Mayor: Building inspectors need better training, sensitivity to block another Yom Kippur showdown

One year after an emotional incident in which city building inspectors sought to halt Kol Nidrei services for Orthodox worshippers at a Hancock Park service, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has followed up with a report with recommendations designed to increase sensitivity and prevent future problems.

The confrontation at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy in the Hancock Park area outraged the Orthodox community and its political supporters.

Triggering the incident was a series of anonymous phone calls from a neighbor of Yavneh, alerting the city Department of Building and Safety (DBS) to a probable violation, on Yom Kippur, of restriction governing the hours that Yavneh could use the facilities.

At 8 p.m., while Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 worshippers, two inspectors walked into the lobby and told startled congregants that they had to vacate the premises immediately.

When told that worshippers would leave only if carried out by force, the inspectors left and the services continued.

The roots of the incident lay in a contentious nine-year feud between some residents of the upscale Hancock Park neighborhood and an influx of strict Orthodox families.

Villaraigosa, together with city councilmen, felt the heat from both sides and the mayor asked the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom “to independently review, pro bono, the events that occurred on Sept. 21, 2007…and to make recommendations.”

In a letter yesterday (Sept. 23) to DBS general manager Andrew A. Adelman, obtained exclusively by The Journal, Villaraigosa cited 12 findings and recommendations by the law firm and asked for a response by Nov. 7.

In general, the report found that DBS had not singled out the Orthodox community as such, but called for an improved inspection process within DBS, and better communications with the city planning department and with institutions, such as Yavneh, operating with certain restrictions under a conditional use permit.

Specifically, the report recommended continued “awareness seminars” for inspectors at the Museum of Tolerance, supplemented by a “cultural diversity” program, in addition to the following points.

Training to avoid conflicts while conducting building inspections.

Review of the policy under which DBS accepts anonymous complaints.

Avoid interrupting cultural or religious events.

Institutions operating under conditional use permits to appoint community liaisons, who would be notified of complaints before city officials take action.

Korobkin, the Yavneh spiritual leader, said he was very pleased with the mayor’s recommendations and that the fault for last year’s incident lay mainly in the way DBS was structured, as well as a certain lack ofsensitivity.

There is no chance that last year’s incident will be repeated, he said. For one, Kol Nidrei falls on a weekday this year, which allows for extended operating hours.

Korobkin also asserted that relations between Yavneh and its neighbors had improved over the last 12 months and that complaints came mainly from a hard core of seven to eight residents.

But future relations between Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, which includes a fair number of Jewish families, will bear watching.

No spokesperson for the homeowners was immediately available, but in the past they have persistently accused Yavneh of violating the terms of its conditional use permit and have initiated a number of court actions.

Although Yavneh is not located within his district, City Councilman Jack Weiss has been a vocal champion of the religious school.

He said that in the dispute, “justice is on the side of Yavneh – it’s not even close.”

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It Only Gets Worse

The long-awaited Mitchell commission report about Israeli-Palestinian violence was released yesterday, and now there is a debate over what to do with its recommendations. I have a suggestion. It’s kind of a two-for-one deal. Take all the Mitchell reports, make a big pile out of them, and set them ablaze into a gigantic bonfire. It would surely generate enough heat, and light, to make a small contribution to the Bush energy plan.

Am I being unfair? Yes, just a bit. George Mitchell is a good man, and the central argument of his report is right, in the narrowest sense: If you want to stop the latest Israeli-Palestinian slide into the abyss, first there must be a cessation of all violence, and then confidence-building steps, including a settlements freeze and Palestinian security measures.

My problem with the Mitchell report is that it fundamentally ignores how we got into this abyss and the only real way out. It is not because of Israeli settlements. The settlements are foolish, and their continued expansion is a shameful act of colonial coercion that will meet the fate of all other colonial enterprises in history. The inability of American Jewish leaders or U.S. governments to speak out against settlement expansion — which should be stopped under any conditions for Israel’s sake — is a blot on all of them.

But the settlements are not the core problem. The core problem right now is Yasser Arafat — the Palestinian leader who cannot say “yes” and will not say “uncle.”

President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak put on the table before Arafat a historic compromise proposal that would have given Palestinians control of 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank and Gaza — with all the settlements removed, virtually all of Arab East Jerusalem, a return to Israel of a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees and either the right of return to the West Bank and Gaza or compensation for all the others.

Not only would Arafat not take it, he would not even say: “Well, this was insufficient, but this is the most far-reaching and serious proposal Palestinians have ever seen. Now, I want to enter into a dialogue with the Israeli people and government to see if I can get them to 100 percent.”

No, instead, Arafat launched this idiotic uprising. He did so because he is essentially a political coward and maneuverer who apparently has not given up his long-term aim of eliminating Israel and who was afraid in the short run that if he took 99 percent, he would be killed for the 1 percent he left on the table. Arafat has never been willing to tell his people he got them most of what they wanted and now is the time to end the suffering of as many Palestinians as possible and move on.

This truth is what the Mitchell “investigation” should be telling the world and the Palestinians. There was an Israeli leader, and a slim Israeli majority, for a fair historic compromise. But there was no Palestinian equivalent, and unless there is a Palestinian partner, and a Palestinian leader, for a historic compromise roughly along the Clinton lines, no cease-fire is going to hold.

The best Hebrew biography of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is entitled “He Doesn’t Stop at Red Lights.” Arafat’s biography should be entitled “He Doesn’t Go at Green Lights.”

Now Sharon — who was elected in the Israeli backlash against the failure of Camp David — is trying to pummel Arafat into submission. That won’t work either. Because Arafat is as afraid to say “uncle” to Sharon as much as he was afraid to say “yes” to Clinton. He fears he would be killed for saying uncle as much as he would be killed for saying yes to 99 percent. The Palestinians will never be bombed into submission. One hundred years of Palestinian history tells you that.

The real problem is that the Palestinians are leaderless today, and that is what the United States, the United Nations and the Arab world have to face up to. Deep down, they all know it, and they admit it to each other in private. There is no Palestinian leader right now willing or able to say yes to a fair historic compromise, and we simply fool ourselves with commissions that don’t acknowledge that. Unless the Arabs can stiffen Arafat by supporting him in any grand compromise, or by creating a context in which an alternative leadership can emerge, this bonfire will rage on, and it will consume many, many others.