Letters to the Editor: Cardboard Sukkah, Child Abuse, Gender Terminology


Cardboard Sukkah Idea Has a Few Holes In It

It’s a brilliant idea, though the street folks will now be cardless as well as homeless until they can invest donations in new, and, perhaps better, art supplies (“HomelessSukkah.com,” Aug. 16). Here’s hoping your metaphor will be supported and addressed this season in a new year and new form of giving.

Melanie Chartoff via jewishjournal.com


I saw your article. It’s a great idea, especially if you can get the mayor to come.

However, if the roof is cardboard it won’t be a kosher sukkah. The cardboard often comes from boxes, which are susceptible to ritual contamination since they had an interior, and are therefore not capable of being a kosher sukkah roof material (called schach in Hebrew). This is why bamboo mats or branches are commonly used.

Joshua Kovacs via e-mail


Rob Eshman responds:

Yes, Mr. Kovacs is 100 percent right. I neglected to check with my very local rabbi first — I was under the impression cardboard counted as natural schach. She set me straight, as usual. The online version is correct, and, thankfully, several organizations and people have joined the effort at HomelessSukkah.com.


Child Abuse: The Shock Heard Round the Jewish World

It is dismaying to read the latest of so many accusations of child abuse in the Orthodox community, and as a teacher it is such a disconnect to read L.A. District Attorney Ben Forer’s words, that “people don’t want to believe” allegations of sexual abuse (“Childhood Abuse Victims Name Alleged Abuser,” Aug. 16). 

“Families come out in support, in every community, in support of the predator, no matter what the evidence is,” Forer said. Contrast that to allegations against a teacher in a public school district. There, people want to not only believe that any allegation is true, but that more and others must be involved. 

Teachers in the LAUSD, who must be annually certified by passing a test on child abuse awareness, are mandated reporters to law enforcement (not to parents, or school administrators, or school police) of suspected child abuse, on penalty of possibly losing their job, arrest or both. Why is the standard in the Orthodox community, of all places, any less? 

One must be very sure before accusations (not to mention photos) are made public, but hopefully as much energy is being put into a concerted effort to get the victims to go to the authorities and seek whatever due process is still available to them.  

Mitch Paradise, Los Angeles


Is this article the reason why there have been no copies of the Jewish Journal in their usual stands in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood since last Thursday? There are usually leftover copies that are removed only when the subsequent week’s issue is released. If so, the article should be reprinted weekly and the newsstands monitored for those abetting abusers.

Aaron Gross via jewishjournal.com


This is a beautiful article (“The Torah and Child Sexual Abuse,” Aug. 16). Having lived this crime with my sons, I know its truth so well. Protect all children always by being public.

Betty Backus Martin via jewishjournal.com


Clarifying Sex, Sexuality, Gender Terminology

I was extremely upset by Dennis Prager’s article, “Do Men and Women Matter?”(July 19) and the responses by Alex Romano and Prager (Letters, Aug. 1). As a queer Jewish feminist with a bachelor’s degree in gender studies and a minor in LGBT studies, the choice by the Jewish Journal to publish comments and articles that confuse feminism, gender, sex and sexuality was extremely disappointing and hurtful. 

In the simplest explanation, biological sex refers to whether we are female, male or intersex. Gender is a social construct that defines people as men or women. Transgender and cisgender refer to gender identity. Sexual orientation is attraction, including lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, queer and more. Feminism is about equality. 

Please note that it is very difficult to simplify identities and labels, and there are numerous identities I have not mentioned due to the word limit. Understandings of sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and feminism change from person to person; they are very personal and individual. I personally think our world should be more gender neutral and treat all people with humanity and respect. I look forward to you publishing articles that do not erase women, non-binary people and the LGBTQ community.

Emily Kunstler via e-mail

Letters to the Editor: Cleveland Kidnappings, Hawking, Mount Zion Cemetery


How Much Involvement?

This is a thought-provoking article about our own responsibility as neighbors (“We Must Be Our Brother’s Keeper,” May 17). How do we strike the balance between being intrusive and being helpful?

Haya Leah Molnar
via jewishjournal.com

Brotherhood

In light with teachings of Holy Quran, we Ahmadis hope to bridge the gap and form bond of love with the fellow Jewish brethren (“His Holiness,” May 17)!

Noor Ul Amin
New Delhi, India
via jewishjournal.com

Boycotting Israel

I want to thank [Stephen Hawking] for boycotting Israel (“Hawking and Mohammed,” May 17). It was an insignificant, petty declaration with no real consequence. Had he not, I would have mistakenly continued to think he had integrity.

Israel should also be boycotted for receiving 180,000 Palestinians into their hospitals for medical care each year, too!

Phillip Pasmanick
via jewishjournal.com

I am sure that a lot of the Palestinians in Israeli jails, including young boys, do not feel Israel is so wonderful. Bravo, Mr. Hawking.

Ann McCoy
via jewishjournal.com

Global Warming: Real or Not?

On atmospheric CO2 reaching 400 parts per million, Marty Kaplan’s article on global warming attempts to gin up high drama about a subject waning in the public’ consciousness (“Say Goodnight, Earthlings,” May 17). Professor Kaplan: “Our planet’s hair is on fire.” Catchy, entertaining, but is it science? Data from the NASA Climate Change public Web page http://climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators suggest otherwise.

A plot from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at the top of the page, shows atmospheric CO2 steadily rising since 2005.

Lower on the page, a plot from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies indicates that global average temperatures have been slightly declining since 2004.

In other words, global temperature is not following the atmospheric CO2 concentration. An unbiased analyst would see no correlation between the two. Therefore, CO2 concentration exceeding 400 parts per million is no reason to panic and to dismantle our economy. Which is why the American public lost interest in the issue.

Professor Kaplan is using “disaster porn” (his words) and “grab us by the eyeballs” (his words) to push a gloom and doom picture in support of a Luddite economic approach. Solid data from two of the world’s research powerhouses prove him wrong.

Alex Abramovici
Pasadena

Marty Kaplan responds: Mr. Abramovici bases his case on global temperature from 2004 to the present. Anyone who’d like to see what’s happened from 1880 to the present — both to global temperature, and to CO2 concentration — should look at the same graphs on the same NASA page he cites:climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators. The facts really do speak for themselves.

Mattel Details

I read your article on the Autry exhibition with great interest and hope you will accept one comment/correction (“How the Jews Changed L.A.,” May 3). Mattel was started by both Ruth and Elliot Handler. Ruth was the CEO and Elliot the chief development officer (now would be referred to as chief creative officer), and both were responsible for developing and bringing out the Barbie doll and then Hot Wheels.

Irwin Field
via e-mail

Giving Credit Where Due: to L.A. Times

I was gratified to read Jared Sichel’s extremely well-reported and -written story “Restoring Mount Zion” (May 10). I’m glad that the Jewish Journal is covering the sorry state that this cemetery finds itself in — as well as nascent efforts to do something about it.

It was pointed out to me, however, by the person who forwarded the article to me that there was no mention of the fact that the publication I work for, the Los Angeles Times, broke that story. In fact, I was the person who reported and wrote the story about Mount Zion’s condition. As you know, these stories get picked up elsewhere, and people are none the wiser that the L.A. Times had a thing to do with breaking this story.

Hector Becerra
Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Editor’s note: The Journal has written about the decay at Mount Zion Cemetery before, including in 2007, as has The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times article mentioned did not break the story, but it did provide another look. We regret that omission.

