People pray at the Western Wall on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Jerusalem’s Labor Market Faces an Uncertain Future


On the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, the city has much to celebrate: a population of almost a million people, transportation projects that improve access to and from the city, the growth of new industrial zones, and the development of high-caliber jobs that recruit skilled workers to the city.

When you walk down the streets of Jerusalem today, it’s amazing to see how much the city has developed over the past 50 years. As an economist, I was naturally interested in checking how the city has advanced its job opportunities and labor force, since these are key indicators of its economic stability and potential for future economic growth.

What I found was heartening. For those who work in Jerusalem (whether they also live there or live elsewhere), the city is developing and fostering higher-level job opportunities and an increasingly skilled workforce.

As of 2015, those who worked in Jerusalem had higher overall education levels than in the rest of the country. Between 2012 and 2015, this trend has become more pronounced. There were more Jerusalem workers whose highest level of education is a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in 2015 than there were in 2012, and fewer workers whose highest level of education was a matriculation certificate or below. While this is also true for workers in the rest of Israel, the change in Jerusalem was more dramatic in both directions – more than double the change in the rest of the country for most levels of education.

So Jerusalem is attracting more highly educated workers, but for what types of jobs?

Just as in the rest of the world, Israel’s job market is likely to change significantly over the coming decades as technological developments allow computerization to replace manpower in many industries. As is shown in the research of Shavit Madhala-Brik from the Taub Center, nearly 40% of the work hours in the Israeli market are at high risk of being replaced by computers or machines in the coming two decades.

This isn’t necessarily a bad trend, as computerization will likely lead to more efficiency in existing industries and to the development of new industries we cannot begin to imagine. However, it is important to be aware of which jobs are more or less likely to be affected and to adequately prepare for the future labor market.

In Jerusalem, as well as in the rest of Israel, occupations such as tailors, construction workers, bookkeepers, and clerks fall into the high risk category, as well as a number of other occupations that are characterized by repetitive or technical work. However, professions requiring creativity, social intelligence, and proficiency in negotiation fall into the category of low-risk occupations.

The job market in Jerusalem has been moving towards jobs at low-risk of computerization and high-skilled workers and away from high-risk jobs and low-skilled workers. Israel overall has experienced the same shift, but the trend is even more pronounced in Jerusalem. This is a positive indicator of the direction of Jerusalem’s labor market in the future.

More low-risk jobs and highly educated workers in Jerusalem may very well be due to the city’s ability to attract big high-tech companies like Intel and Mobileye in recent years, as well as the presence of one of the leading universities in the country, research institutes, and other academic institutions. Jerusalem has some of the best hospitals in the country and is a hub for internationally recognized organizations. In addition, the city is home to the highest level of the country’s government institutions, whose workers tend to be highly educated.

Despite all of this progress, there’s more research to be done to complete the picture. The Taub Center is beginning to explore how education and employment trends differ between those who work in Jerusalem and those who live in Jerusalem. According to the preliminary findings, there is still much to be done to help the residents of Jerusalem directly benefit from the changing and improving work environment in the city.

We cannot predict what employment in Jerusalem will look like in another 50 years, but today the city should celebrate how far it has come and the positive steps it is taking to set itself up for the future.

 

Professor Claude Berrebi is the Director of Research and Labor Policy Program Chair at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel and a Professor at the Hebrew University School of Public Policy.

 

 

 

A recent living wage rally in New York. Photo by The All-Nite Images/via WikiCommons.

Daf Yomi, justice, and the minimum wage


Those of us participating in Daf Yomi are now four and a half years into the current cycle, with three years to go. Studying a page of Talmud a day, we are combing the broad expanse of the ancient rabbinal discussions that make up the Mishnah and the Gemara. In our recent studies of tractate Bava Metzia, we delved into concepts that are relevant for controversial policy issues in the news today—one of them being the minimum wage.

The issue of the minimum wage—sometimes referred to as a living wage or a just wage — continues to be a contentious issue. Presumably, we as a society would like to ensure that those who work earn a reasonable wage, one that is, at a minimum, sufficient to cover one’s basic human needs. Surely, the thinking goes, any compassionate society would do no less. But the issue is not so straightforward, and our Jewish tradition, including the Talmud, provides some guidance.

Insisting that employers pay their employees a minimum amount undoubtedly helps those who’s wages will be higher—which seems beneficial in and of itself. But it will inevitably have unintended consequences. For example, how will it affect other workers? If employers decide to hire fewer workers, will some workers lose their jobs, or not be hired in the first place? Is this compassionate?

Economists have looked into this question, but there is as yet no consensus. Some cite statistics that show that there is no marked decline in employment. Others have data to prove that the imposition of higher wages does reduce employment. The American Enterprise Institute just came out with a 48-page paper on the subject, concluding that the minimum wage does appear to reduce employment, but they also called for more research.

There is another potential unintended consequence. Many teenagers and young adults are often looking just to get started in the job market. Many are thrilled to have a job, any job, even if it pays only $7.50 an hour, in order to get some experience—ultimately enabling them to eventually move on to jobs requiring more skills and experience which will pay more. Imposing a higher minimum wage may deprive young people of these initial jobs. Is this compassionate?

These social science questions are important, but there’s actually a deeper question. Is legislating a higher minimum wage even just? In mandating higher minimum wages, government is requiring that employers pay their lower-skilled workers more than they might otherwise pay them—and more than workers might actually be willing to accept. Is this consistent with our traditional notions of justice? This question is not a new one. It comes up in ancient Jewish texts—related to property rights, labor law and charity law—including Bava Metzia.

Property rights are usually considered to be sacrosanct. As Joseph Isaac Lifshitz explains in Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis, there are numerous prohibitions in the Bible relating to the property of others — against, for instance, stealing land and acquiring property through fraud. The Eighth Commandment prohibits stealing. The Tenth Commandment prohibits even the coveting of one’s neighbor’s property. As evidence of the importance of private property, Lifshitz notes, “punishments … are meted out in the Bible to those who undermine the social order through their flagrant disregard for it.”

This presumably entails not just the private property of individuals but also that of companies. One would assume that, absent some extraordinary public purpose, government should not have the authority to coerce companies to expend their own resources, their own private property, in certain mandated ways—like paying their employees more than they otherwise would. This kind of government mandate would seem to be a violation of companies’ property rights.

Some might say that the needs of employees, particularly poor employees, should take precedence over the rights of employers. However, one could ask the question—in a potential dispute between employees and employers, should not justice be blind? As it says in Leviticus 19:15, “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great.”

What about labor law? Should there not be some requirement for companies to pay their employees a living wage? According to our Jewish tradition, this is a little more complicated, requiring inferences from other law.

Dealing fairly in business, including pricing things fairly, is one of the cornerstones of the law, again going back to the Bible. As it says in Leviticus 25:14, “When you make a sale to your fellow or when you buy from the hand of your fellow, do not victimize one another.” This is called the law of ona’ah—“overreaching”—which is prominently discussed and debated in Bava Metzia.

 In his 2008 Tradition article “The Living Wage and Jewish Law,” Rabbi Aaron Levine, the late Yeshiva University economics professor, explains that “The law of ona’ah prohibits an individual from concluding a transaction at a price that is more favorable to himself than the competitive norm.”

The Talmud does not explicitly discuss the idea of the minimum wage, but, extrapolating the law of ona’ah to wages, one would conclude that the wages that a company pays should not be substantially below the going rate for comparable jobs. As Levine notes, “A worker who cannot command a living wage in the marketplace cannot claim a living wage based on ona’ah.” As one can see, according to the law of ona’ah, wages should not be based on an employee’s needs.

There have been challenges to this perspective, however. For example, Jewish law stipulates that judges are to be paid a living wage. But can the case of a judge, who’s hired by a community to devote himself exclusively to his or her judicial job, be extended to the private sector?

Levine speculates that “if [the private sector employer] offers the head of a household a full-time job and stipulates with him that he may not take on outside employment, [the employer] must pay [the employee] a ‘living wage.’” This, however, is not common, particularly for lower-skilled workers, so this challenge is not a compelling one.

Another challenge comes from the Biblical law of lo talin—also discussed in Bava Metzia—the prohibition against withholding a worker’s wages. As it says in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You must not withhold the wages of a poor or destitute hired worker … You must give him his wages on the day they are due, and not let the sun set upon him, for he is poor, and he depends on it.”

These Biblical verses can be interpreted to mean that, if a worker does receive payment on time, then he will be able to provide for his family—thereby implying that employers are required to pay their workers enough to provide for their families. However, as Levine shows, “The inference is unwarranted.” The verses are not meant to suggest that a violation of lo talon will literally endanger the employee’s life. They’re intended to underscore the employer’s moral obligation to pay one’s workers on time.

This brings us to the law of charity. Is there a basis for a higher minimum wage as an act of charity? What exactly is required of employers?

Helping someone get out of poverty is one of the highest levels of charity. As it says in Deuteronomy 15:7-8, “If there will be among you a needy person … you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand to your needy brother. Rather, you shall surely open your hand to him, and you shall give him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”

Providing a needy person with a job—with a competitive wage—is one of the best examples of charity. At the same time, is it the employer’s responsibility to ensure that employees have enough to provide for themselves and their families?

If a young adult is having difficulty making ends meet, we would expect that his or her family, not the employer, would be first in line to help out. But what about the case of a needy employee who has primary responsibility for his or her family?

Deuteronomy 15:7-8 has been interpreted to mean that the community as a whole, not one individual nor one employer, has the moral responsibility to help those in need. Referring to the responsibility as dei mahsoro—“give him sufficient”—Levine notes that Jewish law “has interpreted the dei mahsoro mandate as a collective responsibility, rather than a duty for individuals to shoulder alone when they personally encounter charity cases. Because the ‘living wage’ mandate saddles employers alone with the burden of relieving poverty for the working poor, it does not follow from dei mahsoro.”

The idea of the minimum wage, while seemingly reasonable and compassionate, raises several difficult issues. From an economic perspective, it may actually reduce employment, which would not be compassionate for those struggling to find a job. It also raises important issues of justice. Based on property rights, labor law and charity law, as defined by many of our sacred texts and sages, the idea of the minimum wage is problematic. We may have a moral obligation to help those in need, but we also have a moral obligation to deal with each other justly.

Senior opposition leader attacks Netanyahu’s new gas deal


Opposition Zionist Camp (Labor) MK Shelly Yachimovich on Thursday attacked economic ministers Kahlon and Deri, whom she said should have prevented the advancement of the Israeli government’s new offshore gas agreement with several energy companies, including Delek and Noble Energey.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz introduced the outline that was obtained Wednesday night with the gas companies over the sale of offshore gas to the Israeli market.

In an interview on Army Radio, Yachimovich said: “I say to both Finance Minister Kahlon and Economy Minister Deri — I’m disappointed in you. You have betrayed the public’s trust.”

She accused the two ministers of having earned their tickets into politics during the last election campaign on social and economic issues, and then reneging on their voters.

Yigal Landau, CEO of Ratio Energy that owns 15% of the Leviathan offshore field, said that if the outline is now rescinded by the legislator, there would be serious consequences for the Israeli market as a result.

“This does not mean that Noble Energy (of Houston, Texas) will walk away from such promising property,” Landau explained, adding: “The story is very simple — it would become impossible to raise and invest the necessary billions without which we will continue to ramble on, but the gas will stays at the bottom of the sea.”

According to the agreement reached, the base price per unit will be between $4.7 and $5.5, linked to the electricity production components’ costs. The outline will be brought to the cabinet for approval on Sunday.

