August 20, 2019

Why Bibi Should Have Followed AIPAC

U.S. Reps Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a news conference after Democrats in the U.S. Congress moved to formally condemn President Donald Trump's attacks on four minority congresswomen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

There are many angles to the still-burning controversy of Israel refusing to allow entry to U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

First, there are the merits of the case. Israel passed a law in 2017 prohibiting entry to anyone who supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Tlaib and Omar have well-documented anti-Israel and pro-BDS credentials. Their published itinerary for the visit didn’t even pretend to see both sides of the conflict. It reeked of a propaganda media circus to embarrass their Israeli hosts.

Further, the trip was sponsored by a Palestinian group, Miftah, that NRO’s David French wrote is “a vile, vicious anti-Semitic group that spread blood libel, printed neo-Nazi propaganda, and celebrates terrorists who kill children.”

So, yes, Israel had every right to prevent a visit that had all the makings of an Israel hatefest and could have incited violence in a region already on edge.

From the minute Trump’s tweet came out, it transformed the dynamics of the story… The story was no longer about the anti-Zionism of two Congresswomen; it was about the U.S.—Israel relationship.

But let’s go beyond the merits and think strategically. As I wrote online after the decision, “Regardless of where you sit politically, it’s bad optics for a country that bills itself as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to act as if it has something to hide.”

And while there was a strong case for refusing entry, doing so made Israel appear anti-Democratic and turned Tlaib and Omar into heroes and victims. It also strengthened the voices of those who libel Israel as an Apartheid, anti-Democratic state.

This was clearly, then, a lose-lose situation for Israel.

Until something happened that changed everything— the nakedly partisan tweet from President Donald Trump:

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”

From the minute Trump’s tweet came out, it transformed the dynamics of the story. Even if Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu had already decided to bar Tlaib and Omar from entering (as he ended up doing), it didn’t matter– it would be seen as if he bowed to Trump’s pressure and played along with his political war against Democrats.

And if he allowed them in, he’d be seen as going against a president who has been hugely supportive of Bibi and his government.

By introducing partisan politics, Trump significantly raised the stakes. The story was no longer about the anti-Zionism of two Congresswomen; it was about the U.S.—Israel relationship.

Bibi was in a tight spot. He was pressured from both sides. What he might have missed is that Trump’s public pressure actually presented a unique opportunity. Had he refused to go along with Trump’s partisan games, Bibi could have made this dramatic statement to the U.S. Congress:

“Bipartisan support for the state of Israel, as well as our enormous respect for the U.S. Congress, are rock-solid values for my country. That is why we will welcome Rep. Tlaib and Rep. Omar to Israel, despite our serious concerns about their anti-Israel activity, and despite partisan pressure from some of our friends.”

In other words, going against Trump, which would have taken cojones, was precisely the leverage point Bibi needed to solidify Israel’s most vital strategic asset: Bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

Allowing two anti-Zionists to flack their propaganda for a few days in the Palestinian territories seems like a reasonable price to pay for that strategic benefit, especially considering that barring them has exacted its own price.

Would Israel have paid a price from a vindictive Trump whose “order” was not followed? One never knows with our impulsive president, but he must be aware that “punishing” Israel would surely not help him retain the White House in 2020.

Bibi was in a tight spot. He was pressured from both sides. What he might have missed is that Trump’s public pressure actually presented a unique opportunity.

As it stands now, instead of Israel getting a boost in Congressional support, Bibi’s decision to bar the Congresswomen has undermined that support, forcing Democrats to defend Tlaib and Omar and further fraying Israel’s bipartisanship relationship with its most important ally.

One can argue that Congressional Democrats should have aimed their sights on Tlaib and Omar for planning a one-sided trip with intentions to humiliate an ally. Maybe, had the Congresswomen been allowed in, pro-Israel Democrats would have had more ammunition. We don’t know.

What we know is that Bibi could have used a comeback with Democrats. His love affair with a president that virtually all Democrats abhor hasn’t helped Israel’s image. I’m sure Bibi knows this. I’m sure he also realizes that his latest move will likely reinforce the resentments and partisan divisions.

He had a chance to reverse this pattern by following the wise ways of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a group that understands and nourishes bipartisan support for Israel better than anyone. In a rare move, AIPAC went against Bibi’s decision, tweeting that “every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” They knew what they were doing.

The “entrygate” controversy may blow over in a few news cycles, or it may linger and leave a scar. Either way, it’s a shame that Israel couldn’t seize the moment to strengthen its position in the world’s most powerful legislature. That’s the one angle to this story I find most compelling.

President Donald Trump is the Cancer During These Divisive Times

U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he arrives at Akron-Canton airport in Canton, Ohio, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Editor’s Note: This week’s cover story was written in two parts and shares two perspectives on the topic of Donald Trump’s presidency. To read the other perspective click here.

As someone who lost a 53-year-old parent to cancer, likening President Donald Trump to a cancer is not a metaphor I take lightly. I have experienced, firsthand, cancer’s devastation, and pray others are spared the pain and suffering of this horrific disease. It is with this experience in mind — and because of my deep commitment to Jewish values — that I believe Trump is a cancer afflicting our society. People judge nations by the way those nations treat children and the most vulnerable, and one need look no further than the humanitarian crisis on our southern border to see the state of American values under Trump.

While many had hoped Trumpism would be a relatively benign phenomenon, the hatred, divisiveness and indecency of our current president has proven malignant and metastatic, and the Jewish community has been one of many victims. Some have translated anti-Semitism from Trump’s campaign rhetoric and symbolism into violence, which is why nearly three-quarters of American Jews feel less safe today than before he became president. Whether Trumpism becomes a terminal condition is up to each of us in the next election. We need new leadership to restore to government what truly makes America great: our values and moral leadership.

Early Signs
Like with most diseases, the dangers did not appear overnight. Many saw early signs of Trumpism. For decades, Trump’s employees knew he harbored racist views and trafficked in anti-Semitic stereotypes. A 2016 New York Times investigation revealed a history of racial bias at Trump properties going back to the late 1960s. But the rise of social media and the first African-American U.S. president presented an opportunity for Trump to channel those biases into politics. In the lead-up to the 2012 election, he joined the ranks of racist conspiracy theorists questioning the legitimacy of the Obama presidency and demanding Obama release his birth certificate, passport records and college transcripts. In the ensuing years, Trump became the most prominent promoter of the birther movement. If the movement had not existed, he likely wouldn’t have made it to the point of becoming the Republican nominee for president.

From the moment Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, he publicly espoused xenophobic and racists views, starting with an accusation that Mexico was sending rapists across the border. Trump’s first remarks as a presidential candidate also indicated his proclivity for lying. He started the speech by mentioning the “thousands” of supporters in Trump Tower, when reporting indicated there were “dozens” of people in the halls, some of whom were paid actors. At the outset of his political career, it was clear Trump was willing to exploit hatred and lies to rise to the top of the Republican field and eventually, the presidency.

Republicans were not blind to the moral corrosion of the Trump presidential candidacy, and some publicly spoke about the early signs. The chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) absolutely was right when he wrote in a March 2016 op-ed that Donald Trump is “a bigot. A misogynist. A fraud. A bully.” He went on to say that Trump “is not to be trusted to lead our nation’s military in times of peace or war” and “any man who declines to renounce the affections of the KKK and David Duke should not be trusted to lead America. Ever.” This was a prophetic and an accurate diagnosis, and it remains so to this day.

Unfortunately, too few Republicans expressed opposition to Trump, and those who publicly did so were berated and politically ostracized. Decency and tolerance should not be viewed through a partisan lens, but the 2016 election revealed that for some, political expedience took precedence. This was painfully evident as Republicans knowingly overlooked the fact their candidate for president had become the standard bearer for far-right extremists.

In 2016, candidate Trump drew praise and endorsements from white supremacists, including the head of the American Nazi Party, former KKK leaders and more than a dozen individuals affiliated with known hate groups. The alt-right embraced Trump; its propagandist leader, Steve Bannon, served as Trump’s campaign CEO and Trump amplified the movement’s hateful messages online. In July 2016, Trump tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton’s face superimposed on a backdrop of American dollars with a red Star of David. This image originated on a white supremacist website neo-Nazis use to encourage violence against Jews. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) denounced Trump’s closing campaign ad, which featured images of prominent Jews and Hillary Clinton, for its use of a dangerous anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

On Election Day, Dana Milbank, a leading columnist for The Washington Post, concluded that anti-Semitism was no longer the undertone of Trump’s campaign — it was the melody. Still, there was some denial of the pervasive danger Trumpism posed, which one can attribute to three factors: widespread disbelief, even among Republicans, that Trump actually would win the election; hope that the hatred Trump conveyed was more of a publicity stunt than a reflection of Trump’s true beliefs; and the notion that Jews and other minorities would be inoculated in a Trump presidency by his Jewish daughter and son-in-law.

There is a word for all three of these ideas: denial. No one wanted to face the reality of the disease, but a tumor had been revealed and Jews, especially, recognized it was anything but benign.

“While many had hoped Trumpism would be a relatively benign phenomenon, the hatred, divisiveness and indecency of our current president has proven malignant and metastatic, and the Jewish community has been one of many victims.”

Revealing the Malignancy and Metastasis
Since becoming president, Trump has fueled the flames of hatred, resulting in a shocking rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes and proliferation of hate groups. He uses rhetoric that supports xenophobic and racist ideologies, thus giving a green light to those who engage in these behaviors. He has emboldened and aligned with bigots through his selective use of anti-Semitic dog whistles, conspiracy theories and tropes. He has self-identified as a “nationalist,” a term associated with Nazism and white supremacy.

In his inaugural address, Trump presented a warped image of our country by referring to an alternate reality of “American carnage.” To American Jews, this was no more than bizarre hyperbole — until we experienced actual carnage in October 2018, when an armed white supremacist killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on American Jews in history. This horror was repeated exactly six months later at the Chabad of Poway. In addition to using the same kind of assault weapon, the attackers of these two synagogues had something else in common — both echoed Trump’s xenophobia and targeted Jews because of their support of migrants and refugees. 

The killers in Pittsburgh and Poway despised Jews for our core value of welcoming the stranger. This is the very value Trump campaigned against and later betrayed with his Muslim ban, failure to protect DREAMers, actions to rip apart migrant families, and inhumane detention of migrant children. Despite these repugnant policies, the two synagogue shooters did not believe Trump went far enough in instituting xenophobic policies, and they blamed Jews for influencing his views. The motivating ideology behind these horrific and unprecedented attacks on our places of worship was eerily similar to that which neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, espoused and who chanted, “Jews will not replace us [with immigrants].”

Trump’s pathetic response to the events in Charlottesville — equating neo-Nazis with those peacefully protesting them — solidified the malignancy of his presidency. And lest there be any doubt of the intent of his remarks after the tragic killing of a protestor in Charlottesville, Trump defended his description of white supremacists as “very fine people” less than 24 hours before the shooting in Poway.

In the Age of Trump, American Jews now are conducting active shooter drills during synagogue services and adding security guards to protect against anti-Semitic hate crimes, which dramatically have risen on Trump’s watch. According to the Anti-Defamation League, American Jews experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018, constituting a 48 percent increase in the number of incidents from 2016, and a 99 percent increase from 2015. The number of anti-Semitic assaults increased 105 percent last year.

To put a finer point on it, despite Trump’s well-known anti-Muslim bigotry and public denial of white nationalism as a rising global threat, right-wing extremists were responsible for all the physical anti-Semitic attacks extremists perpetrated in 2018, and Muslim extremists were responsible for none of them. One can debate whether Trump himself is a racist or an anti-Semite, but there is little doubt that racists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists believe he is both those things and see him as their ally.

Jews aren’t the only victims of this metastatic wave of hate, and its impact has not been limited to the United States. According to the FBI, 58 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S. targeted Jews in 2017. Nearly 19 percent of such crimes targeted Muslims, which represented a historical high, despite under-reporting in the Muslim-American community of such crimes. Additionally, as the horrific massacre at two mosques in New Zealand demonstrated, Trump has inspired perpetrators of violence outside the United States. Moreover, nationalist movements are growing globally, and Trump has embraced warmly anti-Semitic nationalist leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish President Andrzej Duda in recent weeks. This sends a clear message to other world leaders that there is no price to pay for condoning or encouraging anti-Semitism, and normalizes such behavior worldwide.

Response of the Jewish Community
The Jewish community overwhelmingly rejected Trump in the 2016 election, with less than one-quarter of Jewish voters supporting him, according to exit polling. This is because Trump’s position on nearly every issue is antithetical to Jewish values and misaligned with the policy priorities of the Jewish electorate, who deeply care about providing access to affordable health care, enacting sensible gun safety reforms, protecting the environment, defending reproductive rights, implementing humane immigration reform, and combatting discrimination and intolerance. On every single one of these issues, Trump has embraced policies that contradict the values and views of an overwhelming majority within the Jewish community.

Contrary to Trump’s recent false claims of Jews leaving the Democratic Party, according to the Pew Research Center, Jewish support for Republicans decreased even further in the 2018 midterms to just 17 percent, which was halved since the 2014 midterms, when 33 percent of Jews supported Republicans. This downward trend in Jewish support for the GOP is a result of the fact that the Republican Party under Trump is completely out of step with American Jews, and largely has been silent in the face of rising anti-Semitism.

A recent poll Greenberg Research conducted of 1,000 Jewish voters shows that in addition to a wide range of domestic policy issues, Jews now are voting on their own perceived insecurity, and 73 percent of Jews feel less safe today than they did two years ago. This poll also revealed that nearly 60 percent of Jewish voters believe Trump has at least some responsibility for the shootings at the synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, and 71 percent of Jewish voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of anti-Semitism. Trump’s “encouraging ultra-right extremists committing violent acts” ranked as the highest concern of Jewish voters related to security, and the leading response when asked how to improve the security of Jews, was to elect candidates with “the right values.”

Still, a small minority within the Jewish community has checked its original rejection of Trump at the door of the Oval Office. This includes the chair of the RJC, who, despite his previous denunciation of Trump, recently embraced Trump by reciting his own rendition of “dayenu” in an expression of gratitude for all the president allegedly has done for Israel. This willful blindness of Trump’s record on anti-Semitism — predicated on the misconception that he has been good for Israel — is misguided for two reasons.

First, Republicans and Democrats (including me) strongly — and repeatedly — denounced anti-Semitic tropes and generalizations when invoked earlier this year by two freshman Democratic congresswomen, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), yet Republicans have responded with a deafening silence when Trump himself used similar rhetoric on more than one occasion, including the past two times he spoke to the RJC.

As with so many issues, Trump threatens to undermine the long-term trajectory of the U.S.-Israel relationship by making it all about him and what he deems good politics.”

Second, the misconception that Trump has been good for Israel is fundamentally flawed because it overlooks the recklessness of his foreign policy and disregards his lack of results and strategy.

Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is no substitute for the hard work required to ensure Israel’s security, including preserving prospects for a two-state solution. But the GOP removed references to a two-state solution from its 2016 platform, rejecting decades of bipartisan pro-Israel consensus shortly before Trump came to office. More recently, the Trump administration chose not to include any reference to two states in its nascent “peace” plan. This has elicited sharp criticism from unwavering Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who recently said there’s no viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the absence of a two-state solution and who threatened not to provide assistance to any plan that results in one state.

As with so many issues, Trump threatens to undermine the long-term trajectory of the U.S.-Israel relationship by making it all about him and what he deems good politics. Never before has a relationship between a U.S. president and Israeli prime minister been as politicized as that which we’ve seen between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. Never before has a U.S. president intervened in Israel’s democracy in the unprecedented way Trump meddled in the recent Israeli election and coalition-building process. Leaders and political parties in power will come and go in both countries, and this critically important relationship must supersede politics to stand the test of time. 

As our closest ally in the region, Israel is strongest when America is strong. Trump has isolated the U.S. from our allies, withdrawn from international agreements and aligned with adversaries, thereby weakening our shared national security interests. Trump’s erratic foreign policy has led to increased regional instability, which he most recently demonstrated in his near-stumble into war with Iran. He also has taken action that directly contradicts Israel’s national security interest, including sharing Israeli intelligence with Russia in 2017. Trump also deeply concerned the Israeli security establishment with his shocking announcement — via a tweet — of a precipitous withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria in 2018, which would have left Iran with a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean and no security buffer on Israel’s northern border with Syria.

Moreover, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has pushed us further from reaching the primary objective of ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. The nuclear deal was not a perfect deal, but the complete absence of an agreement — and Trump’s utter lack of a strategy for reaching one — is even more flawed and dangerous. As recent Iranian provocations have demonstrated, Trump’s foreign policy has emboldened Iranian hardliners and isolated the United States.

Our Future, Our Choice
As we approach the 2020 election, we have a choice to make. To those in the Jewish community who believe Trump’s misguided policies on Israel constitute justification for overlooking his bigotry: Stop with the “dayenu” and recognize that it’s actually a pejorative “enough.” Trump has been a danger to our community and our country, and no political calculation is worth accepting the moral compromise required to stand by Donald Trump.

Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, those of us who cherish American and Jewish values, including a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, must resist Trump’s reckless policies and insidious politics. Americans must hold Trump responsible for the hatred and division he has sown, and we all have an obligation to combat this dangerous disease by rejecting Trump in 2020 and electing a president who represents our values.

Our future, and that of future generations, depends on it.

Halie Soifer is the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. Previously, she served as a national security adviser in the Senate and in the Obama administration.

Missing the Patriotic Spirit on the Fourth of July

Photo by Pixababy

Last week, my husband and I were invited to join friends for the Fourth of July concert at the Hollywood Bowl. We were excited to see their spectacular fireworks show, choreographed to patriotic music on America’s birthday. We were delighted to join them. 

This year, the songs that celebrated our nation, including the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “Captain America March,” and “America the Beautiful,” were the musical bookends to the main concert attraction, which was disco music played by the L.A. Philharmonic and led by Nile Rodgers and CHIC. 

The musicians were all phenomenal, of course, but it was the first time I attended the fabled amphitheater’s Independence Day program and felt disheartened. Looking around, it was clear that many in the audience seemed indifferent to the patriotic songs that opened the show. There was a lot of talking, and when the conductor encouraged everyone to offer thanks to various branches of the Armed Services, applause was tepid at best. 

Only when the orchestra played disco favorites including “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” and “Get Lucky” did the audience spring to life, singing along, often standing up to dance, and cheering boisterously after each song. I couldn’t help but think that many had only sat through “America the Beautiful” as the price to pay to get up and boogie to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” 

On Facebook, I posted my sentiments about the lack of patriotic feeling that evening. Almost instantly, fireworks of another kind erupted. Trump had ruined the Fourth of July, some people said, through his divisiveness and multiple other sins, which were listed with many exclamation points. These comments followed this year’s trend of surliness and bitterness about our nation’s birthday.  