Editorial Cartoon: I’ve got your back


Your back

Editorial Cartoon: The Endless Relay Race


Israel’s Torah Scholars Then and Now


Letters to the Editor: Dennis Prager, Jewish Service Corps, Conservative Congregants


Distorting the Truth

Dennis Prager was given the opportunity to respond to a letter sent by a reader (Letters, April 27). I’d like to respond to his response. He asserts, “It was racists in the Democratic Party, not conservatives or Republicans, who blocked civil rights for blacks.” I’ve been a long-time listener and reader of Mr. Prager’s, and while I disagree with him on almost every issue, I have always respected his integrity. However, I must say that in this case, he is veering dangerously close to a purposeful distortion of the truth. 

While today’s Democratic and Republican parties are far more monolithic than in the past, people in Mr. Prager’s generation (of which I am one) are well aware that there used to be a liberal wing of the Republican Party (Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, etc.) and a conservative wing to the Democratic Party (George Wallace, etc.). Therefore, while it is technically true that “racists in the Democratic Party” did indeed block civil rights for black people, Mr. Prager knows quite well that these were most certainly not liberal Democrats; they were part of conservative/racist part of the party. And yet he continues the sentence by saying it was “not conservatives” in the party who stood in the way. Oh? George Wallace wasn’t conservative?

The bottom line is this: I think it’s pretty clear that far more conservatives than liberals were involved with blocking rights for black folks. And to paint a picture that implies otherwise is deeply disappointing, especially coming from a man who has stated numerous times that “clarity” is one of his primary goals and values.

A case can be made that some of the civil rights programs that did pass were counterproductive (affirmative action, for example), and while I don’t agree with such arguments, good people can disagree. But the implication in Prager’s statement is simply a distortion of reality from someone who knows better. 

Larry Garf
Topanga


Jewish Service Corps Needed in L.A.

I wanted to respond to the excellent article by Jonathan Zasloff (“Korbanot, Or Why Jews Should Act More Like Mormons,” May 4).

I grew up with Mormons and have always been amazed at how organized they are. The whole family looks forward to their children’s mission as a right of passage — when they can give unselfishly, tout the benefits of their religious beliefs and the value systems that help them contribute to the world and lead successful lives.

As wonderful as Birthright Israel has been, and I have two children [who can] attest to the greatness of the program, a one- or two-year commitment would many times give back to the community and enhance tikkun olam in the world. It would bring young Jewish kids together for an extended period of time to explore their commonality and form a bond that will give meaning to them throughout the remainder of their lives.

I, for one, would love to see a Los Angeles chapter of AVODAH, and to have the kind of organization and excitement that has to be generated to fill the idealism and imagination that is possible. I believe that a committee should be formed to explore the possibilities.

Denis M. Weintraub
via e-mail


Conservative Congregants Don’t Practice What Rabbis Preach

In his quest to differentiate between Conservative and Reform Judaism, Rabbi Hanan Alexander (“About Conservative Ordination of Openly Gay Rabbis,” May 4) states, “all candidates for rabbinic ordination must be committed to an observant Jewish lifestyle that includes daily prayer, Sabbath observance and Jewish dietary practice.” While that’s correct, it’s important to note that the practices of Conservative congregants do not reflect those of their clergy. Most have ceased following the laws of kashrut, rarely attend Shabbat services and provide their children with just enough religious training to get them through a [bar or bat] mitzvah service.

This disconnect doesn’t exist in Orthodox or Reform communities, where the practices of congregants are more closely aligned with those of their clergy. The result is that a rapidly declining number of children follow in their parents’ Conservative footsteps, and Conservative shuls often merge for survival. Even The United Synagogue [of Conservative Judaism], the Conservative movement’s umbrella organization, recently found it necessary to undergo belt-tightening.

Either this trend must be reversed or Conservative Judaism will soon become a footnote in Jewish history textbooks. Step one is for Conservative leaders to openly admit that the problem exists and then focus their resources on a long-range solution. Living in a state of denial is a formula for disaster.

Leonard M. Solomon
Los Angeles


Robotics at YULA, Too

In your most recent issue, you ran an article about the Milken robot, “Sir Lancebot,” and the Milken Knights (“Hoop, There It Is! Milken’s Robotics Team Scores Big,” May 4). In it, Roger Kassebaum said that he knows of no other Jewish robotics teams in the United States. This year, YULA High Schools has started a robotics team.

Gabriel Naghi
via e-mail


Hagee on the Roof

In Mark Paredes April 8th column, he judges a video-blog Pastor John Hagee taped on Aish Hatorah’s rooftop, overlooking the Western Wall, to be “insensitive.” This conclusion is nonsensical. Newsflash: Hagee is a Christian preacher.

In the video, Hagee discusses an element of standard Christian theology which he has discussed numerous times in the past. His comments were directed at his Christian audience in America, and were not heard by the individuals visiting the Kotel below. He chose the location, off the site of the actual Temple Mount, in order to be sensitive to those visiting Judaism’s holiest site.

In the struggle for Israel’s survival there are real issues to be addressed and real battles to be fought. Paredes’ column addresses neither.

Ari Morgenstern
Spokesman for Christians United for Israel

Editorial Cartoon: Frogs in hot water


Editorial cartoon: Looking forward to the end of Pass-over


Letters to the Editor: ADL, Sex-Ed in Orthodox high schools


Measuring Anti-Semitism
Rob Eshman dismisses the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) polling on anti-Semitic attitudes with one word — “junk” — and suggests that American Jews are deluding themselves about the level of anti-Semitism in society, which he would have us believe is virtually non-existent (“Again,” March 30). Yet the facts tell a far different story. 

Eshman may not agree with our methodology — and he has a right to his opinion — but it is irresponsible and misguided to suggest that we use our polling to stir up “fact-free hysteria” about a mythical anti-Semitism. In fact, through our periodic polling over the years we have found — and clearly reported — that anti-Semitism in the United States has dropped significantly, from 29 percent in 1964 to 15 percent today, and is nowhere near the levels we currently see in Europe.

Still, what continues is troubling. Our most recent poll of anti-Semitic attitudes in America, a national telephone survey of 1,754 adults conducted Oct. 12-23, 2011, found approximately 15 percent of Americans, or 35 million people, are infected with classical anti-Semitic beliefs. This represented an increase of 3 percent from the findings of a similar poll conducted in 2009.

These numbers are not pulled out of thin air, or based on junk science. In measuring anti-Semitic attitudes ADL relies on an index carefully developed in partnership with the University of California nearly 50 years ago. The index includes 11 questions that are used to gauge a wide range of anti-Semitic propensities. A respondent must agree with six or more of statements such as “Jews are more loyal to Israel than America,” “Jews stick together more than other Americans,” “Jews have too much power in the U.S. today,” and “Jews have a lot of irritating faults” in order to be deemed to have anti-Semitic propensities.

Recent events — among them the arrest of an avowed anti-Semite in the attempted firebombing of synagogues in New Jersey and the discovery of anti-Semitic graffiti on a synagogue in Chicago — are all the more reason not to be complacent.

We should rely on careful analysis — not flip generalizations — to bring us toward a greater understanding of this phenomenon. This is not “hysteria,” but a sober analysis of a hatred that continues to persist — even in America.

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director
Anti-Defamation League

 
Rob Eshman responds:
Abe Foxman is a personal hero of mine, and the ADL performs critical educational and watchdog tasks throughout the world.

That said, my quarrel with the ADL’s survey of anti-Semitic attitudes is that, as Mr. Foxman explains, the survey is 50 years old. As I stated in my editorial, some of the questions that the ADL considers negative no longer read as such. In a post- “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” world, in which a Jew won the vice presidential popular vote and Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz is the most trusted name in news, a world in which 82 percent of Americans believe Israel is “friendly” or an “ally ” (CNN Poll, May 2011), a world in which the vast majority of Americans report they would welcome a Jew into their family (Gallup, 2010), the ADL survey simply doesn’t pass the common sense test. It is due for an update.

