Russian president reiterates recognition of Palestine

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reiterated Russia’s recognition more than two decades ago of an independent Palestinian state.

“We made a decision then and we will not change it today,” Medvedev said following a meeting Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jericho.

The Russian president was referring to Russia’s recognition in 1988 of an independent Palestinian state following a declaration of independence made by then-Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

“We supported and will support the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to an independent state with its capital in east Jerusalem,” Medvedev reportedly said.

Medvedev was on a visit to the region, which does not include a planned trip to Israel. The Israel leg was canceled earlier this month due to a strike by the country’s Foreign Ministry employees.

Medvedev’s recognition of a Palestinian state comes after the recognition over the past two months by eight Latin American and South American countries.

Israeli officials fear Russia’s recognition will lead to similar declarations by other countries, including China, according to reports.

During Medvedev’s visit to the Palestinian Authority he called on Israel to stop building in the settlements and start direct negotiations. he also promised the Palestinians $10 million in aid.

Russia is a member of the diplomatic Quartet grouping on the Middle East along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union that is involved in mediating the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

ADL’s decision doesn’t go far enough

Last week’s news that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had reversed course and decided to recognize the Turkish massacres of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as a genocide is a necessary step forward for that organization.

Unfortunately, it does not go far enough in rectifying the ADL’s mystifying policy on this question. For while acknowledging that the massacres were a genocide, the ADL and its national director, Abraham Foxman, continue to refuse to support the congressional resolution (HR 106) that officially recognizes the Armenian genocide.

This points to a logical inconsistency, as well as lingering obduracy, on the part of the ADL. There is also a certain disingenuous quality to the ADL’s half-shift.

For years Foxman has repeatedly stated, when asked why his organization holds to its stance, that the issue of whether there was a genocide of Armenians should not be decided by American Jewish communal leaders but rather left to historians. And yet, he has repeatedly ignored the opinion of an overwhelming majority of historians that the Turkish massacres were a genocide. Moreover, his decision last week to acknowledge the genocide was based less on any serious and sober consultative process (precisely what he should have engaged in years ago) than on a hurried decision to avoid intense public pressure and calls for his resignation.

What precipitated this abrupt change of course was a spiraling set of developments in the Boston area several weeks ago. Controversy had been brewing for some time in Watertown, Mass., home to a large number of Armenians, over the ADL’s sponsorship of its No Place for Hate program in that town.

A groundswell of popular concern led the Watertown town council to sever its relationship with the No Place for Hate program in light of the ADL’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide. Throughout this controversy the ADL’s regional director, Andrew Tarsy, heeded the ADL line that Armenians did not suffer a “genocide,” — until on Aug. 16 when he broke with the organization’s declared position and decried it as “morally reprehensible.”

For this brave act of conscience Tarsy was summarily fired, prompting several members of the ADL’s New England board to resign in protest. Shortly thereafter on Aug. 21, Foxman issued a statement asserting that “the consequences of those (i.e., Turkish) actions were tantamount to genocide.” However, he continued by proclaiming that “a congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion.”

But how, in light of the first statement, could acknowledgement of a genocidal atrocity be a “counterproductive diversion?” And why should Tarsy, whose courage and conviction set in motion the ADL’s shift, be the victim of his own organization’s bad judgment?

These questions push to the surface a set of larger and troubling concerns about American Jewish organizational life.

First, the ADL’s clumsy and insensitive handling of the Armenian question exposes the way in which shortsighted political goals can easily cloud the moral judgment of the organized Jewish community. Foxman and others who resist HR 106 fear that the resolution will antagonize the Turkish government and prompt it to rethink its military alliance with Israel and the United States.

Yes, Turkey is Israel’s best friend in the Muslim world. But apart from the improbability of that country severing its relations with either Israel or the United States, we must ask whether supporting those who falsify and distort the historical record is ever in our or their interests.

Moreover, do not Jews, of all people, have a special responsibility to raise their voices at the sight or prospect of genocide? The answer, as groups such as Jewish World Watch make patently clear, is that we can never abdicate our responsibility to act against ethnic cleansing or genocide, whether committed by friend or foe.

Second, this episode reminds us of how detached and undemocratic our Jewish communal leadership is. No referendum has ever been held in the Jewish community on the question of the Armenian genocide or, for that matter, on any other major issue of substance. And yet, Foxman and his counterparts at other national Jewish organizations routinely adopt policies and speak on behalf of the community based on their own sense of what is best for the Jews.

Often, and surely in this case, their judgment rests on what they deem to be in the best interests of the State of Israel. But who appointed or elected them to speak in our name — either on the question of what’s in Israel’s best interests or of whether to recognize the Armenian genocide? The time has come to scrutinize anew the power that these communal leaders arrogate to themselves.

Finally, this episode raises serious doubts about the leadership of Foxman at the helm of one of the country’s most venerable Jewish organizations.

There can be no question that Foxman has fought tirelessly against anti-Semitism over the course of his career. For that he is to be commended. But he has also grown imperious and detached, playing the role of defender-in-chief of the Jews with a somewhat dictatorial air.

He has brusquely pushed out colleagues in the ADL, such as Tarsy in Boston and David Lehrer in Los Angeles, talented and devoted community leaders who dared to speak their mind. He has created an organization in his own image, one that breeds obeisance rather than independence.

As the Armenian genocide debate makes so clear, what is needed from our Jewish communal leaders is a different set of qualities than those evinced by Foxman — open-mindedness, nuance, historical knowledge and fealty to core Jewish values. Enough is enough. We deserve better.

Foxman should follow the logic of his own statement and take the essential next step of supporting HR 106. Further, he should admit the error of his abrupt action and restore Tarsy to his position.

