J.J. Goldberg

In Jerusalem's Conclaves, Mind-Numbing Meets Ugly

By J.J. Goldberg

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky

Jerusalem is having an unusually mild fall. November began amid sunny skies, temperatures in the high 60s, light breezes and just the slightest hint of feathery drizzle to announce that after a bone-dry October, the rainy season was finally about to return.

Diaspora Jews are returning too. No, not the waves of immigration that generations of Israelis have been impatiently waiting for. These are the pro-Israel charities and advocacy organizations that gather periodically to review their work, pump up their spirits and sort out their differences. There’s a host of interlocking and overlapping boards, councils and delegate assemblies that meet in various parts of the world at various times of year. This week, in what’s apparently intended as a show of force at a time when Israel’s leadership feels it needs it, they’re coming to town at once for a rolling series of seminars, committee meetings, pep rallies and gala dinners, punctuated by walking tours and hokey musical performances.

Most Israelis hardly notice. It’s keeping Israel’s senior leaders busy, though. President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various cabinet ministers have been hopping from hotel to convention center and back, delivering mostly the same speeches to mostly the same faces in slightly different formats. Peres talks again and again about the miracle of Israel’s growth and her love of peace. Netanyahu talks about the threats to which Israel will never surrender. Most eloquent is Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who talks about the challenges of the Jewish future, the meaning of courage and his days in a Soviet prison, though with his thickly Russian-accented English nobody is ever sure exactly what he’s saying.

First, there’s the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. That’s the big one. It meets in a different city every November, usually in America but once every decade or so in Jerusalem. It starts on Sunday afternoon. It usually draws thousands of delegates from across North America, though it’s being whispered around town in worried tones that attendance numbers are down this year.

Then there’s the annual Assembly of the Jewish Agency, the Jerusalem-based social service body that gets most of its money from the federations. Its governing bodies are split roughly half-and-half between the federation donors who raise the money and Israeli politicians and bureaucrats who spend it. The agency Assembly started on Friday and ends Sunday night, when the federation Assembly begins. The agency’s smaller board of governors convenes after the federation Assembly ends next week. For the senior leaders in the System, as this network of organizations is known—people like Sharansky, board chairman James Tisch and key local federation leaders and Israeli agency department heads—that’s a week and a half of solid, mind-numbing meetings.

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Avigdor Lieberman Acquittal Upends Israel Politics

By J.J. Goldberg

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Avigdor Lieberman prays at Western Wall after his acquittal on fraud charges, November 6.

Israeli politics were turned upside down this week by the surprise acquittal on Wednesday of Avigdor Lieberman, the blunt-talking, Arab-bashing, Soviet-born former foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. He had been charged with fraud, witness tampering and breach of trust for allegedly promoting a crony to an ambassadorship. The promotion was allegedly in exchange for leaked information about an ongoing police investigation into Lieberman’s business affairs.

The verdict ends one of Israel’s longest running political dramas. Police began investigating Lieberman in 1999 on suspicion of operating dummy companies in Cyprus and elsewhere, nominally headed by his daughter and driver among others, that allegedly funneled millions of dollars in illegal cash to him from European tycoons seeking favors. In the meantime, Lieberman’s star kept rising as the voice of Russian-speaking Israelis and scourge of Arabs, leftists and human rights activists.

The latest stage of the drama began in 2011 when attorney general Yehuda Weinstein decided not to indict him on the main charges of bribery and illegal cash, claiming insufficient evidence. Instead he filed the lesser charges of fraud and breach of trust related to the ambassadorship. The indictment was issued in December 2012, forcing Lieberman to step down as foreign minister. His Yisrael Beiteinu movement, one of Israel’s largest political forces, was left leaderless, with nobody approaching his stature as a potential successor. Prime Minister Netanyahu left the foreign minister’s post open pending the verdict at Lieberman’s insistence, nominally holding it himself but effectively leaving the ministry and diplomatic corps in limbo. A guilty verdict would have ended Lieberman’s political career and set off a free-for-all as individuals and parties tried to coopt his followers, fill the leadership vacuum on the secular right and pick up Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist, minority-bashing banner.

Now that the case is closed, Lieberman is expected to return to the foreign ministry on Monday, November 11. That will set off a scramble all its own. The Cabinet currently includes 22 ministers, two more than the 20-minister to which Netanyahu agreed last February at the insistence of good-government advocate Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party. Speculation for weeks has been that Lapid would insist on forcing one minister to be fired, a daunting political dilemma for the prime minister.

This week, however, Lapid is said to have agreed tentatively to let the Cabinet expand to 23 ministers. But there are two conditions: First, coopt his Yesh Atid ally, Science Minister Yaakov Peri, a former director of the Shin Bet security service, to the seven-member inner security cabinet. Second, put Yesh Atid Knesset whip Ofer Shelah, a former military reporter (and onetime Forward correspondent) in Lieberman’s place as chair of the powerful Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. Both conditions would put Netanyahu in a tough spot, though.

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Kerry, 'Sobered' by Bibi's Map, 'Will Present Plan'

By J.J. Goldberg

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Netanyahu addresses Nov. 3 Cabinet meeting (In middle: Yaakov Amidror)

A day before Secretary of State John Kerry’s expected arrival in Israel to further peace talks, Israeli news media are reporting that Kerry has begun preparing an American peace plan to present to the parties in January as a basis for negotiations, if there isn’t progress by then. It will reportedly be based on the pre-1967 armistice lines with land swaps, and will be linked to the Arab Peace Initiative.

Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz party, made the claim in a public statement Monday morning, saying she heard it during meetings with American, Palestinian and Arab officials in recent days. Several news organizations confirmed it with unnamed sources later in the day.

The daily tabloid Maariv reported, quoting a source “close to the negotiations,” that Kerry formulated his plan after his seven-hour meeting in Rome with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu October 23 “sobered him up” to the realization (מעין התפכחות) that Netanyahu “had his own considerations” and that a permanent peace agreement “wasn’t attainable as he had thought.”

According to The Hill newspaper in Washington, Kerry told reporters in Saudi Arabia he “categorically” denied the “rumors” and that there was no plan other than face-to-face negotiations “at this point in time.” A State Department spokeswoman later called it “wild speculation.”

Netanyahu responded to the reports in remarks to the Likud Knesset caucus later in the day, saying Israel would look at any proposal raised in negotiations but “but we won’t accept any external dictates and no pressure will help.”

The daily Israel Hayom, considered a strong supporter of Netanyahu, reported that Kerry and Netanyahu drew maps for each other in Rome, and that Netanyahu’s map:

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Lou Reed: The Punk Soul of an Underground Jew

By J.J. Goldberg

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Lou Reed, 1976

Of all the tributes following the death this week of Lou Reed, the transgressive, subversive bard of the street-wild and deviant, one of the strangest is this celebration by British journalist Tom Gross, which appeared online in the National Review. Yes, that National Review—the conservative journal founded by the high priest of upper-crust propriety, William F. Buckley.

Perhaps even more than other American-Jewish rock stars such as Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, Lou Reed was fiercely proud of being Jewish — and included lyrics on behalf of Israel and against anti-Semitism in some of his songs.

I mention Reed’s Jewishness because not a single obituary I have read of him in the mainstream press mentions it, when for Reed it was an important factor.

The evidence Gross offers consists mainly of the mockingly bitter song “Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim,” from Reed’s 1989 album New York (video below, lyrics after the jump). But that’s actually plenty—only a handful of major American rockers have recorded even a single statement as proudly Jewish. (I think of Paul Simon’s “Silent Eyes,” Randy Newman’s “Dixie Flyer,” Bob Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully” — and, arguably, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Father of Night.” Others?)

At the same time, Gross is right to note that Reed appeared in Israel several times. He wasn’t quite the “frequent visitor to the country” that Gross makes him out to be, but he performed there repeatedly: he gave concerts in 1994 and 2000 and joined his wife Laurie Anderson on stage for a few numbers during her Tel Aviv concerts in 2008 (video after the jump). Not many American pop stars have appeared in Israel so frequently (though Dylan matched him—concerts in 1987, 1993 and 2011—and several private visits).

And though Gross doesn’t mention it, Reed involved himself in a public way in recent years in New York’s emerging downtown Jewish culture. That’s described lovingly in this appreciation in The Jewish Week by Reed’s friend, impresario Michael Dorf. Among other things, Dorf describes Reed’s appearances as the Wise Son at Dorf’s annual Passover Seder at the Knitting Factory.

What’s most curious about the National Review piece is how it’s captured imaginations on the right with its image of Reed the defiant battler against anti-Semitism. It’s been cited by several right-wing blogs, including the Breitbart-linked Big Hollywood and Islam-bashing arch-conservative Debbie Schlussel. Schlussel’s piece is particularly wacky — she seems delighted that Reed “defied” the boycotters to play Israel, though she’s dubious of what she presumes are his leftie leanings, wary of his countercultural ethos and judges him:

Lou Reed, “Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim”:

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Violence Feared As Settler Pols Demonize Livni

By J.J. Goldberg

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Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett in January

Tensions within Israel’s governing coalition are reaching a boiling point over the impending release of 26 more prisoners, part of the agreement between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary of State Kerry that paved the way for renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The cabinet is expected to vote on the latest release, the second in the package, today (Sunday).

Knesset member (and retired major-general) Elazar Stern, an Orthodox Jew in Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, was spat on by a 17-year-old youth while leaving synagogue on Saturday. The settler-backed Arutz Sheva-Israel National News reports that the incident was in response to a speech Stern gave criticizing firebrand settler leader Rabbi Dov Lior. But Livni’s number 2, Environment Minister (and former Labor Party defense minister) Amir Peretz said in several radio interviews that the incident was part of an incipient wave of incitement against Livni by settler leaders who oppose the peace negotiations. Leaders of the pro-settler Jewish Home party are accusing Livni of pushing the prisoner release “just so she can continue talking to Saeb Erekat,” as Housing Minister Uri Ariel of Jewish Home wrote on his Facebook page.

The irony, veteran reporter Ben Caspit reports this morning in the Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew-language SofShavua (Weekend) is that it was Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett who forced the prisoner release on Netanyahu. Caspit writes that Netanyahu told his coalition partners in July, just before Kerry announced the renewal of talks, that Israel had to choose either a prisoner release, a nine-month settlement construction freeze or an agreement that talks would be based on the pre-1967 lines with border adjustments. While Livni favored the freeze and Yair Lapid favored the 1967 lines, Bennett threatened to quit the coalition if either of those were chosen and forced Netanyahu to accept the prisoner release.

