Erin Schrode Q-and-A: Progressive, pro-Israel and possibly youngest member of Congress

Interview Via iMessage — Meet Erin Schrode: A Proud Progressive & Pro-Israel Candidate… and oh btw would-be-youngest Member of Congress: 

Ed note: Yesterday, we interviewed Schrode, a 25-year-old candidate for California’s Second Congressional District from Marin County. Rather than simply talk by phone, we interviewed Erin by iMessage. As a millennial candidate, we figured Erin would be a good choice to start our Interview via iMessage series.

So how does one decide to run for Congress and who did you turn to for advice?

I’m an activist, an educator, a social entrepreneur. Public service has been my life for over a decade, but never did I think that I’d be a “politician.”

I gave a speech two plus months ago — the throughline of which was “if not here, where?” about the impact of this place, of Northern California, of our CD-2 on my life, my values, my career. I walked off stage and people said, “how do we get you to run for office?!”

I called up my mentors, those I respect most, dear friends, and expected them to smack me down to size, but they all said “RUN!” We need THAT voice in government today.

Dream endorsement?

Dream endorsement… hmmm… Martin Luther King. Can you make that happen?

Hahaha wish we had that ability!

A human being with dreams, an activist on the front lines, one who envisioned a new reality, a leader who earned respect and commanded moral authority.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience living abroad in Israel?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

I never had any connection to the state of Israel. My grandparents raised my mother in a conservative Jewish home, she raised me with those traditions across the country, I was Bat Mitzvahed, but never had any desire to GO to Israel.

A friend convinced me to go on Birthright. I landed at Ben Gurion and had the most profound sense of homecoming, of belonging.

I emailed NYU to see about studying abroad at our campus in TLV as soon as possible — and returned the following semester.

We landed in Tel Aviv two days before January 25th, the day that many use to mark the Egyptian Revolution, six months before Syrian unrest reached a boiling point. It was a charged time in the Middle East.

Erin together with her mother on the roof of Azrieli Towers in Tel AvivErin together with her mother on the roof of Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv

We read somewhere that you pioneered a program on the ground…

I’m an environmentalist — it’s the lens through which I view my life.

I’ve come to see eco eduction as a powerful tool for communication. Issues of climate change, environmental degradation, resource conservation, public health, food security, waste are universal and know no boundaries of geography or religion or race.

I worked with FoEME and wrote the curriculum for the first environmental education center in the Palestinian Authority, bringing together Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian youth around issues of shared natural resources, of biodiversity, of greywater, of water conservation, gardening techniques — as a means of peace building and conflict resolution. Powerful.

I’m a huge believer in finding common ground, in the right to exist of both peoples, in open communication for building peace.

Erin overlooking the Negev outside Sde BokerErin overlooking the Negev outside Sde Boker

You’re backing Sen. Sanders, correct?

I’m proud to be a Democrat right now, where two candidates are talking about the issues that matter and putting forth real platforms with solutions. The movement that Sanders’ campaign is creating does inspire me — and we are tapping into that same energy around the ignored, the excluded, the disenfranchised.

If Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton or the DNC appointed you to the Democratic Platform Committee at the upcoming convention, would you push for changing the language on Israel and the Palestinians?


I cannot accept such anti-Israel vitriol – and I don’t believe that any such change could ever come quietly. There is and will and MUST remain strong support for the State of Israel here in the USA.

I believe in a two-state solution and in the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Just to clarify — what do you mean by “and I don’t believe that any such change could ever come quietly.”?

I mean that I don’t think changing the language could happen without significant uprising from the Jewish community and leaders here in our country.

There’s a difference between advocating for a two-state solution while recognizing Palestinian rights and blatant anti-Israel rhetoric.

Even though we didn’t hear you say you’re officially backing Sanders, Sen Sanders has been quite critical of Bibi Netanyahu, specifically criticizing his speech in Congress in March 2015 calling Netanyahu “a right-wing politician” who “crashed the United States Congress”

You tweeted a quote from that speech… 

It was pre-campaign but what were your thoughts on the Prime Minister’s speech?

If you were in Congress would you have attended?

I wish that Congress hadn’t been playing partisan politics with it — Israel is our only democratic ally in the Middle East.

Absolutely, I would have been there!

…so was it a ‘crashing’ you think?


…and by ‘Congress’ do you mean Republicans or Democrats? or both?

I mean both.

I just went back into my Twitter and searched for my other tweets that day.

Feel free to share

I also said this: “Whatever your politics, no doubt @netanyahu just gave an extremely powerful speech that made Obama’s life a lot more diff.”

He did not crash Congress. He addressed our government, as the PM of our only democratic ally in the Middle East.

Are you concerned about a growing divide among progressives and the state of Israel?

Yes. Supporting Israel and standing for human rights are not mutually exclusive. An anti-Israel bias among progressives does nothing to promote peace, security or conflict resolution.

Do events that occur overseas really matter to us back home or should we make domestic issues more of a priority as candidates Sanders & Trump have suggested?

We are one world – and a more interconnected one than ever before. Events overseas can define our lives, as events at home shape the world. People and elected officials alike must recognize and enact policy in line with that clear fact.

Should the U.S. continue to send foreign aid to the Middle East?


What should the U.S. do in Syria? Nothing? No-fly zone? Boots on the ground?

This IS a long discussion, but one that merits our attention and action. As someone who has spent various weeks on the ground in Lesvos, Greece and Macedonia working with refugees fleeing the very violence of ISIS and Assad, I have heard it expressed time and time again that more must be done. Such action cannot be carried out by the US or foreign forces alone, rather driven by regional partners.

