In Israel’s abortion debate, pro-choice seems to be the only choice


A billboard in central Tel Aviv features a black-and-white photo of a distressed woman above a caption in bold red letters that reads, “The pain and remorse from my abortion accompany me every day.”

The billboard is an advertisement for Efrat, an anti-abortion outfit that dubs itself “The Committee to Rescue Israel’s Babies” and offers financial support to pregnant women in an effort to persuade them not to terminate their pregnancies.

Efrat has never protested outside a gynecological clinic, nor has it sought to restrict Israel’s fairly liberal abortion laws. Last month, the organization supported a proposal to allow women to undergo abortions without first appearing before a state committee, as the law currently requires.

Efrat’s president, Eli Schussheim, describes himself as pro-choice, a position he adopts more from pragmatism rather than principle.

“If I tell a woman she has no right to abort, she’ll tell me to get out of here,” Schussheim told JTA. “I said I’ll be pro-choice. It’s important to give counseling to women. I think laws don’t educate.”

From the Western Wall to the West Bank, religious issues dominate Israel’s political discourse. Orthodox parties make up a quarter of the Knesset and have sat in nearly every governing coalition since the state’s founding, using their political might to push for widely despised privileges that benefit Israel’s religious minority.

But while religion looms large in Israel, its abortion laws are, in practice, among the world’s most liberal. Though any woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy must demonstrate to a three-person committee that having the baby will cause her emotional or physical harm, or that the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, more than 99 percent of requests are approved.

Since Israel legalized abortions in 1977 — just four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision galvanized conservative Christian opposition to abortion in the United States — there has been no significant movement to outlaw abortion. In January, the Knesset passed a law allowing government funding for nearly all abortions, some 40,000 of which are performed each year in the Jewish state.

Experts say Israel’s secular foundations, along with Jewish law’s relative ambiguity on abortion, have kept religious political parties mostly silent on the issue and led groups like Efrat to focus on preventing abortions rather than outlawing them. Aliza Lavie, a lawmaker who proposed abolishing abortion committees at a recent Knesset conference, said Israelis are pro-choice because they understand women don’t approach abortion flippantly.

“I think there’s an understanding here that we love children in Israel,” Lavie told JTA. “When a woman already gets to that point [of wanting an abortion], she has just reasons. Israeli culture is very pro-kids.”

Traditional Jewish law doesn’t regard life as beginning at conception, and even mandates abortion if a mother’s life is in danger, so opposing abortion isn’t as high a priority for Israeli religious activists as it is for some of their American counterparts. Haredi Orthodox parties in the past have tried to outlaw late-term abortions, but the bills failed early and no religious party has made abortion a signature issue.

“In the world of the Catholic Church, an abortion is thought of as murder even in the early stages of pregnancy, but in Judaism it’s not so clear,” said Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau, who attended the Knesset conference.

Absent a powerful anti-abortion movement, Israel’s abortion debate centers on technical policy questions such as who should say what to women seeking abortion or which abortions should be funded by the state.

Skeptical that it could ever get abortion outlawed, Efrat has focused instead on removing incentives for women to abort. According to Schussheim, 60 percent of Israeli abortions stem from financial concerns. So Efrat has mobilized a national network of 3,000 women volunteers who provide counseling during the pregnancy and, for those who need it, material support for the baby’s first two years — anything from a crib and stroller to monthly packages of diapers and wipes.

Efrat’s chief social worker, Ruth Tidhar, says the organization supports eliminating abortion committees for similarly practical reasons. Tidhar believes they don’t adequately inform women of the risks of abortion. Instead, she would like doctors to provide information about the medical risks and a required 72-hour waiting period to enable women to consider the information.

“It’s supposed to be a stopgap [to say] ‘Think about this, it’s a serious decision, it’s going to influence the rest of your life,’ ” Tidhar said. “I don’t believe that any woman goes to have an abortion without some degree of ambivalence and bad feelings.”

In supporting the abolition of the committees, Efrat has made common cause with the Israeli feminist organization Isha L’Isha, which opposes the panels on principle as an impediment to a woman’s right to choose. Isha L’Isha also would like to see women receive more information about the procedure, as well as medical advice.

According to New Family, an Israeli organization that fights religious coercion in marriage, divorce and child care, half of Israel’s 40,000 annual abortions take place illegally, as women prefer to bypass the committees. Abolishing the committees, Lavie said, would remove the incentive to undergo an illegal abortion.

“Only the woman can say what’s best for her,” said Ronit Piso, Isha L’Isha’s women and medical technology coordinator. “Only she can make the judgement if it’s economic or anything else. We do think it’s important that women get advice and counseling on the medical implications and counseling on the process itself.”

Israeli gov’t to fund abortions for women ages 20-33


Israeli women between the ages of 20 and 33 will be eligible to receive government-funded abortions in 2014.

The new eligibility is part of the country’s state-subsidized basket of health services for 2014, approved on Monday. Currently, the government only pays for abortions for medical reasons and for girls under 18.