Caspit’s article is a bombshell (hat tip to Chemi Shalev for posting it on his Facebook page) and worth reading in full. So I’ve taken the liberty of translating it:

Bennett Forced the Prisoner Release—And Now Declares Open Season on Livni

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ADL's 'Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups': Blacklists Return

By J.J. Goldberg

In June 2012, an anti-Israel billboard campaign was promoted in Los Angeles County by an organization with the cumbersome name of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. The group announced the billboard campaign in a press release that went on to warn that the “Israel lobby” might try to stop the campaign. It urged supporters not to “allow them to stifle dialogue.”

This and many other facts are contained in a new report prepared by the Anti-Defamation League, “The 2013 Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in the U.S.,” which the league announced Monday in a press release of its own, with the obvious intention of stopping the groups’ efforts and stifling their voices.

That’s one of the pitfalls of trying to be a leading advocate for human rights while simultaneously fighting vigorously for policies that are controversial, as support for Israel is apparently becoming in certain parts of this country.

This is the list’s third iteration. The first was in 2010. Like the earlier versions, this one is a sloppy pastiche of organizations that range from outright enemies of Israel to harsh critics of its policies, from groups that condone terrorist violence to groups that firmly oppose it, from groups that traffic in anti-Semitism to Jewish groups whose fight for their understanding of Jewish values sometimes puts them in shady company (you could accuse certain pro-Israel groups of the same thing).

It also includes one group, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, that’s an umbrella group, serving as a Washington representative and lobbyist for many of the other groups on the list. Plus one group, the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta, that is so small and ineffectual that it’s hard to understand why it’s on the list, except perhaps as an attempt to show some sort of fairness.

One thing the list isn’t: It’s not a useful guide to understanding what Israel is up against in this country. That would require a serious analysis of the forces opposing Israel’s interests in this country. It would have to ask which of the public anti-Israel campaigns, if any, have any actual impact on U.S. policy or public opinion. It would have to ask what actual harm can be caused by a hate-Israel campaign that’s largely limited to college campuses (hints: souring future American leadership? Alienating young and mostly ill-informed Jews?).

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Dear Pew: I Was Right. Here's Why.

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Statistical Pie Chart: 86% Blueberry, 13% Rhubarb, 1% Key Lime

Well, I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again, but here I am, caught in another round of mud-wrestling over the minutiae of Jewish population statistics. You’re in for a treat.

If you’re just joining our broadcast, here’s a quick recap: Pew Research Center published a demographic “Portrait of Jewish Americans” on October 1 that was widely interpreted as depicting a community in rapid decline. I wrote a column that went on line October 13, arguing that one of Pew’s most alarming assertions, a dramatic increase in Jews “having no religion,” was mistaken. Pew came back with a rebuttal that suggested I didn’t know what I was talking about. One old friend told me via Facebook that I’d been “eviscerated.”

Frankly, I figured I’d leave it there. I’d made my case. I didn’t want to get into a back-and-forth that could get personal. Overall, I found the Pew survey important and enlightening. My online version might have inflamed things by unintentionally implying that the whole survey was off base. If the Pew folks overreacted to that, I sympathized. But then I heard from friends who wanted to know if I was conceding that I was wrong, and if not, what was my reply? So here goes.

For starters, I had written that Pew got a false picture of current trends by comparing its count of Jews of No Religion, 22% of all Jews, with National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which found 7%. I wrote that NJPS 2000-01 was notoriously unreliable, and Pew should have looked back to the better-received NJPS 1990. As it happens, the 1990 survey found 20% Jews of No Religion. That’s statistically the same as 22%. In other words, I wrote, there has been no increase.

Pew replies that drawing comparisons among the three surveys “without further analysis” is “highly misleading” because they use different methods, ask different questions and so on. “We make comparisons only sparingly, always with appropriately cautious language,” Pew says.

But the Pew report opens in its very first two paragraphs by describing trends that rely on comparisons with earlier surveys: the increase in Jews of No Religion (increased compared to what?) and a decrease in Jews-By-Religion as a share of the overall American population. Pew’s most quoted trend — the increase in No Religion — is based mainly on the 2000-01 NJPS. The appropriate cautions come several chapters later. They’re now offering other, non-NJPS evidence. That doesn’t work either, as we’ll see.

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Is Bibi Softening His Line on 'Undivided' Jerusalem?

By J.J. Goldberg

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Benjamin Netanyahu

It’s been a week since Bar-Ilan 2, Benjamin Netanyahu’s jarringly hardline policy address October 6 at the university campus where he first endorsed Palestinian statehood in 2009. And so far there’s been almost no public reaction.

What little attention there’s been has gone mostly to his defiantly hardline statements on Iran. The important part has been largely overlooked: his decidedly downbeat statements on the Palestinian peace process . Both the Jerusalem Post on the right and Haaretz and the left saw the speech as backpedaling on the peace talks. Haaretz called it a “hawkish address in which he did everything except announce that he is reneging on his agreement in principle to Palestinian statehood,” while the Post said Netanyahu was “lowering expectations” while he “puts the onus of failed negotiations squarely on the Palestinians’ shoulders.” Haaretz’s Hebrew edition quoted a tweet by former Yesha Settlements Council chairman Danny Dayan calling it “perhaps Netanyahu’s best speech as prime minister.”

