Ritual slaughter ban would be unconstitutional, Belgian state body says


A Belgian government advisory body determined that any legislation that would prohibit ritual slaughter in the kingdom would violate its constitution.

The legal notice issued Wednesday by the Belgian Council of State came amid recent debates and planned legislation to ban the practice. The animal welfare minister in the government of the Flemish Region said last month it should be outlawed.

Religious laws in Islam and Judaism require animals be conscious when their necks are slit, though some religious leaders from both faiths allow stunning immediately after the cut. Many animal rights activists say the lack of stunning is cruel. Their opponents maintain ritual slaughter is more humane because it is not mechanized and less prone to accidents resulting in animal suffering.

In addition, many opponents of Muslim immigration and presence in Europe also oppose by extension the proliferation of Muslim slaughter, which has fewer restrictions on how it needs to be performed and by whom than the Jewish method, called shechitah.

In May, the Green Party of the Flemish Region — one of three entities that make up the federal kingdom of Belgium – filed a draft bill to the parliament commission on animal welfare. Amid opposition to the bill, the issue was brought to the review of the Council of State, which determined that if passed, a law banning the practice would be overturned by the country’s federal constitutional court because it would violate religious freedoms, the Jewish monthly Joods Actueel of Antwerp reported.

The animal welfare minister, Ben Weyts of the New Flemish Alliance, a center-right movement and the Flemish Region’s ruling party, vowed to keep fighting for a blanket ban on ritual slaughter and said he was disappointed by the legal notice.

Last month, Weyts said he blamed Muslim faith leaders for a situation that he said now requires a ban. He said they were intransigent when tried to reach compromises with them on ritual slaughter, particularly of mobile slaughtering areas set up on Muslim holidays.

Michael Freilich, editor-in-chief of Joods Actueel, said in an editorial Wednesday that compromises can be made on the part of faith communities, particularly on limiting the slaughter to qualified slaughterers with the expertise to prevent animal suffering. For Jewish communities worldwide, such limitations are a reality, with certified shochets doing the work based on training. But in Muslim communities, it is customary for untrained family heads to perform the butchering.

Notwithstanding, Freilich wrote, if Weyts refuses to recognizes constitutional limitations of the Belgian kingdom, “perhaps is it better if he resigns.”

Israelis would get 6 Sundays off under bill to create ‘Western’ weekend


A Knesset committee has approved legislation that will mandate six long weekends each year — a step toward a possible Monday-to-Friday work week.

Providing the six Sundays off each year beginning in 2017 will start to transition the Israeli work week to that of most of the Western world, supporters argue. Kulanu lawmaker Eli Cohen, who proposed the legislation, argued that it would also increase work productivity in Israel, which lags other developed countries.

Israel has a Friday-and-Saturday weekend, though children in elementary school also attend school on Fridays. Many Israelis do not work on Friday, and Sunday is considered the start of the work week. The current weekend fits in with the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday, and the Muslim day of prayer on Friday.

According to a 2016 report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, Israeli productivity is low and getting lower compared to most of the relatively wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even though Israelis also work about 4 hours more per week than residents of other OECD countries.

“The transition to a long weekend will dramatically change the character of work and offers many benefits by reducing the burden on workers, improve the balance between work and family life, improve individuals’ lives and contribute to business sectors like retail and tourism, and better synchronize work and school vacations,” Cohen said, according to Haaretz.

The bill, which was approved Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, must still be approved by the full Knesset. The legislation is aimed at leading to all Sundays off in the future.

Two of the six proposed long weekends would take place during the summer, and the other four would come during the Passover and Hanukkah vacations.

The first full Knesset vote is scheduled for Wednesday, where it is expected to pass.

California lawmakers seek to end ‘personal belief’ vaccine exemptions


Responding to an outbreak of measles that has infected more than 100 people, two California lawmakers said on Wednesday they would introduce legislation to end the right of parents in the state to exempt their children from school vaccinations based on personal beliefs.

California public health officials say 92 people have been diagnosed with measles in the state, many of them linked to an outbreak that they believe began when an infected person from outside the country visited Disneyland in late December.

More than a dozen other cases have been confirmed in 19 other U.S. states and Mexico, renewing a debate over the so-called anti-vaccination movement in which fears about potential side effects of vaccines, fueled by now-debunked science, have led a small minority of parents to refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated.

“The high number of unvaccinated students is jeopardizing public health not only in schools but in the broader community. We need to take steps to keep our schools safe and our students healthy,” state Senator Ben Allen said in a written statement announcing the legislation he is co-sponsoring with fellow Democrat Richard Pan.

The measure would make California the 33rd state to bar parents from opting out of vaccinations based on personal beliefs.

Also on Wednesday, a top Los Angeles County health official said that a total of 21 cases have been recorded in the county but that after the initial wave of reports, the number has fallen to four in the latest two-week period.

“We're getting to a number of cases that’s manageable, and I'm hopeful that within weeks or a couple of months we will be able to turn the corner on this particular outbreak,” Interim Health Officer Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser told a press conference, although he cautioned that a lag in reporting could still add a few more cases.

A day care center at a high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica closed earlier this week and more than a dozen infants placed under a three-week quarantine after a baby enrolled in the program was diagnosed with measles.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000 after decades of intensive childhood vaccine efforts. But last year the nation had its highest number of measles cases in two decades.

Most people recover from measles within a few weeks, although it can be fatal in some cases.

Legislation to support Holocaust survivors introduced


Three U.S. senators introduced legislation Thursday aimed at supporting programs to assist aging Holocaust survivors.

The bipartisan measure, Responding to Urgent needs of Survivors of the Holocaust (RUSH), was introduced by original cosponsor Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) along with Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

The RUSH Act would amend the existing Older Americans Act by adding Holocaust survivors to the list of groups that receive preference for services under that act; designating a person within the Administration for Community Living to have responsibility for implementing services to Holocaust survivors; and establishing a grant program for nonprofit organizations to increase and improve transportation services for Holocaust survivors.

The legislation would also improve the nutrition section of the Older Americans Act. Specifically, it would amend the act to provide meals that meet dietary requirements based on religious, cultural or ethnic requirements.

The Jewish Federations of North America applauded the introduction of this legislation.

“As this special community ages, we must ensure their dignity by empowering them to live as independently as possible, in peace and safety,” said Kathy Manning, JFNA board chair, said in a statement. “This important legislation would boost collective efforts to protect these courageous survivors.”

According to JFNA, more than half of the survivors who arrived in the United States after 1967 from the former Soviet Union fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, meaning they earn less than $21,660 annually.

Of the approximately 127,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States today, three-quarters are over the age of 75 and about two-thirds live alone.

HIAS supporting new refugee legislation


The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is backing new legislation aimed at protecting refugees and asylum seekers.

The Refugee Protection Act was introduced Monday by U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980.

Though the original act provided protection for refugees and asylum seekers, provisions have eroded over the years. Asylum seekers, even after proving credible fear of persecution in their home countries, have been detained. Also, restrictions meant to prevent terrorists from entering the United States have barred legitimate, non-threatening asylum seekers from gaining entry.

HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community, said the new measure proposes “thoughtful and effective solutions to these problems and will ensure that fairness is restored to the asylum system.”

“It is also important to remember that refugee protection does not end on the day asylum or refugee status is approved,” said Gideon Aronoff, the president and CEO of HIAS. “The Refugee Protection Act would go a long way towards ensuring that refugee families are reunited quickly, and that refugees and asylees are able to integrate quickly into U.S. society.”

