Poll: Trump leads Republican presidential race with 25 percent


Billionaire Donald Trump has taken a commanding lead in the race for the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential nomination with the support of 25 percent in a Reuters/Ipsos poll, giving him a double-digit advantage over nearest rival Jeb Bush.

The poll shows Bush, the former Florida governor, trailing at 12 percent.

It is a huge jump for Trump, who announced his candidacy for the November 2016 election six weeks ago – and this despite the criticism political rivals leveled at him for remarks this month belittling the military service of Senator John McCain, the party's candidate in 2008.

The five-day rolling online poll had Trump at 15 percent among Republicans on Friday before he rocketed to 24.9 percent on Tuesday.

Trump, a 69-year-old real estate mogul and reality TV star, seems to be certain to take the stage at next week's Fox News debate, which will use national polls to determine which 10 of the 17 Republican candidates in the field can participate.

Reuters/Ipsos polling also shows that should Trump mount an independent bid next year and run in a three-way race, he will likely drain support from the Republican nominee and allow the Democrat to cruise to victory.

Trump has refused to rule out an independent run should he fail to secure the Republican nomination.

In a matchup with Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton and Bush, Trump would tie Bush at about 23 percent among likely voters, with Clinton winning the White House with 37 percent of the vote.

About 15 percent of those polled said they were undecided or would not vote.

The five-day rolling poll was based on a survey of 425 Republicans and has a credibility interval of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points. The three-way race poll, taken at the same time, used a sample of 1,280 Americans and has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

 

The full results of Reuters/Ipsos rolling Republican presidential poll can be found here.

Palestinian film ‘Omar’ nominated for Oscar


The Palestinian film ‘Omar,” directed by Hany Abu-Assad, has just been nominated for an Academy Award in the Foreign Language Film category.

It’s the second nomination for Abu-Assad, whose “Paradise Now” was up for the prize in 2005. It’s also the second time a Palestinian film has been nominated, according to Haaretz.

“Omar,” shot in Nazareth and the West Bank, is a romantic thriller about a baker arrested and beaten by Israeli intelligence agents following the murder of an Israeli soldier. He is then forced to become a double agent for Israeli intelligence.

Nazareth-born Abu-Assad has Israeli citizenship but identifies as a Palestinian, The Times of Israel reports. Apparently the film itself has a similar slippery identity. Local media has questioned whether it should be labeled a Palestinian film, as it was filmed in the Israeli town of Nazareth and features several Israeli Arab actors. Abu-Assad, who made the film with an entirely Palestinian crew and had mostly Palestinian funding, says there’s no debating the fact that it is an entirely Palestinian film.

“Omar” earned the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

See the trailer here:

Senate confirms Hagel as secretary of defense


The Senate confirmed Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense on Tuesday, after an unusually acrimonious confirmation fight that threatened to complicate his work as civilian leader at the Pentagon.

The Senate voted 58-41 to confirm the former Republican senator, the closest vote ever to approve a defense secretary.

Just four Republicans – Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who holds Hagel's old Senate seat, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Rand Paul of Kentucky – joined the Democrats and independents in support of Hagel's nomination.

After the hard-fought victory, the Democratic president said he was pleased there had been bipartisan support for Hagel, a decorated veteran who served during the Vietnam War as an enlisted man before becoming a Republican U.S. senator.

“I am grateful to Chuck for reminding us that when it comes to our national defense, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans, and our greatest responsibility is the security of the American people,” Obama said.

The bruising battle over Hagel was one of many bitter partisan struggles between Democrats and Republicans at a time when Congress is widely criticized for its inability to agree on even the most basic measures to run the country.

The Senate had voted earlier on Tuesday to end debate on Hagel and move forward, almost two weeks after Republicans launched a filibuster to block the nomination. It was the first ever used to delay consideration of a defense nominee, prompting Democrats to accuse Republicans of jeopardizing national security.

Republicans have also challenged Obama's choice to be CIA director, John Brennan, although that nomination appears to be on track, with a vote by the Senate Intelligence Committee expected on Thursday.

In a sign that opposition to Obama's nominations could be easing, the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday backed his nominee to lead the U.S. Treasury, Jack Lew, with the support of about half the panel's Republicans.

BUDGET, IRAN, ISRAEL AMONG CONCERNS

Hagel had angered party leaders as a senator when he criticized former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

Many Republicans opposed to Hagel's nomination raised questions about whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel, tough enough on Iran or truly committed to maintaining a robust nuclear deterrent.

After Hagel's shaky performance during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, opponents questioned whether he was capable of running the vast Pentagon bureaucracy. Some feared he would be too complicit in efforts by Obama to cut Pentagon spending as a way to deal with yawning U.S. budget deficits.

Some defense industry executives worried that Hagel would be hamstrung from the start, saying his difficult confirmation could severely limit his ability to negotiate with Congress.

“They've neutered him already,” said one industry executive, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Although the Senate rejected John Tower as President George Bush's Pentagon pick in 1989 by a 53-47 vote, defense nominees are typically confirmed by large margins. Leon Panetta, whom Hagel replaces as defense secretary, was approved by a unanimous vote of 100 to nothing in June 2011.

But political experts said such concerns were overblown, given the vast partisan divide that already exists between the Democratic White House and Republicans in Congress on most issues.

“The confirmation process probably leaves a few light scars on Hagel because Republican critics have raised doubts about his judgment,” said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

“But I think Hagel would have faced tough scrutiny and criticism from Republicans once in office, even had he originally sailed to confirmation,” she said.

Hagel said he was honored to return to public service. “I will work closely with Congress to ensure that we maintain the strongest military in the world and continue to protect this great nation,” he said in a statement.

Hagel will be sworn in on Wednesday morning.

SEQUESTRATION CUTS LOOM OVER PENTAGON

Hagel's confirmation comes as the Pentagon faces the prospect of cutting $46 billion in spending over the next seven months of the fiscal year. The cut, scheduled to go into effect on Friday, comes as the department is already implementing $487 billion in spending reductions over the next decade.

Some of Hagel's most vehement opponents made a last-ditch appeal to stop the nomination before the vote.

James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had even called Panetta and asked him not to retire. Panetta, 74, who has made no secret of his desire to be home in California, declined.

After the vote, Inhofe said he still had “serious concerns” about Hagel's ability to lead the Department of Defense but was “ready and willing” to work with him. He urged Hagel to make his first order of business averting the looming defense cuts.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, David Alexander, Andrea Shalal-Esa, Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick; Editing By Doina Chiacu

Senate committee advances Hagel nomination


Sticking strictly to party lines, the Senate Armed Services Committee referred the nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary to the full Senate for confirmation.

The tally favoring Hagel, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska, was 14 in favor, all in the Democratic caucus, and 11 opposed, all Republicans.

One Republican, David Vitter of Louisiana, was not present.

Much of the debate Tuesday afternoon focused on Hagel's past statements expressing skepticism of Iran sanctions, his past wariness of a strike on Iran to keep it from obtaining a nuclear weapon and his past criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) devoted much of his opening remarks to addressing these issues.

“Much of the time and attention at our committee hearing was devoted to a handful of statements that Senator Hagel made over the course of his career that raised legitimate questions about his views on Israel, Iran, and other issues,” Levin said. “Senator Hagel explained or clarified these statements and placed them in context. He apologized for one remark and told the committee that he would say other things differently if he had the chance or were making them over.”

President Obama nominated Hagel, a Vietnam War hero, to succeed Leon Panetta.

Senators assail Obama’s Hagel nomination, question judgment


Republican lawmakers harshly attacked Chuck Hagel on Thursday at a contentious hearing over his nomination to become the next U.S. defense secretary, questioning his judgment on war strategy and putting him broadly on the defensive.

In one of the most heated exchanges, influential Senator John McCain aggressively questioned Hagel, interrupting him and talking over him at times. He openly voiced frustration at Hagel's failure to say plainly whether he was right or wrong to oppose the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.

“Your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not,” McCain said.

Hagel, who like McCain is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, declined to offer a simple yes or no answer, responding: “I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out.”

As President Barack Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon in his second term, Hagel may yet win Senate approval with help from majority Democrats, but he appeared to pick up little fresh Republican support as his hours-long hearing wore on.

Hagel's fellow Republicans dredged up a series of his past controversial statements on Iran, Israel and U.S. nuclear strategy, trying to paint him as outside mainstream security thinking. Even in polarized Washington, the grilling was highly unusual for a Cabinet nominee.

Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina laid into Hagel for once accusing a “Jewish lobby” of intimidating people in Washington, comments Hagel repeatedly said he regretted. Asked whether he could name one lawmaker who had been intimidated, Hagel said he could not. It was one of the many times he appeared uncomfortable.

“I can't think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said,” Graham said.

SEEKING TO SET RECORD STRAIGHT

If he is ultimately confirmed, Hagel would take over the Pentagon at a time of sharp reductions in defense spending, but with the United States still facing major challenges, including China, Iran and North Korea.

Hagel, speaking publicly for the first time since the attacks against his nomination began, at times seemed cautious and halting. He sought to set the record straight, assuring the panel that he backed U.S. policies of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and supporting a strong Israel.

“No one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel said in opening remarks to the packed hearing room.

“My overall world view has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world.”

In an unusual reversal of partisanship, Democrats, more than his fellow Republicans, gave Hagel sympathetic support and time to air his views.

The committee's Democratic chairman, Carl Levin, said his concerns, especially over Hagel's past comments about unilateral sanctions on Iran, had been addressed. “Senator Hagel's reassurance to me … that he supports the Obama administration's strong stance against Iran is significant,” Levin said.

Despite the harsh tone from many Republicans, some senators from the party approached Hagel more collegially.

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia called Hagel by his first name and exchanged jokes with him during his testimony. He served alongside Hagel in the Senate. Roy Blount of Missouri had a cordial exchange about the strength of the country's industrial base.

But Hagel years ago angered many Republicans by breaking with his party over the handling of the Iraq war.

It was one of several contentious chapters of modern U.S. history that surfaced during the session, from the Vietnam War, where Hagel served as an infantryman and was wounded, to President Ronald Reagan's call for nuclear disarmament.

Hagel also was questioned on his view of the Pentagon budget. He is known as an advocate for tighter spending controls.

WRONG MAN FOR THE JOB

Even before Hagel started speaking, James Inhofe, the panel's senior Republican, called him “the wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time.”

“Senator Hagel's record is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream. Too often it seems he is willing to subscribe to a worldwide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends,” Inhofe said as the hearing opened.

McCain's harsh attitude toward Hagel – who he also singled out for opposing Obama's surge of forces in Afghanistan – was a far cry from their past, warm ties. McCain campaigned for Hagel in 1996, and Hagel was national co-chairman of the Arizona Republican's unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid.

On Thursday, McCain said that concerns about Hagel's qualifications ran deep.

“Our concerns pertain to the quality of your professional judgment and your world view on critical areas of national security, including security in the Middle East,” he said.

In the entire Senate, which would vote on Hagel if he is cleared by the committee, only one of the 45 Republicans – Mississippi's Thad Cochran – has said he backs Hagel.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida on Thursday joined the list of Republicans who said they will vote against Hagel.

In written responses to wide-ranging questions submitted by lawmakers ahead of the hearing, Hagel said that if confirmed, he would ensure that the military is prepared to strike Iran if necessary but stressed the need to be “cautious and certain” when contemplating the use of force.

Hagel told lawmakers all options must be on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon – language used to suggest the possibility of a nuclear strike.

“My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment,” he said.

Hagel also voiced support for a steady U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, pledged to ensure equal treatment for women and homosexuals in the military and assured the committee that the United States would maintain an “unshakeable” commitment to Israel's security.

Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Warren Strobel and Jackie Frank

Jewish groups softening resistance on Hagel nomination


Now that Chuck Hagel is officially President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, Jewish groups concerned about Hagel’s record on Israel and Iran are faced with a choice.

Do they fight hard to derail his nomination, joining common cause with Republican opponents? Or do they temper their fire for a Vietnam War hero who insists that opponents have distorted his views on Israel and has a good chance of securing one of the most sensitive posts in the U.S.-Israel relationship?

So far, it appears to be the latter.

Jewish opponents appear to be toning down the criticism that greeted the news last month that Hagel, a Republican who served as a U.S. senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009, likely would be Obama’s defense choice.

The Anti-Defamation League, one of the most outspoken critics of Hagel’s potential candidacy, issued a statement reiterating some of its concerns after Obama made the announcement Monday — but deferred to the president.

“Sen. Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the president’s prerogative,” Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said in the statement.

In his statement, Foxman alluded to past proposals by Hagel to engage with Iran and with terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah; the nominee's skepticism of sanctions and the efficacy of a military strike on Iran; and his criticism of Israel in how it deals with the Palestinians.

Foxman called on Hagel to address positions that the ADL chief said seem “so out of sync with President Obama’s clear commitment on issues like Iran sanctions, isolating Hamas and Hezbollah and the president’s strong support for a deepening of U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council drew back from the tough criticism it leveled against Hagel in 2007 when he was considering a run as a Republican presidential candidate. NJDC said Monday that it is now “confident” Hagel would follow Obama’s lead on Israel.

Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who has asked to be appointed interim senator should Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) become secretary of state, on Monday softened his opposition to Hagel for his comments on Jews and gays.

The shift on Hagel in some Jewish corners may be enough to give the 11 Jewish senators room to support Hagel, or at least to not oppose him — a significant gain in a body in which senators tend to take their cues on special interests from colleagues who belong to the group in question.

The dimming of the prospect of an all-out lobbying effort by some pro-Israel groups against Hagel’s candidacy appears to be the product of White House outreach to Jewish groups in recent weeks, pushback by Hagel’s supporters and Obama’s own record on Israel.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee was silent on the nomination — and not just as a matter of its traditional reticence to comment on nominations. Capitol Hill and pro-Israel insiders told JTA that AIPAC has not taken a stand in this battle.

Steve Rosen, a former foreign policy director for AIPAC who now consults for a number of pro-Israel groups, said it would not help Israel’s interests to undercut a candidate for this key security post.

“It's about making friends, not getting into fights with people,” Rosen said.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, who directs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said his public policy umbrella group would not take a position on Hagel but that he looked forward to a thorough vetting process.

In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star in his home state of Nebraska, Hagel said his record of support for Israel was “unequivocal” and had been subject to “falsehoods and distortions.”

“I have said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism,” he said. “I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East.”

Hagel suggested that differences on policy were a matter of nuance and tactics, not of goals.

“I have not supported unilateral sanctions” on Iran “because when it is us alone they don't work and they just isolate the United States,” he said. “United Nations sanctions are working. When we just decree something, that doesn't work.”

In the interview, Hagel did not refer to the controversy over his use in 2006 of the term “Jewish lobby” and his assertion when he was a senator that his loyalty was to the United States, not Israel.

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York and a contributing fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, said Israeli leaders naturally would have concerns about past Hagel statements. But Pinkas said they would deal with Hagel not as the loquacious one-time senator who often was critical of Israeli policy, but as the defense secretary hewing to a policy set by Obama of a close U.S.-Israel security relationship.

“What a senator says at a three-martini lunch and what a secretary of defense says are two different things,” Pinkas said.

Obama made clear the White House would aggressively tout Hagel’s bona fides as a wounded Vietnam War veteran, twice calling him a “patriot.” There also was a veiled reassurance to Israel in Obama’s remarks.

“Chuck recognizes that American leadership is indispensable in a dangerous world,” Obama said. “I saw this in our travels together across the Middle East. He understands that America stands strongest when we stand with allies and with friends.”

Peter Medding, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said Israel’s leaders understand that the White House shapes the defense relationship and it would be counterproductive to create distance with the U.S. president at a time of increased regional tensions.

“Making policy is a matter for Obama, and the Israelis are not interested in taking on Obama at this time,” Medding said.

Hagel is by no means out of the woods. A number of Republican senators already have pledged to vote against him. His apostasy on President George W. Bush’s Iraq policies — in 2007, Hagel supported Democratic legislation requiring a troop withdrawal from Iraq — is still an open wound in the party. A lone Republican senator could hold the nomination unless the Obama administration is able to muster 60 votes, which could be daunting in a chamber in which Democrats control 55 of the 100 seats.

Support among Democrats and liberal groups also is not assured. Gay groups want to hear more about his apology for opposing a 1998 ambassadorial nomination because the nominee was gay. In the Senate, Hagel was a pronounced conservative on domestic issues, including government spending, abortion and gun control.

Susan Turnbull, a former vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and now chairwoman of Jewish Women International, called Hagel’s views “knee jerk” and “worrisome.”

