J.J. Goldberg

In Syria, 2 Clashing Goals: End Killing or Stop Iran

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Syrian rebels guard Islamist rally, Aleppo, March 2013

Now that the White House has officially acknowledged the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, the question is no longer whether we get involved in the Syrian civil war, but how. This represents a victory for the smallish, outspoken group of liberal interventionists who have been arguing for an American military role, while trying to shake off the stigma of their de facto alliance with neoconservatives a decade ago in supporting President Bush’s war in Iraq. President Obama’s nomination last week of Susan Rice as National Security Adviser and Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations seemed to signal that we’d be moving in this direction, given their records as liberal interventionists, but nobody expected it to happen so fast.

Liberal interventionists have been insisting for months that, as The New York Times’ Bill Keller and The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argued recently, memories of Iraq shouldn’t deter America from acting in Syria, because they’re not the same thing. The scale of humanitarian disaster in Syria is genuine, immediate and overwhelming. On the contrary, the proper precedents are the shameful tragedies of our delayed intervention in Bosnia, as The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier maintains, and our abject failure to act in Rwanda, as Princeton University political scientist (and former Obama State Department aide) Anne-Marie Slaughter forcefully insists. Indeed, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon writes that the lesson for Syria from the Bosnia experience is what went right after we did intervene.

Conservative interventionists like Elliott Abrams and, well, a host of others have been calling for months for action in Syria as a way to weaken Iran and Hezbollah. Hebrew University Middle East scholar [Moshe Maoz], perhaps Israel’s most respected Syria watcher — and an outspoken dove on the Palestinian issue—makes both arguments in a new op-ed essay in Haaretz: that the humanitarian disaster and the growing prospect of an Assad-Hezbollah-Iran victory in the civil war should stir Washington and NATO to a firm, Bosnia-style intervention. Israel has everything to gain from such an intervention, he writes, and while it can’t be part of the action, it can and “must use its good ties with the U.S. to persuade it to give strategic military support to the rebels in Syria.” As for fears that a rebel victory would install a jihadist or Al Qaeda-style regime in Damascus, he writes:

Read more


How Bibi's Right Flank Maneuvers To Box Him In

By J.J. Goldberg

DannyDanon.com/Wikimedia Commons
Likud Young Turks: Danny Danon, Yariv Levin

The guessing game continues: Will he or won’t he? Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree to open peace negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative — meaning, in effect, agreeing to start from the pre-1967 armistice lines as the basis for negotiating future borders?

Netanyahu is under pressure. He very much wants to sit down to negotiate with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas — or, at least, to be seen as very much wanting to. He hasn’t accepted the Arab League plan, but he hasn’t explicitly rejected it. Most of those around him suspect that he’s leaning toward accepting some watered down version as he sees the odds of a binational state growing and the opening for a two-state solution slipping away — not to mention the international legitimacy he needs in the face of Iran.

He was seriously embarrassed last week when his deputy defense minister, rising Likud star Danny Danon, told The Times of Israel in a bombshell interview that neither the ruling Likud party nor the government as a whole would ratify a pact based on two states for two peoples. Danon said the Likud was “legally” opposed to the principle of two states for two peoples, because of formal resolutions adopted by the party about a decade ago and never rescinded. Indeed, Danon said,

there was never a government discussion, resolution or vote about the two-state solution. If you will bring it to a vote in the government — nobody will bring it to a vote, it’s not smart to do it — but if you bring it to a vote, you will see the majority of Likud ministers, along with the Jewish Home [party], will be against it.”

It gets worse. Coalition whip Yariv Levin of Likud — he’s the guy in charge of rounding up Knesset votes whenever a bill comes to the floor — announced Wednesday that he would be assuming co-chairmanship of a new Lobby for the Land of Israel caucus within the Knesset to oppose any territorial concessions in the West Bank. The caucus is to be rolled out at a “celebratory” meeting of coalition hawks gathering in Tel Aviv tomorrow (June 11) to flex muscles against Netanyahu’s reputed peace plans.

Initial caucus membership is 35 lawmakers (out of 120 total), including two Yesh Atid lawmakers, Dov Lipman and Pnina Tamnu-Shata (other Yesh Atid members have joined a rival two-states caucus, initial membership 40). The Land of Israel caucus has outside support from several cabinet ministers who aren’t allowed to join caucuses, reportedly including defense minister Moshe Yaalon of Likud and Jewish Home’s economics minister Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel. If I’m not mistaken, that comes to a majority of the 68-member coalition.

Coming to Bibi’s defense on the diplomatic front, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, currently chair of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, acknowledged today that a construction freeze is in effect in the Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem across the pre-1967 Green Line, according to Galei Tzahal Radio.