Some 6,300 women between ages 20 and 33 are expected to have abortions in Israel in 2014. All the women still will be required to receive the approval of a government panel before undergoing the procedure; the panel approves nearly all cases.

The head of the health basket committee, Jonathan Halevy of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, said the goal is eventually to raise the covered age to 40.

Contraception is not covered in the health basket.

The committee announced the approval of 83 new drugs and treatments for 2014.  The basket still must be approved by the Ministry of Health and the Cabinet.

If Romney wins: Five things every Jew should know about Mormonism


1. Devout Mormons can be found all across the political spectrum.

The Mormon Church doesn’t endorse candidates or political parties, and although most American Mormons are Republicans, a Mormon Democrat has served as the Senate Majority Leader for the last five years. Owing to our history of persecution and emphasis on self-reliance, there is also a noteworthy group of Mormons with libertarian sympathies who do not easily identify with either party.

Mormons can be found on all sides of most issues. On immigration, for example, many Mormons tend to be more liberal than other Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter). Many of us have served missions abroad, and tend not to be too judgmental of people who come here seeking a better life. Although Mormons generally agree on many important moral issues (see below), there is no consensus on economics and the proper role of government. We all agree, for example, that we have an obligation to help the poor. However, the extent to which government should help meet their needs by taxing others is a point of contention among followers of most faiths, including ours.

2. Mormonism is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Our church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) bears the name of the Christian Savior, we believe in the God of Israel, we accept the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as Scripture, we worship in chapels and temples, and we consider ourselves to be covenant Israelites. Mormons follow the Ten Commandments and are Noahides. In addition, the Abrahamic Covenant is central to our faith. Like Jews, the family is central to our faith, and our idea of heaven is to live with our spouses and families for eternity.

3. A Mormon president would not take orders from Salt Lake City.

If Mitt Romney wins, he’ll undoubtedly have the same arrangement with top church leaders that other Mormons have with local leaders: They don’t tell us how to do our jobs, and we don’t tell them how to run the church. Even Romney’s most intractable foes haven’t accused LDS church headquarters of drafting Romneycare in Massachusetts, and it’s safe to assume that church leaders aren’t behind Harry Reid’s shameful promotion of Las Vegas gambling interests in Washington. Mormons are used to looking to their leaders for spiritual advice, not professional guidance. While I would certainly expect Romney to consult with Mormon leaders as part of his general outreach efforts to faith communities (including Jewish leaders), I am confident that he will be his own man when it comes to formulating policies for the nation. I am also confident that Mormons will not be overrepresented in his administration, as Romney has a history of hiring capable people from all backgrounds to work for him.

4. On moral issues, Mormons are not extreme right-wingers.

A closer look shows the views of most Mormons on these issues to be much more nuanced. Let’s take abortion, for example. The LDS church is very much against it but does allow for possible exceptions in the case of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s life or when the baby is not expected to survive childbirth. That’s pretty much Romney’s campaign’s abortion platform.

On gay issues, it is accurate to say that Mormons oppose state-sanctioned, same-sex marriage. However, it is both inaccurate and insulting to say that we are anti-gay. We can and do support many other issues that are important to gays. For example, former LDS Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) introduced a Senate bill that would have added sexual orientation to the list of protected categories for hate crimes. Every Mormon I know is opposed to discrimination against gays in education, employment and housing. We also support rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, probate rights, etc., so long as the integrity of the traditional family is not affected. As for theology, the LDS church teaches that homosexuality is not sinful in and of itself, as long as one remains chaste.

Although Mormons tend to have more children than the national average, our church doesn’t take a position on birth control. In addition, the church takes no position on capital punishment, stem-cell research, evolution or global warming. As a result, faithful Mormons are advocates for positions on all sides of these issues. 

5. Mormons are philo-Semites and pro-Israel. 

One of our basic Articles of Faith affirms: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes.” In 1841, LDS Apostle Orson Hyde offered a prayer on the Mount of Olives dedicating the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews. Israel went on to receive at least 11 apostolic blessings before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. For more than five decades (1870s-1920s), the church seriously considered establishing a Mormon colony in Palestine. Today, Brigham Young University has a beautiful center on Mount Scopus with the best view of the Old City in Jerusalem.

In the United States, Mormon pioneers arrived in the Utah territory in 1847. The first Jews arrived two years later, in 1849. The first Jewish worship service was held in 1864 in Salt Lake City. Rosh Hashanah was celebrated in Temple Square (the city center) in 1865. Brigham Young donated his personal land for a Jewish cemetery in 1866. In 1903, church President Joseph F. Smith spoke at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the state’s first Orthodox synagogue, which was largely paid for by the church. The second and third Jewish governors in the country were elected in Idaho (1914) and Utah (1916), the two states with the highest percentage of Mormons. Salt Lake City had a Jewish mayor by 1932, more than four decades before New York City.

Most Mormons in this country are very pro-Israel, and Romney is no exception. He has a close, decades-long personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks likely to be elected to another term. If Romney is elected, Jews and Israelis can be assured that they will have a true friend in the White House.


