Sen. Kamala Harris of California addressing the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., on March 28. Photo from AIPAC

Lawmakers press Trump administration anew on bias crimes, anti-Semitism


Lawmakers in Congress continued to press the Trump administration to address perceived spikes in bias crimes in the United States and in anti-Semitism abroad, reflecting bipartisan concern that President Donald Trump remains insufficiently engaged on the issues.

The Senate resolution, approved unanimously late Wednesday, urged the Trump administration “to continue Federal assistance that may be available for victims of hate crimes” and “to continue safety and preparedness programs for religious institutions, places of worship, and other institutions that have been targeted because of the affiliation of the institutions with any particular religious, racial, or ethnic minority.”

Separately, top House of Representatives lawmakers introduced legislation that would elevate the role of the State Department’s anti-Semitism monitor.

Bipartisan backing for the initiatives suggests a rare example of an adversarial relationship between the White House and both parties in Congress. And they reflect concerns at Trump administration plans to roll back funding since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 for initiatives and positions that protect Jews and other minorities.

A number of Jewish groups have expressed alarm at Trump administration plans to roll back security assistance for nonprofits, currently at $20 million, into broader emergency planning funding, which they fear will see the program’s elimination. Lawmakers have called on the administration to keep the funding separate and to more than double it to $50 million.

The Senate resolution also urged federal agencies to improve the reporting of hate crimes, which anti-bias groups have said for years is uneven and at times unreliable, and calling for an interagency task force “to collaborate on the development of effective strategies and efforts to detect and deter hate crime in order to protect minority communities.”

Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., initiated the resolution. Harris first announced she would introduce the resolution at last month’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“We applaud the Senate for forcefully condemning hate in all its forms and for urging the federal government to take concrete steps to fight back against discrimination and bias-motivated crimes,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, said in a statement. “Anti-Semitism and bigotry are affecting countries all over the world, and the U.S. is no exception. But the rigor of America’s response and the solidarity we demonstrate for each other across diverse communities is exceptional.”

Also Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly apologized during testimony for not yet responding to a letter sent last month by all 100 senators urging him and other top U.S. security officials to address bomb threats to Jewish institutions.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., asked Kelly during the secretary’s testimony to the Senate’s Homeland Security committee why he had failed to reply 29 days after the letter was sent to Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI director James Comey.

“It should have been a long time ago, I’ll apologize and I’m on it,” Kelly said.

Since the letter was sent, an Israeli Jewish teenager believed to be responsible for the bomb threats has been arrested, but Kelly suggested a broader threat remained and extended it to mosques and African-American churches as well.

“I’ve told my people, let’s not just talk one religion, let’s not just talk terrorists for that matter, how about white supremacists?” Kelly said.

Separately on Wednesday, a bipartisan slate of House members introduced legislation that would elevate the position of State Department anti-Semitism monitor, a response to reports that Trump plans to scrap the position.

The legislation, introduced by Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., would elevate the position to ambassador level and ban “double-hatting,” or assign the position to someone who already has another assignment.

Jewish leaders testifying last month before a session of the House human rights subcommittee chaired by Smith urged the preservation of the position.

“Jewish communities here and abroad continue to be targeted for hatred and deadly violence,” Smith, who helped author the 2004 law creating the position, said in a statement. “The Special Envoy is critical to focusing and redoubling our leadership and this bill enhances the position.”

Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a separate statement noted recent attacks in Europe.

“Just this week, a Jewish Community Center in Sweden closed due to security threats, tombstones were desecrated at a Jewish cemetery in France, and vandals damaged a Greek Holocaust Memorial,” he said. “We continue to see the steady rise of anti-Semitic political parties in places like Hungary, Greece, and even France.”

Abraham Foxman. Photo by David Karp

Foxman: New approach needed to new phenomenon of anti-Semitism


President Donald Trump’s statement condemning a rash of anti-Semitic attacks, bombs threats at Jewish Community Centers, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries across the nations, at the start of his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday was welcomed by Jewish American leaders as a meaningful response.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“That he chose to focus on fighting anti-Semitism and hate (at the start of his address), we really welcome that,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation Leauqu (ADL),  said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. “That was a notable change from what we have seen. It was incredibly meaningful.”

Leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major Organizations,  Stephen Greenberg and Malcolm Hoenlein, said in a statement, “By reaffirming America’s strong commitment to speaking out against hate, President Trump sent an important message of support to the American Jewish community at a very difficult time and set an example for other political, religious and civic leaders to follow.”

Now that the President issued that much-needed clear and unequivocal statement, former ADL National Director Abe Foxman thinks the Jewish community should move on and focus on working with law enforcement authorities to apprehend the culprits and design strategies to protect the community from anti-Semitic attacks and threats.

In an interview with Jewish Insider, Foxman suggested that this new phenomenon requires a new approach. “We have to fight it from the outside and the inside,” he asserted. “The outside is to get the political, moral, religious, and civic leadership, to condemn it and making it unacceptable. And number two is law enforcement. Law enforcement needs to take it seriously – to utilize all law enforcement techniques and institutions to combat it. And when you arrest a culprit, to make sure that the punishment is serious and not just a slap on the wrist.”

According to Foxman, it’s not the job of President Trump to come up with a plan. “His job is to condemn it and speak out. I don’t think it’s his job, though he has to fight prejudice, period.”

The former ADL head, who now serves as Director of Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, further cautioned Jewish American organizations not to exaggerate the threat. “Our responsibility is to make sure that while we take it seriously, it doesn’t intimidate Jews from wanting to be Jews,” Foxman stressed.” Because, God forbid if we make it more of a threat than it is, the result will be that Jews will not want to be Jewish.” 

“The Jews, after every tragedy, stood up, brushed themselves off and reaffirmed their desire to continue to be Jews. And that’s the secret of Jewish survival,” he explained. “And therefore, here too, we face every single day when we talk about the dangers to our community centers, to our cemeteries, that is not, God forbid, undermining that commitment of Jews to continue to want to be Jews.” 

Congress defers ‘anti-Semitism’ bill to 2017


The story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com.

The House of Representatives failed to pass a bill targeting campus anti-Semitism, delaying the legislation until 2017, according to two informed Congressional staff members who spoke with Jewish Insider. On December 1, the Senate unanimously passed the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016,” two days after it was introduced. The legislation expands the Department of Education’s definition of anti-Semitism to include criticism that “demonizes” and “delegitimizes” Israel or applies a “double standard” against the Jewish state.

A Congressional staff official, who insisted on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Jewish Insider that Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, was responsible for deferring the measure.  Since this is the House’s final week in session, Goodlatte opposed  “rushing” the bill through without adequate study, noted the Hill staffer. Goodlatte “thought the wording was a little vague and there were definitely first amendment issues as well,” the Congressional official added.   

The House Committee on the Judiciary did not immediately respond to Jewish Insider’s request for comment.

The bipartisan measure, led by Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA), Ken Buck (R-CO), Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Peter Roskam (R-IL), defined anti-Semitism by a 2010 State Department guideline. “This legislation will help the Department of Education investigate incidents of discrimination motivated by anti-Semitism in our schools,” Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), sponsors of the Senate version, explained.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt enthusiastically supported the measure.  “This act addresses a core concern of Jewish and pro-Israel students and parents; When does the expression of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, and anti-Zionist beliefs cross the line from First Amendment protected free expression to unlawful, discriminatory conduct,” he said.  

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Jewish Insider that the bill was especially important since he believes that most American universities have “either closed their eyes to the problem (of anti-Semitism) or given a wink and a nod” to the issue. When asked about the charges that the measure would limit free speech, Cooper dismissed these critiques. “When there is a pushback against bullies, very often they (those attacking Israel) will present themselves as victims,” he added.   

Despite the delay, the Congressional official emphasized, “I am quite certain that based on the overwhelming support this bill receives from outside groups and members that there will be an interest and a drive to consider this and review it next year.” A second Hill staffer noted that generally the Senate operates more cautiously when advancing legislation, but in this case, the House was the body that delayed the anti-Semitism bill.

Although most of the established Jewish community backs the measure, some liberal organizations including Americans for Peace Now have publicly opposed the bill for not addressing the rise in anti-Semitism led by the “alt-Right” while also “policing” university debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. J-Street is undecided about the measure explaining that the bill requires additional Congressional study.

Given that both the House and Senate will need to reintroduce the bill in the next session, Norm Brownstein, a superlobbyist who led the effort in supporting this legislation, quoted his friend the late Senator Edward Kennedy as best describing the current environment and the way forward in 2017. “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

Donald Trump, the Jewish savior


Think back to a year ago. 

The Jewish wars were raging. Israel’s prime minister brought the fight over the Iran nuclear deal to the floor of Congress, directly confronting the American president. Israeli Jews stood with Bibi. American Jews were split. A slim majority backed the deal, an enraged and anxious minority fought tooth and nail against it. We were divided, weakened, uncertain.

And then came Donald.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric and behavior, his shape-shifting policies and free-style facts have derailed American politics. But give the man credit for one seemingly impossible feat: Donald Trump has united the Jews.

A year ago, if someone had asked you what will heal the deep partisan division between American Jews, what would you have said? An Arab war. A new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The messiah. It’s a short list. 

Who would have guessed the correct answer was a race-baiting billionaire from reality TV? I know I’ve written about this before, but Jewish unity is like Halley’s comet. You don’t get many chances in a lifetime to see it.

But if a poll released last week is correct, that’s exactly what’s happening. A survey of 500 Florida Jews found that if the election were held today, 66 percent would choose Hillary Clinton and 23 percent would go for Trump. That’s a steep drop from the 30 percent of Jews whom Gov. Mitt Romney won running against Barack Obama in 2012.

Keep in mind that Romney received between 5 and 10 percent more of the Jewish vote than did Sen. John McCain in 2008. Trump hasn’t just put a halt to the upward trend, he’s reversed it. These numbers show that whatever momentum Republican Jews had gained, Trump lost. 

Even more telling is Trump’s unfavorable rating among Jews. The poll, conducted by Jim Gerstein from GBA Strategies, a progressive-leaning polling group, found that 71 percent have an unfavorable view of him. Seventy-one percent! I’ve been burning up Google trying to find another controversial issue on which Jews poll with such unanimity.   

The only one I could find was Passover. A 2013 Pew study found that 70 percent of American Jews mark the Passover holiday.  I can see Trump’s PR spin on this: “Vote Trump. He’s as Popular as  Seder.”

The Iran debate was close. Those of us who supported the deal did so with deep reservations, with divided hearts and minds. But the numbers on Trump reveal no such waffling. In fact, I think they tell us a lot about who we are:    

1. We believe in b’tselem Elohim all people are created in the image of God. The poll found that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric was a particular turn-off to Florida Jewish voters. They had “strong objections” to Trump’s plan to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. Only 19 percent supported it. Think about that: More Jews oppose Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration than celebrate Passover. Americans as a whole are split on the idea of the Muslim ban. It has to be telling for Trump that the people most hated by the likes of ISIS are the people least likely to scapegoat all Muslims.

2. We were once strangers. Trump’s singling out of Mexicans and Latino Americans fell even more flat with Jewish voters. According to the survey, only 12 percent approve of his call to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. 

3.  A strong America equals a strong Israel. Much is being made of the finding that Israel ranked near the bottom of concerns for Florida Jewish voters. It was ninth out of 13 issues, with the economy, ISIS and future Supreme Court nominees at the top. Only 8 percent named Israel as the most important issue.  The lesson is not that American Jews care little about Israel, but that they take both parties’ support for Israel as a given, and understand that Israel’s security depends in large part on America’s strength.

4. Hiten zol men zikh far di freind, nit far di feint. Yes, I had to Google that. It’s the translation of a bit of ingrained Yiddish wisdom: “Beware of your friends, not your enemies.” I’m sure there’s a Ladino equivalent. Donald Trump’s friends, more often than not, disgust us.  His popularity on the hate-right, his selection of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as campaign manager, his love affair with Ann Coulter — you don’t have to think the man is racist or Hitler — which he isn’t — to feel he has given way too much cover to kooks.

These are the lessons of the 71 percent of Jews who disapprove of Trump, but of course they raise the most perplexing question:  What’s with that 26 percent who say they’re voting for him? If so many prominent Republican Jews have vocally come out against Trump; if anecdotally we each know so few Republican or independent Jews who say they’ll vote for him,  who are these people? 

For that answer, I turned to professor Steven Windmueller, who has been studying American Jewish voting patterns for decades. Trump’s Jewish base, he said, are people still concerned by the Iran deal who want to “punish” Clinton for her support of it. They are people who prioritize Israel and believe Democrats in general and President Obama in particular put too much pressure on it. 

“Trump is perceived as willing to take on Islamic extremists, the Iranians and others who are seen as threats to Israel and to American global interests,” the professor emailed me. “These are priorities for a core group of Jewish Republicans where international security is a driving factor.”

But Windmueller also pointed out that Trump is far less popular among Republicans despite these actual numbers: Not only are there those unfavorables, but he has done far worse than previous Republicans raising money from Jewish donors. 

Why?  Consider the words of Charles Fried, professor at Harvard Law School and former solicitor general of the United States under President Ronald Reagan — and a Holocaust refugee.  

“This is a man about whom the best you can say is that he doesn’t believe anything he says,” Fried wrote on CNN.com. “After that, it’s downhill all the way.”


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

Israeli kibbutz can ‘feel the Bern’ of forgotten volunteer Sanders


An Israeli kibbutz is taking considerable pride in a former volunteer, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, even though no one on the communal farm can quite remember him.

In 1990 Sanders, then running for Congress, told Israel's Haaretz newspaper he had volunteered for several months as a young man at Kibbutz Shaar Haamakim, a community with deep socialist roots on the edge of the Biblical Jezreel Valley in northern Israel.

Sanders, 74, has mentioned in the past that he once worked on a kibbutz, but its name remained a mystery until Haaretz republished its interview with him earlier this month.

There are no records at Shaar Haamakim of Sanders' stint in 1963 and none of its veteran members can say for sure they ever met him.

