California’s big chance on the national stage


Everybody knows by now that California swam against the tide on Election Day, giving Democrats a near sweep of statewide offices. But what’s even more important is what this will mean for national governance over the next two years.

With control of the House passing to the Republicans, there is little chance of new legislation. But for all of President Obama’s political failings in the first two years, he accomplished so much on the legislative front that he has a luxury Bill Clinton did not have after he lost both houses of Congress in 1994: Obama can play defense and still win. With historic health care passed, he just has to fight effectively to get it implemented. He doesn’t have to limit himself to school uniforms and other Clintonesque tinkering; he can take on the big stuff.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in an article on Nov. 7, this will be no easy task because the states will have a lot to say about it. A raft of newly elected and sitting Republican governors are already lining up to resist or block the health care plan in their states and to join the lawsuit against its constitutionality. Undoubtedly, the same lineup will attack any attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Leading the pack will be Texas and its right-wing governor, Rick Perry. Texas has long been the poster child for free-market government, and it has high levels of pollution to show for it. Perry, who has talked about Texas seceding from the Union, is now mulling over whether his state should abandon the federal Medicaid program of health care for the poor, and even the impossible idea of withdrawing from the Social Security system. Texas is known for coddling its polluters and attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, so much so that Texans roamed to California to finance the doomed Proposition 23 to overturn our global warming law.

With Texas leading the howling pack, California now becomes a crucial counterweight. The Republican candidate for governor, Meg Whitman, often cited Texas as a model that California should emulate. Had she been elected, President Obama would have faced a monolithic wall of opposition from Texas to the Pacific Ocean. Despite Democratic victories in the Southwest, those governorships went Republican.

There is much irony in this situation. Near the end of the campaign, Jerry Brown ran a brilliant commercial that tiedWhitman to the unpopular Arnold Schwarzenegger. Actually, the truth was that Whitman was running well to the right of Schwarzenegger, but to make that point would have required a more complex ad. Schwarzenegger will leave office with low approval ratings, admired by neither party. But his legacy actually depended on Brown beating Whitman (which is why my guess is that there is no mystery whom he voted for).

Arnold made two critical decisions that will look pretty good in history if the nation manages to provide health care to all and joins the fight against global warming. In September 2006, trying to recover from his awful 2005 ballot measures, the governor signed AB 32, the most advanced program to fight global warming anywhere in the nation. He faced down the opposition of his own party and his business allies. It was that bill that special interests went after with Proposition 23. This year, more quietly, and again against the opposition of his party and business supporters, he signed a set of bills to authorize health exchanges and other programs. Beyond the details, he committed the state not to bitter resistance but to cooperation with the Obama health-care plan. And this year, he campaigned strongly against Proposition 23, making fierce attacks against the outside interests that supported it.

With California in the fight, national Democrats have a better chance of prevailing. This state can offer itself as part of a great national experiment on health care, environment, and other issues and take Texas on. As the campaign against Proposition 23, with the involvement of green-tech industries showed, business is itself divided on some of these issues, and the progressive side may find allies if they don’t treat business as a monolithic enemy. In any case, if Democrats succeed in this, with California’s help, President Obama will owe a debt of gratitude to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.

Beyond health care and environment, the great wild card will be infrastructure. Republicans have managed to block further stimulus, but their weak point is infrastructure. Politicians love to cut ribbons on construction projects. Right now, the Republican plan seems to call for canceling construction projects. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, called a halt to a long-planned, much-needed tunnel to Manhattan, and other Republican governors may go the same route. But it will be politically risky for them in the long run. (I think their plan is to block projects that could help the economy now, and then if Obama loses in 2012, they can restart them and take credit.)

In fact, even those Republicans in Congress who opposed the stimulus begged for the money and then took credit for it in their states and districts. Let us suppose that the new Jerry Brown decides to channel his father, the great builder in California, and take the lead in advocating new infrastructure, such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30-10 plan in Los Angeles to accelerate transportation construction. Such an approach could help President Obama make Republicans in Congress an offer they can’t refuse — to build needed projects in their home bases.

So despite all of our attention to elections over the past few months, it’s really about governance now, about the hard and dirty work of making change filter out from Washington to the states. It looks like in the great slog, California is going to be a big player.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

UTLA quashes Israel divestment push


Under a tidal wave of pressure from the local Jewish community, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) decided to deny use of its headquarters to the UTLA Human Rights Committee. The committee planned to discuss economic sanctions against Israel, including a boycott and divestment.
 
The move by the roughly 25-member group, a small fraction of the 48,000 UTLA members, caught the attention of the Jewish community, which quickly united in opposition.
 
UTLA President A.J. Duffy said he advocated canceling the planned Oct. 14 pro-Palestinian gathering because it would have served only to “polarize our union members and members of our community.” Instead, he said he supports convening a gathering for a dialogue between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces.
 
However, pressure from Duffy and some Jewish organizations has galvanized some UTLA Human Rights Committee members, who now want to proceed with the pro-Palestinian meeting at “an undisclosed location at an undisclosed time,” according to Emma Rosenthal, a committee member and director of Cafe Intifada, which, along with the Los Angeles Palestine Labor Solidarity Committee, officially endorsed the Oct. 14 gathering.
 
“Some of the Jewish establishment is absolutely intolerant of any discussion of any sort that has to do with Palestinian human rights; anything that’s critical of Israel,” said Rosenthal, a poet and political activist, who is Jewish. She added that the organizations planning the meeting probably would have canceled the Oct. 14 gathering anyway because of security concerns.
 
Rosenthal called pro-Israel Jewish organizations hypocritical in calling for “balance” when, she believes, they so rarely offer it at their own meetings and conferences.
 
The UTLA Human Rights Committee and the Cafe Intifada blog have recently received hate mail and e-mails calling members “terrorists, Nazis and murderers,” Human Rights Committee member Andy Griggs said. He added that the committee originally had expected no more than 30 people to attend the meeting.
 
Founded in the 1980s, the Human Rights Committee has sponsored and hosted a variety of meetings and conferences over the years that have addressed the environment, support for striking Oaxacan teachers in Mexico and immigration rights, among other issues. In April, the group’s two-day “Conference on Human Rights and the Environment” featured workshops on topics ranging from the environmental impact of Israel “occupation” on Palestinian communities, to the Gulf War to climate change. A lunchtime plenary session included a discussion of “definitions of genocide and human rights in the U.S., world history and in the Middle East, specifically in Palestine,” according to the group’s Web site.
 
UTLA members can join the Human Rights Committee by attending its first meeting of the year, or two consecutive gatherings.
 
Teacher Elana Dombrower, who is Jewish, said the committee’s latest stance has angered her.
“I am infuriated,” said Dombrower, who teaches fifth-grade at Roscomare Road Elementary School in Bel Air. “How dare this committee try to do something like this that doesn’t reflect the UTLA’s view or the views of its members.”
 
The committee’s planned gathering was to have been sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of a group called Movement for a Democratic Society Inc., a new organization based in Connecticut that, according to its Web site, includes among its board members author Noam Chomsky, who has been sharply critical of Israel, as well as revisionist historian Howard Zinn. The group has tight links with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a student-activist movement that peaked in the 1960s.
 
Some Jewish leaders appreciated UTLA Duffy’s efforts to put distance between the union and the Human Rights Committee.
 
“I’m proud of what the UTLA has done,” said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the western region of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).
 
Earlier, Rowen Taylor had said that allowing such a meeting to take place on union property would have given the appearance that that UTLA endorsed divestment and a boycott, which it does not.
 
An Oct. 6 letter to Duffy from several Jewish groups, including The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, AJCongress, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, among others, thanked him for sending “a clear message that UTLA does not endorse the [Human Rights] Committee’s action.”
 
To try to prevent future attacks on Israel by UTLA committees, the AJC has encouraged its members who belong to the union “to make their feelings known about the indoctrination programming done by the Human Rights Committee and the hijacking of this committee,” said Sherry Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter.
 
Leaders from several major local Jewish organizations met for two hours at the L.A. Federation on Oct. 4 to discuss how to respond to the planned event. Several participants said Duffy, who attended the meeting, told the group that he is Jewish, supports Israel and sympathizes with their concerns. He told participants that UTLA’s 30-plus committees enjoy much autonomy, and that their positions don’t necessarily reflect the union as a whole.
 
Duffy said that he had removed UTLA’s Web link to the Human Rights Committee and that UTLA would review its procedures for granting use of its facilities to union committees. Duffy said that he found the brouhaha a distraction.
 
“Let me put it this way, I’d rather be focusing 100 percent of my time to the contract negotiations going on, rather than this,” he said in an interview.
 
A former special education teacher and dean of students at Palms Middle School, Duffy described himself as a cultural Jew. When he grew up in Brooklyn, “we used to say there were more of us here than in Israel, and it was true,” he quipped.
 
The UTLA Human Rights Committee agreed to host the pro-Palestinian meeting at the request of the Movement for a Democratic Society and after canvassing opinions of Human Rights Committee members. Although only six committee members responded to the list-serve e-mail, all said they supported the gathering, the Human Rights Committee’s Griggs said.
 
Marla Eby, UTLA director of communications, said Duffy will meet on Oct. 13 with the members of the Human Rights Committee to strongly urge the committee not to proceed. Duffy said he will “share the sheer preponderance of communications I’ve received that translate into our organization having taken a hit from our members. I’m not talking about The Jewish Federation or other Jewish organizations or Jewish teachers. I’m talking about teachers who are absolutely appalled that they think UTLA would sponsoring such an [anti-Israel] meeting.”

Measure ‘R’ contains curious ‘reform’


On November’s ballot, tucked among the local measures affecting only Los Angeles, is curious Measure R, a plan by the Los Angeles City Council to provide each of the 15 council
members an extra $570,000 in pay, by my own estimate roughly $1.25 million in subsidized health care per person for life and an extra pension windfall per person worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Council President Eric Garcetti, as chair of the city Elections Committee, assigned the measure the letter “R” for “reform.” But critics — including retired Department of Neighborhood Empowerment chief Greg Nelson, city ethics commissioner and journalist Bill Boyarsky and the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times — call it something else: a sneaky way to loosen the accountability of our public officials.

And here’s the kicker: The “proof” that purports to demonstrate the measure’s effectiveness? It doesn’t exist.

On the ballot, Measure R will be described by proponents as a law that improves term limits and city ethics rules. Many voters will assume it’s a good idea, since it’s backed by the League of Women Voters and Chamber of Commerce.

In truth, Measure R wipes out the limit of eight years, allowing our existing crop of 15 council members — and all subsequent ones — to stay in office 12 years. (Voters can try ousting them earlier, but the history of such efforts is not encouraging.)

Measure R did not arise from citizens. In fact, polls show that Angelenos oppose efforts to soften term limits. Nor would voters seek to hand each of our current council members an additional $1 million to $2 million in pay and perks.

Only history will tell the tale of how Measure R really came to be. What is known, however, is this: It was proposed in vague outline by the chamber and league on a Friday. The council — which can take months just deciding the color of recycling bins — backed it the following Tuesday.

I’ve seen a lot of self-interested moves by politicians. One was the clever move in 1990 by the City Council, also peddled as “reform,” to forever tie their pay raises to those of Superior Court judges. As a result, every time overworked judges get a pay raise, so do the 15 council members. That’s why they earn $149,000, the highest-paid council members by far in a major U.S. city. (New York City, a far costlier place to live, pays its council members $90,000; San Francisco, another more expensive city in which to live, pays $91,000).

Although Measure R is touted as ethics reform, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Ethics Commissioner Boyarsky — who is also a columnist for The Jewish Journal — have said it actually helps lobbyists cover their tracks.

Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce board member Ron Gastelum defended Measure R to me, saying the chamber and league proposed it because “it takes a council member the entire first term to really learn the business of the city,” and council members start running for other offices during their second term.

According to Gastelum, “after closely examining all these factors, we had to conclude that an additional term is needed.”

Except no “examination” happened. In an interview, Gastelum told me that neither the chamber nor league studied the achievements of legislative bodies limited to eight years, vs. those with 12. Moreover, they did not contact other cities or regions, nor did they define what “effectiveness” is.

Over the summer, league past president Cindy O’Connor admitted to the Tarzana Neighborhood Council that the league set up Measure R as “a carrot and stick.”

The carrot, she said, was their claim of an ethics crackdown. The stick, she said, was the unpopular term limits extension which could never pass alone.

Nelson says, “Measure R is really horrifying, because if you are lobbyist and you work on a contingency and don’t get paid until the issue you’re working on is over, you don’t, under this ‘reform,’ have to report that you are lobbying on the issue. So they are invisible! This is what Boyarsky and Delgadillo found unconscionable.”

Boyarsky, who cannot criticize Measure R because he is on the Ethics Commission, has nevertheless voiced extreme displeasure that it arose from backroom dealing and waters down city ethics laws.

“When I found out it eases regulations on lobbyists, I started asking all these questions of our [commission] staff,” he told me. “But that was all I could do. I am prohibited from criticizing ballot measures. My only consolation is I believe it’s going to lose.”

Would the City Council be more effective given 12 years instead of eight?
Nelson, who spent decades as an aide to fiery former Councilman Joel Wachs, says no.

“I realized it didn’t matter how much time council members have in office, the day I got this call from the Los Angeles Times,” he told me. About 15 years ago, before term limits, the newspaper asked Nelson to name the most important things the council had achieved that year.

“I couldn’t think of a single thing to put on a list for them,” he recalls. “The lesson is, given more time, the council is no more effective and no more interested in the big issues. I saw it firsthand.”

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist. Her website is

NGOs Feel Sting of Hamas Ban


Nearly three months since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority, Western governments aren’t the only ones trying to figure out how to deliver aid to the increasingly needy Palestinian population without inadvertently supporting its extremist government.

Nongovernmental organizations — which Western governments opposed to ties with Hamas view as the most viable medium for delivering aid to the Palestinians — are themselves running into problems trying to maintain their operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With the Palestinian Authority in disarray and Western governments still in the process of defining what is permissible vis-?-vis links to the Hamas-run government, many nonprofit groups operating in Palestinian areas are facing serious funding problems, confusion about whom they are allowed to talk to and work with, and the challenge of having to establish ties with a completely new — and far less institutionalized — Palestinian bureaucracy.

The situation is nothing short of a crisis, many officials with these groups, sometimes known as NGOs, here say.

“I have never seen as much policy confusion in government as I have seen when Hamas was elected in the Palestinian Authority,” said John Bell, director of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground in the Middle East.

“Who can we have contact with? Can we be in the same room as a Hamas person? There are many legal issues for us to consider,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, we’re a bit in the realm of the absurd.”

A variety of officials from nonprofits operating in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip discussed the challenges of operating in Hamas-run territory at a conference last week on nonprofits, human rights and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The forum, hosted by NGO Monitor, was held June 14 at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.

Many officials from nonprofit groups complained that American, European and Israeli restrictions on contacts with the Hamas government are too far-reaching, threatening nonpolitical and even pro-peace activities, such as the teaching of coexistence curricula in Palestinian schools. Because those schools are now under the aegis of Hamas, coordination with officials from the Palestinian Education Ministry is now banned by Western governments.

“It’s virtually impossible to fund Palestinian society today in the West Bank without encountering Hamas,” said Daniel Seideman, legal adviser to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for a binational Jerusalem and promotes services to Palestinian residents of the city.

But many Western observers argue that the funding crisis in the Palestinian Authority — precipitated by Western sanctions — is a necessary part of getting the Hamas-run government to abandon terrorism.

“This crisis is necessary and overdue,” said Saul Singer, an Israeli newspaper columnist who spoke at the conference. The idea, Singer explained, is to use the crisis to force Hamas to accept the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re talking about a game of chicken here,” Singer said, between the principles of Hamas, a terrorist group that mandates Israel’s destruction, on the one hand, and the principles of the international community — abandonment of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of existing Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements — on the other.

“I think Hamas should give in,” Singer said.

While this game is played, however, groups funded by Western governments must figure out how to adjust to the new reality of maintaining their activities in a territory where cooperation with the local government is restricted.

There are pitfalls and obstacles everywhere, officials with these groups say.

Other organizations report that donors’ targeted gifts are harder to use because of the new bans. Some say they have been forced to return funds to donors.

Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, says his group does not accept funding from the Palestinian or Israeli governments in order to steer clear of restrictions and conflicts of interest. But his reliance on other governments, such as that of the United States, has come at a cost.

According to Bell, the United States is more stringent than Israel when it comes to restrictions on nonprofits’ activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The United States “is putting out extremely stringent demands and conditions,” Bell said. “The Israelis are a lot more practical about it. They know things have to be done, and they’re trying to get them done while at the same time the U.S. government is prohibiting very common-sense activities.”

Many officials with nonprofit groups say Western bans on contacts with Hamas should be more nuanced — both to facilitate easier aid to the Palestinians and to help bring Hamas around to a more moderate point of view.

“I understand the logic behind a government boycotting Hamas,” Baskin said. “I don’t think that has to limit nongovernmental actors in trying to effect change.”

“I would like to see the international community looking for ways that can help us to move the Hamas from where it is to a different place, to a better place, to a reformed political platform, which I believe is inevitable,” Baskin said. “We have to be very careful about both boycotts against Israel and boycotts against Palestine that prevent peaceful NGOs from doing their work.”

 

Federation Support of Civic Group Wanes


When former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine agreed to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), he hoped to infuse it with the passion and purpose of its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, the JCRC — which is one of the major voices and faces of The Federation to the non-Jewish world — was a high-profile entity. It took up the cause of Soviet Jewry and Ethiopia’s Jews. It was assertive locally, too, whether in denouncing the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 or reaching out to non-Jewish communities in need.

But something has happened during the John Fishel era at The Federation.

Critics say that starting in the mid-1990s, the JCRC slowly began losing its voice and shirked a core mission: to be as visible and forthrightly active as possible.

As Levine saw it, the community relations committee could once again become a powerful voice by taking principled stands on controversial public policy issues, thereby strengthening coalitions with African American, Latino and other ethnic groups.

Levine’s appointment came at a time when JCRC staff morale was low. The committee had largely abandoned public policy advocacy in favor of its more traditional roles of ardently supporting Israel, reaching out to other religious and ethnic communities and lobbying for government dollars for social programs. Under Fishel, the JCRC has seen its influence, as well as staff and budget, shrink.

“John Fishel doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it,” said Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair. He said that Fishel constantly pushed to downsize the JCRC during Welinsky’s two-year term in the late ’90s.

But Fishel’s view is that the political climate simply evolved. The JCRC has “a unique function,” he said, but the community itself no longer always coalesces, through the committee, as one voice. There are no longer such issues of broad agreement, such as support for Soviet Jewry.

“I think it’s become much more difficult for the JCRC to define what becomes an issue of Jewish concern,” Fishel said.

To be sure, JCRCs across the country have seen budgets shrink as federations’ resources dipped. After the successful immigration to Israel of nearly 1 million Soviet Jews — a Herculean undertaking that community relations councils around the nation helped orchestrate — several JCRCs experienced periods of “searching for meaning,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the New York-based parent organization for 125 community relations councils nationwide.

Which is why the appointment of former Rep. Levine was so welcomed. Given his political connections in Sacramento and Washington and his energy and dedication, JCRC supporters believed Levine would restore the committee’s lost luster.

When the Israeli embassy contacted Levine, seeking JCRC public support for Israel’s planned withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza, he set about building consensus. Although Levine eventually succeeded in putting the JCRC on record as favoring the withdrawal — a position shared by the majority of American Jews — he said he felt frustrated that it took so long for The Federation to sign off on the public pronouncement. And by this time, The Federation was following the train of opinion shapers, rather than leading it.

Time was, the local JCRC, with The Federation’s blessing, took controversial stands on issues of the day, said Steven Windmueller, the committee’s director from 1985 to 1995. In those heady times, the JCRC opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and spoke out in support of abortion rights, he said.

Although those positions angered some Jews in the community, Windmueller said the committee’s views reflected those held by the majority of the Southland’s liberal-leaning Jews. The JCRC’s willingness to take those and other positions, Windmueller said, attracted scores of young people to the committee, which served as a gateway to the Jewish community for many. Some later went on to became Federation donors, he added.

About a decade ago, however, the L.A, Federation, like some others around the country, began discouraging the local JCRC from venturing into controversial public policy matters, Windmueller said. With competition for charitable dollars heating up, many federations concluded that the risk of alienating conservative donors outweighed the benefit of taking liberal stands. Increasingly, most JCRCs left political advocacy, whether liberal or conservative, to other groups.

In Southern California, that void was filled by the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), among others. Ironically, the PJA’s willingness to fight against sweatshops and the exploitation of hotel workers along with its boldness in embracing the sort of left-of-center causes once championed by the local JCRC has helped swell its ranks to 3,500. With half its members under 30, the alliance, which just opened a second office in the Bay Area, has succeeded in reaching a demographic coveted by Fishel’s Federation.

“What we find is that pursuing a positive, progressive Jewish response to the issues of the day is profoundly inspiring , especially to young people who one day will be our community leaders and donors,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

Two of the nation’s most robust JCRCs are among the most politically liberal. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston has a staff of 24 and a $3 million budget, while the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council employs 20, with a budget of $2.1 million. By contrast, the local JCRC has five full-time and two part-time staffers and an annual budget of $1.2 million. Unlike Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco have taken bold policy stands recently, with San Francisco, for instance, coming out in favor of same-sex civil marriages.

A left-leaning JCRC wouldn’t fly everywhere, but the formula has consonance with liberal Los Angeles.

Levine had expected the L.A. JCRC to take positions on ballot initiatives, legislation and other political issues, provided he could build consensus. But The Federation’s new chairman of the board, Michael Koss, worried about alienating donors. Koss said he also thought the JCRC would benefit if led by someone who was not strongly identified with either liberal or conservative politics. Koss, who had the authority as Federation chair, did not reappoint Levine. The former congressman, for his part, said he had no interest in a second term given the lack of support.

“Losing Mel Levine for the JCRC or anyplace Mel puts his hat is a loss,” said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair.

Fishel said he respects Levine but added that Federation chairs make their own appointments. Fishel’s critics counter that it’s his job to show leadership.

Koss tapped corporate attorney Ron Leibow as Levine’s successor. Leibow, former chair of The Federation’s Planning and Allocation Committee, said he plans to revitalize the JCRC and has made reaching out to ethnic groups, especially Latinos, a priority.

Those involved with JCRC are determined to make a positive difference. Under new JCRC Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, the committee has added paid staff and seen its budget increase. Several JCRC programs have grown in importance. The Holy Land Democracy Project, for instance, has helped teach thousands of area Catholic high school students about Israel, while, simultaneously, tightening links between Jews and Catholics. The JCRC continues to take elected leaders on trips to Israel — to expose them to the Jewish state and to Jewish issues.

But a recent, tentative step back into the political fray was telling, when the JCRC encountered some Federation resistance and withdrew, for now, a pro-immigrant statement. The scenario unfolded in mid-May, when the JCRC board approved a statement saying that it supported better border security but opposed legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants. The statement also favored normalizing immigrants’ status, insiders said. JCRC members had hoped the resolution would demonstrate solidarity with the Latino community, she said.

The Federation board, however, barely approved the JCRC resolution, so the JCRC has pulled back, while it develops new wording that could attract more support, Schwartz-Getzug said.

That the JCRC still hasn’t come out with a statement weeks after one of the largest pro-immigration demonstrations in U.S. history reflects the committee’s — and, by extension, the Federation’s — cautious approach. Critics might go farther, arguing that this reluctance to take a public stand on immigration illustrate that those institutions no longer speak for the local Jewish community.

“If the Federation isn’t going to take a position on something as important to the Latino community as immigration, even after the huge marches all over the nation, then what in the world do they have to say to the Latino community?” commented Michael Hirschfeld, formerly the top JCRC staff member. Hirschfeld was himself the focus of an earlier JCRC furor: His unexpected 2003 dismissal, after 24 years with the JCRC, generated a firestorm of criticism, and a few calls for Fishel’s resignation.

Levine believes that until Fishel’s Federation either allows the JCRC to become independent or have more autonomy, the committee will serve as little more than an administrator of such programs as KOREH L.A, a well-regarded tutoring program.

“The CRC and Federation are no longer a meaningful political force in the structure of Los Angeles,” said Levine, now a partner in international law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “That’s unfortunate.”

 

The View From L.A.: Hoping for the Best


Los Angeles supporters of Israel’s political parties praised or mourned the results of the Knesset election, but even the winners weren’t entirely in a mood to celebrate.

Shimon Erem, a former high-ranking officer in the Israeli army, said he had planned to fly to Israel to cast his ballot for Kadima (Israel has no absentee voting). However, with pre-election predictions that the centrist party would gain around 40 seats, Erem felt his vote wouldn’t be needed.

Instead, Kadima got only 29 seats out of a total of 120, a showing he attributed to “faulty strategy due to overconfidence, to taking its support for granted.”

Dr. Yehuda Handelsman, a veteran leader of the local Israeli community, also backed Kadima, but had been more realistic.

“I think we did pretty well,” he said. “If Ariel Sharon had remained healthy and had led the party, I think we would have gotten 35-40 seats.”

As a new party, Kadima has not yet organized an American support group, but Handelsman predicted the establishment of such an organization in the next two years.

