Jews and abortion

One of the most frequent questions Christians ask me as a Jew is, “Why aren’t Jews committed to protecting the unborn?”

The question is not asked in anger. The questioners are truly confused. Christians think of Jews as the people who brought the greatest value system into the world — biblical, monotheistic values upon which Western civilization is based.

It was the Torah, after all, that introduced the idea that the human being is created in God’s image, and therefore infinitely valuable. So, while the Greeks allowed sickly or unsightly children to die of exposure, Jews kept every child alive.

Most Jews will respond that what concerns them regarding the human fetus is protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion. It is not that they are “pro-abortion,” but that they are first and foremost pro-choice.

Now, that response would be understandable, and perhaps even morally unobjectionable, if Jews took a moral stand against most abortions while they advocated for the legality of abortion.

What we have here are two separate issues. Ironically, however, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates choose to them see as one.

The first is the legality of abortion. 

The other is the morality of abortion.

Pro-life people argue that since abortions are almost all immoral, abortion — unless performed to save the mother’s life or, for others, in cases of rape or incest — should be illegal.

Meanwhile pro-choice activists argue that since all abortions should be legal, they will never judge any abortions to be immoral.

Because they do not distinguish the legal and moral issues, both sides have done injury to moral clarity about abortion as well as to their respective causes.

By advocating the criminalizing of nearly all abortions, the pro-life forces have hurt their cause. Even the many Americans who are morally ambivalent about abortion on demand — a 2011 Gallup poll showed that 51 percent of Americans believe abortion is morally wrong and only 39 percent believe that abortion is morally acceptable — are against criminalizing abortion. The pro-life movement should have concentrated its rhetorical firepower on the morality of abortion, not its legality.

One the other side, the pro-choice forces are so passionate about the legality of abortions that they are silent about its morality.

And that is where most Jews — especially rabbis — have been a moral disappointment.

Without having to abandon their pro-choice position, any Jew who speaks as a Jew or who cares about Jewish moral values should acknowledge that many abortions have no moral defense. Yet, I have almost never encountered a pro-choice Jew who does so.

Let me give an example of where Jews would surely be pro-choice yet be outspoken about the moral issue: adultery.

I presume that just about every Jew — from ultra-Orthodox and politically conservative to completely irreligious and politically left — would oppose criminalizing adultery. In other words, all Jews are pro-choice on adultery. Yet, I would also presume that nearly all Jews, and certainly all rabbis, if asked whether they are pro-choice on adultery, would respond that while they are, they want to make it abundantly clear that they regard adultery as immoral.

Why, then, can’t pro-choice Jews — especially rabbis — say the same thing about abortion? Why can’t they say that while they are pro-choice, as Jews and as moral humans they regard most abortions immoral?

Is it moral to abort a female fetus solely because the mother wants a boy?

Is it moral for an affluent married woman to have an abortion solely because she just doesn’t want a child at this time, or just doesn’t want any more children?

Is it moral to have an abortion when the fetus can live outside the womb — and there is no medical necessity to have one?

Is it moral to have an abortion for no medical reason even though there are myriad married couples who ache to adopt a newborn?

Shouldn’t everyone be troubled by these questions? 

If the Jewish community took as strong a stand on the immorality of most abortions as it does on keeping abortion legal, it would not only strengthen the pro-choice cause, it would bring moral honor to the Jewish people and to Judaism. That almost no non-Orthodox rabbis, let alone Jewish women’s groups and Jewish organizations preoccupied with social justice, have publicly expressed moral misgivings concerning any abortions is not a credit to Judaism or the Jewish people. 

This is one more reason one must sadly conclude that for many, perhaps most, Jews leftism has supplanted Judaism as their religion; Judaism has become largely a cultural expression and an ethnic identity. One way to reassert the primacy of Judaism would be for pro-choice Jews — again, especially rabbis — to publicly assert the difference between abortion’s legality and most abortions’ morality.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Specter remembered as an iconoclast who enjoyed going toe to toe with tyrants

During his 30 years in the clubby confines of the U.S. Senate, Arlen Specter never lost his acerbic prosecutorial zeal, friends and associates say.

The insistent questions, the commitment to independence that made the longtime Pennsylvania senator a critical player in recent U.S. history, ultimately did in his career. In his 2010 bid for a sixth term, Specter lost the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

Specter, who had been the longest-serving U.S. senator from his state, died Sunday of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 82.

His iconoclasm was his brand, from the outset of his career, when he made a name for himself as the young Philadelphia assistant district attorney on the Warren Commission who first postulated that a single bullet hit both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally.