Before it even took place, the Fourth of July Parade in Washington was ridiculed as a sop to Trump’s ego, even though instead, it saluted members of the Armed Forces, whose sacrifices ensure our safety. The presence of Army tanks was seen as a hint of Tiananmen Square, not simply a reassuring reminder that we remain militarily strong in a dangerous world. The New York Times offered a video op-ed titled, “Please Stop Telling Me America is Great.” And Nike gave the boot to a Betsy Ross-inspired sneaker, bowing to his Eminence Colin Kaepernick. 

I have lived through several presidential administrations led by men I abhorred for both political and personal reasons. But presidents come and go, while our country remains a miracle of opportunity and freedom that we dare not take for granted. For those who “celebrated” the Fourth by demonstrating at an ICE office, as one woman proudly proclaimed, what a missed opportunity to look for the good. It seems to me that people who refuse to find reason to celebrate our extraordinary country, with all it has offered to millions and millions of people fleeing oppression and limited opportunities, and who refuse to credit Trump for anything that he has achieved (full employment and rollicking economy, anyone?) disqualify them as honest debaters. 

Of course, belligerent and snide attitudes are a two-way street, promoted from both left and right. As Arthur Brooks notes in his new book, “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt”, no one has ever been convinced of an opposing view through insults. Brooks, a political conservative and a Catholic who directed the American Enterprise Institute for a decade, holds everyone accountable for divisive rhetoric and offers hope that person by person, we can find a common understanding. Compelling social science research shows that talking to people of opposing views face to face, not from the anonymity of social media, generates a feeling of shared humanity.  

Brooks’ new book is a bestseller, which is a hopeful sign, although with so many people in hardened positions, even having cut off relationships with friends and family, it will take bravery and humility to put his advice into practice. One can disagree without being disagreeable, Brooks says. When disagreement reflects the “competition of ideas” among people who share core moral values, it can even be productive. 

The encore song after the fireworks at the Bowl on July 4 was “Good Times,” and I hope it will be symbolic of our future, when there are more people determined to see the good in our national values and identity – and in one another. 

1989: Putin, the Professor and Prejudice

On June 16, 1989, four Jews arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from Italy, where they had waited for months after having escaped post-revolutionary Iran.

This month marks 30 years since my father, mother, sister and I arrived in the United States, although it took me another nine years to become an American citizen. I didn’t mind the wait; I knew I was an American the first time a teacher at my public school was kind to me without knowing I was a Jew. In fact, she didn’t seem to care what religion I practiced. 

If this is America, I thought while enjoying some miraculous concoction called a Slurpee, I’ll be happy and well-fed.

In 1989, George H.W. Bush was president. Vladimir Putin was a 37-year-old KGB officer stationed in Dresden who asked Moscow for backup against demonstrators at the office of the East German secret police but received a fateful message from headquarters that permanently changed his views about the Soviet Union. 

The message? “Moscow is silent.”

In 1989, Bernie Sanders was finishing an eight-year term as mayor of Burlington, Vt., and Donald Trump was on the cover of Time magazine, holding an ace of diamonds playing card. The headline read, “This man may turn you green with envy — or just turn you off.” 

How little some things have changed.

As a 7-year-old in 1989, I wasn’t concerned with politicians or real estate moguls. I figured that the world was ruled by incompetent men (my belief had sprouted in Iran), so I focused on something far more important: pop culture icons. 

For a newly arrived refugee from of one of the world’s most oppressive countries, the U.S. in 1989 was a glorious place and time of learning and acculturation, even if my father threw himself over furniture in a rush to turn off the radio as soon as the song “Me So Horny” came on. 

“For a newly arrived refugee from of one of the world’s most oppressive countries, the U.S. in 1989 was a glorious place.”

It was on television — the bastion of security that Homer Simpson once called, “Mother! Teacher! Secret lover!” — that I learned one of the most important truths about America: In this country, people will hold you accountable for your hatred. 

In May 1989, rap group Public Enemy was condemned after one of its members, Professor Griff (born Richard Griffin), said in an interview in The Washington Times that Jews are responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.”

I had been in the U.S. only a few weeks when the controversy blossomed, but I was familiar with Public Enemy. 

I pieced together enough English from the evening news to understand that someone from the group didn’t like Jews. 

And? I wondered. We simply called that a Tuesday back in post-revolutionary Iran. 

And then it happened. The group ousted Professor Griff over his anti-Semitism. Just like that, he was gone. 

If this is America, I thought as I dipped a french fry in some glorious goo called “barbecue  sauce,” I’ll be safe and well-fed. 

And 30 years later, as I begrudgingly drink some liquified spinach leaves, I wonder if my realization still holds true. 

In 2019, President Donald Trump is the ruler of the free world, and although I’m grateful for his support of Israel, as far as nearly every other policy is concerned, I sometimes wonder whether the cards up his sleeve came from the wrong deck. 

Putin is trying to ensure that those once impotent words about Moscow are never repeated, although his silence over Russian election interference in the U.S. is loud and clear.

And Professor Griff lives in Atlanta, gives lectures on world politics, and teaches classes on “The 7 Hermetic Principles for Self-Mastery.” From time to time, he performs with Chuck D. (born Carlton Ridenhour) and other members of Public Enemy. 

As for me, I’m a strict devotee of the “Homeric” principles: Love thy beer and thy TV. And give of yourself for every blessed and free day that you’ve been in this country.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker. 

Shavuot: The Middle Child of Jewish Festivals

Shavuot has middle-child syndrome in that it largely is invisible to most liberal American Jews. Although it is one of the three major festivals in the Jewish calendar, Passover takes top billing in American-Jewish culture. Sukkot, the other festival, is not nearly as well known as Passover, but there seems to be more awareness of this holiday in some liberal Jewish communities because of an increased interest in building a sukkah, the portable backyard structure symbolizing this festival.

But unlike Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot doesn’t have a home-based set of rituals that promotes a wider cultural recognition. Observance of Shavuot largely involves synagogue services, which can include an all-night study session on the first evening known as the tikkun leil Shavuot.

According to rabbinic tradition, Shavuot is when God gave Jews the Torah.  Although the Torah does not explicitly mention this as the basis for the holiday, the sages of the Talmud understood this explanation to be the festival’s primary meaning. However, this theological grounding does not enhance Shavuot’s appeal. 

People often ask me where faith in God fits into the picture of Jewish identity and transmission. This topic is complicated. It seems to be the case that among many Jews, including some who profess to be religious, faith and observance do not necessarily go hand in hand. In my experience, faith is not a subject many liberal Jews are comfortable openly discussing. In today’s highly secularized American society, many Jews prize autonomy and personalization. Liberal Jews do not respond well to being told what to do and how to believe.

In theory, Judaism demands loyalty to a monotheistic perspective, but in practice, the Jewish religion largely focuses on actions rather than belief. Many people believe actions influence emotions; therefore, Judaism largely focuses on what a person does rather than what he or she believes. Although studies show both faith and observance are stronger among the traditional end of the denominational spectrum, there is evidence of individual choice even among traditionally observant Jews.

People often ask me where faith in God fits into the picture of Jewish identity and transmission.

Many people don’t realize that freedom of choice regarding observance isn’t a novel concept with respect to Jewish tradition. In fact, the element of choice dates the Revelation at Mount Sinai. According to the Torah, when Moses told the people all of God’s commandments, the people answered with one voice, saying, “We will do.” It was their collective choice to obey.  Also, an ancient rabbinic source — Midrash Rabbah (Exodus 5:9) — tells us that even at the time of Revelation, God’s voice came “to each Israelite with a force proportioned to his individual strength.” This source underscores the importance of human individuality with respect to how humans received the Torah.  

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth, a text furnishing one of the most renowned examples of the importance of choice. Ruth, a Moabite woman, married one of Naomi’s sons, who later died. Ruth refused to return to her own people and instead, uttered the famous pledge of loyalty: “For wherever you go, I will go … your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” 

This Biblical narrative concludes with Ruth marrying Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband, and bearing a son named Obed, who was the grandfather of King David. The placement of this lineage at the end of the text is particularly significant because according to lore, the Messiah will be a descendant of King David and of Ruth, the woman who chose to be Jewish.

As a practical matter, we live in an era where cultural forces make it difficult to secure a balance between fluidity and choice versus preservation of tradition. Liberal Jews need to contemplate how they can accomplish successful transmission of Jewish tradition outside a framework based on obedience to divine command.

The festival of Shavuot, coming as it does after the frenzy of Passover but well before the High Holy Days, provides a well-placed opportunity to contemplate the choices we make on our Jewish journeys and how they will impact the next generation.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is a professor at DePaul Law School and the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and “Remix Judaism” (forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield).

Qatar Shows Two Faces to the World

Four Israelis were buried earlier this month in the wake of nearly 1,000 rockets Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired into Israeli population centers, striking schools, synagogues and homes. 

The attacks were a massive escalation, showing both the capabilities and determination of the terror groups to strike deeply and indiscriminately within Israeli territory. With new rockets, Israel’s main population centers surrounding Tel Aviv were under fire, as was the country’s rumored nuclear reactor at Dimona. Israel’s anti-missile system, Iron Dome, as well as luck and providence prevented the deaths of Jews on a massive scale.

Amid the back and forth, it appeared an Israeli ground invasion was imminent. There’s no country in the world that would allow such a threat on its borders to persist, yet a cease-fire between Israel and the terror groups, negotiated in part by Qatar, seems to be holding — at least temporarily.

Qatar’s role in negotiating an end to hostilities with Israel is more than a bit ironic, as that nation has been Hamas’ principal system of financial and diplomatic support.

The Islamist terror group’s long-standing relationship with Qatar runs through the Muslim Brotherhood. In its founding charter, Hamas declares itself as a branch of the Brotherhood in Palestine. For its part, the Brotherhood long has understood Hamas to be the tip of the spear when it comes to armed jihad against Israel. America’s largest terror finance trial, U.S. vs. Holy Land Foundation, described the primary function of the Brotherhood in America as being a fundraising and communications tool for the terror group.

Since the U.S. government closed Texas’ Holy Land Foundation more than a decade ago for funneling millions to Hamas, foreign nations such as Qatar largely have picked up the slack. Money for a terror group like Hamas is fungible. This means investing in social services and territory itself. Part of Qatar’s largesse solidifies Hamas’ grip on the population: bribing Gazans with services, feeding its citizens with jihadist propaganda, and maintaining a security force that stamps down dissent and engages in murders of suspected collaborators.

But Qatar doesn’t just support Hamas directly in Gaza. The Gulf emirate bankrolls the group’s massive communications support network, including the institutions, media outlets and influencers that comprise most of anti-Israel activism globally.

Joey Allaham
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

“Qatar has quickly and quietly built an unrivaled global influence operation.” — Brooke Goldstein, executive director of The Lawfare Project

Qatar’s Support for Islamists
For a half-century, Qatar has been a tiny oasis for Hamas’ ideological mothership, the Muslim Brotherhood and many of the world’s most virulent Islamists. In the 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser again banned and cracked down on the Brotherhood in Egypt, forcing thousands of the group’s agitators, clerics and community organizers to retreat elsewhere into the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Since then, the Arabian Gulf emirate of Qatar has been the Brotherhood’s most hospitable base of operations. In time, Brotherhood Islamism soon would emerge as Qatar’s de facto state ideology, as the ruling al-Thani family welcomed the Islamists with lavish funding, the highest state honors and the establishment of new Islamist institutions that would indoctrinate thousands of extremist clerics.

With the turn of Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia against Islamism, today Qatar is the last major state patron for Brotherhood activists and groups, especially in the West. Since Qatar’s most prominent export, state-owned television network Al-Jazeera, was founded in 1996, the Brotherhood has played a crucial role in programming and setting the editorial line, providing the network’s strong ideological Islamist backing.

By backing the Brotherhood in the region, Qatar’s adventurism greatly imperils the security of Israel as well as the United States. The emirate undermines the stability of its Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; it promotes Islamists in vulnerable, Western-open societies; and it diplomatically and financially supports violent terrorist groups such as Hamas, al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Of course, nobody who credibly can be called pro-Israel would want to be in the position to defend these policy priorities, even for satchels of cash on offer from Doha, Qatar’s capital.

Nevertheless, after Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, two well-connected Jews became lobbyists and signed a substantial contract to represent the Islamist-supporting emirate of Qatar in the Arabian Gulf. That decision got them working against Israel’s interests and eventually did considerable damage to their careers and reputations.

Qatar’s Media Empire of Influence
Information warfare products consist of weaponized information translated into a variety of media — from books and articles to television interviews, blog posts and tweets. Qatar’s media empire comprises 38 sports television channels in 36 countries, exclusive broadcasting rights to Turner-owned channels in the Middle East and North Africa, a Qatar Airways-sponsored monthly travel series on CNN and more.

“Qatar has quickly and quietly built an unrivaled global influence operation,” said Brooke Goldstein, executive director of The Lawfare Project, which provides legal services for the Jewish community. “It presents a squeaky-clean face to the West that hides the regime’s support for the most extreme Islamist groups … groups that murder Israelis and gravely threaten U.S. interests.”

Al-Jazeera is the most important news network broadcasting in Arabic in the world, with tens of millions of viewers spread across Arabic-speaking communities in nearly every country. Drawing a massive estimated audience of 35 million weekly, Al-Jazeera’s most popular Arabic program was “Sharia and Life,” starring Qatar-based virulently anti-Semitic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s most prominent jurist.

Al-Qaradawi’s most infamous statement was an ode to Adolf Hitler: “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption,” he proclaimed on Al-Jazeera. “The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them — even though they exaggerated this issue — he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers.”

In explaining why Qatar can never turn its back on the Brotherhood or anti-Western Islamism, scholar David Warren stressed the importance of al-Qaradawi and his legacy in that country. “The Qatari royal family became a key supporter of Qaradawi,” he wrote. Today, al-Qaradawi meets regularly with the emir and his family, and the state media regularly distribute photos of family members embracing the sheik with great affection and reverence.

“Since the U.S. government closed Texas’ Holy Land Foundation more than a decade ago for funneling millions to Hamas, foreign nations such as Qatar largely have picked up the slack.”

“The fact that there is anti-Semitic material in Al-Jazeera is significant; that it has a daily diet of anti-American material is significant,” Middle East Broadcasting Networks president Alberto Fernandez said during a recent Washington conference on Qatar’s influence operations. “But the greatest problem with Al-Jazeera is how, for a generation, it has mainstreamed and normalized an Islamist grievance narrative, which has served as sort of the mother’s milk for all sorts of Islamist movements.”

As London-based Muslim liberal Nervana Mahmoud noted, the Qatari outlet “labels Arab states with good relations with Israel [like the United Arab Emirates and, most recently, Saudi Arabia] as ‘Arab Zionists.’ ” Of course, this kind of rhetoric makes Middle East normalization and eventual peace and with Israel more difficult.

Al-Jazeera is the world’s most successful and influential state-directed information operation. Its sophistication is evident in its ability to promote two very different messages to two audiences simultaneously. In Arabic, Al-Jazeera pushes a stream of vile, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and attempts to rile up religious and extremist Muslims against attempts at positive, human rights reforms in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. In English, however, Al-Jazeera presents itself as progressive and left wing, attacking these same nations efforts at reform as fake and inadequate. A rebranding in English as “AJ+” was further meant to obscure the Islamist-run network and to appeal to younger people in the West, with social media material in English, Arabic, French and Spanish. 

Al-Jazeera’s mask is held tightly in place but occasionally it slips. Only last week, AJ+ Arabic and Al-Jazeera were rocked by a severe anti-Semitism scandal, beginning with a Holocaust-denial video. The video — professionally produced by the Doha-based network — denied that extermination took place at the Nazi concentration camps and accused the Zionist movement of benefiting from the atrocities. Soon, the network’s critics were finding recent tweet after tweet from a variety of Al-Jazeera contributors.

In an attempt to quell the anger that threatened to destroy all the effort Al-Jazeera had put into cultivating AJ+’s reputation and target audience, the network suspended two staffers. Calling the disciplined employees “scapegoats,” Muslim liberal commentator Asra Nomani tweeted, “The government of Qatar needs to take responsibility & everyone making excuses for Al-Jazeera is complicit in a cover-up.”

The scandal did damage Qatar’s influence operation — but just how much damage is yet to be seen. At the very least, more Americans know that the AJ+ social media content that’s targeted toward their children and young adults is actually Al-Jazeera, a foreign network owned and operated to advance the interests of the Qatari state. This kind of exposure is vital.

Unfortunately, American elites and policymakers long have been soft targets for Qatari information warfare, especially if it’s coated with the sheen of the network’s respectability. Even then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Like it or hate it, [Al-Jazeera] is really effective.”

Yusuf al-Qaradawi
Photo by Reuters

After the 2016 election, the specter of Russian news and commentary outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik as serious threats to American democracy allowed the massive Qatari elephant in the room, Al-Jazeera, to largely escape similar scrutiny. Last year, though, Congress finally appeared to get serious about foreign states’ roles in information operations directed at American citizens and media consumers. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act requires all U.S.-based foreign media outlets — including Russia Today and Al-Jazeera — to identify themselves clearly as foreign outlets and report to the FCC every six months on their relations with their foreign principals. Trump signed it into law in August 2018; to date, neither foreign outlet has filed with the FCC or made their reports available to Congress.

When Qatar pays off people with pro-Israel bona fides, it has a downstream effect; others who might know less about the issues or the region itself will follow the thought leader.

Qatar’s Other Instruments of Influence
Qatar doesn’t control just networks. The larger picture of how its information assets play off one another is impressive. For example, a typical news story or TV news segment might feature a journalist to report the news; reference a recent think-tank study; and provide several experts to contextualize the importance of the news and provide historical perspective. What would happen to the coverage if all these elements shared a common benefactor — especially one that is adamant about message discipline and advancing its interests?

More than any other nation, Qatar shrewdly has invested in the infrastructure of this kind of influence, and it shows. Last month, The New York Times published an expansive story in a Sunday edition arguing that Democratic support for Israel quickly was evaporating in the wake of an ascendant boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Nathan Thrall, who wrote the story, tried to make the case that prominent Democratic donors deviously worked behind the scenes to maintain public support for Israel, even as the party’s base soured on the Jewish state. Thrall painted a bleak picture of Israeli atrocities and echoed age-old themes of untoward Jewish influence in America’s “paper of record.”

Yet, nowhere in the piece did the Times disclose that some of those paying Thrall’s salary have agendas hostile to Israel. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has received significant foreign funding from the emirate of Qatar, with other funding coming from U.S.-based backers of BDS.

The pro-Hamas ICG isn’t the only think tank that benefits from Qatar’s largesse. The Qatar Foundation owns the Brookings Doha Center, the Qatar-based branch of one of the oldest think tanks in the world, the Brookings Institution. The foundation’s listed “100%” ownership stake means Qatari heads of state control the Brookings Doha Center.

Even as it has been routinely criticized for promoting Islamic extremism, including anti-Semitism, the Qatar Foundation has been, like Al-Jazeera, a way for the emirate to project soft power — usually influence in one way or another — in the service of its national interests. The foundation’s three shareholders are in the highest echelon of Doha’s royal family.