Mark Paredes writes the Jews and Mormons blog for the Jewish Journal and is a member of the LDS church's Jewish Relations Committee for Southern California. Read the Jews and Mormons blog at

Abortion politics arrives in Israel


Israel’s paradoxical approach to abortion — the procedure is illegal unless approved by a committee, which gives the go-ahead to 98 percent of the requests — could radically change if a Knesset member has his way.

Nissim Zeev of the Sephardi Orthodox party Shas, who has said publicly that abortion is akin to “murder,” wants to make the procedure illegal after the 22nd week of pregnancy unless the pregnancy poses a danger to the mother’s health or the fetus suffers from severe defects and is unlikely to survive.

“This has nothing to do with women’s rights,” Zeev heatedly said in an interview. “I demand that we have a public debate on this campaign of murder.”

Political observers don’t think his measure will progress far, but Zeev has shined a spotlight on an issue that has never figured even vaguely in the country’s political campaigns. In fact, Israel does not even have an active anti-abortion movement.

Still, many rabbis, especially Charedi Orthodox, believe that the messianic redemption will be delayed until all souls are born. As a general rule, Jewish law allows abortion in the first 40 days of pregnancy and in cases where the life of the mother is in mortal danger.

“This is about the last thing we need right now — another conflict between the religious and the secular,” said one Knesset member from the coalition, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We have enough political issues to deal with. Zeev has to understand that if it ain’t broke, it don’t need to be fixed.”

As a result, the legislator said, the proposal has been purposely buried in committee. Still, in Israel’s unpredictable political landscape, its existence on the dockets could bring it to the fore without warning.

It’s quite a contrast to the United States, where since the 1973 Roe v. Wade case legalizing abortion, the topic has been a heated political and social issue. The lack of controversy in Israel stems mostly from the large gap between law and practical reality.

The Israeli penal code states that termination of pregnancy is a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to five years. But the code also broadly addresses numerous circumstances in which an abortion may be legally performed, including benefit to emotional and financial well-being.

The procedure must be approved by a special committee with at least two physicians and one licensed social worker; at least one of the three must be a woman.

Yet approval is practically automatic if the pregnant woman is younger than 17 or older than 40; if the conception was a result of rape, incest or extramarital relations; if the pregnancy is likely to endanger the mother’s physical or mental well-being; or if the fetus has been diagnosed with a possible birth defect. 

Women also do not need the consent of any male, including the father of the fetus, nor do minors need the consent of parents or guardians. Israeli medical coverage offers an array of free testing for genetic and congenital birth defects.

Both Zeev and feminist organizations such as the Israel Women’s Network confirm that the committees approve 98 percent of requested abortions. 

Less than 10 percent of abortions in Israel are carried out after the 22nd week and some 20,000 legal abortions are performed in public hospitals every year in Israel, according to the Knesset research department. This does not include abortions performed because of concern for the mother’s physical health, which especially if there is any medical emergency are often not even brought before the committee.

It is unknown how many women avoid the committee — whether because they are between 17 and 40, or because of personal preference — and turn to a private doctor. Having an abortion is not a criminal offense and, according to binding legal norms, unless medical malpractice is involved, the physician performing the abortion will not be prosecuted. Private abortions cost $1,500 to $1,750.

Finally, making it impossible to know how many of the procedures are performed in total is that they can be listed as “medical interventions,” which can cover a broad category.

With all that in mind, most Israeli feminists and others favoring the availability of the option have been hesitant to challenge the status quo. But Zeev’s proposal may force their hand, acknowledges Tal Tamir, the director general of Women and Their Bodies, a feminist health organization.

The huge gap between the law’s paradoxical contradictions and practical life, she explains, reflects an attempt by Israeli society to live with all its internal tensions.

“On the one hand, some parts of Israeli society are very liberal, while other parts are very conservative,” Tamir said in an interview. “By making abortion illegal, the patriarchy maintains its hold over women’s bodies, but by making it available, it maintains a progressive, liberal facade.”

Indeed, there is a widely liberal, even permissive, attitude toward sexual activity in much of the Israeli secular culture. Secular schools provide coed sex education. The Israeli health plans don’t offer free birth control, but some high schools provide condoms through vending machines.

Further, the army provides at least one free abortion to every female soldier who requests one. While there is no civil marriage in Israel, civil law recognizes common-law marriage and cohabitation is commonly accepted.

Tamir says the prohibition on abortions for women 17 to 40 is another example of conflicting social pressures. 

“Israel is a very pro-natal society and carries a strong message that Jewish women should bear children, especially after the Holocaust,” she said. “We have the highest rate of IVF [in vitro fertilization] services — all paid for by the state — in the world. So women who are the ‘proper age to have children’ aren’t supposed to have abortions. But Israeli society also wants perfect children, so if there are defects, the abortion is considered OK.”

Furthermore, Tamir adds, the situation is discriminatory.

“Women who have the money go to private clinics. Underprivileged women are forced to go to a committee and plead their case,” she said. “And it really galls me that the state has the right to intervene in our bodies.

But, she says, “In the current political constellation, in which religious parties carry disproportionate weight, the situation could always be worse for women.”

