Passover scholastic debate conflict resolved, sort of


After months of contentious back and forth over the scheduling of the statewide high school debate tournament on the first night of Passover, Jewish leaders and tournament organizers have reached a half-hearted detente that will not change the date but will ensure such a scheduling snafu will not happen again.

As part of the compromise, orchestrated by State Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), the California High School Speech Association also wrote a letter of apology to its coaches, teams and the Jewish community — a move the independent umbrella organization had refused to make at a board meeting in September.

“The California High School Speech Association regrets the unfortunate and unintentional conflict of the 2008 state championship tournament with the important holiday of Passover,” the statement reads. “The California High School Speech Association takes enormous pride in the diversity of its membership. It is our desire to express our apologies that our actions will cause Jewish members of the speech community distress at having to choose between the Passover celebration and participation in the state tournament.”

Jewish leaders were satisfied with the statement, but disappointed that the date was not changed.

“Obviously we did not win on the most important point, changing the date, but the board’s actions in [January] were far more sensitive to the Jewish community than they had been in September,” said Doug Lasken, a debate coach at Taft High School in Woodland Hills and CHSSA board member, who brought the conflict to light last June. “For this reason we feel the struggle has been worthwhile.”

More than a thousand coaches, parents and students will spend three days, April 18-20, at Santa Clara University at the annual tournament, which culminates the year of debate competitions for schools across the state. The second day of the tournament — a date set more than a year before the event — coincides with the night of the first seder, the most observed and family-oriented ritual on the Jewish calendar.

Lasken and more than half his team could not attend the tournament, so they voted to boycott the event. Debate teams from Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies and Oaks Christian High School in Westlake also voted to boycott the state debate tournament.

They will attend an alternative debate tournament on March 29, sponsored by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which wrote a letter of concern to CHSSA in October.

The Anti-Defamation League, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Jewish Community Relations Councils of Los Angeles and San Francisco spent seven months trying to impress upon CHSSA how central the seder is to the ritual and family life of a broad swath of the Jewish community. They lobbied the group to explore a date change and offered their help to do so, but CHSSA continued to maintain that because venues were booked and paid for it was too late to change the date, which had been set more than a year in advance.

“Renowned pitcher Sandy Koufax never played on Rosh Hashanah and chose not to pitch during the World Series because it conflicted with Yom Kippur — the World Series was not moved,” Sharon Prefontaine, CHSSA president, told the Daily News in November. “Hank Greenberg, on the other hand, played on Rosh Hashanah but not on Yom Kippur.”

“As much as we might want to protect them from it,” she continued, “we understand that our students will have to make some difficult choices, at times, relative to their personal beliefs.”

That attitude toward any religious or ethnic community was not acceptable to many in the Jewish community.

“We don’t feel that high school students should have to make that kind of decision,” said Alison Mayersohn, senior associate director of the ADL’s Pacific Southwest Region. Students who work toward a goal all year shouldn’t have to “make the choice between your religious observance and your family holiday, or to reach the pinnacle of success in an extracurricular activity.”

Levine got involved this fall, meeting with both sides and bringing them together for a meeting in December. As a result of those meetings, the CHSSA board voted in January to insert into its bylaws a stipulation that it will avoid scheduling the tournament on major religious holidays, “within reason.” It also voted to issue the apology, but voted not to have the apology posted on its Web site. It left up an earlier explanation that does not contain the words “regret” or “apology.”

In a final irony, the alternative debate is scheduled for a Saturday.

While Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who was not involved in organizing the LAUSD debate, says he would have preferred a date that would have included Sabbath observers, it is Passover’s near universal observance among the Jewish community that made this scheduling conflict akin to having the tournament on Easter Sunday.

“What I have said from day one, what we have been repeating over and over again to speech association officials, is that this conflict is so poignant and gut-wrenching for families because Pesach is a home-centered observance,” Diamond said.

The alternative high school debate tournament, sponsored by LAUSD to accomodate Jewish students who cannot attend the statewide debate tournament scheduled for Passover, has been expanded to two days, Saturday, March 29 and Sunday, March 30. For information, contact tournament director Dlasken514@aol.com.

