Archive for April, 2010

Judge Woods and the Mezuzah

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Judge Diane Woods is not Jewish. She’s Protestant. And that makes her ruling in the so-called Mezuzah Case even more powerful.

Woods is one of Obama’s top contenders to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by John Paul Stevens. In 2009, she was part of a three-judge panel hearing a case that tells us all we need to know about her heart and values.

The plaintiffs in the case, Lynne  Bloch and her children, were long-time residents of Chicago’s Shoreline Towers. The Blochs had displayed mezuzot on their doorposts – as Jews do the world over — for 30 years, without objection.

But in 2001, the condo association adopted new rules: “Mats, boots, shoes, carts or objects of any sort are prohibited outside Unit entrance doors.” And soon enough, the condo began confiscating the Bloch’s mezuzuot.

Reading the case, it’s shocking to see what the Blochs endured. The condo association president told Lynn that if she didn’t like the way the rules were enforced, she should “get out.”  And, when Lynne was on the condo board herself, the president held events Friday night — even though he knew Lynne, who observes the Sabbath, couldn’t attend.  (When asked whether he was aware of Lynne’s religious obligations, he said, “She’s perfectly able [to attend],” but “she decides not to.”)

For over a year, every time the Blochs put a mezuzah up, the association took it down. When Lynne’s husband Marvin died, Lynne put in a special request, asking for the mezuzah to be allowed during the 7-day shiva period. The association relented.  Yet when Lynne and her family returned from the burial with the rabbi, they were shocked to find the mezuzah had been removed. They were humiliated.

The Blochs sued for damages, and also filed suit in federal court, alleging their civil rights had been violated.

At the Appeals Court level,  the three-judge panel initially ruled in favor of the condo association. Judge Woods dissented. She believed the family had the right to hang the mezuzah on its doorpost, and that denying them that right was discriminatory.

When the case came before the the full court, Woods still seemed to be in the minority.  Judge Frank Easterbrook argued that the perhaps the condo’s rule was not discriminatory, but had been put forth, as the Times reports, “with a completely empty head by people who didn’t have a clue about the religious significance of the mezuzah.”

Woods pushed back hard, and eventually swayed the panel to rule unanimously in the Bloch’s favor.

Supreme Court watchers say the case illustrates Judge Wood’s powers of persuasion — a key asset, as whomever Obama appoints will need to be able to woo Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote in a hotly divided court.

But I think it’s  more important for another reason. It shows that Woods has empathy, and a keen sense of justice and fairness.

No doubt, if she’s chosen, the right will attack her as an activist, radical judge. The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network  is on record saying Judge Woods “has betrayed a consistent hostility to religious litigants and religious interests.”

“At the center of this case is a little rectangular box,” the Court wrote, “about six inches tall, one inch wide, and one inch deep, which houses a small scroll of parchment inscribed with passages from the Torah, the holiest of texts in Judaism.”

Judge Woods antithetical to religious interests? The Blochs of Chicago would disagree.

Why I Mistrust Criticism of Obama on Israel

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

A good friend of mine in Israel sent me an article this morning from Y-Net, Israel’s largest and most popular news site. Headline: “U.S. ‘disappointed’ with Israel, Palestinians.”

My first thought: Oy. This is not the way to improve relations with the Jewish state, and earn back the trust of the Jewish community.

The subdeck went from bad to worse: “National Security Advisor James Jones says peace could prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but adds ‘it must be made by the parties and cannot be imposed from the outside.’ ”

Double oy, I thought. Peace preventing Iran from getting the bomb? It sounds foolishly naive: Obama, exactly as he is portrayed by his fiercest critics.

I read the article, an account of Jones’ remarks yesterday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Curiously, nowhere in the article was Jones quoted expressing disappointment with Israel. And nowhere was he quoted saying anything close to to what the subdeck asserted, vis-a-vis Iran and nuclear weapons.

So I went to the transcript. Jones doesn’t say he’s disappointed with Israel. (He does say: “we are disappointed that the parties have not begun direct negotiations.” But presumably, so is Bibi Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stated his desire to open direct negotiations toward peace.) And Jones doesn’t say peace between Israel and the Palestinians will prevent Iran from getting nukes. (He does say: “Advancing this peace would also help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.” This isn’t warm and fuzzy hope; it’s shrewd Realpolitik that, whether you agree with it or not, highlights Iran’s corrupt core.)

For those who haven’t read it, you should; Jones’ talk is a virtual love note to Israel. You can read it here.

Jones was absolutely steadfast on the need to stop Iran from getting a bomb, asserting that if Iran continues on its current path, it “will face ever deepening isolation.”

