Gov. signs, vetoes Holocaust-related bills


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, faced with two bills rooted in the Nazi era, has signed one and vetoed the other.

With hundreds of legislative bills on his desk and a looming deadline, Schwarzenegger on Thursday night signed into law a bill benefiting descendants of Jewish art collectors, whose paintings were taken by the Hitler regime.

The law, which applies to art, cultural, historical and scientific artifacts looted during the last 100 years, extends the statue of limitations for initiating recovery lawsuits from three years to six.

In addition, the countdown doesn’t begin until the former owner or his heirs first discover in what museum, gallery or private collection the disputed art is located.

Likely to be affected immediately by the new law is the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which is being sued by the daughter-in-law of a Dutch-Jewish art collector for the return of the diptych “Adam and Eve.”

Painted by the German artist Cranach the Elder in 1530, the work is valued at $24 million.

At the same time, the outgoing California governor vetoed a bill that would have required companies bidding for a piece of the state’s lucrative high-speed rail contract to disclose their roles in transporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

The legislation, which overwhelmingly passed the state’s assembly and senate, did not name a specific company. However, the bill’s chief sponsor, Woodland Hills Democratic Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, made it clear that the main target was the French national railway SNCF, or Societe Nationale du Chemins de Fer Francais.

In vetoing the Holocaust Survivors Responsibility Act, Schwarzenegger said he sympathized with victims of the Nazi deportations, but that the legislation “needlessly places the state in a position of acknowledging the activities of companies during that time.”

SNCF is now expected to bid for a major role in the $45 billion project, which is expected to zip passengers by 2020 from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento at speeds of 220 miles per hour.

Blumenfield had charged earlier that SNCF had profited from its wartime collaboration, had never admitted its actions, disclosed its record, or be held accountable to victims.

In their defense, SNCF officials asserted that the French railway system was under German control during most of the war and that the Nazis executed about 800 railroad workers and deported another 1,200 for disobeying orders.

Following Schwarzenegger’s veto, the railroad company released a statement that “The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during WWII were so horrific that we can never forget, nor should we. That’s why SCNF will continue its commitment to complete transparency of its WWII history, and will voluntarily comply , and even exceed, the requirements [the bill] would have mandated.”

Blumenfield pledged that he would hold SCNF officials to their promise.

Return of Nazi-Looted Art Proves a Good History Lesson


LOS ANGELES—It was a mix of state ceremony, mutual admiration fest, education forum and Seder symbolism when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who orchestrated the event, returned two Nazi-looted paintings to the grandchildren of the original Jewish owners, on behalf of the State of California.

The setting last Friday (4/10) was the historic Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, usually the venue for feting heads of state, and the honorees included the lawyer who had FILED THE CLAIM[sued California] to recover the Italian Renaissance paintings FROM THE STATE.

The story began in 1935, when the Hitler regime confiscated the paintings of premier Berlin art dealers, Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, and sold them at a forced Judenauktion, or Jew auction.

The Oppenheimers had previously fled to France where, after the Nazi conquest, Jakob died in poverty while Rosa perished in Auschwitz.

Following the forced 1935 auction, three of the paintings were subsequently bought by press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who apparently knew nothing of their provenance. He added the new acquisitions to his collection of 25,000 paintings at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, along California’s central coast.

In the 1950s, the 165-room castle was turned over to the California State Parks Department and now welcomes over a million visitors a year.

Two decades ago, Paris-based attorney Eva Sterzing started tracking paintings from the former Oppenheimer collection at European and American museums and eventually discovered the three paintings by 16th century Venetian artists at the Hearst Castle.

After thoroughly researching the evidence for two years, lawyers for the state parks and attorney general offices validated the claim of the Oppenheimer heirs.

However, rather than quietly arrange for a transfer, both sides agreed on an unusual deal to derive a permanent history lesson form the fate of the Oppenheimer family and their paintings.

The lesson unfolded, and was transmitted live on the governor’s web site, as Schwarzenegger and state officials met with two Oppenheimer grandchildren, Peter Bloch of Boynton, Florida and Inge Blackshear of Buenos Aires.

Sharing the stage were two oil on canvas paintings on easels, about to be returned to the Oppenheimer family after a 74-year interval.

One painting shows an elderly bearded man with a book and necklace of shells, thought to be by Giovanni Cariani, the other a portrait of a nobleman, attributed to an unnamed student of Jacopo Tintoretto.

Placed separately was the third painting, a photographic reproduction of “Venus and Cupid,” attributed to the school of another Venetian master, Paris Bordone. Through an amicable agreement, the original of this painting will remain on display at the Hearst Castle, together with reproductions of the two returned paintings.

“As of today, guides will be instructed to tell visitors about the history of the paintings and about the atrocities of the Holocaust,” said Hoyt Fields, director of the Hearst Castle museum.

Attorney Bradly (ok) Torgan, one of the main state negotiators with the Oppenheimer heirs, drew a more personal lesson from the experience. After conducting a second Seder at his home the preceding night, Torgan saw a parallel between the return of the painting and “the story of the Exodus, which is a commemoration of the Jews’ flight, of liberation, and, ultimately, the journey home.”

Bloch, in accepting the two paintings, thanked the State of California on behalf of nine heirs on three continents and expressed the hope that “other states will follow suit.”