That hasn't stopped journalists from streaming into the community to try to dig for details about Sanders' experience at the kibbutz, where the Brooklyn-born Vermont senator, who is Jewish, is now the talk of the farm.

“The fact that Bernie Sanders' name was linked with Kibbutz Shaar Haamakim is a big honor for the kibbutz,” said its chairman Yair Merom. 

“The values that Bernie Sanders speaks about and his ideology in the presidential race – the modern social democratic values – are incredibly compatible with Kibbutz Shaar Haamakim.”

Kibbutz elder Albert Ely, 79, told Reuters he couldn't put a face to the name but he remembered that “an American called Bernard” had once been a volunteer.

“Everybody mentions it. Now that the election campaign began, there is great happiness in the entire kibbutz,” said Gilad Hershkikovich, who tends to its cows.

“I'm sure he had a good time here.”

The refugee dilemma: Fighting to defend the defenseless


On Nov. 19, less than a week after the deadly series of terrorist attacks in Paris, Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the 134-year-old refugee resettlement organization, was summoned to the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress. The topic was the swelling Syrian refugee crisis.

Hetfield, 48, a lawyer and policy specialist in refugee and immigration resettlement, had been tracking the Syrian crisis since it began in 2011. What started as a civil war between Syrian president Bashar Assad and a handful of rebel groups seeking to unseat him had morphed in large part into a religious war with the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS) leading the rebellion, internally displacing 11 million Syrians and pushing another 4.1 million out of the country.  

Hetfield hoped to convince Congress to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees “over and above” the United States’ annual refugee quota of 70,000, a number far exceeding the additional 10,000 Syrians President Barack Obama had already agreed to welcome. (In Hetfield’s address to Congress, he called the American gesture “tepid.”) Hetfield knew a green light was unlikely: In the week after the Paris attacks, the revelation that a fake or stolen Syrian passport may have been used by one of the terrorists to infiltrate the refugees streaming into Europe set off panic among some Americans that Syrian refugees are indistinguishable from the Islamic State terrorists they are fleeing. As the U.S. election cycle continues to heat up, the refugees have become a political flashpoint, with distortions and fear-mongering shifting focus away from their desperate situation.

As civil discourse last week descended into talk of Muslim registries and permitting only Syrian Christians to enter the U.S., Hetfield prepared to fight the toxic political climate of xenophobia and fear. 

“Politicians who fixate on the refugee crisis — it’s perplexing,” Hetfield said from his office in New York the night before his hearing. “They do it because it’s easy. Refugees are defenseless; they don’t have a constituency, they don’t vote. And it’s lot easier dealing with refugees than it is dealing with ISIS.”

The day before Hetfield testified, a number of U.S. governors had announced that their states would not host Syrian refugees, prompting a bill in Congress that would make passage into the United States even harder (the bill later passed, although President Obama has promised to veto it). National polling revealed that a majority of Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to taking in any Syrian refugees.

“It’s totally unacceptable and irrational to us,” Hetfield said. He was especially disappointed in the governors. “They just haven’t done their research,” he said. “Every refugee [admitted to the U.S.] is vetted right side up, upside down and sideways — they’re vetting these people to death. It would be so painful and so difficult and so slow for [a terrorist] to go through that, they’d have to be nuts. There are so many other, easier ways to get into this country.”

Hetfield earned his law degree from Georgetown University and practiced immigration law at a Washington, D.C., law firm before moving to the nonprofit sector. He joined HIAS in 1989, where he has spent the majority of his career, working in Rome, New York and now Washington. His credentials in refugee resettlement work also include a stint as senior adviser for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he directed a study on the treatment of asylum seekers. He also worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington and Haiti. 

Hetfield said the current Syrian crisis is among the worst humanitarian disasters he has seen in his 25-year career. Most Syrian refugees not only have the requisite “well-founded fear of persecution,” they have a well-founded fear of slavery, torture or death. Desperate to flee Islamic State barbarism, as well as Assad’s indiscriminate bombing and air strikes by the U.S., Russia and other Western countries, many families braved the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. This year alone, an estimated 3,329 people died journeying toward freedom. 

At the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing, Hetfield pointedly described HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) as an “agency of the American Jewish community.” Founded in 1881, HIAS was created to help Jews fleeing pogroms and other acts of violence in Russia and Eastern Europe, and calls itself the oldest refugee protection agency in the world. Although the matter of allowing Syrian refugees to immigrate to the U.S. has found both support and antipathy among American Jews, Hetfield believes Jews have a moral obligation to help. 

“Let’s face it, people turned away [refugees] because they were Jewish in the 1930s,” he said. “Refugees were not desirable, and it was specifically Jewish refugees that were not desirable.”

A Syrian refugee boy is seen shortly after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos in a raft overcrowded with migrants and refugees, Nov. 20, 2015. Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

The current crisis has inspired a wave of comparisons between the plight of Syrian refugees and Jews fleeing Nazism. The Washington Post unearthed a 1938 article from the British Daily Mail archives lamenting, “The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage.” The Guardian noted the “rabid intolerance” with which Great Britain treated Jewish refugees in need. And in the U.S., the American Institute of Public Opinion found that, in 1939, 61 percent of Americans were opposed to taking in even 10,000 Jewish children. The same sort of xenophobia that has accompanied talk of Syrian refugees — conflating their identity as Muslims with terrorism — also afflicted the Jews. 

“Part of [the] hostility [toward Jews] was fueled … by stereotypes of the refugees as harbingers of a dangerous ideology,” The Washington Post reported, noting that many Europeans perceived Jews to be inclined toward communism and “anarchist violence.”

“Perhaps as many as half a million German Jewish asylum seekers were turned away by authorities ahead of the outbreak of World War II,” the Post reported. According to the Guardian, the only countries that took in Jewish refugees were Canada (5,000), Australia (10,000), South Africa (6,000) and the U.S. (33,000 before the war; 124,000 during the war), bringing the total to less than 200,000, while 6 million perished in the Holocaust.

“So, oddly enough, we find ourselves to be in solidarity with Muslim refugees,” Hetfield said. “Particularly when they’re targeted because they are Muslim. That makes us even more sympathetic, as a Jewish agency, to their plight.”

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) President E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney specializing in the reclamation of Jewish goods stolen by the Nazis and a central character in the recent film “Woman in Gold,” wrote a Facebook post citing connections between the Jewish plight of the 20th century and the Syrian plight of today.

“Whenever there is anti-immigrant rhetoric, I am reminded of how our country refused entry to so many Jews during the Holocaust,” Schoenberg wrote. “Our own State Department instructed American consulates to withhold even the limited visas permitted under our strict immigration quotas. … ”

Schoenberg recalled, in particular, a satirical ad film director and producer Ben Hecht took out in the Los Angeles Times declaring, “For Sale to Humanity: 70,000 Jews” — that is on display at LAMOTH. Published in 1943, the ad called for the U.S. to rescue 70,000 Jews from Romania, promising, facetiously, that there would be “no spies smuggled in among these Jews.” “If there are,” read the ad copy, “you can shoot them.”

Then, as now, the stateless refugee was considered a dangerous threat. 

“Obviously, many American[s] in 1943 felt the same as many do today — that we cannot risk admitting enemy agents among the throng of refugees,” Schoenberg wrote. “During World War II, this type of fear meant that millions of honest, innocent people were unable to escape their murderers. … I hope we don’t make the same mistake again.”

After the Paris attacks, Bruno Stagno Ugarte, the French-based Human Rights Watch executive director for advocacy, took to the airwaves to debunk the myth that one of the Paris attackers was Syrian. “That’s a false association,” he told MSNBC. “The evidence points to the fact that … this ghastly attack here on [Nov. 13] was homegrown terrorism. It was planned, organized and executed by people born and raised in Europe [and] does not discredit the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are fleeing violence. These are people that need our compassion; these are people that need international protection.”

“It simply does not make sense for U.S. lawmakers to react to the situation in Paris by proposing drastic legislative changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.” — Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS

In Congress, however, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declared a need for caution. “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry,” he said. “[S]o we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”

Already, all refugees hoping to enter the U.S. are subjected to rigorous security screenings that can take from 18 months to two years to complete. Much of this is the result of a program overhaul that took place after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when the Department of Homeland Security inherited the refugee program from the Justice Department’s immigration office. “Their entire focus is on making sure we’re safe,” Hetfield said of Homeland Security. 

The typical refugee screening includes a series of intensive, detail-oriented interviews that are recorded and sent to Washington, where each is vetted for consistency and truthfulness. Refugees are also required to submit a set of fingerprints, which are checked against law enforcement databases and intelligence agencies, international and domestic. “The [Paris terrorist] with the Syrian passport was actually French, and he was a criminal,” Hetfield said, noting differences in the procedures for U.S. refugees versus European ones. “In [the U.S.], a case like that would have been picked up. In Europe, [migrants] are showing up uninvited — they’re asylum seekers. So they can’t be vetted until after they are already on European soil.” 

According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, the U.S. has taken in 784,000 refugees since 9/11. “Only three have been arrested subsequently on terrorism related charges,” Canadian politician and historian Michael Ignatieff wrote in the New York Review of Books.

“Refugees who arrive in the United States have undergone extensive security vetting prior to setting foot on U.S. soil,” Hetfield told Congress. “Refugees to Europe are not screened until after they enter. This is the distinction. It simply does not make sense for U.S. lawmakers to react to the situation in Paris by proposing drastic legislative changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.” 

In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) introduced eye scans of the iris into the refugee program, mainly for identification purposes in the distribution of aid. These days, however, Hetfield said the practice can also serve other important identification and tracking purposes — with nearly 100 percent accuracy. By this point, the scrupulousness of U.S refugee screenings has severely slowed, or in worse cases stopped, the ability to process refugees. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, only 1,854 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S. “So they’re not, like, pouring in,” Hetfield told the Journal.

He was blunt in his address to Congress: “[T]he security protocols in place [today] are stronger than anything I have seen in my 26 years of working in this field. So strong that it has made the refugee resettlement program into more fortress than ambulance, causing massive backlogs of holds of legitimately deserving and unnecessarily suffering refugees.” 

Where else can refugees go? Camps in Jordan and Turkey are massively overwhelmed, and aid is dwindling. An underfunded World Food Program has forced food rations down to 50 cents per person per day, and the UNHCR has amassed only half its projected budget for Syrian needs. A cease-fire in Syria does not seem likely anytime soon (a prospect Ignatieff’s New York Review of Books piece called a “cruel mirage”), and even if one comes, the country has been ravaged, leaving little left to return to in Syria.

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939.

If U.S. allies such as France and Germany are left alone to shoulder the majority burden of the refugee crisis, that, too, could lead to disaster, empowering far-right nationalist groups such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front that are calling for closed borders. “If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the U.S. and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights,” Ignatieff wrote.

The UNHCR has asked the U.S. to take in half of the 130,000 most vulnerable refugees they’ve identified at a Turkish camp — among them orphans, disabled and the badly injured. But in the current climate, as calls to monitor Muslim immigrants or accept only non-Muslims into the country have grown, this request seems unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. 

The path is brighter after refugees are inside the U.S. Despite protests from Congress and governors, only the president and the Department of Homeland Security can determine a refugee’s path once he or she is resettled in America. State legislators cannot refuse refugees placed by Homeland Security in their state. And even if a state is hostile to refugees, refusing aid or other subsidies available through the refugee program (such as federal money for public education), they are still obligated to help refugees, who have legal protections and can ultimately decide to live wherever they want.

“Refugees have rights,” Hetfield said. “Unlike an undocumented immigrant, a refugee has the right to be here, and they have access to certain public benefits that other noncitizens may not have access to.” 

In Hetfield’s view, the problem with hostile rhetoric, particularly when it comes from state leaders, is that it sets the tone for the state. 

“We’re seeing a similar thing in Israel,” Hetfield said, “where the Israeli government sets the tone for asylum seekers they’re getting from Africa, calling them ‘infiltrators’ and ‘illegal work migrants.’ That tone trickles down and has an impact on way people are treated. Our concern is that you’re going to see a similar thing happen here, now that governors are say[ing] ‘Muslims are terrorists until proven otherwise — particularly Syrian Muslims.’ It creates a very poisonous environment.” 

Last week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington issued a statement drawing parallels between World War II and today, calling on Americans “to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group.”

“Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism … we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.

“It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.”

But even in the United States, distrust exists between Jews and Muslims. Hetfield does not deny this tension. “I don’t want to be totally Pollyannaish about it. Some Muslims we work with make assumptions about us,” he said, citing occasional verbal clashes between right-leaning Jews and pro-BDS Muslims who accuse Jews of oppressing Palestinians. “Those two sides reinforce one another,” he added. But antagonism “is definitely the exception, not the rule.” 

Hetfield said he is not bothered by the idea of helping Muslims. “We resettle people who need help. We do it on the basis of their protection needs, and that’s it. That’s the criteria of a refugee.”

What he fears most is that all this xenophobia is playing directly into the hands of the so-called Islamic State. “That’s a tactic of ISIS,” Hetfield said. “They’re trying to turn us against helping these refugees; they’re trying to make it look like the West hates all Muslims, to make them more vulnerable to recruitment and susceptible to that psychological warfare. They want to terrorize us; they want to scare us; they want to make us hate Muslims.

“That’s the most dangerous thing being done right now. The real threat to our national security and national character is the xenophobia and anti-Islam rhetoric that all these leaders are spewing.”

Wasserman Schultz: Iranian nuclear threat has been ‘pushed backward’


The Iranian nuclear threat has been considerably lessened in light of the nuclear deal signed with Iran in July, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on Thursday.

“We have successfully pushed backward the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran,” the Florida congresswoman said during a speech at the Capitol honoring the U.S.-Israel security alliance. Going forward, she said, the U.S. must focus attention on combating Iran’s terrorist activities in the Middle East region, as well as securing the “most robust security package for Israel that we’ve ever seen.”

