Forward Thinking

A Threat to Israel in America’s Cuba Policy?

By Steven Windmueller

Obama is caricatured as Che Guevara, an iconic symbol of Cuba’s revolution, on the cover of Brazilian magazine Veja / Getty Images

As a life-long Democrat, I was deeply disturbed by the Obama Administration’s decision to act unilaterally on the Cuban question. The policy option may have been a valid one, but the process invoked raises major concerns.

Realizing that his presidency would be without a Democratic majority in either the Senate or House for the remainder of his term, did Obama decide that his Administration would conduct the business of foreign policy outside of the traditional policy framework of bipartisanship?

The embargo on Cuba was set into place 54 years ago, in 1960. We need to remind ourselves that both Republicans and Democrats embraced the actions taken at that time by the Eisenhower Administration.

Obama’s arbitrary action, taken without any public input or Congressional oversight, raises a set of challenging questions. Do each of the president’s recent pronouncements, including his executive order on immigration and the Iran nuclear agreement, suggest a different framework for decision-making by this White House? Will we continue to see a series of new political pronouncements without the engagement of the Congress or the input of public opinion?

I introduce these questions in the context of my particular concern for the U.S.-Israel relationship. Could such a proactive decision-making pattern have some potential linkage to a change in America’s special and historic relationship with Israel? Could the Administration’s frustration with the Netanyahu government produce a similar outcome, namely a shift in its balance of support?

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AIPAC Lost Iran Sanctions Battle — Not War

By Brent E. Sasley

Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013 / Getty Images

Efforts to pass a new Iran sanctions bill have not only stalled in the Senate, but appear to be slowing even in the House. Perhaps predictably, given the focus on AIPAC as the primary driver of the bill, observers are now wondering whether AIPAC has “over-reached” and been “weakened.” While the failure of any lobby group to pass signature legislation dents its reputation, presumptions about AIPAC’s coming vulnerability betray fundamental misconceptions about how foreign policy is made.

Foreign policymaking in the United States is an executive privilege. Presidents typically have a lot of leeway in this area. This is the result of constitutional authority, judicial reinforcement, and a general acceptance among lawmakers that presidential predominance in foreign affairs is both necessary and, by now, traditional.

Under these conditions, lobby groups have always had much more success with Congress than with presidents. Congress is a fractious body, with over 500 individual targets; the president is a single individual. Failures in Congress are more setbacks than anything else, given the multiple access points and the rolling nature of elections; failing to convince the president is a very public event, harder to overcome.

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Don't Let Budget Cuts Hurt Disabled

By Willam Daroff

Anne Cohen

In the coming weeks and months, Congress will enact sweeping reductions in federal spending, finalize the 2013 federal budget and raise the debt ceiling. The cuts that will come with these decisions are not merely numbers on a ledger; they will decimate programs that directly impact the lives of the most vulnerable among us and the ability of social service agencies to serve them.

For individuals with disabilities who are aspiring for healthy, independent lives, this is a particularly critical time. The unemployment rates we associate with the slow recovery from the Great Recession pale in comparison to the persistent lack of employment opportunities that have ever been available to the disability community. The disincentive to work inherent in our social safety net, and the inability for those relying on it to build assets, makes upward mobility even more difficult.

The growing challenge for non-profit agencies to provide home- and community-based care makes independent living for many individuals with disabilities an impossibility.

This is why dozens of advocates representing a broad range of Jewish communities, religious streams, social service providers and public policy organizations traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to promote the Community First Choice (CFC) option in Medicaid and the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, both of which further the goals of ensuring individuals with disabilities can lead healthy, independent lives.

During the month of February, Jewish communities across North America observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month. It is an opportunity to raise awareness of the needs, strengths, opportunities and challenges of individuals with disabilities in our communities and to ensure we are building more inclusive communities that celebrate everyone among us. It is also an opportunity for us to engage with lawmakers and express support for public policy initiatives that lead to better outcomes for the disability community.

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The $1 Trillion Debt Ceiling Solution

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) wants the government to mint a platinum coin worth…a cool $1 trillion..

Nadler, a Jewish Upper West Sider, thinks the minting of a ridiculously valuable coin could foil GOP attempts to hold Democrats hostage in debt ceiling negotiations. It would allow the government to pay its debts without going through Congress, which seems intent on dragging its feet on anything President Obama wants, especially after the bruising fiscal cliff drama.

“It sounds silly but it’s absolutely legal,” Nadler told the website Capital New York last week.

The idea’s gained some traction recent days. Economist Paul Krugman endorsed the trillion dollar coin on Monday, as have others.

So here comes the backlash.

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Jewish Lawmakers Move Up Ladder

By Nathan Guttman

getty images
Eliot Engel

Two Jewish lawmakers are moving up the ranks in the House of Representatives.

New York’s Nita Lowey won the role of top Democrat on the House Appropriations committee and will be the first woman to ever serve as ranking member on this committee. “It is especially gratifying to be the first woman to lead either party on this powerful committee,” Lowey said in a statement. She beat Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur in a 36-10 vote in the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and was approved by the Democratic caucus. The appropriations committee is one of the most influential committees on Capitol Hill and serving as ranking member will make Lowey a significant player on all issues relating to government spending.