If a reputable third-party survey finds American anti-Semitism at the levels the ADL claims, I would be happy to publish a full retraction and apology. If I’m right, I’ll settle for a nice lunch.


Sex Ed in Orthodox high schools
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz certainly displays an enthusiastically liberal, if naive, viewpoint in his essay “Sex Education in Orthodox High Schools” (March 30). He begins by denying the link between “learning” and then “doing” that scares many parents and educators about sex education. Much, though not all, of his subsequent pitch for sex education is defensive and survivalist — a tack taken by many educators in efforts to persuade resistant subpopulations of the value of it. That approach stresses the importance of biology and physical health and well-being pre-eminently. It tends to be more elliptical where social, psychological and moral matters are at issue. He argues that the classroom should be a safe and sacred place for sex education as he closes his piece.

He fails to see that resistance to sex education exists on many levels, not just the learning-equals-doing association, and not just with teen populations and their parents. The roots of that resistance cannot be detailed in a short note, but an example may stimulate more thought and discussion. I have approached local Orthodox rabbis with a proposal of evening lecture/discussion devoted to enhancing sexuality in marriage for adult audiences in private homes or synagogue facilities. Not one such offer ever materialized. Suffice it to say there are many forces that conspire against sex education in the Orthodox community, particularly if the program involves any sort of public conversation.

Doreen Seidler-Feller
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
via e-mail

Editorial cartoon: The Church of Latter-Day Aints*


Greenberg’s year in review


Jan. 14

Jan. 28

Feb. 11

Apr. 15

June 3

July 29

Aug. 12

Sept. 2

Oct. 21

Oct. 28

Nov. 4

Dec. 9

Eight (pricey) nights


Opinion: The Face of Israel


When the thousands of delegates, journalists and observers drive to the United Nations this September for the General Assembly, I’d like to suggest that on their way they swing by the intersection of 10th Avenue and 35th Street.

I know it’s not exactly on the way. In fact, it’s almost directly across the island, as the U.N. is at 46th and First. But if they can take that detour, they’ll see a billboard that was just put up, featuring the face of Gilad Shalit.

“I was kidnapped by Hamas on June 25, 2006,” the billboard’s text reads.  “I have been held hostage for 1,819 days and counting. This summer I will turn 25 years old.  Where did you spend your birthday this year?” Then it ends with the words  “Free Gilad Shalit.”

The U.N. delegates will be on their way to the General Assembly, where they are expected to vote on a motion for Palestinian statehood. Although Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have suspended their unity agreement, there is every likelihood that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will continue reconciliation talks after a pro-statehood vote. After all, it would be hard to conceive of a Palestinian state without Gaza.

Perhaps seeing the billboard would prompt the U.N. delegates to ask themselves this question: Does the U.N., created to establish international peace and stability, really want to be an accessory to kidnapping?

The U.N.’s membership includes states that commit all sorts of atrocities. Some of them, like Sudan, sat on the now defunct Commission on Human Rights, even while engaging in genocide. Saudi Arabia is a current member of the Human Rights Council, no doubt because Saudi Arabia is expert at identifying human rights, in order to crush them.

But the case of Palestine is different, because here the U.N. has leverage. It can dangle the carrot of statehood in front of the Palestinians. It can simply ask the Palestinians which they’d rather have, Gilad Shalit, or recognition as a state. Or, at the very least, its members might read the U.N.’s own charter.

“Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations,” the U.N. rules read.

These obligations include the duty to resolve disputes using peaceful means —“by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.”

Kidnapping is not on the list, not to mention any of the other tactics Hamas has far from renounced — lobbing rockets at civilians, sending suicide bombers into Israel, provoking war.

Granted, I’m under no illusions that the U.N. will abide by its own charter. Its record on Israel is largely antagonistic. It very may well decide to forgive Hamas and forget Shalit.

But for the Jewish world swept up in the debate over Palestinian statehood, that is not an option.

As our cover story this week discusses, last week was the fifth anniversary of Shalit’s capture. As that date came and went, I took the occasion to speak with Gal Sitty, the 28-year-old Studio City resident who created the billboard campaign for Shalit.  I asked him why he did it.

“It’s to keep the pressure on officials, at the International Red Cross, at the U.N.,  to do more,” Sitty said. “The Red Cross still hasn’t been allowed to see him. Putting up this billboard is something I can do.”

Sitty is the son of Israeli immigrants.  He attended Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley, then UCLA, then received advanced degrees in public policy. 

“In five years, I’ve had two master’s degrees and many different jobs,” he said. “Gilad hasn’t been able to move forward with his life at all. That’s something young people can very much relate to.”

Sitty used a new online site, epicstep.com, to crowdsource the $10,000 he needed to mount his billboard where an estimated 1.2 million people per month will see it. It took him just 30 days to get contributions from 181 people. The contributions came from all over the world, including Argentina and Indonesia.

Indeed, many people outside Israel have taken up Shalit’s cause in a big way. The organization StandWithUs launched an international Free Gilad petition drive and has already gathered more than 30,000 signatures, and there are numerous blogs, Facebook groups and other efforts dedicated to the soldier. It is Shalit’s terrible fate to have become the new face of Israel.

It is a face that says something critical about the nature of Israel, as well as the nature of its worst enemies and those who acquiesce to those enemies’ tactics. 

The kidnapping has stirred up debate in Israel — everything stirs up debate in Israel — over the price the government should pay to free one soldier, over whether public pressure actually strengthens Hamas’ bargaining position. 

But it also reveals the nation’s deep, unified concern over the fate of an individual. While many of Israel’s neighbors are attacking and imprisoning their own citizens en masse, Israel and its supporters are focused on protecting even one.

If Hamas ever wanted to find a way to ennoble Israel and its people in the eyes of the world — and, at the same time, to lower itself — it could not have chosen better than Gilad Shalit.

Talking with progressives about Israel


For years, liberal Zionists have been writing about the need to renew the traditional progressive-Zionist alliance, inspired by the civil rights and labor movements, and the importance of using these partnerships to maintain left-leaning allies for Israel.

Getting allies on the right has been easier because supporting Israel fits in neatly with the various goals of groups on the right, such as religious conservatives, the neoconservatives who deeply distrust the Muslim community, or economic conservatives who admire Israel’s thriving capital market. So much so, that political conservatives choose to overlook the “socialistic” policies of Israel, including protectionism, universal health care, education, and equal rights statutes for minorities and women.

The left is trickier. While most on the left side of the political spectrum support Israel, some progressives do not. The irony is that they probably agree with Israel’s domestic social welfare and civil rights policies more than conservatives do, but nevertheless a small element of the progressive movement has taken the “underdog vs. colonizer” model and oversimplified it in the context of a far more complex Middle East than some are willing to admit exists.

However, abandonment of our traditional alliances is only part of the problem. The other problem is how we explain Israel to the left. To paraphrase pollster Frank Luntz, we don’t “frame” Israel in language that resonates with the left.

Groups such as Democrats for Israel, the only Democratic club solely focused on supporting Israel and the Jewish community, made strides in the progressive community by explaining Israel in a way that many in the Democratic Party have embraced, beating back attempts by extremists to get the party to condemn Israel for merely defending itself from Hamas and Hezbollah.

How did we do it? In addition to keeping up partnerships, we learned to frame Israel in a way that resonated with our allies.

Israel is an island of progressivism

Universal education, universal health care, equal rights, minority rights protections, strong activist courts, and gays and lesbians openly serving in the military: Israel sounds like a progressive’s dream. Until I brought this up to several Democratic clubs, they had no idea that Israel was founded by a bunch of socialists on kibbutzim. No other single country in the Middle East has the complete set of social and civil rights that Israel does. 

