Pride of the Zionists


Surrounded by seven young children, Yehuda Richter tells me over Shabbat lunch how he decided to move from Los Angeles to

Elon Moreh, a settlement on the outskirts of the place Jews call Shechem and the Arabs call Nablus.

He was 14 years old and playing basketball with some black guys in the La Cienega neighborhood near Fedco (RIP), some 25 years ago.

“Are you a Jew,” a black player asked him.

“Yes.”

“Man, you guys are bad!” he said, meaning “good.”

Then the black guy recounted how some Jew boy was roughed up at a neighborhood pinball joint. The following Saturday night, some brawny Jews from the Jewish Defense League (JDL) visited the joint, punched some noses and knocked over a few tables, saying, in so many words, “Don’t mess with the Jews.”

It was the first time that Richter felt distinct pride to be a Jew. Then he went to hear a lecture by Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the JDL, at Beth Jacob Synagogue, and immediately became his disciple.

Out of the blue, Richter sings, a la John Denver, his own “Elon Moreh” anthem, his long black beard and payes swaying:

“Hotzei Shomron [Samaria Divide], take me home, to the place I belong.”

Richter certainly didn’t belong in Los Angeles, the city where I, too, was born and where my parents still live. Nor would Kahane, were he still alive, fit in so well at most Los Angeles shuls. Kahane’s political party, Kach, was banned in Israel in 1988 for anti-Arab views that were widely denounced as racist. It was listed as a terrorist group by the FBI and U.S. State Department. In 1990 Kahane was assassinated in New York by an Arab affiliated with a terrorist organization.

These days, many residents of Elon Moreh, a natural habitat for Kahane followers and sympathizers, feel more threatened by the Israeli government than by Arabs. At any moment the government could choose to end their way of life by forcefully evicting them from this spot, just as it did with the settlers in Gaza. Located near major Arab population centers in the West Bank, Elon Moreh is the heart of the storm.

Elon Moreh was practically empty during last summer’s Disengagement (or “expulsion,” as they call it here) because most residents were out protesting. The Israeli army recommended terminating the hesder status of the Elon Moreh yeshiva, which combines Torah and military study, which would prevent it from receiving financial subsidies and service reductions for its students. Its rabbi had called upon soldiers to refuse Disengagement orders.

But the rest of the community is on shaky ground with the authorities as well. During the Sukkot holiday, police searched cars randomly, including school buses.

Community members call it harassment and collective punishment in the wake of attempts by settler youth to set up a tent on a deserted hill adjacent to Elon Moreh, an illegal outpost, according to the government. The youth were no contest against the police, who came to knock down the tent, but it did cost the security forces a few punctured tires.

The police say the checks are routine — to ensure proper licenses and permits.

Residents aren’t buying it.

“They came in here looking for trouble,” says Pinchas Fuchs, who directs Friends of Elon Moreh. “They wanted to arrest a couple of the kids who they claimed were involved in who-knows-what-where. They decided to take it out on us.”

It is Fuchs, a New Jersey expatriate, who is hosting me for Shabbat. Fuchs looks like a Jewish Santa Claus, with a white beard and warm blue eyes. I can imagine Jewish children sitting on his lap during Chanukah, while he asks “Were you a good Jew this year?”

He takes me to the hilltop and explains to me that this settlement was officially and legally established in 1980 on barren slopes overlooking the heart of Shechem. Then he shows me where the Jewish people were born. He must have given the speech to visitors hundreds of times, but his enthusiasm makes it seem as though he has just discovered the biblical valleys the day before.

God promised Avram the land in Genesis 12, he explains. Later in the Bible, Jacob purchases a “portion of the field” in Shechem; Dina, Jacob’s daughter, gets raped by the city’s namesake — the rape is then brutally avenged by her brothers; Joseph is sold into slavery and also buried in Shechem. (The place regarded as Joseph’s traditional burial site was turned over to Palestinian police after a violent outbreak there at the start of the second intifada. Palestinians then ransacked the site. An American-born Elon Moreh rabbi was found murdered not far from it.)

“This is where the Jewish people encamped when they entered the Holy Land,” Fuchs says, arms wide open to the expanse of the hills, its valleys spotted with Arab homes and buildings. “That’s Mount Eval and Mount Grizim, where the children of Israel had to choose between the blessings and the curses. That’s where archaeologist Adam Zartal discovered an altar dating to the time of Joshua.”