The prime minister dismissed the idea that the occupation and settlements were the “cause of the conflict,” noting that it had begun long before 1967 and ignoring any evolution in the Palestinian position. A major part of the speech was devoted to the World War II-era alliance between Nazi Germany and the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini. (Here is the full text.)

“Unless the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and give up on the right of return there will not be peace,” he said. Even then, “after generations of incitement we have no confidence that such recognition will percolate down to the Palestinian people. That is why we need extremely strong security arrangements and to go forward, but not blindly.”

But a week later, according to (Hebrew) Amir Tibon at Walla News, the speech is beginning to raise concern among some on the right who note that Bibi made no mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternally undivided” capital. In fact, Tibon writes, “sources close to Netanyahu concede that since his reelection last February, Netanyahu has avoided speaking on the topic of Jerusalem.”

He’s had plenty of opportunities to do so, Tibon writes. The most obvious was in May, when the City of Jerusalem and the Ministry of Transportation dedicated a new interchange, named after his father, Benzion Netanyahu, out on Highway 443:

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Take Debt Limit to Court. It's Unconstitutional

By J.J. Goldberg

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‘I do solemnly swear…’

Wait a minute: I still don’t understand why the idea of a debt ceiling is constitutional.

The last I heard, the Fourteenth Amendment was still part of the Constitution. Here’s Section 4:

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

Call me crazy, but that seems pretty straightforward: One may not take steps to impede the United States’ payment of its debts. That should mean that any law permitting or enabling the prevention of America paying its debts is prima facie unconstitutional. The debt ceiling statute, by asking members of Congress to decide whether the government may continue to pay the money it owes, is by definition a violation of the Constitution. Its very language questions the public debt of the United States.

Pelosi, Geithner and others have raised this argument several times in the last few years, but Obama punted then and he did it again this time (surprise, surprise) to avoid confrontation with Congress and stick to his mythical middle ground. He’s afraid the House would impeach him and cause an even bigger crisis of confidence.

But it doesn’t have to be a confrontation between the branches. An outside goo-government group—or House Democrats—could and should go to the D.C. Circuit and challenge the constitutionality of the 1917 statute creating the debt ceiling. They should ask for a temporary injunction suspending enforcement of the law until the matter has been adjudicated.

A constitutional scholar might tell us that the public debt of the United States doesn’t refer to bills it has agreed to pay, but to repayment of bonds it floated—money it borrowed—to pay those bills. Even by that reading, any measure that raises questions about service of the debt—keeping up interest payments—should be unconstitutional. The fact that Republican caucus members suggest a way around it—paying the interest and stiffing everyone else—doesn’t negate the fact that the question has been raised, and that’s what’s unconstitutional.

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Rachel Maddow on the 'Hanukkah Shutdown'

By J.J. Goldberg

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Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow commenting Wednesday night on MSNBC on the new Gallup Poll that showed the Republican Party’s approval rating plummeting to 28%, the lowest for either party since pollsters first began asking the question:

“That apparently is the reward that you get if you can stretch your government shutdown to be longer than Hanukkah. It is more than eight crazy nights now. We are into Day 9.”

Maddow links the Republicans’ collapse in public opinion to the growing phenomenon of default denial — that is, the surge in GOP lawmakers publicly declaring that the debt ceiling is no big deal, or even that it’s something Democrats made up to scare them, and that crashing it won’t make a difference. Or in extreme cases, like Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho, say things like hitting the debt limit “would bring stability to the world markets.” Yoho’s district, incidentally, includes the University of Florida in Gainesville, ranked 14th among America’s public universities.

What’s scariest about this talk is not simply that the American and world economies are being held hostage by a group of extremists who are willing to take us all to the brink in order to achieve a policy goal that they couldn’t win at the ballot box. It’s that the American government, and through it the welfare of the developed world, are at the mercy of a group of profoundly uncurious ignoramuses, elected by a larger group of ignoramuses, who fundamentally don’t believe in knowledge.

It’s not just that they don’t understand global market economics—it’s that they don’t think there’s anything to understand, and they neither believe nor trust educated people like economists who try and explain the ramifications of these decisions that they’ve been entrusted with. We’ve seen this same attitude in action over the past few years in their contempt for climate science.

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The Supreme Court's Enigmatic Decider-in-Chief

By J.J. Goldberg

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Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s justice in the middle.

While we’re all riveted to the hostage drama in the House of Representatives, there’s another lopsided showdown shaping up in more-or-less plain sight that puts some basic values and settled law up for grabs. Like the Capitol Hill farce, this one has a tiny band of fanatics determined to trash three generations of evolving American consensus, and our collective fate somehow rests in the hands of one enigmatic figure.