If Israel was a “creation” of colonialist powers, why is the country so liberal when it comes to activist courts and civil rights?
 
Israel has limited security choices due to geography and culture

Israel is about the size of New Jersey. At its narrowest point, Israel is about nine miles wide, about the distance from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. This gives Israel very little room for error and sometimes requires it to overcompensate in its security choices.

Also, in the past when the United States publicly backed off its support for Israel, Israel’s enemies have interpreted it as a sign that Israel is weak and can be attacked (some have theorized that Nixon’s weak support for Israel in 1973 led to the Yom Kippur War). Therefore, the United States needs to be careful in how it chooses to resolve differences of opinion with its strongest ally, lest there then become no ally there at all.  

However, every president has had his differences with Israel, just like there have been disagreements with every other ally, and no military aid was cut off to Great Britain or Canada.

Also, the region has more than 60 years of ethnic division building on thousands of years of history. Some Palestinian schools still refuse to teach children that Israel exists, and Hamas’ children’s TV openly preaches anti-Semitism. While Fatah’s leadership may profess to the West supporting peace, their own internal messaging has been more mixed — such as recently naming a town square after a terrorist whose only achievement was killing an innocent Israeli family.
 
Democracies are not perfect, and neither is Israel

We have heard it repeatedly: “Criticizing Israel publicly is not pro-Israel.” Whether you agree or not, picking on Israel is not what I am advocating here.

We just have to stop acting like we are infallible when we all know that no one, and no nation, is perfect.

We live in a sound-bite age, where pundits are expected to say, “We are right and they are wrong.” Pro-Israel activists are trained to say that Israel takes measures it deems necessary to defend itself and not acknowledge those measures’ collateral effects. It may work for news opinion shows, but the real world is not that way. 

Democratic countries are made of human beings with flaws that extend to their governments, but that does not mean we should get rid of the country. If we got rid of a country just because of mistakes the government made, the United States might have perished numerous times.    

Going into specific faults is unnecessary. Just admitting that our side is not perfect goes a long way toward establishing credibility with skeptics and further acknowledges that Israel at least has the democratic checks and balances that the surrounding countries don’t. 

Nothing in the Middle East is simple

People, especially ideologues, like to see things in the stark contrasts of right and wrong. Just as conservatives value “freedom,” progressives value “justice” and are wary of the use of corporate or military means to oppress or deny any group access to its basic needs and rights, such as food, shelter and freedom of expression.

Progressives distrust state use of military-industrial power, so when they see the Israel Defense Forces in uniforms and Palestinian militiamen in plain clothes, the reflexive reaction is to sympathize with the side that does not appear to be an extension of organized military might (even if both are actually organized armies).

Of course, the situation is not that simple. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very complex, involving land, water, peace and a multitude of groups, some of which have a vested interest in opposing peace. The governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are, for the most part, trying to move to the middle despite the pressures, years of distrust and the fact that neither side has been very good at keeping its word to the other (resulting in many lost opportunities on both sides).

Even the issues of borders and settlements are complex, with the borders changing in 1948, 1967 and even 1973, and with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin both using the issue of settlements as a negotiating chip during peace negotiations (how easily we have forgotten that Begin invested heavily in settlements in the Sinai).

The more we openly discuss how complex the situation is, the more we can shift the argument from blaming one party to a broader discussion of the complexities of the region and how the parties can come together. Other conflicts based on deep and long-lasting religious and ethnic divisions (such as Northern Ireland) were not settled by blaming a single party, but by acknowledging that everyone shares responsibility.

Andrew Lachman is the past president of Democrats for Israel — Los Angeles and is a current member of the Democratic National Committee and a Truman National Security Project Partner.

A novel cure for Jewish baby boomers


Innovation has been the Jewish response to societal change and spiritual longing, from the emergence of the synagogue as the focal point of worship after the destruction of the Second Temple to the founding of independent minyanim in 21st century America.

There’s new opportunity for innovation as the communal conversation begins focusing on “how” to engage Jewish baby boomers, the estimated 25 percent of the Jewish population born between 1946 and 1964. But we must also focus on “where” to innovate.

The synagogue provides an unparalleled test laboratory to engage Jewish boomers, while fostering innovation and revitalizing synagogue life. Although some may view the synagogue as a “closed society” open to members only, it’s also where ideas can flourish and propagate freely. As Steven Johnson, author of the book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” argues, “There’s a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings.” Johnson makes the case for the “adjacent possible,” in which new ideas develop by combining existing ideas. 
 
The synagogue as an innovation laboratory

The synagogue has traditionally fulfilled Jewish baby boomers’ needs for comfort and refuge, spirituality, learning, socializing and personal growth. It is the boomers’ longtime spiritual home, intrinsically rooted in their very being and the sacred space associated with lifecycle events, both joyous and sad.

The synagogue exemplifies the quintessential kehillah kedushah, the holy community, where Jews come together bound by the covenant at Sinai. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The Jew does not stand alone before God; it is as a member of the community that he stands before God.” 

Not surprisingly, nearly 80 percent of Jewish boomers are synagogue members, while only 27 percent belong to JCCs, according to the 2009 Jewish Encore Survey, a national survey of 34 communities conducted by professor David Elcott in conjunction with NYU Wagner’s Research Center for Leadership in Action and the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.

As Jewish boomers enter a new life phase, the synagogue can address their quest for spiritual fulfillment: the sacred space to acknowledge life transitions, safely express hopes and fears, recite Kaddish or a congregational misheberach prayer for healing and publicly celebrate milestone birthdays with traditional blessings or new rituals. 

Working together as a community imbues each of us with a sense of holiness. The synagogue has inspired boomers to contribute to the local and global society, performing sacred deeds such as preparing shiva meals for fellow congregants, volunteering at homeless shelters and engaging their passion to fix the world.

When the Jewish people stood together at Sinai, we entered a relationship both with God and with one another. The synagogue provides boomers an important, ongoing social connection. As one synagogue member confided, “The most important thing the synagogue did for me was to introduce me to my best and lifelong friends.”

Finally, the synagogue provides a comfortable place where boomers can engage in lifelong serious Jewish learning and personal growth: to gain greater familiarity with Jewish texts, develop a greater appreciation for Jewish history and culture, and acquire new ritual or Hebrew language skills.
 
Enabling innovation

To succeed, innovation must be needs based. That means creating engagement strategies and innovative programming based on real, not perceived, boomer interests. As an institution whose vitality depends on developing and maintaining strong customer relationships, the synagogue is the ideal place to enable and foster this innovation.

True innovation involves taking risks and breaking conventional rules. Innovative boomer programming requires stepping outside of the traditional, self-contained institutional comfort zone. That means adopting new models and collaborating across boundaries, outside of traditional synagogue walls and denominational barriers.

Expanding reach outside of synagogue walls can be an effective boomer-retention strategy, particularly to reach those who feel shut out and alienated by recent synagogue transformation initiatives such as the introduction of more traditional ritual practices and liturgy in Reform Jewish practice or new forms of spirituality such as Torah Yoga and Qi Gong in Conservative congregations.  

At a time of declining synagogue membership, a comprehensive boomer-engagement program can revitalize and infuse new creativity into the synagogue. Active listening, acting on these insights and delivering innovative programs targeted at boomer needs are mission-critical.

But synagogues must act fast before boomers totally disengage from synagogue life. 

It’s time to address the all-too-familiar Jewish boomer cry, “There’s nothing here for me because programming is focused just on young families,” and demonstrate true customer value.  