Somewhat related question — the activism that led you to places like Greece, Macedonia (Haiti after the disaster) was that at all influenced by your Jewish upbringing?

Tikkun olam is my life. If not acts of kindness to repair the world, then what?!

Those values of tikes olam, of tzedkah were instilled in my from my earliest of memories.

It harkens back to Pirkei Avot: if not now, when? It is not incumbent upon us to complete the work, but neither can we wait to begin.

Erin at the BBYO Conference in Baltimore interviewing two young Syrian refugees Erin at the BBYO Conference in Baltimore earlier this year interviewing two young Syrian refugees

Recently you’ve faced some anti-Semitic attacks online (after we linked to a article about you in the Daily Kickoff), something we’ve unfortunately seen too much of this election cycle, what can your generation do to improve the situation?

To be called a Filthy Jewess appalled me. I have never felt anti-Semitism directed toward me personally prior to that. In the face of ignorance and hated, we must remain vigilant and true to our values. I believe that we must speak about love and focus more upon what unites, rather than that which divides. We must honor our traditions and carry the torch proudly!

As an emerging Jewish leader, is there something specific you wish the Jewish community would do better/improve?

We can and should and must bring our people, especially young people, together – our משפחה! When we celebrate and honor our shared traditions, values, history, language, place (and food!), they thrive and take on new meaning. When we debate, we become stronger, better informed, and uniquely equipped to go forth. I am hugely proud to be Jewish and a part of such a rich, vibrant, resilient, charged community and tribe.

Is political/communal apathy the enemy?

Apathy is the single greatest problem plaguing our world today.

You mentioned food above, what is your favorite Jewish food item?

Charoset: I eat it by the bowl. Kasha varnishkes: I perfected a gluten-free version of my grandmother’s recipe this year. And latkes: my mom’s famous tricolor ones with beets, carrots, and zucchini are sensational with a dollop of homemade pearsauce (welcome to Northern California!).

I am also a Matzah mastermind: pizza, PB & J, avocado toast, you name it.

Erin's homemade latkesErin’s homemade latkes

What are the odds we’re calling you Congresswoman Schrode a year from now?

We’re a people who have long defied odds, לא?


I am laser-focused on our June 7 primary election here in California right now. If we make it through that, then the odds of Congresswoman Schrode increase significantly.

There is nothing more important that I feel I could be doing with my life, time, and energy. I have the opportunity to shed light on the issues that matter most to members of my community and to me personally – many of which we have spoken about here – at a precarious time in our history.

Fifteen answers for Dennis Prager

All right, I’ll admit it. I believe I’m a progressive, and I’m proud of it. I define “progressive” as “advocating inclusivity and being ready to adapt to changing world conditions.” If that is different from the idea Dennis Prager had in mind, stop reading right now. From my point of view, being a progressive means following in the footsteps of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harold Schulweis, to name two of the most recent proponents of that philosophy. With that said, I offer fifteen answers to Mr. Prager’s fourteen recent questions to progressives, whom I do not believe to be any more monolithic a group than Jews in general.

Number one: hatred from the left. Over the last couple of centuries, “the left” has come to mean “liberal” or “progressive” (as defined above), while “the right” has come to mean “conservative”. I apologize if I offend conservatives when I suggest that their basic philosophy is the protection of the status quo, if not the advocacy of a return to the conditions of some earlier time. These are relative terms, however. It might be useful to see how they might have applied in an earlier era.

Let’s think of the time of Roman domination of Israel. “The right” probably would have meant the Sadducees, who advocated the existing Temple cult. “The left” likely would have been the Pharisees. Our entire tradition was rescued and reshaped by Pharisee sages; the whole idea of reinterpreting the Torah to meet changing conditions comes from them. The funny thing about that is relativity. Our Christian neighbors give the Pharisees a pretty bad press; they think of them as “the right” and Jesus as “the left” – even though most of the teachings of Jesus strike me as thoroughly based on the earlier prophets and the Pharisee tradition.

When we return to the modern era, we might have questions about Mr. Prager’s facts. Although some of my Presbyterian clergy friends bravely spoke out against BDS, their Church – not renowned as a liberal organization – voted for it. Meanwhile, the presidents of several universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, have spoken forcefully and vociferously against BDS.

Number two: antipathy to Israel. ANY antipathy to Israel as a nation bothers me, but I do not agree with Mr. Prager’s premise that the preponderance of that antipathy comes from any particular side of the aisle.

Number three: where Judaism and I differ. Please note that Mr. Prager wrote “Judaism” as if there were universal agreement on the definition of that word. I generally follow Conservative practice, which began as the Conservative branch of Liberal or Reform Judaism. In other words, some people thought there might be such a thing as “too much reform”. There are ideas of Judaism to the left and to the right of me. I understand Mr. Prager to observe Orthodox practice, placing him on my right-hand side. If he means his choices when he uses the word “Judaism”, he has slanted the playing field in his direction. I like my Judaism and he likes his.

Perhaps we should be a little careful about the word “differ” as well. There are a few things in Conservative Judaism that I know perfectly well, but choose to ignore. Call me lazy – you wouldn’t be the first – but I could do better at my own practice. That’s not the same as taking actual exception to the tenets of my faith.

Number four: why bother with Judaism if you are a progressive? I offer a short answer to this question: for me, Judaism implies belief in G-d, while simply being a progressive does not require it. My particular belief structure includes working for the betterment of the community, which includes attendance at, leadership of, and student instruction in religious services. Gratitude to G-d is woven into the fabric of my life.