The arena is the United States Supreme Court, which began its 2013-14 session last week and starts to hear arguments this coming Tuesday. The issues up for grabs, Georgia State law prof Eric Segall writes in this oped in today’s Los Angeles Times, are campaign finance reform, abortion and separation of church and state. Slate legal affairs reporter Dahlia Lithwick, commenting last week on the upcoming court season (she adds a fourth issue, affirmative action), predicts “the final demise of the O’Connor legacy,” referring to the centrist record of the court’s longtime swing vote, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Three cases on the court’s docket, Segall writes, have the potential to transform our legal landscape—drastically expand states’ power to limit access to abortion, virtually eliminate restrictions on direct campaign contributions and—get this—throw door wide open for government entities to endorse particular (usually Christian) sectarian religions for invocations, prayers and so on, so long as the measures aren’t “coercive.”

The choices before the court are so stark, and the court’s divisions so sharp-edged, that the direction the country will take in all three areas will probably be left entirely up to one person, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan appointee who became the court’s swing vote after the 2005 retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor. In the vast majority of politically charged cases the court’s conservative and liberal blocs vote predictably and the decision goes to the justice in the middle who holds the swing vote.

Ironically, Kennedy took a whack at the legitimacy of his own role, presumably unintentionally, during a lecture last week at the University of Pennsylvania. Here’s how the Associated Press quoted him:

Any society that relies on nine unelected judges to resolve the most serious issues of the day is not a functioning democracy.

I just don’t think that a democracy is responsible if it doesn’t have a political, rational, respectful, decent discourse so it can solve these problems before they come to the Court.

Kennedy inherited the swing position after Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2005 and was replaced by Samuel Alito. Previously Kennedy had been firmly in the conservative bloc, and his sudden relocation to the middle meant the court as a whole had moved sharply to the right.

Since then, charged 5-4 decisions have found Kennedy voting with the majority between 75% and 94% of the time. In 63% of those cases—nearly two-thirds—he’s sided with the conservatives. O’Connor started out in the conservative wing but moved leftward and came to be seen by liberals as the court’s moderating influence.

The National Journal’s Brian Resnick had this snarky but deadly accurate rejoinder to Kennedy’s Pennsylvania remarks:

As the usual swing vote on the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy has a strong hand in shaping the laws and policies of the United States…

Most recently, he wrote the majority opinion for U.S. v. Windsor, the case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Also recently, he sided with the majority, this time with the conservatives, in the divisive Shelby County v. Holder case, which invalidated a portion of the Voting Rights Act. Kennedy was the swing vote both times.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Kennedy’s was the only decision that mattered in these cases. In the 2010-2011 Supreme Court term, Kennedy voted with the majority 94 percent of the time.

In a lot of the cases, nine unelected judges is really only one. And it’s Anthony Kennedy.

Here’s how Lithwick summed up the church-state separation case on the docket, Greece v. Galloway:

Since 1999, the town of Greece, N.Y., has opened its town hall meetings with a prayer offered by a “Chaplain of the Month.” After two citizens of the town challenged the prayer sessions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit found that because almost two-thirds of the prayers contained sectarian references to “Jesus Christ” and “Your Son” and the “Holy Spirit” the town had crossed the First Amendment line on government establishment of religion. Greece v. Galloway gives the court an important opportunity to revisit its 30-year-old decision, in Marsh v. Chambers, allowing for legislative prayers so long as they could not be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” As Christopher Lund has argued here, the court needs to clarify the boundaries of Marsh and this may be the case to do it. It’s not at all clear what the court will do about the prayers in the Town of Greece. What is clear is that O’Connor’s special solicitude for reasonable onlookers and outsiders, confronted with what they viewed as government “endorsement” of sectarian religious messages, may no longer have a vocal champion at the court. And if the court decides to take on a second religious liberty case—the question of whether, under the Affordable Care Act, for-profit employers can refuse to provide contraception to their workers on religious grounds—we may be in for a truly rollicking ride on the religious freedom front.


To Grasp GOP Debt Stand, Picture a Bank Robber ...

By J.J. Goldberg

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House Speaker John Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner is reported to have told fellow Republicans that he won’t allow the federal government to default. He said he will see to it that the debt ceiling is raised, even if it means passing a bill with the support of Democrats and a minority of Republicans. Here’s what Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel told the Washington Post:

“Speaker Boehner has always said that the United States will not default on its debt, but if we’re going to raise the debt limit, we need to deal with the drivers of our debt and deficits,” Steel said. “That’s why we need a bill with cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again.”

In other words, he’s going to make sure that the debt ceiling is raised, but only on condition that the measure to raise the ceiling includes some other fiscal and budgetary actions that the Republicans favor. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post Wonkblog unpacks what this means:

On the one hand, Boehner has always said he won’t allow the United States to default. On the other hand, he’s also always said that he won’t pass a clean debt-ceiling bill.

Imagine a bank robber who swears no hostages will be harmed under any circumstances but also says no one gets out alive if his demands aren’t met. That’s more or less Boehner’s position.

If you dig a little deeper, you come to a pretty shocking bottom line:

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94% Proudly Jewish — So Why Dismiss Them?

By J.J. Goldberg

martyna storosta
100% Positive: The Pew survey found plenty of Jews like Ivy Elgarten, who aren’t particularly engaged in religious practice, but are proud of their faith and heritage. Who’s to say there’s anything wrong with that?

Each time the seasons change, we’re reminded of the comforting timelessness of the Jewish calendar. How each autumn brings the high holy days, with their spirit of introspection and reconciliation. How the spring brings the inspiring uplift of Passover.

