River of Hope

A great blue heron swept across the rushing water and came to a landing in a reed-lined pool. My sonturned to me. "Actually," he said, "this river is kind of nice."

He was talking about the Los Angeles River.

We were riding our bikes along a path that skirted the cursed, maligned and abused waterway from Griffith Park to Glendale. Hundreds of riders accompanied us, all part of the third annual Los Angeles River Ride held May 18. The event is not a race, but a consciousness-raising effort on the part of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (labikecoalition.org) and river activists who would like you to know that the Los Angeles River River can be more than this city’s sewer.

They believe the river can be our city’s salvation.

The day was beautiful, smogless and warm. As we rode along what is admittedly the river’s most scenic 15 miles, through the Glendale Narrows to the stunning Los Angeles River Center and back, I could begin to understand that the save-the-riverites were not just a bunch of loons.

The Los Angeles River gathers the waters from an 834-square-mile area — larger than the size of Maui — and delivers them 51 miles later, via a mostly concrete-lined sluice, to San Pedro Bay. Until 1913, its waters served as the only drinking supply for the city — Los Angeles is here because the river was/is here.

Floods of biblical proportions led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to encase the river in tons of concrete in the late 1930s. Since then, it has been the longest running joke in Los Angeles. When I told friends I was taking a ride along the river, they assumed I was leaving town.

But a Friends of the Los Angeles River (folar.org) movement has, over the past two decades, sought to reclaim the river, whose banks offer more acreage than Central Park, as a natural and social asset.

As Patt Morrison writes in her poetic and definitive "Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River," in "a city suffocated by concrete and throttled by crowding — here was this wasted open space of an entombed river…. The river could not safely be set completely free, but recreation and cement could undoubtedly cohabit."

June 16 — Bloomsday — came and went and got me thinking about what we, as Jewish Angelenos, have to offer in this cause. In the Dublin of James Joyce’s "Ulysses," the soul of the city is bound up in a river — the Liffey — and a Jew, Leopold Bloom. To grossly oversimplify Joyce, a river runs though Dublin as Jewish history courses through Western civilization, shaping it and shaped by it.

The Los Angeles River and the network of arroyos, creeks and washes in Los Angeles’ flood-control system connect the disparate neighborhoods of the city, from the Valley to downtown, from the Westside to the Eastside, from rich to poor. The river is as spread out and bound up in the city as its Jews, and we — and the river — will benefit were it to be a source of connection, leisure and wealth, rather than a running sore.

I’m not going to suggest what should be done with these waterways — there are numerous resources, studies and opinions you can research — other than to say that we, as Jewish Angelenos, have a unique role to play in their stewardship and a unique ability to play that role.

That ability became clear to me earlier this month at the Environmentalist of the Year award ceremony held June 12 by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (COEJL).

COEJL is a national organization that "instills a commitment to environmental protection rooted in Jewish values." COEJL (coejl.org) is also rooted in the Jewish talent for leveraging its money and influence to effect change.

Though relatively young, the organization has managed to influence passage of a state toxic air emissions law, institute a "Green Sanctuary" program that helps synagogues convert to sustainable energy sources and, perhaps most importantly, create a larger environmental coalition with Christian and Muslim clergy.

The ceremony honored Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Woodland Hills) and Richard Ziman, chairman and CEO of Arden Realty Inc. The speakers, including City Councilman Eric Garcetti, all offered a vision of a better, cleaner city that encouraged sensible growth, sustainable energy sources, mass transit and — yes — a new and improved Los Angeles River River policy.

Ziman said his leadership of a billion-dollar company that invests heavily and profitably in sustainable energy technology is proof that development and environment can go hand in hand.

It can. But even more than the brown haze that hangs over our basin, the Los Angeles River is a symbol of our neglect for an environment that sustains us. Fortunately, such symbols can easily turn into rallying cries — think Santa Monica Bay. So it is not hard to imagine a river bordered by bicycle paths, home to herons, a meeting place for all, a long breath of fresh air down into the belly of our city.

Fearful Assad Places a Risky Bet on Saddam

Syrian President Bashar Assad has inherited much of his late
father’s parochial paranoia, Israeli analysts argue — but little of his astute
political judgment.

In the first Persian Gulf War, the wily Hafez Assad lined up
on the side of the U.S.-led coalition, the analysts note, while in the second,
Bashar Assad seems to be doing all he can to bait the U.S. superpower.

It could end up costing him dearly.

Judging from his public statements, Assad seems convinced
that the Bush administration will not stop at Iraq, and that after a U.S.
victory in Baghdad, he could be next on the regime-change agenda.

Therefore, when Assad vilifies the United States and openly
aids the Iraqi war effort, he believes he is fighting for his life. In late
March, buoyed by what he saw as initial Iraqi success in resisting the U.S.-led
invasion, Assad explained the basis of his thinking in a fierce diatribe
against Israel and the United States.

The war in Iraq, he told the Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir,
was an Israeli-American conspiracy “designed to redraw the political map of the
Middle East.” In Assad’s view, the United States would take Iraq’s oil, and
Israel would become the dominant regional power.