The Labor Party came in second with 19 seats and Bea Chenkin, regional executive director of Ameinu (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance), said she was satisfied.

“Considering that [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres jumped ship to join Kadima, we did as well as could be expected,” she said. “A lot of Israelis feel that the social problems of the country have been neglected, but now these issues are coming to the fore again.”

Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, said that the three religious parties had done a good job in mobilizing their base among the generally apathetic electorate.

“Shas, National Union-Religious Party and United Torah Judaism understood that there was a lot at stake for the observant community and managed to retain their strength, May said.

Even among the Orthodox parties, there are strong ethnic and ideological differences, noted Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Loyola Law School faculty member and an Orthodox leader.

At least one of the religious parties, most likely the less ideological United Torah Judaism, will join a Kadima-led coalition, Adlerstein predicted.

Robert Rechnitz, national vice chairman and Western regional president of American Friends of Likud, said he was “obviously disappointed” by the election results.

Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, had been the largest party in the sitting Knesset, but will have only 12 seats in the next one.

Rechnitz blamed the decline on Sharon’s absence at the top of the ticket and defections by many retired and Orthodox voters, who had been hurt by Netanyahu’s past economic policies, as well as by what he called a “vicious” campaign against Netanyahu in the Israeli media.

The leftist Meretz Party managed only five seats, to the dismay of Dr. Isaac Berman, a national board member of Meretz USA.

“Similar to the Democratic Party here, Meretz didn’t seem to have clear message and didn’t make the right kind of noise,” Berman said.

Views on the road ahead in the peace process varied from wait-and-see resignation to cautious optimism among several community leaders interviewed by The Journal.

Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, said the situation in Israel is so fluid that it is difficult to make predictions about how events will unfold. Given the internal and external challenges Israel faces, though, she said that now is a time for unity.

“This is a time when Israelis need to pull together and work together,” Rothstein said. “You have the potential polarization of the Israeli society on the left and right on the inside and the Hamas threat from the outside.

A more upbeat assessment came from Mark LeVine, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. He said that despite Olmert’s vow to draw Israel’s final borders unilaterally, a negotiated settlement could eventually emerge. Hamas, he said, despite its refusal to recognize Israel, is not opposed to cutting a deal. And because of its standing in the Arab street, the group has the credentials to do so.

“Assuming Hamas doesn’t engage in too much violence either against military targets or terrorism against civilians, I would assume that in the next couple years there’s going to be a repeat of the negotiations you had at Camp David in 2000 and in Taba,” said LeVine, who wrote the 2005 book, “Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil” (Oneworld). “They’re probably going to be using pretty much the same maps.”

A local Muslim leader weighed in with similarly cautious optimism.

“There’s a recognition by the bulk of the Israeli population that the Greater Israel Project is over,” said Nayyer Ali, past chair of the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council. “Unlike the mood in Israel in 2000 and before, we now have a consensus among Israelis that the end solution is a Palestinian state.”

Ali added that the rise of the terorrist Hamas group on the Palestinian side also should not be viewed as a fatal impediment to peace. Just as the Israeli left cannot make peace without the support of more conservative Israeli parties, Ali said, Palestinian leaders, absent Hamas, also could not make a binding agreement. Despite its vow never to recognize Israel, “like other ideological parties, I think Hamas will have to deal with reality now that it’s in power,” Ali said.

But Sabiah Khan, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California chapter, said she sees nothing but a stalemate ahead in at least the short term: Israel, on the one side, refuses to negotiate until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes its right to exist. The new Palestinian government, on the other hand, won’t engage Israel until the Jewish state ends its “occupation,” recognizes the national rights of the Palestinian people and renounces terror.

“Basically, we have two groups saying the same thing, that they’re not going to talk to each other [until the other side does something that it isn’t willing to do], Khan said. “Outside intervention from the U.S., Europe, the United Nations or Arab governments is needed.”

Some or all of those parties, she said, could break the impasse by encouraging a negotiated settlement based on international law and existing U.N. resolutions.

Regardless of last week’s voting results, the local Israeli consulate was in campaign party mode on Election Day. Consul General Ehud Danoch and his staff festooned the consulate’s Jerusalem Hall with small Israeli flags, and had spread out a generous supply of pita, hummus, techinah and cookies for more than 100 guests who jammed together to watch the results of the first exit polls.

Danoch drew on his own political background for a running commentary on the merging trends and shared the general astonishment at the success of the Pensioners Party, which came out of nowhere to gain seven seats.

 

An Ugly Day in the Neighborhood


Dr. Warren Lent is sure he knows why he was treated with such contempt and hostility that day last June. It was the kippah he wore on his head.

He had come to vote in neighborhood council elections at a jam-packed fire station in Hancock Park. Amid the tension and confusion, an angry poll worker repeatedly accused Lent, a soft-spoken surgeon, of trying to vote twice.

Things escalated to the point where the poll worker asked Lent if he was “man enough to step outside” to settle it, Lent said.

The poll worker eventually backed down, but Lent reported the incident to Michael Rosenberg, a candidate for the council who, along with a group of allies, was recording slights against Orthodox Jewish voters. From his spot the requisite 100 feet away from the polling place, and from his office desk, Rosenberg gathered reports on shouting matches, fraudulent ballots and tense stand-offs between Orthodox Jews and other voters, many of them non-Orthodox Jews.

More proof, to Rosenberg’s mind, that the upscale neighborhood of Hancock Park was out to get Orthodox Jews.

On the other side, non-Orthodox residents were just as disgusted by what they say they saw on Election Day — fake membership cards, line jumping and all manner of deception by Orthodox Jews trying to secure as many votes as they could. Yet more evidence that this group of Orthodox Jews is willing to bend — no, break — the rules to get what they want.

What both sides wanted was control of the local neighborhood council, a relatively new city institution meant to bring grass-roots voices into city policymaking, an ideal that hardly seems worth fighting over in other parts of town. But in Hancock Park, it came to symbolize a battle between those who believed the Orthodox were trying to plant a shul and school on every corner, and the Orthodox who felt that established residents were trying to choke off their community.

Throughout that day and for months following, both sides wondered how the strife ever got this bad. How could it be, they asked themselves, that Jews in Los Angeles were at loggerheads, mosly with other Jews, in an embarrassing conflict that divided along religious lines?

To Rosenberg and his associates, the answer is simple: The neighborhood had been heading in that direction for years, and the election was the climax of years of intolerance.

Other residents challenge that interpretation. They tell a more complex tale, one that holds Rosenberg, an Orthodox Jew and real estate developer, personally responsible for ratcheting up the enmity and pulling the neighborhood into something like a civil war.

On that day in June, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, as well as unsuspecting local residents who came out to vote, were caught in the middle, stunned. Yes, everyone knew there had been conflicts between the Orthodox and the rest of the neighborhood, mostly centered on land-use disputes. And even while tensions had escalated over several years, setting the whole neighborhood on edge, no one felt as if Hancock Park was roiling with ethnic prejudice, which is how things looked and felt to many on Election Day.

“I can’t say it was anti-Semitism, he didn’t call me ‘dirty Jew,’ or say, ‘you Jews,’ and I don’t want to falsely accuse anyone,” said Lent of the poll worker. “I don’t know what his true motivation was, but one thing was clear to me. He was ready to punch me, and he wasn’t going to give me a chance to explain.”

To moderate — and even extreme — voices on both sides, these elections were a wake-up call, setting in motion halting efforts at peacemaking.

Today, contentious issues and tough questions persist. Aside from continuing enmity over the election, residents are battling in court over the construction of a synagogue on a busy residential street. And an Orthodox school and its neighbors are testing just how far they can push each other.

But on both sides, there are people willing to face tough questions so they can begin to bridge the divide.

Do some Hancock Park residents harbor mistrust toward anyone who looks Orthodox? Is this a case of intolerance, or one of some Orthodox Jews behaving badly and now everyone paying the price? How much is just miscommunication? And is the community suffering because it let a few people, notably Michael Rosenberg, become the voice of the Orthodox community?

Conflicting Claims

In the first two years, starting in 1999, that civic activist John Gresham had been organizing the area’s first Neighborhood Council in the Midwilshire area, he hadn’t heard much from Orthodox Jews, even though he knew that Hancock Park, one of 15 neighborhoods in proposed council borders, was heavily Orthodox.

Michael Rosenberg

Michael Rosenberg: “I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews.” Photo courtesy Sheryl Rosenberg

So he recalls being stunned when, in December 2001, Rosenberg, a businessman he knew only peripherally, filed a rival claim on the territory Gresham and a group of about 150 involved residents and business people had staked out as the future Midwilshire Neighborhood Council.

Claiming to represent homeowners, Orthodox interests and other underdog groups he had allied himself with, Rosenberg applied to the city for certification as the official neighborhood council in Midwilshire’s borders, throwing two years of grassroots mobilization into tumult.

“It was essentially our map, but [Rosenberg] had changed the name at the top and said, ‘We represent everyone there,'” Gresham said.

“So my initial reaction was: Why? And my second reaction was: What do we have to do to prevent this? And then my third reaction was: Wait a second, who is in his group? Who does he represent?” Gresham said.

To Rosenberg, the question of why is an easy one to answer. He felt that the existing organization was not doing enough to truly represent the will of the people

“They were certainly not considering us as part of them,” he said. By us, Rosenberg meant Orthodox Jews, but not exclusively that group. He’d also recruited residents and business owners, including Asians, blacks and Latinos, outside Hancock Park proper.

Such a divisive confrontation was not what city planners had in mind when officials developed — and voters approved — the formation of neighborhood councils as part of the 1999 City Charter. The idea was to develop grassroots civic involvement, giving residents, businesses and neighborhood groups actual influence — but not outright voting power — on city matters that affect them. Today, there are 88 neighborhood councils, with influence over issues such as zoning, traffic patterns, utility rates, taxes and general decisions about the character of a neighborhood.

“The bottom line on a national and global level is that everything starts in someone’s neighborhood,” said Gresham, who lives within the neighborhood council’s borders, just south of Hancock Park, and who started mobilizing neighborhoods in the 1970s.

Gresham’s job as a vice president at M.L. Stern Investment Securities leaves him only late-night hours to dedicate to grassroots politics, but his earnest involvement has won him widespread admiration.

In fact, in 1999, when the city was first setting up the neighborhood council system, city representatives asked Gresham, who is also active at the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood, to organize the Midwilshire area. This effort had been proceeding for two years when Rosenberg suddenly stepped in.

Gresham said he is dumbfounded by Rosenberg’s claim that important segments of the community were willfully excluded. Gresham had spent two years forming the Interim Midwilshire Neighborhood Council, made up of homeowners associations, business associations, and representatives for renters, students and nonprofits. The council area includes 50,000 people in 15 distinct neighborhoods within the area roughly from just west of Western Avenue to La Brea Avenue, from Olympic Boulevard to Melrose Avenue.

“We kept trying to get more people to the table so we would have a true cross-section — including Michael — and we are accused by him of not doing that? I just have no comprehension of what he is talking about. It’s foreign to me,” Gresham said at a late night meeting in his office, glasses perched atop gray hair and eyes squinty with fatigue.

Gresham had first met Rosenberg when he came to a meeting of the Midwilshire interim board, a few months before he filed his rival claim.

Rosenberg appears in the minutes of that November 2001 meeting as having volunteered to help iron out the group’s by-laws and participate in outreach. Gresham invited him to be on the board. But, after the meeting, Rosenberg had a run-in with a board member who recognized Rosenberg as an advocate for a synagogue involved in a vicious land-use dispute.

Rosenberg says he was told that the neighborhood council process had already begun, and that he wasn’t needed — or wanted.

“After the way they treated me I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews,” Rosenberg said. “We are outsiders.”

So Rosenberg gathered a few signatures from friends and business associates, including Orthodox activist and developer Stanley Treitel, and in December 2001 filed his own application with the city to become the Greater Hancock Park Neighborhood Council.

The city department that oversees neighborhood councils, which is committed to making these bodies truly representative, did not want to favor existing homeowners groups over ad hoc entities. In the spring of 2002 the city ordered Gresham and Rosenberg to negotiate a merger.

“We ended up giving in to them on every single point they wanted because they would not budge,” said Gresham, saying the negotiations over minutia occasionally became uncivil, to the point of table-pounding and screaming.

Rosenberg says the meetings were a ruse, since Gresham’s group continued meeting behind his back.

Gresham said of course his group continued to meet, openly, to continue the work of getting certified — just as he expected Rosenberg’s group to keep meeting.

But whether Rosenberg had a group at all was a question Gresham never felt was adequately answered. Gresham said Rosenberg seemed to make decisions on his own, without consulting a board, and got angry with Gresham for always wanting to check back with the Midwilshire interim board.

Rosenberg says he had a group of about a dozen active volunteers and many more supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, who empowered him to make decisions.

While he initially started with some close Orthodox friends, Rosenberg later pulled in some non-Jewish businessmen and disgruntled residents who felt they were not being represented by this nouveau establishment.

Among those was Morris Shaoulian, the lessee of the Scottish Rite Auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard and Lucerne Avenue in Hancock Park-adjacent Windsor Square, who is currently in litigation with the city over the use of the building.

After several months of negotiations, the newly named Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council was formed, with Rosenberg and Gresham as co-presidents, and an unwieldy 56 board members — 28 from each side.

At a hearing in December 2003, the city certified the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. But before doing so, the city lopped off a section that jutted out of the Council’s linear borders south of Olympic Boulevard, saying the small area, which Rosenberg had added, was not organically part of a territory that was already too big.

That severed appendage had included a large portion of Rosenberg’s allies, including 14 of his 28 board members.

“In that area we had representation of people who were black, Hispanic, Koreans, some gays and lesbians — and they were so upset to be cut off from the neighborhood council,” Rosenberg said. “And after that they said you guys stabbed us and they didn’t want to meet anymore.”

While the council was certified, it still needed to set up procedures to elect its board members, an election initially slated for March 2004.

But disgusted with what he saw as a biased and farcical process, Rosenberg dragged his feet and didn’t bring his representative to any planning meetings. March came and went without elections.

Gresham and the city tried to schedule meetings with Rosenberg, but were continually put off.

Without Rosenberg and his people, the board had no quorum, and could not set up the election procedures, which meant voting could not commence.

Suddenly, in the early summer of 2004, a process that had been in the works for years, involving hundreds of people and thousands of hours of work, was at a dead halt.

Gresham was at his wits end. And he was beginning to wonder what was driving Michael Rosenberg.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh: “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

‘Red Flags All Over the Place’

Baby faced and jowly with a soothing Latin lilt to his speech, Rosenberg doesn’t hide the fact that he is motivated by a large chip on his shoulder, despite his obvious success — he runs a thriving international real estate business, he and his family own thoroughbreds and he is the president of World Derby, Inc., which promotes horse racing events. He and his wife Sheryl have raised their four sons in a luxurious home at the eastern edge of Hancock Park, where they have lived for 21 years.

But Rosenberg’s parents lost everything and everyone in the Holocaust, including three sons — Michael’s brothers. The family found refuge after the war in Peru, where Michael was born and where he lived until the late 1970s.

As for his involvement in Hancock Park politics, Rosenberg is adamant that it’s all a matter of principal. He scoffs at the speculation, put forth with no evidence by some who are critical of him, that his involvement in neighborhood politics has been motivated by potential financial gain for his real estate business, which he says is mostly out of state or out of the country.

Instead, Rosenberg said, he was initially motivated by ill-advised land-use policies that neighborhood establishments supported. But the matter became a personal cause after he encountered intolerance at neighborhood meetings, which he ascribed to his wearing a kippah and representing the Orthodox community.

During the rise of the Nazis, leading up to the Holocaust, “in Hungary, my parents had to endure rules of you can’t go there and you can’t shop here, and this was the beginning of the same things — red flags were going up all over the place,” he says of restrictions being placed on land-use in Hancock Park and the accompanying intolerance he perceived. “That is the ultimate goal, to restrict use of the land and to rein in a group — and that is what they were trying to do with us at the end of the day.”

Rosenberg is referring to the ongoing attempt by local preservationists to designate Hancock Park a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which, at its most stringent, would mean changes by homeowners to their residences would have to go through rigorous scrutiny by city boards.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association, a 57-year-old body, supports the historic zone, as does the office of Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area. In 2001 Rosenberg had attended a meeting of the association and told the members that a majority of Hancock Park residents did not support the historic designation. No one on either side of the issue, in fact, has done authoritative polling.

The challenge was not well received, and Rosenberg said he was treated rudely, as though he were an outsider with no business there.

Soon after, Rosenberg and Treitel, along with a handful of other Jewish and non-Jewish members, founded the rival Hancock Park Resident’s Association. They sent out a mailing asking people to join them in opposing the historic zone. Rosenberg claims he received 1,100 letters in his support, which he filed with the city’s planning department. A department representative confirmed that his office has received hundreds of letters both in support and against the historic designation.

Within the next month, the city’s planning department will hold the first of many public hearings about the HPOZ, leading up to a likely decision this summer by the City Council.

While the Orthodox community — including everyone from Modern Orthodox to Chasidic — is hardly unified in supporting or opposing a historic zone, Rosenberg was certain he recognized yet another effort to choke off the growing Orthodox presence — many Orthodox families have remodeled old area homes to accommodate large families, adding bedrooms and modern kosher kitchens.

Rosenberg became increasingly convinced that longer established neighbors — many of them non-Orthodox Jews — were uncomfortable with the visibly distinct and insular Orthodox community, people who dressed in black hats and coats in the heat of the summer, who ate at different restaurants and sent their kids to different schools. The Orthodox, he believed, were a grudgingly tolerated “them,” not regarded as part of the community fabric.

Rosenberg is not alone in reaching that conclusion.

“The other side will tell you it’s nothing personal, it’s only about zoning, and I wish I could believe that,” said Alan Stern, an Orthodox businessman and philanthropist, whose wife Lisa won a seat as an alternate in the neighborhood council elections. “But it’s just not true. When you dig deep enough and start talking, there is a lot more that I find worrying. Many of them don’t like those black hats and coats walking in Hancock Park. It’s not a kind of look they feel comfortable with.”

Jane Ellison Usher

Jane Ellison Usher, president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission: “I think there need to be other Jewish voices.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

An Urban Oasis, Divided

Hancock Park is one of Los Angeles’s most picture-perfect neighborhoods, where sloping lawns on winding streets are crowned with elegant Tudor, Spanish and Mediterranean mansions built mostly in the 1920s. It covers roughly a linear mile between Highland and Rossmore Avenues, from Melrose Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard.

Jews began to move into this urban oasis 40 years ago, when clauses in home deeds prohibiting sales to Jews or blacks were removed. As Jews shifted eastward from Fairfax, Orthodox institutions became centered on and around La Brea Avenue, a few blocks west of Hancock Park. The last decade has seen a surge in the number of schools, shuls and kosher establishments in the area.

There are about 20 shuls on La Brea, Beverly and surrounding streets, and about a dozen kosher establishments. At least four new schools have been established in the last 10 years, and enrollment at existing schools has surged. Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath Emeth, for example, had about 700 kids in preschool through eighth grade 10 years ago, and today has more than 1,100.

With that growth has come increased tensions with established neighbors, including some residents who have been there for decades, and many more recent arrivals — a good number of them non-Orthodox Jews — who treasure the area’s serenity and architectural beauty.

Some residents fear the character of the neighborhood, which is zoned for single-family homes only, is being threatened by haphazard remodeling projects and by institutions — notably a shul and a private religious school — moving into Hancock Park itself.

“Hancock Park is a beautiful suburb in the middle of a busy city, and if people keep chipping away at it, soon it won’t be a beautiful, serene neighborhood anymore. It will be changed forever,” said Jolene Snett, an activist who is involved in crafting a preservation plan, which would limit what homeowners could do with the parts of architecturally historic homes visible from the street.

Snett, a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, was elected last June to the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.

It was the arcane subject of zoning that led to the Neighborhood Council confrontations and became the focus of lawsuits and angry rhetoric over the last 10 years. In 1999, Yeshivat Yavneh, a 400-student Orthodox day school, moved from Beverly Boulevard west of La Brea Avenue into the Tudor estate that had housed Whittier law school on Third Street and Las Palmas Avenue. Neighbors saw to it that Yavneh’s conditional-use permit was highly restrictive (see sidebar).

While the school and neighbors agree that Yavneh has worked hard to be a good neighbor — carefully controlling noise and carpool chaos — tension has continued to build over when and what Yavneh can do with its building. Yavneh is now planning to bring to the zoning board a proposal for an 8-foot security fence, which neighbors oppose, and a plan to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Shabbat, an issue that neighbors say Yavneh has not been honest about.

“We have made every effort to be as conciliatory as possible with the neighborhood and have done our best to make sure we are in compliance with whatever conditional-use permits were granted to us by the city,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh, which holds Shabbat prayers at the school for the Yavneh parent body. “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing, and for some reason there are certain extremists in the neighborhood who are opposed to having any greater presence for Orthodox Jews convening for religious activity or prayer, regardless of the impact on the neighborhood.”

At the same time, Korobkin is working with his own community to be more open, because he acknowledges that insularity may have contributed to the hostile environment and closed communication lines.

“Our guilt is that we have not sufficiently been good neighbors in the sense of reaching out and letting them know that we are part of the community, and we are here to work together with the rest of the community,” he said. “If an Orthodox Jew is having a Kiddush [party] at his home because his wife gave birth, and he invites 100 people from all around and his neighbors are not invited to the Kiddush — that type of thing creates ill-will,” he said.

Korobkin, and many others, believe that Yavneh is suffering the fallout of an earlier land-use dispute involving Congregation Etz Chaim, the synagogue to which Rosenberg and many of his neighborhood allies belong.

Etz Chaim is a small congregation that for 30 years met in the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. In 1995 it purchased a 3,600-square-foot house on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, enraging neighbors protective of the area’s single-family-home zoning status. The legal battle had already begun when in 2002 Etz Chaim razed the home and rebuilt an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary and a mikvah (see sidebar).

Neighbors contend the shul violated local zoning laws and trampled due process, and the shul contends neighbors are attempting to infringe upon its religious freedom. The dispute is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but regardless of the outcome, residents are likely to remain angry about the bulldozer approach the congregation took.

“Third and Highland was this giant smack in the face to all of Hancock Park that said, ‘We are going to do whatever we want and no on is going to stop us,'” said Gary Gilbert, a writer and producer, who lives in Windsor Square.

While Orthodox residents who don’t belong to Etz Chaim were not vocal about the matter, many of them also were troubled by both the manner and the outcome of the construction.

“None of us like that shul either. I didn’t think what they did was right, and I certainly wouldn’t want that happening next door to me,” said Marty Gurfinkel, a Yavneh parent who is now participating in reconciliation meetings.

But the idea of Orthodox Jews speaking out against other shul-goers was anathema, and so, Gurfinkel says, the Etz Chaim dispute fermented a false sense, both among the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, of us and them.

“It created a lot of negativity and came at a severe cost,” agreed Larry Eisenberg, a pediatrician who rues the fact that none of his Orthodox peers felt it appropriate to challenge Etz Chaim.

Eisenberg, a Hancock Park resident and past president of the West Coast board of the Orthodox Union, was elected to the neighborhood council on a platform of opposing traffic mitigation measures and the historic zone designation. He was not allied with Rosenberg, and had nothing to do with Rosenberg’s quest. But, he says, at the first few meetings of the neighborhood council over the past few months, he has felt that he is the object of suspicion and bias from other council members, just by virtue of being Orthodox.

Indeed, anti-Orthodoxy seemed at its height after last summer’s elections. Deeply troubled by the hostility and intolerance he saw, Gary Gilbert, an active member of Temple Israel, informally canvassed his neighbors in advance of launching reconciliation efforts.

“I went to my neighbors and I said, ‘Tell me about the Orthodox.’ And they said, ‘They think they are above the law, they will do whatever they want if it is good for them, and they don’t care about anyone else’s needs but their own,'” Gilbert recounted.

And while Rosenberg might offer that up as more proof that he was right — that the locals do hate the Orthodox — some argue that Rosenberg himself opened that door, back in 2004, when he and his cohorts brought the neighborhood council process, which activists had been working on for five years, to a screeching halt.

Stanley Treitel

Stanley Treitel, neighborhood activist: “We have to move on to some degree.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

The City Takes Over

With elections nowhere on the horizon, Gresham was relieved when, in July 2004, the city decided to take over setting up the elections. The city began the process by holding focus groups with area stakeholders to come up with election procedures.

Rosenberg came to some of those meetings with his supporters, and advocated for eliminating both the age limit and the need for proof of identity for voters, pushing for self-affirmation — actions eyed with suspicion by many.

The city, for its part, determined that people could vote in as many categories for which they qualified as stakeholders. That is, you got one vote if you owned property, another if you also rented property, still another if you worked in neighborhood — not to mention a vote for attending a local school or belonging to a local organization. Each category is represented by a board member. In the end, some people would vote as many as 19 times.

In March 2005, after the city decided that age limits and identification would be required, Rosenberg sued the city for violating the council’s bylaws, a case that was quickly dismissed.

Increasingly alarmed at the free-for-all the city seemed to be setting up, Gresham worried that anyone, including non-residents, could become a stakeholder by setting up a bogus organization, and that underhanded scheming would be rampant.

