Put some teeth into Iran divestment

Today was a difficult day. I met with Iranian dissidents, former political prisoners who had been tortured by the current regime. Seeing their scars was particularly difficult for me. But the stories of these people just personalized for me what I already understood about modern-day Iran. This is a government that executes a person every eight hours. That backs terrorists throughout the region and the world. That has made statements about Israel that are immensely disturbing.

As a student of history, I’ve often wondered if nations recognized crossroads when they faced them; if past leaders at key points in time understood that decisions about to be made would determine the success or failure of their society, the life or death of their people, the rise or fall of their empire. On the topic of Iran, I think we are at such a crossroads now, and the next actions we take may very well determine whether peace, or persecution and paranoia, prevail in Iran and globally.

Normally, I don’t like it when states or localities involve themselves in international affairs. The U.S. Constitution reserves foreign-relations authority for the federal government, and it is customary to defer to our federal representatives on those issues. On the issue of Iran, we Southern Californians have terrific stalwarts representing our points of view in Congress, namely Congressmen Brad Sherman, Adam Schiff and Howard Berman, among others.

But California is in a unique position to aid our federal representatives in achieving their goals to foster tolerance and civil rights in Iran. As the eighth largest economy in the world, California can impose painful economic sanctions. Our state pension funds send billions of dollars abroad in foreign investment. 

In 2007, the California State Legislature decided that Iran will no longer see money from the pockets of state government employees to fund Iran’s reckless nuclear program and hateful agenda. The California Public Divest from Iran Act (CPDIA) called on the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to divest from all companies operating in the defense, nuclear, petroleum and natural-gas sectors of Iran. We had reached a crossroads, and we had made a decision to demand peace instead of hatred.

If only it were that easy. The years since CPDIA have been disappointing. CalPERS and CalSTRS have not divested from companies operating in Iran, stating that their holdings in those companies were too big to divest from without hurting their funds’ rates of return. CalPERS and CalSTRS have also, for the most part, declined to state how much money was going to companies on the “do not invest” list. And they have stated that the transaction costs related to divestment would be too high, even though leaving money invested in such an unstable country could clearly result in a total loss of capital in future years.

It is frustrating that the will of the people, as expressed through the Legislature, is being ignored. But this does not mean we should retreat. To ensure that the Iranian regime does not profit from business with the State of California, I, and other members of the Legislature, are formulating additional ideas, with teeth, to mandate divestment from Iran.  

I ask you to continue the fight too. Ask your friends who are retired state employees if they know their hard-earned investment dollars are being used to invest in a regime that tortures people like the dissidents with whom I recently met. Ask them if they are aware those dollars are being spent to help a regime so diametrically opposed to our foreign-policy interest and values. Then, urge them to write a letter to the relevant retirement fund asking for full compliance with CPDIA.

The California Legislature will keep the pressure on, and I hope you do too.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) represents the cities of Burbank, Glendale, and parts of Los Angeles, including Los Feliz, Silver Lake, North Hollywood, Toluca Lake, Valley Glen and Van Nuys.

L.A. county passes motion to divest from Iran

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors passed a motion Tuesday morning requesting the county pension fund to divest itself of any assets or funds from any companies doing business with Iranian companies active in energy resource development.

The motion, introduced by Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and and Zev Yaroslavsky, passed unanimously by a 4:0 vote, with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas absent.

No one spoke in opposition to the divestment motion, but several speakers from the Iranian Jewish community expressed their strong support. A sizeable delegation of young Iranian Jews were in the audience, rallied by Thirty Years After, consisting of young Iranian Jewish professionals.

In arguing for his motion, Antonovich said, “Iran has been identified by the State Department as the chief sponsor of international terrorism. Economic sanctions, risk warnings, credit restrictions and other measures announced by the United States, European nations, and the United Nations, make business in Iran’s oil and natural gas sector an increasing fiduciary risk.”

Divest Now

I’ve been incredibly frustrated reading about the turmoil in Iran and feeling that all I can really do about it is watch more Anderson Cooper.

President Barack Obama himself had a hard time calibrating his response to the uprising following June’s rigged election returns, which allowed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to retain power. If Obama had shown too much support for the millions of protesters who took to the streets, they would have been derided as American stooges. If he showed too little, they would feel abandoned in their struggle for civil and human rights.

So if the President didn’t quite know how to help, how is John Q. American supposed to know?

Well, now we have our chance.