Unlike Tamir, Knesset member Zehava Galon of the Meretz Party is determined to change the status quo. Last fall, she submitted a proposal to permit abortions for all women at any time, but the proposal failed to make it out of preliminary committees.

She insists, however, that she will continue to bring it to the Knesset for debate.

On the issues: GOP hopefuls on Israel, Iran, abortion, Social Security and more


In advance of Super Tuesday, JTA takes a look at the stances of the four Republican presidential candidates on some issues of Jewish interest. The candidates are listed in alphabetical order.

ABORTION

Newt Gingrich: Has said that abortion should not be legal, though he makes exceptions in cases of rape, incest and danger to a mother’s life. He signed a pledge promising to sign a federal law that would “protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.”

Ron Paul: Opposes abortion rights but argues the issue should be left up to the states. But he signed the pledge supporting a federal law banning abortion when the fetus is “capable of feeling pain.” He advocates repealing Roe v. Wade and defining in federal law that life begins at conception.

Mitt Romney: Says Roe v. Wade should be overturned but until then opposes federal laws that clash with it. He says that abortion should be a state issue. Romney has said that he would support state laws defining conception as the moment life begins. He has repudiated his past support for abortion rights.

Rick Santorum: Favors a constitutional ban on abortion. He believes abortion should be illegal with no exceptions for rape or incest. Santorum wants doctors who perform abortions to face criminal charges.

FOREIGN AID

Gingrich: Endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s proposal to start each country’s foreign aid allocation at zero every year before deciding how much it should receive. Gingrich believes, however, that the existing multi-year aid commitment to Israel should be honored.

Paul: Opposes all foreign aid, including to Israel. He says U.S. aid undermines Israeli sovereignty.

Romney: Endorsed Perry’s start-at-zero aid proposal and has said that the U.S. should not be borrowing money from China to pay for humanitarian aid for other countries. Romney supports increasing military aid to Israel.

Santorum: Defends foreign aid as a cost-effective means of promoting American interests abroad. “America is that shining city on the hill,” he said. “It is the city that comes to the aid of those in trouble in the world.”

IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM

Gingrich: Advocates assassinating Iran’s nuclear scientists and sabotaging its gasoline supply. He says he would give logistical support to Israel if it attacks Iran. Gingrich has questioned whether a bombing campaign could take out Iran’s nuclear sites, calling the notion “a fantasy.” He calls for regime change.

Paul: Argues that the Iranian nuclear threat is “blown out of proportion.” Instead of imposing sanctions on Iran, he suggests the U.S. should be “maybe offering friendship to them.” Paul says he would not object if Israel decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Romney: Calls a nuclear Iran “the greatest threat the world faces.” He says he supports “crippling sanctions” but would order a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities “if all else fails.” “Ultimately, regime change is what’s going to be necessary,” he said.

Santorum: Says that if sanctions do not stop the Iranian nuclear program, he would support tactical strikes against its nuclear sites. He proposes that the U.S. should give Iran an ultimatum to open up and dismantle its nuclear facilities or face military action.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN RELATIONS

Gingrich: Says the Palestinians are an “invented” people but clarified that he supports a negotiated Palestinian state. He says he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Paul: Says the U.S. should not be dictating terms of a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. During Operation Cast Lead, he said Gaza was “like a concentration camp” and suggested that the Palestinians were being wrongly labeled the aggressors.

Romney: Says President Obama “threw Israel under the bus” and suggests there should not be “an inch of difference” between the U.S. and Israel. His website says he “will reject any measure that would frustrate direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Santorum: Said on the campaign trail that “all the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians. There is no ‘Palestinian.’ This is Israeli land.” He says that Israel has a right to build in the West Bank.

RELIGION AND STATE

Gingrich: Says that the “secular left” wants “a totally neutral government without meaning.” Argues that the left’s “stand for a separation of church and state” has “perverted Thomas Jefferson’s words beyond belief.”

Paul: Has argued that there is no constitutional basis for “a rigid separation between church and state.” Says that while the Constitution prohibits theocracy, the First Amendment means “Congress should never prohibit the expression of your Christian faith in a public place.”

Romney: Praised the separation of church and state in his 2008 speech on religion but said that some have taken it “well beyond its original meaning.” He warned against efforts to exclude religion from public life in the name of “the religion of secularism.”

Santorum: Warns against America becoming a place where “only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case,” saying that the idea “makes me throw up.” He said that “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

SOCIAL SECURITY

Gingrich: Proposes allowing younger workers to invest in personal retirement accounts instead of Social Security while still requiring employers to pay into the current Social Security system.

Paul: Says that Social Security is unconstitutional. Rather than scrapping the system immediately, he proposes allowing workers under the age of 25 to opt out.

Romney: Supports raising the eligibility age and slowing increases for inflation for higher-income retirees. He would leave benefits the same for people currently over 55.

Santorum: Supports raising the eligibility age, trimming benefits for wealthy retirees and other cost-saving adjustments. Previously supported shifting Social Security to personal retirement accounts but says this would be too expensive under current economic circumstances.