Congress OKs bill barring military chaplains from mentioning Jesus in official prayers


Congress OKs bill barring military chaplains from mentioning Jesus in official prayers
 
The U.S. Congress rescinded language in Pentagon orders that allowed military chaplains to mention Jesus in official prayers. Controversy over including similar language in the Defense Authorization Act, a critical spending bill, dogged attempts to pull the bill out of a Senate-House conference committee before Congress recessed for midterm elections.
 
The conferees ultimately decided to strike the language and order the Pentagon to rescind its earlier instructions. Mikey Weinstein, a former U.S. Air Force officer who led the battle to remove the language, applauded the decision.”We welcome the opportunity Congress has afforded to discuss the appropriate role of religion and chaplains in the military,” Weinstein, who is Jewish, said last week in a statement issued by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which he founded. “The passage of this bill will be a victory for those of us who have been fighting so assiduously to protect both the rights of the men and women in our armed forces and the United States Constitution.”
 

Austrian extremists gain in elections
 
Two far-right parties with a history of anti-Jewish rhetoric made gains in Austrian elections. National elections held over the weekend saw a 50 percent rise since 2002 elections in the percentage of votes for the Freedom Party and the Alliance for Austria’s Future. Members of both parties have expressed antipathy toward Israel and are known for their campaigns against Muslims living in Austria.
 
The left-leaning Social Democrats won the election with nearly 36 percent of the vote, followed by the center-right People’s Party with 34 percent. The Freedom Party came in third with 11 percent, and the Alliance for Austria’s Future, run by right-wing extremist Jorg Haider, received 4 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats and People’s Party are expected to form a governing coalition.
 
Federal legislation Includes grant for Federation model elderly care program
 
A Jewish federation model to facilitate care for the elderly in their home communities will be included in federal grant legislation. The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for North American federations, launched the “Aging in Place” initiative in 2002, helping 40 communities in 25 states obtain federal dollars for naturally occurring retirement communities.The model was featured in a U.S. Senate hearing this year to consider re-authorization of the Older Americans Act. As a result, a federal grant program for the retirement communities is included in language agreed to by House-Senate conferees.
 
Swiss stage pro-Israel rally
 
Approximately 3,000 demonstrators held a pro-Israel rally in the Swiss capital. Saturday’s rally in Bern called for the Swiss government to support Israel’s right to exist and show solidarity with the Jewish state’s fight against terrorism. Twenty organizations signed a resolution urging the government to refuse negotiations with terrorist groups that reject the existence of the Israeli state.
 

British House of Lords member faces probe by party over Israel lobby remarks
 
A member of Britain’s House of Lords will be investigated by her party for comments about the “pro-Israel lobby.” Liberal Democrat Party members have announced that Baroness Jenny Tonge’s position in the party will be reviewed in response to her public remarks.
 
In a speech that recently aired on BBC Radio, Tonge said, “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its [financial] grips on the Western world. I think they’ve probably got a certain grip on our party.”
 
More than 20 of her peers in the House of Lords wrote a letter to the Times condemning Tonge’s comments, stating, “Baroness Tonge evoked a classic anti-Jewish conspiracy theory,” and that her language “as a member of the House of Lords, was irresponsible and inappropriate.”
 
In early 2004, she was fired from her position as Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on international development for saying she could understand why a Palestinian would become a suicide bomber and also that she would consider becoming one were she a Palestinian.
 
Remains of Czech Jewish graveyard found
 
Evidence of a medieval Jewish cemetery was discovered in the Czech Republic.Researchers from a preservationist organization in the city of Pilsen say they found documents in the city archive revealing details of what they believe was one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Czech lands in the 14th century.
 
The cemetery’s existence was already known, said archaeologist Radek Siroky of the West Bohemian Institute for Heritage Conservation and Documentation, but the new documents reveal more specifics about its location.
 
He said that only excavations, approved by religious authorities, could provide more details about the cemetery’s size and the nature of the Jewish community there.
 
Briefs courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Bills Seek to End Israel Travel Penalty


It happens over and over again: A planned trip to Israel induces gasps of worry from friends who have never visited the country. Every suicide bombing or mortar attack on television reinforces the vision of Israel as a vast raging war zone.

Some travelers appreciate the concern; others simply ignore it. But this perception of danger has had serious repercussions for people in California and in other states. For several years at least, life insurance companies doing business in California and elsewhere have been denying coverage or charging increased premiums to individuals who have either recently visited Israel or plan to visit soon. The assumption is that the country is just too dangerous, and that someone foolish enough to risk going to Israel once is likely to do so again.

A bill making its way through the California Legislature would make it illegal to impose such a penalty on travelers to Israel or any other country. Two similar bills are before House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

“Traveling to Israel is so broad,” said Nancy Appel, Anti-Defamation League regional deputy director, who testified in support of the state legislation, Senate Bill 1105, at a July committee hearing. Compare “traveling to Eilat vs. going to a war-zone area.” For insurance companies to discriminate on the basis of travel anywhere in the country is “like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” Appel told The Journal.

Momentum appears to favor her view. The states of Washington, New York and Illinois have recently passed similar legislation, although the latter two only ban discrimination based on past travel, rather than future plans. A House bill by Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), the Life Insurance Anti-Discrimination in Travel Act, deals specifically with past travel, while a bill by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Life Insurance Fairness for Travelers Act, bans insurance discrimination based on future plans.

In the Legislature, the bill was quickly introduced in midterm by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco), with the support of Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who is running for state treasurer in 2006.

“This bill appeared right in the middle of the session, and we only saw it a week before it was heard in the Assembly Insurance Committee,” said Brad Wenger, president of the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies, which represents the insurance industry’s legislative interests in Sacramento.

The association opposed the bill at first, but then Speier’s staff struck a hallway compromise that could prove to be a model in other states or even nationally.

To secure industry support, Speier agreed that a company could deny coverage or charge higher rates if it could justify that decision by citing “sound actuarial principles” or “reasonably expected experience.” After adding that language, the association immediately changed its official position on the bill to “neutral,” making its passage a near certainty.

In plain English, the bill now allows insurers to penalize travelers to Israel only if they have actual evidence that higher risk exists. A similar resolution was reached in the 1980s, after the industry came under pressure for allegedly discriminating against the disabled.

“SB 1105 gives the California Department of Insurance the ability to ask an insurer what they’re basing a [discriminatory] decision on, and they would require a pretty good case to be made,” Wenger said.

Wenger quickly added that the department already can investigate alleged discriminatory practices.

“This just makes it a little more specific,” he said.

“Everybody was comfortable [that] this language would not create a loophole,” Appel added. “If they have hard data backing up their opinion to deny coverage or charge more, they can do that. The problem now is that they deny coverage with no data backing up their reasons.”

Still, the definition of “data” can be vague. Some past coverage denials were ostensibly based on State Department travel warnings, which, though anecdotal, derive from a credible source. Such a warning is currently in effect. The State Department cites recent bombings and notes, “The U.S. government has received information indicating that American interests within Israel could be the focus of terrorist attacks.”

Wenger did not provide specific examples of what would constitute sound actuarial principles in the context of the California legislation.

“It’s a very, very competitive market out there,” he said. “I think you have to have some sympathy for [the insurance company] when there is a place in the world that is either at war or in a very dangerous situation.”

With the insurance industry’s official neutrality, the state legislation without opposition in the California Assembly on Aug. 18. The bill is now headed to the state Senate. If it passes there, as expected, the measure would reach the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not yet taken an official position on the bill.

“It’s just amazing,” Appel said. “Some bills take forever to get written [but] this one happened very fast.”

