Bibi’s fate hangs in the balance as Israel votes


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a fight for his political survival on Tuesday as Israelis voted in an election that opinion polls predict the center-left opposition could win.

After a bitterly contested campaign, the election has turned into a referendum on “Bibi” Netanyahu, 65, who has been in power for a total of nine years spread over three terms.

If he narrowly loses the vote, Netanyahu is probably still better placed than the opposition Zionist Union to cobble together a coalition, setting him on track to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

However, a fourth term would probably also prolong his prickly relationship with Israel's main ally, the United States, at least as long as Barack Obama is in the White House.

Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran's nuclear program and militant Islam. But many Israelis say they are tiring of the message, and the center-left's campaign on social and economic issues, especially the high cost of housing and everyday living in Israel, appears to have won support.

In a possible sign of edginess, Netanyahu took to Facebook to denounce what he said was an effort by left-wing non-profit groups to get Arab-Israelis out to sway the election against him. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he wrote. “Arab voters are going to vote in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

He also took the unusual step of calling the media to his official residence for a statement while voting was underway, only to repeat his concerns about the opposition winning and to urge people to vote for him.

When the last opinion polls were published on March 13, the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog held a four-seat lead over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, a margin that had the opposition set for a surprise victory.

But in the last days of campaigning, Netanyahu fought to shore up his Likud base and lure voters from other right-wing, nationalist parties, promising more building of Jewish settlements and saying the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.

Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

But they may go some way towards persuading voters to stick with what they know, rather than another candidate on the right.

Surveys show around 15 percent of voters are undecided, meaning the result could swing widely – opinion polls have rarely been good predictors of Israeli elections in the past.

When Netanyahu called the election in December, two years early, he looked set for an easy victory. But Herzog has mounted a resilient campaign and there is a sense that change could be in the air. Some voters have talked of Netanyahu fatigue.

By 6 pm (1600 GMT), turnout was running at 55 percent, slightly lower than the last election. Voting ends at 10 pm, with the first exit polls published immediately afterwards.

If Netanyahu can draw votes from other right-wing parties, he may be in a position to be asked first by Israel's president to try to form a coalition.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history. Coalition-building is an unpredictable game, with any number of allegiances possible among the 10 or 11 parties expected to win a place in the 120-seat Knesset.

It also takes time: the party invited to try to form a government has up to 42 days to negotiate a coalition. It may be mid-May at the earliest before Israel has a new government.

COALITION TACTICS

Since there are more parties on the right and far-right, Netanyahu would have the advantage in coalition building if the Zionist Union wins by only a small margin. But if the center-left wins by four or more seats, it should get the nod first to try to form a government.

Under sunny skies, Netanyahu went to vote early with his wife at a school near their home in Jerusalem. He acknowledged that it was a tight race and urged voters to back the right.

Herzog, who has overcome criticism of his slight stature and reedy voice to lead a strong campaign, voted in Tel Aviv, where he emphasized that the election was about a new direction.

“Whoever wants to continue the way of Bibi – despair and disappointment – can vote for him,” he said. “But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, vote for the Zionist Union under my leadership.”

The son of a former president and the grandson of an eminent rabbi, Herzog, 54, is as close as it gets to having Kennedy-style heritage in Israel. While his leadership has been criticized in the past, he has shown wit and intellect on the campaign trail, bolstering his image among voters.

“For the first time in my life, I'm going to be voting for Labour, that is the Zionist Union,” said Dedi Cohen, 39, a lawyer in Tel Aviv. “The risk of Netanyahu building the next government is too big. How long has he been in power? Nine years? It's too much. Enough.”

Three or four parties are likely to decide how the balance of power tips in the coalition building.

Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, a centrist party that broke away from Likud, is seen as perhaps the most important “kingmaker”. A former communications minister credited with bringing down mobile phone prices, Kahlon could ally with either Netanyahu or Herzog, bringing up to 10 seats with him.

One of the party's candidates, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has said that whoever wins must try to repair relations with Washington, which have been under particular strain since Netanyahu addressed Congress on March 3, attacking a possible nuclear deal with Iran sought by Obama.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, could also ally with either side, bringing 12-14 seats. But he does not sit comfortably with religious parties, making him less flexible in coalition talks.

If the center-left is to assemble a coalition, it will also need the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which are expected to win around 13 seats.

Another factor is the parties from Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, which for the first time have united under one list and are expected to win around 13 seats as well. While they are unlikely to join a center-left coalition, they could give it tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.

Morsi, army refuse to budge as deadline passes


Egypt's army commander and Islamist President Mohamed Morsi each pledged to die for his cause as a deadline neared on Wednesday that will trigger a military takeover backed by protesters.

Military chiefs, vowing to restore order in a country racked by demonstrations over Morsi's Islamist policies, issued a call to battle in a statement headlined “The Final Hours”. They said they were willing to shed blood against “terrorists and fools” after Morsi refused to give up his elected office.

The armed forces general command was holding a crisis meeting, a military source said, less than five hours before an ultimatum was due to expire for Morsi to either agree to share power or make way for an army-imposed solution.