Allies and foes scrape through Palin bio for Jewish material


ST. PAUL (JTA)—A small Israeli flag propped up on a window frame. A Pat Buchanan button sported briefly as a courtesy. A prospective son-in-law with a biblical name.

Little about the Frozen North is Jewish outside the realm of fiction (see Mordechai Richler, Michael Chabon, “Northern Exposure”), so when Republicans pitch Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential pick, to the Jews and Democrats try to undermine her, both sides tend to reach.

Picking through the trivia and smears for substance, there’s this: Palin, 44, has genuinely warm relations with her Jewish constituents—6,000 or so—and appears to have a fondness for Israel. She also comes down on the strongly conservative side on social issues where Jews tend to trend liberal.

“Governor Palin has established a great relationship with the Jewish community over the years and has attended several of our Jewish cultural gala events,” Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Anchorage, wrote in an e-mail after McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee and longtime Arizona senator, announced that she was joining his ticket.

“Governor Palin also had plans to visit Israel with members of the Jewish community, however, for technical reasons, the visit has not occurred yet.”

Palin is likeable enough that she got props from Ethan Berkowitz, the Jewish former minority leader in the Alaska House of Representatives who appears poised to become the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives since Nick Begich disappeared in a snowstorm in 1972.

“I like her and this is an exciting day for Alaska,” Berkowitz told JTA.

Republicans have been scouring the archives to uncover evidence of Palin’s outreach to Jews and to Israel.

Her single substantive act is signing a resolution in June marking 60 years of Alaska-Israel relations, launched improbably in 1948 when Alaska Airlines helped shepherd thousands of Yemeni Jews to Israel. However, she did not initiate the legislation: Its major mover was John Harris, the speaker of the Alaska House.

The paucity of material led the Republican Jewish Coalition to tout the appearance of a small Israeli flag propped against a window of the state Capitol in an online video in which Palin touts the virtues of hiking Juneau.

In an e-mail blast, RJC executive director Matt Brooks offered the screengrab as an answer for “those of you who have had questions regarding Sarah Palin and her views on Israel.”

In a seemingly equal bit of stretching in the other direction, some Democrats played up an Associated Press report that Palin—then the mayor of the small Alaska town of Wasilla—had sported a Buchanan button in 1999 when the Reform Party candidate visited there.

“John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for President in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans,” said an e-mail blast from the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee for president, quoting U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Obama’s top Jewish surrogate. “Pat Buchanan is a Nazi sympathizer with a uniquely atrocious record on Israel, even going as far as to denounce bringing former Nazi soldiers to justice and praising Adolf Hitler for his ‘great courage.’ ”

The problem was that Palin had corrected the record as soon as the AP report appeared, noting in a letter to a local newspaper that had published the account that she wore the button as a courtesy. In fact, in the 2000 election, during the GOP primaries, she was an official of the Steve Forbes campaign.

The hunger for Palin-Jewish news extended beyond partisan politics. Pulses quickened among some in the Israeli media when the McCain campaign revealed Monday that Palin’s 17-year old unmarried daughter, Bristol, is pregnant and that her fiance’s name is Levi. (It was revealed later that his last name is Johnston, so no seders in the immediate Palin family future.)

The National Jewish Democratic Council focused on a more substantive difference between Palin and the U.S. Jewish community: her staunch social conservatism.

“For a party which claims it is trying to reach out to the Jewish community, McCain’s pick is particularly strange,” NJDC director Ira Forman said in a statement. “On a broad range of issues, most strikingly on the issue of women’s reproductive freedom, she is totally out of step with Jewish public opinion. The gulf between Palin’s public policy positions and the American Jewish community is best illustrated by the fact that the Christian Coalition of America was one of the strongest advocates of her selection.”

Palin backs abortion only in cases where a woman’s life is at risk, opposes stem cell research and believes creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution.

Perhaps the most damning feature of her resume on Jewish issues is its thinness—her broader problem as well. Berkowitz, the Jewish congressional candidate, poked a little fun at the resume by citing Palin’s enthusiasm for guns and hunting.

“As far as Republican vice presidents go, she will be a much better shot than Dick Cheney,” he said. “But this is John McCain’s choice and an insight in terms of his judgment.”

Ben Chouake, who heads NORPAC, a New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee and one who is close to the McCain campaign, says he learned that McCain favored Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the one-time Democrat and Al Gore’s vice-presidential pick in 2000, until the last minute but caved to arguments that Lieberman would alienate the Republican Party’s conservative base.

“I don’t know anything about her, but I’m not concerned because she is the governor, who is someone with executive experience,” Chouake told JTA.

Palin has served less than two years as governor and, as NJDC noted, has “zero foreign policy experience.”

Greenberg, the Chabad rabbi who has not endorsed a candidate, suggests that she makes up in soul what she lacks in experience, referring to her fifth child, Trig, a Down syndrome baby born just four months ago.

“I was personally impressed by Governor Palin’s remarks of hope and faith when she gave birth to a child with special needs,” he said. “We all feel that the Governor is a remarkable, energetic, and good person.”

(JTA staff writer Jacob Berkman contributed to this report from New   York.)

