Mideast Clash Not About Religion
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue. It is a dispute over land, it is about an occupation that must end and it is about a people who deserve a state. But it is not a religious dispute.
For too long, the assumption that this is a religious conflict has gone unquestioned, with dangerous consequences. A friend of two British men of Pakistani descent, who set off explosives in London on July 7 that killed themselves, along with more than 50 others, told the Washington Post recently he had seen the bombers watching a DVD that purported to show an Israeli soldier killing a Palestinian girl.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the most jumped-upon bandwagons in both the Arab and the Muslim world, but framing it in religious terms serves no one’s interest, least of all the Palestinians.
The humiliation of the 1967 defeat, or the Naksa, not only dealt a deadly blow to pan-Arabism, which up till then had been the patron father of the Palestinian cause, but it also opened the door for Islamists to claim the Israeli-Palestinian issue as their own. And ever since, they have steadily shaped it to their liking.
The Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist groups in the Arab world used the 1967 defeat to remind the region’s mostly secular leaders that their defeat was because of those leaders’ godlessness. And ever since, the more Islamic you could make Palestine, the more legitimate you became.
So it is no wonder that Hamas has moved to the forefront of Palestinian politics, along with an Islamist ideology that bans cultural festivals and which it uses to act like the moral police of the Palestinians.
Encouraged to flourish by Israel in the 1980s as a counterweight to the secular Fatah — in the same way that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood in a bid to keep in check Nasserites and leftists — Hamas was all too happy to frame the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in religious terms that pitted Muslims against Jews.
The less democratic and more corrupt Palestinian politics became under Yasser Arafat, the more the Islamist way of doing things moved center stage. And so, suicide bombings, which had long been the bloody signature of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were adopted by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
Muftis and clerics in the Arab world gave their blessings to suicide bombings, laying another layer of religiosity atop the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These same muftis and clerics today are trying to persuade us that violence in the name of religion is wrong but it is too late — their damage will take years to undo.
Suicide bombings do not come with an off button, and once they were made legitimate against Israelis, what was to stop them from being used against others? Suicide bombings are the Muslim weapon of choice not only in London and Israel but in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They are killing Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and yet our imams and scholars cannot condemn them.
For too long, the easiest Friday sermon to give began and ended by cursing the “Zionists,” often interchanging Zionist with Jew, stopping along the way to inflame the worshippers with news of the latest humiliations or atrocities committed against the Palestinians.
So nobody should have been surprised that after years of not uttering a word about Palestine nor about the struggle of its people to be free of occupation and to have a state of their own, Osama bin Laden suddenly discovered the goldmine that lay beneath the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Was anyone paying attention when two young British men of Pakistani descent went to Israel to carry out a suicide attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub on April 30, 2003? Assif Muhammad Hanif, blew himself up at Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv nightspot, killing three other people. Two weeks later, the body of another British citizen, Omar Khan Sharif, who Israeli investigators say fled the bar after a bomb he was carrying failed to detonate, was found in the sea off Tel Aviv.
Who persuaded these young men to leave Britain and go to Israel to die for Palestine?
Cynical terrorist masterminds who are all too willing to send young Muslim men to their deaths have long exploited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to their own ends. And irresponsible clerics and religious leaders, radical or otherwise, use the conflict to flesh out the victimized-Muslim scenario.
If only they would deliver equally impassioned sermons encouraging our young people in the West to become more active members of their communities and to not live caught between two worlds: a Muslim one at home and in the mosque; an “infidel” one outside.
Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue for the simple reason that it concerns Christians, too. Jerusalem is holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians. Muslims do not own the conflict.
Jerusalem is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; Bethlehem is home to the Church of the Nativity. There are plenty of Palestinian Christians also living under occupation, and their plight is not made any easier because they are Christian. Israeli soldiers and Israeli tanks do not distinguish between Muslim and Palestinian Christians.
By allowing Islamists to co-opt the conflict, by allowing it to become an issue that is supposed to inflame Muslim anger around the world, the Palestinian cause loses the sympathy of many people who might otherwise lend support, but feel alienated by the increasingly Muslim terms within which the conflict is expressed.
It is long past time to wrestle back Palestine from the grasp of Islamists who have been all too eager to fly its flag for their own political ends. It is imperative to condemn suicide attacks everywhere — they are wrong when they are carried out in Israel, and they are wrong when they are carried out in Baghdad, London or Sharm el-Sheikh.
And it is about time we said loud and clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue. It is a human issue.
Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator. A different version of this opinion piece appeared in the newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based pan-Arab publication for which she writes a weekly column. Her Web site is
The Self-Denying Prophecy
This address was given Sept. 17, 2002, at morning prayers at Harvard University’s Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass.