Whether the bill has the intended effect will take longer to work out.

 

U.S. Mistakes Worsen Iran Situation


The recent runoff election in Iran catapulted the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, onto the international stage and set off a blaze of speculation. But while the face of the presidency may have changed, the soul of the regime has not.

From the vantage point of the United States and Israel, the Iranian government remains a repressive autocracy at home and a sponsor of terrorism abroad. It’s also a regime they view as close to developing nuclear weapons. With Ahmadinejad as president, Iran’s government is now dominated by hard-liners, with the reformists marginalized. This development certainly does not augur well for the future of relations between Iran and the United States and Iran and Israel, or for the cause of freedom within Iran. However, the added problem is that the regime now asserts that the election (with its high turnout) affirms the regime’s legitimacy and validates its system of government.

In truth, the election can hardly be called democratic. To begin with, the Council of Guardians, a nonelected body dominated by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, disqualified 1,000 candidates (including all women candidates), narrowing the field to seven selected participants. The general election, marred by charges of intimidation and vote-rigging, then triggered the runoff between Ahmadinejad and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

This became a contest between uninspiring alternatives. Rafsanjani is a cleric ex-president, who endorsed some social reforms and talks with the West, but who also was seen as representing an endemic culture of corruption. Ahmadinejad promised economic reforms and the eradication of corruption, but also espoused adherence to rigid Islamic tenets.

In the end, economic security trumped social freedom. Now, many fear that Ahmadinejad will “Talibanize” the country. One voter described the election as a choice between “bad and worse,” hardly an encouraging democratic outcome.

Ahmadinejad has the record of a zealot. As mayor, he closed fast-food restaurants and ordered city workers to grow beards. He was a founder of the student group that occupied the U.S. Embassy. Some have alleged that Ahmadinejad participated in the hostage taking, a charge he denies.

Regardless of his role in the hostage crisis, there is no mystery about his views on Israel, the United States and Iran’s nuclear program, as expressed in recent interviews.

As to Israel, Ahmadinejad spews a familiar putrid rhetoric: “Israel is the biggest threat to peace and security in the Middle East [and] is the reason behind the unstable situation, due to its brutal crimes and daily killings against Palestinians.” Regarding the United States, Ahmadinejad seems hardly able to contain his contempt. Vowing to press ahead with Iran’s nuclear program, he states: “The Iranian nation is taking the path of progress based on self-reliance. It doesn’t need the United States.”

Ahmadinejad’s dismissive attitude is, sadly, understandable. The Bush administration’s credibility has been severely undermined by its false claims that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction. Bush’s assertions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons will, as a result, face a higher burden of proof before the United Nations. Further, the morass in Iraq, as well as other factors, limit military options for the United States.

Of overriding concern is that the Bush administration appears to have no coherent policy toward Iran, which has left the United States in the position of barking from the sidelines, while the fundamentalists grow stronger. Even Bush’s criticism of the election process may have misfired and actually bolstered voter turnout, another misstep in a long list we could call the Bush “reign of error.”

The Bush administration has vacillated between tough talk, veiled military threats and backing European negotiations. At the end of the day, however, the hard-liners are in control, and may have delivered yet another stinging slap to the United States by electing an alleged former hostage-taker as president.

If the Bush administration has had a policy, it has clearly failed. Its only remaining feasible alternative at this point may be the path of concessions and compromise, a course that could strengthen the regime.

As for the people of Iran, the Bush administration offers an empty platitude: “We continue to stand with those who call for greater freedom for the Iranian people.”

But what does this mean?

The tragic fact is that during Bush’s tenure, the movement for reform and liberty in Iran has waned. If the Bush administration truly wishes to advance freedom, it must actively support elements within Iran that seek change in a democratic and bloodless manner.

While there is proposed legislation in Congress to this end, the money that would be allocated for the effort is paltry, at best. Until there is adequate funding to support U.S. policies that are thoughtful, realistic and consistent, we can expect matters to continue going from bad to worse.

H. David Nahai is a real estate attorney and former chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

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Letters


Workers’ Comp Woes

I am appalled by Jill Stewart’s self serving and misleading missives about the so-called reform (in reality, deform) of workers’ compensation (“It’s Time to Heal Worker’s Comp,” May 6).

During the past approximately 25 years I have been representing injured workers. I am proud to say I am an Orthodox Jew and a registered Republican. As you can imagine, I am not a starry-eyed liberal and I certainly do not support the very rare and sometimes understandable (but not excusable) desire to take advantage of the system. But, the new regulations and legislation violate the very spirit and substance of the workers’ compensation system, which is to adequately compensate those who put their life and limb at risk working for others. As an Orthodox Jew, I have felt comfortable seeking compensation for my laboring clients, especially as such compensation does not differ radically from the damages available to an injured worker under traditional Jewish law. As a good American, follower of halacha and an employer myself, I recognize we all have a duty to go as far as possible to aid and make whole those who are truly injured through no fault of their own, but this is exactly what the new laws do not do.

Any fair-minded insurance defense attorney will admit that the new laws are shamefully and extremely draconian. Every attorney who represents injured workers already has several horrible-but-true tales of what has happened to their clients over the past few months. I hope the many Democrat legislators who signed on to this plan did not realize the actual impact of what they were creating in this monstrous Senate bill by giving the benefit of doubt to the governor. No one can honestly tell you that there has never been fraud and abuse in the system, but it has not been endemic or systemic either. Let politicians and insurers chase the treatment mills and other scavengers away by enforcing the law as it stood, but the solution is not starvation wages and denial of bare minimum medical treatment for injured workers.

Jeffrey Nurik
Fairfield

Cover Girl

Is The Jewish Journal so starstruck that the best you could do for a cover story the week of Yom HaAtzmaut was an article including a profile of a “beautiful young” Israeli expat actress who has fulfilled her life’s ambition by standing on a soundstage with Scarlett Johansson (“Shalom Hollywood,” May 13)? I wish her all the best in her endeavors — but I may be old fashioned. I would have preferred a cover story for Israeli Independence Day following up on some ex-Angelenos pursuing the Zionist dream by making aliyah.

Aaron Davidson
Los Angeles

Reform’s Rep

My first visit to a Reform congregation was truly exciting (“Reform’s Reforms,” May 20). Although some of the ritual and prayers were foreign to me, the majority of the readings were in English and relevant to the issues that I face in the modern world. The sermon called upon us as individuals to make a difference in the world. This was a call to action, not a request for belief!

I am 62-years-old and preparing for my bar mitzvah 13 years after my conversion. I struggle with Hebrew. I am more comfortable worshipping in English. I am a Reform Jew. I do not consider Reform Judaism to be less religious than traditional Judaism. In fact, I assert the opposite. Traditional ritual and following a faith-based list of rules has the very real danger of seeming religious without challenging the worshipers to truly search their hearts and their minds for ways to repair our world. Judaism is an action religion. We are challenged to do. We are challenged to repair the world. We are challenged to be better than we are. We are not challenged to accept kashrut, tefillin, tzeniut or tzitzit.

Robert Ingrum
Northridge

As a freelance book editor who has worked with the Reform movement and continues to do so, I read with great interest Micha Odenheimer’s cover story. To the many noteworthy facets of change that the article reported, let me add one more: the publication three months ago of a revised edition of its bestselling Torah with commentary. Of the new edition’s many features, three in particular manifest that Reform Jews study Torah more seriously than before:

1. It provides a Hebrew text that is among the most historically accurate and visually precise ever published.

2. It places the translation right next to the Hebrew original, paragraph by paragraph, so that the translation better serves as a stepping-stone to the real text.