“I thank this team for reaching an agreement that will earn the citizens of Israel hundreds of billions of shekels in the coming years,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said Thursday afternoon, adding, “This money will be used for health, education and welfare and therefore it will help us to lower the cost of living.”

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said: “With the approval of the outline, we will start moving forward the development of Leviathan, Karish and Tannin, creating competition and dismantling the [energy] monopoly.”

“We have indeed added several changes to the outline in the areas of prices, milestones for the development of Leviathan and certain changes in the article dealing with [the project’s] stability,” Steinitz explained.

Is Livni’s move to team with Labor one of principle or opportunism?


In the latest episode of the satirical show “State of the Nation,” the zingers aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weren’t coming from the comedians.

Tzipi Livni, who until last month was Netanyahu’s justice minister, called the prime minister a “zero” on the program Saturday night and promised to “take out the trash” in the March election.

But her most brutal jab came when she defended the recent union of her center-left Hatnua party with Labor, led by Isaac Herzog. The parties will run as a joint slate in the upcoming national elections and, if victorious, Herzog and Livni would each serve two years as prime minister.

“I thought a rotation of two potent prime ministers is better than one prime minister who’s impotent,” Livni said. “In my new pairing with Herzog, we’re going on a new path that will give hope to the nation of Israel.”

The Labor agreement is one more stage in what has been a tumultuous political decade for Livni.

A former minister of the right-wing Likud, Livni is joining her fourth political party in nine years and leading a campaign to replace the current Likud government with a left-wing coalition.

Her allies say her progression reflects a steadfast commitment to sensible policies amid a chaotic political landscape. Critics say the party switching reeks of opportunism.

“At this point in time, party institutions are weak, so we’re in a place where every candidate makes his own calculation for every election,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who served with Livni in the Kadima party and now heads the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “The lines blurred, so it allows much more flexibility in people moving between parties.”

A daughter of former militants in the right-wing Irgun militia, Livni began her political career with Likud in 1999. She ascended to Cabinet minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and followed Sharon when he split with Likud in 2005 to form the centrist Kadima.

Livni became foreign minister when Kadima won the 2006 elections, and rose to lead the party in 2008 after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned. But she lost the 2009 elections to Likud and left Kadima in 2012 after losing in the party primary.

Ahead of the 2013 elections she founded Hatnua, promising to depose the Likud government and sign a peace accord with the Palestinians. But when Hatnua took only 5 percent of the vote, Livni joined a Likud-led coalition. That government broke up last month when Netanyahu fired Livni from her post as justice minister, and she united with Labor about a week later.

Throughout the changes, Livni has sought to portray herself as a principled leader who has stayed the course as the political ground has shifted beneath her. She advocates for minority rights, tough security measures and territorial compromise with the Palestinians — policies, she says, that a rightward-shifting Likud has mostly abandoned.

“I’m in the same place, with the same positions and the same opinions,” she said on “State of the Nation.” “Likud is escaping to the extreme right. Others are going to delusional places. I’m continuing with what I believe.”

Livni’s opponents in Likud, quick to document her zigzags across the political spectrum, counter that her willingness to discard party loyalties shows that she’s interested only in her own career.

“The unholy alliance between Herzog and Livni breaks a new record of political cynicism,” Likud lawmaker Yariv Levin wrote on Facebook last week. “Livni’s journey of switching from Likud to Kadima, from there to Hatnua and now to the Labor party, shows that a loss of direction, despair and small politics have taken over the Israeli left.”

Despite the criticism, the union with Labor seems to have elevated Livni’s public standing. Recent polls show the Labor-Hatnua list as the leading party heading into the elections. Before the merger, polls showed that Livni would barely have garnered enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University, said voters might not mind Livni’s maneuvers because party switching has become a mainstay of Israeli politics. Sharon helped form Likud in 1973 only to leave it, rejoin in 1977 and leave again in 2005. Former President Shimon Peres was a member of three parties during his nearly 60-year political career. And changing loyalties, Avineri said, has only become more frequent in recent years.

“The last 10 years have been characterized by some very centrist people in the Likud leaving the Likud and moving toward a more centrist position,” Avineri said. “People in the center are usually not party loyalists. They can go either way.”

Jews and Kate Middleton’s Royal Baby


When the news broke Monday that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William, had gone into labor, it seemed that London could not have been more prepared.

For weeks, reporters and photographers had been camped out in front of the maternity ward at St. Mary’s Hospital. The choreography of how the royal baby’s name would be announced was well-known: A car would drive from the hospital to Buckingham Palace, where the new name would be posted on an easel.

Yes, some crucial elements were missing surrounding the world’s most highly anticipated birth since Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had their twins in 2008.

Kate, now known as Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, and William had said they wanted the baby’s gender to be a surprise, so nobody knew whether to expect a prince or princess. Prince Charles, heir to the throne and the expectant grandfather, did not rush to the hospital’s Jewish-funded wing when the news came that Kate had gone into labor. Instead, he stuck to his planned schedule with a visit to the National Railway Museum in York.

It was a restraint that seemed, well, Jewish.

Like the royals, Jews traditionally have shunned pre-birth celebrations, and many stick to traditions in which they try to say and reveal as little as possible about their pregnancy until the baby’s arrival.

In the haredi Orthodox world, most women don’t even announce their pregnancies at all out of a reluctance to trumpet good news — for reasons of modesty and superstition.

“Jewish women feel conflicted because it’s incredibly helpful to prepare for the baby’s birth, but they still feel strange and think it will invite the evil eye if they celebrate their pregnancy,” says Deborah Kolben, editor of the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com. “When you try to talk about superstitions rationally they seem ridiculous, but it’s something that has been passed along and makes you feel like you have control over something when in reality you don’t.”

Some women wear amulets during pregnancy to stave off the evil eye, or “ayin hara.” In Jewish medieval mythology, the figure most threatening to a woman, Lilith, is notorious for strangling babies, robbing mothers of their children.

Jewish folklorist Howard Schwartz says the day his mother found out she was pregnant with him 69 years ago, she and her husband were planning a trip to the zoo. Her grandmother, hearing of the zoo excursion, warned her daughter not to look at the monkeys.

“Whatever you see before you’re pregnant can affect the baby,” she told her daughter, according to Schwartz.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, says the superstitions surrounding pregnancy and birth are not based in Jewish law and may even contravene them.

“As Jews, we are supposed to believe that God protects us, and sometimes these superstitious practices rely on forces other than God,” Lopatin said. “It’s almost in the category of magic.”

Historically, magic and superstitions were a way for expectant mothers to deal with the complicated, unpredictable and dangerous process of pregnancy.

While technology has eliminated some of those unknowns and dangers, pregnancy is still a fraught process, and superstitions have persisted, says Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University.

“Pregnancy superstitions remain a combination of fear of evil wishes and a very practical response to medical realities,” Fishman says.

Today, many Jewish women say superstitions have no place when it comes to pregnancy. Many plan full baby showers without concern about whether celebrating before the birth tempts fate. Others hold smaller celebrations, such as tea parties, that do not involve gifts.

Jewish educator Sarah Wilensky, a mother of two, said she did not want a baby shower when she was pregnant with her daughter, but her sister-in-law insisted on a party so she relented.

“But I told her no gifts for the baby — just casual brunch for friends and family — and that if people really wanted to bring gifts, maybe something small for me and my husband to enjoy while we were waiting for her arrival,” Wilensky said. “It ended up being lovely and I received many gifts.”

Connecticut-based Jewish blogger Cara Paiuk said she told her close friends and family immediately when she discovered she was pregnant with her first son. She did the same for her twins, who are nearly 3 months old.

“I firmly believe in sharing with your friends and family,” said Paiuk, who blogs for Kveller. “If, God forbid, something went wrong or was going wrong, it gives them the opportunity to love and support you rather than be in a vacuum where no one knows and you feel isolated and lonely.

“I had some complications with this pregnancy and I was very open about them. The community and friends rallied. They brought food, kept me company, looked after my son when I was in the hospital.”

Jordana Horn, a journalist, lawyer, blogger and mother of five, says she holds on to some superstitions.

“I would never buy things for the new baby before the baby was born and keep it in my house,” she said. “But I have five children, and I like to find out what the gender is when I can — in no small part to tell the older sister or brother what is coming to them. It’s fun to get excited.”

A gridlock bypass in Congress?


A remarkable thing happened in Washington, D.C., last week. National leaders of business and labor hammered out an outline on immigration reform. This might not only give a major boost to a new immigration policy; it might also show a path around the gridlock that has driven the nation into budgetary face-offs month after month.

The key to the deal is agreement on a guest-worker program, which labor has long opposed. The idea is to create a new program of immigrant worker visas, based on estimates of labor need as determined by a federal bureau. Business accepted the concepts of a variable labor pool, and, even more important, that the workers would not be tied to a single employer. Labor was adamant that workers not be subject to deportation for not getting along with their bosses.

While the details are important, the politics, both symbolic and real, may be even more significant. Each in their own ways, both business and labor have been struggling to get back into their party’s strategic calculations, and they may have found a way to do so together.

Since President Barack Obama’s re-election, House Republicans have thrown the country into one budget crisis after another in order to derail the president’s agenda. The business community has been unhappy with threats against paying for the nation’s debt, fiscal cliffs and now the sequester. But business had been largely unsuccessful in its struggle to move the House Republicans and a number of Republican senators, most of whom represent safe conservative districts or states whose Republican primary voters favor confrontation with the president. Not surprisingly, a conservative Republican senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times (Feb. 22) criticizing the business role in the deal: “The chamber’s primary goal has never been to establish a lawful immigration system and secure our borders, but to get as much cheap labor as possible.” The Times article also noted, however, that Senate bipartisan negotiators were delighted with the deal, and even the No. 2 House leader, Republican Eric Cantor, was upbeat.

Labor has had its own frustrations with the Democrats. Unlike in California, organized labor is weaker in Washington, D.C., and in their dealings with the White House, labor leaders have sometimes felt like outside agitators fighting against what they see as too much conciliation toward Republicans. By helping in a big way toward a major administration goal, and by engaging with a business sector that might yet be able to have some clout with Republicans, labor has proved its value. 

Further, Democrats will need a big labor push in 2014 to avoid the off-year low turnout calamity that brought the Tea Party to Congress in 2010. The same could be said about business with its constituency. Many in business fear that the isolation of the Republican Party will eventually hurt them both economically and politically, and they have been pushing the party to be more moderate and less reflexively anti-government.

This business-labor agreement points to a larger shift in the thinking of the Obama White House about how to get a second-term agenda accomplished. For a long time, Obama has had faith that he can persuade conservative Republicans to accept his agenda because it “makes sense.” It was always hard to see why that would be a compelling argument to politicians, even those not gripped in a Tea Party ideology. And by constantly negotiating and seeking deals, he elevated the power of those who keep manufacturing the crises that seem to require negotiating. The wiser move is to isolate the recalcitrants by building a larger and larger block of interests that coalesce around the White House agenda. We are already seeing this strategy emerge, as Republican governors begin to accept Medicaid expansion under the new health care law because of pressure from hospitals in their states, and as those same governors signal to their fellow Republicans in D.C. that to go through with sequestration would have devastating consequences back home.

A better strategy has now emerged, one that meets the needs of the administration to make progress and even of conservatives to show that they are opposing him. If House Republican leaders continue to poke holes in the Hastert Rule, which dictated that nothing can be brought to the floor of the House without the support of a majority of the Republican caucus, then conservatives can still go on record in full-throated opposition without the Republican Party being blamed in full for blocking progress. Immigration may be a big test of this approach, should the combination of a bipartisan team in the Senate and the business-labor alliance create a large enough power bloc to make progress in the House inevitable. 