On Tuesday, July 21, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to urge the county $9-billion pension fund to divest any assets or funds from companies doing business in Iran. The recommendation is aimed solely at companies assisting the Islamic Republic’s energy sectors.

Direct investment in Iran is, of course, prohibited by Federal law. But the County recommendation, proposed by Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Michael D. Antonovich, calls on the County to divest its funds from outside companies that aid and abet Iran’s economy.

About 50 people crowded into a hearing room to debate Resolution 4, “to send a five-signature letter to the CEO and Members of the Board of Investment of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association (LACERA), requesting that LACERA divest from those companies that are liable to U.S. Government sanctions by virtue of their investments in the Iranian energy sector.”

Fifteen speakers representing synagogues, the young professional Iranian-Jewish group 30 Years After, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and others presented the case for divestment.

“I am here today, urging the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and County Pension Board, on behalf of my organization and countless other citizens of Los Angeles, to divest from companies doing business with Iran,” said Michael Yadegaran of 30 Years After. “As you know, the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. L.A. County’s divestment will send a powerful message to all corporations currently doing business with Iran and will make other corporations think twice before entering into new contracts with Iran.

“As Americans, we reap the benefits of freedom and democracy. It is time that we punish those who deprive their citizens of basic human rights,” Yadegaran said.

The resolution passed with four votes: Supervisors Yaroslavsky, Antonovich, Don Knabe and Gloria Molina (Mark Ridley-Thomas was not present for the vote).

LACERA’s investment board will take up the resolution at its next meeting, which at press time had not been scheduled. But organizers point out that the resolution is non-binding, and the board is composed of appointed officials whose sole duty is to maximize the return on the pension fund’s investment. While some of the five-member board are known to be sympathetic to divestment, others are more of a question mark.

“I wouldn’t call this a done deal at the Investment Board,” said one organizer. “We will still have to explain the need for this, and political arguments don’t resonate to a pension fund.”

Proponents of the measure can and do argue that Iran’s tottering regime makes investments in companies that do business with Iran too risky for the public good. Right now companies like Nokia, which provided the hi-tech infrastructure that allowed Iran’s mullahs to dig into computer and phone records to root out dissidents, are facing worldwide public backlash. Who needs that headache?

But if the investment board takes a slightly more long-term view, they would have to wonder how well any of their investments would do in a world destabilized by a nuclear-armed Iran.

That’s why there isn’t a sane country in the world that wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. Israel and the Jews may have the most immediate stake in this — considering Ahmadinejad’s promise to destroy the Jewish state — but there is international consensus that an Iranian bomb would lead to a Middle East nuclear arms race, threaten the world oil supply, increase the risks of nuclear terrorism and blackmail, and make the current corrupt regime there even stronger. In a world where the current regime in Iran has the bomb, any Investment Board better be selling short.

Divestment and sanctions offer an effective tool in pressuring the regime in Iran toward collapse, or at least convince it to stop its rapid march toward developing nuclear weapons.

That’s the real reason for divestment, and it makes sense enough that there need be no others.

“Sanctions are a necessary prelude to a peaceful option,” Gidi Grinstein, who runs the Re’ut Institute in Israel, wrote me via e-mail. “Hence, divestment as part of a package of sanctions may not be successful on its own in stopping the nuclear project, but compounded with the two other legs of a credible and viable military option and a political package, it may work. An effective outcome is not guaranteed, but decisive action here is very important.”

Want to help make a difference in Iran? Write a thoughtful letter supporting divestment to:

William R. Pryor, Chairman, LACERA, P.O. Box 7060, Pasadena, CA, 91109-7060.

That’s our chance, and we had better take it.

Briefs: Methodists don’t ‘divest,’ Jewish groups mobilize for Myanmar, Reno TV anchor sues

Methodists Reject Divestment Proposals

Methodists overwhelmingly defeated measures calling for divestment from companies that allegedly enable Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. The resolutions, targeting companies like Caterpillar, which manufactures tractors, and Motorola, which manufactures security systems, had drawn much media scrutiny before last week’s United Methodist Church General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jewish groups were even more offended by a background document prepared in connection with the motions than they were by the notion of divestment itself. According to Jewish groups, the document was dismissive of Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism and ventured into “replacement theology,” the belief that Christianity has superseded Judaism.

An alliance of grass-roots church activists, who nurture ties to the Jewish community, helped defeat five divestment resolutions, often in the early stages of the conference. The activists also helped pass resolutions opposing the proselytizing of Jews and promoting Holocaust awareness and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a public policy umbrella group bringing together national and local organizations, attended the conference. He credited outreach by Jewish groups across the country to sympathetic Methodists and called the defeat of the resolutions a “turning point.”