Analysis: Sarah Palin . . . and the Jews


When Sen. John McCain tapped Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate today, the Jewish political blogosphere — as loud and fast and opinionated as (for lack of a better word) the Gentile Web — came to a screeching halt.

After all, you can fight about John McCain, and Barack Obama, and Joe Biden . . .but Sarah Palin?

It took an Internet eternity for Jewish Republicans to come out swinging for Sarah, an just as long for Jewish Democrats to hit back.

“Homerun!” Larry Greenfield, the California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, wrote me via e-mail five hours after McCain’s announcement. “Governor Palin has a very close relationship with the Jewish community of Alaska, with Chabad (Rabbi Greenberg) and with AIPAC. She is close to the Frozen Chosen!”

Seconds later came a blast from Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) claiming Palin endorsed Pat Buchanan’s presidential run in 2000: “John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for President in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans.”

Oh, now it’s getting good.

When Sen. Barack Obama picked Sen. Joe Biden last week, the Democrats had nothing but praise for the long term senator, citing positive comments from AIPAC and decades of foreign policy experience. And Jewish e-mail boxes filled with Biden’s now familiar quote: “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist, and I’m a Zionist.”

Then Republican Jews struck.

An e-mail quickly circulated linking to an article on a right-leaning web site claiming Biden was in the pocket of the Iranian mullahs. As for AIPAC’s kind words about Biden? “AIPAC has to say nice things,” a Republican activist told me. “They have to be bi-partisan.” And that pro-Zionist quote? Pretty words, just like his boss, Obama.

The Dems responded with a further defense of Biden’s record. If you could call Biden’s support for Israel into question, said the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council Ira Forman, then you could call Golda Meir’s loyalty to Israel in question.

The Veep debate among Jews is important because there are many Jewish voters who are still a bit leery about Obama. Jews traditionally vote Democratic (upwards of 75 percent voted for John Kerry in 2004 — and we didn’t even really like him). A growing number of Jews have found a home in the Republican party, and are fairly candidate-proof — they vote red no matter what.

A significant number of Jewish voters, however, will change their vote depending on which candidate they perceive as “better for Israel.” These voters believe that Israel is facing immediate existential threats from Palestinian terror, from a near-nuclear Iran, and from over-eager politicians forcing it to make dangerous territorial concessions for the sake of elusive peace. These voters — call them “Israel Firsters” — see their one vote as crucial to preventing another Holocaust, and theirs are the votes that Jewish Dems and Jewish Republicans are fighting over.

Obama and Israel is the battleground issue for Jewish voters in the 2008 election — these are the Jewish votes up for grabs in this race. If Republicans can paint Obama as a Muslim or Muslim sympathizer, as an appeaser to Iran, as inexperienced on foreign policy, as insufficiently caring about Israel in his kishkes — the Yiddish word for guts — then they can peel off Jewish votes.

This strategy won’t matter in heavily pro-Democratic states like California and New York, but it can matter in swing states like Ohio and Florida. And it matters elsewhere in the race: Jews give money, Jews get involved, Jews shape opinion far out of proportion to their numbers. (Yes, there are only six of us in the entire country. Amazing what controlling the media will get you!)

Enter Sarah.

If McCain had picked Mitt Romney or Tom Ridge or — cue the bar mitzvah band — Joe Lieberman, he would have unquestionably swept up the Israel Firsters. These men have track records and gravitas when it comes to Israel and foreign policy. (This debate among Jews and Israel reflects the larger foreign policy concerns about Obama that Republicans are making the centerpiece of their opposition. Many conflicts in Jewish life mirror conflicts in the larger culture — that’s Anthropology 101).

But he chose Sarah Palin: former mayor of a small Alaska town, governor of Alaska, devout Christian.

For Jews who are not necessarily Israel Firsters, she carries some positives and negatives. Positives: she is a crusader for good government and a fiscal conservative. She is smart and successful and patriotic. Jews like all these things.

“As governor of Alaska, Palin has enjoyed a strong working relationship with Alaska’s Jewish community. She has demonstrated sensitivity to the concerns of the community and has been accessible and responsive,” said Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks.

Negatives: She is anti-abortion.

Jews are among the largest pro-choice constituency in the country. She has, according to one web site, supported the idea of teaching Creationism and evolution in public schools. “‘Teach both,” she was quoted as saying on a local TV station. “You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.'”

Dependence on foreign oil is a major issue for American Jews, since a lot of that oil comes from regimes that hate Israel and support terror.

Republican Jews are emphasizing Palin’s desire to drill Alaskan oil and develop domestic oil resources as away to decrease our dependence.

“Palin has been a leader on the critical issue of energy independence and lessening our need to buy oil from nations not sharing American and Israel’s foreign policy,” Brooks said in his statement.

But Jews are also pro-environment, and have jumped on the alternative energy (hybrid) bandwagon in a big way. Obama’s convention speech calling for a 10 year campaign to switch to alternative sources of energy may carry deeper resonance.