In any case, a business-labor agreement on anything must be seen as good news for a struggling American government.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

The problem with Israel’s electoral system


Israel’s electoral system is the root cause of the disheartening polarization and superficiality on display in Israel’s current election season. Many wrongly point to the egos of our politicians as the underlying reason. In reality, powerful constitutional disincentives for collaboration shape our politics.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, whereby voters elect parties to serve in the 120-seat Knesset, based on proportional representation. Thus, a party that receives 10 percent of the votes would hold 12 seats. After elections, parties must establish a coalition of a minimum of 61 MKs, the head of which becomes the prime minister.

This system encourages divisiveness among the public. The 34 parties that will stand for election next week distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: religious versus secular, poor versus rich, Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, periphery against center, hawks against doves, Jews against Arabs. On the right, the joint list of the Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu is losing power to smaller sectoral parties such as Shas and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. On the left, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Shaul Mofaz — of Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor and Kadima, respectively — failed to join forces in spite of evident similarities in their vision.

Meanwhile, after the elections, some of these parties inevitably will make up the next government, and many of them will repeatedly join forces on various legislative initiatives. Hence, while the public remains divided, the politicians collaborate.

A reversal of this pattern could be readily available through a simple amendment establishing as prime minister the head of the party that gets the highest number of votes. This would encourage politicians to join forces in inclusive political frameworks and broad sectors of the population to support two ruling Zionist parties on the right and on the left. It would also incentivize politicians to be centrist and pragmatic.

I hope that such a change will be the legacy of the coming Knesset. There will be a large parliamentary block that would support such a reform, and powerful forces are gearing up with the civil society as well. The position of the likely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party will be key, as in the current election campaign they have been the primary victim of the present electoral system.

Finally, a thought on the U.S. political system: The polarization of American politics and the deadlock in Washington may also result from a crisis in its electoral system. Decades of gerrymandering have turned most electoral districts into either red or blue, breeding ideological politicians who cater to their ideological bases and not pragmatically to the center. The United States thrived when it was purple. It is muddling through when it is red or blue. Go purple.

A final note: My personal perspective on these issues dates back to 1999: My service in the Bureau of the Prime Minister between 1999 and 2001 exposed me to the structural failure of Israeli governance. After a year at Harvard’s Kennedy School (class of 2002), I launched Re’ut to generate substantive impact, as well as an initiative named Yesodot (Foundations) to reform Israeli governance, which was active until 2004. I have served the cause of electoral reform ever since and am proud that the core logic of Yesodot is now commonly accepted by all other groups working toward this end.


Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Re’ut Institute in Tel Aviv.

Kadima crumbles, Labor emphasizes social issues and Likud still dominates


Two months ago, the strategy for victory was clear: To unseat Benjamin Netanyahu in elections on Jan. 22, Israel’s handful of center-left parties had to unite under one banner and choose a leader who could challenge the Israeli prime minister on issues of diplomacy and security.

Instead, the opposite has happened. Netanyahu’s opponents have become more fragmented, and the center-left has focused more on social issues than security.

The Knesset’s largest party, Kadima — founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon as a centrist breakaway from Likud, and later led by Tzipi Livni — appears to be collapsing. Members have rejoined Likud, defected to Labor or are joining Livni’s new centrist party, called the Movement. Some polls are saying that Kadima may not even make it into the next Knesset.

Shelly Yachimovich, who heads Labor — historically one of Israel’s two biggest parties but the fifth largest in the current Knesset — has made socioeconomic issues her focus.

The emphasis on socioeconomic policy represents “a reshuffling of the system far from the dominance of security issues,” says Tamar Hermann, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

But ceding the debate over security policy to Netanyahu, who has more security experience than Yachimovich, a former journalist, clearly gives the prime minister the upper hand.

Meanwhile, the right wing has consolidated, virtually assuring a third term for Netanyahu. Recent polls show the prime minister’s ruling Likud Party, which has merged lists with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, winning 38 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Labor, polling in second place, might not break 20.

Netanyahu’s poll numbers have fallen since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last month. Some analysts say right-wing Israelis are unhappy that the prime minister agreed to a cease-fire rather than pressing ahead with a ground operation. But with Netanyahu still controlling a daunting lead, center-left parties are scrambling to find a strategy that gives them a shot at winning the premiership.

Yachimovich’s focus on social issues, including calls for lower prices and more social welfare, represents an effort to harness the energy of the mass social protests Israel saw in the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to agitate for more help for the middle class. But Labor thus far has failed to reignite the spark that propelled the protests.

With the Israeli left in shambles — less than 10 percent of Jewish Israelis identify with left-wing ideology, polls show — Labor has pivoted to the center, trying to rebrand itself from a left-wing party to a centrist one.

“The Labor Party is located and has always been located in the center of the political map,” Yachimovich told Army Radio on Nov. 25. “Its strength is from its pragmatism, its Zionism, its very pragmatic struggle for peace and especially from Labor's being a social democratic party.”

Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said, “Labor finally figured out that the only way it has a chance for a comeback is if it distances itself from Oslo,” the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. Labor under Yitzhak Rabin engineered that peace accord, which many Israelis now view as having failed.

“We’re seeing a revision of the left,” Halevi told JTA. “The mainstream left is trying to return to the mainstream” of Israeli society.

But the center is already crowded with other Israeli political parties all competing for the same votes. Yesh Atid, a new party led by former journalist Yair Lapid, has generated excitement by calling for a lower cost of living and universal military service. Livni’s new party is stressing the importance of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that would result in partition and a Palestinian state — not for the Palestinians' benefit or out of some idealistic vision of coexistence, but as a pragmatic necessity to secure Israel's democratic future.

Not everyone believes the fragmentation of the center is bad for the centrists’ cause.

“What’s important is the size of the bloc, not the party,” says Hebrew University political science professor Gideon Rahat. “Every party will try to emphasize a different aspect of policy. It’ll be the same, as if they were united.”

In her speech announcing her return to politics, Livni said the Movement aims to take votes from Likud and “provide an answer for people who have no one to vote for.” (Livni had quit after losing an election in March for Kadima’s chairmanship to Shaul Mofaz.)

Livni’s decision is likely to deal the biggest blow to Kadima, once the flag-bearer of the political center in Israel and, from its founding in 2005 until 2009, the party of the prime minister — first Sharon, then Ehud Olmert.

On Thursday, former Labor leader Amir Peretz said he was joining Livni's party. Peretz, who served as defense minister under Olmert, had been a subject of much derision for his disastrous performance during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, when at one point he was photographed observing the fighting through binoculars that had the lens cap on. But Peretz's reputation was revived in recent weeks as a result of the success of the Iron Dome missile defense system during the mini-war in Gaza; Peretz had been the main champion of Iron Dome and overcame military resistance to its development.

While Netanyahu watches the centrist infighting from a distance, his Likud has shifted further to the right. In last month's party primaries, several hawkish settler advocates captured top spots, including Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Jewish Leadership faction of the party. Occupying spot No. 15 on the Likud list, Feiglin advocates for annexing the West Bank and wants to encourage Israeli Arabs to leave the Jewish state. Some moderate Netanyahu allies, by contrast, won't get another term in the Knesset.

Hermann says it’s still too early to predict a winner based on how the polls fluctuate in Israel.

“There are new issues at play, so three, four or five seats can change the picture,” she said. In polls, “a few Knesset seats is within the margin of error. You can’t build a theory on it.”

Israeli workers launch massive strike


Israeli workers launched an open-ended general strike.

The strike launched Wednesday by the Histadrut, Israel’s main labor union, closed down the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, stopped trains across the country and caused major delays at Ben Gurion Airport. The crippling strike also affected hospitals, government offices and banks.

Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini and Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz met until late Tuesday in order to avoid the strike. Talks between the union and the government failed to reach agreement on including contract workers in labor agreements.

“A strike will not solve the problem of contract workers,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “It is possible to improve the conditions of contract workers without striking the economy and disrupting citizens’ lives. There is no magic solution to the employment problems that have been created here over decades; it is possible to resolve the issue through dialogue.”

Ben Gurion Airport was closed from 6 a.m. until noon under the Israel Labor Court’s conditions for allowing the strike to go forward. Most airlines rearranged their schedules to accommodate the closing times.

Netanyahu wins new party mandate


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won a new mandate to head his right-wing Likud party, defeating an ultranationalist challenger opposed to any land-for-peace deal with Palestinians.

Initial results published on Wednesday after voting held a day earlier showed Netanyahu captured a resounding majority of party ballots in a poll that some political commentators said could be a harbinger to an early general election ahead of a U.S. presidential vote this year.

Israel’s next national vote is due in late 2013.

With opinion polls showing Likud on course for victory, holding the ballot earlier could put Netanyahu in a better position to deal with what many Israelis believe will be pressure from Barack Obama for peace concessions should the Democrat win a second term in November.

“I thank you all for the confidence and renewed support you have given me,” Netanyahu said in a victory speech in Tel Aviv, as initial results showed him way ahead of his sole rival, far-right settler, Moshe Feiglin.

“Together we shall continue to lead the nation,” Netanyahu said. “We have proven the Likud is a strong and united movement.”

Yigal Movermacher, a party spokesman, said a tally of some 40 percent of ballots showed Netanyahu had won 80 percent and that official results would be published later on Wednesday.

Feiglin polled about 20 percent, similar to his 24 percent showing in their last contest in 2007, initial results showed.

He had had little chance of unseating Netanyahu but had hoped to provide a voice for settlers in the party opposed to Israel giving up land they see as a biblical birthright for peace.

In an interview with Reuters, Feiglin said he advocated Israeli annexation of West Bank and the provision of financial incentives to encourage Palestinians to leave.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks stalled shortly after they began in 2010 in a dispute over settlement building in the West Bank.

Exploratory talks in Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in recent weeks ended in deadlock without any agreement to restart full negotiations.

While Netanyahu has not said he wanted an early general election, “he prefers to lead and not be dragged there”, Likud legislator Danny Danon told Reuters.

In his speech, Netanyahu said “there is time yet” before any national vote would be held, leaving the door open for further political maneuvers. Campaign aide Haim Bibas said Netanyahu would decide if to seek an early vote over the next two months.

The Likud poll will be followed by a Kadima primary election on March 27. Both Kadima and the left-of-centre Labour party have been actively recruiting popular figures, and some influential wild cards, such as former journalist Yair Lapid, have thrown their hats into the electoral ring as well.

Editing by Maria Golovnina

Can Labor’s new leader Shelly Yachimovich revive the party?


The Israeli Labor Party’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, makes a grand entrance at the annual Rosh Hashanah toast for party activists.

Well over an hour after the guests begin munching on puff pastries, she is greeted like a conquering hero as she wades into the crowd wearing black jeans and sandals. Everyone wants to shake her hand, hug her, kiss her.

Yachimovich ascends the makeshift dais and waits as each of Labor’s Knesset members makes a brief speech offering good wishes for the New Year. The speakers include former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whom she had edged for the party leadership in primaries last month.

In her remarks, Yachimovich concentrates on socioeconomic issues—her signature focus and, analysts say, the reason she won the Labor primaries after a summer of socioeconomic discontent in Israel.

“What is Netanyahu’s solution to the high cost of living?” she asks the enthusiastic crowd, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “To open the Israeli markets, to destroy Israeli industry, to cause thousands of workers to lose their jobs. Not in our party! Not in our party!”