In parallel, our local Anti-Defamation League board should either announce its support for HR 106 –if not here in the heart of the Armenian diaspora, then where? — or renounce the organization’s declared mission “to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.

Controverisal Israeli security approach takes flight in U.S.

The changes were inevitable. The Sept. 11 hijackers used box cutters as weapons, so box cutters were banned. Richard Reid smuggled explosives onto an American Airlines plane in his shoes, so passengers were ordered to remove their shoes for screening. The recent London air terror plot was predicated on liquid explosives, so now almost all liquids are forbidden, too.


High Court Recognizes ‘Leaping Converts’


After 22 years of living as an Israeli, Justina Hilaria Chipana can finally consider herself a full-fledged member of the Jewish state.

The 50-year-old native of Peru was one of 17 petitioners who won High Court of Justice recognition of their non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism on Thursday, in what the Conservative and Reform movements hailed as a breakthrough for efforts to introduce more religious pluralism to Israel.

Orthodox rabbis and politicians disagreed.

By a vote of 7-4, the High Court ordered the state to recognize “leaping converts” — so called because they study in Israeli institutes but then convert with Reform or Conservative rabbis abroad — as eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

The ruling was a small step in a decades-long controversy in Israel over who is a Jew, who can turn a non-Jew into a Jew and who can decide whether that process was done correctly.

Thursday’s ruling also broadened a 1989 decision recognizing immigrants who arrive having gone through the entire non-Orthodox conversion process abroad; those immigrants are considered to be Jews and the Law of Return applies to them.

But the ruling did not endorse Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, a move that effectively would end Orthodoxy’s de facto hegemony in the Jewish state and could stir up a government crisis.

In response to a demand presented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and signed by 25 legislators, the Knesset will meet in special session next week to debate the court decision.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai called the ruling an “explosives belt that has brought about a suicide attack against the Jewish people,” according to Ha’aretz.

The Orthodox Rabbinate, which controls the observance of life-cycle events in Israel — including births, weddings and funerals — also cried foul.

“There aren’t two movements or three movements in Judaism. There is only one Judaism,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told Israel Radio. “Whoever doesn’t go through a halachic conversion is not a Jew.”

Yet with many Israelis increasingly concerned about the lack of a unifying religious identity in the country — where some 300,000 citizens are non-Jews from the former Soviet Union — the Conservative and Reform movement remained confident that their more lenient conversions would provide a solution.

“We believe that with this precedent, it is just a matter of time until alternatives to Orthodox Judaism are fully recognized,” said attorney Sharon Tal of the Israel Religious Action Center, a pro-pluralism lobby associated with the Reform movement. “It could mean filing more High Court petitions, or just waiting for Israel to come to its senses.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Reform movement was unsatisfied that the court didn’t issue a more far-reaching decision, and plans to bring another petition in hopes of forcing the state to recognize Reform conversions performed in Israel.

The only way for the Orthodox to counter Thursday’s ruling would be to have a new law passed defining their stream as the only legitimate form of Judaism in Israel. But repeated efforts to mount such legislation in the past failed to muster majorities for even preliminary Knesset readings.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon counts one Orthodox political party, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), in his coalition, and he has been courting Shas. Still, it seems unlikely that either party would be able to apply enough pressure on the government to push through motions against the High Court ruling.

“We have no coalition agreement regarding this,” UTJ leader Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said. “I’m sure there will be discussions about what can be done, but I’m not especially hopeful.”

The High Court ruling is immediately binding on the government. That’s a relief for Chipana and her fellow petitioners, who filed their suit in 1999.

“We are going to implement the decision in a crystal-clear manner,” Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor Party told Army Radio. “I think that it provides an answer for many people who are living among us and are forced to go through a very tough journey, exhausting and tiring, that causes many to lose hope.”

In the United States, reaction to the decision broke along denominational lines.

“As a Conservative rabbi, I am of course delighted that the High Court in Israel has mandated the recognition of conversions performed by Conservative rabbis in America,” said Rabbi Joel Roth, a scholar of Jewish law and the former head of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Law Committee.

“I’m very much aware that some segments of the Jewish world will continue to refuse to accept as valid conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis, and the court’s decision will create problems in those communities,” he said. “I accept as valid any conversion that complies with halachic requirements, and conversions that do not, I do not accept.”

The Orthodox Union, on the other hand, said it is “deeply concerned” by the ruling.

“The decision of the court may eventually lead to the division of the people of Israel into two camps. There will be a group of halachically valid Jews and a group of people who are Jewish only by the ruling of the Supreme Court,” the union said in a news release signed by its president, Stephen Savitsky, and executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. “The consequences of this ruling will be tragic.”

For the petitioners, however, the ruling was a long-overdue relief.

“I always dreamed of really belonging to the country,” said Chipana, who first came to Israel in 1983. In 1993 she converted at a Reform congregation in Argentina, and filed the lawsuit in 1999. “Now perhaps it can really happen.”

But should she want to marry to her Israeli-born boyfriend, Yosef Ben-Moshe, she will have to go on waiting or do it abroad: The chief rabbinate in Israel remains exclusively Orthodox, and its grip on life-cycle events remains unchallenged.

That’s the way the UTJ’s Ravitz wants it. Asked what will happen if “leaping converts” apply for marriage licenses in Israel, he said, “I imagine they will be told to take a flying leap.”

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, sees the question of Orthodox control as a larger problem than the one the High Court addressed.

“The entire acrobatic phenomenon in which people are forced to marry or convert abroad does no honor to Judaism or the State of Israel,” he said.

JTA Staff Writer Joanne Palmer in New York contributed to this story.