Wasserman Schultz said she joined President Barack Obama and his national security team in the White House Situation Room on Wednesday to discuss ways “in which we continue to ensure that Israel has all capabilities that she needs in order to protect her citizens.”

Highlighting her role as “the first Jewish woman to represent Florida in the U.S. Congress,” Wasserman Schultz emphasized, “My connection and commitment to the State of Israel is much deeper than F35s and missile defense.”

“I can assure you that as long as I am serving in Congress, Israel and U.S.-Israel relationship will always have a vocal and tireless advocate,” she promised. “As a Jewish mother, before anything else, nothing is more important to me than making sure Israel is safe and secure for the next generation.”

Also speaking at the Congressional Tribute to the Iron Dome and the U.S. –Israel relationship, hosted by The Friedlander Group, were Democratic Majority Whip Steny Hoyer and Reps. Hal Rogers, Ed Royce, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Peter Roskam, Nita Lowey, Lee Zeldin, Brad Sherman, Mike Rogers, Derek Kilmer, Rodney Frelinghuysen, Doug Lamborn, Luke Messer and Mike Turner.

“All of us raise our voice and say we’re strong allies of Israel. But words without action does not make a difference,” Hoyer said in his speech. “It is ever more important today that the Congress, the president, and the American people speak with a clarity that cannot be confused – clarity that if Israel is at risk, America is at risk. It is our clarity that will be our first line of defense. Israel’s sovereignty will never, ever be put at risk.”

Congressman Sherman expressed his support for the U.S. selling to Israel bunker busters so “the IDF is capable of putting all options on the table” in stopping Iran developing a nuclear bomb. He also suggested that the Obama administration should move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as part of restoring the warm relationship with the Israeli government in light of the recent rift over the Iran deal. “There has been some miscommunication between the governments; and I got my finger on one part we could solve, and that is we can make sure our Embassy is in Israel’s capital,” he said.

“The unwavering commitment of Congress to defend Israel has been proven time and time again, reaffirming America’s commitment to Israel’s security,” Ezra Friedlander, CEO of The Friedlander Group, told Jewish Insider. “Through the funding by both the House and Senate, Israel has been provided with a force field of protection as she defends herself against those who do not view freedom, democracy, and equality as common values. This mutual ground upon which both America and Israel have been built has strengthened their everlasting friendship in the fight against terror, wherever it may be.”

Jewish groups urge passage of gun control legislation


This post was originally published on jewishinsider.com.

Major Jewish organizations are lining up behind President Barack Obama’s call on Congress to pass effective gun control legislation in wake of the horrific shooting and the killing of at least nine students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, on Thursday.

The Rabbinical Assembly, representing Conservative/Masorti congregations across the U.S., reiterated its call for sensible gun control in the United States in a statement released Friday.

“It is time for our leaders to enact sensible gun control, to support required background checks on all public and private gun sales, bans on military style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and legislation making gun trafficking a federal crime with severe penalties,” Rabbis William Gershon and Julie Schonfeld, president and executive vice president, said in a statement. “We cannot sit idly by while we have the means to prevent future tragedy.”

“Jewish tradition teaches that ‘for every stumbling block that threatens lives, one must remove it, protect oneself from it, and be exceedingly careful in its regard; as it says: ‘You shall guard and protect your lives,’ (Deuteronomy 4:9). Gun violence has reached a point in our country where it affects communities of all size, race and creed, rendering even our safest spaces – schools, houses of worship – as targets,” they explained.

President Obama expressed anger and frustration as he responded to the shooting on Thursday. “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it … We have become numb to this,” the president complained. “This is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also urged the passage of “tough, effective gun control legislation.”

“Our country should not have to wake up to another mass shooting such as those we have repeatedly witnessed in the past few years – in Aurora, Colorado, in Chattanooga, Tennessee and elsewhere. We join with President Obama to echo the call for strong, effective and sensible gun control legislation,” said Hilary Bernstein, ADL Pacific Northwest Regional Director.

“We firmly believe that one way to limit the power of extremists and others who pose a violent threat to society is to enact tough, effective gun control legislation,” Bernstein added.

Since 1967, ADL has favored expanded federal and state regulation of the sale and transfer of firearms and other dangerous weapons, according to the news release.

CBS2 in Los Angeles aired on Thursday comments made by a local mom whose son is a survivor of a similar incident 16 years ago. “You think your kids are going to school, and they’re going to come home, and they don’t,” Loren Lieb, whose son Josh was shot during a mass shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999 when he was 6, told the local CBS affiliate. “We need to focus our attention on how did he do it, not why did he do it. If he didn’t get his hands on a gun, he couldn’t have done it.”

Lieb hosts monthly meetings at her home as part of the Brady Campaign to prevent gun violence.

Jon Stewart lobbies for 9/11 first responder benefits on Capitol Hill


Jon Stewart lobbied members of Congress to extend benefits to workers and first responders who were injured or sickened by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The former host of “The Daily Show” spoke to Ground Zero first responders, advocates and other Sept. 11 survivors at a rally outside the Capitol building on Wednesday. Later in the day he joined them in going door to door to talk to individual lawmakers about the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which allotted federal funds for the care of rescue workers but is set to expire at the end of the month.

“I want to apologize to all the men and women, first responders, that you had to come down here today,” Stewart said at the rally. “I’m embarrassed that you, after serving so selflessly with such heroism, have to come down here and convince people to do what’s right for the illnesses and difficulties that you suffered because of your heroism and because of your selflessness.”

The health care law, which provides medical monitoring and treatment to the first responders, was passed in 2011 but was limited to five years as part of a compromise with Senate Republicans.

Republican leaders are considering an extension of the law but have not been specific as to when they plan to address it.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who voted againstpassing the law in 2010, told USA Today that “Congress intends to extend [the law], and the committees of jurisdiction are already at work on that.”

Stewart left “The Daily Show” last month. Comedian Trevor Noah takes over as host on Sept. 28.

Congress need not endorse Iran deal


On coming to Congress in 1997, I said on the House floor that Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons represented the “greatest threat to the physical security of Americans.” I’ve been working to stop that threat for 19 years.

The Iran deal includes the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In the first year, we get the good with the bad. Whether one outweighs the other is a matter for conjecture, but in any case, this deal will be implemented for the next year; we will get the good with the bad. The deal gets ugly during the next decade — and we need to do everything to be in a position to modify the deal before it gets ugly. 

First the Good: Iran gives up 97 percent of the low-enriched uranium stockpile, and two-thirds of its centrifuges. Iran has also agreed to modify a nuclear reactor located at Arak so that it cannot produce significant quantities of plutonium, the other fuel used in nuclear bombs.

Now the Bad: Iran is getting at least $56 billion of its own money unfrozen and available for expenditure. Shortly after implementation, Iran will be allowed to export every drop of oil it can get out of the ground. Even at todayFs low oil prices, this will mean another windfall measured in the tens of billions.  

How will Iran use the money? Development, graft and terrorism. Iran will buy social peace by spending on its own people. Billions will evaporate because of graft and corruption. Finally, Iran will support Syria’s Bashar Assad regime, Hamas, the Houthis, Hezbollah and terrorism around the world. Remember this regime helped militants in Iraq and Afghanistan kill hundreds of American troops.

The Ugly occurs when the 10- and 15-year restrictions end. Iran can then have as many centrifuges as it wants. It can build plutonium-producing reactors and the facilities needed to extract the plutonium in the spent fuel (do not be fooled by the language that Iran “never intends” to build such facilities — it is not a meaningful commitment). Even President Barack Obama admitted in an NPR interview that IranTs breakout time will be reduced to near zero.  

So we’ve discussed the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Now, the mediocre: the inspection regime. Proponents tell you, we get 24/7 inspection. Yes, but only at the “declared sites” — at which Iran has announced it’s conducting nuclear activities. If we have a rumor that Iran is violating the deal at a particular “undeclared site,” it’s a 24-day process. Much of the research the deal is designed to prohibit does not involve uranium and would be impossible to detect after 24 days. 

What should one Congressmember do?

The media ask, “Sherman, is it a good deal? Is it a bad deal? What grade do you give the president? Could somebody else have gotten a better deal?” These are questions for historians. We don’t vote in Congress on what grade to give the president.

The real question is: What should Sherman do within Congress, knowing that Congress will not override a presidential veto? 

The president has the votes to implement the deal during the next year and a half. So we’re going to get the Good and the Bad. My objective is to prevent the Ugly. In future years, American presidents must demand that this deal be modified. I’m not saying the deal must be vilified or shredded, but we do need to extend its safeguards. After all, Iran expects sanctions relief to continue. Well, how about requiring that the inspections and nuclear limitations continue as well?  

One of the impediments is a belief among the American people: The president signed the deal; Congress voted on the deal; we have no right to change the deal unless we can prove that Iran is cheating on the deal. (My expectation is that Iran will at least appear to be in compliance.)  

My job is to do all I can to prevent Americans from believing that this deal is morally binding on future administrations. A substantial bipartisan vote against the deal will not tie this president’s hands, and it will give the future presidents the greatest possible freedom of action. 

As we focus on Iran’s nuclear program, we cannot ignore Iran’s support for the brutally murderous regime in Syria that is killing thousands of people every month. Nor can we ignore Iran’s support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas and the Houthi rebels.  Nor can we forget about the four American hostages Iran is holding. No matter what the status of the nuclear agreement, Congress must adopt sanctions designed to force Iran to change its “non-nuclear” behavior — to stop supporting Assad and terrorist groups, and to free the American hostages. Next month I will introduce legislation to impose sanctions on Iran designed to change its non-nuclear behavior.

Under the deal, it is clear that Congress can impose additional sanctions designed to change Iran’s behavior in areas other than nuclear research. The bill I submit will not use a feigned concern for Iran’s non-nuclear activities to simply re-enact the old sanctions abated under the nuclear deal. Rather, it will contain new sanctions and be targeted to specific non-nuclear behavior.

I look forward to working in the months to come to force Iran to release our hostages and stop support for terrorists. And I look forward to working in the years to come to force changes in this deal — before it gets ugly.

To read Congressman Sherman’s detailed speech on the Iran Nuclear Agreement delivered at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino CLICK HERE

Israelis aren’t unified on Iran deal


One of the strongest arguments the Jewish opponents of the Iran nuclear deal have wielded is that Israelis are unified in their opposition to it.

If the famously fractious Israelis all agree that the Iran deal is bad, they argue, it must really be awful. This line of reasoning can be especially persuasive to American Jews and Israel-sympathizing representatives in Congress. Who are we to disagree when the people who face the greatest threat from a nuclear Iran categorically oppose this deal?

Except for one thing: It’s not true.

If you look at the polling results, you’ll see that the numbers tell a far more nuanced story. So do the actual statements by many of Israel’s political opponents to the deal, which have evolved from outright rejection to more of a regretful embrace. And perhaps most strikingly, dozens of Israeli security experts have publicly weighed in, all in favor of the deal.

The first breach in the Israeli Unified Agreement Theory came shortly after the deal’s announcement, as Israeli officials were trumpeting the fact that the Iran nuclear deal was a rare case of “6 million Jews, one opinion,” against it.

That’s when Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s navy and its internal security services, Shin Bet, told the Jewish Daily Forward’s J.J. Goldberg that the imperfect deal actually made Israel safer.

“Reaching the agreement wasn’t a mistake,” Ayalon said. “It is the best of the available options, even though it strengthens Iran as a troublemaker. We in Israel need to differentiate between, on one hand, the problems in the Middle East and the understanding that we will have to continue fighting terrorism for the next 30 to 40 years, and on the other hand, the need to prevent the entry of nuclear weapons. I’m sorry to say this, but this is the price we need to pay to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.”

Ayalon’s analysis was the first tear in a very flimsy façade of Israeli unanimity. By early August, dozens of former senior members of Israel’s defense establishment published an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to accept the nuclear accord with Iran. They joined with numerous senior military and intelligence officials who had already come out in favor of the deal. These included Efraim Levy, former head of the Mossad; Eli Levite, deputy director general of Israel’s atomic energy commission; Shlomo Brom, a brigadier general, former director of the Israel Defense Forces strategic planning division and former deputy national security adviser; and Uzi Arad, national security adviser.

When I saw Arad’s name on the list, I thought: Wow. In 2009, Arad was appointed Israel’s national security adviser and head of the Israeli National Security Council — by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why? Because he had established himself as a strong voice against Iran’s nuclear program.

“We shouldn’t see this as a bad deal,” Arad said recently. “For the security of Israel, the responsible and cautious way ahead is to understand that the agreement is what it is, and that’s it.”

Nothing makes the continued and, it looks like, pointless opposition to the Iran deal from many mainstream Jewish organizations look as ill-considered as these experts’ statements. Not one of these generals or intelligence officials needs to be reminded of the perfidy of the Iranian regime by a Jewish-American leader who knows more about Gulfstreams than about F-16s. Arad doesn’t need an education in Iranian terrorism, nor does a single one of his co-signers. And yet Arad and a long line of Israeli security experts have decided the deal is the best way, at least for the foreseeable future, to keep nukes out of the mullahs’ hands.

The Israeli public may not agree with that opinion, but that doesn’t mean opinion in Israel is unanimous behind Bibi’s approach to the deal. In the most commonly quoted poll, 69 percent of Israelis oppose the deal. But the same poll showed only a slight majority — like, 51 percent — thought Bibi should openly oppose the deal. The same poll showed a plurality of Israelis (37 percent) actually opposed the way Netanyahu handled the campaign against the deal, while only 34 percent believe he’s done a good job.

These sentiments were echoed in statements by opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who initially joined Netanyahu in condemning the deal, but then split with him in how to go about lobbying against it. Opponents would have done far better working with President Barack Obama and deal supporters to strengthen the deal’s provisions and win extra security guarantees for Israel.

“The Iran deal will pass,” Herzog posted this week on his Facebook page, “the world is running to Iran to do business and open embassies, and no one is listening to Israel.”

Some of the security experts think it’s a pretty good deal; some don’t. Most Israelis, to be sure, don’t like it. But what has become increasingly clear is that, although Israelis may not support the deal, they support supporting the deal.