In an emotional, rambling midnight television address, the president said he was democratically elected and would stay in office to uphold the constitutional order, declaring: “The price of preserving legitimacy is my life.”

Liberal opponents said it showed he had “lost his mind”.

The official spokesman of his Muslim Brotherhood movement said his supporters were willing to become martyrs to defend Morsi.

“There is only one thing we can do: we will stand in between the tanks and the president,” Gehad El-Haddad told Reuters at the movement's protest encampment in a Cairo suburb that houses many military installations and is near the presidential palace.

“We will not allow the will of the Egyptian people to be bullied again by the military machine.”

The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said Morsi was expected to either step down or be removed from office and that the army would set up a three-member presidential council to be chaired by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

A military source said he expected the army to first call political, social and economic figures and youth activists for talks on its draft roadmap for the country's future.

REVOLUTION SAVED?

A mass of revelers on Cairo's Tahrir Square feted the army overnight for, in their eyes, saving the revolutionary democracy won there two years ago when an uprising toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

But Morsi's backers denounced the army's intervention as a “coup”. At least 16 people, mostly supporters of the president, were killed and about 200 wounded when gunmen opened fire on pro-Morsi demonstrators at Cairo University campus.

The Muslim Brotherhood accused uniformed police of the shooting. The Interior Ministry said it was investigating.

Central Cairo was quiet by day. Many stores were shuttered and traffic unusually light. The stock market index fell 1.7 percent on fears of bloodshed. The Egyptian pound weakened against the dollar at a currency auction, and banks said they would close early, before the army deadline.

Military sources earlier told Reuters the army had drafted a plan to sideline Morsi, suspend the constitution and dissolve the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament after the 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) deadline passes.

The opposition Dustour (constitution) party led former U.N. nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei appealed for military intervention to save Egyptian lives, saying Morsi's speech showed he had “lost his mind” and incited bloodshed.

The opposition National Salvation Front, an umbrella group of liberal, secular and leftist parties, and the “Tamarud – Rebel!” youth movement leading the street protests have both nominated ElBaradei to negotiate with army leaders on a post-Morsi transition.

Coordinated with political leaders, an interim council would rule pending changes to the Islamist-tinged constitution and new presidential elections, the military sources said.

They would not say what was planned for the uncooperative president, whose office refused to disclose his whereabouts.

“PEOPLE'S COUP”

In his 45-minute address to the nation, Morsi acknowledged having made mistakes and said he was still willing to form a national unity government ahead of parliamentary elections and let a new parliament amend the constitution.

But he offered no new initiative and rejected calls to step aside, saying it was his sacred duty to uphold legitimacy – a word he repeated dozens of times.

The president accused remnants of Mubarak's former regime and corrupt big money families of seeking to restore their privileges and lead the country into a dark tunnel.

Liberal opposition leaders, who have vowed not to negotiate with Morsi since the ultimatum was issued, immediately denounced his refusal to go as a declaration of “civil war”.

“We ask the army to protect the souls of Egyptians after Morsi lost his mind and incited bloodshed of Egyptians,” the Dustour Party said in a statement.

The youth movement that organized the mass protests urged the Republican Guard to arrest Morsi immediately and present him for trial.

“We ask the army to intervene to prevent the bloodshed of the Egyptian people,” Tamarud's founder Mahmoud Badr told a news conference. “This is a people's coup against a dictator and tyrant president and the army of the Egyptian people has to respond to the people's demands and act upon them.”

Reporting by Asma Alsharif, Alexander Dziadosz, Shaimaa Fayed, Maggie Fick, Alastair Macdonald, Shadia Nasralla, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh, Paul Taylor, Ahmed Tolba and Patrick Werr in Cairo, Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria, Yursi Mohamed in Ismailia and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Paul Taylor.

Egypt’s opposition protests draft constitution


Egypt's opposition said it would continue to protest an upcoming referendum on a draft constitution even after President Mohammed Morsi cancelled decrees that gave him virtually unlimited power.

Late Saturday night Morsi withdrew the decrees that gave him immunity from judicial oversight. But he continues to insist on going forward with the scheduled Dec. 15 referendum.

The opposition, led by the National Salvation Front, objects to the draft constitution in part because it would enshrine Islamic law.

Demonstrators have been protesting outside of the presidential palace, and the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, were set on fire.

A million man march demonstration opposing the draft constitution has been called for Tuesday.

Time for Jewish leaders to end their silence on Iraq


“One who is able to protest against a wrong that is being done in his family, his city, his nation or the world and doesn’t do so is held accountable for that wrong being done.” (Talmud Bavli Tractate Shabbat 54b)

There is no longer any doubt that the invasion of Iraq is an utter catastrophe. Former Vice President Al Gore has called it “the worst strategic mistake in the entire history of
the United States.”

The Bush/Cheney war, launched on the basis of false premises, selective intelligence and outright lies against a country that posed no threat to the United States and which (as all government intelligence agencies concur) had no connection to the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, has caused the deaths of more than 3,000 American soldiers and injured 47,000.

At least several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have died as a direct result of the war (according the most respected medical journal in Great Britain, The Lancet, the figure is more than 600,000), more than 2 million refugees have fled the country and there are 1.5 million displaced people within the country.

