After tour of mega churches in Brazil, head of Jewish-Christian group promises 850 new olim from cou


U.S.-born Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein completed a two-week tour of Brazil’s mega churches to raise money to bring local Jews to Israel — drawing the ire of Israel’s official aliyah body.

On Monday, a day ahead of his departure from Brazil, Eckstein told JTA that his Jewish-Christian group will help hundreds of Brazilian Jews make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel, this year. His tour was also designed to drum up support for Israel among Brazilian evangelicals.

“Next week, the first group of Jews from Brazil will make aliyah with us and we expect to bring a total of about 850 Brazilian olim [immigrants] to Israel by the end of 2016,” Eckstein wrote in an email, claiming his group brought some 4,000 Jews from around the world to Israel last year.

Yigal Palmor, the Jewish Agency’s director of public affairs and communications, rejected Eckstein’s figures and slammed his group, the Jerusalem-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Palmor said the Jewish Agency is the only organization empowered by the Israeli government to handle aliyah.

“Their parasitic action consists of pretending to be mandated by the government of Israel or to substitute themselves to The Jewish Agency, and then to lure gullible olim to board their flights by offering them cash money,” he told JTA by phone.

“In other words, they ‘bribe’ innocent olim, who had their aliyah visa prepared by the Jewish Agency, to concentrate on the IFCJ flights and thus to take part in a PR spectacle.”

The organization denied Palmor’s accusations. “Mr. Palmor’s remarks are complete lies, and nothing less than libelous,” IFCJ said in a statement to JTA. “He has apparently not learned the lesson from his previous embarrassment with regard to Brazil, which forced an official apology from the President of Israel to the Government of Brazil.”

In 2014, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin apologized to the administration of then Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff after Palmor called Brazil a “diplomatic dwarf” after Brazil recalled its envoy over the Gaza conflict.

Eckstein has sparred in the past with Jewish Agency officials over what he said was a lack of recognition of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, of which he is founder and chairman. The group is also known by its Hebrew name, Keren Leyedidut.

The Israeli government pays for new immigrants to fly to Israel and gives them money to be used toward rent and other startup costs.

In Brazil, Eckstein addressed churches with up to 5,000 members, part of Brazil’s rising evangelical population of nearly 50 million people — the second largest in the world behind the United States.

Last year, Eckstein met Brazil’s current president and then-vice president, Michel Temer. The official praised the visit, saying “Brazil is a global reference of harmony among religions.” Jewish officials also attended that meeting.

“Brazil’s Christian community feels biblically connected to Israel and is hungry to learn about the Jewish roots of their faith,” Eckstein said. “They want to go to Israel and visit the Biblical sites they have read about.”

He sees Brazil’s Christian community as natural allies for Israel, “a potential new front for Christian Zionism, a bulwark against intensifying anti-Semitism and Israel’s growing political isolation.”

A Brazilian-born Israeli envoy for the fellowship last week met with tens of potential olim in both Sao Paulo and Rio, and told them about financial packages they could be awarded by the group when making aliyah.

Aliyah from Brazil has risen sharply in recent years: 2015 saw the arrival of some 500 immigrants, a 70 percent increase over 2014 and more than double the 210 who came in 2013. For 2016, over 1,000 Brazilians have already initiated the aliyah process, the Jewish Press reported.

What’s a dollar a month worth?


People love the Jewish Journal. They love picking it up, at a shul or deli or cafe or market, and flipping through the stories of the Jewish world. There’s nothing quite like it in Los Angeles — a gathering place where all the voices of our community can be heard.

I can’t tell you how often I hear: “I love the paper. I’m hooked. It’s my weekly read.”

That kind of response gratifies me to no end, because I think good journalism is essential to the Jewish future. Where else would Jews regularly connect to their world and their community if not in a community paper? What other Jewish institution can claim to build as much Jewish connection, every week in print, and every day online — at no cost, and with access to all?

Some of you already know that in addition to my obsession with the Los Angeles Lakers, I’m obsessed with Jewish unity. Not Jewish uniformity, but unity within diversity — the idea of Jews of all colors and denominations coming together and uniting in a spirit of exchange, where we can learn and receive from one another.

I love being at the Shabbat table of a Persian friend and tasting a new cuisine, or seeing Sephardic Jews singing Chasidic nigguns at the Happy Minyan. This is a privilege my ancestors didn’t have. During the centuries that they lived in Morocco, how often did they get to meet Jews of different traditions?

I can walk down Pico Boulevard on a Shabbat afternoon and, in one block, encounter more Jewish diversity than my grandparents experienced in a lifetime. It’s true that sometimes that diversity can get on our nerves. Human beings prefer the familiar. I get that.

But it’s worth appreciating this grand family reunion that is now happening in the Jewish world.

After so many centuries of being mostly in our own bubbles, here we are in this great, amorphous city called Los Angeles, where we can discover each other. Persian Jews learning about Russian Jews, South African Jews learning about Tunisian Jews, Israeli Jews dancing with Latino Jews.

Our wish is that by Thanksgiving 2016, we will have tens of thousands of readers becoming patrons of the community paper they own and love, in whatever amount they’re comfortable with, even a dollar.

This is unity within diversity, and I think it’s a major reason why people so love the Journal. We cover it all. We inspire curiosity. We inspire connection.

Of course, none of this comes cheap. It costs a lot of money to hire reporters, to print and distribute thousands of papers each week, and to stay current on the Web. So, to use our CFO Adam Levine’s favorite question: “Are you sure we can afford all this?

Well, that depends on you — which is why I’m writing this Thanksgiving column.

As many of you know, the Journal is a nonprofit. It is distributed free because we don’t believe in charging for Jewish connection. We’re fortunate that we can cover a lot of our expenses through advertising —  but because advertising hardly covers it all, we’ve always depended on donations to help us continue to serve you.

This year, because we are a community paper that belongs to the community, we want to give everyone a chance to chip in. So, we are asking 100,000 readers and fans to join the Jewish Journal family and help keep us strong with a monthly donation of $1 or more. 

We have about 150,000 readers a week in print in Los Angeles, and another 3 million worldwide each month at jewishjournal.com. If 100,000 of our readers each chip in $1 a month, that will cover our printing costs for the whole year — all 52 issues — and will enable us to continue growing and serving you. If 50,000 readers chip in $2 a month, or 10,000 readers chip in $10 a month, we also reach our goal, and so on.

We call it our “One dollar or more” campaign. Our wish is that by Thanksgiving 2016, we will have tens of thousands of readers giving back to the community paper they own and love, in whatever amount they’re comfortable with, even a dollar.  

To make your tax-deductible donation now, choose the amount below and then click on the “Donate” button below. Or, if you're old school, call Adam Levine at (213) 368-1661, ext. 131.

What will you get in return? The satisfaction of contributing to the Jewish institution  that keeps us all connected — week after week.

I think that’s worth being grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving.


*Your tax-deductible donation to the Jewish Journal provides high-quality, independent journalism that connects, informs and inspires the community. We can't do it without you!


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Gallup shows split in backing for Israel in Gaza war, with younger Americans unsupportive


A Gallup poll shows that support among Americans for Israel during the Gaza Strip conflict is divided, and is low among younger Americans.

The poll posted on the pollster’s website Thursday showed a statistical dead heat between those who believe Israel’s actions against Hamas are justified, 42 percent, and those who believe they are unjustified, 39 percent. The difference was within the poll’s margin of error of four percentage points.

Reactions to Hamas were lopsided, with 70 percent calling the group’s actions unjustified and just 11 percent describing them as justified.

Older Americans were much likelier to say Israel’s actions were justified: 55 percent of those over 65; 53 percent of those between 50 and 64; 36 percent of those 30-49 and just 25 percent of those 18-29.

There were other dramatic differences in how subgroups measured support for Israel, with 65 percent of Republicans calling Israel’s actions justified and just 31 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Independents saying they were justified; 50 percent of whites said Israel was justified, while just 25 percent of non-whites agreed with that characterization; 51 percent of men agreed and 33 percent of women.

The poll was based on 1,018 phone interviews conducted from July 22-23.

Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 after an intensification of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. More than 820 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since then, as have 36 Israelis, including 33 troops.

Jewish groups praise Obama on LGBT worker rights expansion


A number of Jewish groups praised President Obama for extending federal job protections for gay employees to employees of government contractors.

Obama signed two executive orders, one extending existing job protections for federal employees who are gay to employees of federal contractors, and another adding transgender employees to those deserving protections.

Praising the move this week were Bend the Arc, a social action group; the Anti-Defamation League; the National Council of Jewish Women; and the Religious Actions Center of the Reform movement. The orders were signed on July 18.

“The immediate impact of this executive order is that the many LGBT Americans who are part of the vast workforce of federal contractors no longer have to fear that they might be fired from their job because of who they are,” Stosh Cotler, Bend the Arc’s CEO, said in a statement. “There are still millions of LGBT Americans working in private industry with no protection from discrimination.”

LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, and Transgender.

Survey finds worldwide split over attitudes toward gays


A survey on Tuesday shows a world divided over the acceptance of gays, with countries in Africa and the Middle East strongly opposed even as tolerance grows in Europe, the United States, Canada and parts of Latin America.

People in predominately Muslim countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan along with Nigeria, Senegal and other African nations overwhelming said gay men and lesbians should be rejected from society at large, the Pew Research Center survey of nearly 40 countries found.

At the same time, acceptance of homosexuality continued to grow in North America and most of Europe, according to the survey, which polled nearly 38,000 people in 39 countries.

Some nations, such as Israel, Poland and Bolivia, were split.

“Acceptance of homosexuality is particularly widespread in countries where religion is less central in people's lives. These are also among the richest countries in the world,” Pew said in its summary of the findings.

“In contrast, in poorer countries with high levels of religiosity, few believe homosexuality should be accepted by society,” it added.

