Archive for the ‘Jewish Interest’ Category

Obama’s Answer to Iran

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

That didn’t take long.

One day after Iran announced a nuclear deal with Turkey and Brazil — a transparent stalling effort designed to ward off international sanctions aimed at curtailing its nuclear program — the Obama administration has announced its own deal with the other major powers, including Russia and China, to go ahead with tough new sanctions.

It’s a draft plan. But, still, for those of use who care about Israel and Middle East stability, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement today is nothing short of huge.

As the negotiations on the draft resolution were in their final hours on Monday evening, a senior administration official said that one of the most critical sections of the proposed sanctions were modeled on a resolution passed last year against North Korea, after its second nuclear test. That resolution authorized all nations to search cargo ships heading into or out of the country for suspected weapons, nuclear technology or other cargo prohibited by previous United Nations resolutions …

Other elements of the sanctions resolution are aimed at Iranian financial institutions, including those that support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The corps is responsible for overseeing the military aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. But it has also played a central role in suppressing protests against the government, and the Obama administration is betting that the organization is now despised by a large enough portion of the Iranian public that the sanctions may be welcomed by part of Iranian society. That is a big bet, however, because the corps also runs large elements of the country’s infrastructure, including its airports.

The deal, struck with the veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council (France, Russia, China, and the U.K.) plus Germany, is the Obama administration’s answer to Iran’s not-so-subtle high stakes gamesmanship.

Mrs. Clinton said the new offer [with Turkey and Brazil] would still leave Iran “in clear violation of its international obligations” because it “is continually amassing newly enriched uranium.” She also criticized what she called the “amorphous timeline for the removal” of the low enriched uranium. Reading the terms, she said, “that could take months of further negotiation and that is just not acceptable to us and to our partners.”

To those critics who say that sanctions will not hurt or deter Iran, I would ask: Why, then, is Iran going to such great lengths to undermine them?

As the Times reports:

Iran has been working mightily to ward off new sanctions, sending its foreign minister to the capitals of countries sitting on the Security Council to make the case that the sanctions amount to an American conspiracy to deprive Iran of its right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Maybe you saw this photo of a Ahmadinejad in today’s Times, raising the V for victory sign after inking the deal with Brazil and Turkey. If Obama and Clinton succeed in getting these sanctions through the United Nations, it will be the end of Ahmadinejad’s smirking.

Question Answered

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Earlier in the week, I blogged about the one question Elena Kagan needed to answer: What battle did she wage with her rabbi before her bat mitzvah?

The New York Times had disclosed that there had been a brouhaha “over some aspect of the ceremony,” without explaining what, precisely, had been at issue.

Well, thanks to the New York Jewish Week for asking — and answering – that question.

It seems that Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee had the moxie to stand on principle — even at the tender age of 12.

This issue was this: Kagan wanted a bat mitzvah; the Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City, where her family belonged, did not have bat mitvot for girls.

Kagan went to her rabbi and told him she wanted to recite the Haftorah, just like the boys, and moreover, she wanted her bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning — just like the boys.

Her rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, told the Jewish Week that such a request was unprecedented.

To his credit, though, the rabbi worked with her. She could have the ceremony on a Friday night, he said; and instead of reading a traditional Haftorah, she could chant, in Hebrew a section from the Book of Ruth.

“I was very proud of her,” [Riskin] said. “She did very well. After that, we did bat mitzvahs all the time. … She was part of my education. This was for us a watershed moment.”

It couldn’t have been easy, in 1973, for a 12-year-old girl to stand up to her Orthodox rabbi for what she thought was right. At an age when most of us are more preoccupied with the bar/bat mitzvah after-party, Kagan not only spoke truth to power, but she forged a compromise that blazed a new path for all the girls who came after her.

Not to make of this long-ago incident than it deserves. But with abortion rights being chiseled away (women in some states will soon be forced to look at ultrasounds, and have the fetus described, before having abortions — even in cases of rape or incest) and immigrants being targeted through the law (did anyone see that Arizona just restricted ethnic studies classes, on the grounds that they promote “ethnic chauvinism”?), Kagan’s moral fearlessness could be a bold corrective.

Obama Edits Out Jesus

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Symbols matter.

Remember President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany, 25 years ago this month? Where he laid a wreath at the grave site of 2,000 German soldiers, including 49 Nazi troops?

The Jewish community was outraged, of course.

Well, President Obama has made a subtle, symbolic gesture in the other direction, showing truly uncommon sensitivity to the Jewish community.

Thanks to the New Jersey Jewish News for this story, which reports that President Obama removed the standard phrase “in the year of our Lord” from a proclamation welcoming May as Jewish Heritage Month.

As the newspaper reports, previous similar proclomations — by Obama, George Bush, and Bill Clinton — all included the standard line affixed at the end, pegging the missive’s date to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Past proclamations including the phrase included one by Clinton mourning the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (November 4, 1995) and another marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (March 21, 2002).

But Obama, in praising Jews for their unique contributions to American culture, took the extra step of taking it out this time.

Surely, this won’t sit well with the purists. I imagine the our-country-is-a-Christian-nation crowd will not be pleased. It may seem like a small thing, but it shows political courage.

The Jewish community should be more outspoken in acknowledging this, and in voicing appreciation.

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.