One-ton Palestinian key headed to Berlin festival

A one-ton steel key symbolizing the Palestinian “right of return” is to be shipped from a West Bank refugee camp to Berlin as part of a citywide art festival.

The Goethe Institute, Germany’s official cultural institution, is assisting in the effort.

Called the “Key of Return,” the object carries a clear political message. It was created by residents of the Aida refugee camp and the area around Bethlehem in 2008 and placed outside the refugee camp with the slogan that “our right of return is not for sale.” Its creators are working to have the giant key recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.

According to the German online news agency Israelnetz, the Goethe Institute is covering the cost of sending the massive key to Berlin for the seventh Biennale for Contemporary Art, which runs from April 27 to July 1. The festival takes place every two to three years.

Jorg Schumacher, who heads the Goethe Institute office in Ramallah, told Israelnetz that the German cultural institution has long supported projects of Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and that they are “neither pursuing political goals nor trying to intervene in the work of its partners.” He did not respond to Israelnetz’s questions about the political nature of the work or about the cost of shipping.

According to a report on the website of the Palestinian Return Center, a ceremony was held in Aida on March 12 to mark the departure of the key for Berlin. Local residents reportedly wrote messages on the object and draped it in German and Palestinian flags before sending it off to the port of Ashdod, Israel. The key was to travel through several Palestinian villages on the way.

The report cited Iyad Hamdan, a member of the Key of Return campaign, as saying that “the aim of this campaign [is] to position the Palestinian cause on the international agenda and to raise the awareness of Palestinian rights. Israel is not committed to peace.”

“We want the European people visiting this exhibition to get to know about the refugee cause and to exert pressure on their governments to take steps towards finding a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,” he said.

Sharon Wins Key Likud Party Vote

After a string of embarrassing defeats in his own party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s victory in the election of key Likud officers raises the chances that he will be able to broaden his government and push through a promised withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — though it’s still not certain.

Likud rebels, who have been at the forefront of the campaign against Sharon’s “disengagement” plan, put up candidates for three top party posts. Had they won, Sharon’s political future would have been bleak.

“The message of such a victory will be that Sharon is finished,” pundit Yossi Verter wrote in Ha’aretz ahead of Monday’s vote. “It would be very difficult for Sharon to lead the Likud again in the next Knesset elections.”

Instead, the victory of three people who aren’t diehard Sharon loyalists but are figures the prime minister feels he can work with, improves the prospects for progress just as the United States and Europe prepare for a reinvigorated peace push.

The vote came as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the region to see whether new chances for peace have opened in the wake of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s death, and what the United States can do to facilitate elections for a new Palestinian leader.

On the plane coming in, Powell hinted that if the Palestinians make real efforts to stop terrorism, the United States would be ready to contribute $20 million toward Palestinian elections. On Tuesday, the diplomatic “Quartet” behind the “road map” peace plan — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — announced that it would help finance th elections.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Sharon told Powell that Israel would do all it could to facilitate the Palestinian elections. He said Israel was ready for security coordination with the Palestinians in the run-up to the vote, would allow Arabs from eastern Jerusalem to vote and would allow full freedom of movement in the Palestinian territories on election day.

Clearly, the Americans want to exploit the chance to kick-start the deadlocked process, and Powell sounded an upbeat note after his talks in Jerusalem and with Palestinian leaders in Jericho. He spoke of a “new attitude on the Palestinian side” and “flexibility in Israel,” and said, “there is enough for us to move forward now.”

Powell also pleased his Israeli hosts by dismissing the possibility that the Quartet would seek to skirt the road map — which calls for incremental progress only after each side has met its commitments at each step along the way — by hosting a high-profile summit.

“The road map is the way forward — the only way forward — and it is nothing that can be jumped into, it has to go step by step,” Powell said.

“What we really need is for the Palestinian side in this new era to speak out clearly against terrorism, and to gather in all of the elements of the Palestinian community and make it clear to them that it is time to stop all incitement, to stop all violence,”he said, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The Israelis also are upbeat. A senior Israeli intelligence source told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that with the new Palestinian leadership there is a good chance for a “total change in Palestinian political culture.”

If so, Monday’s Likud vote improves the chance that they will find an Israeli coalition able to break the diplomatic deadlock.

The rebel candidates — Uzi Landau for the key Central Committee chairmanship, Michael Ratzon for the secretariat and Gilad Erdan for the bureau — were comfortably beaten by, respectively, former Public Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and Health Minister Danny Naveh.

The results show that the rebels do not control the 2,970-member Central Committee, the Likud’s highest decision-making body, when there is full turnout.

