Washington scandal reveals politics behind European Jewish memorials


A small government agency for preserving European historical sites has been accused of criminal malfeasance, roiling Jewish community officials who say the agency has played a critical role in memorializing Europe’s Jewish past.

The controversy surrounding the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad offers a glimpse into the workings of influence in the capital and reveals how the focus in Washington on lost Jewish heritage at times stirs resentment among non-Jewish Americans of European descent.

Some are concerned that the controversy could roll back recent strides in getting European nations to confront and memorialize their role in the decimation of European Jewry.

“A lot of sites important to different parts of the Jewish community would not continue to be in existence if not for the commission,” said Mark Levin, who directs the National Conference Supporting Eurasian Jewry, a body that advocates for Jews in many of the countries where the agency has helped set up memorials.

Most wounding for the heritage commission and its defenders was a statement that Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, released to The New York Times.

“Established with the best of intentions to memorialize the horrors of 20th-century genocides, the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad did little to accomplish that goal but was instead used to enrich a lobbyist,” Johnson told the Times.

That lobbyist is Jeffrey Farrow, the heritage commission’s part-time executive director, who made a salary of $104,000 while also collecting fees for representing foreign governments, according to the Times.

Ezra Friedlander, a New York-based publicist who organized an event this year on Capitol Hill lauding the agency on its 30th anniversary, said he was taken aback when he read Johnson’s statement.

“The cemetery where my family was buried, for many decades following World War II it was almost impossible to pay respects,” Friedlander said, referring to the burial ground of the Liska Hasidic dynasty in Hungary. “As a result of the commission it was restored to pristine conditions. Today there are literally thousands of people praying and paying firsthand respects.”

William Daroff, a former member of the heritage commission, said the agency’s importance was in lending U.S. government heft to efforts to persuade European governments to back preservation projects and memorials.

“Congress has decided that it’s important for America’s heritage to be preserved, and if the U.S. didn’t step in, this piece of history would be lost,” said Daroff, the Washington director for the Jewish Federations of North America.

Private donors often join European governments in paying for the projects; the agency’s $644,000 government budget goes to administrative costs. Just under a sixth of the budget is for Farrow’s salary.

An official who works for Johnson’s committee told JTA that Johnson may have overstated the heritage commission’s lack of accomplishment to the Times, but that its glory days had passed. The agency has completed little recently, said the official, who spoke anonymously, emphasizing that Johnson did not want to end the agency but to reform it.

The heritage commission’s website is heavy with accounts of restorations and memorials completed in the 2000s, but lists only a few projects this decade. An agency official emailed to JTA information about 20 recent projects, many not appearing on the website.

In his statement, dated Aug. 10, Johnson cited a 2013 report on the heritage commission by the inspector general of the General Services Administration, calling it “a bizarre tale in which an obscure federal agency tasked with making lists of cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe morphed into the taxpayer-funded lobbying offices of an extravagantly-paid lobbyist,” referring to Farrow.

In addition to directing the heritage commission, Farrow has also registered as a foreign agent for Palau, a tiny Pacific Island nation that receives funding from the U.S. government, and he has lobbied on behalf of Puerto Rico.

The seeming duality of the role – a government official using government offices to rake in big bucks as a lobbyist – earned Farrow the rogue’s treatment in the Times.

“Mr. Farrow was at once a federal government bureaucrat and lobbyist,” the Times story said. “The revolving door did not even have to spin.” Farrow did not reply to a request for comment.

Lesley Weiss, the heritage commission’s chairwoman – and the deputy director at the National Conference Supporting Eurasian Jewry — this week rebutted some of the charges.

Weiss, who is not paid for her role at the agency, said in a letter to Johnson that Farrow’s dual status is par for the course in Washington, particularly for a small agency able to pay for only one full-time staffer.

“For most of its existence, the commission has operated only by employing the services of various part-time and full-time contractors,” she said.

Johnson said in his letter that Farrow ran his lobbying practice out of the heritage commission’s office – among a litany of charges that he says may amount to “serious crimes.”

Weiss in her response denied that Farrow mixed lobbying with his heritage commission work. The Times, which obtained an unredacted copy of the General Services Administration’s inspector general’s report, said that although Farrow may have conducted lobbying business from the agency’s office, he used a separate laptop computer and cellphone, and the inspector general said “there was insufficient evidence to show any violation by Mr. Farrow.”

The General Services Administration’s Office of Inspector General sent JTA a copy of its 2013 report, but it was almost entirely redacted. That inquiry is closed, but a separate probe by the Office of the Special Counsel reportedly remains open. A spokesman for the special counsel office refused to comment.

Officials close to the heritage commission said that people like Farrow are useful precisely because of the influence and access in Washington they accrue through their other jobs.

“He developed important relationships with countries abroad,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a top official in the Carter and Clinton administrations who worked with Farrow during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and who has been deeply involved in memorializing the Holocaust in the United States and abroad.

“It’s not easy to get foreign and local governments to agree with these sites,” he said.

Part of what may be driving the current controversy is the perception that the heritage commission has favored memorializing Jewish sites over non-Jewish ones.

The agency, in the years after its establishment in 1985, compiled lists of properties targeted for preservation belonging to a range of minorities, but more recently the overwhelming majority of its projects are Jewish.

The whistleblower whose complaints initiated the government investigations is Katarina Ryan, the heritage commission’s only full-time employee, who has been on leave since the investigations were launched. Ryan is a Roman Catholic of Polish descent who, sources close to the commission told JTA, clashed with other officials because she wanted more attention paid to memorializing atrocities suffered by non-Jews.

Ryan did not respond to a query through LinkedIn. The Senate staffer said that when Johnson’s committee launched its own queries into the heritage commission’s workings, the committee was not aware of Ryan’s name, much less her ethnicity or religion.

Weiss told JTA in a written response that an emphasis on memorializing Jewish sites was natural, given that other minorities have not been nearly wiped out in Europe.

“Jewish sites are particularly endangered to an extent that sites of most other groups are not because of the Holocaust and because of Communist repression, which annihilated the populations that otherwise would have continued to care for Jewish sites,” she said.

Weiss nonetheless noted a range of non-Jewish sites that have been memorialized through the work of the heritage commission, including Muslim sites in Bulgaria, Roma sites in Poland and Old Believer Christian sites in Lithuania.

Monica Lewinsky joins Twitter. Should we listen?


Monica Lewinsky has come full circle. The Jewish woman who, with some justice, described herself as “the first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet” returned to the cybersphere on Monday with a Twitter account.

Is she a glutton for punishment? She’s reentering the e-public eye just as Hillary Clinton is apparently gearing up for a presidential run, meaning that Lewinsky’s name inevitably will be back in the political scrum. It’s a scrum that has become, if anything, more vicious and relentless since the late 1990s, when her every predilection, rumored and otherwise, was smeared across the Internet in graphic detail.

But Lewinsky has left no question that she’s willing to own her past. In a June essay for Vanity Fair, where she is now a contributing editor, Lewinsky reflected on her time in and out of the scorching klieg lights and declared, “It’s time to burn the beret and bury the blue dress. And move forward.” For whatever reason — a desire for closure, purpose, fame, money or some combination thereof — she’s ready for another close-up.

And indeed, times have changed. Bill Clinton is now the most beloved politician in the country, a sort of home-fried political teddy bear. The Starr Report is ancient history. In comparison to today’s political discourse, the old allegations — that Clinton was a heavy-breathing sexual predator and Lewinsky a sex-crazed power-stalker — are as gentle as back rubs. Why should anybody still care about l’Affaire Lewinsky?

But that puts the pressure on Lewinsky in a different way — namely to prove that what she has to say is worth hearing. Her previous fame (or infamy) revolved entirely around what she did or didn’t do, and to whom she did or didn’t do it. No longer.

The Vanity Fair piece was a good start, reflective and self-aware. It also had a dynamite hook (“Monica Speaks!”) that she won’t be able to repeat.

So welcome back, Ms. Lewinsky. The floor is yours, and we’re all listening. For now.

Why Harvard should withdraw ‘The Collaboration’


It is a compelling story. A young Jewish researcher teaches himself German and ultimately spends years combing through Nazi archives in search of evidence to support a heinous claim uttered by an old man. In cold vaults, and often alone, the young man, whose own maternal grandparents narrowly missed becoming victims of the Holocaust, sifts through thousands of documents, and in one particularly tough year, views 400 films.

At night, the damning documents he has read during the day slice through his sleep. Between old movies and old memos, he fears his eyes will soon become rectangular.

Finally, the stalwart researcher could only come to one horrific conclusion: In the 1930s, Hollywood’s Jewish movie men enthusiastically aided Hitler and his Nazi regime’s global propaganda effort in order to preserve an important foreign market. The old man was right! The young man knows he must be brave, for no one will be happy to read this story. The truth hurts, after all.

This is not the plot of an upcoming arthouse film, or even the storyline for a feature documentary. Instead, it is the back story for one of the most intensely discussed new books, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” published by Harvard University Press (HUP) and authored by Jewish-Australian Ben Urwand, now a junior Harvard fellow based in Cambridge, Mass.

Shrewdly anticipating the massive response, HUP took the unusual step of hiring Goldberg McDuffie Communications, a high-profile public relations firm, whose usual clients are established best-selling authors and major corporations. With the book due for release last September, a press release was issued in June pointing to Urwand’s amazing claims, his years of research, learning German, and his Jewish background and grandparents.

GMC took the even stranger step of comparing “The Collaboration” to “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939,” a book released earlier in the year by Thomas Doherty, an esteemed film historian and academic from Brandeis University. The press release inferred Doherty had taken the easy way out using trade papers as sources, whereas the young researcher had slaved away in German and other archives.

In late June, staff editor Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times picked up the story, giving Urwand a dream start. Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian at Emory University, said the story was “breathtaking” and she was anxious to read it. There were dissenting opinions from Doherty and Steven J. Ross, a longtime film historian and academic from the University of Southern California. But Urwand had the last word, condemning the Jewish studio heads and executives as “collaborating” with Hitler, pointing to this as the very word they used in their correspondence between the studios and the Nazi regime.

It’s safe to say the summer of 2013 was Urwand’s. He was feted as courageous, his book as very brave. He was flown around the U.S. and overseas, giving interviews and making dozens of personal appearances, ranging from bookstores to Jewish literary festivals. In some instances, online articles repeating Urwand’s claims were posted to social media sites thousands of times.

But it didn’t last. By late August, the rebuttals began to flow from nearly two dozen prominent academics, historians, film journalists, authors and even an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Their negative reviews and full rebuttals, often many thousands of words long and usually providing history lessons of their own, were carried in major news outlets and prestigious literary journals.

There was also a flurry of controversy coverage, including lengthy articles from Jon Wiener in The Nation that brought up issues spanning back to the book’s inception as Urwand’s thesis at Berkeley, and a hilarious article from Tom Carson, writing for The American Prospect that poked fun at Sir Richard Evans, Urwand’s one high profile supporter who, with not a bit of bluster, had called some critics of the book, “Hollywood attack dogs” on Twitter.