I am lucky to be employed by two congregations in various capacities, because I don’t have the money to be a member of either of them. “Opting out of synagogue and all other aspects of religious Jewish life” is a straightforward, if somewhat embarrassing, choice by families whose financial circumstances cause them to make difficult budget cuts. Yes, I am aware of committees at most synagogues that privately discuss these matters with such families. Let me suggest that we do not do as good a job in explaining how important Jewish communal life is for both adults and youth of families in any financial circumstances as we could. (If we did, there would be better Junior Congregation attendance and less soccer on Saturday morning!) I will go one more step to say that those explanations should have been made more clearly to the parents of the current parents.

Perhaps more importantly, I disagree with Mr. Prager’s notion that “progressives” who do not affiliate have ceased to be Jewish. All across America, in living rooms, in the back rooms of restaurants, and in backyards, chavurot of people who think of themselves as Jewish meet on a fairly regular basis. They are trying to do exactly what the Pharisees did nearly two thousand years ago: redefine their Judaism to meet changing conditions. Because they think of G-d and tradition differently than does Mr. Prager, he appears to write them off. I do not, although some sources of their “tradition” may not be as authentic as they could be.

In fact, here’s a question: does Mr. Prager consider “disassociation” peculiarly modern? This tension goes all the way back to Abraham’s departure from Haran. The warnings in the Torah against fraternizing with Canaanites were designed to prevent the Israelites from discovering the less savory aspects of “progressive” practice in their new land. Our Chanukah story glorifies the victory of the conservatives, who were the ones who “disassociated” at the time, over the “progressives”. Might Hellenists and Maccabees have found a middle ground without civil war? Would Mr. Prager equate Yigal Amir with Mattathias? (I’m sorry if that was an obnoxious question.)

Number five: “haters” and the definition of marriage. Look, Leviticus 18:22 is perfectly clear on how G-d feels about homosexual activity. Here, as in so many other places in the Torah, it is crucial to apply a more modern sensitivity to that issue. I do not understand homosexuality to be a pagan religious practice, nor do I see it as a disease that has to be cured. It’s just the way some people are. If such people want to contribute to the Jewish community, it is essential for us to open the doors and let them in, with all the benefits that accrue to traditional couples. Although it is not biologically possible for them to fulfill the very first commandment of the Torah, we should allow them to answer for that omission directly to the Almighty when their time comes. Separately, exclusion of faithful homosexual couples seems to be contrary to federal law, although I am no expert.

Number six: a rabbi’s “private” opinion about gay marriage. If those rabbis are willing to fulfill the tenets of their movement, who cares what they believe in private, but I would ask how those rabbis got that far in their training without realizing the problem.

Number seven: choice of marriage partner. Who cares what I want? My children have to live with their spouses. I have seen both. My elder daughter married into Orthodoxy and wholeheartedly adopted it. My son married a non-Jew long after becoming disaffected with religion in general. I care very much for both my son-in-law and my daughter-in-law because they make my own children happy.

Number eight: do I want my children fully Orthodox or fully secular? My answer is “neither”, but I don’t disown my children for their choices. “Fully orthodox” seems to me to be a little bit insular, while “fully secular” seems to me to ignore the work of G-d in the world. I’m sorry if I cannot meet Mr. Prager’s “black or white” choices.

Number nine: cross-dressing rabbi. Again, Deuteronomy 22:5 is clear about the Torah’s stance on this subject. My personal answer to Mr. Prager’s question is “yes”, but I consider it a very conditioned reflex.

Number ten: the danger of fundamentalism. I believe Moslem fundamentalism to be the most dangerous today because it has turned into extremism. I’ll have more to say about this subject in later questions. Let me be clear, however: ANY fundamentalism is a threat to my progressive leanings. Let me recommend that Mr. Prager and all who see this essay read The Ornament of the World by the late Professor Maria Rosa Menocal. The record of tolerance in medieval Spain led to advances in every area of human endeavor as well as prosperity and social status for Jews surpassed only by our lives in the United States. Only when that tolerance was replaced by the Inquisition – a form of Christian fundamentalism – did all the glory of Spain die out.

Number eleven: how often do I listen to conservative opinions? Daily. Some of my best friends espouse them, and they are still my friends. Many AM stations are filled with them – including your opinions, Mr. Prager – but because we live in the United States, we get to choose. An opinion without facts to back it up is nothing more than hot air. Honest disagreement over facts should not devolve into ad hominem attacks, but why should I choose to listen to opinions based on what I consider inaccurate “facts”?

Number twelve: pro-Israel events staged by conservative Christian groups. Yes. In fact, I attended and performed musically at such gatherings, because both the leadership of the particular group and a fair number of my congregants at the time spoke Spanish. I am extremely grateful for their friendship towards Israel. At the same time, I think it entirely appropriate to examine the motives for their friendship. Individuals may be altruistic, but it is not so easy for organizations.

Number fourteen: nuclear Iran vs. climate change. I know I went out of order. I might stay up because of the thing that might kill me tomorrow: Iran. Why must we compare these two severe situations, however? We first have to devote resources to prevent being killed tomorrow, but does that excuse us from taking action today to head off what most scientists consider a serious long-term threat?

Number thirteen: differences with the Torah. This question had to come last. I am not so bold as to suggest that I am “smarter” than the Torah. But seriously, people have been having differences with the Torah since we received it! Isn’t the Talmud a book of responses to situations where the Torah was too general, too harsh, or perhaps did not address the situation at all? Haven’t the famous commentators made their names for their willingness to address tough questions the Torah posed? Mr. Prager may have scored debating points over Professor Dershowitz for his announcement, but does he advocate all the severe physical punishments in the Torah, for example? I suspect that given the choice between the literal Torah and the rabbinic interpretation, he would go with the latter.