In February 2005, Gresham summoned some active neighbors who decided to form Neighbors United for Fair Elections, a group whose initial mission was to see to it that election procedures were fair and logical.

“The real villain in this enterprise is the [city’s] Department of Neighborhood Empowerment,” said Jane Ellison Usher, a Jewish attorney who answered Gresham’s call to action. “The way the department established procedures was to say to whatever group of people happened to show up at a meeting, ‘How do you feel on these three or four points?’ And whoever was sitting in the chairs would cast votes, and those were turned into formal recommendations for the board and the department.”

Usher, a former president of the Windsor Square Homeowners Association, was recently appointed president of Los Angeles planning commission. She had been involved early on in the neighborhood council process and stepped out in dismay when the city forced Gresham into negotiations with Rosenberg.

Usher is known among friends and detractors for being resolute and blunt — as someone who, by her own admission, doesn’t mince words. As elections neared, Usher began circulating aggressively worded e-mails to bring the masses to the polls.

“Don’t let the bad guys outnumber us again,” begins a Feb. 21, 2005 email, co-signed by Usher, Jolene Snett and Cindy Chvatal, who is now vice president of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. “Do you want a neighborhood controlled by the man who has leased the Scottish Rite or by the activists who have defied all zoning rules and built a temple at Third and Highland?”

Another e-mail, sent after the city delayed elections that had been set for May 2005, decries the city’s “twisted thought process.”

“Disabled by the notion that Michael Rosenberg might again sue, his forte, they [city organizations] have become the reliable enablers of the hijacking of this neighborhood by a handful of bogeymen,” wrote Usher and Chvatal.

The same e-mail ended with the imperative to “Grab your white hat and enough votes to win.”

Orthodox community members saw in that an allusion to their own black hats. But Usher, who grew up in a small town in Ohio, says the white hat reference is nothing more than a regional expression about good guys in white and bad guys in black.

And, she says, her references to “minions” was in no way meant to evoke minyans (a quorum of worshippers), and “bad guys” referred to the city organizations messing with the elections, not to the Orthodox community.

As Usher’s e-mails circulated, rumors spread within the Orthodox community of nefarious, well-organized plots to stifle Jewish interests. For its part, the Orthodox community fielded nine candidates, many brought in by Rosenberg.

Some e-mails originating in the Orthodox camp compared what was happening in Hancock Park to Nazi-era restrictions, and rumors spread about plots to bus in Muslims on Election Day to defeat the Orthodox.

While some rabbis decried the more egregious rhetoric, the idea took hold that getting out the Orthodox vote was a matter of saving the community.

“On the slate are individuals who have proven hostile to the interests of our community. If they win, any new shul or school, any expansion of existing shuls or schools, any remodeling of any home, will require their approval,” read a letter sent out by the Yavneh school. The letter urged all community members — even domestic help — to vote, and to enroll in newly formed organizations to qualify as stakeholders in more categories.

When Neighbors United got wind of the mobilization in the Orthodox community, fear began to spread that the Orthodox were trying to take over local politics so they could plant a shul and school on every corner in Hancock Park.

To both sides, elections had become a matter of saving the neighborhood.

An Election Debacle

The hype and propaganda worked, bringing out a record 1,200 voters on Wednesday, June 15, 2005, who cast a combined 29,000 ballots, higher than any other council elections since the city founded the Neighborhood Council system, which generally does allow for multiple ballots per person.

But rather than being a triumph of grass-roots activism, the turnout signaled the extent to which fear and suspicion had taken over.

By all accounts, the fire station on Wilshire Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue — the single polling place for the day — was a madhouse, with poll workers overwhelmed by the turnout, and voters and volunteers equally befuddled by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment’s impenetrable election procedures.

According to the city’s exorbitantly inclusive rules, voters were allowed to define themselves as stakeholders in up to 19 categories.

That meant that on Election Day, voters — many of whom did not live or work in the area — stood on line with fistfuls of ballots, a startling site in this one man, one vote culture. (One of the first actions of the newly elected council would be to revise election rules, allowing a maximum of two votes per person.)

And things got very, very ugly.

Neighbors United, the non-Orthodox group, created an Election Day staging area at the nearby Wilshire Ebell Theater, offering a free shuttle service to the polling place, where parking was difficult.

At the Ebell, Neighbors United registered voters and enrolled them in organizations to qualify for more ballots. Slates of candidates were endorsed. In some categories where the two or three highest vote-getters would win seats, Neighbors United provided an alphabetical breakdown for voters to follow to optimize the number of its winning candidates (i.e., if your last name begins with A-F, vote for this candidate; G-M for that candidate).

Orthodox community members say they saw Neighbors United people — including volunteer poll workers — at the polling place trying to intimidate Orthodox voters and handing out membership cards, some of them for organizations founded for just for the purpose of boosting vote totals.

The Orthodox community was not nearly as well organized, but its members were busy, too. Neighbors United members allege that they saw candidates campaigning outside the polling place, in violation of election rules, and people handing out “your name here” membership cards for organizations. Some of these had changed addresses to be within council boundaries; others hadn’t existed the week before.

One member of Neighbors United said that while she was looking for parking, two Orthodox men sitting in a car in front of the fire station indicated they weren’t leaving. Seconds later, she saw them relinquish the space to another Orthodox Jew.

Orthodox voters speak of harassment: If you looked Orthodox you were treated with greater scrutiny and greater contempt by poll volunteers, who came mostly from the ranks of Neighbors United (they were, after all, better organized).

And throughout the day, e-mails and phone calls continued to circulate, urging more people to come out and vote.

In the end, five Orthodox men, including Rosenberg, were elected to the Neighborhood Council, out of 31 seats. Gresham, ironically, only won as an alternate (when a board member can’t make the meeting, he takes her place). Gilbert and Treitel are alternates; Usher, Snett and Chvatal all won seats.

Nine people, including Rosenberg and Alan Stern, filed challenges against the election results, but the city dismissed all of them.

“There was considerable fraud on both sides, and a number of rabbis were not comfortable with that,” said Irving Lebovics, West Coast president of the Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel. “But the bigger issue to me was that in this election there was a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism. We had people who showed up to vote like any good citizen, and they were harassed and screamed at from vans on the street. It was unacceptable.”

Charges of anti-Semitism became a sore point after the election. After all, a significant number of the Neighbors United activists are Jewish.

“To evoke the Holocaust for political gain in a neighborhood zoning dispute, and for one group of people to allege anti-Semitism against another group that they don’t see eye-to-eye with politically, especially when many in the group are Jewish, is a problem,” Jolene Snett said. “These are serious claims, and to use them in a political manner, so readily and so quickly, and often to fellow Jews, I find very troubling.”

For her part, Usher says she feels compelled, as a Jew, to offer an alternative voice when she sees Jews behaving badly, as she believes some leaders at Etz Chaim and Yavneh did.

“I think there need to be other Jewish voices,” she said. “Frankly, it is repulsive to me that I am connected or associated in any way with the people perpetrating these deceptions, so I intend to speak out.”

“I am a Jew, I am a practicing Jew, and I feel that deception is shameful,” Usher said in an interview at a Beverly Boulevard pastry shop not long after the election. “Did I ever think I would see the day I would feel the need to stand up and say I am Jewish and I have a bone to pick with other Jews? Did I even anticipate that day? No.”

Peace Talks

Today, with the elections well in the past, Usher’s stridency has mellowed.

At the neighborhood council meetings — there have been four since the elections — Usher sits just one seat away from Stanley Treitel, a colleague of Rosenberg’s whose passion and vociferousness were off-putting to some during the thick of the strife.

At the January meeting, Treitel handed Usher his card and asked her to call. Usher and Treitel met for breakfast at La Brea Bagel a few weeks ago, where the two, who had formerly demonized each other, talked about issues in the neighborhood, and vowed to keep an open dialogue.

“I’m very optimistic. I don’t see or feel any hardliners drawing lines in the sand,” Usher said.

“We have to move on to some degree,” agreed Treitel, noting that Usher is now the head of the city’s planning commission, an organization that holds the key to approval of community projects.

While Usher’s and Treitel’s new connection is off to a good start, things are not going as well for a larger-scale reconciliation effort.

In November, a group of Orthodox, liberal Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors met to plan a blood drive and neighborhood safety fair for January. But three weeks after the initial planning meeting the event was off.

Yavneh had offered to host the event, but since Yavneh is in the middle of troublesome negotiations over its city operating permit, residents who live nearby wondered if Yavneh’s hospitality was motivated mainly by a desire to build support for dealings with the city.

And, ironically, holding a large event like the blood drive would have violated Yavneh’s permit.

It wasn’t the outcome Gary Gilbert and his wife Judy hoped for when they convened about 20 people in their Windsor Square living room last summer, following the election, to save the neighborhood from itself.

“One of the reasons I got involved is because I heard the phrase ‘the Orthodox’ 50 times, and then I heard the term ‘Jew’ in a way I never heard before in Hancock Park,” said Gilbert, a producer and writer of comedies, including the “Seinfeld” pilot.

The Gilberts joined forces with Rabbi Korobkin of Yavneh, who independently had set out to begin the healing process, contacting local clergy and L.A. Voice, an organization that works with faith-based organizations to build community.

At the first, smaller meeting about a month after the election, about 20 people from varying backgrounds sat in the Gilberts home and introduced themselves, putting names and faces to the impersonal “other side.”

“I’m not a professional mediator or conflict resolution person. I’m just a Jewish guy from the neighborhood who is really upset,” Gilbert recalled telling those at the first gathering in August. “I’m here to say let’s figure out what to do. I have no plan, no agenda — my agenda is why can’t we all get along. So let’s give it a try.”

A second meeting took place in November at the home of Marty and Candice Gurfinkel — a new home that blends impeccably into its surroundings and stands in regal rebuttal to the charge that the Orthodox have no aesthetic sense. It was there that the plan for the blood drive was devised, and after the meeting, a dozen neighbors stood around the dessert table schmoozing.

But despite the thaw, some were uncomfortable, feeling like they were skirting the real issues, moving ahead with joint activities to foster relationships when old wounds had yet to be healed, or even acknowledged.

“We perceive that the other neighbors look at us with such a sense of suspicion and distrust, that they feel anything we are trying to do is completely self-serving and disingenuous and we are not concerned with being good neighbors,” Korobkin said recently. “If you start with that premise, it is hard to win people’s support to work toward common goals. It’s hard to move things forward.”

But Korobkin persists in his efforts toward reconciliation, understanding that not only Yavneh’s future, but the entire neighborhood’s rests on everyone’s ability to work together.

As for Rosenberg, he has spent much of the last six months in Peru tending to family matters. He’s missed most of the Neighborhood Council meetings, but the one he did attend, he voted against all of the proposed measures, which passed anyway.

One of those measures reduced the number of future board members on the Neighborhood Council from 31 to 21 for the next elections in March 2007. Members who supported the motion said the board was too unwieldy with 31 members.

Treitel, who voted against the change, noted in an interview that Orthodox Jews had a good chance of filling the seats that were cut, in categories such as education, religion and nonprofits. He worries that the interests of the Orthodox community are now further jeopardized.

Rosenberg plans to do whatever it takes to accomplish what he says was his initial goal: to ensure that everyone in the neighborhood is represented, and that no one, especially not the Orthodox community, gets left out of the process.

“I feel bad that people have a perception of me as being a bad person,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not a bad person. I have given a lot of my time and money to make people aware of what I believe to be very important things.”

 

Exodus’ Trail of Woe


Just outside the gates of the Jewish aid compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a shantytown of decrepit tin shacks, overcrowded homes and debris-filled byways beckon the reticent visitor.

Barefoot children stumble amid the flotsam, part of the milieu of stray dogs, mule-drawn carts and mendicants that comprise the dusty street scene in this part of Addis Ababa.

Here, among the fetid smells and homes fashioned from scrap metal, live several thousand Falash Mura — Ethiopians linked to Jews whose progenitors converted to Christianity, but who now are returning to Judaism and bidding to immigrate to the Jewish state.

They’ve come here and to slums in the city of Gondar from their rural villages, abandoning their farms and occupations as blacksmiths, potters and weavers to live near the aid compounds and, more importantly, to be close to the Israeli officials in whose hands their fate rests.

Every month, about 300 of the luckier ones are selected to be taken to Israel. Once there, they are granted Israeli citizenship and taught Hebrew and Judaism, while residing in absorption centers. In due course, they are provided with about 90 percent of the funds they need to buy a home.

It is a generous package, and one that has more than a few Israelis and American Jews concerned that there will never be an end to the Ethiopian aliyah.

This fear — and stories of Ethiopians fabricating Jewish ties to escape Africa’s desperate poverty by way of a visa to Israel — has stalled plans to end mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.

The Israeli Cabinet decided in February 2003 to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia to Israel. A year ago, Israel agreed to expedite the pace of aliyah — immigration to Israel — for the 20,000 the state was told remained, setting in place detailed procedures for an operation that would double the rate of aliyah to 600 persons a month, bringing over the total number of those deemed eligible by the end of 2007.

But so far, none of the plan’s key phases have been put in motion, a fact many attribute to the disappearance of the plan’s key political champion: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“Sharon was the engine behind this. He pushed this through. He took the decisions. He set the timetable,” said Ori Konforti, the senior official in Ethiopia for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for immigration to Israel. “Now there is no engine for this.”

A 36-hour visit to Ethiopia this month by a delegation of approximately 70 American Jewish federation leaders, including a delegation from Los Angeles, aimed to change that. The mission to Ethiopia came five months after the umbrella group of the North American federation system, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), launched Operation Promise, a $160 million campaign for overseas needs. Of that total, $100 million is to go for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption; the other $60 million is designated primarily for elder care in the former Soviet Union.

The goal of the five-day trip to Ethiopia and Israel was to motivate federation leaders to go out and raise the money needed to reach the $160 million goal. The Ethiopian project already was a centerpiece focus for one official on the trip, John Fishel, head of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

UJC’s hope is that moving forward on that pledge will prompt Israel to begin expediting the Ethiopian aliyah. So far, more than $45 million has been raised for the operation, according to UJC officials.

“The money needs to be there, and all the rest flows,” Howard Rieger, president and CEO of UJC, said in an interview at the time the pledge was made.

“Frankly, I think we came to the conclusion that we need to hold up our share of the bargain, so to speak, and by moving forward and taking this action — which we very much plan to implement — at least we’ve carried out our responsibility,” Rieger said. “Will the government carry out theirs? I hope and expect they will.”

Even if the $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah is raised quickly, the lion’s share of the burden will continue to rest squarely on Israel. On average, each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of a lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. And more money for Ethiopian immigration means less money for Israel’s other pressing needs.

“It’s very difficult to absorb them, and there are so many poor Israelis who need help, too,” said Nachman Shai, director general of UJC Israel. “This will happen, but it will take time.”

Money will not solve some of the most significant problems that have riddled the Falash Mura aliyah since its inception in the early 1990s, after the final group of practicing Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel en masse in Operation Solomon in 1991. The conundrum of the Falash Mura aliyah is tied up with the questions of how many potential immigrants exist among Ethiopia’s 70 million citizens, how to stymie unqualified Ethiopians from emigrating to Israel and the cost of absorbing the immigrants.

The most important piece of the puzzle, by many accounts, is nailing down the final list of who is eligible for aliyah. That would enable Israel and American Jewry to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian aliyah and get a real sense of the total cost and scope of the project. Without such a list, officials fear, the number of Ethiopians seeking to emigrate to Israel will perpetually grow.

“If you ask me today how many people are waiting for aliyah, I can’t tell you how many,” acknowledged an Israeli Interior Ministry official working in Ethiopia.

The Interior Ministry is the Israeli government body charged with determining who is qualified to immigrate to the Jewish state.

“It’s hard for us to bring an answer,” the official said. “People are still in the villages who have not yet come.”

Last year, a special investigation by this reporter found indications of thousands of heretofore unknown Falash Mura in the Ethiopian hinterlands of Achefar, potentially adding thousands to the number of those seeking to immigrate to Israel.

“I hear stories about Israel from the elders,” said Guade Meles, 46, one of the Falash Mura living in the Ethiopian countryside. Guade — Ethiopians are known by their first names — is from the town of Ismallah, in Ethiopia’s rural Gojam province. “They told me there are benefits there. My cousins have gone to Israel. My wife’s brothers have gone to Israel.”

Other accounts exist of Falash Mura communities scattered elsewhere in the country, and there are many individual Ethiopians of Jewish descent living among non-Jews in places like the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray.

In the hovels of Addis Ababa and the mud-and-straw tukuls of rural Ethiopia, it’s difficult to sort out exactly who is and who isn’t Falash Mura.

The Ethiopians seeking to emigrate today call themselves Beta Israel, a caste designation associated with the smithing trades the Ethiopian Jews — known pejoratively as Falashas — traditionally performed during centuries of prohibition against land ownership.

While the Jewish state decided in the early 1980s to welcome Beta Israel who had kept their Jewish faith and identities — and facilitated their aliyah in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991 — Israel turned away the Beta Israel who had abandoned Judaism generations ago when their ancestors converted. These people are called Falash Mura.

Israel’s policy on the Falash Mura changed in the 1990s, largely due to advocacy by American Jews and vocal protests by relatives of the Falash Mura who had made it to Israel.

In the countryside of Gojam province, the Falash Mura can be found in clusters of mud-and-straw huts built amid eucalyptus trees. In one village, a pair of women are bent over incipient clay pots, their mud-covered hands shaping the wet earth into new jugs. Not far away, a few dozen men work barefoot in the field, cutting hay for the roof of their church.

Although they pray in a Christian church and hang pictures of the Virgin Mary in their home, these people call themselves Beta Israel. Many of them have relatives who have gone to Gondar and Addis Ababa, some of whom have since made it to Israel.

Those who have left their villages and gone to live in the cities, closer to where Israel’s representatives in Ethiopia work and live, say they have ceased their Christian practices. Some of them don yarmulkes while in the Jewish aid compounds, many take lessons in Judaism and all hope that embracing the Jewish faith will help get them to the Jewish state.

Abeyna Worku, 33, came to Gondar from the nearby village of Alefa four years ago. Most of Alefa’s residents have left for Gondar, but about 200 remain in the village, he said.

“Most of my relatives are in Israel, and I want to join them,” Abeyna said. “Israel is good since it’s the promised land from our grandparents.”

It is difficult to prove the Jewish heritage of these Ethiopians, most of whom were practicing Christians until they were told they needed to embrace Judaism to be eligible for aliyah. As a result, they are not petitioning to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

Rather, Israeli officials are verifying whether the Falash Mura qualify for aliyah under Israel’s Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to enable relatives of Israelis to immigrate to the Jewish state. So rather than having to come up with documents proving they are Jews, which nobody in Ethiopia has, these Ethiopians are trying to prove they are the immediate relatives of Ethiopians already in Israel.

That also means that some of those seeking to qualify under the Law of Entry are not Jews at all, but Christian relatives of Jews. Some estimate these Christians constitute up to 30 percent of Ethiopian olim or immigrants.

Habtu Gidyelew, 32, is one of those people. He married an Ethiopian Israeli six months ago and now hopes to join her in Israel. She moved to Israel 15 years ago, and the couple met during her visits back to Ethiopia.

“I met her three years ago,” Habtu said. “I want to be with her because I love her.”

The eligibility verification process for Ethiopian aliyah is slow and painstaking, and it is plagued by the problems of trying to verify who is related to whom when there are no birth certificates or written records. It also requires running an operation simultaneously in Israel and Ethiopia and weeding out the liars from the truth-tellers among people who know that demonstrating one’s ties to Jewish kin is a way to get a free ticket out of Africa, automatic Israeli citizenship and access to a broad array of social services in Israel.

More than 75,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel since the early 1980s. Because it is so costly to absorb these immigrants in Israel, this means the stakes are extremely high both for Israel and for the Ethiopians seeking aliyah.

At the moment, it is American Jews like the federation leaders on the mission who are trying to grease the wheels of the aliyah operation.

“I think the government plan that was approved was a good plan, and I think it needs to be implemented,” said Barry Shrage, head of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

“The worst thing that happens is they take them out, and there’ll be another 20,000,” Shrage said. “But I’m not going to be suicidal if in the end it’s 40,000.”

That sort of attitude is precisely what worries officials in Israel, who will have to bear the burden of absorbing the immigrants.

Some of the Falash Mura’s advocates — namely American Jews and Ethiopian family members and community leaders already in Israel — accuse the Israeli government of indifference or racism in dragging its feet on accepting these Ethiopians as immigrants.

There are Ethiopians who have been waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar for as long as eight years, impoverished by the loss of their livelihoods in their move to the city, susceptible to the HIV-infected prostitutes that ply their trade on the city’s streets at night and dependent on assistance like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s feeding program for young mothers and their babies.

For their part, many Israelis, including some Ethiopians, blame the Falash Mura’s advocates with creating this state of ongoing misfortune. These critics say groups like the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), which has been the primary advocacy and aid group for Ethiopian aliyah in the last decade and receives funding from Jewish federations, created a crisis of internal displacement in Ethiopia by maintaining their aid compounds.

By doing that, NACOEJ has tacitly or intentionally given Ethiopians with no knowledge of their Jewish lineage the expectation that they will be able to get to Israel if they move to the cities and turned communities of self-sustaining farmers and craftsmen into aid-dependent internal refugees, impoverished and condemned to a hardscrabble urban life.

NACOEJ rejects such arguments, saying that if not for its work, not only would Beta Israel migrants starve in the cities while awaiting aliyah, they also would be far less prepared for life in the Jewish state once they arrived there.

This claim is belied, however, by the current situation in Addis Ababa, where the community continues to survive despite the closure of NACOEJ’s compound there about 18 months ago, following legal troubles. Those troubles prompted Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry to bar the group from operating in Addis Ababa .

Privately, some Jewish officials herald this as a positive development, because they say that NACOEJ’s advocacy has helped swell the number of Ethiopian petitioners seeking to immigrate to Israel. Both these American Jews and officials in Israel worry that once the Falash Mura now in Gondar and Addis Ababa emigrate, thousands more will show up and demand to be taken to Israel.

“We’ll take these 20,000, and then there’ll be more,” said one senior American Jewish organizational official who asked not to be identified. “This could be 1998 all over again.”

In 1998, Israel’s government held a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport welcoming what then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heralded as the last planeload of Falash Mura to arrive in Israel. A month later, 8,000 more people poured into NACOEJ’s compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar demanding to be taken to Israel. The number soon swelled to 14,000.

This time, having learned some of the lessons of 1998, Israel plans to have the Jewish Agency take over the NACOEJ compounds, which provide food aid, schooling and some employment but not places to live. The goal is to shut the compounds down as soon as the current group of immigrants, now estimated at 13,000 to 17,000, are brought to Israel.

Acknowledging that U.S. Jewish federations had a role in keeping the compounds open in 1998, Robert Goldberg, chairman of the UJC, said, “In some way, we’ve encouraged these people to come. Nobody’s perfect. We do our best, and we have the best of intentions.”

Now, Goldberg said, “The compounds have to be closed.”

“What I would like to see is all of them come in a weekend,” Goldberg said of the Ethiopians awaiting aliyah. “If you can prepare everything in Israel, you don’t have to wait and bring out 600 a month. You can bring them all out. I’m going to push for it.

“Unless there’s a good plan to end it, there will be more,” he warned. “We don’t even know if they’re telling the truth. They just want to get out of here.”

One thing seems certain: The longer it takes to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel, the more immigrants, there will be. That infuses the current push to speed up the aliyah process. And for the first time in a long time, it seems that many of the necessary ingredients are in place to accelerate the aliyah of the Falash Mura and write the last chapter on Ethiopian immigration to Israel.

The Jewish Agency has trained 40 to 60 workers to take over the aid compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa from NACOEJ, which has promised to cease its advocacy work for Ethiopian aliyah once the expedited aliyah process begins.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry signed a deal with the Ethiopian government last fall on coordinating the aliyah eligibility verification process, and Israel’s Finance Ministry says it has allocated an extra $45 million for the accelerated aliyah operation in 2006. But Israel’s government has not yet given the green light to begin the operation, and nobody is quite able to say why.

The Interior Ministry blames the Finance Ministry. The Finance Ministry says it is waiting for the government to decide on an exact date. In one sign of the mishandling of this issue by the Israelis, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently declared that the expedited aliyah already had begun. It had not.

Many observers say the accelerated aliyah will not commence until the prime minister himself gives word. Earlier this month, Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, canceled a meeting in Israel with the American delegation that had visited Ethiopia. By all accounts, Ethiopian aliyah is far down the list of priorities for a state dealing with a comatose prime minister, upcoming elections and a new Hamas terrorist state on its doorstep.

Meanwhile, the Falash Mura continue to wait in Ethiopia, their fate in the hands of faraway Jews in New York and Jerusalem.

 

IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge


I am very careful not to officially endorse or oppose candidates for political office from the bima, on temple stationery or temple e-mail. In

26 years as a congregational rabbi, I have only lent my name formally in support of candidates four times (I am disinclined to ever do so again) and never in my capacity as a rabbi of a congregation. I do not believe that partisan political activity belongs in the synagogue setting.