I speak with you today, not as president of [Harvard] University, but as a concerned member of our community, about something that I never thought I would become seriously worried about — the issue of anti-Semitism.
I am Jewish — identified, but hardly devout. In my lifetime, anti-Semitism has been remote from my experience. My family all left Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The Holocaust is, for me, a matter of history, not personal memory. To be sure, there were country clubs where I grew up that had few, if any, Jewish members, but not ones that included people I knew. My experience in college and graduate school, as a faculty member, as a government official — all involved little notice of my religion.
Indeed, I was struck during my years in the Clinton administration that the existence of an economic leadership team with people like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Charlene Barshefsky and many others that was very heavily Jewish passed without comment or notice — it was something that would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago, as indeed it would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago that Harvard could have a Jewish president.
Without thinking about it much, I attributed all of this to progress — to an ascendancy of enlightenment and tolerance. A view that prejudice is increasingly put aside. A view that while the politics of the Middle East was enormously complex, and contentious, the question of the right of a Jewish state to exist had been settled in the affirmative by the world community.
But today, I am less complacent. Less complacent and comfortable, because there is disturbing evidence of an upturn in anti-Semitism globally, and also because of some developments closer to home.
Consider some of the global events of the last year:
There have been synagogue burnings, physical assaults on Jews, the painting of swastikas on Jewish memorials in every country in Europe. Observers in many countries have pointed to the worst outbreak of attacks against the Jews since World War II.
Candidates who denied the significance of the Holocaust reached the runoff stage of elections for the nation’s highest office in France and Denmark. State-sponsored television stations in many nations of the world spew anti-Zionist propaganda.
The United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Racism — while failing to mention human rights abuses in China, Rwanda or anyplace in the Arab world — spoke of Israel’s policies prior to recent struggles under the Barak government as constituting ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The NGO declaration at the same conference was even more virulent. I could go on, but I want to bring this closer to home. Of course academic communities should be, and always will be, places that allow any viewpoint to be expressed. And certainly there is much to be debated about the Middle East and much in Israel’s foreign and defense policy that can be, and should be, vigorously challenged.
But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.
- Hundreds of European academics have called for an end to support for Israeli researchers, though not for an end to support for researchers from any other nation.
- Israeli scholars this past spring were forced off the board of an international literature journal.
- At the same rallies where protesters, many of them university students, condemn the [International Monetary Fund] IMF and global capitalism and raise questions about globalization, it is becoming increasingly common to also lash out at Israel. Indeed, at the anti-IMF rallies last spring, chants were heard equating Hitler and Sharon.
- Events to raise funds for organizations of questionable political provenance, that in some cases were later found to support terrorism, have been held by student organizations on this and other campuses with at least modest success and very little criticism.
- And some here at Harvard, and some at universities across the country, have called for the university to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested. I hasten to say the university has categorically rejected this suggestion. We should always respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position. We should also recall that academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism. The only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.
I have always, throughout my life, been put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass, in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitler’s Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel. Such views have always seemed to me alarmist, if not slightly hysterical. But I have to say that while they still seem to me unwarranted, they seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago.
I would like nothing more than to be wrong. It is my greatest hope and prayer that the idea of a rise of anti-Semitism proves to be a self-denying prophecy — a prediction that carries the seeds of its own falsification. But this depends on all of us.
I don’t want to give away any secrets here, but guess what? America may be planning a surprise attack on Iraq — in fact, even as you read this, the "secret" war plans might have gone into effect.
Whether the bid to unseat Saddam Hussein and dismantle his suspected nuclear weapons arsenal is a good idea for America largely depends on the effectiveness of the campaign. The last one went well, yes? The war to end all wars. On one hand, we had relatively few casualties (less than 150), but on the other, we’re back to square one, except for the fact that since he survived the Persian Gulf War 10 years ago, Saddam doesn’t seem to be afraid of America. Perhaps he’s just posturing, maybe he’s insane — or both?
"The forces of evil will carry their coffins on their backs, to die in disgraceful failure, taking their schemes back with them, or digging their own graves, after they bring death to themselves on every Arab or Muslim soil against which they perpetrate aggression, including Iraq, the land of jihad and the banner," Saddam told the Iraqi people in an Aug. 8 speech marking the 14th anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war.
But just because the man is bellicose, doesn’t mean America has to attack. And just because the father did a poor job, doesn’t mean the son shouldn’t try to put things right. (Maybe someone should remind W. of the biblical verse: "The sins of the father should not be visited upon the son.") But there has to be better reasons than a competitive father-son relationship and a love of all things military in order to go to war.