Needed: Rational Discussion


When David Lauter, the deputy foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, began speaking to a crowd of about 400 at a Women’s Alliance for Israel program last
week, it was clear that most of the audience was out for his scalp, and not even the yarmulke he was wearing could save him.

Lauter was on a panel discussing news coverage of Israel’s battle against Hezbollah. I was also on the panel, seated next to Lauter, who is a friend and was a longtime colleague when I worked at the Times.

He is a highly intelligent, soft-spoken, logical man who thinks before he speaks. He is also an observant Jew.

That meant nothing to this crowd. Neither did his intelligence and logic. They booed when he tried to explain his paper’s coverage. When they weren’t booing, they talked among themselves, paying no attention to Lauter. To this bunch, the world outside their own community was a vast and hostile conspiracy against them and against Israel.

I’ve spoken to many groups all over Los Angeles during extremely volatile times. I’ve never seen such rudeness, narrow mindedness and just plain boorishness.

Nothing Lauter said warranted such a response. He told how the coverage began, with him and the foreign editor, Marjorie Miller, organizing the Times foreign correspondents the day the conflict began.

The regulars needed help. A couple of the correspondents were already arranging their transportation to Israel. Miller and Lauter dispatched more to deal with the unexpected story.

This crowd wasn’t interested in these details. Nor did they want to know of the courage of these correspondents, who willingly head into danger — and stay there. This crowd probably had no idea of how many correspondents have been killed in Iraq. These deaths are a clear warning that the same thing could happen to some of the reporters in Lebanon or Israel.

The questions were unrelentingly hostile. They weren’t questions, in fact. They were attacks. And when Lauter tried to answer them, there were more boos.
When he sat down, I told him that this bunch was out for blood. Later, he said felt there was a hard core of haters, “but I don’t think they were the majority.”

I don’t know about that. Hostility seemed to extend through the room, back to the far edges where my wife and cousin were seated.

And at the end of the program, Lauter announced to the crowd that he would stick around and answer more questions.

“Several people came up to me and said they appreciated my being there, but they said so quietly, not exposing themselves to the crowd,” Lauter told me later.
Not blessed with Lauter’s patience, I left angry and stayed mad all the next day.

In the first place, the Times’ coverage is excellent. It’s fair. The reporters and editors strive for balance in the writing and editing of stories and the placement of the stories and the powerful pictures.

This does not mean it is perfect. Putting out a daily paper is an imperfect business. Think about putting that thing together every day with deadlines. I did it for years, the last three as city editor of the Times. When I went home at night, I wondered how we did it. In the process, mistakes are made. Reporters get things wrong. Editors make bad choices. Journalists live — or should live — in constant awareness of their fallibility.

But the Women’s Alliance for Israel event illustrates a bigger issue that extends far beyond the reliability and honesty of the Times coverage: Why can’t we have a rational discussion of Israel and the war in Lebanon?

In my modest presentation — I thought it best to bore these people rather than anger them — I noted that never before in history was so much information available in so many forms of media.

In the morning, I read three papers called the Times — the Los Angeles, New York and Financial. When writing, I take breaks to read Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post and the DEBKA Report, all from Israel, plus take a look at the Guardian to check out the anti-Israel thoughts of the British left wing. All that, plus my lifelong support of Israel, shapes my opinions.

With this information overload, sometimes it is hard for me to make up my mind. Sometimes, I actually have to think.

I would have enjoyed a rational discussion of the media, in general, and the Times, specifically. I have talked to many anti-Times audiences. People hear me out, argue and exchange ideas. They concede a point. I concede a point. We all leave the room better informed.

This group did not want to be better informed. They preferred to get their information from e-mails circulated by like-minded friends, interest groups and, of course, by watching Fox. Any mention of this network, by the way, got a lot of applause.

But as this war continues, we’ve got to reach out and talk to people who don’t agree with us. If we won’t listen to fellow Jews, particularly those as well informed as Lauter, how can we convince anyone of the rightness of our cause?

Bill Boyarsky’s monthly column on Jews and civic life returns this week. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Spectator – Spin-Doctors of the Revolution


Rachel Boynton, director of the documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis,” was excited when she first learned that American political consultants export their work globally.

