the aftermath of the 2006, 2008 and 2012 military operations, including the costly Second Lebanon War.  

“Even now, during the fighting, you can see a rapid recovery. Look what happened to the dollar. You can almost say there wasn’t a war here. The shekel got stronger toward the Euro and the dollar. The opposite should have taken place during a war. On Israel’s stock exchange, the major indexes are higher today than before the war. This is what happened during the last wars. It’s a clear sign the Israeli economy is resilient.”

Congress ends default threat, Obama signs debt bill


Congress approved an 11th-hour deal to end a partial government shutdown and pull the world's biggest economy back from the brink of a historic debt default that could have threatened financial calamity on Wednesday.

Capping weeks of political brinkmanship that had unnerved global markets, President Barack Obama quickly signed the spending measure, which passed the Senate and House of Representatives after Republicans dropped efforts to use the legislation to force changes in his signature healthcare law.

The White House budget office told hundreds of thousands of federal workers, the bulk of whom had been idle for the past 16 days, to be ready to return to work on Thursday.

The down-to-the-wire deal, however, offers only a temporary fix and does not resolve the fundamental issues of spending and deficits that divide Republicans and Democrats. It funds the government until Jan. 15 and raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, so Americans face the possibility of another bitter budget fight and another government shutdown early next year.

With the deadlock broken just a day before the Treasury said it would exhaust its ability to borrow new funds,  stocks surged on Wednesday, nearing an all-time high. Share markets in Asia also cheered the deal.

Taking the podium in the White House briefing room on Wednesday night, Obama said that with final congressional passage, “We can begin to lift this cloud of uncertainty and unease from our businesses and from the American people.”

“Hopefully next time it won't be in the 11th hour. We've got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis,” Obama said. He outmaneuvered Republicans by holding firm in defense of “Obamacare” to win agreement, with few strings attached, to end the 16-day shutdown.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said “the global economy dodged a potential catastrophe” with congressional approval of the deal to raise the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.

The standoff between Republicans and the White House over funding the government forced the temporary lay-off of hundreds of thousands of federal workers from Oct. 1 and created concern that crisis-driven politics was the “new normal” in Washington.

While essential functions like defense and air traffic control continued during the crisis, national parks and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency have been largely closed.

Senator John McCain, whose fellow Republicans triggered the crisis with demands that the Democratic president's “Obamacare” healthcare reform law be defunded, said earlier on Wednesday the deal marked the “end of an agonizing odyssey” for Americans.

“It is one of the most shameful chapters I have seen in the years I've spent in the Senate,” said McCain, who had warned Republicans not to link their demands for Obamacare changes to the debt limit or government spending bill. Polls showed Republicans took a hit in public opinion over the standoff.

In the end, the Democratic-led Senate overwhelmingly passed the measure on a 81-18 vote, and the Republican-controlled House followed suit 285 to 144. Obama signed the 35-page bill just after midnight.

POLITICAL DYSFUNCTION

Although the deal would only extend borrowing authority until the first week of February, the Treasury Department would have tools to temporarily extend its borrowing capacity beyond that date if Congress failed to act early next year. But such techniques eventually run out.

In addition to lifting the federal debt limit, the deal calls for creating a House-Senate bipartisan commission to try to come up with long-term deficit-reduction ideas that would have to be approved by the full Congress. Their work would have to be completed by Dec. 13, but some lawmakers say the panel faces an extremely difficult task.

The agreement also includes some income verification procedures for those seeking subsidies under the 2010 healthcare law. But it was only a modest concession to Republicans, who surrendered on their latest attempt to delay or gut the healthcare package or include major changes, including the elimination of a medical device tax.

The congressional vote signaled a temporary ceasefire between Republicans and the White House in the latest struggle over spending and deficits that has at times paralyzed both decision-making and basic functions of government.

The political dysfunction has worried allies and creditors such as China, the biggest foreign holder of U.S. debt, and raised questions about the impact on America's prestige. The Treasury has said it risks hurting the country's reputation as a safe haven and stable financial center.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced the fiscal agreement on the Senate floor earlier on Wednesday, and its passage was eased when the main Republican critic of the deal, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, said he would not use procedural moves to delay a vote.

The agreement stacked up as a political achievement for Obama, who refused to negotiate on changes to the healthcare law, and a defeat for Republicans, who were driven by Tea Party conservatives in their ranks and suffered a backlash in public opinion polls.

There was no immediate sign that House Speaker John Boehner's leadership position was at risk despite having conceded defeat in the budget battle.

Several Republican lawmakers suggested he may have strengthened his standing among the rank-and-file, who gave him a standing ovation at an afternoon meeting.

But Cruz, a Tea Party-backed senator with 2016 presidential aspirations, denounced the fiscal accord as a “terrible deal” and accused fellow Republicans of giving in too easily in their bid to derail Obamacare.

Obama's Democrats avoided claims of victory. “The bottom line is, millions suffered, millions didn't get pay checks, the economy was dragged down,” said Senator Charles Schumer. “This is not a happy day, it is a somber day.”

The fight over Obamacare rapidly grew into a brawl over the debt ceiling, threatening a default that global financial organizations warned could throw the United States back into recession and cause a global economic disaster.

Fitch Ratings had warned on Tuesday that it could cut the U.S. sovereign credit rating from AAA, citing the political brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling.

A resolution to the crisis cannot come soon enough for many companies. American consumers have put away their wallets, at least temporarily, instead of spending on big-ticket items like cars and recreational vehicles.

“We're sort of 'crises-ed' out,” said Tammy Darvish, vice president of DARCARS Automotive Group, a family-run company that owns 21 auto dealerships in the greater Washington area.

Study: Legalizing marijuana would help Israeli economy


Legalizing marijuana would generate more than $450 million annually for the Israeli economy, a new study shows.

The black market for cannabis in Israel is worth $707 million annually, according to the study released Tuesday by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies. If the sale of marijuana were legalized and taxed at rates similar to cigarettes, it would add about $268 million in tax revenues and another approximately $198 million in savings to law enforcement directly related to illegal marijuana use, the study found.

At least 275,000 Israeli adults used marijuana in the past year, the study found; the tax revenue estimate was based on that number.

Some 75 percent of those questioned in a public opinion survey analyzed in the study said they believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses. Israeli support for medical marijuana was similar to the level of backing recorded in the United States in a survey earlier this year, according to the institute.

[Related: What Israel can teach America about medical marijuana]

Twenty-six percent of Israelis supported the legalization of marijuana, the survey found, with 64 percent opposed. In the United States, 52 percent of survey respondents supported legalization.

The Jerusalem-based firm Kevoon conducted the survey of 500 respondents reflecting a representative sample of Israeli Jews. The survey had a sampling error of 4.5 percent.

“Recognizing the enormous financial gains that would come from legalization demands that the government take a serious look at the proposal to legalize cannabis use under specific guidelines,” said Yarden Gazit, a co-author of the survey. “There is no disputing that if the public is able to get past the wholly negative misperceptions associated with marijuana usage and appreciate the potential benefits with limited social or health care costs, this is an idea that needs open-minded and serious re-examination at this time.”

Plan for future pitfalls


Changes in the economy and workforce have taken their toll on baby boomers, a generation that carries a longer life expectancy than its predecessors as well as the financial burdens that come with it.  

People are working longer and retiring later in life. Possible cuts in government spending could result in reduced payouts to Social Security and Medicare, making things even more challenging. 

The good news is that while boomers may have less time to weather the ups and downs of the stock market than younger investors, it’s not too late for them to plan for their financial future. In doing so, experts suggest considering not just financial goals, but one’s values and the type of lifestyle one desires.

For those in the “Me” generation counting on a pension, Social Security benefits or some type of mutual funds, make sure in advance that the fund will be enough to maintain a desired standard of living. Otherwise, you may have to consider working past your anticipated retirement age, according to Karen Codman, an investment adviser from Long Beach.

Take into account the fact that you won’t be working. Because of that, you may be tempted to spend more. 

“The conventional wisdom that they hear on the radio is that it’s going to cost so much less when you retire,” Codman said. “I’ve heard estimates between 50 and 70 percent of what it costs now. The reality is you now have 365 days of shopping and travel time, and most people don’t want to reduce their standard of living.” 

When you add this to potential medical expenses, you may find that you actually need more than you originally allocated. 

Ira Cohen, 54, of Long Beach has been a crane operator since 1979 and plans to retire in eight years. He is practicing living below his means now, so that he will be used to living off his pension. 

“Six years ago I had a wake-up call, and I took a look at how I was living and really simplified my lifestyle,” Cohen said. “I’m living today as if I was collecting my pension and trying to save the extra money.” 

And if you are considering retiring early, understand that sometimes it’s better to work until you are eligible to receive full Social Security payments. 

Codman said that if you have an investment portfolio, make sure that it is both diverse and tax-efficient. She advises putting funds that will be needed sooner in life in conservative investments while other money goes to riskier investments. 

Take into account how the monies will be taxed and decide if a Roth IRA fund is right for you. This will allow you to pay the taxes on these accounts up front so you won’t have to worry about it on the back end. This can help keep your tax bracket lower during retirement so your Social Security doesn’t get taxed as much, Codman advises.

Financial adviser Marc Weiss of Archer Weiss Insurance in Woodland Hills said that several of his clients are looking to only make conservative investments due to the uncertainty in the market. 

Some baby boomers also are taking out life insurance policies on their parents with plans to use the death benefits to support themselves later in life, Weiss said.

In general, both financial advisers agree that everyone should meet with a financial adviser instead of basing financial decisions solely on what they read in the paper or hear on the news. One size rarely fits all when it comes to financial planning, 

In addition to your personal financial planning, a customized estate plan is another helpful tool to help avoid problems for loved ones, according to Benjamin A. Brin, an estate planning attorney from Los Angeles.

“You actually already have an estate plan, whether you know it or not,” Brin said. “You’ve got a one-size-fits-all, supposedly free plan from the government called ‘probate.’ ”

Probate court is the process the government uses to transfer ownership of assets. An estate plan circumvents this by providing a pre-arranged transfer of your assets after death. Even if you have a will, you may still have to go through probate, and the only way for Californians to avoid the process entirely is to include a living trust as part of an estate plan. This will save your loved ones money in lawyer fees, time and court dates, as well as a lot of potential discord, Brin said.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to planning for the future, however, could be knowing the difference between money you can and can’t afford to lose, he added.

“Unless you are a professional investor, then don’t think of savings as investments; think of them as savings.” 

