The minimum wage battle: What makes a wage just?

Raising the minimum wage is a mitzvah.

The Rambam says that ensuring others have work that can sustain them is the highest rung on the hierarchy of tzedakah (Mattanot Aniyim, 10:7). In Judaism, tzedakah does not mean charity but justice. We rectify social wrongs and fulfill our obligations through tzedakah. By raising the minimum wage, we are enabling others who work to escape poverty. Tzedakah is all the more important when applied to a system of legislation, as the mission of the Jewish people is to perpetuate our most precious  values of the good and the just into broader society. Our messianic dream is the creation of a society where Torah values are brought into the world to create a more just and holy civilization.

The disparate gap between rich and poor is one of the most troubling moral issues in America today. Much of the problem has to do with unfair wages that block social mobility. The federal wage floor for most workers today is $7.25 an hour, paying at most around $15,000 annually for 40 hours/week (not including the millions of “invisible people” being exploited at under minimum wage). The issue of increasing the minimum wage has become muddied with partisanship, as politics, today, trumps justice. There was no increase from September 1997 until July 2007, at which point the minimum wage had fallen 22 percent in constant dollars while corporate profits had increased by 50 percent (Time magazine, July 24, 2009). Even then, the wage only rose from $5.85 in July 2007 to its current level of $7.25 in July 2009. Some have noted that the decline in value of the minimum wage has coincided with the decline of the American middle class, as previously the minimum wage offered families a chance to climb into the middle class, but now the gap is too wide. We must acknowledge just how far below subsistence the minimum wage has fallen. There has been a major decline of the real value of the minimum wage and the earned-income tax credit has been crucial in helping to fill the gap (aiming to benefit low-income families with children and not just all low-wage workers).

Some argue that raising the cost of labor will hurt workers, because employers will then hire fewer workers. In a few instances this may be true, but overall many economists and researchers have shown this to be false. Speaking to this issue, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow stated that “… the evidence of job loss is weak. And the fact that the evidence is weak suggests that the impact on jobs is small.”

Current state unemployment statistics (October 2013) tend to support Solow on this. For example, of the four states with a minimum wage below the federal standard, two (Minnesota and Wyoming) have unemployment rates below the average, while two (Arkansas and Georgia) have unemployment rates above the average. Of the five states with no minimum wage, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi have unemployment rates higher than the national average, while Alabama and Louisiana have lower unemployment rates. Thus, there is no substantive evidence to support the idea that a minimum wage adversely affects employment, or that a lower wage helps employment. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently helped to debunk the myth that raising the minimum wage leads to job losses. Studies have shown that when states raised their minimum wage they experienced no significant impact on employment compared to states that did not raise wages. Further, today, 76 percent of voters support raising the minimum wage. It’s a win-win because workers are empowered to sustain themselves, the government gives less “hand-outs,” and businesses flourish as that new income leads to increased spending.

Furthermore, minimum wage workers tend to work in industries that cannot be outsourced or eliminated (e.g., the fast-food and hotel industries), so it is unlikely that a rise in minimum wage would reduce these jobs. One significant study looking at the food industry found that raising the minimum wage did not result in employers trimming their workforce, and dozens of studies have confirmed these conclusions. For example, a study looking at airport employees found that not only did higher wages not lead to lower employment, but, in fact, led to reduced employee turnover.

We must consider not only the microeconomics but also the macroeconomics. There is evidence to suggest that when low-wage workers have more spending power, this creates demand for labor and employment opportunities. For example, in 2006 the Economic Policy Institute estimated that raising the minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25 would increase consumer spending by $5.5 billion, potentially offering a much-needed boon to the economy.

A final objection to raising the minimum wage is that those who work in these largely menial jobs are teenagers who are simply trying to earn extra cash, and therefore there is no need for a wage increase. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out, this is untrue. Among the 15 million people working in minimum wage jobs today:

90 percent are age 20 or older.

• 50 percent are full-time employees.

• 25 percent are parents.

But at the end of the day, minimum wage reform is not enough. A minimum wage increase will not bring low-wage-earning families out of poverty. We must embrace a living wage to truly improve the lives of the millions of our fellow Americans who are living in abject poverty. The 2010 U.S. Census revealed the extent of U.S. poverty in graphic detail:

• Nearly 47 million people live in poverty (15 percent of the population), the highest number ever recorded. Of these, more than 20 million lived in extreme poverty (i.e., an income less than half the poverty level).

• Among children, 22 percent live in poverty.

• More than 17 million households are food insecure, the highest number ever recorded.

• Some 50 million people lack medical insurance, which will increase if enrollment under the Affordable Care Act is unsuccessful.

The sheer injustice of economic inequality is overwhelming. From 2007 to 2010, the average American family lost 39 percent of its wealth, while at the same time, 95 percent of all new wealth generated was accumulated by the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. It has been estimated that six members of the Walton family (heirs to the Walmart fortune) own more wealth than 41.5 percent of Americans (nearly 49 million families). Is it too much of an encroachment on the wealth of the Walton family to encourage them to pay their workers more? Is it morally tolerable that the employee of a multibillion-dollar company is paid poverty-level wages?

It is our Jewish obligation to lead this fight for justice. The Rema, the great 16th century Polish authority, teaches that when one is involved in an issue of public monies, one must engage (act and vote) l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven (i.e., for reasons not based on self-interest) (Choshen Mishpat 163:1). It is crucial, and our religious duty, that Jews vociferously advocate for systemic change for the poor.

In Judaic doctrine, rabbis have limited the earning power of owners selling essential food so as to help the poor through the laws of “onaah” (fair pricing). The owner is forbidden from keeping more than one-sixth profit in order that others could be sustained as well (Bava Batra 90a, Choshen Mishpat 231:20). For the rabbis, the value of maintaining a just society where the needs of all can be met trumps the full autonomy of owners to maximize their profits to no end.

The primary wage responsibilities fall upon employers. Rebbeinu Yonah, the 13th century Spanish rabbi, taught:

“Be careful not to afflict a living creature, whether animal or fowl, and even more so not to afflict a human being, who is created in G-d’s image. If you want to hire workers and you find that they are poor, they should become like poor members of your household. You should not disgrace them, for you shall command them respectfully, and should pay their salaries (Sefer HaYirah).”

Rebbeinu Yonah teaches that when we hire a worker and find that he/she is still poor after we pay them, then we must treat them as b’nei beitecha (members of our households). If we choose to become an employer, then we must take responsibility to ensure our workers do not live in poverty.

The minimum wage, in its current state, is a collective violation of the biblical prohibition of oshek (worker oppression), as workers remain poor while they work to their full capacity (Leviticus 19:15). The previous verse tells us that we must not be enablers of lifnei iver (social wrongs), linking the two responsibilities of fair wages and Jewish activism. Now is the time for a collective Jewish intervention to ensure that those who work can live.

I have experienced the challenges of Jewish activism on this issue. Tav HaYosher (Uri L’Tzedek’s ethical seal for kosher restaurants) has encountered unique and anomalous apathy in the Los Angeles kosher community. Personal wealth and low food costs have been prioritized over proper worker compensation and dignity. What is perhaps most troubling about my experience is that Tav HaYosher is only asking for the basic law to be followed, paying workers minimum wage and nothing more, and this, tragically, is asking too much for many kosher consumers and owners. The indifference from some in the Jewish community is deeply troubling.

Today, one working on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour will have a gross annual income $12,000-$14,500, based on a 35- to 40-hour work week, after which federal and state income tax, Social Security and other taxes are then deducted. It is simply morally repugnant to argue that one working all day every day should live in poverty. As Barbara Ehrenreich, who once described her vain attempt to survive on a wage (above the minimum) in “Nickel and Dimed,” wrote in 2007: “There is no moral justification for a minimum wage lower than a living wage. And given the experience of the … states that have raised their minimum wages, there isn’t even an amoral economic justification.”

Today, change is needed and the Jewish community has a crucial role to play. We should heed the word of President Barack Obama: “… let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.”

I believe we will get there, but I am not a total optimist. I am a possibilist. I believe we will only get there if we engage in courageous leadership. The Jewish community has a crucial role to play.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.

A gridlock bypass in Congress?

A remarkable thing happened in Washington, D.C., last week. National leaders of business and labor hammered out an outline on immigration reform. This might not only give a major boost to a new immigration policy; it might also show a path around the gridlock that has driven the nation into budgetary face-offs month after month.

The key to the deal is agreement on a guest-worker program, which labor has long opposed. The idea is to create a new program of immigrant worker visas, based on estimates of labor need as determined by a federal bureau. Business accepted the concepts of a variable labor pool, and, even more important, that the workers would not be tied to a single employer. Labor was adamant that workers not be subject to deportation for not getting along with their bosses.

While the details are important, the politics, both symbolic and real, may be even more significant. Each in their own ways, both business and labor have been struggling to get back into their party’s strategic calculations, and they may have found a way to do so together.

Since President Barack Obama’s re-election, House Republicans have thrown the country into one budget crisis after another in order to derail the president’s agenda. The business community has been unhappy with threats against paying for the nation’s debt, fiscal cliffs and now the sequester. But business had been largely unsuccessful in its struggle to move the House Republicans and a number of Republican senators, most of whom represent safe conservative districts or states whose Republican primary voters favor confrontation with the president. Not surprisingly, a conservative Republican senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times (Feb. 22) criticizing the business role in the deal: “The chamber’s primary goal has never been to establish a lawful immigration system and secure our borders, but to get as much cheap labor as possible.” The Times article also noted, however, that Senate bipartisan negotiators were delighted with the deal, and even the No. 2 House leader, Republican Eric Cantor, was upbeat.

Labor has had its own frustrations with the Democrats. Unlike in California, organized labor is weaker in Washington, D.C., and in their dealings with the White House, labor leaders have sometimes felt like outside agitators fighting against what they see as too much conciliation toward Republicans. By helping in a big way toward a major administration goal, and by engaging with a business sector that might yet be able to have some clout with Republicans, labor has proved its value. 

Further, Democrats will need a big labor push in 2014 to avoid the off-year low turnout calamity that brought the Tea Party to Congress in 2010. The same could be said about business with its constituency. Many in business fear that the isolation of the Republican Party will eventually hurt them both economically and politically, and they have been pushing the party to be more moderate and less reflexively anti-government.