Even Urwand’s talks came into question, with veteran British film historian Joel W. Finler accusing the author of manipulating his audience during an appearance at the Wiener Library, a Holocaust studies center in London.

Links to all rebuttals, negative reviews and controversy coverage here.

But December would see the most damning rebuttal of all by journalist, editor and author Mark Horowitz writing in Tablet Magazine, the first of the Jewish media to cover the book with a positive review in June by David Mikics.

Horowitz clinically eviscerated Urwand’s claims, saying the book had “error or lunacy on every page” and a full fact check would need to be book-length itself. Horowitz called “The Collaboration” dangerous and anti-Semitic (as have others), but said the damage the book had done was so substantial it was simply too late for corrections.

A torrid seven months was capped with “The Collaboration” ignominiously included in the Los Angeles Times’ list of the top five literary scandals of 2013.

So how did it all go so horribly wrong for Ben Urwand?

The problems began with the book’s title. The terms “collaborate” and “pact” have a specific meaning in the context of WWII and Urwand’s book could never prove the Jewish moguls and executives were guilty of these claims.

The German equivalent of the word “collaborate” used in the correspondence, zusammenarbeit, is commonly used to refer to normal business activity, and certainly in the key years, no one had any inkling of a murderous regime. “Pact” is a technical term relating to two formal nation-to-nation contracts from the time. The studios did have contracts with the regime, as they did with most foreign entities they dealt with; these stipulated distribution rights, fees, timing and the like.

Most commentators were also scathing about the book’s more than 300 endnotes as evaporating like a desert mirage upon close scrutiny. And it is here that the old man and his shocking accusation comes in. Endnote 163, to give one example, is intended to support the claim by producer Budd Schulberg that MGM studio chief, Louis B. Mayer, screened movies for the Nazi consul, George Gyssling.

It is this premise that underpins “The Collaboration,” but was also the inspiration for Urwand’s years of research. However, endnote 163 is a transcript of Schulberg telling a writer about hearing the Mayer/Gyssling story from someone else, whom he does not even name. As Schulberg was known to hate Mayer, he is hardly a reliable witness, but in any event, endnote 163 is hearsay.

Another endnote house of cards from “The Collaboration” also centers on Mayer (who Urwand paints as chief Shylock) and relates to what has now become an infamous quote repeated hundreds, maybe thousands of times as a result of this book.

In relation to a proposed anti-Nazi film, “Mad Dog of Europe,” Mayer is accused of saying: “We have interests in Germany; I represent the picture industry here in Hollywood; we have exchanges there; we have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made.”

However, the quote attributed to Mayer is, in fact, testimony from an independent producer who was suing MGM, another hostile source.

Just as damning, but more tragic, is that Urwand has stripped the book of any of the vital context of the time, including pervasive and frightening American anti-Semitism, constrictive regulatory pressures and even the influence of organizations that pressed studio heads to take some actions and not others. But finally, the notion one could tell the story of Jews through the lens of Nazi archival material is at once ridiculous and naive, but ultimately an example of victim blaming.

With so many flaws, “The Collaboration” is an academic and publishing scandal. The book can no longer be used as a citable source in academia, and the material within the book that is worthwhile is clouded by everything else that has been called into question. Certainly, Urwand’s own career as an academic and historian is impacted by the controversy.

Clearly, HUP should immediately withdraw the book from sale and complete a full, independent fact check. This action is not without precedence. Jon Wiener, in his book “Historians in Trouble,” points to David Abraham’s “Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis,” which was withdrawn by Princeton University in 1984 after the author conceded its footnotes contained significant errors. And when confronted about errors during his talk at the Sydney Jewish Museum in December 2013, Urwand said he would withdraw the book if any could be found.

Just as history repeats itself, it appears scandals involving historians do too.

In the late 1940s, pugnacious Dutch historian Pieter Geyl initiated a long-running, often bitter debate in print and through radio with English historian Arnold Toynbee, whom he accused of selectively using evidence to support his pre-conceived notions, and handily ignoring that which did not. For Geyl, who spent four years imprisoned by the Nazis including in Buchenwald concentration camp, Toynbee represented a type of historian who dealt in sophistry; whose research and analysis was tainted by a personal agenda that could never result in either the accurate telling of history or even the sound debating of it.

Geyl would have had a field day with Urwand, who, for whatever reason, marches his readers to a morally bereft finish line where Jews are as culpable as Nazis for the persecution of their fellow Jews.

As a grand-niece of Mayer, I remain proud of my great-uncle’s legacy. He was no angel, none of Hollywood’s founders were. It took blood, sweat, tears and tons of chutzpah to create the motion picture business into one of America’s most successful industries. But collaborators they were not. Nor did they have a pact with Hitler.

In fact, research by Ross and Laura Rosenzweig, who teaches American Jewish history at San Francisco State, shows that Mayer and several others, including Irving Thalberg, secretly paid huge sums for spies to infiltrate pro-Nazi groups at their own expense.

For a link to Dr. Rosenzweig’s research click here and see #25 on this list of rebuttals, negative reviews and controversy coverage for The Collaboration.

Perhaps the Jewish moguls and executives did even more. Perhaps they simply didn’t do enough. We may never know.

But as Jews in an often hostile environment and paid executives for corporations with shareholders back East, whatever they did, they wouldn’t have shouted it from the rooftops. And perhaps comments and actions were made precisely to pull attention away from covert activities.

Along with Ross’ and Rosenzweig’s research and upcoming books, strong evidence of resistance has been pointed to by Doherty and can be found in the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors digital archive (a project of eminent film historian and author Richard J. Maltby of Flinders University in Australia).

If there is one silver lining to “The Collaboration,” it is the ongoing debate and new research it will spur in the years to come. But let’s start with sound history telling.

Despite certainty from many commentators that “The Collaboration” is discredited, Urwand has been invited to speak at several Holocaust-related organizations, including the Museum of Tolerance in New York City. He continues to be invited to speak at JCC events and other venues around the U.S. and overseas.

I call on Urwand and HUP to withdraw “The Collaboration” immediately and address its many fatal flaws identified by so many. This is the only action that can hope to dial back the gross acceptance of the author’s claims and help restore the many fine legacies, such as my great-uncle’s, which his book has wrongly attacked.

 


Alicia Mayer is a book editor and a grandniece of Louis B. Mayer. She writes about early film history on her blog, hollywoodessays.com.

Why Huma Abedin stands by her man


Many New Yorkers, as the New York Times notes, are “baffled by the loyalty shown by Huma Abedin” to her transgressing spouse, Anthony Weiner.  I suspect, however, that for many first generation immigrants such as myself, especially those of us with Asian and South Asian roots, she is much less of a puzzle.  I recently participated as a faculty member in a leadership seminar for Asian Pacific academics at Cal Poly Pomona, where we discussed the challenging cultural nexus at which many of us stand as we negotiate between our identities as independent career-minded individuals with a strong sense of self and habits that were a dominant part of our identity, growing up as we did with parents and family members for whom gendered social hierarchies were a given and permeated all aspects of daily life.

Huma’s cultural background may provide some clues to the behavior that many women in New York find baffling, especially because Huma is a woman who has had a notable career and held positions of political prominence nationally.

Though born in the US, Huma is a daughter of Muslim immigrants. Her father is of Indian origin, her mother Pakistani.  Both her parents are educators and holders of doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania. They moved, when Huma was young, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she grew up, though she returned to the USA for her college education. Certainly, this combination of religious, social, cultural, and international circumstances have made Huma who she is. Precisely which aspects of these fused identities and cultural contexts shaped her is hard to say, but my own experience growing up within a community diverse in its faith, class, caste, and language provides a partial context for understanding Huma’s behavior, though I too, like many New Yorkers, find myself reluctant to endorse or approve of it.

Lest anyone think that my invocation of Huma’s upbringing and background are attempts to see her as playing out a purely subservient role as a Muslim woman from a South Asian background, let me say that I am pointing to something a great deal more complex.  In fact, the line that separates dominance from subservience and authority from servitude is far harder to discern in Asian and South Asian cultures than one might think. And Huma is equally influenced, I am sure, by leaders such as Hillary Clinton.

[Related: The shandah factor: What makes Jewish sex scandals different?]

As a schoolgirl, when I visited my Muslim friend Nazra’s home, I interacted with her four mothers and thought nothing of it. The Muslim Marriage Act in India guides matrimonial practices among Muslims, and Muslim men are legally allowed four wives; the Christian Marriage Act and the Hindu Marriage Act does likewise for Christians and Hindus, respectively.  Even as a child, I understood this difference among religious groups as normal.  Even if Huma’s parents lived a married life such as Christians or Hindus might, could we perhaps understand Huma’s tolerance of her husband’s straying eye within this larger, deeply-held, and long-practiced cultural context that may not have dominated her upbringing but must surely have inflected it? Perhaps. 

The impact of contexts, even ones which one might have rejected decisively, can continue to shape one’s behavior, as I have discovered on many occasions, much to my chagrin.  As I watched Anthony Weiner’s news conference, I could neither take my eyes off Huma nor help but think that she was in a state of deep shock.  Confident, ambitious, and career-driven though she might be, perhaps in this moment of unexpected and unprecedented crisis in her life, the cultural impulse to stand behind her man was instinctive. 

As a woman who wishes to see my Asian and South Asian sisters break out of habits of automatic deference and subservience, I hope, like many New Yorkers, that time will allow Huma to see her husband’s serious problems as ones that she must not facilitate through repeated acts of forgiveness.  Unlike many New Yorkers, however, I think that her behavior might be understood within the context of her complex cultural identity as an independent-minded and American-educated Muslim woman who has led a global life and whose upbringing has been both complex and complicated.


Molly Smith was born in Chenna, India. She earned her undergraduate and master’s degree in English from Madras Christian College, University of Madras, and her doctorate from Auburn University. She has held tenured faculty and administrative posts at St. Louis University, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Seton Hall University and Wheaton College, and served as the 11th president of Manhattanville College. Smith also serves on the board of trustees at Fairleigh Dickinson University and on the executive committee of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP), where she leads an initiative to develop women as academic leaders globally; she is a representative to the United Nations from IAUP.

Two restaurants drop RCC after Doheny scandal


Less than two months after a private investigator videotaped the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market allegedly bringing unsupervised animal products into his store, two local kosher restaurants have dropped the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) as their glatt kosher certifier. 

The RCC, a nonprofit consortium of local Orthodox rabbis, had certified as kosher the now-disgraced retailer and distributor’s meat, and RCC President Rabbi Meyer May confirmed in an interview on May 20 that other restaurants under the group’s certification are also considering an exit. 

“Two have left,” May said, “and it depends on some negotiations going on now whether there are more, or are not allowed to be more.” 

Asked how the RCC can prevent privately owned businesses from dropping their kosher certification, which can cost a business hundreds or thousands of dollars a month to maintain — mostly for the kosher supervision of a mashgiach, but also in fees paid to the RCC — May said his organization is currently in talks with Kehilla Kosher, the other major Orthodox kosher certifier in Los Angeles. May said he hopes the two agencies can agree on a common set of standards to apply to kosher restaurants citywide, which, he said, might dissuade businesses from fleeing the RCC. 