As a Jewish community, we have a sacred obligation to each member of the community. Using Johnson’s model of “the adjacent possible,” synagogues can become a laboratory for creating innovative spiritual, educational and social programming targeted at Jewish boomers. The result: The synagogue becomes transformed as a kehillah kedushah where boomers feel they are valued and respected members of the Jewish community.

Paula Jacobs is a Massachusetts-based writer, consultant and lifelong synagogue member. Rabbi Gerald I. Weider, a retired congregational rabbi, is president and founding director of JBoomers, a national organization that serves the spiritual, educational and social needs of Jewish baby boomers.

A little late, Pope Benedict


ALTTEXT

Should Israel care what we think? Should we care what Israel thinks?


Should Israel Care?

The four pieces addressing the cover story have missed one aspect of the debate (“Why Should Israel Care What We Think About Jerusalem?” Jan. 25). The government of Israel, in making decisions on the fate of Jerusalem, is not operating in a vacuum. It is subject to enormous pressures by the international community that is acting in its own interest.

Almost every Arab country attended the Annapolis conference last November to influence and voice their interest in the ultimate outcome of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and on the issue of Jerusalem. Thus, decisions on the fate of Jerusalem are influenced by a large group of players whose considerations are not always aligned with Israel’s.

Under these one-sided interests and multiple other considerations, the decision the government of Israel would make becomes a compromise of the pushes and pulls, rather than what is best for Israel. The Jewish voice can serve as the counterbalance that the Israeli government needs.

The Jewish people of all countries should take an active position in voicing their interest on Jerusalem. International Jewish voices are not less important than international Arab and Muslim voices, or the EU, or the U.N, or Russia or the even the United States. This may balance the adverse pressures on Israel and may allow the government of Israel to make compromises and right decisions that reflect all views.

Nahum Gat
Manhattan Beach

The controversy about who should decide Jerusalem’s fate reminds me about medieval Christian theologians who debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. No matter what concessions Israel makes, its enemies will want more, because they do not want a Jewish state in the Middle East.

Mahmoud Abbas refuses to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state. Saudi Arabia said it might make peace but only with an Arab Palestinian country in which Jews are allowed to live. This attitude is among the more moderate opinions in the Islamic world.

Let’s take our heads out of the sand and acknowledge that Jerusalem is a sideshow. The Palestinians are more devoted to their struggle than they are to achieving a homeland. Let’s get used to it.

Larry Shapiro
Rancho Mirage

As a citizen of America and Israel, I agree with Alan Dershowitz and Michael Berenbaum, Diaspora Jews should have a voice but not a vote when it comes to deciding the future of Jerusalem or anything else in Israel for that matter. If Jerusalem is as holy and important to some Diaspora Jews as they claim, then why aren’t they willing to live there and make the same sacrifices that Israelis do?
Come on. Fight for what you believe in. Make aliyah. Pay astronomical taxes.

Earn ridiculously low wages. Send your children to the Israeli army to defend your homeland. Maybe then, Israelis will take what you have to say seriously.

Kathy Hallgren
Via e-mail

The Orthodox Union has never claimed that Diaspora Jewry should posses a veto over Israeli policy. But we do believe, as most Israelis and American Jews believe, that Jerusalem’s fate is exceptional.

Every Jew has a stake in the future of our capital and, therefore, a right to be heard when there is talk of its fate. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has supported this notion himself, saying that he welcomes the input of Diaspora Jewry as the Israelis move forward with peace negotiations.

It is under this rubric that the Orthodox Union has taken the position that Jerusalem, as the eternal center of Jewish spiritual life, should not be divided.

Nathan J. Diament
Director
Institute for Public Affairs,
Orthodox Union

Butt Out

I read Rob Eshman’s editorial about Sabeel and Naim Ateek, and to say I am shocked, as he waxed poetic about this organization, would be an understatement (“Butt Out,” Jan. 25).

First of all, I have been to hear Naim Ateek and listened to the speeches about the IDF using special gas to make Palestinians run slowly, so that the IDF sharpshooters can kill them with more ease.

If you consider the ISM, the PSM and Fatah peace partners, then I would prefer that Eshman butt out and let CAMERA and the local Jewish advocates do their due diligence. I welcome CAMERA with open arms.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Valley Glen

Unfortunately, The Jewish Journal’s good intentions are misdirected. While the Sabeel Center says it accepts a two-state solution, they actually endorse “One state for two nations and three religions.”

Moreover, Sabeel has been a driving force behind the campaign by Mainline Protestant churches to divest from Israel — openly expressed by Sabeel’s director, the Rev. Naim Ateek in commentaries in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and elsewhere.

The Sabeel Center claims to advocate non-violence, but fails to condemn suicide bombings in any meaningful way. A July 2002 article by Ateek, shifts accountability for suicide bombings from the terrorists who perpetrate violence, and places blame squarely on Israel. Moreover, he never calls for an end to such attacks.

But what is most troubling about the Sabeel Center or Palestinian Liberation Theology is how it casts the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in theological terms.
As stated recently in the Jerusalem Post, “…Ateek has figuratively blamed Israel for trying to kill the infant Jesus, crucifying Jesus the prophet and blocking the resurrection of Christ the Savior.”

Hatred of Jews (directed against Israel) and masked as theology is not new and is not the language of a peacemaker. There certainly are Palestinian moderates to engage in dialogue; sadly, they do not include Rev. Ateek and the Sabeel Center.

Seth Brysk
Executive Director
American Jewish Committee

We are Jews who live and work in the Pasadena area. While we share Rob Eshman’s concerns about Jews who “ride in from out of town to try to save us from the bad guys,” we are grateful for CAMERA’s efforts to educate us on the Rev. Naim Ateek. We live in the area, and we have seen the brochure (

And now the ‘Jewish primary’ begins . . .


When California moved its presidential primary to Feb. 5, and other big states followed suit, the strategic role of Jewish voters in the nominating process was greatly enhanced.

Inadvertently, the states created a “Jewish primary.” New York, California, Florida, Illinois, Connecticut and Massachusetts will vote on or just before Feb. 5. (Florida’s primary was held on Jan. 29.)

In the more than 20 states that hold primaries or caucuses in that one-week span live 5,111,685 Jews, according to the American Jewish Committee’s (AJCommittee) 2006 American Jewish Year Book, representing nearly 80 percent of all American Jews.

Contrast this to the hugely watched Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Jews represent two-tenths of a percent of Iowa’s population and eight-tenths of a percent of New Hampshire’s.

The Jewish impact will be seen this week in both parties. The Democrats will feel it directly because the great majority of Jewish voters are registered as Democrats. While California’s Jews are 3.3 percent of the population, the Field Poll shows them to be 5 percent of Democratic voters. In New York, Jews are 8.4 percent of the population, but represent a much larger share of the Democratic electorate. In Florida, Jews are a key element of the Democratic vote, and the ties of many Florida Jews to roots in New York may have impacted a race with New York candidates centrally involved.

But Republicans will also be keeping a close eye on the Jewish vote. Even a relatively small bloc of Jewish Republicans can affect a highly contested Republican primary given the high turnout of Jewish voters. In the long run, Republicans hope to attract crossover Jewish voters and campaign donations in the general election. A Republican nominee who appeals to Jewish voters will be highly competitive in the fall.

When the primary season loomed on the horizon in late 2007, Jewish voters registered their preferences quite clearly. In an American Jewish Committee poll, Jewish Democrats strongly favored Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Jewish Republicans most preferred former N.Y.
Mayor Rudy Guiliani. These two New Yorkers towered over the other candidates. Sen. Clinton had overcome the suspicions of many in the New York Jewish community to prove her strong support of Israel, and as a known quantity had an edge over the other Democratic candidates. As mayor, Guiliani had been extremely popular among Jews in New York City, winning the great majority of Jewish voters in both of his victories. This popularity was expected to help him not only in his own state but also in Florida, with its many Jewish ex-New Yorkers.