This business-labor agreement points to a larger shift in the thinking of the Obama White House about how to get a second-term agenda accomplished. For a long time, Obama has had faith that he can persuade conservative Republicans to accept his agenda because it “makes sense.” It was always hard to see why that would be a compelling argument to politicians, even those not gripped in a Tea Party ideology. And by constantly negotiating and seeking deals, he elevated the power of those who keep manufacturing the crises that seem to require negotiating. The wiser move is to isolate the recalcitrants by building a larger and larger block of interests that coalesce around the White House agenda. We are already seeing this strategy emerge, as Republican governors begin to accept Medicaid expansion under the new health care law because of pressure from hospitals in their states, and as those same governors signal to their fellow Republicans in D.C. that to go through with sequestration would have devastating consequences back home.

A better strategy has now emerged, one that meets the needs of the administration to make progress and even of conservatives to show that they are opposing him. If House Republican leaders continue to poke holes in the Hastert Rule, which dictated that nothing can be brought to the floor of the House without the support of a majority of the Republican caucus, then conservatives can still go on record in full-throated opposition without the Republican Party being blamed in full for blocking progress. Immigration may be a big test of this approach, should the combination of a bipartisan team in the Senate and the business-labor alliance create a large enough power bloc to make progress in the House inevitable. 

In any case, a business-labor agreement on anything must be seen as good news for a struggling American government.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Letters to the Editor: Neo-Nazis, Halachah, unemployment and anti-Semitism

Who Are Today’s Neo-Nazis

Rob Eshman is correct to decry the world’s double standard when criticizing the ultra-barbaric state of Syria (“Stop the Stalinists,” Jan. 13). The irony of course that Qatar, a sister Arab Muslim nation, published a cartoon depicting Bashar Assad as a Nazi goes far beyond the obvious: The Baath parties, both in Syria and Iraq, modeled their governments upon the Nazi Party for many reasons, including the German’s military opposition to British power during World War II. The friendship and alliance between Amin Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and grandfather of the Palestinian movement, and Adolf Hitler, and their shared hatred of Jews still resonates today in the Arab world. Mr. Eshman should rethink his attitude to the American take-down of Saddam Hussein, one of the foremost exponents of neo-Nazism in our time. Hopefully Syria will go the way of Iraq in the near future.

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles

When Is God Watching?

In “Judaism’s Walking Billboards” (Jan. 6), David Suissa writes, “If you look like a religious Jew, and you spit on an Orthodox girl because her dress code doesn’t meet your standard of modesty, and the incident is caught on Israeli television and goes viral on YouTube, then you are slandering Judaism and it’s a crisis.”

Basically the problem, if I understand Suissa correctly, is that this incident was videotaped and went viral. Suissa believes this slanders Judaism. However, slander means falsehood. If we observe via video an Orthodox Jewish man spitting on an 8-year-old girl, that would not be slander; that would be irrefutable fact.

In conclusion, Suissa writes: “And if there are Jews who bother you, you don’t spit on them, you invite them over for Shabbat.”

Suissa left out the rest. Once in your home, make sure all electronic devices have been turned off (it is Shabbat, of course). Then you spit on them, maybe even slap them around a little. This way no one will see it and Judaism’s image will remain untarnished. Apparently God does not see everything, according to Suissa. God only sees what we do when it makes it to video and it goes viral.

Richard S. Levik
via e-mail

Prager and Halachah

Last year, Dennis Prager told us that halachah demands that Jews support capital punishment, even if it means that innocent people might be put to death on occasion (”What About Innocents Who Are Executed?” April 1, 2011). No matter that our sages throughout the ages disagree with him, including Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides (who said that it would be better for a thousand guilty persons to be acquitted than for one innocent to be put to death), and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who wrote that the “rules of evidence and other safeguards that the Torah provides to protect the accused made it all but impossible to actually invoke these penalties.”  But now comes Mr. Prager to tell us why he himself doesn’t actually have to follow this same halachah (“Can Halachah Ever Be Wrong?” Jan. 13). The reason: second-day yom tov.  In other words, Prager has no problem distorting halachah and demanding that everyone follow his interpretation of it when it comes to promoting his political agenda, but he excuses himself from having to do the same when it is personally inconvenient. Put another way, it’s OK to condemn an innocent person to death as long as it doesn’t interfere with Prager’s ability to drive to the beach on the second day of Shavuot.

Robert Smith
Los Angeles

Kudos to Dennis Prager. Some rabbis are so stuck on the oral law that they forget what our great sage Rabbi Hillel considered to be the foundation of the Torah — simply put, be a mensch.

Danny Bental

Getting Your Foot in the Door

I was quoted in the article “Retraining Programs Get Unemployment Bump” (Jan. 6), but there was something that Ms. Wizenfeld did not include that is important for the unemployed.

If you are unemployed, find an internship or volunteer for a company where you are interested in working or are trying to transition. This will give you a foot in the door. One thing I am seeing is that the longer a person is unemployed, the more unemployable they become. It is all about employer perception.

Vicki Rothman
Faculty Leader, Career Services Center
Santa Monica College

Greenberg Cartoon Skewed on Ron Paul’s Record

Steve Greenberg’s recent cartoon suggests that Texas Congressman Ron Paul is an anti-Semitic sympathizer of extreme right views (Jan. 13). Greenberg loosely alleges that Paul has an ideological kinship with Pat Buchanan, an unassailable nationalist who supports tariffs, isolationism and, to some, an exacerbation of the culture wars that have dominated our political discourse for the past 20 years.

To suggest that Paul is a rabid, Jew-baiting isolationist with crypto-fascist tendencies escapes the imagination. What editorials is Mr. Greenberg reading? Paul has never excoriated a “Jewish lobby” in Washington, he has never spoken against minorities, and he does not despise the place of immigrants in our country.

To say the least, Greenberg’s View is skewed, and he cannot hide behind his liberal sympathies to justify such overt and unsupportable slander. We are all entitled to our opinion, but to implicate a public figure in such outrageous and outlandish allegations is just reprehensible.

Arthur Christopher Schaper

Prager on Halachah

Dennis Prager makes some important points regarding how halachah can influence good Jews to make bad decisions (“Can Halachah Ever Be Wrong?” Jan. 13). The Rambam (Maimonides) called such actions (or individuals) “menuval b’reshut HaTorah” — disgusting within the bounds of the Torah.

But then he makes a leap to ignoring rabbinic law (such as second-day yom tov). The two rabbis he cites in his essay surely would be chagrined that he invoked their names to make such a point. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits passed away in 1992, but perhaps The Journal could invite Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to respond?

David Waghalter
Los Angeles

In “Can Halachah Ever Be Wrong?” (Jan. 13), Dennis Prager brought up the topic of Yom Tov Sheni.  This relates to there being an extra day in some holidays outside of Israel (with there being only one day of Yom Kippur) due to calendar uncertainty.  My understanding is that, after the calendar was worked out, the second day was retained outside of Israel since, when one is not in Israel, one needs an extra day to reach the same spiritual level that one can achieve in Israel in one day of yom tov. As for Yom Kippur, since it is unreasonable to require people to fast for two days in a row, it was always one day long outside of Israel.

David Wincelberg
Beverly Hills

Boteach to Present at Limmud LA Conference

Thank you for your piece on Limmud and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (“Lord Shmuley?” Jan. 6). I attended Limmud UK in December on behalf of Limmud LA as part of the Limmud International delegation and had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Boteach’s timely, humorous and insightful lecture on the halachic approach to sex. It was both entertaining and educational. We are very excited to announce that Rabbi Boteach will also be presenting at the Limmud LA Conference coming up Feb. 17-19. Full details about this outstanding event can be obtained at our Web site: Anyone who has attended previous conferences can attest to the excitement and powerful sessions, open to those from any and all backgrounds and levels of Jewish observance.

Mel Aranoff
Member, Limmud LA Board of Directors
Valley Glen

Comparing Anti-Semitism in Ancient, Modern Times

Rabbi Marc Mandel’s assertion that Pharaoh’s persecution of the Hebrews is an example of early anti-Semitism doesn’t support his important message about seeing the plethora of forms today’s anti-Semitism takes (“Déjà Vu, All Over Again,” Jan. 13). Nor is my objection to that assertion an example of wasting energy trying to classify types of anti-Semitism when the focus should be on naming it whatever its form.

First, the Egyptians also were Semites; second, the Jews were not yet a people to be hated because they were Jews. They were hated because a paranoid leader demonized them to assuage his fears. This is much more akin to the pre-emptive war program of Hobbesians Bush and Cheney.

My objection is buttressed by Dennis Prager’s explanation for anti-Semitism found in his book, “Why the Jews?” His answer is that, standing alone, any one of the three pillars of Judaism — God, Torah and Israel — has been sufficient to incite virulent anti-Semitism, let alone all three inherent in the beliefs of one people. These three pillars were not yet in place in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

Roger Schwarz
Los Angeles


An article about a debate between Brad Sherman and Howard Berman (“Sherman Lays Into Berman in Four-way Congressional Debate,” Jan. 13) was incorrect in saying that Sherman attacked Berman for supporting a bill that Sherman had voted for. He did not; a more complete discussion of this issue can be found on the Berman v. Sherman blog at

An article about a lawsuit filed against Eden Memorial Park (“Eden Cemetery Trial Set for May,” Jan. 11) indicated that 30 groundskeepers had implicated Eden in interviews with the plaintiff’s attorney, Michael J. Avenatti. According to Eden’s attorney, Steven Gurnee of Gurnee and Daniels LLP, near Sacramento, 14 current and former groundskeepers have been deposed, and only three testified to being aware of broken outer burial vaults. In addition, F. Charles Sands is no longer the named plaintiff in the case.

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Still unemployed: Out of luck but not out of hope

In July 2009, when everyone could see that the financial collapse of September 2008 was not going to be short-lived, I tracked down and interviewed for The Journal ” title=”what Jewish organizations locally were doing to help”>what Jewish organizations locally were doing to help and was heartened to find that the community had stepped up its efforts to reach out to those unable to find a job, pay bills or to put food on their tables — often middle-class people who had, for the first time in their lives, found themselves in need of help.

This month, two and half years later and three years into the economic crisis, I checked in again with those same ordinary people I had interviewed: a single mom looking for a new career when her job in the mortgage industry disappeared; a family with young children flattened by medical expenses when the mom, who didn’t have medical insurance, was injured; a former vice president in a huge entertainment firm who now couldn’t even get callbacks from her old connections as she searched for a new job; and a human-resources manager whose job had shrunk to 20 hours a week.

All but the injured mom agreed to be interviewed once more, to let readers know how things are going now. In a short conversation, however, the mom told me her injury had healed, and she is able to work again. She and her husband had gotten help from a nonprofit in getting their debt restructured, but after a few months that deal fell apart when they missed a single payment. The family had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, but she is hopeful they will eventually pull out of this mess, although she is still without health insurance.