“Will it be successful? I don’t know,” May said. 

May confirmed that Elite Cuisine, a restaurant and catering company located on Beverly Boulevard near La Brea Avenue that had been under the RCC’s certification, is now certified by Kehilla. An advertisement for Elite that appeared in the May 19 edition of the Hillygram, a community e-mail newsletter, featured Kehilla’s logo.

May declined to name the other restaurant that has left the RCC. Habayit Restaurant in West Los Angeles, which had been listed on the RCC’s Web site in early April, no longer appears on the certifier’s site. 

Reached by phone, Amir Simyonov, Habayit’s owner, confirmed on May 17 that he had dropped the RCC’s certification and is now solely under the supervision of Rabbi Yehuda Bukspan. 

Meanwhile, the glass front door of Doheny’s retail outlet on Pico Boulevard remains covered with white butcher paper. If the initial reaction to the scandal, which broke on March 24, was rapid, progress toward reopening the store has slowed more recently. 

Shlomo Rechnitz, a local businessman and philanthropist, bought the shop and its distribution arm on March 31 and then transferred the agreement to David Kagan, owner of Western Kosher, the competing kosher retailer, on April 8.

The main obstacle to reopening Doheny is the question of which kosher agency will oversee the reopened shop. Western Kosher is certified by Kehilla, but Rechnitz told the RCC’s May at the time he purchased the shop that he intended to reopen Doheny under RCC certification.

Reached by phone on May 21, Kagan declined to comment. On Tuesday, Rechnitz declined to comment about the negotiations on the record, other than to say that they are ongoing.

On that same day, May said he isn’t sure exactly who currently owns the shop, but he appeared to be expecting Rechnitz to make good on his promise that the reopened Doheny would remain under the RCC’s certification. 

“We won’t accept that Doheny will open up under Kehilla,” May said.

Whether the RCC would, in fact, be able to stop that from happening is unclear. 

In what he called an effort to improve the standards of kashrut in Los Angeles, May said the RCC recently underwent internal and external audits of its operations. Rabbi Gershon Bess, the RCC’s chief rabbinic authority, in an open letter to the Jewish community sent on May 3, said that the auditor, “a senior representative of the [Orthodox Union],” found that despite the RCC’s “general high standards and excellent staff, [the RCC] needed to improve and upgrade in many areas.” 

May told the Journal in April that results of audits would be made public, but declined to discuss them on Monday. He said he hopes to implement higher kosher standards in Los Angeles, and that, ideally, such standards would be implemented by Kehilla’s certified businesses as well. 

Kehilla’s rabbinic administrator, Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, declined to be interviewed on May 21. In response to a message left for Teichman on Tuesday, a Kehilla employee who identified himself only as Noah, told the Journal that the agency is “not aware of any obstacles” that would prevent Doheny from reopening its doors. The employee declined to respond to follow-up questions by phone. 

New Doheny Meats owner explains his purchase of scandal-ridden store


Shlomo Rechnitz, a prominent local businessman and philanthropist, has purchased Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, the scandal-plagued kosher meat retailer and distributor.

Rechnitz, who co-founded TwinMed, a large medical supply firm, and owns a number of other businesses, purchased the store and its distribution arm for an undisclosed sum from its former owner, Mike Engelman.

The sale closed late in the day on Sunday, March 31, just one week after its former kosher certifier, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), revoked the store’s certification and hours before the beginning of a two-day holy period celebrating the end of Passover.

Starting on March 25, the day after the revocation, rabbis from the RCC reached out to Rechnitz, urging him to buy Doheny, and in an interview with The Jewish Journal on April 3, Rechnitz said he initially considered making the purchase as “a favor to the community.”

[Related: After Doheny Kosher scandal, what does the future hold for L.A.’s meat market?]

“Before I came out with the announcement that I was going to purchase [Doheny],” Rechnitz said, “there were already stores calling up different distributors, even being quoted prices 35 to 40 percent higher than their current prices.”

Doheny is believed to supply as much as 50 percent of the kosher meat and poultry in Los Angeles; its disappearance would have significantly reduced competition in the marketplace, which, Rechnitz said, “would have destroyed the kosher market in Los Angeles.”

RCC President Rabbi Meyer H. May said Wednesday morning that he was one of those who personally urged Rechnitz to buy Doheny Meats, and he was cheered by news of the sale.

“It’s really extraordinary,” May said. “He’s going to preserve the richness of the meat supply and preserve the price structure for consumers.”

Rechnitz was involved in the response to the Doheny scandal from its earliest hours. He was one of a handful of non-rabbis who attended a hastily organized meeting on Sunday, March 24, when Engelman spoke to the RCC’s leadership and rabbis from synagogues around the Pico-Robertson neighborhood about what he had done at his store.

Engelman, who had owned the shop for 28 years, was videotaped by a private investigator last month bringing unidentified products into his store at a time when its rabbinic overseer was absent. Engelman did not return repeated calls requesting comment, and has not spoken on the record since the scandal began.

At the March 24 meeting, Engelman reportedly told Rechnitz, May, and the other laypeople and rabbis present, that he had, on two or three occasions, brought unsupervised meat into the store.

According to multiple people who attended the meeting, Engelman claimed all the meat he had brought to Doheny was kosher, but he admitted some was not up to the RCC’s higher “glatt kosher” standard. Glatt kosher meat is more expensive than kosher meat, which itself carries a higher price tag than equivalent non-kosher products.

Rechnitz said that he believes Engelman with “99 percent” confidence.

Rechnitz did add a caveat.  “You can’t rely on someone like me, who got my information from someone who unfortunately has made mistakes, who wasn’t always as truthful as he should have been,” Rechnitz said.

Over the course of a week of negotiations, Rechnitz spent between eight and 10 hours with Engelman; he said he does not believe Engelman brought the unsupervised products into Doheny to respond to specific customers’ requests, as some have suggested.

Rechnitz said Engelman himself couldn’t fully explain why he brought the unsupervised meat into the store, but Rechnitz speculated that it may have been due to anger Engelman felt towards his main supplier, Agri Star, the large kosher meat processor based in Postville, Iowa. In 2009, Agri Star bought the Postville plant from the bankrupt Rubashkin-owned firm AgriProcessors, which had been shut down in the aftermath of the largest immigration raid in American history.

Money may not have been the motivating factor, Rechnitz said, “because it wasn’t that much of a difference, based on the quantity.”

In the private investigator’s video, a Doheny employee was seen unloading eight boxes from Engelman’s SUV and bringing them into the store. Based on additional videos received from the investigator, the May said the RCC estimates Engelman brought a total of approximately 1,200 pounds of animal products into the store over the weeks he was under surveillance.

Although Rechnitz’s initial reason to purchase Doheny was to maintain competing distributors for the city’s kosher-observant community, over the course of the week of negotiations he became a bit more optimistic about the business prospects for the company.

“I didn’t have time to send in a forensic accounting team,” he said, but Engelman told him that Doheny’s gross sales on the retail and distribution sides added up to approximately $8 million a year.

That said, Rechnitz said he hopes to remain a mostly silent investor in Doheny, and won’t aim to build its market share at the expense of other distributors.

Engelman won’t have any role in the business – Rechnitz said the agreement required the former owner to make a “complete” break, and included a non-compete clause – but the rest of the operation should remain mostly the same.

The RCC will once again certify Doheny’s retail and distribution operations, the name will remain the same and every current employee, Rechnitz said, has been offered his job.

The store, which is currently closed, could reopen as early as next Monday; Rechnitz said that the store, the utensils and dishes used there were being kashered — ritually cleansed — “just in case there was non-kosher meat being used.”

Rechnitz is currently Doheny’s sole owner; he said he is in negotiations with another investor who might buy into the business. The deal with Engelman included a non-disclosure agreement about the price, Rechnitz said, but he described the negotiations as “amicable” and described the final selling price as “sizable,” but not as big as it might have been prior to the scandal.

“It definitely came at a major discount due to the fact of what [Engelman] did, or what he tried to get away with,” Rechnitz said. “He definitely was not rewarded for his actions.”

Rechnitz has experience working with organizations at times of crisis. In his role as CEO of one of his companies, Brius Management Co., which manages multiple nursing homes across California, Rechnitz told a reporter in 2011 that his company looked mostly for “distressed facilities.”

In his philanthropic work, Rechnitz has also come to the aid of embattled organizations. Last year, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Rechnitz donated $1 million to an organization that supports Jewish day schools in the New York area. In 2011, Rechnitz donated $5 million to the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which was struggling under millions in debt following the death of its chief rabbi and fundraiser. That same year, Rechnitz also helped save Chabad of California’s headquarters from foreclosure.

But Rechnitz is also known for charitable giving of a very different sort. Every Saturday night, Jews line up outside his family’s home. Until six months ago, those who came walked away with checks; now they leave with gift cards to one of two kosher markets in the area near Fairfax and La Brea.

Rechnitz announced his purchase of Doheny at his synagogue on Sunday evening, March 31, just hours after the deal closed. He said the reaction there was muted – “It was kind of almost expected,” Rechnitz said, adding that his goal in making the announcement was to change the conversations that observant Jews in Los Angeles were bound to have over the two days that followed, the last two days of Passover, during which work and the use of any electronics is prohibited.

“I wanted to stave off two days of people creating rumors and completely defaming the place,” Rechnitz said.

In that regard, Rechnitz appears to have succeeded already. Just hours after Passover ended on Tuesday, April 2, after sundown, at least one person had reported the news in a comment on Facebook.

Avigdor Lieberman indicted for fraud and breach of trust in lesser case


Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein closed a 12-year investigation against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but decided to indict him for fraud and breach of trust in a lesser case.

Lieberman had been accused of laundering millions of shekels through straw companies, including while serving as a public official, and of obstructing the investigation into money laundering.

Weinstein on Thursday announced his decision to indict Liberman for fraud and breach of trust for advancing former ambassador to Belarus Ze'ev Ben Aryeh's position in the Foreign Ministry in exchange for information about the investigation against him being conducted in Belarus. Last spring, Ben Aryeh confessed that he received and passed documents onto Lieberman in 2008.

Lieberman previously had committed to resigning from his Knesset position if he was indicted on the main case, but never mentioned the Ben Aryeh case. It is unclear if he will be required to resign if he is convicted.

Olmert says he has no plans to re-enter politics


Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, following his acquittal on the most serious corruption charges, said he does not intend to return to politics.

Olmert, speaking Thursday at a conference in Tel Aviv two days after he was acquitted on corruption charges that prompted his resignation from office four years ago, also said that he would remain a member of the Kadima party.

“I want to calm down anyone who is worried—I have no intention of re-entering politics,” Olmert reportedly said a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies. “I am not involved in politics. I deal with other issues and nothing else. I don’t have a shelf party—I am a member of Kadima.”

The Jerusalem District Court acquitted Olmert on charges of fraud, breach of trust, tax evasion and falsifying corporate records in what became known as the Talansky and Rishon Tours affairs. He was found guilty on a lesser charge of breach of trust in the Investment Center case, in which Olmert was accused of granting personal favors while he was Israel’s trade minister.