Seaport battle looms as Israel plans new competition


Israel is betting its economic future on high-tech exports but faces a low-tech bottleneck in state-owned seaports subject to work stoppages and slowdowns because of the enormous strength of their unions.

All that may be about to change.

The government, for years unwilling to risk a confrontation that could paralyse trade given that 99 percent of exports and imports are transported by ship, last month pledged to end the monopolies of the two main ports of Ashdod and Haifa.

By introducing private piers to compete with the two ports, service would improve and prices would drop across the board, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

The port unions — possibly the most powerful in the country with just 2,400 workers earning double the average public sector salary — are likely to be severely weakened and may have to make concessions or face layoffs.

At a time when the middle class is squeezed by slow economic growth and high costs, there is little sympathy for their plight among average Israelis, let alone businessmen.

“Labour unions in the ports are very strong, very belligerent, very egotistical and are using their control of a key state property against the state,” said Uriel Lynn, president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce.

The unions declined to speak with Reuters for this article and referred questions to the umbrella Histadrut labour federation.

But in a rare television interview in January, the head of the Ashdod union Alon Hassan defended the role of collective bargaining and the right to strike, protected by law, and said the port workers were misunderstood.

“I have no criminal background, and sadly, they point at me in the streets like some mafioso,” he told Israel's Channel 10.

“I see and hear and read that on the outside they don't like us, the port workers, and me specifically. That they paint me as an extortionist, a problematic person. Something I am not.”

The unions will not budge, he said: “I am protecting the workers' agreements that have been signed for tens of years. Fanatically. I am not open to unilateral attempts to breach such agreements.”

Cranes at the port of Haifa. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Articulating the government's position, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said simply: “Let there be war.”

NETANYAHU'S MANDATE

Netanyahu was reelected in January with a mandate to do whatever it takes to fix the moribund economy, which grew 3.2 percent in 2012, its slowest pace in three years. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis staged unprecedented nationwide protests in mid-2011 over high housing costs and soaring prices.

Netanyahu has placed the blame for the high cost of living on monopolies and cartels that prevent competition and began cracking down, starting with the country's most vital services.

On April 21 the government approved an open skies deal that liberalises aviation between Israel and Europe and is expected to bring in more foreign airlines and lower air fares. A two-day strike at flag carrier El Al and two smaller Israeli airlines ended with the government agreeing to pay a higher portion of the airlines' security costs.

Car importers and television operators are also in Netanyahu's sights.

Few groups wield as much power as the port workers, as gatekeepers for Israel's international commerce, however.

The Manufacturers Association of Israel said the country lost 25 million shekels ($7 million) directly and tens of millions more indirectly in a dispute at Ashdod port in April.

The workers, who held a 10-day slowdown in protest at a new rule requiring port navigators to stay on site throughout their shift even at quiet times, forced 32 cargo ships to wait hours off the coast.

Five ships were eventually redirected to Haifa about 80 miles (130 km) to the north and five others simply “took off”, the manufacturers' group said.

OLD FOES

Netanyahu has faced off with the port workers before. A decade ago, when the ports were run by a single government-owned company, ships wanting to dock in Israel were delayed an average of 17.4 hours, according to government statistics.

Then finance minister, Netanyahu in 2005 pushed through a reform that broke the ports into three units and a separate managing body called the Israel Ports Co, all still government-owned. The unions stopped work for one month before agreeing to the change.

The government at the time made clear this was considered only the first step toward total privatisation of the port system and two years later, Israel Shipyards began operating a small private port on a floating dock in Haifa.

Service has since improved. Container vessels in 2012 waited on average 3.7 hours to dock in Haifa, which handled 24 million tonnes, and 6.5 hours in Ashdod, which received 19.5 million tonnes. Israel Shipyards handled another 1.3 million tonnes.

But the wait time is still high by international standards.

Containers at the port of Haifa. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

“In most ports in world, the quays wait for the vessels and not the vessels wait for the quays. So anything above zero would not be acceptable,” Dov Frohlinger, chief operating officer of Israel Ports Co, told Reuters.

“What will happen to the waiting time in the next five to six years as cargo grows?”

Rafi Danieli, chief executive of Israel's biggest shipping company Zim, agreed the situation was substandard.

“In central and efficient ports in the world you work according to windows. You know exactly when to arrive and when to enter … In Israel, less so,” he said.

PROTECT THE WORKERS

In February, the state sold the rights to manage and operate the small Red Sea port of Eilat, which handles just 5 percent of the country's sea trade. Israeli firm Papo Maritime paid 120 million shekels for a 15-year deal, and it has the option to pay 105 million shekels more for an extra 10 years.

But in an example of the inflexibility of the system, negotiators had to reach an agreement with every one of the port's 120 workers, a government official told Reuters. Papo Maritime was the only bidder to hang on to the end.

Shortly after Eilat was privatised, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz outlined the rest of the plan: “Opposite each port, a private, competing pier must be built.”

The plans to build the piers, which will cost a little more than 4 billion shekels each, is awaiting final government approval. But Meir Shamra, who heads the Finance Ministry's privatisation unit, said the government was determined to make it happen.

Although no talks are currently underway, preliminary checks showed investors will come when the time is right, he said.

Avi Edri, who represents the port unions among the 800,000 public sector and other workers at the Histadrut federation, said his constituency “would never let it (competing private ports) happen”.

The unions want to explore the idea of forming a private company in which workers could own a minority stake, which would give them an incentive not to strike, Edri told Reuters. Shamra said the government might be open to the idea.

But the right to strike must remain inviolate, Edri said.

“Even if they gave a million shekels to each worker, the right to strike, or the right to unionise, or the right to protest is holy,” he said. “It is above all the money in the world.”

A worker sits as a crane unloads containers from a ship at the port of Haifa. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

$1 = 3.65 shekels. Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

A mitzvah called shmooze


In a crummy economy, people are always looking for good investments — a promising stock, a real estate opportunity, a star mutual fund. It’s really not that different in the “mitzvah economy”— donors and do-gooders are also looking to squeeze the maximum amount of goodness out of every charity investment.

On that note, I’d like to share with you a mitzvah that has a ridiculously low investment and an incredibly high return.

It’s a mitzvah called shmooze.

I think of this mitzvah every time I’m stuck in freeway traffic and I call my mother in Montreal. Nine times out of 10, especially during the long winter months, the first words out of her mouth will be (in French): “Ah, mon fils, je pensait justement à toi!” (Oh, my son, I was just thinking of you!). 

You see, my mother has this quirk when it comes to phones: When she hears a ring, she always picks up. She’s not big on screening calls. She doesn’t make those quick calculations of whether such and such person is worth talking to. I’ve never asked her this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she shmoozes with telemarketers who pitch her great deals on ink toners.

Ever since my father passed away 10 years ago, the ring of the phone in my mother’s home has come to symbolize the promise of human contact. Whereas for me it might mean an unwanted interruption, for my mother it is a welcomed trumpet that announces the interruption of loneliness. 

I try to interrupt that loneliness as often as I can. It helps that our conversations are light and breezy and require little concentration on my part. It’s as if we have this unwritten agreement that if she’ll go easy on me with the questions, I’ll stay on as long as she likes (or until I get to my “meeting”).

Sometimes I’ll be in a silly mood and make her crack up. I might tell her something funny one of my kids said. Occasionally, we might talk about a serious family matter, and she’ll weigh in with her suggestions (read: orders).

But typically, we’ll just shmooze about family stuff: How are the kids doing? (Baruch Hashem.) Is Noah getting taller? (I think so.) Who’s cooking for Shabbat? (I don’t know yet — probably Mia.) Did you tell the housekeeper you won’t need her next Wednesday? (I will, I promise.) Do you speak to your sister? (All the time.) And how about your brother? (Yes, on e-mail.)

From my end, I will lob back questions about her health (“How’s your knee?”) or I’ll ask about Shabbat plans (“Will you be with Judy, Sandra or Samy?”). Our favorite subject, of course, is travel, and it consists mostly of two questions: “When are you coming to Montreal?” and “When can you come to Los Angeles?” 

After about 15 minutes or so, we’re usually ready to wrap up. We throw in a few words of caution (Me: “Please watch the steps!” Her: “Please be careful!”), some tender sentiments (“Kiss everyone” and “I love you”), and, voilà, it’s, “Goodbye Meme, I’ll speak to you very soon.”

But as I run off to another meeting, Meme hangs up and goes back to an empty house.

The difference, though, is that now, in that empty house, the words of our conversation will echo pleasantly in her consciousness. She’ll be thinking about all the good stuff we talked about. That’s because words that interrupt loneliness have a time-release quality. They keep ringing gently in one’s ears long after the phone has stopped ringing.

I invest 15 minutes in sweet shmoozing, and, in return, I get hours of motherly joy. Wouldn’t you call that a good investment? 

The truth is, you don’t have to be related to someone to offer good conversation — in fact, it could be an advantage not to be related. So, I wonder: How many elderly Jews are there in our sprawling community who spend their days alone and could use a good shmooze?

Why not twin those elderly Jews with younger Jews who could put a spark in their day with some lively conversation? 

It’s a mitzvah that works both ways: The elderly have great wisdom and stories to share, which could enrich anyone’s day.

Los Angeles seems like the perfect city to try this idea out — there are plenty of elderly at home alone, and there’s certainly no shortage of cell phone-addicted shmoozers stuck in traffic.

The beauty is that it’s simple. No event planning, no shlepping — just a phone call. Multiply that by a few thousand calls and that’s a lot of loneliness interruption.

Every community can start their own schmooze project. You need a good organizer, of course, to recruit people and coordinate all the vetting. But the basic idea is not complicated: volunteer “shmoozers” get a short list of willing elderly “friends” to call on a regular basis.

In the meantime, don’t wait for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to call your parents or grandparents, or anyone else you know who can use a good shmooze. Especially for people fighting loneliness, one little call can brighten up a whole day.

Like my mother would say, now that's a bargain.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

A gridlock bypass in Congress?


A remarkable thing happened in Washington, D.C., last week. National leaders of business and labor hammered out an outline on immigration reform. This might not only give a major boost to a new immigration policy; it might also show a path around the gridlock that has driven the nation into budgetary face-offs month after month.

The key to the deal is agreement on a guest-worker program, which labor has long opposed. The idea is to create a new program of immigrant worker visas, based on estimates of labor need as determined by a federal bureau. Business accepted the concepts of a variable labor pool, and, even more important, that the workers would not be tied to a single employer. Labor was adamant that workers not be subject to deportation for not getting along with their bosses.

While the details are important, the politics, both symbolic and real, may be even more significant. Each in their own ways, both business and labor have been struggling to get back into their party’s strategic calculations, and they may have found a way to do so together.