Meanwhile, American-Jewish organizations, who have continued to oppose the deal, are about to lose a war that didn’t need to be fought. Instead of fighting the president of the United States and other Jews, they could have taken a page from those pragmatic Israelis, and focused on fighting Iran.


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.

U.S. Democrats see ‘fire wall’ holding to preserve Iran deal


U.S. backers of the Iran nuclear deal are increasingly confident of enough Democratic support to ensure it survives review by Congress, despite fierce opposition by majority Republicans and a massive lobbying drive.

By the time the House of Representatives recessed for the summer last week, no senior Democrat in the chamber had come out formally against the agreement and several central figures, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, were strongly in favor.

Pelosi said she was confident that if, as expected, Republicans pass a “resolution of disapproval” to try to sink the deal, a promised veto of that measure by President Barack Obama would be sustained.

At least 44 Democrats in the House and 13 Democrats in the Senate would have to defy Obama and join Republicans in opposing the deal to get the two-thirds majorities in both chambers needed to override a veto.

“More and more of them (House Democrats) have confirmed to me that they will be there to sustain the veto,” Pelosi told reporters.

The United States was the prime negotiator in the July 14 agreement between world powers and Iran to curtail Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions, and its engagement is essential for implementing it.

In the last two weeks, the White House has rolled out its big guns at congressional hearings and private meetings to advocate for the deal, which Obama says is not perfect but is the best way to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

Powerful pro-Israel lobbying groups that believe it would endanger the Jewish state by empowering Iran have been especially active, although some pro-Israel factions support the deal.

Opponents had hoped influential Democrats would come out against the deal early, to give momentum before the recess.

But despite signs of skepticism, the few Democrats who did openly oppose it, including Representatives Grace Meng and Juan Vargas, are not among those considered influential on the issue.

“That shows the strength of the firewall we have here,” a senior Democratic congressional aide said.

At least 13 Democrats in the Senate and 44 in the House would have to join Republicans in opposing the deal to get the two-thirds majorities in both chambers needed to override a veto.

PRESSURE ON JEWISH LAWMAKERS

To date, no Senate Democrat has formally announced opposition, although many are undecided. A few influential leaders, including number two Democrat Dick Durbin, are strongly in favor.

The Senate recess begins on Friday and both houses return to Washington on Sept. 8. Congress then has until Sept. 17 to accept or reject the pact, which the White House considers one of the major foreign policy initiatives of the Obama presidency.

“I'm encouraged right now,” said Democratic Representative David Price, who has taken on the task of convincing lawmakers from both parties to back the deal. But he cautioned that it is still early in the process.

The pressure has been particularly strong on high-profile Jewish Democrats known as strong supporters of Israel.

The New York Post put Senator Chuck Schumer, the number three Senate Democrat, on its front page, under the headline: “Where's Chuck? Senator hides from Post's Iran questions.” Schumer says he has not made up his mind.

Other prominent Jewish Democrats say they are still undecided, including Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“There'll be a lot of pressure on Democrats to support the president,” Engel told Reuters.

Engel met with Obama in the Oval Office last Wednesday, and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer at the Capitol on Thursday.

He said it would be “very tough” to win over enough Democrats to override the president's veto. But when asked if he would vote to do so, Engel said, “I'm considering it.”

Congressman Adam Schiff, a Jewish Democrat, announces he will support Iran deal


Adam Schiff, a Los Angeles congressman who serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, announced Monday morning that he plans to support the Iran nuclear deal. Schiff, who is Jewish with a record of strong support for Israel, serves a district that stretches from Los Feliz to Los Angeles’ northeastern suburbs; during the negotiations he expressed skepticism about the possible outcomes, but promised at that time to remain undecided until an agreement was reached.

In an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg over the weekend and in a press release Monday, Schiff announced that while he remains concerned about some elements of the deal, he has come to view the plan as the best possible option.

“In the absence of a credible alternative, Congress should accept the deal and work with the Administration to strengthen its impact, while joining forces with our allies to better contain Iran’s conventional capabilities and nefarious conduct in the region and beyond,” Schiff said in Monday’s release.

“The primary objective of the United States in the negotiations was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Given the unthinkable consequences of Iran, the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, obtaining the bomb, this has been an overriding national security imperative of the United States for decades,” Schiff said. “As an American and as a Jew who is deeply concerned about the security of Israel, it is also intensely personal.  I believe our vital interests have been advanced under the agreement, since it would be extremely difficult for Iran to amass enough fissionable material to make a nuclear weapon without giving the United States ample notice and time to stop it.”

Schiff is the latest in a series of prominent congressional Democrats to come out in support of the deal. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren announced her support on Sunday, and on July 28,, Michigan Representative Sander M. Levin, the longest-serving Jewish member of Congress, announced he would support the agreement.

Schiff’s support could influence undecided members of the House Jewish caucus, as well as national-security minded Democrats. Many Democrats in both chambers of Congress remain undecided, and though a few Democrats have come out against the deal, none are considered influential voices on national security. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who is also Jewish, officially remains undecided, but a report in Politico on Monday said the influential senior Democrat is leaning toward voting against the deal.

Other prominent Democrats backing the agreement include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. Pelosi has said that if Republicans are able to pass a “resolution of disapproval” to try to sink the agreement, a promised veto by President Barack Obama would be sustained.

In particular, Schiff said in the press release, given Iran’s history of cheating in its agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he remains concerned about 24-day notice that the agreement allows Iran prior to inspections, as well as about the size of the enrichment program that Iran could have in 15 years.

Rather than reject the deal, Schiff said, Congress “should make it clear that if Iran cheats, the repercussions will be severe.”

“It is important to understand that even after 15 years – or 50 for that matter – as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is never allowed to develop the bomb,” Schiff said.

Schiff also expressed concern over how Iran would use the influx of money that would result from the lifting of international sanctions. Iran is said to have $100 billion in frozen assets that would be released. But instead of rejecting the agreement, Schiff said he wants Congress to use its authority to strengthen the deal by working with Israel and other Gulf allies to make sure that “every action Iran takes to use its newfound wealth for destructive activities in the region will prompt an equal and opposite reaction.”

Schiff also said if Iran’s nuclear facilities are hidden from aerial attack, he supports sharing with Israel “all the technologies necessary to defeat those systems and destroy the facilities, no matter how deep the bunker.”

“The Iranian people will one day throw off the shackles of their repressive regime, and I hope that this deal will empower those who wish to reform Iranian governance and behavior.  The 15years or more this agreement provides will give us the time to test that proposition, without Iran developing the bomb and without the necessity of protracted military action,” Schiff said. “Then, as now, if Iran is determined to go nuclear, there is only one way to stop it, and that is by the use of force.  But then, at least, the American people and others around the world will recognize that we did everything possible to avoid war.”

New poll: U.S. Jews support Iran deal, despite misgivings


By a wide margin, American Jews support the recently concluded agreement with Iran to restrict its nuclear program, and a clear majority of Jews wants Congress to approve the deal. In fact, as compared with Americans generally, Jews are more supportive of the “Iran deal,” in large part because Jews are more liberal and more Democratic in their identities. It turns out that liberals (Jewish or not) support the deal far more than conservatives (Jewish or not), just as most Democrats are in favor, while most Republicans are opposed.

These results emerge from the new LA Jewish Journal Survey conducted under my direction by Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS), between July 16-20, a few days after the agreement had been announced. SSRS interviewed 501 Jews for the Jewish survey, and for the national survey, 522 respondents by phone (almost a third of which were cellphones). The margin of error is 6 percent for the Jewish survey and 5.2 percent for the national survey (consisting of 505 non-Jews and 17 Jews).

The LA Jewish Journal Survey asked respondents’ views on “an agreement … reached in which the United States and other countries would lift major 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.” Almost half – 49 percent of American Jews – voiced support, and 31 percent opposed. Jews differ from the national population. Of all respondents in our national survey, only 28 percent support the deal, 24 percent oppose and the rest (48 percent) “don’t know enough to say.”

Similarly, asked whether Congress should “vote to approve or oppose the deal,” Jews lean heavily toward approval, 53 percent for versus 35 percent against. These margins contrast with the near-even split among the nation generally (41 percent for versus 38 percent against, with 21 percent undecided).

As a group, Jews hold these supportive views of the agreement, notwithstanding their mixed views regarding its outcomes. Asked whether “this agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons over the next 10 years or so,” only 42 percent are somewhat confident or very confident, while 54 percent are not so confident or not confident at all. A slim plurality believes the agreement will lead to more rather than less stability in the Middle East (46 percent versus 41 percent), but a wider margin believes the deal will make Israel more endangered (49 percent) rather than safer (33 percent), almost the same as in the U.S. survey (48 percent versus 32 percent respectively).

The bottom line: American Jews, more than Americans generally, tend to support the Iran deal and they want Congress to approve it

A slim majority of Jews want Congress to approve the deal, yet nearly half believe the agreement will make Israel more endangered. How is this possible?

It turns out that among those who see Israel as safer, almost all voice approval. Among those who are not sure how Israel will be affected, the vast majority wants Congress to approve. And among those who feel Israel is more endangered, a full 20 percent still support the deal. Arithmetically, it all adds up, even though support for the Iran deal is, indeed, closely related to perceptions of how the deal will affect Israel's security.

But even with their misgivings, Jews overwhelmingly think that, in retrospect, the idea of the U.S. conducting negotiations with Iran was a good one (59 percent) rather than a bad one (19 percent).

Opinions among Jews and the country generally are sharply divided along ideological and partisan lines, with even sharper polarization among Jews than among non-Jews.

Among Jewish liberals (self-defined), those favoring congressional approval outnumber opponents 72 percent to 18 percent. For conservative Jews, the numbers are reversed: 8 percent for approval and 81 percent opposed. Similarly, Jewish Democrats divide 70 percent-20 percent in favor of congressional approval, while the Republicans divide 77 percent-15 percent in opposition.

We asked respondents their views of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders are about equally popular among American Jews and Americans in general. However, people tend to disagree in their assessments; many who favor one of them tend to disfavor the other.

Given these contrasts, it should come a no surprise that positive views of Obama are associated with approval of the Iran deal: Those who very favorably view Obama seek congressional approval 93 percent to 4 percent. The opposite is true about Netanyahu: His admirers oppose the deal, and his detractors heavily oppose it. Among those seeing him as very favorable, only 22 percent want Congress to approve the deal, while 73 percent seek rejection.

Approval of the Iran deal rises with increased confidence in its effectiveness, greater belief in its ability to promote more stability in the Middle East, and wider conviction that it makes Israel safer rather than more endangered.

Of those who think it makes Israel safer, 98 percent want Congress to approve. Of those who see Israel as more endangered by the deal, only 20 percent seek congressional approval. The “swing votes” are the “don’t knows” about the impact on Israel: They break 66-8 percent in favor of congressional approval.

Indeed, connection to Israel does play a major role in influencing views on the Iran deal with those more connected to Israel less supportive of the deal. However, even the pro-Israel segment of the Jewish population comes down in favor of the deal. Among those who have never been to Israel, support for congressional approval wins 58-30 percent. But it also wins, albeit more narrowly, among those who have visited Israel: 48 percent to 44 percent. In fact, among those who say that they are “very attached” emotionally to Israel, 51 percent want Congress to approve the deal, versus 38 percent who oppose such action.

Another question asked about the degree of sympathy with Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians. Among those with the highest level of sympathy (“a lot”), support for congressional approval very narrowly exceeds opposition, 47 percent to 44 percent.

Of some political import is the fact that more younger adult Jews seek congressional approval than their elders — 59 percent-25 percent for those younger than 40, versus 51 percent-40 percent among those 65 and older. The highly educated (also more politically active and influential) strongly favor congressional approval (61 percent to 31 percent) as compared with those without a college degree who tend to oppose (39 percent for approval and 48 percent against).

The bottom line: American Jews, more than Americans generally, tend to support the Iran deal and they want Congress to approve it. Their support certainly co-exists with considerable hesitations and qualifications. Their views on the Iran deal are highly differentiated by political camp. On one side are liberals, Democrats and Obama admirers; on the other, conservatives, Republicans and Netanyahu admirers. Even the most pro-Israel support the deal, albeit far more narrowly than those who are less passionately connected with Israel.

The true and deeper divide in American Jewry is not about the Iran deal per se. This issue is merely the latest place to witness the ongoing and maybe growing divide between the liberal and conservative wings of American Jewry.  As with many views and behaviors related to Israel and being Jewish, American Jews’ political identities serve as a major basis for social differentiation. Which is a fancy way of saying: Liberals and conservatives — especially Jewish liberals and conservatives — see and experience the world, including Iran, very differently.


Steven M. Cohen is research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive. The LA Jewish Journal is a nonprofit, independent media company based in Los Angeles. For more information, including methodology and complete results, visit jewishjournal.com/IranSurvey.

Obama, Netanyahu clash over Iran diplomacy


United States President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clashed over Iran nuclear diplomacy on Monday on the eve of Bibi’s hotly disputed address to Congress, underscoring the severity of U.S.-Israeli strains over the issue.

Even as the two leaders professed their commitment to a strong partnership and sought to play down the diplomatic row, they delivered dueling messages – Netanyahu in a speech to pro-Israeli supporters and Obama in an interview with Reuters – that hammered home their differences on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Neither gave any ground ahead of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday when he plans to detail his objections to ongoing talks between Iran and world powers that he says will inevitably allow Tehran to become a nuclear-armed state.

Netanyahu opened his high-profile visit to Washington on Monday with a stark warning to the Obama administration that the deal being negotiated with Tehran could threaten Israel’s survival, saying he had a “moral obligation” to sound the alarm about the dangers.

He insisted he meant no disrespect for Obama, with whom he has a history of testy encounters, and appreciated U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel. 

Just hours after Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC, the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobby, Obama told Reuters that Iran should commit to a verifiable freeze of at least 10 years on its most sensitive nuclear activity for a landmark atomic deal to be reached. But with negotiators facing an end-of-March deadline for a framework accord, he said the odds were still against sealing a final agreement.