Olmert is expected to appeal the breach of trust conviction, which would carry a prison sentence and make him the first Israeli prime minister to go behind bars. He had pleaded not guilty on all charges.

In a statement made after the executive summary of the decision was read, Olmert said, “After over four years this case has finally come to its end. Four years ago the media was riddled with reports of ‘cash envelopes’ and illicit money. Well, today the court found that there was no such thing. This was not corruption, there were no cash-filled envelopes, there was no bribery, there was no illicit use of funds.”

Avigdor Lieberman told he might be indicted


Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been told that he may soon be indicted on charges of fraud, money laundering and break of trust.

The punishment for money laundering alone could be up to a 10-year prison sentence.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein informed the Kadima Party leader of the possibility on Wednesday, reported Haaretz.

The foreign minister has the right to a hearing in the effort to persuade the attorney general not to move forward with formal charges. If he takes that option, he will not need to resign from the cabinet. If he forsakes the opportunity, his political fate is not clear, according to the newspaper.

About a year-and-a-half ago, the Israeli police’s head of investigations and intelligence division, Yoav Segalovich, recommended that Weinstein charge Lieberman. Conversations on the matter have continued since then between the State Prosecution and the Attorney General offices. Segalovich recommended indicting Lieberman on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering, breach of trust, witness harassment, and obstruction of justice, according to Haaretz.

Police have alleged that Lieberman was given more than 10 million in bribes from businessmen, which was laundered via shell companies and fictitious bank accounts overseas.

The police also have recommended indicting Lieberman for breach of trust in the case of Israel’s former ambassador to Belarus, Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, who showed Lieberman secret documents from the investigation against Lieberman, Haaretz reported.

Olmert indicted in Holyland scandal


Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been indicted on bribery charges in one of Israel’s largest corruption scandals.

The indictment filed Thursday accuses Olmert of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes during the construction of the Holyland apartment project in Jerusalem when he was mayor of Jerusalem and then trade minister.

Seventeen other people were also indicted in the case, including Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken and former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski.

Olmert is currently on trial in three other cases: for allegedly paying for family vacations by double billing Jewish organizations through the Rishon Tours travel agency; for allegedly accepting envelopes full of cash from American businessman Morris Talansky; and for allegedly granting personal favors to attorney Uri Messer when he served as trade minister in the Investment Center case.

The ex-Israeli leader is charged with fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate records and tax evasion. He has pleaded not guilty on all charges.

Olmert is the first former Israeli prime minister to stand trial. He resigned as prime minister in September 2008 after police investigators recommended that he be indicted.

Shh! Don’t talk about sex at Yeshiva University


It wasn’t your typical college sex scandal. There were no accusations of molestation, inappropriate faculty-student relationships or date rape charges.

Instead, the precipitating incident was the publication by a student-run newspaper of a female student’s first-person account of a premarital sexual encounter.

But this is Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution where the campuses for men and women are separated by approximately 10 miles, and the story’s publication in the YU Beacon newspaper prompted an intense, open discussion of a topic normally considered taboo in this conservative college community.

Following a cascade of negative comments by online readers of the piece, titled “How Do I Even Begin To Explain This?” the student council elected to withdraw its funding from the newspaper and several editors resigned. Meanwhile, stories about the clash between freedom of expression and fealty to Orthodox Judaism’s emphasis on modesty appeared in news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Yeshiva University officials issued a statement noting that the decision about de-funding the Beacon was made by students, but Y.U. officials declined to be interviewed by JTA about sexual health practices at the school.

The university’s reticence to talk publicly about student sexual activity extends beyond the pages of student publications. A review of the Health & Wellness section of the school’s website found no discussion of contraception or other relevant information, and several students—including the anonymous author—said the school had not provided them with any sort of orientation on health issues related to sexual activity.

That’s not to say student health services doesn’t provide students with guidance or resources—it does—but the university’s low-key approach to sexual health issues stands in stark contrast to the approach of many U.S. colleges.

“The information should be available,” said Lisa Maldonado, the executive director of the New York-based Reproductive Health Access Project. “If you look at the data of who is having the most unintended pregnancies, it’s young women in their 20s.”

Sarah Lazaros, 21, a senior at YU’s Stern College for Women, said it’s clear why Yeshiva doesn’t have such material available online.

Having information on the website “would go against a lot of what the university stands for, which is total devotion to Jewish law. A lot of potential students would see that and not come to the university,” Lazaros said. “I think the main reason is that they don’t want to encourage these behaviors.”

Several YU students interviewed by JTA said it’s a mistake to pretend that the university’s students are not sexually active.

The sex essay “addresses something that we don’t often talk about in the Orthodox Jewish community, especially at YU,” Simi Lampert, 22, the Beacon’s editor, told JTA.

The Beacon, an independent, online newspaper launched in January by students at Yeshiva’s men’s and women’s colleges, will continue to publish, albeit without funding from the student council.

Lampert said she saw the story’s publication as an opportunity to start a conversation about sex among YU students.

“You have someone like me who went to a coed high school, has had boyfriends and has no intention of waiting until marriage for intercourse,” said S.B., a freshman at Stern who, like others interviewed for this story, asked to be identified only by her initials. “I don’t think anyone should go around denying that there are students having sex because that is not reality.”

The author of the Beacon story, a 20-year-old Stern student with the initials L.P., said her essay was true. She said she penned the piece, which was published in the literary section, where fiction and nonfiction appear, to help resolve her own complicated feelings about the experience.

“I was really kind of distraught about the whole thing,” L.P. said, her voice cracking.

Maintaining the appearance of the typical Orthodox Stern girl, L.P. said she felt like she could not talk to her friends about her night in the hotel room.

“It’s not like it was expected of me by how I dress,” she said. “I wear skirts. I do that whole song and dance.”

L.P. complained that the culture of the Orthodox institution makes it difficult to take effective safeguards when engaging in intercourse. When her period was late in coming after her sexual encounter, L.P. said she was worried about pregnancy even though she and her partner had used contraception.

Panicked, she went to Stern’s Health & Wellness Center, where she said she was counseled nonjudgmentally and asked for and received a pregnancy test.

“They’ll have a conversation with you about sex,” she said. “They’ll talk to you about the risks of being sexually active.”

Responding to a JTA inquiry about the contraceptive and counseling options available to students, YU’s senior director of media relations, Mayer Fertig, referred to the website of the Health & Wellness center. The site does not list contraceptives, Plan B or pregnancy tests as an available resource, unlike the websites of other major universities, and students say that Stern College doesn’t explicitly inform students that there are pregnancy tests and counseling about sexually transmitted infection available in the university system.

“From what I know, there is no information that has been made very accessible in terms of contraception, rape or pregnancy,” S.B. said.

Many Stern students hail from Orthodox institutions and thus are unlikely to have picked up knowledge about condom usage, pregnancy or the risks of disease transmission from their high schools.

Tamar, a senior at Stern who asked that her last name not be used, said she could recall just one event in her three years on campus in which women’s sexuality and health was discussed. As for contraceptives, she said, “It’s not something that’s talked about.”

Lazaros, a women’s studies major, said that a student-run women’s studies society on campus once brought a sex therapist to the college to speak. She also said the Health & Wellness Center does not provide a broad spectrum of services, probably because of limited demand and the school’s small size.

While L.P.’s essay did not go into much detail about the sexual encounter, several YU students described how their friends at the school attempt to skirt the Orthodox ban on premarital intercourse by being sexually active in others ways.

M.H., 27, who graduated from Yeshiva College in 2007, told JTA that he engaged in oral sex with girls from Stern and talked with friends about their similar exploits.

“I know that they were definitely hooking up—oral sex, kissing, touching,” he said. “I found that it was much harder to get a religious girl to actually have sexual intercourse because they place a premium on virginity.”

In public, at least, the rule at Yeshiva remains unchanged, students say.

“I know couples that behind closed doors, they’ll cuddle or they’ll make out,” L.P. said. “But when it comes to sitting in the student lounge, they sit five feet apart.”

Trick or tweet: Anthony Weiner and Bernie Madoff Halloween masks


Are Halloween masks of Jews in the news a trick or just a new treatment?

With a new latex mask of disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner now selling alongside that of convicted swindler Bernie Madoff, I wonder: In some weird way, have American Jews entered a new era of awful acceptance?

What will people think if a Weiner or Madoff shows up at their door on Halloween? Will they identify these masks first by religion or indiscretion? Are these pop culture masks good for the Jews?

Through rubbery eye holes, they do allow a more evolved view.

Unlike other eras of American products, such as 19th century racially offensive castiron toy banks, today there is no exaggeration of features or ethnicity, the threesome’s noses are not elongated or hooked. They simply stare back at us as a new kind of pumpkin head, hollow objects of ridicule who happen to be Jewish.

OK, so they’re not bad for the Jews. But are these masks goods for the Jews? Would a Jewish person in particular want to wear them? On Purim, we still dress as Mordechai or Esther—the heroes. But in an era about three posts past irony, would we now choose instead to masquerade as a villain who is Jewish?

For a darkside Jewish mask, there is no need to revise characters from an ancient scroll—say, a leery-eyed Mordechai, or a wet T-shirt contest winner Esther—when we can look to Jewish personalities pulled from the book of today.

The Weiner costume—produced by Ricky’s, a costume superstore chain in New York that also sells online—includes a mask and an optional pair of boxers from which a pair of latex testicles hang out. Kirsten Slotten, who works for a publicity firm representing Ricky’s, tells JTA that the Weiner get-up “is one of the most popular costumes.” The company is marketing the costume along with versions of Charlie Sheen and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a trio dubbed “The New Stooges.”

Costume dealers say that sales of Bernie Madoff masks are way down in 2011.

The Weiner costume is “quite controversial,” says Marc Beige, whose 60-year-old competing costume company, Rubie’s, took a pass on the outfit.

“We sell to mainstream America like Wal-Mart,” Beige said. “We did not feel that it would be that popular.”

Noting that some New Yorkers still feel that Weiner was an effective congressman, Beige added, “Nobody’s perfect. He’s a human being.”

Rubie’s, along with Ricky’s and other companies, are also marketing a Charlie Sheen costume. The mask—a good-enough likeness of the former “Two and a Half Men” star in the Ricky’s version—comes with an optional T-shirt emblazoned with words and phrases Sheen made infamous, including “winner” and “tiger’s blood.”

Not included: Sheen’s “goddesses.”

In attempting to deflect claims of anti-Semitism, the Hollywood meltdown warlock claimed to have Jewish roots on his mother’s side. So can we count his costume along with the Weiner and the Madoff?

Either way, Beige said, “religion never comes up” when the staff at Rubie’s discusses the appropriateness of a potential costume.

As for mask sales of the tragic Madoff, “That’s pretty much over,” he said.

Wondering about the Jewish identity of the people behind the masks, I asked Beige (who is Jewish) if any of his friends ever thought it odd that he was in the Halloween business.

“No, that’s never come up. I think over 50 percent are Jewish,” said Beige, noting that the company also has a branch and catalog in Israel.