Here is my number fifteen: how does G-d test humanity? Start with number thirteen. Can Mr. Prager reconcile our idea of a universal G-d with the clear command of a “Canaanite genocide” mentioned in Deuteronomy 20:17? Can he see how Moses “took the fall” for the Almighty in the Deuteronomy story of the Spies when the text in Numbers says their mission was a commandment? Can he understand the nobility of a Jewish doctor, recently deceased, who was Chief Medical Officer at Spandau Prison?

All of these things were tests. Sometimes we passed, sometimes we failed. Our Bible is even-handed about recording both. I have lived a progressive line – inclusivity combined with love of G-d – because I think that is the best way to pass these tests. Mr. Prager, if your way works for you, great, but please do not disparage those of us who arrive at a different opinion honestly.

Jay Harwitt has served several Southland congregations in musical capacities.  He holds degrees from Yale College and Columbia Business School.

Everything is easier than doing good

Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.

Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit

Progressives should join Jews on Iran strategy

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have emerged not only as a foreign policy issue but recently have become an American political issue, as well.

In response to the news offensive
by the neoconservative movement and the Bush administration threatening military action against Iran and without backing any real new diplomatic initiatives, the new progressives have made opposing pre-emptive military action against Iran by the United States a major issue.

There is a perception among progressives and liberals that these neoconservatives are marching us toward another war.

According to Newsweek, Iran has eclipsed Iraq as the primary issue of concern of membership. Democratic presidential candidate, former Sen. John Edwards, accused Sen. Hillary Clinton of supporting the neoconservative line because of her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, which supported making Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization.”

Much of this angst comes from a distrust of neoconservatives, who recklessly pushed for attacking Iraq because of its elusive “weapons of mass destruction,” many of whom are now beating the drums for military action against Iran. (I could argue that Iran would not be as powerful as it is today were it not for our policies in Iraq, but that is a discussion for another time). Noted neocons such as Norman Podhertz and Daniel Pipes, each of whom led the charge into Iraq, have openly advocated military action against Iran without mentioning where the resources would come from (the U.S. military is already stretched perilously thin fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan).

To support their calls for military action, these neocons have cited the threat of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, as well as their support of destabilizing Shiite militias in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Some also have noted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejads’ threats to “wipe Israel off the map” as another example of how Iran has sought to destabilize the region and increase its hegemony in the Middle East.

While their concerns about Iran may be well founded, bipartisan and public support of the neocons’ proposed solutions is not there. Democratic pro-Israel hawks, such as Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), have called military action against Iran “unadvisable and untenable,” stating that military action without genuine diplomacy or congressional authorization would dissolve what little good will the United States has left after the debacle in Iraq.

House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) has suggested a combination of sanctions and diplomatic solutions, authoring legislation to expand sanctions against the Iranian military, while proposing an international nuclear fuel consortium to control the use of nuclear fuels by Third World nations and to prevent nuclear proliferation. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee also supports sanctions over military action, and there is a general perception that Iraq has stretched our military readiness to its limit.

This confluence of opinion between the pro-Israel community and progressives should be an opportunity for both sides. However, instead of supporting sanctions or diplomacy, many of these progressives have instead decided to turn the argument into a wholesale opposition to any action against Iran without acknowledging the real threats, making their opposition look as irrational as the neocons’ Rambo approach.

Yet despite the overwhelming opposition to military action, are the progressives doing themselves any favors by opposing any military action without at least acknowledging the threat of Iran?

Many Jewish progressives wrestle with this dichotomy and have struggled to reconcile their opposition to war with the threats that exist. Eli Pariser, executive director of, is Jewish, as is progressive financier George Soros. As of late, has been notably responsible in dealing with the Iran issue, tempering its message so as to avoid a drumbeat of irresponsible pacifism. Soros has been vocal in opposing the spread of nuclear technology to Iran but has also sought to increase dialogue with Iran through his Soros Open Institute (the Iranian government arrested two staff members, Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh, on charges of spreading Western ideas in Iran). Both Pariser and Soros seem to be searching for a way to oppose the neoconservative message, while acknowledging that Iran must be dealt with.

In order to be effective, progressives need to do more than just shout “no pre-emptive war.” The Jewish community is overwhelmingly supportive of progressive values, is concerned about Iran but also overwhelmingly disagrees with the rest of the neoconservative foreign policy agenda. According to a Pew Research Poll in 2006, 77 percent of U.S. Jews oppose the Iraq War, up from 75 percent in 2005.

Iran is clearly a threat to the region and should it actually develop a nuclear weapon, it would be a threat to the world. Iran’s refusal to let the International Atomic Energy Agency have full access to the country raises the question of its true intent. Further, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard acts as a government within a government, running its own businesses to fund international covert operations in Lebanon and Iraq, with almost no oversight by the government or its implied consent.

Progressives need to reach out to their natural allies in the Jewish community by acknowledging that the threats of nuclear proliferation and international terrorism exist and support the same reasoned, international approach of sanctions and international pressure that has helped bring the North Korean nuclear program under control.

From 1956-1968, progressives and Jews were a powerful alliance in supporting the advancement of civil rights and ending racial discrimination. This combination also was the core of the opposition to the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1973.

This alliance also worked in California to pass AB 221, for which Progressives and Jews bridged the gap to support targeted sanctions against Iran’s oil industry as a means of putting economic pressure on Iran to open up to the world and be responsible. The liberal-leaning Anti-Defamation League and conservative-evangelical Israel-Christian Nexus came together to support the bill.