Not far away from where we stand is an Israel Defense Forces base overlooking Shechem to monitor Arab activities.

Elon Moreh is home to some of the most ardent religious Zionists. It started with 12 seed families and has grown to more than 250 clans. The architecture and lawns remind me more of suburban Los Angeles than crowded Tel Aviv. There are many two-story homes, a lot of trees and parks, but with an atmosphere and terrain that can never be duplicated anywhere else.

There is a feeling among the settlers that, to the Israeli government, they are guilty unless proven innocent and that due process doesn’t apply to them. A 21-year-old about to start medical school was charged with attempting to burn tires on a road and sentenced to two years.

“Look how much time and effort they put into arresting these poor kids blocking roads when there’s all this corruption in the government,” Fuchs says.

Los Angeles’ own, Richter, was sent to administrative detention during the Disengagement on suspicion of various anti-Disengagement “crimes,” but released after five days.

“Really they didn’t want me to be around for the Northern Shomron expulsion,” said Richter, an active protester.

Fuchs suspects his phone is tapped; he sometimes answers, “Good morning, everyone.”

Everyone can’t help but wonder if the government is preparing their own expulsion.

“We’re all aware of it,” says Fuchs’ curly-haired, 24-year-old daughter, Nurit, who teaches autistic children in Jerusalem. “But we’re not going to make it easy.”

Fuchs’ 28-year-old son, Bentzi, a counselor for troubled youth in the Golan, opens a pamphlet listing activities religious Zionist teens are running all over the country to infuse Israelis with a Jewish identity, the lack of which they believe is the cause for the country’s turmoil and a willingness to retreat from the biblical heartland.

Fuchs would be happy to go back to pre-Oslo days when Judea and Samaria were under Israeli rule.

“We had a fantastic situation until 1992,” Fuchs says. “We weren’t buddy-buddy with the Arabs, but it was live and let live. We had school buses driving through Shechem every day. Many would like to go back to that situation, but it’s too hard now.”

Time, however, does not appear to be on the settlers’ side. Demolitions and expulsions are slated for parts of settlements in Hebron, Elon Moreh, and Amona.

At the Tapuach Junction, construction has mysteriously begun to alter traffic flow near the mountains of the blessings and the curses.

“They’re getting ready for the next expulsion,” says a hitchhiker I pick up on my way out

“How so?” I ask.

“They’re making a crossing so they can limit traffic, as they did for Gush Katif,” she says.

The Israel Defense Forces respond that workers are constructing an improved vehicle passageway to improve security inspection without delaying drivers. But the settlers are very suspicious.

As I leave the community, I can’t help but feel energized by the pride of the people I met. But I also couldn’t help but feel increasingly sad that Israel is turning into a country where you’re treated as a criminal if you love too passionately your people, your heritage, and your history.

On the way home near the Hotzei Shomron road, I shut off my new Madonna CD, and begin to sing: “Hotzei Shomron, take me home, to the place I belong.”

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.

 

Abramoff Linked to Jewish Ventures


Reading the indictment against Jack Abramoff, one might not know that he was prominent in Washington Jewish circles. But in coming months, his ties with Jewish and Israeli organizations may emerge as a prominent piece in the lobbyist’s web of questionable activities.

Last week, Abramoff pleaded guilty to multiple felony counts in Washington and Miami as part of a settlement in which he agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in their ongoing government corruption probe. In the Washington case, the 46-year-old lobbyist admitted defrauding at least four Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars, enticing government officials with bribes and evading taxes. In the Miami case, Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud stemming from his purchase of a fleet of casino boats.

While Abramoff is best known as a political wheeler-dealer, he also was a player in the Jewish community of the nation’s capital, starting several short-lived, money-losing ventures to fill what he perceived as religious gaps in the city’s Jewish world.

He also used his largess to further Israeli businesses and charities that appealed to his conservative worldview. Some of these activities have come to light in connection with the cases outlined in the federal indictments.

Specifically, Abramoff allegedly using money from a Washington charity he oversaw to fund military-style programs in the West Bank. Indian tribes donated money to tax-exempt charities, believing they were supporting anti-gambling foundations, but the money was redirected to help a “sniper school” in the West Bank, operated by a friend of Abramoff.

According to congressional documents, Abramoff sought night-vision goggles and a vehicle for the sniper-training facility.