3. It is backed by more than 350 pages of online documentation that list and explain changes made to the Hebrew text and to the translation (relative to the first edition), because the publisher believes that its readers care about those details.

Such changes are achieved only with a considerable investment of time and expense.

This and other recent publications of the URJ Press (www.urjpress.com) speak volumes about the direction of the Reform movement.

David E. S. Stein
Redondo Beach

Honorary Jew

There is a factual error in Tom Tugend’s piece “Stamp of Approval.” Yip Harburg, the prolific lyricist of such Ammerican pop standards as “Over the Rainbow,” was not, in fact, Jewish (“Stamp of Approval,” May 20). His co-writer, composer Harold Arlen, who created the gorgeous melody for “Over the Rainbow,” was very Jewish (his father was the venerated cantor Samuel Arlen). The talented Harburg joked about feeling like an honorary Jew in that he worked with various Jewish composers of the golden era of American song, and because his name sounded Jewish — but he was Christian.

Jacqueline Bassan
Author
“From Shul To Cool: The Romantic Jewish Roots of American Popular Music”

Healing Workers’ Comp

Jill Stewart is well-known for her anti-worker and anti-workers’ comp sentiments. She has repeatedly misstated the facts and attacked the wrong parties (“It’s Time to Heal Worker’s Comp,” May 6). She continues to have a distorted view of what is going on in workers’ comp. We did not get reform of the workers’ compensation systems — we got an outright assault, a mutilation of injured workers’ rights. How dare she attack the one group of people who have fought long and hard to protect the injured workers’ of this state, the lawyers who represent them?

Stewart claims that the money spent on workers’ comp went to the middlemen, like lawyers who were milking the system. Wrong again, Ms. Stewart. Nothing could be further from the truth. No. 1, the insurance company does not pay the attorney fees. Attorneys only get 15 percent attorney fees, paid by the injured workers from their award or settlement. Compare that to all other areas of law where fees are much more substantial. The insurance companies, who padded Gov. Schwarzegger’s with exorbitant amount of money, got the reforms they wanted. How’s that for taking special interest money and the governor doing favors for those who did? Now the insurance companies are laughing all the way to the bank at the expense of the injured worker. Employer rates have not dropped as promised and, as her article states, permanent disability benefits are now the bottom in the nation. That is not something this state should be proud of.

Injured workers’ rights to medical control have been taken away. Do we take that away from any other segment of society? No. Injured workers’ rights to obtain treatment that is necessary has been taken away. We have limited their benefits while they cannot work and reduced their compensation for permanent disabilities. We have taken away their right to be retrained if they cannot return to their usual and customary work as a result of their permanent injuries. This is a travesty, Ms. Stewart. You should be ashamed of yourself for distorting the truth. Try living in the shoes of an injured worker.

I am outraged by what the governor has done to hurt the working men and women of this state and I am outraged by the special interest money he has taken from the insurance companies. The injured workers of this state deserve better.

Susan Fields
Northridge

In response to Jill Stewart’s scathing attack on attorneys representing workers, it revealed more about her ignorance of the subject matter than anything else. Senate Bill 899 is the most vicious attack on the basic rights of the injured worker in California history. Instead of focusing on the rights of injured workers, she goes off on a tirade against their attorneys who instead of “milking the system” earn a mere 15 percent fee. The recent Rand Study confirms that benefits paid to injured workers are woefully inadequate. The new legislation even cuts that amount by at least 50 percent. As an attorney who has represented injured workers for more than 25 years, I can tell you unequivocally that the California applicant attorneys are the most dedicated group of lawyers on behalf of their clients that I have ever had the pleasure to associate with. Of all the reasons for the workers compensation crisis, Stewart is misinformed in blaming the attorneys. She should do more research before she spouts off about a subject of which she certainly has little knowledge.

Ronald M. Canter
Los Angeles

I read with dismay another of Jill Stewart’s articles about workers’ compensation. I can only say, “Jill, you’ve got it wrong.” She falsely hints that the truly injured will be helped by the Schwarzenegger sellout of injured workers. Nothing is further from the truth. Under the new AMA guides, the near dead, such as Terri Schiavo in her final days, would only be considered 90 percent disabled according to one of the editors of the AMA Guides.

Stewart has declined an invitation to meet with injured workers or an attorney representing them to hear directly from them how the changes have hurt truly injured people.

She needs to expand her sources beyond the Chamber of Commerce.

Robert Blum
El Dorado Hills

Battle of Faith

James D. Besser’s article shows a moral blindness to seven glaring realities (“The Faith Wars Heat Up, ” May 20):

1) For the past 37 years, the forces of political correctness have poisoned, corrupted and degraded every institution of American life.

2) Those who are “faith revolutionaries” are average, decent people who were not very political. They were focused on raising their families, making a living and supporting their houses of worship. Pushed too far, they are angry and radicalized.

3) There are serious changes in American Jewry. A decade ago, you could not find enough Jewish Republicans for a living room meeting. Today, they are packing large auditoriums to capacity.

4) During the days of Harry Truman, Democrats represented “average Joes” who played softball at the public park while the Republicans represented those who played golf and tennis at posh country clubs. Today, the opposite is true.

5) Too many Jews, including numerous rabbis, are lukewarm Zionists. The Christian right loves Israel unconditionally.

6) Bigotry against Jews and Christians is socially acceptable. Islam is sacrosanct!

7) The real dangerous hate mongers, whom we need to fear, are on the left — not the right!

Rabbi Louis J. Feldman
Van Nuys

 

Briefs


 

OU Reaches Out to Deaf Community

The Orthodox Union’s deaf outreach came to Long Beach for a Shabbaton gathering of the deaf and their families, a small event that meant a lot to the often-isolated Orthodox deaf community.

“There wasn’t a big turnout, but I think that it’s really necessary; when you have a deaf child who’s Jewish, there’s a smaller population,” said Jo Cooperman, who drove up from San Diego County with her 3-year-old deaf son, Jadyn Avram. “He always comes back really, really happy from these things. It has a wonderful effect on his self-esteem and his identification with Jews, with deaf Jews.”

Long Beach’s Congregation Lubavitch hosted about 30 deaf adults and children and their families at the OU’s Jan. 7-8 “Our Way” Shabbaton. Long Beach attorney Allen Sragow, who put up about 10 “Our Way” attendees at his house, sponsored the small Orthodox Union agency’s fourth annual Southern California gathering. Organizers said last weekend’s heavy rain cut into the attendance level.

“It’s always a fresh perspective for me to see the Jewish deaf, how they’ve come to understand their interaction with Jewish life,” said Jan Moore, a North Hollywood optometrist who has two deaf sons. His teenage daughter, who can hear, came to Long Beach with two of her Valley Torah High School classmates so the trio could support deaf children and their hearing siblings.

Flying into Los Angeles to lead the “Our Way” Shabbaton was Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, who is not deaf, but is the son of deaf parents and lives in Brooklyn with his own six children – including deaf daughters Lida, 13, and Toby, 18. Both have cochlear implants allowing them to hear.

Lida Lederfeind told The Journal in a telephone interview, “I feel like I’m part of everything.”

Every two months, Lida’s father travels to Orthodox deaf enclaves around the country to conduct an “Our Way” Shabbaton.

“More and more deaf youth are Orthodox. They should be able to mainstream in a shul,” said Lederfeind, who oversaw the “Our Way” group’s spirited – and at times humorous – deaf dialogue about Israel in the Lubavitch shul’s small study.