And every 10 years, the panic and hysteria of another Jewish population survey.

The important takeaway from the new Pew survey is that it introduces some new methods of locating and counting Jews. This may produce a more accurate reading than we’ve had in the past, both of the overall number and of the quality of Jewish life. But it also makes it dangerous to compare its findings with those of past surveys.

Above all, it vindicates a thesis championed by the late sociologist Gary Tobin. He argued that calling up a random stranger and asking right off the bat about their religion is a sure way to get a false reading. Many people regard the matter as private. That will be especially true of Jews, who will frequently wonder who wants to know and why and quickly clam up. (Remember, the one expression of Judaism that they value above all others is remembering the Holocaust. Why would they rush to out themselves to a stranger?)

Pew Survey! Click Here! Click for more on the survey.

The result will be an underestimate of the total American Jewish population. Tobin’s argument was that the 5.5 million counted in 1990 and especially the 5.2 million counted in 2001 were way too low.

(It should be recalled here that the 2001 survey cautioned its readers that its counting methods were different from 1990, so nobody should infer a decline in population, but of course nobody paid attention. The 2001 survey also withdrew the 1990 intermarriage rate of 52% as a mistake, but nobody paid attention to that either.)

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Bibi's Peace Dilemma: Defying His Own Party

By J.J. Goldberg

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Bibi Netanyahu and his dad

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations operating under a tightly sealed cone of silence imposed by Secretary of State John Kerry, Middle East policy junkies have developed an elaborate guessing game that takes the form of a will-he-or-won’t-he dissection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentions.

The idea is to examine what’s known about Netanyahu’s past, his psychological makeup, his current actions and his relationship with the rest of his Likud party, and then to guess whether he’s likely to embrace a two-state peace agreement that’s broad enough for the Palestinian side to buy into—assuming that they’re serious about making a deal as well. For aficionados of the game, the end point is to decide whether Bibi Is Ready to Cross the Rubicon.

The Rubicon was all the rage in the hallways of the Washington Convention Center during the J Street conference this week. Given that it’s J Street, one might have supposed going in that the popular answer would be No, that Bibi isn’t ready to cross. But that wasn’t the case. Talking to Knesset members, Israeli and American policy wonks and journalists, the betting was more or less even. And if you listened closely, what it really came down to was a sort of Israeli version of the Hastert Rule.

I refer, of course, to the rule imposed on the Republican majority in the House of Representatives by former House speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, under which a bill normally didn’t come to the floor unless it was backed by a majority of the majority. That is, a bill had to have the backing of a majority of the Republican caucus. Only in extraordinary circumstances would the speaker let a bill come be passed by a minority of the Republicans joined by a large number of Democrats. The Israeli equivalent is the rule that the prime minister doesn’t bring a bill to the Knesset unless it’s first approved by a majority of his Cabinet and of his own party.

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Mahmoud Abbas Preaches Peace to the Jewish Choir

By J.J. Goldberg

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Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with a group of prominent American Jews in New York Monday evening for a dialogue over a dinner of trout and saffron rice. Also on the menu were servings of hope, flattery, mutual frustration and a just soupcon of evident peace-process exhaustion and perhaps a hint of unstated despair.

Abbas, in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, seemed intent on driving home his views on peace, which Palestinians claim are frequently misrepresented by Israelis. He repeatedly condemned the recent murders of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, declared himself committed to a “two-state solution” with Israel and “the state of Palestine” living “side by side in security and peace,” and he insisted that “70% of Palestinians” share that goal.

And, in a seeming rebuke to persistent Israeli and Western skepticism, he stated several times that his goal in negotiations is a “comprehensive agreement with Israel that will end the conflict and end further claims” by the two sides against one another. Pro-Israel analysts commonly claim that the Palestinian leader has no intention of agreeing to a final end to the conflict and cannot agree to sign a deal ending all further claims against Israel.

The 30-odd Americans in attendance, mostly liberal activists, peppered him with questions about how he planned to convince Israelis of his sincerity, at times seemingly wanting to be convinced themselves. Of 13 guests who were called on to ask questions, no fewer than six asked him bluntly to use the U.N. pulpit to reach out to Israelis, to let Israelis “hear words of hope from you,” to “dispel the pessimism” plaguing the diplomatic process and “make clear that you are a partner for peace.”

Abbas’s replies to each were variations on “no”: “I don’t think the Israelis need to be convinced that two states are good for them—they want their state and we want our state.” And: “My speech will be addressed to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people at the same time, but when we talk we don’t have double language.” And, after being asked the same question a sixth time: “It’s not my job alone to dispel pessimism — we both have to work, both me and Mr. Netanyahu.”

To numerous guests chatting among themselves afterward, the most notable feature of the dinner was who wasn’t there. The Abbas dinner has become something of an annual September ritual when the Palestinian leader comes to address the General Assembly. It’s organized each year by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is named for the Slim-Fast diet food mogul who founded it and is headed by former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler. In past years guests have included heads of the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the main synagogue unions and others.