Abramoff also allegedly worked on behalf of an Israeli firm that sought to wire the Capitol for cellular phone use. While leading cell phone manufacturers in the United States settled on JGC Wireless to install antennas in repeaters in House buildings, an Israeli company with ties to Abramoff, Foxcom Wireless, ultimately won the bid.

The switch is allegedly linked to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, who accepted numerous favors from Abramoff over the years, and placed comments in the Congressional Record favorable to Abramoff’s ventures.

Foxcom didn’t pay Abramoff to lobby for the House job, but it did donate $50,000 to the Capitol Athletic Foundation, an Abramoff charity, the Washington Post reported.

Foxcom has changed its name to MobileAccess and moved its headquarters to Virginia. A spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Abramoff also has been tied to two rabbis, the Lapin brothers from South Africa, who aided his political and personal ventures. David Lapin was hired to run a Jewish school Abramoff created in suburban Maryland to teach his children and others.

Lapin also received close to $1.2 million to promote “ethics in government” to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, one of Abramoff’s clients. Officials on the island said Lapin did little for the money.

His brother, Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward Tradition. Abramoff allegedly asked him to create an award to bestow upon Abramoff to help his acceptance into Washington’s Cosmos Club. Abramoff suggested he could be a “scholar of Talmudic studies” or a “distinguished biblical scholar.”

Lapin said yes, according to e-mails obtained by congressional investigators, and asked whether Abramoff needed a letter or a plaque. Lapin told the Washington Post he meant the exchange to be tongue-in-cheek and never produced an award for Abramoff.

Two other Abramoff aides moved to Israel last year as investigators continued their probe. Sam Hook and his wife, Shana Tesler, both worked at Abramoff’s law firm and had been cooperating with investigators before moving to Israel in July, according to The Hill, a Washington newspaper. The Orthodox Jews had long planned to move to Israel, their attorney said last year.

Abramoff also made contributions to several Jewish lawmakers, among numerous congressmen Abramoff and his associates help finance. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) donated $7,000 — the amount he received from Abramoff — to charity last week.

A spokesman for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) did not respond to questions about his own donation from Abramoff — in the amount of $1,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

In Washington, Abramoff was well-known for the idiosyncratic use of his money. He shunned other religious schools in the area, choosing to open Eshkol Academy specifically for his children’s education.

The school closed within two years, and several teachers say they are owed back pay. David Lapin, the school’s dean, was not an active administrator, former teachers said.

Abramoff also opened several kosher restaurants that failed quickly. Stacks, a deli, was welcomed by the city’s Jewish community, but never made money. A more formal restaurant upstairs, Archives, never stayed open for more than a few weeks at a time.

Some Jewish professionals found it noteworthy that the Abramoff that appeared outside a Washington courthouse Jan. 3 — with a long, double-breasted black coat and black hat — resembled a devout Jew on his way to Shabbat services. In a New York Times interview last year, Abramoff compared himself to the biblical character Jacob, saying his involvement in lobbying was similar to Jacob’s taking the identity of his brother, Esau. A spokesman for Abramoff later told JTA his client was misquoted.

 

Little Scandal Becomes Big Deal


The still-simmering flap over forged endorsements for Mayor James Hahn is the classic scandal that didn’t have to be. A little more than a week ago, this incident grew from niche story — something that only Jewish Journal readers might notice — to the week’s hottest local political fracas, with widespread coverage in newspapers and on radio and TV.

And it was the Hahn campaign that made this happen.

This episode began as the tale of an odd mistake. Some of the same names appeared on endorsement lists of Hahn and of one of his challengers, Bob Hertzberg. The Hahn list appeared in published advertisements, including in The Journal. Six people on Hahn’s list complained in a letter that they are not supporting the incumbent mayor. The Hahn campaign noted that its ad was based on signed endorsement letters, but also said that it would remove the six names.

So far so good for the Hahn campaign.

It’s what transpired next that incensed a portion of the Jewish community that could have supported Hahn in the May 17 runoff. At this point, the mayor’s lieutenants had the option of apologizing profusely and carefully double-checking all potentially suspect endorsements, just to be sure.

Instead, some say, Hahn’s campaign staff, notably veteran political adviser Kam Kuwata, adopted an approach that came across as cavalier and insensitive. It started with Kuwata’s presumption that producing the endorsement forms would settle the issue — that citing these forms was all he needed to do.

