Citing Trayvon Martin case, lawyers seek change of venue in Baltimore assault

Lawyers for two Baltimore Jewish brothers accused of beating a black teenager requested that the trial be moved out of the city because of perceived similarities between the case and the death of Trayvon Martin.

Avi and Eliyahu Werdesheim are accused of beating a 15-year-old male in November 2010. Eliyahu Werdesheim, now 24, was a member of Shomrim, a Jewish neighborhood watch group, at the time of the incident.

According to a police account, Eliyahu Werdesheim told the teen, “You don’t belong around here,” while his brother, now 21, threw the boy to the ground, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Lawyers for the Werdesheims claimed Monday that their clients should be tried somewhere else because black community leaders in Baltimore have linked the case with the death of Martin, a black teen from Florida who was shot by a neighborhood watch patrolman named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman is being tried for second-degree murder, and the case has received widespread national attention.

“Both involve young African-American males walking along on public thoroughfares who supposedly were accosted by one or more Caucasian members of citizen patrol groups who felt they didn’t belong in the area, and allegedly subjected to unprovoked attacks,” the defense lawyers’ motion said, according to the newspaper.

The motion adds that the Werdesheims’ case has “ignited a firestorm of controversy, recriminations and protests in the greater Baltimore metropolitan region and has served to polarize various segments of the community.”

Prosecutors in the Werdesheims’ trial say it should go forward because the two incidents are separate.

A lawyer’s personal investment in Mideast peace

Josef Avesar is a soft-spoken lawyer with a wife and four children, but for the past six years he has spent most of his time and a considerable amount of his own money on an all-consuming project: to establish an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation (IPC) and break the interminable impasse between the two groups.

Unlike another dreamer, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism who in 1897 foresaw, amid widespread derision, that in 50 years there would be a Jewish state, Avesar is more circumspect in his predictions.

In 2006, speaking before a UCLA audience, Avesar asserted that his vision had a 5 percent chance of becoming reality in his lifetime, but he was more optimistic in a recent interview.

“I am 57 years old, and I believe that there’s now a 50 percent chance of realizing my goal in my lifetime,” he said. “In 100 years, the chances of success are 100 percent.”

Meanwhile, Avesar is taking some concrete steps. Following an initial convention in 2008, he has scheduled another convention in Jerusalem in 2011 in the run-up to an election of the IPC president, vice president and legislature.

Election day is set for Dec. 12, 2012, about a month after a similar election in the United States.

To the numerous skeptics and scoffers of his idea, Avesar responds, “What have we got to lose? For more than 60 years, every other plan has failed. You don’t go back to the same surgeon if all his previous patients have died.

Avesar has drawn up a lengthy constitution for the planned confederation, which draws heavily on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and whose key elements include:

• Israel and the Palestinian territories (or state) are to be divided into 300 districts, with each district sending one delegate to the legislature. In each district, Jews can vote for an Arab candidate, and vice versa.
• To pass a law will require approval of 55 percent of the Israeli legislators and 55 percent of the Arab representatives. If neither the established Israeli nor Palestinian government exercises its veto power, the legislation will become law.
• Both the two top executives and the legislators will run for four-year terms. If the president is an Israeli, the vice president must be Palestinian, and the two will rotate after two years.

Given all the limitations and safeguards, what could a confederation actually accomplish?

One of Avesar’s basic premises is that Israelis and Palestinians, working together within a parliamentary framework, can eventually develop a sense of trust and learn to disagree without resorting to violence.

In practice, IPC would serve as a mechanism for establishing mutually beneficial infrastructure projects, hospitals, airports, monetary systems and so forth.

For instance, the confederation plan calls for joint construction of utility grids for water, electricity, trains and highways connecting Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Last June, Avesar and his allies started calling for future presidential and parliamentary candidates to register, mainly through the Internet. He hopes to have some 1,500 candidates, about five in each of the 300 districts, ready to compete by the December 2012 election date.

As of mid-December 2010, some 221 men and women had thrown their hats into the ring, with Palestinian candidates outnumbering Israeli hopefuls by about 3-to-1.

The imbalance comes as something of a surprise to Avesar. He speculates that Arabs are more disillusioned with the status quo, as well as with Hamas and Fatah, than are Jews, who feel that there is no great need to fix the present situation.