I bring this matter to your attention in the wake of an investigation begun by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) against All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and its emeritus pastor, the Rev. George Regas. The IRS began its query subsequent to a sermon the Rev. Regas delivered two days before the 2004 presidential election.

Possibly prompted by a misleading story in a newspaper, the IRS alleges that the Rev. Regas advocated for the election of Sen. John Kerry and against the re-election of President Bush during church services. The agency says he violated restrictions that bar nonprofits from endorsing political candidates. As a result, the church’s nonprofit status is at risk and the church faces steadily mounting legal fees.

In fact, Pastor Regas did nothing wrong. His was an anti-war sermon. He simply urged his parishioners to take their Christian values on peace into the ballot booth with them and to vote according to their moral and religious principles. He emphasized that he was not telling them for whom to vote and that reasonable people will vote for different candidates.

After news of the IRS investigation of All Saints was reported in the Los Angeles Times this past November, some of our congregants asked me if I had not crossed that line into partisan political advocacy in my sermon on erev Rosh Hashanah. I had spoken about where I believe the current government’s political ideology has led the country — specifically with respect to the social safety net for poor and vulnerable people and where that ideology diverges sharply from Reform Jewish moral values. (The sermon can be found on our temple Web site — www.tioh.org — “Our Hands Have Not Shed This Blood.”)

In my address, I deliberately did not mention any leader’s name. Rather, I appealed to our deepest Jewish values and urged that we apply those values in the public arena and measure them against how public policy affects the working poor and the most vulnerable members of our society.

The IRS places legitimate limits on clergy and religious institutions that wish to qualify for 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt status. The IRS does not permit a religious institution or its clergy formally to take partisan positions on candidates for elected office if the synagogue or church wishes to maintain this status.

The IRS does permit, however, congregations and clergy to take stands on community issues and ballot propositions that touch on our moral, ethical and religious values, including such areas as separation of church and state, bioethics, end-of-life dilemmas, abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research and war, to name a few.

There is a long Jewish tradition of “speaking truth to power” on the great moral and ethical issues of the day and advocating for social change. The biblical prophets and the rabbis of the Talmud always did so.

Our own Reform movement has a particularly distinguished history of advocacy on virtually all the major social justice movements throughout our nation’s history, including the abolition of slavery, unionization of workers, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gender equality, economic justice, judicial appointments, the environment and war and peace.

I became a Reform rabbi, in part, because of our religious tradition’s commitment to social justice. If Judaism is to be true to its mission of effecting tikkun olam (“repairing the world”), then we, as its practitioners, must reach beyond family lifecycle and holiday celebrations, beyond culture and religious rite, beyond heritage and history and effectuate the moral and ethical values that we have received from 3,500 years of Jewish tradition. Understood in this way, political activism based in our moral and ethical values is a calling.

Historically, we Jews have been agitators for decency and goodness wherever we confronted hard-heartedness and evil. Rabbi Jacob Weinstein said it well more than 60 years ago: The Jewish people are “the permanent underground, the eternal yeast, the perennial Elijah spirit, ever willing to plough the cake of custom, to put rollers under thrones and give only a day-to-day lease to authority. Anchored to Torah, rooted to God, Israel feels free to dispense with manmade hierarchies … ” — all in the interest of justice, compassion and peace.

Judaism teaches that we can never settle with the world as it is. To the contrary, we Jews dream about the world that can be and is not yet.

Over the years, the IRS has issued reasonable and legitimate limits on a congregation’s partisan activities. In the case of the Rev. Regas, however, it is the IRS that has crossed the line. The congregants of All Saints Episcopal Church are courageously standing with their pastor against this dangerous government encroachment on his freedom of the pulpit and his advocacy of religious and moral values — as well they should.

John L. Rosove is senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood. A version of this article appears in the current edition of The Observer, the temple’s newsletter.

 

There’s a New Deputy in Town


Competition for postings to Los Angeles is fierce within the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and two young diplomats who made the grade, Yaron Gamburg and Gilad Millo, have joined the staff of the consulate general here.

Gamburg, 34, has taken over the post of deputy consul general, the No. 2 man after Ehud Danoch, and is concentrating on political and security issues, as well as relations with the Latino, Korean, Russian, Israeli and Persian communities.

Born in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, the hometown of the great Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik and 60 percent Jewish before the Holocaust, Gamburg made aliyah to Israel at age 18.

After earning a master’s degree in political science at the Hebrew University, Gamburg worked on immigrant absorption before joining the Foreign Ministry.

His first major assignment was a three-year stint as spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, followed, for the last two years, as director of the Foreign Ministry’s cadet course, a kind of basic training for future diplomats.

Reflecting the attractiveness of the career diplomatic service, some 2,500 Israelis apply for jobs each year, of whom only some 20 are accepted, Gamburg said.

Close to 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, like Gamburg himself, have had an enormous impact on Israeli society and the economy. They make up some 40 percent of the work force in Israel’s high-tech sector, outnumbering all past and present Technion graduates.

Gamburg is married to Delphine, a native of France, and their son, Tal, has just celebrated his first birthday.

Gilad Millo, the new consul for communications and public affairs, was literally born into the foreign service. His father, Yehuda Millo, served 37 years as an Israeli diplomat, including as ambassador to Italy, and young Gilad was raised, two or three years at a time, in Bonn, London, New York, Ankara and Jerusalem.

He did not immediately follow in his father’s footsteps, starting off as a singer in the Israeli rock band, White Donkey, and then as a television reporter and editor on the foreign news desk of Israel’s independent Channel 2.

Millo, also 34, joined the Foreign Ministry three years ago, initially serving as its youngest spokesman. During the past two years, he has been the deputy head of the Israeli mission to Kenya and six other African nations.

During his term, he initiated extensive food relief projects for malnourished African children and was the driving force in the formation of the African Women’s Forum for Israel.

Besides media relations, Millo is also responsible for academic and cultural affairs, and he is visibly frustrated that practically all the news headlines about Israel in the United States are about the conflict with the Palestinians and terrorism.

“Media reporting on Israel seems to follow the rule, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,'” he said. “In reality, Israel is a fascinating place. We are leaders in technology and agriculture, we have great universities and wonderful beaches.

“There are stories to be told about our business initiatives, the environment, what we’re doing to help developing countries, how we’ve dealt with masses of immigrants, and so forth,” he emphasized.

Millo met his wife, Hadas, while both were serving in the army, and they have two children, Omer, 6, and 2-year-old Lisa.

The jurisdiction of the Los Angeles-based consulate includes Southern California, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

 

Our Faux Democracy


The average California voter doesn’t know what “redistricting” is. Many voters don’t even know what a “voting district” is. The aversion among California voters to such wonky issues goes a long way to explaining why Proposition 77, a long-overdue reform, is struggling.

Most Californians think that, when they vote, they do so within a community of interest, based largely on geography and community boundaries, known as a “voting district.” That was true years ago. But the advent of highly sophisticated computer software now allows the California legislature to painstakingly divide voters block by block. The Democratic Party and Republican Party use this technological power to divide voters, not based on communities of interest, but on party registration instead.

First, Republican and Democratic voters are carefully separated from one another using computer programs that extensively sort and track personal voter registration data. Then, the Democrats are grouped into phony and often bizarrely shaped “voting districts” of their own, and the Republicans into phony and often bizarrely shaped “voting districts” of their own.

Finally, during the spring primaries, the dominant party in one of these dishonest voting districts chooses a highly partisan candidate to spoon-feed to its corralled voters — usually a candidate with little interest in wooing voters from the other side of the aisle. After all, since the dominant party is guaranteed the win in such a rigged “voting district,” the candidates themselves need not be pragmatic types capable of talking to different sorts of voters.

This is not democracy. The California legislature stole our democracy while we slept. All districts in California are now rigged this way. That’s why, in California in the fall of 2004, not a single state legislative or Congressional seat changed party hands.

Because these phony voting districts are designed to stamp out competition between the two parties, the dismal election outcomes can now be widely predicted months before Election Day. As one wag described the untenable situation in California, “Voters no longer pick the candidate. Candidates pick their voters.”

Proposition 77 would halt this anti-democratic practice. The measure would hand the job of drawing up California voting districts to an independent panel of retired judges. It’s a good idea, but many California Democratic elected leaders — instead of doing the right thing — are doing everything they can to torpedo this long overdue reform.

Just like the dominant Republicans in Texas who grossly abused their gerrymandering powers, California’s dominant elected Democrats can see only as far as their next election victory. It’s exceedingly unlikely that Democrats would lose their grip on power in the Sacramento legislature, even if they had to compete in elections once again, because California is heavily Democratic no matter how the voting district lines are drawn. But at least voters would have a choice.

The state’s Democratic leadership is spending millions of dollars to defeat Proposition 77 to make sure there is no choice.

So far, Proposition 77 remains up for grabs. Its fate remains in play despite the Democratic millions. A poll released Oct. 28 by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Proposition 77 lagging 50 percent to 36 percent. That looks discouraging, but, as noted by Public Policy Institute of California research director Mark Baldassare, the same percentage of voters opposed Proposition 77 back in August, before the Democrats poured a king’s ransom into defeating it. Moreover, an unusually large number of people — 14 percent — are still undecided late in the race.

“With this many undecideds,” Baldassare said, “it is really hard to know where redistricting will end up. The numbers just are not moving, with that 50 percent opposed figure staying the same since August.”

His past polls indicate that roughly 60 percent of Californians think there is something very wrong about letting politicians pick and choose the voters and districts in which the politicians run for office. So if backers can just transmit their message to voters, Proposition 77 can win.

“In my previous poll, so many people felt it was wrong for the Legislature to have this control,” he said. “That fact, combined with the undecideds, makes me think this measure will come down to how people focus on the issue in these final days.”

So why is Proposition 77 in trouble at all? The problem is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is embracing it and Democrats are demonizing it — and him. The governor’s approval ratings are low, and many Democrats are uncertain whom to believe.

“Voters are looking for cues, or clues, that tell them if this is a measure that might have a political motive, or is an honest effort at good government,” Baldassare said.

For his part, the governor needs to speak plainly and directly to all Californians, without rancor, to explain this wonky-sounding issue. Then, voters must do the rest. People in a democracy must arm themselves with knowledge, or face losing their democracy.

In fact, that’s already happened in California.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Shake-Up!


Rep. Howard Berman can work the J-circuit with the best of them. He knows who’s who among synagogue presidents, what to wear at bar mitzvahs, what to say to which rabbis and which chicken-dinner fundraisers are can’t miss. A smart Jewish politician in a heavily Jewish district quickly figures these things out, and Berman, 64, has represented his San Fernando Valley district since 1980.

By now, Berman knows almost instinctively where he needs to be.

So what’s he doing helping organize a Veteran’s Day parade in Pacoima, a working-class, Latino enclave?

The answer is that Berman’s 28th District has become a lot more Latino than it used to be, and Berman knows he needs to serve those constituents, too. That combination of political savvy and attention to public service has kept Berman in office these 25 years.

But staying in office could get a lot more challenging for Berman — as well as for several other elected officials who happen to be Jewish.

Proposition 77, the redistricting measure on next week’s special elections ballot, is likely to shift considerably more Latino voters into Berman’s district — and perhaps give rise to a viable Latino challenger. The same pattern could play out for several other Jewish politicians, including Reps. Adam Schiff in the Glendale/Pasadena area and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley. Rep. Jane Harman, in the South Bay is less likely to be threatened, although her district is historically competitive to begin with. Rep. Henry Waxman, with his Westside and heavily Jewish base, probably has nothing to fear.

California’s congressional delegation also includes three other Jewish members, Tom Lantos, from Northern California, and Bob Filner and Susan A. Davis in the San Diego area. Filner presently faces a challenge from California Assemblymember and former City Councilman Juan Vargas.

So is a threat to Jewish incumbents reason enough for a Jewish voter to think twice about supporting Proposition 77 — especially when there are critics who take issue with the measure on other grounds? On the other hand, American Jews have traditionally lent support to causes that uplift marginalized communities. Wouldn’t it be fair to make it more likely that a Latino would represent a community comprised mostly of Latinos?

This Jewish side effect is one of many considerations posed by Proposition 77, one of a wearying welter of measures on the Nov. 8 ballot. The initiative would take the power to redraw legislative districts away from the California legislature and place it in the hands of three retired judges. It also would accelerate redistricting — changing things almost immediately rather than waiting for the next round of census data. Proposition 77 would apply both to state legislators and members of Congress, like Berman.

The ostensible goal of redistricting after a census is to keep the population of residents about the same in each district. Politically, a twin aim has been to keep incumbents in office, a strategy that is abetted by both Democrats and Republicans.

Up to this point, redistricting has worked in Berman’s favor, sharply reducing the percentage of Latino voters in his district, although Latinos currently make up a majority of his district’s residents. His current district cuts across the eastern heart of the San Fernando Valley, running east of the 405 Freeway and south of the 210 Freeway. When he was first elected, Berman’s district had just a 22 percent Latino electorate. An alternative map, put forth by the Rose Institute at Claremont-McKenna Colleges as more “fair,” would result in Berman representing an area in which 66 percent of the voting-age population is Latino.

Berman opposes Proposition 77, but also insists that he works hard to be, on merit, the first choice of his district’s Latino voters. He is a long-time supporter of rights for agrarian workers, many of whom are Mexican nationals — an issue that has resonance even for U.S.-born Latinos — and he’s served for 23 years on Congress’s immigration subcommittee. Berman said he spends more effort on the bread-and-butter issues of the northern, more Latino end of his district than he does in the south.

Then there’s the symbolism of the 2004 Veteran’s Day parade.

“The first Veteran’s Day parade in the San Fernando Valley is centered in Pacoima — not Sherman Oaks, not Granada Hills,” Berman said.

So it was that veterans from both world wars, Korea and Vietnam marched down the streets of a largely Mexican-American community in the north San Fernando Valley. And they’re going to do it again this year, winding up in the park named after Mexican American rock star Ritchie Valens, of “La Bamba” fame. Latinos, Mexican Americans in particular, have always signed up for the U.S. military in outsize numbers, Berman noted, despite facing discrimination and exclusion at home. The same goes, he added, for the war in Iraq — a disproportionate number of Latinos from his district, native-born and immigrant alike, headed off to serve.

Supporters of Proposition 77 assert that there is ample reason for all voters, Jewish and otherwise, to shake-up the status quo.

The conservatively inclined Rose Institute doesn’t take a position on Proposition 77, but it released a study in September calling for an overhaul of the present system.

“Here in California , the need for reform is clear and almost universally acknowledged,” the report’s executive summary says. “The 2001 gerrymander is likely to live on as a lesson in the abuses that can occur when incumbents are in control….”

The study makes its case with maps of zigzagging districts, including one, California Congressional District 23, that it dubs the “Ribbon of Shame.” District 23 has become a narrow band that twists south along the coast from San Luis Obispo County down to Ventura, connected at places with a razor thin slice of territory. It is represented by Democrat Lois Capps.

Redistricting cuts many ways. The 2001 plan suddenly made the seat of Brad Sherman shakier, shifting thousands of Latino voters to him from Berman, leading to some public sniping between Berman and Sherman.

At one point, the mapping marooned Sherman’s home at the end of a sliver surrounded by Berman’s new district. To top it off, the architect of the re-draw was veteran political consultant Michael Berman — to be sure, he’s well qualified, but he’s also the brother of incumbent Howard Berman. In the end, Sherman was able to keep his residence within a larger swath of his district.

The Democratic head of California’s Senate Redistricting Committee told Sherman, in effect, to shut up and accept it. A majority of the Latino legislative members, 16 of 19, voted in support of the redistricting plan — a show of fealty to the California Democratic caucus and Democratic control of the legislature. And both Sherman and Berman have survived in office.

But the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) sued. MALDEF argued that the redistricting could have concentrated Latino voters in a new district instead of splitting them between Sherman and Berman. A panel of three federal judges ruled against MALDEF, saying the overall results of all the redrawn districts did not discriminate against Latinos.

But the issue never subsided. Author and commentator Joel Kotkin, who supports Proposition 77, said that the current lines have polarized the California legislature, contributing to governmental gridlock with politically safe ultra-liberals opposed by politically safe ultra-conservatives.

“What we have done is dysfunctional,” he said. “We have too many liberal Democrats and too many conservative Republicans.”

In that argument, Kotkin is echoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has endorsed Proposition 77 as a central element of his “reform” package of initiatives.

A more moderate and effective state Legislature should matter to all voters, including Jews, Kotkin said. Besides, he added, “I don’t think somebody being Jewish is the issue as much as whether that person represents the interests of the district.”

Nor is he worried that that California’s congressional delegation would be less pro-Israel if the Jewish Democrats were to fall.

“The old Waxman and Berman kind of politicians — liberal on other issues and good on Israel — will find it increasingly difficult as internal pressure within the Democratic Party becomes increasingly anti-Israel,” Kotkin said.

There’s a dose of politics embedded in Kotkin’s analysis, including a presumption that, over time, Republicans will be better for Israel, better for Jews and maybe better for Californians.

In fact, to many critics of Proposition 77, the initiative is all about politics and not so much about fairness.

Schwarzenegger wants a more acquiescent legislature, and this is his way of getting it, said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College who directs the school’s Urban & Environmental Policy Program.

“Arnold may call it a technical maneuver, but it’s about eliminating Democratic safe seats,” said the left-leaning Dreier, who opposes Proposition 77: “Republicans are very good at playing hardball and masquerading blatant power grabs as good government.”

Another lefty analyst, Harold Meyerson, takes issue with Kotkin’s implication that Jewish Democratic incumbents can be sacrificed because the best pro-Israel politicians of the future will be Republicans. While most members of the California Democratic caucus are not aligned with “hardline Israeli politicos,” Meyerson said, there’s a consensus of support for Israel within the caucus.

For some districts, the issue isn’t Democrat-to-Republican, but it could well be Jewish-to-Latino.

“A few of these districts might have Democrats of other ethnicities if they weren’t carved the way they were,” said Meyerson, editor at large for American Prospect and political editor of the L.A. Weekly.

There are, of course, other hard-boiled political considerations. The Jewish members of Congress have accumulated seniority, which helps them play key roles in matters pertaining both to Israel and broader foreign policy.

“This is a case of five members [from Southern California] who are interested in international relations in general and U.S.-Israel relations in particular,” Berman said. He, along with Reps. Schiff and Sherman, serve on the International Relations Committee; Rep. Harman sits on the Intelligence Committee.

Berman points to his 22 years as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee: “I know Israeli leadership, Palestinian leadership, maybe some Saudi leadership. There’s a lot of time and experience there.”

Still, it’s hard to find anyone who will outright defend a system that is gruesomely gerrymandered to protect incumbents. But for leftie progressives there’s more at stake than the downside of the status quo. For them, the California congressional delegation sits as a bulwark against the George Bush Conservative Republican majority — whose own members hail from equally gerrymandered states. In better times (for Democrats), the California delegation could become the lynchpin of an emerging Democratic — and more liberally Democratic — majority. That’s not something that progressive Democrats, such as Meyerson and Dreier, want to let Schwarzenegger tamper with.

The year 2005 may prove a watershed year for Jews politicians in Southern California. In addition to the members of Congress, Bob Hertzberg nearly made the mayoral runoff; the L.A. City government has three Jewish council members (though it recently had seven) and a Jewish city controller (Laura Chick); Jewish members hold three of seven seats on the Board of Education. It hasn’t been so many years since Jews weren’t allowed on some local golf courses. But influence — or even a seat at the table — can be as fleeting as rapidly evolving demographics. Just ask African Americans, who worked so hard to win voting rights, but who have already lost majority status in many parts of town.

But does it matter for Jews, who are so thoroughly intergrated into L.A. life and commerce?

It does for Howard Welinsky, a longtime Democratic Party activist who’s also prominent in the Jewish community and civic affairs.

“What is now at stake,” he said, “is that in Los Angeles, we have five Jewish members of Congress. And they’re all at risk.”

It matters to Welinsky that, “in the history of this country — and I’ve researched it — we’ve never had five Jewish members of Congress in one county. I can’t imagine anything that has greater impact in Jews in Los Angeles than this.”

For Welinsky, it’s not exactly about being pro-Israel, even though he certainly is. He’s taken with historicity of having five Jewish members from one area. Perhaps it’s comparable to the current reconfiguration at work in the Jewish heart of Fairfax Avenue. Why does it matter that a kosher grocery store, a shop selling Judaica and a place offering music from all over the Jewish Diaspora might fold to make room for pricey, non-Jewish boutiques that can afford the higher rents?

Only because, to some people, it does.

As for Berman’s fate, “I don’t think Howard Berman would lose, but those who have not been in those seats very long might find themselves facing well-funded campaigns by Latinos and other groups,” said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who opposes Proposition 77, even though she thinks the present system needs improvement.

Goldberg herself represents a majority Latino voter district.

“They vote, And they picked me,” she said. “Why did they pick me? Because I look out for the interests of the communities I serve. And that’s what they cared about more than my ethnicity.

“There are people in the population who vote their race, their gender their ethnicity, their sexual orientation,” she said. “I don’t think they’re the majority. People really do care about what you’re going to do when you get there.”

Shifting political nuances make these judgments ever more complex. Rep. Filner, a Jewish member being challenged by a Latino candidate, spent time in jail as a Freedom Rider, clearly reflecting concern for the interests of people of color. His opponent, Assemblyman Juan Vargas, is “pro-life,” inconsistent on civil liberties issues, but liberal on immigration. The district’s population already is 55 percent Latino, 18 percent Anglo, 15 percent Filipino and 12 percent African American.

Jewish Assemblywoman Hannah Beth Jackson, from a district that includes Santa Barbara and Oxnard, was termed out and replaced by Pedro Nava, who ran on an environmentalist platform, a position well in tune with most Jews.

Coalition politics involving Jews has frequently worked well for L.A.’s Latinos, and vice versa. Former Rep. Edward Roybal, the groundbreaking Latino who died last month, was first elected to Los Angeles City Council by a Latino-Jewish-labor coalition. And then there’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who grew up in formerly Jewish East Los Angeles and rose to office with broad Jewish support.

“Jews and others can represent communities of color,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs. “That has never really been the argument against apparent dilution of Latino or other minority voting strength in a particular political or voting system. It is all about fairness, in being able to elect a representative of the community’s choice on a level playing field.”

Proposition 77, almost inevitably, could make Congress less Jewish. But that’s just a starting point for addressing the question of whether Proposition 77 is good for California.

Sowing Islamic Seeds in Students


Chairs are lined up in neat rows. Coffee is brewing, muffins arrayed. The table is thick with handouts.

One of them is Saudi Aramco World, a magazine published by Aramco, the Saudi government-owned outfit that is the largest oil company in the world.

“The Arab World in the Classroom,” published by Georgetown University, thanks Saudi Aramco on its back cover. Alongside it is the brochure of The Mosaic Foundation, an organization of spouses of Arab ambassadors in America, whose chairwoman and president of the board of trustees is Her Royal Highness Princess Haifa Al-Faisal of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

If you think this is a meeting of Saudi oil executives or Middle Eastern exporters or Saudi government officials, you are wrong: It’s a social studies training seminar for American elementary and secondary teachers, held last year at Georgetown University.

It’s paid for by U.S. tax dollars, as the organizer points out in her introduction.

“We are grateful to the grant we have under Title VI of the Department of Education that underwrites these programs,” Zeina Azzam Seikaly, outreach coordinator of Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, tells the more than three dozen current and former teachers at the seminar.

Georgetown’s Middle East outreach program is one of 18 affiliated with federally designated national resource centers, each of which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

Much has been written about the biased nature of Middle East studies programs at universities around the country.

Less known is that with public money and the designation as a national resource center, universities such as Georgetown, Harvard and Columbia are dramatically influencing the study of Islam, Israel and the Middle East far beyond the college campus.

As a condition of their funding, these centers are also required to engage in public outreach, which includes schoolchildren in Grades K-12. Through professional development workshops for teachers and resource libraries, they spread teaching materials that analysts say promote Islam and are critical of Israel and the West.

Georgetown’s outreach and the materials it disseminates are singled out for special praise by Dar al Islam.

Its Web site lists four other outreach centers it admires: the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

Professional development workshops like the one at Georgetown provide the most frequent paths for the dissemination of supplementary materials to history and social studies teachers, according to education expert Sandra Stotsky’s “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers.”

The problems with many of the supplemental materials, Stotsky said in her report, stem from “the ideological mission of the organizations that create them.

“Their ostensible goal is to combat intolerance, expand students’ knowledge of other cultures, give them other ‘points of view’ on commonly studied historical phenomena and/or promote ‘critical thinking,'” she wrote.

But an analysis of the materials convinced her that their real goal “is to influence how children come to understand and think about current social and political issues by bending historical content to those ends.

“They embed their political agendas in the instructional materials they create so subtly that apolitical teachers are unlikely to spot them.”

Among the materials Stotsky cites is “The Arab World Studies Notebook,” which has been widely criticized for bias, inaccuracies and proselytizing.

Two school districts have banned the book, and the AJC has urged others to follow suit.

“Notebook” editor Audrey Shabbas rejects the criticism.

“We’re providing the Arab point of view,” she said.

Responding to criticism that the material paints an overly rosy picture of Islam, she said, “My task is not to defend what Muslims do in the world” but to focus on the “difference between what people call themselves and what they do.”