Journal reporter Idan Ivri showed the letters to the people who purportedly signed them. They said their signatures had been forged. Kuwata downplayed that issue, while insisting that the strange occurrence was limited to those who signed the letter. Yet the problematic endorsements began to grow in number. To date, community leaders have specified 30 false endorsements. As of this writing, The Journal has contacted about one-third of these individuals — all of whom insisted they never endorsed Hahn.

Kuwata cemented this public-relations debacle when he identified the source of the documents as Joe Klein, who died last June at age 69.

So, if you’re keeping track, the Hahn campaign’s first message was: These complaints are no big deal, not worth bothering with. The second tack was to blame a revered member of the Orthodox community, who’s conveniently not around to defend himself.

If Klein had left behind a signed confession attesting to the forgeries, it still would have been bad politics for the Hahn campaign to hide behind his tombstone.

As it happens, many of the bad endorsements were those of people who’d supported Hahn — often at Klein’s behest — in 2001. The 2005 campaign, however, included Hertzberg, a Jewish candidate who appealed to these voters on key issues, not to mention a Hahn who’s been tarnished by ongoing corruption investigations.

The fake endorsement issue didn’t hurt Hahn in the March 8 primary, because the news emerged too late. Hertzberg narrowly missed the runoff. But the flap surely presents a gift to City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who’ll face off with Hahn on May 17.

The damage done is embodied in Dr. Irving Lebovics, a dentist who chairs Agudath Israel of California, an Orthodox group. Lebovics is among those who say his signature was forged on a letter endorsing Hahn. He’s unhappy about that, but he’s especially upset at what he regards as the outrageous vilification of Klein.

“It’s a matter of integrity,” he said. “Integrity is very important to me.”

Lebovics has nothing against Hahn’s performance as mayor; he’ll even allow that Hahn’s been a good mayor, but he’s now leaning toward Villaraigosa. Lebovics attended a hastily called Friday press conference at which he was among four Orthodox Jewish leaders who defended Klein and criticized Hahn. Lebovics declined to state his preference for Villaraigosa while tape was rolling, because he didn’t want the focus to stray from his issue with Hahn’s campaign.

Another speaker was Rabbi Steven Weil of Temple Beth Jacob, who clearly was angry about the alleged forging of his own signature. He, too, evinced no interest in promoting Hahn’s challenger, whose name he pronounced as “Villagarosa” in response to a reporter’s question.

But this event wasn’t entirely without political orchestration. The sound system was provided by the Villaraigosa campaign. And the master of ceremonies was City Councilman Jack Weiss, a Villaraigosa stalwart. Reached earlier by phone, the press deputy for Weiss referred to the press conference as a “Villaraigosa event” that was unrelated to the official business of the council office.

Kuwata of the Hahn campaign fired back at Weiss, calling reporters’ attention to thousands of dollars in fines that Weiss faces for mistakes made in his 2001 City Council campaign. That got reported, too, but didn’t have the legs of the dodgy endorsements, which made it on at least two TV stations’ newscasts, on two radio stations, and into the pages of the Daily Breeze and the Los Angeles Times.

At this juncture, Hahn hopes for a tight race — that would mark an improvement over his lagging second-place primary finish. And if it’s close, last week’s missteps could cost him. Members of Orthodox congregations tend to vote, and they respect their leaders’ endorsements — their real endorsements, that is.

In 2001, Hahn won over substantial numbers of Anglo, moderate and middle-class voters with a campaign that subtly reminded them that Villaraigosa had dark skin. The campaign also painted Villaraigosa as too liberal overall and too dangerous on matters of crime.

In 2005, despite his second-place primary finish, Hahn could yet prevail, but it’ll be more difficult to win with a similar campaign. For one thing, Villaraigosa plans to fire back with City Hall corruption allegations. And now he’s got additional ammunition provided courtesy of the Hahn campaign.

Third-place finisher Hertzberg hasn’t made an endorsement, but his legions already are debating where to go. They include affordable-housing developer Stanley Treitel, Klein’s brother-in-law. Treitel is no Westside lockstep liberal. For one thing, he supports vouchers for private schools, because he’d like government subsidies to help pay for children who attend Orthodox academies.

Could Treitel possibly go for Villaraigosa, the teachers union favorite, the ultimate anti-voucher man?

Yes, he could. And now he does.

