Palestinians offer to mediate Syria conflict

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Palestinian officials have met their Syrian counterparts as well as Syrian rebels in an effort to mediate a solution to the long-running civil war in Syria, Palestinian officials told The Media Line. The offer came after Saudi Arabia asked Abbas, who has good relations with Syria, Iran, and Russia to push forward a Saudi proposal for a deal in Syria.

Abbas met the Syrian officials in Cairo recently when Arab leaders gathered to celebrate the opening of the newly expanded Suez Canal. He was acting on a request from Saudi officials, Tayseer Khaled, a longtime member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) told The Media Line.

“We are suggesting the formation of a transitional government in Syria with broad powers,” he said. “All sides should stop using weapons, and there should be elections for a new president.”

He said that a constituent assembly should be elected for one year to draft a new constitution which would mark the beginning of a transition to a democratic state, and that parliamentary elections would be held under the new elected legislative authority.”

The proposal is very similar to the Saudi plan, which also eliminates Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as a potential candidate for the country’s next president. Iran, which has poured money and sent thousands of fighters to help Assad, has offered a different proposal, according to recent media reports, in which Syria would be divided into mini-states according to which part of Syria various groups control. The city of Aleppo, which has been the focus of much of the fighting, would be under international control.

The Syrian civil war has ground on for more than four years, leaving at least 240,000 people dead. Millions of Syrians have become refugees with neighboring countries in the Middle East straining their resources.

The Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have long been bitter enemies, and rancor has grown over Saudi attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supported by Iran. In many ways, the two countries are jockeying for position in the Middle East, and perhaps ironically, it is the Palestinians who have ties with both sides.

Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, was in Iran last week to discuss a series of issues with Iranian officials, including the deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons, which is sharply opposed by Israel. Abbas has announced his intention to visit Iran in the next few months.

After his visit, Majdalani told Palestinian Radio that his trip had been successful and that Iran and “Palestine” will cooperate in several spheres, including economic and diplomatic.”

“Palestine is keen to end the crisis in Syria, because the Palestinian refugees there have paid a heavy price,” Basem Zubaidi, a political analyst at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank told The Media Line. Hundreds of Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus have been killed in the fighting in Syria, and the camp, which used to house 160,000 Palestinians is virtually deserted.

Zubaidi also said that Abbas has close ties with new Saudi King Salman, and the Palestinian president is also close to Russia.

“The Palestinian Authority (PA) is not a party to any dispute or any axis and that is very important,” he said.

The budding relationship between the PA and Iran has grown as ties between Iran and the Islamist Hamas movement which control the Gaza Strip, have cooled. Iran has sharply cut its financial assistance to Hamas, and has been angry over Hamas support for Saudi Arabia’s attacks on the Houthis in Yemen. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal’s planned visit to Iran recently was cancelled, to show Iran’s anger over Hamas’ efforts to move closer to Saudi Arabia.

Palestinian officials say they are the only ones with close ties to all of the parties involved in Syria, and hope to boost their diplomatic credibility as they plan to approach the United Nations in the coming months with a new UN Security Council resolution to recognize them as an independent state.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Mediation’s deep Jewish roots

Mediation is deeply rooted in Judaism under laws of compromise and justice known as p’shara.  Aaron, brother of Moses, was called a pursuer of peace (rodef shalom) and is recognized as Judaism’s first mediator.  Implicit in p’shara is the belief that much is to be gained by the one who exhausts the effort to settle a dispute out of court, including peace of mind and spiritual strength.

Mediation today is generally understood to mean a confidential session where a neutral party called ‘Mediator’ meets with parties to a dispute and their counsel (if represented) outside the litigation process.  The mediator, who has no authority to make any ruling, is there to guide the parties to reach a settlement on their own and avoid the need for an imposed solution by a court or arbitrator. 

Use of mediation in the United States and internationally, as the first step to settling disputes, is booming.  For good reason.  It works.  Parties who use mediation invariably praise it for saving them time, expense, uncertainty and continued stress that accompanies litigation. Sometimes mediation even succeeds to repair broken relationships.