A range of rightist pro-Israel groups remains committed to upending the nomination, among them the Zionist Organization of America, Christians United for Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel, which on Monday launched a website headlined “Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option.”

Among centrist Jewish groups, the American Jewish Committee wrote to Democratic senators before the Obama made the nomination formal and urged them to ask him to pick another nominee. Since the nomination was announced, AJC has said it is not opposed but “concerned” about the nomination and wants the Senate to conduct thorough hearings.

“AJC has shared our concerns with members of the U.S. Senate, who have the responsibility to ask the probing questions about Hagel’s record and vision,” AJC said in a statement.

For their part, Hagel’s Jewish allies have pushed back hard. J Street, Americans for Peace Now and Israel Policy Forum all have endorsed him.

“It is particularly troubling that some claiming to represent the pro-Israel community have tried to impugn Sen. Hagel’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel special relationship and our countries’ shared security interests,” J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a letter sent to all senators.

Mitt Romney, John Thune make pitch to Jewish Republicans at RJC bash


At the Republican Jewish Coalition’s winter leadership retreat here, it was the absence of certain likely candidates for president that had the crowd most excited.

While names like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann generate enthusiasm at some other conservative gatherings, their absence over the weekend here had the Jewish crowd giddy that ahead of the 2012 race, the Republican Party may be retreating from the divisive hyper-conservatives that have frustrated Jewish attraction to the party in recent years.

At this GOP gathering the heroes were probable presidential hopefuls who are likelier to sway Jews from their traditional Democratic home and toward Republican candidates with positions on issues like the economy and foreign policy.

Matt Brooks, RJC’s executive director, told a questioner that the social issues that have driven Jews away from the Republican Party in the past—abortion, gay rights, church-state separation—were hardly registering now.

“Social issues get a large role in campaigns when there’s not a lot of other issues at the forefront,” he said. Instead, the issues now are America’s economic health and job loss, Brooks said. “That’s what will drive the narrative,” he said.

The economy—and foreign policy, particularly Israel—certainly were the issues driving the narrative at the RJC event.

The two likely candidates to address the audience in the open forum, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, wove both the economy and foreign policy into their challenges to President Obama, whom they and just about everyone else pledged to make a one-term president. Notably, neither man mentioned social issues.

Both lambasted Obama for what they said was the distance he had established between the United States and Israel, breaking with a tradition of decades of closeness.

Romney said Obama’s attempt to appear evenhanded in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led him to “castigate Israel while having nothing to say about thousands of rockets being launched into Israel.”

The Obama administration has condemned Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, although its tense exchanges with Netanyahu’s government over settlement building have received much greater attention in the Jewish community.

Thune said the Obama administration’s emphasis on settlements made it appear that they were the reason peace talks were not advancing while ignoring Arab recalcitrance and the Iranian nuclear threat.

“America’s ally is now and always will be the State of Israel,” he said. “I think the Obama administration sometimes forgets that fundamental fact.”

Thune has said he is not running, but his supporters will not count him out and his appearance at this event and others like it fuels speculation that he may return to the race. Dan Lederman, a Jewish state senator from South Dakota, joked that he had already reserved the VP spot on the Thune ticket.

Romney seemed transformed from his failed 2008 bid for the GOP nomination, when he was faulted for appearing scripted and uncertain in his opinions. He barely consulted a single sheet of notes, and spoke in detail not only on his strengths—health care and budget management—but about the threats facing Israel from Iran and about the peace process.

He subtly cast what he undoubtedly will play as his strength—business and executive experience—into every topic. Obama, he said, does not understand negotiations, a lacking that led him to concede too much at the outset to the Russians in negotiating a missile drawdown in Europe.

“He could have gotten a commitment on their part, ‘We will not veto crippling sanctions on Iran,’ ” a reference to the Republican critique that U.N. sanctions approved last year on Iran were not sufficiently far-reaching. Instead, Romney said, Obama made it clear from the outset that he was willing to end missile defense programs in Poland and the Czech Republic, a key Russian demand.

“The consequence of not understanding negotiations has been extraordinarily difficult,” Romney said.

Romney was relaxed and jokey. Insisting that the tax cuts he would advocate targeted the middle class, he said, “I’m not looking for ways to make rich people richer”—and then added, glancing over at Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and RJC mainstay sitting in the front row, “Sorry Sheldon.”

He also had a practiced answer on health care, facing a vulnerability that has dogged him until now: The plan he championed in Massachusetts, which reduced emergency room-generated costs by mandating health care, was a model for the plan passed last year by Obama and which Republicans want to repeal.

“Romneycare” was good for Massachusetts, he said, but as president he would not impose it on all 50 states. Later he added, to laughter, addressing Obama: If the president truly modeled his plan on Romney’s, “Why didn’t you call me?”

One questioner asked Romney if, like Donald Trump—another putative GOP candidate—he would fight “scrappy” and not behave as a “gentleman” as he had done in previous campaigns. The reference appeared to be to Trump’s adoption of arguments questioning Obama’s citizenship credentials. Romney was adamant he would not stoop to “innuendo” in a campaign.

The most telling moment in Romney’s appearance was when he called his wife, Ann, to the stage.

“Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she said, referring to their Mormon background. That “another” was a sign of the difficulties that minorities have in assimilating into a party that is still perceived as predominantly white and Christian.

The perception that “Republican and Jewish” is an anomaly continues to dog the RJC, despite its successes, including upping the Jewish Republican vote from barely 20 percent in 2008 to more than 30 percent in November’s midterms. Much was made of a show of hands of first-timers at the confab—about a third of the room—and speaker after speaker urged them to bring in more friends and family.

The event was held at Adelson’s palatial Venetian casino hotel, much of it taking place on Shabbat. Observant Jews who attended rushed from services, prayer shawls over their shoulders to events during the day Saturday, dodging oblivious, skimpily dressed cocktail waitresses attending to the crowds. The catering was not kosher, although kosher food was available.

A few Orthodox Jews murmured dissatisfaction with the inconveniences, noting that they are the most Republican of the Jewish religious groups.

Overall, however, the mood was jubilant, with spirited defenses of Republican policies in hallway discussions greeted with effusive nodding, and with attendees relishing the chance to meet with party stars like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the U.S. House of Representatives majority leader, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and with Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister.

Muriel Weber, a delegate from Shaker Heights, Ohio, said a Republican candidate would be an easier sell among Jews in 2012 than in 2008.

“The country’s moved on,” she said. “The economy, our relationship with Israel—the world has become more difficult, scarier.”

Kagan expected to win approval to high court


The U.S. Senate is expected to approve Elana Kagan to serve on the Supreme Court.

The full Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on the nomination. The Senate Judiciary Committee had approved Kagan two weeks ago by a 13-6 vote mostly on party lines.

If approved by the Senate, Kagan, 50, would raise to three the number of Jewish justices on the high court, joining Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. She also would be the fourth woman to serve as a justice, and one of three on the current court with Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Kagan, a New York City native, is now serving as U.S. solicitor general. She was an attorney and policy adviser in the Clinton White House for four years. Kagan is a former dean of the Harvard Law School.

President Obama nominated Kagan in May to replace Justice John Paul Stevens, who served on the court for 35 years. Kagan is expected to support the court’s more liberal wing, which Stevens led during his time on the court. 

The Senate has been debating Kagan’s nomination for the past three days ahead of a monthlong recess.

Kagan seen as brilliant and affable — and a mystery


Rabbi David Saperstein runs through a shopping list of superlatives on Elena Kagan—“self-evidently brilliant” and “steady, strategic and tactical”—before acknowledging that he doesn’t have much of a handle on what President Obama’s choice to fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat actually believes.

In the Jewish community Saperstein, the head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, apparently is not alone.

Community reaction to Obama’s selection of Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, is enthusiastic until officials consider what it is, exactly, she stands for.

Kagan, 50, has never been a judge—she would be the first Supreme Court justice without bench experience since 1974. It’s a biography the White House touts as refreshing, but also has the convenience of lacking a paper trail of opinions that could embarrass a nominee in Senate hearings.

“When someone’s a solicitor general, it is really difficult to know what is their own position and what is the position of the state they are charged to represent,” Saperstein said.

A similar murkiness haunts how Kagan handles her Jewishness—she has alluded to it, but has not explicitly stated it since her nomination.

Her interlocutors in the Jewish community say Kagan is Jewish savvy, but they are hard pressed to come up with her own beliefs.

The White House strategy going into Senate hearings appears to be blame whatever controversy trails her on her employer, on her client—on anyone but Kagan herself.