Qatar lavishly spends on universities, not only in the United States, to create a network of American-affiliated schools in the emirate that will be predisposed to support it and its policies. The Qatar Foundation paid six U.S. universities hundreds of millions of dollars to operate campuses at the Education City complex in Doha. These universities are CornellTexas A&M, Carnegie MellonVirginia Commonwealth UniversityGeorgetown and Northwestern.

Exposés in The New York Times and on Tablet in 2014 show that rather than producing objective, data-driven analysis about the region, Qatar’s millions colored the work the think tank produced. “[T]here was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” Saleem Ali, a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told the Times.

Yet, members of the media and policymakers still use these outlets as authoritative sources of analysis on the Middle East. Qatar-backed media outlets — including those such as CNN, which count on substantial advertising revenue from the oil-rich emirate — often feature talking heads from Brookings, ICG and other institutions with undisclosed financial ties to Doha. This cynically impressive scheme continues to work, thanks to the biases of the media and others who don’t want to look too closely at the sources of funding and influence.

For Qatar, endowments to Brookings and the International Crisis Group are tiny pieces of a much larger strategic influence campaign it successfully has waged in recent years, spanning from these multimillion-dollar investments in Washington, D.C., think tanks, universities and dozens of media outlets it owns to, most recently, a controversial and hard-knuckled, eight-figure lobbying effort in Washington.

Recruiting Muzin and Allaham
When the diplomatic war with Saudi Arabia intensified in the summer of 2017, Qatar likely recognized the need for more air cover in Washington. What better way than getting Jewish lobbyists to persuade influential Jewish community leaders to soften their stances on Qatar?

This effort culminated in a successful influence operation American lobbyists and agents — specifically Stonington Strategies, run by former kosher steakhouse owner Joey Allaham and former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) Nick Muzin — carried out with Qatari money. 

Muzin grew up in the Toronto Jewish community. He was a good student and a high achiever, completing medical school in the Bronx before switching gears and turning to law school at Yale. After a marriage to Andrea Michelle Zucker, the daughter of Charleston billionaires Anita and Jerry Zucker, he soon became involved in South Carolina politics. He helped then-Charleston City Councilman Tim Scott get elected in Washington, first to the House of Representatives, then to the Senate. Muzin worked as deputy chief of staff for Cruz during Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, appearing often with the candidate at Jewish community events.

Allaham was born into a family of Syrian Jews in Damascus and arrived in the United States in the early 1990s. He opened several of New York’s premier kosher restaurants, including Prime Grill. One by one, though, Allaham’s seemingly successful restaurants began shutting their doors. Toward the end of 2017 — when Stonington’s contract with the Qataris was in full swing — the Forward reported on the closing of the last of Allaham’s restaurants, Prime at the Bentley, as Allaham was embroiled in lawsuits over a series of kosher Passover excursions he canceled, allegedly never returning his customers’ deposits.

In addition to his contacts in the Republican Party and the conservative movement in Washington, Muzin had married into a wealthy and well-connected family. In Manhattan, Allaham’s restaurants were upscale; his customers included not just the most important and powerful members of New York Jewish society but, significantly, anyone who’d want access to them. Muzin and Allaham were not Qatar’s only lobbyists in the United States. But by using their credibility to target and compromise some very influential voices, they unquestionably did the most damage to the Jewish community and Israel’s supporters in America. Together, the pair received approximately $7 million from Doha, according to an exposé on Tablet. Not only was that an awfully big paycheck for two newly minted lobbyists, but it enabled them to generously spread around a lot of dollars.

Of course, $7 million is a small fraction of the sums Qatar admits to spending on annual lobbying activities. Most of the money goes to buy the usual PR firms and advertising campaigns, media operators and former congressmen, generals and ex-staffers who are paid largely to open key office doors to influential people inside the Beltway. It’s this last group that’s most interesting and in the case of Stonington Strategies, deeply cynical.

Over the course of a year or longer, armed with funds from Doha, Muzin and Allaham launched an influence operation targeting prominent leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish conservative communities. They used that money to wine and dine Israel supporters, bring them to Doha, donate to their nonprofits and, finally, convince them that Qatar — the patron of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran’s ally — is friendly toward Israel. And for a time, it seemed they were succeeding.

Lifting the Veil
An influence operation is the strategic use of interpersonal relationships and institutions. A long-term relationship or affiliation with an institution or person builds and solidifies the kind of goodwill that can be immensely valuable for a lobbyist to exploit. It takes surprisingly little contact and effort for a target of an influence operation to become an ally. For example, a longtime friendship with a Qatari lobbyist may make one predisposed to trust and feel sympathy for the Qatari point of view.

The relationships Muzin and Allaham could leverage for Qatar’s benefit were tremendously valuable. These connections enabled them to enlist others with unimpeachable pro-Israel credentials who could, in turn, serve as surrogates for Qatar’s interests. When Qatar pays off people with pro-Israel bona fides, it has a downstream effect; others who might know less about the issues or the region itself will follow the thought leader.

Modern information warfare is slick and unnoticeable; influence operations, though, are as insidious as they look. We understand that when politicians or influencers go on all-expense-paid junkets, it’s a clear example of bribery. The quid pro quo (for example, a trip to the Doha Forum) doesn’t have to be immediate, and it doesn’t have to be readily apparent. However, there is a promise of some kind of profit: money, fame, career advancement or even virtuousness. Wealthy nations such as Qatar can extend these kinds of benefits to a great many people — and they do.

“For a half-century, Qatar has been a tiny oasis for Hamas’ ideological mothership, the Muslim Brotherhood and many of the world’s most virulent Islamists.”

Thankfully, Muzin and Allaham’s aggressive, well-paid jaunt as lobbyists for Qatar soon darkened their reputations in both the tightknit pro-Israel and conservative communities in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. Their willingness to target longtime opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, including former Republican National Committee finance chairman and pro-Israel philanthropist Elliott Broidy, also grated on many in the pro-Israel world.

Qatar is alleged to have been behind the hacking of more than 1,500 prominent individuals, from former Department of Defense and CIA officials to European intelligence officials, Washington think-tank experts, journalists and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. With most people conducting business online or via text or email, targeted cyber-espionage campaigns can do tremendous damage to private citizens or countries.

According to a recent filing in District of Columbia Courts, Stonington’s Muzin and Allaham allegedly were behind the distribution of hacked and doctored emails belonging to Broidy. The lawsuit alleges that Stonington “was among the vehicles used by the State of Qatar to funnel funds to others involved in the attack.”

After it was revealed he had been targeted, Boteach described it as “a dangerous and direct attack by a foreign government against American citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Broidy was a prime target of the Qatari’s efforts in the United States; silencing him was very important, both to the lobbyists and their funders in Doha. They attempted to do so through a media campaign of intimidation, as the lawsuit alleges Greg Howard of Mercury Public Affairs worked with journalists eager to expose a Republican ally of Trump. Mercury Public Affairs is a lobbying and public affairs firm registered as a foreign agent of Qatar in the United States and is a subsidiary of Fortune 500 company Omnicom Group. The media offensive against Broidy took advantage of media outlets willing to run with incorrect information as long as it fit into their narratives.

Aside from the legal liability and stacks of lawsuits the lobbyists’ actions caused, the Qatar episode left their reputations largely in tatters. Amid the accusations in the Broidy cyber-espionage case, Muzin and Allaham publicly distanced themselves from Doha in June 2018. “Stonington Strategies is no longer representing the State of Qatar,” Muzin tweeted.

Ultimately, their plan to have the American Jewish community embrace Qatar didn’t really work — at least not as well as their Qatari patrons had hoped. However much one spends, one can have a hard time convincing most people that one of their most potent enemies is their ally.

The extent of Qatar’s influence and information operations remains one of the least-covered and least-scrutinized stories of the past few years — including its campaign to curry favor within the Jewish community. That slowly is changing. Because of Qatar’s promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood and its alliance with Iran, more Americans are coming to understand Qatar is a malign force, not just in the Middle East but in this country.

Israel’s political and security establishments understand this, as evidenced by multiple Israeli officials who assailed Qatar in their recent conversations with me on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference in March. 

What was most shocking for these Israeli officials is not Qatar’s influence campaign itself, but the Jewish leaders who lent their de facto kosher certification to the emirate. “The Jewish leaders who became pawns of the Islamist-supporting regime in Qatar and accepted these state-funded trips to Doha did nothing short of betray Israel and the Jewish people,” an Israeli diplomat told me. “There has been concern about this campaign at the highest levels in Jerusalem. Those who participated in this disgrace should be held accountable.”

David Reaboi is senior vice president of the Security Studies Group.

Making 1 Million Missing Jews of Color Welcome

Group photo of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. Photo from Facebook.

I live in as diverse a Jewish community as there may be in America, in Brooklyn, N.Y., but often look around synagogue sanctuaries and other gathering spaces and wonder why there aren’t more black and brown Jews present.

Yehuda Webster’s experience tells us why. One Monday morning last November, Webster, who is African American and Jewish, was returning a sefer Torah he’d rented for a bar mitzvah where he officiated.

Webster — who lives in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in Israel, and ran a b’nai mitzvah tutoring company — carried the holy scroll toward his Lyft. A Chasidic man challenged where he was going. Webster ignored him. Within moments, another Chasid began pestering him. “I defensively told them I owed no explanation and their continued demands and harassment were racist,” Webster wrote on his Facebook page. 

He got into his vehicle but another car, driven by a Chasid, blocked it. Twenty or 30 Chasidim quickly circled. Police eventually dispersed the crowd. “It was one of the most racist and terrifying moments of my life,” Webster wrote.

In response, Webster doubled down on the Jewish community. He started JOC Torah Academy, a space where Jews of color (JOCs) learn from other JOCs. 

Most JOCs, however, walk away when they experience racism, said Ilana Kaufman, who directs the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. “Racism pushes Jews of color away and we seek our refuge elsewhere,” she said. We spoke just before her initiative released a first-ever analysis of Jewish population studies, titled “Counting Inconsistencies: Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies with a Focus on Jews of Color.”

It found that a million Jews of color are missing from counts of America’s Jewish community. 

“Racism pushes Jews of color away and we seek our refuge elsewhere.”

— Ilana Kaufman

The meta-study was directed by Stanford University’s Ari Kelman, who analyzed seven national Jewish population studies, 15 local and community studies and four student studies. Some studies didn’t ask about race, others did inconsistently and used sampling techniques resulting in undercounting of JOCs, like relying on “Jewish” names.

“My friend Lee Smith would not get called, while Whoopi Goldberg, who isn’t Jewish, would,” Kaufman noted. “Jewish demographic tools don’t have any capacity to count Jews of color in a household,” she said. “It’s as if non-white Jews simply don’t exist.” 

In ways small and large, white Jews communicate to JOCs that they don’t belong. Today JOCs represent 12 to 15% of the American Jewish population. The Jewish community, like America in general, becomes browner with each generation. By 2042, over half of Americans will be multiracial or people of color, Kaufman said, and it will be no different among American Jews.

Raised with her twin brother, David, by their white Jewish mother in San Francisco (their African American father wasn’t involved), Kaufman felt caught between two worlds starting as a preteen. At Jewish camp, she felt unable to bond with the other Jewish girls over hair and clothes, she said. 

After 20 years as a teacher and administrator, Kaufman, 47, worked at the San Francisco Jewish Federation as a program officer and at the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council. In 2015, sickened that black men were being killed by police officers, she pivoted toward connecting racial justice and Jewish philanthropy. A year later, she started the JOC Field Building Initiative. 

Now that we know roughly how many JOCs are missing, how should the community respond? 

“We need a strategic plan where we pave pathways to real dialogue and eventually have leadership teams filled with engaged and savvy JOCs,” Kaufman said. “Our Jewish community is getting more racially diverse. If we stay as we are, we will tumble backward into a past where we don’t count and value all Jews,” she added. “Which Jewish world do you want to live in?”

I, for one, prefer to live in Kaufman’s world, where every Jew counts, rather than push away those who don’t fit into some preconceived notion of what Jewish looks like.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy and is a freelance journalist living in New York City.

GOP Has Little Hope of Gaining Jewish Majority

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

The ghost of President Warren G. Harding was in Las Vegas the first weekend of April. So was President Donald Trump. Both were at the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), where 2,000 attendees heard Trump make the case that the GOP’s strong support for Israel should lead to increased support from Jewish voters. 

Harding was the last Republican presidential nominee to win the Jewish vote, when he captured a 43% plurality of Jewish support in a three-way race in his 1920 election. It’s now been more than 30 years since a Republican nominee has attracted even one-third of the Jewish vote.

Trump and his supporters believe they can reverse this trend, based partially on Trump’s actions but mostly on the growing anti-Israel sentiment among a young generation of Democratic leaders. That belief is based on two faulty premises, both of which will make the Republicans’ effort to coax Jews away from the party of Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) difficult to achieve.

The first false assumption is that the choice between the two parties is a choice between absolutes. Even American Jews who oppose the Iran nuclear agreement and support moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem do not see one party as completely bad for Israel and the other as absolutely good. Rather, they see their choice as between one party that is very, very good for Israel, and another that is very, very, very good. 

That one extra Republican “very” is not sufficient to balance off the advantages that Democrats hold with most Jewish voters on abortion rights, climate change, immigration reform and many other domestic policy priorities. While most American Jews see individual lawmakers like Tlaib and Omar as unacceptable, the continued support for Israel among most Democratic leaders still leads to overall positive feelings toward the party among large majorities of Jewish voters. The challenge for Democrats is to prevent the spread of Tlaib’s and Omar’s attitudes in the party’s ranks. But barring the emergence a Jeremy Corbyn-esque presidential nominee, the Democrats have more than enough influential leaders whose strong support for Israel makes this a decidedly uphill fight for the GOP.  

[Netanyahu’s] focus on evangelical supporters of Israel reflects his realization that Jewish voters in the U.S. alone do not provide him with a sufficient base of support.

The second problem with this argument is that it assumes the majority of American Jewish voters make Israel their top priority at the ballot box. But American Jews have shifted their focus to domestic policy. A 2016 Ruderman Family Foundation study found that Israel was no longer among the top five issues influencing American Jewish voters, continuing a long-term trend. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not understand many things about American politics, but his focus on evangelical supporters of Israel reflects his realization that Jewish voters in the U.S. alone do not provide him with a sufficient base of support. Netanyahu’s approach has polarized American Jews, further blurring the definition of support for Israel among many left-leaning Jewish voters, even while evangelical voters have become more motivated. 

At the RJC meeting, some wealthy Trump supporters shared their plans to spend more than $10 million next year to persuade Jewish voters to support the president’s reelection. While they almost certainly understand that winning the Jewish vote in 2020 is impossible, a targeted effort aimed at sizable Jewish populations in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada could affect the razor-thin margins that will determine how those states cast their electoral votes.

As anti-Israel sentiment hardens among young progressives, leaders such as Tlaib and Omar can be expected to frequently cross the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. But until those attitudes become more pervasive in Democratic circles — and until Republicans distance themselves from equally intolerant voices of nationalism and xenophobia — a sea change in Jewish partisan voting is not in the offing anytime soon.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.

Jewish, Christian and Muslim Panelists Discuss the Role of Religion in American Politics

From left: Reinhard Krauss, Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Rev. Jonathan Chute and Aziza Hasan discussed religion and politics at American Jewish University. Photo by Laura-Beth Sholkoff, American Jewish University's Whizin Center for Continuing Education

“We are here to learn something about the distinctive insights and perhaps the helpful wisdom that Judaism, Christianity and Islam can bring to this crucial conversation of religion and politics based on the long history of each of these religious traditions.”

This is how Reinhard Krauss, executive director of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies, introduced a panel discussion on March 27 held at the American Jewish University campus.

The event was part of the speaker series, “Let’s Talk About Religion,” which features interreligious conversations that highlight the similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Krauss served as the moderator on a panel titled “God in the Voting Booth? The Role of Religion in American Politics.” The event drew around 40 people and the panel featured Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Miller Introduction to Judaism Program; Jonathan Chute, senior pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. 

 Hasan said religion and politics have always intermingled, noting how America’s first president, George Washington, addressed a synagogue about religious freedom and how former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was sworn in to the U.S. House on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran.

Greenwald said the sacred texts of the three monotheistic faiths do not prescribe policy positions. “So I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican,” he said. “The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?”

While religion has been used as a tool to oppress, Chute said the most sustainable religions are those that ask people to look inward. 

“I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican. The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald

“I tend to feel that a healthy religious impulse is one that is more critical and actually more specifically self-critical and one of the differences between what I think of as a healthy religious expression and something that is more reflective of a cult is its capacity for self-criticism,” Chute said. 

Each speaker spoke about the importance of people of various political beliefs listening to one another. Hassan said she was struck by a recent article in USA Today that said an increasing amount of people feel like their way of life is being threatened by America becoming more diverse.

“If people are feeling like their values, their way of life is going to be threatened because minorities are taking over, we better start listening really quickly,” she said. 

She added she was heartened that following the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, people of diverse political beliefs came together for a vigil at the Federal Building in Westwood.“We all got to grieve that night,” she said.

Similarly, Greenwald said that the same groups that turned out to support each other after the Tree of Life shooting came out to express solidarity following the recent shootings at the mosques in New Zealand.

Greenwald connected ideas about religion and civic life to the Passover story, including how Egypt is a place of constriction. The journey to the Promised Land is a “tough one and the only way to make it is together,” he said.

Chute spoke about the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. 

“I’m comfortable working not to violate that,” he said.

While Greenwald said it is inappropriate for a rabbi to advise others on how to vote, he is comfortable sharing his opinions on the issues of the day. He added it is natural for elected officials to share how their religious beliefs inform their political positions, noting religion is how they bring their “full selves” to their work.

While the speakers said religion is a force for good in political and civil life, Krauss said religion was not always aligned with causes including the Civil Rights movement and figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the Q-and-A, an audience member asked about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has made anti-Israel statements on Twitter. Hasan, who was raised in Jordan by a Christian-American mother and a Muslim-Palestinian father, denounced the rise of “anti-Jewish sentiment.” She said the controversy surrounding Omar’s anti-Israel statements has furthered her education about the many forms of anti-Semitism.

“I can see tropes I was blind to before and it’s been a journey,” Hasan Said.

When an audience member said that clergy who use their pulpits to express political positions bothered him, Chute agreed. “I try to preach in a way that invites people to ask their own questions and to wrestle with things that I think are substantive and important,” Chute said, “but I really seek to avoid proscription and partisan pronouncement.”

Can Israel Win Back the Democratic Party?

Photo from Flickr.

In June 1972, Israel’s ambassador to the United States was criticized by The Washington Post for being an “undiplomatic diplomat.” The ambassador was Yitzhak Rabin. The occasion was the presidential election between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern. Rabin’s supposed offense was expressing Israel’s preference that Nixon would come out on top. “While we appreciate support in the form of words we are getting from one camp,” Rabin told an interviewer, “we must prefer support in the form of deeds we are getting from the other camp.” 