“After Iraq, it will be the turn of other Arab countries,
and I don’t rule out the possibility of an American attempt to attack Syria,
inspired by Israel,” he declared.

When Assad took power in the summer of 2000, analysts
pointed to his Western education — he studied opthamology in England — as a
sign that he would be more modern and liberal than his authoritarian father. He
would open up Syria’s economic and political system, they predicted, and would
recognize the benefit of peace with Israel.

But such optimists have been sorely disappointed. An initial
political opening has been stifled, and the younger Assad seems even less
inclined to contemplate peace with the Jewish State than was his father, who at
least entertained negotiations.

Analysts speculate that that’s because Hafez Assad had
firsthand experience of Israel’s military might from the 1967 and 1973 wars,
while his son’s formative experiences — such as Israel’s response to the first
intifada in the early 1990s and its flight from southern Lebanon in 2000 — have
been of an Israel unwilling to risk its prosperity in military confrontations
and willing to retreat in the face even of light casualties.

Assad clearly sees the U.S. war against Iraq and the
Arab-Israeli conflict as part of the same apocalyptic struggle: It is, in his
view, a zero-sum game that will benefit either Syria or Israel.

As long as Israel exists, he said in the As-Safir interview,
Syria is under threat. He would never be able to trust Israel, he added,
“because it was treacherous by nature.”

But there’s more: Since “Israel controlled the United States
through its Jewish lobby,” Assad presumably can’t trust the United States

Given this worldview, it’s not surprising that Assad has
decided to gamble on Saddam Hussein. In helping the Iraqi war effort, he
apparently is hoping that the Americans will be stopped in their tracks and
will never reach Baghdad, let alone Damascus.

So Assad has kept Syria’s border with Iraq open, making
Syria the only country to allow volunteers and war materiel through to help

By late March, thousands of Arab — mainly Syrian —
volunteers were streaming across the open border to the Mosul and Kirkuk regions
of northern Iraq. Syria also sent some military equipment — night-vision
goggles, according to the Pentagon — to the Iraqi forces. Before that, in the
run-up to war, Syria reportedly purchased tank engines and aircraft for Iraq in
Eastern Europe.

Moreover, Assad is thought to be hiding illegal Iraqi
weapons that were spirited across the border to Syria before the fighting
erupted. In testimony to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in
late March, Yossi Kupferwasser, the intelligence research chief of the Israel
Defense Forces, claimed that Saddam may have transferred Scud missiles and
biological and chemical weapons to Syria before the outbreak of war.

In late March, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
warned the Syrians that the United States would not tolerate much more. He
called the Syrian shipment of night-vision goggles a “hostile act,” for which
the United States would hold Damascus accountable.

A few days later, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
indicated that Syria would have to make a “critical choice” about whose side it
is on.

“Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and
the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more
hopeful course,” Powell told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on
March 30. “Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices and for
the consequences.”

Syria is not only proving to be Iraq’s closest supporter in
the war, it is also on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist states
and, according to Israeli intelligence sources, has by far the biggest
stockpile of chemical weapons of any Middle Eastern country. It produces
chemical warheads, as well as the Scud missiles to deliver them.

The terrorist organizations Syria hosts claim to have sent
hundreds of suicide bombers to Iraq to attack U.S. troops. Ramadan Shalah, the
Damascus-based commander of Islamic Jihad — which claimed responsibility for
the March 30 suicide bombing in Netanya — declared that the bombing was his
organization’s “gift to the Iraqi people” and that hundreds of his followers
were already in Iraq to fight “the murderer Bush.”

“This excessive self-confidence could not exist without the
approval of the Jihad’s landlord, the Syrian regime,” as one Israeli analyst

By far the biggest and most potent terrorist organization
Syria backs is the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah, which has an estimated 10,000
Katyusha rockets trained on targets in Israel and which has a proven
operational capacity all over the world.

Some U.S. defense analysts see Hezbollah as the foremost
terrorist organization in the world, more dangerous even than Al Qaeda.

To deal with Syria after the war in Iraq, one idea the Bush
administration apparently is contemplating is a U.S.-imposed land, sea and air
blockade of Syria until it dismantles its weapons of mass destruction, expels
terrorist organizations from Damascus and disarms Hezbollah.

Assad seems to be hoping that a U.S. imbroglio in Iraq will
save his regime, but he also has taken out some insurance against a United
States that emerges from the war as the undisputed power broker in the Middle

So far, Syria has helped keep Hezbollah in check during the
war and has relayed information to U.S. intelligence on the whereabouts of some
Al Qaeda operatives.

Assad could go further in search of U.S. approval by
introducing a degree of democratization. But he seems to fear that step as
opening a Pandora’s box that he can’t control, Israeli analysts say.

Assad’s Alawite sect, which rules Syria, constitutes only
about 13 percent of the country’s population. Exposing Syrian society to the
winds of change, he fears, might end up sweeping away his regime.

Assad’s father had similar fears. In his day, Syrian
dissidents compared Hafez Assad’s regime to Romania under Nicolae Ceaucescu,
dubbing him “Assadescu.”