Since President Barack Obama’s re-election, House Republicans have thrown the country into one budget crisis after another in order to derail the president’s agenda. The business community has been unhappy with threats against paying for the nation’s debt, fiscal cliffs and now the sequester. But business had been largely unsuccessful in its struggle to move the House Republicans and a number of Republican senators, most of whom represent safe conservative districts or states whose Republican primary voters favor confrontation with the president. Not surprisingly, a conservative Republican senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times (Feb. 22) criticizing the business role in the deal: “The chamber’s primary goal has never been to establish a lawful immigration system and secure our borders, but to get as much cheap labor as possible.” The Times article also noted, however, that Senate bipartisan negotiators were delighted with the deal, and even the No. 2 House leader, Republican Eric Cantor, was upbeat.

Labor has had its own frustrations with the Democrats. Unlike in California, organized labor is weaker in Washington, D.C., and in their dealings with the White House, labor leaders have sometimes felt like outside agitators fighting against what they see as too much conciliation toward Republicans. By helping in a big way toward a major administration goal, and by engaging with a business sector that might yet be able to have some clout with Republicans, labor has proved its value. 

Further, Democrats will need a big labor push in 2014 to avoid the off-year low turnout calamity that brought the Tea Party to Congress in 2010. The same could be said about business with its constituency. Many in business fear that the isolation of the Republican Party will eventually hurt them both economically and politically, and they have been pushing the party to be more moderate and less reflexively anti-government.

This business-labor agreement points to a larger shift in the thinking of the Obama White House about how to get a second-term agenda accomplished. For a long time, Obama has had faith that he can persuade conservative Republicans to accept his agenda because it “makes sense.” It was always hard to see why that would be a compelling argument to politicians, even those not gripped in a Tea Party ideology. And by constantly negotiating and seeking deals, he elevated the power of those who keep manufacturing the crises that seem to require negotiating. The wiser move is to isolate the recalcitrants by building a larger and larger block of interests that coalesce around the White House agenda. We are already seeing this strategy emerge, as Republican governors begin to accept Medicaid expansion under the new health care law because of pressure from hospitals in their states, and as those same governors signal to their fellow Republicans in D.C. that to go through with sequestration would have devastating consequences back home.

A better strategy has now emerged, one that meets the needs of the administration to make progress and even of conservatives to show that they are opposing him. If House Republican leaders continue to poke holes in the Hastert Rule, which dictated that nothing can be brought to the floor of the House without the support of a majority of the Republican caucus, then conservatives can still go on record in full-throated opposition without the Republican Party being blamed in full for blocking progress. Immigration may be a big test of this approach, should the combination of a bipartisan team in the Senate and the business-labor alliance create a large enough power bloc to make progress in the House inevitable. 

In any case, a business-labor agreement on anything must be seen as good news for a struggling American government.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

JVS vying for $150,000 in national contest


The Great Recession is technically over, but for many job seekers — particularly in the Los Angeles area — it certainly doesn’t seem that way.

Los Angeles County’s unemployment rate stood at 10.2 percent in December, higher than California as a whole and far above the already steep 7.8 percent national average. And despite some signs of a hiring uptick at the end of last year, jobseekers nationally have, typically, been out of work for 35 weeks, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So, when officials at Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles (JVS) — a local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people find work — heard about a nationwide fundraising contest for groups like theirs, they jumped at the chance to get involved. 

The JobRaising Challenge, organized by the Skoll Foundation, which supports social entrepreneurs; The Huffington Post; and online fundraising site Crowdrise; allows selected nonprofits to compete for $250,000 in cash prizes from the Skoll Foundation by raising as much money as they can on their own. 

As of Feb. 12, JVS had raised more than $51,000 and is in second place on the fundraising ladder out of 65 organizations across the country. The competition began Jan. 21,

The money, provided by more than 80 donors as of Feb. 11, puts the 82-year-old organization on track to win the contest’s second prize of $50,000. If JVS overtakes the current organization in the lead — New York-based Venture For America Inc. — before the contest ends on March 1, it would win $150,000.

“I’m an eternal optimist. I feel hopeful we will continue at this pace,” said Randy H. Lapin, JVS’ chief philanthropy officer. “We do have some good competition out there, but we’re doing all that we can.”

The money JVS raises, along with any prize money it secures, will be used to support its career counseling and job creation programs. It will hire more staff to network with local businesses and find employment opportunities for job seekers, Lapin said. 

JVS helps a wide variety people find work, including veterans, refugees, at-risk youth, seniors and downsized professionals. Its services include training programs that allow participants to obtain entry-level jobs in the health care and banking fields. Altogether, JVS delivers services at nearly 30 sites across Southern California and helps about 30,000 people a year. Although some programs are targeted toward Jews, JVS serves people of all faiths, Lapin said.

Fundraising through an online contest is unique for JVS, Lapin said. Even though some donations are small — just $10 or $20 — the sheer number of people pledging means the money adds up to a substantial sum. This has been supplemented by others who have donated amounts as large as $10,000. Those interested in donating to JVS through the contest can go to crowdrise.com/jobraising or jvsla.org.

Robert Wolfe, co-founder of Crowdrise, said in a video announcing the JobRaising Challenge on HuffPost Live that the contest is designed to generate more money for the cause of job creation than could be achieved with a straightforward foundation grant. 

“The idea is if [organizations are] going out to their own constituents and asking them to participate as both donors and fundraisers, that we can leverage that money and turn it into … hopefully millions of dollars so these awesome nonprofits can go out and help create jobs,” he said.

The contest has also generated publicity for JVS. Participating organizations are invited to blog on The Huffington Post’s Web site, which attracts 50 million U.S. visitors a month. Arianna Huffington herself has mentioned JVS on Twitter, Lapin said. 

With the publicity and fundraising dollars generated so far, Lapin said, JVS is already feeling like a winner.

Obama pledges to stand with Israel, stop Iranian bomb, in State of the Union


President Obama pledged to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb and to “stand steadfast” with Israel in his State of the Union speech.

“The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” Obama said Tuesday evening.

Obama also said he would continue to back democratization throughout the Middle East.

“And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace,” he added. “These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month.”

Much of Obama's speech was devoted to job creation proposals, particularly involving infrastructure building, and reducing the deficit through spending cuts and tax reform.

He also focused on other signature second term issues, including immigration reform, addressing climate change, and bringing about new gun controls.

Survivors of  shootings and relatives of fatalities were guests of the Obamas at the State of the Union.

Urging Congress to at least bring gun control laws to a vote, he singled out among others Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head in January 2011 in an assault that claimed six lives.

Giffords was present at the speech with her husband, Mark Kelley.

Rise of Golden Dawn: A presage of doom


The undisguised extremism promoted by Golden Dawn is a chilling watershed in Greece's post-war democracy. Fascist gangs are turning Athens into a city of shifting front lines, seizing on crimes and local protests to promote their own movement, by claiming to be the defenders of recession-ravaged Greece.

‘The People's Association – Golden Dawn,’ usually known simply as ‘Golden Dawn,’ is a right-wing extremist political organization in Greece. It is led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos and has grown considerably since its inception to a widely known Greek political party with nationwide support.

Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is gaining popularity in the midst of the country’s deepening financial crisis. The group has been implicated in torture cases, and for inciting a wave of racial violence sweeping the country.

An opinion poll published by KAPA Research in October showed that support for the extremist political group had grown from 7.5 percent of the population in June to 10.4 percent currently.

The Golden Dawn emerged from political obscurity into the mainstream in May after winning 7 percent of the vote in the Greek parliamentary elections. Since then, the country has reportedly witnessed an upsurge in racial violence connected to the right-wing group.

The party entered the international spotlight after some of its members reportedly participated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Its publication praises the Third Reich and often features photographs of Hitler and other Nazis.

Golden Dawn has manipulated a weak Greek state and disastrous austerity management by European bureaucrats to become, according to recent polls, the third most popular political party in the country — a noxious omen for the euro zone and a worrying challenge and counterpoint to the very idea of the E.U. itself, which received this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Three years ago, Greeks ignored Golden Dawn, seeing its members as neo-Nazi thugs waging war against migrants and giving it a miserable 0.29% of the vote. Last year, however, Golden Dawn — rebranded as an anti-austerity party — won nearly 7% and secured 18 of the 300 seats in Parliament. Its ascent has continued in opinion surveys despite its parliamentary deputies' being filmed attacking immigrant vendors and demanding that all non-Greek children be kicked out of day-care centres and hospitals.

As the cash-strapped government struggles to offer its citizens basic services, Golden Dawn has set up parastate organizations to police the streets, donate to Greek-only blood banks and help unemployed Greeks find jobs. The party has also promised to cancel household debt for the unemployed and low-wage earners. “Soon we'll be running this country,” says Ilias Panagiotaros, a beefy 38-year-old army-supply-shop owner who is now a Golden Dawn parliamentary deputy representing Athens.

Public Love from Fear

“The people love us.” says Ilias Panagiotaros. Golden Dawn draws much of that love from fear. Greece is now the main entry point for at least 80% of the EU's un-documented migrants. Frontex, the EU border-patrolling agency, estimates that 57,000 illegal immigrants slipped into Greece last year and more than 100,000 entered in 2010. Many travel through Turkey, often via a land border that Golden Dawn wants to plant with land mines. Some seek asylum, and because of EU rules, those who want to apply for refugee status must do so in their country of entry — in this case, Greece — which often takes years to review the applications. As Europe turns a blind eye to the immigration crisis, many impoverished foreigners find themselves trapped in an economically crippled country that can't sustain them.

Some Greeks no longer want to be hospitable. In the past year, gangs of vigilantes, many sporting Golden Dawn's black shirts, have beaten and stabbed hundreds of migrants, according to human-rights groups.

In June 2012, a number of them broke into the Piraeus home of Abouzeid Mubarak, 28, an Egyptian fisherman, bashing him with iron rods until he fell into a coma. “It was a hate that was inhuman,” says Mubarak, who is still recovering.

Ali Rahimi, a 27-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, was hanging around with friends outside his building in central Athens when more than a dozen Greeks approached. Several men set upon Mr. Rahimi, one with a knife. Panicked, he fled into his apartment and fought back, managing to push the men out the door. He found blood gushing from just above his heart, one of five stab wounds in his back and chest.

Mr. Rahimi survived and is staying put for now. But his friend, Reza Mohammed, who was also injured in the attack, is considering what was once unthinkable: moving back to Afghanistan, which he feels would be safer than Greece.