Words — from the Democratic camp. Deeds — from the Republican camp.

Nearly 47 years later, a majority of Israelis feel the same as Rabin did then. Support for Israel is bipartisan in words mostly, in practice it is highly partisan — and not because of what Israel does or does not do. 

It is well-established fact that Democratic voters look less favorably on Israel than their Republican counterparts and fewer see it as a strong ally. Survey after survey, including a recent survey by Gallup, shows the gap. And as The New York Times reported a few months ago, the party itself is also changing, as “a cluster of activist Democrats … has dared to breach … strong support for Israel….” It’s true that mainstream Democrats call these Democratic Party leaders “fringe,” but the surveys indicate that this fringe might now reflect the perspectives of the party’s elected officials. 

For Israel, this is a highly troubling development, a matter of national security. Striving to have “bipartisan support” was always the policy of Israel and its allies. And while bipartisanship was always somewhat overhyped, it mostly worked well from the late 1970s until recent times. Rabin, the ambassador to the Nixon administration, had a close relationship with Democratic President Bill Clinton. 

The change in tone and attitude has been gradual. As Israel moved rightward, following the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Democratic Party moved leftward, from Clintonian triangulation to Barack Obama, and then even further to the left. Israelis feel at ease when Republican presidents — George W. Bush, Donald Trump — are at the helm. They felt much less comfortable with Obama, whom a majority of Israeli Jews considers the “worst president” for Israel in the past 30 years. 

While bipartisanship was always somewhat overhyped, it mostly worked well from the late 1970s until recent times. 

What can Israel do to mitigate the erosion of Democratic support? For many liberal Americans, and also some Israelis, the answer is simple: Israel must change its policies to win back the Democratic Party’s support. American liberals point their fingers at various Israeli policies — from not ending the West Bank occupation to bombing Gaza and passing “illiberal” legislation — that they say underlie the growing alienation. Opposition leaders in Israel blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for aligning his government with conservative Americans and thus creating a “serious problem” for Israel when the Democratic Party comes back into power. 

Undoubtedly, some of Israel’s policies contribute to making liberal Americans less enamored with the country they once adored. But a serious look at the trends must end with a disappointing conclusion from an Israeli viewpoint: There is not much that Israel can do to bring Democrats back into its corner, other than wait for the tide to reverse.

It goes without saying that Israel must invest in bipartisan support to the highest extent possible. No sane Israeli leader is going to forgo the support of half of Americans because of laziness or carelessness. On the other hand, U.S. bipartisan support is just one item on the list of many that Israel must worry about. First and foremost, it must worry about survival in a dangerous neighborhood. Thus, any discussion of Israel’s ability to impact the views of Democratic voters must begin with a straightforward question: What would be the cost of regaining their support? 

The answer — again, sadly — is that the cost seems to be too high. Here is one example: Democratic voters and legislators overwhelmingly supported the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Israeli voters and their government believed this deal was dangerous for Israel. So, in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak in Congress against the deal.

This was a highly partisan move, a “risky gambit” as professor Daniel Drezner called it. Back then I opposed it, believing that Netanyahu “has turned Israel into a political football.” Indeed, he had. Republicans cheered his speech; Democrats were furious with it. In retrospect, I was wrong. Had Netanyahu not decided that the benefit (making the case, refusing to surrender) outweighed the risk (further alienating Democrats), it would have been much harder to imagine Trump taking the bold step of withdrawing from the deal. 

Israel’s dilemma is not hard to understand: Losing bipartisan support is strategically dangerous; accepting a reality of an emboldened Iran is strategically dangerous. Sometimes a choice must be made. Which of these two is more dangerous? More urgent? More susceptible to influence?

While for Israel to assuage its policies on Iran, or on Gaza, is certainly dangerous, its ability to influence Democratic tendencies at a reasonable cost is far from clear. Rabin understood this in the 1970s, when he was looking at a Democratic Party smitten with McGovernites — “the kind of liberal he had learned to dislike,” as professor Ephraim Inbar wrote in his book, “Rabin and Israel’s National Security.”

Netanyahu probably sees a similar picture as he looks at a Democratic Party highly influenced by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and highly attentive to activists whose philosophy is intersectionality. He looks at the party whose leaders not long ago vowed to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed in the Senate by a 93-5 majority, with only one opposing Democrat) but recently, vehemently, opposed this move. 

Israel and the Democratic Party have changed since 1995. Democrats became less tolerant of hardnosed realistic policies — the exact types of policies that Israel gradually adopted. 

Can Israel make moves that would mitigate the trend of it becoming unfashionable among Democrats? Sure. It needs to make such goal a priority whenever possible. But it is important to acknowledge a frustrating reality: Since Israel is not going to completely alter its security policy, only little mitigation is possible.

Democratic support for Israel is weakening as a result of internal American dynamics. When Democrats turn to moderate centrism — as in the days of Presidents Lyndon Johnson or Clinton — relations with Israel are solid. When Democrats move leftward — as in the days of McGovern or Obama — relations with Israel become rockier. This is basically true whether Israel is led by a Labor government headed by a Rabin or a Likud government headed by a Netanyahu.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at

Ode to My Country

Photo from Pinterest

I turned 65 recently. Certainly not old by today’s standards but a good time for reflection. Particularly when I realize that I am now about 25 years older than Teddy Roosevelt when he charged up San Juan Hill, 40 years older than George Gershwin when he composed “Rhapsody in Blue,” and about twice as old as Thomas Jefferson when he proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”

What can I proclaim about America at a time when our political climate gets more interesting every day? And by “interesting,” you can interpret that word however you want.

It is a curious society we live in and a curious time to be part of the electorate. People habitually complain about Congress, yet historically vote for incumbents. Candidates receive their party’s nomination for president because it is “their turn” (Bob Dole, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton) yet nobody really feels that’s a good enough reason to be chosen. And on Election Day, many people often find themselves voting more out of civic duty than out of true passion for an individual candidate. I know. I’m one of these folks.

As the son of a World War II Silver Star recipient, I’ve always considered myself as patriotic as they come. I honor the flag, wish more performers would sing the national anthem as it was intended and hold out hope that more politicians will speak to us like adults. I’ve had the thrill of seeing the sunrise over Mount Rushmore, feeling the chill of true heroism at the Alamo, and shaking my head in disbelief at the bridge at Antietam. 

In his final speech a half century ago, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy called the United States “a great county and a compassionate country.” I still believe that to be true, yet like many Americans, I find myself deeply troubled by what I see around me. That includes these nine realities I sadly know to be true:

1. In Washington, D.C., no bad idea stays dead for long. 

2. Today’s political talk shows contain everything except civility.

3. Whatever the United States does for its veterans isn’t enough. 

4. Finding a way to get out of jury duty has become almost as American as serving on a jury. 

5. The problem with politics today is that not enough good people care. 

6. The demise of daily newspapers makes us a sadder country. 

7. The decline of funding for art and music in our public schools makes us a much sadder country.

8. Our judicial system is too concerned with winning and losing and should be more concerned with truth and justice.

9. Elected officials are called “public servants” but many seldom act that way. 

There are other things about this country that I know to be true as well. I know that corporate mergers seldom benefit the average person. I know that health care belongs on the bottom shelf, where everyone can reach it. I know that all Americans should visit Gettysburg, Pa. 

“I know that our country is not perfect, but imperfection is part of the arc of America.”

I know that I don’t like the idea of people burning the American flag, but I like a law prohibiting it even less. I know there’s a reason the First Amendment is first. And I know that there are times I wished that the Electoral College gave honorary degrees. Most troubling of all, I know that our flag is at half-staff far too often for a civilized society. 

I also know that our country is not perfect, but imperfection is part of the arc of America. That makes it the responsibility of each generation to leave a better county than we inherited from the generation before. Perhaps that is why the framers of our Constitution talked about establishing “justice” but gave no definition of the word. Instead, they left it to each of us to define what justice means and just what it means to be “just.” 

Yes, I’ve turned 65. I was too young for the Freedom Riders and early space exploration but today am not too old to still believe, as Tennyson wrote, that some work of noble note may yet be done. I still believe that America is a shining city on the hill. But there are miles to go and promises to keep.

Ross K. Goldberg is the author of “I Only Know What I Know.”

Annexation Is a Pernicious Issue for Israel

Houses in Shvut Rachel, a West Bank Jewish settlement. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Modern Israel has been a remarkable unifying force for American Jewry. Sadly, the subject of Israel and most discussions about Israeli policies today have become deeply divisive. In some instances, these debates have cost friendships and silenced organizations and Jewish leaders from engaging in conversations around Israel.

There is an issue, however, around which most Jews can coalesce — the potential annexation of portions or all of Judea and Samaria, the West Bank. This poses a threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, which should concern all Jews.

Various proposals for annexation of portions or all of the territory are currently on the Israeli political agenda. Advocates of these proposals are not bashful about their intent to pass such legislation during the next government. This is a result of Israeli coalition politics whereby a minority political party can demand support of a policy as a condition for its participation in the governing coalition. 

Yet, contrary to common understanding, a just-released poll by The Institute for National Security Studies shows that only 25 percent of Israelis support some form of annexation. However, the majority opposing annexation do not view this issue as a priority, while its passionate advocates do.

The ideological controversy over borders mirrors historic debates about “Greater Israel.” For over 100 years, there have been passionate debates within the Zionist movement about the required borders of the Jewish state — the entirety of biblical Israel or only those areas with majority Jewish population. In debates over whether to support the United Nations partition resolution in 1947, the consensus position favoring a Jewish state separate from an Arab state prevailed over advocates who embraced the Greater Israel position, enabling the Zionist enterprise to succeed dramatically with the formation of modern Israel. Similarly, the agreement to cede territory to Egypt at Camp David prevailed over fierce opposition, leading to four decades of peace, which continues to be maintained.

Defeat of current annexation proposals is essential to preventing a cascade of extremely serious political, security and economic consequences. Many of the proposals seem deceptively innocuous, promising to annex unpopulated territory,  not Palestinians. The consequences of these proposals would likely produce dire long-term and short-term consequences. Advocates of this “luxurious” (no cost) annexation proposal pretend this action will not trigger reactions. They are wrong.

There is a strong consensus among security experts that annexation, even on a small scale, would upset the fragile balance with the Palestinians. For example, territory annexed in all the proposals would eliminate contiguity for areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is essential for transit from one area to another. This arrangement would likely lead to the termination of security cooperation and/or the collapse of the PA. As a result, the Israel Defense Forces would be required to re-enter and take over all of Judea/Samaria and assume responsibility for its millions of Palestinians.

This would have a severe impact on Israel’s security and economy, while also burying any possibility of an ultimate resolution separating the parties to the conflict. The multiple billions of dollars in security and public services expenditures for control of the territories alone would cripple the Israeli economy, and international sanctions or loss of investment would add to the blow.

Israel has made tremendous strides in its relations with many of its Arab neighbors, creating the opportunity for a different Middle East, which might eventually include a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Proposed annexation moves would give potentially friendly powers in the region little choice but to abandon this hopeful path. Public outrage in the Arab countries would very likely result in termination of existing limited cooperation. Iran would have a potent public weapon against its Sunni enemies. American groups opposing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) would be severely disadvantaged. While annexation consequences would far exceed BDS as a threat, they also would make its success substantially more likely.

Internationally, severe diplomatic, financial and legal problems would likely result. Although the current U.S. government might not initially object, reaction from the European Union might well include concrete measures, including political, economic and arms supply sanctions. Russia and China might well join in opposing Israel’s actions. The international community, assuming abandonment of any possibility of an eventual two-state solution, would increase pressure on Israel to grant equal rights to all Palestinians. Thus, Israel would be faced with a tragic dilemma — either the loss of its dominant Jewish character and becoming a secular, democratic state; or denying Palestinians equal rights and losing its standing and character as a democratic nation.

Annexation initiatives have galvanized a strong nonpartisan effort to defeat these measures. Notable among them is the Commanders for Israel’s Security, a network of almost 300 former senior leaders of the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet and police that has conducted extensive research on the subject, illustrating the immediate and existential threat. Each political party campaigning for election should be encouraged to publicly commit not to enter a government unless the coalition agreement opposes annexation or permits it a veto. In this way, the consensus opposing annexation can prevail in a nonpartisan way.

Only by preventing annexation can Israel retain its strategic security, flexibility and future options while insuring against a required choice between being a Jewish or democratic state.

Ed Robin is a board member of the Israel Policy Forum. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

What Happened to America? How We Became a Divided Nation and How We Can Move Forward

We Americans are furious. We are fed up. We are enraged and outraged. We vent our wrath on Facebook and Twitter against those who have the nerve to disagree with us, and we avoid even the most casual of social encounters with people who voted for the other candidate.

But we also know that underneath almost every angry person is a frightened person. If we move past the anger to instead consider the frightened American voter and where their fears come from, we can move closer to addressing the unhappiness and divisiveness that has roiled our politics, our public discourse and even our personal relationships.

Politics does not exist in a vacuum. It is a reflection — and often an exaggeration — of society. Shrewd campaign strategists in both major parties have watched us for years as we have become more wary and more suspicious of each other. They have learned how to exploit our tribal instincts and to leverage our alienation for their partisan advantage. But in 2016, the politics of fear broke through to a new level.

The Politics of Fear
In the last presidential election, two unusual candidates — Donald Trump from the right and Bernie Sanders from the left — decided that they could benefit from stoking the fears of voters rather than calming them. Both understood something that more traditional candidates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton did not: A significant number of Americans no longer trusted the reassurances politicians had always offered. Instead, many of us wanted our leaders to indulge our passions and help us identify scapegoats who we could then blame for our problems.

“What’s wrong with America? Nothing that less fearmongering and more confidence and courage can’t solve.”

Trump and Sanders both obliged, targeting their messages at two different groups of frightened voters. But both men recognized the same source of these fears: a society that was struggling with the most dramatic economic and technological upheaval since the Industrial Revolution. Just as the transition from agriculture to industry in the early 20th century roiled the American psyche at that time, the current transformation from an economy heavily reliant on manufacturing to one dependent on rapidly changing technology was having a similar impact. Both shifts were profoundly disruptive to a workforce that had been trained to succeed under the former system but was left deeply disoriented by changes for which it was unprepared. Both shifts exposed the worst fears of workers who felt left behind.

Working-Class White Men
Trump focused his efforts on an older generation of blue-collar workers. Many female and minority voters were put off by Trump’s messaging on social and cultural matters, but white working-class men made up the core of his support base from the first days of his candidacy. These men were told many years ago that they did not need a college education to achieve professional success and economic stability. They learned that working on an assembly line or a factory floor or a construction site might not allow them to get rich, but they could certainly purchase their own home, provide for their children and save enough for a comfortable retirement.

Millions of working-class Americans did everything they thought they were supposed to do to hold up their end of the bargain. They went to work each day, became active in their communities, and provided the structure and support for their children’s future achievements. What they did not foresee was how the world’s economy was preparing to abandon them. 

One hundred years earlier, workers whose livelihoods had depended on agriculture understood how to navigate the Industrial Revolution. They moved from their family farms to cities where they could get jobs in factories. It might have been a difficult transition but at least it was a straightforward one. In 2019, however, laid-off factory workers know they are not going to move to Silicon Valley and acquire venture-fund financing for a social-networking startup. The very best they can hope for is a short-term job-training program that teaches the most rudimentary skills of computer repair or data entry. The worst is represented by growing rates of opioid dependency, homelessness and suicide in the nation’s Rust Belt. Not surprisingly, workers are frightened by a future that doesn’t seem to have room for them — a fear Trump masterfully exploited.

Disaffected Millennials
On the other end of the political spectrum, Sanders reached out to another, equally frightened voter group — disaffected young people.

Like working-class white men, young people of the millennial generation have been struggling to do everything asked of them. In the 21st century, getting into increasingly expensive colleges doesn’t just require good high-school grades and strong test scores, but an array of extracurricular and volunteer activities, as well. As they rise through the educational system, the pressure intensifies. Most successful college students know that succeeding academically is no longer sufficient to guarantee them a well-paying job, so they pursue internships, externships and fellowships with preternatural focus and determination. 

Unfortunately, they happened to graduate from college during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, or during its uneven and unsatisfying aftermath.

Sanders appealed to their fears with tremendous effectiveness, convincing these young people that he was the one candidate who was willing to pay attention to them. Most of his young supporters understood that his promise of free college was unlikely to happen, just as most of the working-class Trump voters knew that his pledge to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border would never be fulfilled. But unlike the establishment politicians of both parties, at least these two men were responding to their fears and worries. 

The unemployed 50-something factory worker and the underemployed 20-something barista may have expressed their fears in different ways, but both felt cheated by an economic system that shortchanged them and a political system that ignored them. Both groups felt like they were being denied their piece of the American dream and didn’t understand why no one seemed to care. Trump and Sanders not only validated their fears but provided handy targets to blame. Demonizing someone — whether immigrants or bankers — was cathartic and energizing for them. And it was good politics for the two candidates.

Fear on the World Stage
Just as children and voters run away from things that frighten them, countries also retreat from scary things. America’s current retreat into isolationism is in line with a century of historical trends. After both World Wars and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, our exhausted and depleted nation turned inward. After every significant economic downturn, American voters decided to prioritize domestic concerns over foreign engagements. It should be no surprise that after more than a decade in Afghanistan and in the years since the economic meltdown of 2008, Americans simply want the rest of the world to leave us alone for a while. We never seem to learn the consequences of that disengagement, a lesson that is again becoming painfully apparent.

For many years, the Republican and Democratic parties’ attitudes toward international disengagement have manifested themselves in markedly different ways. Republicans expressed their concerns through a reluctance to promote a more welcoming immigration policy, while the Democrats’ wariness could be seen in their antipathy toward expanded free trade. Trump demonstrated his political savvy by being the first major political figure in recent history to strenuously oppose this country’s bridge-building efforts on both policy fronts rather than one or the other. Regardless of the outcome of his current debate with Congress over border security, he became our nation’s Wallbuilder in Chief long ago.

The fears that motivated such nationalism and isolationism are not unique to this country. The recent “Yellow Vest” protests in France, the rise of reactionary populist movements throughout Europe and the ongoing debate over Brexit in Great Britain provide ample evidence of the global nature of this challenge. But for the last several decades, the United States has played a unique role in maintaining and strengthening the international architecture on which the varying interests of individual countries could be balanced. 

For more than 40 years after the end of World War II, the world’s security, economic and diplomatic landscape was shaped by a bipolar leadership structure headed by the United States and the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the United States stood as the unchallenged organizer of an international infrastructure. But the current multipolar setup, with a growing number of aggressive global players, is an arrangement that has historically led to precarious provocations, chaos or widespread violence. Concerns of increasingly tense Middle East discord, of a resurgent Russia and an increasingly aggressive China continue to fester. Fears of international economic, military or environmental catastrophe will not be diminished without a more assertive and consistent U.S. presence on the world stage. But taking on such scary international demands requires that we as a nation present a more unified front to a global audience. Which means we must first confront our fears here at home. 