While a student at Columbia School of Journalism, she saw a film about the history of 20th century nonviolent conflict that included a segment on how American consultants had gone to Chile in 1990 to produce TV ads for a successful campaign to end Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s long autocratic presidency.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s my movie. I want to follow an American who is trying to run an ad campaign to oust a dictator,'” Boynton said in a telephone interview. “It seemed to epitomize a lot of things I think of as being fundamentally American — optimism, hubris, political idealism and the profit motive all wrapped up in one event.”

Raised by her Jewish lawyer mother, Esther, after her parents divorced when she was 9 months old, Boynton had already lived in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Denver, Ann Arbor and Paris by the time she was in graduate school. Her film’s subject also dovetailed with her undergraduate degree in international relations from Brown University.

After five years of work on “Crisis,” Boynton, 32, has finally completed her movie, which opens in Los Angeles on April 14. But it didn’t turn out as originally planned.

She documents the campaign waged by the liberal firm of Greenberg Carville (as in James Carville) Shrum (GCS) on behalf of the unpopular but reformist millionaire, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (a.k.a. “Goni”), who was attempting to return to office as president of Bolivia.

“I liked GCS because they were very idealistic about what they did,” Boynton said. “Most people expect to see political consultants being very mercenary. This firm professed to be idealistic about their work.”

Essentially the firm’s strategies for advertising, focus groups, polling and image-shaping worked in Bolivia. “Goni” won in 2002. But the rifts caused by the spirited election set in motion a bloody uprising that forced him to flee from office in 2004.

The turn of events left the firm’s Jeremy Rosner and Stan Greenberg — captured by Boynton in post-revolt interviews — feeling melancholy and disappointed. A revolution was not part of their plans.

“They had this American attitude because we live in a place that’s stable,” Boynton said. “That is not necessarily the normal course of things all across the world. We need to recognize our perspective is not universally shared.”

“Our Brand Is Crisis” opens April 14 at the Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For showtimes, call (323) 848-3500.

 

A Historic Event


It was a remarkable sight: the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan sitting on a New York dais alongside leaders of the American Jewish community and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations — while eating a kosher dinner beneath a blue-and-white banner reading: “Council for World Jewry.”

It was all the more notable, considering the significant personal risk the appearance must have entailed for Pervez Musharraf, who has been the subject of several recent assassination attempts at the hands of Muslim extremists who are violently anti-Israel and anti-America.

There was near-unanimous agreement among Jews and Pakistanis at Saturday night’s event that Musharraf’s mere presence before an audience of Jewish officials represented a potentially historic step in Muslim-Jewish relations. For his landmark gesture, the Pakistani general received a series of standing ovations.

“I would never have imagined that a Muslim, a president of Pakistan and, more than that, a man in uniform would ever get such a warm reception from the Jewish community,” Musharraf said as he ascended the platform to excited applause.

Beyond the novelty of the appearance, however, Musharraf’s half-hour speech met with disappointment from some Jewish leaders who found his remarks rich in hyperbole but poor in specific proposals.

“If we waited 100 years [to hold this meeting] it would have been even more historic, but what is it we have achieved?” asked Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “In his world, in his culture, in his environment, this is a major step. From our perspective, it isn’t.”

Some lamented that Musharraf said little beyond his previous comments about establishing relations with Israel, which he again conditioned on future actions by Israel, culminating in the establishment of a Palestinian state. Musharraf’s address followed closely his brief encounter last week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the sidelines of the United Nations World Summit and a recent meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries, which do not have full diplomatic ties.

Still, said Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress — whose Council for World Jewry sponsored the event — given Musharraf’s domestic political constraints, Jews should not underestimate what he was able to offer.

“It is not helpful for us to be critical of a Muslim leader who, given his political pressures, comes to speak to us and doesn’t give us everything we want at that moment in time,” Rosen said. “We couldn’t have expected that he would have announced last night that he would immediately begin normalizing relations with Israel. It wasn’t a real expectation.”

Challenged by Foxman to show more leadership by moving to formalize Israeli-Pakistani relations right away, Musharraf responded that “57 years of hatred, bitterness, animosity cannot be undone so fast.”