Experts say the materials are popular because they’re recommended by the national resource centers of prestigious universities.

In an interview with JTA, Stotsky recounted that in the summer of 2002, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Massachusetts Department of Education decided to offer a seminar on Islam and the Middle East for area teachers. They accepted a proposal from Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies that “looked very promising.” One of the organizers of the seminar was Barbara Petzen, the center’s outreach coordinator.

But when Stotsky and other officials saw the syllabus, which included the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” they requested that the course present a more balanced view of Islam. Officials wanted at least to include a book by Bernard Lewis, a Princeton University professor emeritus who is considered one of the pre-eminent authorities on Islam.

But Petzen and her colleague “ducked recent history” by agreeing only to include one of Lewis’ older books from the 1970s, rather than one of his more recent critical perspectives on Islam, Stotsky said.

Petzen could not be reached for comment.

Stotsky was further shocked when she saw the lesson plans created by some of the seminar participants. One, which required the students to learn an Islamic prayer and design a prayer rug to simulate a mosque in the classroom, crossed the line. “It’s really indoctrination to have students do such religious things,” she said.

While there is no way to know the extent to which the teachers from 20 Massachusetts schools ultimately incorporated their proposed lessons into the classroom, the assumption of the Education Department, which paid for the seminar, “is that the teachers use the material they learned,” Stotsky said.

In New York City, meanwhile, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has barred the head of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute from lecturing to city teachers enrolled in professional development courses on the Middle East.

Klein’s move in February against Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair at Columbia, was in response to “a number of things he’s said in the past,” said Michael Best, the department’s general counsel, according to The New York Times.

Khalidi declined to comment on the issue.

A spokesman for Klein said last week that “nothing has changed” in Khalidi’s status, meaning that he still is barred from lecturing at teacher-training seminars.

For Stotsky, a major problem with the teacher-training seminars is the lack of oversight.

“What teacher or principal is going to challenge [material that comes] “with the sterling credentials of Harvard?” she said.

While she doesn’t claim to have all the answers, Stotsky recommends halting public funding for professional development until there is “strong evidence that most history teachers learn something useful from a majority of workshops they attend.”

 

 


Tainted Teachings


Letters


Misunderstanding

I would like to clarify a misunderstanding in a recent press release from the Orthodox Union that was reported in The Journal, “Mourning For Gaza, New Orleans” (Sept. 30). The OU organized a nationwide ta’anit dibbur, or period of silence, over this past Shabbat. The purpose was to mark the tragic destruction of synagogues in both Gaza and New Orleans with a resanctification of our own synagogues.

In no way was the OU making a political statement, pro or con, regarding the disengagement. Nor was the OU in any way suggesting that the destruction of synagogues was Divine retribution, as was intimated in The Journal.

Instead, this was merely our way of expressing our profound sorrow over the loss of holy places in the world, and our desire to counteract the loss of holiness with an infusion of added sanctity into our own communities and synagogues on the last Shabbat of the year.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Director
Community and Synagogue Services
West Coast Orthodox Union

New Orleans Fixture

I am a native New Orleanian. I was looking for Universal Furniture in New Orleans to get a price on furniture I’d purchased that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, so I can present it to the insurance adjuster. The article written by Ann Brenner about Hurricane Katrina popped up because Universal Furniture was mentioned in it (“City’s Plight Brings Flood of Memories,” Sept. 9).

People have told me that in the last great hurricane of New Orleans (Hurricane Betsy), the owners of Universal Furniture erased the debts of the people who still had balances on furniture purchased and financed by Universal Furniture. I don’t know if it is just a story or the truth, but I do know that Universal Furniture is a New Orleans fixture that is well respected.

I am not Jewish; just ran across the article and truly enjoyed it because it spoke of my home. Perhaps, Ms. Brenner could do a followup, as she did before, just about the city of New Orleans, its beauty and charm, and the beauty of the people who made it unique.

The city does look war-torn and desolate. We are a strong people, and realize tough times don’t last, tough people do. I do plan to go home soon.

Name withheld by request

Portraits

What a wonderful series of portraits of real people asking real questions and coming up with diverse answers (“How We Worship,” Sept 30).

In Detroit when I was a child, there was a barrier between different branches of Judaism and even between different temples. But now, times are different, and we are finally learning to love and appreciate the many ways of wrestling with the mysteries of God’s presence.

Thank you for showing so much respect and so much good writing in these diverse vignettes. I hope anyone who hasn’t yet read this article and met their interesting neighbors will do so during a free moment during these days of awe.

Leonard Felder
West Los Angeles

Never Again

I never thought that I’d be writing a letter defending the NRA, but Irene Joseph must be a descendent of Marie Antoinette, when told that the poor masses of people huddled outside the castle walls are starving, by responding, “Let them eat cake.”

As for me, my “faithful companions” are Mr. Colt, Mr. Remington and Messrs. Smith and Wesson. I also own several “never again” rifles.

I am Jewish and will never be led to another slaughter of my people without defending myself. The memory wall of my temple is filled with the names of the dead, including nine family members murdered in one day in pre-war Poland. I’ll bet that they wished they had the chance to protect themselves with guns.

I’m also a new and proud member of the NRA, and also a long-time member of the ACLU. I hope that with my financial support, both sides of the gun issues, including extremists like Ms. Joseph on the far left, will learn to compromise their views somewhere in the middle, where only a true democracy can govern.

Elliot Gilbert
Chino Hills

I am Jewish and a member of the NRA and proud of it. I am also proud of the fact that Sandra Froman is Jewish and president. The facts misstated by your readers are incredible. The thought that gun control would take guns out of the hands of criminals puts forth an incredible naiveté, mostly by well-meaning people who really haven’t done much research. We do have drug control, and that does not seem to be working.

Steve Flatten
Los Angeles

Cruel Statement

Thank you, thank you, thank you Rabbi Wolpe for your words regarding Rav Ovidiah’s foolish and cruel statement blaming the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina on G-d’s wrath against President Bush for supporting the relocation of the Jews of Gush Katif. (“We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge,” Sept. 16).

The rav’s absurd and insensitive words only serve to horribly minimize the grief and loss of those stricken in the Gulf region, and to demean the pain and sacrifice made by those affected by the resettlement in Israel. Instead of acknowledging the sad similarities of both situations, he pits one tragedy against the other, thereby denigrating both.

Rikki Moress
Freeland, Washington

 

Specter Trademark: Taking on Big Fights


Soon after the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), himself fighting Hodgkin’s disease, wrote to the journalist. Work is the best antidote for cancer, Specter told him.

Specter may be trying to prove the point this summer: At a time when many cancer sufferers concentrate solely on fighting their illness, Specter, 75, has become a more frequent guest on Sunday morning talk shows and is at the center of some of the most controversial issues of the day. This month, he’ll be in the spotlight as he chairs Judge John Roberts’ confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court.

At times, Specter represents his party’s faithful; on other issues, he bucks the leadership. Friends and colleagues say taking on big fights is a Specter trademark.

“I think his job has been a substantial factor in saving his life,” his son, Shanin, a prominent Philadelphia trial attorney, stressed. “He said there were a lot of days he didn’t feel like getting up. But he got up every day, because he had work to do he felt was very important.”

Since arriving in the Senate in 1981, Specter has made a name for himself by taking positions that at times angered the Republican Party leadership and at times miffed his moderate Pennsylvania constituency.

He gained national attention as one of the few GOP opponents to Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. But it was his tough questioning of Anita Hill, the lawyer who accused the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, that shaped Specter’s early reputation.

The questioning did not sit well with female voters in Pennsylvania, and Specter fought a difficult re-election battle a year later against Lynn Yeakel.

Judy Palkovitz, a volunteer from Pittsburgh, was recruited to speak to women who weren’t planning to support Specter’s 1992 re-election bid.

“There were a lot of people who felt he went overboard with Anita Hill,” said Palkovitz, 63. “I have friends throughout the country who will never forgive him for what he did to her, and that is baggage he has to carry.”

Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America and a friend of Specter, said the lawmaker went around the state explaining his record and barely won re-election.

“He was very contrite about maybe not handling that issue in the most sensitive manner that he should have,” Klein said.

Specter — who became the first Jew to run for the Republican nomination for president in 1996, but withdrew before the first primary — now is in a “perfect position to get a second crack at history,” Palkovitz said.

By all accounts, Specter is relishing the opportunity to spearhead Roberts’ confirmation hearings as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

To win the chairmanship, earlier this year Specter had to fend off conservative Republican critics who feared he wouldn’t reflect their views on abortion and other hot-button issues. While Roberts is considered very likely to be confirmed, Specter has made it clear that the nominee won’t get a free pass.

Specter has already signaled to Roberts that he will question him about “judicial activism” and the court’s tactic of denigrating congressional measures it overturns, statements that have won praise from Democrats.

Specter has always been willing to speak his mind, no matter where the party is, said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition., comparing him to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) who feel comfortable articulating positions that buck the party line.

“He’s always known that he represents a point of view that, while it has become a minority view within his own party, is a majority point of view within the country,” Shanin Specter said.

Often described as indefatigable, some observers say cancer hasn’t slowed Specter. He didn’t miss a day of work during his illness, even continuing to attend his morning squash games.

This summer he has been leading the fight to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research, a position supported by much of the American Jewish community.

Specter made headlines in May when Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a key opponent of embryonic stem cell research, asked him when his life began on the ABC News program, “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“Well, Sam, I’m a lot more concerned at this point about when my life is going to end,” Specter said.

Associates say it’s not surprising that Specter has used his illness as a platform and that he chose not to wear a wig after his cancer treatments caused hair loss.

Middle-ground positions have helped Specter consistently win majorities in Pennsylvania, a state that voted last year for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for president, but which is also home to one of Congress’ staunchest conservatives, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

Specter is considered part of a dying breed of moderate northeastern Republicans, often compared to former Sen. Jacob Javits of New York and former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who went on to become a U.S. vice president.

Supporters and critics alike say Specter has a strong political sensibility, which allows him to walk very close to the edge, while rarely crossing over. They say it dates back to at least 1964, when, as a Warren Commission investigator, he advocated the controversial single-bullet theory on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“His entire career he’s been at the center of a lot of controversial issues, and I don’t think he has sleepless nights because of them, ” said Terry Madonna, director of Franklin and Marshall College’s Keystone Poll.

 

AIPAC Will Focus on Policy at Gathering


Inside the massive Washington Convention Center, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be talking about the Gaza Strip withdrawal and the Iranian nuclear threat.

However, in the hallways and the social gatherings of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference next week, talk is likely to focus on the investigation into two former AIPAC staffers and the effect it could have on AIPAC’s ability to lobby for Israel.

AIPAC will be tasked with keeping its members focused on the important issues facing Israel and maintaining support in Congress if the Gaza pullout, planned for this summer, goes awry. The effort to keep attention focused on Iran’s presumed drive for nuclear weapons is also high on its agenda.

The organization is still perceived as a “behemoth,” congressional officials say, and will be taken seriously when it meets May 22-24 — but a cloud will linger over the proceedings.

“You deal with them as you would normally deal with them,” one congressional staffer said. He compared it to a friend who has a health problem: You don’t talk about the problem, and you hope that it resolves itself quickly.

There are two traditional success markers to an AIPAC policy conference. One is a roll call of members of Congress, diplomats and administration officials attending the Monday night dinner — last year there were nearly 200, including more than 40 senators — and the other is a lobbying day Tuesday, when thousands of AIPAC members descend on Capitol Hill.

How many lawmakers turn up Monday night and how the lobbyists fare Tuesday will be closely watched by the organization, its supporters and its critics. Some insiders, who asked not to be identified, say there may be apprehension about working with AIPAC, because of the FBI probe.

“I think most members of Congress and staffers who are invited to meet with AIPAC constituents and go to the dinner will still go,” a congressional aide said. “But I’m convinced, in the back of everybody’s mind, there is a kernel of concern and doubt that maybe we shouldn’t be playing ball with AIPAC the way we always have.”

AIPAC’s problems stem from an FBI investigation into Lawrence Franklin, a Pentagon analyst arrested earlier this month and accused of verbally passing classified information to Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s research director, and Keith Weissman, a top Iran analyst at AIPAC.

AIPAC fired both men last month, and Rosen associates tell JTA he expects to be indicted. AIPAC officials claim that they have been assured the probe is not targeting the organization or any other staffers.

“Nobody knows what the implications of this legal situation are,” a congressional staffer said. “It could be a blip, and AIPAC has had blips before.”

AIPAC has gone to great lengths to stress its bona fides, publicizing Rice, Sharon and other scheduled speakers, including leaders of both congressional chambers from both parties. Sharon’s presence is considered particularly significant. Israeli prime ministers rarely travel to the United States if they don’t have an audience with the president.

Sharon is expected to meet with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York before heading to Washington, but has planned no political meetings, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington said. Sharon also is expected to be welcomed in New York at a rally Sunday, a measure of American Jewish support for the disengagement plan.

“Prime Minister Sharon is coming to stand with the American pro-Israel community at a crucial moment in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” AIPAC spokesman Andrew Schwartz said.

AIPAC also is boasting about attendance at the conference, which is expected to top 5,000 people, including nearly 1,000 students.

Such self-promotion is unusual for the organization, which generally feels it can be most effective if it keeps its achievements behind the scenes. In the past, major speakers have not been confirmed until the week before the conference, and officials play down the expected attendance, instead of talking it up.

AIPAC officials insist that this year’s conference is business as usual, though they referred questions to Patrick Dorton, a Washington publicist whose experience in scandal management includes shepherding accounting giant Arthur Andersen.

“We’re promoting the policy conference the same way we’ve done it in years past,” Dorton said. “AIPAC continues to be proud of the work it does on behalf of its membership.”

A source close to AIPAC said Howard Kohr, the group’s executive director, will touch on the investigation briefly in a speech to delegates Sunday, but mostly will focus on AIPAC’s policy agenda.

The organization has real work to do. Topping its agenda will be preparing Congress for the Israeli withdrawal. The lobby is preparing a letter for lawmakers to send to President Bush, underscoring how the United States should support the peace process. Bush already has expressed interest in assisting Israel in the development of the Negev Desert and the Galilee, the regions likeliest to absorb some 9,000 settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank. Israel has suggested that resettlement costs could run as high as $3.5 billion.

AIPAC will be charged with laying the groundwork for pushing through any additional aid packages. In addition to direct aid, that could mean new U.S. loan guarantees for Israel.

It will be important for AIPAC to show that it backs the disengagement plan, especially since it has a hawkish reputation in Washington. A draft of the group’s action agenda, which will be debated in executive committee at the conference, calls for supporting the “U.S. government’s backing” of the plan, rather than the plan itself. Officials said that was in keeping with the group’s philosophy of lobbying the U.S. government, not trying to influence Israeli policy.

In a twist, the disengagement plan could soon pit AIPAC against a traditional ally — Christian evangelicals, including several prominent lawmakers, who believe the disengagement violates biblical precepts and offers Palestinian terrorists a triumph. Dovish groups welcomed the tilt.

“It’s very significant that AIPAC intends to adopt formal policy language that embraces disengagement, and specifically the Bush administration’s endorsement of disengagement,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

Disengagement opponents said they won’t try to scuttle AIPAC’s support for the plan, which they believe is inevitable. Instead, they’ll try to ensure that any resolutions reflect the trauma it will impose on settlers.

Morton Klein, Zionist Organization of America president, said language should refer to the evacuation of thousands of “women and children from Gaza” and the northern West Bank “by force if necessary, and abandoning Jewish homes, schools and synagogues where Jews have been living for 35 years.”

Klein plans to continue protesting the plan but has pledged not to lobby against U.S. funding related to it.

As usual, the conference will see some protests. A coalition of right-wing Jewish groups are coordinating buses from New York to Washington, and plan to sleep outside the Convention Center in tents, simulating Gaza settlers who will be expelled from their homes under the withdrawal plan. The Council for National Interest, a pro-Arab group, also will protest, claiming undue Israeli influence in American foreign policy.

AIPAC is not shutting out disengagement dissenters. Natan Sharansky, who resigned recently from Israel’s Cabinet because he believes the time is not ripe for the withdrawal, will speak Sunday night. The former Soviet dissident was expected to speak of democratic ideals, not disengagement.

Another crucial plank at the conference is backing for the Iran Freedom Support bill, a measure to strengthen sanctions against Iran by penalizing foreign countries that invest in Iran’s energy sector and to provide funding to democratic groups in the Islamic republic.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), codifies much of what already is in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, but includes a provision that would notify investors if a fund they own has shares in a company that is subject to sanctions. The goal is to create an investor backlash against companies that deal with Iran.

AIPAC also will focus on the Iranian nuclear threat. Delegates will learn about the nuclear fuel cycle and how Iran appears to be seeking a nuclear bomb.

The lobby will continue to stress the annual passage of foreign aid. This year’s aid package includes $2.28 billion in military aid for Israel and $240 million in economic assistance, as well as $150 million for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 

New Study Breaks Down 2004 Election


 

Newly compiled information suggests that a few more Jews voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry last November than originally reported, and highlights several areas where Republicans are gaining momentum within the Jewish community.

The analysis by the Solomon Project, a think tank associated with the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), shows that the Massachusetts senator received 77 percent of the Jewish vote, to President Bush’s 22 percent. That’s a slight change from the 75 percent Kerry was said to have received in polls released soon after the vote.

The new information, released Tuesday, is based on a broader sample of exit polls that incorporates both the national poll released in November and a state-by-state poll that was not widely released.

The wider survey finds that Bush fared particularly well with Jewish men, garnering 28 percent of their votes, compared to 16 percent of Jewish women. In particular, he captured 35 percent of Jewish men younger than 30.

The new report could put to rest lingering questions about the extent of gains Bush made within the Jewish community. Many Republicans expected Bush would do well among Jews — especially in such targeted key states as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — because of support for his Middle East policy.

In the end, Bush won more than the 19 percent of the vote he received in the 2000 election against then-Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the first Jew on a major party national ticket.

“There’s been some small movement in the Jewish community toward the Republicans, but nothing really dramatic,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst.

Rothenberg said he found the report’s methodology “kosher,” but Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he is wary of exit poll analysis because the results on Election Day seemed to inflate Democratic strength.

“I think any credible person would look at this as somewhat revisionist history,” Brooks said. “I don’t think this passes the credibility threshold in terms of statistical accuracy.”

The report does confirm the potential for greater movement of Jewish votes to the GOP in the future.

Republicans have been targeting young Jewish voters and the Orthodox, who have become more politically active in recent years, and are considered more likely to vote for the GOP because of their more conservative positions on social issues.

The analysis uses a wide set of polling data on Jews taken in the weeks and months before the election to understand voting trends within subgroups of Jews.

While no analysis of Jewish votes has had enough Orthodox participants to garner a reliable result, Tuesday’s report suggests that Bush may have received half or more of their votes.

Three independent polls had Bush winning at least half of the Orthodox vote, but each had a sample size of only between 49 and 70 people.

A report by the American Jewish Committee last summer, taken of Russian Jews, suggested Bush may have received more than half of their support as well.

A poll by the Mellman Group, which did surveys for the Kerry campaign, found that 47 percent of Jews who attend synagogue every week supported Bush, compared to 48 percent for Kerry. The Democrat did substantially better among Jews who attended synagogue once a month or less.

“We know a lot more about different types of Jewish voters than we did a few days ago,” said Ira Forman, research director of the Solomon Project and the NJDC’s executive director.

Forman said the information highlighted for him that Democratic efforts to court Orthodox and Russian voters were inadequate.

The core of Democratic support within the Jewish community remains women, the analysis found. Kerry received 82 percent of the vote among Jewish women. That Democratic trend ran across the generations, as 90 percent of women older than 60 voted for Kerry and 88 percent of Jewish women younger than 30 backed him.

Despite the support Bush got for his Israel policies, Rothenberg said it’s hard to move ethnic groups from one party to another.

“It’s hard to change people’s inclinations and pre-existing voter preference,” he said. “If they’ve chosen one way for 20 or 30 years, they tend to do it again.”

But, he said, the Jewish vote will remain important if the election hinges on certain states where disproportionately large numbers of Jews live.

“It’s all about what states people are in and how many people you need to move,” Rothenberg said.

 

Republicans Kvell Over Orthodox Lobbyist


 

In a rapid, confidential near-whisper, Jeff Ballabon was offering his counterintuitive take on former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

“If you go to his house today, he has a mezuzah on the door,” Ballabon said. And when they went to a Baltimore Orioles baseball game together, he recalled, Ashcroft knew that combining hot dogs and ice cream wouldn’t be kosher.

“Ashcroft isn’t an evangelical,” Ballabon explained. “He’s not a fundamentalist.”

If you’re looking for a New Yorker with deep ties to the Christian right — you know, the folks running America — Ballabon is your man. Which is odd, first of all, because he’s not Christian but an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Long Island. And, second, because he’s spent most of his career as the lobbyist for New York media companies, including Court TV and Primedia.

But Ballabon is also the man whom Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum called when he was headed out to the Orthodox Jewish enclave of Borough Park during the Republican National Convention last year. The senator’s journey took place on the same day that Ballabon helped organize a meeting between White House officials and Orthodox leaders.

Ballabon’s unlikely relationships have put him in touch with other unlikely allies. His friend, Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, introduced him to Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. He’s close to Ashcroft and to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). And he is “very well-known at the highest levels of the White House,” said a Bush administration official, who returned a call to talk about Ballabon on short notice, skipping standard press office rigmarole.

Ballabon is a bulky man whose face, under his black velvet yarmulke, looks younger than his 42 years. He has maintained a low public profile, but he is among the few New Yorkers with close ties to the nation’s leadership.

His unique position at the intersection of these worlds — Orthodox Jews, the Christian right and the New York media scene — is the product of an unusual journey from ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to Yale Law School and Capitol Hill, but also of the changes reshaping American Jewish politics.

President Bush’s backers bragged that he would turn around the Democrats’ success among Jews last November. But as the New Republic’s Peter Beinart wrote days before that election, Bush did something different. He “ended” the notion of a “Jewish vote” and split Jews along the same lines that divide the rest of America: religious vs. secular, devout vs. nonobservant.

Secular Jews lined up with the Democratic Party’s secular values, while Orthodox Jews — attracted by everything from moral strictures to government money for openly religious programs — swung toward Bush.

There are no reliable nationwide figures on the Orthodox vote, but evidence from some New York-area counties is telling. The village of New Square, an Orthodox enclave in Rockland County, went for Al Gore in 2000. Last year, Bush won the village, 1,530 votes to 16. Less dramatic but still striking, turnarounds were visible across Rockland County and in Lakewood, N.J., another community with many Orthodox Jews.

Conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews “are just a natural alliance,” said Barbara Ledeen, an aide to Santorum at the Senate Republican Conference. “Jeff works in that vineyard.”

Ballabon spent the climactic weeks of last year’s election pushing the Republican cause in crucial states like Florida and Pennsylvania. According to people familiar with the campaign, he advised the White House on how to reach each of the dozens of distinct Orthodox communities — Syrian and Hungarian, Chasidic and Haredi.

His work on the campaign was part of a broader effort that has made him a key player in Jewish and Republican politics, though little known outside them. He’s been the driving force behind the Jewish College Republicans, a group that has caught on fast. (During a recent meal at a kosher burger joint, as Ballabon downed sushi in an attempt to lose the weight he gained on the campaign, a young woman at the next table chimed in admiringly that she was a new member of the college Republican group.)

He’s in the process of starting a think tank, the Center for Jewish Values, to push his agenda.

Ballabon’s political strength comes from his willingness to depart from the strenuously nonpartisan stance of major Jewish organizations. For one thing, they’re dominated by non-Orthodox Jews. And for another, many, like the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, take the position that the policies of both parties are good for Israel, and that support for whatever the current Israeli government is doing is the only political test.

“It’s baloney to say that Bush vs. [John] Kerry is win-win for Israel,” Ballabon said. “That’s like saying on the issue of abortion, ‘We like the candidates that are pro-women.'”

Needless to say, Ballabon prefers Bush’s position on Israel, though he’s “troubled” by the administration’s pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to remove settlements from the West Bank.

Ballabon talks a good deal about Israel and has allies in the settler movement. Not long ago, he hosted a fundraiser for a Hebron settlers’ group, and at another recent gathering he introduced, with a wink, a settler friend as “a minor terrorist.”

But Israel is more an example of his broader political stance than the heart of it. The point, he argues, is a willingness to align with natural allies on the right on issues from Israel to school vouchers, and to put overwhelming fears of Christian anti-Semitism aside.

Ballabon argues that the Democrats have inflamed Jewish fears to keep Jews in the party, and that the support Christian conservatives offer on Israel and on issues of faith should be taken at face value.

“We need to have clarity about who our friends are, as much as we need to have clarity about who our enemies are,” he said.

Ballabon, the son of a board of education supervisor and an economics professor from Queens, has always lived in two worlds. A Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew from the scholarly Lithuanian tradition (as opposed to  the more visible Chasidic groups, which place less emphasis on education and are typically poorer), he’s a yeshiva boy first.

But after studying at a prestigious Baltimore yeshiva and then spending three semesters at Yeshiva University, he decided to take the LSAT, the law-school entrance exam, on which he got a perfect score. And the next thing he knew, he was on the very foreign soil of Yale Law School.