How Fear Spreads
Fear is contagious. Over the last two years, the ranks of frightened Americans have continued to grow. The two specific demographic groups that animated the 2016 campaign have been joined by much larger numbers of voters on both sides of the aisle. On one side are those who fear that — because of their gender, race, ethnicity or immigration status — they are being deprived of their rightful opportunity to share in the American dream. On the other side are those, just as frightened, who worry that they are having their share of that same American dream taken from them as the nation’s economy and culture change in ways they do not understand. The resulting animosity between those who hate Trump and those who hate those who hate Trump causes the surface anger and the fear underneath it to cascade. 

The challenge for our country’s political leaders is to explain to both groups of frightened people that the American dream is not a zero-sum game, that when some among us realize that dream, they do not prevent others from that same achievement. Rather, they increase its likelihood for all. But bringing people to understand such a reality requires a unifying message that is more challenging and complicated to communicate than it is to create bogeymen and stoke fears of the unknown.

“The percentage of Americans who would refuse to marry someone of a different race or religion is at an all-time low. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who would refuse to date someone of the opposing political party is at an all-time high.”

How Fear Stops
Throughout history, our best leaders have made that extra effort. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously outlined the “Four Freedoms” to which we are all entitled: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Unstated but implied in his speech was that each of those freedoms is most secure when we rally together to protect them on behalf of others who are the most vulnerable to losing them. Such a view puts an added obligation on those of us who are most able: We must stand with those who are most fearful.

What frightened people fear most are people different than them. Our society has made tremendous progress on this front, as public-opinion research has shown that the percentage of Americans who would refuse to marry someone of a different race or religion is at an all-time low. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who would refuse to date someone of the opposing political party is at an all-time high.

Certainly, we have a long way to go. We’re getting better at overcoming our fears of people who don’t look like us or talk like us, but we’re becoming much less accepting of people who don’t think like us or vote like us. We are trading one form of intolerance — and fear — for another.

Looking Harder for Common Ground
Ronald Reagan preached the value of cooperation by saying, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally.” The next step forward from Reagan’s quote would be to consider that someone who disagrees with you 80 percent of the time is still someone you can work with 20 percent of the time. But it requires a lot more work to find that 20 percent. It’s much easier to simply vilify them for those matters on which you disagree and add to the animosity and anger.

Tribalization is tempting, but rising above it is often worth the trouble. The time and effort expended in finding common ground not only may lead to substantive agreement and forward progress, but it may make the other person a little less frightening. Recognizing the humanity of someone who wants the same things for their children that you want for yours — even if they disagree with you on which political party is better equipped to deliver those things — is a small step toward tolerance and away from fear. Maybe we can remember that the person with whom we disagree isn’t someone to be hated, but rather someone with whom we can try to find even some small agreement.

The most important part of communication, of course, is listening. As a first step, exposing ourselves to the writing and thinking of smart people on the other side of the divide can help us understand that not everyone with whom we disagree is stupid or evil. Our goal should be to find intelligent thinkers who have different ideas than ours about how to take on our community’s most pressing challenges, listen to them rather than lecture them, and ask them questions rather than hurl insults at them.

And no fair seeking out the screamers and the polemicists on the other side. Pretending to engage with an avowed hate-monger is just an excuse to reinforce our own beliefs, congratulate ourselves for being so much more enlightened that our adversaries, and build the ideological and partisan walls even higher. There are smart people who come to different conclusions than we do. We owe it to ourselves to find them — and to hear them. Then after we have listened to them, the most productive response is to ask questions rather than hurl insults.

(Be warned: This approach requires a high level of intellectual courage, as well as plenty of self-confidence to defend our ideas and entertain the possibility that others might have good ideas, too. It’s also good to have ample quantities of humility.)

On the last day of every semester in the college classes I teach, I give my students one final assignment. Although I cannot grade it, I tell them the assignment will be the most important they receive over the entire course. I ask every conservative in the class to watch Rachel Maddow once a week and I encourage every liberal to read George Will or Bret Stephens with the same frequency. The goal isn’t to change anyone’s mind, just to open it.

“Maybe we can remember that the person with whom we disagree isn’t someone to be hated, but rather someone with whom we can try to find even some small agreement.”

What’s Right With America
In his first inaugural address, Bill Clinton offered a thought that can still help us with this current challenge. “There is nothing wrong with America,” he said, “that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” 

What’s right with America has always been collaboration and cooperation and the extra effort needed to overcome disagreements to work toward common goals. What’s right with America are Americans who understand that fearing those who are different just gets in the way of recognizing that the diversity of those differences is what has always allowed our country to succeed.

What’s right with America is building bridges, but the whole point of a bridge is to connect things that otherwise would be separated. This type of construction requires reaching out across obvious demographic and ideological dividing lines to overcome fears and work toward achievable, admirable goals. 

What’s wrong with America? Nothing that less fearmongering and more confidence and courage can’t solve. The question is whether we sit around waiting and hoping for the politicians to make that transformation, or whether we take the lead and show them that while fear may be an effective short-term political strategy for them, it is going to get in our way as we work toward putting our country back on track.

Talking to those with whom we disagree — and listening to them — may seem like an outdated concept. Certainly, advances in communications technology make it easier than ever to avoid them. But maybe it’s worth the effort, if only to replace fear with trust.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications and leadership at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Hulu Axes Silverman’s ‘I Love You America’

Sarah Silverman is the creator of “I Love You, America.”

Hulu has no more love for “I Love You America.” The streaming service has canceled Sarah Silverman’s variety-talk series after one 21-episode season.

“Well, Hulu canceled ‘I LOVE YOU AMERICA’ and we’re all pretty damn heartbroken. … So in traditional twitter funeral style, I’ll be RTing the love,” Silverman tweeted the news.

The comedian co-produced the series with Adam McKay, Amy Zvi and Gavin Purcell, for Funny or Die, which released a statement in reaction.

“We are so proud of ‘I Love You, America’ and congratulate Sarah, the producers and the entire team for engaging thoughtful conversation and showcasing such diverse points of view every week,” it read. “Whether it was connecting with firemen in Mineola, Texas, over ‘pooping their pants’ stories, or going on a blind date with a conservative lobbyist in D.C., Sarah’s commitment was boundless and there is nothing more to say.”

An Illiberal Lament?

Writing in the wake of the slaughter of Jews at worship in their Pittsburgh synagogue, Gal Beckerman, an editor at The New York Times Book Review, quickly pivoted from anti-Semitism to a more potent threat facing American Jews: the thinness of their religious culture, especially within the precincts of the non-Orthodox. (New York Times, Nov. 18).

The headline on Beckerman’s essay, a Book Review cover piece for all to see, speaks loudly and sadly: “Lamentations.” For historically sensitive Jews, that word conveys destruction and disintegration. Put in the contemporary context, America, its unprecedented freedom and beckoning arms, has been wonderful for the Jews — and something far less: a dissolvent of a once vibrant religious culture.

Recently came a different lamentation, one likewise in regard to liberal Judaism, particularly Reform. This expression, though, was, in essence, the reverse of Beckerman’s keening.

Its author, Judith Taylor, wrote ruefully in the Forward of a Canadian Reform movement “sorely behind” its American counterparts, most of all, on matters of inclusion.

“Canada’s Jews will sustain their religious culture more successfully than will our confreres south of the border.”

By her telling, Taylor arrived in Toronto 15 years ago from the U.S., only to be badly disappointed by the behind-the-times Canadian Reform movement (read: rabbis). Having assessed her new country as laudably socially progressive — especially compared with her former one — Taylor laments, what for her is, an exclusivist, almost retrograde, Canadian Reform Rabbinate. All the more so in relation to our (apparently, far more liberal) American rabbinic counterparts.

The bill of particulars? Canadian Reform rabbis betray “narrow mindedness” about who is a Jew; inexcusably, they refuse non-Jews the recital of brachot at the Torah reading; and, all together, are found inexplicably lagging on “inclusion” issues.

If that weren’t indictment enough, Canadian rabbis “buffer” local Jews from the progressive ways south of the border. (Really? Are Canadian Jews so unable to see what happens elsewhere, as to be incapable of figuring out whom to pay regard?)  In case the message isn’t sufficiently clear, the writer asserts that Canada’s liberal rabbis are on the “wrong side of history.”

With respect: Nonsense. I fear the writer, no doubt with all good intentions, flirts with what (at least in her Forward story) she charges the rabbis: being illiberal. She judges Canadian Reform rabbis harshly: stuck in a time warp, resistant to change, dividing Jews from one another. The writer’s judgmental stance, given her professed liberal loyalties, is jarring.

A personal note: it’s, at best, careless to say of me (as does the writer) that I changed my mind about officiating at same-sex weddings, in effect, because “he could no longer ignore the gay people in his community.”

Hardly the case. Mine (as with Barack Obama’s virtually the same week), was an honest change of heart about an important issue. It’s a shame the writer distorts my intent so casually — so much so, one wonders if she read the sermon. Canadian Jewish News readers can do so for themselves and make their own judgment. Read “Rabbis at Gay and Lesbian Weddings: How I Changed My Mind” (found in my 2015 book, “Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi.”)

More important, read the thoughtful response by the Reform rabbis of Canada to the Forward story. Authored by several rabbis across the country, signed onto by the vast majority, the response roots itself in Jewish tradition no less than the contemporary experience, in communal norms as well as real lives. It’s an impressive articulation of why Canadian Reform differs from its American counterpart. (I had no part in the writing, and back it wholeheartedly.)

A final personal note: After three decades in Canada, I remain enthusiastic about America. It’s “my home and native land,” as I’ve also learned to say and feel. But Canada’s virtues, though more understated, are no less compelling than those of its neighbor. And I’d venture to guess that, in the long run (as in the short), Canada’s Jews will sustain their religious culture more successfully than will our confreres south of the border.

John Moscowitz is rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.

Challah and Sufganiyot in the Clouds

Winston Churchill was so impressed by Uganda during his 1907 safari that he wrote a book about it titled “My African Journey.” Published in 1908, Churchill wrote of the then-British Protectorate: “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.” 

Churchill’s arduous journey took him from Mombasa and Kisumu in Kenya, across Lake Victoria and into Entebbe and Jinja in Uganda. 

Upon reaching Ripon Falls, he left “modernity” behind, walking, bicycling and canoeing until he reached Murchison Falls, the world’s most powerful waterfall. Although he continued by boat along the Nile through Uganda into Sudan to Khartoum, it was Uganda that he fell in love with. Most visitors to Uganda still do, only now, much more comfortably than Churchill did and enjoying much better food than was available in 1907.

Indeed, after living in Uganda for over a decade and having traversed the continent, I’m left breathless every time I venture outside its lively cities. A two-hour drive outside the capital Kampala’s perimeter delivers nature’s full bounty with plentiful wildlife and endless swamps of papyrus, forests and vast African plains. As a chef and founder of two of Kampala’s first Western restaurants, I’m often asked to train to various lodge staffs around the country, some with remote bush kitchens, little more than tin shacks without running water or sometimes even electricity. 

Last week, I was elated to have a four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend free and an invitation to southwest Uganda to a remarkable award-winning lodge called Clouds, part of a five-star franchise of safari lodges in isolated locations around the country. Wildplaces camps are remote, luxurious throwbacks to a more glamorous era with personal butler service, spas, gourmet food and some of the world’s most stunning views. The brainchild of Montreal-born Pamela Kertland and her British husband, Jonathan Wright, I’d been to some other of their properties, and they never disappointed in a single detail. 

Clouds, Uganda’s highest-elevation lodge, is located near the Nkuringo trailhead, ideal for gorilla tracking. It sits on a mountaintop at an elevation of 7,000 feet overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and is ringed by active volcanoes that glow red in the night sky. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to almost half of the remaining endangered mountain gorilla populations, making it a “bucket list” destination for international tourists who buy tracking permits for a few hours of up close and personal time with these mesmerizing behemoths.

I left Kampala at daybreak on Thanksgiving and was driven seven hours until the fully paved roads gave way to gravel trails that hugged the side of the steep mountain for another two hours until I reached Clouds. 

We arrive in the afternoon under heavy black clouds hanging above the volcanoes into a breathtaking, warehouse-sized reception hall with a ceiling rimmed in Swiss chalet-style beams of wood. There is no mistake, though, that this is Africa in between the wooden sculptures and masks, I recognize the works of the most famous Ugandan painters and photographers in frames on the walls. 

I’m greeted by the young resident manager, chef Annabelle Wright, daughter of the lodge owners and a graduate of the London’s Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall and the revered Bocca di Lupo. My job is to teach her staff some American favorites in the form of bagels and doughnuts, challah for French toast and New York-style pizza dough recipe. 

That evening, dinner is eaten by candlelight and we all inhale Wright’s fresh butternut squash ravioli dressed simply in browned butter and sage from the vast garden behind the property.

The next morning, I spend the day in the kitchen with Wright hand mixing challah dough, teaching her the blessing as I braid it, and then how I turn it into sufganiyot or Hanukkah doughnuts. We decide to make a crème patisserie and, while it’s chilling in the refrigerator, I shape the remaining half of the challah dough into balls for sufganiyot. While they are rising, I paint the now-risen challah with egg wash and place it into a charcoal stove for baking (there is no thermometer-regulated oven in the kitchen). I push in the loaf and hope for the best.

After frying the sufganiyot, letting them cool and filling them with pastry cream, we garnish them with fresh borage flowers from the garden. We present them on a bed of coarse sugar to an American couple drinking champagne in the lodge. I explain the meaning of Hanukkah and the eight-day tradition of eating food fried in oil, and they proceed to taste them.

Their eyes widen at first bite. “We can’t believe we came to Uganda to eat the best doughnut we’ve ever tasted!” they exclaim. 

I bet that’s exactly what Winston Churchill would have said.

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 egg yolk, beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus 4 1/4 cups for frying
4 to 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup seedless jam or jelly, any flavor or pastry cream
Powdered sugar for garnish

To make the dough, put lukewarm water in the bowl of stand mixer. Add yeast and sugar, and stir to combine. Let the yeast mixture rest for 5 minutes.

Add the beaten eggs and egg yolk, along with 1/4 cup of oil, to the bowl and stir to combine.

While the mixer is running slowly, add the flour, salt and nutmeg, and mix until the dough comes together. Mix for 5 minutes to knead the dough well. Turn off mixer and let the dough sit in the bowl of the mixer for 15 minutes.

After the rest period, turn the dough out into a lightly oiled bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least 8 hours — preferably overnight.

When ready to form sufganiyot, remove dough from the fridge and portion into about 1 1/2- to 2-ounce balls, resting each on a baking paper-lined sheet tray.

Cover the doughnuts with lightly greased cling film or a cloth kitchen towel and let them rise in a warm part of the kitchen until doubled in size, or about one hour. 

To fry the doughnuts, heat the remaining vegetable oil in a pot or wok until the oil reaches 360 F on a thermometer. Carefully add a few doughnuts to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 1 minute per side. Use a slotted spoon to remove the doughnuts from the hot oil and place them on paper towels to absorb extra oil. 

Let the doughnuts cool completely. To fill, place filling of your choice in a plastic bag or piping bag. Using a chopstick, make a hole in the top or side of doughnut. Remove chopstick and insert the tip of the piping bag. Pipe in 2 or 3 teaspoons of jam or cream into the center of each doughnut. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

Makes about 20 sufganiyot.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef
at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co. 

Tipping Point: Israel and the ‘Community of Nations’

News of the surprise two-years-in-the-making visit to Israel by the president of Muslim-majority Chad broke on the same day that the Czech head of state announced in Jerusalem his nation’s intention to move Prague’s embassy to the holy city. This came on the backdrop of reports that the Jewish state is seeking to establish full diplomatic ties with Mali, Niger and even Sudan. Jerusalem also purportedly is eyeing Bahrain and Oman, the latter of which just reiterated that “the Arab states need to come to terms with the reality that Israel is a fact of life in the region.”

For its entire history, the State of Israel has been widely viewed as a pariah, a status quo many assumed would persist for as long as its conflict with the Palestinians — and perhaps thereafter. According to conventional wisdom, it would languish forever in a sort of diplomatic purgatory with only the Americans in its corner.

Yet, a simple glance at the world map reveals a growing landscape dotted with countries clamoring for Israeli expertise in fields ranging from defense and counterterrorism to agriculture and medicine. It seems that the Jewish state is on the precipice of a major, overarching and perhaps redefining diplomatic breakthrough.

After 70 years, Israel may be on the verge of joining the so-called “community of nations.”

To this end, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed he would soon travel to other Arab countries; this, after his October trip to Oman, which immediately preceded Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev’s visit to the United Arab Emirates. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz this month likewise attended a conference in Oman, while Economy Minister Eli Cohen reportedly received an invitation to visit Bahrain in early 2019 to participate in a high-tech summit organized by the World Bank.

All of this follows Netanyahu’s alleged secret trip to Cairo in May, which came on the heels of his high-profile public meeting last year with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Despite Jordanian King Abdullah’s often-harsh rhetoric, Amman maintains close security and economic ties with Israel and recognizes the important role Jerusalem plays in ensuring continued Hashemite rule of Jordan.

”It is abundantly clear that Arab and Muslim nations would love to establish bilateral relations,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “The reasoning is threefold: a common interest in curbing Iran; fatigue with the Palestinian issue; and the knowledge that Israel is the only dynamic and high-tech economy, especially in the cyber field, in the region.

“It seems that the Jewish state is on the precipice of a major, overarching and perhaps redefining diplomatic breakthrough.”

“Despite this, the cup-half-empty side of the story is that Israel’s international image is at a nadir, as the overall level of delegitimization is increasing. Even in many countries with which Israel has good working relations, public opinion is horrible. This is most apparent in Europe and is making inroads into the United States. To offset the potential severe consequences, Israel will need to change its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. It is unclear if anything can be done to end the conflict — and people forget the Palestinians previously were offered comprehensive peace proposals — but Jerusalem could halt settlement activity and publicly reiterate support for the two-state solution. This might not fully solve the problem, but it would help.”

While the stalemated peace process continues to cause friction with Western European countries, Netanyahu nevertheless has over the past six months received German Chancellor Angela Merkel and was welcomed in both London and Paris. Moreover, to counter what the prime minister has described as the European Union’s “hostile” attitude toward the Jewish state, efforts have been made to strengthen ties with lesser powers on the continent.

For example, Netanyahu recently was the first-ever foreign leader to partake in a summit of the Craiova Forum, consisting of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Greece. In August, he met in Vilnius with the heads of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Before that, he attended a meeting of the Visegrad Group, made up of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Over the summer, Netanyahu hosted Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

A further examination of the West shows relations with the United States — which, along with Israel’s technological and military prowess, forms the bedrock of its global standing — have never been better than under President Donald Trump. 