Of course, there are reasons to attack. Iraq may be building a cache of nuclear/biological weapons so powerful that this might be our last chance to attack. The evidence is not clear. It is also unclear whether an attack at this time would be good for America. Would it detract from the War on Terror (or is it the War on Terror)? Do other world powers support it? Could Americans suffer another war, with many more casualties on both sides?
Questions like these are being debated now in Washington and international circles, in this surrealistically public debate over the pros and cons of war on Iraq.
But, we have to ask the usual questions:
Is it good for the Jews?
Is it good for Israel?
"Why should it be a Jewish or Israeli issue?" Morris Amitay, a pro-Israel activist and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "We should stay patriotic as the next guy, but not be out front."
The reasons that the Jewish community is staying relatively quiet (for Jews, anyway) are manifold (see story p. 28).
"If the Jewish community has been quiet, it may reflect the fact that there is no particular Jewish angle to a policy matter with national and global implications," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Who are they kidding? Clearly a war on Iraq has a Jewish angle and it is an Israeli issue. No. 1, Hussein might be supplying biological weapons to Palestinian terror networks, so that they might injure Israeli and American targets. That’s what the Times of London reported last week, based on government documents passed on to Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior officials. No. 2, the elimination of Iraq would lift a great burden off of Israel. And, No. 2a, it could help Israel with the Palestinians, because of the financial aid Saddam gives to Palestinian terrorist groups and the families of suicide bombers.
Israel, of course, could benefit from the end of the Iraqi threat, but let me remind you what it was like the last time America attacked.
While the Americans were sitting on their couch watching the birth of CNN and a new war-time coverage — Didn’t it sort of feel like color war or celebrity boxing? Removed and adrenaline-inducing at the same time — Israelis were running in and out of their cheder atum, their sealed rooms, struggling with their gas masks, quarantines and defenselessness.
They were defensively crippled, in possession of the capability to retaliate, but refraining because America wanted to handle it on its own.
Now it wouldn’t be any better. In fact it could be much, much worse.
Much in the way that America distances Israel in order to gain allies in its war on terror, America probably wouldn’t want Israel to defend itself again. But Israeli officials have stressed that they will indeed retaliate if targeted.
And although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday that Iraq is the greatest threat facing Israel, one has to wonder if he’s just hoping to take the focus off his own military operations.
That hope could backfire if the White House, seeking international support, links Iraq to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition to the military considerations, I’m not sure the morally depleted Israeli community could handle being attacked from Iraq as well.
Back in 1991, Israelis ran to sealed rooms and then returned to normal life after the safe siren sounded. But now, after two years of the Al-Aksa Intifada, where Israelis just barely feel safe in their own homes, having to dodge Iraqi Scud missiles may not be the best thing, to say the least.
The United States may be justified in attacking Iraq. And that attack might benefit Israel in the long-run. But in the short-term, it might not.
And that’s what Jewish leaders are not willing to say. What’s good for America is not always what’s good for Israel.
So which do you choose?
Beginnings and Endings
Every newspaper editor knows that one day he will have to step down. He may put the idea out of mind or revel in denial. But the thought is always there, loitering out of sight. Departure may come suddenly by way of death, illness or age. Or it may spring up with the changes that appear everywhere, while the editor persists in remaining unchanged and, therefore, out of step. Or there may simply, and unexpectedly, be an offer he can’t refuse.
That time for stepping down apparently has arrived for me. This is my last week at The Jewish Journal and these words are something of a farewell.
I started this newspaper 15 years ago in September 1985, finding office space, hiring and training a staff, designing a prototype for what was to become The Jewish Journal. I was determined to hire people who could write well and who were capable of finding a voice within these pages. Reporting could be taught and learned. And so in the early years we had Yehuda Lev and Marlene Marks and David Margolis who, in turn, were followed by Rob Eshman and, in more recent times, by J.J. Goldberg and Teresa Strasser and Jane Ulman.
The first issue appeared February 28, 1986.
It was clear to me that accurate, informed and insightful writing from the Mideast was going to be essential, so I negotiated with The New York Times for the rights to reprint their chief mideast correspondent, Tom Friedman, who reported from Jerusalem. We needed additional coverage as well, so on one of my trips to Israel, I arranged for Eric Silver, a British-born Israeli citizen and veteran journalist, to cover the scene for us. Eric had written for The London Observer and Time magazine and, more recently, for The Jerusalem Report. He knew Israel well, having lived there more than 20 years. He was knowledgeable, possessed good judgment and could write with concision and grace.
A rule I set for myself was that since this was a community paper, The Journal’s door would always be open and telephone calls returned. One day a young, determined psychologist pressed her case in person. She wanted to write an advice column. I was less than enthusiastic. She persisted. Just give me a chance, she pleaded.