Since that time, the paths of the two frontrunners have diverged. Clinton fell badly in Iowa but has since recovered to maintain a consistent if smaller lead over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Guiliani’s support deteriorated and he depended on a strong showing in Florida to stay in the race. Popular among Florida’s thousands of ex-New Yorkers and also with anti-Castro Cuban Americans, Guiliani had poured funds into the state. (It hurt him that most Florida Jews will vote in the Democratic primary.) When Guiliani finished a disappointing third in the primary, his campaign was finished. He withdrew the next day and threw his support to McCain. Evidence from the Nevada caucuses held on Jan. 19 suggests that Clinton is holding her Jewish support against Obama’s dynamic campaign. An NBC exit poll found that Jews represented a remarkable 5 percent of caucus-goers and were Clinton’s strongest single bloc of support. Jews backed her over Obama, by 67 percent to 25 percent. The only group comparable in its support for Clinton was the Latino vote, at 64 percent. In California, Jews also represent an estimated 5 percent of the Democratic electorate. If Jews and Latinos break the same way there as in Nevada, Obama will have a tough road ahead.

Why is Obama having trouble winning Jewish votes? To many Jewish voters he is an unknown on matters of vital interest to Jews. As a result, he has been placed on the defensive by viral e-mails claiming he is a Muslim, by a leaked memo from the American Jewish Committee that raised doubts about his position on the Middle East, and in general by the tendency to fill in the blanks about Israel and the Jewish community when it comes to a “new” African American candidate, especially one who is more inspirational than detailed and concrete on policy.

Obama’s campaign began as one that was above the racial divide, but the increasingly racialized debate (spurred on by the Clinton campaign) has suddenly placed new tests on him that are familiar to other black candidates seeking Jewish (and Latino) votes. Republicans Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and Guiliani in New York put together winning coalitions of white, Jewish and Latino voters against black or black-supported opponents, and that is not an easy combination to overcome. Obama has aggressively fought back against the shadowy e-mails, and major Jewish organizations and leaders have spoken out publicly against the attacks. The hawkish New York Sun ran an editorial that defended Obama’s record on Israel and the Jewish community.

But time is short. Obama is probably where Hillary Clinton was in 2000 with New York’s Jews, before she took the time to reintroduce herself slowly and quietly to the Jewish community. Obama has a week to do the same thing in the limelight. If he is the party’s nominee, he will have that time. But to become the nominee, it’s going to be very tight. If he can draw on the history of Black-Jewish-Latino coalitions that powered a number of winning campaigns, he may yet pull it off. He may also benefit from a backlash among Democrats against the effort by the Clinton campaign to isolate Obama on racial grounds in the same way that Clinton benefited from women voters’ anger at the media dismissal of her campaign after the Iowa caucuses.

On the Republican side, the pitch to Jewish voters has intensified. With Guiliani out, Jewish Republicans (and crossover voters in the fall) are back in play for McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney. (It is hard to imagine Gov. Mike Huckabee doing well with Jewish voters in either party.) McCain’s favorite “Democrat,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), stumped with him in Florida, an alliance that has fostered talk of Lieberman running as vice president with his friend. While McCain lacks the intense connection that Guiliani has had with Jewish voters, his appeal to moderate and independent voters give him a real chance to win support from Jews. If California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is popular with Jews, weighs in on McCain’s behalf at some point, that would be another positive signal. Guiliani’s departure eases the path for the governor to move to McCain’s side, since he had previously spoken positively of both men’s campaigns.

Keeping it fair and balanced at the Los Angeles Times


As the Los Angeles Times’ editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section, Nicholas Goldberg oversees publication of about four opinion pieces per day and eight to twelve on Sundays. The most volatile topic on those pages by far — even more than the war in Iraq, the election campaigns or immigration — is the Middle East and Israel.

Goldberg, 49, a secular Jew raised in New York who worked as a reporter for 15 years, including four based in Jerusalem covering the Middle East for Newsday, talked with The Journal about the L.A. Times’ Israel coverage, whether he would publish a piece written by Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden, and why in this polarized time people need to keep an open mind.

Jewish Journal: What is your mission?

Nicholas Goldberg: I think the mission of the Op-Ed page is to run the broadest possible range of opinion on a wide variety of subjects. A lot of people think that we run articles that we agree with, or that somehow the pieces that appear on the opinion pages reflect the view of the paper, the editorial board, the publisher or even the owner of the paper — but that’s not the case. We want pieces that come from all different sides of issues. We also try to run pieces that are nuanced, that are politically indeterminate and harder to categorize.

JJ: You worked for Newsday for 10 years. What has your experience as a journalist taught you and how is different from working on the opinion pages?

NG: My experience as a daily reporter has been extremely helpful to me because I can really work with people on all sides. I work day in and day out with people I disagree with and I help make their pieces stronger, and I help them make their arguments more logical, and I hope I help them make their pieces better. My experience as reporter gave me a lot of background in many of the subjects that we write about on the page.

JJ: From 1995-1998 you covered the Middle East, living in Jerusalem. Did you go in with a certain opinion?

NG: I went it with the open mind of a reporter who doesn’t know much about the subject. For four years I was engrossed in nothing but the subject. I did a lot of traveling — I was in Iraq and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Sudan and Egypt — but I spent more time in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank than I did anywhere else.

When you live in Israel, particularly when you’re a journalist you spend all day and night working on stories, you sort of live and breathe the conflict. The 1990s were the height of the peace process. I arrived just months before Rabin was killed and I was there for Peres and Netanyahu and Barak. The fates of the peace process went up and went down, there were a lot of bombings in Jerusalem when I was there, cities war given back to the Palestinians in the West Bank and retaken by the Israelis. There was all kind of change and ferment as there is now.

JJ: Living in Jerusalem, did you learn new things about the region?

NG: I emerged with a more sophisticated and nuanced viewpoint than I had when I went in. My job was to cover the place as a reporter: to go out and to interview people, to talk to people about what they think, and that meant going to Hebron and talking to settlers and going to Gaza and talking to the guys from Hamas, and it meant interviewing Shimon Peres and Bibi Netanyahu. Of course my view of the place changed, but I tried to keep as open minded as I could, and to report stories as fairly as I could.

I do feel that the way the region is covered, and especially the way the conflict is covered in the opinion pages in America, has generally been very narrow compared to what you read in Israel. If you read Ha’aretz, if you see the Arab newspapers — if you see Al Ahram in Cairo — you will be exposed to points of view that you don’t hear in the United States. One of the things I decided when I became Op-Ed editor is that I would like to bring a broader range of viewpoints on the Middle East to the page. I’ve tried to do that.

JJ: Are you Jewish? How does that affect your job, or your stance on Israel?

NG: I am Jewish. When I went to Israel as a correspondent, that was immediately an issue, people said, “Oh you’re going to go to Israel and you’re going to feel like you’ve come home, and you’re going to be a Jew in Israel and that’s going to be a moving and a powerful experience, and you’re going to learn so much about being Jewish.”

I come from a secular New York Upper-West Side Jewish background. Of course it affected me, of course I was interested in it — I had relatives there, relatives of friends -but I tried to put that aside as a journalist and cover the story as honestly and objectively as I could. I tried not to say that I come from this team or this side, that these are my people. I tried to go out as reporter and talk to everyone about what was happening and to report as honestly I could.

As an op-ed editor I do the same thing.

JJ: How would you categorize your personal viewpoints on the Middle East?