There, friends recalled him as brilliant and not particularly hard-working. One close friend, Mark Costello, recalled shooting pool with him at 3 a.m. before an exam. But Ballabon also maintained his faith, and Costello said that he once found his friend exhausted after being unable to turn out the lights in his dorm room on the Sabbath.

Ballabon also found his religion challenged frequently.

“Some guy said, ‘You’re an Orthodox Jew — you must hate homosexuals,'” he recalled. “I said, ‘What a bizarre thing to say. Do you think I hate people who eat cheeseburgers?'”

Ballabon did a stint at the law firm of Sherman and Sterling after law school, then used a Yale connection — Sen. John Danforth’s daughter was a law school friend — to move to Capitol Hill. His time there made him a political conservative. He believed Danforth was unfairly attacked for backing the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he opposed Democratic resistance to requiring welfare recipients to work.

When Danforth announced his retirement, Ballabon jumped to the private sector, landing a job as the lobbyist for Court TV. It was, in some ways, a lucky continuation of a life on Capitol Hill unusually free of sleaze. Danforth, an Episcopal priest, had been known as “Saint Jack,” and Court TV’s lobbying was more about persuading state legislators and judges than it was about delivering piles of checks to Capitol Hill.

“He was very effective,” said Steve Brill, the founder of Court TV. “It’s sort of a dream lobbyist job, because you’re really lobbying for money. It’s all out in the open.”

Ballabon then took a lobbying job at Channel One, the for-profit educational television venture that was trying to get into the nation’s classrooms. Ballabon defused an attack on the station led by conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly, who thought Channel One was pushing liberal values, and by liberals, who objected to the idea of children seeing Channel One’s commercials.

He also made friends on both sides of the political divide, including Cindy Darrison, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s campaign manager, an Orthodox Jew who, like many, appeared a bit amused by Ballabon’s many apparent contradictions.

“He may think that women should be at home barefoot and pregnant, but when it comes to interacting with us, he encourages us to move forward and do what we want to do,” she said.

Ballabon lives a traditional family life on Long Island with his wife and five children, and observes religious strictures that seem exotic even to other Jews: He won’t celebrate Halloween, for example, and insists on explaining his card tricks because of rules against magic.

His piety may have won him friends among conservative Christians, but it was his decision to get behind Bush early that brought him to his current level of influence. His commitment began when Reed invited him to Austin, Texas, to meet the future president early in 1999, and extended to his organizing and raising at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign last year.

“I think he saw the same thing I saw,” Reed said of Ballabon. “He saw a gleam of what this president was capable of.”

Still, Reed must know that Ballabon is walking on dangerous ground, acting as both a political fixer and a purveyor of values, not to mention as a Jew in Christian Republican circles. Reed, who created a political channel for evangelical Christians similar to what Ballabon hopes to create for Orthodox Jews, is now a lobbyist in the midst of an ugly investigation into Indian gambling. (Reed made millions off the deals in question, although he hasn’t been personally implicated in anything criminal.)

But it’s the kind of complex terrain Ballabon has navigated so long, and so strikingly well, that Costello, his law school friend, made him a character in a best-selling crime novel, “Bag Men” (Harvest, 2003).

Costello noted that there’s a bit of Ballabon in the character of Shecky Bliss, a rare Jewish cop on the largely Irish Boston police force. The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Bliss is steady, private and trustworthy; he won’t participate in the endemic corruption, but he isn’t a rat, either.

Though Bliss is the most honest character in the novel, he never quite fits in. His strange name draws attention, and some of the cops never trust him. And when one of the officers goes crazy, it’s Bliss who gets shot in, of all places, his nose.

Ben Smith is a staff writer for The New York Observer where this article originnally appeared.

 

Political Journal


 

This month’s Political Journal is a tale of two labor disputes. One is dragging on and on; the other has come to a peaceful conclusion just when it seemed there might be a strike ahead.

Hotels Battle Continues

A protracted 11-month debacle continues between UNITE HERE, Local 11, representing workers at eight (formerly nine) upscale Los Angeles hotels and the L.A. Hotel Employer’s Council, representing hotel management.

The crux of the battle is the workers’ demand for a short-term contract that would expire in 2006, which is also when contracts would expire at hotels in cities across the nation. The unions would then be able to cooperate, strengthen their common positions and have more clout in dealing with the international hotel conglomerates (like Starwood) that own some of the hotels.

The L.A.-area hotels (Hyatt Regency, Hyatt West Hollywood, Westin Century, Sheraton Universal, Wilshire Grand, Millennium Biltmore, Regent Beverly Wilshire and Westin Bonaventure) have insisted on a longer contract that would extend past 2006, saying that national union concerns are not relevant locally.

At this point, there are no scheduled negotiations.

On the upside for workers, the hotels have stopped charging a $10-a-week health care co-payment, which was instituted last July, after management declared an impasse.

“We didn’t ask the union for anything in return, but we hoped that it would help bring them back to the table,” said management spokesman Fred Muir.

Not surprisingly, the union doesn’t think management canceled the fee out of inherent goodness. It points to a pending complaint by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in January, which is expected to allege that management broke NLRB rules when it declared an impasse and imposed the co-pay.

“They have not refunded any of the [health care] money they collected,” said union spokesman David Koff. “Should the NLRB ultimately prevail in its complaint, the hotels could be liable to repay this money with interest.”

Taking the issue to trial and through the appeals process could take years. The hotels contend Local 11 is using a delaying strategy to get 2006 as the date for its next contract by default.

“Every time we meet, they don’t want to meet again for a month or six weeks,” Muir said. “They basically want to keep this thing going until 2006.”

Koff responded that five independently owned hotels around the city (including the Hotel Bel-Air and the Radisson Wilshire Plaza), which usually follow the hotel council’s lead on these issues, have already signed contracts with the union that expire in 2006.

“If the Bel Air and these other properties can live with the deal Local 11 has proposed to them, there is little question that these other hotels could live with it as well,” he said.

In the meantime, portions of the L.A. Jewish community have become deeply involved in the dispute, consistently siding with the workers.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Workmen’s Circle have organized the Adar Hotel Workers Campaign, collecting $40 supermarket gift certificates for the workers during the month of Adar (Feb. 10- April 9).

“They’re not being charged [the co-pay] anymore, but regardless, they’re facing extreme economic hardship, and they’re still owed the $40 per month from before,” said PJA’s Jaime Rappaport.

The certificates are being collected at a variety of congregations around the city, including Leo Baeck Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood and IKAR, to name a few.

Teachers Get a Happy Ending — For Now

Meanwhile, a second labor dispute, this one brewing for an amazing 18 months, has been settled peacably, which almost counts as a surprise ending. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) reached a tentative agreement with the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) Tuesday.

For the past year and a half, teachers had been fighting for higher pay and more involvement and flexibility in the design of their own training.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, where what’s working in the Westside will work in South Central. The teachers in the classroom know what they’re dealing with; they should be included in the dialogue with the district, and that hasn’t been the case,” UTLA spokesperson Angelica Urquijo said the day before the agreement was reached.

In the preceeding week, a work-to-rule protest spread from West Valley schools to the rest of the district. Work-to-rule means teachers stop all the uncompensated work usually necessary to improve students’ education, such as spending unpaid hours after school tutoring children.

Urquijo said work-to-rule was meant to demonstrate how hard teachers really work, how the community of parents would stand behind them and how frustrating the interminable contract negotiations had become.

UTLA members reserved some frustration for their own president, John Perez, who was voted out earlier this month. He’ll be replaced July 1 by A.J. Duffy, a teacher who pledged to take a harder line against the district, especially on pay raises. That turn of events made the prospect of a strike seem more likely.

But just the day after work-to-rule went districtwide, the union and district reached an agreement running through June 2006. It includes a 2 percent retroactive pay raise from last July 1. The union also made gains on other contested issues, achieving a greater role for teachers in evaluating their own training programs and in providing more input on student assessmens.

Negotiators will go back to the table to discuss health benefits, which are funded through December.

Los Angeles in the past two years has trudged through a series of lengthy and painful labor disputes, running the gamut from supermarkets and buses to hotels and schools. At least LAUSD students, already working against the odds, won’t also have to overcome the fallout from a teachers strike.

 

Israel Foresees Pullout Headaches


 

On the face of it, nothing illustrates Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political odyssey from settlement builder to settlement dismantler better than a recently published report on West Bank outposts.

The report details how government ministers and officials broke the law and circumvented regulations in building and funding dozens of unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank.

Sharon, once one of the greatest culprits, was the man who, in his new incarnation, commissioned what he knew would be a scathing indictment.

But it’s not that simple. Sharon commissioned the report under intense American pressure to take down the outposts. And so far, despite the report’s findings and recommendations, the Americans are not convinced he intends to act.

The response to the report highlighted another key issue. It shows just how difficult it will be to implement Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank.

Israeli officials are expecting such massive resistance to the disengagement that they have developed a detailed plan of operation to carry it out.

After adopting the report’s findings, the government deferred dismantling the 24 outposts it had long promised the Americans to remove. That led some politicians and pundits to ask how, if it backs away from taking down tiny outposts, the government will dismantle 25 full-fledged settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank when the time comes this summer?

Sharon commissioned the report to demonstrate good faith and carry out commitments he made to the Bush administration last April. After promising the Americans to dismantle unauthorized outposts built since March 2001, he found he did not know the genesis and precise legal status of each one. Similarly, under pressure not to expand full-fledged, authorized settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he found he lacked accurate information on their precise borders.

So he set up two teams: One, under lawyer Talia Sasson, was to clarify the legal status and history of the unauthorized outposts. The other, under reserve Brig. Gen. Baruch Spiegel, was to demarcate the physical boundaries of all existing settlements.

But the Americans remain unimpressed.

American officials note that although Sharon had shown good faith, they still do not have a list of unauthorized settlements or a timetable for their evacuation. Nor has Spiegel yet produced the required border documentation.

The report by former chief prosecutor Sasson, released last week, charged that ministers and senior aides, some of them settlers, had systematically turned a blind eye to the law.

It also charged that budgets were funneled clandestinely through the Housing Ministry, that building permission was covertly granted by the Defense Ministry. There was a system of saying one thing in public and doing the opposite behind the scenes and Likud and Labor administrations were equally at fault.

“The picture that is revealed is one of crass violation of the law by state institutions, public authorities, regional councils in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and settlers, all by creating the false impression of an organized system operating according to law,” Sasson wrote.

The most important thing now, she said, was to regulate the procedures and stop the double talk.

In response, the government set up a committee under Justice Minister Tzippi Livni to root out the covert practices by laying down clear regulations for authorizing and financing outposts and initiating new legislation if necessary.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon was adamant about the need to dismantle the 24 outposts established since March 2001. That was an Israeli commitment in the internationally approved Israeli-Palestinian peace “road map,” he explained. But he did not propose any timetable.

That brought deep differences between Likud and Labor ministers to the fore. The Labor ministers wanted to see immediate action; the Likud ministers favored waiting.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of the Likud argued that disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was Israel’s top policy priority, and the government could not afford to be sidetracked by other issues.

But Labor’s Haim Ramon countered that to do nothing now would be to show weakness and send a message to the extremists that they could stop the disengagement by using threats and force.

Rejecting the Labor argument, the government decided to concentrate only on implementing disengagement.

To that end, 18,000 police officers — three-quarters of the entire Israeli police force — and two army divisions have been assigned to the job, and already they are gearing up to meet a wide range of settler and extremist threats.

Only when this huge operation is complete, Sharon and Mofaz say, will they focus on the outposts that the Sasson report, American pressure and Israel’s road map commitments demand they take down.

Whether the United States and the rest of the international community have the patience to go along with this policy remains to be seen.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report

 

New Allegations of Forged Hahn Support


 

Several times over the course of this mayoral election season, acquaintances approached Yitzchok Bader, a Jewish studies teacher and volunteer for Hatzolah Los Angeles, and said they heard he endorsed Mayor James Hahn.

The problem was, he hadn’t.

Bader’s name was on an advertisement called “Our Community Leaders Agree! Re-elect Mayor Jim Hahn,” which appeared in The Jewish Journal just prior to the March 8 primary election. But Bader said he never gave permission to the Hahn campaign or its supporters to use his name.

“I have no understanding why in the world he put my name there,” he said. “I was not asked and I did not endorse [Hahn].”

A growing number of Jewish community members are saying that Hahn’s re-election campaign falsely claimed them as endorsers in that ad. Among these, four individuals insisted that their signatures had been forged after reviewing signed endorsement forms that the Hahn campaign provided to The Journal to justify the names on their advertisement.

Two types of accusations have surfaced, one that the Hahn campaign used names without permission and, separately, that individual’s names were forged on endorsement documents. Hahn’s campaign actually provided signed endorsement forms to The Journal for seven individuals in response to initial allegations that no permission had been given. The Journal reached four of the seven, and all of them called the endorsement forms forgeries. The forgery allegations were made by Rabbi Steven Weil of Temple Beth Jacob; Irving Lebovics, chairman of the Orthodox group Agudath Israel of California; Michael Rosenberg, president of the Hancock Park Residents Association; and developer Ira Smedra. Bader, the Jewish studies teacher, hasn’t seen his alleged permission form, but insists he gave no permission.

These prominent, respected members of the local Jewish community are just the sort of supporters the Hahn campaign would seek, especially during a tough reelection bid in which one of Hahn’s challengers was Jewish.

That challenger, Bob Hertzberg, just barely finished behind Hahn last week, meaning Hahn will face L.A. City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa in the May runoff. Hertzberg claimed strong Jewish support last week, but it was far from unanimous, and Hahn’s Jewish endorsements could have meant a lot to his campaign.

After the initial endorsement ad appeared in The Journal, six of the people mentioned in the ad wrote a letter of complaint to Hahn. The mayor’s campaign denied any ill intent and told The Journal that the controversy over Hahn’s endorser list was limited to the six people who complained, and that the campaign was holding signed permission forms for all the people on the ad. It was when the campaign provided some of those permission forms that the forgeries were uncovered.

But the problem goes deeper than these six people who signed the letter of protest.

More questionable endorsements are turning up, such as that of Jewish studies teacher Bader.

One of the confirmed forgeries is from one of the city’s leading developers, Smedra, someone who did not sign the letter of complaint.

“Not my signature,” Smedra told The Journal when he saw the form on which his purported signature appeared. “I have no idea who signed this. This isn’t even close.”

Hahn consultant Kam Kuwata denied any wrongdoing on the part of the campaign: “No one in the Hahn campaign would ever in this case or any other case forge documents.”

The Hahn campaign accounts for the forms by linking them to yet another mainstay of the civic and Jewish elite, businessman Joseph Klein, who died in June 2004. Kuwata said all the dubious forms were supplied by Klein, either by fax or in person. At the same time, Kuwata is quick to defend Klein’s honor.

“This campaign has unlimited respect and admiration and trust in Joe Klein,” Kuwata said. “If Joe Klein said something, that’s gospel truth.”

Until recent times, Klein was one of most powerful appointed officials in city government. He headed the Planning Commission as a Hahn appointee. He also was a leader within the Orthodox Jewish community, and an unabashedly enthusiastic Hahn supporter.

Klein, of course, isn’t around to defend his honor, but his friends are, including the ones who are angry about the endorsements. They are quick to praise Klein for honesty, compassion and impeccable ethics.

“Joe Klein [was] my good friend,” Weil said. “He never gave me anything to sign. He was a good man, a man of integrity. He didn’t do stuff like this.”

Bader, who also knew Klein, agreed. Asked whether Klein mentioned any endorsement forms during 2003 or 2004, the time period when the forms most likely originated, Bader said without hesitation: “No. Not once.”

“He was a very upstanding person,” said Stanley Treitel, Klein’s brother-in-law. “He would never [forge documents]. That I can tell you for sure.”

The reaction of Weil was typical of those who reviewed the endorsement forms.

“I am telling you that is a forgery,” he said. “That’s not the way I sign.” To back up his assertion, Weil brought in three colleagues at the synagogue who “have seen me sign my name 1,000 times.”

Mysterious Origin

The letterhead on all the forms is “Jim Hahn for Mayor 2005,” but they are all undated, meaning they could have been supplied at any point after Hahn’s first election in 2001.

One clue, however, suggests a much more recent vintage. That clue is a fax number that appears on the forms. Kuwata said this number first was used in connection with the Hahn re-election campaign in mid-2003. Assuming these forms were not altered after their initial creation, this fax number would mean the forms were created in mid-2003 at the earliest.

Klein’s connection to the Hahn campaign was strictly as a volunteer, friend and donor.

From 2000 to 2003, Klein contributed $10,000 to various Hahn-related causes including Hahn’s 2001 mayoral bid, Hahn’s legal defense fund and his 2005 re-election bid. Klein’s business interests included real estate and elder care, but friends also note that he was obsessed with local government, its relevance and its importance.

Close friend Michael Rosenberg said Klein was admitted to a hospital in March 2004 and died three months later. That means Klein would have supplied the forms between mid-2003 and his hospitalization in March 2004.

Smedra and Weil say they are certain that Klein, whom they also termed a close friend, never mentioned anything to them during this period about collecting or delivering signatures for Hahn’s 2005 mayoral bid.

“The only time he ever asked me for anything for Jim Hahn was when he first ran four years ago,” said Smedra. Smedra added that he saw Klein “all the time” in 2003 and early 2004 and can’t remember him ever discussing endorsement forms.

Klein was especially sensitive about behavior that could be judged unethical, said another friend, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt noted that Klein, a Holocaust survivor and immigrant from Czechoslovakia, often tried to help people or synagogues deal with city government.

“And none of it was in any way underhanded. He was hyperconscious that if something unsavory was done by someone Jewish, that it would be blamed on the entire Jewish people,” Rosenblatt said.

Like other friends, Rosenblatt only remembers Klein’s involvement with Hahn’s 2001 campaign.

Some members of Klein’s circle suggest that the Hahn campaign is trying to pass off responsibility for the forgeries on a good man who isn’t around to say otherwise. They note that Klein would be a convenient scapegoat if one or more Hahn staffers actually created the false forms to cover their missteps after questions arose about suspect endorsements.

Names in Two Places

The furor began when a Hertzberg supporter happened to see the pro-Hahn ad and called Hertzberg outreach staffer Adeena Bleich. Why wasn’t Hertzberg also proclaiming his Jewish support in the press, the caller wanted to know.

When Bleich looked at the ad, she saw a list peppered with people she believed to be Hertzberg supporters.

“So I just started calling them and said, ‘Do you know that your name is listed [for Hahn]?'” Bleich told The Journal. “‘Should I take you off our Web site?'”

It was after Bleich pointed out their names that six of those listed decided to send a letter of complaint to Hahn. The six were Weil, Rosenberg, Lebovics, Rabbi Avraham Weiner, Aaron Litenansky and Walter Feinblum.

Shortly thereafter, the Hahn campaign provided The Journal with the endorsement permission documents, including the forms for all six letter writers. The forms specifically gave the Hahn campaign permission to “Use my name on a list of Jewish community leaders for Hahn.”

Could the entire imbroglio somehow be a tactic of Hahn’s opponents? If so, their timing was poor. The issue was not called to the attention of Journal editors until it was too late to publish a pre-election story. Moreover, Kuwata said he knows Klein provided the forms, and numerous people have vouched for Klein’s status as a true-blue friend of the mayor.

For what it’s worth, Bleich also knew Klein personally and joined the chorus of commendations. “He was a wonderful, wonderful human being,” Bleich said.

Endorsement-Gate, to coin a term, didn’t come to light in time to hurt Hahn or help Hertzberg, but it’s just one more ethics-related issue that the Hahn campaign has to explain to voters — in this case Jewish voters. His administration is under investigation for pay-to-play allegations linking political contributions to city contracts. And there’s the over-billing by public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard for city-related events that could be viewed as promoting Hahn’s political interests on the city’s dime. And just last week came new allegations related to Kuwata, Hahn’s veteran political adviser. Critics accuse him of improperly failing to register as a lobbyist and also question whether Kuwata’s city contract was handled properly. Kuwata and the Hahn administration deny any wrongdoing.

But a series of ethics-related issues could add up to an ethics problem in the minds of voters, and ethics matter to the city’s high-propensity Jewish voters.

 

In Campaign, It’s All Israel All the Time


Like two surly dinner guests who won’t let an argument go, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry won’t get off topic when they take their case to U.S. Jews: It’s all Israel all the time.

The prospect of swaying likely voters in a handful of battleground states has brought unprecedented attention to Jewish voters this election season, yet the discussion overwhelmingly has focused on Israel, an issue that no longer pushes Jewish buttons the way it once did.

In increasingly bitter exchanges, each campaign’s surrogates and advertisements paint the opposing candidate as coddling terrorists, if not imperiling Israel’s very existence.

David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) executive director, said the parties still perceive Israel as a potent issue among Jews, even as polls by the AJC and others show the Jewish state declining in importance among Jewish voters. Harris said the strategy is to nudge Jewish voters back into believing Israel is in danger — thereby returning the issue to top priority status.

“Jewish voters want to be satisfied the candidate understands the importance of the U.S.-Israel issue and will work to strengthen it,” Harris said. “If the adversary can puncture a hole in that belief, it may cause some voters to rethink their original positions.”

In its final sweep before Election Day on Nov. 2, each side was attempting just such a jab.

“I will make Israel safer than George W. Bush is, because I will stand up to those countries that are still supporting Hamas and Hezbollah,” the Democratic senator said in Florida on Sunday.

At the same time, his campaign distributed an appeal from legal scholar Alan Dershowitz that called Bush’s Middle East policies “disastrous” for Israel.

For its part, Bush’s campaign distributed a Washington Post column by Charles Krauthammer suggesting that Kerry’s plan to assert control in Iraq is to “sacrifice Israel” to Arab and European nations. The notion got further reinforcement by New York Times columnist William Safire on Monday, when he asked Jewish voters who tend to vote Democratic to “give a little added weight” to Israel’s security and vote for Bush.

Richard Cohen used his own Washington Post column on Tuesday to hit back: “No doubt, George Bush is a true friend of Israel. But so was Bill Clinton and so would be John Kerry.”

“The issue is not who cares more for Israel, but who can be effective in reducing the violence and bring about a peaceful solution,” he continued. “So far, that’s not George Bush.”

Such high-profile appeals — from the candidates and their surrogates, made in the country’s prime Op-Ed real estate — underscored the weight each side accords the Jewish vote.

That was also evident in this week’s final push in Florida, culminating a monthlong sweep of Jewish communities in swing states.

Republicans were running their Democratic Jewish trophy, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, through a grueling tour of synagogues and Jewish community centers in the southern part of the state on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Kerry campaign was bringing former President Clinton; Dershowitz; Kerry’s Jewish brother, Cameron; TV comic Larry David; and an array of U.S. representatives into Fort Lauderdale and Miami on the same days.

Additionally, each side made one of its top foreign policy officials available to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee summit in Hollywood, Fla. Richard Holbrooke made Kerry’s case and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, spoke for her boss.

“Whoever wins on Nov. 2, the key role of Jewish voters must be seen as a vitally important fact of this year’s election,” Harris said.

Throughout the grueling and often contentious campaign, the candidates at times have gone into contortions to make their Israel bona fides.

Israel was one of a small elite of nations that made it into nomination acceptance speeches at both conventions. That didn’t stop each side from accusing the other of not mentioning it enough — although there never has been a convention standard for mentioning Israel.

Bush and Kerry each brought Israel into the debates, managing to squeeze mentions into questions about getting troops out of Iraq, although they were never asked about it.

The sometimes vicious back-and-forth is a long way from March, when a top Bush campaign official said that the campaign would pretty much leave Kerry alone on the topic, and Kerry campaign officials liked to say they were “as good” on Israel as Bush and would focus instead on domestic issues, where Democrats tend to trump Republicans among Jews.

Yet as Bush’s lead in the polls started to melt with the summer and the importance of Jewish votes in battleground states increased, his Jewish campaigners switched to the Israel issue, where they believed his unprecedented closeness to Ariel Sharon’s government made him almost unassailable.

The gloves soon came off.

A passage from a 1997 book by Kerry describing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as traveling the road from outlaw to statesman — a conventional wisdom at the time — was pared down by the campaign to omit the “outlaw” part. “Kerry called Arafat a statesman” became fodder for Bush partisans and reporters at Bush-friendly newspapers like the New York Post.

Another sign of the importance that Republicans assigned to the Israel issue was a Republican strategy document prepared in July by former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

One section is devoted to Kerry on Israel. It rehashes his 1997 reference to Arafat and says that Kerry expressed two “precisely opposite” reactions to Israel’s West Bank security barrier, although Kerry and Bush both changed their attitude to the fence when Israel changed its route.

The Bush campaign’s rhetoric reached such a pitch that by the end of August, senior campaign staffer and Bush’s former Jewish liaison, Tevi Troy, was telling college students at the party convention in New York that Bush’s re-election was a “life-or-death” matter for the Jews.

Democratic posturing never achieved such a fever, but Kerry’s campaign was not immune to distortions. One campaign trope is that Bush did nothing to stem Saudi funding of terrorists, although terrorism experts agree that the kingdom is rolling back the funding precisely because of effective pressure from the administration.