Throughout the 30-minute ceremony, Schwarzenegger served as the designated cheerleader, again and again calling for rounds of applause to thank the Oppenheimer heirs – and even their lawyer – for their generosity and good will.

In an interview afterwards, Schwarzenegger explained his personal interest in the case and the purpose of the preceding ceremony.
“I was born two years after World War II in Austria, where there were atrocities and crimes against Jews, who were robbed of everything,” Schwarzenegger said.

“So I am of the next generation and we have to be different. We have to try to give back what we can.”
The governor is well aware of his star power as body builder, Hollywood actor and politician.

“My being here will be reported in the media and whatever California does is widely copied, so we’re sending a great signal to the rest of the world,” he said.
Neither Bloch nor other participants would talk about the dollar value of the two returned paintings, but given the number of far-flung heirs, the paintings will most likely be sold and the proceeds divided among the heirs, Bloch said.

Hearst Castle is the 25th American museum to have negotiated settlements over Nazi-looted art during the past decade.

I hear you knocking


California kids deserve better


Just before Mother’s Day, I joined mothers from around Los Angeles at a rally intended to send a message to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: “What moms really want is a decent education for our children.”

The event was organized by a handful of moms from my son’s Beverlywood public school, Castle Heights Elementary, who were outraged by the governor’s proposed cuts to public school education funding.

“We thought, ‘What can a few moms do?’ said Maria von Hartz Shapiro, one of the rally organizers. “Well, we can make some noise.”

About 300 people gathered on Wilshire Boulevard, across the street from LACMA, bearing placards that read, “Cuts Hurt Kids” and shouting slogans like, “We are moms, don’t you know/Don’t let Arnie take the dough.”

The “dough” referred to the $4.8 billion the governor had threatened to slash from California’s public education budget because of a projected $16 billion state budget shortfall. To make up the deficit, Schwarzenegger proposed across-the-board cuts of 10 percent.

For the Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes Castle Heights Elementary, the cut would have translated to $460 million — the equivalent of closing 22 high schools or axing 5,750 employees. A cut of that magnitude would guarantee larger classes, neglected libraries, littered hallways and fewer qualified teachers wanting to enter or remain in the profession.

The Castle Heights moms enlisted support from California Assembly Speaker-elect Karen Bass, and the rally took place in front of her office building.

“Karen Bass says ‘no’ to a cuts-only budget,” staffer Solomon Rivera said at the event. “She feels it is unacceptable to get out of this dilemma simply by cutting.”

Parents at the rally also had plenty to say to the governor.

“We are horrified by the idea that our state can be one of the lowest in what we spend for kindergarten through 12th-grade education, and yet can talk about making cuts,” said Judy Reichel, a parent from the Culver City School District. “It’s not an accident that Silicon Valley happened in California. For many years, we had some of the finest schools in the nation.”

“Every child in the state deserves a good quality public education,” Castle Heights parent Deborah Anisman-Posner said. “It’s very shortsighted to cut these kids off. We’ll all pay the price in the future. We could have paid the car tax to help distribute the load.”

“This gets me so mad. It’s ridiculous,” said Enola Lipaz, a parent at Canfield. “[Schwarzenegger’s] whole election platform was about education.”

Apparently, the governor took heed of the many people across the state who expressed similar sentiments. Last week, he submitted a revised budget, which restored $1.8 billion in state education funding. The new budget relies on borrowing $15 billion using bonds that would be repaid by future lottery sales. Voters would need to approve this funding mechanism in a November ballot measure.

Even with these provisions, California’s public education system is not out of the woods, according to State Superintendent of Public Education Jack O’Connell.

“I welcome [the governor’s] new proposal…. But to say that education is fully funded in this budget is an overstatement,” O’Connell said in a press release. “Schools still must absorb the 10 percent cut made to specific programs like class size reduction, counselors, and targeted remediation programs…. This scheme does not address the long-term funding needs of our schools.”

As of press time, Los Angeles Unified School District was still crunching the numbers to determine what the new proposal would mean for the district, which must finalize its budget by the end of June.

But here’s what we do know: The National Education Association (NEA) currently ranks California 29th in the nation for per-pupil spending. According to the Education Week Research Center, however, California sinks to 43rd in per-pupil spending when regional cost differences are accounted for. That’s lower than Alabama and Arkansas. And the NEA shows that nationally, we have the second-worst teacher-to-student ratio, with among the largest class sizes in the country.

Parents already spend countless hours and dollars on gift wrap sales, auctions and other fundraisers to pay for programs like art and music, which otherwise get shortchanged. And at schools where parents don’t have the luxury of time or money, the children must do without. But bake sales alone can only go so far.

The state budget process is complicated and hard to understand. And there are a lot of worthy programs vying for a piece of the ever-shrinking pie. But a strong public education system is in everyone’s best interests, whether they have children in public school, private school, out of school or no children at all. Because as Reichel said: “The foundation of our democracy is public education.”

ALTTEXT

Local students go to lobby in D.C., seniors party at ‘senior prom’


Local Students Lobby at the Capitol

A group of University Synagogue religious school students paid a springtime visit to Washington, D.C., where they lobbied senior staff members of Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), as well as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles). The class of confirmands was led by Rabbi Morley Feinstein and rabbinic intern Joel Simonds, who accompanied the students as they learned about Judaism and social justice issues and visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

WAIPAC Waxes Political for Young Leaders

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Belmont residents Morty Jacobs and Thelma Lichtenfeld at their “senior prom” with USC students Stewart Mouritzen, Maddie Littrell and Emon Yazli

Senior prom isn’t only for high school students — in fact, University of Southern California students organized an April 13 “senior” prom for residents at Belmont Village, an assisted-living community in Hollywood, where spunky seniors proved they still have hot moves on the dance floor. Morty Jacobs emerged as this party’s prom king when the longtime pianist and conductor, who accompanied George Burns for many years, enraptured students and seniors with his prodigious musical talent.