Parts of Athens feel like a war zone. Racist gangs cruise the streets at night in search of victims. Themis Skordeli, a member of the group that is accused of stabbing Mr. Rahimi, ran unsuccessfully for Parliament on the ticket of Golden Dawn.

A few blocks down the street, a crowd was leaving a mosque after Friday Prayer. At the mention of Golden Dawn, immigrant men began lifting their shirts to show their scars. A short, sullen-looking young man with a cut across his nose and freshly sutured cheek bone was pushed forward by the crowd. Just the night before, he said, he was beaten and cut with a knife by “fascists.”

“Go into the Omonia police station,” said another man. “You will see how violence is going on.” Several blocks away, I walked into just such a scene. As I stepped out of the elevator at the police station, I saw an officer screaming at a black man and backhanding him hard across the shoulder.

In Athens, Sayd Jafari owns a cafe frequented by fellow Afghans. It has been repeatedly ransacked by mobs of black-clad attackers wielding sticks, chains and knives and performing fascist salutes.

Like others who have been assaulted, Mr. Jafari is also contemplating returning home to Afghanistan. “There, maybe someone has a bomb hidden on his body that he detonates,” he says. “Here, you don’t see where the knife that kills you comes from.”

It's now common to see police lineup immigrants from South Asia and Africa in public squares and along streets in central Athens. Those without legal-residency permits are arrested and sent to detention centres to be deported.

Police claim they have detained nearly 42,000 people since August, though only about 3,400 were arrested for not having residency papers. They defended the crackdown, which was strongly denounced by human-rights groups, by comparing undocumented migrants to the Dorian invaders who purportedly brought down the Mycenaeans in 1100 B.C.

The most recent example of fascism shown by Golden Dawn in its series of discriminating activities is when it said a visit to Greece by American Jewish Committee leader David Harris is meant to ensure further “Jewish influence over Greek political issues” and safeguard the interests of “international loan sharks.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), is leading a Jewish delegation to the region to meet with several Greek leaders, including Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. During the meetings, Harris expressed his “concern and solidarity for Greece during the crisis.”

“The only solidarity of this gentleman is to his compatriots – the international loan sharks, who are humiliating the Greek people. His concern most likely is related to the inability of Greece to make the payments of the predatory interest rates of the vile loans,” Golden Dawn said in a statement, adding: “We do not need the crocodile tears of a Jew.”

Its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, uses the Heil Hitler salute and has denied the existence of gas chambers at Nazi death camps during World War II. Another lawmaker read a passage from the anti-Semitic hoax “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The attack on Harris and a separate article titled “Absolute Evil” that was published on the party's website Friday appeared to be a hardening of Golden Dawn's anti-Semitic rhetoric, apparently in anger over pressure from Jewish groups to get the Greek government to reign in the party. The “Evil” statement said that blaming Golden Dawn for Greece’s woes constituted an attempt to divert attention from the real culprits for Greece’s financial crisis.

“They are none other than those who possess most of the international wealth. The people behind the international loan-sharks,” the statement said. “Everyone knows they belong to a certain race, which presents itself as a victim, while in reality it is the perpetrator. Everyone knows that they are none other than those pulling the strings behind the marionettes. They are the absolute evil for mankind.”

The second statement ended with a threat.

“The time will come when the nationalists of the Golden Dawn will take revenge like the horsemen of the storm, and all of them, being the absolute evil, will pay!”

Not content to proselytizing in their homeland, Golden Dawn has started to expand worldwide.

Barely a month after their electoral victories, Golden Dawn launched a widely-criticized branch in Melbourne, Australia, home to one of the largest Greek populations outside of Athens. In October, several groups protested the opening of a Golden Dawn office in New York City, which had opened for the explicit purpose of building support for the party among Greek expatriate communities and collecting food and medicine to distribute in Greece – only for Greeks. And in Montreal, Golden Dawn is holding a Christmas food drive. The catch! They're only giving food out to Greek Christians.

Golden Dawn members in the United States have told CBC News they plan to open chapters shortly in Chicago, in Connecticut and in Toronto.

What’s at stake is the health of European democracy, and the values and institutions on which it rests. But while the euro crisis touched off a scramble to halt a financial meltdown, European leaders have done virtually nothing to reverse the union’s dangerous political trends.

As recent polls show that its strength continues to grow, and its support runs as high as 50 percent among police officers, who routinely fail to investigate growing numbers of hate crimes.

Far-right ultranationalist groups are exploiting old enmities and new fears across the Continent. Although this is not the Europe of the 1930s, the disillusioned citizens of countries like Greece and Hungary have turned increasingly to simple answers, electing parties that blame familiar scapegoats — Jews, Gypsies, gays and foreigners — for their ills.

Maria Chandraki, 29, an unemployed beautician, hadn’t heard of Golden Dawn until the last election. “Their positions may be extreme,” she said, holding plastic bags of food she’d just received. “But the situation is extreme as well. So we need extreme measures.” She went on, “We can’t have so many nations and so many different sets of values and ideals under the same roof.”

Beneath the looming basilica of Athens’ largest church, middle-aged men and women in black Golden Dawn T-shirts were busy one bright September morning distributing food to needy Greeks. Kids ran across the courtyard, which was painted with the party’s unofficial platform: “Get foreigners out of Greece.” Clusters of fit, stoic young men in dark glasses ringed the perimeter.

Nikolaos Michos, a square-jawed Golden Dawn Member of Parliament with the build and tattoos of a heavyweight boxer, leaned against a bloodmobile watching. He wore a black polo embossed with the party’s Swastika-like logo. “We’re fighters and we’re not going to back down,” he said, referring to death threats from leftists and the burning of a Golden Dawn office. “But they’re not striking fear into us because every centre they destroy, we’ll build new ones,” he added.

European leaders must not cede the battleground in the war of ideas. They should publicly denounce parties that espouse racist doctrines and spew hate-filled rhetoric and clearly define and defend the shared values of an increasingly integrated Europe.

To do so, they must develop a pan-European approach to monitor hate crimes and investigate right-wing extremist networks that operate across borders. And the European Union must ensure that all member-states, old and new, respect the same criteria that countries currently aspiring to join the European Union are required to meet, especially maintaining the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities.” Otherwise, Europe faces the spectre of more xenophobic violence and the unravelling of the liberal democratic order that has drawn so many persecuted people to seek asylum and opportunity on European shores.

Nikos Katapodis, 69, can see the crossroads where his family has lived since 1863. A bald, chain-smoking funeral-home owner, Mr. Katapodis describes the Greek government with a string of expletives. The flood of immigrants over the last decade created ghettos in central Athens, he explains. Crime rates rose, property values dropped and bars appeared on second-floor windows. “It looks like a prison,” he said, nodding to the street. “Today it reminds me of the late 1940s,” he adds. “You see people scrounging for food in the trash cans.”

Although he didn’t vote for Golden Dawn, he sees it as “the only party that is actually doing things for the Greek people” — a cross between the welfare state and the Mafia. If he needed an escort to walk down the street or help paying for his cancer medicine, he’d call Golden Dawn. “They’re doing what the politicians should be doing,” he said. “There’s a hole, and they fill it.”

Authoritarian elements in the Greek government have a history of using far-right groups to outsource political violence against critics. Recent moves to rein in Golden Dawn came only after it grew too powerful to control and the state felt its own authority was challenged, explained Anastassia Tsoukala, a legal scholar. “They were bitten by their own snake,” she said. And Greece is not alone. Golden Dawn’s rise has parallels across Europe, and its significance should be of Continental concern.


 

Hatef Mokhtar is the editor-in-chief of The Oslo Times.

Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer to step down


Stanley Fischer is stepping down from his position as governor of the Bank of Israel.

Fischer, 69,  will be leaving office on June 30 after serving eight years that included shepherding the Israeli economy through the global financial crisis of 2007-08. His term was scheduled to end in 2015.

He reportedly informed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his decision on Tuesday, according to the bank. He is scheduled to hold a news conference on Wednesday morning to discuss his decision to leave.

Fischer said in a statement issued Tuesday by the bank that he was grateful for the opportunity to serve as the governor of the Bank of Israel, “especially during a challenging period that included the global economic crisis, a complex geo-political reality, and domestic social issues.”

In 2010, Fischer was named the world's best bank governor. Following the global economic woes of 2007-08, in September 2009, the Bank of Israel became the first bank in the developed world to raise its interest rates.

Fischer became an Israeli citizen when he assumed his position. He is known for his American-accented but nearly flawless Hebrew.

He previously served as chief economist at the World Bank.

Fischer earned a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also worked as a professor.

Netanyahu said Fischer played a major role in the economic growth of the State of Israel and in the achievements of the Israeli economy.

“His experience, his wisdom and his international connections opened a door to the economies of the world and assisted the Israeli economy in reaching many achievements during a period of global economic crisis,” Netanyahu said after meeting with Fischer.

Israeli markets cheer centrists’ election gains


Israeli markets rose on Wednesday on investor hopes that the outcome of the previous day's election means Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister and ultra-Orthodox parties have no role in government.

The blue-chip Tel Aviv 25 index rose 1 percent to 1,204.65 points, near last week's year-high of 1,225.76, while the broader TA-100 index closed 0.9 percent higher.

Government bond prices gained as much as 0.5 percent and the shekel appreciated 0.4 percent to 3.722 per dollar from Monday's fixing of 3.738, near a 10-month peak.

“We will enjoy this for a few days,” said Zach Herzog, head of foreign sales at the Psagot brokerage. “The downside will be if the coalition talks drag on or if we see Labour or (ultra-Orthodox) Shas in serious talks to get involved.

“This can be a launching pad for a positive 2013,” he added.

Herzog said a coalition government more centrist than Netanyahu's current right-wing and religious administration would be better placed to impose needed budget cuts.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally demanded budget-draining state subsidies for their institutions in return for joining coalitions in Israel, where no one party has ever won a parliamentary majority on its own.

Results of Tuesday's parliamentary vote showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud-Beitenu group emerging on top with 31 of parliament's 120 seats, albeit dropping sharply from the current 42 after voters shifted support to centrists focusing on Israelis' rising cost of living.

Yesh Atid, a new centrist party that has pledged to ease the burden of Israel's middle class, took 19 seats, one more than the number won by ultra-Orthodox parties.

If Yesh Atid's leader, former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, opts to join a Netanyahu coalition, along with the far-right Jewish Home party, the prime minister would likely control 61 seats, giving him a narrow parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu, however, has said he hopes to form as broad a government as possible, signaling the way was open for ultra-Orthodox factions to participate.