When Lederfeind asked what was the sign language gesture to describe the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, someone jokingly responded: “It’s a sign that you can’t use in public.” – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Israel ‘Line of Fire’ Program Comes to UJ

An armed Israeli attack helicopter spots a Palestinian ambulance on the road below. Aware that such ambulances have been used to transport terrorists and weapons, the pilot checks with his ground controller whether to strafe and destroy the vehicle. Pilot and controller talk back and forth, weighing whether the ambulance is more likely to carry weapons or sick people. When the vehicle finally pulls up to a hospital, they decide to give it the benefit of the doubt and call off the attack.

The dramatic, real-life incident, with actual footage of the chase taken from the cockpit, will be a highlight of the Jan. 20 event, titled “Air Force in the Line of Fire.”

Israeli and American helicopter fighter pilots will discuss the moral choices facing them during combat missions in the airspace above Israel and Iraq.

Panelists will also speak about the dangers and fears of combat, new weaponry, Israeli-American military cooperation and the future of the Israeli air force. A Q-and-A period will follow.

Speakers will include reserve Maj. Gen. Nehemia Dagan, founder of Israel’s attack helicopter strike forces; two other veteran Israeli combat pilots; and Col. Bill Morris of the Pentagon, former assault helicopter commander in the 101st Airborne Division.

The event, in English, will start at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Judaism, sponsored by the Council of the Israeli Community (CIC) and 12 other local organizations. The CIC is a support organization for the State of Israel and the estimated 100,000 Israelis living in the Los Angeles area, said Chaim Linder, the group’s first vice president.

General tickets for the Jan. 20 event are $10 (CIC members) and $12 (general); reserved seats, $25; reception with the pilots and one reserved seat, $50.

For reservations and information, call (818) 342-7241. – Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Court: NVJCC Familes Can Sue Gun Companies

Three families, whose children were shot in the 1999 attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC), can pursue their lawsuit against the companies that made the weapons used in the shooting spree.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 10 let stand a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the suit could go to trial and declined to hear an appeal for dismissal by two gun manufacturers and two distributors.

The suit grew out of the Aug. 10, 1999, attack by Buford O. Furrow, Jr., a self-avowed anti-Semite and white supremacist on the NVJCC in Granada Hills, which left three teenagers, one adult and three children wounded.

Lead plaintiff in the suit is the mother of Joseph S. Ileto, a Filipino-American postal carrier, who was killed by Furrow the same day in a separate attack.

Last May in San Francisco, the full 26-member appeals court, in a split decision, confirmed that the case could be tried. At the time, Donna Finkelstein, whose then 16-year-old daughter Mindy suffered two gunshot wounds to her leg, told The Journal, “I am so elated that we are finally moving forward.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Alan Stepakoff and Loren Lieb, whose then 6-year-old son, Joshua Stepakoff, was also shot in the leg.

Also participating in the suit are Eleanor and Charles Kadish, whose son Benjamin, then 5, was the most seriously injured, with gunshots to his stomach and legs.

Among the large cache of weapons found in Furrow’s car were an Austrian-made Glock 9-mm handgun and a 9-mm rifle, made by North China Industries, both manufacturers are defendants in the suit.

In filing the original suit more than four years ago, attorney Joshua Horwitz of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence said that Furrow, a convicted felon with a history of mental instability, should not have been allowed to build an arsenal of assault-style weapons.

“It is not enough to let guns go out of your factory door and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t know where they’re headed,'”Horwitz said.

The case will now return to the U.S. district court in Los Angeles for trial.

Congressional legislation which would have barred lawsuits targeting the gun industry failed last spring. – TT

 

Record Gridlock Good for Liberals


Stalemate has become standard operating procedure for Congress in recent years, but this year’s legislative gridlock could be headed for the record books. That’s a source of frustration for Jewish activists across the political spectrum — but also of guilty relief for some.

Important bills have little chance of moving forward in a session marred by election year politics and a new, venomous partisanship. But for liberal Jewish groups, the clogged congressional arteries also mean a partial respite from the conservative onslaught.

Still, no Jewish group takes any joy in a legislative tangle that blocks good legislation and bad and keeps Congress from dealing with a host of long-term problems that are just getting worse as lawmakers quibble.

The reasons for the current gridlock are many, but they can be boiled down to a few basic ones, starting with the rancorous, uncompromising mood of the congressional leadership. In the age of Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, you don’t debate and find the middle ground, you maul.

In the House, the GOP leadership has made almost no effort to reach across party lines to the Democrats. Things are hardly any better in the Senate, where the traditional collegiality is now just a memory.

One particularly graphic example: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) recently traveled to South Dakota to campaign against his Democratic counterpart, minority leader Tom Daschle, a spectacular breach of the etiquette of that body.

The Republicans have a solid enough majority in the House to pass most conservative legislation, but Senate rules that give added power to the minority are proving an insurmountable roadblock to congressional action.

But there are other reasons for the legislative gridlock, including the fact that in this election year, lawmakers are reluctant to confront problems that don’t conform to their simplistic campaign slogans.

The budget is a mess and everybody knows it is going to take Draconian action to deal with it — huge program cuts or tax increases — but that’s the last thing nervous partisans on both sides of the aisle want.

The Bush administration, preoccupied by the deteriorating situation in Iraq, has not aggressively pushed its domestic legislative agenda, adding to the congressional malaise.

While nobody cheers the results, this latest do-nothing Congress has a silver lining for liberal Jewish groups.

"A lot of things we expected would go through very quickly in this Congress have stalled," said an official with one group, "and given the current political climate, that may be the best we can hope for."

An example: the stalled effort to reauthorize the controversial 1996 welfare reform law. The original law included the first national "charitable choice" provisions, whic opened the door to government contracts for religious groups to provide social services; the reauthorization was expected to renew and expand those provisions.

But the bill was yanked when senators got hopelessly bogged down in debates over minimum-wage provisions, and nobody, apparently, thought it was worth trying to hammer out a compromise.

Overall, the president’s faith-based initiative is not likely to get much of a hearing in a Congress ideologically disposed to it, but not disposed to find the compromises it will take to enact the plan into law.

And some legislation is more useful stalled than passed.

A constitutional amendment barring gay marriage and an extension of the controversial Patriot Act are unlikely to move this year, in part because many Republican leaders expect to gain political mileage by blaming the Democrats for holding them back. Many Democrats are working to block those bills — and the Republicans aren’t trying very hard to get past those roadblocks.

But the gridlock is also sidelining measures these Jewish groups support, including an expanded hate crimes statute and the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA).

Jewish leaders are pushing legislation to provide $100 million in homeland security money to help nonprofit agencies, including synagogues and Jewish schools, protect themselves against terror attacks.

But congressional leaders are much more interested in playing partisan "gotcha" than in figuring out how to the provide the money.

And then there’s the budget time bomb.

Congress didn’t deal with the soaring deficit last year, when it failed to pass 11 of 13 appropriations bills, and it’s unlikely to do much better this year. Instead, most observers expect another big, pork-laden "continuing resolution" — Congress-talk for a gimmick to put off hard budget decisions.

That’s good news — sort of — for agencies that expect big cuts when Congress finally does start dealing with the runaway deficit. But in the end, putting off a serious budget reckoning will only compound the problem.

Jewish groups don’t have magic answers to the budget crisis, but almost all agree: the longer Congress fiddles while the budget burns, the worse will be the ultimate consequences.

And forget about meaningful Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security reform to keep the vital programs solvent when the Baby Boom generation hits the Golden Years.