The first such controversy to emerge since Obama announced the nomination Monday was Kagan’s defense, as dean of Harvard University’s Law School, of the campus practice of banning military recruitment through the main career office (veterans were allowed to recruit independently) because of the military’s discriminatory hiring policies on gays.

Kagan inherited the policy when she became dean in 2003, but she was not shy about agreeing with it. When the Bush administration in 2004 threatened to withdraw funding, she rescinded the ban, but wrote to the student body, according to the authoritative SCOTUS Blog, of “how much I regret making this exception to our anti-discrimination policy. I believe the military’s discriminatory employment policy is deeply wrong—both unwise and unjust. And this wrong tears at the fabric of our own community by denying an opportunity to some of our students that other of our students have.”

Such stirring defenses are absent from White House materials that have emerged on the matter. Instead, the Obama administration is distributing an Op-Ed that appeared Tuesday in the conservative Wall Street Journal by her predecessor at Harvard Law, Robert Clark.

“As dean, Ms. Kagan basically followed a strategy toward military recruiting that was already in place,” Clark wrote, not mentioning her stated ideological investment in the matter.

Another debate pertains more closely to an issue that divides the Jewish community: federal funding for faith-based initiatives.

Kagan clerked for Thurgood Marshall in the late 1980s, and in a memorandum to the Supreme Court justice, she said there was no place for such funding.

In her Senate hearings last year for the solicitor general post, Kagan outright repudiated the position she had forcefully advanced in 1987.

It was “the dumbest thing I ever read,” she said. “I was a 27-year-old pipsqueak and I was working for an 80-year-old giant in the law and a person who—let us be frank—had very strong jurisprudential and legal views.”

Her defense was convenient—Marshall, of course, is long dead and unable to defend himself—and troubling to Saperstein, whose group joins the majority of Jewish organizations in opposing such funding.

“People aren’t quite sure what to make of that,” he said.

The Orthodox Union’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, on the other hand, knows just what to make of it—hay.

“As strong proponents of the ‘faith-based initiative,’ and appropriate government support for the work of religious organizations, we at the Orthodox Union find Ms. Kagan’s review and revision of her views encouraging,” he wrote on his blog Tuesday.

Saperstein noted that the Religious Action Center—along with other Jewish civil liberties groups, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee—is preparing questions for Kagan to be submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. RAC is soliciting questions from the public as well at a Web site, AskElenaKagan.com.

These groups have welcomed the nomination; the National Council of Jewish Women has endorsed Obama’s choice to replace John Paul Stevens, who is retiring at the age of 90 after serving the Supreme Court for 35 years.

NCJW President Nancy Ratzan cited Kagan’s affirmation during her solicitor general confirmation hearings of Roe v. Wade as established law protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, and her defense of federal campaign funding restrictions as solicitor general before the Supreme Court—a case the government lost.

“She gave us clarity as a champion for civil rights,” Ratzan said of Kagan. “We think she’s going to be a stellar justice.”

Other groups say that whatever she argued as solicitor general—or whatever she said in seeking the job representing the U.S. government before the high court—might be seen more as reflecting the will of her boss, Obama, and is not necessarily a sign of how she would function as one of the nine most unfettered deciders in the land.

“There’s a lot we have to learn,” said Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of national and legislative affairs, even after 15 years of interacting with Kagan dating to her days as a Clinton White House counsel on domestic policy.

Foltin and others who have dealt with Kagan say she is affable and easy to get along with, simultaneously self-deprecating and brimming with confidence. She accepts with equanimity the nickname “Shorty” that Marshall conferred upon her, and charmed her Senate interlocutors at her solicitor general confirmation hearings when she said that her strengths include “the communications skills that have made me—I’m just going to say it—a famously excellent teacher.”

In addition to his interactions with Kagan during her Clinton years, Foltin—a Harvard Law alumnus—was impressed as well by her ability as dean of the school to bring conservatives and liberals together.

“This is an incredibly smart attorney who is able to reach out to people, take in diverse perspectives and bring people together,” he said.

Obama cited Kagan’s outreach in announcing her nomination.

“At a time when many believed that the Harvard faculty had gotten a little one-sided in its viewpoint, she sought to recruit prominent conservative scholars and spur a healthy debate on campus,” he said.

Saperstein, who also recalls Kagan from her Clinton White House days, says she brings the same deep understanding of all sides of a debate to the Jewish community.

“She was quite aware of where there were differences—aid to education, government funding of religious institutions,” he said.

Kagan, whose nomination is believed to be secure—Republicans have said they are not likely to filibuster over it—would bring the number of Jews and women on the highest bench in the United States to three. That’s unprecedented in both cases. She would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer as Jewish justices. Sonia Sotomayor, like Kagan a native New Yorker, is the third female justice.

Stephen Pease, whose book “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement” chronicles disproportionate Jewish representation in the law, in academe and the arts, said a third Jewish justice was not remarkable. Kagan would be seen as getting the job on her merits: clerking to two famous judges, teaching at the University of Chicago, advising the Clinton White House, heading Harvard Law, and then as the administration’s second most important lawyer, all by the age of 50.

“She’s done some pretty incredible stuff fairly quickly in her career,” Pease said.

Despite Kagan’s familiarity with the Jewish community, there are few clues as to her Jewish preferences. Her late father was on the board of West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist shul in Manhattan, where she grew up on the Upper West Side. She had a bat mitzvah at the synagogue and, according to a New York Times profile, argued with the rabbi—over what it’s not clear.

Like Obama, she is close to Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and a law professor at the University of Chicago. It’s not clear, however, whether she shared Mikva’s deep involvement in the Jewish community. During her years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, from 1991 to 1995, she was not involved with the local federation.

The White House did not shy away from Kagan’s Jewishness in making the announcement, nor did it make her faith explicit. Invitees to the announcement included the usual array of representatives from Washington offices of national Jewish groups: the AJC, ADL, NCJW and RAC, along with the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Both Kagan and Obama noted that her late parents were the “children of immigrants.”

“Elena is the granddaughter of immigrants whose mother was, for 20 years, a beloved public schoolteacher—as are her two brothers, who are here today,” Obama said.

Kagan added that “My parents’ lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.”

Life story, Israel trips tie Sotomayor to Jews


Jewish groups don’t endorse U.S. Supreme Court nominees, at least in writing.

The tears and choked sobs when Sonia Sotomayor accepted President Obama’s nomination on Tuesday told another story.

Packed into the room along with Sotomayor’s family, friends and colleagues were representatives of Jewish groups that have consulted with the White House about prospective replacements for David Souter.

The story of her life—the daughter of a Puerto Rican single mother from the Bronx, N.Y., whose ambitions knew no bounds—resounded with a community that has made the story of immigrant triumph over struggle a template of Jewish American success.

“It was impossible not to moved by her personal story,” said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “To see her mother sitting there and think about what this says about her and her country—the combination of someone who grew up in a housing project, who has been on the bench for a long time, but who has been a prosecutor as well, that combination is very powerful.”

“It was thrilling,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women.

It doesn’t hurt that Sotomayor, 54, is a poster child for strong Jewish-Hispanic relations. In 1986, when she was in private legal practice, she joined one of the first young leadership tours of Israel sponsored by Project Interchange, which is affiliated with the American Jewish Committee.

Sotomayor so enjoyed the country—its immigrant culture, its popular music influenced heavily by Jewish immigrants from Argentina and Brazil—that she made a return visit in 1996 when she was a federal judge, and recently joined a Project Interchange U.S.-Israel forum on immigration. In the process, she formed a lifelong friendship with Project Interchange founder Debbie Berger and her husband, Paul, who attended her swearing-in as a Manhattan appeals court judge in 1998.

“She enjoyed Israel not just from an intellectual perspective, she liked the music and the people,” Paul Berger told JTA.

Richard Foltin, the legislative director for the AJC, said her background naturally played a role in how the Jewish community would welcome her.

“We must recognize the significance of the third woman and first Hispanic on the court,” he said. “And there’s no question of her impressive qualifications.”

Sotomayor would come to the Supreme Court with one of the longest bench careers in its history, having handed down or joined 3,000 decisions in 18 years as a federal and appeals court judge. That’s a lot to read through and accounted for a degree of hesitancy from Jewish groups that were enthused about her life story but just getting to know her judicial record.

“I’ve got a bunch of opinions in my briefcase and it’s time to start reading,” Pelavin said.