The Reuters interview gave Obama a chance to try to preemptively blunt the impact of Netanyahu’s closely watched address to Congress.

Previewing his coming appearance on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu told a cheering audience at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “As prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them.”

At the same time, Netanyahu said the relationship between his country and the United States was “stronger than ever” and not in crisis.

EASING TENSIONS

Obama also sought to lower the temperature by describing Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress as a distraction that would not be “permanently destructive” to U.S.-Israeli ties and by saying the rift was not personal.

Obama refused to meet Netanyahu during the visit, on the grounds that doing so could be seen as interference on the cusp of Israel’s March 17 elections when the prime minister is seeking re-election against a tough center-left challenger. On Monday, the president said he would be willing to meet Netanyahu if the Israeli leader wins re-election.

But he said Netanyahu's U.S. visit gave the impression of “politicizing” the two countries’ normally close partnership and of going outside the normal channels of U.S. foreign policy in which the president holds greatest sway. Netanyahu's planned speech has driven a wedge between Israel and congressional Democrats. Forty two of them plan to boycott the address, according to The Hill, a political newspaper.

Netanyahu, who was given rousing bipartisan welcomes in his two previous addresses to Congress, is expected to press U.S. lawmakers to block a deal with Iran that he contends would endanger Israel’s existence but which Obama’s aides believe could be a signature foreign policy achievement.

The invitation to Netanyahu was orchestrated by Republican congressional leaders with the Israeli ambassador without advance word to the White House, a breach of protocol that infuriated the Obama administration and the president's fellow Democrats.

The partisan nature of this dispute has turned it into the worst rift in decades between the United States and Israel, which normally navigates carefully between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

Netanyahu wants Iran to be completely barred from enriching uranium, which puts him at odds with Obama's view that a deal should allow Tehran to engage in limited enrichment for peaceful purposes but under close international inspection.

Obama said a final deal must create a one-year “breakout period” for Iran, which means it would take at least a year for Tehran to get a nuclear weapon if it decides to develop one, thereby giving time for military action to prevent it.

Netanyahu has said such a deal would allow Iran to become a “threshold” nuclear weapons state, that it would inevitably cheat on any agreement and that the lifting of nuclear restrictions in as little of 10 years would be an untenable risk to Israel. He has hinted at the prospect for Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities as a last resort, though he made no such threat in his AIPAC speech on Monday.

Netanyahu declines Dems’ invitation for meeting during visit


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined on Tuesday an invitation to meet with U.S. Senate Democrats during his trip to Washington next week.

“Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter to Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein obtained by Reuters.

Durbin and Feinstein had invited Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting with Democratic senators in a letter on Monday.

Speaking to American Jewish leaders, Netanyahu holds firm on Congress speech


Speaking to a group of American Jewish leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his intention to address Congress next month, despite calls for him to cancel the speech.

On Monday night, Netanyahu told a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that the March 3 address to a joint session of Congress was a crucial opportunity in the effort to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“I’m going to Washington because as prime minister of Israel, it’s my obligation to do everything in my power to prevent the conclusion of a bad deal that could threaten the survival of the State of Israel,” he said of the speech, which has engendered controversy. “The current proposal to Iran would endanger Israel.”

Netanyahu opposes the agreement being worked out between the world powers, including the United States, and Iran, saying it will not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The speech also comes two weeks before Israeli elections. Also, the invitation to speak from House Speaker John Boehner was kept secret from the White House and Democratic leaders.

On Monday, Netanyahu called Congress the “world’s most important parliament” and said a speech could influence the body, which may be able to block any agreement with Iran. The Israeli leader added that he was making the speech March 3 because the deadline set by the negotiating parties comes three weeks later, on March 24.

“Now, can I guarantee that my speech in Congress will prevent a dangerous deal with Iran from being signed?” he asked. “Honestly, I don’t know. No one knows. But I do know this – it’s my sacred duty as prime minister of Israel to make Israel’s case.”

Earlier Monday, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, received loud applause from the delegation when he vowed to oppose territorial compromise.

“We don’t want war, but the only way to prevent war is to be overwhelmingly strong and to use that power when necessary,” he said. “Never, ever again will we hand over one centimeter of land to our enemies, period.”

The delegation of U.S. leaders is in Israel until Thursday and will also hear from other Israeli politicians, such as the left-wing Zionist Camp’s Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

Henry Waxman: Not quite the last of the just, but close


I don't fault Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) for leaving Congress. The House of Representatives is a terrible place these days, with the Senate only marginally better. The overwhelming majority of members from both parties have only one goal: it is to be re-elected. Henry Waxman's goal was to improve lives. Reelection took care of itself; his district is as progressive as he is.

Take a look at some of the laws Waxman was instrumental in enacting.

The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which established new programs to reduce urban smog, hazardous air pollution, and acid rain and prevent the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer.Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments, which strengthened the standards for drinking water and established funding mechanisms for drinking water infrastructure improvements.Laws Reducing Childhood Lead Exposure, including laws removing lead from plumbing supplies, water coolers, and children’s toys, requiring disclosure of lead hazards during real estate transactions, and setting standards for safe renovations. The Formaldehyde Standards Act, which set minimum standards for formaldehyde levels from plywood, fiberboard, and particleboard.Laws Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, including provisions requiring greater efficiency in federal buildings and procurement of clean vehicles. The Affordable Care Act, which gives all Americans access to affordable health insurance, strengthens Medicare and Medicaid, and reduces the deficit. Medicaid and CHIP Expansions, which extended the coverage and benefits available to millions of needy and working families. Nursing Home Reforms, which stopped the industry’s worst abuses and protected the rights of vulnerable residents. The Waxman-Hatch Generic Drug Act, which gave rise to the generic drug industry, saving consumers over $1 trillion in the last decade alone.The Orphan Drug Act, which gave drug companies incentives to develop treatments for rare diseases they had previously ignored.The Ryan White CARE Act, which provides medical care and other services to Americans living with HIV/AIDS. Women’s Health Initiatives,including the laws establishing standards for mammography, requiring the inclusion of women in clinical trials, and creating the Office of Research on Women’s Health at NIH. The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which strengthened FDA oversight of vaccine manufacturers and created a no-fault compensation system for vaccine-related injuries. The Nutrition Labeling Act, which mandated the ubiquitous and popular nutrition labels that consumers rely upon to compare packaged foods. The Food Quality Protection Act, which established a strong health-based standard for pesticide residues in food. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which sets science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of raw agricultural commodities and requires new preventative controls for companies that process or package foods. Cigarette and Smokeless Tobacco Health Warning Laws, which required rotating Surgeon General warnings on cigarette packages and advertisements and the first health warnings on smokeless tobacco packages and advertisements. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which restricted the marketing of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to children and gave FDA jurisdiction over tobacco products. The Safe Medical Devices Act, which enhanced public protection from dangerous medical devices by requiring mandatory reporting of adverse events and surveillance and tracking of implantable devices. The Drug Quality and Security Act, which strengthens FDA’s authority over compounded drugs and creates a uniform system for tracking drugs to prevent counterfeits. 

No legislator in our time (except, perhaps the late Senator Edward Kennedy) comes close to matching this record, a record that essentially adds up to the saving of millions of American lives. Waxman's successful war on tobacco alone reduced the lung cancer death rate by millions.  Add Clean Air and Clean Water to that and you come up with an incredible number of saved lives.

Waxman is a remnant of the good old days. Think back to the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt, FDR's New Deal, and LBJ's Great Society when Congress fought the special interests on behalf of the American people and often won. Not always. But enough so that life in America is still far from the unregulated hell envisioned by, among many others,  the Koch Brothers, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz  and Rand Paul.  America only remains a decent country because of the work and lives of men and women like Henry Waxman who not only resisted those two-bit Ayn Rands but beat them, over and over again.

Naturally, I will note the Jewish angle. 

Henry Waxman is utterly devoted to Israel (in fact, he is pretty conservative on Israel). He is also an observant Jew, one of the few in Congress. 

And yet his work in Congress rarely touched on Israel.  He left that to his Los Angeles colleague, Howard Berman.  Waxman focused on the needs of the American people. Like Carl Levin of Michigan, he did what he had to do on Israel, but as a legislator, he worked for America. (His opposite is Chuck Schumer who has devoted his career to supporting Wall Street, the Banking Industry and AIPAC, all cash cows). 

Waxman  comes out of the old socialist Jewish tradition which we now call liberalism or progressivism. Prophets not profits. And always, the people first.

I wish Waxman would run for something else. His governor, Jerry Brown, is a year older than Henry and he is running for re-election. But I doubt that will happen.

Of course, Waxman has accomplished enough for one political life (or 100 these days).

As was once said of Christopher Wren, the man who built St. Paul's Cathedral in London. “If you want to see his monument, look around you.”

As a Jew and as an American, Henry Waxman makes me proud. I think I'll tell my grandkids stories about him. They love hearing about the good guys who win.

Henry Waxman: Governed by tikkun olam


The rain during Noah’s flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights. The Torah was given to Moses during a 40-day stay at the top of Mount Sinai. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert.

And so it seems fitting that Rep. Henry Waxman (D – Beverly Hills), who announced last week that he will retire from Congress when his term ends this year, will have served exactly 40 years in the people’s chamber. 

“People are shocked that I could ever leave,” Waxman said on Jan. 31, the day after he made his announcement. “Then they hear that I’ve been here for 40 years and are shocked at how old I am.”

Waxman turns 75 in September. During his 20 terms in the House of Representatives, he has authored some of the most ambitious pieces of legislation passed by Congress during that time, including laws making pharmaceutical products more affordable, improving air and water quality and expanding access to affordable health care. He presided over hearings confronting the tobacco industry’s claim that smoking would not harm people, the use of steroids in baseball and the regulation of conditions in America’s nursing homes. 

With a record like that, it’s not surprising that Waxman, the “dean of the Jewish caucus,” describes his political philosophy as an outgrowth of the principle of tikkun olam, trying to perfect the world. 

“We shouldn’t expect to complete it — even after 40 years — we shouldn’t try,” Waxman said. “But we should always remember the stranger and the disadvantaged, the people who need help; that’s in our tradition, [in] so many different places, and it’s a reminder that we’ve got to try to be a more just and fair society.”

But even as he took a rare moment to look back on his career, others are moving forward: With just a few months until California holds its now-nonpartisan primary elections, and immediately following Waxman’s announcement, a scrum of Democrats and independents immediately began clamoring to take Waxman’s place (see sidebar). Furthermore, at some point during the coming year, Waxman will likely identify what he’ll do with the next chapter of his career. For now, he’s said he’d like to continue working on issues he’s dealt with in Congress, and, as he told the Journal, he wants to continue to divide his time between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, the latter being the place where he was born, grew up and still calls home. 

“The wealthy and the powerful always have strong advocates in Washington”

Born in Boyle Heights, Waxman grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where his family owned a grocery store on Compton Avenue. His father had to quit high school when the Great Depression hit, but he instilled in Henry an appreciation for education as the key to success. 

“I was able to go to public schools, all the way through law school,” said Waxman, who earned both undergraduate and law degrees from UCLA. That instilled in him a lifelong commitment to public education. 

Similarly, Waxman’s involvement in politics began at an early age. 

“In 1952, we got on a bus from Democratic headquarters and we went to a rally for Adlai Stevenson at Gilmore field,” said Sandy Weiner, who first met Waxman in the 7th grade at Thomas Alva Edison Junior High School. Later, Waxman, who had co-founded (with future Congressman Howard Berman) the UCLA chapter of Young Democrats, encouraged Weiner to set up another chapter at Claremont College. 

The Young Democrats’ movement, Weiner said, helped Waxman advance to his first political office, a seat in the California State Assembly, which he won in 1968, by defeating 28-year veteran Assemblyman Lester McMillan in the Democratic primary. 

“It was really a major grassroots effort,” Weiner said, describing a campaign that succeeded thanks to volunteers walking precincts and making phone calls as well as to political consultant Michael Berman’s then-new practice of sending carefully calibrated mailers to specific subsets of the electorate. “A lot of the dollars were from friends and family, and it was an exciting campaign,” Weiner recalled. 

Waxman moved from Sacramento to Washington six years later, where he remained committed to speaking up for society’s most marginalized members. 

“The wealthy and the powerful always have strong advocates in Washington, but my job was to stand up for the poor, the sick the elderly, for those people who had nobody else to speak for them,” Waxman said. “If I hadn’t held hearings on the AIDS epidemic, before we even knew the word AIDS — we had an administration where President Reagan didn’t even want to say the word ‘AIDS’; they were just shunted aside.”

Waxman’s upbringing clearly helped form his orientation toward crafting legislation to help the poor and disadvantaged, as did his strong Jewish identity. 

South Central was not home to many Jewish families, so Waxman’s family attended the synagogue closest to their home, the Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation, a community that has since dissolved. Though he attended Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah in his youth, Waxman has said that he only truly began to investigate Jewish religious practice as an adult. 

“Ethics is at Judaism’s core,” Waxman said in a speech at USC in 2006. God’s primary concern is not that we mindlessly follow ritual, but act decently. Ritual is to help us do that.”

“All those years, it didn’t make any difference.”

Although Waxman remained primarily focused on domestic policy matters, particularly relating to health, the environment and consumer telecommunications, he also worked throughout his career to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“I’ve been to Israel so many times, I’ve lost count,” Waxman, whose daughter lives in Israel, said, although when he was first elected to Congress in 1975, he had never visited the Jewish state. Just one month after taking office, Waxman joined a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, an itinerary that included Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. To obtain a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, Waxman had to first identify his religion and then provide evidence that he was, in fact, Jewish. Waxman obtained a letter from Adas Israel Congregation, the Conservative synagogue in D.C. where he is a member, and sent it to the Saudis, at which point his visa application was denied as a matter of policy. 

It took some work by the State Department, but Waxman made it into Saudi Arabia along with the other representatives. There, he met King Faisal. 