“When you think about it,” he adds, “this business is one part Hollywood, one part garment business, one part toys—all businesses where you find a lot of Jews.”

THE GOODS
Anthony Weiner mask ($24.99, from Ricky’s), “Just hanging around” boxers ($19.99, from Ricky’s)

Madoff mask ($22-$30 from various online vendors)

Charlie Sheen adult costume kit, shirt and mask ($20 from Rubies, adult sizes only)

Know of a product that might be good for “Goods for the Jews”? Please send to Edmon Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.

Madoff says he is happier in prison than free


Financial swindler Bernard Madoff said that he is happier in prison than he was on the outside because he no longer lives in fear of being arrested and knows he will die in prison, TV journalist Barbara Walters said on Thursday.

Walters, who spent two hours at the prison with Madoff two weeks ago, also told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program that Madoff said that while he had contemplated suicide during his early days behind bars, he lacked the courage and never thinks about killing himself now.

Madoff is serving a 150-year prison term for bilking investors out of billions of dollars in a decades-long Ponzi scheme that is considered the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history.

Madoff’s wife, Ruth, said in an interview to be aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program on Sunday that the couple actually tried to kill themselves by taking pills on Christmas Eve 2008 after the fraud was exposed.

“I don’t know whose idea it was, but we decided to kill ourselves because it was so horrendous what was happening,” Ruth Madoff said of the failed attempt.

Walters did not address the subject of suicide on Thursday. She said Madoff and his wife are now estranged.

The couple’s elder son, Mark, 46, hanged himself in his New York apartment on Dec. 11, the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. Mark and Andrew Madoff turned in their father to authorities a day after he confessed to them.

Walters said Madoff, 73, was distraught over his son’s suicide, and that his wife wanted to stop visiting him in prison after that and he agreed. He has not seen her since, Walters said.

“Ruth does not hate me. She has no one, and this is not fair to her,” Walters quoted Madoff as saying.

“He has terrible remorse, he says he knows that he ruined his family,” Walters said, adding that Madoff told her that with the help of therapy he does not think about what he has done, but “at night he says he has horrible nightmares.”

The interview, one of several involving the Madoff family to surface in the past week, was not filmed because cameras are not allowed in the North Carolina facility where Madoff is serving time.

Walters said Madoff speaks of being happier now because for the first time in 20 years he has no fear of being arrested.

“I feel safer here than outside,” Madoff told Walters.

“I have people to talk to, no decisions to make … now I have no fear because I’m no longer in control” and “know that I will die in prison,” she said he told her.

As for his crimes, Madoff said, “the average person thinks I robbed widows and orphans. I made wealthy people wealthier.”

Walters said Madoff told her, “every once in a while I find myself smiling, and I’m horrified.”

Mark Madoff’s widow Stephanie said in interviews ahead of the publication of her book that Madoff had boasted in a letter to her of being treated like a celebrity, and Walters corroborated this, saying that he told her the prisoners, “especially the younger ones,” treat him with respect.

Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Greg McCune

Agriprocessors’ Rubashkin denied new trial



Former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin was denied a new trial by a U.S. appeals court.
 The St. Louis Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 16 that Rubashkin did not prove in his bid for a new trial that the presiding judge in the original case, Linda Reade of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, should have recused herself because she was involved in planning the May 2008 federal immigration raid on Agriprocessors that led to the company’s bankruptcy later that year.

 

Rubashkin, the former head of what once was the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and packing plant, located in Postville, Iowa, was convicted of financial fraud in 2009 and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Rubashkin is in a federal prison in New York state.

In the federal raid on the plant, 389 illegal immigrants were arrested, including 31 children.
The appeals court also disagreed with Rubashkin’s contention that the sentence was too long.

A Rubashkin attorney told the Des Moines Register that his client would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
 


Israeli “idol” judge indicted in strongarm case


Israel’s “Kochav Nolad” (“A Star is Born”) TV singing competition has a new reality spinoff—a criminal case against one of its judges, accused of using strongarm tactics to ensure she got a cut of a former contestant’s earnings.

The judge, Margalit Tsanani, a popular singer in her own right, was indicted on Monday along with her alleged enforcer on extortion charges which both have denied.

The case has made front-page news in Israel, where the show, loosely formatted along the lines of the unaffiliated American Idol franchise, has been a ratings winner.

According to the charge sheet, Tsanani, popularly known as “Margol”, co-managed along with a musical agent the lucrative career of one of the competition’s former contestants.

But the agent withheld Tsanani’s cut and she went to legal arbitration, which she won. The agent still refused to pay and Tsanani turned to an enforcer—nicknamed “Tooth Puller”—to collect, the indictment said.

Tsanani’s arrest two weeks ago stunned the Israeli entertainment world, but parts of the indictment dealing directly with the singing competition could prove even more disturbing to fans.

Prosecutors alleged the judge awarded points to one contestant—who did not win—in accordance with a text message she received from the enforcer during a live broadcast of the show.

And, the indictment said, Tsanani also did her enforcer a favour by making a friendly reference, during the show, to a convict watching the programme in prison.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, editing by Tim Pearce

Unmasking Bernie Madoff


“They roar like a mouse and bite like a flea.”

That’s how whistleblower Harry Markopolos characterized members of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for their failure to heed his warnings about the worldwide financial fraud perpetrated by investment adviser Bernie Madoff.

Markopolos is the subject of the new documentary “Chasing Madoff,” based on his book, “No One Would Listen,” which chronicles his decade-long battle to get the press and, particularly, the SEC to investigate and intercept Madoff’s activities. In a recent interview, Markopolos said he initially came across those activities while working at Rampart Investment Management Co. in Boston, first as a portfolio manager, then as chief investment officer, and it took him all of five minutes to realize that Madoff was running a gigantic scam.

In a nutshell, Markopolos explained, Madoff was robbing Peter to pay Paul. “He was taking money from new investors and redistributing it to old investors and keeping a small piece for himself. He was just redistributing the money and never investing any of it.”

Markopolos added, “He gave the lion’s share of the fees, well over 90 percent of them, in fact, to the feeder funds, to the big banks that were marketing the scheme and taking it international for him. So they were more than happy to look the other way.”

Against this formidable array of wealth and power stood Markopolos and the small team he assembled — his colleagues at Rampart, Frank Casey and Neil Cello; along with award-winning financial journalist Michael Ocrant, whom Markopolos described as “the only Jewish member of my team.”

“Chasing Madoff” unfolds like a thriller as the tiny group uncovers the facts and pursues justice. 

Markopolos and his team gave material on Madoff to the SEC numerous times, but they were ignored. At one point in the film, a Congressional committee excoriates SEC members for their negligence. According to Markopolos, the agency was underfunded, and its personnel were totally incompetent.

“They were untrained in finance. It’s an agency that’s run overwhelmingly by lawyers. Lawyers never understand finance; the reason lawyers go to law school is that they can’t count. They’re bad at math. Putting them in charge of overseeing the capital markets is ludicrous.”

Ultimately, Madoff was brought down by the financial meltdown of 2008, during which numerous institutions were imploding. As Markopolos explained, nobody thought their investments were safe, so they went to Madoff first to withdraw their funds, because it appeared that he never lost money and that his firm was particularly solvent.

“There was a run on the bank, so to speak, and, as a result, he knew with a date certain that he was going to collapse, and he had weeks to destroy documents, develop cover stories and warn his closest henchmen that the end was near. So he turned himself in at a time and place, and under circumstances, of his own choosing.  He had to do that because he had stolen from some of the most powerful, wealthiest people in the world. He’d also stolen from organized crime; he’d stolen from the Russians, the Colombians. The only place he was going to survive was in prison.”

Madoff is now serving a 150-year sentence. What is most painful about this whole affair for Markopolos is his failure to have Madoff stopped before he ruined so many people. Some of the film’s most poignant moments occur when individual victims tell their stories. Markopolos remembers a speaking engagement in Las Vegas, where a man approached him at the cocktail party with tears in his eyes.

“He had just buried his father. His father owned an accounting firm and got invested with Bernie Madoff in 1976, and he recommended Madoff to his family members, so they invested. He also recommended Madoff to his firm’s clients, and they became invested. They all got wiped out, and he couldn’t live with himself, so he died of heartbreak.”

If there is anything positive coming out of all this, it might be that the SEC is now a totally different agency. “The SEC has reformed itself.” Markopolos said. “They have a whistleblower program, one that I suggested in front of Congress. They pay the whistleblowers to come in while the schemes are still going on, so you can stop them and find out about a Lehman Brothers before they collapse, not afterward.”

However, he insisted that much more needs to be done, such as hiring additional financial talent at better salaries and paying them big bonuses like those paid on Wall Street, to level the playing field. 

As for what Markopolos would like audiences to learn from this film: “I’d like investors to realize that, if it’s too good to be true, it never is.  Another thing I’d like them to learn is that you have to diversify your investments. And, I’d say for individuals, if you don’t stand up and point out when something criminal is taking place, then bad things are going to happen. 

“No one spoke up about the mortgage fraud either, and that brought the nation to its knees.”

The film opens Aug. 26.

Opinion: Weiner’s downfall a reminder of perils of Jewish pride


He was supposed to be one of Congress’ rising stars, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn with great ambition and promise.

A truculent Democrat with a penchant for media attention, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was an unabashed liberal on domestic affairs and a hard-liner on foreign policy, particularly Israel. Like his predecessor in his U.S. House of Representatives seat, Sen. Charles Schumer, Weiner had larger ambitions—in his case, mayor of New York City.

But then came his shamefaced news conference Monday, when the 46-year-old congressman, who was married last year, admitted to lying about sending a lewd photo to a woman he met on the internet.

It was the culmination of a week of dissembling since the conservative blog biggovernment.com had posted the photo. In all, Weiner confessed to carrying on inappropriate online relationships with six women. He said he would not get a divorce from his new wife—Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is Muslim—nor would he resign.

In the Jewish community, which long had regarded him with pride, Weiner’s spectacularly public downfall was a reminder of the perils of associating a particular person’s successes or failures with his Jewishness.

Weiner’s perennial prefixes—“Jewish congressman, from New York, staunch supporter of Israel”—clearly identified him in the public mind, said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith.

Just as Italian Americans worry about blanket generalizations with “The Sopranos” or “The Godfather,” Jews sigh reflexively when there is a Jew whose bad judgment and bad behavior are in the spotlight, Weidman Schneider said.

“Only this isn’t fiction,” she said. “There’s a foolishness to Weiner’s attempted cover-up, no pun intended, that’s as embarrassing and cringe-inducing as the acts themselves.”

Reaction to the scandal has come straight from the standard American Jewish playbook, Democratic political consultant Steve Rabinowitz said—loudly celebrate Jewish success and “cringe or mourn Jewish failure.”

“When the Son of Sam turns out to be David Berkowitz or the greatest Ponzi scheme ever is perpetrated by Bernie Madoff or a humiliated politician is named Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner,” Rabinowitz said, “you can almost hear it as a community: Why did he it have to be our guy?”