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Jews Now Minority in Israel and Territories

By J.J. Goldberg

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The ticking demographic time-bomb

One of the most common arguments in favor of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the so-called demographic threat or demographic time-bomb. Proponents worry that if Israel continues to control the Palestinian territories, with or without formal annexation, the different birthrates of Jews and Arabs will eventually result in Jews being a minority in the territory under Israeli control. At that point Israel will no longer be a Jewish state — or, alternatively, will be a Jewish state with a non-Jewish majority that is disenfranchised because of its ethnic identity. There’s a word for that. I won’t say it, but I’ll note that it’s Afrikaans in origin.

How far off such a situation might be is a topic of considerable debate. Some say the threshold will be crossed within a decade or less. Others suggest a longer timeline is possible. A few on the right believe there’s no threat at all, either because Jewish and Arab fertility rates are converging or because Palestinian population figures are inflated. By and large, though, demography appears to be a very mainstream worry.

Well, worry no more. It turns out we’re there already. Comparing the annual Rosh Hashanah population report from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, released September 2, with the midyear (July 1) population figures for the West Bank and Gaza in the CIA World Factbook, it turns out that Jews are now (as of Rosh Hashanah) outnumbered by Arabs under Israeli sovereignty by a grand total of 50,827. So the question is no longer whether or when the Jewish state will feature a minority ruling a majority. The question now is what to do about it.

Here are the numbers:

Palestinian Arabs, West Bank: 2,676,740

Palestinian Arabs, Gaza Strip: 1,763,387

(Total Palestinians, Israeli military-administered territories: 4,440,127)

Israeli Arabs (citizens): 1,666,800

Total Arabs under Israeli sovereign administration: 6,106,927

Israeli Jews: 6,056,100

A few notes on the figures:

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Poverty Shock: Stats Show Ills Began in 2001, Not '07

By J.J. Goldberg

Cruikshank/Wikimedia Commons
“Please, sir, I want some more”

Just in time for the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the U.S. Census Bureau has published what we might call a 2013 update of America’s own Harvest of Shame: a comprehensive annual report on the state of income, poverty and health insurance in the United States.

To be fair, it’s not all bad news. For example, the report shows that 2012 was the first year since 2007, before the economy collapsed, that America’s median household income didn’t decline. It was statistically the same in 2012 as it was in 2011, roughly $51,000. That was also the first year since 2007 that there was no statistically significant increase in the number of people in poverty (46 million) or their percentage of the population (15%). All three numbers are still worse than they were in 2007, but at least they’ve stopped deteriorating. That’s the good news.

Pretty much all the rest of it is bad news, some of it shockingly so. Between 2000 and 2012 the median income for non-elderly households declined a whopping 11.6%, or $7,490 after correcting for inflation. Among African-American households the decline was 14.8%. A full 27% of blacks live in poverty, nearly 11 million people in all. Close to half (44%) of all Americans in poverty are living in what’s called “deep poverty,” with an income that’s less than half the poverty line. And the number of people under 65 receiving health insurance on the job dropped by 13.7 million or 10.8% in those 12 years (almost all before Obamacare kicked in).

The only income group reported by the Census Bureau to have gained income since 2009 is the top 5%, which saw a median gain of 0.6%, or $1,846. Everybody else lost.

Some of the information in the report is quite surprising. Remember President Reagan’s quip in 1987, “In the 60s we waged a war on poverty and poverty won”? It turns out he was dead wrong. The poverty rate plummeted during the 1960s, from about 22% of the population in 1959 to about 11% in 1973. It stayed roughly level until about 1978 and then started climbing, reaching 15% in 1982, the second year of Reagan’s presidency. (Hence the increase in poverty that he correctly perceived in 1987 was actually his handiwork.) It stayed up around 15% until 1993, the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when it began dropping again, reaching 11.3% in 2000, Clinton’s last year. The next year, the first of the Bush administration it began climbing steadily, reaching 15% in 2011. In fact, contrary to what you might think, there was no dramatic jump in poverty after 2007. It’s just been a steady climb since 2000.

Likewise, median income declined between 2000 and 2007, though only a bit, then proceeded to plummet. In other words, some of our troubles began when the economy collapsed, but important parts of the disaster began directly after the Supreme Court’s historic December 2000 ruling in Bush v. Gore. It takes some digging to find out, though. The Census report doesn’t highlight this at all. It’s all built around the post-2007 collapse.

A separate income study, this one based on Internal Revenue Service figures, was released September 3 by economist Emmanuel Saez at the University of California-Berkeley. It shows that average family incomes (as opposed to median) grew by 6% between 2009 and 2012. But nearly all the gain went to families in the top 1% of the population, whose income grew 31.4%. The other 99% saw an average gain of 0.4%. (And based on the above Census Bureau numbers, even that paltry increase seems to have gone mostly to the top 5%.) The Los Angeles Times published a summary of the Berkeley study on September 11.

The Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed Washington think tank, pulled out some of the most interesting numbers from the Census Bureau’s report:

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'Half of Syrian Rebels' Are Radical Islamists

By J.J. Goldberg

ALICE Martins/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian Jihadists take aim at Kurdish position, August 25, 2013.

Nearly half the rebels fighting in Syria are jihadists linked to Al Qaeda or hardline Islamists fighting for a strict Islamic state, according to a study that’s about to be published by IHS Jane’s, the respected British defense consultancy.

Advance word of the study appears in Monday’s edition of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. The Jane’s study is said to be due out later this week.