Okay, I said, but here are the guidelines: no psychological jargon; no sitting in the “catbird seat” pronouncing from on high. And, oh yes, I added, I want you to tell the complaining letter writer to pull up his or her socks; no sentimentalizing; no happy solutions for happy problems. And an occasional crack across the wrist, when it is called for, would also be nice to see in print from time to time, I concluded.To my astonishment, she followed my instructions to the letter, and thus began Dear Deborah.
It’ s an old axiom in journalism that a newspaper’s editor and its publisher must share a common set of goals. Their perception, their way of seeing things, needs to overlap if not reflect a kind of mirror image of one another. It helps as well if there is respect on both sides.
For about the past six or seven months, there has been a widening gap between The Journal’s publisher and me. When such a gap becomes irreparable, as ours has, one party has to leave. Given that the publisher is the owner of this newspaper and I am an employee, it has always been evident to me which one of us would go. Rob Eshman, who has been a remarkable managing editor these past years, will assume the role of editor-in-chief, commencing with this issue.
I appear to have landed on my feet and will be writing about the current presidential election campaign for The Forward, a national Jewish newspaper based in New York. (So you can read my writing there.) I will continue to reside in Los Angeles. There really is little time for regrets. At the moment, I am looking to join the candidates on at least one of their trips. After the election, I hope to remain with The Forward as their West Coast editor/writer. In short, I am still part of this community.
A final word: Everyone on a newspaper is expendable. Replacements can always be found. But not so for the paper’s readers. You are not expendable. To the degree that you have followed us each week, calling to criticize for errors in a story or simply for perceived errors of judgment; or have written to commend us for bringing you a particular news account, or just for the level of writing you found in these pages, I will remain ever grateful. It has been a wonderful 15 years.
SNew Weinberger Bombshell: Judge Asked for Pollard Memo
Caspar Weinberger has dropped a bombshell that could dramatically affect the fate of Jonathan Pollard.
In an interview in the September 1999 issue of the Middle East Forum, the former defense secretary says that his still-secret memo to Judge Aubrey Robinson was written at the request of the presiding judge, who “made a formal, official request to me to supply” an assessment of the damage caused by Pollard’s espionage. The Weinberger memorandum, which is still classified, has been withheld from the Pollard defense team.
The revelation is important because the Weinberger memo remains central to Robinson’s decision to overturn Pollard’s plea bargain agreement with the United States Justice Department, and it is routinely cited as evidence of the severity of Pollard’s crime in passing classified information to Israel.
It is improper to secretly solicit information and then, on the record, imply that [U.S. Attorney Joseph] de Genova introduced it.” said Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.
Although Dershowitz allowed that not all information is shared, “anything the judge asks for has to be put on the record. For the judge to solicit a substantive memorandum and then to use it in this way raises fundamental questions.”
In the interview with the Forum’s Daniel Pipes, Weinberger repeats his statement about the involvement of Robinson five times.
* “I said everything I knew about Pollard at the request of the United States District Court.”
* “I gave the judge an affidavit that was classified because it went into great detail about the extent of the damage that was done and the number of lives of our people that were endangered.”
* “That covered a lot of sources and methods at the court’s request.”
* “What I had to say, I said at the court’s request in the classified affidavit.”
* “We were impacted very severely. That was the exact subject matter of the information that the judge wanted in the case, and he made a formal, official request to me to supply it to him, and I did.”
Robinson did not inform the defense that he had invited a submission from the secretary of defense and made no provision for the defense to see the submission in advance. Nor did he allow the defense counsel adequate time to study the submission and prepare a legal defense to challenge it.
In a Tuesday, Sept. 28, letter to the NJJN, Pollard spelled out what he saw as the consequences for his case.
“If Weinberger is lying about the judge having solicited his memorandum, then this seriously calls into question his credibility as an ‘assessor’ of my actions,” Pollard writes.
“On the other hand, if he’s telling the truth and the judge did, in fact, engage in such ex parte behavior, then somebody’s going to have to stand up and call for a full-scale investigation of the judge’s behavior. His apparent unethical actions in this matter were later compounded by his decision to uphold the government’s refusal to share Weinberger’s memorandum with my lawyers during the…appeal over which he presided.”
In making the new revelation, Weinberger does not back away from his assessment that Pollard caused significant damage to the United States.
“The whole case was a source of very considerable potential and actual danger and damage to the United States, primarily from the vantage point of information, intelligence sources, and methods that were lost,” Weinberger told Pipes. “We were impacted very severely.”
David Twersky writes for the New Jersey Jewish News.
Paula Vogel’s ‘Lolita’
Playwright Paula Vogel grew up in suburban Maryland, where the country clubs did not accept her Jewish father. She endured genteel but unmistaken anti-Semitism at Bryn Mawr.