Progressives should learn a lesson from this approach and step in where the neoconservatives have failed by supporting a responsible opposition to both military action and Iran at the same time. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has followed a similar strategy as he has gone on a world tour, meeting with world leaders to educate them on what is happening in Iran and build a consensus approach. Israel needs to defend itself against Iran, but it knows the price of war, and its leadership has chosen to pursue a consensus approach. After Iraq, Americans now know the price of war, too.

Andrew Lachman is the president of Democrats for Israel Los Angeles and a member of the executive committee of the California Democratic Party.

Time to crapple with ‘real’ Israel

Uninformed readers of the general American press these days learn only two things about Israel. One is that it is consumed with war and peace. The other is that this small state of 7 million people deploys — or does not, depending on whom you are reading — the most powerful, homogenous lobby in Washington, bending the American government’s actions to its interests at will.

American Jews know better, of course. The quest for a fair and sustainable settlement to conflict in the Mideast is indeed central, but the peace process is not the only challenge of Israel’s continuing struggle for survival as the state its founders intended it to be.

Important, too, are issues that define Israel as a society, as a homeland for Jews, as a democracy. In the long run these and related topics will contribute as much as military and diplomatic matters to answering the question of whether Israel will survive another 60 years.

Since serving as deputy speaker of the Knesset, I have spent more of my time on what I call the struggle for Israel’s character. As a democracy with a thriving civil society, there is plenty of scope for argument in Israel over issues ranging from minority rights to religious freedom. However, there are also voices of extremism, intolerance and ultranationalism that threaten not just the Israeli ideal of a liberal, democratic state but the very mechanisms that allow us to fiercely debate issues defining our future.

For example, the independence of Israel’s High Court, the most important guarantor of rights in a country without a written constitution, is under siege from right-wingers who would like to subject it to political manipulation.

The struggle to impede the theocratic objectives of religious parties continues, with progressives working hard just to prevent further encroachment on what should be a firm religion-state divide.

Perhaps most important, and difficult, is the growing chasm between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, as some of the former continue to perpetuate de facto inequality and the latter react with an increasingly radicalized vision of an Israel bereft of any identifying Jewish characteristics.

Moreover, Israel is a country facing increasing socio-economic discrepancies. The widening gap between the prosperous Israeli center and the struggling peripheries in the Galil and Negev was exacerbated by last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and the difficult recovery in the North.

The prospects for immigrant youth, Israeli Arabs, mizrachim — citizens from Middle Eastern and North African lands — residents of development towns, Bedouin and all the other outsiders to Israel’s thriving economy remain severely constricted.

Women confront gender rights issues everyday, and not just in the Orthodox and Israeli Arab communities. The disgusting parade of Israeli politicians accused and found guilty of sexual harassment and worse is the most visible indicator of a society struggling to overcome serious problems with patriarchy.

These and similar issues constantly, if not always consciously, affect relations between Israel and world Jewry. The notion of a single-minded American pro-Israel lobby reflecting only the worldview of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — Walt and Mearsheimer notwithstanding — is ridiculous.

In the next week I will be engaging, along with other Israeli progressive social activists, in a nine-city national conversation sponsored by the New Israel Fund titled “Towards a Progressive Vision for Israel.”

Anyone attending these events for even an hour no doubt would conclude that much of the American Jewish community is to the left of some of its “official” spokesperson organizations, and that this large segment deserves a louder voice on key Israel-related issues.

Achieving a more powerful voice for these Jewish opinions in the United States is crucial for two reasons. First, the taboo of criticizing Israel must be broken. The issue is not whether Israel is always right or always wrong, as the current discourse aridly asserts. Rather the question is how to deal constructively and creatively with Israel’s very real problems. The debate about Israel must be reframed.

Second, the majority of Israeli citizens — who have achieved real successes advocating in an open, argumentative, self-critical society — need support from their American counterparts. When the most visible American backers of Israel are the Likud-fellow-traveler Jewish groups and the Christian right, it is almost impossible to counter those powerful and well-financed voices and the retrogressive values they champion.

Most Israelis see the threat of religious ultranationalism, minority repression and economic inequity all too clearly. It is time for true democrats in both Israel and the United States to challenge themselves with the reality of Israel in its 60th year: a vibrant, thriving country still striving for ideals not yet attained.

Maher Hathout — partner for peace or anti-Semite in centrist clothing?

To progressive Jews, he is a partner for peace and a moderate Muslim in a world darkened by Islamic extremism. To conservative Jews, he is a strident anti-Israel critic, perhaps even a closet anti-Semite, masquerading as a centrist.

Dr. Maher Hathout, like no other local Muslim leader in recent memory, has divided the Jewish community, exposing fissures between Jews who fervently believe in reviving the frayed Jewish-Muslim dialogue and those who have lost faith.

The chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California and senior adviser to the national Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Hathout became a lightening rod for criticism soon after the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission tapped him in July for the prestigious John Allen Buggs Award for excellence in human relations, which he is slated to receive next month.

Following the announcement, terrorism expert Steven Emerson penned an article published in New Republic Online depicting the Egyptian-born cardiologist, who immigrated to the United States in 1971 and is a U.S. citizen, as an apologist for terror groups and a strident critic of the Jewish state. In his piece, Emerson points to Hathout’s past attacks on Israel, including publicly characterizing the country as “a racist, apartheid” state, as his accusation that “the United States is also under Israeli occupation.”

These remarks, which Hathout says were made in the context of criticizing the Israeli government, Emerson argues are actually code words for anti-Semitism, and should disqualify Hathout from receiving an award established to promote positive race and human relations in multicultural Los Angeles County.

Hathout, in an interview with The Jewish Journal, said he has no intention of withdrawing. To do so, he said, would reward the forces of intolerance and intimidation.