Still, in some countries where religion tends to be less central – such as Russia and China – gays have yet to gain acceptance, Pew found. Sixteen percent of Russians and 21 percent of Chinese were supportive.

One leading indicator of gay tolerance is same-sex marriage, which is now legal in 13 countries, including France, Argentina and South Africa, as well as parts of the United States and Mexico.

But anti-gay sentiment persists in much of the world.

In Nigeria, where sodomy is punishable by jail, the House of Representatives passed a bill last month to criminalize gay marriage, same-sex “amorous relationships” and even membership of a gay rights group.

Earlier on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said foreign same-sex couples should be barred from adoptions, saying that he would support a bill allowing only “traditional” families to adopt Russian children.

In the Pew survey, age and gender were also important factors in respondents' attitudes, with women and younger adults more likely to say they are tolerant of homosexuality.

Even in nations such as France and the United States where most men and women back gay rights, women are more likely to be accepting by at least 10 percentage points, according to the poll.

Younger generations were also “consistently more likely than older ones to say homosexuality should be accepted by society” even in countries that overall are more supportive of gays, Pew said.

For example, 54 percent of all Japanese polled offered support. But 83 percent of those younger than 30 said they accepted gays compared to about 40 percent of those 50 and older. In the United States, 70 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds supported gays compared with 52 percent of those ages 50 and older.

Even in Lebanon, where 80 percent of those polled said they reject homosexuality, attitudes are changing. Nearly 30 percent of Lebanese aged 29 and younger said gays should be accepted compared to just 10 percent of those 50 or older.

The poll, which was conducted between March and May, has a margin of error of between plus-or-minus 3.1 percentage points and plus-or-minus 7.7 percentage points.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; additional reporting by Laura MacInnis; Editing by Leslie Adler

Illinois lawmakers begin considering approval of same-sex marriage


Illinois lawmakers began considering a measure on Wednesday that would make President Barack Obama's home state the 10th in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

Supporters and opponents furiously lobbied lawmakers as a leading sponsor of the proposal pressed for a quick vote in the state Senate. The “lame duck” session is the final meeting before a newly elected legislature takes office later in January.

Buoyed by November election referendum victories in Maryland, Maine and Washington state, supporters of gay marriage want to make Illinois the first Midwestern legislature to approve it. Iowa's Supreme Court legalized it in 2009.

If approved, Illinois would be the second most populous state to allow gay marriage after New York.

Democrats hold a majority in both chambers of the Illinois legislature. But as in Maryland, Washington state and New York, a few Republican votes may be needed to pass a bill in Illinois.

State Republican party chairman Pat Brady was making calls to Republican lawmakers in support of gay marriage, legislative sources said, which could help win some votes for the measure.

Obama, a former Illinois state senator, publicly endorsed gay marriage in Illinois over the weekend, a rare occasion when he has weighed in on a state matter.

On the other side of the issue, Chicago Cardinal Francis George sent a letter to Catholic parishes saying same sex marriage undermined the “natural family” between a man and a woman.

“The state has no power to create something that nature itself tells us is impossible,” he wrote. The letter, signed by George and six auxiliary bishops, urges Catholics to reach out to their state legislators.

Last week, Senate President John Cullerton's said through a spokeswoman that he was confident of the votes to pass gay marriage.

CIVIL UNIONS ALREADY LEGAL

But a move on Wednesday to speed consideration of the proposal in the Senate narrowly failed, 28 to 24.

It was not clear if the procedural vote was an indication that the proposal was short of the votes needed to pass or if some lawmakers simply wanted to take more time for debate. The Illinois House will convene later in the week.

Even if Illinois lawmakers fail to approve gay marriage before a new legislature takes office, there is a reasonable chance of passage later in the year because Democrats gained seats in the November election and will have super-majorities in both chambers.

In June, 2011, Illinois legalized civil unions, which grant some of the rights of marriage to same-sex partners. But gay rights activists said that did not go far enough.

All prominent Democrats in Illinois have endorsed gay marriage, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn.

A key issue to be resolved is whether Illinois should allow religious groups the option of declining to perform same-sex marriages. New York granted such an exception in 2011 in order to secure the votes to legalize gay marriage there.

A bill introduced in the Illinois House offers such a religious exemption.

Last week, at least 260 Illinois Jewish and Protestant leaders published a letter supporting same-sex marriage.

“There can be no justification for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the letter said.

A survey of Illinois voters by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling late last year found 47 percent would allow gay marriage, 42 percent opposed and 11 percent not sure.

The poll of 500 Illinois voters from Nov. 26 to 28 had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

In addition to the three states which voted in November to legalize gay marriage, six others allow it – Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire, plus the District of Columbia.

Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Todd Eastham

Rabbis join Obama support group


Some 613 American rabbis, ranging across all denominations, have signed up as supporters of Rabbis for Obama, it was announced Tuesday by the Obama for America campaign.

The new figure represents more than twice the number of supporters than when the organization was launched in 2008, said Ira Forman, Jewish Outreach director for the Obama campaign.

California leads the list of states with 116 signatories, or 18.9 percent of the total, followed by New York state with 97 rabbis.

The organization is led by Rabbis Steven Bob and Sam Gordon, both of Illinois, and Burt Visotzky of New York City.

Among the organization’s co-chairs are Los Angeles scholars Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the American Jewish University and Rabbi Richard N. Levy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Los Angeles area is represented by 46 signatories.

In his online announcement, Forman said, “The list of rabbis represents a broad group of respected Jewish leaders from all parts of the country. These rabbis mirror the diversity of American Jewry. Their ringing endorsement of President Obama speaks volumes about the president’s deep commitment to the security of the State of Israel and his dedication to a policy agenda that represents the values of the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community.”

Romney would support Israel strike on Iran, senior aide says


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would support an Israeli decision to use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, a senior aide said on Sunday.

Romney met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on the second leg of a trip show display his foreign policy credentials in his race to unseat President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 election.

Shortly before talks with Netanyahu, Romney’s senior national security aide, Dan Senor, told reporters travelling with the candidate:

“If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision.”

The comment seemed to put Romney at odds with Obama’s efforts to press Israel to avoid any preemptive strike before tough Western economic sanctions against Iran run their course.

Senor later expanded on his remarks, saying Romney felt “we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course”.

It was Romney’s “fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so” and “no option should be excluded”, Senor said, adding that “Romney recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it”.

Standing beside Netanyahu at the Israeli leader’s office, Romney said only that Iran’s effort to become a nuclear power “is one which I take with great seriousness”.

The failure of talks between Iran and six world powers to secure a breakthrough in curbing what the West fears is a drive to develop nuclear weapons has raised international concern that Israel may opt for a go-it-alone military strike.

Netanyahu issued his customary call for stronger measures behind the sanctions to curb Iran’s programme, which Israel sees as a threat to its existence. Iran says its project is for peaceful purposes.

“STRONG MILITARY THREAT”

“We have to be honest that sanctions have not set back the Tehran program one iota and that a strong military threat coupled with sanctions are needed to have a chance to change the situation,” Netanyahu said.

Israel, widely assumed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state, has warned it is only a matter of time before Iran’s nuclear programme achieves a “zone of immunity” in which bombs will not be able to effectively strike uranium enrichment facilities buried deep underground.

Though Washington has been pressing Israel not to launch a solo strike on Iran, Obama has not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to curb Iran’s nuclear drive.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said on Sunday that Obama’s national security adviser had briefed Netanyahu on a U.S. contingency plan to attack Iran. A senior Israeli official denied the report. [ID: nL6E8IT0P2].

In an effort that appeared timed to upstage Romney’s visit to Israel, Obama signed a measure on Friday to strengthen U.S.-Israeli military ties and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to visit Israel later this week.

Romney’s overseas tour got off to a rocky start, when he angered the British by questioning whether London was ready for the Olympics, a statement he was forced to clarify after a rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron.

His visit to Israel gives him the opportunity to appeal to both Jewish voters and pro-Israel evangelical voters and contrast himself with Obama, who has a strained relationship with Netanyahu.

Romney has sharply criticised Obama’s handling of Iran as not being tough enough.

According to excepts of a speech Romney was to deliver on Sunday evening, the former Massachusetts governor planned to say that an aggressive approach to Tehran was needed to protect against a threat to the very existence of Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the turbulent Middle East.

“When Iran’s leaders deny the Holocaust or speak of wiping this nation off the map, only the naïve – or worse – will dismiss it as an excess of rhetoric,” the text of the speech included.

“Make no mistake: the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defences. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way.”

“My message to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away; and neither will my country,” the text said.

After his meeting with Netanyahu, Romney met with President Shimon Peres, opposition head Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He then headed to the Western Wall, Judaism’s most revered site.

Wearing a black Jewish skullcap and surrounded by a determined throng of security personnel who cleared a path for him, Romney carefully navigated his way through hundreds of worshippers, some of whom shouted out cries of support.

Romney ends his trip on Monday with a fundraiser for a crowd of mostly Jewish Americans who live in Israel.

The Romney campaign initially had declared the fundraiser off limits to reporters, but on Sunday said it would allow press coverage after journalists complained the campaign was reneging on a prior agreement to open more of its finance events.

Echoes of Lebanon civil war as Syrian turmoil spreads


Tit-for-tat kidnappings by Syrian rebels and Lebanese Shi’ite gunmen have escalated tensions in Lebanon, where the specter of contagion from Syria’s conflict is alarming the fractured and war-scarred Mediterranean nation.

Despite government efforts to insulate it from turmoil in its once dominating neighbor, Lebanon has seen armed clashes in its two largest cities, and last week authorities said they uncovered a Syrian plot to destabilize the country.

The sight of masked gunmen in Beirut on Wednesday claiming the capture of 20 Syrians, and the kidnapping in broad daylight of a Turkish businessman near the airport, was another dramatic sign of Syria’s crisis spilling over into Lebanon.