All 16 government intelligence agencies recently concluded in a national intelligence estimate that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has strengthened Al Qaeda and increased the threat of terrorism in this country. It has strengthened Iran, inspired hatred of the United States across the globe and has already cost more than $400 billion (the ultimate cost will be more than a trillion dollars).

According to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), that $400 billion could have provided health care coverage for all of the uninsured children in America for the entire duration of the war, new affordable housing units for 500,000 needy families, all the needed port security requirements to keep America safe or complete funding for No Child Left Behind program.

Many leading generals (whose pensions are protected in retirement) have strongly criticized the war and called for a gradual U.S. withdrawal, and almost 1,000 active-duty soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, rank-and-file enlistees, noncommissioned officers, along with high-ranking officers, have submitted a petition to Congress (which they call an Appeal for Redress) demanding that the troops be brought home.

According to all available polls, a large majority of Americans want to bring our involvement in Iraq to an end, and an overwhelming majority of Iraqis themselves are opposed to the continued American occupation of their country.

Given these facts, it is difficult to understand the organized Jewish community’s silence. Our country is mired in a catastrophic, immensely unpopular war, a sectarian conflict that has caused untold damage to our country’s security and exacted an extremely high price in blood and treasure, and the great majority of American Jews are opposed to the war (87 percent of the Jewish community voted for Democratic candidates in the last elections) and yet little is heard from prominent rabbis, teachers and important lay leaders.

Prominent Jewish figures played an important role in protesting against the Vietnam War, supporting the struggle for civil rights in the South and in other important causes but have stayed on the sidelines in the face of the current calamity.

This silence is particularly mysterious, given the damage that the war has done to Israel’s interests (as many scholars, military officers and political leaders there have pointed out) by creating the conditions for the emergence of a radical, fundamentalist Shiite state among the ruins of Iraq; eliminating a counterweight to Iran, and increasing the strength and influence of that country, Israel’s most dangerous enemy.

Whether the reticence of Jewish communal leadership can be attributed to anxiety in the face of serious threats from Iran, an unwillingness to enter the public fray on a controversial issue or the uncomfortable fact that important Jewish organizations lent their support to war in Iraq before it began, the time for silence is over. It is time for our community’s rabbis, teachers and lay leaders to acknowledge that we were lied to, our politicians failed us in their oversight responsibilities and we have been timid in voicing our opposition.

The Talmud teaches that silence is akin to assent. We now need to proclaim our opposition to the current administration’s disastrous policies: Bring the troops home. Stop the cycle of killing and being killed. Apologize to the American people and the Iraqis for the invasion. Let the Iraqis heal Iraq. And let us protest a wrong that is being done in our name.

Adam Rubin is assistant professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Aryeh Cohen is associate professor of rabbinic literature at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles

Punk Princesses: Jews With Attitude


There were always Jews in punk, even before there was punk.

“It really begins with Lenny Bruce,” says Steven Beeber, whose new book “The Heebie Jeebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” will be published next year by A Capella Books. “Bruce sort of epitomizes the attitude, the whole smart-ass, clever truth-telling.”

In fact, the punk attitude is also a Jewish attitude that begins with the midrash, in which Abram smashes all but one of his father’s household idols and blames the sole survivor for the wreckage.

In its early days, punk was not only a form of music but also a philosophy, a way of looking at the world. And for three Jewish women musicians, it still is all that and more.

Jewlia Eisenberg, the founder and leader of Charming Hostess, a constantly mutating musical aggregation from the Bay Area, embraces the label “Jewish punk diva” with glee.

“Punk is a form of opposition,” Eisenberg wrote in an e-mail interview. “Real punks are radical in politics and culture. Punk is about screaming and dancing your way out of the margins. Punk is anti-materialist, DIY, direct, and in your face. Punk is a point of view; it’s a site of resistance, it’s a community…. And I can get with all that.”

But if you listen to records made by Charming Hostess — or Annette Ezekiel’s band Golem or Sophie Solomon’s Oi Va Voi — and expect shrieking three-chord rock played at the speed of light and the threshold of permanent hearing damage, you will be surprised. And if you are looking for torn T-shirts, safety pins and Doc Martens … well that’s so 1970s.

Or as Eisenberg dryly observes, “[Punk] is not defined simply by its symbols, which indeed are used to commodify punk and the energy it represents.”

Although the original spirit of punk was a kind of working-class outrage, expressed through a do-it-yourself homemade aesthetic, Eisenberg, Ezekiel and Solomon are university-educated, trained musicians. Of course, punk itself moved beyond three chords and inchoate snarls almost immediately, but the music of Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi is stunning in its complexity.

Which is not to say you can’t dance to it.

When Golem played a couple of weddings during their West Coast tour this fall, there were horas and mosh pits side by side.

“Oh, yeah, that was our moshiest tour so far,” Ezekiel says with a grin.

So is Golem punk?

“It’s hard to label our music,” Ezekiel says. “I’m doing straight-up Yiddish music with a punk or rock attitude, but it’s not something you can see from the music.”

