Scene from Gov. Christie’s morning staff meeting?
The pivotal moment from the classic 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” in which British prisoner-of-war officer Alec Guinness comes face to face with his obsessive and misguided attempt to build his legacy on a bridge. The parallel to the current moment isn’t entirely perfect, other than the narrow one of the man in the middle standing back, looking at the foolishness that brought him to ruin and asking the existential question: What have I done? It’s one of the great films of all times and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Guinness.
I don’t know what it is that puts so many of our political scandals at, near or over a body of water. But this new one, more than any I can think of, bears a structural resemblance to Watergate.
Narrowly speaking, “Worse Than Watergate” refers to a 2004 book by former Nixon aide John Dean that reviews the George W. Bush administration and its obsessions with secrecy. In a larger sense, the phrase has become a tool used in order to magnify the seeming importance of any putative political scandal by likening it to the one we look back to as granddaddy of them. The phrase seems to emerge most often from the mouths of those who are trying to make a big deal out of nothing, as in Benghazi or Whitewater.
Last May, Mother Jones ran a useful little chart comparing the major political scandals of the last century according to two main metrics: how serious they were as violations of the public trust, and how large they loom in the public memory. Where does ChristieBridge fit it?
Amid the torrent of ink spilled over the murder of Menachem Stark — some of it callous, some of it defensive, much of it self-righteous — one of the smartest pieces appeared Monday on the website of the Jewish Press, the Orthodox Brooklyn weekly.
Written by the paper’s online editor and columnist, the irreplaceable Yori Yanover, it managed to strike a very difficult balance between sensitivity toward the family’s grief and acknowledgment of the serious allegations against Stark, together with some serious and learned thoughts on sin and repentance.
Unfortunately, you can’t read it there. It was taken down for some reason, just hours after it went up. If you click on the link you get an error message. I’m guessing that probably speaks volumes about the mood in the Orthodox community right now.
Fortunately, I saved some of the text before it went down, thinking I would use some of it for a blog post and refer readers to the original. I didn’t save Yori’s detailed summary of Stark’s reputed misdeeds, but you can get it in the original Post article that Yori drew from, to hear what investigators knew and thought about the deceased.
Among many other things, the episode, and the news coverage, offers a reminder of the sharp difference between the bottom-feeding, destructive instincts of the Post’s editors (and of the larger Rupert Murdoch-News Corp.-Fox culture within which they dwell) and the serious, professional work of the reporters and journalists who fill the inside of that paper.
It should also be a wakeup call to those conservatives who like to get their news from Murdoch properties, print and broadcast alike, because they don’t like what the “liberal” media tell them about Israel. Before all else, the News Corp. culture is one of salacious, divisive, demagogic and race-baiting sensationalism. You know how it goes—they smeared blacks, but I didn’t protest because I’m not black. They smeared Muslims, but I didn’t … etc. Then they come around to you. It’s hurtful.
Anyhow, here’s what I salvaged of Yori’s article:
Death of a ‘Slumlord’ an Opportunity for Contemplation
God is the greatest educator, although His teachings don’t come with cliff notes.
It’s crucial that we meditate on the fate of Menachem Stark ZL in a manner that goes beyond the sensationalist treatment in the media (in this case the NY Post). Jewish tradition has something to say about everything, and about religious Jews meeting an unusual death it says plenty. God is the greatest educator, although His teachings don’t come with cliff notes.
For decades, one of the less appealing traditions of the New York City media has been the Village Voice’s New York’s Ten Worst Landlords. It was hard to read because of the sheer suffering and callousness these people spread wherever they went; and it was embarrassing to read because of the fact that so many of them were Jewish, and even religious Jews.
Israel’s peace-pact rejectionists, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin Netanyahu is looking more and more these days like he’s preparing to take on the pessimists and nay-sayers and prove them wrong.
For most of the past year the cynics have been insisting that neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas believes anything will come of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative — but that they’re both playing along with Kerry in hopes of avoiding be blamed when the whole thing collapses. It’s sort of like musical chairs — whoever ends up looking worse when the music stops will bear the brunt of very considerable European economic anger, and likely U.S. anger as well.
Lately, though, it looks like Bibi has given up trying and is now opting for Plan B: telling Europe, America and the rest of the world to go to hell. On a practical level, he seems to be doing everything he can to short-circuit the talks, blame or no blame. Most blatantly, he’s reported by aides to be planning an announcement of new housing construction in West Bank settlements, up to 2,000 units worth, in conjunction with this week’s Palestinian prisoner release. This despite Palestinian threats to walk and European threats to blame Israel and retaliate if that happens. Bibi spends a good deal of time and effort decrying those international moves to delegitimize Israel, which include some highly alarming European sanctions, but he shows little interest in blunting international delegitimization by nodding toward norms the rest of the world considers legitimate.