Lowey, 75, will continue, in addition, to serve as ranking member of the appropriation’s subcommittee in charge of foreign aid and State Department budget. This position is key to supporters of Israel because of its role in overseeing U.S. aid to Israel.

Another New York Jewish member, Eliot Engel, is also moving up. Engel will serve as ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a position previously held by Howard Berman, who lost his re-election bid.

The selection of Engel, who is third in tenure among Democrats in the committee, came after California’s Brad Sherman, an early contender for the position, withdrew from the race. Sherman, who had beaten Berman in a heated congressional contest, lost favor among some in his own party after criticizing them during his race. After the elections, several Democrats from the California delegation made clear they will not support his bid for the post of ranking Democrat and Sherman was forced to withdraw and endorse Engel.

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Tiptoeing Along the Fiscal Cliff

By Nathan Guttman

With Congress plunging into talks to avoid the much-feared fiscal cliff, the Jewish community’s umbrella organization for policy is cautiously weighing in.

In a letter to Congress, Rabbi Steve Gutow, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’s president and CEO, urged lawmakers to keep in mind the impact of budget cuts on the poor and needy when sitting down to discuss a compromise.

He pointedly avoided the biggest question of all: whether taxes should go up for the wealthiest Americans.

“We recognize the significant challenges facing our country’s fiscal stability and the immense pressures to reduce the deficit,” the letter to Congress states, “still we call on you to ensure that, in a nation as wealthy and generous as ours, every American is simultaneously provided the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential, and no American must live in a state of destitution.”

Specifically, the JCPA is calling on members of Congress to avoid cuts to anti-poverty programs including food stamps (SNAP), Earned Income Tax Credit, unemployment insurance, nutrition programs for women and children, home energy assistance, and Medicaid. The group also asked that programs providing opportunities for those in need, such as Pell grants, will be spared from cuts.

“We believe that deficit reduction should be carefully calibrated to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are protected, opportunity for all is promoted, and justice is pursued,” Gutow wrote.

While stressing the need to solve the budget deficit in a “bipartisan, civil fashion,” the group, carefully tiptoed around the issue of tax hikes and made no reference to the administration position which proposed raising taxes for those earning more than $250,000 as a crucial measure alongside cuts in government spending. This seems to be in line with the Jewish federations umbrella group which has also avoided taking a stand on the issue of tax increases.

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Bad (Election) Year for the Jews

By Nathan Guttman

getty images
Krysten Sinema

Jews had a bad year in terms of winning seats in Congress, falling from 39 members in both chambers in the 112th Congress to only 32 in the next one.

We pretty much predicted this outcome. But with the breakdown of the new Congress by religion, which was carried out by the Pew Forum it becomes clear that Jews fared worse than any other faith group in the 2012 elections.

“The biggest decline is among Jews,” the research states, falling from 7% of Congress before the elections to 6% in the upcoming Congress which will be sworn-in in January.

Catholics stand out as the religious groups making the greatest gains, with 161 members in the 113th Congress, compared to 156 in the 112th, a trend that may be linked to the increased clout of Latino voters.

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31 Jews in Congress

By Nathan Guttman

courtesy of brad sherman
Rep. Brad Sherman

As the election enters its final stretch, the Forward is making some final projections for our congressional scorecard based on the latest polling results.

We now predict at least 31 Jews — 10 in the Senate and 21 in the House of Representatives — will serve in the next Congress, a slight rise from the initial projection of 30.

But the biggest shift doesn’t change the numbers either way. We are now projecting that Rep. Brad Sherman will likely win his intramural fight with fellow Los Angeles Jewish Democratic Rep. Howard Berman.

The race, which ranked as one of the nastiest in the nation, has been seen as close from the beginning when they were thrown together to fight for one seat due to redistricting in the suburban San Fernando Valley. The two even nearly got into a physical altercation during debate. Berman had the backing of Democratic heavyweights, while Sherman held on to a strong ground operation.

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Balding Jew Grabs Lead for L.A. Seat

By Nathan Guttman

The Berman-Sherman congressional race in California’s 30th district has been nothing but pure drama.

With millions of dollars pouring into the race, attack ads, and with the two Jewish Democrats, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman’s latest debate making headlines thanks to an unprecedented physical altercation, the entire nation is tuning in to see who will rule San Fernando Valley after November 6.

The Democratic establishment threw its support firmly behind Howard Berman, who has served in Congress since 1983 and in his latest position is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs committee. Berman has the backing of both California Senators and most of the Democrats on the states congressional delegation. He even got to ride with the President when Obama came to town for a fundraiser.

But polls are beginning to show that support of top Dems might not be enough. Brad Sherman, sans party support but with an elaborate ground operation, is leading in all the latest polls. Last month, a local poll put Sheman way ahead with 45%, compared to 32% of the voters saying they will support Berman and 23% remaining undecided.