BUDGET DEFICIT

Netanyahu's reputations as a skilled economic operator was harmed just before the election when data showed Israel posted a budget deficit of 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – more than double its initial target.

To meet a target of 3 percent in 2013, the government – which overspent heavily the past two years to keep its previous coalition partners happy – will have to find some 15 billion shekels ($4 billion) of cuts, as well as raising taxes.

Credit agency Fitch forecast the deficit reaching 3.8 percent of GDP this year, saying the stable outlook on its 'A' rating risked being downgraded in the event of “serious fiscal slippage”.

But a move towards the government's 60 percent debt-to-GDP target could result in positive ratings action, its sovereign ratings director Paul Gamble said in a report on Wednesday.

He also said the coalition talks would focus on budgetary issues and likely be time-consuming.

Psagot's Herzog said the market was also pleased that the centre-left Labour Party, whose leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has railed against capitalism during the election campaign, received just 15 seats, a poor than expected showing.

“In addition to the positive result that Netanyahu was re-elected as prime minister, you have a significant blow to the prestige to the anti-business candidate,” Herzog said.

A currency dealer at a large Israeli bank said most of Wednesday's dollar selling came from local rather than offshore customers. He said there was still a way for the dollar to fall before its next support level at 3.7050 shekels.

According to financial information services firm Markit, Israeli five-year credit default swaps – which insure against debt default – edged up 125 basis points from 123 on Monday. They had been at 156 basis points in November when military tensions escalated in the Gaza Strip.

Additional reporting by Tova Cohen and Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, John Stonestreet

Israeli economics 101


Ofek Lavian has two passions: business and Israel, his native land.

What he felt that he was missing when he went to college at the University of Southern California was an opportunity to learn about his home country while interacting with people who shared his same interests in it.

“I found myself really struggling to find an organization on campus that was tailored to my passions,” said the 20-year-old, who moved to Silicon Valley when he was 4. “I found a lot that were related to Judaism were political, religious, and/or cultural. As a business major and an entrepreneur, I wanted to look at Israel through another lens.”

Then he heard about the TAMID Israel Investment Group, a multi-phased program on college campuses connecting American students with the Israeli economic landscape. It seemed like the perfect way to merge his interests and learn about them in a new way.

When Lavian, now a junior, helped start a chapter at USC in 2011, there were 25 members. By the end of this semester, the group expects to have 40. To set it up, Lavian received $3,500 in funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; now, all the funds are solicited from private donors.

The origins of TAMID date back to 2008, when a group dedicated to providing American students with access to Israeli businesses launched at the University of Michigan. Since then, it has expanded to eight other campuses across the country, including USC and the University of California, Berkeley. In the fall, a handful of others is expected to be added, one of which may be University of California, Los Angeles, according to Max Heller, TAMID’s executive director of business development.

The goal is to “further advance and strengthen the connection between the United States and Israel,” he said. “We pioneer the next generation of American commitment to Israel by reaching out by future leaders on campuses.”

Students studying business, entrepreneurship, economics and similar subjects are eligible to join TAMID when they are undergraduates. Those selected take one semester of education in the fall on general business principles and the relationship between the United States and Israel from an economic perspective. The education component is divided among member-driven presentations and lectures from venture capitalists, professors and individuals well-versed in Israel’s economic scene. 

Students showcase their research on certain aspects of business, and in the past they’ve hosted speeches on how the nuclear threat from Iran might affect Israeli businesses, as well as what changes might occur after the discovery of oil reserves in Israel. 

TAMID also gives students the opportunity either to invest in Israeli securities using money they raise from donors or do pro-bono consulting work for Israeli startups. 

During the summer, TAMID, which is based at the University of Michigan, hosts a fellowship trip to Israel. When it was first offered in 2010, five students went. There were eight in 2011, and last summer the number grew to 17. Students partook in internships in finance, energy sustainability and technology, and worked at various startups. Next summer, 40 fellows will have the chance to go and gain real world experience.

Although most of the students are Jewish, it is becoming diversified. Heller said that the larger a certain program grows, the more non-Jewish students get involved. The largest mix of students is currently at Michigan. 

“We pride ourselves on working with talented and motivated students,” Heller said.

Lavian started his own T-shirt business with a fellow fraternity brother called Campus Ink in fall 2010. But he wanted to meet other self-starters. Through TAMID, he’s accomplished this while learning about Israel’s contributions to alternative energy, medicine and technology.

Last summer, Lavian secured a venture capital internship in Tel Aviv and lived alongside the program’s other students from around the country. He also met with the entrepreneurs behind Doweet, which coordinates meet-ups with friends and event planning, and Peer5, a startup that focuses on helping video content providers deliver the best viewing experience. 

Now, USC consultants from TAMID are working with these companies. The students assist the startups with learning about the American economy and demographics, while they, in turn, have the chance to see what it takes to build a business. 

“[Since there are] 7 million people in Israel and [more than] 300 million in the United States, for any Israeli company to be successful, they need to have their target market be global or in the U.S.,” Lavian said. “A lot of them have the technology in Israel but they need to target the U.S. market. That’s where TAMID comes in.”

Avior Ovadya, 25, who came to America from Israel to attend college four years ago, has been in TAMID for one semester at USC. Unlike his classes, which focus on the U.S. market, TAMID meetings give him the opportunity to understand what’s happening in the Israeli business world. 

“Other than being a platform for students to learn about Israel, it’s also about understanding a little bit about what Israel is like, and why it’s such a pioneer in the technology field,” he said. “The group of people we have now is swell. They make our weekly meetings fun. We share everything from how our weeks were to our opinions on Israel.” 

Jared Fleitman, co-founder of USC’s TAMID program and current president, said his time spent with the group has been the most enriching he’s had at USC.

“I’ve met more contacts through developing the curriculum than through any of my coursework,” said Fleitman, who is majoring in mechanical engineering, economics and mathematics. “It’s very useful for me. It’s very positive and I feel like I am part of a special community here.”

Like Fleitman, Lavian said that he has learned more from the practical experience gained through TAMID than he ever did in a classroom. 

“Some things are really hard to learn in a classroom setting,” he said. “You need to get your hands dirty and your feet wet and do some hands-on learning. That’s exactly what TAMID does.” 

Jewish groups praise fiscal cliff deal, remain concerned about future cuts


While not totally satisfied with the results, many Jewish groups have come out in support of Congress’ last minute efforts to reach a fiscal cliff deal.

Linda Slucker, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, said her organization welcomed the part of the deal that protects Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while extending unemployment benefits and raising taxes on those making more than $400,000.

However, she said in a statement, “We remain concerned about what is to come.”

“Those favoring further austerity before the economy fully recovers are busy trying to skew the public debate ahead and promise to use the need to raise the debt ceiling to extract more spending cuts,” Slucker said.

She added that the country needs “policies that promote jobs and growth, not a reduced standard of living.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued a statement saying that he was “pleased and relieved” that a deal had been struck. But he said the center was “deeply concerned that decisions in the coming months could threaten the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Saperstein also said, “We urge our government to honor its historic commitment to caring for the most vulnerable in our communities, especially in the face of economic turmoil.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, echoed the call to keep America’s safety net and praised politicians for “coming together to avoid dangerous across-the-board economic disruptions.”

However, he said in a statement, “We remain concerned about the future of important programs that support the most vulnerable and provide pathways to prosperity for millions of Americans including Head Start, workplace training programs, important research and development, and food for low-income mothers and children.”

B’nai B’rith International President Allan Jacobs expressed “significant concerns as we look ahead to another sequester — debt limit — deadline.”

“What will be on the negotiating table next time? Probably the same menu as this time,” Mark Olshan, B'nai B'rith's associate executive vice president, said in a statement. “Non-discretionary domestic spending programs that help the elderly, sure, but we’re also going to hear calls for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid again. We certainly hope Social Security would be left out because it is self funded and doesn’t contribute to the deficit but we have reason to be concerned about that as well.”

Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice called Congress’ actions “an imperfect deal, yet nonetheless one worth supporting.”

The deal “clearly establishes the principle that deficit reduction cannot and should not be achieved purely by cutting spending,” Bend the Arc CEO Alan van Capelle said in a statement. “As Jews and as Americans, we believe in the responsibility of the individual to the community and of the community to the individual.”

Egypt’s contentious Islamist constitution becomes law


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRISIS ATMOSPHERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TURMOIL CONTINUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiscal cliff threatens all Californians


Who should worry about the looming package of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that will hit this nation if Congress cannot come to a deal to avoid what has come to be known as the “fiscal cliff?”

Everybody.

Calif. Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D – San Fernando Valley) said the numbers of Californians who would lose access to particular services – the 12,000 children who would lose access to Head Start programs or the 2,000 women who would not be screened for breast and cervical cancers – only begin to hint at the potential fallout.

“It’s also important to talk about pure economics,” Blumenfield said in an interview on Dec. 17, two weeks before the Dec. 31 deadline by which a deal must be reached. “Everybody understands that we are in a very fragile time right now. We still have double-digit unemployment.”

As chair of the California Assembly budget committee, Blumenfield has spent the last two years hammering the state’s spending plan into balance. “We’re looking at only a $1.9 billion deficit,” Blumenfield said, a marked improvement over previous years, when the state was facing projected deficits of more than $20 billion.

“We’ve been doing our part on the state level to get the state’s financial house in order,” Blumenfield said, but if leaders in Washington, D.C., can’t agree on a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion by the end of the year, Blumenfield and his colleagues in Sacramento could be having very different kinds of conversations in January, staring at a hole where $4.5 billion dollars of federal funds used to be.

And though the impact of cuts in spending would most directly affect the beneficiaries of social service programs, the hurt wouldn’t end there, Blumenfield said. Retailers, who’ve lately been buoyed by an increased level of confidence among consumers, would likely customers flee the stores and put away their wallets. Foreclosures could go up. California – indeed the country as a whole – could go back into recession.

“Even if you don’t see how you’re benefiting from a particular state or federal program,” Blumenfield said, “everybody is affected by the ups and downs of the economy.”

Senior service providers wary as New Year approaches


They’ve weathered five years of economic crisis, relentless state budget cuts and growing demand for their services. Now, social service providers for seniors in the Los Angeles area are bracing for a new slew of challenges in 2013.

From federal budget negotiations and the looming “fiscal cliff” to state-level pilot reforms of Medicaid — known in California as Medi-Cal — these are uncertain times for seniors, their caregivers and the agencies that help them. 

“We’re not really sure how it’s going to play out,” said Paul Castro, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). “We try as best we can to anticipate and plan, but it’s a very uncertain environment and there’s so many parts to it.” 