For the Israel Firsters, Palin may be a problem. Palin has no foreign policy experience. No Israel experience. Her AIPAC rating? When you enter her name on the AIPAC home page, you get this:

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No pages were found containing "palin".

The RJC’s Greenfield says her AIPAC relationships are great, but confined to Alaska. And Republicans are now marshalling a great comeback to the charge that Palin once supported Pat Buchanan.

Buchanan is anathema to the Jews. He is someone who has blamed Israel and American Jews for directing American foreign policy against American interests. He has spoken kindly of Adolph Hitler — who is not popular with Jews — and, well, this is going to be interesting.

Sarah Palin might cause the Israel Firsters, who seemed to be pretty much done with Obama, to take a second look.


Rob Eshman is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and JewishJournal.com.




Sarah Heath (Palin), sportscaster

Briefs: Hier scolds Carter, and vice versa; StandWithUs distributes “Israel 101”


Hier scolds Carter, and vice versa

Former President Jimmy Carter has implicitly accused the Simon Wiesenthal Center of “falsehood and slander,” after the center mailed Carter some 25,000 signed petitions protesting his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

In a brief but stinging note to Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s founder and dean, Carter wrote, by hand, “I don’t believe that Simon Wiesenthal would have resorted to falsehood and slander to raise funds.”

In his response to Carter, Hier noted that after reading the book, “It is incredulous to me that, after your historic achievement of brokering peace between Israel and Egypt, you could write such a book.”

After notingthat the United States would react in the same way as Israel if exposed to terrorism and suicide bombings, Hier concluded, “To his last breath, Simon Wiesenthal believed that the only reason there is no peace in the Middle East is because of Islamic extremists who refuse to compromise, not because of the State of Israel.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing EditorPro-Choice Groups Warn About Complacency

Twenty-three new pro-choice representatives have just been elected to Congress, and California has an A-plus rating in reproductive rights legislation. This sounds like good news, and indeed it is. But, warned Amy Everitt, director of National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice California, these gains can lead to a complacency that is scarcely warranted.

Two days after the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade, Everitt, addressing a gathering at the National Coalition of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW) headquarters, emphasized that even with the victories of the last elections, there is still not a pro-choice majority in Congress, and anti-choice forces have been working steadily to erode reproductive freedom. The meeting was co-sponsored by numerous groups, including the City of West Hollywood, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Hollywood NOW.

Joyce Schorr, founder and president of the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRAPP) underscored how difficult it is for many women to get the care they need.

Despite its excellent rating in legislation, 41 percent of California’s counties have no abortion facilities, while nationwide, 87 percent of counties have no abortion providers whatsoever.

In 1991, Schorr, as an NCJW activist, created WRAPP as a national safety net for women and families. Last year, by raising and distributing funds for medical and travel expenses, WRAPP helped 1,687 women in 48 states obtain abortions.

In discussion after their presentations, Everitt and Schorr rooted their commitment to reproductive rights for all women in the tenets of Judaism.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis has affirmed the “right of a woman or individual family to terminate a pregnancy,” and opposes any amendments or legislation that would abridge that right.

“One of the reasons I started WRAPP as an NCJW project was because the Torah tells us to give of ourselves,” Schorr said. “Poor women needed a mitzvah project and WRAPP provides for their needs.”

— Naomi Glauberman, Contributing Writer

StandWithUs Distributes ‘Israel 101’

StandWithUs, the L.A.-based Israel advocacy organization, has released a primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group prepared “Israel 101” in response to what it says is a “pressing need” for an easy-to-use resource for students engaged in Israel advocacy on college campuses. The 44-page, full-color primer offers a condensed history of Israel and brief introductions to hot-button issues, including the peace process, the Palestinian refugee problem and last summer’s war with Hezbollah.

— Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Interfaith Understanding Starts Young

Jewish, Muslim and Christian students in Orange County spent the fall in a dialogue and art exchange program, producing poetry and artwork based on the new understanding they gained.

The Jerusalem Sky Project, run by the World of Difference Institute of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach office, brought together 75 fourth- to eighth-graders from Morasha Jewish Day School and St. John’s Episcopal School in Rancho Santa Margarita, and The New Horizon Elementary School in Irvine.

The program used the recently published “Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses and Crescents,” by Mark Podwal, to inspire the students to teach each other and to get to know one another.

The schools each hosted the group once during the semester-long interfaith project, and late in November the group gathered for a final meeting and exhibition of their artwork, which was on display at the Rancho Santa Margarita Bell Tower through December.

“Our hope was to start the process of exploring that there are others out there,” said Melissa Carr, special projects director for the ADL’s Orange County/Long Beach office. “A lot of times in private religious school settings, the students don’t have much opportunity to interact with others in the community.”

Carr said all the schools want to continue the relationship and are now working toward putting together a continuing program.

The kids met for the first time at New Horizon, a Muslim elementary school. A parent gave the students an “Islam 101” recap. When the Muslim students shared their traditions for prayers, holidays and holy books, the other students realized how, as religious people, they have a lot in common, said Robin Hoffman, Judaic studies director at Morasha.