The crowd applauds.

“We are the only ones on the political map who can present a real, deep, social democratic alternative to the capitalistic extremism that Netanyahu has championed,” she says.

Yachimovich, 51, has been in the Knesset for six years. Before that she was a well-known journalist, first on Israel Radio and then on Channel 2. She also wrote two novels.

In contrast to most Israeli political leaders, who emphasize security issues, Yachimovich has focused on social justice causes. She initiated laws requiring employers to provide chairs for their cashiers, favoring Israeli factories and companies over foreign ones, and extending maternity leave to 14 weeks.

Her reputation for social causes worked in her favor following a summer that saw hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets for protests focusing on socioeconomic issues.

Yachimovich’s candidacy succeeded in attracting thousands of young voters to Labor, which had become known in Israel as the “alter kockers party” – Yiddish for “old folks.”

The election last month seems to have breathed new life into the Labor Party, which had been Israel’s dominant party for its first three decades but has faltered greatly over the last 10 years. In the 2009 elections, Labor suffered a crushing defeat, winning just 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and falling to No. 4 in size among Israel’s political parties.

Another blow came earlier this year when Defense Minister Ehud Barak split off to form a new party called Atzmaut. He took four Knesset members with him.

Labor activists hope Yachimovich can unite the party and make it a renewed force in Israeli politics.

“Labor must rebuild itself with the goal of leading the social camp and the peace camp,” former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna told JTA. “These days, when ‘peace’ is a bad word, we have to rebuild hope. Only a combination of peace and social justice can create a new reality.”

Yachimovich is only the second woman to lead Israel’s Labor Party; the first was Prime Minister Golda Meir. The Knesset’s largest party, Kadima, also is led by a woman, Tzipi Livni, while another woman, Zahava Gal-On, is competing to lead the leftist Meretz Party.

“I think she did an excellent job as a parliamentarian,” said Labor Party activist Eli Aloni. “She doesn’t have enough experience in foreign policy, but she’s a smart woman. She’ll learn.”

Media reports frequently describe Yachimovich as having a cold personality, and she has come under particular fire from a former colleague at Channel 2, Nehemia Shtrasler.

Despite being a former journalist, Yachimovich often rebuffs the press. She declined an interview with JTA, and Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman said she cut off an interview with him after 90 seconds.

Labor still has a long way to go before it returns to its former glory. Recent surveys found that if elections were held today, Labor would win 22 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, passing both Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu but still trailing the Likud.

BMW family admits using slave labor for Nazis


The family that owns BMW has admitted to using slave labor during World War II.

Some 50,000 forced laborers are estimated to have worked in the factories of industrialist Guenther Quandt producing arms for the Nazis, according to a study commissioned by the Quandt family.

Gabriele Quandt, grandson of Guenther Quandt, told the German newspaper Die Zeit that it was “wrong” for the family to ignore this chapter of its history.

The independent study by the Bonn-based historian Joachim Scholtyseck concluded that Guenther Quandt and his son Herbert helped bolster the Nazis, according to the newspaper. The three-year study was commissioned in response to public outrage over a German television documentary that made the accusation; the documentary had access to the company’s files from the Third Reich period.

Guenther Quandt also is accused of taking over Jewish-owned companies during the war with the blessing of the Nazis.

The Quandt family bought shares of BMW 15 years after World War II.

Guenther Quandt became a Nazi Party member on May 1, 1933. He died in 1954.

The family still owns a majority of shares in the luxury carmaker.

Hugo Boss apologizes for its forced labor under Nazis


The German fashion house Hugo Boss has apologized for mistreating forced labor at a uniform factory during World War II.

Revelations about how company founder Hugo Boss employed forced workers at his clothing factory, which was contracted to make Nazi uniforms, have appeared in a book about the history of the company during the Hitler years.

The book, which was financed by the fashion house, makes clear that Boss was a loyal Nazi. Orders for uniforms from the National Socialist Party after Boss joined in 1931 saved the factory from bankruptcy. Boss died in 1948.

The factory used 140 Polish and 40 French forced workers; most were women.

“Hugo Boss, 1924-1945: A Clothing Factory During the Weimar Republic and Third Reich” was written by Roman Koester, an economic historian at the Bundeswehr University in Munich.

The company said in a statement on its website that it expressed “profound regret” to the forced workers who suffered while working at the factory during the war.

Ehud Barak quits Labor: what’s next?


Was it an act of political self-preservation, a feat of political destruction or a bid to stabilize Israel’s government ahead of some dramatic move?

And for Israel’s Labor Party, was it another sign of the once-leading party’s demise or a precursor to a revival and the ideals for which it stands?

What’s certain is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision this week to quit Labor, which he had headed until Jan. 17, has sent shock waves throughout the Israeli political establishment.

Ironically, the split of Labor — until this week a part of the Israeli government but now in the opposition — may yet strengthen the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak’s decision to quit Labor and found a new political party along with four other Labor defectors leaves Netanyahu with eight fewer members in his coalition, but the 66 who remain are considered far more stable than the 74 he had predefection.

Before Barak’s dramatic announcement, Labor was threatening to withdraw all 13 of its Knesset members unless Netanyahu could show real progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians. That would have left the prime minister with only 61 coalition members, the vast majority right-wingers and the minimum necessary to stay prime minister in the 120-seat Knesset. Such a narrow coalition would have opened up Netanyahu to harsh domestic and international criticism for leading a perceived hard-line government.

Now, in what appears to have been a coordinated move, Netanyahu and Barak have pulled the rug out from under the feet of their opponents. With a more stable coalition, Netanyahu almost certainly has secured a full term in office, until 2013. Barak pre-empted attempts to oust him as Labor leader and force him to leave the Defense Ministry by cutting a deal in which he can stay on as defense minister after leaving Labor.

Many Israelis on the left and right viewed Barak’s move with deep skepticism. The new party he heads, called Atzmaut, which means Independence, has a hazy future other than the assurance of four ministerial berths in Netanyahu’s government and the chairmanship of a Knesset committee.

The leader of Israel’s opposition, Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, called it the “dirtiest and ugliest maneuver” in Israel’s political history. Her own party was a breakaway from Likud in November 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led an exodus of moderates, including Livni, from Likud.

The regional implications of the upgraded Netanyahu-Barak partnership could be far-reaching.

It would appear that the peace process with the Palestinians is over, as the more dovish members of Netanyahu’s coalition have exited. Even if Netanyahu wanted to cut a deal with the Palestinians, his remaining coalition partners likely would block it.

Barak and Netanyahu, however, put a much different gloss on things. Until now, the Palestinians had been hoping for the Israeli government to fall and be replaced by one more amenable to their demands, representatives of the two men argue, and this has kept the Palestinians away from serious peace talks. Now, with a more stable government, the Palestinians will see this is who they have to deal with for the foreseeable future and may become more serious about returning to the negotiating table.

Furthermore, Netanyahu and Barak confidants have been dropping broad hints that a new Israeli peace initiative is in the offing, suggesting that this is the part of a the Netanyahu-Barak understanding.

There is another theory for Barak’s move: that Netanyahu is seriously contemplating a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and believes he needs Barak at his side. According to this line of thinking, with the Labor Party threatening to force Barak to leave the government, Netanyahu could have found himself with a new defense minister who was less inclined to attack Iran.

Barak says his new party will run in the next elections. But many Israelis are wondering if Barak really intends to make an electoral pact with Netanyahu and run on the Likud ticket.

Where does all this leave the Labor Party?

Many had accused Barak of ruining the party with his high-handed leadership style, lack of people skills and loss of ideological direction — and now delivering the coup de grace by splitting the party in two. Many Israelis believe that the party, whose leaders founded and built the state, holding uninterrupted power for Israel’s first three decades, has run its course and that a new left-center constellation will rise from the ashes.

But the eight former ministers and Knesset members who have remained in the party insist that it could still be at the heart of a center-left revival.

Party activists, especially the young guard, say that with Barak gone, people will rejoin in droves.

Most important, though, the results of the next election likely will be decided by how the new Netanyahu-Barak partnership fares. That has only just begun.

Car Wash Brothers Face Labor Abuse Charges


Since two local Iranian Jewish brothers were charged with a 176-count criminal complaint by the L.A. City Attorney’s Office in February for alleged labor law violations at their car washes, many area Iranian Jewish business owners are quietly expressing support for the pair. And some believe they are being singled out for political reasons.

The complaint alleges that Benny Pirian, 38, and Nissan Pirian, 31, the owners of four car washes in Northridge, Hollywood and Los Feliz, routinely refused to pay their workers minimum wage, failed to pay their workers overtime, prevented their workers from taking rest breaks and required their workers to purchase uniforms and equipment from them, in addition to other violations of state labor laws. The complaint also alleges that workers who attempted to unionize the car washes with the help of the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers were intimidated and harassed, and that a manager at one of the car washes brandished a machete and a club in two such union-busting incidents.

The City Attorney’s Office also alleges that the Pirians failed to provide medical attention to workers who were seriously injured by acid burns, deep puncture wounds and severe lacerations while on the job. If convicted on all counts, the Pirians could face more than 80 years in county jail and more than $1.25 million in fines and restitution.

“This was a joint investigation involving the investigators from our office and from the United States Department of Labor,” said Max Follmer, a City Attorney’s Office spokesperson. “Our offices investigated this case for some time, interviewing more than 40 witnesses.”

The Pirians’ arraignment is scheduled for May 7 in L.A. Superior Court.

The criminal charges are just the latest troubles for the Pirians. Bet Tzedek, the L.A.-based Jewish nonprofit law firm, first filed a civil class-action suit against the brothers and their four car washes last May on behalf of nearly 250 current and former workers for unpaid wages as well as denial of rest and meal breaks.

The Pirians declined to speak on the record with The Journal about the criminal charges and other litigation, directing inquiries instead to their attorney, Mark Werksman.

Werksman denied his clients’ wrongdoing and said the criminal and civil cases brought against his clients were retaliation stemming from the Pirians’ lack of support for unionizing activities at their car washes.

“The criminal charges are baseless and rely on frivolous, unproveable allegations made by union organizers who are trying to punish the Pirians and their employees for resisting their union drive,” he said. “The union has launched a campaign of harassment and frivolous litigation to bludgeon the Pirians into submission, and this prosecution is their latest weapon.”

While many local Iranian Jewish community leaders declined to comment on the Pirians’ case, business owners in the community have been quietly supporting the brothers over the past few months.

“This criminal case is politically motivated since the outgoing City Attorney [Rocky] Delgadillo wants to curry favor with the unions before he leaves office in June,” said Houshang F., an Iranian Jewish car wash owner in the San Fernando Valley who asked that his last name be withheld. “These brothers are just being made an example of by Delgadillo to scare the rest of us car wash owners into bowing down to the unions.”

Follmer said that the criminal charges brought against the Pirians were not politically motivated. “The charges were brought by experienced career prosecutors and based upon evidence developed over the course of lengthy and complete prosecutions,” he said.

Bijan Yaghoobia, an Iranian Jewish former car wash owner, said many in the Iranian Jewish community are standing in support of the Pirians despite the numerous allegations of wrongdoings.

“There was shock in the community over the charges but a lot more compassion for these guys because they were the ones singled out over others. The belief is that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Yaghoobia said.

Several Iranian car wash owners said their business has long had problems with monitoring laborers since many of their workers are undocumented; they often come on their off days to work for tips alone and sometimes they leave the country for long periods of time.