“I asked him two questions,” Waxman recalled. “Did he ever foresee living with Israel in the Middle East, if the territorial issues could be resolved? And why did he bar Jews?”

Faisal, Waxman recalled, said he had no quarrel with Jews; he was, however, anti-Zionist. 

“He said, ‘No, there can’t be an Israel; it has to be Palestine. It can’t be a Jewish country; Jews can live there, but it’s got to be an Arab country,’ ” Waxman said. “It was remarkable for the members on the committee to hear that.” 

At that point, Faisal wanted to turn away, but Waxman — a dogged questioner even as a new Congressman — insisted the king explain Saudi Arabia’s “No Jews Allowed” policy. 

“He said, ‘Friends of our enemies are our enemies,’ ” Waxman said, laughing at how quickly the king’s distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism fell apart. “So that was a good introduction.”

Even after 40 years, Waxman views the Arab leaders of Middle Eastern nations as being as unwilling as ever to accept the presence of a Jewish state in their midst. Not too long after Bashar al-Assad assumed the Syrian presidency in 2000, Waxman once again asked about Israel and the Jews. 

“He got angry and said, ‘No, we are not anti-Semitic; we have Jews here, we like our Jews here, but it can’t be a Jewish country,’ ” Waxman recalled. “So all those years, it didn’t make any difference. It just re-emphasized for me that the basic problem for Israel is the unwillingness of a large part of the Arab population to live with a Jewish country, the State of Israel.”

Waxman said he believes the United States needs to continue to maintain and project its military strength. 

“There’s a tremendous reluctance by President Obama to be involved — and I certainly share it — in Egypt and Syria and other areas that are undergoing dramatic changes, and civil wars even,” Waxman said. “But we’ve got to figure out ways where we can be helpful and not expect that things are going to get resolved without our being part of solutions.”

As for Israel’s continued security, Waxman said the most urgent matter is to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. He believes the present agreement — which freezes Iranian nuclear enrichment for six months until a permanent agreement can be reached — does not go far enough, and that the purpose of international sanctions has always been to prevent Iran from having even the capability of developing a nuclear bomb. 

“I am afraid the [Obama] administration has already signaled that they will live with Iran not having a bomb, but still allow enrichment of uranium, which can make a bomb possible,” Waxman said.

“I fear such an agreement is naive,” he added. 

“You couldn’t do that stuff today” 

For all that hasn’t changed over the last 40 years, some aspects of the U.S. political landscape are radically different from what they were in 1975, or even 2005. Waxman said he is “exasperated by the extremism of the Tea Party Republicans,” although he expressed some hope that more moderate Republicans might be elected and regain control of the GOP. 

And though Waxman said he has continued to have some opportunities recently to craft legislation, even as a member of the minority, the reach of that bipartisanship seems to pale in comparison to the landscape in 1984, when Waxman and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R – Utah) passed legislation easing restrictions on generic drugs in the U.S. market — thereby saving families $1 trillion over just the last decade. 

“Henry was the go-to member of Congress on health care and on the environment,” said Mel Levine, who served as a congressman from 1983 to ’93, working closely with Waxman. “He was highly respected across the board, on both sides of the aisle, in both the House and the Senate. He was just uniquely capable of accomplishing big things, in a very kind of low-key manner, ironically.” 


Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., left, gestures towards Committee on House Oversight chairman Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., during a committee hearing in 1998. The committee voted 24-19 along party lines, which is short of the two-thirds required, to grant immunity to four potential witnesses in exchange for testimony about 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising practices.  Photo via Newscom

At key points in his career, however, Waxman flouted the status quo and broke with the accepted rules — and got results. By raising large sums of money and distributing it to colleagues, Waxman was able to advance to ever more powerful posts in Congress. At the beginning of his third term, in 1978, he was able to take on leadership of the Health and Environment Subcommittee, the position that allowed him to achieve the far-reaching amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1990. In 2008, Waxman again bucked the seniority system and ousted Rep. John Dingell (D – Mich.) to become chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Many in Congress have since followed this and other practices pioneered by Waxman, as have many aspiring to public office. The targeted mail techniques developed by political consultant Michael Berman — Howard Berman’s brother, whose creative reapportionment helped bolster the power of the so-called Waxman-Berman machine — have been adopted and improved upon in recent decades. 

But for longtime friend Weiner, the way Waxman first got elected to the Assembly back in 1968 — relying mostly on volunteers, running a campaign on a shoestring and shoe leather — is a relic from a time long gone. 

“You couldn’t do that stuff today. Look what Henry was up against two years ago — a guy who put up $7.5 or $8 million dollars,” Weiner said, referring to opponent Bill Bloomfield, an independent and former Republican who came within eight points of Waxman in 2012. “And also, the club movement is basically dead. So whom do you get? Either private wealth or someone who was an aide.” 

“I hope that I can be a model for others”

For the next 10 months, voters in the 33rd district will be represented by Waxman, who’ll be filling a role that some had thought he’d never occupy — that of lame duck. 

“I was numb,” Howard Welinsky, president of the Los Angeles chapter of Democrats for Israel, said, describing his reaction to Waxman’s announcement. “I expected him to stay in Congress for a long time to come. I was numb, and then I was virtually in tears.”

Waxman, for his part, said he’s content to leave now, and explained his decision as driven by concerns that are as much biological as political. 

“If I stayed longer, it would be, do we get the House back? Maybe not — then we’re still in the minority,” Waxman said. “Then I’d wait until the presidential election in 2016, with the hopes that we get the majority back and still have a Democratic president to get things done. And my biological clock is ticking, so I would be here forever, to the end. And that’s not what I wanted.” 

As Waxman watches the growing crowd of Democrats put their names in the hopper for the coastal district he represents, the 74-year-old will be considering his legacy. Some of that will be in the form of his public policy contributions — which he said are driven by essentially Jewish values of protecting the stranger and coming to the aid of the disadvantaged. 

But at other times, Waxman may be thinking about his own accomplishments as a different kind of Jewish, or American value: the kind embodied by one individual, the kind that gets passed down in stories from generation to generation. 

One of Waxman’s Jewish role models was in his own family. His uncle, Al Waxman, published two (now-defunct) Los Angeles newspapers, the East Side Journal and the L.A. Reporter. During World War II, Waxman said Al was “the only editor or publisher in the country that fought against the relocation camps for Japanese-Americans.”

“I think you have to follow examples that have been set by others, that you can admire,” Waxman said. “And I hope that I can be a model for others who would chart their careers in public office.”

Interim deal on Iran splits Congress on new sanctions


They want to brandish a new stick against Iran, but hawks in Congress aren’t going to use it — yet.

For all the disappointment they expressed following the deal on Iran’s nuclear program, skeptics in Congress appear to be willing to give the agreement brokered by the Obama administration space to breathe — albeit with tough new punitive measures in place should Iran fail to live up to its end of the bargain.

“I will continue working with my colleagues to craft bipartisan legislation that will impose tough new economic sanctions if Iran undermines this interim accord or if the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not underway by the end of this six-month period,” U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a leader in passing Iran sanctions, said after the deal’s announcement on Saturday night.

That’s a shift from pre-deal statements in which Kirk was leading an effort to push through new sanctions not conditioned on the outcome of talks between the United States and other world powers and Iran.

Proponents of a tougher line against Iran say the sanctions talk wasn’t an empty threat and helped shaped the outcome of the interim deal. Moreover, Congress is not dropping the stick: Kirk and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are preparing new sanctions legislation to take effect if Iran violates the interim deal.

The two senators “will be working over the Senate recess to craft a bipartisan sanctions bill that establishes a mandatory fail-safe to this interim agreement, ensuring sanctions come back in spades if Iran cheats during the next six months or if Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not being dismantled at the end of the six-month period,” a congressional aide told JTA in an email. “We should expect this legislation to go to the president’s desk for signature before the end of the year.”

But it’s not clear if pro-sanctions lawmakers have backing from the Senate leadership for new sanctions.

“I said when we come back, we’ll take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions, ” Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said Monday in an NPR interview quoted by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill daily.

Reid said Menendez and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, will study the issue.

“They will hold hearings if necessary, and if we need more work on this, if we need to do stronger sanctions, I’m sure we will do that,” Reid said.

The majority leader’s emphasis on the role played by Johnson is significant.

Johnson, a moderate Democrat, thus far has resisted efforts to advance through his committee new sanctions passed over the summer by the U.S. House of Representatives. A former Johnson staffer told JTA that the senator, once thought of as a go-along-to-get-along senator, may feel freer to resist pressure from his colleagues and the pro-Israel community because he has decided not to run again next year.

Other pro-Israel Democrats in the Senate — among them Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee — have made clear that they would oppose intensified sanctions kicking in while talks were taking place.

“I am baffled by the insistence of some senators to undermine the P5+1 talks,” Feinstein said in a Nov. 15 statement, referring to the six major powers — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany in addition to the United States — involved in the Iran negotiations. “I will continue to support these negotiations and oppose any new sanctions as long as we are making progress toward a genuine solution.”

Iran hawks already are unhappy with the interim deal, which places some restrictions on Iranian uranium enrichment in exchange for some sanctions relief but allows Iran to keep enriching low-level uranium and keeps in place its existing enrichment infrastructure. The hawks are determined to make sure that a final deal incapacitates any weapons-making capability.

The deal must ensure that Iran ends “all nuclear weapons capability — all the enriched uranium, all the centrifuges,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said Sunday at an event for Ohel, a Jewish social services provider.

Schumer told JTA he intends to explore new sanctions after Thanksgiving.

“A fairer agreement would have coupled a reduction in sanctions with a proportionate reduction in Iranian nuclear capability,” Schumer said. “The goal of the administration is to eliminate all of Iran’s nuclear weapons-making capability by the end of the final negations. It is still my hope they can achieve that goal.”

In addition to keeping up pressure on the Iranians to follow through on their commitments, new sanctions legislation could help shape the outcome of a final-status deal, a source at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, told JTA on condition of anonymity.

“Our fundamental goal is that in the final agreement, the United States must prevent a nuclear-capable Iran,” said the AIPAC source, who emphasized that such legislation is in the “conceptual” stage and would not be drafted until after the Thanksgiving break. The legislation “essentially will condition the environment for a final deal.”

Joel Rubin, a former Senate staffer, said Congress must tread carefully lest it be accused of scuttling the deal and driving away U.S. allies that have maintained the sanctions regime that helped bring Iran to the negotiating table. Rubin now works for the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-proliferation advocacy group that backs the deal brokered in Geneva on Saturday.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who over the weekend blasted the interim agreement as a “historic mistake,” appeared to be tamping down his rhetoric a notch.

“It is true that the international pressure which we applied was partly successful and has led to a better result than what was originally planned, but this is still a bad deal,” he told the Knesset. “It reduces the pressure on Iran without receiving anything tangible in return, and the Iranians who laughed all the way to the bank are themselves saying that this deal has saved them.”

Netanyahu said he was dispatching his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, to Washington to consult on the deal.

“That agreement must lead to one result: the dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear capability,” Netanyahu said. “I remind you that only last week, during the talks, the leaders of Iran repeated their commitment to destroy the State of Israel, and I reiterate here today my commitment, as prime minister of Israel, to prevent them from achieving the ability to do so.”

Barack or Bibi? Trust, loyalty and Iran


On Rosh Hashanah 2012, just a few weeks before the presidential election, Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe offered his congregants a sermon titled “The Most Important Question in the World Today.” In it, he told his congregation he was, at that moment, a single-issue voter: “I will vote for whichever candidate seems likelier to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Wolpe said.

With that election long past, whom Wolpe voted for may now be immaterial, but the issue he pointed to continues to be of vital concern to Americans and, in particular, American Jewry. This week, as negotiators from the United States and five other world powers (known as the P5+1) come together in Geneva for a new round of talks with their Iranian counterparts, American Jews concerned about Israel face an even more urgent — and perhaps more uncomfortable — variation on that question: Can Jews trust the Obama administration with Israel’s future? 

That question is at the heart of the disagreement that today is threatening to cause what one analyst has called the deepest rift between the two long-time allies in recent memory. Can American Jews rely on the Obama administration not to shortchange Israeli interests and concerns, even as it presses for a deal with Iran and urges Congress to oppose, or at least delay, legislation to impose further sanctions on the Islamic republic? Or, should they instead side with the president’s critics — foremost among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who have loudly criticized the proposed interim deal that reportedly broke up the Geneva talks earlier this month?

“This is a bad deal,” Netanyahu told CNN on Nov. 17, repeating a phrase he has uttered countless times in the past month. “If you do a bad deal, you may get to the point where your only option is a military option,” he said. “So a bad deal actually can lead you to exactly the place you don’t want to be.”

 Among American Jews, the reasoning on each side of this issue is not as simple as, “Do you or don’t you love Israel?”

In Washington, the political question being batted back and forth — whether the United States should proceed with additional sanctions against Iran even as it engages with Iranian negotiators — isn’t simple, either. 

“That’s a very sophisticated political judgment,” Wolpe said in an interview on Nov. 15. But considering that the possible outcomes include an Iran with the bomb and a potential military strike, Wolpe was adamant about the importance of getting the next moves right.

“I don’t doubt the [Obama] administration’s intentions,” Wolpe said, “but I think that this is a part of the world in which idealism is very dangerous. And I’m afraid that we’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll be too late.” 

These days, what’s being told to reporters and played out in public may not be all that reflective of what’s going on behind the closed doors of negotiating and briefing rooms — or, for that matter, at any undisclosed nuclear development sites that may exist in Iran. 

Moreover, despite the volume and intensity by which Netanyahu and others are pushing the Obama administration to take a harder line against Iran, everyone — including the president and Secretary of State John Kerry — shares the same goal: preventing the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And almost everyone says they want to achieve this — in a verifiable and sustainable manner — without resorting to military force. 

All parties even agree that the sanctions that have been in place for the last few years have been effective, particularly in getting Iran to elect a new more moderate — or at least more moderate-sounding — president, Hassan Rouhani. By bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, the sanctions also have pushed the Iranians back to the table for the current talks. 