Moving forward, Netanyahu is expected to travel to Brazil for the inauguration of president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who vowed to make the Jewish state the destination of his first trip abroad. Last year, the prime minister became the first sitting Israeli leader to visit Latin America, making stops in Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia and Mexico. Israel’s ties to Honduras and Guatemala also appear to be at all-time high levels.

Concurrently, Israel has focused on deepening its connection to many states in Africa, to which Netanyahu has traveled three times in the past two years. Ghana’s foreign minister recently announced that her government is assisting Jerusalem in its bid to gain observer status at the African Union, a potentiality publicly backed by Kenya and Ethiopia. Representatives from Angola, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Rwanda and Zambia reportedly attended the opening in May of the American embassy in Jerusalem. Ties have been re-established with the Republic of Guinea and Tanzania.

“Netanyahu during the past half-decade has made an effort to reach out to governments that in the past have not been approached,” said Ofer Israeli, a lecturer and senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya. “These are smaller countries in the international arena but when it comes to the United Nations, every vote is equal. So Israel has tried to make as many ‘friends’ as possible.

“This policy is partially the product of ‘liberal’ states like Britain, France and Germany not supporting Israel because of the Palestinian issue. Jerusalem has no other option but to look elsewhere, including to those less democratic in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Gulf. Israel also is trying to create ties with nations such as Brazil, where the leadership [has shifted to the right]. Another main objective is to target whoever might move their embassy to Jerusalem.”

This more-the-merrier attitude has not inhibited Israel from attracting the attention of traditional and emerging powers, including Russia, as evidenced by ongoing military coordination in Syria despite the recent crisis over the accidental downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane. Meanwhile, bilateral relations are budding with China The bond between Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, is well-documented.

Overall, this expanding network of government-government relationships is reshaping Israel’s geopolitical standing, albeit this success has not fully extended to the level of populations. While that is a concern that needs to be addressed, a country that has a lot to offer will invariably be courted, respected and, by extension, accepted. Israel has become a model for this type of modern diplomacy, which has opened up to it potentialities once thought unimaginable.

Is America a Racist Country?

There’s a powerful story in the Nov. 26 issue of Time magazine titled, “I Love America. That’s Why I Have to Tell the Truth About It.” It’s written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

In his piece, Nguyen addresses the criticisms of America and other countries that he included in other writings, which prompted protests from a few U.S. military veterans. Nguyen explained that those criticisms were really a sign of love.

“I made such criticisms not because I hated all the countries that I have known but because I love them,” he writes. “My love for my countries is difficult because their histories, like those of all countries, are complicated.”

I understand Nguyen’s way of expressing a “difficult” love through criticism. Love is a complicated emotion. And criticism can spur improvement and help make things better. 

What I would suggest is that if we don’t complement criticism with progress, we can create a distorted view of reality. Take, for example, the issue of racism in America.

In recent years, there’s been a popular meme contending that America is an inherently racist country. As The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson declared in 2015, “America will only end racism when it stops being racist.” Even President Barack Obama said at the time that “racism remains a blight that we have to combat together.”

Since President Donald Trump entered the White House two years ago, the racism meme has only gotten louder. From the continued expansion of Black Lives Matter to professional football players protesting police violence against Blacks to white supremacists making more noise, the implication has been that racism is alive and thriving in America.

But is it? Let’s pull back and look at the bigger picture.

According to a 2017 report in The Economist, “Americans appear far less racist than in the past. Only 4 percent of Americans supported interracial marriage in 1958. By 1997 that was 50 percent; today it is 87 percent.”

Also, according to The Economist, “racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI fell 48 percent between 1994 and 2015.”

How about racist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan? According to a 2012 report in Slate, the KKK is “clearly contracting, since its rolls have shrunk from millions in the 1920s to between 3,000 and 5,000 today.” 

“While we must always stay vigilant and pounce any time racism rears its ugly head, we also have an obligation to show the full picture.”

In a recent podcast interview on City Journal, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Shelby Steele, who specializes in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action, also touched on the theme of racial progress:

“The impulse of racism is something that all human beings, I think, have to come to terms with, struggle against, learn all sorts of moral lessons from. But it is not, I don’t believe at any rate … the problem that Black America faces today. And I think one of the most unrecognized features of American life is the enormous moral progress America has made since the ’60s.”

Steele, who is Black, added: “I grew up in segregation. I know what that was like. And when I look at my life today in America, everything is wide open. I can do anything I want. … I don’t detect any will in the society, in American society, to oppress Blacks anymore. Any hint of wanting something like that would be utterly ruinous to a person, to their reputation. They would pay a terrible price for it.” 

None of this is to suggest that racism is dead, or even dying, in America. As Steele reminds us, the “impulse of racism,” however shameful, is something that may never be eradicated. 

What the new reality does suggest, however, is that the long arc of racial justice in America is going in the right direction.

You probably wouldn’t know about this progress from watching the evening news, for the simple reason that good news doesn’t sell. It’s hard to imagine a special report on CNN on how “Americans appear far less racist than in the past.” How sensational would that be? 

And yet, we need those reports. While we must always stay vigilant and pounce any time racism rears its ugly head, we also have an obligation to show the full picture. Bad news may be more lucrative than good news, but good news can often give us a more balanced view of reality.  

That’s why I wrote this column. Just like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I love America, and I have to tell the truth about it.

And part of that truth is: Just as Jews light a candle for every night of Hanukkah, America has fought its own darkness by lighting a candle of justice for every generation.

For me, it is those inexorable candles of hope, however hazy they may appear at times, that are the real drama of this country.

Happy Hanukkah. 

Diaspora Jews’ Role in Shaping Israel’s Future

When many of us enter our synagogues, we see two flags framing the Aron Kodesh: the flag of the United States and the flag of Israel. 

Looking at the American flag, we may think about how much this country has changed over the past two years and how deeply concerned we are about its direction. Nevertheless, as disheartened as we may feel, we are empowered by the knowledge that we have the right, responsibility and ability to fight for what we believe.

Our thoughts about the Israeli flag are more complicated. Many of us think about how much Israel has changed and how concerned we are about some of its policies, whether they relate to the coercive role of state religion or to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

We know that the Star of David at the center of the Israeli flag is a Jewish star. What Israel does helps define us; what we do helps define Israel. Yet many American Jews still believe we must constrain our words and actions when it comes to the policies that are shaping the very future of the Jewish state.

To be sure, there is a growing recognition of Israel-Diaspora interdependency, as Dennis Ross wrote in The New Republic: “The Israeli government must pay more attention to the sensitivities in the outside Jewish world, particularly when the state declares itself to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. That requires its leaders to see themselves as representing the Jewish communities outside of Israel as well.”

At the same time, Ross continues, “Diaspora Jewry should also acknowledge a basic reality: When it comes to security, it is Israelis who live in a region where threats are commonplace and peace is not. … When it comes to security issues, the Diaspora’s considerations must be secondary to Israel’s.”

Ross’ distinction may be familiar but it is no longer functional. The conventional wisdom, that American Jews can be involved in “who is a Jew” or helping victims of terror, but not in matters related to West Bank settlements or attacks on Israel’s democratic institutions, is outdated.

Indeed, perhaps the most generous American donor to Israeli causes, Sheldon Adelson, doesn’t abide by this distinction. Yes, he supports Israelis who are researching how to cure cancer and strengthening Jewish identity. And, although he is not an Israeli citizen and cannot vote in an Israeli election, Adelson also gives tens of millions of dollars to Israeli institutions that advocate foreign and defense policies reflecting his own perspective on what is best for Israel. Indeed, his funding also enables these same organizations to thwart the efforts of Israelis who think differently.

“We know that the Star of David at the center of the Israeli flag is a Jewish star. What Israel does helps define us; what we do helps define Israel. “

I believe that Adelson, who certainly sees the Jewish star at the center of the Israeli flag, presents us with a challenge: Will those of us who are troubled by policies we believe put the future of a Jewish, democratic state at risk, embrace our right and the responsibility as Jews to support the causes, organizations, and policies that reflect our values and our convictions?

I hope we will. I hope we will assert the right and duty of all American Jews to do the same:

Whether they are bat mitzvah girls denied an aliyah at the Kotel …

or college students who feel isolated on campus — attacked for their support of Israel but ostracized for speaking out against Israeli settlements …

or community leaders concerned about the rise on anti-Semitism …

or pro-Israel activists who, like hundreds of Israeli generals, believe that annexing the West Bank would weaken Israel’s security and eventually jeopardize American support for Israel …

We must do so, for the sake of Israel, for the sake of what we hold dear at home, and for the sake of our children, many of whom are turning away from Israel because they don’t hear us sharing their concerns about the direction the country is heading.

If we believe the Jewish star to be ours, each one of us must live by our values, and thereby help shape the future of the Jewish state.

Jonathan Jacoby is the recipient of this year’s Career Achievement Award from the Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California.

Rethinking Jews’ Place in America

Photo from Twitter.

Unlike any other anti-Semitic incident, the Tree of Life Congregation tragedy has destroyed American Jews’ assumptions about our place in American society. We believed that deadly acts of anti-Semitism had been relegated to another era, only to see the rebirth of violent hate in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and beyond. Now, caught up in a suddenly tense and hostile political climate, America’s Jewish community is struggling to find its political voice. 

As a community, we hold to a series of core beliefs. We envision our Judaism and our Americanism to be in consort with each other. We believe each generation builds upon the last. And we see the pursuit of these value propositions advancing the perfectibility of humankind. 

Following World War II, globalism would redefine America’s place in the world. As a central player in promoting regional models of collective action, the United States would form military alliances and economic trade arrangements designed to connect this nation with the world. The genius of the Marshall Plan and the success of NATO had symbolized the post-war American model of global engagement. Many of us also became globalists. We asserted our role in advocating for human rights on the world stage, beginning with Soviet Jewry and extending to endangered communities well beyond the Jewish world.

Because of our economic and social standing, and the individual and collective achievements of Jews, we have taken pride that Jewish Americans disproportionately contribute to this nation’s cultural messaging, imprinting its social behaviors and helping to frame its political conversations.

The Trump presidency has brought about a fundamentally disruptive moment in this nation’s political culture. Not only are we experiencing strikingly different policy options and directions, but the current cultural artifacts of politics — namely how this president operates — dramatically challenge the existing norms of political behavior and action. As our society is shifting from a period of American liberalism to political populism, deep fissures are dividing Americans in general and Jews in particular. Jewish political differences may never have been more pronounced than they are today, as Jews debate and disagree over how to define their vision for America and their own self-interests.

Amid this fundamental political sea change that appears to be underway, with new strains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism emerging to test America’s social fabric, America’s Jews are experiencing a new type of angst. After decades of being seen as political outsiders, Jews in recent times have become defined as part of the United States’ power class — or, within some circles, the “oppressor class.” On the left, political forces embrace the “intersectionality” movement and interject their anti-Zionist convictions as they dismiss Jews as privileged white political actors. By embracing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the political left has targeted Israel as a strategic gateway to its war on the Jews. On the political right, we see patterns of both blatant and subtle anti-Semitism. The liberal Jewish establishment is blamed for promoting “anti-white policies” such as immigration and diversity. The alt-right and others see egalitarianism, globalism and multiculturalism as Jewish-inspired, liberal initiatives that run counter to American nationalist norms and values. 

“With new strains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism emerging to test America’s social fabric, America’s Jews are experiencing a new type of angst.”

A debate has arisen within the Jewish community over which of these political assaults, from the right or the left, should be considered more potentially damaging to America’s Jews and our interests. In arguing such questions, advocates seek to minimize the impact of one side over the other, suggesting that there are degrees to the new politics of hate, as if anti-Jewish behavior is somehow less threatening or damaging from one political extreme than another.

Are the political climate and social fabric of this society coming undone, and in the process are Jews finding themselves increasingly disconnected from the changing mores and values that define the changing American character? What are the contributing ingredients to this new condition?

Pittsburgh may have awakened us to this new and uncomfortable reality. The loss of historic memory and a devaluing of the past give credence to our opponents. The radicalization of our nation’s politics and the invention of political myths are contributing to this new political order. In an age when the rhetoric of hate has taken center stage, this must be seen as problematic to the Jewish condition. 

Today, there is a growing political uncertainty among some of us. The impact of the Pittsburgh attack represented more than an assault on individual Jews. It brought to light the question of our collective well-being. Many Jewish voters entered their voting booths on Nov. 6 still dealing with the aftermath of the most deadly anti-Semitic shooting in American history.

We need to remind ourselves that, historically, Jews have not fared well in political regimes built around extreme nationalism and hate rhetoric. Identity politics, which has become the mantra for some, may produce some short-term victories; but ultimately it must be seen as highly problematic for the Jewish community. 

The biggest potential story of 2018 may still be unfolding. In the aftermath of Trump’s remake of the Republican Party, where will prominent conservative thought leaders and writers such as Bret Stephens and Max Boot find a political home? Unhappy with their party’s white nationalistic rhetoric and anti-immigrant focus, what political pathways are ahead for Jewish Republicans who differ with the president? 

One needs to ask a similar question to Jewish Democrats who, in some cases, are increasingly concerned about the progressive wing of their party and, more pointedly, its anti-Israel, pro-BDS sentiments.

 Over time, are we likely to see a fundamental, political realignment involving disillusioned Jewish Republicans and Democrats? Where do American Jewish activists find a new political base in this uncertain climate?

In both real and symbolic ways, has Pittsburgh distorted and destroyed our assumptions about ourselves and our beliefs about America? We had understood this nation to represent a different proposition: here, anti-Semitism would have no space and we envisioned our Judaism in consort with our Americanism.

At this moment, we are a people in search of our political identity.

There is a heightened awareness among Jews of the growth of extremist expressions challenging not only the existing democratic norms of the nation but also how minority communities, including Jewish Americans, are being categorized and threatened. As we have seen, the fallout from this type of politics has also invaded today’s Jewish public space, where Jews are battling against one another.

Who today can speak to the collective priorities of American Jewry? A new and dangerous divide seems to have replaced the once robust voices of an energized polity. As this American Jewish journey unfolds, how we manage this moment represents a critical test about our character and credibility and our future roles as Americans.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. 

Why We’re So Spooked by the Bomb Threats

It’s not as if our country isn’t used to violence. We lose thousands every year to gun shootings alone. In an open society, some people will, all too often, resort to violence to settle their differences. That’s a given.

So why are we so spooked by the threat of violence against politicians and media outlets which has been all over the news this week? So far, thankfully no one has been hurt by the pipe bombs which were discovered in mail directed against President and Mrs. Obama, President and Secretary Clinton, CNN and others.

And yet, it feels like a disaster, because it crosses a sacred line. It harkens back to those rare and dark times in our history when violence has poisoned politics; when even presidents like Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy were not immune.

Our republic lives or dies on our ability to resolve our political differences without resorting to violence. Without that, we might as well close shop.

Everything about the American political tradition — our Constitution, our system of laws, our rules of Congressional decorum, our tradition of checks and balances, our elections, etc.– revolves around managing power and politics peacefully, without physical violence.

How we react when the threat of political violence rears its ugly head — as it did this week — is crucial. We fail royally when we blame one side more than the other. All that does is reinforce the extreme partisanship that got us in this mess in the first place.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Both sides have used language that can lead to violence. Both sides have violated basic rules of political discourse. Both sides are guilty.

Even if you’re certain that “the other side” is more to blame, this is not the time. When it comes to keeping violence out of politics, we must all be fanatically bipartisan.

“While we have yet to learn all the facts behind the attempted mail-bombings reported Wednesday, I fear the disturbing frequency of politically motivated threats and violence is a sign that too many Americans are becoming isolated and obsessed by what divides us, putting political disagreements front and center in how we relate to one another,” writes Republican Steve Scalise, who survived a politically motivated assassination attempt while practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game last year.

We should heed Scalise’s words. We should not allow politics to rule our lives. We should condemn violence equally regardless of where it originates. And the media must do its part, even if alarmism and partisanship are good for business. What is at stake is more than the future of a political party or a media company—but the future of our republic.

As Scalise writes, “America is better than these acts of threats, intimidation and violence against people based on their political beliefs. We are better than this, and we will move beyond this.”

Let’s make sure he’s right.

Why Trump Is Good for Israel

I know the risk I take when I say anything positive about President Donald Trump in today’s climate of self-congratulatory partisan idiocy. My friends in Washington, D.C., who dared weigh things on their merits, who wrote things like “regardless of what you think about him in general, on this one issue he may be right,” have been assaulted like a bad implant swarmed by antibodies. 

As an Israeli, I will be forgiven for caring less about newly minted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, dog whistles, white supremacists and what happens at the U.S.-Mexico border than I do about foreign policy and, especially, Israel policy. 

And in that arena, Trump, in his brash style, his flouting of norms, his calling allies to order and enemies by name, his willingness to use power unpredictably to advance clearly defined interests, his intuitive and accurate grasp of regional and global power maps, and his rebuilding of American military might and sovereign will — he has not made America weak, and certainly has not made Israel weak. 

Very much the opposite.

When I was in high school in Boston in the 1980s, I was surrounded by teachers and friends who were convinced that Ronald Reagan was the worst president in American history, and that words and actions toward the mighty Soviet Union were “crazy” and going to result in “everybody dying in a thermonuclear war.” 

Nothing drove them more nuts than American victory in the Cold War. To this day, they scramble to attribute the fall of the Soviet Union to anything other than Reagan.

So write it on the balloons at your next gala dinner: Donald Trump is, so far at least, very good for Israel.

What does Israel really need? 

Well, what does any small country need when it’s trying to succeed in a volatile neighborhood? It needs geostrategic tailwinds from powerful allies. It needs enemies and friends alike to think the country should not be messed with. It needs help carving out a strategic “safe space” so it can navigate complicated and changing power constellations, and the room to let its economy grow. 

Yes, advanced weapons and money help. But more important is the clarity: the consistent, unambiguous public backing, in words and deeds, from the most powerful country on Earth. 

“What does Israel really need? Yes, advanced weapons and money help. But more important is the clarity: the consistent, unambiguous public backing, in words and deeds, from the most powerful country on Earth. In this, Trump is helping Israel more than his predecessor did.”

In this, Trump is helping Israel more than his predecessor did, and maybe even more than the ones before did. 

Former President Barack Obama was, at best, an unreliable ally. He never failed to remind Israelis that he kept up the aid money. But he knew and we knew that the actual importance of that $4 billion has shrunk dramatically when seen as a percentage of Israel’s budget or its GDP (now around 3 percent and 1 percent, respectively). Today the money is the least important component of the United States’ strategic support. The U.S. could cut it off tomorrow without much of a blip on Israel’s balance sheet, much less the instant holocaust that American Jews usually assume would follow.

Yet on the things that counted, Obama worked against Israel’s strategic needs. He cut a deal with Israel’s most dangerous enemy, Iran, that delayed its nuclear program (which it didn’t really need), but gave the regime instead what it desperately did need — billions of dollars and a U.S. commitment to turn them into a “very successful regional power” (Obama’s words). Obama waffled on Syria, fueling its instability and expanding Iran’s reach. And let’s not forget his unprecedented slam-the-door-behind-you abstention on the anti-Israel U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016, after the moving vans had arrived on the White House lawn. These were not the acts of a friend. 