At the top of most agencies’ watch list is the “fiscal cliff,” the dramatic concoction of federal spending cuts and tax hikes slated to take effect Jan. 2, unless Congress agrees on an alternative. Programs in line for automatic cutbacks include nutrition services for the elderly, funding for in-home care providers, low-income heating assistance, and social and legal support for the vulnerable. The sum of these reductions — $55 billion for all nondefense spending — could have devastating consequences for millions of older Americans, providers fear.

In Los Angeles, JFS says federal cutbacks, if they go ahead, would hamper the agency’s ability to help seniors, particularly those living in poverty. The organization receives federal dollars for numerous programs, including in-home nursing care for the sick and frail; community dining and home-delivered meals; and free transportation services for seniors who need help going to medical appointments, meal sites and elsewhere.

Of those, nutrition services are the most critical for low-income seniors, many of whom rely on the agency for their meals, JFS public policy director Nancy Volpert said. If automatic cuts go into effect, the agency will be unable to feed 83 seniors out of the 1,040 it serves daily. 

“If someone loses food, that is an existential problem,” Volpert said. 

Barbra McLendon, public policy director for the California Southland chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, said state budget cuts over the past few years have already caused programs to shrink and sometimes even shut down, including adult day care facilities for people with dementia. 

“There’s no more fat to be cut,” she said. “They would be cutting into direct services that people depend on.”

Still, McLendon and JFS officials said they remain optimistic Congress will strike a deal before Jan. 2. They also pointed to positive news at the state level. Voters’ approval in November of Proposition 30, which cleared the way for temporary tax increases, should prevent more funding cuts for senior services in the state budget, they said.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Van Nuys) agreed the budgetary outlook for the state has improved with the passage of Proposition 30. Nevertheless, ongoing shakeups of health-related programs affecting seniors, including a new effort aimed at keeping ailing elderly people in their homes, will need to be monitored closely, he said. 

And if big cuts kick in on the federal level, the system could come tumbling down.

“If the feds take us over the cliff, that could cost us $5 [billion] or $6 billion, and we’re back to the drawing board,” Blumenfield said.

Even if federal lawmakers stave off an immediate fiscal catastrophe, the long-term outlook for programs critical to seniors — including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — remains shaky. With the nation facing an unwieldy $1 trillion deficit, large social programs are a conspicuous target. 

Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, have already proposed smaller annual increases in Social Security payments, capping Medicaid spending and raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, or turning it into a voucher program.

Jim Specht, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), said the congressman believes reforms to Medicare and Social Security are necessary to avoid the programs’ financial collapse in the future.

“Both the entitlement programs, particularly Medicare, are on a course now to run out of money over the next 10 years or so,” Specht said. “Mr. Lewis believes you cannot just allow that kind of a fiscal problem … to continue.”

The fiscal cliff, and the automatic cuts it would imply, pose a greater threat to current seniors than proposed entitlement reforms, Specht said. Changes to Medicare and Social Security supported by Lewis would not affect people now over 55. For younger people nearing retirement age, reforms would be phased in, he said.

Lewis “is not interested in reducing any benefits for current seniors,” Specht said.

Still, U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said,“Seniors ought to be worried and aware of proposals that have been put on the table. I’m hoping that President Obama will be able to push back hard enough not to get them into law.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles senior service providers said they are uneasy over another critical issue dependent on action by Congress: reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. The almost 50-year-old legislation authorizes federal funding for a wide range of senior services, including Meals on Wheels and home-based care programs, which is funneled through the Administration on Aging to state and local entities. It was due for renewal in 2011 but remains in limbo.

“It should have been done months ago. It has been introduced, but it’s just not going anywhere, which is a problem,” Volpert said. 

Failure to renew the act means agencies that receive federal funds to help seniors are not sure how to plan for their future, McLendon said. 

In California, another development is adding to the cloud of uncertainty, although there is hope it could bring about positive change. The state is one of 15 across the country participating in a federal pilot project that aims to shift so-called “dual eligibles” — people who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid — into managed care. Officials say the change will reduce costs while providing beneficiaries with better-quality care.

Los Angeles is among five counties setting up the plan, which affects some of the poorest and sickest Californians, most of them elderly. About a third of the state’s 1.1 million dual eligibles live in L.A. County. Under the project, expected to start some time next year, local health plans L.A. Care and Health Net would be in charge of financing and delivering both medical and social services to dual-eligible patients. Currently, individual providers, such as JFS, are compensated directly by the government based on the number of services they provide.

Castro said JFS and other organizations in Los Angeles that run programs for seniors are anxious to ensure the transition doesn’t wipe away the current infrastructure and leave the elderly without access to services they’ve depended on for years.

It’s “a dramatic change in the service landscape,” he said. “The question is how much money will the state fund the health plans to do this kind of work, and how much will the plans be willing to spend on these clients, particularly those who are most fragile and imply the most cost?” 

Blumenfield echoed those concerns.

“We’ve really got to watch the implementation and make sure it helps seniors and doesn’t harm them,” he said. “The devil is in the details.” 

As Israel’s economy grows, more Israelis are giving to charity


At Hadassah's centennial celebration in October, 2,000 guests heard about two major philanthropic projects being undertaken by the women's Zionist group: a new tower and a new cardiovascular wellness center at its Jerusalem hospitals.

The tower, which was dedicated at the centennial, cost $363 million. And a $10 million gift from American philanthropist Irene Pollin came with the announcement of the cardiovascular center. Most of Hadassah’s members and donors are American, and every year most of its $100 million budget goes to Israel — as it has for a century, well before Israel was a state.

For virtually all of Israel's history, the philanthropic highway between the United States and the Jewish state ran in one direction. Now, with the growth of Israel's economy and an expanding class of affluent citizens, Israeli initiatives have begun to encourage giving by Israelis for Israelis.

Still, experts say, building a culture of philanthropy remains an uphill battle in Israel.

“Israeli philanthropy is not very well developed, even though there’s [been] a lot of Israeli wealth in the past 10 to 20 years,” said Debra London, project manager for Sheatufim, which helps donors and nonprofits become more effective. “It’s about recruiting them to the idea that they have to give.”

Since well before the founding of the state, American Jewish philanthropy has been instrumental in establishing and sustaining Jewish settlement in Israel. This funding model persisted even as the state established itself and grew into a thriving industrial and information-age economy. American donors still fund many projects and organizations in Israel, while many Israeli outfits have established fundraising arms in the United States.

On the whole, Israelis are less philanthropic than Americans. In a recent paper, Hebrew University professor Hillel Schmid found that in 2009 Israeli philanthropy constituted 0.74 percent of Israel’s GDP, compared to 2.1 percent in the United States. In total that year, Israelis donated $3 billion. Part of the reason, Schmid says, is the high income tax that Israelis have pai d traditionally to support a robust social safety net. Many Israelis also feel that their years spent in compulsory military service provided a significant contribution to the state.

“We all go to the army, we pay a high income tax, so we think we give a lot,” Schmid, the director of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy in Israel, told JTA. “There are a few good philanthropists, but there’s no movement of philanthropy.”

That’s changing. Schmid noted that in 2009, Israeli nonprofits received a majority of their donations from Israelis, not from abroad — a departure from previous years.

New philanthropic models are emerging, too. An organization called Takdim in the coastal town of Ramat HaSharom hopes to duplicate the successful North American Jewish federation model, where one central institution in each community manages collective Jewish giving. More than two-thirds of the funds raised by Takdim will go to projects in the central Israeli city, while 30 percent will fund projects across the country. A communal board will determine which projects to support.

“We need to have a change in outlook and show people that if they want to help the community, they need to help in both senses, to volunteer and to help financially,” said Revital Itach, Takdim’s project manager. “Our goal is not to depend on two or three donors but to draft the whole community.”

Founded a year-and-a-half ago, Takdim has 120 donors and is embarking on its first major fundraising drive. Itach hopes to raise $256,000, much of which will go to building a new park that will be accessible to disabled children.

“There was a sense of community” years ago, Itach said. “As the city grew and brought more people in, the feeling of community got weaker. There was a desire to bring back that feeling of togetherness, to look beyond your own sphere and to do something for all of the residents.”

Another initiative, called Committed to Give and run by Sheatufim, aims to expand the top echelon of Israeli donors, defined as those who give more than $64,000 annually. London estimates that 10,000 Israelis can give that amount. Twenty donors who already give that much are running the initiative.

A rise in Israeli philanthropy does not necessarily mean a drop in U.S. Jewish giving, says Becky Caspi, director general of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel office. Caspi recognizes an emotional drive in American Jews to help Israel and does not anticipate a significant decline in donations to Israel.

Federations have been involved in helping launch Takdim and Committed to Give, and Caspi sees a growing number of Israelis “who can assist in carrying the burden to care for the most vulnerable in Israeli society.”

“There are so many people who see Israel hurting and want to help,” she told JTA. “When Israeli philanthropists are exposed to that strength and resilience, it’s a source of inspiration.”

In 2011, JFNA allocated $237 million to overseas funding, the bulk of which goes to Israel. It was a decrease from previous years: In 2010, $249 million went overseas from JFNA, while the figure was $258 million in 2009.

While Israel’s philanthropic culture is still growing, the country does have an established volunteer culture. Yoram Sagi Zaks, chairman of Israel’s national volunteering council, estimates that 46 percent of Israeli youth volunteer in some capacity, and that 800,000 Israelis volunteer in total. Many draw on their military experience to volunteer with security institutions, like the police force.

While Sagi Zaks appreciates rising philanthropy in Israel, he hopes that it doesn’t replace the culture of volunteerism.

“There’s a trend that more people are giving money because they can, and that needs to rise in all sectors of society,” he said. But, Sagi Zaks added, “It’s easier to give a monetary donation. A donation of yourself connects you to society.”

Avoiding the ‘Jewish fiscal cliff’


The main Capitol Hill sport these days (after obsessive coverage of the Petraeus scandal) is how the government can avoid the impending “fiscal cliff.” A similarly serious financial challenge lurks in the future of the Jewish community — namely, how do we better balance our books and continue to fund an engaging and vibrant Jewish community? We may not be running toward a cliff, but a long slide would leave us in the same place.