Everyone else agreed to more extensive interviews. Like many Americans over the last three years, they have endured a continuing roller coaster of optimism and stress. Unemployment statistics and social service agency budgets tell one story, but the details of the lives of these people offer a more personal look at our times and the impact of financial stress.

From underemployed to employed to unemployed

Richard Banks had a job when I talked to him in 2009, but he was only working 20 hours a week and needed more. Today, the 64-year-old human resources manager who lives in Van Nuys is even further behind. He’s been out of a job since April.

“I feel young. I’m not ready for the senior center. I just want to work — I want to get out of the house, I want the social interaction, I like the idea of solving problems, of the energy of a workplace,” he said.

It took Banks 16 months to find a full-time job to replace the part-time position that wasn’t paying enough to cover his expenses. In December 2009, he was hired as the first HR manager at a growing Internet marketing firm. By January 2011, the company was sold to a competitor, and by June of that year, the California operation was completely shut down. Most of the 120 jobs at the firm were eliminated, with only a handful of people relocated to the Texas headquarters — an option that wouldn’t have worked for Banks, who has a wife and daughter, even had it been offered.

For the last five years, Banks and his wife, an editor, have traded spots back and forth being employed and unemployed. Family income has been about a third to a quarter what it used to be over the past five years, he said.

He has kept at the job hunt, working contacts, ads, Internet leads and building connections through a networking group he helped found at Temple Judea, where he was brotherhood president for several years.

Richard Banks has been on an employment roller coaster since 2008. “When you’re interviewing with someone half your age, there are issues,” he said. Photo by Rachel Davidson

He knows his age is working against him when it comes to job interviews.

“I’ve had so many interviews, long phone interviews, where everything is peachy keen, and then you meet up a week later and everything goes ice cold,” he said. “When you’re interviewing with someone who is half your age, there are issues — they want to be comfortable in their own culture, and it almost doesn’t matter what you bring into the environment in terms of education and experience. They’re just not comfortable with somebody they perceive — rightly or wrongly — who is not going to be around, or who is not going to get it, or who is not into the technology, or whatever the misconceptions are,” Banks said.

After Banks got laid off at the Internet firm, his wife got a job in publishing that came with health insurance, which was a good thing, as Banks — whose only stay in a hospital was when he was a bone marrow donor — was turned down for individual insurance.

Twenty-two days after his wife started working, Banks’ daughter, 23, was in a serious car accident, which has required follow-up medical care. It would have bankrupted them if they hadn’t had insurance, or if the new health care law hadn’t allowed his adult daughter to be on the family’s plan.

The daughter, a student, also works two jobs — as a food server and in retail. She pays about 90 percent of her expenses, and had to take out student loans when her father became unable to pay tuition after her first semester.

“I’m supposed to be there to be her safety net, and now I’m not that safety net, and that bothers me,” Banks said.

Cuts have come from everywhere. Banks said he’s always clipped coupons and doesn’t eat a lot of meat, so food expenses are pretty low. There have been no vacations and not much going out, and he had to give up tai chi, which had been helping to keep his stress levels down. He drives a 1986 Mercedes with no air conditioning and only one working window. He is collecting unemployment, but that will run out soon.

The house, in Van Nuys, is paid off, and Banks is repaying a small line of credit he took out against the house. He said he is relying on the house as his only asset.

And what about a retirement fund?

“I’m screwed,” he said. “There is no doubt about it.”

But he is staying hopeful and keeping busy.

Recently, he started meeting with another unemployed synagogue member to explore developing a Web-based business channeling volunteers to nonprofits.

He’s been helping a friend staff a new restaurant, and he started volunteering for One LA-IAF, an advocacy organization, where he is focusing on health care reform.

“I am walking the dog in the morning. I love to cook, so I’m back to making dinner. I am repotting the succulents and the cactuses because I love to see things grow — to keep the life force going,” he said.

He has no patience for talk about “one door closing and another opening.” But he looks for bright spots.

“I made a choice many years ago that no matter what is going on, you have to pull something out of that day that is good, something that makes you smile and makes you laugh. Something that keeps you positive.”

Without jobs in U.S., college grads are finding opportunities in Israel

In her final months as a political science major at the University of Pittsburgh, Susanna Zlotnikov had a positive outlook about landing a job.

But as the months passed and her network of contacts led only to dead ends, Zlotnikov decided she needed a backup. Instead of spending the summer after her May graduation sending out more resumes, Zlotnikov took a pair of internships and moved to Israel.

It worked out well: In November she expects to be starting a full-time job in Israel as grants coordinator with Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli-based humanitarian organization that provides cardiac surgery for children from the developing world.

With the U.S. economy still sputtering, a growing number of college graduates are turning to Israel programs to bridge their educational and professional careers. In many cases, these young American Jews are drawn to the programs not out of Zionist sensibilities but because they’re looking for workplace experience or seeking a way to do something Jewish. Some are even finding jobs in Israel and staying.

After losing a job in Hollywood, Jessica Fass decided to go on a Birthright Israel trip and then stayed in the country for an extra month. Upon returning to the United States, Fass felt as if she were in culture shock and kept thinking about returning to Israel. She decided to do an internship through WUJS Israel Hadassah, which helps college graduates find opportunities in Israel.

“It seemed like the perfect time go,” she said.

Within six months, Fass had found a full-time job in Israel and now is working in marketing for a company in Tel Aviv, which she described as being like Los Angeles “but with Hebrew.” Fass said she was surprised to find how much more willing Israelis were to take a chance on a new hire.

“I don’t think that would have happened in the States because I had no experience in marketing,” she said.

Organizations that bring Jewish youth to Israel are trying to capitalize on the bleak job prospects for college graduates in the United States, and programs that offer internships in Israel say they have seen a spike in applicants since the recession hit in 2008.

“I remember in 2008 when our numbers skyrocketed,” said Amy Gross, the program recruiter at WUJS Israel Hadassah. “It’s mostly recent college graduates because they have trouble finding a job, but they want to experience Israel as well.”

WUJS offers five-month internships in Israel. Participants also have weekly trips to explore the country, Hebrew classes twice a week and immersion in Israeli culture.

MASA Israel, which helps place Diaspora Jews in long-term Israel programs, created a program called A Better Stimulus Plan targeted at recent college graduates looking for internship opportunities in Israel while they wait out the economic troubles in the U.S. Avi Rubel, MASA’s North American director, says about 1,800 participants are doing post-college internship experiences—double the rate of recent years.

“So many grads are at a loss because there aren’t opportunities and they need to find ways to differentiate themselves to get the jobs that are there,” Rubel told JTA. “For young Jewish students, coming to Israel gives them career development experience, which is likely more substantive than one in the States. In Israel you will end up in the mix of interesting things instead of making coffee.”

Roselle Feldman had just returned to the United States from a Birthright Israel trip before the economy collapsed. She had been scheduled to teach more than 30 hip-hop classes at dance studios in Massachusetts, but the market crashed and her gigs disappeared.

Instead of filing for unemployment, she hopped on a plane to Israel for MASA Israel’s Dance Journey, a five-month program for international dancers aged 18 to 30 in the western Galilee. She received training from the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, and at the end of the program Feldman was invited to audition for a spot with the dance company.

“I loved every second of it,” she told JTA. “There’s nothing else like it in the world. It’s such a unique experience. I would go back in a heartbeat if I could afford it.”

Now she is back in Massachusetts, teaching dance as the director of her own performance company, Intensity Dance Company. Soon she hopes to be teaching at a Jewish school—a desire she credits to her experience in Israel.

Jesse Zryb, who graduated recently from Tulane University with a master’s degree in architecture, also decided to sign up for MASA after a job he had been promised in Manhattan disappeared when his company merged with another firm. The guarantee of work experience was why he joined the program, he said. Through MASA, he was hired as an intern at Stav Architects in Ramat Gan, just outside of Tel Aviv.

Zryb said he thinks the program made him more attractive to potential employers back home. Soon after finishing the four-month program, he was hired as a designer at Pink Powered by Moss, a fabric design firm in New York.

“It kept me fresh, especially considering that back home any kind of employment was uncertain,” he said of his Israeli internship. “I think it certainly looked good that I was being proactive during the situation and that I was keeping active during the recession. Keeping yourself fresh was important at the time.”

Plus, Zryb added, “I had a great experience there.”

A Democrat’s lament, and a glimmer of hope

There is a sick feeling of demoralization settling over Democrats, like drizzle on a cloudy day. It’s not because of losses in the midterm elections; it’s the unnerving realization that we are on our own.

When Barack Obama came to Washington, he promised to change the town. I thought that was a pretty cool idea.

Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Washington has been a toxic city for Democrats. The Sunday talk shows are dominated by Republicans, no matter who wins elections. Democratic senators who hold up needed legislation because “it goes too far” or simply because they wish to ponder it deeply, are held up as great statesmen. Austerity is in, as long as it is for middle- and working-class Americans only.

This town makes it too easy for Democratic presidents to cut themselves off from their base and their party and to abandon their fighting spirit. And there are always political advisers on hand to edge a Democratic president in that direction.

Obama was the first Democrat in my lifetime to have an actual movement of people behind him, ready to march at the first sign of leadership. The party was tingling with excitement all the way down to the grass roots in red states, where for bleak decades Democrats had barely hung on by their fingernails.

I dared to dream that once Obama got to Washington, he would use his movement to reshape the Democratic Party in his image and make it once again a confident, effective vehicle for fairness and justice. But it was not to be. As early as 2009, it was clear that the great army of Obama was being quietly mothballed, and that Obama had only limited interest in his party. He was going to do it on his own.

Obama had fixed his mind not on building the confidence of his own party but on healing partisan conflict itself. Obama’s legendary outreach to Republicans survived even their most egregious attacks on him. And the Democrats became bit players in the drama.

The irony of Obama’s sincere plan to “change” Washington is that his approach matched and even bolstered the Capitol’s conventional wisdom that Democrats, especially liberal ones, really don’t count. It made it difficult for Democrats to win popular acclaim for their considerable accomplishments. This dynamic reached its apotheosis with the president’s compromise on taxes reached this week with the Republican leadership.

A president elected by a movement who has accomplished more with the help of his party in Congress than any president since Lyndon Johnson has ended up demoralizing his movement and party. Go figure.

There are times when compromise is the right thing to do. Credible political leadership earns the flexibility to make deals. A brave leader who fights for things has lots of room to compromise — to, as Ronald Reagan used to say, accept half a loaf. “Nixon goes to China” only made sense because Nixon had spent a lifetime opposing communism.

But when you have only a distant connection to a base of support and no clear principles to stand on, every compromise seems like a betrayal. George H.W. Bush used to grouse that Reagan raised taxes bunches of times and held his party’s support, while Bush lost his for one itty-bitty tax hike. But Reagan had a base that he had carefully and durably nurtured, while Bush did not. Reagan made it good to be a Republican, and the base has stayed loyal to this day.

Obama’s latest deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for a series of much-desired tax breaks for working Americans may yet turn out to be a better bargain than Democrats initially thought. I like to think that he simply could not imagine letting millions of Americans lose their unemployment insurance and was willing to pay blackmailers in order to prevent that from happening. It may turn out to be one of those awful compromises that had to happen, or it may not. But he will pay a tremendous political price within his own party, where there is little belief in his willingness to draw the right line in the sand. Two years of seeking the mythical center at the cost of his actual base are now coming home to roost.

Yet, if Democrats feel depressed and leaderless in Washington, they are jubilant in Sacramento. In the red wave of 2010, California went very blue, as all statewide races went to the Democrats. Added to that, Proposition 25 will allow the legislature to pass a budget on a majority vote (but not raise taxes, which still requires two thirds). Democrats can produce a budget without Republican votes.

Now California Democrats must show that government can work. Much of the so-called “ungovernability” of California has been due to late budgets. Most other states have budget messes, some with bigger shares of their budget in the red than ours (such as Texas), but only California fails to pass any kind of budget when it is supposed to.

Democrats now should have one overriding short-term goal: pass a state budget on time.  It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to resolve every unmet need.

A Democratic governor and legislature will have their problems. There will be many saying that Jerry Brown needs to pick a fight with his party. Hopefully, he won’t make Obama’s mistake and try to go it alone without a base of support.  Schwarzenegger’s governorship showed that it is hard to govern without a party base.

Gray Davis, the last Democrat to have party control, alienated Democratic legislators by publicly stating that their sole purpose was to carry out his vision.

The older and wiser Brown can lead his party without being owned by it. He has the full veto and the item veto if he needs them. He has the bully pulpit. If he stakes out principled positions, he will be very formidable.

Democrats in the legislature must realize that in the middle of the ongoing budget crisis, winning this kind of power is not a blank check. The first compromises will be between liberal and moderate Democrats. But a confident and united Democratic majority might have numerous opportunities to cooperate with Republicans.

With Proposition 25 in place, the pain of budget cuts will be spread everywhere, not just among poor and working-class communities. That may even help change the dynamics of the revenue debate.

California in Democratic hands will be a huge asset to Obama. Building on Schwarzenegger’s support of global warming legislation and health care exchanges, Democrats can demonstrate the value of Obama’s imperiled initiatives. With other states trying to break the administration’s momentum, California can have Obama’s back, whether or not he appreciates this bunch of Democrats coming to his aid.

Maybe the Obama people will be watching and will notice that in politics, peace comes from strength, not weakness, from a unified block of support that has your back. Wouldn’t it be something if Democrats in the nation’s largest state showed their overmatched peers in Washington how it’s done?

Despite diplomas, Ethiopian Israelis can’t find jobs

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Asaf Negat, 29, made his way to Israel from Ethiopia as an 11-year-old boy and worked hard to find his way in a new land and learn to speak a new language. Eventually, Negat graduated with a business degree from one of the country’s top universities.

However, since completing his studies in the summer of 2006, he has not found work in his field. Unemployed, Negat spends his days trolling the Web sites of banks and investment houses, seeking job openings and sending out resumes.

“It’s not exactly a hopeful situation,” said Negat, whose only job since graduation has been as a counselor at an absorption center for newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants. “It makes people like me feel pessimistic, especially when we look at our younger brothers and sisters who see what we are going through.”

Negat is not alone.

Of the approximately 4,500 Ethiopian Israelis who have earned university degrees, fewer than 15 percent have found work in their professions, according to a recent study. Instead, most end up working temporary public-sector jobs serving the Ethiopian Israeli community, remaining disconnected from the larger professional Israeli workforce.

Working in such jobs, which often are project-based and subject to elimination once funding runs out, these Ethiopian Israelis earn less than other college-educated Israelis. Ethiopian Israeli graduates earn an average of $1,375 a month, compared with $1,925 monthly for their Jewish Israeli peers, according to a joint study of the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

“On the one hand, one wants Ethiopians with academic degrees to help make changes in the community by working within it, but on the other hand, these jobs are not highly paid, often not very stable and don’t have much potential for promotion,” said Sigal Shelach, director of programs for immigrants and minorities at Tevet, a joint government-JDC-Israel employment initiative. “So there is a kind of vicious circle going on.”

Negat’s easy smile vanishes when he speaks of the challenges of breaking into the ranks of the educated Israeli middle class.

“We are the role model for the younger generation,” he said. “But how are they supposed to react when they go from being encouraged by our studies to watching us finish university, only to return back at home, stuck, with no work?”

It’s hardly the fairy-tale landing into the white-collar Israeli workforce many young Ethiopian Israelis imagine for themselves once they make it beyond a host of obstacles to start their university careers.

However, in Israel, where personal connections and unwritten cultural codes are especially strong, Ethiopian Israeli graduates face a significant disadvantage in finding jobs compared with their native-born peers. For one thing, they are less likely to have the professional network of connections a typical Israeli might have to land a job.

“They think they graduate and that will be it, but most of them don’t have help of where to go and what to look for,” said Danny Admesu, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a child and now is the director of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews. “Usually in Israeli families relatives work in different fields, they have connections and can give advice. You learn not just in university but by meeting people and parents’ contacts. But these people graduate and then don’t know what to do.”

Furthermore, many Israeli employers rely on assessment centers to screen potential job candidates before granting interviews. Some experts say the centers have unintentional cultural biases — for example, asking questions about aggressive decision-making styles and leadership that Ethiopian Israeli job candidates answer much differently than native-born Israelis.

To address that problem, the JDC is piloting a program for more culturally sensitive screening tests.

Compounding matters, many Ethiopian Israelis come from Israel’s periphery — outside the heavily populated center of the country — where jobs are scarce.

There is also the problem of racism, some say.

“We cannot shut our eyes to it and need to talk about it,” said Ranan Hartman, founder and chair of the Ono Academic College, one of a handful of Israeli institutions trying to address the problems facing Ethiopian Israeli graduates. “If we hide from it, it won’t be solved.”

Hartman said the school’s outreach to Ethiopian Israelis, which is supported in part by the Jewish Agency for Israel, aims to achieve nothing less than a revolution in the Ethiopians’ status in Israeli society.

“How do you inform society to respect the Ethiopian community? You do it by creating islands of excellence, and the success stories can then go and break stigmas,” Hartman said.

The college boasts among its Ethiopian graduates the first Ethiopian diplomat and accountant in Israel.

Now in its second year, the program has provided 200 students and graduates with intensive workshops in job searching, management and leadership skills, connected them with mentors and made high-level connections and introductions to help pave their way to interviews and, hopefully, jobs.

Supported by the Jewish Agency and the UJA-Federation of New York, the program coordinates its efforts with the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya and Bank Hapoalim. Yifat Ovadiah, general director of the organization, said its goal is to help place 1,000 Ethiopian graduates in highly sought-after jobs in their fields in the next five to seven years.

“The idea is that 1,000 people can help change perceptions,” Ovadiah said. “By having visibility in places like the country’s largest accounting and law firms, these people will be able to advance and become influential themselves.”

The group taps top Israeli executives — the CEO of Bank Hapoalim is among the group’s volunteers — to spread the word about the program’s high-quality graduates.

Negat is one of this year’s participants. He said the program is his lifeline to finding work.

At a meeting center at Kibbutz Shfaim, Negat joined several others for a workshop where he had a one-on-one counseling session with an experienced businessman. Under the shadow of an oak tree, Danny Heller helped Negat troubleshoot how best to approach employers as he tries to embark on a career in finance.

Heller, also addressed a larger group of business and economics students during the workshop, reminding them of how extraordinary their journeys have been — and to play that up during their next job interview.

“You have incredible life stories,” the businessman told the group. “You went through things most people never had to, and your abilities, the walls you had to break down, are what will bring you to your next job.”

Don’t let the stress of ailing economy kill you

Downtown Hospital is just a block from Wall Street. Walking through its beefed-up emergency room recently, I came upon Terry Jung, the hospital’s very thoughtful head triage nurse. She told me that despite the financial crisis and roller-coaster stock market, the number of patients with chest pain or heart attacks was not yet increasing.

“Nothing’s different,” she said. “Except the feeling that something’s about to happen.”

In all likelihood, that “something” is happening to millions of people who are worried about their jobs, retirement plans, the prices of their homes and the ability to keep food on their table should a worst-case scenario play out.

Americans are receiving a daily barrage of gloomy news that could inevitably begin to take its toll. The focus on the front pages of newspapers and on the screens of the nightly network news is of a financial calamity engulfing the planet.

But it starts at home. A neighbor’s house is being foreclosed. Food is more expensive. A friend loses his job. The daily stock market tickers on cable news shows remind people, in real time, how their investments are faring.

A survey by the American Psychological Association indicated that financial concerns “topped the list of stressors for at least 80 percent of those surveyed,” according to a recent front-page story in USA Today. More than half reported the most common symptoms of stress being anger, fatigue and an inability to sleep. Close to half responded by overeating or eating poorly, a trend that will definitely lead to killer diseases that include heart attacks and strokes.

And if the economic woes continue? Well, our collective national health could just follow our economy into the depths.

The Last Crash

In the 1980s, concerns about the failing economy after the 1987 crash led to so much stress that urgent-care centers sprang up around Wall Street. With the economic rebound of the 1990s, many of these centers closed.

Tales of traders suddenly throwing themselves out of windows on Wall Street in the wake of the 1929 crash that was the precursor to the Great Depression were largely myths, as John Kenneth Galbraith noted in his 1955 account. But millions did turn to drinking and smoking in greater numbers, which led to heart attacks, strokes, bleeding ulcers and clinical depression.

Stress is cumulative; it wears down the body and leads to disease down the line.

Research based on 17 years of Pennsylvania unemployment records concluded that workers affected by mass layoffs at a plant were 15 percent more likely to die of any cause over the next two decades.

Though stress in society at large is impossible to measure, we’re already seeing anecdotal evidence suggesting that angst is spreading. In New York, calls to the Hopeline network for people with depression or suicidal thoughts increased 75 percent in the 11 months ending in July. According to UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. health insurer, hospital admissions for psychiatric services are up 10 percent this year over last year. Medical illness is sure to follow.

Harvey Brenner, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, projects that an increase of 1 percentage point in a nation’s unemployment rate could cause as many as 47,000 more deaths — including 1,200 more suicides and 26,000 additional heart attacks — over the ensuing two years.

The Biology of Stress

Stress is creeping; it damages the body’s organs just as alcohol and cigarettes do. Cumulative stress is a well-documented cause of depression, suicide, heart disease, stroke, predisposition to infection and certain kinds of cancer. The body builds up the vessel-constricting, heart thumping hormones noradrenaline, adrenaline and the steroid cortisol. The problems cascade from there throughout the body.

What To Do?

The best advice is often the simplest: Eat healthy food, sleep right and avoid obsessing on the doom and gloom. Do yoga, meditate or exercise regularly to combat the growing stress.

A new study from Utah researchers shows that touch, in the form of massage, hugging and kissing, decreases stress hormones, increases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, and lowers blood pressure.

I am all for more touching and hugging, but people who feel a disaster is looming generally are resistant to altering their increasing unstable lives. A sleepless Wall Street trader or even a Nebraska farmer is too concerned about his or her bank account to consider health.

But for each one of us, awareness is a vital weapon, and we must consider that there is still time for us to take the same kind of common sense approach to health — eat right, exercise, sleep, manage stress — that might have saved our economy from this crisis in the first place.

As the father of stress research, Hans Selye, once wrote, “It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, is the author of ”False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.”

Postville Jewish community struggles to survive after raid

POSTVILLE, Iowa (JTA) — After former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin was arrested earlier this month, Rashi Raices joined several dozen members of this town’s Jewish community in volunteering the equity on their homes to guarantee his return to face trial.

All told, they were willing to put up the equivalent of about $2 million, according to the judge in the case. The court also received 275 letters from around the world testifying to Rubashkin’s character.

Rubashkin stands accused of a host of crimes stemming from his stewardship of the Agriprocessors meat packing plant in Postville. To much of the outside world he is the public face of a rapacious company that has demonstrated deep contempt for the law.

But to the several hundred Jews of Postville — home of the company’s main plant and once the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States — Rubashkin is a figure of reverence, a man who built a successful business and thriving Jewish community while performing countless unsung acts of kindness.

“The community cares very much for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin,” Raices told JTA on Sunday, three days after a federal magistrate rejected the appeals and ordered Rubashkin detained until trial.

“If they didn’t trust him, and if they didn’t care for him, they would not put up their homes,” Raices said. “Do you think if we really thought he was going to run away that we would put up our homes?”

The public offering on Rubashkin’s behalf is all the more noteworthy because it comes at a time of tremendous uncertainty for Postville’s Jews. The shutdown of Agriprocessors, which filed for bankruptcy Nov. 4 and hasn’t operated the plant in more than a week, has had deep consequences.

“People for the first time are going on to food stamps and Medicaid and unemployment,” Raices said.

Agriprocessors was the economic engine for the entire region of northeast Iowa, but the Jewish community was particularly dependent. Some 90 percent of Postville’s Jews were employed directly by the company, many of them as ritual slaughterers, or shochtim. Even those who didn’t often were employed by organizations established to service the community and therefore are dependent indirectly on Agriprocessors.

Teachers in the Jewish community school haven’t been paid since Oct. 3. Jewish Agriprocessors employees are, by one estimate, 12 weeks behind in their pay. A nonprofit effort has been established to raise money for the Jews of Postville and state assistance is on the way, but in the meantime some families are struggling to heat their homes and keep food on the table.

Their situation has gone relatively unnoticed, even though a massive federal immigration raid in May made this sleepy northeast Iowa town a focus of national interest. Instead, the bulk of news reports have focused on the plight of the largely immigrant work force detained by the federal government and the unsupported families they left behind. Much of the plant’s former non-Jewish work force is now stuck in Postville with dwindling resources, living off the generosity of area churches and dependent on the good will of the city’s residents.

On Nov. 21, Mayor Robert Penrod initiated the process of having Postville declared a disaster area — a move that is expected to result in nearly $700,000 in state assistance. Later in the day, a notice was posted in the Postville synagogue announcing that help is on the way for those struggling to pay for food and utilities.

“It’s a man-made disaster,” said Aaron Goldsmith, a former Postville city councilman and frequent spokesman for the community. “It’s as if we were hit by the Katrina flood. It doesn’t discriminate. The economic impact of the shutdown has hurt Jew and gentile alike, suppliers, sub-suppliers, the city’s infrastructure and the general morale of the broader community.”

Morale in the Jewish community has been especially hard hit because of a widespread sense among Postville Jews that they have been given a raw deal. Not by the Rubashkins, whose business practices some outside critics blame for the current crisis, but by the media, which many Jews in Postville see as unduly biased against the company, and by the federal government, which is seen as having moved more aggressively against Agriprocessors than against other companies accused of hiring undocumented workers.

That sense of grievance was compounded Nov. 20 when U.S. Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles refused to release Rubashkin on bail, concluding that he posed a “serious risk of flight.” Rubashkin faces substantial jail time for his alleged role in a scheme to defraud the company’s bank, as well as a host of charges related to his role in helping procure false documentation for the plant’s illegal work force.

In his ruling, Scoles cited a number of factors that made Rubashkin a flight risk, including the fact that Jews are granted automatic citizenship in Israel and that two former Agriprocessors supervisors already are believed to have fled there. He also noted that a travel bag filled with cash, silver coins, Rubashkin’s birth certificate and his childrens’ passports were found in his home.

His attorneys countered that Rubashkin’s financial situation was deteriorating and that he was saving the money to meet his family’s needs. They also argued that Rubashkin was tied deeply to the community and his 10 children, eight of whom still reside in Postville, including a mentally challenged son who is said to be particularly reliant on his father.

“Any judge can now say that they will not allow a Jew out just because he is a Jew, because a Jew has the right to run to Israel,” Raices said. “So you know what? Everyone’s hurting themselves out there by not bringing an outcry about that. That is blatant anti-Semitism. And he’s just the first one that’s suffering from that.”

“This past Wednesday was a very black day for Judaism, not just for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin,” she added. “It was a black day for Jews in America.”

Goldsmith declined to go as far, but he did offer that Rubashkin was the victim of “over-prosecution” and that the judge’s decision was “perplexing.”

While the community anguishes over Rubashkin’s fate, it also has more pressing concerns. At the Kosher Community Grocery on Nov. 21, the shelves were noticeably less than fully stocked. In the kitchen, Mordy Brown was slicing onions for cholent, part of the meal he was preparing for the approximately 40 yeshiva students in Postville.

Brown said the store is extending credit to some families short on funds and that cash flow is “very low.” Some meat remains in stock, but last week’s order, Brown said, is going to be the last for a while. He predicted the shelves would be empty in three days.

“It’s getting really tough,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, at the packing plant, all was quiet. Handwritten signs posted in the window announced more bad news: No work on Sunday and Monday. A court-appointed trustee was due Monday in Postville; the town is hopeful that checks will be issued soon thereafter.

But there are few illusions that Agriprocessors can recover as a going concern. Virtually the only hope for the future of the Postville Jewish community rests with the plant’s purchase by another company.

“I don’t know that the name Agriprocessors can be resurrected,” Goldsmith said, “but I think the plant can be resurrected. There just might be too much baggage with the old name.”

Talks with investors have been under way for months but no deal has been announced. Bernard Feldman, the company’s recently appointed chief executive, submitted an affidavit to the court claiming that he expected “such negotiations will be fruitful [and] completed in the very near future.”

In the meantime, the community languishes in uncertainty. And while the worst of the humanitarian crisis will likely be avoided through state assistance and outside donations, the intensity of the anger remains.

“It’s a 20th century pogrom,” said a customer at the kosher grocery who declined to give his name, “just without the horses and the houses haven’t been burned down yet.”

Economic crisis boosts need to focus on domestic violence

Domestic violence is the American epidemic we don’t want to talk about, hear about or know about. But in my 30 years as an advocate for women and children, I’ve never been more concerned about the victims of domestic violence than I am right now. Families already buckling under the weight of domestic violence in the best of times can collapse in times of economic downturn and war.

As Jews, we don’t get to take a vacation from tikkun olam and tzedakah because we find an issue disturbing or because something is affecting our bottom line. We are commanded to repair the world, to help those less fortunate, because it’s the right thing to do. And when our pocketbooks fail us, we still have our conscience and our voice.

If we don’t focus our attention on vulnerable families now — if we don’t encourage our leaders and future president to do the same — we very likely will see increases in the already too costly human price of this national scourge.

The statistics are staggering for this equal-opportunity destroyer. One in four U.S. women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; one in six will be the victim of an attempted or actual rape; one in 12 will be stalked. Nearly 5.3 million acts of intimate-partner violence occur each year among U.S. women age 18 and older, resulting in 2 million injuries and nearly 1,300 deaths.

A poor economic prognosis matters in a uniquely grave way to women and children in families where abuse happens.

According to a 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice, women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over the five-year course of the study were three times more likely to be abused. A spike in cases will be devastating for a system where supply is already not keeping up with demand.

Let’s wake up to what is really going on in families of all races, religions and economic levels behind the closed doors of our apartments and starter homes, mansions and military bases. The recent tragic stabbing death of 29-year-old Sgt. Christina E. Smith was the third off-post domestic violence murder of a Fort Bragg servicewoman in four months. Sgt. Richard Smith, 26, was charged, along with a friend, with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder of his wife. A local police spokesperson responded: “No, gosh, not another one.”

The war matters enormously to our leaders, to our citizens and to the parents and spouses of soldiers who pay the ultimate sacrifice. But it also matters to families of military women like Christina E. Smith. Families already under strain become another, rarely talked about, casualty.

So we’ve got to keep doing what we know makes a difference, such as running domestic violence prevention programs that model and teach healthy relationships for teens, and we need to maintain partnerships aimed at ensuring full funding of the Violence Against Women Act and Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and appropriate funding of the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA.

Only two years ago, the Lifetime Women’s Pulse Poll, conducted by Roper Poll, revealed the degree to which domestic violence informed the voting decisions of women and men over 18. Ninety-seven percent felt that the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault against women and girls was important and would impact whom they voted for in the election.

Jewish Americans are compassionate, and the more we know about an issue, the more we care about an issue. Let’s come together as one voice and let our leaders know that in the best and worst of times we are not going to let domestic violence continue. That we hold them, and ourselves, accountable for making it stop.

Loribeth Weinstein is the executive director of Jewish Women International

Communities can use High Holy Days to help ease economic angst

With the start of the High Holy Days, the pace of communal life starts to change, and our focus is on reflection, reconciliation, repentance and the annual response to new beginnings.

For too many in our community, however, this season will hold more angst than joy.

The economic situation in our country presents us with challenges unseen for nearly a generation. Too many will sit in synagogues through this season and be equally concerned with their own economic situation as they will the state of their soul. Increasingly, senior citizens on fixed or limited incomes are seeing their resources challenged. Young adults are concerned about job security. Too many of our people of all ages have lost jobs, been downsized or live on the edge of job and financial uncertainty.

This reality presents our community with a unique and necessary opportunity to become an even more meaningful “caring community.” This is a time when no one should be left to feel that they are “l’vado” (alone). This is a time for community and relationships to be enhanced and expanded, so that our congregations can be seen as responsive to and involved with those who are hurting.

In every community are untapped human resources: people who may have some time to give, who have experienced life and, if asked, might be willing to assist leadership in developing support systems for individuals and families in need. At the least, a call can be made to members who have experience in the workplace, who have counseled people in job changes and career moves.

Establishing a congregational or communal service corps with members willing to give advice and direction — or just lend a sympathetic ear to those who might be searching for new directions — is one possible course of action.

During a similar economic downturn in the early 1980s, I worked in Philadelphia and was involved in helping congregations create a communitywide job bank. It had some success helping people in our community get back to work. We simply polled the members of the community’s congregations for possible job openings and advertised those openings throughout the area so members could see what was available from those within their own community.

This could be done again. Synagogues can join other local organizations, JCCs, Jewish Family Service and others to broaden the base of opportunities to search. Even in this day of electronic and Internet job searches, personal networking and relationships go a long way in opening doors.

A difficulty in some of this may be the unwillingness on the part of many to come forward. So often we face this challenge of having people admit they may need some assistance, guidance or help in establishing goals. Transitions are tough and filled with fear. But let us not forget the power of the pulpit. The simple act of the rabbi offering a sermon on the need for this type of caring “inreach” can help worshipers see their congregation as more than a life-cycle institution.

The High Holy Days are a perfect example of a moment in time when Jews attend synagogue. Why not take a few moments at each service to launch this internal support network? Why not have in each prayer book a form that someone can fill out who has a job opening or position request, or has a willingness to give time to counsel or advise a fellow congregant on career change and possibilities?

Use your caring community committee to organize these forms and launch, right after Yom Kippur, a Sukkot of Transition so that all can feel the possibility of a “sukkat shalom.”

We soon will enter our season of possibilities. In each of our communities there are those we need to support and those with the ability to create that sense of support and caring. All we need to do is ask.

Rabbi Richard F. Address is the director of Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns (

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Israel confronts shared future with Bedouin citizens

At first glance, Um Batin seems almost familiar. It’s as if you’ve glimpsed something like it before in a TV docudrama, or on the glossy pages of National Geographic or as part of a news clip on CNN. It’s part Middle Eastern, part African. It’s part dust bowl, part fledgling village. It speaks of poverty, though there’s a gentle mood to the place, as if no one there is really complaining about their lot — almost as if they’ve picked it themselves.

And they have, in a way.

Um Batin, deep in the sandy, rocky terrain that is Israel’s Negev Desert, is a Bedouin Arab community of 4,000 people. Up until two years ago, Um Batin (“One Hill”) was considered an unrecognized village in Israel, meaning land claims had not been officially settled with the government, and hence all building was technically illegal and subject to demolition. The village’s status also meant that it was ineligible for basic municipal services, like running water, electricity, garbage removal, sewage systems, paved roads, even a high school.

Yet the Bedouin are full Israeli citizens, comprising about 80,000 people in northern Israel and 180,000 in the south, roughly 25 percent of the entire Negev population. They are entitled to the rights of Israeli Jews — that is if they could just stay put.

A nomadic people, “Bedouin” is the general name for Arabic-speaking tribes in the Middle East and North Africa that originate from the Arabian Peninsula, the Jazirat al-Arab. Before 1948, Bedouin were for generations the only residents of the Negev, a land mass that makes up some 60 percent of present-day Israel but comprises less than 10 percent of the total population.

About 15 million Bedouin live in the Middle East, including North Africa, and they have one of the highest birthrates in the world. Bedouin females, who typically marry before 20, have six to nine children, on average, with polygamy still practiced (Islam allows up to four wives). Two wives are not uncommon, even in Israel in the 21st century. With the husband and resulting children, families of nearly two-dozen members share a lifestyle and often an actual household.

That makes it a force to be reckoned with, according to professor Alean Al-Krenawi, chairman of the Spitzer department of social work, and director of the Regional Research and Development Center for the Bedouin Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who provided the statistics.

“My father used to say, ‘You have to walk with the wind,'” Al-Krenawi said. “Well, the Israelis, they were working against the wind. They were working with the Bedouin, and they didn’t understand them. Slowly, they’ve started to change their thinking and adapt Western models to ones that fit the Arab people.”

In the mid-1960s, the government attempted to settle some of the Negev Bedouin. It planned a development project in the south called Tel Sheva — not too far from the Jewish town of Beersheva, now a burgeoning city of nearly 200,000 — and started to build houses and an infrastructure to situate tribes. The problem was that nobody consulted the Bedouin, who didn’t want or ask for the homes. They simply weren’t interested in such a sedentary existence. The place was left empty for quite a while; “it was a big mistake,” said Al-Krenawi, himself Bedouin.

Eventually, the second generation of Israeli Bedouin, those coming of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, did start to move in to Tel Sheva and six other recognized villages: Rahat (now a city of about 40,000), Segev Shalom, Hura, Lakiya, Kifssa and Arara. Today, about one-half of Negev Bedouin live in these areas. Tel Sheva, the first development, now with more than 12,000 residents, remains the least successful.

The professor explained that there are crucial problems: a dramatic shift from living in tents and caring for land and animals to moving into contemporary abodes, coupled with no economy, few jobs and large families to educate. Many subsist on “social security,” Israel’s name for welfare, which he said is hardly enough to support 12 children.

The Bedouin were “pushed to the margins of society; they were left out,” Al-Krenawi said. “Joblessness is among the highest in Israel. It’s a big welfare population. It’s a disaster.”

The question, he continued, is one of the future: “Where are you taking this portion of society?”

“A Ticking Time Bomb”

Critics say the government has ignored the entire Negev since the founding of Israel in 1948 and is only now starting to realize its potential. It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saw possibility in the desert, so much so that when he retired from public office, he and his wife, Paula, moved to Sde Boker, in the central Negev below Beersheva, where they are buried. Ben-Gurion’s words sound surprisingly relevant these days: “The Negev offers the greatest opportunity to accomplish everything from the beginning.”

Signs of Bedouin movement do exist. It is a population that votes. It’s one that serves in the Israeli army and doubles its size every 13 years. It’s one that the average Israeli Jew realizes has been left out of the picture, not because of religion or politics, but because of lifestyle choices and because the Bedouin were never really considered at all.

Nine more recognized villages are in the works at various levels and stages of development. A regional council for this area, the Abu Bazma Council led by the government-appointed Amram Kolagy, has been set up and a modern building constructed to meet its needs. (All new towns in Israel, no matter the ethnicity or religion, get a Jewish mayor appointed by the Interior Ministry for a period of five years. After that, the mayor can be re-elected for another term or the town can choose its own new leader. The idea is for an experienced person to jump-start civic systems and get them up and running before handing them over to local authorities.) New schools, which will incorporate both boys and girls, are being built to accommodate the youth, which make up 60 percent of Negev Bedouin.

Kolagy, who is of Iraqi descent and well-versed in Arab customs, noted that the problems are more severe than first thought. He acknowledged that Israel made mistakes with the Bedouin from the start– “when the government system trickles down, a lot is lost along the way” — but his presence represents a new process, one that is working within the culture to make changes at the grass-roots level.

Is It Good for Them?

Earlier this week, an official in the ruling Palestinian leadership sat down for dinner at the Beverly Hills estate of a wealthy Jewish businessman and listened to a plan to save Palestine.
The businessman, Guilford Glazer, is the staunchly pro-Israel former chair of Israel Bonds, a friend and confidant to every prime minister since David Ben-Gurion. But he’s written a big check to fund Rand Corporation research that lays out the blueprint for a viable, sustainable Palestinian state.
Rand unveiled “Building a Successful Palestinian State” in a press conference Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The study acknowledges Glazer who, “brought the project into being and saw it through to completion.”
It is remarkable work: visionary yet packed with statistics, almost recklessly optimistic and, at the same time, wonkish. If Theodor Herzl had advanced degrees in architecture, urban planning, environmental design and economics, “The Jewish State” would have read like this.
Although the study was officially released this week, it has been rolled out over the past month with the savvy of a summer blockbuster. The focus audiences have been people such as Prime Minister Tony Blair, current and former government leaders, Israelis, Palestinians, investment bankers, aid experts. Just last week, Rand officials convened a closed-door session for invited international investors and analysts at the Milken Foundation Global Conference in Beverly Hills.
I asked Glazer what kind of criticism the plan has received.
“That’s the part that bothers me,” he said. “We haven’t gotten a bit.”
Glazer is 83. The son of a welder, he grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., one of eight children. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the college sophomore dropped out to join the Navy, and served as an engineer during World War II. He returned to his recently widowed mother and took over his father’s steel business.
“When I started it had two employees,” he told me. “A year later it had 150.”
Glazer went on to make millions — no, billions — in the building industry. Although he’s devoted his retirement years to philanthropic causes, primarily in the Jewish world, when you Google Glazer, the most frequent hit is his annual listing in the Forbes List of 400 Richest Americans.
Glazer had been involved with Rand for years, ever since his close friend Moshe Dayan urged him to retain Rand to assess Israel’s financial contribution to America’s Cold War struggles.
The Santa Monica-based think tank was already at work on a Palestine study, initially funded by Santa Monica residents David and Carol Richards, when it contacted Glazer and tapped into his long-standing interest.
“My father used to tell me that a man with nothing to lose is very dangerous,” Glazer said. “We need in our self-defense to make sure they have something,” he said, referring to the Palestinians.
In other words, Glazer and the Rand people have turned the old formulation on its head. Is it good for the Jews? now has a corollary: “Is it good for the Palestinians?”
Failure, Glazer said, is not an option. A seething, destabilized state of Palestine would pose a constant security threat to Israel. A viable, sustainable state might just ensure a regional calm.
“You need to do something to get them started,” he said. “These people are not just gonna lose everything anymore for no reason.”
The Rand study begins with the current state of the Palestinian entity, which is a train wreck.
Its population density rivals Bangledesh. It receives half of the water it needs. Since the intifada began in 2000, gross income has dropped by 40 percent and unemployment has risen from 25 percent to 80 percent. In the best-case scenario, it will take five years for these numbers to improve to pre-intifada levels, which weren’t exactly Sweden’s.
Palestine’s success depends on four key factors, say the Rand planners: territorial contiguity, permeability of borders, capital investment and economic and governmental policy.
The challenges are daunting. The new country will have to reabsorb tens of thousands of destitute refugees within its borders, and an estimated 500,000 returnees from abroad. The Palestinians will have to do this while stamping out violent factions and political corruption within and dealing with a neighbor, Israel, for whom permeable borders and territorial contiguity present significant, immediate security threats.
The bad news is that Palestinians now inhabit an economy that is either destroyed, obsolete or decrepit. The good news: They can start from scratch and build their future smartly.
This is what the Rand people did — treated the existing topography, resources and society as a kind of blank slate for state-of-the-art, sustainable urban planning.
The result makes you wish Rand was around to plan Los Angeles 60 years ago.
The plan’s centerpiece is visually and intellectually simple, in the best sense of the word. It calls for a light-rail line, which it calls “the arc.” The rail line would essentially bisect Palestine, freeing the proto-nation from a future dependence on cars while also providing the backbone for a high-tech infrastructure and adjacent green space. Picture a stylized “J.” The top of the letter starts in the upper West Bank, in Jenin, and the stem runs down along the ridge of already settled towns — Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem. The hook goes through Israel via a secure path, and reappears in Gaza, where it runs upward through that narrow strip from Rafah to Gaza City.
The “J,” located just east of existing towns, would connect the major Palestinian population centers in an efficient, car-free way. (“Cars ruin everything,” Glazer told me. “Israel’s all car-ed up.) Water, utility, sewage and fiber-optic lines would follow the same J-shaped trunk line. Efficient, relatively cheap high-speed buses would link the old town centers with new high-tech, industrial zones and settlement corridors forming horizontally along its route. A greenbelt would border the line, forming a single park up and down the country’s length. Electricity would flow from wind and solar generators.
This “J” would contain sprawl, preserve other open spaces, obviate the need for most cars, smooth the flow of goods and services, and help preserve the character of old, tourism-friendly Palestinian towns while allowing for new industrial and residential growth. In Palestine, demography is destiny, and the Rand report assumes that the population will double over the next 10 years.
The plan is estimated to cost $41.5 billion over the next 10 years. That’s about the same amount the international community pays to keep the peace in Bosnia — over $700 per person per year.
During our long phone conversation, Glazer repeatedly praised the study’s authors, especially lead author Douglas Suisman. I raised the possibility that Palestinians might ignore their names and focus, suspiciously, on his own: Why should Palestinians heed a study largely funded by a wealthy, pro-Israel Jewish businessman in Beverly Hills?
“I don’t worry about that,” he said. “The ones who have seen it tell me they’re glad to have any help from any source. If they don’t want it then it can wither on the vine, but maybe they’re tired of committing suicide.”
Glazer paused and then came at the question again: “All this makes plain common sense to me, and it must get done. It’s just a dream, but you have to work at your dreams.”
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Why Synagogues Are Going Broke

Unemployment hit a 30-year low in April and the economy is, if not booming, at least bouncing. So why is it that so many synagogues, even in wealthy areas, are struggling? Perhaps it is because members fail to understand that dues only go so far, according to Sylvia Moskovitz, executive director at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.

“A lot of generous people belong to synagogues who give to Federation and give to charities but don’t realize that the synagogue needs their charitable dollars, too,” Moskovitz said. “The dues and fees we charge don’t cover the whole budget. They can’t – we’d have to charge $5,000 a family, and we cannot do that. We can’t make fees so high that it’s like an exclusive club.”

Moskovitz said about 10 percent of Aliyah’s 900 families ask for some sort of financial assistance. The problem comes, she said, when members put off paying dues or fees and then, when the synagogue comes calling, assert that forcing payment “isn’t the Jewish way.” “This is a constant battle we wage between being a business and being Jewish,” she said. “There are lights and prayer books and seats to be set up and bills to be paid. I cannot say to the electric company and the gas company and the bank that holds the mortgage [that] we cannot pay our bills because we’re in the business of God.”

Synagogue budgets tend to throw most of their weight toward two factors, people and buildings, and Temple Aliyah is no exception. Moskovitz estimates about two-thirds of Aliyah’s budget goes to salaries, which does not give the synagogue a lot of room for cutting costs. Security expenses also escalated here and at other local synagogues in response to last year’s shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. In addition, members are asking for more programming than ever before while at the same time spending less money and time at the shul than prior generations did.

“We’re a young congregation, only 36 years old,” Moskovitz notes. “A lot of older congregations in the East Valley have longtime members who leave endowments and that sort of thing. But young families have their priorities elsewhere; they’re buying homes and dealing with their kids’ schooling. Somehow we have to get them connected into their religion and show them that it’s important to make that commitment if they want their children to grow up and be Jewish.”

Rabbi Alice Dubinsky, the outgoing director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ Pacific Southwest Council, lectures frequently on the issue of money and Judaism. She observes that the problem of synagogue financing is driven not only by individual member’s priorities but also those of the congregation as a whole.

“If you look at the budget of a synagogue, you can tell a lot about them from the choices they make: how they raise their money and how they spend their money,” Dubinsky said. “There are congregations that have large infusions of cash but equally large budgets, and they have this atmosphere of anxiety that takes its toll on the board, on the clergy and staff and on the congregation.

“I think it is very important that congregations live within their means,” Dubinsky added. “That’s not very fashionable these days – people have leased cars and leased homes and that is the dominant culture, but a synagogue cannot be run that way. It needs financial discipline. In fact, this is an area where synagogues could be at the forefront, teaching people about financial ethics. We can’t be frustrated with people for not having a sense of philanthropy; instead we need to go out and do the teaching.”- Wendy Madnick, Valley Editor

The Honeymoon is Over

Nine months after Ehud Barak took office as “everybody’s prime minister,” the honeymoon is over — with his voters, coalition allies and Arab partners in the quest for peace. It is too early to write him off, but the Labor leader can no longer rely on loyalty or goodwill to see him through.

On the domestic front, he shows no sign of delivering to the neglected, mainly Sephardi, citizens in the rundown development towns and city slums to whom he promised jobs and a fair share of the national cake. Unemployment is still running in double figures in these backwaters. Firms are still closing unprofitable textile factories. The old women in overcrowded hospitals, a potent symbol in Barak’s election campaign, are still sleeping in the corridors.

To the dismay of Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who tried to persuade him to reactivate Labor’s social agenda, the prime minister and the Treasury conservatives are relying on a “peace dividend” to stimulate the economy. In the best Reagan-Thatcher mode, they put their faith in a trickle-down effect. The rich will get richer, the poor will be a little less poor. But not yet.

Barak is not, as some of his detractors would have us believe, a Bibi Netanyahu clone. For starters, most Israelis still credit him with genuinely seeking peace and a readiness to pay a heavy price for it. But Barak is starting to suffer from the Bibi syndrome.

The professional politicians, whom he treated with ill-concealed contempt when he was forming his administration, are rubbing their hands. His junior coalition parties are flexing their muscles. The heads of three of them — Shas, the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’aliya — have signed an opposition Likud draft bill, which would block any compromise with the Palestinians over Jerusalem. So has Roni Milo of the Center party. Sharansky and the NRP’s Yitzhak Levy are also campaigning against withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

At the beginning of this week, Shas’ back-benchers voted against the prime minister on a Likud no-confidence motion. Ostensibly, they were warning Barak not to tamper with Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. In fact, they were protesting because leftist Meretz Education Minister Yossi Sarid has refused to give his Shas deputy minister, Meshulam Nahari, any work to do.

With an aura of success and the peace process moving forward, Barak could stifle many of these challenges. His trouble is that peace is floundering on every front. The much-decorated ex-chief of staff set targets and timetables for the Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese. He thought that if he tempted them enough, they would let him write the script. It hasn’t worked that way. They have their own agendas, and they are rigorously pursuing them.

Syrian President Hafez Assad is sticking to his maximalist demand. Israel, he insists, must withdraw not just from the Golan plateau, but to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And he is making it more difficult for Barak to sell a deal to the Israeli public — by forbidding his diplomats to shake Israeli hands, by accusing Israel of behaving like Nazis, by hinting that peace would be no more than a staging post toward the ultimate Arab goal of destroying the Zionist state.

For their part, the Palestinians are declining to accept whatever slices of the West Bank Barak deigns to give them under the delayed Oslo accords. They want areas closer to Jerusalem. They want to be consulted. They want to bargain. Otherwise, they won’t play ball — and the security services are already warning of renewed Palestinian violence.

This week, Yasser Arafat publicly accused Barak of being no better than Netanyahu. The Palestinian leader is reported to have told Miguel Moratinos, the European Union’s roving Middle East troubleshooter: “Barak tried and failed to assassinate me three times when he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Now he is trying to kill me by means of my own people. He is humiliating me and trying to coerce me into accepting his surrender terms.”

In Lebanon, bombing civilian power stations has boomeranged. The Hezbollah guerrillas are still shooting Israeli soldiers (though they have been deterred, for now, from firing Katyusha rockets at civilian communities in Northern Israel). But Beirut has exploited the air strikes to rally the Arab world — and much of the West — against Israel. The escalation has provoked a crisis between Barak and President Hosni Mubarak, who flew to Lebanon for the first visit there by an Egyptian leader in half a century.

Barak is keeping his nerve. He is setting new deadlines, working to revive negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians. He still promises to “bring the boys home” from Lebanon by July. But he is looking more and more like the boy on the burning deck.

Israeli commentators are uniformly gloomy. The nearest to an optimist this week was Hemi Shalev, who suggested in Ma’ariv that “Arab public opinion discerns in its gut that the peace process is coming of age, and that the time for decisions is approaching.” On this reading, Shalev dubbed it, “The storm before the calm.”

The alternative, he might have added, would not be a return to the old bromide of no-peace, no-war.

Rich Israeli, Poor Israeli

For all the recent hubbub over the worsening lot of Israel’s poor, and the growing criticism of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s born-again Reaganite economic policies, it should be understood that in many key misery indices, Israel isn’t doing too badly.

Compared to the world’s other 25 or so industrialized countries, Israel almost certainly has proportionately less hunger than all or most of them. Its unemployment rate of 9.1 percent is roughly double that of the U.S., but that’s still not as bad as in Germany and a number of other Western European countries. Israel has poverty, but then so do the world’s richest countries.

There is one category, however, in which Israel stands out: the income gap between rich and poor. For the last decade, it has been widely reported that Israel has the second widest division between rich and poor in the industrialized world, after America’s.

But the country’s leading expert on economic inequality, Hebrew University Prof. Shlomo Yitzhaki, said Israel might not be the number two, but rather the number one country whose citizens are more economically unequal even than America’s.

“The statistics on income distribution in Israel only look at salaries; they do not include income from capital, and they do not include the income of the self-employed, who tend towards the extremes of the economic spectrum. If these two factors, income from capital and the income of the self-employed, were included in Israel’s statistics, the gap between rich and poor would reveal itself to be even greater than the statistics show,” said Yitzhaki.

Considering that Israel always had a reputation of being a “socialist” country, the finding that its income disparity is even greater than America’s is quite a jolt. “Israel always spoke the rhetoric of socialism, but didn’t necessarily practice it,” Yitzhaki explained.

He said income gaps wider than those found in Israel exist only in Third World locales like Asia, South America and South Africa. Asked if he knew of any industrialized country with a wider income gap than Israel’s, Yitzhaki couldn’t name one.

Personal income, however, is not the only measure of one’s standard of living. While the income gap in Israel may be wider than in the U.S., Yitzhaki noted, “There is much more equality here in education and health care. Israel spends a lot of money on schools in poor areas, and health insurance [whose cost varies with one’s income] is available to all, which certainly isn’t the case in the U.S.”

On the other hand, prices in Israel are so high compared to people’s income — much higher than in the U.S. or Europe — that Israelis’ buying power is much weaker than their incomes would indicate, which also weighs especially heavy on the poor, he said.

Even the dubious numbers provided by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics show that income gaps have been growing fairly steadily since 1985, when Israel began its changeover from a state-dominated to private-sector-dominated economy. And in 1997 — the last year for which the CBS has income distribution statistics — the richest tenth of the salaried population was earning a little over 10 times as much as the poorest tenth.

What the figures show is that since the mid-80s in Israel, the rich have gotten richer while the poor have gotten poorer. But this is an oversimplification; more precisely, what’s happened is that the poor have gotten slightly poorer, while the rich have gotten a whole lot richer.

There are a variety of reasons for this. “The massive influx of foreign workers into Israel this decade, both Palestinians from the territories and guest workers from Romania, China, Africa and other countries, have driven down wages for menial labor. Foreign workers are always cheap and easily exploitable, so unskilled Israelis can command only very low salaries,” said Dr. Rafi Melnick, an economist with Jerusalem’s Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, a liberal think tank.

The closure of textile and other labor-intensive industries, and the explosion in knowledge-intensive high-tech industries, has created tens of thousands of well-paid jobs, while at the same time making tens of thousands of minimum-wage jobs extinct. Israel’s regressive tax policy has also contributed to the income gap. “Israel is one of the very few industrialized countries where there is no tax on capital — neither on stocks, inheritance, nor savings,” said Yitzhaki. Israel has no tax on rental income, either. Asked if he could name another developed country with such an enormously capital-friendly tax policy, Yitzhaki again couldn’t come up with one.

The aversion to taxing capital grew out of the conditions of Israel’s infancy in the 1950s, Yitzhaki continued. “There weren’t too many people with money to invest in new businesses, so the government didn’t want to take it away from them.” With time, tax-free capital was seen as a right, not a privilege. In recent years, it even gained “ideological” justification among Israel’s conservative economic establishment.

No change seems to be on the horizon under Barak. His budget priorities are hardly any different from those of his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, who was the most economically conservative prime minister Israel ever had.

As for renewed economic growth — Barak’s hoped-for panacea — Yitzhaki said, “Economic growth affects the haves — the wealthy and, to a lesser extent, the middle-class. The have-nots remain the have-nots.”

Poverty and Unemployment Plague Israel

The peace process isn’t the news in Israel anymore; it’s poverty, unemployment and hunger. The domestic agenda, the one that Prime Minister Ehud Barak focused his election campaign on, has jumped up and bitten him.

Recent polls show that Israelis, by a margin of over 2-1, think Barak is mishandling these all-important socioeconomic issues. He took a public relations beating on his recent visit to the U.S. As Israelis watched him on TV visiting Wall Street and attending festive dinners with multimillionaires, the faces they saw on their local news were of hungry, hopeless people.

“They ask me if I’m hungry. Am I hungry? Am I hungry? I’m hungry for bread!” an Israeli welfare mother screamed, in a scene repeated over and over on the TV news. The organization of municipal governments came out with a statistic that 135,000 Israelis were hungry or malnourished — a statistic that in the following days was shown to be grossly inflated. But with the condition of Israel’s have-nots undeniably getting worse, the impression of people going hungry stuck.

Unemployment has now reached 9.2 percent nationally — roughly double the American rate. In the dozens of backwater towns of the Negev Desert and Galilee, far from the industrialized center of the country, the jobless rate appears to be in the vicinity of 20 percent.

Approximately one out of every four Israeli children lives below the poverty line, and many, many more live just barely above it.

These are the issues Barak illustrated time and time again in his campaign — “the child who cries himself to sleep because his father can’t find a job,” and “the elderly, sick woman lying on a gurney in the corridor of the hospital because there is no bed for her.” A “change in the order of priorities” is what Barak promised — government intervention on behalf of the poor who, after three years of recession and Reaganite economics under the Netanyahu government, needed help in a big way, and fast.

But since Barak has taken over, he has changed his thinking on economic and social policy. He has become quite a Reaganite himself, leaving it to the business sector to bring economic growth that is supposed to trickle-down to the poor, and provide the government with increased tax revenues to improve infrastructure, education and other vital elements of the public sector.

Recently he has made a number of statements that betray an insensitivity to suffering — or at least an unfortunate ability to appear insensitive.

To the problem of hungry Israelis, he offered charity on the part of those with full stomachs as an answer. “The way is for people to open their refrigerators and find how to prevent others from being undernourished. I don’t know of a citizen in the country who would not take from his refrigerator or table a little food that is there, in order to transfer it to another family which is truly hungry.”

He told industrialists in New York that he wanted to cut taxes for Israelis, and promised that if they came to invest in Israel, his government would let them make their profits unmolested.

His proposed budget for 2000 includes a series of cuts to social welfare, and despite calls by cabinet ministers to spend more money to help the poor, Barak vowed that he would not increase the budget “by even a millimeter.”

Most tellingly, perhaps, Barak has said that when the current monetary czar, Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkel, steps down at the beginning of next year, he will be replaced by someone who will carry on Frenkel’s conservative, low-spending, low-inflation policies.

The prime minister is banking on the renewal of the peace process, along with a natural upturn in the business cycle, to fuel the economic growth that should shower blessings on all Israelis, rich, middling and poor.

Israel experienced tremendous economic growth in the first half of this decade, but the boom created jobs almost solely in the center of the country, and mainly in high-wage professions — not for the poor, and not for the people living in the Negev and Galilee, said Dr. Shlomo Swirski of Tel Aviv’s Adva Center, a social policy think tank.

“To break into the high-wage economy you need advanced education and access to the jobs, which few people living in the periphery of the country enjoy. The growth of the Rabin-Peres years didn’t help them. Business investment went to the center, not to the outlying areas,” said Swirsky, a leading expert on development towns.

In Ofakim, which has become a symbol of hopelessness in the Negev, Motti Zohar, director of the state Employment Service said, “We didn’t really feel that much difference between the boom [of 1990-1995] and the recession that’s been going on since. The growth period passed over us.”

Yet Barak pins his hopes on a return to good times. In the meantime, the poor and liberal middle-class who elected him is growing impatient. Wrote Gideon Samet, a columnist for the Ha’aretz daily: “The political story is first and foremost economic and social. What some of Barak’s disappointed supporters are saying is that if he does not stick to his promises to improve their lives, they too will withdraw their support from him.”

Crypto – Jews Unmasked

This past October I found myself, along with four other North American Jewish journalists, flying business class — a wonderful way to fly — to Croatia on Lufthansa Airlines. The Croatian Tourist Office in conjunction with Lufthansa had generously put together a 12 day guest package, hoping we would like what we saw (after all, parts of Croatia, especially the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic Sea, are quite beautiful). The thought was we would combine descriptions of the famous tourist sights with a report to our readers on the life and times of Jewish Croatia.

There was a certain disarming lunacy about the whole enterprise. Certainly a journalist can discover interesting and important stories to recount about Croatia — its politics, its recent history, and its estrangement from the West; reportage about Croatia’s dying, autocratic President Franja Tudjman and the likelihood of his party’s (the HDZ or Croatian Democratic Union) success in the elections scheduled for Jan. 3; accounts of the high levels of unemployment (nearly 20 percent) along with the moribund tourist trade; or the way in which modern life continues to persist (with energy) in this strange isolated land: from urban Central European Zagreb, the capitol city, all the way to the Dalmatian Coast on the beautiful Adriatic, with its Italian and Mediterranean ambiance looming out of the sea in such lovely port cities as Split and Dubrovnik.

Despite the generosity of the Croatian Tourist Bureau towards me and the other journalists, these are not Jewish stories and have little to do with what might be called Jewish Croatia. Ironically, the outcome in all these political matters — Tudjman’s successor, unemployment, tourism, relations with the U.S. and Western Europe — will determine the fate of Croatia’s 2,500 Jews just as it will the rest of the nation’s near 5 million population.

Jewish Croatia to all intents and purposes is a statistical blip. More than half the Jews, 1,500, live in Zagreb which has a population of about one million. Split, a jewel of a city (population about 200,000) on the Dalmatian Coast, contains about 150 Jews, but not all are participants in the community. In Dubrovnik, with its marvelous old walled city, there are 44 Jews. Bruno Horowitz the leader of the community, explains that services are held infrequently; only “when there are enough tourists to have a minyan.” Carefully he traces through the list of each Jewish family in Dubrovnik: he’s a dentist; she’s a teacher; he’s a photographer; and on through all 44.