Most notable among the Palestinian candidates for the IPC presidency is Hanna Siniora, publisher of the Jerusalem Times and a member of the Palestinian National Council.

It is fairly easy to punch holes in Avesar’s vision and to dismiss the whole enterprise as quixotic. One of the most likely stumbling blocks would be the attitudes of the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who would just as soon do without a “third government.”

In one of his pamphlets, Avesar writes, “What happens if the Israeli or Palestinian governments object to the [IPC] elections?” To which he answers, in part:

“If we are able to achieve the voting of both the Israelis and Palestinians and to get international support, we will be able to pass legislation of an important nature. We believe that the Israeli and Palestinian governments will understand the great service and opportunity we can provide to their people and eventually will support our government.”

Others are less optimistic. During the UCLA panel discussion, Gen. Shlomo Gazit, former head of military intelligence, argued that “the Oslo agreement failed because we postponed the political issues. Dealing with economic or environmental issues first is putting the cart before the horse.”

Professor Nancy Gallagher, who chairs the Middle East history program at University of California, Santa Barbara, took a middle ground. “This plan is not yet ready for prime time,” she said, “ but bold and radical ideas are always welcome, even if they seem naïve.”

Gallagher recalled that the various iterations of the confederation idea have a lengthy history; one was proposed by India in a minority report to the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine.

Most positive toward the idea was Saleem H. Ali, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont and a professional mediator. A native of Pakistan, Ali urged putting economic before political problems, suggesting that there are “different ways to climb a mountain.”

Avesar was born in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan into an Iraqi Jewish family that had immigrated in 1936. His father, who worked for the British authorities in both Iraq and Palestine, had been farsighted enough to buy some land in Tel Aviv during a previous visit, in 1929.

One of Josef Avesar’s formative experiences as a 9-year-old boy was the rescue of his sister from drowning by an Arab fisherman and then bringing some chocolate to the rescuer as a way to thank him.

“That was a very emotional experience for me,” Avesar recounted. “I came to realize that the Palestinians were people like us.”

He thinks that Jews like himself, whose families came from Arab countries, have a “special relationship” with Palestinians, which is missing in the mainly Ashkenazi Israeli government.

If family background has shaped Avesar’s attitude toward the Mideast conflict, so has his professional experience.

“In my work in personal injury litigation, I see that the parties in the dispute get so involved emotionally in their points of difference that they can’t see the larger picture,” he said.

“What I try to do is to have one side give some indication of trust, and then the other side will usually reciprocate.”

Avesar lacks the resources for a full-fledged campaign, and he is spreading the word mainly through media interviews and the Internet, where he has set up a Web site,, and a second one,, for the 2012 election.

During the last three years, his dream has become his chief occupation, and he estimates that he would be $750,000 richer today if he had instead devoted similar time and effort to his law practice.

He doesn’t have to look beyond his family and circle of friends for critics. His German-born wife, Gilda, whom he met while both were serving in the Israeli army, not infrequently comments about her husband’s “crazy idea.”

Two prominent academicians, asked for their comments last month, were also critical, though in more reserved language.

Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who had initially seen some merit in Avesar’s idea, wrote in an e-mail, “Why try to federate countries that are so different? A more logical federation would be the West Bank and Jordan, or Gaza with Egypt.

“Has any comparable federation ever worked? It’s merely a gimmick leading to a one-state solution, which would mark the end of Israel.”

Political scientist Steven L. Spiegel, director of the UCLA Center for Middle East Development, wrote, in part, “I do not believe an Israeli/Palestinian confederation would be viable.

“Having two states, and then a “third government … would only confuse the efforts to achieve a viable peace, bureaucratically, ideologically and politically.

“However, the possibility of cooperation on the economic and social fronts between Israel, a future Palestinian state, and also possibly Jordan has long been discussed and would be desirable after a final settlement between Israel and Palestine.”

But Avesar also can point to some prominent supporters. He cited an enthusiastic endorsement from former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and encouraging words from former President Bill Clinton.

In addition, he has engaged in discussions with a long list of American, Israeli and Palestinian thinkers, spanning the political spectrum.