“I think the car washes are an easy target in the city for these labor violations, even though there are plenty of garment businesses, light manufacturing companies and even restaurants using illegal labor,” Houshang F. said.

According to California State Labor Codes, a person’s immigration status is irrelevant when it comes to their employers’ duty to pay employees minimum wages, allow for rest and meal breaks and follow all other labor laws.

Yaghoobia, who owned several car washes for 13 years, said car washes have long been popular among Iranian Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles since it is a profitable, low-skill cash business. He added that many car washes use illegal labor to reduce costs and prices, which in turn puts financial pressure on owners who follow labor laws and hire documented workers.

“The problem arises when you’re in an area where there are other car washes who are hiring illegals, or not paying minimum wages or hiring tip workers. You have to compete with them since they have lower prices,” Yaghoobia said.

Bet Tzedek’s current civil case against the Pirians is also not the first, said Kevin Kish, Bet Tzedek’s director of legal services. In 2005, Bet Tzedek represented a Pirian car wash employee in a lawsuit for failure to pay minimum wages and overtime in a case that was eventually settled, he said.

Kish said the latest health and safety citations received by the Pirians’ car washes were in December 2008 from the California Department of Industrial Relations, Occupational Safety and Health division.

According to records from the L.A. City Attorney’s Office, while criminal charges were not previously brought against the Pirians, a different car wash owner was previously convicted of labor law violations in November 2005. In that case, the owner was ordered to pay more than $160,000 in restitution to 11 workers and to complete community service requirements with Caltrans.

Yaghoobia said that while individuals may be quick to blame car wash owners like the Pirians for labor violations, the fault in such cases often lie with both workers and their employers.

“Both sides are at fault because, for example, you tell your worker to take a lunch break but he works through it to make tips and everything is hunky dory until one day the laborer gets upset with the owner for some reason so he goes to the Labor Board and claims he’s been mistreated,” he said. “At the same time many of the owners are uneducated about the state labor laws and the accountants they hire don’t always educate them about these laws.”

For more about this story and local Iranian Jews, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Netanyahu Made an Offer Barak Couldn’t Refuse


From Haaretz.com

There is no debate over two of the achievements of the Labor-Likud coalition agreement that was initialed on Tuesday morning: It was reached after negotiations unprecedented in their brevity – taking less than 24 hours – and it grants Labor a scandalous package of positions for its mere 13 Knesset seats, almost out of generosity. The deal gives the party five cabinet posts, including two of the most senior – Defense Minister and Trade and Industry Minister – and another two deputy ministerial positions.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s package of temptation for Labor was so bountiful that it is not clear whether the party will have enough people to man all the positions. Labor chairman Ehud Barak’s camp, as of Tuesday morning, consisted of Ministers Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shalom Simhon, Isaac Herzog and deputy ministers Matan Vilnai and Orit Noked. Vilnai will be upgraded to minister without portfolio and Noked will serve as a deputy minister.  Click here to read the rest of the article on Haaretz.com.

LABOR JOINING BIBI: Kosher Stamp or Fig Leaf?


Depending on one’s interpretation, Labor’s decision to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition grants Israel’s incoming government either a kosher seal of approval or a fig leaf to disguise a right-wing agenda.

Either way, Labor’s move will make Netanyahu Israel’s next prime minister.

After a contentious meeting of the Labor Central Committee on Tuesday, members voted 680-570 to join the coalition, which already includes the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties. The vote provides Netanyahu the Knesset majority he needs to form a new government.

Labor’s decision has important implications for the country and the party.

Arguing in favor of joining the government, Labor leader Ehud Barak told party members that Labor’s participation in the coalition was necessary to counteract right-wing forces, ensure that Israel remains committed to the peace process and help the country face uniquely grave threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

“We won’t be anyone’s fig leaf or anyone’s third wheel,” Barak told the Central Committee. “We will act as an opposing force that will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel.”

In exchange for Labor joining the coalition, Netanyahu agreed to commit the government to all agreements signed by previous Israeli governments, the pursuit of regional peace and enforcement of the law when it comes to illegal Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank. The deal also allows Barak to stay on as defense minister and makes him a full partner in the diplomatic process.

For Barak—and perhaps for many of Israel’s international partners—the Netanyahu-led government is now palatable.

For Netanyahu, the partnership with Labor, historically a center-left party, burnishes the image of an incoming government that until Tuesday risked being comprised solely of right-wing and religious parties. While such a government would have been a welcome change in some corners of Israel, it likely would have been ill received by Israel’s allies overseas.

Some European officials already had expressed public misgivings about Netanyahu’s coalition, especially the prominence of controversial Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who was promised the portfolio of foreign minister. While the Obama administration was careful publicly to maintain a neutral stance on the composition of Israel’s government, Israeli observers have predicted that a right-wing coalition would be on a collision course with Washington.

Netanyahu himself expressed a preference for avoiding a narrow coalition even before the Feb. 10 vote, which saw significant gains for Israel’s right wing. All along the Likud leader said he’d like to see a national unity government comprised of his party, Labor and the current ruling party, Kadima—and led by him. Like Barak, Netanyahu says the seriousness of the threats Israel is facing mandates a strong, stable government.

Critics, including some in Labor who spoke out before the committee vote Tuesday, say what Netanyahu really seeks is diplomatic cover to pursue a right-wing agenda.

“We would be entering this government as a third wheel, as a wagging tail, not more than that,” Labor Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich said before Tuesday’s vote. “There is no shame in sitting in the opposition. On the contrary, it’s an honor.”

Following Tuesday’s vote, the “honor” appeared to be reserved for Kadima. Despite Netanyahu’s entreaties, the party has refused to join the coalition. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said she would not join the new government unless Netanyahu committed to the pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and agreed to a rotating premiership that would make her prime minister for two years.

By staying in the opposition Livni—whose party captured 28 seats in the Feb. 10 vote, one more than Likud—believes she will be able to solidify Kadima’s position as an alternative to the Likud-led government.

Livni is betting that Netanyahu will run into trouble—with allies abroad, if he pursues a right-wing agenda, or within his own government, if he follows policies that anger his right-wing partners. That, she figures, would set the stage for Kadima to lead the next government.

Livni’s critics say she is putting party before country at a time when Israel can ill afford an unstable government. Iran is pushing forward with its nuclear program, Hezbollah in Lebanon now has missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Hamas in Gaza continues to fire rockets deeper and deeper into Israeli territory.

With Barak, the opposite is true. He can claim he is putting country before party by helping Israel’s government deal with these threats and mitigating any right-wing tendencies, but the upshot may be the collapse of the Labor Party.

Labor and its predecessor, Mapai, dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades, leading every government from 1948 to 1977. Though its representation in the Knesset suffered somewhat in ensuing elections, Labor remained the voice of the center-left until 2005, when Ariel Sharon broke away from Likud to form the centrist Kadima Party.

Kadima’s establishment pulled supporters from Labor, and in last month’s national election Labor fell to an all-time low of fourth place, capturing just 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

While Labor’s decision to join Netanyahu’s coalition gives Barak a personal boost—keeping him in the important post of defense minister—it erodes Labor’s place in Israel’s political spectrum as the party of the center-left.

Kadima arguably can now claim that mantle. If Netanyahu succeeds, Likud will gain rather than Labor. And if Netanyahu fails, Kadima stands to gain, not Labor.

For a related story, click here.

Israel’s Labor Party Votes to Join Government Coalition


JERUSALEM (JTA)—The Labor Party voted to join the Likud-led coalition government, virtually guaranteeing that Benjamin Netanyahu will be Israel’s next prime minister.

Labor chief Ehud Barak’s bid to join Netanyahu’s coalition came down to a contentious vote Tuesday night by the party’s central committee, with 680 in favor of joining and 570 against.

With Labor behind him, Netanyahu now has the 60-plus Knesset majority necessary to form a government and become prime minister. His other coalition partners include the Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties.

Barak argued that Labor joining the Likud-led coalition was best for the country and would not provide cover for a right-wing agenda.

“I am not afraid of Benjamin Netanyahu. We won’t be anyone’s fig leaf or anyone’s third wheel,” Barak told the central committee. “We will act as an opposing force that will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel.”

Audience members who disagreed booed Barak.

“We would be entering this government as a third wheel, as a wagging tail, not more than that,”  Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich said before the vote. “There is no shame in sitting in the opposition. On the contrary, it’s an honor.”

Earlier in the day, Barak and Netanyahu came together on a draft agreement stipulating that in exchange for Labor’s joining the coalition, the Israeli government would commit toward working for achieve regional peace, affirm its commitment to all agreements signed by previous Israeli governments, allow Barak to continue on as defense minister and be a full partner in the diplomatic process, and enforce the law on illegal outposts, according to media reports.

Yes, we cantankerous


Rubashkin son arrested, Agriprocessors fined $10 million in kosher slaughterhouse probe


POSTVILLE, IOWA (JTA) — The former manager of Agriprocessors was arrested today on charges related to the hiring of illegal workers.

Sholom Rubashkin, 49, was arrested by immigration officials and was due to appear in federal court later today.

Documents filed with the court allege that Rubashkin conspired to harbor illegal immigrants at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. They further charge that he aided and abetted in the use of fake identification documents and identity theft.

Rubashkin is the highest-ranking Agriprocessors official to face criminal charges stemming from the May 12 federal immigration raid at the company’s Postville meatpacking plant. More than one-third of the company’s workforce was arrested.

According to the criminal complaint filed Thursday, Rubashkin provided funds that were used to purchase new identification for workers at Agriprocessors who were found to have bad papers. The complaint further alleges that Rubashkin asked a human resources officer to come in on a Sunday to process the new employment applications of several such workers.

Company representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Nathan Lewin, an attorney who represents Rubashkin’s father and the company owner Aaron Rubashkin, dismissed the arrest as unnecessary and motivated by federal law enforcement’s desire for good publicity.

“The arrest of Mr. Sholom Rubashkin today was a wholly unnecessary and gratuitous act by federal prosecutors apparently engaged in an unseemly competition with State of Iowa officials to capture headlines in a vendetta against Agriprocessors,” Lewin said.

Rubashkin’s arrest comes a day after Iowa Workforce Development announced it would levy nearly $10 million in fines against the company for alleged labor infractions.

In response to the action by the state labor agency, Agriprocessors CEO Bernard Feldman told The New York Times that he had “grave doubts as to the appropriateness of the claimed violations, and we also take issue with the intended sanction imposed per claim.”

Iowa Workforce Development, the state’s labor regulation agency, levied $9,988,200 in civil penalties against the kosher meat producer in Postville for four categories of infraction. The largest is for charging employees for frocks — the regulation agency claims the company is guilty of more than 90,000 such incidents, assessed at $100 per infraction.

“Once again, Agriprocessors has demonstrated a complete disregard for Iowa law,” said Dave Neil, the state’s labor commissioner. “This continued course of violations is a black mark on Iowa’s business community.”

According to Iowa Workforce Development, the company has 30 days to contest the penalties in writing before they become finalized. The department has an additional wage investigation under way that could lead to further penalties.
The fines are the latest challenge to Agriprocessors, once the nation’s largest producer of kosher meat before a massive federal immigration raid on May 12 resulted in the arrest of more than one-third of its workforce.

With its reputation taking a drubbing and concerns mounting that the company could lose its kosher certification, Agriprocessors hired a compliance officer and installed a new chief executive.

Company representatives did not immediately respond to JTA’s request for comment.