Trump’s support has, by contrast, been unambiguous where it counts: The words and actions that tell everybody which way the winds are blowing. 

This is why moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem was so valuable, as were closing the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, restoring sanctions on Iran, and main-taining intolerance for U.N. hostility and Palestinian pay-to-slay policies. Taken together, these actions have sent a clear signal to the world, one that makes my children safer. 

And we have seen the results. Did anybody notice how Russia entered into an uncomfortable alliance with Iran to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, and yet has been forced by the new reality to tolerate Israeli air strikes against Iranian military assets across the country? Did anybody notice that these airstrikes ramped up immediately after Trump’s cancellation of the Iran deal? I’d love to be in that room where the Russians are trying to explain to the Iranians why they keep letting Israel do that. 

That’s why I’m a lot less worried about a Trump peace plan than I was about the Oslo Accords and the other very bad ideas American diplomats have tried in the past. 

Things have changed. The Palestinians, whose cause went global in the 1960s because the Arab states and the Soviet Union needed a propaganda weapon against the West, now have lost both of their backers: The Soviets are gone, while Egypt and the Gulf States have understood the power of the Israel-U.S. alliance. For them, the Palestinian cause has outlived its usefulness.

Yes, you still have hordes of hung-over students shouting, “Apartheid!” and cheering on while Hamas sends fire balloons across the border. But in terms of real power, the Palestinians are today isolated, flat-footed, flailing for money, internally torn, rudderless, with leaders who do nothing to advance either their economic or national aspirations, who only perpetuate their misery. 

In such a context, we can imagine the impasse being broken. For in most conflicts, peace happens only when one side loses, or senses it’s about to. Most peace deals are little more than a resignation to prevent the indignity of a checkmate. It’s not likely in this case, but it’s far from impossible.

So, as much as you want to incorporate Israel into your narrative about how horrible Trump is for everything, in the case of Israel, it just sounds like a silly, desperate talking point. And it surely doesn’t help the prospects of peace.


David Hazony is an author and executive director of The Israel Innovation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Israeli culture in the world.

Why Trump Is Bad for Israel

U.S. President Donald Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his intent to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

There are few policy arenas in which President Donald Trump has been more successful in his misdirection of the nation’s attention than the Middle East. For many in the Jewish community — including many in its leadership — there is a reticence to speak up about the outrages of the Trump administration, in large measure because of the president’s perceived “support” for Israel.

After all, he recognized Jerusalem as the nation’s capital, he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, he has been a staunch advocate for Israel in international bodies, and he embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while making virtually no demands on him. It looks so appealing.

But the reality is that much of what Trump has done vis-a-vis Israel is, in fact, a superficial performance — rhetorically, diplomatically and symbolically — that is at odds with the very policies that will help the Jewish state in the long term. In fact, his policies put the nation, and what exists of an international order striving for calm, in greater peril than it has been in many years.

Community Advocates, in partnership with Jews United for Democracy and Justice (“JUDJ”), four major synagogues (Valley Beth Shalom, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Stephen Wise Temple, Leo Baeck Temple), and the Jewish Center for Justice recently hosted an event at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino featuring Dennis Ross, former Middle East envoy and special adviser for Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia in several administrations.

Ross is among the most knowledgeable experts in the world on the diplomacy of the Middle East. He has served as the point man in negotiations between the Arab states, Israel and the United States in every administration since President George H.W. Bush (under Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama). He facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty; he brokered the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the 1997 Hebron accord, and intensively worked to bring together Israel and Syria in a peace deal. He is also the author of several authoritative books on the region and the peace process.

If one wants a thoughtful, fact-based, nonpartisan analysis of what is transpiring in the Middle East, what the future portends and what the real-world implications of policy decisions are, there is no one who knows more and has more experience in the region than Dennis Ross. He is the best of the Middle East mavens.

In describing Trump administration policies toward the region’s issues, Ross spoke of a “crisis of values” and “a real Russia problem.” Trump has made the situation far worse than it has been in decades.

“Trump’s world view — much like his domestic agenda — in its simplicity and absence of grounding in facts is dangerous to everyone involved. “

For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced plans to provide Syria with S300 surface-to-air missiles as well as sophisticated electronic counter measures, which the Trump administration has not objected to. Those moves, combined with “malign Iranian activities,” has put Israel in a nearly impossible, precarious and potentially existentially dangerous position. Ross observed that until now, “the Russians have given the Israelis a free hand to carry out operations (in Syria) and they (the Israelis) have carried out more than 200 operations in Syria against Iranian and Shia militia targets. They no longer have a free hand and the Iranians have been given a free hand. … The Israelis won’t allow themselves to be put in a position where they are threatened in almost an existential way by what the Iranians are introducing into Lebanon and Syria. … so far, they have had to manage the Russians entirely on their own. Do you think it’s an accident that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made nine visits to Moscow to see Putin?” (emphasis added)

Ross made clear how the Trump response to Russia’s actions in Syria, to essentially absent himself from the conflict, differs from his predecessors and places Israel in peril. “Historically, there was a relationship that we had where we kind of said to the Israelis ‘OK, you are responsible for dealing with the threats in the region, we will provide the material support, but when it comes to the Soviets and others outside the region that might threaten or inhibit you, that’s on us.’ That was the historic posture of Republican and Democratic presidents alike — and I know that since I served in most of those administrations. That has not been the case now.” (emphasis added)

Ross laid out the steps that the administration should take to counter Russia, Iran and the Shia militias — none of which is happening. Rather, Trump has offered a vague pledge, “‘I’ll call Putin at some point.’” Ross sarcastically observed, “well, that’s reassuring.” The way to deal with Putin, Ross advised, is not to follow the Trump playbook. “He (Putin) is a transactionalist … you have to speak his language, you don’t tout him with incredible offers.”

Trump’s missteps aren’t just related to Russia and the Middle East:

We have walked away from a ‘rules-based international order. … [Trump sees] no value in multilateral institutions. … the essence of what Trump said to the U.N. is that national sovereignty trumps everything else. Well, we’ve seen what that means — that means that governments can do whatever they want to their own people and national sovereignty precludes anyone from the outside being able to intervene and do anything about it.

The whole import of ‘Never Again’ was that it wasn’t supposed to be a slogan, it was supposed to be a principle. But when the principle is national sovereignty, you can forget ‘Never Again.’ ”

Ross couldn’t have been clearer. He sees Trump as a huge threat to whatever equilibrium might exist in the Middle East by his inexplicable inaction vis-a-vis Russia. That failure of will increases the likelihood of escalation as the Israelis defend their interests against the Iranians, the Shia militias and the Syrians; all without the United States neutralizing the Russians.

In its simplicity and absence of grounding in facts, Trump’s world view — much like his domestic agenda — is dangerous to everyone involved. As Ross observed, “what we are contending with now is really an assault on our values; by the way, it’s not just an assault on our democratic values, it’s an assault on our Jewish values.”

Last week saw further confirmation of the Trump administration’s denigration of the values that are intrinsic to the survival of the Jewish state: American moral leadership.

In his dismissal of taking action against the Saudis in the Oct. 2 disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump betrayed a disdain for America’s leadership role in the world if it might exact a price on our economy — “they’re [the Saudis] are spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment … that doesn’t help us” — he responded when asked about Khashoggi.

A far cry from President Harry Truman recognizing Israel in 1948 despite threats of retaliation from the Arab states, or President Richard Nixon sending arms to Israel in 1973 notwithstanding the Saudis’ imposing a painful and costly oil embargo on us. 

President John Kennedy once urged Americans “to bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Trump is brazenly rewriting our 60-year-old American creed.

Symbolic gestures, such as moving the embassy to Jerusalem, might bring momentary satisfaction, but too much is at stake to think in such short-sighted terms. Looking at the big picture, as Ross so eloquently stated, leads to the inevitable conclusion that Trump’s failure of will with the Russians isn’t good for Israel, for the international order, or for the prospects for a moderately peaceful world.


David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc. Janice Kamenir-Reznik is a longtime community leader in Los Angeles.

Who Owns the Truth?

There is something rotten in America. We all feel it in our bones. There is a deep sense of unease. A disturbing sense of anxiety. A gnawing feeling that something is desperately wrong. But we can’t quite put our finger on it. We think it’s the deep partisanship that has gripped our nation and the abominable hatred between left and right.

But these are merely symptoms of a much more serious disease.

First, we Americans bore witness to the death of decency, as public political life became about both parties bludgeoning each other with embarrassing insults and degrading put-downs.

But what has died in America is truth itself. Not, as some writers have argued, because President Donald Trump believes in “alternative facts” or because the Democrats hate him so much that they will never give him his due. No, the death of truth has come about because we have forgotten that no one party or individual ever owns the truth.

Truth is not monolithic but complex. It is not singular but multifaceted. It is not masculine or feminine but it is created through the synergy of both. Truth is comprised of right and left joining together and enriching one another to create a higher, more colorful whole.

China has no truth because it is controlled by one party who makes it up. Russia has no truth because it is determined by the whims of a dictator’s daily distortions. But America has truth because it has two parties representing differing views which — even when they disagree — coalesce into the vibrant harmony of democracy. I am shocked that we have reached the stage where we wish the other party would simply disappear.

Jews have known this verity — that no one party or person has the absolute truth and that truth is comprised of different pieces that cohere — better than any nation on earth, which is why we have never been a proselytizing faith. We have always known that Judaism is a truth, but not the truth.

We have never sought to impose our views upon the rest of the world, save one: The belief that God created every human equally in His image and, therefore, every human’s input and viewpoint matters. Jews hate totalitarianism because it imposes one viewpoint on all mankind. Find a dictator — from the extreme right, like Hitler, or the extreme left, like Stalin — and you will see that they identified the Jews as their foremost enemies.

We Jews know, as Maimonides said 900 years ago, that while we categorically reject Jesus as the Messiah, we accept that his followers have brought the knowledge of God and the Bible to people around the world; and that while we reject the prophecy of Muhammad we embrace Islam’s emphasis on the one true God. We do not seek to have Christians or Muslims become Jewish but rather to practice their own faiths peacefully and harmoniously.

Perhaps the greatest proof of modern American soullessness is the right’s and left’s insistence that they alone have the truth and their wish that the other side would be swallowed by the earth like Korach. That there is nothing to be gained by political opposition. That conservatives are brain-dead, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals and that liberals are smug, arrogant, out-of-touch elitists.

Underlying the conflict in America is something much more profound and of far greater consequence than political partisanship. America is facing a crisis of barren intellectual complexity and a void of spiritual depth.

“In our partisanship we fail to see the humanity in one another. In our self-absorption we fail to see the blessing of otherness. And in our hatred for views that differ from our own, we are becoming intellectually impoverished and emotionally warped.”

In our partisanship, we fail to see the humanity in one another. In our self-absorption, we fail to see the blessing of otherness. And in our hatred for views that differ from our own, we are becoming intellectually impoverished and emotionally warped. Our anger and our need to demonize one another betrays a stunning lack of vision. We can no longer see God’s countenance in a Republican or the spark of God in a Democrat. What we see instead is a demon.

Is this the America that Democrats and Republicans wish to inhabit? Will we be uplifted by the blessings of the world’s greatest economy or corrupted with a feeling that 50 percent of America is superfluous?

I will not take sides on the Brett Kavanaugh battle, not only because he has been confirmed and the matter decided, but because it would immediately put me into a box where I would lose half my readership when my essential message of American unity is critical to both right and left. Republicans see a good man wrongfully accused without evidence. Democrats see someone accused of sexual assault who displayed behavior unbecoming a federal judge elevated to the nation’s highest court.

But one side’s need to demonize the other is an affront to decency and ethics. To understand just how far we’ve taken our political differences, one need only scan the titles of the op-eds being written in America’s most prestigious news publications. Editorials covering the affair seemed to show little interest in offering a cool-headed, holistic take on the topic, opting instead to breathe fire into the minds of their readers. The New York Times ran columns calling Kavanaugh’s confirmation “A Complete National Disgrace,” along with another asserting that “The Jocks Will Inherit the Earth.” Another column was given the all-too telling headline: “Liberals, This Is War.” The commentator who wrote that piece summed up Kavanaugh’s confirmation with the simple, if not a bit hyperbolic, instruction to readers to “rend your garments.”

“America has truth because it has two parties representing differing views which — even when they disagree — coalesce into the vibrant harmony of democracy. I am shocked that we have reached the stage where we wish the other party would simply disappear.”

When Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, my friend of 25 years and now my senator from New Jersey, called Kavanaugh evil and said that it did not much matter whether he was innocent or guilty, he was not trampling on due process or the presumption of innocence alone. Rather, he was trespassing on his own stellar resume as a Stanford — and Yale-educated Rhodes scholar (who served as my student president at Oxford University), and on the Torah we’ve studied together and love.

For surely it is a man’s innocence or guilt that will determine his righteousness before God and fellow man.

Conversely, those Republicans who could not hear the aggrieved dignity and sense of violated humanity in Christine Blasey Ford’s soul-searing and heart-wrenching testimony have allowed partisanship to stifle their souls.

And how do the two co-exist? How could Kavanaugh and Ford both be telling the truth when one had to be wrong? How can we embrace competing narratives that contradict? How can antagonistic stories cohere?

Sometimes we frail and mortal human beings must admit, we just don’t know. Unlike God, we are not all-knowing. Unlike our Creator, we are not all-seeing. We just don’t know. And at such times we must fall back on the rules, law, and customs — some God-given, others mandated by the framers of our Constitution — that govern our democracy and move forward. And, for the love of God, stop abusing and hating each other.

Some readers may remember that I ran for Congress in 2012. I loved campaigning and meeting people of different ethnicities and faiths. I loved the heated debates with my opponent. And I wished that I had won. If you were to ask me, what was the most pivotal part of the campaign, it was, ironically, the night I lost. I remember how glorious it was to surrender to the majesty of the democratic system. I was living in a country that decided results by the will of the people. I had been allowed to passionately express my opinions. But when the people chose a different candidate, I felt not dejected but liberated. My God, my God, America the beautiful. A country that trusts its people enough to be able to govern themselves.

For 11 years I lived in the United Kingdom, and this November will mark 30 years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me to serve as Rabbi to the students at Oxford University.

When I first arrived I knew I would have many challenges, but I never expected that one of the greatest would be bringing together liberal and conservative political views. Oxford, like most bastions of academia, was very liberal. But there were many conservative students. How would I bridge the divide between people that were rent asunder by the politics of left and right?

This was especially acute in light of the fact that a lot of the liberal students felt that Orthodox Judaism was too conservative in many areas, like the public position of women in a synagogue or the fact that women couldn’t be rabbis. Then there was Israel, where there was a deep divide between those on the left who believed that Israel should trade land for peace and those on the right who believed the left’s position showed irreversible weakness and invited further aggression.

So, I searched for an understanding and a metaphor that would capture the idea of the need for two opposing, even conflicting, perspectives in our search for a higher unity. How we all had to go beyond tolerance. Not just stomaching one another’s differences on some humanitarian or First Amendment basis, but understanding that we can be who we are only by including those who have opposing views.

I listened to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s eloquent Rainbow Coalition speech — delivered at the 1984 Democratic Convention — in which he famously coined the metaphor of America being a land of many colors that hew into one spectrum. But, that wasn’t good enough, since it didn’t explain why orange needed purple in order to be orange.

Then, I saw how David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York, used the example of an American quilt, which couldn’t be called such without the varying patchwork of different threads and fabrics. But that too fell short. Why, we might ask, do we need a multi-colored quilt, and not a simple uniform blanket?

It was then that I alighted on the brilliant metaphor of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad, in his Chassidic masterpiece, “Tanya.” There, he uses the metaphor of the two wings of a bird.

It’s not enough for the bird to have two wings. For if the wings were on the same side of its body, it would just flop around endlessly and never fly. The emphasis is not on the number of wings, but on their placement. They have to be positioned on opposite sides and against each other. There has to be antithetical propulsion. In other words, you can’t be right-wing without a left-wing, nor left-wing without the right-wing. Two sides pushing against each other is what gives the bird flight.

America today is guilty of believing in tolerance — that you have to endure someone else’s opinion because it is their human right to express it. And what’s happening is, because we believe in tolerance, we now are becoming intolerant since we believe the other side is damaging democracy. If we believe in the other side only for the sake of democracy, then when we believe the other side threatens democracy, we will seek to silence it. That’s why we see these large gatherings trying to silence members of Congress, or right-wing bloggers calling liberals “devils.” We have to go beyond tolerance to actually understand that truth is comprised of different parts that cohere, even when they conflict.

We have to go beyond tolerance to actually understand that truth is comprised of different parts — that I cannot hold my position or be complete in my viewpoint unless there is someone who pushes up against the bulwark of my understanding and challenges me.

Isn’t this the idea of marriage? In last week’s Torah reading, God creates Eve to serve as Adam’s “helpmate who is against him.” It is a fascinating phrase. Eve is not meant to be Adam’s doppelganger. She is not meant to be subservient. Being so is said to be cursed. Rather, she is his equal who sometimes works together with him and sometimes opposes him — even when doing so is always as his helpmate.

Which is more correct, being a man or being a woman? It’s a stupid question, isn’t it, predicated on the fraudulent belief that one is complete without the other.

And this does not apply only to marriage but to the entirety of the masculine and feminine energies in our world, competing dualities that ultimately cohere. They are essential for one another, one balances the other, softens the other. A man does not tolerate a woman, nor a woman a man. Rather, they look forward to joining together with each other to create a greater whole, all in the belief that each side has its virtues and through togetherness they are enriched.

“It’s not enough for the bird to have two wings… The emphasis is not on the number of wings, but on their placement. They have to be placed on opposite sides and against each other.”

The pain we are now witnessing in the explosion of the #MeToo movement was created, ultimately, by the practice of the masculine having insufficient appreciation for, or respect toward, the feminine; the masculine seeing the feminine not as something equal to be acknowledged but as something less — to be used, exploited, and objectified, as opposed to respected, admired, and appreciated.

In the realm of politics, liberals’ demonization of conservatives and vice versa comes from the fake belief that one is superfluous, even damaging, to democracy. Conservatives might be right that when it comes to immigration, in an age of terrorism we need to be a bit more circumspect, due to potential infiltration by terrorists, as we saw tragically in San Bernardino and across the European continent. But if they didn’t have the voice of liberals saying that America must always be open to asylum-seekers and refugees, is it not possible that America might cease to be the “land of the free and the home of brave”?

Conversely, if Democrats were to practice the policies that were embraced by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel — a complete open-door policy that lets anybody in — it might lead to the backlash against immigration that is shoring up the extreme right in Europe. Both voices are necessary to have balance. (And this is aside from the fact that Merkel’s policy, which is in response to the Holocaust, is ironically now backfiring against German Jews who are now experiencing a rising wave of anti-Semitic attacks. Still, being a sanctuary to refugees is vital to a nation’s values and balance is what is key.)