In any case, nothing is likely to deter Avesar from his quest. “Some of my friends spend their money and time on golf, or buying a Ferrari,” he said. “I might as well put that into something I enjoy doing.”

Young Lawyer Has a Ball With Bet Tzedek

As a young summer associate with a Los Angeles law firm, Jeffrey Sklar looked forward to attending his first Justice Ball. He wanted to see ’80s icon Billy Idol do the “Rebel Yell” live. He wanted to hang out with other young attorneys and law students. He wasn’t going for any high-minded motives.

Back in 2000, Sklar, like most of the 20- and 30-somethings who go to the annual Justice Ball, had only the vaguest notion of what Bet Tzedek, the event’s sponsor and a local Jewish legal-aid outfit, does. That would soon change.

Sklar, an attorney at Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP, went to the Ball and partied with friends. He also listened as Bet Tzedek executives briefly took the stage and talked up their organization and its need for dedicated volunteers to help society’s most vulnerable achieve a degree of justice. Their message resonated with Sklar, who, as a young boy, remembers dropping coins into his family’s tzedekah box. Now, six years later, Sklar is a regular legal volunteer, he’s helped recruit other lawyer friends to volunteer time, and he’s helping to plan this year’s event, which will take place July 8 at the Hollywood Palladium, featuring the Go-Go’s.

Founded in 1997, the Justice Ball has grown into one of the nation’s most successful nonprofit fundraisers/parties targeting young professionals, Jews and non-Jews alike. Over the past nine years, more than 16,000 attorneys, financiers and others have attended the soirees, and scores of them have gone on to become Bet Tzedek contributors and volunteers. Some, like Sklar, have gone on to serve on Bet Tzedek’s Justice Ball planning committee and even on to the board of directors, making the event more than just a fundraiser — it’s an important gateway to the organization.

“The Justice Ball is absolutely a good way for young blood to get involved,” said Bet Tzedek board member Brette Simon, a law partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP whose first exposure to the legal aid society came from attending the mega-parties.

To date, Justice Balls have raised more than $3.2 million in ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, said Randall Kaplan, the Justice Ball’s creator and cofounder of high-tech giant Akamai Technologies, Inc. Last year’s event raised $425,000, or nearly 8 percent of Bet Tzedek’s $5.5 million budget, Executive Director Mitch Kamin said. This year, the 10th anniversary gala is expected to be even bigger. Hopes are the popular L.A. Go-Go’s will draw more than 3,000 revelers and raise as much as $500,000, Kamin said.

“Everyone in the philanthropic world is puzzling over how you engage the truly young generation of professionals who haven’t been necessarily taught by their parents that giving is part of their religious or social responsibility,” Kamin said. “This is a chance for us to introduce ourselves to them, give them initial exposure to Bet Tzedek and raise their consciousness.”

Bet Tzedek’s success at reaching the coveted demographic of young Jewish professionals comes as other Jewish organizations are struggling to do the same. Faced with the growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, Jewish charities are grappling with a generation that, because of intermarriage and assimilation, often considers itself more American than Jewish, experts said. With young Jews standing to inherit billions over the next 20 years, finding a way to appeal to their generosity is perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Jewish charities.

In Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek is not alone in its success in appealing to this group. Young leadership initiatives at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, including its Young Leadership Division and the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles, now account for about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of The Federation’s annual campaign, said Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development.

Still, The Federation’s strong showing appears to be the exception rather than the rule in the organized Jewish world. Simply put, the stodgy chicken-dinner fundraisers favored by so many Jewish philanthropies fail to bring young movers-and-shakers to the table. The MTV generation would rather rock ‘n’ roll all night long.

The Justice Ball gives them a chance to do just that, along with learning a thing or two about Bet Tzedek’s mission of offering free legal aid to the poor, sick, elderly and homeless.

Soon after his first Justice Ball, Sklar joined the group’s planning committee. Like others touched by Justice Balls before him, he went on to volunteer his legal services to Bet Tzedek, including assisting a Holocaust survivor obtain restitution from the Hungarian government.

“As a lawyer, you make a decent living. You get to sit up here in real tall buildings with a real nice view. You get to drive a real nice car,” he said. “So the bottom line is you need to give back, you have to get back. This is a great way for me to do so.”