Read more


Shin Bet Big: Bibi's Stand Keeps Abbas from Talks

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen

Speaking of intelligence leaks, Israel had one last week that speaks volumes about the prospects for Secretary of State Kerry’s Middle East peace mission. Consider how a June 4 classified briefing to the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee was described the next day in Maariv’s lead headline: “Shin Bet chief: Abu Mazen Doesn’t Believe in an Agreement with Us.” The subheading added some intriguing detail: “Knesset members who were present yesterday at the foreign affairs and defense committee claim: Yoram Cohen said that the Palestinians are not enthusiastic to resume negotiations with Netanyahu. Shin Bet: Not true.”

The leak so infuriated committee chair Avigdor Lieberman that he distributed a letter to committee members on Thursday vowing to end the practice of classified briefings, starting with an appearance tomorrow (Monday) by the prime minister. Lieberman said he had instituted the closed meetings this year after hearing from “some members” that meetings had come to resemble “headline reviews” with no real insight into the security services’ operations.

As Maariv explained in its next-day follow-up, Lieberman’s strictly classified meetings replaced a 20-year practice in which classified briefings by top security officials would be followed by a declassified press briefing by a committee spokesman. Leaks have been commonplace both before and after the rule change.

So what came out this week that so angered Lieberman? That Abu Mazen (a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president) isn’t interested in peace? Lieberman has been saying that for years. No, the problem was just the opposite: What Cohen actually said was that the Palestinians didn’t think talks with Bibi would go anywhere, given his backtracking from understandings reached in previous negotiating rounds. Maariv’s headline didn’t match reporter Ze’ev Kam’s story. According to Kam,

the Shin Bet chief told the committee members that there is a continuous decline on the Palestinian side in faith that any positive diplomatic process in the region will occur between the sides. …

In his words, the opening negotiating position of the present government is not even close to what was discussed in earlier rounds with [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert, and therefore from Abu Mazen’s point of view he can’t gain anything from entering negotiations with Israel. … in his view, he can only lose, given the fact that in the past he was in a much better negotiating position.

Read more


Genocide, Lies & Video: Sliming Samantha Power

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Samantha Power in Iraq, 2009

Even in a political culture as poisonous as ours is of late, there’s still something deeply disturbing about the perverse dishonesty of the right-wing attacks on Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations.

There are so many layers of bad faith at work here that it’s hard to know where to begin. On the broadest level of principle, the president is taking the nation’s most articulate proponent of international action to prevent genocide and putting her in the very spot where she’s most needed. All those conservatives who rail against American lassitude in Syria, Libya and so on back to the Holocaust should be thrilled. But no. Instead, we’ve been hit with a barrage of accusations over the past 24 hours.

Far more startling is the substance of the attacks. Most of them are based entirely on two statements she made years ago, which are twisted to make her sound anti-Israel. One is an outrageous distortion, turning her response to a bizarre, hypothetical “thought experiment” during an obscure 2002 interview into a clarion call for invading Israel. The other is a flat lie – a repetition of two sentences, one about the malign influence of lobbyists, the other about our “important” alliance with Israel, and making them sound like a single thought by removing the middle of the paragraph. (A handful of attackers have dredged up a sprinkling of other statements that are more difficult to distort, though they’re trying.)

The most popular charge is that she “advocates” sending a massive U.S. invasion force into Israel and the territories to “impose a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This is based entirely on two-minute segment in an obscure, undated 2002 interview she gave to a Berkeley professor, Harry Kreisler, now circulating on YouTube. He asks her to respond to a “thought experiment”: if she were an adviser to the president, how would she advise him to act if it looked like either Israel or the Palestinians were “moving toward genocide.” Her answer was to take the same action she recommends in other genocidal situations: send in troops to stop it.

Read more


Kerry to U.S. Jews: Prod Leaders to Back 2 States

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
John Kerry

Secretary of State Kerry may have crossed a few lines and trod on some toes in his speech to the American Jewish Committee in Washington on Monday. The first half-hour was filled with predictable declarations about his love for Israel, the urgency of peace and the beautiful view from Masada, but his ending was a zinger: a five-minute call for American Jews to weigh in as a community and “help shape the future of this process.”

Specifically, he said, “let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who will make them… let them know that you stand behind negotiations that will lead to two states for two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security.”

It’s not entirely clear which leaders he had in mind. He might have been thinking of their senators and representatives or perhaps the White House and administration. On the other hand, given that he was addressing them as members of a distinct entity — the American Jewish community — it’s quite possible that he was thinking of the leaders of that community. It would make political sense, too, since that’s the group that’s most commonly described as frustrating administrations in their forays into Israeli-Arab peace-making.

Here’s Kerry:

[N]o one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community. You can play a critical part in ensuring Israel’s long-term security. And as President Obama said in Jerusalem, leaders will take bold steps only if their people push them to. You can help shape the future of this process. And in the end, you can help Israel direct its destiny and be masters of its own fate, just as Prime Minister Meir dreamed that it would be.

So I ask you today, send the message that you are behind this hopeful vision of what can be. Let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who make them. For your children, do this; for your grandchildren, do this; for Israeli children and Palestinian children and for Israel, let them know that you stand behind negotiations that will lead to two states for two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security, and that you are part of the great constituency for peace.