The National Council of Jewish Women—one of the few Jewish groups that expresses an opinion on judicial candidates—has yet to announce where it stands. Whatever the case, said Nancy Ratzan, the NCJW’s president, the organization would dedicate itself to ensuring that Sotomayor receives a fair hearing.

“Our 90,000 followers will be focused on making sure it’s a fair and prompt process that focuses on her record,” she said.

NCJW and the Religious Action Center will canvass members for appropriate questions for Sotomayor during the confirmation process; the questions will be relayed to the U.S. Senate Judicary Committee.

Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling for a process that is conducted “professionally, and with civility and respect,” and praised the pick while stopping short of an official endorsement.

“We applaud President Obama for having selected this noted jurist to be the Court’s first Hispanic and third woman Justice,” the ADL leaders stated. “If confirmed, she will undoubtedly bring an important new perspective to the work of the Court.”

Even the Orthodox Union, which tends to stake our more conservative ground than other Jewish organizations on church-state issues, spoke positively about Sotomayor, citing several religious freedom-related cases.

In a 1993 case, she upheld the constitutional right of a rabbi in White Plains, N.Y., to display a menorah in a city park. In two other cases, in 1994 and 2003, Sotomayor upheld prisoners’ religious rights even though the practices in question did not conform with mainstream beliefs. And in 2006, she ruled that allowing federal age discrimination statutes to apply to a 70-year-old minister dismissed by the Methodist church would constitute unwarranted government interference in church affairs.

Those decisions, OU said, were “very encouraging.”

Marc Stern, the legal counsel for the American Jewish Congress, predicted that Sotomayor’s long bench experience ultimately will be a plus. More time on the bench shaping reasoned opinions made her less of a target than other nominees—like Lani Gunier, Robert Bork and Samuel Alito—whose years pushing intellectual boundaries in the halls of academe handed fodder to opponents seeking controversial statements.

Additionally, the 2nd Circuit of Appeals—based in Manhattan and covering New York, Connecticut and Vermont—deals with cases emerging from courts and legislatures that already trend liberal. That means it is less likely to address issues such as abortion and discrimination that often exercise Jewish groups.

“There’s no track record that anyone can point to,” Stern said. “There’s not likely going to be a whole lot there as a smoking gun.”

Freshman Israeli filmmaker earns three Emmy nods


Arranging a telephone interview with Israeli documentary filmmaker Hilla Medalia requires the scheduling dexterity of a flight attendant: She is constantly en route to someplace else — making movies, promoting various projects and generally wheeling and dealing. And the sense is that it’s not about to get any easier. Medalia’s debut work, “To Die in Jerusalem,” has garnered three Emmy nominations — best documentary, best score and outstanding achievement in investigative journalism.

The Emmys will air live from the Nokia Theatre on Sept. 21 on ABC.

“This is the stuff of dreams,” the filmmaker exclaimed. “To be nominated for an Emmy is one of the highest accolades in my industry.”

Medilia’s film, which earned her a Peabody Award and first place at the International Human Rights Film Festival in Paris, tells the story of two women: one the mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber and the other the mother of a young Israeli girl killed in the same attack.

For Medalia, the attention means more people will see her films, which is the main point.

“For me, the power of film is in the amount of people that can potentially watch what you produce,” she said. “It’s when I understood this that I decided that my role as a filmmaker was to focus on projects that have a social conscience.”

Medalia’s journey to becoming a filmmaker began courtesy of her athletic prowess. During the course of a fairly typical Israeli childhood, she became a teen track star. A subsequent stint in the Israel Defense Forces, with the special status of “athlete of excellence,” was a springboard to an athletic scholarship to study film at the University of Southern Illinois.

“University was great because I was in the middle of nowhere, which meant there was nothing to do but study and train,” Medalia said. “The freedom you have is wonderful; if you want to shoot something, you just take a camera and shoot.”

Her master’s submission, “Daughters of Abraham,” earned her a prestigious Angelus Student Film Festival award and would later become the basis of the Emmy-nominated “To Die in Jerusalem.”

After finishing school, Medalia moved to New York to learn the ropes. Her journey up the filmmaking ladder included the rookie tasks of carrying lights and being an assistant director on a horror film. But Medalia’s biggest break came with working with fellow Israeli filmmaker Danny Menkin on his award-winning film, “39 Pounds of Love.”

“It was a great way to learn the business inside out, because I was involved in so many aspects,” she said. “In the end, I helped raise finance and distribute the finished product, so it also schooled me in the business end of the industry.”

The involvement in and subsequent successful theatrical release of Menkin’s film gave Medalia the confidence to begin work on “To Die in Jerusalem.” She raised the bulk of the funding on her own and traveled repeatedly to Tel Aviv over a period of two years to complete the film. At the rough-cut stage, Medalia achieved every documentary filmmaker’s dream: a pre-sale to HBO.

The journey since has launched Medalia’s career. She has traveled tirelessly with the film to numerous festivals and screenings, from Hong Kong to Cape Town and Edinburgh.

“It’s been an incredible experience professionally,” she said. “I’ve met so many people in the industry, learned so much.”

The results are more than evident: Medalia currently has two projects in the works.

The first, “After the Storm,” focuses on a group of teens in post-Katrina New Orleans who stage a musical in a resurrected community center. The film focuses on the lives of the kids, their schools, homes, struggles and hopes as they attempt to make sense of New Orleans after the disaster. For Medalia, the process has been incredibly moving.

“On one hand, it’s been very difficult because of the conditions there, even though we shot two years after the hurricane,” she explained. “But in another sense, it is very inspiring to see that despite everything that has happened, they are moving forward. It’s a very special place.”

Rosie O’Donnell was impressed enough by Medalia and her venture that she joined the project as executive producer.

Medalia’s other work in progress is a joint project with Israeli producer Itai Horstock, which tells the story of returned soldier-musician Kobi Vitman, who battles Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and ultimately deals with it through writing and staging a rock opera on the subject.

“It talks about things we prefer not to address: namely, the effect of war on society and on soldiers,” she said.

Medalia sees a commonality in all her projects.

“I like personal stories, not just stories about people,” the filmmaker explained. “It’s much more appealing for me than doing things from a historical or purely narrative angle.”

Given all the recognition, it would seem that Medalia is on to something.


The trailer

Post-Palin Depression


A therapist I know — OK, since you dragged it out of me, my therapist — told me that I’d be astonished if I knew how many emergency calls she got the night that Sarah Palin gave her convention speech.

Actually, I wasn’t that surprised. Judging from the number of unnerved post-Palin phone calls and e-mails that I got, I wonder why I didn’t think of calling her myself.

Why was it such a psychic downer? Movement conservatives might gloat that it was because Palin kicked Los Angeles liberals in the kishkas, made unanswerable arguments, strutted her Super Woman stuff, and — worst of all — signaled their inevitable defeat come November.

I don’t think so. For one thing, we all know that Election Day comes after the High Holy Days, which means there’s plenty of time before the book on McCain/Palin — the Book of Life, that is — gets written. Who shall win, and who shall lose is still (theologically speaking, anyway) up for grabs.

For another, there’s no evidence that the independents who were the key targets of her speech are buying what Palin is selling.

I don’t doubt that some people experience a presidential campaign as one long audition for the show that will be playing on their television sets these next four years. But I’m hoping that the 5 percent to 10 percent of undecideds in the 18 battleground states who will swing the Electoral College more resemble the savvy mass audiences of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” than voters for the next “American Idol” or the mob in “Coriolanus.” Why should a single performance by the governor of Alaska, or even several of them, bedazzle millions of otherwise skeptical Americans into throwing away their bull—t detectors? The historic disapproval ratings of the incumbent president are continuing evidence that the American mainstream has soured on the culture wars’ politics of group against group and the rest of the ressentiment at the heart of Palin’s message. So what accounts for the panic Palin provoked?

Part of it, I think, is that we catastrophize. By “we,” I don’t mean liberals. I mean the many functioning neurotics among us who think that a doctor’s every “hmmm” during a physical is a portent of tragic doom; who mentally extrapolate from routine family conflicts to irreparable ruptures; and whose pessimism is relentlessly fed by cable news, which — in order to hang on to our attention — portrays every freeway car chase as a potential shootout; depicts every global brushfire as the start of World War III; and shouts, “Breaking news!” so frequently that the scary music that accompanies it is itself enough to spike the nation’s blood pressure.