[Related: Former US Senator Arlen Specter dies of cancer at 82]

And he wore his independence as a badge of honor: The pro-choice Republican who helped fell Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, and then ensured Clarence Thomas’ ascension by leading what many liberal groups saw as the smearing of Anita Hill, a one-time aide to Thomas who had accused the former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of sexually harassing her. The pro-Israel stalwart who enjoyed his one-on-ones with some of the Middle East’s most bloodstained tyrants.

Running for district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965, he left the Democratic Party, but returned in 2009, frustrated with what he said was the Republican Party’s lurch rightward. Specter the Democrat helped pass President Obama’s health care reforms.

“He would tell me, ‘Every morning I wake up I look in the mirror and I see the toughest guy in politics,’ ” recalled Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America who first lobbied and then befriended Specter.

Specter, who represented Pennsylvania in the Senate from 1981 to 2011, was shaped by his childhood as the only Jewish kid in his class in a small Midwestern town, Russell, Kan., said David Brog, a longtime aide to Specter who eventually rose to be his chief of staff.

“He was a tough Jew,” Brog said. Specter’s upbringing — helping out his father, a peddler and scrap metal business owner, when he was barely beyond toddler age — was a factor in his pro-Israel leadership, Brog said.

“He saw a little of Israel in himself as the only Jew in his class in Russell,” he said.

Although his sisters were Orthodox Jewish, Specter himself was not outwardly religious, though he had a strong sense of Jewish identity.

Brog noted that on his visits to the Jewish state, Specter would make a point of visiting the grave of his father, who came to the United States from what is now Ukraine, and who wished to be buried in Israel.

Specter was a congressional leader in advancing the cause of Soviet Jews, recalled Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ, the former National Council on Soviet Jewry.

“He had a particular interest in addressing these issues through legal means,” Levin said, particularly by leveraging international human rights laws. Specter would grill his interlocutors from the Soviet Jewry activist movement, asking them to come up with new avenues to leverage the Soviet Union and other European states.

“He wanted to know what more could be done, at the most difficult time when so few people were getting out,” Levin said. “What more could we do, whom do we need to speak to, what do we need to focus on? He was tough but fair.”

Specter also helped preserve the Lautenberg Amendment, named for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), which eased immigration for refugees from persecution. Designed as a way to advance the exodus of Soviet Jews, Specter extended the amendment to minorities from other nations, including Iran.

“A prescient leader, he understood early on that religious minorities within Iran needed special protection,” said a statement from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “The senator never forgot his Jewish roots, and his legacy within the Jewish community is great.”

Specter throughout his career was a pro-Israel leader, in recent years leading efforts to condition aid to the Palestinian Authority on its peace process performance. He also aimed to protect Jewish students on campuses from anti-Israel harassment.

An array of Jewish and pro-Israel groups mourned his passing.

“Time and time again, Sen. Specter worked to ensure that America’s ally had the resources necessary to defend herself and protect U.S. interests in the Middle East,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement. “He was a good friend of our organization and a leading architect of the congressional bond between our country and Israel.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington called Specter “ an unswerving defender of the Jewish State and a stalwart advocate of peace.”

Yet Specter also courted the region’s tyrants, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Assads in Syria. He longed for a role brokering peace between Israel and Syria, even after his departure from the Senate.

“He visited these tyrants and he was convinced that he could convince them to moderate their policies,” Klein said. “And as we know, he never did.”

Brog said that Specter relished, from his days as a prosecutor, the challenge of going toe to toe with bad guys and getting them to stand down.

“He and Hafez Assad would sit for hours on end drinking tea, seeing who would need to go for a bathroom break first,” Brog said, referring to the late Syrian strongman and father of the country's current ruler, Bashar Assad.

More seriously, Brog said, Specter was committed to creating an environment friendly to peacemaking for Israel by forging a deal with its most recalcitrant neighbor.

“The prize was, if you could get Syria, the most extreme of Israel's neighbors, to sign a peace deal, you could create a climate in the region,” he said.

Specter’s independence took a toll on his staff, Brog said.

“Every single vote he wanted a briefing on the merits without just knowing how the party wanted the vote,” he said.

Specter was an exacting boss, Brog said, and notorious for sending staffers packing.

“Those of us who stayed with him saw this as a very good thing,” said Brog, who now serves as executive director of Christians United for Israel. “I look at my professional standards from before and after, and I see how I grew as a professional.”

Nominees for the federal bench were a regular target of his difficult questions, said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“He was always independent and was proud of the fact that he went with his conscience,” she said.

