Archive for May, 2011

Three things about the Jacobs nomination

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Here are three short remarks about the controversy over the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) nomination of J Street and New Israel Fund (NIF) activist Rabbi Richard Jacobs to be its new President (prior posts on this subject are here):

1. The URJ leadership doesn’t get it.

Reportedly, a member of the search committee said that the discussion was all about Rabbi Jacobs’ organizational and leadership ability. It did not occur to them that his politics regarding Israel might be a problem.

I’ve been told by a Reform rabbi well-informed about the process that most of the finalists and semi-finalists had similar political viewpoints. When Peter Beinart spoke to the CCAR (the Reform rabbinical body), his remarks — highly critical of Israel — were greeted, according to one rabbi present, with “thunderous applause.”

Insofar as this is the norm among Reform rabbis, it’s not surprising that the committee didn’t find anything wrong with it.

But grass roots Reform Jews do put a high priority on real support for Israel.

2. The URJ leadership is a bunch of bullies.

The language used in the URJ response to the initial advertisement placed by a group of Reform Jews was insulting, accused those signing the ad of extremism, divisiveness, witch-hunting, etc. Here is one small example:

By setting the battle lines in the way they are currently doing, Rabbi Jacobs’ critics are sailing in very dangerous waters. They argue that any demurral from the current party line of Israel’s government is disloyal. If this position prevails, the plague of separation will reach epidemic proportions.

The advertisement did not make any such ridiculous argument. But that’s not the point. This, and the tone of the entire response, is meant as a warning to Reform rabbis. Don’t sign on to this right-wing extremist campaign, they are told, or you will be marked as carriers of the ‘plague of separation’. You will be sailing in dangerous waters.

If that’s not enough, a member of the URJ Board of Trustees, Alan Warshaw, sent an explicit threat to the JADL email address:

Your ad and your names won’t be forgotten by myself and others.  Like other Lashaon Hara behavior, your words will reflect on your reputation and will be remembered when you write a paper, present a lecture or look for a position on a committee or employment.

As a blogger, I love it when some self-important prick shows how stupid and vicious he really is. But imagine how this reads to a Reform rabbi who is considering speaking against Rabbi Jacobs’ confirmation! The employment situation for rabbis is difficult today, with many institutions cutting back, others merging, etc., and the URJ plays a critical role in the placement process. Dangerous waters indeed.

3. The confirmation of Rabbi Jacobs would be a bad for Israel and bad for the URJ.

If Rabbi Jacobs is as involved and aware as he appears to be, he can’t be unaware that J Street is not the ‘progressive’ pro-Israel lobby that it pretends to be. Here’s what I wrote last week, in response to the statement that Jacobs’ Israel policy is “nuanced”:

Certainly there can be multiple points of view among Israel supporters. But you can’t define black as white, up as down, an elephant as a giraffe — or J Street as ‘pro-Israel’…

It is not “nuance” when J Street calls for the US to support a Security Council resolution that condemns Israel, nor when it arranges appointments for Judge Goldstone to meet with US Congress members, when it opposes a Congressional letter calling for sanctions on Iran, applauds the union of Fatah with Hamas, sponsors a speaking tour by the anti-Israel John Ging of UNRWA, invites boycott-divestment-sanctions advocates to present at its national convention, etc.

If that isn’t nuanced enough, J Street’s sources of funding include individuals associated with the Saudi embassy and the Arab-American institute, George Soros, and a mysterious woman in Hong Kong who provided more than $800,000 in one year…

Here’s still more nuance: the New Israel Fund (NIF) funds organizations that call for boycott-divestment-sanctions of Israel, Israeli Arab groups that want ‘de-Zionization’ — the conversion of the Jewish state into a ‘state of its citizens’ — as well as the NGOs that provided the majority of the false ‘evidence’ cited by the libelous Goldstone report, and that engage in ‘lawfare’ against Israel.

Words do have meanings. Is any of this part of the meaning of ‘Zionism’ or of love for Israel? I don’t think so.

Israel is probably in as much existential danger today as it has been at any time since 1948. Pro-Israel Americans take their cues about policy toward the state — and politicians their excuses —  from the Jewish community. This appointment is critical.

The Reform movement is struggling. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan wrote,

Remember that the search committee decided on Rabbi Jacobs because they saw in him a leader who could bring the Reform movement into the 21st century. Both sides of this growing debate would do well to remember that there are, after all, bigger issues at stake for a denomination whose numbers have been quickly dwindling. We need to reconsider our core religious messages. We need to emphasize observance — however we decide to define Reform ritual and ceremony. And we need to do this urgently, before an entire generation slips away from us. This also means that we can’t afford a costly debate over what is essentially an irrelevant issue from an organizational point of view.