At a Sept. 11 commission meeting convened to allow for public comment about the proposed award, Hathout said that “probably my words were harsh” at times, but that he stands by his statements. Hathout said he had no problem with the Israeli people but only with their government. He has helped to organize interfaith services and has traveled to Israel on joint missions in the past.

After the publication of Emerson’s article, three major Jewish groups, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs, criticized Hathout and questioned the commission’s decision to honor him. On Sept. 11, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles joined the trio.

Hathout’s “words regrettably create the very fissures and divides that the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission is seeking to repair,” Los Angeles Federation President John Fishel said in a speech before the commission meeting.
Rabbi John Borak, director of inter-religious affairs at the L.A. chapter of the American Jewish Committee said that the fact that someone with Hathout’s opinions is considered a moderate Muslim shows why Muslim-Jewish dialogue has faltered in recent years.

“The Muslim community doesn’t have honest brokers,” Borak said in an interview before the meeting on Monday. “They say they’re for peace, but their actions don’t accord with that. [Hathout] is an example of that.”

Yet some Jews who have worked closely over the years with Hathout dismiss the criticism as mean-spirited and counterproductive. His defenders include rabbis and political activists, among others, who characterize him as a moderate Muslim who opposes Muslim extremism and favors tolerance and inclusion. They argue that intemperate remarks about Israel should not be justification to marginalize him.
“He’s a man who’s demonstrated in every way his commitment to what is humane,” said Rabbi Leonard Beerman, the retired founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles. “He’s a moderate in the Muslim world. If we can’t embrace him, we’re left twisting in the wind.”

Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, argued that Hathout’s humanity and decency was especially evident at a 2002 Jewish-Muslim Passover seder he and Hathout helped organize.

Hathout called the seder one of the most moving religious experiences of his life, Jacobs said.

“If I felt [Hathout] was an extremist prone to violence and approved of things that are antithetical to Jews, I wouldn’t be here,” Jacobs said at a Sept. 8 press conference at the Islamic Center, which attracted more than 20 prominent local religious leaders who support Hathout.

Appearing three days later before the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, a confident and resolute Hathout said he has worked tirelessly to promote dialogue and diversity. Attempting to allay concerns over his past remarks, he told the commission and the emotionally charged audience of 100 that he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestianian confict, as well as Israel’s right to exist, and that he has long condemned suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism as antithetical to the Quran’s teachings.

At the same time, Hathout remained steadfast in his criticisms of Israel. The retired cardiologist defended his right to criticize the president and Congress of the United States, as well as the state of Israel, and he said he would continue to do so long as he saw injustices. He said he believes that it is only his sharp comments about the Jewish state that have created the pressure on the human relations commission to rescind.

“There’s a storm of hate raised to a hurricane directed to me, my name, and, I guess, to you,” Hathout told the commissioners. “You can be sure if I had been talking about Canada or Brazil, we would not have such a hurricane.”

The human relations commission, after listening to nearly 50 speakers in a two and half hour meeting, decided to postpone a decision on what, if anything, to do about Hathout’s award until its next meeting on Sept. 18.

Some of Hathout’s critics used their time before the commissioners to raise questions about the nomination process. Normally, a commission subcommittee accepts nominations for the award and the full commission accepts the nomination. The county supervisors themselves have no vote in the matter.
According to sources, ordinarily commissioners themselves put forward names. In this instance, Hathout’s name was put forward by MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati. Al-Marayati represented that Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky supported Hathout’s nomination, though both men have said they never took a position.

Let There Be Yiddish

“Gut Shabbes.” Synagogue vice president Donna Groman stands at the door, warmly greeting each guest. Inside, a samovar sits on a white-clothed table alongside temptingly arranged platters of homemade kugel and apple cake for the oneg.

Tonight is a Yiddish service, Zol Zahn Shabbes — literally, we should have Shabbat — and it’s happening at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), founded in 1972 as the world’s first synagogue for lesbian and gay Jews.

It’s a meeting of two seemingly incongruous worlds — an almost extinct 1,000-year-old Eastern European language and culture and a progressive and now well-established congregation of 180 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual families. And the Pico Boulevard synagogue is expecting a big crowd.

The sanctuary begins to fill. The congregants, young and old, male and female, are respectfully but comfortably attired. Many hug or kiss as they claim their chairs. All have varying allegiances to Yiddish.

Member Rebecca Weinreich, with daughters Shoshanah, 8, and Ashira, 4, is a celebrity this evening. Her grandfather, scholar Max Weinreich, founded the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna, Poland, in 1925. Escaping from the Nazis in 1940, he re-established it in Manhattan.

“Do you speak Yiddish?” I ask Weinreich.

“Not in public. The expectations because of my name are too high,” she says.

“Shalom Aleycheim.” The lights dim as cantorial soloist Fran Magid Chalin welcomes everyone.

I peruse the 17-page booklet, which includes the evening’s program, a history of the Yiddish language and links to Yiddish resources. Even a nar (fool) could realize that this evening’s agenda is not just a kitschy visit to the alte velt (Old World).

Immediately the chorus begins singing, “O, Vee Gut un Vee Voyl Iz,” a Yiddish version of “Hiney Ma Tov.” They segue seamlessly into “Meer Viln Ale Nor Sholem,” which is “Heveynu Shalom Aleycheim.” People are clapping and singing along.

More people enter, and I count more than 100 guests.

After a break to greet one another, Chalin says, “Yiddish is the language that childproofed what parents said.”

Chalin herself studied German and, in her early 20s, sang in a Yiddish adult choir in Philadelphia. There, singing songs about the early labor movement, she felt electric, establishing a deep bond with the language. Later, after graduate school, she enrolled in a two-month Yiddish immersion class at Columbia University in New York.