Iran’s government must face real consequences for its continued defiance of the international community.  We hope that Iran will make the right choice and acts to restore the confidence of the international community in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. However, should Iran’s leaders fail to make that choice, President Obama has been very clear, and I want to repeat it here: the United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

He goes on to say there has been “a lot of distortion and misrepresentation” of U.S. policy regarding Israel. Though the two have had differences, he said, “we will always resolve them as allies.” Not once, but twice he referred to the absolute imperative for Israel to be a “secure, Jewish state.” Note the emphasis: Jewish.

As President Obama declared in Cairo, “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known.  This bond is unbreakable.”  They are the bonds of history—two nations that earned our independence through the sacrifice of patriots.  They are the bonds of two people, bound together by shared values of freedom and individual opportunity.  They are the bonds of two democracies, where power resides in the people.  They are the bonds of pioneers in science, technology and so many fields where we cooperate every day.  They are the bonds of friendship, including the ties of so many families and friends.

 This week marked the 62nd anniversary of Israeli independence—a nation and a people who have survived in the face of overwhelming odds.  But even now, six decades since its founding, Israel continues to reside in a hostile neighborhood with adversaries who cling to the false hope that denying Israel’s legitimacy will ultimately make it disappear.  But those adversaries are wrong. 

 He goes on to criticize the Palestinians for refusing to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. “America’s commitment to Israel will endure,” the National Security Advisor said:

And everyone must know that there is no space—no space—between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.  Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.  It is as strong as ever.  This President and this Administration understands very well the environment—regionally and internationally—in which Israel and the United States must operate.  We understand very well that for peace and stability in the Middle East, Israel must be secure. 

 The United States will never waiver in defense of Israel’s security. 

The United States will never waiver in defense of Israel’s security.

That’s why, he explained, the U.S. spends billions of dollars annually in security assistance to Israel; consults with Israel to ensure its “qualitative military edge”; and undertakes joint military exercises, including one that involved more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers.

I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America. Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats. 

Over the years, and like so many Americans—like so many of you here tonight—I’ve spent a great deal of time with my Israeli partners, including my friends in the IDF.  These partnerships are deep and abiding.  They are personal relationships and friendships based on mutual trust and respect.  Every day, across the whole range of our bilateral relationship, we are working together for our shared security and prosperity.  And our partnership will only be strengthened in the months and years to come.

And yet Y-Net, the most popular news site in Israel, chooses to run with: “U.S. ‘disappointed’ with Israel, Palestinians”?

What bothers me most about this, is not only that it’s inaccurate, but destructive. And whether this particular headline was intentional or not, it fits a false narrative — purveyed by too many in the Jewish community – that goes back to before the election: Obama is a Muslim; he has anti-Israel advisors; he removed “Next year in Jerusalem” from the White House Passover seder; his State Department is denying visas to Israeli nuclear scientists; he snubbed Bibi Netanyahu; he “hates” Netanyahu; he hates Israel.

False. False. False. False. False. False. And false.

It’s dishonest. And it’s a big reason that, while I have specific concerns about how Obama’s handled Israel and the peace process, some of which I’ve blogged about, at the end of the day, my money’s on him.

Concrete versus Sand

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Richard Cohen has an important column in the Washington Post this week (“Obama, don’t forget Jerusalem.”)

There are some nuggets in the piece that should reassure the Jewish community vis-a-vis the recent dust-up between the U.S. and Israel.

For starters, Obama did not snub Netanyahu by interrupting a meeting with the prime minister so he could have dinner with his family. “There was no snub, say the most informed of informed sources,” Cohen writes.

Moreover, in some important arenas, U.S.-Israeli cooperation is actually greater than it’s ever been.

In fact, Israelis and others say that when it comes to military aid and intelligence operations, the two countries have never been closer. As an example, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz tell us that three American-made Hercules transport aircraft are in the pipeline to Israel. …

… Most Israelis still like Obama and approve his approach; they, too, want a two-state solution.

The problem, Cohen argues, is one primarily of perception.

[Obama] gives every appearance of not “getting” Israel; not appreciating its fears or its history. Israel is not half of the equation, as if both sides are right. It is a democracy with American values that has tried, over and over again, to make peace with a recalcitrant and unforgiving enemy.

Israelis would give up the West Bank and East Jerusalem for peace — but they fear, and with good reason, that more concessions won’t work, and will leave Israel more exposed. Many believe Hamas would quickly over-run a weak Palestinian Authority, and Israel would be suddenly faced with not one but two terrorist mini-states breathing down its neck. (Hamas was elected, after all, in Gaza; what’s to prevent that from happening in East Jerusalem?)

Obama “needs to address Israelis’ fears,” the Israeli philosopher Carlo Strenger wrote recently in Haaretz. So far, Obama has done just the opposite, even going to Cairo to assure the Palestinians and the greater Arab world that he appreciates their plight without assuring Israelis that he appreciates theirs. His coolness toward Netanyahu, earned or not, has chilled the Israeli public and encouraged Palestinian defiance. He is on the cusp of an enormous diplomatic blunder.