For an appreciation of the other side to happen, you need each side to appreciate not only that the other must be tolerant, but that truth comes not in one form, but broken into parts. Truth is not a singularity but is rather multifaceted and complex.

Democrats are convinced that they have the whole truth and that there’s nothing to learn from Republicans. Republicans feel the same way about Democrats. Each condemns and demonizes the other, holding on to their ultimate copyright to truth.

I don’t accept the doomsayers who believe there might be a second American civil war, God forbid.

I do believe, however, that if there were a plebiscite today where Democrats and Republicans could agree to divide the country, and we could somehow peacefully rid ourselves of political rivals, most people would vote in the affirmative.

In a similar vein, we’re seeing the balkanization of media, where CNN, MSNBC and Fox News viewers wouldn’t dare to cross sides, each believing that the other lacks even a modicum of truth. Sure, they’ll tolerate one another being on the air. There won’t be calls for a ban. But, how often will someone of one viewpoint watch a rival station for any other reason than to be fired up with anger, even hate?

This week’s Torah reading is about Parshas Noach and the destiny of the world.

God says that every species lends itself to a more complete whole. God doesn’t just choose the larger, more robust animals in Noah’s time. He says that they must all come along in the ark, for each and every one of them is, in its own way, essential.

The same is true of why Moses was chosen to lead the Jewish people. The midrash relates that he was a shepherd who took his flock out to pasture. A small sheep went missing. Moses would not return without finding the little critter. Not because he believed in the individual sheep, but because the flock would have been imperfect without it.

The Bible says that every man and woman is a tree in the field. It’s a telling metaphor. A tree is rooted in its own soil but grows out and helps oxygenate the air. It represents the individual who is passionate about their culture and identity, but is not limited by it, participating instead in a wider multi-ethnic society. Together, these healthy individuals comprise a colorful orchard, each contributing its own shade. The orchard is a garden of all different plants, flowers, shrubs and trees. Each plant draws upon its own root, but comprises an essential part of a larger garden.

There’s nothing wrong with political parties. George Washington, for all his greatness, was wrong when he counseled against them. We don’t want to live in a one- party state. There is, rather, a problem with partisanship and the hatred and demonization of the other that comprises modern-day America.

“I don’t expect the political differences between us Americans to disappear overnight. I am realistic about the depth of the chasm. I do wish, however, that we wake up to how bad it has gotten and begin discussing remedies.”

To be sure, not everything fits into the garden and not everything would be accepted in Noah’s Ark. If there is a predator that wants to devour, then you fence it out of the garden. You leave it off the ship. It has no positive contribution to make. If one seeks to discriminate against or silence another, they should be kept out.

In the same way that I am arguing that we must go beyond tolerance toward mutual enrichment, I also believe that we must have no tolerance for intolerance. There are some issues where it’s black and white. No one disputes that terrorism is black and white, or that Iranian threats against the Jewish state are evil, just as no one disputes that white supremacists and neo-Nazis are vile and wretched and must be condemned outright.

While I absolutely believe we must be enriched by the legitimate contribution of all who practice decency, I also believe that tolerating the intolerable is the liberalism of fools. And if stoning women to death and hanging gays from cranes is not evil, then the word has no meaning.

I don’t expect the political differences between us Americans to disappear overnight. I am realistic about the depth of the chasm. I do wish, however, that we wake up to how bad it has gotten and begin discussing remedies.

This week, synagogues across the world will recount the story of Noah. They will read of a man who watched his world crumble amid the corruption that had infected the hearts of its inhabitants. Rather than guide his brethren toward a kinder future, however, Noah chose instead to seal himself off behind the tar that girded his wooden ark. And with none to tell them better, humankind’s fate would also be sealed — not behind the walls of a boat but beneath the waves of an all-destroying flood.

The holy Zohar, the most fundamental book of Jewish mysticism, recounts how God, upon the completion of the rains, sharply chastises Noah for his unwillingness to better his contemporaries. “As soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark,” God tells Noah, “the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved only yourself.”

As we read this story, we ought to take from it this vital lesson: As bad as things may be, we cannot just seclude ourselves within our own temperate and peaceful homes. Rather, we must raise our own voices, not to divide but to unite, not to assail but to heal, highlighting not our political differences but our shared American dreams and our shared human truths.

This is our country. It is the greatest country. We must act now to heal our beloved home and finally draw its warring factions together as one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of The World Values Network. His latest book is “Lust for Love,” co-authored with Pamela Anderson. He is on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Matt Fink on Prince’s Legacy, The Revolution Tour, and Minneapolis

The Revolution. Photo by Kevin Estrada

While Prince is universally recognized as a genius by music fans of all ages and backgrounds, not everyone realizes the importance of his backing band The Revolution. Often referred to by Prince as “the baddest band in the universe,” The Revolution was part of many essential Prince recordings, including songs on “Purple Rain,” “1999,” “Sign O’ The Times” and “Around The World in the Day.” While Prince would eventually disband The Revolution in favor of The New Power Generation, many of the players of The Revolution have continued to find success as musicians, including Bobby Z, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, Brownmark and Matt Fink.

While 2016 saw the untimely death of Prince, this tragedy led to the regrouping of The Revolution for a series of sold-out shows in 2017 as part of a tribute to the collective’s mentor. Proper touring resumed last summer, including major festival appearances at North Carolina’s Hopscotch Music Festival and San Francisco’s Phillips Backyard Weekender. The Revolution is currently touring the States — including upcoming dates at Austin’s ACL Festival, New York City’s Sony Hall and Boston’s Wilbur Theatre with a European tour slated for February 2019.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Minnesota-based keyboardist Matt Fink, who notably co-wrote the Prince songs “Dirty Mind,” “Computer Blue,” “17 Days,” “America” and “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night.”

While I did not get to ask the man known as Doctor Fink about his Jewish roots – he is notably not the only Jewish member of The Revolution – I did learn about Prince’s comedic chops and that there is still plenty of great unreleased material to come from Prince’s vault.

Jewish Journal: How long was this tour in the planning stages for?

Matt “Dr.” Fink: It’s been pretty much since February-ish

JJ: How long of that time has been spent on coming up with the setlist and rehearsing?

MF: Not too long, maybe less than a month, going back forth on that.

JJ: Did you have to relearn a lot of songs? Or was everything fresh in your mind?

MF: A little bit of relearning, not too bad. There was still things that are still ingrained inside and I don’t really have to do that very much. For me it wasn’t too difficult to get back in the saddle.

JJ: Who’s acting as the music director of the band this time around?

MF: Primarily Mark Brown [also known as Brownmark], our bass player, but everyone has been pulling their weight and all that. He’s kind of been the designated director.

JJ: For people who are coming to the shows, what should be expected? Is it a tribute show? Are you playing the songs straight as they were on the recordings?

MF: Yeah, we play them pretty close to the album versions. We play a lot of the Revolution-era hit songs, along with some deeper album cuts. A little bit of unreleased material that you won’t hear directly hear live.

JJ: Were you always onboard since day one? Or did you have to be talked into the tour?

MF: I was onboard from the beginning.

JJ: You obviously have always been known for your work with The Revolution, of course, but you haven’t always put that as your primary credit. In other words, you have worked on other projects and stayed in the background a little bit…

MF: Well, I don’t know if I’d say that, but once The Revolution disbanded, I was with the first version of the New Power Generation for the first four years, 1986 through the end of 1990…

JJ: But you did reinvent yourself as a composer for other projects. Was that always the plan? Or had you been looking for another band?

MF: I was primarily just looking to become a producer rather than being on the road after leaving Prince. I wanted to do studio work and raise a family, not be on the road so much.

JJ: Back to Prince for a second, is there anything that you wish more people knew about Prince? I ask because he’s sort of an urban legend in many ways in that there are all these fantastic stories, yet no one every confirms if they’re true or not.

MF: Just that he was a very fun-loving guy, fun to hang out with, a great sense of humor. People kind of got to see that in Under The Cherry Moon, not so much in Purple Rain. He was doing more comedic things in that film. He didn’t always get to show off his comedy chops. I always thought he should have done some collaborative films with other comedic characters, but he never did.

JJ: Is it true that he was an excellent basketball player like that “Chappelle’s Show” skit showed?

MF: Yeah, that’s true.

JJ: Were you there for that evening? If I recall correctly, they had a person in doctor’s scrubs showing in the background in that skit.

MF: Yeah, that’s true, I was on-hand for that.

JJ: What is it that keeps you based in Minnesota?

MF: Primarily the fact that it’s my hometown makes life easier. It’s not as crowded as the West Coast or the East Coast. I just like it here because I have family here.

JJ: So, besides The Revolution tour, are there any other projects of yours that you are allowed to talk about?

MF: Yeah, I just finished working on a local artist here in Minneapolis. I produced her at my recording studio here, her name is Michelle Rose. She’s enrolled at the Berklee College Of Music there in Boston. She started her first year at the age of 19. She’s gonna be a contender, I think, going forward, once she graduates from Berklee. I’ll continue working with her, there’s plans to do more material when she comes back to Minneapolis at various times… I continue to do session work for projects that come my way from time to time.

I’m currently working for a company that has developed a new music streaming service, and it’s dedicated to hip-hop and R&B artists, primarily independent artists, it’s called MyMy Music. It’s also available for your iPhone or Android phone. It launched last month and it’s doing pretty well right out of the box, getting a lot of artists onboard. It’s interesting because it’s curated by the listener primarily.

JJ: Is most of your recording still doing out of your StarVu studio?

MF: Yes, but that’s just my home studio, it’s built into my house.

JJ: Ultimately it sounds like you’re keeping busy. So in closing, any last words for the kids?

MF: Keep discovering that Prince music. If you’re already Prince fans, bring your kids. It’s a wonderful legacy that Prince has left for us. We all know what a genius he was, and the amount of material they will continue to release out of his works and his storage vault at Paisley Park — which has now been transferred out to Los Angeles for full archival storage, and also certain recordings are being restored to their full glory at this point — there’s gonna be a lot of release over the next… Who knows? 20 to 30 to 50 to 100, I don’t know how many years. (laughs) I’m sure his estate will continue to bless us with everything he’s got in that vault. Anything they feel is worthy I’m sure will come out at some point at another.

Oh, and I forgot to ask: Are you wearing the scrubs on this tour? Or is that a thing of the past?

MF: Absolutely, I’m always The Doctor.

Tour dates and other information related to The Revolution can be found on Twitter via @TheRevolution and on Facebook at

Using the Bully Pulpit on High Holy Days

Editor’s note: Over Rosh Hashanah, local rabbis spoke on a variety of topics, but three in particular took aim at the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica made national and international headlines when he excoriated his former congregant, Stephen Miller, now Trump’s senior adviser. IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous received a thunderous standing ovation after her 30-minute sermon pointing out how unwell our country is but that it’s not too late to build a new America. And Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple spoke about the “daily cocktail of anxiety” we see in the news and how the Unetane Tokef prayer can help guide us in these troubled times. Below are edited excerpts from their Rosh Hashanah sermons.   

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: An Open Letter to Stephen Miller
I was once your rabbi. When you were about 9 or 10 years old, your family belonged to Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. You attended our religious school.

The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my/our Jewish message. I understand that you were a major contributor to the zero-tolerance policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated to punish and deter desperate families from coming to the United States by separating children from their parents at the border. That notion is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.

Mr. Miller, the policy that you helped to conceive and put into practice is cruel. What you would have learned from me is that ours is a spiritual path that is focused on one task: bringing the shattered pieces of the vessel in which the universe was born back together in both a literal and spiritual repair — a healing of transcendent influence and impact. Mr. Miller, Judaism is a way of responding to the mundane and the unexpected, always seeking the response that is at once the most just and the most merciful. We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate. We choose to recall and emphasize our most ancient ancestor, Abraham, as a “wandering Aramean,” i.e., a refugee, an immigrant. We choose to remember and underscore that the quintessential experience of the Jewish people is both the slavery in and the exodus from ancient Egypt. We are all refugees, Mr. Miller.  

Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border. It’s not that we can’t reverse what you’ve done. We can, we are, and we will. 

We’re not going away, Mr. Miller, and whether you identify now as Jew is not really my concern. What is troublesome is that some of my colleagues and others are concerned about what I might have taught you when you were a member of our community. I can assure you, as I can assure them, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes wisdom, values honed over four millennia, wide horizons and an even wider embrace. 

Is there still time, is there still a chance that you might change your attitude? That’s up to you, Mr. Miller. I will never give up hope that you can open your heart.

In the meantime, I will act in accordance with the values that our tradition conveys, values that go beyond the superficial and time-limited expediencies of your allegiance to party and a temporal leader, and I will engage against you in a machloket l’shem shamayim, a struggle for the sake of all that is righteous, not merely what you may deem as right.

Know this: Regardless of whether the Trump administration decides to be accountable, we are choosing to be accountable. We believe, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us so precisely, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Because we want this society to remain free, we will continue to act. Someone needs to clean up this mess and, in concert with many others, it will be your long-suffering, uncomfortable Jewish people.

Do you know the Yiddish word mensch, Mr. Miller? In Yiddish, a mensch is a fully-constituted, human and humane being. In Hebrew it parallels to the word ish. Hillel the Elder taught us: “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil l’hiyot ish”. (Avot 2:5) In other words, “In a place where no one is acting like a mensch, be one!” That’s what we will be doing, Mr. Miller, because that’s who we are. We can only hope you will decide to join us.

Read more of his sermon’s here. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous: Building A New America
We are not well when racist dog whistles today sound more like bullhorns, when Black athletes are scorned and penalized for engaging in nonviolent protests against police violence. When the Justice Department actively works to roll back civil rights achievements of previous administrations

Yes, it’s a victory that only a dozen pathetic Nazis showed up to march in [Washington,] D.C. on the anniversary of Charlottesville, but friends — they’ve moved from the streets to the ballots! There are now several avowed white nationalists, Holocaust deniers and Nazis on the ballot in state and federal races this fall. Organizations that monitor hate groups say it’s clear that white nationalists feel emboldened when the president himself advances their agenda every time he discharges an insult about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans. No, we are not well.

We are not well when there are one or two shooting incidents in American schools every single week. When middle schoolers report being afraid to return to the classroom because they’re scared they might get shot. And when the Secretary of Education toys with the idea of allowing states to siphon federal funding intended for the arts and music, mental health and technology programs instead to the purchase of guns for teachers. We are not well.

“Oh, keep your politics off the pulpit!” they say. 

As if our Torah is not an inherently political document. As if the story of slaves rising up before the most powerful ruler of the ancient world to demand freedom and dignity is not a political message. 

This I know: Our Torah did not survive thousands of years only to be muted precisely the moment its eternal message matters most. We make a mockery of our tradition when we suggest that the way we live in human society, the way we treat one another, the way we care for — or neglect to care for — the least among us is outside the scope of religion.

What we need is not to return to a time of mythical greatness. We need to build America anew, equipped to hold us in all our diversity and complexity. 

Yes, we are unwell, but we can — and we must — build a new America.

And it’s already happening. This year, we witnessed the beginning of a nonviolent revolution, as a million students walked out of their classrooms and took to the streets. This army is led by 16-year-olds who, while hiding under desks and behind file cabinets, saw their friends shot. Who saw the sickening inaction, the hypocrisy and complacency of our elected officials, and stood up to insist that if the grown-ups wouldn’t do it, they would bend the arc of history themselves.

Our children are in the streets shouting, Pasul! Pasul! It’s not kosher! This is old America, the America of greed, corruption and hatred, of systems built to protect and sustain white supremacy, to entrench power in the hands of the few and keep guns in the hands of the many. It is foul and corrupted. And unlike us, the grown-ups, these kids won’t even consider that change is impossible.

It is their passion that will lead the way to a new America. It’s their moral clarity. Their fidelity to the truth. Their chemical allergy to hypocrisy. They are leading, and we need to stand behind them now, with the full force of our political, spiritual, intellectual and material resources. To do anything less would be a gross abdication of moral responsibility.

There may be a time when it really is too late to redeem America. Thank God, we are not there yet. 

The new America won’t come easily; we’re going to have to fight for it. 

We will rebuild this nation with love. There is a new America being born, and it is fierce, gorgeous and fair. It is built on justice and mercy, and it makes room for everyone. 

To usher this new America into the world, we — every one of us — will need to be brave, brave, brave. 

Read, listen or watch the full sermon here.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder: Double Down on Your Relationships
I suffer from anxiety. It is very real and sometimes very frightening. It can ruin parts of days, weeks, months and years. As a rabbi, I see so much dysfunction, so much hurtful gossip, so much cancer and death that it is hard not to feel like I’m next.

And, of course, there is the news. That daily toxic cocktail of mind-boggling instability, criminality and drama in Washington, tweeting and testing the very fabric of democracy itself — wildfires, Putin, Assad, Iran, North Korea, global warming, Mueller, racism, corruption, sex scandals, immigration cruelty, floods, homelessness — over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And tonight we’re supposed to wish each other a shanah tovah? Really? Yes. Really.  

Our ancestors put celebrating on Rosh Hashanah ahead of the past remorse we face on Yom Kippur. First comes hope in the future, then the muck of our past. And believe me, the sages knew a lot more about anxiety than we do. Consider the Unetane Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah. The one that asks, “Who by water? Who by fire? Who will be troubled? Who will be needy? Who shall live and who shall die?” That prayer was written at least 13 centuries ago.  

Life 13 centuries ago was nothing but anxiety. Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were regular, daily occurrences. But our ancestors had a different, more powerful prescription for managing their anxiety and fear. I try to use it every day. Remember how that prayer ends; what comes after that long list of terrible things to worry about in the coming year? It ends with three simple things that can get us all through. “But teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (generosity),” says that wise prayer, “Ma-a-virin et roah ha-gezarah (will make whatever comes next year easier to live with and through).” 

This was the ancient rabbis’ simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time, and it can be ours, too. First, teshuvah — repentance. And what is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others? Our ancestors lived in small villages, where the key to survival was the quality of relationships with a handful of people who really mattered. Are we any different? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter?    

So double down, says the Unetane Tokef. When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid — double down on your relationships. Cherish them. Nurture them. Whoever you came here with tonight or called to wish a shanah tovah, that person by your side right now, he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see. No one endures suffering better alone. Tend to your relationships with teshuvah. Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart.

Double down. Make things right with the people you love. For only love can lift us from our suffering and our fear. Click here to read the entire sermon. 

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

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Howard Rosenman: Award-Winning Producer Opens Up

What’s it like to be a gay Israel lover in Hollywood? To act with Sean Penn? To be on top of your game at 74? Hollywood wunderkind Howard Rosenman shares his life’s scoops.

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Rob Long: Hollywood Writer Talks Trump

Award-winning Hollywood showrunner Rob Long talks about happiness, craziness and, of course, Donald Trump.

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Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

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