This is not just a Jewish phenomenon, though a few thousand years of expecting to be scapegoated, persecuted, exiled or killed certainly contributes to the melancholic gene Jews are known for carrying, the optimism of a Ben-Gurion or Sandy Koufax notwithstanding. No, this gloominess is a nonethnic worrywartism, arising from the fear and sensationalism fanned by politicians and news media alike.

This is not to say that putting Sarah Palin one melanoma from the presidency would mean good times. It would be more like James Dobson with nuclear weapons. But while her Rovian apparatchiks are stoking the worst among us with passionate intensity, it’s not inevitable that the best will lose all conviction in the voting booth.

When a political candidate convinces half a country to hope again, it’s a double-edged sword. The endorphins and neurotransmitters that wash our brains when we welcome the future instead of dreading it are as powerful as any drug. It’s like love. Unless you let your guard down, unless you permit vulnerability to trump cynicism, you rarely can get what you want. That’s why Howard Dean or John Edwards or Hillary Clinton were, for many people, so thrilling to support. That’s why hardened political operatives call that kind of enthusiasm “drinking the Kool-Aid.” That’s why, when the fall comes, it’s so painful.

But my therapist, if I understand her, has another take on this. She thinks that people identify too much with candidates. Their ups have become our ups; their downs, ours as well. And by identifying with them so closely, we inevitably make ourselves vulnerable to outside factors, to forces we can’t control. And the more political media we consume — on cable, online, on e-mail, on radio, in print — the more we cultivate the illusion that we ourselves are actual political players, that our advice is urgently needed, that everything depends on our counsel.

I’m totally guilty on this charge. “Go negative!” I yell to Obama and Biden when I see them on my screen. “Put McCain on the defensive! Go after his strength! Make the POW thing irrelevant to the presidency! Destroy the ‘maverick’ charade! Call their lies lies!” But my tirades, instead of making me feel better, only underline my powerlessness to second guess the campaign’s strategy or reshape its tone and message.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of every single citizen in a democracy. Registering to vote, giving money, going door-to-door, expressing our opinions: there is plenty that each of us can do, and the collective action that comes from that commitment can move mountains and make history.

But there is a difference between pitching in and hitching our psyches to the day-to-day vicissitudes of campaignland or to the news media’s breathless “narrative” of the horse race. One is about us, and it is within our power to control what we ourselves do. The other is about them, and it is a kind of annihilation to cede our identity and our well-being to people outside ourselves, whether those people be candidates and commentators — or audiences, critics, velvet-rope guardians, fashionistas, studio executives, admissions committees or that hottie over there at the bar.

As for me, I’m trying to unplug. I’m still reading the papers, but I’ve gone cold turkey — well, room-temperature turkey — on cable (except for C-SPAN and “The Daily Show”), blogs (except for a few), radio (except for NPR) and every other source of political news that I thought I was obligated to mainline in real time 24/7. If I fall off the wagon, maybe there’s some 12-step group for media addicts I can join, or a 1-800-TVDETOX hotline I can call. All this may make me a lesser media yakker, I know, but think of the dough I’ll be saving on therapy.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly, and his

Jews’ Support Spans Political Spectrum


Will Jewish Democrats line up behind Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), now that the veteran lawmaker’s campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination has been resurrected by Monday’s blowout victory in the Iowa caucuses?

Perhaps, but Kerry would be wise not to start sending out the thank-you letters. By all accounts, Jews are doing what they usually do in primary battles: covering most of the mainstream political bases and in the process making sure the community is well represented in every campaign.

That’s not a cynical campaign ploy. It reflects a diverse community in flux. But it also points to a strategic concept promoted by pro-Israel forces for years — one that has been a big political plus for the tiny Jewish minority.

In recent weeks, each of the major Democratic contenders has been advertising his Jewish support. Kerry, whose margin of victory in Iowa surprised even his supporters, is getting advice from political consultant Mark Mellmann, a top name in Jewish political circles. In the week before the Iowa vote, there were reports that he was picking up substantial Jewish support.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose front-runner status hit a classic Iowa chill, may have his problems with hard-line pro-Israel leaders, but his campaign co-chair is the former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The pro-Israel lobby, Steven Grossman and his fierce attacks on President Bush have been music to the ears of many Jewish liberals — not yet an endangered species, according to last week’s American Jewish Committee (AJC) poll.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, moving up in the polls in New Hampshire, is getting more and more Jewish campaign money. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo), who dropped out after his drubbing in Iowa, has a number of loyal, long-standing Jewish backers. Jewish politicos say Sen. John Edward’s (D-NC), while less known to the Jewish community, has a small base of support.

That reflects a community that has diverse interests and an endless variety of views on key issues, even within the Democratic fold. But it also reflects an unwritten law in Jewish politics: It’s important to have candidates in every camp or at least the camp of every mainstream candidate.

Many Jewish political donors, following that unofficial commandment, are giving to several or all of the major candidates. Others are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the congested field to thin out before placing their bets.

The modest Jewish vote in Iowa was in play until the day of the caucuses. By most accounts, it is still in flux in New Hampshire, where early this week observers reported that there was no clear Jewish front-runner.

Trend spotters are having a hard time pointing to a Jewish favorite, but that’s exactly the point. Dean, Kerry and Clark all have cadres of passionate Jewish supporters, but there are many other Jews who are just as passionate about waiting until the political trends are clear before endorsing a candidate.

The Jewish Democratic vote may be murky today, but it probably won’t be on Nov. 2, when, according to last week’s AJC poll, any of the major Democratic candidates can expect to beat Bush by a 2-1 ratio.

That’s not as good a Democratic total as in 2000, but with the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terror and the Bush administration’s close relations with the current Israeli government, nobody expected the incumbent president to repeat his miserable 19 percent performance with Jewish voters.

The operative theory for Jewish Democrats is that the community may be undecided today about the best Democratic candidate, but it will unite quickly behind whomever gets the nomination.

That state of Democratic flux might not cheer enthusiasts for the various candidates, but it represents a source of strength for the Jewish community. It means that Jewish interests will be well represented in the campaign of the eventual winner and that Jewish concerns will be heard.

The eventual front-runner, in turn, can expect most Jewish Democrats who supported other candidates to jump on the bandwagon once the path to the nomination is clear.

Years ago, pro-Israel leaders actively promoted the idea of spreading Jewish support around, and it has become a norm for politically active Jews.

Pro-Israel leaders aren’t orchestrating things — the Jewish community, despite legions of conspiracy theorists, is far too anarchic and diverse for that — but if they could, they’d do it this way, with Jewish support spread across the spectrum, and many Jews roaming the uncommitted center.

It’s not just a Jewish Democratic thing, either. A slowly growing Republican base in the Jewish community infuriates ardent Democrats, but it means that Jewish activists are involved in many GOP House and Senate campaigns, as well as Bush’s reelection effort. Increasingly, Jewish perspectives are heard across the Republican spectrum, because Jews are involved across the spectrum.

Politics is about relationships — and not just relationships with one party, or with today’s front-runners. The Jewish community’s successful implementation of that lesson will be a continuing source of political strength in these difficult times.

Lieberman’s Presidential Bid Is Already Over


As an active member of the Southern California Jewish
community and a celebrity media consultant who has authored 12 books on communications,
it pains me to point out an unpleasant truth.

Despite the recent Gallup Poll showing Sen. Joseph Lieberman
leading the field of Democrats who have declared their 2004 presidential
candidacy, Lieberman isn’t going to win the Democratic nomination. His campaign
is over before it began.

Before Al Gore picked Lieberman as his vice presidential
running mate in the 2000 election, Lieberman’s reputation in the U.S. Senate
was as a conservative, sometimes more popular among the Senate Republican
leadership than that of his own party.

Lieberman was not beloved by the teachers’ unions, which disliked
his Senate votes in favor of Republican bills instituting school vouchers.

During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Lieberman accused
President Clinton of “obstruction of justice … he has lied under oath,”
saying he’d be hard pressed to vote against any congressional censure short of
removal from office.

Lieberman attacked the Democratic Party’s sugar daddies in Hollywood
for putting too much sex and violence into the media. He even supported
Republicans exploring privatization of Social Security, the third-rail of
Democratic Party politics since it was institutionalized by Franklin Delano
Roosevelt.

Then the Connecticut senator showed his core principles
meant little the instant he joined the Gore campaign. Lieberman abandoned
almost every position out of step with the left wing of his party, reversing
himself on school vouchers, denouncing his own flirtations with Social Security
privatization and joining fellow Democrats gloating over Clinton’s complete
exoneration. He even attempted, unsuccessfully, cuddling up to Hollywood.