In addition to urging Jews to press their leaders, Kerry’s speech broke at least three other rules of standard etiquette governing public officials when addressing Jews:

Read more


Shin Bet Film Airs on TV Amid Right-vs.-IDF Tiff

By J.J. Goldberg

"The Gatekeepers"
Yaakov Peri

Israel’s state-owned Channel 1 Television aired the first part of a five-part miniseries version of “The Gatekeepers” on Sunday night. That’s the Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary in which all six living ex-directors of the Shin Bet security service criticize the government’s West Bank policies. According to Walla! News, the miniseries will include previously unseen material from the director’s hours of interviews with the six plus new documentary footage. Each segment is to be followed by live, roundtable discussions of the issues “for balance.”

Yediot Ahronot’s respected military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, after watching the first episode, called it “even more important than the movie.” Eyal Levi of the conservative Maariv called it “required viewing.”

One thing that’s likely to result from the screening is a serious national discussion of the ex-Shin Bet leaders’ position, shared by most of the heads of the military and the Mossad, that peace with the Palestinians is achievable and within reach on terms that would make Israel more secure, not less so. Another likely outcome is an escalation of the tension that’s been growing in recent months between the security establishment and the political right.

Prime Minister Netanyahu had vowed not to see the movie when it was released this past winter. It remains to be seen whether he’ll stand firm once the miniseries airs and the rest of the country starts talking about it. Up to now, critics on the right have mostly directed their ire at the filmmaker, Dror Moreh, on the assumption that the film’s anti-occupation viewpoint can’t possibly represent the genuine opinions of all those security professionals. It’s “hardly a film that lets Shin Bet directors speak for themselves” (Alex Joffe, Jewish Ideas Daily). They were “they were manipulated by a film maker with an agenda” (Gidon Ben-zvi, Algemeiner). Moreh “should have laid greater emphasis on the swarms of suicide bombers that targeted and murdered more than 1,100 innocent Israelis during the second intifada” (Isi Leibler, Jerusalem Post). And considering the funding the government provides to Israel’s struggling film industry, “we should find a means to bring an end to the lunacy of employing Israeli taxpayer funds to promote global anti-Israeli propaganda designed to defame the nation” (Leibler again).

Once the interviews hit the small screen—on state-owned TV, noch—it won’t be possible to pretend the film’s viewpoint is leftist, anti-Israel propaganda, as opposed to standard Israeli security doctrine. The interviewees will be showing up on live television to explain themselves. I spoke to several of them in January, after I’d seen the film, and they made it clear at the time that the film fully and accurately represented their views. In fact, as former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon told me, if the film had avoided the political question of the occupation, “there would have been no point to the film.”

Another of the interviewees, Yaakov Peri, who was elected to the Knesset with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and now serves as minister of science and technology, declared in a lengthy Yediot Ahronot interview this past Friday that he’s about to launch a major campaign to win Israeli acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative. Peri has spent the last few months heading up the so-called Peri Committee, which was in charge of crafting new legislation to bring Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews into military service.

Read more


Freud Speaks! Who Does He Remind You Of?

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons/blogs.yu
Counterclockwise from top right: Sigmund Freud, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Leon Trotsky

As Father’s Day approaches, I thought it would be fun to visit with three modern Jewish patriarchs. Here are some remarkable bits of tape with voices (one is sound-and-video) from the past that sort of embody the arc of contemporary Jewish thought.

Hat tip to Seton Hall theologian and ethicist Rabbi Alan Brill, who got me thinking about this by posting a remarkable clip of Sigmund Freud on his Kavvanah blog. It’s from a December 1938 BBC interview with Sigmund Freud. Freud is heard describing the personal price price he paid for challenging contemporary mores with his theories about the subconscious and the you-know-what. It’s described as the only known recording of Freud’s voice. It’s not very easy to understand. I’ve copied Brill’s transcript of the talk after the jump.

Brill hears a resemblance between the voices of Dr. Freud and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Frankly, I don’t hear it. Here is the Soloveitchik clip that Brill directs us to (Brill’s own link is problematic), a lecture on Pidyon HaBen (redemption of the firstborn) and the unity of generations. Here is a clearer clip of Soloveitchik that I found on YouTube, a discussion of the power of prayer (with subtitles, which you’ll find helpful since the sound quality isn’t great).

On the other hand, Freud had a certain Jewish contemporary who sounded astonishingly like him, not just in voice, accent and delivery but also in the thrust of his message: my opponents persecute me because they’re threatened by my revolutionary ideas. That’s right — I’m talking about Leon Trotsky.

Here’s Trotsky himself in Mexico, filming a message about Joseph Stalin’s persecution of him and his family and the Moscow show trials that condemned Grigory Zinoviev (Gershon Apfelbaum) (1883-August 25, 1936), Lev Kamenev (Lev Rozenfeld) (1883-August 25, 1936) and, in absentia, Trotsky himself.