Heeb Magazine thinks they are punk, so much so that they won the award as “best punk band” at the publication’s first Jewish Music Awards. Reminded of this, Ezekiel laughed a little then noted that a friend of the late Joey Ramone, who was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award at the same ceremony, came up to her after hearing Golem and said approvingly, “You are so punk!”

For Ezekiel, too, it’s a question of attitude. She compares Golem’s approach to that of some of the more tradition-bound klezmer revival bands.

“I know deep down that we are punk, that we are a wild, edgy band,” she says. “I love the klezmer revival, but sometimes it’s missing the visceral energy, and everyone is playing the same material.”

By contrast, Golem leans more heavily on songs from Yiddish theater, perhaps not in a style that Molly Picon or Seymour Rechseit would recognize.

“People are always asking us why we don’t play more originals,” Ezekiel says. “I have no interest in writing songs. The research is what I love, and we reinterpret the songs we find by adding new elements.”

By contrast, much of Charming Hostess’s material is written by Eisenberg, although she draws on a bewildering variety of texts for her lyrics, ranging from the correspondence and diaries of Walter Benjamin to the verse of Bosnian poet Sem Mehmedinovic. She runs them through her own cerebral Mixmaster and creates delirious music for three female voices and occasional instrumental accompaniment. The result is best described by Ari Davidow, proprietor of the splendid KlezmerShack Web site (www.klezmershack.com) as “what Sweet Honey in the Rock might sound like if they had a bit more punk sensibility and broadened their range to include Balkan Ladino and Jewish campfire tunes.”

Eisenberg herself describes Charming Hostess’ music as “nerdy-sexy-commie-girlie,” and can number Ezekiel as one her most enthusiastic fans. Golem and Charming Hostess played a number of concerts together in California last fall, each described the experience as a joy.

“We even did some tunes together, which was great fun,” Eisenberg notes.

“I’ve never been so happy with a double bill before,” Ezekiel says. “We’re both really into the background and research and culture behind the music we perform, but we’re not bogged down by it.”

“I was talking to Annette today,” Eisenberg wrote, “and I told her why I think the … music of Charming Hostess and the raucous klezmer of Golem are a good double bill; Charming Hostess does avant music framed by a folk sensibility and Golem does folk music framed by an avant sensibility.”

Sophie Solomon, like Eisenberg and Ezekiel, was trained as a classical musician. Her own sensibility is certainly avant, although she would probably opt for hip-hop rather than punk as a label, and Oi Va Voi’s wildly energetic mix of Yiddish, Balkan, Roma, rock and rap undoubtedly draws on as wide a range of folk musics as Hostess or Golem.

Asked about Solomon, Ezekiel exclaims, “Yeah! She’s taking the old stuff and making it sexy, wild and contemporarily relevant. Totally!”

Solomon’s own musical background includes stints as a DJ at clubs and raves in her native England, and she is probably as well-known here for her collaboration with Josh Dolgin, better known as Socalled, on the “Hip-Hop Khasene,” a spirited meeting of Jewish wedding, turntablism, sampling and rap, as for her frenetic fiddle playing with Oi Va Voi. Coincidentally, Golem was also part of a highly publicized musical spoof of Jewish wedding traditions, “Golem Gets Married,” featuring a cross-dressing bride and groom and the band’s spirited musical readings of traditional tunes.

“Hip-Hop Khasene” is a project that speaks directly to Solomon’s own interests and underlines her affinities with Eisenberg and Ezekiel.

“I want to evoke the Jewish musical experience of the past two centuries,” she says, discussing the live version of “Khasene.” “You hear a sample from Naftule Brandwein at the same time that [80-year-old] Elaine Hoffman Watts is playing onstage with David Krakauer and me.”

Socalled’s sampling magic and breakbeat manipulation speak directly to Solomon’s desire to combine Jewish music cross-generationally and her own cross-cultural influences.

“The collage nature of what Josh does is particularly interesting to me,” she says. “I wanted to do something that is authentic — these are real, living wedding traditions — and the concert is like a wedding from beginning to end, the wedding ceremony from ‘Dobriden’ to ‘Zay Gezunt.’ But I also wanted to do something that raises questions about what ‘authentic’ is. This isn’t 19th-century Eastern Europe.”

In a way, Solomon’s remark about authenticity sums up the distance that punk has traveled from the Sex Pistols, the Dictators and the Ramones through the hip-hop world and into the contemporary Jewish music world inhabited by Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi. As Steven Beeber says, “Hip-hop is the new punk, and has been for a long time.”

So are these women Jewish punk divas or Jewish hip-hop divas or what?

Ari Davidow, a particularly astute observer of everything klezmer and beyond, remarks, “The issue … is less punk than mash-up — the incredible variety of sounds you get when people who have grown up part of the rich tapestry of musical heritages now care enough about Jewish sources to do a Jewish remix.”

Charming Hostess’s most recent album is “Sarajevo Blues,” on the Tzadik label. They will probably be performing in Los Angeles in February. Golem’s most recent CD is “Homesick Songs” on Aeronaut Records. Oi Va Voi’s most recent recording, “Laughter Through Tears,” is on the Outcaste label, and “Hip-Hop Khasene” by Solomon and Socalled is widely available.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

 

Roberts Draws Little Jewish Opposition


So far, the nomination of Judge John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court has ruffled few feathers in the American Jewish community.