Recent history suggests the "What, Me Worry" Congress will be overwhelmingly reelected on Nov. 2, but it sure won’t be because of its distinguished legislative record.

Four Words Slow Fight Against Terror


At home, the Bush administration is trying to convince a dubious nation that it needs even more law-enforcement powers to wage an effective war against terrorism, and around the world it continues to wage an uphill battle to enlist the rest of the world in the fight. But those efforts are foundering, and four words sum up two big reasons: John Ashcroft and Saudi Arabia.

At home, the administration’s top pitchman for expanding law-enforcement powers continues to sow deep doubts about his real motives. And abroad, the administration’s blindness — some call it blatant hypocrisy — to Saudi offenses has provided a convenient excuse for European leaders who’d much rather make a franc from the terror-sponsoring states.

On the domestic scene, the administration wants Congress to grant sweeping new powers that critics charge would compound the civil liberties damage done by the first Patriot Act, hurriedly passed in the fearful days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Now, the administration wants legislation that would expand the right of law-enforcement authorities to detain suspected terrorists without judicial oversight, limit public access to information deemed sensitive and expand the number of capital crimes.

But it’s proving a hard sell. Even some in Congress who publicly support most elements of the anti-terror war wonder if President Bush is going too far, seeking powers that have little to do with the fight against terror, a lot to do with conservative ideology.

And much of that suspicion centers on Ashcroft, the most visible administration advocate of expanded powers.

Ashcroft gives the impression he is on an almost religious crusade to give the federal government — which he distrusts in almost every other realm — much greater power not just to fight terror, but to go after and dish out the maximum penalty to criminals of all sorts, not just terrorists.

It’s no accident that a part of the administration’s new request is to expand the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty, long one of Ashcroft’s personal priorities.

This is the same attorney general who interfered with local authorities to make the decision about where to try the Washington sniper suspects solely on the basis of where they would be likeliest to receive the death penalty and who has overseen several terror prosecutions that have all but fallen apart because of the government’s zeal for secrecy.

Most Jewish leaders continue to support the idea that the nation needs to wage an aggressive, serious war against the global terror scourge, but some privately worry that Ashcroft could be using that fight to enact liberties-limiting laws that even conservatives have been reluctant to pass in the past.

The administration’s call for some added law-enforcement powers may be justified, but Ashcroft’s heavy ideological baggage undermines the effort.

Abroad, the U.S. effort to convince longtime allies that they needed to enlist in its global war on terror quickly conflicted with an array of self-interest concerns and with the administration’s overarching focus on Iraq, a country whose terror threat seemed to most more potential than real.

But nothing has done more to undermine U.S. credibility as commanding general of the war on terror as the administration’s bizarre fondness for the Saudi sheikhs.

The Saudis continue to fund terror groups that are working feverishly to undercut U.S. policy around the world; more than half of Hamas’ $12 million to $14 million budget comes from Saudi donors, according to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), including a big chunk from government-controlled charities.

Then, of course, there’s the billions that have reportedly gone to the Al Qaeda network.

But the Bush administration lamely insists the Saudis are being “helpful” in the anti-terror fight despite vast evidence to the contrary; it continues to protect its buddies in Riyadh even as they work to impede U.S. peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians and enrich groups that regard Sept. 11 as mere prologue.

The hypocrisy of that attitude isn’t lost on a world that is only too willing to overlook terrorism if it’s happening to someone else — and if it’s in their economic interest to do so.

The White House continues to insist that in this war, “you’re either with us or with the terrorists,” but it has granted a dangerous dispensation to its Saudi friends. When Bush family ties — or petrointerests — enter the picture, this administration is only too willing to blandly ignore certain sinners.

How is this different from the Europeans, the Russians and the Asians who benefit handsomely from economic relations with some top terror-sponsoring countries, and as a result obdurately refuse to pay attention to the consequences?

President Bush has depicted the terror war as a crusade of moral purity, but his administration corrupts that crusade when it makes yawning exceptions for its favored terror backers. The same holds true when the leaders of the domestic battle against terrorism seem to care more about old ideological battles than the fight against a new breed of terrorist bent on destroying us.

Accessible Judaism


In the late ’70s, a poster appeared on the walls of synagogues and Jewish buildings. It showed a long flight of stairs, leading to the entrance of a synagogue. At the bottom of the stairs a man sat in a wheelchair, looking up.

The poster perfectly captured an issue that was just beginning to make its way into our consciousness: the desire for belonging by Jews with disabilities.

Most synagogues today are physically accessible. Indeed, many of us can’t remember the days before ramps and lifts, automatic doors and disabled-accessible restrooms. Even the bimah has become accessible, finally putting an end to the humiliation of a person in a wheelchair being carried by friends up the stairs to the Torah.

Some of this has come about as a result of legislation. But before the legislation, there was a remarkable man named Larry Carmel, co-chair of Council on Jewish Life’s (CJL) Commission on Jews With Disabilities. And it was Larry to whom we owe the greatest gratitude — not only for the changes in physical accessibility that he captained but for the attitudinal changes in our community that resulted in institutional agreement that lack of access should no longer be tolerated.

Larry died this year in San Diego on Feb. 18 at age 78. He, himself, was disabled, but not from birth. Badly wounded in France during World War II, he was awarded the Victory Medal and Purple Heart. He then contracted polio in the hospital where he was recuperating and the remainder of his adult life was spent in a wheelchair, coping with severe physical hardships. But Larry triumphed.

Under Larry’s tutelage, the CJL created forums for groups of disabled and “temporarily able-bodied” to come together for discussion, sharing best practices and identifying both resources and gaps in service in our community. It also created a powerful network of people with disabilities and their families to enhance awareness in the general community. The CJL hosted the first Conference on Jews With Disabilities and published “The Resource Guide for People With Disabilities.”

The goal of his work, however, was to raise community consciousness, to emphasize that while ramps are easy to build, helping people understand the need for them — changing an attitudinal culture — is not.

We needed Larry then, and we need him today. For while the issue of accessibility for Jews with physical disabilities is at least understood (if not yet fully realized), the issue of accessibility for Jews with “invisible” disabilities — developmental disorders, learning disabilities, mental illness — is not. Part of the problem is, of course, the invisibility.

Unlike people with physical disabilities, people with invisible disabilities are often judged by their behavior. Autism? Wow, sure don’t want my kid playing with that weird kid! ADD/ADHD? That kid sure is out of control — parents must need parenting classes!

Depression? Why can’t he just get on with his life?

Invisible disabilities are “contagious” — they spread to family members as well, who experience isolation and marginalization from communal life. The mother fighting for her child to enter a Jewish preschool is “aggressive and pushy.” The spouse of a person with bipolar disorder is to be pitied — but don’t get too close or she may overwhelm you with her problems.

Attitudinal barriers make concrete solutions more difficult. Synagogue involvement, Jewish education, social opportunities, residential services — some resources do exist, but are these are few and far between. Accessing these resources is a challenge in itself — there is no central Web site, no consortium of agencies coordinating services and exploring the gaps, no task force of rabbis and educators looking at the ways in which to expand services and open doors to families who are desperate to find a place for their children and themselves to belong.

Larry Carmel knew that passion, intelligence, empathy and a sense of mission were powerful tools for mobilizing a community. And he knew that the battle could not be fought by a single person — that it takes a community to change a culture. We need a new poster; one that metaphorically resurrects the image of the wheelchair at the bottom of the stairs. How do you illustrate an invisible disability? But we must again make concrete the experience of exclusion and longing. It is time to bring together our community, to challenge the culture of exclusion and to provide the access to bring all of our families home to us.