Read more


Knesset Kerfuffle: Spare the VAT, Spoil the Sabbath

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Nissan Slomiansky

Israel’s Jewish Home party, for those still trying to follow these things, is a new body that reunites the main elements of the old National Religious Party (NRP, Hebrew Mafdal), which represented the Modern Orthodox / Religious Zionist constituency in the Knesset for a half-century. The NRP was a supremely pragmatic, almost Chicago-style organization that managed to sit comfortably in nearly every Israeli coalition, whether Labor or Likud.

The NRP broke up during the 1990s, following the Oslo Accords, when militant settler leaders broke off to form various right-wing factions, eventually emerging in 1999 as the National Union. The NRP dwindled, drawing mainly on its old urban base, rabbis and academics. The two groups were reunited last fall under the charismatic high-tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett. The new organization’s No. 2, former National Union head Uri Ariel, is now minister of housing, which is a good spot for a militant settler leader.

No. 3 on the party list, Nissan Slomiansky, is the last of the old generation of old-line NRP pols. He now chairs the Knesset Finance Committee, which is a great job for an old-fashioned, Chicago-style political infighter. The thing is, he’s not that good at it. He’s just the guy who survived.

Here’s a tidbit from Nahum Barnea’s May 31 column in the Musaf Shabbat (Weekend Supplement) of Yediot Ahronot:

The chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Nissan Slomiansky, is a religious Jew. When he learned that the government was planning to raise the Value Added Tax on June 1, it awoke all of his old National Religious Party reflexes, since June 1 falls on Saturday, the Sabbath. He mobilized the full weight of his influence and obtained a one-day postponement. The Finance Ministry said the cost of the postponement was 10 million shekels.

Slomiansky is certain he got a sweet deal for the Holy One, praised be He. He’s mistaken. In practice, he caused a mass desecration of the Sabbath. In effect, what Slomiansky was saying was: Head for the shopping centers, for the malls, for the Arab towns, for every store that’s open on Sabbath. Buy air conditioners, televisions, refrigerators. Use this Sabbath for shopping and save 1% off the VAT. Every desecrator is a winner.

Israel has known all sorts of obsessions of religious politicians, from a ban on cows eating leaven for a month before Passover [to ensure the milk they produce during the holiday is kosher for Passover - jjg] to turning the clock back to Standard Time, its winter schedule, in the middle of the summer [so the Yom Kippur fast ends earlier - jjg]. But Slomiansky is the first religious politician to insist on subsidizing Israelis who shop on Shabbat.


Here's the Thing About Inequality: It Kills

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images

The invaluable Thomas Edsall reports in his New York Times blog on a paper by an MIT economist, co-written with a Harvard political scientist and a French economist, that claims America can’t adopt more egalitarian social policies because it’s our “cut-throat capitalism” that allows countries like Sweden to have their “cuddly capitalism.” The idea is that America’s extreme system of rewarding innovation produces the forward motion that other economies live off of. They claim that factors like a strong safety net and unions reduce rewards and therefore discourage innovation, hurting everyone here and abroad.

Edsall wonders whether it’s true that Sweden and Denmark lack innovation. Ikea, anyone? I question whether America is more innovative now than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when our safety net was stronger and unions were able to bargain for living wages. I also wonder whether our well-documented, radical increase in inequality can sustain a strong consumer base to keep our economy growing and innovating—that is, whether the growing impoverishment of the middle and lower classes won’t reduce the number of people able to buy stuff that the clever folks at the top invent and produce.

But there’s another aspect to inequality: It kills. Thursday’s Times reports on a new study that explores the growing gap in life expectancy between well-educated and poorly educated women. The Times headline focuses on the impact of joblessness. The study itself, which was conducted by a pair of sociologists at Harvard and the University of Wyoming, looked as well at the impact on death rates of unhealthy behavioral patterns among less educated Americans, including smoking, poor nutrition and access to health care. It found that the odds of dying any given year were 66% higher among women without a high school diploma than among those with a diploma between 2002 and 2006. It had risen from 37% between 1997 and 2001. In other words, the uneducated are dying faster than they used to.

The impact of unemployment on life expectancy has been the subject of several studies in recent years. One study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in August 2009, conducted by a pair of economists from Columbia University and the Chicago Federal Reserve, studied Social Security statistics in Pennsylvania over a 15 year period and found that

for high-seniority male workers, mortality rates in the year after displacement are 50%–100% higher than would otherwise have been expected. The effect on mortality hazards declines sharply over time, but even twenty years after displacement, we estimate a 10%–15% increase in annual death hazards. If such increases were sustained indefinitely, they would imply a loss in life expectancy of 1.0–1.5 years for a worker displaced at age forty.

Read more


Right Rips Peres for Citing '67 Lines (P.S.: He Didn't)

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Peres: What’d I say?

A funny thing happened to Israeli figurehead president Shimon Peres on his way to the World Economic Forum. Scheduled to address a gathering of Middle Eastern political and business leaders at a Jordanian Dead Sea conference center on Sunday evening, the 89-year-old elder statesman came under furious attack from Likud cabinet ministers Sunday afternoon for reportedly intending to endorse Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.