Many Jewish organization leaders were poised to fiercely oppose a conservative nominee — and to earmark resources to influence senators who must confirm him — but many have decided to wait until after Roberts’ confirmation hearings before determining whether to officially endorse or oppose him.

That’s despite the fact that delaying any initiative to oppose Roberts likely would lessen its impact, compared to a push before the hearings, which are scheduled for later this summer.

Groups that have a high standard for speaking out against a nominee say that, barring unforeseen circumstances, they won’t advocate against Roberts.

Most Jewish groups have taken a step back since Roberts was nominated July 19, acknowledging that his views on issues — to the extent that they’re known — are within what the groups consider acceptable bounds for a Supreme Court justice. At the same time, they say that not enough is known about Roberts’ legal ideology to judge him before the confirmation hearings.

Many suggest that President Bush’s selection of Roberts may have been designed to avoid an immediate fight — and that Bush’s choice may even have been influenced by the fact that Jewish groups and other liberal advocates were ready to oppose an archconservative.

“He picked someone we’re going to have to take a close look at the record on,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. “It wasn’t someone who is so well known or controversial beforehand that folks would have lined up against him in advance.”

Roberts served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for just two years. He also has a body of work from his four years as deputy solicitor general under the first President Bush, but it’s unclear how much can be made of his writings in that post, because he was advocating for a client — the federal government — and not expressing his personal views.

One organization already has announced its opposition to him: The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) says Roberts has worked to erode fundamental rights, including abortion rights. They cite a brief he authored in the Solicitor General’s Office, advocating the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion. The NCJW also opposed Roberts when he was named to the appellate court in 2003.

While Roberts is more conservative than most of the Jewish community on issues such as abortion and church-state separation, he is well-respected as a legal mind. In addition, his personal views on the controversial issues of the day are less clear than those of past nominees, such as Robert Bork, who was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987.

Bork, whose nomination was rejected by a Democrat-controlled Senate, raised the ire of many Jews. Analysts say it’s unlikely Roberts’ confirmation will be as contentious.

Before the nomination was announced, Jewish organizations and other groups were bringing pressure on the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), two groups that largely avoid nomination battles, to weigh in. That pressure has eased in the past week. Both the ADL and the AJC said it would take extreme circumstances for them to weigh in on Roberts.

Meanwhile, Republican Jews have been working to sell the nominee. The White House has been reaching out to Jewish leaders to gauge concerns, and, thus far, hasn’t heard serious qualms or hints of fierce resistance, sources said.

The White House also expressed hopes that Orthodox organizations might come to Roberts’ defense if his devout Catholicism becomes an issue. An opinion piece in Monday’s Los Angeles Times by a law professor at George Washington University suggested that Roberts would be torn between constitutional law and Catholic dogma on questions such as abortion or the death penalty.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said his group would work to ensure that there’s no religious litmus test for judges.

“If senators are suggesting they are going to inquire whether John Roberts is fit for office on the basis of his devout Catholicism, then we are going to say loudly and clearly: ‘That’s offensive and unconstitutional,'” Diament said.

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) also circulated an e-mail highlighting Roberts’ comments during his 2003 confirmation hearings, in which he called the Supreme Court’s position on Roe v. Wade “binding precedent.”

“He was very clear that he was not necessarily representing his own views; he was representing the views of his client,” said Matthew Brooks, the RJC’s executive director.

The RJC’s e-mail seems to challenge what many of Roberts’ advocates have been saying about his abortion rights views, especially to the White House’s conservative base. While conservatives claim that Roberts opposes abortion, the RJC’s message to the Jewish community is aimed at mollifying pro-choice Jews, including Republicans.

Brooks said he would not rule out an advertising campaign in support of Roberts.

 

Geneva Accord Stirs


After its gala launch in Switzerland this week, the unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal known as the Geneva accord is rapidly picking up international support.

Monday’s festive launch was designed to generate international and grass-roots pressure on leaders on both sides to take bold peace steps.

However, can the Geneva accord, reached by people who hold no office, become the basis for a real peace deal and break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock? Or, alternatively, will leaders not ready to go the Geneva route, but unwilling to be seen as obstructionist, be pressured into making different peace moves of their own?

Popular support for the Geneva proposal seems to be growing in Israel, but the government remains adamantly opposed. On the Palestinian side, the agreement’s main advocates have run into strong and sometimes violent opposition.

While major peace brokers like the United States and European countries are showing growing interest, none has yet adopted the Geneva draft as an official program or as a basis for negotiation.

The long, detailed document (www.heskem.org.il/heskem_en.asp) deals with such controversial issues as borders, Jerusalem and refugees. It has sparked fiery debates in Israel and among the Palestinians on the nature of a final peace deal.

It also has led to a flurry of parallel diplomatic action. Last Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dispatched his son, Omri, along with other Knesset members and government officials, for talks with Palestinians near London. Other Likud Party legislators took part in a weekend seminar with Palestinians in Madrid, and U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns returned to the region in an effort to restart the official peace process based on the "road map" peace plan.