Sally Weber is director of Jewish community programs for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and facilitates a support program for families with special needs children.

Sukkot and Our Duty to Alleviate Poverty


This Friday marks the end of the celebration of Sukkot. The word Sukkot, of course, means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we spent the past week eating, singing and even sleeping in. We remember the wandering of the Jews in the desert and celebrate the fall harvest season. As we spent the past week in the sukkah — with its fragile walls and a ceiling made of leaves and branches — we reflected on the fragility of our lives and our possessions and, perhaps, we thought about those who are not as fortunate.

Although our harvest is bountiful indeed, not all Americans share in it: 5.4 million American families live in unsafe or unhealthy housing conditions. That number pales next to the 31 million Americans today who are hungry, or at immediate risk of hunger. Even those who receive government assistance remain in need: 58 percent of employed former welfare recipients have incomes below the poverty line.

Just as the rhythms of our Jewish calendar have us thinking about our many blessings and those who remain mired in poverty, the congressional calendar is now turning to consideration of the most important federal anti-poverty program. Last week, more than half of the members of the Senate signed a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to bring welfare reform reauthorization to the floor of the Senate chamber for a vote before the end of the 107th Congress. The bill, titled, the “Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids Act of 2002” (WORK), has bipartisan support. The Senate bill is a strong improvement over the current welfare system and a strong improvement over the welfare reform bill passed by the House of Representatives in May. The House bill would increase the number of hours per week of work required of welfare recipients, while limiting the availability of education and training and other services required to make employment viable and attainable. At the same time, the meager increase in funding for childcare falls way below the $4.5 billion that is needed just to maintain current childcare services, which are provided to only one-seventh of families who are in need.

The WORK bill would maintain the current work week for welfare recipients, increase childcare funding by $5.5 billion, give states the option to restore welfare benefits to legal immigrants, encourage more education and training and make it easier for individuals to receive substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. While significantly better than the House bill, this bill would leave many millions without child care. Currently, only about 2 million of the 15 million eligible for child-care services actually receive help. The Senate bill would provide child-care assistance for only an estimated 100,000 more low-income children than the current program. No parent should be forced to choose between losing benefits because they are not working and leaving their children alone because the parent has to work.

The Torah and the Jewish tradition teach us that providing for the poor is not a matter of charity but an obligation. “If … there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand…. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).

As Jews and Americans, we should require nothing less from our government today. In a land where one in three children will be poor at some point during their childhood, we can and must do better.

As Sukkot comes to an end, so too does the 107th Congress. The circumstances could not be more urgent. It is crucial that comprehensive welfare legislation pass this year, since budget constraints will make it even more difficult to pass legislation that would positively affect families next year. With the lessons and experience of Sukkot fresh in our minds, let us remember those who do not share in our prosperity. Let us help spread a sukat shalom, a shelter of peace and healing, over those who most need our help. And let us join with them to encourage the Senate to pass just and humane welfare reform during this session.

Rabbi David Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rachel Wainer is the legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism focusing on economic justice issues.

Ashcroft or Not


Something’s fishy in Noah’s Ark.

President-elect George W. Bush has managed in a very short time to pull together a cabinet that is as diverse as America — if America had no Jews. His Cabinet nominees include two African Americans, two Hispanics, one Asian American, one Arab American, four women and one Democrat. Considering that Bush fared poorly among minority voters, his choices reflect extraordinary outreach or extreme political calculation, or both.

There are no Jewish Americans in the Bush cabinet. Some will read sinister motives into this (see Sidney Zion, p. 16), but the fact is there are several high in his administration. Of course, you don’t have to be Jewish to stand for policies and values that Jewish Americans believe are important. But, truth be told, it’s comforting to have some familiar surnames close to the Oval Office. Josh Bolten, named last week as Bush’s top policy adviser, is Jewish, as is the incoming White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a close Bush adviser, is expected to be appointed to a new White House office of faith-based initiatives.

Goldsmith was an active presence at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Indianapolis in Nov. 1997. Since meeting him there, I have kept a copy of his 1997 book, “The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America,” close by. One of those books bound to tee off those on the hard left and hard right, it struck me as the work of a man who took a refreshingly common-sense approach to governance.

That makes me wonder all the more whether Bush sought Goldsmith’s counsel before nominating former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft as his attorney general. Civil rights groups have begun scrambling their jets against the nomination, but there are several reasons to be nervous about Ashcroft, none of which have to do with race.

Hate Crimes Legislation. Ashcroft has generally opposed hate crimes legislation, worrying that it infringes on the rights of states and localities. Even if the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which will be reintroduced in the next Congress, is given slim chances of passage, it’s fair to wonder whether Ashcroft will vigorously enforce existing hate crimes laws.

Homosexual Rights. If you are of the mind that gay Americans deserve the same legal protections as all Americans, then you have to wonder what kind of defender Ashcroft will be. Two years ago, he publicly opposed the nomination of James C. Hormel to an ambassadorship because the philanthropist is gay.

Gun Control. Will a man given a “100 percent” rating by the NRA pursue the repeal of the Brady Bill? Ashcroft voted against an amendment to ban possession of semiautomatic assault weapons by juveniles and against mandating background checks at gun shows, among other no-brainer gun laws.

Abortion. It is still legal in this country, but Ashcroft is an outspoken foe. “[I]f I had the opportunity to pass but a single law,” he wrote in a May 29, 1998, issue of Human Events: The National Conservative Weekly, “I would fully recognize the constitutional right to life of every unborn child, and ban every abortion except for those medically necessary to save the life of the mother.”

The National Council of Jewish Women — hardly the vanguard of left-wing activism — has come out against Ashcroft’s nomination, and others may follow suit. That is, the Jewish mainstream, which embraces a Colin Powell or other primarily pragmatic, problem-solving leaders, is turning against an outspoken ideologue like Ashcroft. Note to Goldsmith: pass the word on to your new boss.

Tough Choices for Hate Law Boosters


For Jewish leaders, lobbying sometimes involves tough choices between winning and doing the right thing. That dynamic is very much in play this week as many Jewish groups, with a boost from President Bill Clinton, fight desperately to save a new hate crimes law that has become cannon fodder in the nation’s culture wars.

The bill has been blocked by Republicans because of provisions that are not central to the Jewish groups that support it. But Jewish leaders haven’t even considered changing the bill to advance the parts that would most directly benefit the Jewish community. To do so, they believe, might produce short-term gains but at a terrible long-term cost. And to do so, many believe, wouldn’t be right.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act has several components.

The first is one Jewish groups have long advocated. It would expand on earlier legislation and make it easier for federal authorities to investigate and prosecute local cases when bias is suspected as the cause of violence.

The rationale isn’t to create special categories of protected citizens, but to make up for obvious inequities in the way laws are enforced in different areas of the country.

The second component expands existing hate crimes laws by adding crimes based on the victim’s gender, sexual preference and disability to the categories covered by earlier laws — race, ethnicity and religion.

It is this part of the legislation that has caused such an agonizing dilemma for many Jewish leaders.

From the outset, they supported this expansion because a hate crimes measure that does not seek to protect all those most likely to be victims is a sham.

But the inclusion of gays and lesbians, predictably, incensed Christian right forces and their friends in Congress. Suddenly, the measure was redefined by politicians, preachers and an impressionable media as a gay rights law, written to provide “special” protections for gays and lesbians.