“The church has spoken that they don’t want this one-sided approach to their witness,” Felson said Friday, the final day of the conference. “This wasn’t about a national campaign, it was about community to community. This was about relationships.”

U.S. Orthodox Rabbis Assail Israeli Rabbinical Court on Nullifying Conversions

American Orthodox rabbis slammed the decision by an Israeli rabbinical court to nullify conversions by an Israeli Orthodox rabbi.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) said Tuesday that the ruling, which retroactively nullified the conversions performed under the auspices of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, was “entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice,” is a violation of “numerous Torah laws” and constitutes a “massive desecration of God’s name.”

“The RCA is appalled that such a ruling has been issued by that court,” according to a statement by the organization.

According to the RCA, it has received assurances from Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that the ruling by the Rabbinic Court of Appeals has no legal standing.

The episode is the latest to rouse concerns over who is authorized to perform conversions recognized by the Jewish state.

In February, the RCA announced an agreement with the chief rabbinate recognizing 15 American courts and some 40 Orthodox rabbis in North America authorized to perform conversions. A group of liberal Orthodox rabbis said the agreement represented a capitulation to the increasingly stringent standards of the Israeli rabbinate.

Jewish Groups Mobilize For Myanmar

Both the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and B’nai B’rith International have opened disaster relief funds to send aid to the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, where at least 22,000 people have been killed and millions left homeless after the May 3 cyclone.

The JDC’s International Development Program, which responds to natural and manmade disasters providing immediate relief and long-term assistance, collects funds on a nonsectarian basis. The JDC is helping some of the region’s estimated 10 Jews.

The B’nai B’rith disaster relief fund will allocate $10,000 to help IsraAID send 10 relief workers, including paramedics, doctors, nurses and water specialists, to Myanmar. The team is cooperating with the local United Nations office and Israel’s embassy in the region.

Tel Aviv-based IsraAID, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, is an umbrella organization of more than 35 Israeli and Jewish nongovernmental organizations active in development and relief work.

For more information, contact the JDC at www.jdc.org or (212) 687-6200; or B’nai B’rith at www.bnaibrith.org/support/disaster_relief.cfm.

To donate to the LA Federation’s Emergency Relief Fund, call (323) 761-8200 or send a check to: The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90048. Please make checks payable to The Jewish Federation with the words “Myanmar Relief Fund” in the memo line.

To contribute to AJWS, visit www.ajws.org, or call (800) 889-7146. Checks can be sent to: American Jewish World Service, Burma Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

London Mayor Critical of Israel Loses Bid for Re-election to Third Term

Ken Livingstone, a frequent critic of Israel, was beaten in London’s mayoral election.

The Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson received 53.2 percent of the vote last Saturday to 46.8 for Livingstone, the Labor incumbent. Johnson was sworn in the same day.

Livingstone has accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and refused to apologize after comparing a Jewish journalist from London to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The first person to serve as the mayor of London, a post created in 2000, Livingstone served two terms.

Johnson has worked to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been a supporter of Israel. He opposed a call last year by Britain’s University College Union to boycott Israeli colleges and universities.

During a trip to Israel in November 2004, Johnson visited Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market shortly after a suicide bombing and toured the West Bank security fence, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Judaism Trumps Nationality Among Israelis

Jewish identity takes precedence over national identity for most Israelis, a poll found.

According to the survey in Tuesday’s Israel Hayom newspaper, 65 percent of Israeli Jews identified primarily as Jews and only then as Israelis, whereas 14 percent said the reverse. Nine percent said they don’t know in which order they identify.

Asked whether they want Israel to be more Jewish or more democratic, 47 percent said the former and 43 percent the latter, with the rest undecided.

The poll reflected mixed feelings among Israeli Jews about their country’s future as it celebrates its 60th Independence Day, though most made clear they would not want to live elsewhere.

Asked to rate their “personal mood” on an ascending scale of one to 10, the average number given was seven. The “national mood” was a more gloomy 5.8.

California State Senate passes Iran divestment bill

On Sept. 6, the California Senate unanimously approved a bill that would require state pension funds to divest an estimated $24 billion in investments from nearly 300 companies doing business with Iran.

“I am thrilled with the state Senate’s overwhelming bi-partisan support for this legislation, which will end California taxpayer’s investment in key foreign-owned companies that prop up the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R- El Cajon), said in a written statement.