“Because I am a Jew and a woman, I understand marginalization,” says Vogel, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive.” “And that has been my great strength as a playwright. If one is marginalized, one understands empathy, and what it feels like to be the other.”
Vogel, 47, silver-haired and confrontational, is a lesbian feminist playwright who has made a career of writing about The Other. Her plays, always provocative and un-P.C., have tackled AIDS (“The Baltimore Waltz”), prostitution (“The Oldest Profession”), pornography and domestic violence.
Now comes “How I Learned to Drive,” about a “Lolita”-like affair between Li’l Bit (Molly Ringwald), a teen-ager, and her Uncle Peck (Brian Kerwin), a decidedly sympathetic and charming pedophile.
“I wanted to make the subject difficult and uncomfortable,” says Vogel, who has been fascinated by the issue since reading Nabokov’s “Lolita” when she was 20.
At the time, she wondered if she could tell the story from the female victim’s point of view; later, while teaching at Brown University, she met her share of victims. Students spoke to her of abuse by beloved relatives, not by strangers in trench coats.
Eventually, Vogel read medical abstracts about pedophilia; researched the histories of Playboy and the Vargas pinup girls; listened to the music of the 1960s (“There is a whole genre of ’16’ songs about girls with older men”); and compared it all to the Calvin Klein billboards of the 1990s. She read about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. “We are trained,” she says, “to be pedophiles in this culture.”
“How I Learned to Drive,” Vogel insists, is not meant to excuse the pedophiles, but is “a gift to my students.” The story of Li’l Bit “explores how adolescents are confused by all the mixed messages,” she says. “And it provides a road map to suggest how a survivor of abuse can ‘drive’ through the trauma.”
“How I Learned to Drive” runs through April 4 at the Mark Taper Forum. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.
In a Chicago Tribune interview last October, shortly before pro basketball was shut down by a bruising lockout, players’ union chief Billy Hunter waxed sentimental about his lifelong passion for defending the underdog. By way of illustration, he recalled how, as a teen-ager in 1950s-era Cherry Hill, N.J., he used to trade blows with bigots who harassed his best friend for being Jewish. Hunter himself is black.
It was an intriguing reminder of a bygone era of black-Jewish intimacy. But Hunter wasn’t really discussing social history. He was talking, in code, about basketball today. It was a message to players and team owners: Don’t let this labor dispute turn into an ethnic clash.
There was ample reason to worry. Close to 85 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association are black. Nearly half of the 29 teams’ owners are Jewish — far more than in baseball or football. Most top NBA officials are Jews, beginning with Commissioner David Stern. No other arena in American life, except popular music, brings Jews and blacks together in such an intimate, high-profile engagement.
It’s an engagement with deep roots. In its early days, basketball was dominated by Jewish players, nearly as much as black players dominate today. And for the same reason: It was a poor boy’s ticket out of the ghetto. An urban game, requiring no grassy fields or expensive equipment, basketball is open to anyone with a ball and a hoop. “The early great players and progenitors of the sport were Jewish,” says New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick.
Then, Jews moved out and blacks moved in. Today, the game resembles nothing so much as an old downtown neighborhood that turned from Jewish to black, leaving behind a Jewish economic presence as landlords and shopkeepers.
Not that the players are living in poverty. But the undercurrents of resentment are there. Last fall, they reached a peak. It wouldn’t have taken much to ignite an ugly black-Jewish confrontation, given the high stakes and raw feelings of the $2 billion basketball contract dispute — not to mention the famously foul-mouthed crudeness of some players. A few players and their advocates actually began grumbling about the owners’ “plantation mentality.”
In the end, no one crossed the line from black-white race-baiting to singling out Jewish owners. Not publicly, anyway. Across the country, Jewish fans, sportswriters and team owners silently braced for anti-Semitism throughout the six-month lockout. It never materialized.
The credit is partly due to Hunter, the union chief. “Billy stood up and said race was not an issue,” says Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith.
Hunter took a series of small, symbolic steps to forestall ethnic friction. He named the league’s only Jewish player, Orlando Magic center Danny Schayes, son of the legendary player-coach Dolph Schayes, to the negotiating team. Hunter and Schayes both made a point during the talks of peppering their conversation with Yiddish-flavored jokes. Hunter even boned up on the history of black-Jewish ties; aides say a book on the topic has been sitting prominently on his desk for weeks.
“There was some talk on the margins about this being a race thing,” says the union’s press spokesman, Dan Wasserman. “But the simple fact is that Billy Hunter slam-dunked that notion.”
Part of the peacekeeping credit belongs, too, to Commissioner Stern, if only for making the pot so rich. A lawyer by training, Stern took over the NBA in 1984. Since then, he’s utterly transformed the game. By marketing it as celebrity entertainment, complete with stars and sex appeal, he’s moved it from a distant third place in popularity, after baseball and football, to rough equality. And basketball’s revenues have quadrupled.
Most of the players appreciate that, insiders say. “Some complain,” says the New York Post’s Mushnick. “But who made them millionaires?”
Players aren’t the only ones to benefit from Stern’s economic revolution. Team franchises, once money losers, have become fantastically lucrative. The profits, in turn, have lured a whole new generation of investors. “He’s been the single-most effective executive in the history of the sports business,” says Edward Bleier, president of Warner Bros. and close observer of the game.
One result, some say, is a coarser game. Basketball owners, far more than baseball or football owners, are new to the sport, don’t know the inside of the locker room, don’t understand their teams. That, combined with the increased individualism fostered by Stern’s star system, has led to a decline in team morale.
“There’s very little sport left in sports,” says Mushnick. “It’s about money. It’s about a popular culture in free fall. The team doesn’t count anymore. It’s the individual.”
Another result is that certain basic questions about Jewish life in America are getting harder to ignore. What role should Jews be playing in public life? What role should wealth play in Jewish life? Most of all, who are the Jewish role models for tomorrow’s young Jews?
The challenge was raised publicly last September by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, in a speech in Chicago. He blasted Jewish team owners for buying sports teams “as toys” instead of donating their money to Jewish education.
Characteristically, Schorsch bungled his facts and asked the wrong questions. In fact, Jewish sports executives as a group are unusually devoted to Jewish causes. Most are major UJA donors. David Stern has been honored by both UJA and Israel Bonds and personally sponsored a Soviet refugee family. New Jersey Nets owner Henry Taub is a former national chairman of the United Israel Appeal. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin actually changed his team’s name from the Bullets after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
Still, Schorsch was onto something. The growing emergence of Jews as team owners symbolizes a deeper change in Jewish life. It’s an unhealthy change, in the most basic sense.
“Sports was a key medium of Americanization for East European Jews,” says University of Minnesota anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell, author of a forthcoming book about gender and assimilation. “It was a way of overcoming traditional anxieties about the Jewish male body, and the notion of the Jewish male as a victim unable to defend himself. The powerful male body became a potent issue of acculturation for American Jewish men.”
Today, Prell says, we’re moving backward. “What you’re looking at today,” she says, “is the transformation of sports from something Jews did to something Jews own.”
Is that what we want?
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.
One thing is clear: The Jewish community can no longer be assumed to take a cohesive, liberal stand on political issues. Although Jewish organizations continue to oppose measures such as Proposition 227 (along with Propositions 187 and 209, ending aid to illegal immigrants and affirmative action, respectively), a contingent of moderate and conservative Jews support them — and it shows in the polls.
It was the mid-1970s when Judie Levin-Sanchez first heard of “bilingual programming.” She and her two young children had just moved to Los Angeles after a long stay in Spain. When the principal at the local elementary school learned that Levin-Sanchez’s son, Charles, spoke Spanish, she suggested enrollment in the school’s new bilingual first-grade class. Levin-Sanchez agreed, thinking of the advantages her son would have, being fluent in two languages.
But “bilingual,” as Levin-Sanchez understood it, turned out to be a misnomer. During Charles’ two years in the program, his mother noticed her son losing interest in school. The boy said that the Spanish-speaking children were encouraged to play separately from their English-speaking classmates, and that he often felt left out. Then, one day, when Charles was in third grade, his former first-grade teacher approached Levin-Sanchez and urged her to get her son moved out of the bilingual class, pronto.
“She said that the program was a farce — that it was essentially forced segregation, separating out the Spanish-speaking children,” Levin-Sanchez says. “She said my son was bright but would not excel in a class where the children learned at a slower pace. I immediately pulled him out of the program.”
This story, and numerous others like it, helped fuel the furor over bilingual education that led to Proposition 227’s appearance on the June 2 ballot.
Proposition 227, also known as the Unz Initiative — for its co-creator, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz — requires all public-school instruction to be in English, thus eliminating bilingual classes as they are currently taught. Instead, most of California’s 1.3 million limited English proficient (LEP) students would be brought up to speed by intensive English immersion for one year. It takes the current system (which assumes nonproficiency in English, often keeping students in other-language classes for several years) and flips it around — try English first and if that does not work, then try bilingual.
Despite the opposition’s statements and ads to the contrary, the initiative does provide for bilingual classes — but under specific circumstances, prompted by a written request from parents and requiring an evaluation by teachers and the school’s principal. The measure goes so far as to enable parents to sue school officials and even teachers if their demands for English immersion are not met.
The proposed system may be cumbersome, but it allows parents a greater voice in how their child learns. Opponents fear that such provisions would remove the ability of individual districts to tailor programs that meet their particular needs.
The Opposition to 227 camp has garnered substantial support, including Antonio Villaraigosa, speaker of the Assembly, and all four major gubernatorial candidates. The American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League recently joined the chorus against 227. Even President Clinton took the opportunity on a trip to California earlier this month to lambaste the initiative.
Like the AJCongress and ADL, Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea in Tarzana believes that the Jewish community should oppose the measure.
“There are two important values that need to be addressed here: first, how to provide the best education and, second, how to reach out to the powerless in society and make sure their needs met. And I don’t think Proposition 227 [addresses either issue],” Goor said. “It does not allow for individual programs tailored to the needs of the schools, the districts or the individual children. As a state-mandated system, it does not ask if we are meeting our core values.”
Most opponents of Proposition 227 agree with the initiative’s main thrust: that bilingual programming as it currently stands does not work. Where they disagree is in the method of fixing the problem.
“Everybody agrees there needs to be a change, but an initiative is not the way to do it,” said Valerie Fields, a Los Angeles School Board member who once worked as Mayor Tom Bradley’s liaison to the Jewish community. “By making 227 part of the state constitution, it will take a two-thirds vote to eliminate or even alter it — so if it’s got bugs, we’re stuck. It’s a really bad way to set public policy.”
Although the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee decided against taking a stand on Proposition 227, JCRC/Valley Alliance Chair Scott Svonkin said Jews should oppose it. “Just because Jews are so much a part of the establishment now,” he said, “we forget that we were also immigrants. Although our grandparents did not have bilingual programs, they did have the support of their community and of the synagogues, a system that let people succeed. So we need to be mindful not only of where we are today but of where we came from, and afford others the same success.”
Supporters of the measure continued to hold a substantial lead in the latest polls. Their arguments, while mostly anecdotal, tend to be more compelling than the anti-227 group’s philosophical pronouncements.
Take, for example, Doug Lasken, a teacher at Ramona Elementary in Hollywood for the last 11 years. To push a vote by the union, he spent last fall gathering signatures from 500 teachers who supported Proposition 227. What drove him, he said, were his observations from working in a bilingual classroom — where his second-grade students would teach themselves English despite the fact that administrators required English-language textbooks be withheld from them.
“We [teachers] are told not to teach these students English. It’s considered premature because of this theory that they need a solid basis in their own native language to build a new language on,” Lasken said. “You would think that 7 or 8 would be the ideal age [for learning English], but the bilingual master plan goes on the assumption that it’s detrimental to younger kids to learn English until they reach proficiency in Spanish — that it will actually ruin their self-esteem.”
Lasken, a member of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and a Los Angeles teacher’s union (UTLA) chapter chair, said the “inflexible, dogmatic attitude” of bilingual proponents leads to serious problems in his school and throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District: Experienced teachers were bumped from lower-grade classrooms to make room for bilingual teachers, with no resistance from the teacher’s union; the needs of immigrant children from non-Latino countries were ignored; teachers were forced to place “self-esteem” ahead of academics, he said. Indeed, although the UTLA officially opposes Proposition 227, the vote was very close, with 48 percent of teachers supporting the measure, according to Lasken.
“People are trying to present 227 as sink-or-swim, a horrific ordeal where, after one year, the rug is pulled out from
under these children,” Lasken said. “But the language of the initiative does not say that, and from what I saw in the second grade, it normally shouldn’t take more than one year for students to be able to function in a classroom. I’ve seen students who would sit quietly for two or three months and then start participating in English the same as everyone else. One year would give most kids enough time for a really good head start.”
One thing is clear: The Jewish community can no longer be assumed to take a cohesive, liberal stand on political issues. Although Jewish organizations continue to oppose measures such as Proposition 227 (along with Propositions 187 and 209, ending aid to illegal immigrants and affirmative action, respectively), a contingent of moderate and conservative Jews support them — and it shows in the polls.
This trend has some Jewish activists such as Goor worried. “The question here is not just what’s best for me and my children but what’s best for all children,” he said. “Is this really the best we can do in terms of education and in terms of helping immigrants? No one is asking these questions, and these are the questions we in the Jewish community should be asking.”
Too Hot Kitchen?