Most significantly, Sharon himself made new overtures to the Palestinians.

The longer that other plans like the road map remain stalled, the more the Geneva alternative will beckon. That could generate a new dynamic leading to increased international pressure on both sides to cut a deal along the lines of the Geneva accord.

In Israel, sentiment on the Geneva proposal are mixed. A poll published Monday in Ha’aretz showed 31 percent of Israelis support it and 37 percent oppose it. Despite the opposition of the Likud-led government, 13 percent of Likud voters surveyed supported the agreement.

The architects of the deal were delighted. Haim Oron of the Meretz Party declared that the negotiators never dreamed the deal would win so much support so quickly. Yossi Beilin, the main Israeli architect of the plan, highlighted the multipartisan nature of the support.

The Israeli sponsors of the plan acknowledge that it is not a done deal, and they say their main purpose in making it public is to create a mind-set for peace. They say the understandings show there potentially is a Palestinian partner, and they set forth in the proposal the kinds of concessions that will be needed for peace.

Sharon’s ministers counter that the Israeli concessions in the document are excessive and that the Geneva exercise – and the international support given to it – put the elected government in an invidious position. They maintain that the Palestinians are using the Israeli left to lay down new starting points for future negotiations and to embarrass Sharon by portraying him as too hard line to cut a deal that others could.

For his part, Sharon has responded by hinting at a readiness to dismantle some Israeli settlements, coupled with the threat of unilateral action if the Palestinians spurn his overtures. The subtext is clear: Sharon is no uncompromising hardliner, but he’s not going to wait around for someone to try get negotiations going for a Geneva-type deal.

So far, none of the parallel initiatives has borne fruit, at least in public. No agreement was reached in the London and Madrid exchanges even on basic issues like ending terrorism, and both forums degenerated into arguments. The key to immediate progress lies now with Burns, the U.S. envoy, who is trying to set up a first meeting between Sharon and the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Qurei.

On the Palestinian side, neither Qurei nor Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has fully endorsed the Geneva deal, although Arafat did send a letter of qualified support to the Geneva ceremony. Israeli analysts believe that Arafat is playing a game: He doesn’t offer outright support for Geneva, so as not to be bound by its provisions and to be able to push for more. Yet he also doesn’t reject it outright, casting Sharon – who opposes the deal outright – as the rejectionist.

The Geneva ceremony highlighted growing international support for the accord. Nobel Peace Prize winners and Arab dignitaries attended, while former President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent greetings.

It is not inconceivable that at some point down the road, international players will seek to call a peace conference with the Geneva accord as the basis for discussion.

Already, the launch in Geneva is having reverberations in Washington. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) flew to Geneva for the signing and is expected to introduce legislation next week supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives, including the Geneva accord. A similar resolution was introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Nov. 25.

The Washington chapter of the left-wing group, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, hand-delivered copies of the resolution to each lawmaker’s office on Capitol Hill Monday. Beilin and Abed Rabbo will be in Washington this week to meet with lawmakers and to talk up their resolution to the U.S. media.

The Bush administration said Monday that it "welcomed" the Geneva plan, but officials expressed continued support for the road map. Official U.S. policy is not to allow other plans to deflect attention from the road map. The road map "is the only plan on the table," Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Monday.

Part of the Geneva proposal’s charm is that unlike the slow, step-by-step road map, it envisions a one-step end to the conflict. But that could prove illusory, because the Israeli and Palestinian powers that be reject some of the accord’s main provisions and because closing the remaining gaps could prove problematic or even impossible.

For their part, the Israeli sponsors of the Geneva document intend to step up efforts to build domestic and international support.

The agreement is sure to become the main political message of a new left-wing party called Ya’ad, to be formed soon by a merger of Meretz and Beilin’s Shachar group. United around such a clear peace message, the group soon could be challenging Israel’s ailing Labor Party for primacy on the left.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this story.

When Shepherds Desert Their Flocks


The conflict over Valley secession reflects the growing gap between rabbis and the actual reality their flocks experience.

With few exceptions, the rabbinate seems to be totally aghast at the notion of dividing Los Angeles into two cities. Prominent rabbis, including Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California; Steven Carr Reuben, president of the board; John Rosove, and my own rabbi, Beth Hillel’s Jim Kaufman, have already announced their opposition to the proposal.

Part of this, noted Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, is a reflection of a broader tendency for the Jewish clergy to be "far to the left" of their congregants. Many come off as knee-jerk supporters of every so-called "progressive" cause. This is clear, it seems to me, from widespread rabbinical support for every leftist cause de jour, from racial quotas and bilingual education, all the way to opposition to war against a terrorist, passionately anti-Semitic state such as Iraq.

Among such people, Feinstein noted, opposition to secession is just another part of the predictable knee-jerk leftist program. Clearly, there is room for discussion on both sides of the issue, but it seems unlikely most of our esteemed, prominent rabbis ever really considered the arguments of the pro-secession forces.

"It has to do with our training," suggested Reuben, head of the 250-member Board of Rabbis. "We tend to see ethical action and mitzvah work putting us on the liberal side of the spectrum."