Cohen concludes by saying that Obama has the “right policy,” but needs to go to Jerusalem to address Israeli fears. (I’ve repeatedly advocated the same thing with this blog, as early as this post, from July 9, 2009: “The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel.“)

There’s another way Obama can start changing perceptions. When his administration pressures Israel, he asks for concrete concessions (freeze settlements, open checkpoints, declare support for a two-state solution, etc.) When pressure is exerted on the Palestinian Authority, it’s much less concrete. Just this week, for example, Hillary Clinton called on the PA to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

We’ve heard that trifecta before.

But what does a crackdown on corruption look like? How should the Jewish community measure PA efforts to ingrain a culture of tolerance? Can you show us any hard steps the PA has taken to end incitement? From our vantage point — when we see, for instance, Fatah naming a square in el-Bireh after a Palestinian terrorist – it seems like just the opposite is occurring.

With the Israelis, so far, this administration is asking for concrete. With the Palestinians, it seems to be asking for sand.

Until Obama demands painful concessions from the Palestinian side — let’s see the Palestinian police arrest Hamas leaders, or others inciting violence against Israel, for example – trust is going to be in short supply.

That Time is not Now

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The Obama administration has no imminent plans to introduce a U.S. peace plan, which would impose final status  agreement on Israel and the Palestinians.

“That time is not now,” Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told Charlie Rose, as reported by JTA. The “time now is to get back to the proximity talks, have those conversations that eventually will lead to direct negotiations, start to make the hard decisions to bring a balance between the aspirations of the Israelis for security and make that blend with the aspirations of the Palestinian people for their sovereignty.”

According to the JTA, Obama and Hillary Clinton have pushed back against the claim, as well. For now, they continue to hope the parties can work toward agreement themselves, in indirect talks facilitated by the United States.

An ‘Unbreakable Bond of Friendship’

Monday, April 19th, 2010

A good friend of mine in Israel sent me a powerful column this morning by Haaretz political columnist Ari Shavit, “An Open Letter to Netanyahu: Act Before It’s too Late.”

It’s a moving, personal missive. In it, Shavit argues that on the eve of Israel’s 62 Independence Day, the state faces an existential crisis like none other in its history.

Mr. Prime Minister, here are the basic facts: The grace period granted the Jewish state by Auschwitz and Treblinka is ending. The generation that knew the Holocaust has left the stage. The generation that remembers the Holocaust is disappearing. What shapes the world’s perception of Israel today is not the crematoria, but the checkpoints. Not the trains, but the settlements. As a result, even when we are right, they do not listen to us. Even when we are persecuted, they pay us no heed. The wind is blowing against us.

The zeitgeist of the 21st century threatens to put an end to Zionism. No one knows better than you that even superpowers cannot resist the spirit of the times. And certainly not small, fragile states like Israel.

Shavit argues that Israel has been abandoned by its allies, including the United States, and stands at the precipice of war with Iran, besieged. ”The sense that once again, we must meet our fate alone.”

You are a hated individual, Mr. Prime Minister. The president of the United States hates you. The secretary of state hates you. Some Arab leaders hate you. Public opinion in the West hates you. The leader of the opposition hates you. My colleagues hate you, my friends hate you, my social milieu hates you.

The possibilities — what to do going forward — are known, Shavit writes:

Offer the Syrians the Golan Heights in exchange for ending its alliance with Iran. Offer Abbas a state in provisional borders. Initiate a second limited disengagement. Transfer territory into the hands of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to enable him to build a sane Palestinian state. Reach an agreement with the international community on an outline for partitioning the land into two nation-states.

Ultimately, he urges the prime minister — who he clearly respects tremendously — to change his approach:

Israel needs a courageous alliance with the Western powers. In order withstand what is to come, Israel must once again become an inalienable part of the West. And the West is not prepared to accept Israel as an occupying state. Therefore, in order to save our home, is necessary to act at once to end the occupation. It is essential to effect an immediate and sharp change in diplomatic direction.

It’s a powerful argument, coming from one of Israel’s leading thinkers: End the occupation to save the Jewish state — not because of demographics; not because it will end terrorism; not because it is risk-free — but so that Israel can face down Iran fully supported by the West.

Obama could help Netanyahu choose this path by visiting Israel himself, and by making more public statements like the one he released today, on the occasion of Israel’s 62nd Independence Day:

Minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, realizing the dream of a state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland, the United States became the first country to recognize Israel. To this day, we continue to share a strong, unbreakable bond of friendship between our two nations, anchored by the United States’ enduring commitment to Israel’s security.  Israel remains our important partner and key strategic ally in the Middle East, and I am confident that our special relationship will only be strengthened in the months and years to come. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments over the weekend, praising Netanyahu, strongly urging Palestinian President Abbas to join talks with Israel, and calling on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians,” were also welcome.