But grass-roots Reform Jews are telling them that Israel is not irrelevant. Polls indicate a high degree of support for Israel among Jews (most of these are Reform Jews or ‘just Jews’ who tend to be less supportive), even if Reform Rabbis don’t share it. If the movement moves in the opposite direction from its membership, then problems will get worse, not better.

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Roger and Tony and free speech

Friday, May 13th, 2011

NY Times calumnist (that’s not a typo) Roger Cohen weighed in on the Tony Kushner affair, predictably joining the chorus demanding the resignation of CUNY Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who had the audacity to oppose an honorary degree for Kushner. Here are some snippets:

Every few years along comes a brilliant Jewish writer called Tony [but see the end of this post! — ed.] with challenging views on Israel, and this great city — on all other matters the most open in the world — gets tied in knots over what can or cannot be said. After “L’Affaire Judt” we have “L’Affaire Kushner,” but with different outcomes that suggest a shifting American Jewish discourse…

While I disagreed with [Judt’s] proposed resolution, I agree that the occupation is untenable and I found the hounding of Judt, who died last year of Lou Gehrig’s disease, an appalling instance of the methods of the relentless Israel-right-or-wrong bullies

For anyone familiar with the Judt saga, Kushner’s travails have a familiar ring. He’s interested in historical facts, which include Palestinians being driven from their homes in 1948; he’s appalled by the ongoing Israeli settlement policy and is a board member of an organization that has supported boycotting West Bank settlements (although Kushner told me he’s against a boycott); he’s mused about one state.

That’s heresy enough for Wiesenfeld. This time, however, the counter-wave was powerful. J Street, an organization not around in 2003 that supports Israel but opposes the settlements, issued a statement calling CUNY’s action “unacceptable.” Former mayor Ed Koch, of impeccable pro-Israel credentials, weighed in. Within days CUNY reversed itself and approved Kushner’s degree.

Now Wiesenfeld is under pressure to resign. He should: No university is well served by a trustee who values taboo over debate and doubts an entire people’s humanity.

Kushner told me he believes “there is a very significant change underway.” Americans are realizing there is “a terrible need for a dose of debate” on Israel and that “silent acquiescence” to those “whose politics are based substantially on fantasy and theological wishes” is dangerous.

The hypocrisy in the Kushner case is that not giving him an honorary degree in no way shuts him up, while firing Jeffrey Wiesenfeld for opposing it means that a trustee may not speak his mind on an issue that is presented to his board for a decision.

What mainly struck me is Cohen’s singing the “Zionists don’t allow us to speak” tune. This is a very popular theme lately. There is a blog called “Muzzlewatch” operated by the anti-Zionist “Jewish Voice for Peace” group whose masthead reads “Tracking efforts to stifle open debate about US-Israeli foreign policy” — or, more correctly, efforts to disagree with them.

In an example of the reality inversion and psychological projection that so characterizes the anti-Israel camp, Cohen, Kushner and JVP insist that Zionists are somehow interfering with their free speech and preventing them from getting their message out.

Part of the thesis of Mearsheimer and Walt (“The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”) is that ‘the Lobby’ “stifles debate” about US support for Israel. Of course, their book has sold a gazillion copies, and they are raking in huge sums of money for speaking all over the world, so the ‘stifling’ hasn’t worked against them very effectively.

Here are just a few of the major US media outlets which more or less support the Palestinian cause:

The New York Times (our ‘newspaper of record’)

NPR (‘National Palestinian Radio’)

The Huffington Post (the no. 1 blog on Earth, one of the top 1o news sites)

Time (famous for “Why Israel doesn’t care about peace”)

There are plenty more. There are also thousands of blogs and ‘alternative media’. Here in Fresno we have a local radio station which carries the Pacifica network, on which virtually all programming about the Middle East is viciously anti-Israel. My gut feeling from googling topics related to Israel is that there are far more anti-Israel sites than pro-Israel ones.

Some stifling! The idea that the anti-Israel point of view is suppressed is sheer nonsense. So why do they say it all the time?

There’s a simple answer: they want to change the subject. It’s very easy to come up with an argument for free speech. Almost everyone in the West will at least claim to be in favor of it, even if — like Cohen and the others who want to fire Wiesenfeld — they only believe in it for themselves.