At the same time, the Kerry campaign sought to reassure Jewish voters that he will always be guided first by Israel in pursuing an international coalition to resolve the situation in Iraq and bring peace to the region.

Such pitches on Israel defy two recent major polls that showed Israel dropping as a priority for U.S. Jews. The Jewish state ranked sixth as a factor in presidential voting in a July poll by Democratic pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, behind issues like terrorism, the economy, the Iraq war and health care.

In the AJC’s August poll, it ranked last when respondents were asked what they thought was the most important component of their Jewish identity.

Yet the pitches may make sense for the Republicans in the sense of the party having little else to offer the Jews, said Theodore Mann, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“It’s a card they had to play, knowing as they do — correctly — that Israelis prefer Bush and thinking as they do — incorrectly — that Jews are one-issue voters,” said Mann, who is on the board of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that supports U.S. engagement in the peace process.

Republicans, of course, reject that, noting that some Jews share the Republican agenda on economic and social issues as well. Republicans also may have had in mind the Jewish vote in Florida, a state Bush cannot afford to lose. The community is weighted to the elderly, and older Jews rank Israel higher among their priorities.

Bush’s apparent inability to crack the traditional 3-1 Jewish support for Democrats is frustrating some Republicans. The latest polls, taken in late summer, show Kerry winning anywhere between 69 percent and 75 percent of the Jewish vote, with Bush getting between 22 percent and 24 percent.

Senior party officials berated the community at the party convention for not “getting” Bush’s support for Israel, and Jewish Bush supporters got the message.

“Why is it that so many American Jews appear unconcerned about Israel’s parlous condition?” asked an editorial in a pamphlet distributed to Jewish voters by a conservative group, the Jewish Political Education Foundation. “When judging a candidate, they prefer focusing on health care, Social Security, abortion rights, funding of stem cell researchl…. What can one say to complacent Jewish souls suffering from cognitive dissonance?”

Others said the campaign’s final, pitched weeks were bound to run into excesses.

“I was thinking if Jewish votes were in play, John Kerry would have been bar mitzvahed this weekend,” David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, said on CNN over the weekend.

Brooks might be unaware that the campaigns believe Jewish votes are indeed in play — and that Kerry might be ready for his haftarah.

“This morning I woke up to hearing John Kerry on the radio saying, “Am Yisrael Chai,” Harris said, referring to a speech in Florida where Kerry reaffirmed his support for Israel by using the Hebrew phrase for “The people of Israel live.”

“I thought I was still dreaming,” Harris said.

Duke Hillel Fights Pro-Palestinian Forum


The Israeli-Palestinian issue is intensifying the fall-semester buzz at Duke University this year.

In advance of the fourth annual Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, chatter on the limits of free speech and the contours of the Israel-Palestinian conflict have filled the pages of the campus newspaper.

Divisions over the Oct. 15-17 conference represent the latest battle between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian campus activists to take place during the four years of the Palestinian intifada.

The conference, sponsored by the local pro-Palestinian group at the North Carolina-based university, also has some Jewish students and alumni wondering if Duke will lose the momentum it has gained in recent years as a hospitable place for Jewish students.

Conference organizers are calling on universities to drop their investments in Israeli companies, work to “end the Israeli occupation” and accelerate the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

As it has in previous years, the conference has prompted outrage — an online petition asking Duke’s president to ban the event has garnered more than 66,000 signatures — and less-confrontational responses from mainstream Jewish groups.

Like other universities that have hosted the conference, which in the past has drawn some 150 activists across North America, Duke is permitting the event on the grounds of free speech, but reiterating its policy against divesting from Israel.

“We believe the best antidote to speech that others find disagreeable is more speech, not less,” stated Duke’s senior vice president, John Burness. “We are encouraged, therefore, that the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke is proposing to provide opportunities for others to express differing viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian question.”

Indeed, Duke’s Hillel affiliate, the Freeman Center, hasn’t tried to prevent the conference; instead, Jewish students have crafted a response centered on what they believe is a broad-based consensus: condemning terrorism.

From Shabbat teach-ins and lectures to a major rally/rock concert benefiting terror victims, the effort to counter the conference marks a jumping-off point for increased dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is anchored in opposing terrorism.

“We may not know all the issues, and we may have complex political ideas or not, but we understand terrorism is not good,” said Jonathan Gerstl, executive director of the Freeman Center. “I think we’re really looking at this as a uniting” campaign for the campus.

Indeed, in an open letter published in the campus newspaper last month, the Joint Israel Initiative, a coalition of student groups formed to combat the conference, asked the conference organizers to condemn the murder of innocent civilians, support a two-state solution and engage in respectful dialogue.

But the Palestine Solidarity Movement and Hiwar, the campus pro-Palestinian group hosting the conference, refused to do so.

Rann Bar-on, a local spokesman for the solidarity movement and a Duke graduate student, said the group only supports non-violent action, but “would not sign the statement because it violates the philosophy of the organization, which will not condemn any Palestinian action,” Duke’s campus newspaper, The Chronicle, reported.

“The Jewish people have the right to exist in some state,” but the movement cannot dictate its borders or creation, Bar-on told the Duke newspaper.

Bar-on did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment about the group’s agenda.

The group’s Web site, however, indicates there will be workshops on building a Palestinian presence on campus, promoting divestment and discussing the “anatomy of the organized Zionist community in the United States.”

Meanwhile, the anti-terrorism card pushed by pro-Israel students has won the support of key groups on campus.

Duke’s council of residential halls, the student government and the student union have agreed to sponsor the Oct. 14 “Students Against Terror” concert, featuring the band Sister Hazel, with donations aiding terror victims in the United States, Israel, Sudan and Russia, said Mollie Lurey, who heads the Joint Israel Initiative.

On behalf of one of its prominent shareholders, Mitchell Rubenstein, Hollywood.com will co-sponsor a telecast of the concert on its Web site and on the Hillel Web site, Gerstl said.

Rubenstein is the chairman of the Freeman Center’s advisory board.

The anti-conference effort, which includes the weekend teach-in, featuring former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, along with yearlong educational programming, will cost up to $125,000, he said.

Funding has come from Duke alumni and student groups along with local federations and foundations. To date, Hillel has raised $65,000 for the program, with the biggest donation — a $10,000 check — coming from Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

According to Lurey, of the Joint Israel Initiative, previously unaffiliated Jews have now become involved in supporting Israel.

Still, she says Jewish students are feeling anxious about potential rhetoric at the upcoming conference.

Meanwhile, some worry whether Duke’s hosting of the pro-Palestinian conference will tarnish the university’s reputation in Jewish eyes.

Already, an Atlanta Jewish day school cut ties with Duke’s program for middle school students in response to the conference, North Carolina’s News-Observer reported.

“Jewish Duke alumni are very, very, very concerned that all the advances that have been made at Duke in the past couple of decades will end up being for naught,” said Duke alumnus Steven Goodman, a Washington-based educational consultant for prospective college students.

In recent years, Duke has stepped up efforts to recruit Jewish students, who make up anywhere between 15 percent and 25 percent of the student body, Goodman said. But the school’s relationship with the Jewish community is “much more precarious” than schools like Tufts or the University of Pennsylvania, whose deep, generational ties to the Jewish community could withstand a blip on their record.

Duke could be perceived as “indifferent or hostile to the Jewish community,” which could drive away prospective Jewish students, said Goodman, who penned editorials in Jewish newspapers urging Duke not to host the conference.

Gerstl disagrees: “I think the university has worked very well with the Jewish students [by meeting with students and local Jewish federation leaders].”

“The university knows it makes decisions that aren’t always popular,” he said.

Love-Bombing of Jews Hitting Mark


U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania could hardly contain his delight as he addressed a packed ballroom at the Plaza Hotel while he was in New York for the Republican National Convention.

"Just know I love you!" the GOP senator, a Catholic, shouted to the largely Jewish crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Salute to the Republican Congress.

After kvelling about how thrilled he was to have been introduced before Republican Sen. Arlen Specter — his Jewish colleague from the Keystone state — Santorum commanded the crowd to go back home and sing the gospel of President Bush. After all, it could help in swing states like his.

"I will not be satisfied with 20 percent of the Jewish vote, I will not be satisfied with 30 percent, I will not be satisfied with 40 percent," he said as the crowd cheered. "George Bush deserves a majority!"

At that, the crowd began to chant, "Four more years! Four more years!"

Santorum was part of a round-robin of Republican lawmakers who are love-bombing Jewish audiences with testimonials about the courage of freedom-loving Jewish people. It’s a far cry from the "some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews" tone struck by some Republicans of yesteryear and even from the tepid meet-and-greets with Jewish groups at the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia.

This year, Republicans went all out to welcome their Jewish brethren into the GOP fold in a city with a large Jewish population. It’s not just about votes. American Jews find themselves at the center of a new culture war, the one between secular and religious America, between the blue states and the red ones and the hawks and the doves. And the Republicans want them on their side.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stated it most clearly.

"There is no Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is only the global war on terrorism," DeLay said at the Plaza Hotel recently. "On one side stands the United States, Israel and dozens of [other] countries. On the other side stand Yasser Arafat, Al Qaeda and an Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. All the rest is a question of commentary."

DeLay had thrown down the gauntlet, and the crowd of 1,500 began to cheer. John Kerry, DeLay continued, thinks the war on terror "depends on France and Germany. George W. Bush thinks the war on terror depends on fearless American leadership. That’s the difference that defines them."

A day earlier, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman struck a similar note at an event sponsored by three Jewish groups. Their message was that a vote for Bush is a vote for moral clarity; multilateralism is just a fancy word for appeasement.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), like Giuliani a possible presidential candidate in 2008, also spoke at the event.

At every step, the Republicans message was clear: New York and Jerusalem are closer than you think. When Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center, America became even more inextricably linked with Israel. The Bush campaign has given the Jews a leading role in the central narrative of the 2004 campaign.

It’s a unique position for a traditionally Democratic constituency. But there’s some logic to it. Since Sept. 11, beleaguered Israel has become a symbol for the U.S. war on terrorism, with the Israelis standing in proxy for the Americans and the Palestinians wearing the face of the whole Arab world.

As such, Israel has become a kind of GOP mascot, one that also plays into Bush’s own religiosity. Israel resonates both in the Bible Belt and the Big Apple.

The Republican efforts may be working. Susan Canter, a registered Democrat who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, explained why she was backing Bush after having voted for Al Gore in 2000.

"He’s just so pro-Israel," said Canter, a lawyer. "There’s been no American president who’s ever come with such strong support for Israel…. I can’t think of not voting for him."

And of course there’s former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who has emerged as one of the most vocal pro-Bush Democrats.

"He knows that Israel faces international terrorism every day, and so do we, and that they are not willing to submit as other countries are, and he’s not going to run out on them," Koch said. "And it happens that international terrorism is threatening to both the United States and Israel. I mean, what they want to do is kill us!"

Koch seems to speak for those who are voting for a commander in chief as much as a president. Indeed, the Bush campaign seems to be taking pains to draw a direct line from Ronald Reagan, the man who toppled the Soviet Union, to Bush, leader in the war on terror.

The narrative conveniently skips Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was seen as no friend of Israel during his term from 1988 to 1992. In his failed re-election bid, the elder Bush received only 11 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992.

"Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan spoke with moral clarity of the nature of the Soviet Union, and it had big-time political consequences," Mehlman said at the Jewish community event on Aug. 29. In a five-minute speech, Mehlman used the term "moral clarity" at least four times.

But even if they’re backing Bush on foreign policy, some Jews are concerned about the evangelical Christian right’s sway with the Bush administration. They did not take kindly to the display at Madison Square Garden during the convention’s first night, when the light and dark wood paneling on the speakers’ lectern took on the unmistakable form of a cross.

The National Jewish Democratic Coalition issued a press release the following day, calling it "the very height of insensitivity" for the Republicans to feature a cross at the center of the podium.

"This wooden cross must be at least 3 feet tall, and it sends a signal of exclusivity loudly and clearly," said Ira Forman, the organization’s executive director.

Others see no threat. "They still think I’m going to hell, because I have not accepted Jeeesus Chrast as mah per-son-al sa-vior," Jonathan Paull from Houston said, adopting a Texas drawl not otherwise evident in his speech as he mingled at the Jewish community event. "I don’t care."

The young attorney said he was voting for Bush because of "a political reality."

Still in New York, where progressive passions have long run high in the Jewish community, there is a core of Jewish voters that remains steadfastly anti-Bush. These Jews don’t cheer when Republicans invoke the mantra of Jewish persecution, and they don’t clap when Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said at the Plaza that "there is nothing they [the terrorists] want but your death and entire elimination from the planet."

Instead, they’ve been protesting. Standing outside the Plaza, a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice waved signs reading "elephants are not kosher" and chanted angry slogans peppered with Yiddishisms. "No war in our name, it’s a shanda, it’s a shame," they recited over and over.

As the election nears, Democratic Jewish leaders know they’re in a bind about foreign policy and have been trying to shift the debate away from Israel to trigger issues like abortion, education and the separation of church and state.

"I think it is a mistake to go after George Bush on Israel, because the Jewish community thinks he has been very good on Israel," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). "So here’s what I tell Jewish voters: George Bush is good on Israel, but why vote for someone who you disagree with on everything else? Why let your loyalties to Israel be split from your loyalties on other issues?"

Schumer’s message could help stem some Jewish drift toward the GOP, but it’s hard not to see it as a concession of sorts, an admission by the Democrats that the Republicans have defined the terms of the debate so effectively that it’s not even worth competing on the same rhetorical battlefield.

This shift would have seemed improbable, almost farcical, four years ago, when Al Gore tapped Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as his Democratic running mate. Lieberman became the first Jew to run on a major party’s national ticket.

For some Jewish Democrats, Lieberman’s nomination was the culmination of its long relationship with the party — particularly since the Republicans had chosen as their candidate the son of a president who was unpopular with the Jews, and who also happened to be a cowboy and an evangelical Christian, who they feared would blur the boundaries between church and state.

It may just be a kind of provincial ignorance, but in the Jewish heartland of New York City, let’s face it, neither of these images played terribly well.

But in the intervening years, some of these same Jews have changed their minds. While few Jewish voters feel much passion for Kerry — even if they are planning on voting for him — Jews for Bush speak about their candidate with an almost religious fervor. It’s the kind of passion that gets them chanting, "Four more years, four more years!" at rallies, and makes this strange new marriage between New York sophisticates and a Texas cowboy seem almost beshert (ordained).

All this may seem like an awful lot of work to win just 4 percent of the voting public. But in today’s frozen political landscape, in which the electorate has hardened into blocks of stubborn Republicans and stubborn Democrats, the support of a well-placed fraction of the Jewish community can ripple and multiply into influence. In states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the election will be close, every vote counts.

"If you look at the states that are close, the change in the Jewish vote could actually throw the election into Republican hands," said Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and a prominent Texas fundraiser who has been working with the Bush campaign on Jewish outreach. "So obviously, we are focusing on the Jewish vote in states that could change the election."

Since 2000, the RJC has opened branches in Florida, Southern California, Philadelphia and New York and is looking to start a Midwest regional office. Its membership has swelled to 12,000 from 2,500.

It’s also focusing on younger Jewish voters who may be less tied to party affiliations than their New Deal Democrat grandparents and civil rights era parents, said Greg Menken, 31, who directs the year-old New York RJC chapter.

Yet even as Republican Jewish events celebrated Jewish strength in the face of adversity, a strange kind of energy also coursed through the crowd. Whenever a speaker says words to the effect that "the very existence of the State of Israel is now under siege," the audience applauds. Of course, they’re applauding, because they agree with the speaker, not because they’re happy about the current state of affairs.

Yet at the same time, these Jews seem to show a certain pride, a sense of vindication that the Republicans are beginning to see how ugly things can get. Who knows how it’ll play. What’s bad for the Jews might turn out to be good for Bush.

Copyright Featurewell.com.

Political Activism Inspires Iranians


Iran’s growing nuclear threat has activated members of Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community to participate in this year’s presidential campaigns and make their voices heard.

Political activism is a unique phenomenon for Iranian Jews, who, for 2,500 years in Iran, had been barred from taking part in political activities and had been denied certain civil rights.

"It took a while for us [Iranian Jews] to take care of our immediate needs in the U.S.," said Sam Kermanian, one of the co-vice chairs for the George Bush/Dick Cheney 2004 campaign in California. "This is a community that came here as refugees and had to put its foundations in place — so getting involved in politics in the last few years only became a priority after all these other issues were taken care of."

Kermanian recently stepped down as chair of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles in order to join the Bush campaign full-time. He said many of California’s 30,000-35,000 Iranian Jews support Bush’s re-election bid.

But the main challenge, he said, is not to convince Iranians Jews to vote but "to make sure that a community that traditionally does not have a culture of voting, to actually come out and cast its vote."

Since the beginning of the summer, Kermanian has collaborated with the Iranian Republican Coalition and the Republican Jewish Coalition in order to reach Iranian Jewish voters who favor the president’s strong alliance with Israel and unwavering stance against negotiations with Iran.

In August, Beverly Hills Jewish Republican Voters for Bush, a group consisting primarily of Iranian Jews, placed a one-page ad in Chashm Andaaz, the local Iranian Jewish magazine, asking for Iranian Jewish campaign volunteers. According to the group’s representatives, they have helped register roughly 200 Iranian Jews in the last two months.

"Because of Iraq, the situation in the Middle East and in Israel, a lot of people on an individual basis have expressed interest in getting involved, because they believe there is a lot at stake in that part of the world," said Solomon Meskin, a volunteer for Beverly Hills Jewish Republican Voters for Bush.

While support for President Bush is prevalent among many Iranian Jews, there are still many in the community that are equally engaged in campaigning on behalf of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

"The Iranian American Jewish community is not homogeneous and should not be regarded as a monolithic body with one political mindset," said David Nahai, a volunteer co-chair of Jews and Friends for Kerry who co-chaired a June fundraiser for Kerry in Brentwood featuring the Democratic nominee’s Jewish brother, Cameron Kerry.

Nahai, a Century City attorney and board member of The Jewish Federation, said he is trying to educate many Iranian Jews who are not yet fully aware of Kerry’s long-standing pro-Israel voting record.

"I believe that our community is now coming to recognize John Kerry’s rock-solid, 20-year, proven pro-Israel record which dwarfs that of George W. Bush in comparison," Nahai said. "I believe that as Iranian-American Jews learn more about Sen. Kerry, his support in the community can only grow."

Aside from Kerry’s pro-Israel voting record, Nahai said Iranian Jews are just discovering that Kerry has also expressed resolve against Iran’s nuclear program.

"Clearly Sen. Kerry is no dove where Iran is concerned and he has stated unequivocally that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable," Nahai said. "Sen. Kerry supports bringing the matter of Iran’s nuclear program before the U.N. Security Council if Iran does not verifiably foreswear its nuclear ambitions."

Nahai said some younger Iranian Jews he has spoken with have also expressed their backing for Kerry and other Democratic candidates in the upcoming election.

"I believe that younger Iranians are more likely to lean toward the Democrats," Nahai said. "The Republican leadership’s ultra-Christian, neo-conservative, big business ethos is backward-looking and simply does not resonate with the young who are looking for a more hopeful… and progressive vision."

Other Kerry supporters in the Iranian Jewish community said they were backing Kerry because of his domestic policies, including proposals to boost the economy.

"I support Kerry because I think his ideas are different from Bush’s as far as being better for our society, from the economy, environment and other areas," said Zhila Ross, an Iranian Jew who lives Brentwood.

In addition to acquiring volunteers, Kermanian said he has also helped start grass-roots campaigns with other Iranian religious and ethnic groups, namely Armenian Christians, Zoroastrians, Caledonians, Muslims and Bahais in California to support Bush.

"There has been absolute harmony among the Iranian groups behind the president," said Kermanian, who has spoken on Persian language radio and TV programs, as well as at many community events.

According to Kermanian’s election demographic records, approximately 80 percent of Iranian Jews in the state are U.S. citizens and 70 percent are of voting age.

Likewise, Nahai said he has also tried to stir up support for Kerry among local Iranians by appearing on KIRN 670 AM, a popular local Persian-language radio station, as well as on the Voice of America television program.

This past July, both Kermanian and Nahai spoke to an Iranian Jewish congregation at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana during Shabbat morning services, said Shohreh Nowfar, the volunteer chair for the center’s events committee.

More recently, Kermanian and Nahai said they have been approached by the leadership of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills to engage in an open debate about both presidential candidates, but no time has been set for the event.

As the election intensifies, so do emotions for many Iranian Americans — regardless of their religion. Many say they still harbor a deep dislike for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Iranian Americans in general continue to blame Carter for not supporting the regime of the late shah of Iran during the Islamic revolution in the late 1970s that ultimately forced thousands of Iranians, including Iranian Jews, to flee their former homeland and lose their livelihoods.

"Most Iranian Americans of all religions believe Carter had a policy that didn’t support the Pahlavi dynasty and his administration convinced military officials in Iran to step aside while the revolution took over the country," said Dr. Shirzad Abrams, co-founder of the Graduate Society Foundation, a local organization promoting the continuity of Iranian Jewish history and Judaism among young Jews.

Abrams and other Iranian Jewish leaders said that despite the resentment some in the community have for Carter, Iranian Jews by in large still continued to support Democratic candidates and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks).

Others in the Iranian Jewish leadership said that while the Democratic and Republican parties have reached out to Iranian Jews for fundraising purposes, the parties have overlooked the true political potential of the community.

"Iranian Jews have a great authority to mobilize the Iranian American community, which numbers around 1 million people," said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee. "In the years ahead, they need to become involved in non-Israel and non-Iranian causes to become fully integrated in the fabric of the American Jewish community".

For more information on the Bush campaign, call Sam Kermanian at (310) 854-1199. For more information on the Kerry campaign, call (310) 556-9172

Mel Levine Takes Kerry Mideast Post


When Washington goes its own way and disrespects its allies, it hurts not only the United States, but Israel as well, says Mel Levine.

"Whenever America is diminished in the eyes of the world, it does Israel no favor," said Levine, who as John Kerry’s newly appointed top adviser on the Middle East is expected to play a major role in shaping the Democrat’s campaign policy on the volatile and politically sensitive region.

During an interview in his Century City law office, the former congressman from West Los Angeles and Santa Monica was addressing himself to concerns that Kerry’s advocacy of a multilateral U.S. foreign policy might mean greater pressure on Israel for concessions to the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states.

Not so, Levine said, "but if we cannot convince Europe, Russia and other countries to keep nuclear weapons away from Iran, to fight terrorism, and to exert greater leverage on Arab countries, we will fail," and thereby weaken Israel.

To gauge Kerry’s attitude toward Israel, one need only look at his votes during 20 years in the U.S. Senate, according to Levine.

"By every rating and criterion, Kerry’s votes have shown 100 percent solid support for Israel," he said. "That’s well understood in his home state of Massachusetts, but not yet throughout the rest of the country."

Levine’s appointment as chair of the Kerry campaign’s Middle East Policy Working Group has been hailed by Jewish spokespeople and organizations as reassurance that Israel’s interests will have an eloquent voice in Kerry’s inner circle.

As congressman and member of the House foreign affairs committee from 1983 to 1993, Levine was among Israel’s strongest supporters. His clashes with former Secretary of State James Baker on the Mideast policies of the first President Bush have become part of Washington folklore.

Representing the United States, Levine has also had considerable experience in dealing with the Arab side.

At Vice President Al Gore’s request, he served as co-president, with Arab-American James Zogby, of Builders for Peace, a private-sector initiative to make the West Bank economy more competitive — a good effort that largely failed.

Following the 1998 Wye accords, Levine chaired the U.S.-Israel-Palestinian "anti-incitement" task force. He learned from this experience that incitement has to be confronted directly and aggressively, a lesson he is passing on to Kerry.

Until recently, he served on the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but has cut his activities in advocacy groups since becoming chairman of the nonpolitical Jewish Community Relations Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

As Kerry’s adviser, the role of the youthful-looking 61-year old attorney, who specializes in foreign trade and government relations, is both more and less important than the title might indicate.

The Middle East Policy Working Group, he said, is not a formal committee as such, with regular meetings and joint policy formulations. "I will be seeking informal and informed input from other members, and then render my advice," Levine said.

On the other hand, thanks to Kerry’s long service on the Senate foreign relations committee and his global outlook, "he won’t need much policy guidance," Levine said. "Unlike other presidents, whose previous experiences were as state governors, Kerry will hit the ground running."

When Jewish Republicans and Democrats argue the merits of their presidential candidates, and whether sizeable chunks of the overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish community will this time to defect to President Bush, Republicans stress the incumbent’s pro-Israel record.

Democrats — while not conceding that their man is any less pro-Israel — emphasize the Bush administration’s perceived domestic policy failures.

Edward Sanders, an elder statesman of the Los Angeles and American Jewish communities, and who served as President Jimmy Carter’s Middle East and Jewish relations adviser, has no doubt what counts.

"I couldn’t vote for a candidate who is good for Israel and bad on everything else," the veteran Democrat and Kerry supporter said. "What’s good for a strong and respected United States is good for Israel."

Sanders cited an example from his own experience. When President Richard Nixon was running for re-election in 1972, Yitzhak Rabin, then ambassador to the United States, and Prime Minister Golda Meir made no secret of their preference for Nixon.