ANALYSIS: Livni’s failure to build coalition could help or hurt in new elections


JERUSALEM (JTA)—With Israel now headed for new general elections probably some time early next year, supporters and opponents of Tzipi Livni are putting a very different gloss on her failure to form a governing coalition.

Opponents say Livni’s inability shows she is not yet seasoned enough to lead. Supporters counter that the reasons for her failure show precisely why she is the best candidate.

Livni says that had she been willing to give in to excessive political and budgetary demands by prospective coalition partners, she easily could have formed a government. Instead she took a stand.

The foreign minister, who won the Kadima primary in September to succeed party leader Ehud Olmert, portrays herself as a tough-minded patriot who sacrificed the premiership to stave off demands that would have hurt Israel’s national interest.

Her opponents suggest a less high-minded narrative: They say Livni bungled coalition negotiations because of a fundamental lack of experience.

Livni’s coalition effort was badly hurt by the adept political maneuvering of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party. Netanyahu was able to convince three of Livni’s prospective coalition partners—the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party, United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners’ Party—that he probably would win in a general election campaign and would be more amenable to their political and budgetary demands than Livni.

Netanyahu focused on Shas, the largest of the three with 12 Knesset seats. The former prime minister spoke of renewing the “historic alliance” between Likud and the right-wing Shas, declaring that if he won the election Shas would be the first party he would ask to join his coalition.

Shas probably would have been a difficult nut for Livni to crack in any situation. Insiders say party leader Eli Yishai made a strategic decision several months ago to force early elections and pre-empt a looming leadership challenge from his charismatic predecessor, Arye Deri.

Indeed, there were serious doubts as to whether he had negotiated with Livni in good faith. Yishai made two key demands: an allocation of 1 billion shekels—approximately $260 million—for child allowances, and a promise that Jerusalem would not be up for negotiation with the Palestinians. On Jerusalem, Yishai demanded that Livni actually sign a letter vowing to exclude the city from future peace talks.

Even if she had been ready to meet the budgetary demands, the written commitment on Jerusalem was out of the question.

“No American president would return a call from any Israeli prime minister who signed such a letter,” Kadima negotiator Yisrael Maimon, a former Cabinet secretary, declared.

Other challenges also made it difficult for Livni to cobble together a coalition.

Such negotiations typically take place after elections, with a full four-year term looming. But because of Olmert’s resignation, Livni came in mid-term with elections no more than two years away.

The notion of spending an abridged term in the opposition was less of a deterrent for prospective coalition partners, and they consequently raised their coalition demands. Even the Pensioners’ Party produced a document with some $786 million worth of new demands.

In the end, Livni said, she had no choice but to stop the horse trading and go for early elections.

Olmert likely will stay on as the caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after the elections. Though he is a lame duck – and a disgraced one at that, having resigned under a cloud of corruption investigations—Olmert may press ahead with his peacemaking efforts to turn the next election into a referendum on peace.

Olmert also could step down and hand over the premiership to Livni, giving her the incumbency advantage going into the next election. Some Kadima leaders are talking openly about urging Olmert to make such a move, but Olmert has not offered any indication that he is willing to consider it.

Livni wants to hold new elections quickly. According to law, a majority in the Knesset could have coalesced around another candidate for prime minister and thereby averted the need for early elections, but President Shimon Peres announced Monday that after meeting with party leaders, no such possibility existed.

Elections must be held by mid-February, but the Knesset could speed or slow down the process by passing a law to dissolve itself and set a precise election date. Livni prefers this route and has instructed the Kadima caucus chairman to submit a bill with an election date as early as possible.

Livni likely will base her campaign on her squeaky-clean image in an era of political corruption and argue that of all the candidates, only she can restore the public’s confidence in its government and politics.

She will cite her failure to form a coalition as evidence of her high-principled approach, and her refusal to sign the “Jerusalem letter” with Shas as proof of her sincere commitment to peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu will emphasize his experience, political smarts and special economic skills—he is a former finance minister—in light of the global financial crisis. He also will claim to be the only candidate who can be counted upon to preserve a united Jerusalem.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who was pilloried in the media for demanding special powers in his coalition talks with Livni, will stress his experience as a former prime minister as well as Labor’s long leadership tradition.

Labor and Kadima are facing a serious tactical dilemma: They will be competing for the same center-left political space, but if they attack each other too viciously, Netanyahu will be the main beneficiary.

In the latest polls, Livni is slightly ahead of Netanyahu, with Barak a very distant third.

A Yediot Achronot poll gives Kadima 29 seats, Likud 26 and Labor 11; Ma’ariv has Kadima earning 31 seats, Likud 29 and Labor 11.

In the Yediot poll, the left-center and right-religious blocs are tied with 60 seats each in the 120-member Knesset; Ma’ariv has the left-center ahead, 61-59. The next prime minister needs a minimum of 61 seats in his or her coalition.

Both polls show that the three large secular parties—Kadima, Likud and Labor—could easily form a national unity government of 66 to 71 seats on their own.

That means Yishai, who sparked the election by refusing to join Livni’s coalition, could find himself out in the cold.

Briefs: Kadima sends coalition plan to Labor, budget woes close colleges


Kadima Sends Draft Coalition Pact to Labor

Labor would be the senior partner in a new government, according to a draft coalition agreement reportedly sent on by Kadima. Associates of Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni reportedly passed the draft agreement Sunday to the Labor Party.

Israeli media are reporting that the agreement will serve as the basis for continuing talks between the ruling Kadima and Labor.

A deal between the two parties is expected soon.

According to Ynet, the agreement would make Labor the senior partner in the new government, with its chairman, Ehud Barak, serving as a senior deputy prime minister and playing a significant role in negotiations with Syria. Barak reportedly is concerned that the Shas party will not join a Livni-led government, and that Labor will be stuck in a government with a narrow ruling coalition, thereby hamstringing the party.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the chairman of the Likud Party, met Monday with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, to encourage him not to join a Livni government. Livni has until Oct. 20 to form a new coalition government, although she can ask President Shimon Peres for a two-week extension.

West Bank Closed for Sukkot

The West Bank is under a general closure for the Sukkot holiday. The Israel Defense Forces sealed off the area at midnight Sunday. It will remain closed until Oct. 21, according to a statement from the IDF spokesman’s office. Palestinians will be allowed to move in and out of the area for humanitarian and medical reasons only with authorization of the army’s district coordinator.

“The IDF regards the Festival of Tabernacles as a highly sensitive time,” according to the statement. “Accordingly, the IDF will be on higher alert in order to ensure the safety of the citizens of Israel, while preserving, to the best of its ability, the daily routine of the Palestinian population.”

Meanwhile, on Sunday night, the IDF arrested three Palestinians carrying nine pipe bombs at an army checkpoint near Nablus, preventing a planned terror attack on Israel.

Synagogue Near Temple Mount Reopened

The Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter was abandoned in 1938 by a group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews called the Shomrei Hachomot, or Guardians of the Walls, in the face of Arab violence.

It is also known as the Ungarin Shul since it was founded by Hungarian Jews in 1904, according to the Jerusalem Post. American philanthropists Irving and Cherna Moskowitz bought the property rights to the synagogue, which is located about 100 yards from the Temple Mount, and funded the refurbishing. The Temple Mount, home also to the Dome of the Rock mosque, has been at the center of tension between Jews and Arabs, particularly in the past two decades.

Israeli Universities Say They Can’t Reopen

Cutbacks will prevent Israeli universities from opening for the new academic year, according to the university heads. With more money slashed from the Finance Ministry’s budget for higher education, the universities will not open Nov. 2 as scheduled, representatives of the country’s universities told an emergency session of the Knesset Education Committee on Sunday.

“After seven years of continual cutbacks we have reduced the number of courses, we have raised the number of students in classes and we have banished an entire generation of lecturers overseas,” Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, told the committee. “We’re not issuing a threat not to open the academic year; we simply can’t open the year.”

The threat was made just a week after The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was ranked 93rd in the world by the Times Higher Education survey, jumping 35 places since last year.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Iowa files 9000 charges against Agriprocessors, OU threatens to remove Kosher cert


NEW YORK (JTA)—Following the filing of criminal charges against owners of the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors, the Orthodox Union says it will withdraw its kosher certification of the company within two weeks unless new management is hired.

“Within the coming days, or lets say a week or two, we will suspend our supervision unless there’s new management in place,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U.‘s head of kosher supervision.

Genack’s comments came just hours after Iowa’s attorney general filed criminal charges against Agriprocessors and its owner, Aaron Rubashkin, for child-labor violations.

On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office charged Rubashkin, his son Sholom, and three human resources employees with more than 9,000 violations of Iowa’s Child Labor law, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

Former workers had alleged child labor violations at Agriprocessors almost immediately after a massive immigration raid at the plant in Postville, Iowa, the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. The company has denied having knowingly hired underage workers.

“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens,” said the affidavit filed Tuesday in Allamakee County District Court. “It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors. The company’s hiring practices encouraged job applicants to submit identification documents which were forgeries, and known to contain false information as to resident alien status, age and identity.”

The alleged violations, which date back to September 2007, are each punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of between $65 and $625, the attorney general’s office said. An initial court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Agriprocessors has been under the gun since a raid on May 12 resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 employees on illegal immigration charges. Following the raid, employees alleged they were shorted on pay, forced to work long hours and were the targets of sustained sexual harassment.

In May, the company announced that the Postville plant’s manager, Sholom Rubashkin, would be replaced. Months later, Rubashkin is still a regular presence at the plant and no replacement has been named.

The attorney general’s complaint represents the first criminal charges to be brought against the company’s owner and senior management.

Eating Bambi (recipe included)


Most of the anti-Semitic mail I get these days doesn’t concern Israel, Hollywood or even the threat of a nuclear war in the Middle East it’s about meat.

The largest supplier of kosher meat in America, Agriprocessors Inc., has been the subject of ongoing public investigation and criticism for two years now.

An undercover investigation in the Forward newspaper first revealed inhumane treatment of cows at the company, located in Postville, Iowa.

A further investigation brought charges of exploitative labor practices.

Then, on the morning of May 12, 2008, in what officials called, “the largest single-site operation of its kind in American history,” 900 agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement executed a raid of Agriprocessors.

They rounded up hundreds of illegal immigrants, who comprised some 75 percent of the company’s workforce.

A subsequent story by New York Times reporter Julia Preston found that 20 of the employees were underage, some as young as 13.

The article reported on several sickening incidences, including one, documented by an company report, in which a worker holding a knife was kicked by a rabbi, cut himself, was sent for stitches, then ordered back on the line.

Agriprocessors has refuted, fought or attempted to make right on these charges. The company brought in animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin to advise on raising the company’s animal treatment standards.

Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin denied he has engaged in unethical labor practices and blamed the failure of U.S. immigration policy.

“Everything is a lie,” Rubashkin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The company has taken out full-page ads in the Jewish press, including this paper, offering a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges.

Last week, it hosted a group of 25 Orthodox rabbis from the United States and Canada on a one-day visit to the plant.

“It’s a different picture than what’s been portrayed,” Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of Chabad of Yorba Linda told me. “We roamed the plant for hours, talked to anybody we wanted to. The working conditions, the safety benefits, I found them above par. It’s not the reality the unions are telling.”

The trip may have served to calm concerns among some kosher consumers, but judging by my mail, the damage is far more widespread.




Bambi trailer (1942)



What will The JEWS Think of Next?!?!?” read a letter I received this week. Inside, the author had considerately attached a folded copy of Preston’s New York Times article.