Morasha hosted the group on Sukkot, but it was also during Ramadan, and out of respect for the Muslim students no food was served. The Jewish students invited their friends to morning prayer services, where they took out the Torah and explained to their peers the traditions and history of Judaism.

At St. John’s Episcopal school, students went through the 14 stations of the cross to learn about Christianity, and heard about Christian theology from the school’s vicar.

At the final meeting, facilitators from the ADL’s World of Difference Institute led exercises about appreciating and respecting other ways of life.

But such abstractions were already becoming a reality for these students: By the time they met for their last gathering, students were exchanging phone numbers.In her poem for the exhibit, Iman Labanieh, a fifth-grader at New Horizon, wrote:

Political Journal


Israel School Teaches Peace Lesson

Racially motivated brawls at Jefferson High School this spring made the school appear, at times, like a miniwar zone. Which makes it especially interesting that L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) officials are learning lessons from Israeli and West Bank schools, where violence, even terrorism, is an ever-present undercurrent.

The person bringing those lessons to Los Angeles is USC professor Ron Avi Astor, who has spent his career studying school violence in Israel and the United States. His newest book, co-written with Israeli professor Rami Benbenishty of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, is titled, “School Violence in Contest: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender.” The two scholars conducted studies encompassing 30,000 Israeli students at a time.

A fundamental finding is that a school’s response to violence should relate to the type of violence: One size does not fit all. One of the first steps is to ask students, teachers and local authorities to describe the problem in detail, be it sexual harassment, weapons, gangs, bullying or something else.

Then, Astor said, officials should map the results. This process immediately reveals where students fear to go, allowing the school to target its response.

In Israel, national attention focused on the problem of school violence during the late 1990s. The government turned to Astor for advice. Acting on his input, schools put in place teacher training based on his methods, and a national dialogue on school violence in Israel began, Astor says. Since then, school violence has dropped by about 25 percent by his estimate.

Some of the schools facing the most hardships have fared best. Shevach Mofet in Herzeliya, for example, saw seven of its students killed in a Tel Aviv nightclub bombing.

The school managed not only to avoid fracturing into conflicting groups, but “created such a strong sense of community that a number of kids were propelled to colleges and good jobs, because they felt they were part of a greater cause,” Astor said.

He said that schools are not doomed to replicate patterns of violent behavior present in the communities around them.

“If you’re in a horrible neighborhood that has drugs and violence and political issues, and we have some of those in the West Bank, a school could shelter you,” Astor said.

The more actively the school assumes a positive, perceptive role in the community, he added, the more violent messages from the outside are mitigated. Schools that are more passive regarding a neighborhood’s ills — which focus, say, only on academics — tend to let in more of the violent messages coming from outside, Astor said.

The polling and mapping Astor and his colleagues developed in Israel and the West Bank are now at work in the LAUSD, where Astor sits on the Working Group for Safer School Communities. Students at Fremont High School in South Los Angeles and Gardena High School have already participated in mapping the dangerous areas around them, and eight more schools may soon follow. Infusing schools with a sense of purpose and community involvement is no quick fix, but the benefits over time can be transforming.

“Some of the schools we looked at were in the West Bank, where [students] go in with armored buses,” Astor recalled. “It’s amazing when you go into some of those schools. They are the most peaceful environments inside.”

Abortion Amendment on the Ballot

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for this November’s special election, he opened a Pandora’s Box. Schwarzenegger’s own initiatives (limiting teacher tenure, granting himself extra fiscal powers and changing the way legislative districts are drawn) are only three of eight now on the ballot.

One of the other ballot measures is a state constitutional amendment called Proposition 73, which would require doctors to notify the parents of minors who want an abortion.

In 1997, the California Supreme Court struck down a state law that would have required parental consent, calling it an invasion of privacy.

However, a constitutional amendment, such as Proposition 73, could preclude state judicial review.

The pro-73 campaign says that notifying parents of their child’s wish to have an abortion would help protect the pregnant minor by introducing mature decision making. It claims anecdotally that most people agree that parents have a right to be involved in this aspect of their children’s lives.

Proposition 73 opponents counter that teens who don’t tell their parents frequently have a good reason not to.

“We know that most teens talk to their parents,” said Hillary Selvin, executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women L.A. “Teens who don’t usually [have] a reason — like abuse or incest caused by somebody close to the parent or by the parents themselves.”

Selvin said that the teens who are most alienated from their parents are the ones most vulnerable.

“They will either go out of state or try and get an abortion illegally,” she said. “And I think most of us thought we were past that point in this country.”

She added that pursuing a judicial waiver to parental notification, which Proposition 73 would allow, is an unrealistic option for a pregnant teenager to pursue.

Yes on 73 campaign staff did not return calls seeking a response.

Whatever else it does, Proposition 73 makes the abortion process more difficult and complicated; it would therefore be likely to reduce the number of abortions. That in itself would please anti-abortion activists.

By far the biggest financial backer of Proposition 73 is James Holman, a publisher of several Catholic newspapers, as well as the secular San Diego Reader. Holman has donated about $1.3 million to the campaign, and has in the past opposed abortion in general, with or without parental notification.