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Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lauds the generosity of Cheryl and Haim Saban at The Saban Free Clinic

To honor the contribution of Cheryl and Haim Saban’s $10 million endowment for The Los Angeles Free Clinic, the affordable health care facility has been renamed The Saban Free Clinic. To add some icing to the honor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger along with some of Los Angeles’ top officials, including County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, attended the April 21 ceremony to fete the philanthropists. For more than 40 years, the clinic has provided low-cost, quality health care for underserved families throughout Los Angeles.

California Jewish voters maintain liberal reputation


California’s Jewish voters upheld their liberal reputation in the Nov. 7 election, despite a strong effort by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) to focus on the Bush administration’s pro-Israel record.

While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection by nearly 55 percent of the popular vote, 52 percent of the Jewish ballots went to his Democratic opponent Phil Angelides, according to Los Angeles Times polling director Susan Pinkus.Even in races in which Jewish votes aligned with the majority, the Jewish margin of support was much higher.

Democrat John Garamendi won the lieutenant governor’s race by garnering 49.5 percent of the total vote, but he received 74 percent of the Jewish vote.Similarly, Democrat Jerry Brown was elected attorney general with 56.7 percent of the vote, but was supported by 75 percent of Jews.

Statewide propositions 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D and 1E, authorizing multibillion dollar bonds to upgrade California’s infrastructure, transportation, housing availability, schools and levees, all passed, but Jewish support ran 10 percent to 16 percent higher than in the general population.

Two controversial and heavily funded propositions went down to defeat, but would have won easily if only Jewish ballots had been counted.

Proposition 86, which would have levied a stiff tax on cigarettes to fund new health programs, lost by 4 points, but won by 14 points among Jews.

Similarly, Proposition 87, which would have imposed taxes on California oil producers to fund alternative energy research, was defeated, winning support from only 45 percent of the overall voter. Sixty-two percent of Jewish voters supported the measure.

Jews constituted 5 percent of total votes, almost double their percentage of the California population, according to the Los Angeles Times poll released Thursday.

GOP supporters found some cheer in the election of Steve Poizner, a Jewish businessman from Los Altos, who beat Democrat Cruz Bustamante 51:39 in the race for California insurance commissioner. Poizner serves on the presidents’ council of the national Republican Jewish Coalition, said Larry Greenfield, the RJC’s California director.

The Times did not poll voters by religion in this contest.Political scientist and Jewish Journal columnist Raphael Sonnenshein of Cal State Fullerton termed the national election results “the most colossal wave of change going back to 1980.”

California was somewhat insulated from the political tsunami, thanks largely to the tone of Republican moderation set by Schwarzenegger, Sonnenshein said.He believes that Jewish Republicans made a mistake by assuming that Jewish voters were motivated solely by the Israel issue.”That was never true,” he said.

Andrew Lachman, president of Democrats for Israel-Los Angeles, said that both local and national results showed that Jews supported the Democratic Party more strongly than ever. “Surveys have shown that 70 percent of American Jews oppose the war in Iraq, and I believe that the Bush policy has made Israel less secure,” he said.

Local Jewish Republicans were less than happy with the election results but preferred to take the long view.

Winning Jews over to the Republican side “is a lengthy educational process,” said Bruce Bialosky, who founded California’s RJC in 2001.”The younger generation is more open to joining us than older Jews, who have a lifelong commitment to the Democratic Party,” he said.

Bialosky defended the effectiveness of the full-page ads that RJC placed in Jewish publications in major cities, which triggered resentment from Democrats by portraying them as not supportive of Israel.

According to figures from the national RJC, he said, 35 percent of Jews supported Republicans in cities where the ads ran, compared to only 26.4 percent in cities without ads. These numbers have been questioned by Democratic analysts.

Dr. Joel Strom, immediate past president of the RJC’s Los Angeles chapter, was skeptical of the accuracy of polls on Jewish voting patterns, saying that most did not include the generally more conservative absentee ballots.

Strom agreed that large-scale changes in political loyalties are “a generational thing and perhaps we cannot expect a reversal in our lifetime.”

California Jewish voters maintain liberal reputation


California’s Jewish voters upheld their liberal reputation in Tuesday’s election, despite a strong effort by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) to focus on the Bush administration’s pro-Israel record.

While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection by nearly 55 percent of the popular vote, 52 percent of the Jewish ballots went to his Democratic opponent Phil Angelides, according to Los Angeles Times polling director Susan Pinkus.

Even in races in which Jewish votes aligned with the majority, the Jewish margin of support was much higher.

Democrat John Garamendi won the lieutenant governor’s race by garnering 49.5 percent of the total vote, but he received 74 percent of the Jewish vote.

Similarly, Democrat Jerry Brown was elected attorney general with 56.7 percent of the vote, but was supported by 75 percent of Jews.