Of course, the image of bearded, black-hatted rabbis abusing farm animals and poor Guatemalan workers is red meat to the scattered anti-Semites out there, but this isn’t a problem of anti-Semitism.

Kashrut is a legal system rooted in morality, and the problems at Agriprocessors occurred because we chose to look away from the messy business of killing animals for food.

Now, like the rest of America, we are looking. There is great unease with our food supply and our factory farm system, a system created by market forces that places profit and efficiency above sustainability, kindness and flavor. The Jews, to our discredit, have simply followed the market’s lead it’s called Agriprocessors, after all, not Moishe’s Kindly Kosher Cow Farm.

But just as Americans in general are taking control of their food supply “locavore” was the Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 Word of the Year there is a broad consensus that the kosher “brand” should stand for something more than the most narrow and utilitarian interpretation of kosher practice. We can’t blame the system without changing our personal behavior.

That’s why another common e-mail I get these days is also about meat about whether there is a source in Los Angeles for kosher, organic, humanely raised and slaughtered meat.

My search led me to Musicon Farms, a mail-order source for venison.

That’s right, deer. Kosher Bambi.

Norman Schlaff runs Musicon Farms, the only kosher venison farm in the United States.

Situated on 100 acres in Goshen, in upstate New York, the farm slaughters about 25 deer every six weeks. Customers include high-end restaurants in New York, such as Le Marais and Levana; mail-order customers nationwide, and Tierra Sur, the exceptional Oxnard restaurant headed by chef Todd Aarons.

If you Google Musicon, you’ll find some nasty comments from the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They sent undercover investigators there who took footage of the slaughter, and I gasped watching Bambi’s throat cut but I didn’t look away.

Schlaff, in a phone interview with me, maintained that his animals are treated with care they roam freely, and there is music playing to reduce noise level and stress in the loafing barns. They’re raised without steroids and chemical additives and are fed an organic diet of hay, grains and fruit.

Schlaff, a New York native, made his money in sound engineering his technology is installed in Shea Stadium, at the U.S. Open and on either side of movie house ticket booths around the country. He’s not getting rich selling a few dozen deer for between $5.50 and $30 per pound, plus pricey, specialized shipping.

And he understands slaughtering kosher or not isn’t pleasant.

“It takes a day to get it out of your system,” he said.

And so, putting my money where my mouth is, I ordered.

The package arrived overnight from UPS. Inside, beneath several high-tech layers of insulation and packing ice, were 10 pounds of individually wrapped and freshly butchered venison steaks, chops and stew meat.

The next day, I turned the cute deer I’d seen on Musicon’s Web site into cholent.

It was delicious, and morally challenging, and discomfiting but I didn’t look away.



Summer Venison Cholent

This makes a lighter, more broth-y cholent that is perfect for warm summer days. If you don’t have any dead deer handy, you can substitute beef, or for a vegetarian version add 1 cup pearl barley.

2 medium onions, peeled and cut in quarters
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 bay leaves
1 cup dried  white beans, rinsed very well
8 sundried tomatoes
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in 1 inch chunks
1 stalk celery and leaves, cut in1 inch slices
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut in1 inch chunks
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in1 inch chunks
1/4 cup olive oil
6 eggs, washed very well
1 1/2 pounds venison stew meat
1/4 cup brandy or cognac (optional)
1 t. sweet paprika
venison bones
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.

Choose a large  dutch oven or casserole pan with a tight fitting lid, the kind you can use on the stove and in the oven.

Heat the olive oil until hot, add the stew meat and bones and quickly brown on all sides.

Remove the meat and bones. Add the onion,  garlic and paprika and brown for 5 minutes.  Deglaze the pot with brandy or cognac (or, if you prefer, skip this step).

Add all the other ingredients, including the meat and bones, placing the eggs on top carefully.

Add water  3/4 of the way to the top.  Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Cover the pot with the lid and place in the oven for 6 hours or overnight.

To serve, carefully remove the lid, give each person a whole egg, some meat and vegetables and plenty of broth.  And say a little blessing for the deer.

— Rob Eshman

Israeli policy headed for radical changes in post-Olmert era


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign after a new Kadima Party leader is elected in September has opened up the possibility of radical new directions in Israeli policy.

As of now Olmert has four potential successors, since Kadima’s new leader may not be able to stave off new general elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Shaul Mofaz of Kadima are inveterate hawks who see peace, if it is at all possible, being achieved only in drawn-out, painstaking stages. Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are pragmatic doves ready to cut to the chase but wary of illusory quick fixes.

Important differences exist within the two camps.

Netanyahu views the current attempt by the Olmert government to reach final peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians as foolhardy. He is against what he calls “endism”—trying to end the complex Israeli-Arab conflict with a single stroke—and instead advocates a measured, step-by-step approach.

For example, on the Syrian track, Damascus would have to break with Tehran and demonstrate over time that the breach is final before Israel returns any part of the Golan Heights. Other powers interested in moving Syria away from Iran, including the United States and the European Union, would be called on to provide much of the quid pro quo to Syria, making it possible for Israel to retain at least part of the strategic Golan.

On the Palestinian track, Netanyahu regards the “shelf agreement” Olmert is negotiating with the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as meaningless. Under present conditions, with Hamas controlling Gaza, Netanyahu sees no way to implement an agreement now or in the foreseeable future.

Instead, he again advocates a step-by-step framework in which each side progresses only after the other has fulfilled a commitment. Under Ariel Sharon, this performance-based, reciprocal approach led to a stalemate.

Netanyahu hopes that the creation of new economic realities in the West Bank will provide the infrastructure for political progress. The former prime minister strongly backs efforts to that effect by Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet grouping of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Like Blair, Netanyahu sees economic progress driving a peace process, not the other way round.

Netanyahu’s top priority, however, would be stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. He has been urging world leaders to impose stronger economic sanctions on Tehran to alleviate the need for force. But if Netanyahu becomes prime minister, a pre-emptive Israeli military strike cannot be ruled out.

Mofaz, although he abandoned the Likud for Kadima, is as hawkish as Netanyahu. In fact, were the current transportation minister to win the Kadima leadership, the split between Likud and Kadima could become a thing of the past. Mofaz left Likud reluctantly when pressed by Sharon, Kadima’s founder, and after Sharon promised to make him defense minister.

The Iranian-born Mofaz takes a long view of historic processes in the Middle East who sees change evolving slowly over decades. Peace, in his view, will come only when conditions are ripe and cannot be accelerated artificially.

On the Syrian track, Mofaz says he is ready to offer “peace for peace”—an old Likud counter to the Arab land-for-peace formula. He also would be unlikely to make territorial concessions on the Palestinian front.

Indeed Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, would likely be less industrious than Netanyahu in creating conditions for peace, but more proactive in trying to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Mofaz, who heads the Israeli team in strategic dialogue with the United States, has warned that Iran will cross the nuclear weapons threshold in 2009 or 2010 and said that if the international community fails to interdict the process, Israel will.

Like his colleagues on the right, Barak sees the Middle East as a tough, unforgiving neighborhood in which the weak are devoured—he once famously described Israel as a “villa in the jungle.”

The difference between Barak and the hard-line Netanyahu and Mofaz is his conviction that Israel to survive must be strong and divest itself of the West Bank to ensure a Jewish majority in a democratic state.

After the failure of the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000, the then-prime minister Barak was quick to claim there was no genuine Palestinian peace partner. That led him to back the notion of unilateral withdrawal as the only way to establish a border between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barak modified his thinking, however, when Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by ceaseless Kassam rocket attacks. He still seems to envisage an eventual unilateral pullout from the West Bank, but only after Israel has an effective anti-missile defense system.

As defense minister, Barak has made the development of a multilayered anti-missile system—one that provides protection against long-, medium- and short-range missiles—a top priority.

Livni, whose parents both fought for the prestate Irgun underground, entered politics in 1996 holding fiercely hawkish positions. But as minister for regional cooperation in the first Sharon government in 2001, she underwent a profound ideological metamorphosis, turning from hawk to relative dove.

A lawyer by training, Livni places supreme importance on Israel retaining international legitimacy by withdrawing to a line close to the 1967 borders and allowing the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.

Livni, now the foreign minister, sees one of the main tasks of government as securing the best post-withdrawal conditions for Israel. For example, she insists that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper, arguing that the Palestinians cannot simultaneously demand a state and insist that their refugees be settled somewhere else.

Livni was one of the chief backers of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but also after the Kassams from Gaza, she says Israel cannot simply leave the West Bank and “throw the keys over the fence.”

Thus, unlike her three main rivals, Livni advocates intensive negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace deal and bringing in an international force to help implement it. But Livni is in no hurry and would be less likely than Olmert to make concessions on key principles—like the refugee issue—for a deal.

The first stage in the battle to succeed Olmert is scheduled for Sept. 17, when Kadima holds its primary. Livni and Mofaz are the runaway front-runners: A recent poll in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv gave Livni 51 percent of the party vote to Mofaz’s 43 percent.

The second stage in the leadership stakes could come as soon as early 2009. If Kadima’s winner fails to assemble a coalition government, the Knesset will be dissolved and early general elections would be held, bringing Netanyahu and Barak into the picture.

Whoever finally emerges as the new prime minister, a break with Olmert’s policies seems certain.

Orthodox rabbis: Agriprocessors Iowa kosher plant passes muster


NEW YORK (JTA)—Organizers of a delegation of Orthodox rabbis say the Iowa meat-packing plant raided by federal immigration authorities in May bears no resemblance to its image as a place where safety lapses are routine and workers allegedly are abused and underpaid.

Some 25 rabbis went to Postville, Iowa, last week on a visit paid for by Agriprocessors, the slaughterhouse’s owner, and coordinated through the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox synagogue association.

In the course of their one-day visit, the rabbis toured the plant and met with its recently hired compliance officer, the mayor of Postville and a Presbyterian minister.

Some of the rabbis also met with representatives of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which has taken the lead in ministering to families affected by the raid.

“At this point I don’t see any reason why someone should not buy things from Agriprocessors,” Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Illinois and the president of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, told JTA.

“They run a very impressive operation. They’re very dedicated to making sure that everything is being done in the most appropriate way possible.”

The visit is the latest effort by Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States, to reassure kosher consumers and revive its public image. Its image has taken a drubbing since authorities arrested some 400 illegal workers May 12 in what the government describes as the single largest immigration raid in American history.

In the raid’s aftermath, employees have unleashed a flood of allegations against their former employer, charging that they were subjected to harsh working conditions and sexual abuse, among other complaints. The company has denied the charges.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Labor Commissioner announced that he was turning over the results of a months-long investigation of child labor allegations at Agriprocessors to the Iowa attorney general for prosecution. The commissioner, Dave Neil, described the alleged violations as “egregious” and urged the state to prosecute the violations “to the fullest extent of the law.”

Agriprocessors responded by saying it was “at a loss to understand” the labor commissioner’s referral. It noted that the company cooperated with the investigation and claimed the government denied requests to identify underage workers so they could be terminated.

“The government’s press release does not state that the company knowingly hired underage workers,” the statement said. “The company asks the public to keep an open mind and wait for the evidence before making any judgments about these, or any other, allegations.”

To date, no senior managers have been charged with a crime, though a grand jury investigation is ongoing. Two supervisors have pleaded guilty to assisting illegal immigrants in the procurement of false employment documents and a warrant is outstanding for a third.

While the visiting rabbis were careful to point out that they have no personal knowledge of what transpired before their arrival, they expressed confidence that current conditions at the plant contrast with its checkered reputation.