“Many of us have this romantic relationship with Yiddish. It speaks to us about a time gone by,” she says. But she cautions that we can’t have a relationship if we relegate it to little pockets or little sayings.

The songs that Chalin has chosen for the choir quickly dispel any sense of romanticism. “Un Du Akerst, Un Du Zeyst” (“And You Plow and You Sow”), written in 1864 for the German Workingman’s Federation, taunts workers for how little they have to show for all their hard work. Others were written during the Shoah, giving comfort to the Jews in the same ways the Negro spirituals sustained the slaves.

Chalin introduces Lilke Majzner, Yiddishist and president of Los Angeles’ Yiddish Culture Club, founded in 1926. A native of Lodz, Poland, and a survivor of seven concentration camps, Majzner came to the United States in 1950 at age 17.

“I came without any script,” she says in a booming, confident voice. “I came to talk to you in English about Yiddish. That’s silly. That’s very silly.”

People laugh. But it’s clear that this diminutive figure, 84, professionally dressed in a beige suit and sensible shoes, isn’t here to entertain us.

She proves that further by reading a poem by Yiddish writer Malka Tussman. It begins, “You have a Jewish mouth, so speak Yiddish.” It ends, “Let there be Yiddish. That’s how I talk.”

How Majzner talks is even more emphatic: “I am shouting into your Jewish ears. Let there be Yiddish.”

And shouting she is. She educates us about the 1,000-year history of Yiddish — a history not just of words, of grammar and of curses but also of political parties, of freedom and of going on strike for Jewish and human rights.

And she exhorts us — passionately and convincingly — to take up the banner of her legacy, to learn Yiddish to make up for the 3.5 million Yiddish-speaking Jews who were murdered in the Shoah and to build a better world.

“And when you don’t feel the heaviness of the legacy, I will put some rocks in it,” she says.

She receives a standing ovation.

After services, a crowd gathers around Majzner, some speaking Yiddish.

I talk to Davi Cheng, a Chinese American Jew-by-choice. She grimaces as she describes the frustration of mastering the guttural sounds of Yiddish.

“There’s no ‘ch’ sound in Chinese,” she explains.

I also sit briefly with Chalin who tells me how, in her experience, she finds a disproportionate number of gays and lesbians studying Yiddish.

“In my classes at Columbia, we talked about how Yiddish doesn’t have a country and how often the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] community feels like a people without a country,” she says.

Chalin thinks many of those who desire to speak Yiddish fluently, like gays and lesbians, long for the notion of a secure community.

At evening’s end, as people leave, I notice the samovar is empty and the apple cake and kugel gone.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.


Community Briefs

Liberal Pundit Predicts Davis

If the California slugfest between the two major political parties were a concert, the Republicans, who yearn for the days when buffaloes roamed the plains, would be playing the “Ghost Dance,” while the Democratic tune would be the “Hesitation Waltz.”

Those, at least, are the musical choices of liberal political analyst Harold Meyerson, former editor of the L.A. Weekly and now editor-at-large of the American Prospect and a regular Washington Post columnist.

Meyerson addressed an overflow meeting of the Progressive Jewish Alliance last week and provided only modest cheer for the partisan audience.

In the upcoming recall election, he predicted, no more than 45 percent of the voters will back Gov. Gray Davis’ retention in office. “Don’t bet large money that Davis won’t be recalled,” he advised.

The situation is slightly better in Los Angeles County, from Meyerson’s perspective, which since the 1980s has been transformed from a largely centrist county to one of the most liberal in the United States. He said the political transformation is being propelled by a Latino-labor alliance, which now controls seven of the 15 Los Angeles City Council districts.

Other Meyerson observations:

Recall Election: Prudence dictates that there be a strong Democratic candidate among those vying to become governor, should Davis be recalled. But the various Democratic power players will only back a candidate promising not to run for reelection in 2006, a condition that Sen. Dianne Feinstein has apparently refused to accept.

California Progress: “The California political system has a bias for chaos.” The initiative and recall provisions were adopted to prevent control of the Legislature by big money. Today, both processes are dominated by big money.

Crossing the Bridge: The Republicans are going one bridge too far. The Democrats are afraid to go on any bridge.

National Picture: Sept. 11 put us back on a Cold War footing. The Democrats will have to field a candidate with strong national security credentials.

Although Meyerson expressed little enthusiasm for any of the current Democratic presidential contenders, least of all for Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, he pointed to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme commander and Rhodes scholar, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as likely strong candidates. Besides, both claim Jewish grandfathers. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Rites Mark Bombing Deaths at Hebrew U.

On July 31, American Friends of Hebrew University held a memorial service at UCLA Hillel House in yartzheit of the 2002 victims of the terrorist attack in Hebrew University’s cafeteria, which claimed nine lives — including five Americans — and injured more than 80.

About 100 people, mostly a young crowd of Hebrew University-Rothberg International School alumni, attended the intimate, hourlong service held at the Hillel House’s Ziman Hall.

“It gave people a chance to publicly mourn,” said Ian Murray, program development director of American Friends.

The service began with opening remarks by Jeff Rouss, American Friends associate vice president, and Zvi Vapni, deputy consul general of the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, and featured Temple Shalom for the Arts Cantor Aylsia Pierce, who sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikva.”

Among the victims remembered were American students Marla Bennett, 24, Benjamin Blutstein, 25, Dina Carter, 37, and David Gritz, 24; David Diego Landowski, 29, of Argentina; Janis Coulter, 36, who ran Hebrew University’s foreign students department in New York; and Levina Shapira, 53, head of the student services department at Hebrew University.