Many however still elect to resolve their disputes through protracted, expensive, and often painful litigation or arbitration without first having tried mediation.  They are often not aware of the effectiveness and value of mediation. 

Let’s say you and your significant-other have an important issue in dispute. You may seek the help of a counselor to help you work through the problem together.  But, you don’t give the counselor power to make the decision for you.  You want to play a role in determining your destiny, rather than be forced to submit to the will of an authority figure.  When you take a dispute to a jury, judge or arbitrator that is exactly what you’re doing.  You’re turning over your right to reach a decision on your own, giving it to a third party.

Assume your Doctor informs you that you have a critical medical problem. He offers two choices.  You can first try medication, exercising and changing your diet, or you can skip that and assume the risk of going directly to the final option — surgery.  Clearly, we would choose surgery only after the less drastic alternatives have been exhausted.

Resolving a dispute is not different.   Just as medication should be tried before resorting to surgery, mediation should be tried before resorting to court or arbitration.

Therein lies perhaps the most overlooked benefit — control.  In mediation, you retain absolute control over whether or not and how to resolve your dispute.  In court or arbitration, parties submit to the decision of a third party.  Given the option, most of us would choose to participate as fully as we can and save the more drastic measures as backup options.

A mediator deals with the strengths and weaknesses of positions, analyzes likelihood of outcomes in litigation or arbitration, and bridges the gap effectively given the dynamics of the case.  With the help of a mediator, people can simply and very inexpensively, when compared to litigation or arbitration, resolve any dispute – in any area whatsoever including divorce and every variety of business, contract, personal injury, estate, civil rights, and real estate disputes, among others.

The standard California residential real estate contract form requires any arising dispute to first be mediated.  Fortunately, as the benefits of mediation become more known, increasingly more contracts contain a clause requiring mediation before litigation or arbitration. 

Torah declares “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).  According to the Talmud, the first mention of justice refers to a decision based on strict law; the second, to a compromise. We are taught that in practically every case or controversy, mediation should be the first step to resolve it.  Some lessons take a few thousand years to learn.  

These lessons inform my practice as a mediator.  After extensive experience as a trial lawyer, I have wholeheartedly embraced the task of being a rodef shalom — a mediator who wages peace.

Daniel Ben-Zvi, is an active mediator, arbitrator and attorney with ADR Services, Inc., based in Los Angeles.  He has mediated over 2,000 cases.  He is also co-author of  the book “Inside the Minds – Alternative Dispute Resolution”  310-234-5677

Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.

Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?

These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

At-risk youth; Much more Mathout; Donkeys vs. Elephants — the beef goes on

Custody Battle
Wendy Jaffe’s cover story on divorce focused primarily on the custody battles while neglecting alternative forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation, which can lead to far more peaceful results (“Who Gets the Shul?” Oct. 6).
In my role as a divorce mediator, I have worked over the years with scores of Jewish couples who are separating or divorcing to help them negotiate issues concerning their Jewish life and the Jewish life of their children. Couples in mediation are able to reach agreement on synagogue membership, synagogue dues and religious school fees, b’nai mitzvah costs, the wording on b’nai mitzvah or wedding invitations, as well as how they will share time with their children for holy days and festivals.
Not only is mediation less expensive than litigation, but the process results in far less acrimony and battle. Divorce, while maintaining shalom bayit, is indeed possible.

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Marx
Sha’arei Am — The Santa Monica Synagogue