Participants told JTA there were no restrictions placed on where they could go in the plant and with whom they could speak. Several conducted their own interviews with employees, who reported that they were treated well and were provided with ample safety training.

“I was shocked when I walked into that plant because I was expecting a lot worse,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the executive vice president of National Council, told JTA. In a statement, Lerner referred to the plant as a “Cadillac.”

In the eyes of the company’s critics, and even some Orthodox rabbis, the fact that Agriprocessors paid for the trip renders the whole enterprise more than a little suspect. Lerner was outraged by the suggestion that the rabbis’ impartiality might be compromised.

“Give me a break,” Lerner said. “To impugn the integrity of 25 people is out of line.”

But Maury Kelman, a lawyer and Orthodox rabbi who has led congregations in Israel and New York, said that Jewish law insists that rabbis involved in such matters do everything to avoid even the perception that their judgment could be compromised.

Neither of the council’s two news releases regarding the trip disclosed that Agriprocessors had footed the bill for the rabbis, though it was reported in the media.

“If they’re going and being paid by Rubashkin, then that should be forthrightly disclosed—not that if somebody asks them, they should only acknowledge it then,” Kelman said.

“It’s very important if rabbis are going that things look totally above board, and that it’s 100 percent clear that the desire is to do the right thing and not just the expedient thing. If somebody’s being paid, you’re beholden to them. Halacha is very clear about this.”

The rabbis were criticized as well for not meeting directly with former workers, who have lodged the harshest complaints against the company, though they did meet with one of their advocates, Paul Rael, the director of Hispanic Ministries at St. Bridget’s.

Lerner said his group was expecting to speak with the workers and was surprised to see that none were present for the meeting.

The rabbinic delegation, which dwindled to four for the late-afternoon meeting with Rael, sought to establish itself as a conduit between the church and Agriprocessors to discuss outstanding issues.

Rael told JTA he was “absolutely” ready to open a dialogue with the company, while Chaim Abrahams, an Agriprocessors representative, said the company was “considering” the suggestion “in a positive light.”

Regarding past allegations, Lerner said he had asked that a file be prepared of worker complaints and that he would take up the issue with Agriprocessors. But Lerner stressed that the main issue now should be how to move forward.

Rael said he won’t be ready for that until various issues, like employee back pay, are worked out.

“The minute that I got through giving my little dialogue, they said, ‘That’s the past,’ ” Rael recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, but the past is what created the problem.’ If their intent is to move forward, I can’t move forward until this issue is totally, totally done.”

Iowa Labor Commissioner prosecutes Agriprocessors on 57 counts


The Iowa Labor Commissioner’s Office has sent dozens of alleged violations against Agriprocessors to the state attorney general for prosecution.

In its months-long investigation, the labor commissioner’s office found 57 cases of alleged child labor violations by the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, according to a news release from the Iowa Workforce Development. Each case includes multiple violations.

“The investigation brings to light egregious violations of virtually every aspect of Iowa’s child labor laws,” said Dave Neil, the state’s labor commissioner. “It is my recommendation that the Attorney General’s Office prosecute these violations to the fullest extent of the law.”

Allegations against the Agriprocessors’ plant in Postville, Iowa, include minors working in prohibited occupations, failing to obtain work permits, exceeding the allowable hours, exposing employees to hazardous chemicals and working with prohibited tools, according to Neil.

Under Iowa law, each day a violation continues constitutes a separate offense.

Agriprocessors released a statement Tuesday saying it was “at a loss to understand” the labor commissioner’s referral. It noted that the company cooperated with the investigation and claimed the government denied requests to identify underage workers so they could be terminated.

“The government’s press release does not state that the company knowingly hired underage workers,” the statement said. “The company asks the public to keep an open mind and wait for the evidence before making any judgments about these, or any other, allegations.”

Agriprocessors has been struggling to restore its production capacity and revive its public image since May 12, when a federal immigration raid on the plant netted 389 illegal workers. Claims that underage workers were employed at the plant were among a host of allegations that emerged in the raid’s aftermath.

Conservatives release guidelines for ethical kashrut certification


NEW YORK (JTA)—The Conservative movement released a

Who will succeed Olmert?


Though the political jockeying to succeed Ehud Olmert began long before his announcement Wednesday that he would not seek re-election, the prime minister’s would-be successors face a tenuous political landscape.

In the short term, Olmert’s announcement means he will stay in office as a lame duck until his Kadima Party elects a new leader—either Sept. 17, when the primary is held, or a week later, when a runoff, if necessary, takes place.

Olmert then will tender his resignation to Israel’s president; however, by law Olmert will remain prime minister until Kadima’s new leader assembles a coalition government. Failure to muster a majority of at least 61 Knesset members in the coalition would trigger new general elections—for the Knesset and for prime minister. Otherwise, the next general elections are scheduled for 2010.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are the leading contenders to win the Kadima primary, but it’s not clear how long either of them—or anyone else in Kadima—would last as prime minister.

Livni, the Olmert administration’s lead negotiator with the Palestinian Authority, is widely perceived as free of the corruption problems that have plagued other members of Olmert’s Cabinet. But her limited national security experience at a time when Israel faces the crucial question of whether or not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is seen as a significant weakness.

Mofaz, conversely, as a former defense minister and former army chief of staff, has substantial security experience. He is the Olmert administration’s point man on strategic negotiations with the United States, which have been focused on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

But Mofaz is seen as an uncharismatic politician, and he hasn’t been able to close the gap in polls against his rivals in Kadima nor other parties. Were he to win, the Iranian-born Mofaz would be Israel’s first non-Ashkenazi prime minister.

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter is also likely to run for the leadership of Kadima, but trails both Mofaz and Livni in party polls.

Regardless of who emerges as the winner to succeed Olmert, new general elections for prime minister—and, by extension, the entire Knesset—may not be far away.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who leads the Labor Party, could trigger new general elections by pulling Labor out of the governing coalition. He has threatened to make that move before and repeatedly has called on Olmert to resign, but low popularity ratings have kept him from bolting the government. Barak, a former prime minister, has attributed his staying to Israel’s security needs.

Were Barak to pull out and the coalition to fall apart, Labor likely would lose Knesset seats in the general election to Likud, whose leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is favored to win the next general election.

That likelihood may be enough to keep Labor in the government, extending the term of Olmert’s successor.

Notably, Olmert chose to announce his resignation when Barak, Livni and Mofaz all were out of the country. Livni was in Washington meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Barak was on a plane from the United States on his way back to Israel, and Mofaz was in New York on his way to Washington.

Olmert said Wednesday that he would not mettle in the Kadima primary and that he wants to engender a respectful and fair political transition.

In any case, by leaving the political stage in this way, Olmert is able to give his Kadima successor the incumbency advantage in the next general election whether it comes in the next few months or in 2010, as scheduled.

It also means that only Kadima members, and not the general electorate, will have a say in who becomes Israel’s next prime minister.

This will be the first primary for Kadima, which was founded in late 2005 by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. Olmert became Kadima’s leader by default after Sharon’s debilitating stroke in January 2006 left the one-time Jerusalem mayor in charge of the party and the country.

Politics aside, another scenario that may extend the term of Olmert’s successor would be the approach of a make-it-or-break-it juncture for Iran’s nuclear program.

If Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program is seen as on the cusp of bomb-making capability, Israel’s political parties might coalesce around a national unity government and respond with force to the threat.

Netanyahu already has said he would try to form such a government, and Mofaz has warned several times in recent weeks that an eventual Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is inevitable.

Political Centrism Stirring Up Interest


Political centrism is in the air these days. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under fire from Likud for the withdrawal from Gaza, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, defeated in his bid to remain as leader of Labor, have joined forces to form a new centrist party. Suddenly, the long-forgotten center in Israeli politics boasts the two biggest names in the country, and Labor and Likud have lost their duopoly.

In the United States, Republican senators are frustrating the White House by fighting extreme conservative policies. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the first Jewish candidate nominated for a national major-party presidential ticket, has been aligning himself closely with the Bush administration on the Iraq War to the consternation of his fellow Democrats. If John McCain’s attempts to get on the good side of the Bush administration (by, among other things, criticizing Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) fail to win him the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, one could imagine that he and Lieberman might run as a centrist third-party ticket.

Even here in California, centrism is back in fashion. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, crushed in his special election, has outraged his Republican allies by choosing a Democratic activist as chief of staff. Suddenly, Democrats (including many Jews) may find themselves back on the radar of the governor’s office.

Something is happening that is making purple a viable color again, after years of red and blue. Triangulation, Bill Clinton’s strategy for navigating between right and left, may be back in style, at least for a while. Republican consultant Dan Schnur even suggested in a Los Angeles Times column that Schwarzenegger should run for re-election in 2006 as an independent.

Centrism seems to have its moment in the sun when there is a problem to be solved that the main parties cannot address and when one or more of the leading parties is rife with extremism. H. Ross Perot’s moment of glory came in 1992, when he made an issue out of the federal budget deficit. Theodore Roosevelt emerged in 1912 when his successor, President William Howard Taft, moved the Republican Party far to the right of where Roosevelt had led it during his presidency.

While Jewish voters have a close affinity for the Democratic Party, centrism has a special appeal for them. Extremism in either party is always a threat to Jews; moderation is usually a safer environment for the Jewish community.

When the Democrats pull to the left, and Republicans offer moderation, Jews are tempted. That’s why Republican moderates have often done well with Jewish voters. When the Republicans pull to the right, Jewish voters cling even more closely to the Democrats. That’s why the rightist Bush administration has been such a dismal failure with Jewish voters.

So in a year when some Democrats are increasingly antiwar in ways that might make Jews concerned about Israel’s security, and when Republicans conservatives are inventing a phony “War on Christmas” with anti-Semitic overtones, centrism might spell temporary relief.

In Israel, the issue that cannot be resolved in the two-party system is peace with the Palestinians. Undercut by Yasser Arafat’s deviousness, Labor long ago lost the credibility to negotiate peace.

Arafat’s refusal to accept the deal that he was offered by Labor at Oslo ensured that only the right could make peace, preferably Sharon. But Sharon could not bring Likud along with him. And so the centrist solution in Israel is essentially a personalistic politics of Sharon, eventually in alliance with Labor after the next election.

Compared to that alliance, the moderate Schwarzenegger and his moderate chief of staff are hardly an odd couple at all.

Even though centrism seems to be the preferred choice of most voters, there are nearly insurmountable obstacles to long-term centrist politics. While the voters don’t care that much about politics, those who keep politics running have a passion for the enterprise. And party politics will eventually prevail again.

The success of third-party politics usually contains the seeds of its own demise. Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism became the mantra of Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party. Once Perot put the deficit on the agenda, Clinton drove it home for a Democratic victory.

If Sharon and Peres can conclude a peace deal that really works, then normal party politics can resume in Israel with the biggest issue taken off the table. Whichever party then harnesses the forces of the center will build a majority.

A period of centrism, even if brief, can be a useful tonic for the political system. With three forces in the battle, the main parties have to improve their own games. They have to reexamine whether their positions have become ossified. They have to compete for unaffiliated voters and not just their bases.

The result is usually a new type of majority coalition. But history suggests that it will be one of the main parties, not an ad hoc centrist coalition, that creates that new coalition.

The ruling Republican majority in American politics is in serious trouble. If Democrats can find a way to maintain their unity in opposition and head off a centrist movement by creating a new center-left coalition, they will be highly successful. And the response of the Jewish community to their efforts will be the canary in the mine that tells whether it is likely to work.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at California State University Fullerton.