San Diego victim Bennett was the focus of much attention at the event. Among those in attendance at the vigil were some of the dozen students Bennet convinced to spend a semester in Israel and friends she made while attending UC Berkeley.

Ari Moss, a friend of Bennett, who met her 15 years ago at Camp Shalom, shared some memories, as did Emma Lefkowitz, a Rothberg International School alumnus.

Children’s entertainer Rob “Robbo” Zelonky sang a moving rendition of Kenny Loggins’ “House at Pooh Corner,” Bennett’s favorite song.

“She was the best Jewish role model; everything she did was centered around a positive Jewish experience for kids,” Murray said of his friend, Bennett. “She looked at you, and you knew she was your friend. You knew she loved you.” — Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Persians Protest Iranian Regime

An annual protest rally that marks the deaths of five demonstrators in Tehran in 1999 and seeks the overthrow of the Iranian regime was staged early last month at the West Los Angeles Federal Building by Los Angeles-area Persians, among whom were many Jews.

Groups opposed to the Iranian government organize demonstrations worldwide on July 8, a date that honors a student protest outside Tehran University over the closure of a daily newspaper, during which five people were killed and dozens injured.

Persian Jews United, an online event announcement service, was one of the organizations in Los Angeles that asked Persian Jews to participate in the protest against Iran’s policies.

Crowd estimates ranged widely, from 700 to 4,000. Observers said that while most of the protesters showed no backing for specific individuals or organizations, some at the noisy demonstration did voice support for the Shah of Iran’s son. — Mojdeh Sionit, Contributing Writer

Israelis Shun Terror as Sole Issue of Life

Even in the face of terrorist attacks and the likely falloutfrom a war in Iraq, Israelis refuse to become a “single-issue society.”

“We continue to care passionately about religious pluralismand equality,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union forProgressive Judaism, who visited Los Angeles recently.

As the top professional of one of the largest Jewishreligious organization in the world, the Jerusalem-based Regev conducted aglobal tour of issues facing the liberal wing of Judaism during a wide-ranginginterview in Los Angeles. During his visit, he addressed a meeting at StephenS. Wise Temple.

The World Union is the umbrella organization for 1,500Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal and Progressive congregations in 44countries and, Regev estimated, touches the religious, educational and sociallives of approximately 2 million Jews.

In Israel, the astonishing recent electoral success of theShinui Party, which advocates the separation of religion and state, hasheartened Jews opposed to ultra-Orthodox influence and strictures in the JewishState.

Because of the vagaries of Israeli coalition politics, Regevdoes not believe that Shinui will be able to realize such goals as civilmarriage and army service for yeshiva students through changes in the laws.

However, by heading the Interior and Justice ministries, hesaid Shinui can effect changes through administrative rulings, such as thelegal acceptance of Conservative and Reform converts and the appointment ofsympathetic judges.

He added that Israeli society is now in a position to decidewhether its wants to exist as a theocracy or a democracy.

The World Union has not taken a stand supporting or opposingthe use of U.S. military force in Iraq.

“In recent years, we have not addressed international policyissues, and the Iraq question has not come before us,” said Regev, who took uphis post in January 2002. “But I plan to upgrade our involvement ininternational advocacy issues.”

As the World Union approaches its 75th anniversary, whichwill be celebrated July 10 in its birthplace, Berlin, it faces changes andchallenges throughout the world.

Much has been written about the Reform movement’s perceivedshift to the right, but Regev sees this as an oversimplification. Reform ritualand observances have always been more traditional in Israel than in the UnitedStates, he said, but it is true that there is a growing interest among U.S.Reform Jews in kashrut (dietary laws), mikvah (ritual bath) use and the wearingof a kippah and tallit.

However, in social and moral issues, including the recentacceptance of a transgender student for rabbinical training at Hebrew UnionCollege-Jewish Institute of Religion, “We are committed to moving forward andto stretching the margins,” he declared.

In the former Soviet Union, there are now approximately 100Reform/Progressive synagogues and groups, with strong concentrations in Moscow,Kiev and Minsk. There are shortages of both rabbis and funds, but a two-yearprogram is underway to train congregational paraprofessionals, supported by theReform rabbinate in Southern California.

In Germany, as in other Central European countries, wherereligious congregations are supported by public taxes, Regev is fighting forrecognition and a share of the government money from the Orthodox-dominated”Einheitsgemeinde.” Under this concept of the “unified community,” its CentralCouncil is supposed to represent the Jewish community as a whole, but, inpractice, discriminates against Reform and Conservative denominations, Regevcharged.

As a native-born Israeli, and a lawyer as well as a rabbi,the 51-year-old Regev has a message of both encouragement and disappointmentfor the U.S. Jewish community.

On the upside, despite the intifada, “we haven’t put ourlives on hold, and they are imbued with beauty and song,” he said. While hisson, Jonathan, serves in the army, his 16-year-old daughter, Liron, “is atypical teenager, who hangs out at the mall and takes public buses to her musicrehearsals.”

As representatives of the U.S. Reform movement, 44rabbinical and cantorial students and 33 high school students are spending ayear in Israel and “having the time of their lives,” Regev said.

On the down side, the absence of American tourists induces”a painful sense of abandonment,” he said. Not only the hotels, but the WorldUnion’s hostel at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem stands practically empty.

Added to the emotional impact of such isolation is thefinancial drain, compounded by hard times in the U.S. economy. The drop infinancial support “weighs me down,” Regev admitted, especially at a time “whenthere are great new opportunities and an expanded vision for Progressive Judaismthroughout the world.”