Weiner’s political identity has long been intertwined with his Jewishness. He has been celebrated by the pro-settlement Zionist Organization of America for his positions on the West Bank, and Weiner routinely introduces a bill that would deny assistance to Saudi Arabia, even though that wealthy country does not receive U.S. assistance beyond a small program that trains Saudi army officers in democracy.

ZOA President Morton Klein said the Weiner scandal represents a “terrible loss for the pro-Israel community.”

“As long as Anthony Weiner remains in Congress, his position on Israel will be among the best,” Klein said. “The only issue now is whether his influence will have diminished and whether his credibility will have diminished.”

Robert Wexler, a Democrat and former Jewish congressman from Florida, said regaining voters’ trust will have to be a top priority for Weiner.

“Up until last week, Anthony was an excellent congressman and a fine public servant,” said Wexler, who now runs the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. “The bottom line is that he’s a good and decent person that made some grave errors.”

With sincere and honest repentance and a reminder of the Jewish value of “seeing the other person in the image of God,” there’s a way for Weiner to put the scandal behind him, said Orthodox feminist activist Blu Greenberg.

Judaism appreciates forgiveness, and Weiner has the chance to atone by making changes to his life and way of thinking, Greenberg told JTA.

“He doesn’t necessarily have to be a condemned man the rest of his life,” she said. “If others are big enough to forgive him, then his life isn’t over.

“He’s not an ax murderer. He’s a very foolish man in power lacking a sense of appreciation for what he had.”

But whether Weiner can recover to the degree where the American Jewish community will proudly count him again among its ranks is a tougher question.

“He provided a negative example for our children,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “We appropriately feel outrage for that.”

(JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.)

Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav receives seven-year prison sentence


Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who was found guilty of rape and sexual assault, was sentenced to seven years in jail and ordered to pay compensation to two of his victims.

A panel of three Tel Aviv District Court judges handed down the sentence Tuesday, nearly five years after he was first accused.

Katsav, 65, reportedly began sobbing after the verdict was read and then yelled out several times, interrupting the judges, saying “It’s all lies,”  “the sentence is a mistake” and “it’s not true.”

Katsav’s prison sentence is set to begin May 8. He was also ordered to pay more than $28,000 to the rape victim and about $7,000 to the sexual assault victim. He also will serve two years of probation after his release from prison.

“The defendant committed the crime and like every other person, he must bear the consequences. No man is above the law,” the judges wrote in their sentence, which was read out in the courtroom. “The contention that seeing a former president of the country go to jail is too painful to watch is an emotional argument, but it definitely cannot be accepted as an ethical argument.”

The closed-door trial lasted for one year, ending with a guilty verdict on Dec. 30. Two years ago, Katsav declined what was seen as a lenient plea bargain—one that dropped the rape charges for lesser charges and likely would have left him with a suspended sentence—saying that he wanted to clear his name in court.

Katsav, who immigrated to Israel from Iran in 1951, became president when the Knesset elected him in 2000, upsetting candidate Shimon Peres. Peres became president in 2007 after Katsav resigned in the wake of the allegations, shortly before the end of his term.

“This is an extraordinary day in the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following the sentencing. “This is a day of sadness and shame, but it is also a day of deep appreciation and pride for the Israeli justice system. The court issued a sharp and unequivocal ruling on a simple principle, that of equality before the law; nobody is above the law, not even a former president, all are subject to the law. This distinguishes the State of Israel to a very large degree.”

Netanyahu said the court also ruled on equality between men and women.

“Every woman has the right to her body, the right to respect and freedom, and nobody has the right to take these from her,” the prime minister said. “This also distinguishes the State of Israel to a very large degree.”

Katsav has 45 days to appeal the sentence.

Scandal nixes appointment of Israel’s military chief


The appointment of Israel’s new military chief of staff has been canceled because of a scandal over personal real estate.

Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant had been set to succeed Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi later this month.

Galant allegedly took over several acres of public land near his home on a moshav in northern Israel.

The cancellation came Tuesday after Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said the legal difficulties made it difficult to support the appointment. Weinstein left it to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to decide whether to go ahead with the appointment.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss also conducted an investigation into Galant, which also recommended that his appointment be rescinded,
Galant on Wednesday filed an appeal with Israel’s Supreme Court, charging that the parallel investigations were illegal and also that he was not given enough time to defend himself to the two investigations.

The Israel Defense Forces’ deputy chief of staff, Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh, was named as interim chief of staff while a new candidate is vetted.

Galant’s appointment was approved in September after Ashkenazi was not asked to extend his four-year term by an additional year, as is traditional.

Rubashkin family members fined $2 million


Members of the Rubashkin family, who operated the now-defunct Agriprocessers kosher meatpacking plant, must pay a total of more than $2 million after defaulting on loans.

A federal judge ordered Dec. 16 that Abraham Aaron Rubashkin and sons Sholom and Tzvi must pay the money to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Value Recovery Group. The latter was owed more than $1.6 million in unpaid rent, according to court records, The Associated Press reported. The judgment also includes interest and litigation costs.

Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin was sentenced last June to 27 years in federal prison after being convicted in November 2009 on 86 counts of fraud in connection with the Agriprocessors plant.

In a federal raid on the plant in May 2008, 389 illegal immigrants, including 31 children, were arrested.

Local Jewish cemetery accused of desecrating remains


From CNN.com:

One of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the Los Angeles, California, area has been accused of desecrating the remains of those buried there, according to a lawsuit.
The cemetery holds the remains of celebrities such as Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce.

The suit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that employees at Eden Memorial Park, in Mission Hills, California, “intentionally, willfully and secretly desecrated the remains of deceased individuals,” often moving them to make room for new remains.

Read the full story at CNN.com.

Grave prepared for burial, Eden Memorial Park

The Real Madoff Scandal: Charitable Hoarding


Of all the shocks of the Bernie Madoff heist, perhaps none was more stunning than the list of victims. Among them were several Jewish foundations and many of our community’s most prominent nonprofits. The losses were staggering, and in some cases crippling.

Yet the real Madoff scandal isn’t the losses; it’s that our community was sitting on vast pools of accumulated wealth, much of it used to little effect. Madoff had his secrets to keep, but so, in fact, did many foundations and endowments. They had money to spend, and they didn’t spend it. Now it’s gone.

Everywhere in the Jewish community we hear of crises —in Jewish literacy and continuity, in a lack of social action and awareness, in a failure of the synagogue and the rabbinate and so on. Yet all this time, there were individual donors and philanthropy executives sitting on large pools of money that could theoretically have been used to help address many of our biggest concerns. As a community, we now live so much for perpetuity that we fail to deal with the present.

I used to think that the rise of Jewish endowments and foundations represented the pinnacle of our life here in America — financial success combined with organizational stability and careful foresight. Now, it appears, we are simply incompetent as a community, having so badly matched what we have with what we need. Either we refuse to deploy our assets to our needs, or our needs, as we define them, are in fact not that pressing. Either way, it is a stunning indictment.

Thanks to tax incentives that encourage their growth, philanthropic foundations have ballooned over the past decade. According to a report from New York’s Foundation Center, foundation assets doubled from $330 billion in 1997 to $669 billion only 10 years later. In their 2007 monograph, “A Study of Jewish Foundations,” Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg note that Jewish foundations have experienced similarly rapid growth. (Full disclosure: Tobin has been a client of mine.)

Most foundations, however, do not spend the bulk of their money, instead storing it away, granting only a small portion to charities each year. “Most foundations with larger assets give away about 5 percent, the minimum required by federal law, which most foundations see as a ceiling, not a floor,” Tobin and Weinberg write.

Similarly, endowments, which also expanded with flush economic times, “rarely withdraw more than 5 percent or 6 percent of their assets per year,” as The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported.

True, endowments have their value. James Tisch, who has previously served as president of the UJA-Federation of New York, defends them strongly. “Endowments allow institutions to survive in bad years,” he told me. “Most organizations don’t have nearly enough after their annual campaigns to make it.”

I don’t disagree. There are many institutions that would close if not for their endowments, which most, thankfully, diversified.

But having an endowment of large enough size to do what Tisch describes is a double-edged sword. It does let you out of the annual campaign rat race. But it also removes your sense of urgency.

If Jewish donors were truly ambitious, they would demand philanthropic extinction. They would give money to organizations only if endowment funds were also put to work. They would launch foundations with a built-in ticking clock: Perform, or else. In short, they would operate as if Madoff were managing their money and that one day it would all be gone, anyway.

That model would involve more risk, more spending, more activity and certainly less for future generations. It would be akin to taking away trust funds from the grandchildren so they actually have to work for a living.

Fine. Jewish donors know that you don’t gain reward without some measure of risk. That’s true in philanthropy, just as it is in business. Yet many Jewish donors still give to the same old causes, the same old institutions, in the same old ways. No wonder so many got burned by Madoff. They followed the crowd on everything.

In Judaism, every 50th year is considered a jubilee year, when we are commanded to return land to its original owner and to let our fields lie fallow. Why not transpose that commandment to our endowments and foundations?

Let us resolve: Every 50 years, our community’s stored wealth must be spent, and its charitable assets depleted. After that, we can begin the work anew — yes, with fewer assets, but with a greater capacity for creativity and success.

Reprinted by permission of The Forward

Noam Neusner is the principal of Neusner Communications, LLC. He served as President George W. Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speech writer from 2002 to 2004.

The dark side of Chanukah


Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story. A righteous Judean clan in the 2nd century B.C.E. led an uprising against Greek-influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism. The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath that have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels. The first is that the war Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. and the complete defeat (although annihilation would be a better description) of the Hellenizers 22 years later, the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized as ethnarch and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century.

Simon was succeeded by his able and fervent son John Hyrcanus, who expanded the realm and remained faithful to the example laid down by his father and uncles. It was during the reign of his grandson, Alexander Jannaeus (104 B.C.E.-76 B.C.E.), however, that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects, such as the Pharisees and Essenes. He carefully aligned himself with the upper-class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshippers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot. The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war that resulted in 50,000 more Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.

After the death of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judea for another 40 years — in and out of civil war — until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 B.C.E.-4 B.C.E.), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.

The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism. History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent. The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors. They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek-inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.

Ancient Judea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to learn from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans. As a country that formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself. Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure that places 60 percent of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1 percent of its population and a poverty level that hovers around 33 percent, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles. The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza, evicted from their homes in 2005, is yet another sad example of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect for and protection of Jewish life, property and dignity.

It is important to remember that men can never predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated. But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation? Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt. And in large part it succeeded. But the nagging question remains — why did things go so terribly wrong in ancient Judea within such a relatively short period of time? Given our current national challenges, this Chanukah our thoughts should be firmly on that question, as much as on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2,000 years ago.

Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance.

Madoff


I wish Jews believed in hell, because then I could take comfort that Bernard Madoff will go there.

Madoff ran the New York-based firm, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, which was reported last week to have been a $50 billion fraud, a Ponzi scheme that paid investors with other investors’ money.

“It’s all a big lie,” Madoff reportedly confessed to his sons last Thursday, before they turned him in to authorities.