Still up for debate, however, is what the United States should do next — a tactical question that is of great importance. Hardliners on this issue, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), want sanctions to be ramped up — even while negotiators are at the table this week. 

“It’s not so much the content of sanctions as the momentum,” Sherman said in an interview on Nov. 15. “A smart lawyer could figure out a way around most of the existing sanctions, and Tehran has smart lawyers. But the word has gone out to the business community worldwide, saying, ‘Yeah, you can negotiate a deal that isn’t in violation of current sanctions — but, every few months, there’s going to be additional sanctions.’ ”

On the other side, President Obama is urging congress not to pass additional sanctions while negotiations are ongoing. He is making the case both that the world needs to see the United States is negotiating in good faith and that the Iranians can’t have an excuse to walk away from the table. 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), who along with Sherman and 398 other members of the House voted for increased sanctions in July, has come around to the president’s point of view. 

“I think we have to go into these negotiations very skeptically. Iran has proved to be hiding its nuclear program for years,” Schiff told CNN on Nov. 15. “At the same time, I don’t think we want to do something that jeopardizes the chance to get to a good deal. We may not get there, but I don’t think we should embark on another round of sanctions during the negotiations that might cause Iranians to walk away.”

As of Nov. 19, the Journal’s press time for this issue, it appeared the leadership of the Democratically controlled Senate and the chairman of its Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee — Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), respectively — were not going to permit any legislative moves that would advance new sanctions before the resumption of talks in Geneva on Nov. 21. 

The Washington-based politics of whether to proceed with additional sanctions are complicated — and similar political calculations and uncertainties exist in Iran as well as in Israel. 

[Related: Can Israeli and American Jews bridge the Iran gap?]

Netanyahu has been beating the drum against Iranian nuclear development for years, adamant, like most Israelis, that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the Jewish state. What happens in Geneva will be of the utmost importance to Israel’s future, yet Netanyahu will not be in the room to directly affect the negotiations. 

Some have posited this as a possible explanation for Netanyahu’s advocating a “maximalist” position — that Iran must divest itself of all enrichment capabilities. Few believe the Iranians will accept such a deal, but, the thinking goes, Netanyahu is still trumpeting his preferred scenario in an effort to push American negotiators to bargain as hard as they can. 

The Obama administration has made some efforts to put the Israelis at ease. 

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] Wendy Sherman flew straight to Israel from Geneva,” Dalia Dassa Kaye, who directs the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corp., told the Journal on Nov. 15. “The United States is taking Israeli security concerns very seriously. But, in return, they want to ask for a little bit of leeway.”

That request has been rejected by Netanyahu — but as Kaye wrote in a Nov. 12 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, some Israeli voices are more receptive to the approach the Obama administration is taking. 

Kaye cited Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israel’s military intelligence agency, who now leads an Israeli think tank. Yadlin “would prefer a deal that leaves Iran with no remaining enrichment capabilities,” Kaye wrote. But unlike Netanyahu, Yadlin and others have publicly stated that a good enough deal “might allow for some limited enrichment capabilities at reduced levels, accompanied by intrusive inspections that would make it harder and costlier for Iran to cheat.” 

Mel Levine, a former Democratic congressman who has represented the Obama administration before Jewish audiences in Los Angeles, also pointed to Yadlin as an illustration that some Israelis are more flexible in what they will accept than Netanyahu and see merit in what Obama and the other members of the P5+1 are trying to do. 

“From my perspective, and the perspective of many people that I’ve spoken with, what the president is trying to do is fundamentally in Israel’s interest,” Levine said. “I’ve actually spoken with Israelis who have said that it would be the best public service that Israel has ever received from an American president.”

You’d never know that from listening to Netanyahu — or to the top American Jewish leaders who have lined up with the Israeli prime minister against the still-inchoate deal. Indeed, at a meeting on Oct. 29, when Obama administration officials asked representatives from four top Jewish advocacy groups to hold off any lobbying for further sanctions against Iran while negotiations were going on, they were rebuffed. 

Leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations all immediately rejected the idea; Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League initially agreed but two weeks later made a blustery about-face.

Yet despite the refusal of the American Jewish establishment’s top brass to cooperate, staffers in multiple offices on Capitol Hill told the Journal last week that there had been no noticeable uptick in calls to their offices related to Iran sanctions, suggesting that the leadership of the American Jewish establishment hasn’t yet decided to go to the mat over Iran policy. 

in this combination image, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second from left, is pictured meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, fourth from right, at the first round of the Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, on Nov. 9, 2013.  Photo by Reuters /Jason Reed

Meanwhile, pro-Israel groups on the left who are supporting the president’s call to delay any increase in sanctions against Iran have been quite vocal about their positions. Americans for Peace Now and J Street both have encouraged their followers to contact senators in support of the president’s request to hold off on imposing additional sanctions against Iran. 

“Legislating new sanctions at this time would undermine President Rouhani’s standing and leeway vis-à-vis hardliners in Iran,” J Street director of government affairs Dylan Williams wrote in Haaretz on Nov. 15. “It could also fracture the united multilateral front by imposing new penalties on some of our most important partners in this effort, particularly China and Russia.” 

While American Jews who prefer the hardline approach are loath to describe themselves as following Netanyahu over Obama — suggesting uncomfortable divided political allegiances — the Israeli leader has been injecting Israel’s interests very directly into the conversation in Washington, even going so far as to dispatch Naftali Bennett, a member of his cabinet, to the U.S. capital to make Israel’s case. 

And at least one American lawmaker has publicly sided with the Israelis and against the president on one occasion. Sen. Kirk, who for years has led the charge to sanction Iran as harshly as possible, told reporters on Nov. 13 that he found the closed-door briefing by Kerry and Wendy Sherman less convincing than what he was hearing from the Israelis. 

Calling the briefing “anti-Israeli,” Kirk complained he’d been told by Kerry to “disbelieve everything that the Israelis had just told me.” 

Kirk bristled at the suggestion. “I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service.” 

Kirk’s comment, said Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Peace Now, illustrates the degree to which the hardliners distrust the Obama administration. 

“You have members of Congress come out of a briefing with the secretary of state and more or less say or imply, ‘You’re telling me to believe the U.S. officials, and Israeli officials [say something else], so I don’t buy it,’” Friedman said. “For that to be stated officially is extraordinary.”

Extraordinary, Friedman said, because it would seem that Kirk is siding with a foreign nation rather than his commander-in-chief. 

American Jews — even those opposed to the president’s policies — have tried to downplay any suggestion that they are choosing to be loyal to Israel rather than to the United States. And those who approve of the president’s course of action are quick to point out that Israeli leaders might want to consider very carefully the benefits and drawbacks of turning Iran sanctions into their pet issue

“In my view, it’s in the Israeli interest to ensure that this isn’t perceived as something that is an Israeli interest alone,” the RAND Corp.’s Kaye said. ”The Israelis will have to make the case that stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear state is in the world’s best interests, and in Americans’ interests as well.

“You can’t get too out of step with the American public,” Kaye added, “and the American public is not interested in military action.”

That last fact is only too clear to Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the Democratic Congressman who in July co-authored a letter to President Obama urging him to take advantage of Iranian President Rouhani’s election to try to reopen talks. “Utilize all diplomatic tools,” Price wrote with Rep. Charles Dent  (R-Penn.) in the letter urging “bilateral and multilateral sanctions … be calibrated in such a way that they induce significant and verifiable concessions from Iran at the negotiating table in exchange for their potential relaxation.”

The letter was eventually co-signed by 131 members of the House of Representatives, and Price said in an interview on Nov. 15 that nothing that happened in Geneva during the earlier round has changed his view. If anything, he said that since August, when President Obama proposed a limited strike against Syria — only to reverse course when the level of public opposition to it became clear — he’s all the more convinced that the United States needs to exhaust all alternatives before entertaining the possibility of another Middle Eastern military entanglement. 

 “It’s a fine line we’re walking, and the diplomacy may not work out,” Price told the Journal. “But we have a huge stake in trying to make it work out, or at least salvaging the view that we’re the reasonable party.”

Perhaps no subset of the American Jewish community is paying closer attention to the revived nuclear talks than Iranian-American Jews. By and large, this community of Jews has been deeply critical of all Iranian regimes since the 1979 revolution there and are thus more inclined toward Netanyahu’s tactic of pressuring the regime over Obama’s approach of earnest diplomacy. 

But for Sam Yebri, president and co-founder of 30 Years After, a Jewish group made up mostly of younger members of L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish community, the issue isn’t informed by a preference for one leader or another, or even a particular political party.  

“We all want the same result: an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons, an Iran that treats its citizens with dignity,” Yebri said in an interview. “It’s clear that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have different views about how to approach the issue.”

Yebri said he understands that ultimately, the decision about whether to enforce additional sanctions against Iran lies with the president. Personally, he said, he’d prefer to see the sanctions expanded and tightened, and he described “a real sense of despair” among Iranian-American Jews, who feel that the momentum behind sanctions, which took years to develop, could be wasted.

“What informs me — more than anything else — is my family’s, my personal experience with the Iranian regime,” Yebri said. “It continues to butcher its own citizens. It continues to support terrorism. It continues to build a nuclear program and threaten Israel. It continues to repress the Jewish community, which is held hostage in Iran.

“It’s not about leadership,” Yebri concluded. “It’s about experience.”

Re-elect Shlump to Congress (again)


Government shutdown over, Iran sanctions force back at full strength


The U.S. government returned to work, and officials who track Iran sanctions compliance were working at a full complement.

Hundreds of thousands of government employees who had been furloughed since Oct. 1 returned to work on Thursday after Republicans in the House of Representatives agreed to pass a funding bill advanced by the Democratic-led Senate the previous night.

A spokesman at the U.S. Treasury confirmed that the employees included officials of its Office of Foreign Assets Control, the office responsible for monitoring international compliance with U.S. sanctions targeting Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Obama administration officials had said the shutdown was having an impact on sanctions compliance, and suggested that it could cost the United States leverage as it leads negotiations renewed this month between the major powers and Iran on its nuclear program.

The deal ratified in the Senate and House did not meet demands by House Republicans that any extension on funding government spending should be tied to undoing parts or all of President Obama’s 2010 health care reforms.

Obama administration warns: Gov’t shutdown undermining Iran sanctions


Is the U.S. government shutdown undermining the sanctions that helped bring Iran to Geneva this week for talks aimed at ending the standoff over its nuclear program?

Top administration officials have been emphatically making the case that it is.

Wendy Sherman, the third-ranked official at the State Department, said in Senate testimony on Oct. 3 that the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury department that monitors international trade to ensure compliance with the sanctions regime, “has been completely, virtually, utterly depleted at this time.”

“Our ability to do that, to enforce sanctions, to stop sanctions evaders is being hampered significantly by the shutdown,” Sherman said.

It’s not clear how many Foreign Assets Control staffers have been sent home because of the shutdown. A number of reports have suggested the Treasury department overall has furloughed 90 percent of its staff.

But the Foreign Assets Control office isn’t completely inoperative. Since the shutdown went into effect earlier this month, the office has issued one list of entities and individuals designated as terrorists.

The lone employee of Treasury’s communications staff still on the job did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Republicans are skeptical that the shutdown is undermining sanctions, suggesting that the Obama administration is using an initiative with rare bipartisan support to bash the Republicans who brought the government to a standstill.

One GOP staffer said that if a real threat to national security were to emerge, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew could recall furloughed workers just as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had done.

“If Secretary Lew were to get briefed that certain people are hurting national security, he has the prerogative to bring them back,” the staffer said.

Still, the warnings from the administration have prompted some concern on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), the chairman of the House subcommittee on terrorism and nonproliferation, and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat, wrote President Obama urging him to return Office of Foreign Assets Control staffers to the job.

“The administration is engaging in its first diplomatic negotiations with Iran under Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, and whether or not we agree with the outreach, we believe that furloughing nearly all of OFAC’s employees makes the U.S. negotiating position weaker,” the letter said.

Rouhani, elected this summer on a platform of reform and outreach to the West, has acknowledged that the devastation wrought by 30 years of U.S.-led sanctions — intensified over the last five years during the Obama administration — helped bring him to the negotiating table.

Wendy Sherman is leading the U.S. team in talks in Geneva this week aimed at arriving at a verifiable agreement that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon. Also participating in the talks are Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Joel Rubin, a former Democratic congressional aide and a former U.S. diplomat, said it was unlikely that banks and oil companies adhering to sanctions would start cheating just because the monitoring mechanisms are not operating at full capacity. But the absence of staff is problematic if new issues arise, he said.

“You don’t want to be in a situation where something happens but you could have prevented it because the staff’s not in,” said Rubin, the director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation advocacy group.

Pro-Israel officials who monitor sanctions noted that the Office of Foreign Assets Control is not the only arm of the U.S. sanctions monitoring apparatus. Other relevant agencies — including intelligence agencies and the State Department — are running at almost a full complement.

“From what I’ve heard, folks that have active intelligence functions are being asked to continue to serve,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group that has taken a lead in advising Congress and the administration on the shape of sanctions.

Colin Kahl, a deputy defense secretary in Obama’s first term who is now a senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security, said the ability of the Obama administration to implement sanctions, or to waive some of them in the event of progress in Geneva, would not take an immediate hit because of the discretion afforded Obama in existing law and his executive powers.

“At least for some period of time, the administration probably has enough discretion to do something on the sanctions front without Congress,” Kahl said in an address Monday to the annual conference of the National Iranian American Council.

Rubin said the shutdown’s bigger hit was long-term — to the U.S. reputation.

“The Iranians are not in a position to worry about whether the U.S. government is in crisis because they’re the ones under pressure, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “But it makes allies nervous and creates an opening for adversaries” such as China and Russia — countries that have only reluctantly joined the pressure on Iran.

“If the shoe were on the other foot and there was a government in turmoil every few months,” Rubin said, “how would the United States relate to that government?”

AIPAC calls for intensification of sanctions if Iranian nuclear program continues


AIPAC joined Israel’s government and some congressional leaders in calling on the Obama administration to intensify sanctions should Iran continue its uranium enrichment during negotiations.