Comment


A curious thing happened in the pages of The Jewish Journal the week of Nov. 20. During a period when a host of issues of major importance to the American Jewish community were occuring that commanded front page attention elsewhere, The Journal chose to devote the cover story and an editorial in the Nov. 20 issue to the complaints of a disgruntled documentary director and his co-writer against Moriah Films of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In spite of The Journal’s claims that it was not “picking on the Wiesenthal Center,” one wonders what the editorial staff’s true motives were in giving an inordinate amount of space to the attempt by these individuals to politicize what was for all intents and purposes a dispute over the best creative approach to a film about Israel’s first 50 years.

As one of the producers of the documentary in question (and now the director as well), I am especially concerned and aggrieved at the number of inaccuracies and distortions that appeared in The Journal’s coverage of the events surrounding our decision to reject the creative approach taken by Mark Jonathan Harris and Stuart Schoffman to our film looking at Israel’s 50th birthday. On the cover, in Managing Editor Rob Eshman’s editorial and in reporter Tom Tugend’s cover story, it was stated that $1 million had been spent on a documentary that we will never see. This is just not true. The $1 million is the overall budget for the film. Approximately $250,000 — the amount paid to Harris and Schoffman — can be considered a loss. The other funds spent to date were for shooting interviews, live action footage and archival film and stills, material that will be used throughout the documentary we are continuing to produce. In the worst case scenario, this loss could contribute to an expansion of our $1 million to $1.2 million. The Journal’s banner headline and later assertions that $1 million had already been spent on this project is patently untrue and had The Journal cared about the truth it could have verified this with me or my producing partner, Rabbi Marvin Hier.

Furthermore, The Journal gives the impression that this film has been shelved by the Wiesenthal Center. This is also completely false. The only thing that has been shelved was the approach taken by Harris and his co-writer, which led to what I believe is a dull and plodding film. Our present approach involves a dramatic and hard-hitting narrative based on the writing of respected historian Sir Martin Gilbert and adapted by Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Scott Goldstein. The new script will not only examine dramatic moments in Israeli history, it will look realistically at the problems that have faced and continue to face the country today. Major players who have figured prominently in this history will also appear throughout the film, which will be ready for release in the spring of 1999. This has been a project that has been ongoing in spite of the problems created by the approach of Harris and Schoffman.

In Rob Eshman’s editorial, he alleged that the Weisenthal Center had “approved the script, gave the filmmakers a green light every step of the way and then pulled the plug.” Mr. Eshman only got part of the scenario correct. In spite of the fact that Stuart Schoffman calls himself one of the screenwriters of this project, the approach he and Mark Harris took to the film had no script. It was all interviews with no narrative whatsoever. A treatment, which I helped to develop during several weeks of travel throughout Israel with Harris and Schoffman, was approved by Rabbi Hier, Merv Adelson and Marvin Josephson (the two chairs of the International Israel at 50 commemoration committee). Hier raised his concerns that a totally interview-driven film might not be as engaging or dramatic as the narrative-driven documentaries the Wiesenthal Center had made its reputation with: the Oscar-winning “Genocide,” the award-winning “Echoes That Remain” and “Liberation,” and, most recently, the Oscar-winning “The Long Way Home.” Hier was also concerned that the decision by Harris and Schoffman not to interview major figures in the Jewish and Arab world about their roles in 50 years of Israeli history might also be a mistake. At the same time, the promise of the kind of film described in the treatment was so encouraging that Hier and others put their misgivings aside and production began.

Almost as quickly as production began, so did production problems and creative disputes. The green light stopped with the treatment and red lights became a regular occurrence with this project. In Tugend’s cover story, Harris himself acknowledged how much trouble the film was in from the time its first rough cut was screened at the beginning of 1998. In February, Hier, who was seeing a complete rough cut for the very first time, was most vocal in his complete dissatisfaction with the film. “It’s boring, it’s too negative and lacks any political balance,” he said. Most of us on the creative side were also concerned that the film contained almost no historical context. I also strongly objected to the lack of any material about Israeli arts, culture, science and industry. The most telling response to this rough-cut screening came from one attendee who stated after seeing this film he could not understand why anyone would want to spend five minutes there. After that screening, Harris agreed with some of the criticisms and admitted that not only was the film too negative and unbalanced politically, it was not working from a structural point of view. He promised Hier that he would fix the problems in time for a planned second rough-cut screening in March.

From March until May, the director and his co-writer tried over and over again to restructure their approach to fix what in our view was the dull and plodding rhythm of the film and its historical problems. What was becoming eminently clear was that no amount of restructuring or revisiting their approach was going to fix what was essentially unfixable.

Mark Harris stated to reporter Tugend that neither Hier nor I saw his final cut of the film, thus making our decision appear to be capricious or based on our fear of offending Wiesenthal Center donors. Nothing can be further from the truth. I sat and watched what was to become his final cut. Simply put, I thought it was a disaster. I based my decision to halt production on this approach to the film on this cut that did not deviate at all from what Harris and Schoffman consider to be their final cut. The only way to fix this film, I told Harris, was to return to a script-driven format, a change Hier had been advocating for some time. Harris was understandably disappointed. Out of respect to our past relationship, I did allow him to finish his rough cut over a four-day period.

I have sympathy for both Harris and Schoffman. No one likes to be told their work is uninteresting. No one likes to be rejected. But it happens in the film world. And while it may make them feel better to blame their rejection on what they claim are politics or the inability of the American Jewish community to look realistically at Israel, it does not change the fact that what they called “A Dream No More” was dismissed because it did something I believe no film should do: it bored people. No amount of political posturing can change that fact. Fortunately for Moriah Films of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its supporters who have come to expect a certain caliber of filmmaking, our “bad dream” has ended and we are on the road to completing an exciting, dramatic and realistic documentary about Israel’s first 50 years. We look forward to sharing it with movie audiences come spring. I only hope that The Jewish Journal devotes half the coverage to the release of our film as it did to the sour grapes of Mark Harris and Stuart Schoffman.

Recapturing the Dream


A curious thing happened in the pages of The Jewish Journal the week of Nov. 20. During a period when a host of issues of major importance to the American Jewish community were occuring that commanded front page attention elsewhere, The Journal chose to devote the cover story and an editorial in the Nov. 20 issue to the complaints of a disgruntled documentary director and his co-writer against Moriah Films of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In spite of The Journal’s claims that it was not “picking on the Wiesenthal Center,” one wonders what the editorial staff’s true motives were in giving an inordinate amount of space to the attempt by these individuals to politicize what was for all intents and purposes a dispute over the best creative approach to a film about Israel’s first 50 years.

As one of the producers of the documentary in question (and now the director as well), I am especially concerned and aggrieved at the number of inaccuracies and distortions that appeared in The Journal’s coverage of the events surrounding our decision to reject the creative approach taken by Mark Jonathan Harris and Stuart Schoffman to our film looking at Israel’s 50th birthday. On the cover, in Managing Editor Rob Eshman’s editorial and in reporter Tom Tugend’s cover story, it was stated that $1 million had been spent on a documentary that we will never see. This is just not true. The $1 million is the overall budget for the film. Approximately $250,000 — the amount paid to Harris and Schoffman — can be considered a loss. The other funds spent to date were for shooting interviews, live action footage and archival film and stills, material that will be used throughout the documentary we are continuing to produce. In the worst case scenario, this loss could contribute to an expansion of our $1 million to $1.2 million. The Journal’s banner headline and later assertions that $1 million had already been spent on this project is patently untrue and had The Journal cared about the truth it could have verified this with me or my producing partner, Rabbi Marvin Hier.