The study reportedly claims there are about 100,000 fighters in the Syrian insurgency, divided into about 1,000 independent and often hostile units. About 10,000 belong to “powerful factions” of jihadists linked to Al Qaeda. These groups are fighting for an Islamic state within a larger Middle East caliphate.

Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists whose philosophy is similar to the jihadists, but are focused purely on Syria rather than an international revolution. In addition, according the Telegraph, there are “at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character.”

The remainder, some 25,000 to 30,000, belong to secular groups with a democratic or nationalist orientation. In other words, between 25% and 30% of the total rebel force consists of groups considered friendly to the West, according to the British study.

According to the Telegraph, the assessment

accords with the view of Western diplomats [who] estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are “palatable” to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower.

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When Putin Speaks

By J.J. Goldberg

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Vladimir Putin, Man of Peace

It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to Vladimir Putin’s op-ed essay in Thursday’s New York Times. On the one hand, polls show that most Americans agree with his call to avoid American military engagement in Syria. On the other hand, very few of us want to come out and agree with Putin. Apparently we don’t like dictators telling us what to do, even when we think they’re right.

Bloomberg News probably hit the note that would resonate with most people, declaring in an editorial that while much of what Putin wrote was misleading, self-serving or downright false, it advances a plan that could disarm Syria’s poison gas without war. “In other words: Vladimir Putin is that rare writer whose actions matter more—and certainly must be more persuasive—than his words.” Go Vlad.

Some went a bit further, into what most of us might consider uncomfortable territory. Former Reagan White House aide Pat Buchanan told Greta Van Sustern Wednesday evening on Fox News, responding to the Times piece, that “in the last week Vladimir Putin looks like a statesman.”

But Buchanan is someone who knows a thing or two about uncomfortable territory. He’s the guy who once called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory.” He also, it’s generally believed, was the Reagan aide who pushed hardest for the Gipper to visit that Nazi military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985. So hearing that he’s Putin’s most prominent defender in the public square at this point is, somehow, not surprising.

That’s the funny thing. The blogosphere was filled with cheers for Putin from folks you never heard of at outlets like policymic and Daily Kos, but virtually all the mainstream pols and pundits were falling in line behind Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who apparently spoke for all of us when he told CNN that on hearing about Putin’s op-ed during dinner “I almost wanted to vomit.” After all, Menendez said,

I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is.

Menendez is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so he’ll be in the driver’s seat when Congress takes up President Obama’s war powers request. In a democracy like ours, decisions about our national interest are placed in the secure hands of our own elected representatives, as Obama wisely did when he asked Congress to decide whether to take us into another war in the Middle East. We trust Congress.

That’s why I look to Robert Menendez when I want to know how to judge a foreign dictator’s announcements. The idea that a former spook from the KGB should be taken seriously as a world leader is, well, spooky. A former head of the CIA like our 41st president, George H.W. Bush—now that’s a different story. But the KGB? Perish etc. I always leave my big thinking to guys from Jersey.

And the idea that the New York Times would put itself in the service of the president of Russia so he can reach over the heads of our government and talk directly to the American people, as though he owned the place, must raise the question of which side the Times is on. Freedom of the press is one thing, but that doesn’t mean it should let its opinion pages be the plaything of foreign bullies.

It tells you something about the Times—that “it’s REALLY Pravda-on-the-Hudson,” as John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and former opinion editor and current columnist of Australian-British-American media bully Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, tweeted on Thursday.

Unfortunately, Putin has a sorry track record in this appalling behavior. Usually, though, it’s been more subtle. When he’s tried in the past to manipulate American public opinion, he’s usually written his op-eds in his former capacity as prime minister of Russia rather than president. I guess that’s different. For example:

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This Week in Milestones: War, Peace, Deep Space

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Jupiter (top), as photographed by Voyager 1 (bottom), January 1, 1979

We’re in a season of anniversaries and memories, many of them exceedingly melancholy: the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy that ignited the global financial crisis, September 15, 2008 (5 years ago); the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, September 11, 2001 (12 years ago); the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, 10 Tishri 1973 (40 years ago by the Hebrew lunar calendar). And, wandering only a little further afield, the outbreak of World War II, September 1, 1939 (74 years ago). And, on a more ambivalent note, the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, which was either a great hope that’s been dashed (as I believe) or a tragic error (as some of my friends and relations believe), September 13, 1993 (20 years ago).

But something unambiguously great happened today, September 12, 2013: NASA confirmed that Voyager 1, the spacecraft launched to Jupiter and Saturn on September 5, 1977 (36 years ago), has left our solar system and entered the cold zone of deep space, the first man-made object ever to enter the vast, unknown realm between the stars, interstellar space.

The crossing actually occurred a year ago, on August 25, 2012, according to NASA’s calculations. But, as Space.com reports, the instrument that would have detected the crossing and transmitted it back to earth broke down in 1980, so scientists had to rely on complicated calculations from other instruments. It took a bit of luck, too: “A massive solar eruption in March 2012 arrived at the location of Voyager 1 about 13 months later, making the plasma around the probe vibrate, NASA officials said.”

Voyager is currently about 12 billion miles from the sun—or about 11.9 billion miles from us—and radio signals traveling at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) take about 17-1/2 hours to reach us.

As the Los Angeles Times reported today:

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