While most of Madoff’s victims were on the East Coast and in Europe, he burned through Los Angeles, as well. As we report online, millions of dollars of charitable donations and millions in personal wealth in this town have vanished for good.

“This is one of the biggest catastrophes ever to strike the American Jewish community,” a major donor and activist told me Monday.

The damage is not just monetary.

Madoff destroyed lives: charities that provide hot meals, mental health counseling, free loans, support for immigrants and money for Jewish education have all been hit and will all have to cut back or fold completely.

As our reporter Dean Rotbart discovered, Madoff even hurt hospitals and health care organizations, such as The Gift of Life, which matches Jewish bone marrow donors with patients who would otherwise die. It is conceivable that, thanks to Madoff, the sick will get sicker.

“A poor man is a dead man,” the Talmud teaches. Given the way the American health care system works, to rob people of their money may deny them treatment. I spoke with an elderly woman whose entire life savings, almost $1 million, was invested with Madoff. She has just enough to live on, she said, provided she doesn’t get really sick.

It really is a shame we Jews don’t believe in hell.

Madoff took in the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Elie Wiesel! When I heard that news, I had to laugh so I wouldn’t cry. The man survives Auschwitz, lives to serve as the moral conscience of the world, then in the twilight of his noble life sees his charitable wealth destroyed by a fellow Jew. No one could plumb the darkness of a soul that could do such a thing, not even Wiesel.

He battered the foundations of the Jewish community. He attacked the lifeblood of community — nonprofit boards, clubs, friendship itself — using them to recruit clients and to recruit recruiters. People invested based on trust and got their friends to invest, as well. Into a venerated system of trust and mutual responsibility he injected the poison of betrayal and suspicion.

In doing all this, Madoff soiled the very word, “Jew.”

“The greatest American Jewish crime since the Rosenbergs,” said one local leader. An exaggeration? The Rosenbergs were traitors to the nation’s defense, Madoff to our financial system. But Madoff, with his posturing involvement in Yeshiva University, makes the Jewish claim to ethical standards look like a bad joke. The saving grace is that, as one victim told me, at least many of his victims are Jews.

Yes, there is a wider circle of responsibility here. The truth is, Madoff didn’t beg anyone to invest. People begged to get in.

That means when we examine our own values and leaders, we may find that Madoff was the greatest fraud among us, but not the only one.

There is a generation of Jews — at least one — raised on the idea that pushing paper creates real wealth. We are a generation of unbelievable materialism and indulgence, a generation that believes a 10 percent return is its birthright. We have rabbis who shut their mouths rather than risk alienating a potential donor. Sure they’ll preach tikkun olam and charity from the pulpit, but how often do they preach modesty, humility and moderation?

People are telling me the Madoff scandal all boiled down to one word — greed. But it’s not so simple. Madoff didn’t just want money, he wanted the immunity that being a big shot, a macher bestows upon all sorts of cheats, dimwits and blowhards in the Jewish community.

The questionable practices of some of our most admired charities grow out of this culture and leave me with a few unanswered questions. How is it that donor money found its way in the first place into nonguaranteed investments? What gives a 501(c)(3) the license to, in a word, gamble? Who was paying attention when chunks of charitable contributions ended up in the hands of a $50 billion firm whose auditors occupied an office smaller than mine? Why aren’t the names of every single investment vehicle in which nonprofits have significant money published online for donors to see?

Good questions, but I don’t want to spread the guilt too far just yet. I want to stay focused on the man who must take full responsibility for his crimes.

What kind of world is it where Jews can’t trust fellow Jews? Where worthwhile charities have to convince donors that their donations won’t be squandered? Where the bonds between friends and families mean nothing when it comes to money? Where Jews everywhere are suspect, because Jews somewhere behave like moral monsters? Where the poorest among us suffer because the richest cannot be satisfied until they are even richer?

There’s a name for that kind of world — hell.

‘Golden boy’ J. Ezra Merkin accused of misleading Jewish investors, groups


Bernard Madoff is not the only trustee of Yeshiva University who resigned in shame last week.

While international attention continues to focus on Madoff, who faces charges for his alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme, some leaders in the Jewish community, particularly within Modern Orthodox institutions, are expressing shock and anger at the role played by J. Ezra Merkin, a prominent investment guru and philanthropist who appears to have misled at least some investors.

Merkin stepped down Dec. 12 as a Yeshiva trustee who played a primary role in managing the university’s endowment funds.

According to several sources close to the institution, about $100 million was invested through Merkin, which ended up in Madoff’s fund — without the board’s knowledge — and is presumed gone.

Yeshiva’s endowment is now about $1.3 billion, down from $1.8 billion last year, due largely to the general collapse of the economy.

“About $100 million of that total is directly attributable to our investment with Ezra,” according to one person close to the situation, who along with others interviewed for this article would only speak off the record.

No one is accusing Merkin, who did not respond to an interview request, of prior knowledge that Madoff was operating an alleged fraud. Indeed, Merkin informed investors in his $1.8 billion Ascot Partners fund on Dec. 11 that he was among those who suffered substantial personal losses when it crashed, since all of its dollars were invested with Madoff.

But while he has portrayed himself as a victim, Merkin is being criticized as having misled institutional and personal investors, including those wary of Madoff’s secretive and suspiciously successful earnings streak. Several people said that while they were reluctant to invest with Madoff, they trusted Merkin completely, not knowing that he in turn was taking their investment in his Ascot Partners and putting it into Madoff’s fund.

“We thought we were investing in Ezra,” said one official of a Jewish institution, “and now find out we were invested with Madoff. We feel duped and outraged.”

One private investor said that several years ago he asked Merkin directly if his investment in Ascot was going into the Madoff fund and was told it was not.

Another individual investing funds for a local Jewish institution said he was also given misleading information by Merkin about where the funds were going.

The assumption, several sources said, was that Merkin was doing due diligence and diversifying the investments, rather than putting them all in one fund, as he did with Ascot.

“This is, in general, an opaque business,” said someone familiar with hedge funds, noting that it is not uncommon for monthly reports to investors to simply show performance information without listing the companies invested in.

Yeshiva University was not the only organization where Merkin played a key role, formally or informally, in managing funds, and it is believed that Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York and the Ramaz School of Manhattan were among those that lost substantial funds through investments that ended up with Madoff.

SAR Academy in Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox school in New York, also was affected.

In a letter to parents sent out Sunday night, SAR President Jack Bendheim reported on the school’s endowment fund, which had grown to $1.3 million.

“Years ago,” he wrote, the endowment was “invested in Ascot, a manager which, unbeknownst to us, had substantially all of its assets invested with Madoff.” Based on allegations, “we are now valuing this investment as zero.”

In hindsight, many in the community are now asking how a donor and/or trustee of a nonprofit could be in a position to manage money for the institution, as Merkin did.

“You have to know Ezra to really understand how this could have happened,” said one source who has sat on boards with him. “He is brilliant and incredibly well connected in the Jewish and financial community, with a long and incredible success rate in investments. Plus, he can be, at times, charming and considerate — as well as intimidating.”

Several people noted that when questioned or challenged about the wisdom of investing heavily in one fund rather than diversifying, “Ezra would ask, ‘Why would you reduce your concentration in your best- performing fund?'”

Still, there were grumblings. Some of the board members at Yeshiva had raised issues of good governance at meetings, unaware of specific problems with Merkin or Madoff. They felt Yeshiva was exposing itself to serious questions about potential conflicts of interest, regardless of who the personalities were. But veteran members resisted, insisting that Merkin was not only respected and trustworthy but “the Golden Boy controlling the Golden Goose,” as one person explained.

Ironically, the university was in the process of responding to calls for instituting stricter policies regarding conflict of interest when the news hit of the Madoff fiasco. Procedures that had been discussed for more than a year were scheduled to be put in place next year.

Merkin has served for the past several years as chairman of the investment committee at UJA-Federation of New York. But in part because the federation has a policy prohibiting members of the committee from directing funds, there was no exposure of its funds to Ascot Partners or Madoff.

“There were some on the board who grumbled about us missing out on a solid investment, but we weathered the criticism,” one source noted.

John Ruskay, the executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation, said that none of the charity’s funds were invested with Madoff, so it had “no direct exposure.”

“But obviously many donors who contribute to UJA-Federation, and many other charities, have been adversely impacted,” he said, “and this will have a long-term impact on Jewish philanthropy and the Jewish community.”

Some insiders say they expect that Merkin will be off the UJA-Federation board by week’s end.

Some people have pointed out that Merkin had benefited numerous individuals and nonprofit organizations for many years and deserves gratitude for boosting their levels of income and success. But most of those interviewed expressed more anger than appreciation and wondered how deep and extensive the impact will be on the Jewish philanthropic community. Everyone said they expect a slew of civil lawsuits.

At Yeshiva University’s annual dinner on Dec. 14 at the Waldorf, President Richard Joel made a reference to “tragic mistakes” that had been made, but struck a decidedly optimistic tone, noting that the dinner raised more than $3 million, up from $2 million last year. He asserted that Yeshiva is in strong shape financially and otherwise.

His most direct comment on the current scandal was to acknowledge “the 800-pound elephant in the room.”

Article reprinted courtesy of The New York Jewish Week.Gary Rosenblatt is the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week.

Yes, we cantankerous


Briefs: Olmert indictment soon, Gaza boat will be blocked, Israel says ‘no’ to Cat Stevens


Police Sources: Olmert Indictment Near

An indictment in a fraud case could be filed against Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert within days, according to police sources.

Ha’aretz reported Monday that police sources made their claim based on depositions taken in the United States over the last few days in a double-billing case in which Olmert is accused of billing several non-profit organizations for the same flights and using the money for family vacations.

The investigators will return to Israel at the end of the week.

The police sources told Ha’aretz that the new evidence confirms earlier evidence on which the police recommended an indictment.

An official indictment could force Olmert out of office before new elections are held, likely in February.

Israel Will Stop Gaza Activist Boat

Israel plans to stop a boat of activists planning to set sail for Gaza.

The Free Gaza movement is scheduled to leave from Cyprus for Gaza Tuesday, the second time it will attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-run strip. The first trip in August, comprised of two boats full of activists, was not blocked by Israel’s navy.

Israeli officials said a decision was made last month at the “highest governmental levels,” to stop the boat, when it was originally scheduled to make the second trip, the Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday.

The 26 activists, including an Arab-Israel lawmaker, 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, and Palestinian Legislative Council member Mustafa Barghouti, will bring medicines to Gaza.

The Free Gaza Movement used August’s demonstration to gain publicity against Israel’s blockade of Gaza, despite the fact that Israel let the boats pass without stopping them.

The blockade was instituted after the terrorist group Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006.

Palestinian Soccer Team Draws in First Home Game

The Palestinian national soccer team played its first match at its new West Bank stadium.

The Palestinians tied Jordan, 1-1, at the 6,500-seat stadium in al-Ram, near Jerusalem. FIFA, the international soccer federation, financed the construction of the stadium.

The Palestinian squad, which has been affiliated with FIFA for a decade, has hosted international games in other countries, often Jordan, because of the lack of an adequate stadium and security issues.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter attended the game and called it “historic.” Blatter also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and laid a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat during his visit.