Moshenberg found his tough questions gratifying when Specter grilled nominees on reproductive rights, but recalled being “infuriated” when he accused Hill of perjuring herself in accusing Thomas of sexual harassment.

“I remember standing in the Senate reception room waiting for him to vote and thanking him at times, and expressing disappointment at other times,” she said. “Many times I got to thank him.”

As the political climate grew more polarized, Specter found himself assailed by the left and the right. In 2004 he barely fended off a Republican primary challenge from his right by Rep. Pat Toomey.

Five years later, realizing he would likely not be able to beat Toomey again, Specter switched parties, saying the GOP had “moved far to the right.” Yet the Democratic Party proved no more welcoming; he lost in the 2010 primary to Rep. Joe  Sestak, who in turn was defeated by Toomey in the general election.

The Jewish affiliates of both parties issued statements commemorating Specter’s career. Each emphasized different aspects of his career — the National Jewish Democratic Council called him a “crucial voice of moderation” and the Republican Jewish Coalition said he was a “staunch supporter of Israel.”

But the groups echoed one another in describing Specter’s higher calling: The RJC noted that he was a “devoted public servant,” and the NJDC called him a “consummate public servant.”

Briefs: Hier scolds Carter, and vice versa; StandWithUs distributes “Israel 101”

Hier scolds Carter, and vice versa

Former President Jimmy Carter has implicitly accused the Simon Wiesenthal Center of “falsehood and slander,” after the center mailed Carter some 25,000 signed petitions protesting his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

In a brief but stinging note to Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s founder and dean, Carter wrote, by hand, “I don’t believe that Simon Wiesenthal would have resorted to falsehood and slander to raise funds.”

In his response to Carter, Hier noted that after reading the book, “It is incredulous to me that, after your historic achievement of brokering peace between Israel and Egypt, you could write such a book.”

After notingthat the United States would react in the same way as Israel if exposed to terrorism and suicide bombings, Hier concluded, “To his last breath, Simon Wiesenthal believed that the only reason there is no peace in the Middle East is because of Islamic extremists who refuse to compromise, not because of the State of Israel.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing EditorPro-Choice Groups Warn About Complacency

Twenty-three new pro-choice representatives have just been elected to Congress, and California has an A-plus rating in reproductive rights legislation. This sounds like good news, and indeed it is. But, warned Amy Everitt, director of National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice California, these gains can lead to a complacency that is scarcely warranted.

Two days after the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade, Everitt, addressing a gathering at the National Coalition of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW) headquarters, emphasized that even with the victories of the last elections, there is still not a pro-choice majority in Congress, and anti-choice forces have been working steadily to erode reproductive freedom. The meeting was co-sponsored by numerous groups, including the City of West Hollywood, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Hollywood NOW.

Joyce Schorr, founder and president of the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRAPP) underscored how difficult it is for many women to get the care they need.

Despite its excellent rating in legislation, 41 percent of California’s counties have no abortion facilities, while nationwide, 87 percent of counties have no abortion providers whatsoever.

In 1991, Schorr, as an NCJW activist, created WRAPP as a national safety net for women and families. Last year, by raising and distributing funds for medical and travel expenses, WRAPP helped 1,687 women in 48 states obtain abortions.

In discussion after their presentations, Everitt and Schorr rooted their commitment to reproductive rights for all women in the tenets of Judaism.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis has affirmed the “right of a woman or individual family to terminate a pregnancy,” and opposes any amendments or legislation that would abridge that right.

“One of the reasons I started WRAPP as an NCJW project was because the Torah tells us to give of ourselves,” Schorr said. “Poor women needed a mitzvah project and WRAPP provides for their needs.”

— Naomi Glauberman, Contributing Writer

StandWithUs Distributes ‘Israel 101’

StandWithUs, the L.A.-based Israel advocacy organization, has released a primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group prepared “Israel 101” in response to what it says is a “pressing need” for an easy-to-use resource for students engaged in Israel advocacy on college campuses. The 44-page, full-color primer offers a condensed history of Israel and brief introductions to hot-button issues, including the peace process, the Palestinian refugee problem and last summer’s war with Hezbollah.

— Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Interfaith Understanding Starts Young

Jewish, Muslim and Christian students in Orange County spent the fall in a dialogue and art exchange program, producing poetry and artwork based on the new understanding they gained.

The Jerusalem Sky Project, run by the World of Difference Institute of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach office, brought together 75 fourth- to eighth-graders from Morasha Jewish Day School and St. John’s Episcopal School in Rancho Santa Margarita, and The New Horizon Elementary School in Irvine.

The program used the recently published “Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses and Crescents,” by Mark Podwal, to inspire the students to teach each other and to get to know one another.