When one examines the logic for the response, it becomes clear that, for the most part, these rabbis are big on symbols and short on reason or facts. For example, their two prime reasons for opposing secession are clearly based on little more than gullibility to the slick, well-financed anti-secession campaign.

Perhaps the most notable issue they raise is that somehow secession would be bad for the Valley’s poor. There seems to be an assumption that a Valley city — which would have its share of poor people and be almost half minority — would lack the compassion that our rabbinate likes to exude on a regular basis, particularly when in contact with the media and their fellow clerics.

But let’s look at the facts. Over the past 10 years, under the stewardship of the City of Los Angeles, poverty in the San Fernando Valley has doubled, a far higher rate than the rest of the city, according to census figures. "Does this mean the city is working for the poor?" asked former Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz, who has emerged as secession’s most articulate spokesman.

To see this in perspective, all one has to do is travel to communities in the northeast Valley. These places — like Pacoima, Panorama City and sections of North Hollywood — have suffered from lack of services, street lights, decent police protection. Their representatives in Sacramento and on the City Council, for the most part, serve not the needs of their people, but political caciques who fund their campaigns and ambitions.

Do these areas have to look like this? Not at all. Just visit the small, working-class, predominately Latino community of San Fernando. As a small city, it was able to throw out the influence of the caciques and turn the city into an intriguing model of civic renewal. Is bigger better? It doesn’t seem so.

The current system doesn’t work for much of anyone, but the well-connected. The esteemed rabbis who signed a newspaper ad, apparently do not think that having among the highest taxes on business, among the worst rates of service delivery for everything from libraries, police and fire to street maintenance among major cities in the country is a disgrace.

Similar illogic surrounds the second major assertion by the clerics, that the massive L.A. city is somehow better able to bring in resources from Sacramento and Washington.

"It has to do with clout," Reuben explained. "They have a sense that being part of a larger city — [there is] the perception of being able to bring resources from the federal and state government."

Yet, reality, according to a very detailed study recently released by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, shows that the big L.A. city actually is among the least successful in gathering resources — including for the poor — from Sacramento or Washington. In fact, according to the Claremont study, Los Angeles received far less per capita from Washington than other major cities in California, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Long Beach, Oakland, San Diego and San Jose. It also did worse than smaller cities such as Culver City, Santa Monica and Glendale.

The situation is even worse on the state level. According to Rose Institute’s analysis, Los Angeles ranks below virtually every city in Los Angeles County in aid from Sacramento. In the state capital, Los Angeles actually has less clout in delivering resources than such small cities as Manhattan Beach, El Segundo, Burbank, Downey and, not surprisingly, plucky little San Fernando.

Now you might say, well, these rabbis are not public policy experts.

Clearly that’s true. But then why must they preach on the basis of ignorance? Jews pride themselves on the relative logic of our faith, but the pronunciamentos of our rabbis sometimes sound about as well-reasoned as the rantings of Christian ayatollahs like Jerry Falwell.

Will this logic gap on secession hurt the rabbis with their congregants? Reasonable rabbis like Feinstein argue that it will not hurt too much. The secession proponents have been poorly led and have not been articulate in making their case, which boils down to how the Valley would be better off as Phoenix.

Only now, with the emergence of the brighter bulbs of the movement, like Katz, Bob Scott, Mel Wilson and Dr. Keith Richman, are they really discussing the real issues. These include the need to decentralize decision making, reduce the size of districts to overcome the entrenched power of the now-dominant trinity of political professionals, organized labor and powerful developers.

Yet the issues raised by the middle-class, multiethnic rebels of the Valley will resonate down the line, long after Nov. 5. More importantly, Feinstein suggested, the Valley secession disconnect foreshadows more serious splits as other issues emerge over the coming year.

Perhaps most important will be those around Iraq and Israel, where most Jews are likely to support the hard-line policies of President Bush over the Neville Chamberlain-like positions of the rabbis’ favorite Democrats, such as former Vice President Al Gore or Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

By 2004, Feinstein suggested, as many as 60 percent of Jews, for example, might support Bush, simply because of his steadfast support for Israel and willingness to stand up to Saddam Hussein’s regime. This support will be higher among the groups who arguably represent the future of Los Angeles Jewry — Persians, Russians, Israelis, North Africans and increasingly conservative post-baby-boom Jewish professionals.

In this evolution, it may well be that our rabbinate, like the mainstream Protestants who are losing out to more in-sync evangelicals, may be so out of touch with their congregants that they will become irrelevant.

The time may come, as Feinstein suggested, that the congregants, tired of the reflexive political correctness approach of the rabbinate, may say, "It’s time for them to shut up" about key political issues.

Down the road, this schism between flock and shepherd could alter the ecclesiastical picture, not just in Los Angeles or across the nation. Throughout history, religious leadership has lost influence, and ultimately been replaced, in part, because its divine preachings no longer reflected human realities. This is one reason why overly legalistic, exclusivist, state-supported Judaism lost out to the more emotionally compelling and inclusive message of early Christianity.

It also may be, in part, why the Protestantism, which spoke to the right of individual conscience and initiative, appealed to an increasingly literate Christendom. It may also explain how Chasidism, with its appeal to joy and spirituality, appealed to Eastern Europe’s oppressed Jews more than traditional Orthodoxy, or why Reform Judaism appealed to modernizing populations in the great cities of Western Europe and North America.