While they may not herald an imminent slide towards conflict in Lebanon, the incidents highlight the weak and tenuous authority of Lebanon’s state institutions and point to future instability in the country of four million.

“This will have a negative impact on state authority, the military and the business environment in Lebanon” said Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group consultancy. “The likelihood of civil war right now remains low, but reaching this stage is a very alarming development”.

To the outside world, kidnapping foreigners was a defining feature of Lebanon’s civil war, and the brazen public appearance by the masked gunmen this week – unchallenged by security forces – echoed the chaos of the 1975-1990 conflict.

“This …brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn,” said Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose policy of ‘dissociation’ from Syria’s conflict next door has come under growing strain.

SECTARIAN TENSIONS

Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, heads a government in which Shi’ite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah and its Shi’ite and Christian allies – all supporters of Assad – hold half the cabinet seats.

Hezbollah, the only Lebanese armed faction not to disarm after the civil war, is the most powerful fighting force in the country. Its opponents have repeatedly and unsuccessfully called for it to put its mighty arsenal under state control.

Those long-standing sectarian tensions have been re-ignited by the mainly Sunni Muslim revolt in Syria against Hezbollah’s ally President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite community is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Shi’ite Iran, a rival to Sunni Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, sponsors both Hezbollah and Assad.

Most of Hezbollah’s opponents, including Mikati’s fellow Sunnis, are solidly behind the Syrian rebellion. In Sunni Muslim border areas of northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, arms have been smuggled to the rebels since the start of the uprising.

Tensions over Syria led to deadly street clashes three months ago in the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, home also to a staunchly pro-Assad Lebanese Alawite minority.

The kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi’ites in northern Syria in May also triggered street protests in Beirut.

Five days ago Lebanese authorities issued an indictment against a top Syrian security official and a former Lebanese minister whom it accused of forming an ‘armed gang’ that planned to detonate bombs to incite sectarian fighting in Lebanon.

MUCH TO LOSE

Assad’s woes have already emboldened some of his opponents in Lebanon, and Sunni Muslims might seek to press home political advantages against a weakened Hezbollah if he were to fall.

But analysts say that all sides in a potential Lebanese conflict know they have much to lose from all-out confrontation, an awareness which has helped them step back from the brink during several political showdowns in recent years.

Notable among such crises was the assassination in 2005 of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and its aftermath. The still officially unsolved killing of the Sunni billionaire with close ties to Saudi Arabia saw suspicion fall on Hezbollah and Syria.

A major escalation of violence now would be likely to draw in Gulf Arab countries, strong supporters of Lebanon’s Sunnis, against Hezbollah. Israel, which fought an inconclusive war with Hezbollah in 2006, could also get sucked into such a conflict.

Faced with that prospect, Lebanon’s divided political leaders appear keen to avoid escalating friction.

“All the evidence of the last seven or eight years has been that all the parties in Lebanon will do all they can to prevent the country shifting into all-out civil war,” said Beirut-based political commentator Rami Khouri.

Still, this week’s kidnappings by a group apparently beyond the control not only of the state but also the main political leaders on its own side of the divide, serve as a warning that street violence can build a momentum of its own.

“The Lebanese state is not a powerful centralized state,” Khouri said. “You have people outside the control of the state, whether it’s Hezbollah or small groups like these family-based militias that operate in society.

“The worry is that these incidents can escalate and get out of hand. Then you end up with armed conflict in the street.”

Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Gallup tracking of Jews has Obama support at 64 percent


Gallup has started tracking Jewish voters for the 2012 presidential elections, and its findings are commensurate with other polling, with President Obama enjoying a 35 point lead over Mitt Romney.

The poll of 576 Jews culled from the pollster’s daily tracking of registered U.S. voters from April 11-June 5, found that Jewish voters favored Obama over the former Massachusetts governor and all-but-certain Republican nominee 64-29.

With a margin of error of 5 percentage points, that’s a statistical dead heat with recent polls commissioned by the Workmen’s Circle, which had Obama-Romney at 59-29, and by the American Jewish Committee, which had them at 61-28 percent.

It also is commensurate with polling in the same period by Gallup during the 2008 election, when Obama vs. John McCain, the then GOP candidate, scored 61-32, 57-35 and 62-31 in April, May and June of that year, respectively.

There’s more than one way to support the Jewish state


In the landscape of American Jewish organizations, The New Israel Fund (NIF) has long occupied a prominent place on the left side of the aisle. Back in 1979, almost three decades before the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street was established, when Peter Beinart was still in elementary school, NIF began supporting Israeli-based non-profits that advanced the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel.

In the years since, NIF has donated more than $200 million to civil- and human-rights organizations in Israel. Its current list of grantees includes groups advocating for women, Palestinian Israelis, Ethiopian-Jewish Israelis, and Reform and Conservative Jewish practice, to name a few. 

The Journal caught up with NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch, formerly the founding executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance, to discuss changes he’s seen in Israel, how NIF is advancing its mission in the Jewish state and how he manages to stay optimistic about the future.

Jewish Journal: You lived in Israel in the 1990s; how has the country changed since then?
Daniel Sokatch: I went to Israel in 1994 to go to rabbinical school. I realized pretty quickly that what was exciting to me was less the rabbinate than it was Israel. I dropped out of rabbinical school and stayed in Israel for a year and a half, working and soaking up what was a completely golden age, and went back to the United States in September 1995, just about five weeks before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Today, [Israel is] a very different place in terms of the hopes and aspirations that people there feel are realistic. It’s a very different place in terms of the demography. The situation of the Arab-Israeli sector was quite different than what it is today. Many of the fractures and schisms that are so apparent in today’s Israeli society were less exacerbated then.

JJ: Benjamin Netanyahu, both in his time as finance minister and now as prime minister, seems to have really transformed the country.
DS: Netanyahu led a series of economic shifts that have transformed the country in ways that have resulted in great prosperity for some and — as we saw this summer, when almost half a million people took the streets — massive amounts of discord for many others. But it was a mélange of factors that caused this transformation, and it’s an ongoing transformation.

JJ: Your organization recently launched a new campaign with an ad in The New York Times focusing on extremism and the treatment of women in Israel. It was inspired by one NIF supporter’s trip to Iran, and his concern that there might be parallels between the situation of women in Iran and Israel. Did you worry about that comparison?
DS: The ad doesn’t mention Iran at all. Murray Koppelman — this is a pillar of the New York Jewish community [who traveled to Iran and pledged to match all contributions to NIF for the new campaign, up to $500,000] — wasn’t afraid Israel was turning into Iran. He worried, though, because he saw things that reminded him of developments in Israel that have been unsettling to him in recent years, like the segregation of buses, like the removal of images of women in the public sphere, like the attempted crackdown on human rights or civil rights organizations to do their jobs. These things disturbed him, and he came home and said, ‘I don’t want to see my beloved Israel go down that path.’ That’s what the campaign is about.

JJ: NIF will have a booth at this year’s Celebrate Israel festival in Los Angeles and representatives of the group will be marching in New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade, even as there have been some calls for NIF to be banned, calling the group anti-Israel. What’s it like to be at the center of that contention?
DS: These are charges made either by extremist right-wing organizations who have vowed to — to use their terminology — “delegitimize” any organization or any individual that doesn’t subscribe to their definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. But we don’t have anybody who gets to dictate what it means to be pro-Israel, and I’m deeply gratified by the response of the Jewish establishment of this country — for the most part — in refusing to blacklist organizations like NIF.

JJ: You brought up the Jewish establishment, so I have to ask you about Peter Beinart.
DS: I knew you were going to ask me about Peter Beinart.

JJ: Is there something that you usually say when people ask you about him?
DS: (Laughing) No, but I’ll say this. I think that our community prides itself on being a big tent. And lots of people say things and put forth ideas. If they do it with good intentions and civility and respect for the opinions of others, I think that we’re crazy not to encourage them.

JJ: How do you hold onto your idealism?
DS: One thing I picked up when I was in rabbinical school was the belief that there are two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah and Yerushalayim shel mata — in the rabbinical tradition, a heavenly aspirational Jerusalem and a real, actual city where people live. One day, I was walking home and I looked up at the sky when I heard the roar of a jet. There was a big airplane, which flew from the east over Jerusalem, circled the city twice, and flew back to the east. This is 1994, when you can’t do that without violating some enemy country’s airspace.

When I got home, I learned it was King Hussein of Jordan in the plane, the flight was to signal the surprise signing of the peace accords between Israel and Jordan, and Rabin had been in the control tower at the airport talking to him. At that moment, I saw the coming together of the heavenly and the actual Jerusalems. I saw what’s possible, I tasted it — we all did. I just don’t think that’s dead or over; I just think it’s a long hard road to get back there.

Poll: Little support in Israel for solo strike on Iran


A wide majority of Israelis either oppose an Israeli strike on Iran or would favor an attack only if it was carried out with U.S. agreement, an opinion poll showed on Thursday.

The survey by the University of Maryland and the Israeli Dahaf Institute was released before talks next week between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama on Iran’s nuclear program.

The poll found that 34 percent of the 500 people surveyed believed that Israel should not strike Iran and 42 percent said it should attack only if the United States backed the decision.

Only 19 percent believed Israel should attack even without the support of Washington, which said on Wednesday that diplomacy and increased sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions have time to work.

Netanyahu and Obama are to meet at the White House on Monday amid U.S. concern that Israel, which has cautioned that time is running out for effective military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could attack them.

Though both Israel and the United States have not ruled out the use of military force against Iran, U.S. officials have said such action would be premature and could destabilize the Middle East.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, not to build a weapon. Israel, widely believed to be the region’s only atomic power, has said a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence.

Writing by Maayan Lubell

Newt’s bombshell


“The Palestinian people does not exist,” exclaimed the politician. The audacity of the statement shocked me, because it came from the mouth of Zahir Muhsein, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee, in a 1977 interview with a Dutch newspaper.

“The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity,” Muhsein continued. “In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese.”