For more information on the Justice Ball, visit


‘Top Gun’ Lawyer Aims to Aid Likud

The latest, and certainly most colorful, addition to the ranks of the local Likud leadership is Beverly Hills lawyer Myles L. Berman.

He is better known to citizens facing drunk driving charges — and to connoisseurs of advertising slogans — as The Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney, but these days, it’s the defense of Israel that is uppermost on his mind.

Last June, fed up with what he considers the failure of established organizations to involve the American Jewish and Israeli expatriate communities, he founded the Beverly Hills Chapter of the American Friends of Likud.

So far, he has recruited 11 upscale families, drawn primarily from the Iranian Jewish community, to which his wife, Mitra belongs. The members make up in financial clout what they lack in numbers, with a combined worth of over $1 billion, according to Berman.

Born into a strongly Democratic family but later a founder of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Berman, at 51, is a man of strong physique and opinions.

“I am fed up with intermarriage and with rabbis who reach out to gay and intermarried couples,” he said during an interview in his spacious Sunset Boulevard office.

A member of Sinai Temple, Berman fears that “to some extent, rabbis and lay leaders are unable to instill Jewish identity” into their constituents.

Currently, Berman is focusing his considerable energies on two primary issues:

One is to assure the election from America of a large pro-Likud slate for the upcoming quadrennial Congress of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), dubbed “The Parliament of the Jewish People,” and his own election to the No. 5 spot on the slate.

He is concerned, he said, that so few American Jews realize the importance of June elections for the WZO Congress, which plays a major role in determining relations between Israel and the Diaspora, the running of the Jewish Agency and the dispersal of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Berman’s second immediate goal is to persuade the Israeli government and Knesset to allow Israeli citizens living abroad to vote in Israeli elections.

“It matters to both Israel and American Jewry what the expatriates say and do,” he observed.

Berman has “grabbed [the two issues] in my teeth,” he said. With Berman that means putting his money and advertising savvy behind the effort. Indeed, his penchant for publicity elicits knowing smiles even from fellow Likudniks.

Berman is laying out $50,000 of his own money to place his messages on Israeli cable TV programs popular with Israeli expats, and in the Anglo-Jewish and Hebrew-language press in the United States.

“I hope the efforts will further my ultimate aim of bridging the gap between Israeli leaders and American Jews,” Berman said.

Any Jew over 18 is eligible to vote for delegates to the Congress of the World Zionist Organization online or via mail by Feb. 15. For details, go to or phone (888) 657-8850. The Congress will meet June 19-22 in Jerusalem.


Hadassah Encourages Women to ‘Check Out’ Program

Janine McMillion was 29 when she married, entered her third year of law school and was diagnosed with breast
cancer. Today, the Huntington Beach resident is an employment lawyer, whose
survival story was the centerpiece of “Check It Out,” an early-detection
program for youth put on by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization.

The program was instigated by Adena Kaufman, 34, of Aliso
Viejo, compelled to action by the loss of a girlhood friend to breast cancer in
2001. “It’s made me grateful to be alive,” she said.

The December event for the Bureau of Jewish Education’s
TALIT students was the first presentation in Orange County by Hadassah, which
introduced the program in Texas a decade ago. About 90 girls and their mothers
attended the program at Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom. They received bags
stuffed with brochures, an anatomically correct breast model with simulated
lumps, instruction on self-examination and genetic risk factors.

“Nobody ever explained that to me before,” 15-year-old
Daniella Gruber told her mother, Roe, afterward.

“She got something out of it,” Gruber’s mother said.

Despite winning a $5,900 grant in December 2001 from the
Susan G. Komen Foundation to present the program free to 2,000 students,
Hadassah’s Long Beach-Orange County chapter has, so far, found few takers.

“We’ve had a difficult time getting into public schools,”
said Michelle Shahon, director of the 3,200-member Costa Mesa-based group, “If
you teach them good life habits early on, that’s the best method of early
detection,” she said.

Shahon intends to seek an extension of the grant and keep
knocking on doors.

Whose Money?