After the campaign, Lieberman returned only to opposing
media violence. In Hollywood, Lieberman is only a little more popular than
Jerry Falwell.

But even if Lieberman could run far enough to the left in
2004 to make the Democratic primary voters forget his ideological flip-flops, a
Lieberman presidential candidacy has more toxic problems.

To begin with, Lieberman is a terrible public speaker. His
voice is gravelly, his presentation academic and timid. Not to put too fine a point
on it, but Lieberman’s speeches sound like he’s kvetching all the time.

Far worse — and it pains me to say this more than anything
else — the complications that would ensue were a religious Jew elected
president of the United States would be daunting, both for a Jewish president
and world Jewry.

Islamic terrorists would vex U.S. relations with friendly
Islamic countries by targeting Israeli, Jewish and U.S.-friendly Arab
communities worldwide, knowing they could hold a Jewish American president’s
foreign policy hostage to their threats. The consequences of this vulnerability
could weaken the United States in the war against terror, in trade
negotiations, in energy dependence on oil producers and in the United Nations.

Should the United States experience another tragedy like
Sept. 11 or a worse terrorist attack from a weapon of mass destruction during a
Jewish presidency, the scapegoating from anti-Semites on both far left and far
right would cripple the American presidency. Support for Israel, solid since
1948, could come into serious question. For the first time in half a century,
anti-Semitism might become an acceptable part of political discourse in the
mainstream media. If that seems far out, consider the anti-Catholic sentiments
in the mainstream media following the priesthood’s sexual scandals.

Recall that during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential
campaign, Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was forced by persistent questions to
declare that his first allegiance was not to the Vatican. Is there any doubt
that Lieberman would have to swear that he would never place the survival of
Israel ahead of the interests of the United States?

All of these would be problems even if Lieberman didn’t have
to face off in November 2004 against a sitting president. Lieberman would be
running against President George W. Bush, who, despite late-night jokes, has
shown himself to be a savvy politician and an effective public speaker.

President Bush defied conventional wisdom by leading his
party to control of both houses of Congress during the 2002 off-year elections.
He has remained faithful to his core constituency, without allowing them to
manipulate him into losing the center, with examples including Bush chiding
Jerry Falwell in blaming gays for the Sept. 11 attacks and quietly encouraging
Trent Lott to abandon his position as Senate majority leader after Lott’s
racially clumsy remarks.

It’s possible that, despite a high approval rating, Bush
isn’t unbeatable in 2004. Certainly, his father managed to squander his popularity
following Gulf War I with his backing away from, “Read my lips, no new taxes!”

Should Bush lose his edge because of a weak economy or a bad
patch of road in Gulf War II, whoever steps up to take his place had better
have more original ideas and a more exciting presentation of them than
Lieberman.

Otherwise, as Republican Bill Simon learned in the 2002
California governor’s race against Democrat Gray Davis, just because most of
the people think the incumbent did a lousy job, it isn’t enough to convince
them you can do any better.  


Michael Levine is head of the entertainment publicity firm Levine Communications and author of “Guerrilla P.R. Wired” (McGraw-Hill, 2002).

Joe


Whatever happens in this election, we’ll always have Lieberman. It is easy to forget now, amid the post-election chaos, just how momentous a day Aug. 8, 2000, was. Al Gore stood before supporters in Nashville (little did we know those may have been his only supporters in Tennessee) and called Lieberman “someone with the experience, the character and the judgment to become the president at a moment’s notice.” Then Gore said words that should ring in the ears of American Jews from that day on: “With pride in his achievements, I am here to announce my running mate for vice president, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.”

That Lieberman was the first Jew nominated to a major party ticket was stunning enough. That he is an observant Jew was even more shocking. A giddy pride bordering on elation overtook American Jewry. We followed his every Shabbos walk and relished his immigrant-son success story. We all could relate to the son of a hard-working bakery owner, nurtured on the holy trinity of tradition, education and democracy, who played by the rules and, ultimately, rose to the top.

I entered the Staples Center the night of his formal nomination just in time to see an ocean of blue “Hadassah” placards waving above the delegates’ heads. It was either a dream, I figured, or a scene from a Woody Allen movie.

Reality sank in as the relationship quickly became more fraught. Lieberman’s scolding of Hollywood for an immoral product chilled the very Jews who had been enjoying all those “Top Ten Changes Lieberman Will Bring to the White House” lists the week before (“Number One: The State of the Union will end with an appeal”). His comments on Louis Farrakhan at a Black radio station proved that his own morals didn’t preclude pandering to racist demagogues.

Some fretted that “The Lieberman Factor” would keep voters away from Gore. But 90 percent – 90 percent – of Americans polled said that a Jew’s presence on the ticket was either a positive or didn’t matter. In any case, Gore-Lieberman won the popular vote. And whatever the outcome in Florida, the Connecticut senator’s tireless campaigning there clearly put the state run by George Bush’s brother in play for the Democrats. (If only Joe hadn’t urged so many Democratic Jews there to vote for Pat Buchanan…) Lieberman was a brave choice for Gore, and in the end he was perhaps the best possible political choice, too.

Does this mean that 210 years after George Washington wrote that he hoped “the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants,” American Jews can really stop worrying about whether they are accepted? Yes, that’s exactly what it means.

Certainly, we have violent enemies here. In Los Angeles, we saw this a year before Lieberman’s selection, when a madman opened fire at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. But these Americans are either deranged or isolated or both. It will be hard to sell our sons and daughters on the once-valid idea that Jews must remain together because “They” are out to get us, when the majority of “Them” voted to make us vice president.

For those whose main identity as Jews begins and ends with being persecuted and set apart, this may come as a shock. They will have to dip back into their heritage to find new wellsprings of Jewish identity: faith, say, or values and ethics and culture. The Lieberman nomination taught us that a great many Americans see being Jewish as a “positive.” Now a lot of Jews can start seeing it that way, too.

Jewish Angst


Lieberman’s Presence

Recently, a Chinese-American doctor was monitoring my heart as the speed and incline were increased on the treadmill during a stress test. Perhaps he wanted me to relax; perhaps he was bored and was trying to make conversation. Apropos of nothing but my presence on the treadmill, he casually tossed the question at me: “What do you think of Lieberman as the vice presidential candidate? Were you surprised?”I gave a perfunctory answer, yes and no, and then heard myself say, “When I was a boy, his nomination would have been astonishing. Jews were outsiders then. But now we’re part of the U.S., just like any other white American.”

I realized what I was saying, or rather to whom I was speaking, just as the words tumbled out of my mouth. I thought: Why am I feeling so aggressive towards this doctor? And so I set about redressing the situation.

You know, I said, it’s probably the same for Asian-American professionals like yourself. “This last decade you’ve all moved from being outsiders to part of the white mainstream. Physicists and mathematicians, doctors and computer experts; you’re all insiders now.”

It was the best I could do.

But I realized that, unlike most Jews, mainstream Americans seemed to take Joe Lieberman’s candidacy with equanimity. It was nothing special or unusual. To be sure, marginal citizens who were anti-Semitic crowded the Internet with hostile messages. Most were anonymous and, more to the point, it was they who were now the outsiders. Not us.

In fact, it was primarily the Jews in America who were concerned about Lieberman’s nomination. Pride on the one hand, anxiety on the other, accompanied by a series of critical comments about the candidate. He was too pro-business; too conservative. He had the wrong stand on vouchers and on affirmative action (meaning not the Jewish majority’s position).

And then of course there was his religious stance. Too much and too outspoken about it. There was, after all, a separation of church and state in this nation, as ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, commented when he criticized one of Lieberman’s speeches. Foxman was upset because Lieberman in a speech had urged his listeners to “renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.”

This was the Christian right’s position. It called up images of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and it posed a future challenge to our Bill of Rights. As Foxman wrote, “…there is a point at which an emphasis on religion becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.”

From There to Here

A great deal has been written about how we proceeded from there (the first half of this century) to here in America. The explanations include so many markers along the way: education and adaptation; the Second World War and the Holocaust; American culture and the mass media; Israel and the Cold War. They all contributed to our journey.