Oh, by the way — some people don’t think Kushner is so bloody brilliant.

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Will history repeat itself in September?

Thursday, May 12th, 2011
British PM Neville Chamberlain holds worthless treaty received from Hitler, proclaims "peace in our time"

British PM Neville Chamberlain holds worthless treaty received from Hitler, proclaims "peace in our time"

In September 1938, Hitler escalated his diplomatic assault on the Czechoslovak government. After Nazi elements in the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia with a majority of ethnic Germans, held violent demonstrations, Hitler demanded that the Sudetenland be ceded to Germany. The Sudeten Germans were being slaughtered, he said.

On September 30, France, the UK, Italy and Nazi Germany signed the Munich Pact. It gave Czechoslovakia two options: either cede the Sudetenland to Germany as Hitler desired, or the French would not honor their prior commitment to protect Czechoslovakia. In return, Hitler promised to leave the rest of the country alone and signed a peace treaty with the UK.

Czechoslovakia, which was not invited to the conference, had little choice. It allowed the Germans to occupy the Sudetenland, which meant that it lost “its defensible border and fortifications,” 70% of its iron and steel industry and 70% of its electricity (Wikipedia). In November, more pieces of the country were bitten off and by March 1939 what was left became a German protectorate. And as we all know, a few months later Chamberlain’s ‘peace’ evaporated.

This September will mark 73 years since the Munich Pact, which has become emblematic of the failure of appeasement to bring peace. And Europe is eerily preparing to repeat history, with the Arab world as the Third Reich:

Several European countries are threatening to recognize an independent Palestinian state — on the basis of the pre-1967 boundaries to include the West Bank, Gaza, and with East Jerusalem as its capital — if Israel refuses to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority by September. Given the new “reconciliation deal” between the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, Europeans are effectively demanding that Israel negotiate with Hamas, an Islamist terrorist group unambiguously committed to Israel’s destruction …

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an interview with the L’Express newsmagazine on May 5, said: “If the peace process is still dead in September, France will face up to its responsibilities on the central question of the recognition of a Palestinian state. The idea that there is still plenty of time is dangerous. Things have to be brought to a conclusion” before September. Sarkozy also said that during the next few months, European countries would try “to relaunch the peace process along with the Americans, because Europe cannot be the main one paying for Palestine and yet remain a minor figure politically in the matter” …

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 3 that Britain is prepared to formally recognize an independent Palestinian state in September unless Israel opens peace talks with the Palestinians. That warning came after Netanyahu told Cameron that the so-called unity pact between rival Palestinian factions Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that rules Gaza, is a “tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism.” Palestinian leaders say the deal is a major step towards an independent state, but Israel fears the reconciliation will open the door to Hamas militants being deployed in the West Bank.

Soeren Kern, Europeans Threaten to Recognize Palestinian State Unless Israel Negotiates With Terrorist Group

In other words, with the Palestinian Arabs playing the role of the Sudeten Germans, Europe is trying to force Israel to give up its defensible borders, in return for what will clearly not be “peace in our time.”

True, they are not demanding immediate cession of the territories, just that Israel will “return to the negotiating table.” But it is the Arabs who have refused to negotiate, insisting on prior concessions such as a freeze on all construction in Judea/Samaria and eastern Jerusalem. This means that what is really being dictated to Israel is that it must agree to whatever conditions are demanded by the Palestinian Authority — which today includes the genocidal Hamas.

Of course analogies are just analogies. Israel isn’t Czechoslovakia — it is capable of defending itself against the Arabs and Iran. And while Chamberlain likely really believed that the piece of paper he received from Hitler would bring peace, it’s hard to imagine that today’s European governments are stupid enough to believe that forcing Israel to expose its soft underbelly to Hamas will result in anything other than war.

Unlike in 1938, the US is engaged in this conflict, and what it does could have a great effect on the outcome. The US President is expected to make a speech about the Middle East in the near future, and what he says will probably have a profound effect on what happens between now and September.

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Witch hunting at CUNY

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

I haven’t written anything about the Tony Kushner – CUNY – Jeffrey Wiesenfeld story until today. My feeling was: who cares about Yet Another Jewish Intellectual Who Hates Israel?

But today the level of injustice has risen to the point that it’s impossible to ignore.

The story:

Playwright Kushner, a Jewish Voice for Peace member who has accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, called its creation a ‘mistake’, etc. (see a collection  of his remarks here), was slated to get an honorary degree from the City University of New York’s John Jay College. The University’s Board of Trustees, called upon to rubber-stamp it, chose instead to table the nomination after an impassioned plea by trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld.