After awhile, even the most passive of flocks learn how to bite a shepherd who has lost his way.

Religion, Rabbis and Reform


The San Fernando Valley secession movement faces almost total opposition from Los Angeles’ political, civic, academic and media establishments. But over the coming weeks, it is likely to be taking flak from the city’s religious elite, too.

Among those likely to be weighing in against secession are some of the rabbis who, following the lead of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, have joined other clerics in studying the "moral implications" of a Valley/city split. These clerics, called the Council of Religious Leaders, will be issuing a report later this month that, if not condemning secession as a racist heresy, seems certain to skewer the idea as bad for the various Los Angeles communities, including the Jews.

The problem here is not so much with opposing secession — it is indeed a debatable proposition — but treating it as a moral issue of righteousness than a more mundane dispute over the best possible scale for efficient and responsive government.

I haven’t seen the Council’s report. But my sense that the secessionists will get assaulted from the pulpit grew out of conversations with two prominent Jewish members of the committee studying the issue. Although they both live in the Valley, Alan Henkin, Pacific Southwest vice-president of the Union of Hebrew Congregations and Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Los Angeles-area Board of Rabbis, made clear to me that they view secession as a dangerous idea, with negative ramifications for community life.

Henkin fears secession’s impact on various communities — Latino and African American, as well as Jewish — by cutting off the Valley from the Westside and the rest of Los Angeles. It’s also bad for the Jews, essentially, because the Valley Jews might "fragment," that is, set up their own institutions free of the Westside establishment.

If there’s some good news in the rabbi’s views, it’s the one assertion Henkin seems predisposed not to share — that secession is largely an effort by middle class whites to flee "people of color." It’s a notion, he admits, some clerics are pushing, but makes little sense since the Valley these days is hardly Barbie-paradise.

Today the Valley is about half Hispanic and Asian. By most measurements, it is more diverse and integrated than the rest of the city, which increasingly resembles a Manhattan duopoly of affluent whites (increasingly older, single and childless couples) and poor Latinos, with a shrinking African American population.

But if the bloody shirt of racism is not waved high by the religious police, that of poverty will be, suggests Diamond. The rabbi told me that he and his fellow clergy analysts are shocked at the degree of poverty and social dysfunction in Los Angeles. One can only hope they don’t join Mahoney — who is spending lavishly on his spanking new cathedral, while the once-proud Catholic education system lies in tatters — in attacking Valley secession as part of Los Angeles’ cruelty toward its less fortunate.

The Valley of course has its poor pockets, but less so than the city. It also has less of the ultra-rich. In reality the Valley is what Los Angeles should be — mixed and middle class. It is a place of upward aspirations, particularly for Latinos who, according to a recent poll, are even more in favor of secession that Anglo Valleyites.

The problem here, however, is not so much what the rabbis will say, but why in God’s name they are saying it at all. Secession has many weaknesses, but also a solid rationale. It is a logical citizen and business response to an almost completely dysfunctional system that essentially benefits those who really now rule the L.A. roost — the public employee unions, the Mandarin bureaucrats and well-connected developers.

Rabbis, priests and imams on the council may not have seen this reality, because most of their time has been spent talking to the L.A. academics and activists who make their living portraying our city as hell on earth. The clerics seem may buy into the notion of a city not of often-multiethnic neighborhoods, but of a kind of tribal city dominated by clans identified by racial pedigree. They don’t see what works in Los Angeles — its neighborhoods — and what doesn’t — the city government and its main institutions.

The anti-secession forces — you will see gobs of union and special-interest money spent to kill this fading movement — will cynically play on this kind of communalism to prop up a distant, unresponsive and sickeningly smug government system. Their real goal is not to help the poor, but to ride the middle class and small businesses in order to prop up the well-connected and the bureaucracy.

Most rabbis are not necessarily experts at seeing these things. They rely too much on Abraham Heschel and not enough on Max Weber. They often mistake nuanced issues of politics and geography for great moral issues.

These rabbis should worry less about the impoverished pockets, and more about the middle class Angelenos, many of them Jewish, who work hard, pay taxes and, in return, get overpriced, often inefficient services, horrific schools and an imploding infrastructure. After all, it’s the middle class residents who pay most of the taxes and create the jobs which in turn help the poor, whose basic goal, for the most part, is to join the middle class themselves. There’s a moral dimension here, too, but one that clerics may too easily overlook.

Secession may not be the best way to achieve justice for this community, if for no other reason because it will never overcome the institutional opposition of so many entrenched forces. But civic reform — such as breaking Los Angeles into a more responsive borough system — is an option that has barely been considered as an alternative to the current mess. It’s not likely to get on the religious radar screen.

Instead of essentially endorsing the status quo, our religious leaders would do better to look at what the purpose of government is — which is to serve the people so they can better help themselves. They should look more deeply into why so many Valley residents signed the secession petitions in the first place. And, out of respect for those sentiments, they should avoid offering what some might see as the Almighty’s edict on what is essentially a question of political efficiency and responsiveness.