Between U.S. wrath and the risk of liberalization in Syria,
Bashar Assad seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

JAKKS Jumps for Children

In the movie "Little Nicky," Adam Sandler played the son of the devil, but for many Israeli children today Sandler is an angel.

When the Jewish actor-comedian wanted to do something to help brighten the lives of Israeli children wounded in suicide bombings, he contacted his friend Stephen Berman, president and COO of JAKKS Pacific toy company.

The collaborative effort resulted in a donation and shipment of more than 500 toys to hospitals in Tel Aviv, each with a personal note from Sandler included. However, while the celebrity’s name was probably the most recognizable to the children, it was the lesser-acclaimed Berman whose massive donation made the whole thing possible.

"I sincerely hope the toys helped to put smiles on the faces of children in Tel Aviv who have endured much heartache," Berman said.

Children in Tel Aviv are not the only ones who are smiling as a result of Berman’s efforts. Ever since Berman and CEO Jack Friedman co-founded JAKKS Pacific seven years ago, philanthropy has been one of the company’s main objectives. Now, as the third largest toy company in the nation, JAKKS’s mission to help children in need has only intensified.

Every holiday season, JAKKS donates truckloads of toys to needy children and families throughout Los Angeles and across the nation. The company is financially and actively involved in furthering the efforts of numerous children’s organizations, including Hollygrove Children and Family Services, Special Olympics, The Boys and Girls Clubs, the Starlight Children’s Foundation and Toys for Tots, in addition to several Jewish organizations, such as the Museum of Tolerance and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Last holiday season, JAKKS donated toys and art supplies to children affected by the tragedy of Sept. 11.

In December of 2001, JAKKS Pacific received the City of Los Angeles proclamation from Mayor James Hahn, honoring its commitment to public service. "Giving toys and art supplies to children who need them most, in good times, and especially during challenging times, is the best way we know of to show but a fraction of our gratitude for our good fortune," Berman said. — RB

NPR Reaching Out to Jews, Arabs

National Public Radio (NPR) has mounted a public relations campaign among Jews and Arabs in an effort to avoid being known as National Protest Radio.

At the same moment that the president of NPR was addressing Jewish newspaper editors in Chicago about coverage of the Middle East, the ombudsman for NPR was talking about the very same thing to an Arab group in Washington.

The speeches on June 7 were part of an outreach effort by the nonprofit radio organization to convince its listeners that its reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is both fair and unbiased.

NPR, along with other major media outlets, has been accused by both Jewish and Arab audiences of unfair coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The outreach comes after Jews boycotted some major newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post because of a perceived anti-Israel bias. Arabs have complained bitterly as well, citing what they see as a pro-Israel slant to many stories in the Times and Post, among other media.

Kevin Klose, president and CEO of NPR, acknowledged the complaints against his organization.

“We’re not immune to that,” he said in a telephone interview. “We pay a great deal of attention to criticism.”

Klose, a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post, is looking for more dialogue with both communities, and he believes NPR is trying to be as careful as possible about its reportage.

“But we’re not indifferent to errors,” he said. “We change; we correct the record.”

NPR has hired a public relations firm, DCS Group, that does work for Arab and Jewish groups, including Birthright Israel, to help with its outreach to both communities.

NPR serves an audience of more than 19 million Americans each week via 680 public radio stations and the Internet and in Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa through NPR Worldwide.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, the NPR ombudsman, says the outreach effort is to help the organization understand the communities better and to encourage people to help NPR do its job better.

“If there’s a boycott, then it’s too late,” he said.

NPR’s outreach to the Jewish community includes visiting various communities around the country and speaking to the national convention of Hadassah this summer.

Last month, the NPR Web site started posting full transcripts of its reports from the Middle East so people could see the full text, officials said.

While most of the critics respond with letters, e-mail and voice mail complaints, there have been some financial repercussions as well.

Some major donors to a public radio station in the Boston area stopped their funding because of what they saw as an anti-Israel bias in NPR.

At least six underwriters have withdrawn their support to WBUR, according to Mary Stohn, spokeswoman for the local station, adding that other smaller donors had also not renewed their support and the station anticipated further action on the part of both smaller and larger donors.

She said WBUR has already lost at least $1 million in funding because of protests about NPR’s coverage of Israel.

NPR officials said they were not aware of any other stations that have lost funding as a result of their Middle East coverage. And Klose said that in general, financial support for public radio is up.

For their part, some Arab Americans also take issue with NPR’s coverage of the conflict.

Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said NPR does not have an anti-Arab bias, but its reporting can be problematic and there is a “radical imbalance” in its commentary.

He said his group makes practical suggestions to NPR and encourages it to do better.

Michael Kotzin, the executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, called for a constructive dialogue between the Jewish community and the media.

Speaking alongside Klose at the American Jewish Press Association meeting last week, Kotzin said the media needed to take a serious look at how they are treating the Middle East conflict.

He also said he was concerned that the media are increasingly dismissive of their critics as “emotional advocates for one side.”

At the same time, he said he believes the Jewish community “needs to demonstrate the same kind of fairness and understanding about the media that we are demanding of them.”