The funny thing is, he didn’t say it. What he did say was that the Palestinians should return to the negotiating table to settle their disputes with Israel. Even funnier, the attacks kept coming afterwards, undeterred.

Peres was the closing speaker at the three-day conference, preceded by Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Before his departure for Jordan, Maariv reported that Peres would declare (I’m translating from the Hebrew, as no English version has been published): “Israel wants peace. There is a clear majority among us that favors a diplomatic solution under the framework of two states for two peoples, along the 1967 lines, with agreed and equal border adjustments. Israel longs for peace.”

The Maariv report, by the respected, conservative-leaning journalist Shalom Yerushalmi, also said that Peres had discussed his speech earlier with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in accord with his plans. Yerushalmi noted that Peres’s audience at the King Hussein Convention Center would include the president of Libya, the prime minister of Iraq and senior ministers from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, the Gulf states and others. The report said Peres would endorse the Arab Peace Initiative and say to Abbas, “I am your partner and you are my partner. Let’s bring peace.”

Responding to the Maariv account, international relations minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters on his way into a Sunday afternoon cabinet meeting: “I didn’t know that Peres wants to be the government spokesman. Government decisions are decided by the cabinet.”

Read more


Memorial Day, My Very Personal National Holiday

By J.J. Goldberg

Uncle Morey

Sometimes you have to stand back a bit to observe how history is unfolding before your eyes. Sometimes backing away brings you even closer.

Take Memorial Day. It started after the Civil War to commemorate the war’s fallen, but soon came to honor the fallen in all America’s wars. Then in 1968, Congress moved it from May 31 to the last Monday in May, creating a long weekend and effectively transforming it from a day for honoring soldiers into a day for shopping and starting the beach season. (And this at the height of the Vietnam War!)

That, in turn, gave rise to another annual ritual: Berating each other over how Memorial Day has become a day for shopping and the beach and forgetting about the soldiers. The latest twist is the Memorial Day ritual of honoring Israel for actually remembering its soldiers on its Memorial Day. This is partly because Israel observes its Memorial Day and its Independence Day (the cost, the cause) consecutively rather than five weeks apart, like ours. Also because Israelis experience their wars more immediately and more universally (though that seems to be changing in various, distinct ways).

That said, I was pulled up short yesterday by a powerful Facebook post that brought home the immediacy of Memorial Day as a universal American experience. Deborah Winter wrote:

Just wanted to say thank you to my Uncle Raymond who died at age 23 fighting the Germans over Holland. You never got to come home, marry, have children, grow old. I thank you for your sacrifice.

And this made me think of my Uncle Morey, my mother’s kid brother.

Read more


Lord of the Land: Israel's New Jewish Identity Czar

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Avichai Rontzki

Israel’s ministry of religious services, headed by economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, has created a new Jewish Identity Administration in an “effort to increase national awareness of Jewish identity,” says a report in Yeshiva World News. Haaretz says its job is to “instill Jewish values” in the general public. The administration will be headed by reserve Brig. Gen. Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces. Rontzki is stepping down as head of the yeshiva of Itamar, a settlement overlooking Nablus in Samaria-northern West Bank.

The new administration, authorized as part of the Jewish Home-Likud Beiteinu coalition agreement, will be modeled after the Jewish Awareness Unit created by Rontzki within the military chief rabbinate. Rontzki was picked for the job not only because of his political closeness to Bennett—Rontzki “helped him considerably during his party primary race,” says the religious news site Kipa—“but also because of his professional background, as someone who advanced the values of Jewish identity in the IDF during his service as military chief rabbi.”

Haaretz reacted to the news in an editorial yesterday accusing Bennett and Rontzki of trying to “force” religion on Israelis, who “don’t have an identity crisis” and “certainly don’t need Bennett and Rontzki to treat it for them.” Israel National News, the website of the settler radio station Arutz Sheva, replied with a quote from Rontzki that Haaretz’s criticism of the initiative “just shows how important it is.” Working mainly through the schools, Rontzki said, it will focus on dialogue between religious and secular youth and on deepening awareness of “the subject of the land of Israel” and the “central” importance of “our renewed settlement.”

Actually, that’s the point. Haaretz has the issue wrong: It’s not that Rontzki intends to coerce kids into praying, but rather that he’ll be using taxpayer shekels and class time to spread his ultra-nationalist notions of Israel and (or vs.) the world.

In fact, Rontzki and his military Jewish identity programs were the subject of a blistering report by Israel’s Comptroller General just a year ago, as I reported at the time. The accusations against him weren’t that he was trying to impose religious rules and rituals on soldiers, but that he was using the rabbinate, created to provide religious services to observant soldiers, as a vehicle to promote religious-nationalist, political values concerning the sacredness and indivisibility of the Land of Israel.