Those who opposed the measure for other reasons, including their opposition to anything that expands federal powers at the expense of the states, found this a convenient hook on which to hang their political hats.

Gay rights groups, understandably, focused on the gender preference aspects of the bill; their militant press releases and public statements became ammunition for opponents.

Almost lost was the idea that this law is meant to protect all minorities who have been subjected to hate violence and victimized again by halfhearted local prosecution.

Lost, too, was the fact that it was crafted in large part by the Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights all forms of racism and bigotry, but whose first commitment has always been to battle anti-Semitism.

Advocates point out that sexual preference is only the third most common basis for hate crimes, behind crimes based on race and religion. Calling it a “gay rights” measure, they say, is a straw man set up by those who oppose all hate crimes laws — or those who seek favor with conservative voters by slamming gays and lesbians.

Because of that opposition, the measure was recently stripped from the Commerce, State and Justice appropriations bill. This week, Jewish activists were working frantically to get it reinserted. President Bill Clinton said his recent veto of the spending bill was due, in part, to the removal of hate crimes language; Jewish activists are hoping it could be revived as part of a budget agreement.

Still, this week’s lobbying represented a longshot rescue effort.

So what are Jewish leaders to do? Most continue to view the new hate crimes bill an essential element in their effort to protect Jews and other minorities, but they also see the handwriting on the wall: the inclusion of gays and lesbians makes the measure highly vulnerable, especially in this Congress.

Despite that reality, Jewish groups seem disinclined to seek changes that would scale back or eliminate the inclusion of gays and lesbians under the bill.

“It might be politically pragmatic, but it would be impossible to justify in the face of what we have always said is the compelling reason for this law — the existence of hate crimes, and disparities in the way they are treated,” said one Jewish activist who has been involved in the fight. “Changing the sexual preference language would be a clear signal that Congress believes some kinds of hate crimes are more okay than others.”

Changing the legislation would blow apart a broad hate crimes coalition that has been responsible for the slow but steady accretion of new laws that Jewish groups say are clearly benefiting the Jewish community, as well as other minority groups.

And giving in to the political pressure would boost politicians, who come perilously close to endorsing outright bigotry and even violence when they play to conservative voters, by branding every initiative that would benefit gays and lesbians as beyond the political pale.

The Jewish community is not monolithic in supporting gay rights; Orthodox organizations, for example, refused to take a position on the current legislation because of the inclusion of gays and lesbians.

But those groups have avoided the overt gay bashing that continues to be heard on Capitol Hill — bigotry tidied up and legitimized by the full force of Congress, dangerous to homosexuals today and possible other minority groups tomorrow.

‘One of the Most Dismal Sessions Ever’


Asked to discuss the accomplishments of the 105th Congress, which erupted last week in a frenzy of last-minute wheeling and dealing as lawmakers tried to avert another politically costly government shutdown, Rep. Ben Cardin’s response was succinct.

“It will be a very brief conversation,” said the Maryland Democrat, a senior member of the Jewish delegation in the House.

Cardin’s bleak assessment is shared by Jewish activists, who were thwarted on issues ranging from Social Security and Medicare reform to workplace protections for Sabbath-observing Jews.

Congress passed significant legislation, including a measure intended to fight religious persecution abroad, and it presided over the first balanced budget in decades.

But the session was dominated by well-financed special-interest groups and an unprecedented level of partisan rancor, according to several Jewish legislators.

And for months, lawmakers have been fiddling a song of impeachment while world economies burn and critical problems such as weapons proliferation pile up. The relentless focus on President Clinton’s sex life had a direct and negative impact on a number of priority issues for the Jewish community, including a major religious liberty bill.

Jewish activists put much of the blame on what many see as a Republican leadership increasingly dominated by the party’s right wing. But the Democrats weren’t exactly blameless.

“The Republicans were excessively partisan, and the Democrats were disorganized and ineffective,” said a staffer for a Democratic legislator. “There was little cooperation between the White House and the Democratic leadership. Combine that with the fact that President Clinton was weakened by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and it adds up to one of the most dismal sessions ever.”

For Jewish groups active on the domestic front, the 105th Congress could have been worse — but not much. Rep. Cardin ticked off some of the failings:

“On the big-ticket items like the budget, we took a Band-Aid approach,” he said. “The way the appropriations bills were handled was a disaster. Major education initiatives went nowhere; there were no accomplishments on tax reform or health care reform, which were hyped as ‘must-pass’ items. It’s the second Congress in a row that’s failed to act on important environmental issues.”

More worrisome, he said, was the failure of legislators to start dealing with the long-term problems facing the Social Security system.

“The session will be known primarily for its investigations, none of which has resulted in any changes in policy,” Cardin said. “It’s been a wasted opportunity and a tragedy for the country.”

Many Jewish activists agreed.

Sammy Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), said that “a number of very promising legislative initiatives were just dropped, including additional funding for child care, the Violence Against Women Act, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Patient’s Bill of Rights.”

The tobacco settlement bill — which the administration hoped would help finance a number of social and education initiatives — and major campaign finance legislation fell victim to big-money lobbying from opponents, she said.

The biggest cause of legislative gridlock, she said, was “excessive partisan bickering.”

“There’s a lot more politics being played on the international scene,” said Rep. Cardin. “We put off dealing with the IMF [International Monetary Fund]; it’s embarrassing how we’ve treated the U.N. There’s clearly a neo-isolationist trend in Congress that’s weakening the United States internationally.”

Orthodox activists who generally track a more conservative course on Capitol Hill found more to like about the 105th Congress, but they, too, expressed frustration about issues left undone — including school vouchers. Congress failed to override a presidential veto on a voucher plan for the District of Columbia. Orthodox groups favored the plan, while liberal and church-state organizations were vehemently opposed.

“We had some important victories, including the expansion of ‘charitable choice,'” said Abba Cohen, Washington director for Agudath Israel of America. “But they were overshadowed by the fact that we were unable to make progress on our top priorities — the Religious Liberty Protection Act [RLPA] and the Workplace Religious Freedom Act [WFRA] That made this session very disappointing.”

Cohen, too, criticized the partisan excesses of the 105th.

“There was a great deal of posturing for the election,” he said. “Issues that came up were being evaluated almost entirely in terms of their election value. That always happens, but this year it happened much earlier. And that makes it much harder to get business done.”


OU Voters Guide

With congressional elections just three weeks away, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America is issuing its first-ever guide for voters around the country.

But unlike guides distributed by groups such as the Christian Coalition, the OU booklet will not rate incumbents and challengers; instead, the guide simply lays out the group’s top domestic and international issues.

“We’re not interested in providing scorecards,” said Nathan Diament, head of the group’s Institute for Public Affairs. “We see this as a basic tool for helping our constituents focus on the issues that are important to us — and for informing candidates about what issues our community thinks are critical.”

The guide indicates support for implementation of a resolution calling on the administration to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and for congressional letters opposing U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government.

The OU also gives the nod to candidates who support school voucher plans and a scheme for “education savings accounts” that will help parents pay for private-school tuition. Both are opposed by more liberal Jewish groups.

At least 8,000 copies of the guide will be distributed by synagogues around the country, and the document will be available on the OU’s web site.

Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition is taking a more aggressive approach to the upcoming congressional elections. The group’s “Blueprint for Victory” lays out a $2.7 million plan for voter registration and a “get-out-the-Christian vote” effort.

In 1996, the Federal Election Commission filed suit, charging that the group, despite its claim to be a nonpartisan educational organization, was operating as a partisan Republican advocate. At the center of that controversy was the group’s detailed voters guides. — James Besser