Furthermore, The Journal gives the impression that this film has been shelved by the Wiesenthal Center. This is also completely false. The only thing that has been shelved was the approach taken by Harris and his co-writer, which led to what I believe is a dull and plodding film. Our present approach involves a dramatic and hard-hitting narrative based on the writing of respected historian Sir Martin Gilbert and adapted by Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Scott Goldstein. The new script will not only examine dramatic moments in Israeli history, it will look realistically at the problems that have faced and continue to face the country today. Major players who have figured prominently in this history will also appear throughout the film, which will be ready for release in the spring of 1999. This has been a project that has been ongoing in spite of the problems created by the approach of Harris and Schoffman.

In Rob Eshman’s editorial, he alleged that the Weisenthal Center had “approved the script, gave the filmmakers a green light every step of the way and then pulled the plug.” Mr. Eshman only got part of the scenario correct. In spite of the fact that Stuart Schoffman calls himself one of the screenwriters of this project, the approach he and Mark Harris took to the film had no script. It was all interviews with no narrative whatsoever. A treatment, which I helped to develop during several weeks of travel throughout Israel with Harris and Schoffman, was approved by Rabbi Hier, Merv Adelson and Marvin Josephson (the two chairs of the International Israel at 50 commemoration committee). Hier raised his concerns that a totally interview-driven film might not be as engaging or dramatic as the narrative-driven documentaries the Wiesenthal Center had made its reputation with: the Oscar-winning “Genocide,” the award-winning “Echoes That Remain” and “Liberation,” and, most recently, the Oscar-winning “The Long Way Home.” Hier was also concerned that the decision by Harris and Schoffman not to interview major figures in the Jewish and Arab world about their roles in 50 years of Israeli history might also be a mistake. At the same time, the promise of the kind of film described in the treatment was so encouraging that Hier and others put their misgivings aside and production began.

Almost as quickly as production began, so did production problems and creative disputes. The green light stopped with the treatment and red lights became a regular occurrence with this project. In Tugend’s cover story, Harris himself acknowledged how much trouble the film was in from the time its first rough cut was screened at the beginning of 1998. In February, Hier, who was seeing a complete rough cut for the very first time, was most vocal in his complete dissatisfaction with the film. “It’s boring, it’s too negative and lacks any political balance,” he said. Most of us on the creative side were also concerned that the film contained almost no historical context. I also strongly objected to the lack of any material about Israeli arts, culture, science and industry. The most telling response to this rough-cut screening came from one attendee who stated after seeing this film he could not understand why anyone would want to spend five minutes there. After that screening, Harris agreed with some of the criticisms and admitted that not only was the film too negative and unbalanced politically, it was not working from a structural point of view. He promised Hier that he would fix the problems in time for a planned second rough-cut screening in March.

From March until May, the director and his co-writer tried over and over again to restructure their approach to fix what in our view was the dull and plodding rhythm of the film and its historical problems. What was becoming eminently clear was that no amount of restructuring or revisiting their approach was going to fix what was essentially unfixable.

Mark Harris stated to reporter Tugend that neither Hier nor I saw his final cut of the film, thus making our decision appear to be capricious or based on our fear of offending Wiesenthal Center donors. Nothing can be further from the truth. I sat and watched what was to become his final cut. Simply put, I thought it was a disaster. I based my decision to halt production on this approach to the film on this cut that did not deviate at all from what Harris and Schoffman consider to be their final cut. The only way to fix this film, I told Harris, was to return to a script-driven format, a change Hier had been advocating for some time. Harris was understandably disappointed. Out of respect to our past relationship, I did allow him to finish his rough cut over a four-day period.

I have sympathy for both Harris and Schoffman. No one likes to be told their work is uninteresting. No one likes to be rejected. But it happens in the film world. And while it may make them feel better to blame their rejection on what they claim are politics or the inability of the American Jewish community to look realistically at Israel, it does not change the fact that what they called “A Dream No More” was dismissed because it did something I believe no film should do: it bored people. No amount of political posturing can change that fact. Fortunately for Moriah Films of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its supporters who have come to expect a certain caliber of filmmaking, our “bad dream” has ended and we are on the road to completing an exciting, dramatic and realistic documentary about Israel’s first 50 years. We look forward to sharing it with movie audiences come spring. I only hope that The Jewish Journal devotes half the coverage to the release of our film as it did to the sour grapes of Mark Harris and Stuart Schoffman.

Editorial


Last weekend, I was at a gathering of maybe 80people, brought together to listen to a prominent Israeliintellectual who proceeded to dazzle us with his accounts ofpolitical, military and religious life in the Mideast. Actually, itwas more than dazzling. He was informative; he was insightful; he waswitty.

But when I casually reached for pen and notebook– I was the only journalist in the room — he laughed and admonishedme. Of course, this was all off the record. And off he soared:

  • Telling us about Prime Minister Netanyahu and the religious parties in Israel, and how they, in their separate ways, were forging a government that could not govern. How they, in the process, were ruining Israel.
  • Describing the migrant workers from Eastern Europe and Asia, anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 (some legal, others not), whose presence in Israel was generating a great increase in drug use, alcoholism and prostitution. And, in neighborhoods adjacent to the Asian workers, a sudden disappearance of cats.
  • Analyzing the peace process, which, despite the stalled state of play, the failure of the Palestinians to make good on many of their promises and the prime minister’s dislike of the Oslo agreements, was nevertheless irreversible.
  • And, of course, charting the intricate political tactics and maneuvers behind the conversion bill. One point Americans should understand, he added, was that most Israelis, whatever their religious stance, had little comprehension or interest in Diaspora Jewry.

That comment — that Israelis were uninvolved withJews in America, or elsewhere in the Diaspora — caught me unaware.On reflection, it was something I knew, something I had experiencedbut had never before verbalized for myself.

It was evident at the media panels and conferencesI attended in Jerusalem, only I chose not to view the comments inthat particular light. And it was an inescapable conclusion to adialogue last month with six Knesset members who were visiting LosAngeles. They had traveled here to observe and to talk with AmericanJews; and, more specifically, to meet with a cross section of ourlocal Jewish community, listening to our concerns about the NeemanCommission and its political aftermath.

At one session I attended, the MKs patientlyexplained that the Commission was really about politics, notreligion, and that we Americans didn’t seem to understand the actualdetails of the Conversion Bill — otherwise, we would not be soexercised over it. Everyone in the room was left with a suddenawareness of just how much distance separated us from the Israelis,despite the fact that we all happened to be Jews.

Here it was again — the distance, the wide gap –only posed in terms of something that was a cross between innocenceand unconcern, albeit not on the part of the speaker. He had spentseveral years in the United States — Washington, in particular –and had traveled widely throughout the country. He took the seemingindifference seriously.

 

Many Americanyouth enjoy visiting Israel, so why not a program to bring Israeliyouth to the United States?

 

His remedy was imaginative: Start a program thatwould function something like a Jewish Peace Corps, with youngstersfrom all nations, including Israel, joining to work on projectstogether in different parts of the world. In short, apeople-to-people program, but concentrated primarily among teen-agersin the year or two between high school and college (an involuntaryclass bias here).

My thought is less grand, more miniature in scaleand logistics. Just as we are striving today to bring large numbersof American teens to Israel — for a school term, a summer, a month– so we might begin to think as well of bringing most Israeliyoungsters to the United States. (There are several small-scaleprograms in place already.) It has the virtue of linking families, ofcasting light on different kinds of Jewish experiences, and ofimplying a certain equality in the authenticity of Jewishidentity.

One caveat: It might lead to a great deal ofmobility, as Israelis — who have their own contemporary problemswith the nature of Jewish identity in the 21st century — adopt abinational lifestyle. But, then again, the meaning behind the act ofdeclaring “I am Jewish” is likely to preoccupy many of us, Israelisand Americans alike, as we spring into the new millennium.

 


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