“It is my sincere judgment that this is not the time to do it,” he said. “We need to be very patient. I need some more reasons and rationale. I need some more support” to be able to convince the Pakistani people to go along with the move.

Israel’s foreign minister, for his part, said he looked favorably on the meeting as a step in what he acknowledged could be a “long process” toward full ties.

“The time has come, I believe, to have full diplomatic relations with all of these” moderate Muslim countries, Silvan Shalom told Jewish journalists this week. “I believe that many of them are close. They’re always looking for the appropriate time.”

Shalom did not attend the Musharraf event.

Musharraf spoke about religious similarities between Muslims and Jews and characterized recent hostility between the two groups as an aberration against a background of historical coexistence. He further earned plaudits for insisting that terrorism “cannot be condoned for any cause.”

While he referred to “Schindler’s List” and praised Sharon for the recent Gaza Strip withdrawal, Musharraf upset many in the audience by insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a root cause of world terrorism, and that Pakistan won’t forge diplomatic ties with Israel until the Palestinians have a state — essentially giving the Palestinians a veto over the entire process, several Jewish leaders noted afterward.

“Palestine has been at the heart of troubles in the Middle East,” Musharraf said. “I have no doubt whatsoever that any attempt to shy away or ignore the root causes of terrorism is shutting one’s eyes to reality and is a sure recipe for failure.”

That sentiment struck a raw nerve among many Jews in the audience, who lamented that Muslim nations for too long have tried to lay the blame for many of the world’s ills on Israel.

“The root cause of terrorism is the same as the root cause of Nazism: simply, the hatred of Jews through teaching hatred of Jews,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Musharraf also called on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and respect other faiths’ attachment to Jerusalem. He did not express any corresponding demands on the Palestinian side.

“Israel must come to terms with geopolitical reality and let justice prevail for the Palestinians,” Musharraf said. “They want their own independent state, and they must get it.”

Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has had something of an image problem in the West. Daniel Pearl, a Jewish reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped and decapitated by terrorists in Pakistan; Osama bin Laden is thought to be in hiding somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; a Pakistani nuclear scientist was discovered to have supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, and Pakistan’s extensive network of religious schools has been accused of spreading a radically violent and anti-Western version of Islam.

Many in the audience saw Musharraf’s decision to address a Jewish audience as a public relations move, rather than the reflection of a serious desire for detente. Like many in the Muslim world, Musharraf views the American Jewish community as key to securing political influence along the Beltway, some said.

Musharraf didn’t do much to dispel this impression.

“I feel privileged to be speaking to so many members of what is probably the most distinguished and influential community in the United States,” he said.

But Mossadaq Chughtai, director of the Pakistani American Liaison Center, which runs the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, dismissed this line of thinking.

“We have good standing with Congress” and the White House, he said, noting that President Bush has hosted Musharraf at Camp David. “Not as good as AIPAC, but we’re making strides,” Chughtai said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Still, many considered the symbolism of the event key. Unlike Palestinian leaders, who often have made conciliatory statements to foreign leaders in English, while urging their constituents to war in Arabic, Musharraf spoke before a full contingent of Pakistani media beaming his words back home, where they are likely to be controversial.

For Dr. Abdul Rehman, an officer of the MMSI mosque in Staten Island, N.Y., Musharraf’s appearance gives the “green light” to Muslims to work toward cooperation and dialogue with Jews.

Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, thought Musharraf was “very sincere” and praised him for not making grand promises that he would not be able to fulfill.

“There’s no question he will have a hard time explaining to his people what he’s doing and trying to bring them along,” Lazar said. “On the other hand, he didn’t give any kind of time frame” for normalizing ties with Israel.

At the least, the event led to immediate interreligious dialogue in the hallways: Lazar was seen chatting and posing for photos with Imam Ghulam Rasul of the MMSI mosque and invited mosque leaders to visit him if they’re in Moscow.

Pakistani television reporters pulled Israelis and American Jews aside for interviews to be broadcast in Pakistan.

“I think the event was very significant,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Something that hopefully can be built upon.”

Michael Arnold contributed to this report.