When Republican candidate Newt Gingrich made similar remarks last week, calling the Palestinians an “invented people,” it caused a major uproar. Gingrich didn’t go as far as Muhsein — who claimed that the very reason for “inventing” the Palestinians was to wage war on Israel — but Gingrich still dropped the kind of bomb you rarely hear in polite company.

The real question is, so what? So what if the Palestinians are an invented people who keep fudging their narrative to make us believe their cause is as old as God? So what if they keep undermining the Israeli narrative to make us believe that the Jewish connection to the holy land is only as old as the Holocaust?

The point is, don’t we still need to make peace with them?

As my friends on the left argue: “The facts of history are not as important as the reality. The Palestinians are here to stay, and we must deal with this reality.”

For the past 20 years, this reality has been driven by one idea: Israel must reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians, or it will be forced one day to choose between being Jewish or being democratic — an impossible choice.

This scenario has created a virtual obsession with getting an agreement. Infused with pragmatism, peace seekers from the left and the right have generally ignored the importance of history and downplayed “inconvenient truths” such as a chronic inability on the Palestinian side to make peace with a Jewish state.

But pragmatism could get us only so far. The more concessions Israel made for peace, the further it got from an agreement. And the further it got from an agreement, the more pressure it got to make more concessions.

So, what went wrong?

In terms of the dynamics of negotiations, here’s my theory: When you allow the other side to undermine your narrative and to distort their own, you corrode the very process of negotiations. No amount of pragmatism can offset this corrosion.

Just look, for example, at the distorted narrative that Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) were “stolen from the Palestinian people.”

This kills any incentive for the Palestinians to make concessions. Why? Because if you believe something was stolen from you, what is there to negotiate? A thief must return what he stole — no questions asked. And if you’re the thief who must return the land, what “concessions” can you offer that would have any value?

Had Israel and its supporters clearly established the Jewish state’s historical claim to Judea and Samaria, this would have given real value to any Israeli concession regarding that land. Israel would be giving up land for the sake of peace, not giving back land because it is stolen.

Similarly, had Israel and its supporters clearly established the historical fact that the movement for a Palestinian state was a modern “invention” that began in earnest after the Israeli capture of Judea and Samaria in 1967 — and that the “Palestinian people” never asked for their “freedom” during the previous 19 years, when they were “occupied” by Jordan — this would have given real value to Israel’s concession of recognizing the very existence and nationalist rights of a Palestinian people.

Also, had Israel and its supporters pushed back against the Palestinian lies that undermine the 3,000-year Jewish connection to the holy land — and shown that they were deeply offended by these lies — they would have laid the foundations for mutual respect and improved the prospects for mutual reconciliation.

Instead, Israel chose to abandon history and focus on security, thus leaving the emotional high ground of historical justice to an enemy who has worked tirelessly to delegitimize the Zionist enterprise.

It’s noble to say, “Let bygones be bygones,” and, “Let’s put history behind us,” but that only works if both sides do it. If your rival uses distorted history as a weapon to undermine you, you must push back and assert your own narrative and your own rights; otherwise, all hope for mutual respect crumbles.

It’s also easy to say, “Each side has its own narrative, and they are equally valid,” but as Shlomo Avineri recently pointed out in Haaretz, it’s important to distinguish between narrative and historical truth. 

When Gingrich had the audacity last week to challenge the Palestinian narrative with historical truth, he got skewered for being out of touch with reality. But what reality are we talking about? The reality of a peace process that is virtually dead and of a Palestinian society that has so little respect for the Jewish connection to the holy land?

You can skewer Gingrich all you want, but as The Journal’s new senior political editor, Shmuel Rosner, acknowledged on his blog, Rosner’s Domain, at least Gingrich got his “facts right.” And facts do matter.

Maybe the most practical thing we can do at this stage of the peace process is begin a debate that will hold all sides accountable for blatant lies and distortions.

If the peace process hasn’t set us free, maybe the truth will.

Sarkozy meets French Jewish leaders over Israel support


French president Nicolas Sarkozy met with leaders of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF to reassure them of his support for Israel.

The meeting comes following reports that Sarkozy called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” during a conversation with President Obama at the G20 conference earlier this month.

Sarkozy “responded to a lot of our concerns,” said Francis Kalifat, CRIF treasurer, who attended the intimate lunch that also included CRIF President Richard Prasquier, and France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, among others.

Those concerns include Israel’s security, France’s recent vote in favor of Palestinian UNESCO membership, and also reports of a private conversation between Sarkozy and Barack Obama, in which journalists overheard Sarkozy calling Netanyahu a “liar.”

“The President reaffirmed his friendship and support for the state of Israel from the very beginning of our conversation. He wanted to remind us that throughout his political career, he has had a profound attachment to Israel,” said Kalifat.  Sarkozy also spoke of his “strong, long relationship and friendship with Netanyahu and his family,” and “expressed his firm desire to move beyond the misunderstanding following an off-record conversation.”

Kalifat said Sarkozy gave the group “certain explanations,” for the recent conversation with Obama, in which both leaders didn’t realize they were speaking into microphones that were turned on, allowing several journalists to hear three minutes of the conversation in an adjoining room. But Sarkozy asked that the group do not repeat that explanation. Sarkozy has said his words were taken out of context.

“We told him about our questions and preoccupations, notably concerning France’s UNESCO vote, and we talked about the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership,” said Kalifat, who explained that French Jews were especially worried about the status of Jewish cultural sites on Palestinian territory, which they hope will remain accessible, and “not transformed into mosques.”

The French president, “said in a firm manner, that there was no question France would accept that kind of thing,” said Kalifat.  “They would do everything to block any downplaying of the Jewish presence and characteristic” of cultural sites, such as Rachel’s tomb.

Concerning a Palestinian bid for U.N. membership, Sarkozy said France would only support the idea of a “non-member observer state” status for the territories, but under strict conditions that included Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a return to bilateral negotiations without preconditions, recognition of Israel’s security requirements, and a promise not to submit lawsuits against Israel in international courts.

Polls show strong U.S. support for Israel


Two new polls show a majority of Americans have favorable views of Israel.

A survey by the Anti-Defamation League, which it commissions every two years, found that 49 percent of those polled have greater sympathy for Israel than for the Palestinians, a slight increase from the 45 percent figure reported in the previous survey. Only 18 percent favored the Palestinians.

A similar figure was reported in a separate survey commissioned by the pro-Israel media group The Israel Project. That survey found that 60 percent of respondents believed the United States should favor or strongly favor Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. The figure was even higher — 67 percent — among so-called “opinion elite,” a designation based on a respondent’s engagement with foreign policy issues, education and income.

Both surveys were released Nov. 10.

The ADL survey, conducted by Martilla Strategies, polled 1,754 adults in mid-October and has a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percent. The Israel Project survey was performed by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and polled 800 registered voters over four days ending Nov. 2. Its margin of error is +/- 3.5 percent.

Baby’s parents looking for hope, help and a miracle


Baby Leah tenses and contorts in her crib at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. A visit to her in the room requires suiting up in a gown, gloves and mask to ensure she doesn’t become sick in her fragile state. Zev and Frani Esquenazi’s little girl, who is named for Princess Leia from the “Star Wars” films, has received multiple spinal taps, MRIs and EEGs, and is breathing through her trachea. Her movements are erratic.

After employing the expertise of more than 40 doctors and a round-the-clock nurse service, the Esquenazis are no closer to solving the mystery of Leah’s illness than they were when she was admitted to the hospital months ago.

Leah has outlasted many dark predictions.

“On Frani’s first Mother’s Day, the doctor told her that the baby was probably not going to make it,” Zev Esquenazi said. “That was the gift she got on Mother’s Day. And, of course, she outlasted the doctor’s [prediction].”

Housing Leah in one of the best hospitals in the country is essential to her survival, but it’s not cheap. Zev Esquenazi said a social worker said the medical bills are hovering around $2 million so far. In order to be with their daughter at all times, the Esquenazis have stepped away from their jobs temporarily. Friends and strangers alike have come to their aid. In this case, their love of “Star Wars” is on their side.

Zev is a member of the 501st Legion, a worldwide organization for “Star Wars” costume enthusiasts. When Leah first became sick, he told the story to his fellow Facebook friends and “Star Wars” fans. Without asking, the 501st Legion began organizing and raising money.

A Facebook group called “May the Force Be With Princess Leah” was created and now has nearly 4,000 fans. A close friend and prop builder, Jason Watson, created a donation page for the family, which Zev Esquenazi said has been invaluable. “Star Wars” stars, such as actor Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Lucasfilm marketing head Steve Sansweet and “Clone Wars” voice actor Stephen Stanton have helped get the word out. Donations of props and memorabilia from Mayhew, Stanton and other supporters have been auctioned off in support of the Esquenazis. In less than 30 days, Zev said, more than $30,000 has been raised for the family. Chai Lifeline also helped with rent and food when the family needed it the most.

“Really, if it wasn’t for them coming to our aid, we would literally be out on the street,” Zev said.

Story continues after the jump.

Donations help pay for food, gas and the large insurance deductibles that the couple has been struggling to cover since Leah became sick. What’s more difficult is the unknown nature of Leah’s illness. The Esquenazis have applied for aid from organizations such as California Children’s Services but have had little success.

“That’s the other issue that we’ve been having: that you have these organizations that help kids with cancer or help kids that have (muscular dystrophy) or Parkinson’s,” Zev said. “But because she is not officially diagnosed with anything, we can’t get the help that we need.”

One doctor at UCLA speculates that between 10 and 20 percent of such neurological illnesses go undiagnosed. Frani Esquenazi said she hopes Leah can inspire and raise awareness about situations similar to hers.

“People don’t know that so many kids go through this until you go through it with your kid,” Frani said. “You feel like the only person this is happening to, but there are so many families out there.”

George Lucas’ Princess Leia asked for help from her only hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi. But the Esquenazis’ 5-month-old Princess Leah in the pediatric intensive care unit needs the help of more than just one person. Support from around the world has poured in for Leah and the Esquenazis, but more is needed.

To read updates from the family about Leah, visit princessleahdiaries.blogspot.com. Donations through PayPal can be made directly to the family through the page. To avoid PayPal fees, donors can also send checks to the address on the blog. Supporters can also like the Facebook group “May the Force Be With Princess Leah.” Monetary donations help a lot, but Zev Esquenazi said he doesn’t want supporters to feel like they need to donate money.

“For me, hope and prayers are just as important as money,” he said.

Obama support among Jewish voters stands at 60 percent


President Obama’s job approval rating among Jewish voters remained at 60 percent, but his favorability ratings easily outdistanced leading Republicans, a poll showed.

The ratings for Obama, in a poll commissioned by the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, was consistent with recent polling. The numbers were significantly below the approval in the low 80s that Obama had earned among Jews just after he was elected in November 2008, but also about 14 percent higher than general approval ratings.

J Street’s poll showed Jewish voters virtually split on his handling of the economy, with 51 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving, and also showed them disapproving of his handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict, 56-44 percent.

Judged against the two frontrunners for the GOP nomination, Obama beat Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 63-24 percent, and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), 67-19 percent. Obama had scored 78 percent among Jewish voters against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008; J Street noted in an analysis that the recent poll numbers were close to the 62-32 Obama vs. McCain split in its July 2008 poll.

The poll also assessed favorability, or a respondent’s warmth toward a figure, as opposed to job approval. Obama scored 56 percent in favorability ratings, while Romney scored 16, Bachmann 12, former President George W. Bush 16, the Tea Party movement 12 and conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck 10. The Democratic Party scored 49 percent and the Republican Party had 18.

The poll also showed strong support for J Street participation in mainstream Jewish community events.

Asked “Do you think Jewish community organizations such as local Jewish Federations and JCCs should allow or not allow J Street to participate in events sponsored by Jewish community organizations?,” 77 percent said J Street should be allowed.

The results were similar even among Jews who belong to synagogues, who tend to tack more conservative: 74 percent said J Street should be allowed to participate.

A number of synagogues and Jewish community centers have banned J Street events after protests from right-wing groups who describe J Street as anti-Israel for its policy of advocating U.S. pressure on Israel to end settlement building and for its criticisms of Israel during recent conflicts with the Palestinians.

The poll of 800 respondents was conducted by GBA Strategies through a web panel from July 7 to 12. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.

Obama’s Middle East speech draws ire and support [VIDEO]


In his speech at the State Department on Thursday, President Barack Obama addressed the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East and put forward Israel’s pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations that would yield a future Palestinian state.

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set to meet with Obama in Washington on Friday, released a statement disputing most of what Obama said about the Israel-Palestinian situation,  the immediate reaction among American Jewish leaders and Israel-related organizations to the speech was mixed. Groups on the left applauded the president’s outline while hoping for further action. Some right-leaning organizations expressed surprise and disappointment at the president’s promotion of the pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations—even as they praised Obama’s clear opposition to the Palestinian plan to seek a declaration of statehood along those same borders from the United Nations’ General Assembly in September.

The pro-peace advocacy group J Street, which was founded to push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, applauded the president’s speech. “The overall tone and overall framing of the current urgency of the situation we were very, very pleased with,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in an interview.

The plan that Obama outlined would treat the 1967 borders as a basic outline for a Palestinian state, and calls for mutually agreeable land swaps to achieve both security for Israel and a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state. “That’s exactly the approach that J Street called for in December,” Ben-Ami said.

In an advertisement that appeared in Israeli papers this week, 18 Israeli generals, 5 former ambassadors and many others signed a similarly themed statement. “Recognizing a Palestinian State Based On the 1967 Borders is Vital for Israel’s Existence,” the English version of the ad read. With the help of $65,000 raised from over 1,000 donors, J Street reprinted the ad in the New York Times on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu called the 1967 lines “indefensible,” and many American Jewish organizations echoed Netanyahu’s assessment in their remarks.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, called the plan a return to “1967 Auschwitz Borders,” and took strong issue with Obama’s call for basing negotiations on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Hier called such a possibility, while Hamas shares power in the Palestinian territories, living in a “fantasy world.”

“We have all these diplomats all around the world trying to force Israel into a deal with Hamas, when Hamas this very day and this very week has made clear they will never, ever recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel. So who are we kidding?”

Hier said the Auschwitz reference came from a 1969 statement by Abba Eban, then foreign minister of Israel. Eban told Der Spiegel: “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.”

“I don’t like to use the Auschwitz terminology, I don’t like to make that comparison,” Hier said. “I use it here to point out that Israel’s borders have to be defensible.”

Story continues after the jump.

Video courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov

Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University, called the Auschwitz reference a “cheap and offensive trivialization.” Berenbaum said he is a good friend of Hier’s and respects him, but emphasized Hier “knows better.”

“The entire modern Jewish history since the Holocaust has been toward the empowerment of the Jewish people. And if we are to perceive even for a moment that we are as disempowered as the Jews were at Auschwitz, we are denying all of our post-1945 Jewish history, and that is an insult to everything the Jewish community has achieved in terms of military, political and economic power,” Berenbaum said.

“Answer one question,” Berenbaum added. “How many tanks did Jews have at Auschwitz? How many planes? Missiles, bombs, troops?”

Bnai B’rith International also issued a statement commending the speech while expressing concern at the President’s reliance on pre-1967 borders, but other Jewish organizations did not share those reservations.

“We support the President’s vision of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement with strong security provisions for Israel, and a non-militarized Palestinian state,” read a statement issued by Robert G. Sugarman, ADL National Chair, and Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “We appreciate his direct rejection of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and his understanding that the Hamas-Fatah agreement poses major problems for Israel.”

The ADL statement commended Obama’s affirmation of the moral and strategic connections between Israel and the United States, and said the speech was a welcome measure of Obama’s Israel barometer.

“This Administration has come a long way in two years in terms of understanding of the nuances involved in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace and a better understanding of the realities and challenges confronting Israel.” Almost exactly two years ago, Obama made his first speech, in Cairo, on the Middle East, which was seen as an overture to the Muslim world, but enraged many supporters of Israel.

The Israel Project, a pro-Israel education organization which has called the Palestinian plan to unilaterally seek recognition of a state on the 1967 borders in the United Nations’ General Assembly in September “a clear attempt to delegitimize and attack Israel,” found much that was praiseworthy in Obama’s speech.

“He told Palestinians that they should return to negotiations rather than seek empty declarations at the U.N. that will gain them nothing. That is an important marker that the United States will oppose that effort,” Israel Project Senior Director Alan Elsner said.

Elsner also expressed appreciation for Obama’s assessment of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and which recently entered into a unity government with the Fatah faction that controls parts of the West Bank. “President Obama’s recognition that Israel should not be expected to negotiate with an organization dedicated to its destruction was constructive,” Elsner said.

There was disagreement among American Jewish political leaders about whether the president’s speech put the onus for future action on the Israelis or on the Palestinians.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, said that the president’s speech “undermines our special relationship with Israel and weakens our ally’s ability to defend itself.”

“By keeping the burden and thus the spotlight on Israel, the President is only giving the Palestinian Authority more incentive to carry on its unhelpful game of sidestepping negotiations and failing to put an end to terrorism,” Cantor said in an emailed statement. “Creating another Palestinian terror state on Israel’s borders is something that none of us want.”

California Congressman Howard Berman, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, came to the exact opposite conclusion. He said the president’s speech “puts the ball squarely in the Palestinian court.”

“The Palestinians must resolve their Hamas problem once and for all: either jettison Hamas or do the seemingly impossible and change them into a respectable, anti-violence organization that recognizes Israel and accepts all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements as the basis for going forward,” Berman said in a statement. “The Palestinians must show they’re serious about peace-making. That means no games at the UN, no partnership with terrorists, no threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, and no boycott of negotiations. When the current phase of Palestinian posturing ends, we can begin to address some of the serious issues the President and others have raised.”

For its part, Americans for Peace Now put a statement on it Web site from the group’s President and CEO Debra DeLee welcoming Obama’s “pragmatic” approach to the recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. 

“It is indeed incumbent on the Palestinians to provide a credible answer to those who suggest that Israel cannot negotiate peace with a unity government. As we have long argued, any Palestinian government should be judged by its actions and positions, not it composition,” DeLee said.

While many felt the president didn’t say much that was new regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what was significant was that he laid out policies and motivations clearly.

“It’s an important shift in the articulation of American foreign policy, which has rested on the belief that the 1967 border is the basis for a two-state solution, but has not been formally declared in this explicit fashion,” said David Myers, chairman of UCLA’s history department. “At the same time, it must be noted that every serious peace proposal rests on this very proposition, so it is not new in that regard. Moreover, it is not clear whether it will make any difference unless the President makes clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that it’s no longer possible to sit on his hands and do nothing.”

Obama’s speech urged the Israelis and Palestinians to solve territorial and security issues first, even though the “wrenching and emotional” disputes over the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees remained unresolved.

Netanyahu took issue with this, saying that the U.S., under President George W. Bush,  had committed in 2004 to a solution that would “ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel.”

“Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel,” Netanyahu’s statement said, “no territorial concession will bring peace.”

Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said he believes the speech was addressed not toward the Middle East, but toward the Washington establishment that needs to understand “we are working against the clock.”

“His message was that America needs to understand the moment in history that we are all witnessing in the Mideast,” Al-Marayati said, “and unless we catch up with where events are taking the region, we are going to be left out in terms of being of any relevance in the region,” Al-Marayati said. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is “probably going to be one of the last things resolved or addressed vis a vis the Arab Spring,” he continued. “As we see more dictators being toppled, there is going to be more of a desire by the people of the regions to see a resolution to [the conflict with Israel], and the United States and the Israeli government are both going to be faced with difficult decisions.”

The Arab Spring has proven that the power lies with the people, Al-Marayati said, and he believes “the will of the people has been determined—to have change without resorting to political violence. And anyone that continues to use ideological violence as an instrument of change in time will also be irrelevant.”

That is why he believes Hamas will be marginalized “unless they come to grips with reality – a two-state solution,” Al-Marayati said.

Obama’s will speak at the annual AIPAC conference next week, where he is likely reveal more details about how he will back up the policies he articulated Thursday at the State Department.

Argentinian Cabinet head expresses Israel support


The head of the Argentina cabinet expressed support for Israel during a Holocaust Memorial Day program.

Anibal Fernandez, one of the main spokesmen for President Cristina Fernandez, spoke Monday before a crowd of nearly 2,000 at an event in Buenos Aires organized by DAIA, the umbrella organization for Argentinian Jewish institutions.

Fernandez cited the anthem of Jewish partisans from the Vilna ghetto during World War II in expressing his support for Israel and its right to exist.

Obama relays condolences to Netanyahu, pledges support


President Obama conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his condolences over recent terrorist attacks and reaffirmed “unwavering” commitment to Israel’s security.

“President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today to convey his condolences over the terrorist attack in Jerusalem yesterday, which killed one person and wounded many others, and to express his concern about the recent rocket and mortar attacks against Israel from Gaza,” a White House statement said on Thursday. “The President reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”

The statement said Netanyahu “appreciated” the call and that the leaders “agreed to remain in close touch on a range of regional security issues.”

Israel has been seeking American reassurances in the wake of a wave of uprisings in the Arab world.

Robert Gates, the defense secretary, on Thursday met with Ehud Barak, his Israeli counterpart, and said advancing peace talks with the Palestinians was more critical than ever because of regional turmoil.

“The Israelis have a very deep strategic interest in getting out in front of the wave of populism that’s sweeping the region,” Reuters quoted a senior U.S. defense official as saying.

[UPDATE] Iranians demonstrate in support of Egypt


One protester was killed and dozens were injured as thousands of Iranians demonstrated in support of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Dozens of opposition protesters were arrested in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, and Iranian security forces fired tear gas at protesters marching in central Tehran toward Freedom Square on Monday, Reuters reported.

Iranian officials banned rallies in support of Egypt. Opposition leaders reportedly had planned such rallies after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in public remarks that the Egyptian reformists had taken a page from Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 in toppling a monarchy supported by the West.

Also Monday, anti-government protesters demonstrated in the streets of Yemen and Bahrain. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed the Iranian protestors, telling reporters Monday in Washington that they “deserve to have the same rights that they saw being played out in Egypt and are part of their own birthright.”

The European Jewish Congress called on European leaders to press unequivocally for democracy and freedom for the Iranian people and express concern about the situation in Iran.

EJC President Dr. Moshe Kantor called on European leaders to issue similar responses that were released during the recent demonstrations in the Arab world.

“In the spirit of the ongoing fight for democracy in the region, it is vital that the European leaders do not suddenly fall silent when they are needed the most,” Kantor said. “As Europeans we should fully support those who fight for freedoms that we take for granted.”

Federations to dole out $2.4 million in fire aid


The Jewish Federations of North America said the federation system will distribute $2.4 million to help Israel recover from the Carmel Mountain fire.

JFNA, the umbrella organization of the more than 150 Jewish federations in North America, made the announcement Monday.

The fires last week killed 44 people, scorched more than 10,000 acres of forest and burned 100 homes and structures, including much of the Yemin Orde Youth Village.

JFNA, said it will allocate $550,000 to the system’s partners on the ground in Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel Trauma Coalition. The umbrella group deployed an initial round of $340,000 on Monday for immediate relief efforts.

It is unclear how much of the $2.4 million was raised from individual donors responding to the fire and how much is coming from the reserves of individual federations. The response campaign received an early boost when the JUF-Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago pledged $500,000 of its own money just after the fire broke out two weeks ago.

The initial money will help pay for activities during the wildfires, such as relief for evacuees, respite activities for youth, and trauma relief and professional support. These programs included the Jewish Agency for Israel’s respite day camps for 4,700 children from the Carmel Forest region; and Israel Trauma Coalition’s direct care of bereaved and injured families and first responders.

JFNA has set up a special Carmel Wildfire Allocations Committee that will research program proposals to address mid- and long-term needs created by the fire, such as programs of the JDC, Jewish Agency and the Israel Trauma Coalition, and will announce additional allocations based on those needs in the near future.

Jewish Dems press AIPAC on START


Top Jewish Democratic senators are pressing AIPAC to back the new START arms reduction treaty with Russia.

Four Jewish groups already back Senate ratification of the treaty as a means of cajoling Russia into isolating Iran. Another has suggested that it could prove helpful, and one group opposes it.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee rarely backs such initiatives publicly, but what’s been notable in this case is that it has not taken a position behind the scenes either.

The treaty is “an opportunity to improve relations with Russia, a nation that has provided considerable support for U.S.-led efforts to pressure Iran,” Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) wrote AIPAC director Howard Kohr in a letter Tuesday that was obtained and published by Politico. “Last spring, Russia voted in favor of the U.N. Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Iran. This fall, Russian President Medvedev agreed not to fulfill a previously agreed-upon sale of air defense missiles to Iran.”

Schumer has ambitions of becoming his party’s leader in the Senate; Levin chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The decision by a handful of GOP senators to block START came after the election, in which the Democrats lost the U.S. House of Representatives to the Republicans.

The Obama administration noted that the treaty had been approved in committee, with GOP support, and accused the party of political gamesmanship.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, has blasted the GOP senators for blocking it, saying it undercuts his dealings with his Russian counterparts.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has led the opposition, says that upon review the treaty lacks sufficient verification mechanisms and would unnecessarily reduce the U.S. profile in Europe.

The White House reportedly has pressured Jewish groups into lobbying for the treaty.

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Council on World Jewry, the National Jewish Democratic Council and J Street have backed ratification. B’nai B’rith International has said it would be worthwhile if it helps isolate Iran.

The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs on Monday vigorously opposed it, saying “there is no reason why the United States should be required to sacrifice its own defense capabilities to inspire Russia to a greater degree of diplomatic fortitude. If Russia is indeed concerned with a nuclear-armed Iran to its immediate south, it should need no extra incentive to take the action necessary to stop it.”

President Obama on Tuesday met with Republican senators, and after the meeting a number of the GOP senators said they were shifting toward some support.

Jews’ view of the pot initiative? Mixed


Marijuana is everywhere. Smokers come from every walk of life — from the college student to the cancer patient, from the wealthy older couple to the heroin addict who started out just smoking weed.

Jews care about this issue because Jews, like every other group, can be found among those who use, who dispense, who grow, and also those who disdain this all-pervasive drug. In fact, the halachah of pot is not entirely clear.

The Talmud states that the law of the land is the law. But when it comes to pot, what does that mean? State and federal rules on marijuana are rapidly changing. California has legalized medical use and decriminalized recreational possession of small amounts, but many smokers still rely on the black market. And marijuana remains completely illegal under federal law, although enforcement is inconsistent.  Now, Californians face Proposition 19 on the Nov. 2 ballot, a measure that would allow possession, purchase and taxation of marijuana for adult recreational use.

The Jewish perspective on pot is ambivalent, and observant Jews could plausibly take either side of Proposition 19, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of ethics and Jewish law and rector at the American Jewish University. On one hand, Judaism “is very insistent on responsibility for our actions,” Dorff said, meaning that becoming extremely intoxicated on any substance is forbidden. Any drug that harms the body is also forbidden because “in the Jewish tradition, God owns our bodies, and we have a fiduciary relationship to take care of [ourselves],” Dorff said.

On the other hand, marijuana may be more akin to alcohol — a drug that observant Jews may take in moderation — rather than tobacco, which the Jewish tradition frowns upon as dangerous and highly addictive, Dorff said. Where marijuana falls on that sliding scale is an “empirical question,” he added, and the answer may affect how Jews vote on Proposition 19. Schools, synagogues, drug control experts and law enforcement all have a role to play in providing that answer and determining the boundary between the law and making a responsible individual choice.

Cities Rule

The most distinguishing feature of Proposition 19 is how much authority it delegates to cities. Possession of up to 1 ounce would be legal statewide, but California already has made possession of that amount an infraction on par with a speeding ticket. The real meat of Proposition 19 is that cities would become free to make their own rules on regulating and taxing the commercial sale of marijuana to adults over the age of 21. 

“I think they’re trying to make sure cities can opt out, like with liquor stores [or] medical marijuana dispensaries,” said Kyle Kazan, a former Torrance police officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which supports the measure. “You can zone it away.”

Story continues after the jump.

Opponents, however, see the delegation of authority to cities as a “legal nightmare,” which has become one of the catch phrases of the No on 19 campaign.  “You’re going to have 550 different versions of this law, city by city,” said Rodney Jones, chief of the Fontana Police Department and a Proposition 19 opponent. County sheriffs will have a particular problem, Jones said, because they cross city lines and will be responsible for enforcing small differences in rules on marijuana.

But Kazan said police already handle similar complexity in enforcing various city ordinances on the sale of liquor.  And if the initiative had set a single rule for marijuana sales statewide, supporters worry that “the other side would say, ‘How dare they have a one-size-fits-all solution?’ ” said Hanna Liebman Dershowitz, an attorney and member of the legal committee of Yes on 19.

The Case for Talking to Kids

Even if only a few cities authorize sales, both sides agree that Proposition 19 almost certainly would increase overall use of marijuana in California.  It would be more widely available in stores than it is on the black market now, and it would not be stigmatized as illegal. And unless governments levy huge taxes, it would also likely be much cheaper. The real debate is whether the inevitable increase in use will be more harmful than the status quo.

Drug war veterans have long argued that marijuana physically damages the brain and other organs, but the data on that are inconclusive. “ ‘Reefer Madness’ isn’t true,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama. “The [idea that] everyone who picks up a joint has their life ruined is absurd,” he said. 

But that doesn’t mean marijuana is harmless, Humphreys said. “I don’t deny that some people use marijuana and they’re fine, but if a million people pick up regular marijuana use, probably at least 10 to 20 percent will have significantly adverse experiences in life, maybe do badly in school, maybe get in a car accident.” Legal marijuana would be particularly harmful to high school students who are already on the verge of flunking out, he said.

Nobody knows exactly how much usage will increase, but Humphreys predicts the state could add anywhere from 1 million to 3 million new smokers. Vulnerable groups, such as teens and the poor, are particularly likely to smoke more, he said, because they have less disposable income and will be more attracted by the lower price.

Jason Ablin, head of school at Milken Community High School, has worked with high-school students for 20 years, but he’s not convinced that the status quo of criminalization is an effective deterrent, either.

“I think if kids are going to use drugs and alcohol, they’re going to find ways to acquire them — they do it with alcohol already,” Ablin said. “We have a lot of double standards with marijuana use. The association with marijuana is counter-culture, so that becomes a lot more damning than, say, alcohol,” he said.

For Dershowitz, that association is patently unfair. “As we look inward [following] Yom Kippur and the New Year, we also need to look outward to reflect on our actions as a society,” she said. Dershowitz is particularly troubled by the social and legal stigmas that follow a young person who is busted by law enforcement for marijuana, even now that the penalties have been reduced. “We should abhor a system that erases other people’s chances to turn toward the good simply because they’ve chosen an action that we singled out for disdain.”

Instead of focusing on heavy-handed scare tactics and criminalization, Ablin prefers to engage kids in a broader public policy discussion about the way society treats drugs in general. “Because I work in schools, I have a lot more confidence in kids to critically think through problems,” Ablin said. “You’re not getting anywhere with kids by talking at them. [You’ll do] much better work by listening to them.”

Jewish support of Obama is dropping, AJC survey finds


Jewish approval of President Obama is dropping, a new national survey found.

Some 49 percent of U.S. Jews approved of the Obama administration’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, according to a just-completed American Jewish Committee survey, and 45 percent disapproved.

An AJC survey conducted in March gave Obama a 55 percent approval rating to 37 percent disapproval.

It was the first time the AJC commissioned two surveys in the same calendar year.

In contrast, the view of how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is handling U.S.-Israel relations has improved. Some 62 percent of American Jews approved and 27 percent disapproved, according to the new survey. In March, 57 percent approved and 30 percent disapproved.

Overall approval of Obama’s performance as president dropped to 51 percent, from 57 percent in March. Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the presidential election two years ago.

American Jewish confidence in Obama’s approach to Iran also has fallen, with 43 percent approving of the administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue compared to 47 percent in March. Some 46 percent disapproved, up from 42 percent. Some 59 percent supported and 35 percent opposed U.S. military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Some 70 percent supported and some 26 opposed Israeli military action.

A series of questions regarding the Arab-Israeli peace process yielded results similar to previous surveys, showing continuity in American Jewish views of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and West Bank settlements.

Like the March results, the new survey found that 48 percent favored and 45 percent opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Regarding the dismantling of West Bank settlements as part of a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, 6 percent said all should be evacuated, while 56 percent said some should and 37 percent said none should be dismantled.

A majority of American Jews, 60 percent, continued to support a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while 35 percent said Israel should compromise on the city’s status in a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

American Jews remained nearly unanimous, at 95 percent, in supporting a proposal requiring Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in a final peace agreement. In March and in 2009, the figure was 94 percent.

Jews Should Oppose Universal Health Care


In part of an ongoing debate on health care reform, JewishJournal.com is hosting this dialogue on the pros and cons of universal health care.

Related: Why we must support universal health care

From BeliefNet.com:

In the always lively Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes in a cover essay that “support for universal health care is an imperative in Jewish law.” Is it now? On health care reform, Rabbi Dorff has his classical sources all lined up—most having to do with obligations on the community to rescue its needy, the captive, and those otherwise endangered. The communal court system can compel a person to give charity in support of the poor. Proper medical services are a necessity in a Jewish community. And so on. Whether through socialized medicine or government health insurance, something must be done: the fact of there being 40 million uninsured Americans is “intolerable.”

Do you notice how many times the words “community” or “communal” appear in the foregoing paragraph? Rabbi Dorff is chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of Conservative (i.e., liberal) Judaism. He knows that Jewish laws of the kind he cites are specifically communal laws. They were never envisioned as applying en masse to a non-Jewish country of 300 million people. Liberal Jewish analysts often lose sight of this simple fact. So too in the abortion debate where, simply put, Jewish law for Jews is more liberal on abortion than Jewish law for Gentiles. We are more protective of the unborn non-Jewish life. In Torah, there are separate legal tracks—the Mosaic and the Noachide, for Jewish and Gentile communities respectively. Yet liberal Jews invariably cite Jewish abortion law, not the Gentile one which makes abortion a death penalty offense. They forget that we live in a non-Jewish country.

Read the full story at BeliefNet.com.

The CNN-NPR-NY Times Middle East Conspiracy


Have you noticed that when people complain about bias in the media, it’s always bias against their own point of view and never bias in favor of their side?

When press accounts confirm your interpretation of events, they’re fair, accurate and objective. When the upshot of a news story is that your team is the bad guys and the other team is the good guys, it’s obvious that the reporter or paper or network or corporation is in the tank for the other side. And when articles and broadcasts balance ammo for your side with ammo for the other side, they’re guilty of the fallacy of false equivalence, which turns righteous battles between right and wrong into vapid he-said/she-said standoffs.

Nowhere is this more true than in coverage of the Middle East.

Supporters of Israel are furious that when pictures of Palestinian casualties are shown, the causes and context of the war are left out—Hamas’ rocket attacks on southern Israel, which precipitated the attack on Gaza; its cynical use of civilians as human shields, which is a war crime; its intention to destroy Israel and Jewry, which amounts to genocide—all get scandalously short shrift from the press.

Supporters of Hamas are just as enraged about the inhumane living conditions in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded; the Israeli refusal to allow the international press into the battle zone; what they believe is the original sin of Zionism, the displacement of Arabs, and that when Israel is portrayed as a victim, the suffering of the Palestinian people is conveniently omitted.

And what if you’re not a partisan of either side, but think of yourself instead as an independent advocate for human rights and peace? Then not only will you bring down on yourself the opprobrium of both sides for failing to take a stand at a moment that demands a choice, you will also find in the prevailing media narrative no hook to hang your conciliatory analysis on, no peg for your empyrean perspective, no patience for your it’s-all-so-complicated heartsickness.

Any news story can be successfully picked apart from any vantage point. Why does the Los Angeles Times disparage the Israeli point of view as ““>anonymous mitigating hearsay about a Hamas sniper? Why aren’t the networks airing the “>Israeli scholar’s assertion that Palestinian casualties aren’t excessive because “so far well over three-quarters have been armed gunmen, and that is a percentage which is very rarely attained in urban warfare”?

In fact, two reasons make it really hard to conclude (but not to claim) that a mainstream media outlet is biased—on the Middle East or on anything else. And a third reason makes the whole enterprise of watchdogging the press somewhat quixotic.

One is the sheer quantity of content. The stories and pictures you saw may be plenty to convince you, say, that the Associated Press is unfair to Israel, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The only way to determine anything defensible about bias in reporting is to analyze a scientific sample—to examine a slice of stories that’s large enough to be representative of all stories and to choose that slice randomly, without knowing what’s going to be in it.

Some people may feel that they watch CNN so much or read The New York Times so regularly that they have plenty of data to base conclusions on. Not so. That’s why pollsters are paid big bucks: The methods they use to construct the universe of people they survey are even more important than the questions they ask them.

Second is the difficulty of coming up with an objective measure of bias. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you can show me a journalistic scoring system that Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky can agree on, then I’d like to show you how to earn 12 percent a year in a very special investment fund.

But even if you had a scientific sample; even if you devised a neutral litmus test for bias, the strange truth is that media spin probably matters a lot less than we assume.

Yes, public opinion is an important element of public policy. Nations care what people think about them. But the audience for cable news is astonishingly small, maybe 2 million people on a good day; the daily readership of a prestige newspaper is hardly more than that, and the only way that public radio can claim north of 20 million listeners is to count all the people who listened to any of its programs during a week.

Sure, the Internet has surged as a source of news, but its audience is fragmented into niches. If you want to get really depressed, chew on this: For decades, Americans have said that their number one source for news is local television news. Not only is that audience scattered among a thousand stations in a couple of hundred media markets, the amount of attention those stations give to international news is a tiny fraction of the airtime they give to celebrities, freak accidents and crime.

There’s no question that some elite media set the agenda for much of the rest of the press. And some nonnews programming, like talk radio hotheads, get demonstrably big listenerships. But it’s next to impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relation between these bloviators and public opinion, and the same is true of the impact of the mainstream press on public attitudes and beliefs. In the end, why Americans think what they do about Israel and Hamas is as much a mystery as how they decide who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy.

I get just as steamed as anyone else when I see a Middle East news story that I think is wildly unfair. I’m just unwilling to ascribe it to a conspiracy or to think it matters as much as the frustration and fury I feel.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Autism groups focus on needs of grandparents


When Louise Beckman mentioned Chanukah to her toddler granddaughter two years ago, the child’s repeated response was: “No presents.”

Beckman felt rejected.

Her granddaughter, who was diagnosed with autism, has improved her ability to communicate with others due to early intervention from professionals and her loving parents. But Beckman, 63, is still grappling with what it means to have a grandchild with autism.

A member of the Tustin-based Grandparent Autism Network (GAN), Beckman turned to the group for advice.

“I was told that she probably was bothered by the noise of opening gift wrapping, which is magnified by the acute hearing experienced by many on the autism spectrum,” she said. “My gifts were presented unwrapped and were received without a stressful reaction.”

Children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder typically exhibit difficulty with social interaction and communication. Many autistic children have repetitive interests and activities, attachment to objects and an aversion to changes in routines. The disorder is usually diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3 and can range from mild or high-functioning to severe in degrees of affliction.

In the 1970s, the rate for autism was 1 in 10,000. Today, one child in 150 will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to federal studies.

Far more grandparents than ever before are trying to make sense of this disorder, and services for grandparents are only just starting to gain momentum. Groups like GAN in Tustin and HaMercaz in Los Angeles are providing support and education for grandparents worried about the lives of their children and grandchildren.

When Bonnie Gillman, 66, learned that her grandson was diagnosed with autism, she decided to do more than shed tears.

In April 2006, Gillman founded GAN to educate grandparents about autism resources, as well as the medical, educational, legal and social issues that impact their families.

“Grandparents have a different perspective: Our children are focused on the challenges of their child with autism, meeting the needs of their typical children and just getting through a day without total exhaustion,” she said. “Grandparents are concerned about their children, all of their grandchildren and every future generation that may be genetically predisposed to autism.”

Gillman’s faith helped guide and motivate her to forming GAN, which currently serves more than 600 members.

“It has been instilled in me by my Jewish great-grandparents, grandparents and parents to help people,” she said. “Helping to bring resources to people with unmet needs has always been my priority.

“When I felt devastated and helpless to understand my grandson’s condition, I knew I had to make things better for our family,” she continued. “When I couldn’t find any information for grandparents and I knew that my feelings were universal, I wanted to identify resources to share with other families, as well.”

Sally Weber, director of special-needs programs at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and co-founder of HaMercaz, is also helping grandparents learn more about children with special needs.

In September, the agency offered a workshop titled, “Grandparents of Grandchildren With Special Needs Have Special Needs, Too!” at The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center. The workshop will be offered again in spring and fall 2009.

“As grandparents, we go through a range of feelings. Some of these are triggered by the child’s behavior and how the parents react to it. Grandparents are frightened and upset that their grandchild is experiencing these problems. They’re also upset that their children have to cope with these issues,” said Weber, who is a grandmother of three and a mother of a daughter with special needs.

Weber said there are a number of reasons why grandparents of special-needs children need support. In addition to providing an opportunity to normalize feelings and express hurt or angry feelings, she said it can be a safe place to use humor, a very healing emotion that in other social settings may seem less appropriate.

Weber added that some grandparents need support because they can find it difficult to talk to their friends about their grandchildren’s conditions.

“While their friends can be compassionate, they only listen so much. Eventually, their friends move on in the conversation, discussing their own grandchildren’s accomplishments. This creates a feeling of isolation for the grandparents. They find themselves in this unknown and unexpected place. They had expectations about their grandchildren and what their lives would be like. They also had expectations about how they were going to grandparent that have to be re-examined,” she said.

Organize now against oppression in Burma


We never hear much about Burma, officially known today as Myanmar, until it’s too late. Take, for example, last fall. Crimson-robed monks marched peacefully in the streets of Rangoon, making the case for democratic reforms and human rights.

The monks’ nonviolent approach and well-argued appeals were met by beatings, imprisonment and even death — not all that surprising from a country whose military dictatorship has ruled with an iron fist. Burma — a country roughly the size of Texas and with a population of some 50 million people — manages to put some of the better-known human rights violators to shame.

But when those powerful images dropped off the front pages of newspapers and news sites, they also seemed to drop from our consciousness.

That is unconscionable. Under the current junta, the regime has perpetrated a coordinated program of ethnic cleansing that relies on rape as a weapon of terror, while destroying more than 3,200 villages (displacing far more than 1 million people) and conscripting more than 70,000 child soldiers (putting it literally at the top of the list for any country).

In the meantime, Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightfully elected leader of Burma, whose party won 82 percent of the seats in Parliament, has spent roughly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. Rather than transforming her nation through her vision and a commitment to nonviolent change, she has been unjustly imprisoned.

So why am I writing this now, when the world’s attention is on issues like the tragedy unfolding in Darfur or the fight for political independence in Tibet? The simple answer is that as important as those two issues are — and they both are of the utmost importance and are deserving of a great deal of our support and attention — there is something so simple about the issues in Burma.

Among other things, there is fact that the Suu Kyi has the distinction of being the only Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was prevented from ever accepting her prize. She earned another honor on April 24, when she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Congress.

What can we do? About a month ago, my friend Jack Healey, a former Franciscan priest, told me about his idea to create a new kind of celebrity-based public service announcement to take the case for Burma to the public. Healey is no beginner when it comes to mobilizing big names. I met him nearly 20 years ago when he was executive director of Amnesty International in the United States. At the time, he had pulled together some of the biggest artists of the decade — Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Police, Peter Gabriel — to embark on a world tour intended to raise the issue of human rights and to put Amnesty International in the public consciousness.

Healey and Jeremy Woodrum, who runs the U.S. Campaign for Burma, have devoted their lives to fighting for the people of Burma, trying to rescue the country from the overbearing grip of a military junta and a violent dictator.

I volunteered to help. In the last month, we’ve managed to put together a campaign of 30 television and Internet spots, shot by and starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names, with the hope that their messages will reach not only millions of Americans but also the rank-and-file soldiers in Burma, who may not even realize how closely the world is looking at the atrocities many of them are carrying out on everyday citizens and, especially, monks.

Our campaign relies on internationally recognized athletes, actors, directors, writers and musicians to address what is happening today in Burma. We are running the spots on our Web site (www.fanista.com), as well as a host of other online distribution sites, trying to drive a million people to sign a virtual petition at www.burmaitcantwait.org.

We have just finished marking Passover, a holiday that demands of us to both celebrate our freedom and fight for the oppressed. It is incumbent on all of us who live in this great country, who have been blessed with the freedoms of democracy, religious tolerance and equal rights for all, to do anything we can to ensure that others — be they within our own communities or on the other side of the world — enjoy those same freedoms.

We are, as I heard Rabbi Elazar Muskin say over Pesach, a “people of hope.” That sense of hope not only allows us to dream of a better and more just world but also obligates us to do what we can to make those conditions a reality. May all of our efforts help achieve those goals for Suu Kyi and the people of Burma and for all oppressed people, wherever they may be.

Dan Adler is the Founder and CEO of “>Human Rights Action Center and the

Dear Abby of Cyberspace


For a while this past year, several thousand girls between the ages of 10 and 14 read my words every day by logging on to Allykatzz.com, an Internet site for “‘tween” girls that provides a safe alternative to MySpace and Facebook.

They wrote to me about their parents’ divorce or their fear of seventh grade or their little eating disorder they hoped no one else would know about.

For several months, I became the “Dear Abby of Cyberspace,” the friendly counselor whose open door was only a cursor away, the virtual adult who answered a teen girl’s question when the actual adult in her life couldn’t even be asked.

When I was brought on to the Allykatzz staff, I expected that my blogging ‘tweeners would grapple with the same issues as I hear of in person from my at-risk adolescent clients: sex, drugs, and — rock ‘n’ roll not withstanding — anger, anxiety and despair. Although the emotional outpouring was similar to that of the kids I work with daily, some of the stories I was told by my nameless readers astonished me:

There was the girl who was raped when she was 8 and, at 14, wanted to know how to keep it a secret until she got to college; the girl who was born with a deformed limb and wanted to cut it out of her body; the girl whose father just died of brain cancer and who wanted to hypnotize herself out of grieving.

I tried to answer all of them, often urging them to advocate for themselves by seeking out counseling or a support group or by expressing their feelings in a positive, healing way. I made it a point to let each of them know they are cherished, unique young women and that, whatever confronts them, this too shall pass.

On a lighter note, the most frequent issue of all seemed to be the one I call the BFF Dilemma. For those of you who are ignorant of cyber-speak, a BFF is a Best Friend Forever. The problem for many of my bloggers was that, alas, the BFF actually shouldn’t be forever. Here is a typical (if not actual) letter:

“So, Leda, like HELP me!!!! My BFF who I no since we wuz in frst grade has gotten so ANNOYING!!! She IMs me all the time and talks about nothing! She even makes fun of me in front of other grls! She told one really cool popular grl my name is Jade and it is SO not Jade! She was OK til 7 grade and then she got WEIRD. My mom sez 2 ignore her but I cant! What to do?”

There were so many BFF Dilemma letters that they took on a weight equal to that of my occasional clinically depressed teen. Although a few of the girls face horrific problems, most of them were dealing with the simple process of being. I am constantly reminded in my work that an adolescent’s struggle to forge a mature identity can be a lonely one, as singular and as difficult as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

Part of that transformation is in deciding who will be compassionate and trustworthy enough to make the passage with them. When I was a teenager, I would become baffled and angry when my normally very progressive Jewish parents, who had a reputation among my friends for being especially hospitable, would shake their heads in wonderment and disapproval at some of my peers. “Di vos vaksn nit, vern kleyner,” my Yiddishkeit, immigrant father would tell me: Those who do not grow, grow smaller.

He was right.

BFFs, BBs (blog buddies) and BFs (boyfriends) will come and go, despite the best of intentions, simply because the level of maturity between adolescents is so uneven. Hopefully, for my readers, there will be new and better friends and perhaps a sympathetic adult or two on the road ahead as they travel from girlhood through adolescence into adulthood. It is my wish that I can be one of those adult voices who can support and cajole a young woman forward.

I am reminded of another bit of Yiddish wisdom: Each child carries his or her own blessing into the world. So far, I have been blessed many times over, and I am both grateful for and honored by them all.

Leda Siskind is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who works with adolescents, young adults and families. She can be reached at (323) 824-0551.