“To avoid any misunderstanding in Tehran, America must clearly signal that it will consider no easing of sanctions until Iran has verifiably suspended its nuclear program,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee  said in a memo sent Monday to congressmen and released to reporters. “If Iran’s nuclear activities continue, the United States and the international community should escalate sanctions and reinforce President Obama’s message that a credible military option is on the table to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

Top Obama administration officials have asked Congress not to consider new sanctions on Iran until after talks over the country’s suspected nuclear weapons program renew later this month.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned in recent weeks for intensified sanctions should Iran continue to enrich uranium, and last week, in a meeting with the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, he found a friendly ear.

“Our resolve to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability remains unchanged and we will not hesitate from proceeding with further sanctions and other options to protect U.S. interests and ensure regional security,” Sen. Robet Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement after meeting with Netanyahu Sept. 30. “While we welcome Iran’s diplomatic engagement, it cannot be used to buy time, avoid sanctions, and continue the march toward nuclear weapons capability.”

President Obama has said he sees an opening in the ostensible moderation of Iran’s newly elected president Hassan Rouhani, who has pledged to make transparent a nuclear program he insists is peaceful. Netanyahu says he believes Rouhani is lying.

Notably, the AIPAC statement did not embrace Netanyahu’s calls for an end to all enrichment as part of a final deal.

Instead, it called only for a suspension of nuclear enrichment as a predicate for negotiations, not as part of a final deal.

That posture is aligned more with Western powers, reportedly ready to allow a degree of enrichment to continue, than with Netanyahu.

Shutdown may affect Jewish social services


Congress’ failure to authorize discretionary spending for the new fiscal year won’t only impact about 800,000 federal workers or the Americans looking to visit national parks. It may also affect local Jewish social service organizations that rely in part on federal funding. 

That, too, though, is uncertain.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Paul Castro, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), said just hours after the shutdown began. “We spent the morning trying to communicate with our funders to find out what they know.”

The funders Castro spoke with are the state and local government entities that JFS relies upon to provide some services such as meals and transportation programs for seniors. Castro said that if these entities requested funds from the federal government before Oct. 1 — the day the shutdown took effect — some of JFS’ at-risk programs could run for a few more weeks without interruption. Ultimately, though, JFS won’t know for at least a few days exactly how this will play out if Congress doesn’t reach an agreement quickly.

JFS’ annual budget is $30 million, and $5.55 million of that comes — directly and indirectly — from the federal government.

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, echoed Castro’s concerns. 

“With the shutdown, the cash flows of our most important social service agencies are at risk,” he said. “If this goes on for an extended period of time, it will definitely impact our social service agencies.”

As for Jewish Vocational Services, whose goal is to help people overcome barriers to employment, it issued a public statement that “programs and services remain fully operational with regularly scheduled hours.”

The last time Democrats and Republicans could not agree on a spending resolution to fund parts of the federal government was over the budget for the 1996 fiscal year, when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress clashed over spending levels, largely over Medicare, shutting down parts of the government for 26 days.

This time around, the issue preventing an agreement is again a major health care initiative, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation that was passed in 2010.

Republicans in the House of Representatives are attempting to tie any new spending bill to a one-year delay for parts of the bill and a requirement that Congressional members and their staffers must purchase insurance on the ACA’s new health insurance exchanges, which opened on Oct. 1

Despite the shutdown, much of the federal government will continue to operate as normal, including programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the military.

Even if Congress reaches an agreement in the coming days or weeks, Castro is concerned about a future potential conflict that could again pose funding problems for local Jewish agencies. Before Oct. 17, when the federal government is predicted to eclipse the “debt ceiling” (the level of debt Congress has authorized the government to accumulate), Democrats and Republicans will either have to raise the debt ceiling or risk many spending promises not being fulfilled.

“Even in resolution we know that is only going to be for a few weeks,” Castro said. 

Rabbis urge Congress to back Obama on Syria


Leading rabbis covering the religious and political spectrum urged lawmakers in Congress to support President Obama’s plans to strike Syria to stop its use of chemical weapons.

“We write you as descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees, whose ancestors were gassed to death in concentration camps,” said the letter sent Wednesday, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. “We write you as a people who have faced persecution for many centuries, and are glad to have found a safe refuge where we can thrive in the United States.”

The 17 signers included Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a past president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Yosef Blau, the rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University; leaders of the Conservative movement; and essayists such as Leon Wieseltier and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

They called on Congress “with great urgency to authorize the President to use force in Syria ‘in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction,’ as outlined in his August 31st draft legislation.

“Through this act, Congress has the capacity to save thousands of lives,” the letter said.

The authors noted that the letter was timed for before the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“May this coming year be one of life and creation the world over, in which we cease to witness the deaths of so many innocent human beings,” it said.

Most G20 leaders agree Assad was behind chemical attack, Obama says


President Barack Obama said on Friday that most leaders of the G20 countries agree that Syrian President Bashar Assad is responsible for using poison gas against civilians as the U.S. leader tried to rally support at home and abroad for a military strike.

Obama said he planned to speak to the American public about Syria on Tuesday as Congress considers his request for limited military action in Syria.

Speaking to reporters at an international diplomatic summit, Obama said the leaders of the world's largest economies agreed that chemical weapons were used in Syria and that the international ban chemical weapons needs to be maintained.

However, he said there was disagreement about whether force could be used in Syria without going through the United Nations. The United States has been unable to win U.N. Security Council approval for military action against Syriabecause of the opposition of veto-wielding Russia.

“The majority of the room is comfortable with our conclusion that Assad, the Assad government, was responsible for their use,” he said at a news conference, adding that this is disputed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A number of countries believed that any military force needed to be decided at U.N. Security Council, a view he said he does not share.

“Given Security Council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use then an international response is required, and that will not come through Security Council action,” he said.

Obama has been trying to rally support internationally and domestically for a limited military response to the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians Aug. 21. (Reporting By Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

As peace talks kick off, right wing intensifies efforts to influence their outcome


Israeli settler leader Dani Dayan has made it his mission over the years to warn members of Congress, particularly Republicans, of the perils of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Dayan has been a regular visitor to Washington, his trips often coinciding with developments in the peace process. During the Annapolis talks in 2007-08, Dayan would watch Israeli officials as they met with the media in the lobby of the venerable Mayflower Hotel, just blocks from the White House, and then move in to offer his own spin.

In June, Dayan met with GOP House leaders in a meeting organized with help from the Zionist Organization of America. The meeting was followed by a Washington Jewish Week report that another settler leader, Gershon Mesika, met with 20 Congress members just days before the relaunch of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

The intensive cultivation of relationships on Capitol Hill appears to be bearing fruit.

Within days of talks kicking off in Washington last week, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a freshman who attended the June meeting with Dayan, drafted a letter asking the U.S. attorney general to hinder the release of Palestinian prisoners — a move approved by Israel to help kick-start negotiations.

Dayan didn’t ask Salmon to write the letter. That request was made by the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a conservative lobby funded in part by gaming billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

But the congressional measures now being undertaken to impact the trajectory of peace talks have their roots in the warm relations that settlers and their American friends have forged in Congress over the past two decades.

“It was important to meet with the Yesha people,” a GOP official said of the June meeting, using the Hebrew acronym for the settlers’ council, “to find out who the settlers are, what they feel obstacles to peace are, what Judea and Samaria means from a historical perspective.”

In addition to Salmon’s letter, a perennial effort to tighten a 1995 law requiring the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem reappeared just as talks resumed. The strengthened law would remove a presidential waiver that has enabled successive presidents to delay the move on the grounds of national security.

Members of Congress behind both initiatives deny that the measures — neither in timing nor in substance — are intended to scuttle the peace talks. On the contrary, the lawmakers say they are intended to improve the chances of success for the talks by strengthening Israel’s bargaining position and making American parameters clear to the Palestinians.

“There will never be clear sailing as long as there are people who do not recognize Israel as a Jewish nation,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), one of the sponsors of the new Jerusalem bill.

But the settler leaders and the right-wing pro-Israel groups that support them are more blunt about their objectives.

“I told the congresspersons that the strategic choice that John Kerry made to go on with the conventional peace process to try to renew negotiations … will have catastrophic consequences for the American national interests,” Dayan said. “Because when he fails — and he will fail — the fact that the secretary of state of the United States failed will be noticed very clearly in Tehran and in Damascus and in Moscow and in Pyongyang.”

Daniel Mandel, the director of ZOA’s Center for Middle East Policy, said his group was gearing up to push back against talks it believes are doomed because the Palestinians remain unwilling to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

“Our strategy now that negotiations have resumed is to unblinkingly focus on the unregenerative nature of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority,” Mandel said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president.

Efforts to exert congressional pressure to affect the outcome of peace talks are not new.

Following the launch of the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s, right-wing Israelis and their allies helped pass a congressional bill that would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move that would buttress Israeli claims to the city whose ultimate fate was to be determined by Israelis and Palestinians.

A separate bill sought to prevent U.S. troops from patroling the Golan Heights to help cement a peace deal with Syria. Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli prime minister, expressed his frustration at both moves.

Back then, the right-wingers had mainstream allies; the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied for the Jerusalem law. AIPAC did not respond to requests for comment on the new Jerusalem bill, which is backed by the ZOA.

Republican House officials say their members are deeply skeptical about the renewed talks, which were launched after an intensive round of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry. Sensitive to Republican mistrust of President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, Dayan said he attempted to persuade House leaders that the peace process would harm U.S. interests.

“I would like Congress to explain to the State Department that this is a morally improper way to conduct diplomacy,” Dayan in an interview this week.

Sarah Stern, the director of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, said her primary concern was for the families of those killed by the released prisoners, but she acknowledged there was a dividend in alerting Americans to the dangers of the peace process.

“I can’t petition the Israeli government as an American citizen, I can only petition our officials,” Stern said. “But as a sidebar, it’s painful to see Israel has to go through so much just to get the Palestinians to sit down, and it’s a very sad thing that Israel has been subject to so much pressure by Kerry.”

Passover 5773: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free


Every Passover, we gather with family and friends around the Seder table to read the inspiring foundational story of our people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. We tell and retell this story every year, and millennia later it informs who we are. There are many ways in which Judaism speaks so strongly to the themes of service and justice, but to me, there is none stronger than our own experience: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. Distilled in this line, the sentiment is clear. Our tradition and history compel us to give back to our society, make the world a better place, and ensure freedom for all.

This intimate connection between Judaism and social justice is why throughout American history the Jewish community—our community—has been a vocal advocate for the values of freedom and equality that make the United States the great country that it is. As a Jewish woman and a member of the U.S. Congress, I strive to bring that connection to bear on my work every day. We are all obligated to make those connections in our own way.

This Passover, I am particularly focused on the rights of women and girls, both in our own backyard and around the world. The Talmud teaches that the optimism and initiative of Jewish women ensured our redemption from slavery in Egypt. And today, women are often still the catalysts for change and liberation; yet too many women around the world are still enslaved and oppressed—including the victims of rape and violence, those who are denied an education and those coerced into sex trafficking.

The specter of violence against women looms large today. Millions of women in war-torn countries like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda don’t move freely from place to place for fear of being raped—a fear created and exacerbated by soldiers who purposefully and disgracefully turn women’s bodies into casualties of war.

Denying girls the education they need undermines their freedom as well. Let’s be clear: meaningful freedom for women and girls will never be possible without the ability to access education and the social tools necessary to build a fruitful life. But barriers to girls’ education are enormous worldwide. Women activists like the brave Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan receive death threats almost weekly for striving against the odds to educate young girls.

Sex trafficking is a global pandemic in parts of the world, and in Southeast Asia alone, 250,000 women are trafficked every year. Traffickers prey on women and their families who are vulnerable because they are forced to grapple with the grim daily realities of life in poverty. These women are bound by modern slavery—trafficked and abused, they languish without the freedoms and protections they deserve. Some are chained to beds, given just enough food and water to stay alive, and have no way to protect their own physical and sexual health. We must fight to liberate these women and girls from the shackles of bondage—both physical and figurative—that keep them from freedom. As Passover reminds us, we must not rest until these women too, are free.

This month, as we prepare our Seder tables, we also celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. These are both opportunities to pay tribute to the indelible contributions women have made worldwide, while rededicating ourselves to the plight of those women and girls who still need our help today. And every year at Passover, we draw from our people’s own difficult past for the strength and courage to change the outcome of their future.

President Obama has said: “Promoting gender equality and advancing the status of all women and girls around the world remains one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time, and one that is vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives.” We believe that all who understand that the story of gaining freedom continues to this day will support these goals. For women to be free, we must ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; pass the International Violence Against Women Act; and work tirelessly wherever we can to support global health, education, political participation, and women’s empowerment.

Only when women everywhere can stand tall and strong together in peace and security can we confidently say: Once we were slaves, and now we are free.

American Jewish World Service embodies the natural harmony between Jewish faith and action, putting these values into practice every day. Working to protect the health and safety of women and girls is a vital part of our community’s drive to make the world a better place. As Jews, our fundamental belief in freedom, justice and human rights requires that we work tirelessly to end the scourges of violence against women and forced child marriage, defeat those who would block girls who need and want to go to school and stop the practice of coerced sex trafficking.

Going forward, as we work together to bolster their sexual health and rights, we must not only protect, but empower, women and girls everywhere. By working together, we can ensure that the future we leave to our children is one of inclusion, equity, security, hope and freedom. This year, too many women are still slaves. Next year, may we all be free.


Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz represents Florida's 23rd Congressional district, which encompasses parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. She is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and serves on the Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, where she advocates for funding for security, economic and humanitarian assistance and works to reduce poverty around the world. She is also a member of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, a bipartisan Members’ organization dedicated to promoting women's economic, health, legal and educational interests. The first Jewish Congresswoman ever elected from Florida, Rep. Wasserman Schultz introduced the resolution behind Jewish American Heritage Month, now celebrated annually in May.