Sharon lost a number of key Central Committee votes when turnout was low. For Monday’s showdown, his supporters focused mainly on getting out the Central Committee vote, and pundits agree that it was the huge 91 percent turnout that sank the rebels.

Analysts say the vote shows the rebels control a hard core of around 30 percent of the Central Committee, and that Sharon can count on about the same number.

The rest float and vote according to the issue at hand. That means Sharon theoretically could win support for moves to widen his coalition.

The prime minister’s losses in the party began in May 2002, when the Central Committee defied him and put the party on record against the establishment of a Palestinian state. In May this year Sharon was defeated in a full party membership vote on his disengagement plan, with Landau, Ratzon and Erdan leading the campaign against him.

Then, in August, the Central Committee defied Sharon again, voting against bringing in Labor to bolster Sharon’s shaky government.

The successive defeats heightened perceptions of the prime minister’s vulnerability inside the party. In the Knesset, a growing number of Likud legislators came out against his disengagement plan.

As the anti-Sharon bandwagon gathered pace, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a move designed to unseat the prime minister. He and five other Likud Cabinet ministers planned to vote against Sharon’s disengagement plan in the Knesset last month, a move that could have created a major government crisis and sparked an early national election with Netanyahu leading the Likud.

Ironically, Hanegbi, Katz and Naveh — the men Sharon was pleased to see elected Monday — were among the ministers involved in what Sharon aides described as Netanyahu’s “putsch.”

But Sharon’s overwhelming victory in that Knesset vote, after Netanyahu backed down, was a turning point for the prime minister’s standing in the party. Several Knesset members who had vociferously opposed him suddenly declared their allegiance. Monday night’s triumph shored up Sharon’s position.

The question now is whether Sharon will be able to bring Labor into his coalition and create a firm political base to carry out the promised withdrawals.

If he had been elected Central Committee chairman, Landau would have done all he could to torpedo the disengagement plan, including keeping Labor out. Hanegbi, however, seemed to open a crack for Labor to come through after Monday’s vote.

Labor wouldn’t be able to join the coalition without other parties such as Shas or United Torah Judaism, he said. In other words, if Sharon can persuade either of the two ultra-Orthodox parties to join his coalition, he would be able to bring Labor in, as well.

What Hanegbi and many in the Central Committee oppose is a Likud-Labor-Shinui government, in which the Likud likely would be bullied into more dovish positions by the two more moderate secular parties. But a coalition in which Likud and at least one right-wing, ultra-Orthodox party force Shinui out and dominate Labor is a different proposition.

In Labor, there now is a strong drive to join Sharon’s coalition — partly to help him carry out the disengagement and partly to block former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s bid to recapture the Labor leadership.

Matan Vilnai, one of Barak’s chief rivals for the top spot, is proposing that Labor agree to join Sharon’s government without taking any ministerial posts. That would achieve two purposes: Carrying out the disengagement and putting off Labor primaries for another year, forcing Barak to cool his heels.

Over the next few weeks, Sharon will make a supreme effort to widen his coalition, with Labor and the ultra-Orthodox as his main targets, even though success almost surely would mean the departure of Shinui, his main coalition partner until now.

If Sharon is able to cut a deal, the Central Committee under Hanegbi will be asked to approve it, despite its earlier vote against a unity government with Labor. And if a new vote goes Sharon’s way, Monday’s victory will have been extremely significant for Sharon — and for disengagement.

Jews Stick to Their Turf

Philosopher Martin Buber once wrote that Jews had a "vocation of uniqueness."

However much Jews may differ around the world, for most of their history, and in most places, they have always been somewhat apart from others in their attitudes, how they live and cope with changing conditions.

The most recent census data and a largely unreleased 1997 survey of roughly 2,000 L.A. Jewish households show that this is still the case, perhaps most particularly here in Los Angeles. By its nature, Los Angeles is a cauldron of ethnic change — a city increasingly Latin and Asian, with a high degree of racial intermixing. It is a city of protean geography that sprawls like a European nation state across a vast territory.

Conventional wisdom holds that the well-heeled population is spearheading this out-migration and that this sprawling out is continuing, particularly among the better-heeled population. By rights, Jews should be joining them; they are considerably wealthier, better educated and more likely to be homeowners than most Angelenos.

Yet, unlike most white Angelenos, or middle-class minorities, for that matter, Jews are sticking to their turf, not only in Los Angeles but in other key urban centers. Today’s Jewish population in L.A. County, unlike the white population, which dropped by over a million, actually grew slightly from 503,000 to around 520,000.