Meeting Rabin at that time, Sanders warned him that Nixon would not be good for Israel, and Rabin responded, "Who knows?"

"As it turned out, Nixon became so enmeshed in the Watergate scandal that the Soviets figured that America was preoccupied and thus signaled the Egyptians to cross the Suez Canal and start the Yom Kippur war," Sanders said.

Levine acknowledges that the Democrats may not quite reach the 80 percent of the Jewish vote they got in the last presidential election, when they fielded Gore, a longtime friend of the Jewish community, and Jewish vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman.

Levine hopes that Jewish voters will come down overwhelmingly on Kerry’s side on a wide range of domestic issues.

"On the top of the list is church-state separation, and to say that the present administration has blurred the line is a significant understatement," Levine said.

Other issues where Levine perceives serious Bush weaknesses include privacy rights, energy independence, woman’s right to choose, health care, the environment and preserving social services.

Veteran Democratic Rep. Howard Berman (Van Nuys) has known Levine for some 27 years and sees the latter’s appointment as "an obvious statement by Kerry that he will be a strong supporter of Israel and its security interests.

"American Jews respect both competence and fidelity [in support of Israel]," Berman continued. "In Kerry they will get both competence and fidelity."

Another longtime colleague, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) praised Kerry’s ability to "translate his views into public policy."

In a survey by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, leaders of major Jewish organizations such as AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations overwhelmingly endorsed the choice of Levine, although some noted that in the end it would be up to Kerry to act on Levine’s recommendations.

Levine said he would be an "active advocate" in the Kerry campaign, but declined to speculate on a future role in a Kerry administration.

He was slightly more forthcoming on the chances of seeking political office in the future. "You never know, there is always a possibility," he said. "Public policy work is my favorite thing."

However Levine, the father of three who is married to journalist Connie Bruck, has no hesitation talking about his current baseball career.

He plays regularly with the Hollywood Stars, a mix of older and younger players, in an amateur hardball league.

"Last Sunday I had two hits — that doesn’t happen every week," he announced triumphantly.

"I retired from baseball at 50," Levine said, "but I missed it so much, I came back."

The Silent Minority


If there had been any doubts that I was in another country, they were erased when the first reviews of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" began to appear in the London press.

While there was a mixture of praise and repugnance (just like the United States), with negative voices drowning out the affirmative ones, film critics and reviewers in London generally bypassed the Jews in their deconstruction of the film.

Missing in most of the reviews was any recognition of Jewish concerns — except, of course, in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, the community’s local weekly newspaper, which devoted several issues to describing the responses of the editor, the columnists and the community: A terrible, inaccurate and anti-Semitic film, they argued. That community apparently is small enough to be hidden from view — 300,000 out of a population of 58 million with two-thirds living in greater London, and a large percentage of that number secular and unaffiliated. The end result is that Britain’s affiliated Jews are not a significant enough presence in society to merit concern. We are, to quote one Jewish community leader, simply invisible.

This has its ironic side today. Jews have made incredible strides within Britain over the past 40 years. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s days as the Tory Prime Minister of Great Britain in the 1980s, Jews have taken on an active role in the British establishment: They figured prominently in Thatcher’s Cabinet, and began to play an increasingly significant role at the bar and the judiciary, as well as in publishing, science and the press. Today, to everyone’s astonishment (in the Jewish community) the leader of the Conservative Party and perhaps the next prime minister, Michael Howard, is Jewish; as is Michael Grade, the newly appointed director of the powerful BBC; while Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary who, after seven years away from politics, has returned and is expected to rejoin the Conservatives in Parliament. How invisible can that be?

The problem is that nothing comparable to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations or the Anti-Defamation League exists in Great Britain. There is little Jewish political clout. The organized Jewish community is represented by a Board of Deputies, which consists of synagogue and organizational leaders. But it is not a commanding lobby group with powerful ties to the political institutions of the nation.

Nor is there a sense within the national press and television stations that Jewish issues are part and parcel of the national political dialogue. When BBC 4 aired a television program that discussed in detail Jewish anxieties and criticism of Gibson’s "The Passion," the footage was filled with clips from the U.S. showing prominent American Jewish figures, such as Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, speaking out against the film. Indeed, one telling newspaper review featured a critic who explained that he took along a Jewish friend to the film’s screening, but then was baffled when the friend complained that some scenes were anti-Semitic. The reviewer did not like the film, but failed to understand how anyone could view it as directed against the Jews.

Perhaps that explains the intellectual attack that appeared in The Spectator, a conservative weekly opinion magazine.

"It’s not between Christians and Jews," critic Mark Steyn wrote, "but between believing Christians and the broader post-Christian culture."

What post-Christians wanted, he explained with a sly wink, was a wimpy Jesus who died so our sins could be licensed. Gibson’s film about Jesus the Redeemer was instead for those Christians who read the Bible as God’s word; for those "red meat" Christians who took the New Testament as the literal truth.

Many clergymen reserved cinema seats in advance and bought tickets for their congregations. Their hope was that the film would inject vitality into Christian worship and, in the process, bring people back to the church. They seemed unaware of Jewish fears and needs. In a limited way, some of their hopes were borne out. The film was a smash hit in England, breaking box office records — though nothing to compare with the commercial success in the United States.

There is a rueful lesson of sorts for me in all of this. I have felt, along with others, that at times American Jewish organizations have been strident on the issues of anti-Semitism, Israel and other Jewish fears. They have often helped foster a cultural identity based on victimization. The alternative in Great Britain appears to be inclusion and integration in place of a collective Jewish voice. The richness of a Jewish identity and cultural memory is there in England for those who choose affiliation — but it is not accompanied by a strong political presence. In the United States — for better or ill — we appear to have it both ways.


Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.

Fine-Tuning


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s impending visit to Israel could be a win-win for the governor, the Los Angeles Jewish community and for Israel, but first some fine-tuning is in order.

As we reported last week, the governor is scheduled to travel to Jerusalem May 2 to participate in groundbreaking ceremonies there for the $150 million Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance.

But as soon as reports circulated that the visit was on, eyebrows started shooting skyward. By the middle of this week, it looked like the governor’s trip to the Land of Milk and Honey was going to include a side order of sour grapes.

Why, asked some local Jews, did such a high-profile visit seem to exclude representation of a wider swath of the California Jewish community? Why should one Jewish organization take up the bulk of the governor’s agenda? Why was a trip by a politician not organized first through the normal political channels?

"He’s not some star popping in to help out some friends," said one local activist, clearly disgruntled. "He’s the governor of the State of California visiting the State of Israel." (This trip is privately funded, and does not use taxpayers’ money.)

Some of the concerns found their way into a March 24 Los Angeles Times article about the trip. The story, with its implication that the trip was stepping on toes and upsetting protocol, infuriated some Wiesenthal Center supporters.

"I don’t get it," one of them told me. "Here this popular governor is going to Israel at a time when Israel really needs all the friends it can get, and people are turning it into an issue. I’ve had it with the Jews."

You know emotions are running hot when Museum of Tolerance supporters start getting anti-Semitic.

But, exasperated joking aside, the Jerusalem brouhaha does threaten to mar what can be a flat-out success for all parties. So far, the mess is hardly anything that the governor’s office can’t quickly clean up. One experienced local pol — not Jewish — observed the dust-up with dispassion: "Arnold has a mix of politically experienced and politically inexperienced people on his payroll," he said.

When it comes to little things like visits to foreign countries, experience helps.

Simon Wiesenthal Center dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier, who initiated the Jerusalem museum project, said he just can’t comprehend some of the reports and rumors that are circulating about the visit.

Most disturbing is the idea that the visit is some kind of quid pro quo. In the heat of the bitter recall campaign that put Schwarzenegger in office, Hier reiterated the results of a Wiesenthal Center investigation that cleared the Austrian-born governor’s late father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, of involvement in any World War II-era war crimes.

If the trip is seen as payback, it demeans both the governor and the center. "Quid pro quo applies when you don’t know a person," Hier told me by phone. "I’ve known the governor for 20 years. He has had cocktail parties and parlor meetings for us. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to us and raised millions. He has participated in events of much less importance than [the groundbreaking], so it would be unusual if he didn’t participate in this."

Furthermore, Hier added, the center released all records it found pertaining to Schwarzenegger’s father to the media for public review.

The idea for trip is a year and a half old, Hier said. Schwarzenegger attended a parlor meeting in Miami for the Jerusalem museum long before his run for governor. At that meeting, Schwarzenegger promised to attend.

"He said, ‘You don’t have to tell me I’m going, I’m going,’" Hier said.

There has not been any indication that the recent State Department travel advisory against Israel and the prospect of violence in the wake of the assassination of Shiekh Ahmed Yassin will deter the governor. A spokesperson at the governor’s office said that trip was still in the planning stages, as are responses to security concerns.

"Everything is still being determined," the spokesperson said.

As to whether the Wiesenthal Center should have made sure to bring Israelis and local Jewish leaders in on the trip, Hier said he could only take responsibility for the part of the visit that concerned the groundbreaking ceremony and a Museum of Tolerance fundraising dinner that the governor was scheduled to attend. (The governor’s office would not confirm his attendance at the latter event.)

"I assume he has other components to his trip," Hier said. "We’ve always known he was going to do other things."

All official visits by governors include a meeting with the prime minister — true whether the governor is from California or Kansas — and a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum. (The Museum of Tolerance, which is being designed by Frank Gehry, will have no Holocaust-related exhibit.)

"My interest is that the governor is going to have an official, formal element to his visit to Israel," Israel Consul General Yuval Rotem said. The governor’s office said an itinerary is still in formation, and its release is two to three weeks off.

"Of course that should take place," said Hier, referring to a meeting between Schwarzenegger and the prime minister, "but I’m not involved in that."

Including other community leaders in the festivities surrounding the groundbreaking was not an option, Hier said. Invitees are people whom the center hopes will contribute toward the $200 million price tag of the museum and its endowment. So far, the center has raised $75 million for the project.

"On this occasion the shoe didn’t fit," Hier said. "We’re looking for prospects."

It’s no secret that a dram or two of bad blood has flowed between the Wiesenthal Center and some quarters of the community ever since Hier established the center and the museum here. As the center has become more of a presence in Jewish Los Angeles — many in the media see it as the major Jewish presence here — Hier and other Jewish leaders have worked to forge warmer bonds. Indeed, not everyone is ticked. "I think it’s fine," said Mel Levine, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of The Jewish Federation, regarding the trip. Levine, himself a former congressman, did not think a promise made as a private citizen should necessarily be negated once in public service.

"The governor, long before he was governor, was a supporter of the Museum of Tolerance here," he said, "and I believe it’s good whenever public officials go to Israel."

Officially, then, many community leaders are adopting a far-from-antagonistic approach to the visit. They want the governor, in the words of one activist, to see that "there’s more to the Jewish community than Marvin Hier," but they also don’t want to create any ill will so early in the administration. That makes sense. There are just too many important communal issues — poverty relief, medical funding, homeland security, to name a few — that rate higher on the agenda than this visit.

They also understand that, to borrow from the season we’re fast approaching, this governor is different from all other governors. "He doesn’t see himself as a politician," said the local pol, "and so far people don’t see him as one." Just as Schwarzenegger’s campaign circumvented normal channels of campaigning, so too his governance can bend the rules.

But as the governor moves forward, it must be with an understanding that as good a friend as he has in Hier, he has the potential to make many more in the Jewish community.

Community Briefs


No ‘Idol’ Chatter at Milken SpeechContest

Milken Community High School senior Nona Farahnik was named Milken Idol for her stirring pro-Israel speech in the school’s March 10 public speaking finals, with other competitors talking about bullies, cheating, the homeless and Special Olympics in the “American Idol”-inspired contest.

It was the Duke University-bound senior’s call for Zionist solidarity that captured the $500 first-place prize and the Milken Idol title. The contest combined the 800-student school’s contest theme of “Don’t stand idly by,” with judges and audience voting similar to Fox Broadcasting’s popular talent-search show.

“Show Israel that you care,” Farahnik told the 600 Milken students gathered in the school gym. “Israel is fighting a cold and calculating enemy — an enemy who has been trained to not think twice when blowing himself up in a family-filled restaurant, in a disco with dozens of dancing teenagers or on a bus of children on their way to school. Israel is fighting a sick, repulsive enemy and we must empower her to stop him.”

Upon winning, Farahnik, 18, said she would donate her $500 prize to the school’s fundraising efforts to buy bulletproof vests for Israel Defense Forces members.

The second-place $250 prize went to junior David Ashkenazi, who delivered a speech urging fellow students to “not stand idly by” and countenance cheating.

Tied for the $100 third-place prize were junior Matan Agam and freshman Peter Wasserman. Agam gave a highly personal speech about supporting the Special Olympics, which he participates in with his special-needs younger sister, Danielle. Wasserman’s encounter with the poor outside the Staples Center after a Lakers game prompted his speech prioritizing Southern California’s homeless over volatile issues abroad.

“Many times, these situations overshadow the problems that are in our own backyard,” said Wasserman, who told The Journal that he plans to give his prize money to a homeless shelter.

The $100 fifth-place prize went to freshman Lena August, who turned 15 the same day as the competition’s finals. She spoke about bullies, a common problem among students worldwide. August said victims of schoolyard taunts remember not only their tormentors, but also “they will remember all of the faces of the people standing there watching.”

The final round’s judges were Lowell Milken, Milken Family Foundation chairman and president; Nadia Fay, public speaking consultant; Rob Eshman, Jewish Journal editor-in-chief; and John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Public speaking consultant Richard Greene, father of Milken junior Chiara Greene, organized the competition. The finalists were selected from 600 Milken students and received coaching from Greene, author of “Words That Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events” (Alpha Communications).

Greene said he wanted to give students tools for public speaking and enable them to offer persuasive arguments regarding Israel and other issues that affect Jewish life. The Milken competition was a pilot program for a national teenage speech program that Greene plans to launch later this year. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Schwarzenegger to Take Part in MuseumGroundbreaking

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will participate in groundbreaking ceremonies for the $150 million Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem on May 2.

Schwarzenegger will speak at a gala dinner at the King David Hotel to be attended by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Cabinet ministers and other dignitaries.

Plans for the groundbreaking were confirmed Monday by Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who initiated the Jerusalem project.

“Gov. Schwarzenegger has been a friend and supporter of the Wiesenthal Center for 20 years, and we are proud that he will stand with us in Jerusalem,” Hier said.

It will be the first trip outside the country for the former body builder and movie action hero since assuming office. He will also discuss trade relations between California and Israel while in Tel Aviv.

The Jerusalem museum is being designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, who will participate in the groundbreaking. The museum is expected to be completed in three to three and a half years, Hier said.

It will rise in the center of western Jerusalem, on both sides of Hillel Street near Independence Park, and will include state-of-the-art multimedia exhibits, conference center, theater complex, library and atrium.

The museum’s 240,000 square feet of usable space will make it three times larger than the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Wiesenthal Center recently opened its New York Tolerance Center.

Supporters of the Jerusalem project, in particular former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, believe that it will revive the center of Israel’s capital and boost tourism.

Concern had been expressed by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, that the new museum would duplicate its mission. However, Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, said in a statement last week that following discussions with the Wiesenthal Center, “We reached a mutual agreement that the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem will not address the Holocaust. Yad Vashem does not believe there is justification for another Holocaust center in Jerusalem.”

Hier confirmed that the museum will focus on intra-Jewish disputes, relations with other religions and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Deadline Nears on Filing of HolocaustClaims

A final alert to persons with claims against European insurance companies stemming from the Holocaust era has been issued by California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

The deadline for filing such claims has been extended to March 31, but only for survivors or victims’ families who requested a claim form before Dec. 31, 2003, from the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC).

In addition, the claim forms must be received by the ICHEIC offices in Holland or Washington, D.C., by March 31, warned Leslie Tick, Department of Insurance senior counsel, who joined Garamendi in a phone call to The Journal.

If the claim form is filed and received in time, however, backup documentation can be sent later. However, once the deadline has passed, claimants will have no recourse except for initiating private lawsuits.

Garamendi, a member of the ICHEIC board, has been highly critical of the organization and last fall joined survivors in calling for the removal of its chairman, Lawrence Eagleburger.

There has recently been some improvement in ICHEIC’s operation, Garamendi said, but the organization is still two years behind in processing claims.

Claim forms should be sent to:

ICHEIC

LHR/LGW/690547/001

Int. Business Reply Service

I.B.R.S./C.C.R.I. Numero 1746

1110 VG Schipol

Pays-Bas, Nederland

Claim forms sent to this address are supposed to be postage free but cannot be sent by certified mail.

An alternate address that accepts certified mail, is: ICHEIC, 1300 L St. NW, Suite 1150, Washington, D.C., 20005.

The following organizations will provide help in completing claim forms: California Department of Insurance, (800) 927-4357; Bet Tzedek, (323) 549-5883; ICHEIC, (800) 957-3203. — TT

ADL Assails Hate Crime Targeting CollegeProfessor

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has expressed outrage over a recent hate crime committed at Claremont McKenna College against a visiting professor converting to Judaism.

“Hate crimes tear at the very fabric of our society,” said Amanda Susskind, ADL Pacific Southwest region director, in a statement. “It is important and commendable for our law enforcement agencies to demonstrate their commitment to the safety of all citizens by their steadfast pursuit of these crimes.”

On March 9, the vehicle of professor Kerri Dunn was attacked by vandals as she spoke at a forum about racial intolerance. They smashed her windshield, slashed the tires and covered the car with anti-Semitic and anti-African American messages.

A couple days later, hundreds of students at Claremont Colleges rallied to protest the attacks. Administrators canceled classes.

College administrators have offered $10,000 for information about the perpetrators of the crime. Susskind, in her statement, applauded the university’s aggressive stance and the police for their efforts. — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Councilman Offers Help in Keeping CenterOpen

Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti has offered his mediation services to keep the embattled Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center open.

Garcetti, who attended the JCC growing up and now represents the area, thinks the center is a valuable asset worth fighting for, said Glen Dake, the councilman’s legislative deputy.

“With L.A. growing, we need more of these facilities, not fewer of them,” Dake said. “That’s why he wants a strong, vibrant facility remaining there.”

Garcetti hopes to set up a meeting among officials from the Silverlake Independent JCC, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA).

Federation President John Fishel said last week that he was open to a three-party meeting to discuss center-related issues. Nina Lieberman Giladi, JCCGLA executive vice president, said she, too, was amenable to sitting down and working toward a viable solution.

“I appreciate [Garcetti’s] willingness to reach out and look for opportunities that may have not been discussed,” she said.

The JCCGLA, which oversees many of the city’s JCCs, has put the Silverlake center up for sale, partly to pay back its $2.2 million debt to The Federation. The Jewish philanthropic organization has a $550,000 lien on the property.

Officials at the JCCGLA said they have already received an offer for Silverlake, though they declined to reveal the amount.

Janie Schulman, Silverlake Independent president, said she felt optimistic about the outcome of any three-party meeting.

“I am confident that if we could get everyone sitting at the same table speaking openly and frankly, instead of pointing fingers and speaking past each other, that we might make some progress,” she said. — MB

Journalist Attacks Actions of Israel’s PoliticalFringes

Israeli journalist Yossi Klein HaLevi portrayed Jewish far-leftists and far-rightists as mutual failures for their respective attempts at peace with Palestinians and increased West Bank settlements, actions which have ushered Israel into what the author called, “the decade of sobriety.”

In his March 4 lecture to about 100 people at the UCLA Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center, the Jerusalem Post columnist assailed both of Israel’s political fringes.

“What applies to the anti-Zionist left applies to the super-Zionist right,” he said. “We live in a Jewish reality where there are very few moorings. We are a generation of chameleons; we’re almost a Purim generation in that sense. We’re all wearing masks.”

Far-right Jews, he said, smother themselves with the ancient history of Israel so much that they “are ready to commit any atrocity in defense of that story.”

Jews on the anti-Zionist far left, he said, have embraced, “the genocidal intentions of the PLO” and are ready to “violate the most basic self-understanding of the Jewish people, legitimizing those who are demonizing Israel.”

“Neither Jewish camp has the answer,” Klein HaLevi said. “We were a politically immature people that barricaded ourselves in our political certainties.”

The lecture, sponsored by UCLA’s Bruins for Israel student group and the Burkle Center for International Relations, was not a debate. But Olam magazine editor David Suissa gave a supportive response after Klein HaLevi spoke, asking Jews not to be so judgmental of each other.

“We have to transcend this energy that tries to make us judge,” Suissa said. “Judgment is easy. Curiosity is more difficult.”

Klein HaLevi’s perspective differed, saying that anti-Zionist Jewish academics such as MIT professor Noam Chomsky are as removed from Judaism as the late far-right extremist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 killed 29 Muslims praying in Hebron.

“In the end, everyone is not my brother,” he said. “Noam Chomsky and Baruch Goldstein both have very dubious claims to being my brother.”

Klein HaLevi had one bit of advice for both far-right extremists, who accuse their enemies of being akin to Jewish collaborators in World War II, and far-left activists, who routinely use Nazi metaphors to describe Israeli countermeasures against Palestinian terrorists: “Holocaust talk is off limits; no Holocaust invoking in our mutual taunting, because when we get to that, we are in an abyss to which there is no return — the next logical step is civil war.” — DF

My Culture War


Freedom of the press is, strictly speaking, the freedom to own a press. Within wonderfully broad limits, The New York Times can say anything it wants, but you can’t say anything you want in The New York Times.

Radio entertainer Howard Stern, as successful and wealthy as he is, doesn’t own the stations or networks that broadcast his show. So when one of those networks, Clear Channel Communications, dumped him last week from six of its stations on extremely suspicious indecency charges, all he could hope for was that outraged citizens or loyal listeners would speak out.

Howard, here I am.

I discovered Stern’s morning show driving to work 11 years ago, and I’ve been listening since. Day in and out, it has guaranteed me at least one good smile before work begins. To the working commuter that is a gift. When it’s good, which is often, Stern’s show offers a kind of ongoing, un-PC satire of political, pop and celebrity culture that — at least until Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show" appeared — had all but vanished from TV and radio. I turn it on after I drop the kids off at school. When it bores or offends me, I switch stations for a while.

Now people want to take my show away. After Clear Channel dropped his program, Stern said that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is moving to bring fines for indecency against the show, which will eventually force Infinity Broadcasting to drop it as well.

Make no mistake: the FCC, composed of five presidential appointees, levies fines, grants licenses and approves station expansion. It holds all the best cards here.

I understand that by many peoples’ standards, Stern is indecent, but he has been so for a long, long time. The incident that prompted Clear Channel to dump him, and for which the FCC may levy fines, has been so commonplace on his program that it could have been mistaken for a promo spot.

Ever since Janet Jackson exposed herself during the Super Bowl’s halftime show, the FCC and some members of Congress have been pushing for tougher decency standards and higher fines. Conservative religious-oriented citizens groups, like Focus on the Family, have urged them along with coordinated e-mail campaigns.

The media have picked up on this latest battlefront in the Culture War because the media loves a good Culture War. The issues are easier to understand than arguments over health care or the tax code, and they usually involve sex (Howard Stern, gay marriage) and violence (Mel Gibson, gun control).

Stern is saying that what has put the FCC on his trail this time is not dirty words, but his sudden and outspoken opposition to the re-election of President Bush. Stern supported Bush following Sept. 11 and throughout the second Gulf War, praising him as a tough leader. But he began speaking out against Bush over issues at the heart of the Culture War — stem-cell research, gay rights — and began urging his listeners to vote for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, a centrist Republican, has credited Stern’s on-air support with making the difference that got her elected. Clear Channel, a corporation with a long history of support for Bush, might not have pulled Stern from such swing-state markets in Florida and Pennsylvania for political reasons, but doing so certainly won’t hurt Bush there.

I’ve never really understood where the Culture War ends in this country and the Political War begins. My sense is that each needs and uses the other, and an election year kicks them both into high gear. Each side wants you to believe that it is on the brink of losing the war, but the evidence is murky.

Sure, Stern may get canceled, but books by leftists like Michael Moore and Al Franken are at the top of national bestseller lists. Yes, many in the media trashed "The Passion of the Christ," but that didn’t stop it from earning close to $200 million so far. There may be vast conspiracies of the left- or right-wing, but Americans themselves vacillate.

It isn’t surprising that Stern is caught up in the kind of cultural and political battle in which Jewish comedians and commentators like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce once found themselves.

He is heir to the Jewish tradition of the badchen, or shtetl entertainer. "They were scandalous, filled with gossip," comedian and frequent Stern guest Richard Belzer has said. "Their essence was to expose and make fun of things in their society. The badchen’s society was the shtetl. We expand it to include the whole society."

"Stern’s is an unleashed id unrepressed by socially approved feelings," writes Lawrence Epstein in his seminal study of Jewish comedy, "The Haunted Smile." "He is an attack on society’s right to censor the honest feels of the individual. He is a safety valve, a release." In as free and democratic medium that exists, 18 million Americans vote for Stern each morning.

The badchen is what Thomas Cahill might call a "Gift of the Jews," an outsider who exposes society’s foibles, pokes fun at its hypocrisies, makes people laugh and makes people think. The FCC has no right to look this gift horse in the mouth.