Statewide propositions 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D and 1E, authorizing multibillion dollar bonds to upgrade California’s infrastructure, transportation, housing availability, schools and levees, all passed, but Jewish support ran 10-16 percent higher than in the general population.

Two controversial and heavily funded propositions went down to defeat, but would have won easily if only Jewish ballots had been counted.

Proposition 86, which would have levied a stiff tax on cigarettes to fund new health programs, lost by 4 points, but won by 14 points among Jews.

Similarly, Proposition 87, which would have imposed taxes on California oil producers to fund alternative energy research, was defeated, winning support from only 45 percent of the overall voter. Sixty-two percent of Jewish voters supported the measure.

Jews constituted 5 percent of total votes, almost double their percentage of the California population, according to the Los Angeles Times poll released Thursday.GOP supporters found some cheer in the election of Steve Poizner, aJewish businessman from Los Altos, who beat Democrat Cruz Bustamante51:39 in the race for California insurance commissioner. Poiznerserves on the presidents’ council of the national Republican JewishCoalition, said Larry Greenfield, the RJC’s Californiadirector.

The Times did not poll voters by religion in this contest.

Political scientist and Jewish Journal columnist Raphael Sonnenshein of Cal State Fullerton termed the national election results “the most colossal wave of change going back to 1980.”

California was somewhat insulated from the political tsunami, thanks largely to the tone of Republican moderation set by Schwarzenegger, Sonnenshein said.

He believes that Jewish Republicans made a mistake by assuming that Jewish voters were motivated solely by the Israel issue.

“That was never true,” he said.

Andrew Lachman, president of Democrats for Israel-Los Angeles, said that both local and national results showed that Jews supported the Democratic Party more strongly than ever.”Surveys have shown that 70 percent of American Jews oppose the war in Iraq, and I believe that the Bush policy has made Israel less secure,” he said.

Local Jewish Republicans were less than happy with the election results but preferred to take the long view.

Winning Jews over to the Republican side “is a lengthy educational process,” said Bruce Bialosky, who founded California’s RJC in 2001.

“The younger generation is more open to joining us than older Jews, who have a lifelong commitment to the Democratic Party,” he said.

Bialosky defended the effectiveness of the full-page ads that RJC placed in Jewish publications in major cities, which triggered resentment from Democrats by portraying them as not supportive of Israel.

According to figures from the national RJC, he said, 35 percent of Jews supported Republicans in cities where the ads ran, compared to only 26.4 percent in cities without ads. These numbers have been questioned by Democratic analysts.

Dr. Joel Strom, immediate past president of the RJC’s Los Angeles chapter, was skeptical of the accuracy of polls on Jewish voting patterns, saying that most did not include the generally more conservative absentee ballots.

Strom agreed that large-scale changes in political loyalties are “a generational thing and perhaps we cannot expect a reversal in our lifetime.”

Should Tookie Die?


Just about one month from now, at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 13, the State of California will execute Stanley Tookie Williams. He will die by lethal injection in the death chamber of San Quentin State Prison, home to the nation's largest death row. At every execution, small crowds gather outside the prison, some to protest, some to applaud. This time, thousands of people across the country — far more than is usual for an American execution — will be paying attention. Williams' story has reignited a conversation about capital punishment, galvanizing people — many of whom have never been outspoken opponents of the death penalty — to spare his life. Their ranks include a growing numbers of Jews. Indeed, the Williams case ought to force on Jews a hard look at what, exactly, our tradition says about the death penalty.

For the past 24 years, Williams, 51, has lived on death row in San Quentin. He started down the path that put him there early on. In 1971, at the age of 17, Williams, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, co-founded the Crips. It quickly became Los Angeles', and then the nation's, most notorious street gang. In 1979, authorities charged Williams with the brutal murders, during two separate robberies, of four people who had no gang connections whatsoever: Albert Lewis Owens, a Whittier convenience store clerk in one incident; and, in the other, Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee Chen Lin — a husband and wife and their adult daughter, owners of a Los Angeles motel. All were gunned down, execution style, in cold blood.

Williams claimed that he did not commit the crimes, but two years later, a jury convicted him and a judge sentenced him to die. While it is not uncommon for capital defendants to claim innocence, serious questions about the testimony and evidence that convicted him were raised — and rejected — on appeal. Among them, Williams alleges that his trial was unfairly moved from Los Angeles to Torrance, where all African Americans in the jury pool were dismissed, and the case was heard by an all-white jury.

But even if Williams is, as he claims, innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted, let's be clear: He was, at the time of his arrest, a dangerous criminal who had done more than his share of reprehensible things. By all accounts, he had been involved in or connected to the kinds of terrible crimes for which he was tried.

But Williams' story doesn't stop there. And what followed is not merely the familiar tale of a convicted killer trying to avoid execution through legal maneuvers. In prison, Williams began to rehabilitate himself. He publicly left the Crips, a position that involved risk to his family and to himself, even behind bars. He then apologized for creating the gang and perpetrating “black-on-black genocide” stating, “I pray that one day my apology will be accepted. I also pray that your suffering, caused by gang violence, will soon come to an end as more gang members wake up and stop hurting themselves and others. I vow to spend the rest of my life working toward solutions.”