"Jews are more likely to move or stay in urban areas in places like Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, "suggests demographer Bruce Phillips, who conducted the surveys. "Jews don’t seem to be following the dispersion pattern of whites. They seem to have urban values and stay in the core community."

Phillips, in fact, suggests that Jews in Los Angeles are even more urban-centric than their counterparts elsewhere. The reasons for this may vary. For one thing, Los Angeles has many areas — such as the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles — that are urban places but still offer what in the East may be considered a "suburban" quality of life. Brentwood or even Encino, let’s face it, offer more comforts than say Brooklyn or even Chicago’s Near Northside.

Perhaps most surprising, according to Phillips, there has not been a massive shift, as many have expected, of Jews to places like Orange County and the Conejo Valley. Sure, the populations have expanded there, but for the most part, the largest concentrations of Jews today are where they were a decade or two ago: in the Pico-Robertson area, the Westside and, largest of all, the San Fernando Valley, even though the populations of outlying areas in growing the percentage of the urban population has remained constant.

"Los Angeles is becoming the Jewish neighborhood of Southern California," Phillips said. "Jews in Los Angeles," he added, are usually "more Jewish," than those who move to the Inland Empire, Orange County or Ventura County. They tend to be less intermarried and more of their friends are Jewish.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that L.A. Jewry is going back to the old days of the Boyle Heights shtetl. The dispersion and integration that took place in the ’50s to the Westside and the Valley, Phillips suggested, is not being reversed. But the post-1970 geographical patterns seem to be solidifying. Today, more than 40 percent of Jewish households in Los Angeles are in the Valley while one-third are on the Westside. The Valley continues to register the biggest gains, while the population in the central city continues to shrink.

Culturally, think of it as three levels of Yiddishkayt. In the most heavily Jewish areas — Encino, Beverly Hills, Fairfax, Pico-Robertson — its heavy-duty ethnic identity. The percentage of households with mostly Jewish friends rises more than 60 percent while intermarriage stays at roughly 20 percent. The levels of temple affiliation are also the highest in these precincts.

In more mixed, but still Jewish areas like Valley Village, where I live, around 50 percent say most of their closest friends are Jewish, while half are intermarried. It’s not a guilded ghetto, but ethnicity has not been twinkie-ized.

In the High Desert, the Inland Empire, the Bay Cities and San Pedro, that’s where you have true melting pot Jews. As few as one in five has mostly Jewish friends and lower levels of affiliation are the norm. The intermarriage rate often reaches over 65 to 70 percent. Jews, on the whole, are simply less Jewish on the periphery, Phillips suggested.

But it is not just the geographic imperative that’s in play here. Other forces are at work. For one thing, the community, after becoming more native-born for generations, is once again becoming more dominated by people from elsewhere. According to Phillips, for example, roughly one in five L.A. Jews was born abroad, with the largest groupings from the former Soviet Union, Iran and Israel. When their children are added, some 45 percent of L.A. Jews have at least one foreign-born parent.

The immigrant influence is likely one force clearly changing L.A. Jewish culture. Many children of Israeli and Iranian Jews, for example, learn Hebrew, Farsi and Sephardic traditions that were relatively rare here a decade ago but are becoming part of Jewish life.

"They are really changing Los Angeles," suggested Steve Gold, a professor of sociology at the Michigan State University who has studied Israeli and Russian immigrants in Los Angeles extensively. "People of our generation [third generation, native born] don’t open up delis, run day-care systems, teach at day schools. They [the immigrants] are setting the cultural pattern."

But it’s not just language and tradition that’s changing, Gold said. Russians, Israelis and Iranians also have a vastly different political orientation than native-born Jews. "They are anti-communist and conservative," Gold said. "They don’t have the liberal traditions we have."

If this is true, they may well be contributing to another, much discussed possible movement of Jews toward more conservative politics. The survey conducted by Phillips, for example, found that Jews over 60 were dyed-in-the-wool Democrats — some 75 percent. But less than half of those under 40 shared that generally liberal party. Republicans, as rare among older Jews as elephants on Fairfax — roughly 6 percent — registered a respectable 25 percent among the under-40 crowd.

What do all these fascinating findings suggest about the future of L.A. Jews? Perhaps several things — an increasing influence of immigrants and their children and a generally more conservative political tone. But one thing is certain: Jews in Los Angeles will remain a unique population, and, most important of all, they are also likely to remain.

Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and the Milken Institute. He is currently writing a book on the history of cities for The Modern Library.