Unfortunately, the Jewish Fiscal Crisis (JFC) is more systemic and fragmented than even our government’s current dilemma and cannot be solved by fiat of raising taxes or cutting programs. Rather, the JFC will only be resolved through addressing three difficult issues:

1. How we are organized.

2. How we educate and motivate donors and collect monies.

3. How we deliver services through a complex structure of separate yet (ideally) nonduplicative organizations.

As a long-time participant and funder in Jewish life with a good sense of our history and our complicated communal psyche, I appreciate how fortunate we are relative to previous generations. The point of this commentary is not, “Woe is us.” Rather, the focus here is to present ideas and generate a discussion that leads to collaboration. These ideas are all rooted in my practical experience as a business strategist and nonprofit activist, and in a genuine concern that our community needs to develop strategies that increase overall communal resources for worthwhile initiatives, and generate and allocate our communal resources in the most efficient manner possible.

Background: The impending Jewish Fiscal Crisis explained

The Jewish community has always contended with some level of financial strain, but the situation has materially deteriorated due to numerous interrelated factors and trends, including:

1. Difficult macroeconomic times, which have increased demand for poverty services and annual subsidies (e.g., for synagogue membership and day school tuition).

2. Generational shift in funders, with groups like Avi Chai spending down and next generation mega-donors frequently focused on non-Jewish causes.

3. Limited growth to no growth in Federation ongoing campaigns (not including emergency disaster and crisis relief).

4. Continued inefficiencies as organizations duplicate services yet refuse to merge or coordinate.

5. Expanded reliance on “free” pricing practices (Birthright, PJ Library, Chabad, High Holy Days, etc.) spawning a communal entitlement psychology.

6. Inability to effectively leverage new technologies to materially lower operating and marketing cost structures.

7. Increased unaffiliation as individuals have weaker formal ties to religious organizations.

8. Lack of unity with certain funders and segments (e.g., ultra-Orthodox) with targeted giving on particular agenda and not broader needs.

Vision: Preserving our foundation while seeking innovation

To create the necessary economic foundation for the Nextgen Jewish community, we need a game-changing cooperative approach that disrupts the current economic paradigm while at the same time takes into account established organizations such as the UJA-Federation.

In this regard, the publishing industry serves as an instructive model of how to move forward. Publishers are investing heavily in innovation in the new world of e-books and online distribution while at the same time working to protect their core print businesses. Significant restructuring and mergers are just one visible manifestation of this dynamic process.

We should apply this separate-but-focused approach in the Jewish community. The Federation system and other large incumbent organizations are our printed books, and we need to ensure their continuing, valuable, bottom-line contribution. At the same time, we need to explore and master innovative “e-book” approaches in a way that does not jeopardize major components of the Jewish enterprise.

Plan: Alternative strategy group with focused initiatives

We will only achieve substantive improvement through a collaborative effort that leads to a select number of focused initiatives that ultimately disrupt and improve how the market system operates. Thus, the challenge is not just to envision and implement any one option, but also to achieve widespread community acceptance. With this goal in mind, we should empower a think-outside-of-the-box, Simpson-Bowles-style committee to brainstorm, create and help implement such game-changing initiatives.

The participants would need to include key funders and representatives of incumbent organizations with leadership by visionary participants inside the community — forward-thinking federations (Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston), philanthropic groups (Andrea & Charles Bronfman, Avi Chai or Schusterman Foundations), philanthropic resources (Jewish Funders Network) — as well as market-savvy outsiders (Steve Einhorn or Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn).

The critical ideas on the agenda for this group are not necessarily high-profile, exciting projects, but rather the spinach on the table. They may not be as fun to eat, but they will give the community the basic nutrients to increase resources across the board and allow donors to more efficiently allocate for our future.

Here are four initial ideas this committee should consider (more details are available on  jewishjournal.com):

Idea 1: A transparent marketplace

Our community needs to better collect and organize critical, baseline information on the financials, best practices and strategies/missions of Jewish nonprofit organizations. Information is power, and we need to make our donors smarter about their choices and allocations. Donors can’t maximize their efficiency if they can’t assess where the dollars are going and how they are being spent.

Idea 2: Empowered and informed donors

A “one-size-gives-all” mentality is no longer the only answer as donors become less focused on institutional fulfillment and more interested in individual giving based on personal interests. We need a charity information platform that educates, activates and connects the Jewish community and is a trusted source that provides independent, high-quality and conveniently accessible information. This is not just a stand-alone Web site but will be a larger initiative that includes online and offline elements, all designed to improve donor engagement.

Idea 3: Communal efficiency

There are many organizations working in similar areas that might benefit from a range of coordination and cooperation. More resources need to be devoted to helping organizations start joint-venture operations and merge where it makes sense. There should be a venture fund with access to experienced professionals to assist organizations with the leap to consolidation.

Idea 4: Jewish giving category campaign

Last but not least, we need to address how to increase the overall amount of money given to Jewish causes. This would be general campaign to generate awareness of the importance of Jewish giving and engage funders to increase their allocation to Jewish charities by addressing attitudes, the paradox of choice and informational requirements.

In the end, though, we need to keep in mind that we will not win over major sources of new money through a campaign, but rather through a thoughtful and organized approach to giving Jewishly. This will only be accomplished through the types of initiatives discussed in this article (and in more detail in the extended paper) and other ideas that arise through these discussions.


Mark Pearlman has served on numerous charitable boards. He created JInsider.com and most recently launched Sinai Live Books. On a professional basis, Pearlman is a business and marketing strategist focused primarily in the investment area.

Israel’s middle class increasingly squeezed


At Israeli weddings, gifts of china, silver and art are not welcome. Guests are expected to bring their checkbooks and contribute to a young couple’s purchase of their first home, often bought with substantial help from the newlyweds’ parents.

But a new report shows that only 65 percent of young couples in their 20s and 30s are able to buy a home, as compared with over 80 percent a decade ago.

These statistics are part of the State of the Nation Report 2011- 2012 published by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, which examines various aspects of Israel’s economy.

Director Dan Ben-David finds disturbing trends in Israel’s economy. “We are the ‘start-up nation’ with world-class universities, yet our productivity is falling further and further behind Western countries,” Ben-David told The Media Line.

While overall unemployment in Israel is relatively low, and employment rates among young and middle-aged Israeli men is much lower than in leading Western countries, tens of thousands of Orthodox yeshiva students receive government stipends for studying full-time instead of working.

Israel also has a lot of debt. The Taub Center found that the interest the country pays on its debt was more than its entire education budget last year, and double its health budget.

One bright sign is Israel’s national health care system. Almost all Israelis are members of one of four HMO’s and pay a percentage of their taxes for health insurance. Israeli Jews have one of the highest life expectancies in the world. However the report found that the number of hospital beds in Israel is continuing to drop, and is less than half the Western average.

The report also found that the government’s share of total health care spending in Israel has fallen, while private spending has risen.

“In essence, separate health care systems for the rich and for the poor have developed,” the report found.

Transportation is another problem. The congestion on Israel’s roads is 2.5 times higher than the Western average, although the number of cars per capita is much lower. Even though Israel has begun spending more money on its transportation infrastructure recently, traffic jams have gotten almost unbearable during rush hour.

But it is the plight of Israel’s middle class that economists find most disturbing.

Paul Rivlin, a professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, says the middle class is being squeezed all over the world. In Israel, he says, monopolies control important aspects of life.

“There is only one supplier of land because the State of Israel owns practically all of the land,” he told The Media Line. “There is only one supplier of cement. The food we buy is overwhelmingly sold or made or imported by monopolistic organizations that engage in price gouging.”

In the summer of 2011, socioeconomic demonstrations dubbed the “cottage cheese protests” swept the Jewish state. Hundreds of thousands, including Rivlin, went into the streets demanding lower food prices. Many items manufactured in Israel cost less when purchased abroad.

After those protests, prices of many commodities went down although they have crept up again over the past year. Rivlin says economic issues have often taken a back seat in Israel.

“The amount of time you can concentrate on social issues is limited because of security issues,” Rivlin said.

Taxes in Israel are also high, the income tax ranging from 10 percent to a whopping 48 percent.

“There have been some tax reforms that have benefited the bottom and the top, but the middle class still gets hit,” Rivlin says. “As you move up with moderate increases in income, you get pushed up into higher tax rates.”

“We are falling further and further behind in living standards and if we don’t do something soon, fewer Israelis will stay here,” Ben-David told The Media Line. “We are on some long-term social and economic trajectories that are simply unsustainable in the long run.”

Economic costs of Gaza fighting


Last Friday, Moshe Ahituv (not his real name) received another call-up from the Israeli army. A captain in the home front command, he had already completed 43 days of army reserve service this year.

Moshe, 40, is an English teacher and the father of two toddlers. His wife is a physical therapist and they are about to purchase their first apartment in Jerusalem. He says the emotional cost of the fighting in the Gaza Strip has already taken a toll.

“The kids aren’t sleeping well, and my three-year-old daughter is behaving badly at nursery school,” he told The Media Line. “It’s also frustrating for me. I spend a lot of time on buses getting from home to my base. I could be home with the kids then or working to bring home money to my family.”

There is also an economic toll. While the government will pay for his missed days at work, he will not receive compensation for the private tutoring hours he has been forced to cancel, which amounts to $400 per week.

Israelis and Palestinians are paying a heavy economic price for the cross-border fighting in Gaza. From orange trees in Gaza damaged during an Israeli airstrike to small restaurants in southern Israel who have no customers, to tourists cancelling trips to Israel and Bethlehem, to destroyed buildings in Gaza, the economic costs on both sides is astronomical.

The business information company IDI estimates the fighting in Gaza will cost the Israeli economy $75 million dollars per day in lost productivity. Many small businesses in southern Israel, in particular, are suffering.

“Usually on the weekends we are full, but this past weekend we had just two tables – both of journalists,” Elad Zaritsky, 35, the owner of Linda, a bistro restaurant in the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashqelon, told The Media Line. “We’ve already lost thousands of dollars and we simply can’t continue like this. If the fighting continues much longer, we may have to close.”

Zaritsky says small businesses like his operate with only a narrow profit margin. He says the restaurant has been open for five years. Four years ago, during Cast Lead, Israel’s last major ground operation in Gaza, his business also suffered. The government did give him compensation, but he says it did not nearly cover his losses.

Tourism in Israel is also beginning to suffer, although this is the low season for tourism, between the Jewish holidays of the fall; and Chanuka and Christmas in a few weeks.

“Incoming groups for the near future are down 10 percent and individual bookings are down 15 percent,” Ami Etgar, the general director of the Israel Incoming Tour Operator Association told The Media Line. “But groups that are already here have not left.”

Across the border, inside Gaza, life has virtually come to a standstill. While most residents keep a stock of food supplies including flour, oil, sugar and tea in their homes, most shops and businesses remain closed.