Perhaps because so much of my professional life has been concentrated in the mass media, I tend to give considerable weight to the influence of culture on the shaping of an American sensi-bility. Part of the story is that Jews have become central consumers of culture. We are the mainstay of theater in most American cities, and the same can be said of art, music and book buying. In a sense, we are the key audience … and, not surprisingly, the benefactors and supporters of culture, as well.

That by itself would explain some of the Jewish impact on American culture. But only some of it. The Jewish imprint on the American sensibility owes much more to the makers of our culture. Jewish authors, musicians and artists helped develop our “high culture” just as writers and producers shaped our popular culture (i.e. tele-vision and films and radio and, in an earlier day, vaudeville). In the process they have imparted to the rest of the nation a way of perceiving and feeling that is Jewish – in essence, a Jewish imprint. In this sense it is not too much to say that America has become in part a Jewish nation, just as it is in part a Black one.

It seems to me that this, along with the presence of a large number of Jews in colleges and universities, has helped lead to the breakdown of barriers that separated us from earlier generations of American gentiles. This breakdown of barriers has in turn helped generate the large numbers of Jews who have married outside their faith.

No one ever said that success and change did not carry in its wake a new set of problems.

What’s Next?

The irony should not be lost on us. Now that the barriers have largely come down, now that we are included in American society (with Joe Lieberman a candidate for vice president), we are frantically looking for a new and different set of barriers to erect in their place. To put it another way: Now that we are bona fide Americans, we are desperately searching for ways to remain Jews.

Those who have remained Orthodox or have turned to Orthodoxy have little problem here. Lieberman makes a wonderful example. The same can be said for those of us who have held fast to traditional forms of observance. Much of this is spelled out in a new and interesting book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry” by Samuel Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

Freedman gives us the latest updates on the war between Jewish modernists and the Orthodox as they struggle over political issues – e.g., education, feminism, Israel – that ultimately become battles over identity. It is a bitter war fought for control over the Jewish gates: That is, according to Freedman, the victors may well become the arbiters of just who in America is a Jew. Freedman suggests that in the end, traditional religious belief will triumph and that observance will define Jewish identity.

Nevertheless, the majority of America’s Jews are not traditionally observant; certainly not Orthodox in their practices or beliefs, as Lieberman is. Which accounts, in part, for the somewhat frantic calls from Jewish leaders and organizations: rebuild Jewish education; learn Hebrew; spend time in Israel; combat intermarriage. These are all tactics designed to recast new Jewish barriers, self-made in this case. Can one be a Jew without Judaism? An American, albeit with a Jewish soul?

These are questions that touch all of us, though they are rarely voiced, almost every day of our lives. It is why Joe Lieberman’s candidacy has sparked so much feeling among American Jews. He is an American political leader who is pronouncedly Jewish. An observant Jew who could even be an American presidential candidate somewhere down the road. With considerable effort he has remained connected to Judaism while forging ahead as an American politician.

In the midst of this dialogue, which preoccupies almost all of us, stand the non-Jews of America: unconcerned, faintly puzzled, wondering what we are fussing about. If they only knew.

‘Watts Side Story’


Michele Ohayon was nursing her 2-month-old babywhen the phone rang at 5:45 a.m. and the caller answered a silentprayer: Ohayon’s film, “Colors Straight Up,” had been nominated asone of five documentary features in contention for an AcademyAward.

The newly nominated director/producer immediatelyrelayed the good news to her parents, Elie and Perla Ohayon, inJerusalem.

At this point, if Michele Ohayon were shooting amovie of her own life, she would probably flash back to Casablanca,where she was born 38 years ago, and then to 1965, when her familyemigrated from Morocco to Israel.

Other flashbacks would show a 17-year-old in herfirst job as assistant editor with Israel Television; army service;and her first professional recognition, as a Tel Aviv Universitystudent, for her short film “Pressure,” the love story of an Arab boyand a Jewish girl.

Cutting to the present, Ohayon sat down in a noisyHollywood coffee shop a few days ago to talk about the genesis of”Colors Straight Up.”

It was 1992, and she had just spent four longyears directing and producing her first feature-length documentary,”It Was a Wonderful Life.” The film explored the lives of homelesswomen who, through divorce, misfortune or personal failings, losttheir once seemingly secure middle-class status and were reduced toliving on the street.

When the Rodney King riots exploded that year,Ohayon was shaken by the general condemnation of the black teen-agerioters, and she decided to look for herself.

Driving from her home in the Hollywood Hills toSouth Central was like traveling from a First World country to aThird World enclave, Ohayon discovered. She also encountered anafter-school performing and visual arts program, called LivingLiterature/Colors United, at Jordan High School. Through the program,African-American and Latino teen-agers were finding an alternative toand refuge from the mean streets of drugs and gang shootings in dailyand weekend rehearsals under the tough-love discipline of a white anda black director.

Ohayon wasn’t sure how “a white Jewish girl” fromHollywood would be received by the youngsters, and she charted outher campaign in her characteristically meticulous and time-demandingstyle.

For the first year, Ohayon, often accompanied byher preschool-age daughter, just attended rehearsals, talked to thestudents, shared their meals, and visited their homes andfamilies.

In the second year, she started mapping out thefilm, using only a video camera. Not until the third year did shebegin filming in earnest, focusing on the lives, sorrows and triumphsof six teen-agers.

Centerpiece of the film is the group’s gradualevolution of the musical “Watts Side Story,” based on “Romeo andJuliet,” by way of “West Side Story” — with the Crips and Bloodsreplacing the Montagues and Capulets and the Sharks and Jets.

Ohayon’s camera films the bloody rivalries onstage and, with the same fidelity, records the real-life outside. Thelead actor, a talented Latino boy, is briefly arrested and jailed; agirl’s mother tells of her street life as a crack addict; a familygrieves over a son killed in a gang shooting.

The end result is a 93-minute documentary ofunblinking and, at times, almost unbearable honesty, in which thecamera is somehow in the face and unobtrusive at the sametime.

“Colors Straight Up” has already garnered eightnational awards at various film festivals, but the creation didn’tcome easily.

Financing and fund raising were a constant worry,and, for six months, Ohayon recalls, “we couldn’t view the dailyrushes, because we didn’t have the money to develop the film.”

Salvation came mainly through two grants from theCorporation for Public Broadcasting, totaling $175,000, and PBS willair the film nationwide on May 19. The total project cost came to$300,000 in cash and another $150,000 in donated equipment andservices.

The documentary’s sensitive photography is thework of the respected Dutch cinematographer Theo Van de Sande(“Assault,” “Crossing Delancey,” “Wayne’s World”), who also happensto be Ohayon’s husband.

Ohayon believes that she is the first Israeli tobe nominated for an “American” Academy Award, outside theforeign-film category, but there’s no guarantee that she’ll beclutching an Oscar at the March 23 ceremonies. Among her toughcompetitors are Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls,” about the bloody daysof the civil rights struggle, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “TheLong Way Home,” which chronicles the desperate attempts of Europe’sHolocaust survivors to reach the Jewish homeland.

But even the nomination by itself has alreadyraised her stock in Hollywood. “When I first came here in 1987, Ididn’t realize how hard it would be to break into the industry,” shesays. “As both a woman and a foreigner, it was even harder to beaccepted as a director.

“Now, however, with the nomination as a stamp ofapproval, it’s getting easier. You have easier access. Where I mighthave been 10th on a list of possible directors for a project, now I’mclose to the top.”

Ohayon says that she will no longer spend three tofour years, and go through the incessant rounds of fund raising, tomake a documentary, and she wouldn’t mind a slightly more relaxedhome life either.

“Now, I have to fit my schedule around nursing mybaby every two to three hours, and, while I’m nursing, I use aheadset for making phone calls and read a script at the sametime.”

Currently, Ohayon has lined up two possiblefeature-film deals with Paramount and MGM. Closer to her heart,though, is a project and script she has carried around for more than10 years; it’s titled “Homeland.”

“It’s the story of the illegal Jewish immigrationfrom North Africa to Palestine, before Israel became a state, andwhich paralleled the Aliyah Bet effort from Europe,” she says.

“It was just as dramatic as ‘Exodus,’ but nobodyknows about it. I’ve pitched the story to Jewish executives here, andthey had no idea that so many people from North Africa are living inIsrael.”

Ohayon recalls that her own father was deeplyinvolved in bringing Jews from Morocco to Palestine, so, “in a sense,’Homeland’ will be a fictionalized family story, a tribute to myparents.”

In South Central, Ohayon (inset) encounteredLiving Literature/ Colors United, an after-school visual andperforming arts program.