The schools each hosted the group once during the semester-long interfaith project, and late in November the group gathered for a final meeting and exhibition of their artwork, which was on display at the Rancho Santa Margarita Bell Tower through December.

“Our hope was to start the process of exploring that there are others out there,” said Melissa Carr, special projects director for the ADL’s Orange County/Long Beach office. “A lot of times in private religious school settings, the students don’t have much opportunity to interact with others in the community.”

Carr said all the schools want to continue the relationship and are now working toward putting together a continuing program.

The kids met for the first time at New Horizon, a Muslim elementary school. A parent gave the students an “Islam 101” recap. When the Muslim students shared their traditions for prayers, holidays and holy books, the other students realized how, as religious people, they have a lot in common, said Robin Hoffman, Judaic studies director at Morasha.

Morasha hosted the group on Sukkot, but it was also during Ramadan, and out of respect for the Muslim students no food was served. The Jewish students invited their friends to morning prayer services, where they took out the Torah and explained to their peers the traditions and history of Judaism.

At St. John’s Episcopal school, students went through the 14 stations of the cross to learn about Christianity, and heard about Christian theology from the school’s vicar.

At the final meeting, facilitators from the ADL’s World of Difference Institute led exercises about appreciating and respecting other ways of life.

But such abstractions were already becoming a reality for these students: By the time they met for their last gathering, students were exchanging phone numbers.In her poem for the exhibit, Iman Labanieh, a fifth-grader at New Horizon, wrote:

Wesley Clark’s Rabbinical Lineage

Raised a Southern Baptist who later converted to Roman Catholicism, Gen. Wesley Clark knew just what to say when he strode into a Brooklyn yeshiva in 1999, ostensibly to discuss his leadership of NATO’s victory in Yugoslavia.

"I feel a tremendous amount in common with you," the uniformed four-star general told the stunned roomful of students.

"I am the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son — at least five generations, and they were all rabbis."

The incident could be a signal of how Clark, who became the 10th contender in the Democratic run for the presidency on Wednesday, relates to the Jews and the issues dear to them.

Apparently Clark, 58, revels in his Jewish roots.

He told The Jewish Week in New York, which first reported the yeshiva comment in 1999, that his ancestors were not just Jews, but members of the priestly caste of Kohens.

Clark’s Jewish father, Benjamin Kanne, died when he was 4, but he has kept in touch with his father’s family since his 20s, when he rediscovered his Jewish roots. He is close to a first cousin, Barry Kanne, who heads a pager company in Georgia.

Clark shares more than sentimental memories with Jews.

He couples liberal domestic views that appeal to much of the Jewish electorate with a soldier’s sympathy for Israel’s struggle against terror.

Appearing in June on "Meet the Press" on CBS, Clarke said he agreed with President Bush’s assessment that Israel should show more restraint, a reference to the policy of targeting terrorist leaders for assassination.

"But the problem is," Clark continued, "when you have hard intelligence that you’re about to be struck, it’s the responsibility of a government to take action against that intelligence and prevent the loss of lives. It’s what any society would expect of its leadership. So there’s a limit to how much restraint can be shown."

Speaking to the New Democrat Network this year, Clark said that dismantling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters was "a legitimate military objective from their perspective.

"For the Israelis, this is a struggle really for the existence of Israel," Clark said in remarks quoted on a support group’s Web site.

Clark is also tough on neighboring Arab states, expecting more from them in nudging the Palestinians toward peace. He has said he would like to see Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a "contact group" similar to the alliance that Serb-friendly Russia joined to force the Serbs to back down in Kosovo. He blames Saudi Arabia for allowing extremist strains of Islam to spread.

The former NATO leader also opposes any active international role in policing the West Bank until the political situation is settled, a view that Israelis — nervous at relinquishing control to foreign troops on their borders — would appreciate.

Domestically, Clark favors many of the liberal views popular with many Jews. He is pro-choice, and is strongly in favor of separating church from state.

"In order to have freedom of religion, you’ve got to protect the state from the church," he is quoted saying on his supporters’ Web site.

One of the leaders of the Draft Clark campaign said Clark’s strength on foreign policy would neutralize an advantage President Bush now has with Jews, and would bring the debate back to domestic issues, where the Bush administration is weaker with Jews.

"It makes him credible and allows him to focus on domestic policy,” Brent Blackaby said in a telephone interview from Clark’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark.

Two of Clark’s top advisers are Jews who had prominent roles in the Clinton and Gore campaigns. Eli Segal was a top adviser to President Clinton in his first term; Ron Klain helped run Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.