“Banks are closed and ATM machines are running out of cash,” Azzam Shawwa, the general manager of the Quds Bank told The Media Line. “But who wants to risk going out when there are airstrikes?”

Shawwa said there is also concern about the electricity supply to Gaza. While Israel has continued to provide power to the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, the electricity must go through transformers to change the voltage. Some of those transformers have been destroyed in Israeli airstrikes, and the spare ones are already being used, he said.

“Even before this, some places only had electricity for 12 hours a day,” Omar Shaaban, an economist at Palthink, a Gaza-based think tank told The Media Line. “Now some places only have electricity for six hours a day. Some of us have generators, but there is a shortage of fuel for the generators. I just turned my generator on to answer some emails, but I’m going to have to turn it off soon.”

Shaaban says it’s too early to assess the economic damage caused by the Israeli airstrikes, which have killed at least 95 Palestinians and wounded hundreds. Dozens of buildings in Gaza have been completely destroyed.

“Our economy is losing at least $2 million dollars per day,” Shaaban said. “And that’s in addition to the agricultural sector which has already lost $25 million dollars. The economy has been completely suspended. Agricultural products were supposed to be exported this week from Gaza, but now that didn’t happen.”

Back across the border in Israel, more people seem to be staying home, even in areas that have been relatively free of missile strikes.

“There are many fewer passengers going from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Raof Basila, an Arab citizen of Israel who drives a shared-taxi between the two cities. His colleague, Fadi Abu Katish, agrees. He told The Media Line that while fifty drivers normally transport more than 1,500 passengers each day, the drivers are now alone in their vehicles.

Basila added a pensive note. “People are afraid to go out,” he said. “It is not good for either side. Both sides need peace.”

Widespread khat addiction threatens Yemen’s future


Abdulmalik, a 13-year-old boy from Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, started chewing khat leaves at the age of seven. “My father would pass me small handfuls at weddings,” he told The Media Line. “But I didn’t start chewing every day until I turned 12 and started to work. Khat gives me energy for work.”

“I chew khat everyday,” he said proudly, exposing the pesto-colored glob of mush packed into his cheek. 

Indeed, each day after lunch, tens of millions of Yemenis from all strands of society devote at least three to four hours to the purchase and mastication of catha edulis, a tall-growing shrub native to the Arabian Peninsula and African Horn that produces an amphetamine-like high when chewed.

In patriarchal Yemen, the ritual was restricted to the province of men for millennia. In recent years, however, women and even children have picked up the habit in growing numbers. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that 73 percent of Yemeni women today chew the leaves with some frequency, while some 15 to 20 percent of children under the age of 12 chew khat daily.

According to Hind Aleryani, an anti-khat Yemeni activist, the emerging trend of child khat use could spell disaster for the impoverished country of 26 million that just entered a fragile political transition following last year’s bloody, anti-government uprisings, which unseated 33-year autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh. The WFP estimates that about 15 million person-hours per day are spent chewing khat in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. And 40 percent of the country’s water supply is channeled into the cultivation of the native shrub, despite the fact that Sana’a is on track to be the first capital city to run out of water.

“Whenever we talk about the problems of khat and its impact on the economy, agriculture, water, health and social life in Yemen,” she said, “we say that the only solution is a new generation that is not addicted to the drug. However, the problem is that the new generation has been addicted ever since childhood.”

Donald Burgess from Yemen’s UNICEF office echoed Aleryani’s concerns about addiction. “The habit of chewing khat can easily be picked up by young people as it has an important place in the tradition and social habits of Yemenis, and is not looked upon as something very serious,” he told The Media Line.

“The habit starts off as an imitation of the adults in the family and later develops into an addiction,” he said. Yet “despite the fact that an increasing number of children in Yemen are picking up the habit, there are no accurate statistical data or studies on the negative effects of khat on children.”

From the incidental data and indirect evidence that are available, it is clear that khat has a great impact on Yemeni families. According to WFP, “Households spend an average of 10 percent of their expenditure on khat – more than on health and education combined.”

That, according to Burgess, “acts as a supporting factor to the decreased appetite and loss of vitamins, minerals and fluids that khat induces in children, resulting in the development of fragile bones, pale skin, anemia, weight loss and decreased growth rate.”

Abdulmalik, for his part, said his daily khat expenditure averages about 500 Yemeni Rial (or $2.33), a significant amount in a country where almost half the population survives on less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank.

Another major side effect is decreased academic performance, explained Burgess. “Children who indulge in khat chewing tend to prioritize khat sessions over time spent on their studies,” he said. Following the khat session, he added, “lethargy and decreased interest towards any productive activity” set in, thus wasting more “precious time that could be used for studying or reading educational material.”

Fauzia, a 28-year-old artist who grew up in Sana’a, told The Media Line that it was forbidden for her and her friends to chew khat as children or even teenagers, “but now it seems to be more common for girls, though mostly in elite circles,” she said.

Up to the Next Generation

Aleryani argues that it is up to Yemen’s next generation to change old ways of thinking about khat. “The image of khat for many teenagers, especially boys, is a sign of becoming an adult and a man,” Aleryani says. “Their dream as kids is to grow up and chew khat just like their fathers, and recently this has become the case with women as well.”

Earlier this year, Aleryani spearheaded an anti-khat campaign on Twitter and Facebook, urging the new transitional President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi and his government to ban khat in public offices. Only one small gesture came from Minister of Education Dr. Abdulrazag Al-Ashwal, who ordered schools nationwide to promote a day of awareness about the drug’s effects. When asked by Aleryani to introduce regular lessons into the curricula, the minister said, “It's not possible now … maybe in the future.”

With about half of the country’s 26 million residents currently under the age of 15, Yemen’s population is expected to almost double over the next two decades, creating a whole new set of economic and resource challenges for the small Arabian Peninsula state. As long as the vast majority of Yemenis continue to view khat chewing as a sacred tradition, instead of an unhealthy addiction that is strangling the economy, devouring precious natural resources and weakening family ties, the future looks grim. 

From Madoff to Sandy and on eve of GA, federations retool when crisis hits


The national headquarters of the Jewish Federations of North America could not have been in a worse location when Sandy struck.

Except, maybe, if it were located on the Jersey Shore.

The Jewish Federations’ building in lower Manhattan lost power amid Hurricane Sandy’s winds and the surge of seawater that inundated the neighborhood. For nearly 48 hours last week, the organization’s servers were down, its email, computers and phones offline and inaccessible.

The organization's annual General Assembly, scheduled for Nov. 11-13 in Baltimore, was less than two weeks away. Worse, the head office of the country’s largest aid and welfare network was out of commission at a time of crisis for New York, the nation’s largest Jewish community.

But then the Jewish Federations came back.

First using Facebook to communicate and later shifting to texts, emails and phones once server access was restored, the organization kicked into action, opening a hurricane relief fund that raised more than $68,000 by week’s end.

Farther uptown, the federation system’s largest member, UJA-Federation of New York, announced a week after the storm that it was making available $10 million in emergency relief aid to its network agencies and synagogues in the New York area.

“In times of crisis — whether after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the wars in Israel’s North or this — federations are able to mobilize resources to respond in bold ways,” said John Ruskay, the CEO of UJA-Federation of New York. “While everyone extends themselves in the ways they can, federations are uniquely positioned.”

Four years ago, Jewish federations were facing a much different sort of crisis.

The U.S. economy was in a tailspin. The Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme had dealt a crippling blow to a host of Jewish foundations, agencies, donors and even universities. The need for aid was rising rapidly, fundraising dollars were in decline and federations were struggling with how to offer additional help while tightening their belts.

So federations began changing the way they did business. Staffs were downsized. Programs were cut. Two federations in New Jersey merged. Fundraising became even more tailored to donors. In some cities, overseas funding was sacrificed in favor of local welfare programs.

Four years on, these changes are still reshaping the federation landscape even as federation fundraising and programming are coming back.

“All of these are important changes and practical changes that the economic collapse didn’t necessarily lead to, but created the momentum that led to them finally being made,” said Louis Feldstein, former chief operating officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and now the CEO at Dynamic Changes Solutions, a management consulting firm.

“The key question is are they major changes or just dancing around the edges. The challenge is that you can’t cut yourself to growth, particularly in the nonprofit sector.”

In Los Angeles, where the recession saw a spike in Jewish poverty, the federation has recalibrated toward serving a more Jewish clientele rather than a nonsectarian one. The federation also has focused more on vocational services.

“We’re doing our work differently and focusing far more on serving Jewish clients because there are so many more to serve,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

In New York, the federation established seven regional centers as part of a new program called Connect to Care that partnered with synagogues and other Jewish community institutions to provide everything from vocational counseling to emergency loans.

Like many federations, however, fundraising is still down in New York. While its annual campaign has picked up in the last couple of years, it’s still bringing in less than before the recession.

“We’re on the road back, but we’re not quite back where we were,” Ruskay said.

At the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland in Oregon, fundraising is still down about 25 percent from pre-2008 levels, even though it has grown by 8 percent in each of the last two years. Last year the federation raised about $3.3 million, down from a high mark of $4.2 million before the recession.

“The storm lasted longer than people thought it would,” said Marc Blattner, who became president and CEO of the federation two years ago. “We kept with the mindset that we have to ride this out and stay focused and on message.”

Sanderson says the upcoming General Assembly is a good time to retool and refocus.

Jewish Federations says it expects some 3,500 people in Baltimore for the GA — assuming that the continuing fallout from Sandy doesn't keep too many New Yorkers from getting the trains or gasoline they need to get there.

“We did the best we could to maintain momentum and keep everything moving,” Susan Sherr-Seitz, associate vice president, special projects/GA at Jewish Federations, told JTA after the storm. “A lot of things are out of our control here. We really are hoping that everyone is doing OK and will be able to come.”

The GA has a special message to convey in this time of challenge, Sherr-Seitz said: “Come together, celebrate together getting through the storm, feel together and feel the power of community.”

The final Obama/Romney showdown: A note to a stiff-necked people


To those Jews planning to vote for Obama:

Are you prepared to explain to your children not the principles upon which your vote is cast, but its probable effects upon them? 

Irrespective of your endorsement of liberal sentiments, of fairness and “more equal distribution,” will you explain to your children that top-down economic policies will increasingly limit their ability to find challenging and well-paid work, and that the diminution in employment and income will decrease their opportunity to marry and raise children?

Will you explain (as you have observed) that a large part of their incomes will be used to fund programs that they may find immoral, wasteful and/or indeed absurd? And that the bulk of their taxes go to no programs at all, but merely service the debt you entailed on them? 

[Related: [Related: A note to Jewish grandparents: