Words—Historic and Current—To Be Heeded


In November, 1953, less than a year into his first term in office, during the height of the McCarthy era, President Eisenhower received an award from and delivered the keynote address at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual board meeting in Washington, D.C. As the story was recounted to me by someone who was there (I worked for the ADL for 27 years), those in attendance thought it would be a routine address by the new president making nice to one of the country’s leading civil rights/Jewish organizations, kind of a pro forma “you are nice and do good work”.

Shortly before the speech, ADL leaders learned that the national press and the then novel TV cameras would be observing and what was going to be routine was now a “major policy address.”

It turned out that the speech was among the, if not the, first times that Ike spoke out and distanced himself from Sen. Joe McCarthy. But it was by indirection, he never mentioned McCarthy’s name (to that point Ike was still trying to ignore McCarthy, as if the senator didn’t matter).

To those in attendance, it wasn’t clear what the news was, but by the next morning the message had gone out. Eisenhower had spoken about the right of every American to meet “your accuser face to face”, the “right to speak your mind and be protected in it.” He extolled the values of the “soul and the spirit” that make us proud to be Americans; who the threat to those values was became apparent:

Why are we proud? We are proud, first of all, because from the beginning of this Nation, a man can walk upright, no matter who he is, or who she is. He can walk upright and meet his friend–or his enemy; and he does not fear that because that enemy may be in a position of great power that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice. We have the habeas corpus act, and we respect it.

And today, although none of you has the great fortune, I think, of being from Abilene, Kansas, you live after all by that same code in your ideals and in the respect you give to certain qualities. In this country, if someone dislikes you, or accuses you, he must come up in front. He cannot hide behind the shadow. He cannot assassinate you or your character from behind, without suffering the penalties an outraged citizenry will impose.

                                                                   ****

….I would not want to sit down this evening without urging one thing: if we are going to continue to be proud that we are Americans, there must be no weakening of the code by which we have lived; by the right to meet your accuser face to face, if you have one; by your right to go to the church or the synagogue or even the mosque of your own choosing; by your right to speak your mind and be protected in it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the things that make us proud to be Americans are of the soul and of the spirit. They are not the jewels we wear, or the furs we buy, the houses we live in, the standard of living, even, that we have. All these things are wonderful to the esthetic and to the physical senses. [Emphasis added]

I was reminded of this historic statement by two speeches this week from leading Republicans, who, like Eisenhower, bravely took on one of their own and made clear what others fear, or lack the courage, to say. They laid down markers as to what is acceptable conduct in American politics and, without being explicit, who was engaging in conduct that was beyond the pale.

On Monday night, Sen. John McCain spoke at the National Constitution Center as he received its Liberty Medal. It’s a passionate statement about what’s important and unique about America.

During the course of the speech he offered the following:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to. [Emphasis Added]

Like Eisenhower, without mentioning the name of his antagonist, the senior senator from Arizona got his message across loudly and clearly.

Then on Thursday, former President George W. Bush delivered a speech in which he never mentioned Trump, but the sinner he was referring to was transparently clear:

Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication…. We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

                                                                 ***

This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally AmericanIt means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed. And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.

We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools. And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

In short, it is time for American institutions to step up and provide cultural and moral leadership for this nation. [Emphasis Added]

The McCain and Bush speeches are historic moments; perhaps the beginning of a wave of revulsion at the lies, distortions, hate and awful policies that emerge from the Trump White House. When two pillars of a party, much like Eisenhower in 1953, say enough is enough and that it is time to “step up”—perhaps people will listen.

Words Matter…Dammit!


The violence in Charlottesville was scary, upsetting, vile and – unfortunately not surprising. 

The United States has become a country deeply divided by wealth, education, color, religion, opportunity and politics. It should not be surprising that people feel threatened by the stranger they do not know. The more separate we are from each other, the more fearful and suspicious we have become of the other.

It doesn’t help when our President spends so much time defining what is real and what is fake news, rather than condemning obvious hatred. He is better than this and this is a distraction we can ill afford. The stakes are too high for us to make a mockery of justice and the freedoms that our constitution guarantees us.

The book of Genesis teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price.

Our Jewish legacy is that we are a people of the book, a book that reminds us that words matter. The beginning of the book (i.e. Genesis) teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price. Today is the day to break down the boundaries between us and them.

When we started the Pico Union Project four years ago, I sensed it was time to bring multiple faiths and cultures together under one roof. I had no idea how critical it would be to create a space for people to get to know each other, without judgement or fear. This is what I’ve learned:

  • We can do better
  • Anything is possible.
  • We can say yay when everyone else is saying nay
  • It’s better to focus on service than ‘serve us’
  • Upward mobility is not just a dream, it’s achievable.
  • We are honored when we honor all of creation.

The American way – the Pico Union Project way, begins with YOU and includes all of US.  If you have yet to check us out, The PUP doors are always open -and our eternal light is always on!


Craig Taubman

The Pico Union Project is a multi-faith, multi-cultural center committed to living the principle to “love your neighbor as you want to be loved.” We recognize that in order to love, you must first get to know your neighbor.  We use spirituality, arts, and a deep commitment to community activism as tools to draw individuals together, deepen a sense of self-awareness, and open eyes, minds, and souls to the value and potential of our community.

 

Rescuing God


This is the first holiday in 45 years that Rabbi Harold Schulweis will not be on the bima. In his memory we offer this sermon.

Elie Wiesel offered a parable about our times:

Once upon a time, Man complained to God: “You have no idea how hard it is to be human — to live a life darkened by suffering and despair in a world filled with violence and destruction, to fear death and worry that nothing we do or create or dream matters.  You have no idea how hard it is to be human!”

God responded, “You think it’s easy being God? I have a whole universe to run, a whole universe demanding constant vigilance. You think you could do that?”

            “I’ll tell you what,” suggested the Man, “let’s switch places, for just a moment. For just a moment, You be Man, and I’ll be God, and that way we’ll see who has it harder.”

            “For just a moment?” God considered, “Agreed.”

So Man and God switched places. Man sat upon God’s throne. And God descended to the earth. After a moment passed, God looked up and said, “OK, time to switch back.” But Man refused. Man refused to give up the throne of God. This is our world — where Man plays God, and God is exiled.

Once upon a time, our ancestors attributed everything in their lives to the will of God. Health and sickness, war and peace, poverty and affluence, were rewards and punishments cast down from heaven.  No matter how random, arbitrary and cruel their fate, they had faith that this too is God’s will, inscrutable and mysterious as it may be. But there came a time when we lost that faith.  We coveted the power to control our destiny. So we turned our efforts from deciphering God’s will, to discovering the patterns in nature and society that might help us predict and control our world.

Sickness, we discovered, is not a divine punishment, but the result of infection, faulty genetics, the deterioration of organs and cells. Drought and deluge are the products of shifts in atmospheric pressure and moisture. The movement of tectonic plates brings earthquakes, and the movement of capital markets produces economic booms and busts. We don’t look to God’s will to explain our fate. We look out upon a reality shaped by politics and economics, by forces of nature, by our own choices. God has been dethroned, and for better or worse, we control things now. We sit upon God’s throne.

Even when we achieved that dominion, we weren’t finished. We set about liberating ourselves of all vestiges of the old faith. We demythologized, desacralized, secularized. We admit no authority beyond ourselves. We tore down heroes, debunked myths, discarded taboos.

Once upon a time, we had heroes: moral heroes, great leaders, sports stars. On our walls hung pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Sandy Koufax. Who do we revere today? Political leaders today are just politicians representing entrenched special interests. Sports heroes are free-agents, playing for the money, or cheaters, or felons. Instead of artists, we exalt celebrities, and we cheer on the circus antics of their narcissism.

We subjected our myths to rigorous revisionist historiography and relished the opportunity to point out all that is unheroic and flawed. When I was young, I was taught to revere the American Founding Fathers – that extraordinary gathering of wise men, who cherished liberty, fought the Revolution for American freedom, and framed our Constitution. Now, we open a textbook and discover that the Revolution wasn’t fought to establish freedom but to defend the interests of a colonial merchant class. Just steps from Independence Hall in Philadelphia where our Founders declared “all men are created equal,” you’ll find the newly-excavated quarters where George Washington’s slaves stay while the Constitution was being drafted. In Monticello, you learn about all the children Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hennings. Lincoln was a depressive. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were notorious for their White House peccadillos. It is as if, one by one, we’re tearing the images off Mt Rushmore.

Who is left to revere today?

I grew up with Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, who told me each night: And that’s the way it is. And we believed him. Is there anyone we believe today? According to a Readers Digest poll, the most trusted Americans are Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington, Merle Streep, Four actor. We don’t know them, their values or their character. We only know the parts they play on screen.

We have lost our heroes, we have lost our myths, and ultimately, – we are losing the sacred. What is the sacred? The sacred is that which we serve with love and loyalty; the core of value upon which we build a life; the ideals which inform life with purpose. The sacred lifts us above the ego, above the endless desires and drives of the narrower self, to reach a bigger, truer, more generous self. Modernity is committed to liberate us from repression, superstition and authority. But in the process modernity, has subverted all that is sacred.

What is sacred today? What is inviolable?  

Patriotism? Patriotism is sullied by the divisiveness of our politics – the radically different views we hold about what America is, who it belongs to, and what it ought to be. Patriotism has become just another advertising slogan. 

Religion? The most popular Broadway show of the last decade is “Book of Mormon.” I’ll confess, it’s hysterical. But halfway through the show, you realize what it’s about. It’s a complete denigration of a community’s faith. What if they’d written “Book of Moses” instead? Would we be laughing? 

Family?

Once upon a time, we saw family as sacred. But research at the University of Michigan found that American children today spend about 20 hours a week interacting with their parents, but more than 30 hours a week, outside of school, in front of a TV screen or a computer monitor. Think of what those kids are seeing on TV. Is family really sacred?

The images of ISIS destroying ancient artifacts and places of worship shock us. But the truth is that we’ve been destroying the sacred for a long time now.

The problem is that human beings can’t live without a sense of the sacred. We need a core of value to motivate and inspire and provide purpose for life. We need myth – we need organizing narratives that answers our deepest questions – Who am I? What am I living for? What matters? Where do I belong? What’s my purpose?

People are so hungry today for myth and meaning, for the sacred, they run to embrace all sorts of belief systems. It was once imagined that as science progressed, all closed systems of belief would disappear in the face of scientific skepticism. The opposite has occurred. As modernity has progressed, fundamentalism has thrived.  No matter how irrational, intolerant, authoritarian, people run to embrace fundamentalism because it fills the deep hunger for the sacred. In fact, it seems the more authoritarian, the more attractive it is.

Of the five armed forces in the US – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard – which one do you think has the most success recruiting young people? The Marine Corp. By far. In fact, there is a wait list to get in. Why the Marine Corp? Why would the most demanding and authoritarian, of the armed service be so popular? Listen to their slogans — The Army promises that you can “be all you can be.” The Navy offers you the chance to see the world. The Marines offer myth. In the Marines, it’s not about you. It’s Semper Fi. It’s about belonging, serving, sacrifice. In the Marines you give up the self to become one of the few, the chosen.

Modernity asks questions, modernity casts doubt. The fundamentalist has no doubts. He has certainty, and there is a charisma that comes with that kind of certainty. He has absolute truth. That’s compelling.  Standing in the presence of absolute conviction, we can imagine that the sacred is at least possible. Even if the God he worships is sexist, chauvinistic, domineering, abusive, even if his ideology is primitive and prejudiced — at least he believes with all his heart, soul and might, without qualification or condition. That provides a kind of security. Even if it means relinquishing our critical sensibility, and democratic values, standing in the presence unqualified faith, we are granted a momentary reprieve from the spiritual emptiness of modern life.

Fundamentalism today is growing. So is addiction.

The human soul craves the sacred. And if we can find nothing sacred, nothing to serve, we live with a hole in the soul. And that hurts. So we run to fill that hole with something to numb the pain. Drink and drugs, shopping and acquisition, sex, pornography, exercise, fantasy, obsessive work, and the relentless pursuit of entertainment. Karl Marx once condemned religion as the opiate of the people. Rabbi Schulweis pointed out that today, it’s the other way around. Today, opiates are the religion of the people. Addiction fills in the hole where the sacred once lived.

In another gripping tale, Elie Wiesel tells of the day his boyhood synagogue was filled with worshippers, when the crazed shamas ran it, and screamed, “Sha. Quiet Jews. Don’t you know that God is hunting the Jews of Europe?  Sha. Don’t let Him know where we are!”

The Holocaust was the capstone of the project of Modernity. As Dostoevsky predicted, when anything goes, everything goes. Absent a sense of the sacred, the unthinkable is suddenly possible. It is as if Western Civilization brought absolute evil into the world just to prove once and for all there is no Father in Heaven who will save us. 

In the chilling words of Wiesel’s memoir, Night:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

In a moment of painful candor, my teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, once asked, how is it that we say the same prayers, pray to the same God, observe the same holidays after the Shoah, as before? How has this cataclysm not changed us indelibly? The question raised by Job in the Bible and revisited throughout the generations of Jewish existence – How can a just and loving God tolerate a world of such suffering? That question comes to a climax in the Holocaust. In the presence of a million and half murdered Jewish children, Greenberg argued, we simply can’t talk about God in the same way anymore.  An April, 1966, cover of Time Magazine asked, in huge bold letters, Is God Dead? After all we’ve witnessed, is there any way today to speak about God, about faith, about God’s role in the world?

The purpose of religion is to identify the sacred, and cultivate and nurture our sensitivity and connection to the sacred. The sacred is rooted in our narratives, our myths. Sacred values grow out of the stories we tell. In Jewish tradition, our core values are rooted in the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of God at Mt Sinai – the story of a God who hands down mitzvoth, commandments, to a covenanted people. The problem is, so many of us don’t believe those narratives any more. Science questions their facticity. Modernity makes it impossible to admit any transcendent source of values. But most of all, we find the tradition’s images of God, impossible to accept. What we’ve witnessed in the 20th century has changed us. We have known too much horror to embrace the old narratives of a God who interrupts history to save His people. We just can’t tell those stories any more. No amount of theological sophistry can bring us back the faith of our ancestors.

This is the task that Rabbi Harold Schulweis faced when he first stepped onto this pulpit, 45 years ago: Addressing a generation deeply yearning for the sacred, but a generation for whom the old narratives, the old beliefs, simply don’t work. That’s what every one of his books, his articles, his sermons are about.

Rabbi Schulweis did not deny or ignore or censure the disillusionment experienced by this generation. He didn’t blame us for doubting and question what our grandparents believed. On the contrary, he honored our doubt. He recognized that our questions of God didn’t grow from cynicism or indifference or despair. Our questions grew from love – love of the Jewish people, love of humanity, love of justice. He recognized in this generation’s doubt what the Talmud called “chutzpah klpei shamaya” – holy protest, sacred dissent. He perceived that our difficulties with the tradition’s image of God are rooted in a set of expectations that reflect traditional, Jewish sacred values. He heard in our questions the voice of Abraham: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do Justice? Ironically, it is our very fidelity to traditional Jewish sacred values that makes it impossible to believe in the traditional narratives about God.

This is precisely where Rabbi Schulweis begins to rebuild faith. If we can no longer find the tradition’s sacred values in a narrative about God, he taught, let’s turn the process around, and root a new narrative of God in our sacred values. The goal of Judaism, he argued, is not to make us believers in a God above. It never was. The goal of Judaism is to make us vessels of divine holiness here on earth. It’s not about God, but Godliness, about the sacred values we express in our conduct of life. God is a verb, he taught, not a noun. Not a Someone. But a way of encountering the world.

This sounds strange to many of us, but it wasn’t to him, and most importantly, it wasn’t to the Jewish tradition. This idea has been in our tradition from the beginning. Open Maimonides. The greatest book of Jewish philosophy ever written, the majestic Guide for the Perplexed begins with the same dilemma, the God we inherit from tradition, we can no longer believe in. In the 12th century, Maimonides set about developing a radically new idea of God and religion. The ultimate goal of human life, he taught, is to perfect oneself so that one can know God. Moses is the Maimonides’ model of the most realized human life, and Moses’ ascent up Mt Sinai, is his metaphor for the journey of human perfection. But one important fact of Moses’ story vexed Maimonides: Having achieved perfection, and standing face to face with God, Moses turns around and descends the mountain. He returns to his people, and all their trouble. Why Moses doesn’t stay on the mountaintop with God? Only on the very last page, the very last paragraph  of the Guide to the Perplexed does Maimonides gives the answer: the perfection in which man can truly glory is attained by him when he has acquired knowledge of God, and God’s Providence, … Having acquired this knowledge, one will then be determined always to seek kindness, justice, and righteousness, and to imitate the ways of God.  Do you hear that? Achieving intellectual perfection and knowing God is but a penultimate objective. The real goal of human life is to embody God’s justice and lovingkindness in the world – to live God, to do God. The last line of Maimonides is the first line of Schulweis. Godliness is the goal of human life.

You know this. You know that the fundamental building block of Jewish prayer is the brachaBaruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam. If the purpose of faith is to express belief in a God above, then the bracha should have stopped there. That says it all: Praised is God, Ruler of the Universe. Period. Why say anything else? But we continue — Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz; borei pri ha-gafen, Shehechianu V’keemanu because the real purpose of the bracha is to build a vocabulary of sacred values, to identify what in life is sacred. Tradition commands that we recite a hundred brachot a day. This is our Jewish spiritual discipline. Its aim is to train our sensitivity for the sacred in life everyday.

Ralph Waldo Emmerson wrote that we become what we worship. The bracha invites us to move beyond the boundaries of the self, beyond our endless needs and desires and moods, to become Godly. To recite a bracha, is to recognize our capacity of self-transcendence, to care, to heal, to help, to give, to touch the lives of others. When we recite a bracha, we bind ourselves to a vision of what we can yet become – to the Godliness latent within.

Rabbi Schulweis believed that this curriculum of self-transcendence had to be more than a solitary spiritual experience. So he introduced a program of initiatives, beginning here at VBS and spreading throughout the country, which re-made the American synagogue.  All of the initiatives he introduced to the synagogue share this quality of breaking boundaries. He perceived the loneliness of suburban life, and so he gathered us into havurot. He felt our need to care for one another, so he trained us to serve as para-rabbinics, and para-professional counselors. He decried the divisions within the Jewish community, and called for cross-denominational youth programs. He felt the narrowness of the Jewish community, and so he reached out to welcome Jews by choice through a program of Keruv, he built a relationship with the Armenian community to commemorate our shared experience of Holocaust together, and in his ninth decade, he demanded we respond to genocide in Darfur and the Congo, and established the Jewish World Watch. Every initiative, an exercise in self-transcendence – becoming more.  

But he still faced one problem. How do we believe in anything after the horrors of the Holocaust? In the face of that evil, that absolute evil, how can we maintain any sense of meaning? 

A few years before Rabbi Schulweis came to VBS, he was attending a Jewish community affair at a hotel in San Francisco, when the owner of the hotel, Ben Swig, introduced him to hotel’s maintenance supervision, a German immigrant named Fritz Graebe. Graebe shared his story with the Rabbi. During the war, Fritz Graebe ran a construction company under contract with the Nazi, on the German-Ukranian border. Graebe had once been a member of the Nazi party. But he grew to hate the Nazis. He witnessed the massacre of Jews in the Ukranian town of Dubno, and it sickened him. So he told the Nazis he needed large numbers of workers, and he took Jews off of trains, and out of concentration camps, and put them to work on his projects. He invented projects, and inflated projects, so the Nazis would give him more work permits. When the Gestapo announced new deportations, he put Jews on trains to nowhere, holding bogus work permits. He used all the privileges afforded him as a civilian contractor, and he used up all his wealth, to save Jews. The Nazis had suspicions, but when they came to arrest him, he escaped to the Allies’ lines. Eventually he would testify at the Nuremberg trials. And when he received death threats, he moved his family to San Francisco. How many Jewish lives did Fritz Graebe save? There were 5000 Jews on his payroll on the day the war ended. 5000 rescued Jewish lives.

Fritz Graebe was only the first of the rescuers that Rabbi Schulweis discovered. He soon found Jacob Gilat, a young mathematics instructor Berkley who, with his brothers, was hidden and rescued by a German Christian family. Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved 3500 Jews in Kovno, Lithuania. The Bulgarian royal family who defied the Gestapo’s order and allowed them to take not one Jew from their country. And so many more.  Collectively, they testified that God did not die in the concentration camps. They rescued Jews. Through their testimony, Rabbi Schulweis rescued God. Even in the deepest darkness, there were sparks of Godliness. 

In our history, there is a rare and special tradition of Jewish spiritual revolutionaries who were called upon to rescue Judaism at moments of profound disruption: Yohanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple, Maimonides when philosophy shook the foundations of Jewish faith, the Baal Shem Tov addressing a generation deeply disillusioned and despairing of faith. At these extraordinary moments, Jewish existence reached a crisis – when the sacred narratives of the past expired, and new narratives were yet to be born. These were the singular personalities who perceived that the survival of the community depended on its ability to transcend, to transform, to reinvent its ideas and institutions. They provided resilience, the courage and the inspiration to let go of the old, and to imagine the new. Rabbi Schulweis stands within that extraordinary tradition. As we sing at Hannuka: Hen b’chal dor, yakum hagibor, goel ha-am. In every generation, a hero arose to save our people.

He didn’t grow up in synagogue. Far from it. His father rebelled against religion, and raised him in a rich tradition of secular Yiddish culture. He didn’t set foot in a synagogue until he was 12 years old. It was Rosh Hashanah, and school was out in his Bronx neighborhood, so he was wandering the boulevard, when he heard the most remarkable music coming from one of the storefronts. He entered, and because he was small, they assumed he was a kid looking for his mothers, so they sent him upstairs to the women’s section, where he sat transfixed by the majesty and melody of the service. And so for the past 45 years he has sat here, again, transfixed by the majesty and the melody, the prayers and yearnings of the Jewish people.

Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be our blessing. 

American Jews and the Israeli election


If there is one lesson American Jews will learn from Israel’s election, it’s this:  they’re not us.

Israel is not New York. Or LA. Or Chicago or Boston or Miami or Philadelphia. It is a Jewish “community” unlike any in America.

Israelis went to the polls this Tuesday and returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to office.  Had Bibi run versus Isaac Herzog among American Jewish voters, he would have lost.  He would have lost almost as badly as Barack Obama would lose against Bibi in Israel.   The fact that Netanyahu garnered 29 mandates against his opponent’s 24 was as shocking to the majority of American Jews as the fact that  Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly – twice – for Barack Obama is to most Israelis.

Jewish life is composed of tribes – Orthodox, secular, my shul, your country club, Ashkenzai, Ethiopian, etc.  But the two biggest tribes are American and Israeli.  Different cultures, different languages, different reality.   Israel and America are the twin study of Jewish life:  same birth, same heritage, but vastly different nurturing – and so very different natures.

For years the greatest myth American Jews have been telling themselves is that Israeli Jews are just like us.  That works because we tend to prove this to ourselves by cherry-picking the Israel we most identify with.  We fell in love with Abba Eban like the French love Jerry Lewis.  Israelis, meanwhile, mocked him.  A friend of mine didn’t understand why former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who ran on the Kulanu ticket, wasn’t first on the ticket. He is American-born, Princeton-educated, brilliant, articulate and centrist.  I told him the leader of Kulanu is Moshe Kahlon, a tough (also smart) Israeli of Libyan background .  

“But Oren speaks such good English,” he said, absolutely perplexed.  

The Israelis we focus on, and whom we support, or invite to speak, are not representative of all those Israelis we never come in contact with, or prefer to ignore.   We love the Israeli artists and entrepreneurs and models and writers and actors – many if not most of whom are in the minority who voted for the losing teams.

Israel is not New York. Or LA. Or Chicago or Boston or Miami or Philadelphia. It is a Jewish “community” unlike any in America.

Language, income, ethnicity, ideology, religious practice separate us from the great mass of Israeli voters: the ones who don’t come to speak in our synagogues, or lead our children’s Birthright seminars, or appear in the papers with the latest hi-tech invention. There are thousands of Amoses in Israel – we just know Amos Oz.

We are drifting apart.  If the English and Americans are two people separated by a common language, Israeli and American Jews are one people separated by a common country.

We don’t know these people, and we don’t really understand their lives.   Economically they struggle more than most American Jews, especially the ones active and influential in Jewish and civic life.   More importantly, they live in a country that faces very real threats from its very real enemies. They and their sons and daughters are called upon to wear a uniform, take up weapons and prepare to die for their country – something some American Jews experience, but hardly the vast majority.

Culture matters. Circumstances matter.  The standard pap at countless Jewish fundraising banquets is how we and the Israelis are One People, and yes, on paper it’s true.  But if you’re talking about reality, and that paper is, say,  a ballot, then  it’s more true to say we are living very different lives, and have developed into two distinct branches of a very small family.  

That explains the reaction of most American Jews to the election.  They seemed to assume that Israelis couldn’t possibly reelect a person who had become so anathema to us.  The most common question I’ve been hearing is, “How did that happen?” My answer: because they wanted it to happen, and they vote, and you don’t.

So now what?

Israel relies on the power of America, which is significant, and that power derives in large part from the influence of American Jews in domestic politics, which is not insignificant.  The strength of this relationship, which has served Israel, America and American Jewry well, depends on the strength of the bond between American and Israeli Jewry.  To secure that, there is much work that needs to be done.  

American Jews have to get to know, for lack of a better word, the real Israel – the world where if Bibi is not exactly king, then he is the safe, secure and dependable choice.  (By the way, many of the left in Israel have to do a better job getting to know this part of their country as well).  If they want to understand, or even influence, these voters, they have to see them not as darker Mini-Me's, but as they really are.

And what about the Israelis?  The divide doesn’t do them any favors either.  Israel can’t rely solely on the support of the religious and the right. Just because they have Sheldon Adelson and an active, conservative base locked up, doesn’t mean they have American Jewry. In fact, the more Israel aligns itself with the values of the religious right and oligarchs like Adelson, the more it alienates the mass of American Jewry.

”“The [American Jewish] right is growing much more rapidly,” Michael Oren said in a pre-election interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, “even as a percentage within the Jewish community. There’s a greater percentage that is more religious, more conservative. That disparity is going to grow in favor of the right in coming years.”

That may be true, but it neglects a growing number of younger American Jews that polls show lean left on Israeli policies.  These will be the future Americans Israel needs to win friends and influence people in DC and elsewhere, and it can’t afford to lose them. 

The right and religious alone may never be big enough to make a crucial difference on the big issues.  And, when the pendulum swings in Israel and a liberal government takes power, these strong supporters may actually work against a sitting Israeli government.   

Bibi tacked hard right to win the Israeli election.  If he keeps sailing in that direction, he’ll leave American Jewry on a distant shore, waving goodbye.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Why Chanukah matters


There’s a certain narrative about Chanukah that has become near conventional wisdom among American Jews, and it goes like this:

Chanukah is a fun holiday that is big in America, thanks to its proximity to Christmas. But really, it’s a “minor” holiday that is more impactful culturally and sociologically than religiously, and it can’t really compare to the “big” ones of Yom Kippur and Passover.

And that’s all true. But it’s also too simple.

Chanukah matters for many reasons. It matters because, as one historian put it, it allows American Jews to feel included in the American holiday season while also remaining distinct, because they have their own holiday. It matters because, as one rabbi put it, Chanukah provides light in a season of darkness, giving families good reason to come together and celebrate. It also matters because, as another rabbi said, Chanukah carries an anti-assimilationist message that is as relevant today as it was 1,800 years ago.

Chanukah is a rarity within Judaism. It’s a holiday that, because of its scant halachic background, doesn’t provide much fodder for legal or practical disagreement between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. But it’s also a holiday that rabbis and Jewish academics and educators seem to agree is significant — uniquely so for American Jews — but for a variety of reasons. 

Chabad emphasizes the spiritual message of always increasing light. Modern Orthodox Jews focus on the sages’ narrative of the oil miracle pointing to God’s omnipresent role in the Maccabees’ military victory. Conservative and Reform Jews find meaning in why the sages altered Chanukah’s story by reducing the role of the Maccabees and increasing that of God, and also in how Chanukah allows Jews to feel just as American as Christians do in December. And many communal leaders see Chanukah as an ideal time to reach out to less-connected Jews.

Chanukah is a holiday that takes on different meanings for each different group of Jews. But it also offers something that no other Jewish holiday offers, and it does so without the conflict that often characterizes how other parts of Jewish religious life ought to be observed: Chanukah is a home- and family-based holiday, with eight nights of candle-lighting and lots of good food and celebration — there is no argument about that among any mainstream group of Jews. And it also happens to be an easy and fun way to practice Judaism during a season dominated by the image of the fun and warmth of Christmas. 

Chanukah’s message, meanwhile, is unique and cannot be found in any other Jewish holiday: To maintain Jewish religious practice in an open and liberal society that values assimilation is a challenge. But even with the holiday’s warning siren against assimilation, Chanukah and, to a certain extent, its message, have spread in America mainly because it has paired itself with Christmas. The irony is impossible to ignore.

Misremembering Chanukah

“Most Jews don’t know the stories of Chanukah, and if they do know the stories, they don’t know the real stories,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The sanitized version of Chanukah casts the underdog Maccabees as winners of an unlikely victory against the mighty Greeks, and after the war, when the Jews went to light the menorah in the Temple, there was only enough oil left for one day, but the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Voila! That’s Chanukah — Judaism surviving against all odds with God’s hand clearly present. 

Typically left unexplained is the story of religious division among Jewish traditionalists and assimilationists, the religious zealotry of the Maccabee and Hasmonean victors and why Jewish tradition emphasizes the miracle of the oil over the military victory.

The Chanukah story most Jews don’t know is that the Maccabean rebellion in 167 B.C.E. (the Second Temple era) was as much an outward revolt against the Greek attempt to destroy religious and spiritual Judaism (there was no genocidal intent) as it was a civil war to violently defeat Hellenist Jews who wanted to abandon or compromise religious Judaism to fit into Greek culture, which primarily valued science, philosophy and the arts. Hellenized Jews were so fanatic in their anti-Judaism that some males tried to reverse their circumcisions, according to the First Book of Maccabees, or I Maccabees, which, along with II Maccabees tells the official story of the Jewish war against Hellenism, from the point of view of the Maccabees. 

The era’s urban Jews, as a generalization, wanted a Hellenized Judea. Rural, more traditional Jews wanted to maintain their distinct Jewish identity and resist the force of Greek assimilation. Pro-Hellenist Jews, fed up with the refusal of the traditionalists to assimilate, requested that Antiochus — the Greek king at the time — send military forces to suppress the traditionalists.

But the occupying Greek forces were not the traditionalists’ first target. The trigger for their revolt was an apostate Hellenist Jew who offered a sacrifice to a Greek god in Modi’in, according to the Book of Maccabees. Mattathias, a traditionalist and the father of Judah Maccabee, saw the Jew about to perform a sacrifice, killed him, and then killed a Greek officer and tore down the altar where the sacrifice would have occurred.

And thus began the Maccabean revolt, which ended in a Jewish victory that propelled the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty (essentially the political party of that era’s traditionalists) into power after the miracle of the war and the oil. The Hasmoneans’ story has been largely forgotten by modern Jews, in large part thanks to rabbinic Judaism’s decision during one of the early centuries of the Common Era to keep I Maccabees and II Maccabees out of the Torah canon, banished to the less authoritative realm of biblical Apocrypha — stories of Jewish history important enough to remain in our collective memory but kept out of the official canon for one reason or another. 

Purim, like Chanukah, also commemorates the Jews’ survival (although Chanukah celebrates religious, not physical, survival) against a mighty enemy — Haman and his cronies in Persia. The rabbis, though, elevated Purim above Chanukah, at least as far as halachah is concerned, by canonizing it. Open a Tanakh and the Book of Esther will be there; the Books of Maccabees won’t be. The rabbis of the third century felt uneasy canonizing and issuing their stamp of approval upon the Hasmoneans, an ultimately oppressive group of Jewish rulers who forced Jews into observance and killed religious deviants. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Modern Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach said the Hasmoneans’ extremism and their intolerance put them out of favor with the more moderate views of rabbinic tradition. “They were not the people of compromise,” Fink said.

Ironically, even though the Hasmoneans were the most extreme group of Jews ever to rule the land of Israel, the populace absorbed Hellenistic culture anyway, touting Jewish kings with names like John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Jews, meanwhile, have adopted  Greek-derived words like Sanhedrin and synagogue to label core elements of religious Judaism.

And while Jews under Hasmonean rule experienced the spread of the very same Greek culture that the Hasmoneans so violently opposed, they also came under Roman occupation after two Hasmonean brothers fighting for the crown — John Hyrcanus the Pharisee and Aristobulus the Sadducee — asked the Romans to settle the dispute. The Romans then took advantage of the Jewish infighting to invade, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the Roman exile, which lasts to this day and, according to Jewish tradition, will last until the coming of the Messiah and the construction of the Third Temple.

The rabbis of the Talmud who decided to omit the Maccabean version of history from official canon were not willing to elevate the tyrannical Jewish regime that lost Israel to the Romans, even if it was traditional in its religious practice. They felt, too, that the Chanukah story needed a miracle, and it needed God’s role to outweigh that of the Hasmoneans, so the rabbis told the story of the miracle of the oil, a spiritual miracle featuring God’s suspension of the law of nature. And this story came to outweigh the significance of the unlikely Maccabean victory that would lead to a dark period of Jewish power and a disgraceful fall.

The rabbis’ edited version of the story says much about how they believed Judaism needed to be understood during the era of Roman exile, especially by Diaspora Jews. 

“Although we were happy that [the Maccabees] won, that’s not the Judaism that we want to perpetuate,” Fink said. “The Judaism that we want to perpetuate is the one that speaks of light. To me, [the rabbis’] message was, ‘Don’t become an extremist.’ ”

A holiday of few (practical) disagreements

Disagreement is a pillar of Judaism, and most Jewish holidays are staging grounds for practical disagreements. Orthodox Jews disagree with Conservative and Reform Jews about how electricity should be used on Shabbat and other holidays. What’s considered chametz on Passover? What’s kosher? What’s not kosher? How many days of Shavuot should be observed? Should Shavuot be observed? 

Chanukah has no such disputes, which makes it one of the only agreeable festivals in the Jewish calendar.

“It’s one of the holidays with the least amount of halachic material,” said Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “There isn’t that much opportunity for much difference. From that perspective, it’s wonderful, because the entire Jewish community is observing it in the same way.”

And Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in the United States, up there with Passover and Yom Kippur, allowing American Jews to shelve their differences for eight days. Orthodox Jews wary of Americanizing Chanukah accept, sometimes begrudgingly, that capitalizing on the Christmas spirit and ritualizing gift-giving has helped lead many Jews to observe the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and displaying it publicly, which Maimonides held is a particularly important mitzvah because of its commemoration of the survival and spread of religious Judaism. 

And non-Orthodox Jews skeptical of many tenets of rabbinic Judaism, and who may feel that Orthodox practices unnecessarily separate Jews from American culture, have proudly embraced Chanukah’s central halachic feature (lighting the menorah) as Jews’ way to take part in America’s holiday season while maintaining a unique Jewish identity.

“The truth of the matter is the rituals are pretty much the same,” said Feinstein. “You have a holiday that has no politics; no one’s saying that my version of the holiday is better than someone else’s.” 

The differences in practices, Feinstein said, are not between American Jews of different denominations, but between American Jews and Jews in other countries. From the gifts to the decorations to the food to the music, Feinstein said, “American Jews celebrate Chanukah very differently than, say, South African or European or Israeli Jews.”

Chanukah, Americanized

Nowhere else is Chanukah celebrated with the grandiosity that accompanies it in the United States. 

“It is not such a huge event in Israel, where Christmas is not a mainstream cultural phenomenon,” said David Myers, a UCLA history professor and Journal contributor.

How did Chanukah become a cultural phenomenon in America?

“Timing is everything,” said Jonathan Sarna, a historian and professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It was historically a minor holiday and only became more major because of Christmas.”

This year, Chanukah ends on Christmas Eve, right in the middle of the American holiday season, giving American Jews the sense of full participation in a time when the vast majority of Americans associate the word “holiday” with Christmas.

Myers says that American Jews’ ability to adapt their holiday into “mainstream cultural norms” is similar to what other Diaspora Jewish groups did in learning the language of their host countries in Spain, Persia, numerous Arabic societies and, especially, Germany, where Hebrew and German combined to form Yiddish. “This kind of dynamic has occurred throughout Jewish history,” Myers said. “Jews have continuously adapted names, languages and cultural values from their host societies.”

In the late 1800s, Myers said, observant Jews in America “sought to revive memory of the holiday as a traditionalist reaction” against Reform Judaism’s wish to assimilate into American culture and de-emphasize Jews as a distinct people. Then, in the mid-20th century, many more American Jews, primarily non-Orthodox ones, revitalized Chanukah with the aim of turning it into the other major winter festival alongside Christmas, which is when gift-giving became the norm.

Why did Chanukah become a holiday celebrated by most American Jews, while holidays of greater stature according to Jewish law, such as Shavuot and Simchat Torah, are primarily celebrated by Orthodox Jews? It’s not just because of Christmas, Feinstein said. Chanukah, as a holiday of lights, has a particular appeal in its spiritual and physical light during the short winter days. “Its correspondence with Christmas and its correspondence with the winter solstice are what give it its power,” Feinstein said. 

Fink pointed out that while Christmas has helped elevate Chanukah’s status in America, Orthodox Jews would celebrate the holiday no matter what time of year it fell.

“They are not the ones who are benefiting from this kind of American holiday atmosphere,” Fink said, adding, though, that Chanukah’s gaining from the presence of Christmas should not be viewed as a negative thing. “I’m not saying that we celebrate Chanukah because [Christians celebrate Christmas], but it’s a time that people are going to have an interest in experiencing their own traditions, so it’s wise to capitalize on it.”

Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas, in that sense, not only helps American Jews by acting as a “counterweight” to Christmas, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple said, but benefits from the Christmas spirit, drawing upon one of America’s three biggest holidays (Thanksgiving and New Year’s being the others) to make Judaism fun for those whose only Jewish observance throughout the year might be fasting on Yom Kippur and sitting down at a Passover seder. Chanukah, Wolpe said, is “minor in terms of its status halachically [but] major in terms of its status sociologically.”

“Among Jews who don’t have the strongest identification or the greatest education, there’s a lot pulling them into the general population,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “I think, arguably, that Chanukah has played an important role in giving non-Orthodox families a little bit of a hedge against the Christmas spirit.”

In America, Chanukah has drawn less-religious Jews into joyfully fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and has brought American Jewry as a whole closer to the (American) ideal of having both a distinct American identity and a religious identity, as Sarna believes.

“Chanukah allows Jews simultaneously to be part of and apart from, and that’s really a microcosm of what a minority religious community wants to be,” Sarna said. “It wants to stress its distinctiveness even as it wants to be part of a certain zeitgeist.”

Wolpe, contrasting what Chanukah and Yom Kippur offer American Jews in terms of feeling more, well, American, said, “Look, the White House does a Chanukah lighting, they don’t do a Yom Kippur fast, because Chanukah allows them to understand, yes we have a holiday, they have a holiday — and that matters in a society that’s always striving for balance and has lots of different factions.”

Martin Weiss, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia, lights the Chanukah menorah on Dec. 5, 2013, as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on during the day’s second Chanukah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House.  At left is Margit Meissner, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia. At right is U.S. Navy Lt. Ron Sachs. Photo by Consolidated News Photos

Myers, going a step further, believes the development of Chanukah in America is today’s example of how Diaspora Jews have managed to keep Judaism alive while blending into foreign nations. “It offers proximity to the American cultural mainstream while permitting some degree of preservation of Jewish distinctiveness,” Myers said. “Precisely the work of cultural adaptation and modification that allowed for Jewish renewal and, ultimately, survival.”

‘We don’t need to compete’

Perhaps no group has done more in America than Chabad to thrust Chanukah into the public square. American Friends of Lubavitch organizes the annual lighting of the National Chanukah Menorah in front of the White House; Chabad emissaries across American campuses place a menorah next to visible pedestrian walkways; Chabad families strap giant menorahs to the roofs of their cars and drive around like that for eight days. Whereas the commandment to publicize the miracle of Chanukah is fulfilled by most Jews by placing the menorah in a window, Chabad ratchets the practice up several notches, placing menorahs everywhere.

On the Chanukah agenda for Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, is the public menorah lighting at City Hall, this year with Mayor Eric Garcetti — Greenwald’s seventh such lighting; separate menorah lightings at a Los Angeles Clippers game and outside Staples Center; and organizing yet another lighting at Pershing Square, an urban park in the center of downtown. 

“In America, it’s particularly meaningful, because here we can practice all the observances in full view in public,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald added, though, that Chanukah, as one of Judaism’s “most important holidays,” doesn’t need Christmas to make it important. The holiday can stand on its own spiritual and religious merit, he said. “We don’t need to compete in the marketplace of holidays,” Greenwald said. “I don’t want to look at it as the Jewish Christmas.”

There’s irony to Chanukah’s piggybacking on Christmas in the United States, and Greenwald’s objection to making Chanukah the “Jewish Christmas” alludes to it — one of Chanukah’s main lessons is that Jews must resist the temptation to discard tradition in favor of a newer culture. At the same time, though, Chanukah’s attachment to Christmas is perhaps the main reason that the holiday is observed by so many non-Orthodox Jews; the same can’t be said for a holiday such as Simchat Torah, which is given a higher halachic status.

“I think that outside of Orthodox Judaism, there’s almost this wink-wink, nudge-nudge, this is our version of Christmas,” Fink said. “Orthodox Judaism really would be very uncomfortable with that.”

And as a holiday that warns against succumbing to “pressure from any outsider alien society,” Adlerstein said, Chanukah matters as much today as it did for the Maccabees: “The conflict between Jews who wished to bring their own practice more in conformance with the cultural milieu and secular surroundings, and traditionalists who wanted to hold on to core Jewish beliefs and practices hasn’t gone away one iota in 2,000 years.”

Rabbi Arye Sufrin, assistant principal at YULA Boys High School and assistant rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation, said one message he tries to teach his students is not only Chanukah’s plea to “maintain the tradition” but also why it’s so important to publicize it with pride, a luxury afforded Jews in this country. “We can do that today, but there was a lot that had to happen” to reach this point of openness and safety, Sufrin said. “Chanukah is not a minor holiday.”

Hillary Clinton, Israel and the Jews


Last month, I read an opinion piece in a Jewish publication wrongfully accusing Hillary Clinton of being anti-Israel and not fighting for the issues that matter most to Jewish Americans. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Throughout her career, Hillary Clinton has fought for and been a strong ally and representative of the Jewish community. To suggest otherwise is just absurd.

I have been lucky enough to know Hillary Clinton for more than 35 years, ever since I was a teenager in Arkansas in the 1970s.  I don’t know anyone who is more able and ready to work on the issues that matter and to make sure that the ideas and concerns of the Jewish people are addressed.

I first met Hillary when my father, who was a Rabbi in Little Rock, went to Fayetteville to perform the town’s first ever Bar Mitzvah. At the reception, we met a nice young couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton. My parents and the Clintons became friends, and thus began a long history working together in public service. 

The author of the piece I read cites obscure references to Hillary Clinton’s life and work back in Arkansas. Having witnessed that time in her life, I can say how misleading and unrepresentative these are to her history fighting for and understanding important issues to the Jewish community.

Hillary was always close to the Jewish community, and she and I worked together on many projects. Behind the scenes, Hillary became one of the leaders of a group of civic-minded professionals who worked together to help people of all faiths strive for communication and cooperation. While Hillary was a Methodist and Bill a Baptist, they always supported interfaith activities. 

Hillary was always good at thinking outside the box and finding unique solutions to problems. While traveling, Hillary discovered an Israeli educational program that was designed to help immigrants and their children adjust to life in new countries. Hillary studied the groundbreaking program and figured out that it could be adapted to help economically disadvantaged families in Arkansas. Hillary brought the HIPPY program to Arkansas, where it was soon offered statewide and now operates in 21 states, serving 15,000 families.

I also noticed that the author conveniently chose to exempt from his argument Hillary Clinton’s eight years in the Senate where, as a Senator from New York, she came to know the largest Jewish constituency outside of Israel and was an outspoken defender of Israel. Hillary Clinton’s support within the Jewish communities of both New York and Arkansas is a testament to her friendships and relationships that have been developed over a lifetime. 

Conflicts in Israel and the Middle East weigh heavy in the hearts and minds of the Jewish community. Strong leadership from leaders who understand our history and share the interests of the Jewish people is needed to bring about peaceful resolutions. The article chooses to neglect this in passing judgment on Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued her strong support for Israel. One of her greatest achievements as Secretary of State was negotiating a cease-fire to avert an all-out war in Gaza. She also helped lead efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. On the U.S’s relationship with Israel, Hillary said, “Israel and the United States are united by a deep and unbreakable bond based on mutual interests and respect.”

The domestic issues that the Jewish community cares about – freedom of religion and separation of church and state, personal freedoms and rights, education, and health care – are issues Hillary Clinton has worked on her entire life. Her passionate support of the Jewish community culminated with her being awarded a lifetime achievement award from the American Jewish Congress.

From her foreign policy abroad to her work back home, Hillary Clinton has consistently shown her support and dedication to the issues that matter most to Jewish Americans.

I share in the thoughts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in saying to Hillary Clinton, “you are a great friend and a great champion of peace,” and I hope the rest of the Jewish community can share in this long-lasting bond with Hillary Clinton


Lazar Palnick is an attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas.

On packed flight to Israel, hundreds of American Jews, emboldened by Gaza crisis, start lives anew


Daniel Knafo was wide awake aboard the Boeing 747 as sunlight began peaking over the northern horizon of the Mediterranean Sea early on the morning of Aug. 12.

Less than 10 hours earlier, he was at the departure terminal of John F. Kennedy International Airport with more than 300 American Jews, all of them embarking on a journey to start new lives in Israel.

And shortly before that, the teenager was at Los Angeles International Airport, bidding farewell to the city he called home for the first 17 years of his life.

At about 5 a.m., Knafo was standing in the aisle of El Al chartered flight 3004, which was cruising above the Mediterranean and less than two hours west of Ben Gurion International Airport, where the Woodland Hills native  would step on to the tarmac with the other 338 other Jews onboard—young, old, married and single.

Guy Zohar and Daniel Knafo, both from the San Fernando Valley, at Ben Gurion Airport.

Of those, Knafo was also one of 108 young Jews planning to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces within the first few months of making Israel home. This flight was chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that promotes aliyah to Israel from North America and the United Kingdom. The group assists families and individuals in making the move, with financial support, assistance with the job hunt and other myriad obstacles that immigrants have to navigate.

It was the organization’s 52nd chartered aliyah flight since its founding in 2002, during which time, according to its website, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped more than 30,000 diaspora Jews move to Israel.

The timing of this particular flight full of immigrants, or olim, may strike some as particularly poignant, given the on-and-off war that has enveloped Israel for the past several weeks—Hamas has fired 3,500 rockets into Israel since July 8, according to the IDF. And in response to the rockets and the discovery of more than 30 underground cross-border attack tunnels, Israel’s military launched a ground and air assault on Hamas’s strongholds in Gaza, most of which are densely populated within civilian neighborhoods. The war has left a reported 64 Israeli soldiers, three Israeli civilians, and 1,881 Palestinians dead.

But for Knafo and numerous other American olim interviewed by the Journal at JFK airport and aboard the flight, the Gaza war is not a deterrent to making aliyah—it is, at least in part, a catalyst to move to the Jewish state.

“I want to be there more than ever,” Knafo said, as dozens of fellow soon-to-be soldiers socialized around him. “Nothing will stop me from joining.”

Knafo, who attended El Camino Real High School and graduated from New Community Jewish High School, hopes to serve either in the IDF’s paratrooper unit (Tzanchanim) or in the elite Golani Brigade. He is honest with himself about the risks he will face. “If they tell you they are not scared, they’re lying,” he said of all the  young immigrants preparing for military service.

Not long before leaving, on July 20, Knafo attended an evening candlelight vigil in Los Angeles for Max Steinberg, another former student at El Camino Real High School who left Los Angeles to volunteer in the IDF. Steinberg and six other soldiers were killed in Gaza when their Golani unit’s vehicle was struck by Hamas anti-tank missiles in the first days of the IDF’s ground incursion.

Knafo said that he felt guilty leading a normal life while Israel was embroiled in war.
“It kills me that while they are fighting I’m in L.A. living the life, driving my car, going to the beach,” he said. “I don’t think its right. That’s why I want to be there more than ever.”

Knafo is one of 49 Jews from California who landed at Ben Gurion Airport early on the morning of Aug. 12 on the chartered flight—25 of whom will be joining the IDF. And while a large swath of the plane’s other passengers were also from New York and New Jersey (117 and 45, respectively), the group of olim hailed from places as far north as Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia, and as far south as Georgia and Florida.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, also from Los Angeles, decided that this would be their last chance to make the move with their three children. Their oldest, Yishai, 8, was approaching the age when, Matt said, he and Ariella wouldn’t feel as comfortable starting a new life for the entire family.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, moving to Israel from Los Angeles, with their three children at JFK after a ceremony led by Nefesh B'Nefesh

The Rosenblatts plan to stay with relatives this week until they receive the key to their apartment in Efrat; Matt, who had a job as an actuary in Los Angeles, will follow up on some work leads in Israel. Shortly before a joyful and celebratory departure ceremony at JFK—where the olim were greeted by Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor and American-born Knesset member Dov Lipman — Matt said he and Ariella discussed the distinctive timing of their move, but decided against delaying or cancelling .

“Had we been there already two months and then this started up while we were already there, we wouldn’t have come back, so, really, what’s the difference?” Matt said.

The Rosenblatts a few moments after landing in Israel. They will soon move into an apartment in Efrat.

Onboard, as the flight neared Israel, Ariella was keeping an eye on 1-year-old Yair, her youngest, and recalling the couples’ conversations about the fact that their children would eventually have to serve in the Israeli military.

“We’ve talked about it. We were like, ‘Wow, that’s two sons in the army,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Feeling “excited” and “a little nervous,” Ariella added, seeing your children serve in the military is a price of living in Israel, and that, “We need to be home when our country is in this situation.”

Throughout the group, not one person interviewed expressed regret or fear, either at the decision to start anew in Israel, or at the choice to go now and not wait until the advent of cease-fires that would endure in longer than 72-hour intervals.

In fact, the spirited mood on board the airplane echoed, on the one hand, the feel of a Jewish summer camp field trip (with teenagers and young adults mingling, sitting on laps and barely sleeping), and on another hand, the patriotic Zionist mission that it was. Many passengers wore shirts that read, “Aliyah is my protective edge,” a reference to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s official moniker for its Gaza campaign.

Whenever a Nefesh B’Nefesh staff member referenced over loudspeaker those on the flight who would be enlisting with the IDF, much of the plane erupted in applause.

And, upon arrival at Ben Gurion, the new arrivals were greeted by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s recently appointed president, and Natan Sharansky, the renowned Soviet refusenik and chairman of the Jewish Agency—as well as hundreds of cheering Israelis and dozens of reporters and cameramen covering the arrival of the newcomers from North America.President Reuven Rivlin and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky greet the olim as they descend to the tarmac.

Lena Elkins, who flew Friday from her hometown of San Francisco to New York, was one of a small number of young olim aboard the flight who will jump straight into her professional life without first joining the military. A recent graduate of the University of Oregon, Elkins’ younger sister moved to Israel last year and is in the IDF.

Living in Israel, Elkins said a few hours into the flight, has been on her mind since a visit six years ago with the Jewish Federation’s Diller Teen Fellows Program. And while she wishes she had served in the military, she said finding work is her priority now. Doing so in Israel, she said, particularly now, is also a major part of the Zionist project.

“I think it [Gaza] honestly has strengthened it [aliyah],” Elkins said. “It’s what Israel needs right now. This is what Zionism is. It’s people being there for Israel.”

Shortly after stepping foot on the tarmac and getting a feel for the love Israelis heap on diaspora Jews who move here, Channah Barkhordarie, a recent doctoral graduate of UCLA, said aliyah entered her mind last September, when her PhD advisor moved to Israel.

Barkhordarie, like Elkins, has no plans to enlist in the military and views her decision to live here as a way to “support this state.”

“Coming here and studying here and living my life here—that’s my show of support,” she said.

Everyone, it seemed, had made their aliyah decision long before this summer’s turmoil but that decision was only rendered more meaningful by the recent war, as well as the deaths of three Israeli teens by terrorists that provoked the fighting.

Toby and Chaby Karan, from Riverdale, at JFK airport.

“We just couldn’t cope with just being here,” Toby Karan, who moved from Riverdale, N.Y. with his wife, Chava, and four children, said at JFK airport before departure. “There were days through the past two months, the hardest days, that we said we’d never more wanted to live in Israel.”

On the flight, Liat Aharon, 18, sat calmly in her seat as many of her friends around her bounced around the cabin. “It seems like a dream,” said the Encino native of the approach to Israel, but she added, “It keeps getting scarier and scarier; I can’t believe it’s already happening.”

When asked, though, whether she felt as if she was leaving home or going home, she responded immediately:

“I’m going home.”

Palestinians support extending negotiations if more prisoners released


A new poll found that 65 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza would support extending the current American-backed peace talks if Israel releases extra Palestinian prisoners.

The negotiations are set to end on April 29. Israel is scheduled to release a fourth group of 28 Palestinian prisoners on March 28, but the Security Cabinet has said it will not release them unless the Palestinians agree to extend negotiations.

Some, 1,200 Palestinian adults were interviewed last week by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, the French news agency AFP reported.

Some 51 percent said they would support continuing the talks if Israel froze West Bank settlement construction.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Maan news agency cited an unnamed Palestinian official  as saying that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to extend the peace talks if Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction and release additional prisoners, above the 104 agreed to in order to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table nearly nine months ago

Abbas indicated his agreement in exchange for the conditions during his recent meeting with President Obama in Washington, the unnamed official told Maan.

The official also told Maan that if the last group of prisoners, who have remained in Israeli jails since before the Oslo Accords, are not released on March 29 that the PA will turn to international organizations for recognition.

Jonathan Pollard case is about America


America is far from being an anti-Semitic country. In fact, it might be the first country in Jewish history where it’s actually “cool” to be Jewish. That’s one reason I’ve been so reluctant over the years to weigh in on the Jonathan Pollard affair — I’m so in love with this country and all it’s done for the Jews that the last thing I want is to appear ungrateful or, worse, disloyal.

Having said that, however, after a while it gets harder and harder to ignore what looks like blatant discrimination against a Jewish man who in 1987 pleaded guilty to spying for Israel. How else to explain the U.S. government’s harsh treatment of Pollard?

Of the millions of things that have been said about this case, one fact, for me, stands out the most: The government reneged on the deal it made with Pollard.

This point was flagrantly absent in a recent New York Times op-ed written by M.E. Bowman, a U.S. official directly involved in the Pollard case who continues to defend Pollard’s life sentence.

As Alan Dershowitz responded on the Times’ Web site, “M.E. Bowman fails to tell his readers that when Mr. Pollard entered into his plea bargain, the United States government solemnly represented to the court that a sentence of less than life imprisonment would satisfy the needs of justice.”

Nothing Bowman writes in his editorial explains or even refers to this injustice.

“That solemn representation,” Dershowitz writes, “was the quid pro quo for Pollard’s plea of guilty. It violates both the letter and the spirit of that plea bargain for Mr. Bowman, who was a justice department official at the time, now to urge that Pollard must serve the life sentence imposed on him by the court despite the government having sought a sentence that Pollard has already completed.”

Of course, based on historical and legal precedent, it made plenty of sense for prosecutors not to seek a life sentence for Pollard.

As historian Gil Troy documented a few years ago, “Spies for other allies, like Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Egypt and the Philippines, served anywhere from two to four years, with maximum sentences of 10 years.”

Even two American traitors who spied for the Soviet enemy during the Cold War, Sgt. Clayton Lonetree and FBI agent Richard Miller, served sentences of nine years and 13 years, respectively.

The well-known story that former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger had it in for Pollard and pushed for a life sentence with the sentencing judge may explain the government’s betrayal, but it hardly justifies it.

So, given that Pollard is now serving his 29th year behind bars, it’s not paranoid for Troy to wonder: “Pollard’s extreme sentence — along with the continuing refusal to free him — has raised questions about official American anti-Semitism and whether Pollard is enduring harsher punishment for the crime of being an American Jew spying for Israel.”

Despite all this evidence of discrimination and unfairness, the mainstream Jewish community has generally been reluctant to dirty its hands with this case. If anything, it has gone out of its way not to defend Pollard, lest it be accused of dual loyalty. 

But what so many in our community have missed is that even more than anti-Semitism, the Pollard case is one of anti-Americanism.

Pollard should have been released years ago because discrimination and unfairness are anti-American ideas.

As Judge Stephen Williams wrote in one of Pollard’s failed appeals, the government’s treatment of Pollard is “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.”

It’s no coincidence that prominent non-Jews, including former Secretary of State George Shulz and former CIA Director James Woolsey, as well as political leaders from both parties, have been lobbying for his release.

They’re not lobbying because Pollard is a hero. He’s not. He’s a criminal. But in America, even criminals have rights, and those rights can get violated.

The Pollard affair is no longer about the darkness of his crime — it’s about the violation of his rights.

Jews must have enough faith in the American system to advocate for Pollard’s rights without feeling the paranoia of dual loyalty.

Those who are finally lobbying for his release on the basis of compassion — focusing on his worsening health — are not doing him any favors. This case doesn’t revolve around compassion; it revolves around justice run amok. As Troy writes, “Justice when applied too zealously becomes unjust.”

You can hate Pollard because of what he did. You can hate him for making you cringe in embarrassment. You can hate him for making American Jews look disloyal to this amazing country.

But if you really want to show your loyalty to America, in my book there’s no better way than to show loyalty to America’s values. And what American value is greater and more honorable than “justice for all”?

The very greatness of this country is that it puts values ahead of men. The values of fairness and justice for Jonathan Pollard are a lot more important than who he is — even if you think he’s a shameful Jew.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

The minimum wage battle: What makes a wage just?


Raising the minimum wage is a mitzvah.

The Rambam says that ensuring others have work that can sustain them is the highest rung on the hierarchy of tzedakah (Mattanot Aniyim, 10:7). In Judaism, tzedakah does not mean charity but justice. We rectify social wrongs and fulfill our obligations through tzedakah. By raising the minimum wage, we are enabling others who work to escape poverty. Tzedakah is all the more important when applied to a system of legislation, as the mission of the Jewish people is to perpetuate our most precious  values of the good and the just into broader society. Our messianic dream is the creation of a society where Torah values are brought into the world to create a more just and holy civilization.

The disparate gap between rich and poor is one of the most troubling moral issues in America today. Much of the problem has to do with unfair wages that block social mobility. The federal wage floor for most workers today is $7.25 an hour, paying at most around $15,000 annually for 40 hours/week (not including the millions of “invisible people” being exploited at under minimum wage). The issue of increasing the minimum wage has become muddied with partisanship, as politics, today, trumps justice. There was no increase from September 1997 until July 2007, at which point the minimum wage had fallen 22 percent in constant dollars while corporate profits had increased by 50 percent (Time magazine, July 24, 2009). Even then, the wage only rose from $5.85 in July 2007 to its current level of $7.25 in July 2009. Some have noted that the decline in value of the minimum wage has coincided with the decline of the American middle class, as previously the minimum wage offered families a chance to climb into the middle class, but now the gap is too wide. We must acknowledge just how far below subsistence the minimum wage has fallen. There has been a major decline of the real value of the minimum wage and the earned-income tax credit has been crucial in helping to fill the gap (aiming to benefit low-income families with children and not just all low-wage workers).

Some argue that raising the cost of labor will hurt workers, because employers will then hire fewer workers. In a few instances this may be true, but overall many economists and researchers have shown this to be false. Speaking to this issue, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow stated that “… the evidence of job loss is weak. And the fact that the evidence is weak suggests that the impact on jobs is small.”

Current state unemployment statistics (October 2013) tend to support Solow on this. For example, of the four states with a minimum wage below the federal standard, two (Minnesota and Wyoming) have unemployment rates below the average, while two (Arkansas and Georgia) have unemployment rates above the average. Of the five states with no minimum wage, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi have unemployment rates higher than the national average, while Alabama and Louisiana have lower unemployment rates. Thus, there is no substantive evidence to support the idea that a minimum wage adversely affects employment, or that a lower wage helps employment. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently helped to debunk the myth that raising the minimum wage leads to job losses. Studies have shown that when states raised their minimum wage they experienced no significant impact on employment compared to states that did not raise wages. Further, today, 76 percent of voters support raising the minimum wage. It’s a win-win because workers are empowered to sustain themselves, the government gives less “hand-outs,” and businesses flourish as that new income leads to increased spending.

Furthermore, minimum wage workers tend to work in industries that cannot be outsourced or eliminated (e.g., the fast-food and hotel industries), so it is unlikely that a rise in minimum wage would reduce these jobs. One significant study looking at the food industry found that raising the minimum wage did not result in employers trimming their workforce, and dozens of studies have confirmed these conclusions. For example, a study looking at airport employees found that not only did higher wages not lead to lower employment, but, in fact, led to reduced employee turnover.

We must consider not only the microeconomics but also the macroeconomics. There is evidence to suggest that when low-wage workers have more spending power, this creates demand for labor and employment opportunities. For example, in 2006 the Economic Policy Institute estimated that raising the minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25 would increase consumer spending by $5.5 billion, potentially offering a much-needed boon to the economy.

A final objection to raising the minimum wage is that those who work in these largely menial jobs are teenagers who are simply trying to earn extra cash, and therefore there is no need for a wage increase. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out, this is untrue. Among the 15 million people working in minimum wage jobs today:

90 percent are age 20 or older.

• 50 percent are full-time employees.

• 25 percent are parents.

But at the end of the day, minimum wage reform is not enough. A minimum wage increase will not bring low-wage-earning families out of poverty. We must embrace a living wage to truly improve the lives of the millions of our fellow Americans who are living in abject poverty. The 2010 U.S. Census revealed the extent of U.S. poverty in graphic detail:

• Nearly 47 million people live in poverty (15 percent of the population), the highest number ever recorded. Of these, more than 20 million lived in extreme poverty (i.e., an income less than half the poverty level).

• Among children, 22 percent live in poverty.

• More than 17 million households are food insecure, the highest number ever recorded.

• Some 50 million people lack medical insurance, which will increase if enrollment under the Affordable Care Act is unsuccessful.

The sheer injustice of economic inequality is overwhelming. From 2007 to 2010, the average American family lost 39 percent of its wealth, while at the same time, 95 percent of all new wealth generated was accumulated by the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. It has been estimated that six members of the Walton family (heirs to the Walmart fortune) own more wealth than 41.5 percent of Americans (nearly 49 million families). Is it too much of an encroachment on the wealth of the Walton family to encourage them to pay their workers more? Is it morally tolerable that the employee of a multibillion-dollar company is paid poverty-level wages?

It is our Jewish obligation to lead this fight for justice. The Rema, the great 16th century Polish authority, teaches that when one is involved in an issue of public monies, one must engage (act and vote) l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven (i.e., for reasons not based on self-interest) (Choshen Mishpat 163:1). It is crucial, and our religious duty, that Jews vociferously advocate for systemic change for the poor.

In Judaic doctrine, rabbis have limited the earning power of owners selling essential food so as to help the poor through the laws of “onaah” (fair pricing). The owner is forbidden from keeping more than one-sixth profit in order that others could be sustained as well (Bava Batra 90a, Choshen Mishpat 231:20). For the rabbis, the value of maintaining a just society where the needs of all can be met trumps the full autonomy of owners to maximize their profits to no end.

The primary wage responsibilities fall upon employers. Rebbeinu Yonah, the 13th century Spanish rabbi, taught:

“Be careful not to afflict a living creature, whether animal or fowl, and even more so not to afflict a human being, who is created in G-d’s image. If you want to hire workers and you find that they are poor, they should become like poor members of your household. You should not disgrace them, for you shall command them respectfully, and should pay their salaries (Sefer HaYirah).”

Rebbeinu Yonah teaches that when we hire a worker and find that he/she is still poor after we pay them, then we must treat them as b’nei beitecha (members of our households). If we choose to become an employer, then we must take responsibility to ensure our workers do not live in poverty.

The minimum wage, in its current state, is a collective violation of the biblical prohibition of oshek (worker oppression), as workers remain poor while they work to their full capacity (Leviticus 19:15). The previous verse tells us that we must not be enablers of lifnei iver (social wrongs), linking the two responsibilities of fair wages and Jewish activism. Now is the time for a collective Jewish intervention to ensure that those who work can live.

I have experienced the challenges of Jewish activism on this issue. Tav HaYosher (Uri L’Tzedek’s ethical seal for kosher restaurants) has encountered unique and anomalous apathy in the Los Angeles kosher community. Personal wealth and low food costs have been prioritized over proper worker compensation and dignity. What is perhaps most troubling about my experience is that Tav HaYosher is only asking for the basic law to be followed, paying workers minimum wage and nothing more, and this, tragically, is asking too much for many kosher consumers and owners. The indifference from some in the Jewish community is deeply troubling.

Today, one working on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour will have a gross annual income $12,000-$14,500, based on a 35- to 40-hour work week, after which federal and state income tax, Social Security and other taxes are then deducted. It is simply morally repugnant to argue that one working all day every day should live in poverty. As Barbara Ehrenreich, who once described her vain attempt to survive on a wage (above the minimum) in “Nickel and Dimed,” wrote in 2007: “There is no moral justification for a minimum wage lower than a living wage. And given the experience of the … states that have raised their minimum wages, there isn’t even an amoral economic justification.”

Today, change is needed and the Jewish community has a crucial role to play. We should heed the word of President Barack Obama: “… let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.”

I believe we will get there, but I am not a total optimist. I am a possibilist. I believe we will only get there if we engage in courageous leadership. The Jewish community has a crucial role to play.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.

Why Obama won’t pardon Pollard


Israel is abuzz with allegations of American bad faith in continuing to imprison convicted spy Jonathan Pollard even though recent disclosures have revealed that the U.S. itself has snooped on many friendly countries for years.

A Nov. 10 Jerusalem Post editorial described the situation as “an egregious double standard and a stunning example of American hypocrisy.”

In Commentary Magazine, Jonathan S. Tobin charged that the use of the Pollard case “to demonize Israel or to claim that the Jewish state behaved in a manner unbecoming an ally is undermined by the revelations about the United States’ own considerable efforts to snoop on its friends.”

And Pollard’s wife Esther complained to the Post that U.S. President Barack Obama wouldn’t free Pollard even as he participated in the traditional presidential ritual of pardoning turkeys on Thanksgiving. She objected that Obama would show “compassion and mercy to two lowly barnyard birds again this year, granting them a full pardon and sparing their lives” without showing her husband the same benevolence.

For more than 28 years, Jonathan Pollard has been serving a life sentence in American prisons for passing classified information to Israel. He is currently in poor health. Obama received a petition for executive clemency in October 2010, and has not acted upon it.

Many suspect the U.S. refusal to grant clemency to Pollard is evidence that Obama holds anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or even anti-Semitic sentiments. They’re wrong.

The problem is something else entirely:

Obama hardly pardons anybody.

So far, Obama has granted only 40 pardons and commutations, mostly for minor offenses (and none relating to convictions of more than five years). In fact, he offered exactly zero commutations for the first three years after his election. In toto, no more than two percent of pardon applications are treated favorably by his administration. (Ronald Reagan’s number was 20 percent.) And Obama’s only pardon in all of last year? Another Thanksgiving turkey.

By contrast, George W. Bush extended clemency to 200 people, and Bill Clinton did so for 459 people. No president in a century has been as stingy with mercy as Obama.

The president’s unlimited pardon power, which is ensconced in the American Constitution, exists to correct excessive sentences and show compassion to repentant convicts. Pollard is hardly the only one deserving the president’s compassionate treatment. Perhaps most egregiously, thousands of men and women currently serve inhumanly long sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

With an African-American president, and an African-American attorney general, the Obama administration should actually be extra sensitive to the injustices of the American penal system. Nearly 40 percent of incarcerated Americans are black.

Or perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe Obama doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a black liberal softie when it comes to crime. Do we really have to wait for a Republican president who’s willing to have a “Nixon-goes-to-China” moment in order to fix the insane reluctance to pardon deserving convicts?

My recommendation to those concerned with Pollard’s plight is as follows: Make allies. Work together with African-American, prison-reform, drug-policy, and other groups that would like to see the pardon spigot loosened.

No amount of pleading from Bibi, linkage with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, hunger strikes, demonstrations, or petitions from American congressmen is going to make a whit of difference with a president who has never commuted a life sentence for anyone and doesn’t appear open to changing his policy.

We’ve agitated, correctly, for a “pardon for Pollard.” But we’ve been focusing on issues related to Pollard when we should have been looking at the pardon power itself. It’s not too late to change strategies.


David Benkof made aliyah in 2010. He teaches Hebrew at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle which appears in the Jewish Journal. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Educated women and children


On the Jewish Web site The Tablet, Michelle Goldberg, a senior contributing editor to The Nation, recently wrote: “In the United States, women tend to have fewer children the more education they have — those with advanced degrees have only 1.67 children each. Jewish women are better educated than the population at large, which is why their birthrates are even lower …”

This statistic provides yet another illustration of the low moral state of our universities. Just think: The more formal education a woman has, the fewer children she will desire. 

For those who care about Jewish or American survival, this should be, to put it mildly, disconcerting. If Jewish and other American women don’t reproduce, the populations of Jews and Americans will decline. And in the case of Jews, this is particularly problematic.

The question that needs to be addressed is, why? Why do the best-educated women have the fewest children?

Here are three explanations:

The first — and, I believe, most important — reason that women who attend graduate school have fewer children than other women is that the longer women (and men) stay in academic life, the longer they are exposed to values that denigrate the family in favor of career.

One can argue until the proverbial cows come home that feminism never pushed career over marriage and family, that it only wanted women to have a choice. But that argument is dishonest. Feminism greatly valued career above marriage and family. The result is that in our post-feminist (post-1970s) world, for a girl or woman of any age to say that she would like to be, or that she is, or that she was a full-time wife and mother takes courage. Among well-educated women, a woman accrues more prestige being in sales at Nordstrom than she does as a “homemaker.” The very word conjures up nightmarish images to most women with graduate degrees.

The more time a young woman spends at university, especially at a prestigious one, the more she is indoctrinated into believing that what really matters is career. Test it: Ask a young woman who attends a prestigious university — especially a Jewish woman who is not Orthodox — what she most wants in life, and it is quite likely that she will respond “a good career.”

Let’s be honest. If you asked a female in her junior year at Yale, “What do you most want in life?” and she responded, “To find a good man to marry and then make a family with him,” you would be shocked.

In fact, you would probably have to look for an explanation. And that explanation would likely be that she is a religious Christian or an Orthodox Jew.

Which brings us to a second reason for the extremely low birthrate among well-educated women — secularism.

The widely offered explanation for why fertility rates drop is affluence. As countries get wealthier, the thinking goes, the birth rate drops.

There is some truth to this, but there is a better explanation: secularism. As societies become more secular, the fertility rate drops. 

This is easy to demonstrate. Wealthy Orthodox Jews, wealthy devout Roman Catholics, wealthy Mormons and wealthy Evangelicals have a lot of kids. Meanwhile, wealthy secular people have the fewest children.

While secularism is good for government, it is a dead end for the individual and society. It is a moral dead end. Without God, good and evil are purely matters of opinion. And it is an existential dead end. If there is no God, life is objectively pointless. We live, we die, there is no reason we are here, and there is nothing when we leave.

So what do people do with that view of life? Some devote their lives to secular religions such as feminism, socialism, environmentalism or egalitarianism. And many simply decide — quite rationally — that in the incredibly brief time they are alive, they will enjoy themselves as much as possible. Hedonism is the most rational response to secularism. 

In such a world, children are often regarded as disruptive to whatever pleasures life affords. With a bunch of kids at home, it is hard to take many trips, and hard to see a movie or dine out whenever you want. 

In the age of birth control and of almost unlimited lifestyle options, one needs good reasons to have more than one — or even one — child. Religion has always provided such reasons: God wants you to be fruitful; it is vitally important to hand down one’s faith; the family is the locus of a religious life, etc.

A third and final reason is age. By the time a woman is finished with graduate school, she is likely to be close to 30 years old. And after all that work, she understandably wants to begin putting her education to good use — you can’t waste a doctorate or a master’s degree. So she further defers marriage. And even if she does marry, she defers having children. By the time she is ready to make a family, she may feel that she is too old to have more than 1.67 children.

American Jewry reveres graduate degrees. But this reverence comes at a steep price. The longer young women (and men) stay at the university (especially in the social sciences), the more secular they are likely to become, the more alienated from Israel they are likely to become (there is no mainstream institution as anti-Israel as the university), and the less likely they are to have more than one child.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012)

Valuing the Reform perspective in the Pew report


The historian Simon Rawidowicz wrote a famous essay in which he described Jews, with our constant fear of extinction, as the “ever-dying” people. He wrote the essay approximately 60 years ago. Does that make him wrong or prophetic?

It seems that every few years, a major Jewish leader or study proclaims the “disappearance of the Jews,” arguing that assimilation and intermarriage place the future of the Jewish community — Jewish continuity — in serious danger.

Such was the case with the publication of the Pew Survey on Jewish Americans, a study that quickly rang the alarm bells of the “ever-dying Judaism in crisis contingent.” Amid this 200-page report, the most complete survey of the American Jewish community in more than a decade, provocative statistics blared with shocking — though not really surprising — numbers. 

The intermarriage rate among Jews who married in the last 10 years is 58 percent. 

Two-thirds of all Jews don’t belong to a synagogue.

The fastest-growing cohort in the Jewish community is the 22 percent of all Jews who define themselves as Jewish but not religious. 

This last statistic led to the other major headline of the study: While 93 percent of Jews 60 and older define themselves as Jewish by religion, only 68 percent of Jews born after 1980 identify as Jews by religion. Moreover, 32 percent describe themselves as having no religion, identifying instead as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the Pew religion project, put it this way: “Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion.”

This last category, young people who define themselves as Jews of no religion, what we would call cultural Jews, are by an overwhelming two-thirds majority also not raising their children in any religion.

The survey, moreover, found that approximately one-quarter of people raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30 percent of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28 percent of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Significantly less movement is reported in the opposite direction.

The upshot of these two last data points — “cultural Jews raising their kids without religion” and “the steady decline in Jewish practice from one generation to the next” — led to a disturbing conclusion. Once Jews no longer define themselves as Jewish through religion, it is highly unlikely that they or their children ever will again. In short, when Jews walk away from shul, they don’t come back.

So what are we to do with this information? If the sky is falling, how do we hold it up? 

One response is to go back to Rawidowicz’s thesis, “Jews — an ever-dying people,” and see there in the looming demise of the Jewish people a silver lining. His premise was that crisis is “good for the Jews.” That seems ironic, I know, but a close look at Jewish history ancient and modern shows that we are good in a crisis, as bad as they are for us in the short term. In fact, we are in large part defined by our crises.

In the same way that the Yom Kippur War united Jews across denominational lines; that the cause of Soviet refuseniks empowered the Jewish federation movement; that a halt of Jewish teens traveling to Israel during the first and second intifadas gave birth to Birthright; and the overwhelming statistic also found in the Pew study — that 70 percent of the Jewish population of the United States has traveled to Israel — we should embrace this survey as the canary in the coalmine that it is and redouble our efforts to right the sinking ship. 

The Pew study also found that most non-Orthodox Jews enter and exit religious Judaism through the Reform movement. Reform Judaism is unique among the major Jewish movements in that it gets them coming and going. Thus, Reform Judaism has the opportunity to save Jews before they leave by providing meaningful religious experiences in a modern relevant context. Likewise, with its low threshold for acceptance, Reform Judaism is an ideal entry point for a cultural Jew to explore a religious identity.

The metric for an active, committed and engaged Reform Jew is not religious practice as it is commonly defined and understood in the other movements. How often you come to shul to pray is not a measure of how important Judaism is to you in your daily life. Rather, in Reform Judaism, we proudly teach that you can be Jewish in myriad meaningful ways that are not “religious” in the way that organized religion is off-putting to Millennials. Through study, social action, social justice, connection to Israel, Jewish music, art and culture — experiences that are open to any kind of family — Reform Judaism takes Judaism beyond the walls of the synagogue and into the 21st century of modern life.

When asked about activities or beliefs that are “essential” to respondents’ Judaism, the most common answer in the Pew survey was “remembering the Holocaust” (73 percent), “leading a moral and ethical life” (69 percent), “working for justice and equality” (56 percent) and “caring about Israel” (43 percent). Just 19 percent of the Jewish adults surveyed said observing Jewish law (halachah) was essential to what being Jewish means to them. But Pew didn’t just survey Reform Jews! The results just look that way. This survey of Jews across the board clearly shows that Reform Jewish priorities are in alignment with how the majority of Jews view modern Jewish values.

There are challenges, for sure:

• Synagogue membership is declining overall. Roughly four in 10 U.S. Jewish adults (39 percent) say they live in a household where at least one person is a synagogue member. Fifty percent of Conservative Jews belong to a synagogue, and only 34 percent of Reform Jews do.

• Intermarriage is increasing and leading to generations of religiously disconnected Jews, especially among the Reform population. Half of Reform Jews who are married have a non-Jewish spouse, and intermarriage is much more common among Jews who are themselves the children of intermarriage. Our principled and strategic response must be to embrace these families, not shun or ignore them.

• Reform Jews are generally less involved in Jewish life than are Conservative or Orthodox Jews. We must deepen engagement in the richness of Jewish life, not just for schoolchildren but for every Jew. And we can’t wait for them to walk in our doors. We have to go out and meet them where they are.

It is said, though not entirely accurately, that when asked why he robbed banks, the notorious Prohibition-era bank robber Willie Sutton replied, “That’s where the money is.” 

Well, Reform Judaism is where the Jewish identity is. We are the front line in the fight for the Jewish future. What Reform Judaism does at this time in history will tell the tale of what becomes of the Jews, our ever-dying, yet also ever-resilient people.


Rabbi Dan Moskovitz blogs at

Media tycoon Saban Says dreams of Hillary Clinton as U.S. president


Israeli-American media tycoon Haim Saban, a major donor to the U.S. Democratic party, said on Friday he would back former secretary of state Hillary Clinton with his “full might” should she run for president in 2016.

Clinton, 66, whose four-year tenure as U.S. secretary of state ended in February, has said she is considering running for the presidency but that she will most probably decide next year.

As a candidate, she would be widely viewed as the favorite for the Democratic nomination – which she contested in 2008 but lost to Barack Obama, who is in his second term.

Billionaire financier George Soros, another party bankroller, also pledged support for the wife of former President Bill Clinton last month.

“I hope she will run. She would be a wonderful president,” Saban told Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. “If it happens, we will of course pitch in with full might. Seeing her in the White House is a big dream of mine.”

Saban, producer of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, gave $1 million to three Democratic political action committees in 2012, when Obama won reelection.

Another potential Democratic candidate in the 2016 race is Vice President Joe Biden. A Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll in September found him nearly 40 percentage points behind Clinton.

Some Biden supporters have questioned whether Obama was showing sufficient support for him after a new book about the 2012 campaign, “Double Down”, said the president had weighed replacing him on the ticket with Clinton.

Obama did not deny that his political aides had pre-tested the idea, but said he would have rejected it.

“I think that if Vice President Biden decides to run, Obama will stay neutral, but if Biden does not run and she does, he will support her,” Saban said. “The general feeling is that Hillary is Obama's natural successor.”

Reuters/Ipsos polling has shown Clinton to be Americans' top choice for president, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as her closest potential challenger among rival Republicans.

Americans preferred Clinton over Christie by 19 points, the September poll said.

Writing by Dan Williams, editing by Elizabeth Piper

Poll: Plurality of Americans support Iran deal, half say U.S. should defend Israel


A plurality of Americans support the newly brokered deal with Iran, and half believe that the United States should defend Israel militarily, a new poll found.

Some 44 percent of Americans support the interim agreement on Iran‘s nuclear program reached between Iran and six world powers in Geneva last weekend, and 22 percent oppose it, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday showed.

The survey also showed that 49 percent of Americans want the United States to increase sanctions if the Iran deal fails and 31 percent think it should pursue further diplomacy, according to Reuters. Twenty percent believe U.S. military force should be used against Iran.

The poll found that 63 percent of Americans believe that Iran’s nuclear program is developing a nuclear bomb. Iran says the project is for civilian purposes only.

Meanwhile, 65 percent of those polled said that that the United States “should not become involved in any military action in the Middle East unless America is directly threatened;” 21 percent disagreed with the statement.

Fifty percent of the Americans polled believe that the United States “should use its military power to defend Israel against threats to its security, no matter where they come from,” and 31 percent disagreed with the statement.

The poll of 591 Americans was conducted from Sunday through Tuesday with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that the six-month interim agreement with Iran has not yet started, saying that the next step is “a continuation of technical discussions at a working level so that we can essentially tee up the implementation of the agreement.”

She said the U.S. is “respecting the spirit of the agreement in pressing for sanctions not to be put in place” and expects that the same is coming from Iran’s end.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iran’s Parliament on Wednesday that the Islamic Republic would continue to build the Arak heavy water plant, in contravention of the announced agreement. The previous day, Iran said that the United States had not distributed an accurate account of the agreement.

Thanksgivukkah, Emma Lazarus & the Maccabees: Embracing our dual identity


There is something much deeper to “Thanksgivukkah” than sweet potato latkes. It is an opportunity to celebrate the blessing of our dual identity as Americans and Jews.

In 1883, the Jewish-Sephardic-American poet Emma Lazarus was invited to write a poem for a literary auction whose proceeds would go towards building a pedestal for what came to be known as “The Statue of Liberty.” Lazarus’ entry, titled The New Colossus, was eventually (in 1903) inscribed on a bronze tablet inside the Statue of Liberty for all to read. Its message about America, written by a Jew, captures the essence of what it means to be an American Jew:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Recasting the classical Greek Colossus (a representation of the pagan sun god) as “The Mother of Exiles,” Emma Lazarus turned the Statue of Liberty into an American version of a Jewish-Biblical matriarch standing at the door of her home, welcoming all those who yearn for freedom and shelter. No longer interested in the “storied pomp” of ancient empires, this matriarch seeks to house and assist the world’s “tired and poor” who “yearn to breathe free.” Replacing the Greek sun god – the conqueror of the world – Lazarus’ “Mother of Exiles” is now the nurturing and comforting symbol that welcomes newcomers to a new and unique world: the world of American democracy.

It is not by chance that an American Jew of Sephardic background would author a poem invoking the motifs of “exile and homecoming.” Well versed in her people’s long history of exile and persecution, Emma Lazarus fully understood what a privilege it is for Jews to live in the United States, the safe haven where they enjoy the blessings of American democracy. Lazarus expressed this in another powerful poem she wrote titled “1492”:

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”

For Emma Lazarus – an American Jew of Sephardic descent — the “two-faced year” of 1492 held a double-edged irony. In 1492, after a long, bloody and brutal inquisition, the Spanish Jews were forcibly expelled from Spain, “when Spain cast forth with flaming sword the children of the prophets of the Lord.” In that same year – 1492 — Christopher Columbus discovered America (and later, in 1654, the first Jews to come to America were Spanish & Portugese Sephardic Jews, Emma Lazarus’s own direct ancestors).  In this poem, Lazarus also evokes the motif of America as a safe place of refuge – “Ho, all who weary, enter here.” This theme resonated deeply with Emma Lazarus, a descendant of a weary and persecuted Jewish people who found a safe haven of freedom and protection in America. So, too, it should resonate with all American Jews, on Thanksgiving, and every day of our blessed lives in this great country.

Over 2500 years ago, facing persecution and oppression, a small band of freedom fighters overcame all the odds against them and defeated an army much more powerful than them. They stood up to injustice and were willing to fight for the freedom and independence of their people. In his moving description of the story of Judah and the Maccabees, Rabbi J.H. Hertz wrote: “There is nothing finer in the whole history of heroism, or more soul-stirring in the annals of religion, than the account of this handful of Jewish warriors who were prepared to live or die nobly, in order that the light of revealed truth and righteousness be not extinguished in a heathen world.”

The torch of the Maccabees continues to shine brightly today. In Israel – a country founded on the same principles of freedom and democracy as those of America – the modern-day Maccabees of the Israel Defense Forces are taught a powerful ethic during their basic training: Only those who know how to defend their freedom are worthy of it.

The modern State of Israel also serves as a safe haven of freedom and democracy. Much, much smaller than the United States, and lacking an impressive “Lady of Liberty” welcoming new immigrants, the State of Israel has certainly done its lion’s share of absorbing “the tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” From Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands, to the Prisoners of Zion from the former Soviet Union and the Ethiopian Falash Mura, Israel – the tiny Jewish haven of freedom and democracy in the Middle East – has continued to cry out: “Ho, all who weary, enter here!”

American Jews have often felt conflicted by their so-called “dual identity.” On this Thanksgivukkah – a convergence of an American holiday giving thanks for America, and a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom – I have never felt so proud of being an American Jew.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the Director at the Sephardic Educational Center.

‘Thanksgivukkah’? Not quite


It’s taken American Jews a good century to fully absorb the miraculous idea that this country is unlike any other that Jews have experienced. After 2,000 years of feeling insecure no matter where we pitched our tents, the people of Moses finally found safe harbor in the land of Lincoln — the land of freedom, human rights and justice for all.

So maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the Jewish community go head over heels for anything that makes us look and feel American. It’s our Jewish way of saying thank you.

Naturally, when we learned this year that Thanksgiving and Chanukah would fall on the same day — something that’s never happened before — our gratitude went into overdrive and … drumroll … Thanksgivukkah was born!

It’s eerie that this rare Jewish-American holiday meld would coincide with the just-released Pew study of American Jewry, which revealed, among other things, that Jewish identity is melting right into America’s loving embrace. 

Maybe it’s a sign of how intimate that embrace has become that hardly anyone in the Jewish community has uttered a breadcrumb of complaint about the “intermarriage” of these two holidays.

How dare we complain? How dare we show ingratitude on the very day of gratitude?

After all, it would be impolite to do what comedian Stephen Colbert did from his side, when he complained that “Chanukah is screwing up my Thanksgiving.”

For most American Jews, it’s the opposite: Thanksgiving is upgrading our Chanukah. It’s a shidduch made in heaven.

That certainly feels like the polite American response, but is it the proper Jewish one? I don’t think so.

For one thing, the meshing of the holidays makes it harder to appreciate differences. The holiday of Thanksgiving is one of my favorites, not least because it brings families together and puts even grouchy people in a good mood. Who can beat that? 

But Thanksgiving — however beautiful, warm and happy it is — is missing something.

As Rabbi Benjamin Blech notes on Aish.com, there are two instances in the Bible where Jews are commanded to make a blessing of gratitude: after a material experience (eating a meal), and before a spiritual one (learning Torah).

“In biblical terms,” Blech writes, “Thanksgiving is a sequel to the biblically mandated Birkat Ha-mazon, the Grace after Meals in which we express gratitude to the One Above ‘who feeds the world in his goodness with grace, with kindness and with mercy.’ ”

Thanksgiving, however, does not address another kind of gratitude we owe God: “It is the blessing for the spiritual part of our lives … a blessing that alerts us to the hunger of our souls and our yearning to be nourished by the sacred.”

That’s where Chanukah comes in.

As Blech explains, the real meaning of Chanukah is spiritual: “Antiochus was not bothered by the survival of Jews,” he writes. “What he wanted at all costs to prevent was the survival of Judaism. His decrees were against the observance of Torah.”

In other words, the threat “was not to our bodies, but our souls. The danger was not death but disappearance by way of assimilation.”

How appropriate, then, that Chanukah’s main ritual should be based around oil, the one liquid that never “assimilates.” This oil speaks to the singularity of Jewish identity and the unique importance Judaism places on ritual.

It is ritual that leads us, somewhat ironically, to the spiritual.

The Friday night Shabbat meal, for example, would feel empty and generic without our time-honored rituals such as lighting the candles, welcoming the angels, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, blessing the wine, washing our hands and then blessing the bread, singing Shabbat songs and reciting the long prayer of thanks after the meal.

This ideal Shabbat meal, in fact, probably comes closest to being “Thanksgivukkah”— a meal that marries the spirituality of Chanukah with the abundance and gratitude of Thanksgiving; a meal that feeds body and soul.

In the Jewish tradition, rituals elevate and add reverence to physical acts and deepen the very expression of gratitude.

As my friend Rabbi David Wolpe told me, maybe the real issue here is that “Thanksgiving is not Jewish enough.” Well, it’s an intriguing thought that Jewish notions such as rituals might enhance the Thanksgiving experience — and why not? It wouldn’t be the first time Jews gave something back to America as an expression of our gratitude.

In any event, as the Chanukah lights glow this year on the great American day of gratitude, Jews will have plenty to be thankful for. Just as our ancestors were grateful for the miracle of the Chanukah oil that lasted eight days, we can be grateful for the miracle of the Jewish oil that has lasted 5,774 years. 

That oil is a metaphor for the duality that challenges American Jewry: How do we engage with an embracing world while staying true to who we are? How do we shine the unique light of Judaism without making it mushy and generic?    

Let’s be grateful that we live in a country that allows us to do all that. 

Happy Thanksgiving … and Happy Chanukah.

Polls: Most Americans support interim Iran deal


Two new polls released this week show most Americans surveyed support easing sanctions on Iran in exchange for a partial rollback of its nuclear program.

A CNN poll released Thursday and conducted by ORC international showed 56 percent of respondents favored “an interim deal that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities.” Thirty-nine percent opposed. The poll, based on phone interviews between Nov. 18-20 of 843 respondents, has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

A Washington Post-ABC poll published Tuesday showed 64 percent of respondents support a deal “in which the United States and other countries would lift some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons.” Thirty percent opposed. The poll was conducted Nov. 14-17 over the phone and reached 1,006 respondents. It had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Unlike the CNN poll, the Post-ABC poll did not specifically address the crux of the difference between the Obama administration and Israel: Whether Iran should suspend all or some of its nuclear activities in an interim deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by some U.S. lawmakers, has insisted that Iran totally dismantle its nuclear program and end all enrichment in exchange for any easing of sanctions.

A third round of talks between Iran and major powers is underway in Geneva this week.

The Post-ABC poll also showed that only 36 percent of respondents were confident that such a deal would stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while 61 percent were not confident.

How the United States fans the flames of Mideast conflict


As the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks flounder and seek to regain momentum, many are wondering what America can do with its prodigious economic resources to encourage peace and reconciliation between the parties.

For this reason, it may astound many that American taxpayers already are deploying significant dollars in Israel not to pay for peace but to fungibly fund terrorism. Each year, U.S. aid and financial programs fungibly fund terrorist salaries paid by the Palestinian Authority. For the past half decade or so, the level has reached hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The fact that the Palestinian Authority devotes much of its fiscal resources to rewarding terrorists with generous salaries is an astonishing financial dynamic known to most Israeli leaders, Jewish media editors and Western journalists in Israel. But it is still a shock to most in Congress, who are unaware that U.S. money going to the Palestinian Authority is regularly diverted to a program that systematically rewards terrorists with cash benefits.

Equally astonished are the voters whose money is being used in this fashion. These transactions squarely violate American laws prohibiting U.S. funding from directly or indirectly benefiting terrorists. More than that, such monies grandly incentivize murder and terror against innocent civilians.

Here’s how the system works: When a Palestinian is convicted of an act of terror against the Israeli government or innocent civilians, such as a bombing or a murder, the convicted terrorist automatically receives a generous salary from the Palestinian Authority. The salary is specified by the Palestinian Law of the Prisoner and administered by the P.A.’s Ministry of Prisoner Affairs.

A Palestinian watchdog group, the Prisoners Club, ensures the P.A.’s compliance with the law and pushes for payments as a priority expenditure. This means that even during frequent budget shortfalls and financial crisis, the P.A. pays the terrorists’ salaries first and foremost — before its other fiscal obligations.

The Law of the Prisoner narrowly delineates just who is entitled to receive an official salary. In a recent interview, Ministry of Prisoners spokesman Amr Nasser read aloud the definition: “A detainee is each and every person who is in an Occupation prison based on his or her participation in the resistance to Occupation.” This means crimes against Israel or Israelis. Nasser was careful to explain, “It does not include common-law thieves and burglars. They are not included and are not part of the mandate of the Ministry.”

Under a sliding scale carefully articulated in the Law of the Prisoner, the more heinous the act of terrorism, the longer the prison sentence — and, consequently, the higher the salary. Detention for up to three years fetches a salary of nearly $400 per month. Prisoners incarcerated from three to five years are paid about $560 monthly — a compensation level already higher than that for many ordinary West Bank jobs. Even greater acts of terrorism, punished with sentences between 15 and 20 years, earn almost $2,000 per month.

These are the best salaries in the Palestinian territories. The Arabic word ratib, meaning “salary,” is the official term for the compensation. The law ensures the greatest reward for the most egregious acts of terrorism.

In the Palestinian community, the salaries are no secret — they are publicly hailed in public speeches and special TV reports. From time to time, the salaries are augmented with special additional financial perks. For example, in 2009, a $150-per-prisoner bonus was approved to mark the religious holiday of Eid al-Adha. P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas also directed that an extra $190 “be added to the stipends given to Palestinians affiliated with PLO factions in Israeli prisons this month.”

Reporting on the additional emolument, the Palestinian news service Ma’an explained, “Each PLO-affiliated prisoner [already] receives [a special allocation of] $238 per month, plus an extra $71 if they are married, and an extra $12 for each child. The stipend is paid by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) each month.”

About 6 percent of the Palestinian budget is diverted to prisoner salaries. All the money comes from so-called “donor countries” such as the United States, Great Britain and Denmark. Palestinian officials react with defiance to any foreign governmental effort to end the salaries.

Deputy Minister of Prisoners Affairs Ziyad Abu Ein declared: “If the financial assistance and support to the P.A. are stopped, the [payment of] salaries (Rawatib) and allowances (Mukhassasat) to Palestinian prisoners will not be stopped, whatever the cost may be. The prisoners are our joy. We will sacrifice everything for them and continue to provide for their families.”

Ironically, one Jewish media editor asked this question: If the United States is fungibly funding terrorist salaries with payments to the P.A., is not Israel doing the same when it supplies and transfers cash to the P.A.? The uncomfortable answer is yes. The only difference is Israel does so when it has no choice due to international pressures. That doesn’t change the piercing reality that in America we pay for terrorism abroad and Israel pays for it at home.

Understandably, many argue that the United States and its allies are in a no-win situation. Unless the West continues to fund the Palestinian Authority, Israel has no “partner for peace,” and indeed Jerusalem itself has strongly advocated that the P.A. is its sole partner for peace. Indeed, without foreign funding, the P.A. would collapse.

But by continuing to financially reward the scourge of terrorism, the West ensures a stalemate since terrorism is an institution in the P.A. — judging by the popular prisoner salary law, its priority in P.A. spending, and the enthusiastic social mandate of the Palestinian people who support such terrorist acts and the salaries that arise from them.

There is another view that could win. At the moment, Western aid is catering to and bolstering the basest instincts and impulses of the Palestinian people — the burning rage to commit acts of terrorism against Israelis. However, nearly 100,000 Palestinians come into Israeli territory to work side by side with their Jewish colleagues at jobs across the country. They work under equal conditions, equal pay, enjoy equal company outings, and advance their Palestinian families through peaceful coexistence and normal employment.

If the United States and other Western donor countries abruptly halted all funding of the P.A. — like a slammed door — until the prisoner salary program was eliminated, and conditioned all future funding on joint Arab-Israeli economic and development projects, then the world could give peace a chance. As it is now, peace does not pay and terrorism does.


Edwin Black is the award-winning author of the international best-seller “IBM and the Holocaust.” This article is drawn from his just-released book, “Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terrorism in Israel.”

Eight chefs’ new Chanukah delights, one for each night


This year, Chanukah and Thanksgiving coincide: Chanukah is celebrated for eight days by candle-lighting, gift exchanges and eating foods fried in oil, an ancient custom, commemorating a miraculous event at the Temple in Jerusalem, while the Thanksgiving meal reminds us of our American heritage. Both offer a special time to reflect on our traditions and enjoy a family meal. 

Of course, the favorite Chanukah food is latkes, most often made from grated potatoes and served with sour cream, preserves or applesauce.

This year I decided to interview some well-known chefs and restaurateurs for some new and different ideas. The result was more than I bargained for. I never dreamed there could be so many sensational new recipes, and an added bonus was the delicious new sauces these food experts provided to serve with the latkes.  

I am featuring eight chefs and their recipes, one for each night of the holiday. Our family is also celebrating Thanksgiving a day early, on the first night of Chanukah, since our family is traveling from Northern California as well as Washington and Oregon to be together for this special celebration.     

Michel Richard, who was the chef/owner of Citrus while in Los Angeles, has just opened his new bakery, Pomme Palais, and restaurant, Villard Michel Richard, at the Palace Hotel in New York. Always looking for ways to reduce the use of butter and cream, he developed wafer-thin, super-crisp Oven-Fried Potato Latkes, which have absolutely no resemblance to the old-fashioned, heavier and more caloric ones. They are also a perfect dish to serve with your Thanksgiving turkey meal.

Bruce Marder, the innovative chef of Capo and the Brentwood Restaurant in West L.A., came up with Two-Tone Potato Latkes, made without eggs, which he serves with salmon caviar to celebrate Chanukah and Thanksgiving . 

Chef Jonathan Waxman’s restaurant, Barbuto, in New York City’s West Village section, serves Italian-inspired cuisine. Several years ago he shared this Red Pepper and Corn Latkes recipe, served with a creamy corn sauce, which has become a staple for our Chanukah menu.   

Michel Ohayon, chef/owner of  Koutoubia in West L.A., offers another substantial main course for Chanukah: Moroccan Ground Beef and Potato Latkes, which he suggests should be served with harissa, a spicy-hot chili pepper sauce that can be found in most Middle Eastern markets.

When your guests arrive, offer them a large bowl filled with thin home-fried potato chips that our foodie friend, home cook Luigi (Lou) Liuzzi created. It is one of his many innovative food experiments that we continue to enjoy.

Chef Brett Swartzman is a chef with passion. Originally a native of Chicago, he is creating his second Chanukah celebration at the Brentwood Country Club.  They love his Potato Latkes With Granny Smith Applesauce, and this year he is going to surprise them with Sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).  

Chef Robert Bell, owner-chef of Chez Melange and Mama Terano, both in the South Bay, prepared an unusual potato latke recipe on my TV show “Judy’s Kitchen” many years ago. Thinly sliced russet potatoes are arranged in layers in a skillet to resemble the pedals of a flower, then baked in olive oil until crisp. It’s always a tasty dish to serve during the holiday. 

Josiah Citrin, chef-owner of Melisse in Santa Monica, serves his family’s traditional potato latkes, using a special French cheese. This is a recipe that his French grandmother, Simone, prepared for Chanukah, and she always served it with fig compote.

With these eight exciting latke recipes, it is a perfect time to plan a festive latke party for your family and friends. Keep the menu simple — after all, the latkes are the real stars, and a hearty soup or salad may be the only addition needed. If your latkes are served for dessert, invite guests to drop in after dinner for latkes, tea and coffee.

Preparation can be made easy by using your food processor or blender, and remember, many batters may be made in advance, then fried at the last moment. In planning your Chanukah party, don’t forget to include the traditional songs, the custom of giving Chanukah gelt (foil-wrapped chocolate coins) to the children and exchanging small gifts.


MICHEL RICHARD’S OVEN-FRIED POTATO LATKES 

1 pound (about 4 medium) potatoes, peeled
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Sour cream and diced cucumbers

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Cut the potatoes into long, thin strips, about 1/8-inch wide, by hand or using your food processor’s julienne or shredder blade. Place potato strips in a bowl of water to cover. Before cooking, drain potatoes, then dry well in a lettuce spinner or with a clean kitchen towel. 

Place a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil and heat. Add the potatoes and stir-fry until tender, about five minutes. Turn the potatoes out onto a baking sheet and push the strips together to form a rectangle or triangle, about 1/4-inch thick. Roll using a rolling pin to flatten further.  

Oil a large baking sheet. Cut into the flattened potatoes by pressing down on a fluted cookie cutter, creating 2 1/2- to 3-inch rounds.  Using a spatula, transfer the latkes to the prepared baking sheet. (This can be done in advance.) 

Before baking, season potatoes with salt and pepper. Bake in the preheated oven until crisp and brown on both sides, about 30 minutes, turning the latkes halfway through. Transfer them to a serving platter, using a metal spatula. Serve with sour cream and diced cucumbers. 

Makes about 8 servings


BRUCE MARDER’S TWO-TONE POTATO LATKES

1 large russet potato, peeled
1 large sweet potato, peeled
Salt and pepper
Olive oil for frying
Salmon caviar

Julienne potatoes lengthwise into long matchsticks, either with a knife, food processor with julienne attachment or mandoline.  Place in large bowl, add salt and pepper to taste, and mix well.

In a cast iron skillet or on a griddle, heat olive oil. Shape potato mixture to form pancakes about 2 inches in diameter. Fry on one side until brown, then, using a metal spatula, carefully turn and flatten with the back of the spatula and brown on the other side.

Place latkes on heated plates and serve immediately with salmon caviar.

Makes about 12 latkes.


JONATHAN WAXMAN’S RED PEPPER AND CORN LATKES

Creamy Corn Sauce (recipe follows)
1 red bell pepper
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup flour
Olive oil for frying
Salt and pepper
Salmon caviar (optional)

Prepare Creamy Corn Sauce; set aside.

Roast red pepper in a 375 F oven for 40 minutes, turning once.  Skin will puff and brown. Peel off the skin, remove the stem, and discard seeds. Puree in blender or food processor. 

In a large bowl, combine the red pepper puree, egg yolks, milk and corn kernels; mix well. Blend in the flour. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold egg whites into red pepper mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  

In nonstick or heavy skillet, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons oil.  For each latke, spoon 2 tablespoons batter into the hot oil and fry on both sides until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Repeat until all batter has been used, adding more oil to skillet as needed to keep latkes from sticking 

Serve with Creamy Corn Sauce and top with salmon caviar, if desired.  

Makes about 24 latkes.    


CREAMY CORN SAUCE

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup corn kernels
1/2 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 cup vegetable broth
1 cup cream
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons minced chives

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet and saute corn kernels until tender, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and saute diced red bell pepper until tender, about 2 minutes. Set aside.

In a saucepan, heat vegetable broth and simmer until reduced to about 1/2 cup. Add sauteed corn and bell pepper.  Blend in cream and simmer until thickened.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in chives. Serve warm.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.


MICHEL OHAYON’S MOROCCAN GROUND BEEF AND POTATO LATKES

2 pounds potatoes
Oil for frying
1 medium onion, diced
Salt and pepper
1 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon minced onion
1/2 teaspoon each minced fresh parsley and fresh cilantro
Pinch nutmeg
Pinch mace (optional)
Pinch saffron (optional)
1 egg
Harissa

In a pot, boil potatoes for 45 minutes; peel and mash. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet and saute diced onion until soft.  Add to potatoes with salt and pepper to taste. Cool.

In a skillet, brown ground beef, minced onion, parsley, cilantro, nutmeg, mace and saffron, until no juice remains. Cool mixture and transfer to a food processor. 

Using the knife blade of a food processor, blend meat mixture with egg. 

Using a heaping tablespoon of mashed potato mixture, place in palm of hand and place a teaspoon of ground beef mixture in center. Roll potato mixture around meat mixture.  Flatten between the palms of your hands.       

Fry in oil in nonstick skillet, or deep-fry until brown and crisp. (These can be prepared in advance and warmed in the oven, or served cold. ) Serve with harissa.  

Makes about 10 latkes.    


LUIGI’S POTATO CHIPS

4 russet potatoes
3 to 4 cups olive, peanut or canola oil for frying
1 tablespoon salt

Peel the potatoes and slice them very thin using a mandoline or a sharp knife. Places the sliced potatoes in a bowl of cold water. Pour oil into fryer or large pot and heat to 375 F.

Dry the potato slices between two clean kitchen towels and place some into the not oil. Do not overload.

Fry for five minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer the chips to a large cookie sheet lined with paper towels and sprinkle salt onto the chips. Continue in batches until all the chips are cooked. Place the chips carefully into serving bowl — do not dump them from cookie sheet, as you do not want pour the excess salt from the sheet into the bowl. 

Makes 6 to 8 servings.


BRETT SWARTZMAN’S SUFGANIYOT (JELLY DOUGHNUTS)

2 tablespoons active dry yeast

1/2 cup warm water (100 to 110 F)
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, plus more for rolling
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted margarine, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups vegetable oil, plus more for bowl
1 cup seedless raspberry jam

In a small bowl, combine yeast, warm water and 1 teaspoon sugar. Set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes.

Place 2 1/2 cups flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the center; add eggs, yeast mixture, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, margarine, nutmeg and salt. Using a wooden spoon, stir until a sticky dough forms. On a well-floured work surface, knead until dough is smooth, soft and bounces back when poked with a finger, about 8 minutes (add more flour if necessary). Place in an oiled bowl; cover with plastic wrap. Set in a warm place to rise until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a 2 1/2-inch-round cookie cutter or drinking glass, cut 20 rounds. Cover with plastic wrap; let rise 15 minutes.

In medium saucepan over medium heat, heat 3 cups oil until a deep-frying thermometer registers 370 F. Using a slotted spoon, carefully slip 4 rounds into oil. Fry until golden, about 40 seconds. Turn doughnuts over; fry until golden on other side, another 40 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. Roll in sugar while warm. Fry all dough, and roll in sugar.

Fill a pastry bag fitted with a No. 4 tip with jam. Using a wooden skewer or toothpick, make a hole in the side of each doughnut. Fit the pastry tip into a hole, pipe about 2 teaspoons jam into doughnut. Repeat with remaining doughnuts. 

Makes about 24 doughnuts.


ROBERT BELL’S OVEN-FRIED POTATO LATKES

4 russet potatoes, scrubbed and thinly sliced
8 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 F. 

Brush a nonstick skillet with a small amount of olive oil and arrange the potato slices in a ring, overlapping until the entire surface is covered. Pour a thin stream of olive oil over the potato slices until completed coated (use most of the 8 tablespoons). Repeat with another layer, brush with remaining olive oil, and fry on medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes.

Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes until potatoes are cooked through. Using a metal spatula, transfer potatoes to a cutting board and cut into triangles. Repeat with the remaining potato slices.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.


JOSIAH CITRIN’S POTATO AND TOMME REBALAISE CHEESE LATKES

2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and grated
1 medium sweet onion, peeled and grated
1/2 pound Tomme Rabelais, grated (Salers or a firm Tomme de Savoie can be substituted)
1 large egg
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper
Olive oil for frying

Place small batches of grated potatoes in the center of dishtowels, and wring excess liquid from the potatoes. Transfer potatoes to a large bowl and repeat the process with the remaining potatoes. Add the onion, cheese, egg, salt and pepper to the potatoes and mix well to combine.

Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a heavy 12-inch skillet (cast iron works best). Add the potato mixture by 1/4-cupfuls to the hot oil. Lightly flatten with a spoon, and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the latkes over and cook until golden and cooked through, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Repeat process until all of the potato mixture is used. Serve warm.  

Makes about 24 latkes.


Judy Zeidler is a food consultant and author of “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her Web site is JudyZeidler.com.

Marty Kaplan: No news is bad news


If you think the widening chasm between the rich and the rest spells trouble for American democracy, have a look at the growing gulf between the information-rich and -poor.

Earlier this year, a Harvard economist’s jaw-dropping study of American’s beliefs about the distribution of American wealth became a “>new Pew study of the distribution of American news consumption is just as flabbergasting. 

According to the Harvard study, most people believe that the top 20 percent of the country owns about half the nation’s wealth, and that the lower 60 percent combined, including the 20 percent in the middle, have only about 20 percent of the wealth.  A whopping 92 percent of Americans think this is out of whack; in the ideal distribution, they said, the lower 60 percent would have about half of the wealth, with the middle 20 percent of the people owning 20 percent of the wealth.