More is needed.

I know, because I correspond with my friend in Israel nearly every day, that there is a true siege mentality in Israel right now. Iran has said repeatedly it wants to wipe Israel off the map, and it is actively seeking the nuclear weapons to do so. Sitting here in relative safety thousands of miles away, it’s easier for this threat to be intellectualized; our children are not threatened by a lunatic Iranian regime. In Israel, there’s not much room for nuance; the last time we heard talk like Ahmadinejad’s, 6 million Jews were annihilated.

Shavit is wrong about one thing, though. Obama and Clinton don’t hate Netanyahu.

It’s incumbent on the U.S. president and secretary of state to make him believe it.

Iran Will Not Aquire ‘Nuclear Capability’

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Last July, I blogged about a Ha’aretz article: “Obama: World Won’t Allow Iran to Develop Nukes.” 

At the time, Obama was trying to engage Iran — the right move – to see if it could be persuaded to give up its weapons, in response to carrots from the international community. Obama gave Iran a deadline — the end of 2009 — to meet its nuclear nonproliferation responsibilities. When that deadline passed, it became clear Iran was not serious. (Iran first lauded, and then scorned, a U.S. plan to exchange most of its low-enriched uranium fuel for a medical reactor in Tehran.) So Obama has moved on to Plan B. He’s working diplomatically to entice China and Russia to join an international sanctions regime against the rogue Republic.

While there have been encouraging signs from both Russia and China, the jury is still out on whether those countries will join the effort. Without them, sanctions are not likely to have a serious impact.

Which is why it was extremely heartening to read in the Times this morning a senior administration official has said, as the newspaper puts it, “there was a clear line Iran would not be permitted to cross.”

The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability,” a step Tehran could get to well before it developed a sophisticated weapon. “That includes the ability to have a breakout,” he said, using the term nuclear specialists apply to a country that suddenly renounces the nonproliferation treaty and uses its technology to build a small arsenal.

In other words, this official — on the front page of the Times — is going even beyond what Obama said last July.  Not only will the U.S. stop Iran from acquiring a bomb. It will not let Iran get to the point where it has all the parts it needs (fuel, designs, and detonators) — i.e., becoming a “virtual” nuclear state. 

This is the right line to drawn. The only question left is how best to draw it.

The Ash Cloud

Friday, April 16th, 2010

I know thousands of people have had travel plans disrupted. I know airline flights have been cancelled across the globe. I know there will be an economic hit.

But putting that aside for a moment: there is something sublime in the huge high-altitude volcanic ash plume spreading across Europe; something the makes you stop, and take a breath, and think about things a little bit differently.

Here we are in 2010, surrounded by jaw-dropping technology that would have seemed Jetsonian just a few years ago. Our cars talk to us and tell us where to go.  Our phones link us to the farthest reaches of the planet in seconds. Manned space travel? Ho hum. We just built a machine that is smashing atoms together at an energy of 7 trillion electron volts per particle, so that we can get a bead on how our universe came to be.

And, yet, for the past 48 hours, tens of thousands of people across several continents have been stopped in their tracks by a small, cantankerous Icelandic volcano that’s been around since the Ice Age.

This is only the fourth time the volcano has erupted in the last 1,100 years; the first time was in 900 A.D. The resulting cloud of minute silicon particles has lit sunsets on fire across a half -dozen countries.

Say it with me: Eyjafjallajokull. That’s right. Eyjafjallajokull. For the record, it’s pronounced EYE-a-fyat-la-jo-kutl. Sounds like something you’d get at a Greek restaurant, over rice, or maybe a new marketing campaign by Volkswagen.

These days, we regularly bend nature to our will. We send airplanes into the eyes of hurricanes to monitor wind speeds. We chase tornadoes. We hike the highest mountains and traverse the oceans and deserts. Our surfers seek waves that blot out the sun.

We live in houses that protect us from harsh elements in four seasons, and when bugs come in, we call the exterminator. (Or, if your house is like mine, you stop what you are doing and gather round to ooh and ahh, and then your kids demand you catch the critter in a Dixie cup — yes, even during dinner – and set it free outside.)

And then a volano erupts, and one after the other, all the great airports of Europe shut down. Heathrow. De Gaulle. Frederic Chopin. Closed. Closed. Closed.

In the end, perhaps, reminding us that despite what we might think, we’re not really in control. Reminding us that still today, the most powerful, the most terrible, the most beautiful forces driving our lives were here long before us, and will be here long after we’re gone.