Three points:

  1. An honorary degree is not a right, it is… an honor.
  2. If the trustees get to vote on honorary degrees, even if they normally approve them by acclamation, then they have a right to not approve one.
  3. The trustees are allowed to speak before voting.

Kushner and friends went postal. Kushner claimed he had been “slandered.” His supporters claimed academic freedom and freedom of speech denied. A special meeting of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees was called, and it voted to give the degree to Kushner.

OK, they can do that. But now a campaign, led by CUNY’s faculty union, is being waged to get Wiesenfeld kicked off of the Board of Trustees:

In 2001, he called participation in an October “teach-in” sponsored by the union about the 9/11 attacks “seditious.” In 2006, he blasted a book that Baruch College had chosen for its freshman reading, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” by Chris Hedges, calling it “deeply offensive” and “anti-Semitic.”

“That’s overstepping one’s role as a trustee,” [faculty union president Dr. Barbara] Bowen said. “There’s a consistent pattern of vilifying students and particularly faculty whose political views he objects to. He is entitled to his political views, but to use those views to interfere with academic freedom is not acceptable.” — NY Times

Bowen clearly thinks that ‘academic freedom’ means the absolute right for faculty to be political activists in the classroom, and that any criticism of such activism constitutes ‘interference’ with it, a firing offense for a trustee. Neither of these propositions is true.

Academic freedom is a controversial subject, but a reasonable understanding of it is that faculty have a right to propound unpopular points of view in their fields and to be free of coercion based on their personal politics. There is also a concomitant obligation to engage in honest inquiry, to teach in an impartial and disinterested way.

Wiesenfeld has a right and indeed a duty as a trustee to speak out on matters like the fitness of Tony Kushner for an honorary degree.

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NIF Funds successful boycott action

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

News item:

German national railway company Deutsche Bahn will cease working on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem train line because it passes through the West Bank, German newspaper Der Spiegel reported this week.

According to the report, the railway company decided to abandon the project following mounting pressure from German, Palestinian and Israeli elements, headed by the Coalition of Women for Peace – an Israeli feminist organization…

Project coordinator Merav Amir lauded the decision of the German government, saying “I want to congratulate the German government for making such a clear and bold statement about the illegality of this train route under international law.

So who and what is “The Coalition of Women for Peace” (we won’t even ask what train routes and Israel-bashing have to do with feminism)? Let me quote NGO Monitor:

As of 2009, Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP) has ten members, including New Profile, Bat Shalom, Machsom Watch and Women in Black, and provides an additional platform by which these NGOs promote their campaigns…

Reflecting its political agenda, CWP states that it “is committed to the struggle to end the occupation”; claims “to act for peace, justice, and equality in the Israeli Society,” and uses demonization rhetoric such as referring to the security barrier as “The Apartheid Wall.”

CWP also joined “Zochrot” and “New profile” in celebration of “The 59th Anniversary of the Naqba” during Israel’s Independence Day.

CWP promotes the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement through a project entitled “Who Profits from the Occupation,” “exposing companies and corporations involved in the occupation.”

Also involved in campaigns against Ahava cosmetics and Agrexco produce in Italy, and in support of the Berkeley divestment vote.

Lobbied the British government in December 2009 to “Enable Prosecution of Israeli War Criminals.”

Sounds like a real pro-Israel, Zionist outfit, doesn’t it? Let’s follow the money. Surely they are funded by Iran or Saudi Arabia? But here’s what NGO Monitor tells us:

In 2006-2009, the New Israel Fund (NIF) authorized grants worth $294,129 to CWP (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009).

“Major donors” since 2000 include the European Union, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (587,189 NIS from the German government), Heinrich Böll Stiftung (from the German government), the Moriah Fund, Aaron Back and the Ford Israel Fund, and SIVMO. (This funding does not include support for individual NGOs in the coalition.)

So in addition to the hostile Europeans, liberal American Jews have unknowingly been supporting this viciously anti-Israel organization!

A prominent member of the NIF, chair of its “Pluralism Grants Committee,” is the Union for Reform Judaism’s nominee for its new President, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, who describes himself as “proudly and strongly pro-Israel.”

I doubt that Rabbi Jacobs’ committee approved these particular grants, which do not appear to be related to religious pluralism. But is it possible that he could hold his position without being aware of what NIF was funding?

I don’t think so.

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