Read more


Garcetti's Honor: L.A. Scribes to the Defense

By J.J. Goldberg

My post yesterday about Jewish Los Angeles mayors before Eric Garcetti touched off a flurry of exchanges among writers and scholars who study Southern California Jewry. Among the questions raised were whether Abel Stearns’ serving as alcalde (Spanish for mayor) of el Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1850 counts as being a mayor of a city and whether Bernard Cohn’s two-week service as acting mayor in late 1878 counts as having been elected mayor. Probably the most important, however, is whether Abel Stearns, whom I described as the first Jewish mayor of L.A., was in fact Jewish.

For the record, I was relying on a reference to Stearns’ Jewishness that I found in the records of the Historical Society of Southern California, here. Since the questions were raised I’ve done some digging and found reasons to doubt my first source, including files like this.

However, my friends and fellow journalists Tom Tugend and Rob Eshman (as well as L.A. Jewish Journal’s Jonah Lowenfeld whom I hope to count as a friend אי”ה) brought the matter to the attention of a serious student of early California Jewry who happens to be high-power attorney in the entertainment industry. He says the evidence is quite clear that Stearns was not Jewish, whatever the Historical Society says. This isn’t one of those who-is-a-Jew cases, like why do we include Ryan Braun or Gwyneth Paltrow, but simple mistaken identity. Not that it really matters. But if you guys are bringing in lawyers, I’m bowing out.

Here’s what the attorney had to say (I have his full identity, but since he’s a private citizen participating in what he thought was a private conversation, I’ll leave it out):

Read more


Garcetti Is Not L.A.'s 1st Jewish Mayor (Updated)

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons/Getty Images
Abel Stearns, Eric Garcetti: Los Angeles’ 1st and 3rd Jewish mayors

As they used to say at the old Yiddish Forward, hold the back page!

Not meaning to rain on anyone’s parade, I’m forced to point out that Eric Garcetti is not the first Jewish mayor of Los Angeles. In fact, he’s the third.

The first was Don Abel Stearns (1798-1871), Boston-born, a naturalized Mexican citizen who settled in Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1829. He served as Alcalde (mayor) of Los Angeles under U.S. rule from 1850 to 1851. He was the last chief executive of L.A. to hold title of Alcalde rather than mayor.

The second was Bernard Cohn (1835-1889) (acting mayor November 21-December 5, 1878). Prussian-born, he was an elected member of the Los Angeles Common Council (forerunner of the city council) and was chosen by the council to serve as acting mayor from November 21, 1878, following the death of Mayor Frederick A. MacDougal. He served two weeks. During that time he ran for mayor in his own right but lost to former mayor James R. Toberman. Toberman replaced Cohn on December 5, 1878.

Both were rather colorful figures. Stearns was a prominent California civic leader under both Mexican and U.S. rule, made the first recorded shipment of California gold to the U.S. Mint in 1842, became the largest landowner in California by 1860, lost everything in the drought of 1863-64 and made another fortune by the time of his death in 1871.

Cohn, who moved from Prussia to L.A. in 1857, is best remembered for making a $62,000 loan to the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, to help him pay off gambling debts. As collateral Cohn received a deed to all Pico’s property, which Pico, being illiterate in English, mistakenly thought was a mortgage. Pico died penniless.

This may or may not be the origin of the phrase, “If you want to get there fast, take Pico.”

Cohn was also famous for having two families, one Jewish, the other Catholic, at opposite ends of town.

Postscript: There seems to be some debate out there about whether Stearns was in fact mayor, and also about whether he was actually jewish. Here’s what i know:

Read more


Tornadoes and Climate Change: Links and Doubts

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Rescue worker and dog, Moore, Okla.

What do we know about the tornado that hit the Oklahoma City suburbs on Monday? And what can we learn from it? Specifically, how bad was it? How does it compare with other tornadoes? And was it related to climate change, as Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Barbara Boxer are charging?

For starters, the tornado had a top wind speed of about 200 m.p.h. It was classified EF4 (winds 207-260 mph — the highest category is EF5, with winds above 261 mph). It reached as wide as 2 miles and cut a path 17 to 20 miles long. Current reports (1:00 p.m. Tuesday) say at least 24 people were killed, including at least 9 schoolchildren, though the number is far from final. Earlier estimates had gone as high as 91.

By comparison, the “average tornado has maximum wind speeds of about 112 mph or less, measures around 250 feet in width and travels approximately one mile before falling apart,” according to LiveScience.com. These make up about 70% of all tornadoes. “Strong” tornadoes, about 29% of the total, average 205 mph, stretch about 200 yards wide and run up to 9 miles, according to WeatherExplained.com. These cause almost 30% of all tornado fatalities. About 2% of tornadoes are “violent” ones that account for 70% of all tornado fatalities. They average 26 miles long and 425 yards wide.

So what do you call a violent twister that’s 2 miles wide? Colloquially, they’re called “monsters.” They’re too rare to have a scientific name.

Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Mary Fallin called the Monday twister “probably the worst I’ve ever seen.” The Huffington Post’s Nick Wing reported that Moore had “experienced similar catastrophe in May of 1999” when an EF5 hit the state with winds above 200 mph and more than 40 people killed. However, “Fallin told CBS that the tornado that struck Monday was worse.” Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb told CNN it was like a “two-mile-wide lawnmower blade going over a community.”

As for the impact of global warming, that’s extremely unclear. Climate scientists regularly caution that climate change can’t be stated with certainty as the cause of any individual weather event, because so many factors are in play at any given moment. However, a decisive scientific consensus has emerged, particularly in the last two years, that over time climate change is responsible for a distinct rise in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. In other words, you can’t prove that any particular superstorm is the direct result of climate change, but you can demonstrate with some certainty that these events are becoming more frequent and more severe as the climate changes in ways that, individually, make the various causes of extreme weather more likely. Unfortunately for our present discussion, the hardest type of weather event to link with any certainty is the tornado, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Read more


How the Trinity Impacted Judaism — via Kabbalah

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
The 10 Sefirot or Emanations of the Divine in Kabbalah

If you don’t follow Philologos, the Forward’s inimitable language columnist, you’re missing one of the outstanding intellectual joys in contemporary Jewish life. I don’t say that idly. Week after week for 20-plus years, with an astonishing combination of erudition, curiosity and wit, he’s used readers’ inquiries into the origins of words and phrases to explore some lesser-known byways of history, culture, philosophy and sacred text. There’s nearly always a Jewish jumping off point, but oh, where he jumps to: Slavic, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese and any number of other civilizations. The bottom line is how interconnected we all are. When Ben Zoma said in Pirkei Avot (drawing on Psalm 119), “mikol melamdai hiskalti” (I have gained wisdom from all my teachers), he had to be thinking of Philologos.

It’s with great hesitation, then, that I take exception to a point he made in this week’s column. In the course of making a slightly different point, having to do with the Jewish origins of Christianity’s “Holy Spirit,” he casually states that “neither biblical nor rabbinic Judaism has anything like the Christian Trinity in its thinking about God.” Actually, rabbinic Judaism has something very much like the Trinity in its thinking about God. It’s called the Sefirot, the Kabbalah’s 10 Emanations or Manifestations of God’s presence. And no, it wasn’t a Jewish concept that found its way into Christianity. Aderaba (on the contrary), it’s a Christian idea that found its way into the heart of normative Judaism.

There’s a very respectable school of Jewish scholarship that sees the influence of the Trinity on Judaism in the Sefirot. I first learned about it in a graduate seminar with the late intellectual historian Amos Funkenstein. He taught that the Sefirot actually emerged in the early Middle Ages as a sort of Jewish retort to the Trinity, a case of rabbinic one-upsmanship: You got, what, three faces of God? Hey, we got 10. Badda-bing. I think Prof. Funkenstein had a more elegant way of phrasing it, if memory serves. But that was the idea.

Read more


Who's Touting a 1-State Plan? Fatah? Guess Again!

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons/Getty Images
Moshe Arens (left)

Fresh from her controversial April 3 paean to Palestinian stone-throwing, Haaretz’s Ramallah-based bad girl Amira Hass is making new waves with her Friday May 17 report about a group of “senior Fatah members” (the headline called them “senior officials”) who are calling for “the establishment of one democratic country in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.”

The group reportedly gathered May 15 in El Bireh, outside Ramallah, to sign a document, “the culmination of two years of discussion,” that was titled “the popular movement project for one democratic state in historic Palestine.” It’s sparked a furor on the Internet, been tweeted hundreds of times and been posted to Facebook upwards of 2,200 times as of Saturday night, which is about 100 times the pace of the other top stories in Haaretz on Friday. It’s been posted to dozens of blogs, ranging from right-wing Jewish blogs that see it as proof of malign Palestinian intentions to left-wing Jewish, Arab and non-sectarian blogs that see it as a hopeful new beginning.

From all the fuss, you wouldn’t know that the “group of senior Fatah members” in question was a grand total of 22 individuals, of whom the most prominent were a former deputy prisoner affairs director, a former local district governor and an Israeli, Uri Davis, who now lives in Ramallah and describes himself as a Muslim. What’s more, the statement was issued four days after the actual Central Committee of Fatah met in Ramallah to endorse the Arab League’s call for land swaps and border modifications in an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace agreement. An actual Fatah official told the Jerusalem Post after the committee meeting that the party maintains its “full commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the context of a two-state solution.”

Much more startling, though it’s gotten far less attention, was an endorsement of a single, binational state in Israel-Palestine with equal rights for Jews and Arabs published on May 12, the day before the Fatah Central Committee rejected the same idea, by—wait for it—Moshe Arens, the former three-time Israeli defense minister, former foreign minister (Bibi Netanyahu was his deputy minister) and certified grand old man of the Likud.