The French press agency reported that several Jordanian players of Palestinian origin knelt and kissed the artificial turf when they took the field.

Newsweek: Israeli Strike Won’t Get Iranian Nukes

Israel would have a tough time significantly damaging Iran’s nuclear facilities from the air, according to Newsweek.

In its Periscope section now online and to be published Monday in its Nov. 3 issue, the magazine quotes “Western intelligence experts “as saying that the nuclear facilities are too deep underground for an Israeli air attack to be effective.

A Western official who requested anonymity told Newsweek the facilities are located in tunnels and fortified by barriers more than 60 feet thick. The official, as well as other U.S. experts, said that Israel does not possess conventional weapons capable of knocking out the facilities. Breaking through the thick shell would require, at minimum, several bunker-buster bombs striking precisely the same spot, Newsweek reported.

Newsweek suggested that Israel could do more damage against Iranian nuclear facilities located at four key sites with a nuclear strike of its own. But the magazine adds, “U.S. and other Western experts say there is no reason to believe the Israelis will abandon their policy against shooting first with nukes.”

The magazine also reported that efforts by the United States and its allies to keep tabs on the Iranian nuclear program suffered a blow recently when Germany accidentally arrested one of their own Iranian-Canadian informants, code-named Sinbad, for illegal missile-technology shipments to Iran in what has been called the Sinbad Affair.

Cat Stevens’ Israel Appearance Nixed

An appearance in Israel by Cat Stevens was canceled for security reasons.

The British singer, a convert to Islam also known as Yusuf Islam, was scheduled to appear at an upcoming 10th anniversary event for the Peres Center for Peace.

“The idea to bring Stevens to Israel sparked a huge row the moment it was made public, and we sent his passport number to a conventional security check,” Peres Center director Uri Savir told Ynet. “We took the matter into consideration and decided to cancel this idea.”

Stevens was last denied entry to Israel eight years ago during an airport security check.

“He may have supported Hamas once, but the fact that a singer who converted to Islam wants to come to Israel and express his support for peace and we’re not letting him do so infuriates me,” the show’s producer, Irit Tenhangel, told Ynet.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Anger greets Olmert’s concessions on Golan, West Bank, Iran


JERUSALEM (JTA)—A Rosh Hashanah-eve interview in which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel should give up the Golan Heights for peace with Syria and nearly all of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians has sparked a political storm in Israel.

Prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is set to succeed Olmert as soon as she forms a coalition government, quickly distanced herself from most of Olmert’s key pronouncements, which included an assertion that it would be megalomaniacal for Israel to attack Iran unilaterally.

Politicians on the right lambasted Olmert for his dovish message, and left-wingers slammed him for not going public with his vision before he was a lame duck.

Some Israeli analysts saw evidence in Olmert’s transformation from one-time super-hawk to unmitigated dove of a final collapse of the ideology of Greater Israel, which advocates holding on to as much conquered territory as possible.

Olmert, who is stepping down amid a corruption investigation, in the interview published last week by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot made the following points:

* It is presumptuous to think Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear drive when powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Britain and Germany seem unable to do so.

* Israel has a very short window of time in which it can take “historic steps” in its relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

* For peace with the Palestinians, Israel will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and grant compensation on a one-to-one basis for whatever land it keeps. “Without this, there won’t be peace,” he insisted.

* For peace with Syria, Israel will have to return the Golan Heights.

* Israel is very close to agreement both with the Palestinians and Syria, and if Olmert had stayed on he would have had a good chance of closing the deals.

* The main security problem Israel faces today is missiles, and having the border a few hundred yards one way or the other won’t make any difference.

* Years of conservative thinking by the Israeli establishment have undermined peace prospects.

“When I listen to you, I know why we didn’t make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians for 40 years and why we won’t make peace with them for another 40 years,” he recalled saying at a recent forum with the country’s top policymakers.

If the interview was meant to constitute Olmert’s political legacy, his presumptive successor was quick to reject it.

Livni, the foreign minister, said Olmert was wrong to go public with Israel’s final negotiating positions while she is in the midst of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We agreed negotiations should take place in the negotiating room, not on the pages of a newspaper,” she said at a Foreign Ministry conference in Jerusalem after Rosh Hashanah.

Olmert also was roundly criticized on the right for saying too much and on the left for doing too little.

Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party took issue with Olmert’s contention that in an age of missiles, Israel could afford to give up hundreds of yards on its borders.

“Ignoring the difference between rockets fired from long distances and an enemy perched on hills above Jerusalem shows just how little he understands basic security issues,” Steinitz said.

Yossi Beilin of the Meretz Party castigated Olmert for “revealing his true position on the national interest only when he has nothing to lose.”

Those sentiments were echoed overseas, where Olmert’s conciliatory positions were welcomed but with wonderment at why he hadn’t said as much earlier.

An editorial in The New York Times summed up the sentiment in an editorial Saturday titled “Mr. Olmert’s Belated Truths.”

“It is tragic that he did not do more to act on those beliefs when he had real power,” the editorial said.

Olmert is the fourth Israeli prime minister to start his political life as a hawk in the vein of the Likud or its predecessor, Herut, and then to surprise observers later with the extent of his willingness to make far-reaching concessions.

Herut founder Menachem Begin returned the Sinai to Egypt; Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew Israeli forces from Hebron, concluded the Wye River agreement with the Palestinians and negotiated with Syria over withdrawing from the Golan; and Ariel Sharon pulled back unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.

Olmert, it seems, has now set the stage for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Olmert confidants argue that the frank expression of his views has positive elements for future peacemaking and diplomacy. They say it has created a strong incentive for the various Arab parties to negotiate peace and shown the international community how far Israel would be willing to go—a possible public relations advantage if peace efforts fail.

Moreover, they say, Olmert has put peacemaking and its time constraints squarely on the public agenda.

Critics, however, reject these claims. They point out that Olmert’s stated readiness for full withdrawal on all fronts encourages Arab parties to cling to maximalist positions, not compromise. It also puts the next Israeli prime minister on the spot: If peace moves break down, they say, the next prime minister will be blamed for not going as far as Olmert would have.

Livni bristled at the implication that peace would be achievable under Olmert if he could have stayed on, and if she failed to achieve peace during her tenure as prime minister, she would be to blame.

Most importantly, Livni, Olmert’s likely successor, also came out against the substance of Olmert’s key positions.

In a meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Livni said she opposed the framework of Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians. She said she was against making far-reaching proposals for a quick fix and that negotiations should be allowed all the time they needed to ripen into a well-constructed and lasting deal.

Livni was critical as well of Olmert’s position on Iran. In the Yediot interview, Olmert dismissed as “megalomania” the notion that Israel would or should unilaterally attack Iran. Olmert said the international community, not just Israel, should take the steps necessary to arrest Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Livni said Olmert’s remarks sent the wrong message to Tehran and that Israel should be sending the message to the Iranians that all options are on the table.

Despite her sharp criticism, Foreign Ministry officials said Livni does not think Olmert’s comments will have a serious impact on the peace process.

“Olmert is not relevant anymore,” a senior ministry official told JTA. “What he says doesn’t matter.”

Ehud Olmert era comes to ignominious end


(JTA) – A day after Ehud Olmert formally submitted his resignation as prime minister, Israeli President Shimon Peres officially tapped his Kadima Party successor, Tzipi Livni, to form a new government.

Livni now has 42 days to put together a coalition government. Though Olmert still heads the interim government until Livni is sworn in, Sunday’s resignation effectively spelled the end of the Olmert era.

Before meeting with Peres on Sunday evening, Olmert informed his Cabinet of his intention to resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” Olmert said. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her form a coalition government, and the two shook hands.

It was an ignominious end to a premiership marked by multiple corruption scandals, a failed war in Lebanon and unfinished business on the Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian fronts.

At first an accidental prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s crippling stroke in early 2006, Olmert won his first election as Kadima leader a couple of months later under the banner of maintaining the path of unilateral disengagement Sharon had begun. Olmert would do in the West Bank what Sharon had done in Gaza: unilaterally extricate Israel from its adversaries, even if those adversaries were unready or unwilling to make peace.

But the shortcomings of Israel’s unilateral approach became evident early on in his premiership. The 2006 summer war with Hezbollah exposed the deficiencies of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 under Ehud Barak, and the increasing rockets attacks from Gaza and Hamas’ takeover of the strip in June 2007 exposed the limitations of Sharon’s pullout.

The violence shattered Olmert’s plans for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank.

Olmert adjusted his approach, but his responses to Israel’s challenges were seen as inadequate. The prime minister’s approval ratings plummeted as each crisis seemed to be shadowed by one corruption scandal or another.

After Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid in July 2006, the Olmert government launched a war to recover the two soldiers taken captive in the raid and neutralize the threat to Israel from Hezbollah. But the war failed to recover the soldiers or deliver a mortal blow to the Shi’ite terrorist group in Lebanon.

Rather, Hezbollah rallied as a political force in Lebanon after the war and became a veto-wielding presence in the Lebanon Cabinet. Hezbollah also rebuilt its forces and missile arsenal to three times its prewar size, according to Israeli estimates.

In Gaza, Olmert watched as Hamas routed the more moderate Fatah faction from power and took over the strip in June 2006. Hamas kept up daily barrages of Kassam rockets into southern Israel, and the Israeli army was unable to impose quiet.

Unwilling to risk the same approach in Gaza that had failed in 2006 in Lebanon, Olmert held off on ordering a major invasion of the strip.

The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the re-launching last year of peace talks with the Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices, but Olmert ended his abbreviated term with those major policy initiatives unfinished.

Now it will be up to Livni, who led the Olmert administration’s talks with the Palestinians, to see the process through—assuming she succeeds in assembling a governing coalition.

Israel’s next prime minister also will inherit an unsolved Iranian problem. Iran’s suspected march toward nuclear weapons has been Israel’s central foreign preoccupation during Olmert’s term, but Olmert did not manage to rally sufficient international pressure on the Islamic Republic to bring its uranium enrichment activities to a halt.

Throughout his 2 1/2-year term, Olmert was dogged by corruption allegations that cast a shadow over nearly everything he did.

Even his decision to re-launch the indirect peace talks with Syria and sign a cease-fire deal with Hamas in Gaza in June—finally bringing quiet to southern Israel, with the exception of the occasional violation—were viewed with suspicion by some who derided the moves as ploys to ensure his political survival.

The major corruption scandal that erupted in May, in which American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky said he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash over the course of the decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister, crippled Olmert’s ability to govern.

Calls for his resignation accelerated several weeks later with the revelation by police that Olmert was suspected of double-billing overseas trips to various Jewish charities.

Though he always denied any wrongdoing, Olmert acknowledged at the end of July that it had become impossible for him to continue as prime minister, and he announced that he would resign as soon as his party, Kadima, chose a new leader in September.

After Olmert handed his resignation letter to Peres on Sunday, the president offered a few solemn words.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities—as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Ron Kampeas in Washington and Marcy Oster in Israel contributed to this report.

A Rosh Hashanah message from Ehud Olmert