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When Balding Jews Attack

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

A startling video posted online Thursday night shows California Rep. Brad Sherman violently grabbing his bitter rival Rep. Howard Berman during a debate.

The confrontation between the two Jewish Democrats fighting for their political lives was shot at a Thursday night debate at Pierce College, according to a report in the Los Angeles Daily News.

Sherman put his right arm around Berman and shook him slightly as the two argued over a federal immigration bill, the paper wrote. Berman looked to the audience, shocked. Sherman let go, then stuck his face in Berman’s as a sheriff’s deputy approached.

“You want to get in my face?” Sherman shouted.

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The Real Problem With Student Debt

By Hannah Rubin

I was greeted the other day by the charmingly nasal voice of President Barack Obama crackling through my telephone — calling to talk with me (and, surely, an undisclosed number of others) about the importance of keeping student loan interest rates low.

This White House Update Call — planned for student activists working alongside the administration to stop Congress from its planned July 1 raising of the interest rate on student loans — is the latest step in a much larger political campaign that the Obama administration has taken on.

The larger campaign revolves around resolving the student debt crisis; this aspect relates specifically to one part of that.

If Congress does not act, a mandate from 2007 that temporarily reduced Stafford subsidized student loan interest rates for five years is set to expire—which will effectively raise current interest rates from their reduced stature of 3.4% back to their original height of 6.8%.

Congress is currently at a standstill, as neither side will agree upon where to get the funds to subsidize the 6 billion dollars necessary to keep interest rates down.

The Republicans want to cut into Obama’s healthcare plan for funding, while the Democrats want to cut into oil subsidies and corporate tax loopholes. In many ways, it’s the same old story.

Obama has been traveling the country rallying his audience to “keep the pressure on Congress” because “college affordability is a key element in an American economy made to last.”

On the phone I was told to “buckle down” and “take action” because “this next week makes a real difference”. And yet, according to the New York Times, the estimated economic impact from this year-long hike will be about $6 per month per person. The interest rate hike will only last for a single year, if it is passed.

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Reb Shmuley's Candidacy Challenges Jewish Voters

By Nathan Guttman

getty images
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

New Jersey Congressman Steve Rothman’s defeat in the Democratic primary on June 5 has presented the state’s 9th district Jewish voters with a choice, between a non-Jewish Democrat and his rival, a Jewish Republican.

Democrats consider the district safe, meaning they do not feel it is in danger of falling into Republican hands and most Jewish residents of the newly-drawn 9th district, which includes Bergen, Passaic and parts of Hudson counties, are also seen as leaning heavily toward the Democratic side.

For them, Steve Rothman was an ideal candidate. One of the top players on the pro-Israel scene, a moderate in his views, and well known to his fellow Jewish constituents.

His rival, and now the Democratic candidate, Bill Pascrell has less of a track record with the Jewish community. He previously represented a district with a more significant Muslim population and had less contact with Jewish voters and activists.

Pascrell will be facing in November Rabbi Shmuli Boteach, the winner of the Republican primary. Boteach, who aims to be the first rabbi elected to Congress, is well known both within the Jewish community and outside. A rabbi to the stars who has broadened his reach to write about sex, family life, and Jesus Christ, Boteach is hoping to win over Jewish voters who might have voted for Rothman but are now wary about Pascrell.

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Debt Ceiling: How Jewish Lawmakers Voted

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Eric Cantor: A Yes Vote

House of Representatives: Of 25 Jewish members, 16 voted Yes on the final debt ceiling compromise and nine voted No. (Democratic votes overall: 95 Yes, 95 No.)

Yes. Democrats: Shelley Berkley (Nev.), Howard Berman (Cal.), David Cicilline (R.I.), Susan Davis (Cal.), Ted Deutch (Fla.), Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), Steve Israel (N.Y.), Sander Levin (Mich.), Nita Lowey (N.Y.), Jared Polis (Colo.), Steve Rothman (N.J.), Adam Schiff (Cal.), Brad Sherman (Cal.), Allyson Schwartz (Pa.), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (Fla.). Republicans: Eric Cantor (Va.)

No. Democrats: Gary Ackerman (N.Y.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Bob Filner (Cal.), Barney Frank (Mass.), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Henry Waxman (Cal.), John Yarmuth (Ky.).

Senate: Of 12 Jewish members, 10 voted Yes and two voted No. (Democratic votes overall: 45 Yes, 6 No. The two Independents split.)

Yes. Democrats: Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Barbara Boxer (Cal.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Dianne Feinstein (Cal.), Al Franken (Minn.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Ron Wyden (Ore.). Independent: Joseph Lieberman (Conn.)

No. Democrat: Frank Lautenberg (N.J.). Independent: Bernie Sanders (Vt.)

I know some of you are going to ask why bother making such a list, so let’s get it out of the way: No, it’s not antisemitism, obsessive ethnocentrism or atavistic parochialism. What it is, is one of the metrics that help us gauge the current condition of Jews and Judaism in the world.

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