Read more


Alas, Poor GOP: 3 D.C. Scandals That Weren't

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Barack Obama

Besides throwing the Obama administration off its stride, the three scandals roiling Washington and the 24-hour cable news channels have one thing in common: They’re shrinking steadily as more information becomes available. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein ably deconstructs them in his Wonkblog: the IRS-Tea Party scandal involves a group of employees in the IRS Cincinnati office who “started giving tea party groups extra scrutiny, were told by agency leadership to knock it off, started doing it again, and then were reined in a second time and told that any further changes to the screening criteria needed to be approved at the highest levels of the agency.” (I’ll have more to say about this after the jump.)

The Benghazi events, “tragic as they were,” have turned out to be “a bureaucratic knife fight between the State Department and the CIA” in which White House involvement was close to zero. As for the Department of Justice-Associated Press affair, Ezra writes,

This is the weirdest of the three. There’s no evidence that the DoJ did anything illegal. Most people, in fact, think it was well within its rights to seize the phone records of Associated Press reporters. And if the Obama administration has been overzealous in prosecuting leakers, well, the GOP has been arguing that the White House hasn’t taken national security leaks seriously enough.

The key point that’s too often overlooked in the AP case is that the leak the Justice Department was trying to plug had compromised a double agent planted by British intelligence inside Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. My colleagues in the press are particularly worked up about this one — how it’s going to cripple the AP and all that — but this could be the foul-up that’s the most understandable. Blowing an agent’s cover is very serious stuff, and planting a mole inside Al Qaeda is a particularly delicate and dangerous business. Republicans are right to be alarmed about the sloppiness of the entire affair — after all, you wouldn’t see a Republican administration blowing the cover of a secret agent, would you? Oh — right. Never mind.

The scandal that has the strongest air of wrongdoing is the IRS scandal. That’s the one that’s got even liberals righteously huffing and puffing about the “use” of the agency for political purposes. That word “use” is key — it implies that the administration decided to do this. There hasn’t been a shred of evidence that this is the case. Just as important, it’s not clear that this was a political witch hunt or fishing expedition, even a low-level one.

Read more


Shavuot Reading: Hunger, Gleaning & Marx (Zeppo)

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Zeppo is like Shavuot: the one you don’t recognize. He’s the dude in front.

The festival of Shavuot has begun, which means it’s time to read the biblical Book of Ruth. It tells the story a non-Jewish woman who marries a Jewish man (no mention of rabbinic conversion, by the way), becomes a widow and ends up on welfare — or, as it was known in those days, gleaning the corners of a rich man’s field.

According to the Torah, as alert readers recall, it’s forbidden to harvest the corners of one’s field, which is to say, to extract every bit of profit from your enterprise, because a portion of it belongs to the poor. Put differently, redistributing your income to the poor is not recommended but commanded—not charity, but law. It’s not that taxes take a larger or smaller portion of your money—the money isn’t yours. The sustenance of the earth belongs to God, or whatever name you give to the universal oneness of the cosmos. No, you didn’t build that.

Well, in observance of the holiday, I’m linking two columns I’ve written in the past few years about Shavuot and gleaning. In this one, from Shavuot 2010, I observed that Shavuot is probably the least familiar of the major Jewish holidays to the average American Jew. In fact, you could say that it’s best known for the fact of being little-known. As such, I suggested, it might usefully be thought of as the Zeppo Marx of Jewish holidays.

In this one, from Sukkot (October) 2011, I described a wonderful concept proposed by a reader, Harriet Feinberg of Massachusetts. It builds on the principle of gleaning to develop a way for individuals and communities to combat poverty and unemployment. I don’t know of anyone who’s tried it yet, but I’d love to see someone try it.

If it’s not yet sundown, or if you’re using the computer on yomtov, you might want to check out these recent pieces you might have missed from the general press:

Read more


Funny: Jon Stewart on the IRS Tea Party Witch Hunt

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images

In case you missed it, last night Jon Stewart took on the IRS-Tea Party and Justice Department-spying-on-reporters scandals and, as they say, nailed it. In an inspired burst of hilarious, impassioned (and profanity-laden) outrage, he summed up exactly why the reports of a Nixonian-sounding IRS witch-hunt against right-wing and Tea Party groups are, beyond their offense against the law, the Constitution and good government, a betrayal of liberals and liberalism.

Congratulations, President Barack Obama. Conspiracy theorists who generally can survive in anaerobic environments have just had an algae bloom dropped on their f*@!ing heads, thus removing the last arrow in your pro-governance quiver: skepticism about their opponents. (4:10)

This has in one seismic moment shifted the burden of proof from the tin-foil behatted to the government. The VA claims backlog and the bounced-checks-foreclosure-cluster-f*@! had already given government competence fetishists fits. And now this. (5:04)

In a few short weeks you’ve managed to show that when the government wants to do good things, your competence falls somewhere between David Brent and a cat chasing a laser pointer, but when government wants to flex its more malevolent muscles, you’re f*@!ing Ironman! (5:35)

Watch:

Read more


Would you like to receive updates about new stories?






















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.