This was no ordinary jailhouse conversion. Williams devoted himself to fighting gangs. He spoke out. He wrote nine children's books to steer children away from gang-banging, which he describes as “banging on your own people.” One of these books, “Life in Prison” (Seastar, 2001), received an award from the American Library Association and is used in schools, libraries, juvenile correctional facilities and prisons throughout the country. Williams also recorded anti-gang public service announcements, and began meeting with young people from at-risk communities to tell them to stay away from gangs, and to describe for them the horrors of prison. He also started the Internet Project for Street Peace, which encourages gangs to stop fighting each other. He created a “Protocol for Peace,” a model agreement to end gang feuds, and last year, the Crips and the Bloods in Newark, N.J., signed it, ushering in a truce that has remained in effect.

This work led a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to state, in 2002, that Williams' anti-gang initiatives made him a strong candidate for clemency from the governor. This sentiment was supported by a deputy mayor of Newark, who, in a letter supporting clemency, cited a dramatic reduction in gang-related crime in his city following the signing of what is referred to as “Tookie's Protocol for Peace.”

His was too good a story for Hollywood to miss. In last year's made-for-TV movie, Jamie Foxx played Williams in “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.” Williams serves as an inspiration for a generation of vulnerable young people in our inner-cities, kids who are listening when he tells them not to throw away their lives like he did.

But the story of Williams also speaks to us as Jews. Our tradition teaches that within every person, even the worst criminal, there exists a nekudah tovah, a point of pure goodness. The Jewish obligation is to work to uncover that point of goodness, in ourselves and in others, so that it can transform us through the process of teshuvah, the radical idea that we can change, that we can always be better than we are. The concept of teshuvah holds the promise that even the most wicked cannot be defined solely by their worst acts. The divine spark always contains within it the potential for change. This is, of course, the promise of the High Holidays, and just last month, many of us sat in shul on Yom Kippur, affirming our own capacity for transformation and listening to the Book of Jonah, which teaches that no matter how terrible our acts, we are capable of changing for the better, just like the inhabitants of Nineveh.

But what about the death penalty specifically? Many American Jews, if they think about capital punishment at all, don't consider it a Jewish issue. Yet within Judaism, there's significant consensus: All major denominations of Judaism have taken stands opposing the death penalty or supporting a moratorium on executions. Getting to this point, however, has required a long, nuanced and fascinating evolution.

Biblical law mandates capital punishment for no fewer than 36 offenses, from murder to the desecration of Shabbat to talking back to your parents. Of course, neither the letter nor the spirit of this law reflects current Jewish values. More broadly speaking, Jewish tradition offers three basic rationales for a death penalty: deterrence, retribution and the restoration of balance to a social fabric torn by a terrible crime-like murder. But how do these principles apply today?

First, there is simply no evidence that capital punishment serves as a deterrent. In fact, in each year over the past decade, states without the death penalty have had lower murder rates than states that have capital punishment. And we now live at a time and in a society where retribution can be achieved by means other than capital punishment. Long prison sentences — especially life without parole — unavailable in biblical and talmudic times, can now fulfill the retributive inclination of Jewish law. At the same time, it guarantees that the ultimate nightmare — the execution of an innocent — does not occur. Finally, long prison sentences also serve to remove the murderer from society, allowing for the restoration of the social fabric that would be at risk if dangerous criminals were returned to the streets. In the Williams case, those calling for clemency are arguing that he should be spared, not freed.

The very things that make so many of us uneasy about the death penalty today also concerned the rabbis 2,000 years ago. While they could not write the death penalty out of the Torah, they erected almost insurmountable procedural and evidentiary safeguards and obstacles that essentially ensured that a Sanhedrin, a Jewish court, would never hand down a death sentence. For example, the rabbis ruled that two witnesses were required to testify not only that they witnessed the murder for which a criminal was being condemned, but also that they had warned the perpetrator beforehand that, if he carried out the offense, he would be executed, and that he accepted this warning and nevertheless stated his willingness to carry out the act.

Jewish unease with the capital punishment also informed the decision of the State of Israel not to have a death penalty except in the case of convicted Nazi war criminals. To date, despite its ongoing battle with terrorism, only one person, Adolph Eichmann, has been tried and executed by the Jewish State.

In the United States, despite decades of trying, the justice system has proven unable to create a foolproof death penalty. In Jewish tradition, this alone would be reason enough to oppose capital punishment. But the rabbis make an even more profound claim. Mishna tells us that those appearing as witnesses in capital cases were instructed: One who destroys a single soul, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world. And one who sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world (M Sanhedrin 4:5). In other words, even when confronted with a person who is accused of horrendous crimes, we are still obligated to recognize the value and inestimable worth of every human being. We are compelled to consider the potential contribution the condemned might make if spared. Who, at the time of his conviction in 1981, would have thought that Williams would be capable of work that, in 2001, led to him being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Judaism also abhors an inequitable dual system of justice, especially in capital cases. The Levitical demand for “one standard for the stranger and the citizen alike” is reinforced in the Talmud (B Sanhedrin 32a) to ensure procedural fairness in capital proceedings. The fact that the death penalty in the United States disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color serves to underscore its incompatibility with Jewish values. Whether or not Williams received a fair trial and sentencing, it is horribly clear that many people, who, like him, are poor and black, do not.

My Jewish values convince me that the capital punishment system in our state and in our country is beyond repair. I could cite the example of Illinois, where a Republican governor, a man who is a conservative Christian and once ardently supported the death penalty, ordered a halt to executions. He then commuted all death sentences to life sentences. Ethically, he had little alternative after students at Northwestern University discovered that more people on Illinois' death row were innocent of the crimes for which they'd been sentenced to death than the number of people Illinois had executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.

More recently, the state of Georgia apologized for what it now acknowledges was the “grievous error” of executing Lena Baker, a black woman, in 1945. And a Missouri prosecutor just reopened an investigation to determine whether, as many now fear, the state mistakenly executed Larry Griffin in 1995. And the Supreme Court, as far back as 1987, acknowledged what we all know — that if you are poor or a person of color — you are far more likely to get the death penalty than you are if you are white or a person of means. And California's system of justice is as overburdened and flawed as that of many other states where such problems arise. So if we begin in December a Texas-style run of executions (in addition to Williams, two other death row inmates have received their execution dates) we, too, will risk killing innocent people. We, too, will create dual systems of capital justice: one for the poor and blacks and Latinos, and one for those privileged by having white skin or money.

But even death-penalty supporters are speaking up to save Williams. They, too, recognize that something is terribly wrong when a state can execute a man who is literally saving the lives of others every day that he lives.

Innocent or guilty, victim of a flawed trial or not, Williams is set to die in one month's time: a young criminal who evolved into something more, someone more than even the sum of some truly horrible crimes.

Was his transformation entirely sincere?

I believe it was. But in the end, the worth of his contribution does not depend on how much of him is truly redeemed versus how much his pursuit of good works is spurred on by his fear of death. He is now a force for good in the world, keeping others from making the same mistakes he made.

His appeals have been exhausted, and time is almost up. The only way Williams' life will be saved is if Gov. Schwarzenegger decides to spare him.

If we believe the things that we pray and the things that we say, if we are committed to the values that we claim to treasure, we do not have the luxury of complacency when confronted with what we are about to do to Tookie Williams. Because let's be clear: if the State of California executes this man, it will do so in our name. We will stand as his executioner in the death chamber next month.

Whether you are for or against the death penalty, there are two questions that we — as Jews, Californians and Americans — have to answer: Does the man deserve to die? And do we want to be the ones to kill him?


Daniel Sokatch is the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and part of a multifaith coalition seeking to stop the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams.

Our Faux Democracy


The average California voter doesn’t know what “redistricting” is. Many voters don’t even know what a “voting district” is. The aversion among California voters to such wonky issues goes a long way to explaining why Proposition 77, a long-overdue reform, is struggling.

Most Californians think that, when they vote, they do so within a community of interest, based largely on geography and community boundaries, known as a “voting district.” That was true years ago. But the advent of highly sophisticated computer software now allows the California legislature to painstakingly divide voters block by block. The Democratic Party and Republican Party use this technological power to divide voters, not based on communities of interest, but on party registration instead.

First, Republican and Democratic voters are carefully separated from one another using computer programs that extensively sort and track personal voter registration data. Then, the Democrats are grouped into phony and often bizarrely shaped “voting districts” of their own, and the Republicans into phony and often bizarrely shaped “voting districts” of their own.

Finally, during the spring primaries, the dominant party in one of these dishonest voting districts chooses a highly partisan candidate to spoon-feed to its corralled voters — usually a candidate with little interest in wooing voters from the other side of the aisle. After all, since the dominant party is guaranteed the win in such a rigged “voting district,” the candidates themselves need not be pragmatic types capable of talking to different sorts of voters.

This is not democracy. The California legislature stole our democracy while we slept. All districts in California are now rigged this way. That’s why, in California in the fall of 2004, not a single state legislative or Congressional seat changed party hands.

Because these phony voting districts are designed to stamp out competition between the two parties, the dismal election outcomes can now be widely predicted months before Election Day. As one wag described the untenable situation in California, “Voters no longer pick the candidate. Candidates pick their voters.”

Proposition 77 would halt this anti-democratic practice. The measure would hand the job of drawing up California voting districts to an independent panel of retired judges. It’s a good idea, but many California Democratic elected leaders — instead of doing the right thing — are doing everything they can to torpedo this long overdue reform.

Just like the dominant Republicans in Texas who grossly abused their gerrymandering powers, California’s dominant elected Democrats can see only as far as their next election victory. It’s exceedingly unlikely that Democrats would lose their grip on power in the Sacramento legislature, even if they had to compete in elections once again, because California is heavily Democratic no matter how the voting district lines are drawn. But at least voters would have a choice.

The state’s Democratic leadership is spending millions of dollars to defeat Proposition 77 to make sure there is no choice.

So far, Proposition 77 remains up for grabs. Its fate remains in play despite the Democratic millions. A poll released Oct. 28 by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Proposition 77 lagging 50 percent to 36 percent. That looks discouraging, but, as noted by Public Policy Institute of California research director Mark Baldassare, the same percentage of voters opposed Proposition 77 back in August, before the Democrats poured a king’s ransom into defeating it. Moreover, an unusually large number of people — 14 percent — are still undecided late in the race.

“With this many undecideds,” Baldassare said, “it is really hard to know where redistricting will end up. The numbers just are not moving, with that 50 percent opposed figure staying the same since August.”

His past polls indicate that roughly 60 percent of Californians think there is something very wrong about letting politicians pick and choose the voters and districts in which the politicians run for office. So if backers can just transmit their message to voters, Proposition 77 can win.

“In my previous poll, so many people felt it was wrong for the Legislature to have this control,” he said. “That fact, combined with the undecideds, makes me think this measure will come down to how people focus on the issue in these final days.”

So why is Proposition 77 in trouble at all? The problem is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is embracing it and Democrats are demonizing it — and him. The governor’s approval ratings are low, and many Democrats are uncertain whom to believe.

“Voters are looking for cues, or clues, that tell them if this is a measure that might have a political motive, or is an honest effort at good government,” Baldassare said.

For his part, the governor needs to speak plainly and directly to all Californians, without rancor, to explain this wonky-sounding issue. Then, voters must do the rest. People in a democracy must arm themselves with knowledge, or face losing their democracy.

In fact, that’s already happened in California.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Schwarzenegger Is Losing Jewish Vote


In November 2003, California voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. White voters backed the recall by a large margin, but Jewish voters swam against the tide, with 69 percent voting against the recall. On the second part of the ballot, where voters chose a replacement candidate, Schwarzenegger collected a surprising 31 percent of Jewish voters.

I suggested then in these pages that Schwarzenegger might eventually do well with Jews: “Jewish voters aren’t likely to abandon the Democratic Party anytime soon, but will likely give Arnold Schwarzenegger a chance to prove that he can govern in a bipartisan, moderate manner…. If Schwarzenegger truly seeks to solve the state’s problems without being a tool of right-wing forces, and with an open-minded, progressive approach, he may find a surprising number of friends among California’s Democratic-leaning Jewish voters.”

Chance given, chance blown.

Political historians will surely marvel at the precipitous political decline of California’s celebrity governor, especially because Schwarzenegger should have been a lock with Jewish voters. He came into office as a moderate Republican with lots of Democratic friends (he’s even married to a Democrat), with pro-choice views on abortion and as an advocate of “reform,” a concept dear to many Jewish voters. Schwarzenegger invited comparisons to Gov. George Pataki of New York, a Republican moderate who is finishing his third term in a very blue state. Over time, Schwarzenegger even seemed likely to attract support from elements of organized labor.

In the beginning, Schwarzenegger was a whirlwind, reaching out across party lines to Democratic leaders and listening to a broad range of advisers who included Democrats. He split his opposition by making budget deals with the teachers and with other key interest groups. He looked like a problem-solver, not an ideologue. For Democrats enraged and alienated by the narrow-cast politics of the Bush administration, he seemed to offer a different way.

Then, under no external pressure to do so, Schwarzenegger morphed into an AM talk radio Republican. As the governor’s deal with the teachers unraveled, he had to choose between outraging Republicans by raising taxes or reneging on the original deal. His choice revealed him to be less like Earl Warren, and more like Pete Wilson. No longer surrounded by Democrats (something that had annoyed the Bush White House), he now listened to Wilson’s advisers. He blasted teachers and nurses as obstacles to change. After a transparently showy attempt to consult with Democrats, he hewed to the Bush-Rove line that all problems could be solved if Democrats and unions were excluded from the table.

Then, to add a little spice for the AM radio crowd, the governor began to talk about “closing the borders” and praised the Minutemen group carrying guns to block illegal immigrants. (Jewish voters, remember, were the one group of voters other than Latinos to oppose Wilson’s Proposition 187 campaign in 1994.) And Schwarzenegger kept up the juvenile rhetoric and media stunts that had long since worn out their welcomes.

Finally, and catastrophically, the governor called a special election for November, watched his poorly designed initiatives drop one at a time, and now finds himself fighting a battle he never should have picked.

He dropped dozens of points in the polls, completely losing Democrats and most independents. Like Bush, he now has to depend on a highly ideological Republican base. Unlike Bush, these really aren’t his people, but they are all he’s got. They certainly don’t look like Jewish voters.

Since there are a lot of Jewish teachers, it’s hard to imagine how demonizing the teachers’ unions will help with Jewish voters. Taking money without disclosure from muscle magazines that depend on unexamined, and possibly hazardous, dietary supplements while raising colossal amounts of special-interest money hardly comport with a “reform” image.

How to reverse the decline?

Jews will definitely vote for the right moderate Republican candidate in statewide elections. But for a Republican to win over Jews requires accommodating their Democratic loyalty and leanings at least halfway. The Wilson Republican camp says Schwarzenegger just needs to push harder in the same direction; the opposition, in their view, will fold like a house of cards. Others suggest that the governor ought to return to what he once seemed, a bipartisan, imposing, socially moderate problem-solver free of special-interest control. While the second option is obviously more sensible, it may not be easy to backtrack.

Schwarzenegger is playing a much weaker hand than when he swept into office. At the time, conservatives suspected that he was a potentially troublesome moderate, and on whose popularity their own party’s prospects depended. Democrats were impressed by his popularity and charm, and could perceive a real threat to their conventional thinking and political dominance. Riding high, Schwarzenegger might have challenged the orthodoxies of both parties and in Clintonian fashion, could have “triangulated” them. Now that he has put himself in the partisan box, he has raised expectations on the right and a fighting spirit on the left.

To break out now, Schwarzenegger might have to rise more strongly to challenge the Bush Republicans. He has already done so on global warming and stem cell research. Schwarzenegger will have to reach out to Democrats and make them part of the solution to the state’s problems, an attitude which, if sincere rather than a setup, would send a positive signal to Jewish voters. And then he has to get to work on the state’s problems, every day, without distractions and gimmicks. In the parlance of today’s partisan politics, this blue state will probably be amenable to a purple governor, but not to a red one.

Jewish voters are serious and attentive students of politics and government. They are a tough audience. If Schwarzenegger can win their favor, he will be on the way toward rehabilitating a crippled governorship.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

 

Sacramento Politics Take Strange Turn


The radical outsiders in Sacramento are the moderates and
pragmatists, a strange truth that was brought home dramatically this month,
when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature compromised
on a ballot measure to refinance the state’s huge debt and hem in future
spending excesses by the Legislature.

The deal happened because free-thinkers, known simply as the
Bipartisan Group, buttressed by the legislative Women’s Caucus and a handful of
moderate Democrats, refused to let the Democratic majority leaders, Assembly
Speaker Herb Wesson and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, scotch the deal.
It was a stunning role for moderates, a tiny band among 120 mostly hard-core
partisans in the Legislature.

Complex bipartisan deals need to be cut in Sacramento over
the next six months, from balancing the budget to fixing the workers’
compensation crisis to ending massive fraud in the teetering unemployment
insurance program. These troubles should have been fixed under former Gov. Gray
Davis. Instead, they were piled on a mountain of gridlock.

Majority leaders Wesson and Burton have shown little
interest in ending gridlock. Our elected Democratic state senators and Assembly
members are under tremendous partisan pressure to do whatever these leaders
order. The same holds true for the minority side, where Republican leaders Jim
Brulte in the Senate and David Cox in the Assembly — though less powerful —
expect to be obeyed.

However, ever since Schwarzenegger arrived, something has changed.
The Bipartisan Group, which worked to balance the budget last year without
finger pointing (and without their leaders), is gaining traction. Powerless
until now, Schwarzenegger gave the group gravitas by taking its counsel.

Led by Assemblyman Keith Richman of Granada Hills, one of a
growing number of Jewish Republicans in California politics, and Democratic
Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla of Martinez, a former county supervisor, the
Bipartisan Group refused to accept failure after Burton and Wesson on Dec. 5
pronounced Schwarzenegger’s fiscal recovery plan dead.

Although a deadline set by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley
for approving the plan for the March ballot had passed, Richman became
convinced that there were enough legislative votes to forge a fiscal recovery
compromise with Schwarzenegger — if only Shelley could extend his deadline.

So 19 brave bipartisan souls ignored their leaders, signing
a petition that convinced Shelley to give the Legislature more time.

After that, “we had a conference call with the governor, who
was enthusiastic to keep up negotiations, and one of the Democrats in our group
asked him if any issues were off the table,” Richman said. “The governor said,
‘No issues are off the table,’ and it didn’t surprise me. He wanted to find a
solution, but the leadership walked away.”

Why did the legislative leaders walk away? Sources tell me
one big reason was because the Service Employees International Union told the
Democratic leaders to keep Schwarzenegger’s plan off the March ballot.

Why? Because unions don’t want competition for their measure
on the March ballot, which is also being peddled as a government cost-control
law. It’s actually a sly bid to get voters to reduce the two-thirds margin now
required to raise taxes in the Legislature. The measure would require only a 55
percent legislative vote to raise our taxes.

Had a 55 percent law been in place in 2003, quite a few of
the roughly 100 bills proposed to raise our taxes by $28 billion would have
been approved.

There’s always a multilevel chess game afoot in Sacramento.
Richman, Canciamilla and others are thrilled that Schwarzenegger is willing to
challenge that game.

“Last week was really the best demonstration of bipartisan
compromise that I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been in the Legislature, and
others who have been here far longer said the same thing,” Richman said.

On Dec. 18, I saw another display of the power of
pragmatism, when Schwarzenegger used his emergency powers to override the
Legislature and replace funds the cities and counties lost when he reversed the
tripling of the car tax.

At the governor’s press conference, one of the gutsy new
pragmatists in Sacramento, moderate Democratic Controller Steve Westly, stood
up and strongly backed the governor. Democratic Mayors Jerry Brown of Oakland
and James Hahn of Los Angeles offered big kudos. As mayors, Hahn and Brown are
pragmatists, not partisans. If mayors play endless political games rather than
fix things, they quickly get the blame.

Hahn, who seemed truly moved to be receiving funds from
Schwarzenegger after the Legislature refused to act and left for the holidays,
broke into a standing ovation. And Brown chortled, “The governor … exercised
executive power to the max.”

The question now is whether clear-thinking pragmatists can
build their modest core into a force that can work with Schwarzenegger to get
the really big things done. That’s a tall order in Sacramento, a place that
thrives on gridlock, ideologues and the multilevel chess game. Â


Jill Stewart is a syndicated
political columnist and can be reached at

Recall Golus


As recall fever is sweeping the state, a number of cars in the Pico-Robertson and Fairfax neighborhoods are sporting bumper stickers that say “Recall Golus.” Who is Golus exactly, you ask? Is it Gray Davis’ middle name? The name of the 136th candidate on the ballot?

The stickers, which Rabbi Shimon Raichik of Chabad of Hancock Park produced, are actually a call for the Messiah to come. Golus is the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word galut, meaning exile, as in the state of being for the Jewish people before the Messiah comes and redeems us all to Israel.

If Golus is recalled, then the entire state of California will be transported to the Holy Land, and we won’t have to worry about a budget crisis, Davis’s lack of personality or unsavory Arnold Schwarzenegger interviews — which definitely makes recalling Golus something worth thinking about.