Since 1996, Jewish groups and their lawyers have gone to the mat with the likes of the Germans, the Swiss and the French, extracting $9 billion in restitution for the evil wrought in Europe by Nazi forces and their collaborators.

While the entire process is gradually winding down, a few more battles loom: with the Austrian government, with museums holding looted art-work and with the U.S. companies whose wartime German subsidiaries profited from slave labor.

But the clash that promises to be particularly wrenching will actually pit Jew against Jew: what to do with the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in “residual” funds, those without direct heirs or claimants.

On Sept. 11, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) will formally announce the creation of a foundation – tentatively named the Foundation for the Jewish People – that will determine the spending priorities.The foundation was actually established in June in Jerusalem, but the WJC chose to announce it at a gala event in New York to honor the politicians who have played a key role in restitution, including President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The foundation board will be made up of representatives of various Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivor groups and the Israeli government. Among the ideas floated are funding Jewish and Holocaust education, restoring Jewish communities in Europe or building Holocaust museums and memorials, said Elan Steinberg, WJC’s executive director.

“The Nazis sought to wipe out not only the Jewish people but Jewish communities and Judaism itself,” Steinberg said.

“Obviously, this has been 50 years too slow,” he added. “But I think the issue we have to address, are now forced to address, is to ensure that how these residual assets are used reflects the best interests of the Jewish people as a whole.”

Many Holocaust survivors vehemently disagree.

While they support the general need for education, commemoration, documentation and research, they believe there are more pressing needs: health care for the 250,000 survivors worldwide, including 130,000 in the United States. An estimated 1,000 survivors die each month.

“Yes, money should be spent for Jewish education and culture, but that is the obligation of klal Yisrael – of all Jews,” said Roman Kent, a survivor who serves as chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and vice-president of the Claims Conference.

“But to me, this money has one specific purpose,” Kent said. “All of it should go to the survivors. As long as there are still survivors who are old and sick and needy, they are the first obligation.”

The $9 billion figure is a bit misleading, and most of it is already spoken for, according to the WJC’s Steinberg.

Per an agreement reached with Germany in July, $5.2 billion will go to some 1.25 million forced and slave laborers. In real terms, Jewish laborers will receive 30 percent of the sum, with 140,000 slave laborers collecting up to $7,500 apiece.

Of the $1.25 billion from the Swiss banks, $200 million went into a humanitarian fund for the 250,000 Jewish survivors around the world. Lump-sum payments ranged from $500 to $1,400. In the United States, nearly $30 million was allocated to more than 60,000 survivors, or $502 apiece.

According to Steinberg, France has committed to $700 million; Holland, $400 million; German insurers, $350 million-plus; various settlements for stolen artwork amount to $200 million; Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali, $150 million; Norway, about $70 million; and Great Britain, roughly $50 million.In addition, in negotiations with the Claims Conference in the 1950s, Germany agreed to pay annual pensions to some 85,000 survivors. That total has run to nearly $50 billion and about $500 million a year.The Claims Conference is also responsible for selling off unclaimed property from the former East Germany, which now generates close to $80 million per year.

Twenty percent is allo-cated for Holocaust-related research and documentation, while 80 percent goes for social welfare programs for survivors in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. This includes home care assistance for 18,000 survivors in all three regions and 3 million hot meals and 800,000 food packages per year in the former Soviet Union, said Gideon Taylor, the conference’s executive vice-president.

“We’ve been able to make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Taylor said. “The question is, how do we use the limited resources available from restitution to help the neediest survivors all around the world? It’s what our allocations process grapples with: balancing resources with competing needs.”

Taylor concedes that not everyone will come away satisfied.

But what lies at the heart of this intracommunal debate are two contentious issues: Who are the rightful heirs to all that was lost in Europe, and who has the right to decide how the money should be spent?

Holocaust survivors and their advocates say the stolen property and assets lost did not in fact belong to “the Jewish people as a whole” but to European Jewish communities and individuals. Furthermore, they say, it is the survivors, and they alone, who are entitled to decide the spending priorities, not the groups that negotiated on their behalf.

“We’re not going to be around forever,” said Joe Sachs, co-chairman of the Florida Survivors Coa-lition. “Let’s give these people their due. Just a little justice. A little peace of mind from their health care problems in their last few years.”