Today the once-legendary Spanish Kitchen restaurant is a study in decay, the “K” missing from the neon sign, the arched storefront crumbling and covered with graffiti. It stands next door to the Yavneh Hebrew Academy, in the midst of a thriving Orthodox community on Beverly Boulevard, between Fairfax and La Brea. &’009;
In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, of course, the eatery was a fashionable Hollywood watering hole, where Buster Keaton and John Barrymore dined. Then, one night in 1961, owner Pearl Caretto stacked the chairs on the tables and locked the door, never to return. There were no explanations, and the interior has remained just as Caretto left it, with the old-fashioned meat grinders on the counter in an eerie time warp. Since then, there have been rumors about ghosts and about why the popular restaurant closed so abruptly. People have wondered if Pearl’s husband was killed by the mob or in a lovers’ quarrel.
Not just the Orthodox are unhappy about the latest newcomers to the area: the various trendy, upscale shops, restaurants and coffeehouses (Modernica, Lumpy Gravy, Red, Insomnia, etc.) that attract a Melrose-y kind of crowd.
Last year, Los Angeles businessman Ron Mavaddat received an unexpected answer to the mystery. He chanced to see two women unlocking the restaurant’s rusty gates. They turned out to be Caretto’s granddaughters and, they told him, the gossip about the place was bunk. Their late grandmother simply could not run a restaurant once her husband developed Parkinson’s disease.
Mavaddat learned that the restaurant was for sale and that Yavneh was interested in buying it. The businessman came up with a better offer, and, he thought, a better idea. He and his colleagues at Prime Pacific Investments would purchase the restaurant and restore it to what it was in its heyday.
The deal closed in early 1996, and the new owners soon found support from historical preservationists, from merchants and from some residents who had regarded the building as an eyesore. &’009;
What the corporation did not expect, says Prime Pacific attorney Wayne Avrashow, was the vehement opposition from Yavneh, from religious leaders and from more than 50 neighbors, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, who have written letters to the city’s office of zoning administration. All are protesting the restaurant’s application for a conditional- use permit to serve alcohol, which was refiled last week. And all feel that their once-peaceful neighborhood is under siege by establishments like the Spanish Kitchen.
The reason for the tension is that the area has changed since the restaurant was in its heyday; no longer is it “replete with bars and boisterous greasy spoons,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Rather, over the past two decades, many middle- and upper-middle-class families have moved into the Spanish-style homes between Fuller and Martel avenues; among them are a growing number of Orthodox Jews who frequent two schools (Yavneh and the Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy) and at least three synagogues within several blocks.
But not just the Orthodox are unhappy about the latest newcomers to the area: the various trendy, upscale shops, restaurants and coffeehouses (Modernica, Lumpy Gravy, Red, Insomnia, etc.) that attract a Melrose-y kind of crowd. &’009;
Other residents complain that these establish-ments create noise and traffic and that the Spanish Kitchen will simply compound the problem. And for the Orthodox, there is an additional issue: a culture clash that was evident as a reporter recently stood in front of the Spanish Kitchen. Passersby included young hipsters dressed in black –and a very different kind of young person dressed in black: yeshiva bochers wearing their traditional long coats and fedoras.
Chaya Shamie, who teaches at the Bais Yaakov School for Girls and has lived on Fuller for 13 years, illustrates the Orthodox perspective with an example. She cites the fashion show, with blaring music and scantily-clad models, that once took place at one of the trendy establishments and kept her family up late. Her children peered at the spectacle through the upstairs windows. “We in the Orthodox community try to shelter our children,” she explains, “but when you tell them not to look, of course they’re curious.”
However, Yavneh’s Rabbi Avrohom Fireman and Rabbi Yoel Bursztyn of Bais Yaakov, which will move into Yavneh’s building, when Yavneh relocates, in about a year, say the issue is not one of the Orthodox vs. the Spanish Kitchen. They say they are simply concerned about the safety of their students should a restaurant serve liquor next door.
Beverly Wolfe is Jewish. Her husband, Robert, is not, and neither want another restaurant to open near their trim, pink house on Fuller.
Their resentment began several years ago, when Beverly’s late father, Paul Pink (of Pink’s Hot Dog Stand), consistently could not find a parking spot because of all the restaurant patrons. Paul was elderly and had trouble walking, so Beverly led the fight to obtain permit parking on the street. “But I can’t stand that I have to pay to park my car in front of my own house,” says Robert, who is also routinely disturbed by the loud voices of patrons who have been drinking at the local eateries. &’009;
Meanwhile, Prime Pacific, working with Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer, has come up with 41 conditions for the proposed permit to serve alcohol. For example, the restaurant will serve only two drinks per patron before 6 p.m., on weekdays, and there will be no free-standing bar. “I can’t point to any other neighborhood in this city where the conditions are so strict,” Feuer says.
Wolfe, dissatisfied, counters: “The Spanish Kitchen may now be an eyesore, but at least it’s a quiet eyesore.”