In early June, the California Assembly unanimously approved the bill, known as AB 221, and the governor is expected to sign it into law later this month. The bill has received wide support from California Iranian Americans of various faiths, as well as 17 state and national Jewish organizations. The state bill follows a similar one approved on July 31.

In June, Los Angeles became the first city in the country to approve its own Iran divestment measure. The state of Florida passed legislation in May barring $1 billion in its state pension fund from being invested in companies doing business with Iran and Sudan. Currently, Iran divestment bills are working their way through 12 additional states’ legislatures.

Briefs: The Milken JCC pool; Valley Cities JCC fundraiser; Iran divestment bill moving forward

Federation Asks Milken JCC to Relinquish Property Rights

With little notice, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles closed the Olympic-sized swimming pool at The New JCC at Milken on April 25, citing possible mold damage but having already been issued a permit on April 11 by the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety to demolish and fill in the pool.

Now The Federation appears to have more extensive plans for the financially troubled JCC, offering them a one-time supplemental allocation of $350,000 in return for signing a quitclaim deed relinquishing their historic right to be the major tenant on the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills.

After June 30, 2008, the JCC’s space and budget could be greatly diminished as The Federation intends to rent the space to former tenant New Community Jewish High School, giving them a substantial portion of the Milken campus.

In response to that proposal, which was faxed to the JCC on May 22, the JCC board of directors has scheduled a membership meeting on Sunday, June 10, 2 p.m., to present and vote on The Federation’s rescue plan. Prior to that meeting, however, JCC officials are hoping to raise $500,000, giving them the ability to consider other options.

“We have a lot of financial problems and some mismanagement. Nobody’s denying that,” former JCC president Bonnie Rosenthal said. “But we do serve people and it seems that Federation is not interested in the people we serve.”

Those people include 125 preschoolers, many from single-parent, working-parent and immigrant families who depend on the extended daycare hours. Additionally, the JCC serves more than 700 seniors who come for classes, cultural events and fitness programs.

Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said that it is a coincidence that the pool closure happend at the same time as the JCC’s financial distress. She added that The Federation wants to see the best communal use of the property and intends to work with the JCC to continue a downsized version of its early childhood and senior programs.

Dragon and Andrew Cushnir, Federation vice president of planning, said that without signing the quitclaim deed, the JCC will not receive supplemental funding and, like all Federation agencies, must apply for a 2008 allocation, with no guarantee.

“The JCC is losing members in droves because of the pool closure and the lack of information that Federation is giving out,” said Marty Rosenthal, JCC treasurer and past president.

Meanwhile, the pool remains closed with no set demolition date.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Valley Cities JCC Holds Fundraiser

In what could be a last hurrah, the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC) will hold a BBQ social on Sunday, June 10, 2-7 p.m., complete with a bounce house for children, face painting, bands and silent auction. The entrance fee is $10.

The center, which uses property owned by the Jewish Community Centers Development Corp., is facing closure as soon as June 15. The development corporation had agreed in principle to a Burbank philanthropist’s $2.7 million offer to buy the property and turn it over to Valley Cities JCC. But in April everything fell apart.

“We keep making them offers, and they just keep turning their backs on us,” said Michael Brezner, the center’s board chair. “They are not nice people.”

The BBQ is part fundraiser, part public relations initiative.

“We want people to know we are here. We want to stay,” said Lori Brockman, a concerned parent who helped organize the event.

Valley Cities JCC is in Sherman Oaks at 13164 Burbank Blvd. For more information, call (818) 786-6310.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Staff Writer

Iran Divestment Bill Passes Assembly Appropriation Committee

[SACRAMENTO] — A proposed California State Assembly bill that would require state pension funds to divest an estimated $24 billion from more than 280 companies doing business with Iran, took one step closer to become law on May 31 after being approved by the Assembly’s Appropriation Committee.

The bill, also known as AB 221, was first introduced by freshman Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon) and unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee on April 24. Anderson has said the primary goal of the legislation is to secure the California Public Employees Retirement and the State Teachers Retirement pensions with wise investment strategies, since both are valued at nearly $400 billion and funded by taxpayers.

AB 221 has received wide support from 14 national and state Jewish organizations and dozens of Los Angeles-based Iranian Muslim groups opposed to Iran’s regime, as an economic means to bring down the already crippled Iranian economy. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington D.C.-based pro-Iran lobby as well as the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have been the only groups opposing AB 221. The Assembly will have a final vote on the bill in the first week of June and supporters said they expect it to become law by January 2008.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer