Panel at AIPAC Blasts Trump’s Proposed Foreign Aid Cuts


WASHINGTON – At an AIPAC panel on Sunday, the highlighted speakers assailed the Trump Administration for its massive reductions in the proposed foreign aid budget. Retired General Charles Walk asserted, “I have never heard of a general officer” who doesn’t support foreign assistance.

The speakers also noted that American aid to Israel’s neighbors who have maintained peace treaties with the Jewish state such as Jordan and Egypt significantly benefits Jerusalem. “The assistance we give to others for instance Jordan is in Israel’s interest as well,” noted Lindsay Plack, Director of Government Relations at the US Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). The US assistance to Amman following the refugee spillover from the Syrian war “ensures that the Jordanian economy doesn’t crumble under the stress of all those refugees coming in,” she added.

Speaking in Tokyo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on March 16, “The level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking in the past.. is simply not sustainable.” The top US diplomat added, “We are going to construct a way forward that allows us to be much more effective, much more efficient, and be able to do a lot with fewer dollars.”

“I guarantee it, if we were to cut half of this foreign aid budget it would probably translate into some huge number of US engagements around the world,” Walk noted at one of the few hundred breakout sessions AIPAC has organized at its annual Policy Conference.

Last month, over 120 retired generals signed a letter pushing back against the White House’s plan to slash aid to USAID and the State Department as “critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

“The threats that we face, frankly it became most clear after 9/11, they can’t be solved with the military alone,” Plack said. “When America leads, it’s good for Israel. When we pull back, that is not good for Israel.”  

AIPAC has stressed the importance of maintaining the State Department’s budget by showcasing Defense Secretary General Mattis’ remarks on video screens throughout the convention center: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

As assistance to the UN viewed controversially in some circles, Plask pointed to the important work of UNHCR, the international organization’s refugee agency. “They are on the front lines of the refugee crisis and Syrian civil war, so our small investment allows them to be on the front lines instead of us.”

With dramatic reductions to foreign aid across the world while maintaining $3.8 billion annually to Israel, some pro-Israel advocates worry about the perception of foreign aid to the Jewish state among the American public. When USGLC was established 20 years ago, AIPAC was a founding member.

“The foreign aid bill has long been one of AIPAC’s highest priorities and it helps ensure that the country has the resources to lead in the world,” noted AIPAC official Dan Granot at the end of the panel urging the attendees to preserve a robust global foreign assistance and implicitly lobby against the Trump Administration’s cuts. “Tuesday morning, when you all go to the Hill, remember you are not only advocating for Israel’s aid but also to ensure US leadership around the world.”

Alan Gross never debriefed after release from Cuba


Alan Gross, the Jewish-American government contractor who was jailed in Cuba for five years as a spy, was never debriefed after his release from prison and return to the United States, according to a new report.

No U.S. government official has debriefed Gross since his release from prison in Cuba more than nine months ago, the Daily Beast reported Thursday citing an “authoritative source.” The report comes a day after President Barack Obama announced that the United States would open an embassy in Havana more than 50 years after diplomatic relations were severed. Cuba also plans to open an embassy in Washington.

While in prison it was rumored that Gross was an undercover CIA agent.

Both Jill Zuckman, Gross’ spokesman, and Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman, declined to comment on the issue to the Daily Beast.

Gross, 66, was released from prison in December. He was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and charged with crimes against the state after setting up Internet access for the Jewish community there while working as a contractor for USAID. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was freed following an agreement by the U.S. and Cuba to work to renew diplomatic relations and improve commercial ties.

In May, Gross spoke at a fundraiser for New Cuba PAC, which calls for easing trade and travel restrictions between the island nation and the United States.

Cuba releases American Alan Gross as U.S. prepares to overhaul Cuba policy


Cuba has released American aid worker Alan Gross after five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana that the United States said on Wednesday heralds an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

A U.S. official said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds. CNN reported a prisoner exchange that also included Cuba releasing a U.S. intelligence source and the United States releasing three Cuban intelligence agents.

U.S. President Barack Obama was due to make a statement at noon (1700 GMT) on Cuba, the White House said, and U.S. official said Obama would announce a shift in Cuba policy. Cuban President Raul Castro was also set to make a statement at that time.

[RELATED: Alan Gross, the forgotten man (Nov. 5)]

Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, on Dec. 3, 2009, and later convicted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews.

The United States and Cuba have been locked in hostilities for more than half a century, and Obama is sure to face howls of protest in Washington and within the Cuban exile community in Miami for freeing the Cuban intelligence agents after 16 years in prison. Their freedom will be hailed as a resounding victory at home for Raul Castro.

The payoff for Obama was the release of Gross, whose lawyer and family have described him as mentally vanquished, gaunt, hobbling and missing five teeth.

Cuba arrested Gross in 2009 and later sentenced him to 15 years for attempting to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews under a program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). His case raised alarms about USAID's practice of hiring private citizens to carry out secretive assignments in hostile places.

Cuba considers USAID another instrument of continual U.S. harassment dating to the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Fidel Castro retired in 2008, handing power to his brother Raul.

The United States has said it wants to promote democracy in communist-led Cuba, a one-party state that represses political opponents and controls the media. American officials accused Cuba of taking Gross hostage as a ploy to get their spies back.

The three Cuban intelligence agents, jailed since 1998, are: Gerardo Hernandez, 49, Antonio Guerrero, 56, and Ramon Labañino, 51. Two others had been released before on completing their sentences – Rene Gonzalez, 58, and Fernando Gonzalez, 51.

CHANGE IN RELATIONS?

The so-called Cuban Five were convicted for spying on anti-Castro exile groups in Florida and monitoring U.S. military installations. They are hailed as anti-terrorist heroes in Cuba for defending the country by infiltrating exile groups in Florida at a time when anti-Castro extremists were bombing Cuban hotels.

Two were due to be released in coming years but Gerardo Hernandez, the leader, received a double life sentence for conspiracy in Cuba's shooting down of two U.S. civilian aircraft in 1996, killing four Cuban-Americans.

The United States had flatly refused to swap Gross for the agents, but the White House came under increasing pressure to intervene from Gross' allies and foreign policy experts as Gross' health deteriorated.

Gross had already lost some 100 pounds when he went on a five-day hunger strike in April, and upon his 65th birthday in May he vowed to die rather than turn 66 in prison.

Gross' release could lead Obama to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, which would stir fierce opposition from well-financed and politically organized Cuban exiles, who resist engagement with the communist-led island.

Although Obama said “we have to continue to update our policies” on Cuba over a year ago, until now he had yet to signal change.

The president has authority to unilaterally gut the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and allow U.S. citizens to travel freely to the island. His State Department can remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, an outdated designation that carries with it further economic sanctions.

Proponents of normalization note that Cuba has blamed the embargo for its economic shortcomings for decades and uses U.S. aggression as justification for stifling dissent.

Despite bilateral animosity, the two countries have been quietly engaged on a host of issues such as immigration, drug interdiction and oil-spill mitigation.

U.S. funds to fight Ebola now top $1 billion, may rise


The U.S. government now has more than $1 billion available to fight the spread of Ebola from West Africa and is proceeding with plans to deploy up to 4,000 military personnel to the region by late October.

Key congressional committee leaders signed off last week on the transfer of $750 million in Defense Department funds to support the military effort.

Here is a rundown of U.S. monetary commitments so far and the status of future funds in the fight against Ebola:

FUNDS COMMITTED:

Various agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Pentagon and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), had committed to spend about $311 million through Oct. 10, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

This includes $11 million for personal protective equipment, $95 million to develop medical countermeasures, $10 million for community health workers, $35 million to expand laboratory capacity for disease detection, $22 million for field hospitals, $1 million for security and $137 million for laboratory surveillance, logistics and relief commodities and disease detection activities.

AVAILABLE FUNDS:

The chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House of Representatives Armed Services committees and Appropriations defense subcommittees approved the Pentagon's transfer of $750 million from its war operations budget, enough to support the West Africa Ebola mission for about six months.

The Pentagon's plan for humanitarian aid includes building 17 Ebola treatment facilities with 100 beds each, training of up to 500 healthcare workers each week and a $22 million, 25-bed field hospital to care for sick health workers.

Congress approved $88 million in a stop-gap government funding measure, including $58 million to accelerate production and development of antiviral drugs and vaccines, and $30 million for CDC personnel, equipment and supplies.

USAID and the State Department have announced a $10 million grant to the African Union to train and equip more than 100 medical workers for West Africa. USAID has also announced plans for up to $75 million in additional Ebola funds.

REQUESTED FUNDS

Republican leaders on the four panels have withheld approval of another $250 million in Pentagon funds from the Obama administration's original $1 billion transfer request. Senator James Inhofe is insisting that another funding source be identified for U.S. operations in Africa beyond six months, and that the effort be shifted to other “more appropriate” agencies and non-profit groups.

FUTURE FUNDS

Appropriations committees in Congress are trying to get a handle on the future funding needs of a sprawling, multi-agency Ebola response effort. The information will help them craft a fiscal 2015 spending bill that needs approval by Dec. 11, when a temporary extension of government funding runs out.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, a Republican, and Representative Nita Lowey, the panel's top Democrat, have asked the administration for a detailed, government-wide Ebola plan by Friday. (Compiled by David Lawder. Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and David Alexander.; Editing by Grant McCool and Andre Grenon)

U.S. commits $47 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza


The United States has committed $47 million to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The money will be for “direct humanitarian assistance,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed Monday night in Cairo at a news conference with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The assistance, according to the State Department, includes $15 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for its $60 million Gaza Flash Appeal; $3.5 million in emergency relief assistance from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance; $10 million in existing USAID bilateral funding, redirected to meet immediate humanitarian needs in Gaza; and $18.5 million in new USAID bilateral funding for humanitarian and emergency relief assistance.

Some 600 Gaza Palestinians, mostly civilians, reportedly have been killed since Israel launched its Operation Protective Edge 15 days ago in a bid to stop rocket fire into the country from Gaza. At least 26 Israeli soldiers and two civilians have been killed.

“We are deeply concerned about the consequences of Israel’s appropriate and legitimate effort to defend itself,” Kerry said. “No country can stand by while rockets are attacking it and tunnels are dug in order to come into your country and assault your people. But always, in any kind of conflict, there is a concern about civilians, about children, women, communities that are caught in it. And we are particularly trying to focus on a way to respond to their very significant needs.”

He added that the United States “will work to see if there is some way to not only arrive at a cease-fire of some kind, but to get to a discussion about the underlying issues. Nothing will be resolved by any cease-fire, temporary or long, without really getting to those issues at some point. And that’s what we need to do.”

Ban called on Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and said he understands why Israel has to respond militarily, “but there is a proportionality. And most of the Palestinian people have been — most of the death toll are Palestinian people.”

“I fully understand, fully sympathize the sufferings of the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza,” the U.N. leader said. “These restrictions should be lifted as soon as possible so that people should not resort to this kind of violence as a way of expressing their grievances.

“At the same time, I fully appreciate the legitimate right to defend their country and citizens of Israel. Israel should also be able to live in peace and security without being endangered of their citizens.”

 

USAID: America, the mensch


Hollywood had one question for Dr. Rajiv Shah: Why haven’t we heard of you before?

That’s what everybody seemed to be asking, one way or another, when the young, gifted director of USAID came to a conference room at Creative Artists Agency on Dec. 13 to tell the story of the agency he runs.

And what a story it is.

USAID immunization programs save 3 million lives each year. Its family planning programs have lowered the average number of children per family from 6.1 in the mid-1960s to 4.2 today in 28 countries. In the past 50 years, USAID has reduced infant and child death rates in the developing world by 50 percent, and health conditions around the world have improved more during this period than in all human history. USAID programs have boosted literacy rates by 33 percent worldwide, created the first full-fledged commercial bank in Latin America dedicated to microbusiness, and provided food assistance to 43 of the top 50 consumer nations today. 

Think of South Korea. It was the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, and that aid helped it rebound from postwar devastation in the ’50s to the world’s eighth largest economy. That, said Shah, is exactly the point of foreign aid. “We’re trying to create more South Koreas and fewer North Koreas,” Shah said. “We are not going to kill our way out of global insecurity.”

Shah, 39, earned a medical degree from University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in public health from Wharton. He’s worked for Al Gore and Bill Gates, for whom he ran a multi-billion dollar vaccination program. Now he runs an organization that has a $22 billion budget, 8,000 employees and an unfortunate, even unbecoming degree of modesty.

Shah himself comes off as a passionate wonk. He has seen the worst havoc that nature (the Haiti earthquake) and man (Syria) can wreak, and he has marshaled the forces of good, and his own good nature, to beat it back.

And he has done it with your money.

That was the shock of hearing him speak: It seems the people most unaware of the good USAID does in the world are people in the United States, who are paying for it. “We’re not very good at that,” Shah admitted to a gathering of entertainment and media industry types at a discussion mounted by the Foreign Policy Roundtable. “Maybe you can help us.”

They need help. When candidates like Paul Ryan and Ron Paul single out American foreign aid as too much for too little, there is precious little dissent (other than on the matter of foreign aid to Israel). That’s because most of us just don’t know that USAID, which languished through much of the early 2000s, has become a true American success story.

Take early childhood mortality. More than 19,000 children under the age of 5 die each day around the world.  But in Bangladesh, USAID brought neonatal mortality down by 50 percent.

To help explain how, Shah displayed a small handheld plastic pump that a midwife or nurse can use outside a hospital to clear a newborn’s breathing passages. Working with overseas suppliers, USAID makes the low-tech, high-functioning items for about $7 each. It comes with a life-sized doll for practice. With  the help of devices like these, Shah said, “we can eliminate premature child death.”

I pointed out to Shah that neither the doll nor the pump is identified as American-funded. Why not give the doll a red-white-and-blue dress? Or put an American flag sticker on the pump?

He nodded, a bit sheepish. “Good idea.”

To some extent, other nations are more appreciative of USAID than Americans are.

“There’s no question that when we succeed at scale, there’s recognition,” Shah said.

After the devastating 2010 floods in Pakistan, USAID distributed wheat seed to tens of thousands of farmers and helped save 2 million to 3 million lives, according to Shah. “People recognized it,”  Shah said. In national surveys in Pakistan, the aid bumped America’s favorability rating from 8 percent to 30 percent. Not bad, although it makes you wonder what more you have to do besides save 2 million lives to get to, say, 50 percent.

A new foreign aid bill, proposed by outgoing Congressman Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), specifically aims to boost USAID’s profile abroad. It would require that all economic and humanitarian assistance be identified as coming “From the American People,” except, the bill states, “where such marking would endanger implementing partners or beneficiaries.”

Not all of USAID’s exercises of soft power are so soft. In places like Afghanistan, USAID employees risk their lives to ensure girls get an education — a fundamental building block of development. Around the world, the organization has provided schooling for some 8 million girls and young women.

In Syria, USAID has provided immediate assistance since the war’s outbreak. It has brought food to 1.5 million Syrians and conducted 10,000 life-saving surgeries on the wounded there. 

“The American people should be really proud of this,” Shah said. “There are fabulous stories to be told.”

After the presentation, the event’s organizer, Foreign Policy Roundtable founder and director Donna Bojarsky, urged the guests to offer ideas for helping Shah tell those stories. 

Of course, a true mensch doesn’t look for credit or glory and wears his accomplishments lightly — like Shah. But at a time when America’s reputation abroad could use repair, and its foreign aid budget at home needs support — it’s time to shine a light on USAID.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism

Jailed Alan Gross may have tumor, doctor says


Jailed Jewish-American contractor Alan Gross may have a cancerous tumor that needs to be treated, his lawyer said.

Gross has an unidentified mass behind his right shoulder, according to reports. Cuban doctors declared the mass to be a hematoma that would reabsorb over time.

CT and ultrasound scans of the mass conducted by the Cuban doctors were sent to Gross' lawyers in the United States.

“Gross has a potentially life-threatening medical problem that has not been adequately evaluated to modern medical standards,” U.S. radiologist Dr. Alan Cohen said in a statement released by Gross' attorney Jared Genser.

Cohen said in his statement that Gross should be treated at a U.S. hospital and that the mass should be biopsied. A “soft tissue mass in an adult who has lost considerable weight must be assumed to represent a malignant tumor unless proven to be benign,” the doctor said, according to Reuters.

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency on International Development.

Last month, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official rejected claims by Gross’ wife, Judy, that Gross was in ill health, and also said Cuba was willing to negotiate his release with U.S. officials, reportedly in exchange for five Cuban spies, four of whom remain in jail in the U.S.

Gross reportedly has lost more than 100 pounds since his arrest and his family says he is suffering from degenerative arthritis. His mother is dying and one of his daughters has cancer.

Growing the fruits of peace in El Salvador


Don Israel speaks no English, and I speak almost no Spanish. But I understood him well enough to realize that, as I began to plant one of the mango trees that would be placed in his field that day,  he obviously thought I was doing it wrong. Our mutual patience eventually conquered our communication barrier, though, and with time, I learned and understood. We went on to plant about a dozen mango trees together that morning.

Don Israel’s small parcel of land is in a rural village in the Lempa River region of El Salvador. I was there as part of a delegation sent by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), consisting of 16 extraordinary young people training to be rabbis, educators or leaders of Jewish nonprofits. (I was honored to be the scholar-in-residence for the group.) For 10 days, we labored alongside our hosts, planting trees, digging irrigation ditches and building latrines. But it became obvious fairly early on that our primary mission there was not to work (we were, after all, a fairly inexperienced work bunch), but rather to learn and to understand, as human beings and as Jews. Patience turned out to be our most important asset, as the story of the Lempa River region took time to comprehend. And though there is still much more to know, I left with at least the outline of a story of war and peace, of exile and return, of anxiety and hope, and of human courage and nobility. It is a story that has enriched my religious life and has expanded my sense of religious duty.

The story begins with an event that I had been embarrassingly ignorant about, the vicious civil war that wracked El Salvador through the 1980s. And although I had done some reading about it in anticipation of this trip, the event was still remote and emotionally inaccessible. But this changed suddenly and dramatically on our very first afternoon, as we gathered beneath the thatched-roof courtyard just outside Chungo Fuentes’ home. Fuentes is the bearer of the story, the embodiment of the memory.

Fuentes’ part of the story is rooted in the political dissent that had been growing throughout the 1970s among El Salvador’s lower economic classes. The dissent was fueled by bitter resentment against the military-backed government under whose rule the great majority of the country’s land was owned by fewer than 20 wealthy families, leaving much of the population struggling for sustenance. The Catholic Church became a major organizer of the political protest movement, whose voice was thwarted through the government’s rigging of elections, and the military’s tactics of physical intimidation and violence. The 1980 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a highly influential figure in the protest movement, helped to spark an all-out civil war between leftist guerilla groups and the Salvadoran military. Many rural villages whose civilian residents were sympathetic to the guerillas came under attack at the hands of military death squads, who killed indiscriminately, and who, in December 1981, carried out a horrific massacre of civilians at the village of El Mozote. (“Report of the U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador” is an excellent source of further information.)

As this was unfolding, Fuentes led a group of nearly 1,000 villagers across the border into Honduras, and from there to the mountains of Panama, where they were granted political asylum. As he recounts the story for us, Fuentes speaks of the faith they all had that this exile would be temporary, and that they would return to their homeland one day. That day came 10 years later, in 1992, when the two sides signed a peace accord in which the government, among other things, agreed to distribute land to the common people, including Fuentes and his fellow refugees.

It is worth noting that all of us in the group reflexively drew parallels between the story we were hearing and our own national story. It was only the following week that we realized that we were far from the first to make the connection. The massive mural in town depicting the story dedicates one panel to the oppression at the hand of the government. It prominently features an image of the Egyptian pyramids.

As dramatic as it was, though, it was not primarily a story of war that we had come to El Salvador to learn and understand, rather a story of how people recover from war. It took time and required patience for the details of this story to come together, but when it did, what we learned is that recovery only happens when people on the ground are able to summon up the very best of what makes us human, and when people from the outside bring their core moral and religious convictions to bear on the situation of strangers.

The peace accords were far from a panacea. Yes, men and women now came to the Lempa River region to claim their new parcels of land. But as many of these men and women had been on opposite sides of the fighting, distrust and the potential for further violence came with them. In addition to which, no one had money to invest in farming, and nobody was trained in modern agricultural methods. The area lacked even the most basic infrastructure — to this day, in fact, most of the roads are unpaved, streetlights are few, there are no sanitation or postal services, and the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away — and on top of all of that, the new landowners were living, without any evacuation plan, right next to a river that regularly overflowed its banks. I can still see Fuentes holding his palm to his waist when he described the devastating floods of this past October.

That people aren’t fighting and aren’t starving in the Lempa River region today is due to a small group of residents who convened right after the war, pledging to create a peace zone in which grievances could be aired, but also that a commitment to putting aside past differences in the name of community-building would prevail. They pledged to go from village to village to hear what people most needed and also to enlist them in a voluntary cooperative through which they would become trained in sustainable methods of farming and environmental protection. They also would agree to work collectively to market their agricultural output, thus maximizing profit for all. They drew up an evacuation plan for the next flood (last October they succeeded in evacuating 7,000 people, losing not one soul to the disaster). A parallel women’s group created an NGO that provided micro-loans for war widows, enabling them to purchase livestock. (Today it provides all kinds of economic and social services to the women of the region.) People, scarred by years of poverty and war,  with every reason to be untrusting and suspicious of one another, instead formed a democratic, self-governing organization to forge a better life for everyone. Two of the organization’s directors today serve in El Salvador’s parliament.

But this is only one half of the story.

The other part is that none of this could have unfolded without outside help. There was plenty of evidence on the ground of the impact of USAID, most dramatically in the person of our local guide, Chema Argueta, who was plucked as a high school senior from a poor fishing village on the Jiquilisco Bay, trained for two years in Portland, Ore., in the management of natural resources, and returned to his community where he today humbly leads the effort to preserve the bay’s mangrove ecosystem, thus securing the future for the bay’s fisherman and their families. And then there was the ubiquitous presence of the AJWS, which has been making grants for community organizations in the Lempa River region for decades. One group after another gratefully acknowledged AJWS’ impact. It’s difficult to describe, by the way, the sense of pride we felt each time AJWS was mentioned by people who otherwise would never have had any contact with Jews, but who now know us as a compassionate, smart and forward-looking humanitarian partner. 

And this is the other half of the story we had come to learn: that visionary outsiders empower visionaries on the ground. It can’t happen any other way.

Torah study was woven through our 10 days in the country. Within our group we learned and analyzed texts concerning the halachic responsibility to respond to human beings in crisis, the imperative to extend justice to the disadvantaged, the command to preserve the dignity of those who are receiving aid, and the very complex question as to where tzedakah directed toward the wider human community fits within our tzedakah obligation toward our fellow Jews. As leaders and future leaders of Jewish institutions, we all intuitively understood how important this latter question is.

The story of the Lempa River region is far from over. Next year, hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. economic development aid will flow into El Salvador through the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). Local leaders are worried, though, that the MCC’s requirement that the recipient government invest the funds in a manner that will attract international private sector investment (not a bad plan in and of itself) might undermine their work by creating incentives and pressures on farmers to grow crops that will bring short-term profits but long-term soil depletion, or to sell their parcels to larger land owners, which will ultimately land them back where they were before the war. Good news might be bad news. Everything is complicated.

And of course, as the autumn approaches, everyone there will be keeping a wary eye on the water level in the Lempa.

On the plane ride home, I thought a lot about Don Israel, Chungo Fuentes,  Chema Argueta, and the many other men and women we met. I thought about the nobility of their common struggle, the fragility of their gains and the vulnerability of their livelihoods. And about the wise teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, who taught that while it is not ours to complete the task, we are not free to desist from it either.

For more information about American Jewish World Service, visit ajws.org.


Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

USAID ends fire assistance


The United States Agency for International Development completed its forest fire assistance to Israel.

USAID wrapped up operations in Israel on Dec. 10, a statement released Monday said.

The United States, which mobilized assistance within hours of the outbreak of the devastating fires on Dec. 2, delivered $1.65 million in assistance, USAID said, most of it in fire retardant.

The fires in the Carmel Forest in Israel’s North killed 43 people.

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