Maher Hathout
It would have been irresponsible to stand by when a man is honored, even though he uses anti-Israel, anti-Jewish propaganda and participates in rallies that support terrorist groups, as he did at the Federal Building on Aug 12, where he was a keynote speaker and participants chanted, “Long Live Hezbollah” (“Controversial Muslim Leader Gets Award,” Sept. 22).
Hathout never distanced himself from them, nor, after his nomination, did he try to reach out and allay our understandable concerns. Instead, he lashed out, labeling us “un-American” fringe groups that oppose free speech or dislike Muslims. Hathout is free to say whatever he likes, but this extremist, divisive rhetoric and behavior should not be any city’s model for human relations.
We were not alone. Only four out of 14 commissioners voted for Hathout, with five abstaining and four absent. Steven Windmueller, dean of Hebrew Union College and a 1995 Buggs [Award] honoree, returned his award, stating that the [County Human Relations] Commission’s selection of Hathout stained the legacy of the award’s namesake.
There has been no “pressure” on us from “Jews in high places,” and we have not backed down. As rhetoric about the Middle East continues to escalate, the endgame of our protests is to send a strong message about desirable standards of discourse for Los Angeles, to educate the public about extremist rhetoric and to raise questions about who is a “moderate Muslim.”
We succeeded. We hope that Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders everywhere were paying attention and will strive for balanced, informed discourse as the standard for people singled out for special recognition.
Roz Rothstein
Director, StandWithUs

At-Risk Youth
I would like to applaud The Jewish Journal and Julie Gruenbaum Fax for courageously highlighting Aish Tamid and other programs in Los Angeles that offer “troubled teenage boys a way to curb self-destructive behavior” (“Orthodox Youth Not Immune to High-Risk Lifestyles,” Sept. 29). The topic of troubled teens is one of the most pressing and concerning issues facing our city, and it is important to supplement the article with a few additional facts and comments.
Firstly, while the core services and programs provided by Aish Tamid are tailored for troubled teens, we have also witnessed that not only troubled teens regularly attend and participate, but that there is a craving for our services by many different types of students. It is correct that our programs have been designed and appeal to troubled teens and/or students who have tried or are using drugs, but most Aish Tamid students are not druggies, and it is important to clarify this important distinction for the sake of all of our student participants.
It is also significant to note that the issue of at-risk youths is not restricted to only the Orthodox community, but that it affects all teens and young adults in our city, irrespective of their religious upbringing.
The article began with the mention of an Orthodox boy who overdosed on drugs, but many of us recall reading a little more than a year ago about the unfortunate death of a Los Angeles boy who was raised in the local Conservative schools and synagogues of our city who also died from a drug overdose.
In fact, after being mentioned and quoted in your 2005 article, Aish Tamid received a flood of phone calls from parents and school principals within the Conservative and Reform movements who confirmed that their children and/or students where facing the exact same challenges that was attributed to only Orthodox students in your recent article.
It would be naive of us to conclude that only Orthodox students are challenged with religious expectations, community and family pressures, academic and educational obstacles, questions on personal relationships, uncertainties on professional career options and, of course, the immense social influences of sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling and other self-destructive habits.
These are the challenges of all teens and young adults, not just Orthodox, and the Aish Tamid programs and services, especially the Pardes/Plan B alternative high school program, have been designed to provide resources and support to all Los Angeles teens, young adults and their parents, irrespective of their religious affiliation.
Rabbi Avi Leibovic
Founder and Executive Director
Aish Tamid of Los Angeles

Politicized Reports
Joseph M. Lipner makes several interesting points in his op-ed (“Israel Should Probe Accusations of War Crimes,” Sept. 29), particularly on the subjective nature of terms such as “war crimes.”
Unfortunately, his piece is marred by incredible naiveté regarding human rights NGOs. Claims that Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International “appear to be acting with good motives” toward Israel, or that they can be expected aggressively to take the side of civilians in any military conflict are not grounded in reality. They reflect the halo effect these groups cultivate to escape accountability.
Research carried out by NGO Monitor shows a different story. Amnesty and HRW released highly politicized reports and statements throughout the war. Amnesty published a scathing 50-page report focusing entirely on Israel’s actions, while hundreds of rockets fell on Israeli civilians daily. HRW even denied Hezbollah used Lebanese civilians as human shields.

UCI Talks on Bias Charge Break Down

Mediation has broken down between UC Irvine and a Jewish group that accused the university of tolerating campus anti-Semitism.

After just two meetings, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) called off summer talks with university officials, ending negotiations to settle the first-ever federal civil rights complaint filed against a university on the basis of alleged anti-Semitism.