U.S. Faces Tough Policy Challenges


 

With Sunday’s elections, the Bush administration got something it demanded from the Palestinians: the beginnings of a democracy. Whether that produces a real, functional democracy remains to be seen — and as that drama plays out, the administration faces some tough decisions and some big policy snares.

Mahmoud Abbas won the battle to replace the late Yasser Arafat as undisputed Palestinian leader, after a campaign that included both examples of his vaunted “moderation” and statements suggesting that he isn’t so different from his predecessor, after all — such has his insistence that he will never abandon the demand for an unlimited Palestinian right of return, a guaranteed deal breaker.

Peace process supporters in this country say that was just an acknowledgment of the political realities he faces; critics say it’s the same old Palestinian line in a new package.

All of this will create some huge challenges for the Bush administration in the months ahead. Here are a few of the big questions officials here will face:

How Much Democracy?

When, exactly, will the Palestinians have achieved enough democratic reform to justify a serious, new U.S. peace push, not just feel-good talk about Palestinian statehood?

Abbas will probably be a big improvement over Arafat, but he will be setting up his government in a society seething with undemocratic forces and in a region where democracy is regarded as toxic by autocratic leaders.

The transition will be uneven and incremental, providing the perfect excuse for those here and in Israel who want to use the democracy demand as a way to bar any new peace negotiations or any new U.S. pressure on Israel.

Finding a realistic democratic threshold that encourages the Palestinians to move forward and strengthens Abbas, without letting him get away with just the trappings of democracy, will be one of the toughest tasks for the administration in the next few months.

What About Hamas?

In recent municipal elections, the terror group decided to engage in the electoral process and did much better than analysts predicted. It boycotted the presidential election but did nothing to interfere, and has promised to cooperate with Abbas.

What will the U.S. attitude be if Hamas involvement grows, especially after parliamentary elections in June?

Will the Bush administration make the judgment that these groups are moving toward peaceful coexistence with Israel, and that participation in the emerging Palestinian democracy could accelerate the process? Or will it react according to its post-Sept. 11 view of a world sharply divided between terrorists and their uncompromising opponents?

A lot of that will depend on how Hamas leaders respond. Softening their rhetoric, curbing attacks and indicating a willingness to accept Israel’s existence will make it easier for the administration to give a cautious yellow light to their political involvement, or at least not to regard it as the poison pill of Palestinian democracy.

The Corruption Conundrum.

International donors have met in recent weeks to discuss a big infusion of aid to help a Palestinian population mired even more deeply in poverty, and President Bush has given $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, with promises of more to come.

But this time, international donors are demanding mechanisms for accountability and transparency to make sure that the money doesn’t end up lining the pockets of P.A. officials or financing new weapons. But financial responsibility — not exactly the norm in the Arab world — won’t come overnight, and the need for an infusion of aid is immediate and overwhelming.

Just how accountable do the Palestinians have to become before they get the aid that’s been dangled before them? Without aid, the plight of ordinary Palestinians will not improve, spawning new terrorism and dimming hopes for new negotiations. But throwing more money at corrupt officials could undermine the Palestinian experiment in democracy.

Dealing With Sharon.

With Abbas’ election, there is a widespread assumption that the administration will become a little firmer in pressing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to fulfill his part of the Mideast “road map” peace plan, including freezing settlements and rooting out illegal outposts. But Sharon is also in the middle of a ticklish Gaza disengagement plan, which the administration has incorporated into its road map.

Just how hard can Washington push without creating a domestic backlash in Israel that will make it harder for the premier to get out of Gaza quickly?

Too often in the past, Sharon has used the specter of domestic opposition to turn aside prodding from Washington, but with settlers in open revolt and the threat of virtual civil war looming, there’s little question he faces an unprecedented domestic challenge.

Pressure is a matter of fine tuning that will test the talents of incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Too much pressure could topple Sharon’s shaky coalition and derail the Gaza plan; too little could damage U.S. credibility in the region.

What About Europe and the Arab Nations?

How can the Bush administration encourage these countries — too often the willing enablers of corrupt, reckless Palestinian leaders — to play a more constructive role?

Without U.S prodding, these nations could lapse back into their unhelpful role, but too much prodding will only play into the reflexive anti-Americanism that leads many to oppose almost anything America proposes, with especially disruptive results in the Middle East.

That will require nuanced diplomacy, not the brute-force approach to international relations that characterized the first Bush administration.