Officials at the Orange County school expressed disappointment that ZOA ended the talks “after progress was being made toward a greater understanding with students regarding free speech obligations and UCI’s actions,” James Cohen, director of media relations, said in a statement.

The ZOA stands by its claim that the university has failed to crack down on alleged anti-Semitism on the part of Muslim students and campus Muslim organizations. UC Irvine officials counter that they offer a safe, secure environment for all students, a claim supported by many Jewish students, especially those not involved with campus Israel-advocacy groups. Muslim students have denied doing anything improper.

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiments have become ever more common at U.S. universities, as evidenced by the movement to divest funds from Israel. In addition, there’s been an increase of international funding for professorships and Middle East institutes that are more pro-Arab or pro-Palestinian.

However, the frequency and intensity of animosity toward Israel and its supporters at UC Irvine — as well as at Columbia University in New York and UC Berkeley — make them among the least hospitable colleges for Jews in the nation, some Jewish leaders say.

Susan Tuchman, director of ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, said she could not comment specifically on the June mediation talks because of a confidentiality agreement. But UC Irvine remained a “hostile environment,” she said, for many of the university’s 1,000 Jewish students.

According to the ZOA complaint, Jewish students have, on occasion, been sworn at, threatened and harassed by Muslim activists. Moreover, the administration has declined to condemn what Jewish groups characterize as inflammatory hate speech made by stridently anti-Zionist Muslims invited to campus by Muslim student groups. Many of these speakers have criticized Jews, the State of Israel and Israel’s right to exist.

“My sense is that things have not improved, and that the rhetoric has not changed,” said Tuchman of ZOA, which filed the complaint against the school with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. “You still have [the annual] ‘Zionist Awareness Week’ and the same anti-Israel, anti-Semitic speakers coming on campus. Students are still feeling uncomfortable.”

No future negotiations are expected, Tuchman said. With the collapse of mediation, federal authorities will resume investigating the Irvine campus to determine what, if any, remedial measures are needed, she added.

University administrators, in recent months, have taken steps to improve the climate on campus, such as holding town halls featuring Jewish and Muslim speakers respectfully exchanging ideas. The university also has sponsored dialogues between Muslim and Jewish students.

“The university has continued its efforts to raise the dialogue on campus regarding issues relating to the Middle East, long before ZOA filed its complaints,” UCI’s Cohen said in the statement.

In April, UCI Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Manuel N. Gomez and Dean of Students Sally Peterson — two high-ranking administrators formerly accused of insensitivity to Jewish student concerns — attended a two-day conference sponsored by Jewish organizations titled, “Making the Case for Israel.”

UC Irvine recently co-sponsored a talk on contentious Middle East issues featuring Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C. The point, UC Irvine officials said, was to model positive behavior by showing how people holding divergent and passionate viewpoints can disagree respectfully. There is talk of creating a major in Jewish studies.

UC Irvine also has decided to review its code of conduct, which calls for tolerance, civility and mutual respect for different religions, ethnicities, genders and races.

Such efforts have earned the support of Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

“UCI is a great school for all students, regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds,” he said.

Some Jewish leaders credit UC Irvine with taking steps in the right direction.

“We think there have been some changes for the better in the past six months,” said Kevin O’Grady, associate director at the Anti-Defamation League’s Orange County-Long Beach Chapter.

But much more should be done, said Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group that has worked closely with UC Irvine students. The administration’s continued silence in response to anti-Semitic hate speech on campus calls into question its commitment to Jewish students, Rothstein said.

In May, for instance, Oakland-based Muslim religious leader Amir Abdel Malik Ali returned to campus, where he talked of the “apartheid state of Israel” and the danger of Muslim dialogue with “Zionist racists.” Malik Ali spoke at the invitation of the Muslim Student Union.

Ignoring pressure by Jewish groups, the administration failed to condemn the speech. By contrast, leaders at Harvard, Rutgers and San Francisco State have publicly criticized anti-Semitism on their campuses.

“We’re not trying to stop free speech. You can say that the Jews led us into Iraq and control the world, whatever” Rothstein said. “But we’d like [university officials] to say they find that anti-Semitic, which we haven’t seen yet.”