From the Palestinian viewpoint, the prisoner release was intended as a way for Israel to demonstrate a good faith commitment to mutual recognition — effectively acknowledging the other side’s fighters as combatants — but the new construction cancels it out by implying an unwillingness to end the occupation. Those close to Netanyahu say the new construction announcements accompanying each prisoner release — this week’s is the third since the peace talks began — are necessary to keep his right flank on board while he moves forward.
If construction were Bibi’s only negative signal, the sop-to-the-right argument might make sense. But it’s just one in a series. There is, to begin with, the fact that his two most senior ministers, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have both stated repeatedly, in the most public manner imaginable, that they believe the peace talks have no chance of success and that Abbas is the problem and is no partner for peace. One of the main Israeli criticisms of Abbas, ironically, is that he frequently and his aides regularly accuse the Netanyahu government of actions that sabotage peace.
Edgar Bronfman Sr. (left) shakes hands with Swiss consul general Alfred Defago following the completion of the Swiss banks agreement, 1997. In the middle is U.S. envoy Stuart Eizenstat. (Getty Images)
Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. died Saturday at age 84, the New York Times reported.
The Montreal-born Bronfman was chief executive until retiring in 1994 of the Seagram Company, the liquor distilling empire built by his late father Samuel Bronfman. He served for 28 years, 1979 to 2007, as president of the World Jewish Congress. In that capacity he came to be known as the preeminent diaspora Jewish statesman of the generation.
Edgar and his brother Charles gradually emerged after their father’s death in 1971 as among the most prodigious and creative philanthropists in the world Jewish community. Neither had previously been known as major participants in Jewish life, and their evolution in adulthood as Jewish communal leaders defied expectations of many Canadian Jewish observers, who had long predicted that the Bronfman fortune would be lost to Jewish causes after the death of “Mr. Sam.”
Edgar’s Jewish involvements included the creation of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, an intense, all-expenses-paid summer leadership program for 11th graders and leading a transformation and modernization of Hillel. Those who knew him well often pointed to his hosting of a weekly Shabbat morning service in his home. It became one of the most exclusive and sought-after Jewish prayer venues in New York.
Backing new sanctions: Senators John McCain, Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez (from June 2013) (Getty Images)
The Capitol Hill debate over authorizing new sanctions on Iran is getting pretty nasty. Administration officials are warning, anonymously so far, that passage of the Robert Menendez-Mark Kirk bill to stiffen the West’s negotiating terms and compel new sanctions will kill the diplomatic effort and make war more likely.
Ynet’s Yitzhak Ben-Horin reports that Joe Biden and John Kerry were on Capitol Hill warning that passage of the bill would be interpreted in Europe as a show of bad faith on Washington’s part and would shatter the existing sanctions regime that Obama managed to stitch together over the past five years.
The bill has been co-sponsored by a total of 26 senators, including 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans. Ten other senators came out against the bill Thursday night, writing in a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid that “new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.” These aren’t just any 10 Democrats, though—they’re all committee chairs (the Senate has 20 standing committees in all). They asked Reid in effect to help them block the bill, specifically requesting that they “be consulted prior to any proposed unanimous consent or other agreement” to move the sanctions forward. By being warned of unanimous consent, they can be sure to show up and oppose it, which kicks off the long, tedious process of normal Senate rules.
Among the bill’s 26 co-sponsors, three are Jewish: Chuck Schumer of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ben Cardin of Maryland. Of the 10 committee chairs opposing the bill, four are Jewish: Carl Levin (Michigan) of the Armed Services Committee, Ron Wyden (Oregon) of the Energy Committee and Californians Dianne Feinstein of Intelligence and Barbara Boxer of Environment.
Four other Jewish senators—Al Franken of Minnesota, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who chairs the Veterans Affairs committee) haven’t taken a position for or against the bill as of Thursday night.
Menendez is calling the warnings about his bill’s negative repercussions “fear-mongering” (as opposed to, say, warnings that the Geneva agreement is Munich 1938 all over again).
And the American Jewish Committee calls an anti-Menendez headline in the Huffington Post, “Saboteur Sen. Launching War Push,” “shameful” for implying that the “respected and experienced lawmaker, who has every right to express his viewpoints,” is “unpatriotic and advocating for reckless military action.” (By the way, sponsoring a Senate bill that will have a major impact on global security is not quite the same as merely “expressing a viewpoint.”)
The Simon Wiesenthal Center was more explicit. According to a report in The Algemeiner, Wiesenthal Associate Dean Abraham Cooper called the HuffPo headline “reminiscent of anti-Jewish tropes.” And, confusingly:
Ultra-Orthodox Holocaust survivors at Zeilsheim DP camp in Germany, preparing to settle at Hafetz Haim, the first Haredi kibbutz, circa 1947 (Yad Vashem)
On the eve of Hanukkah, while the eyes of the world were fixed on the impending demise of one human rights champion, Nelson Mandela, and the sudden, unexpected emergence of another, Pope Francis, one the last century’s lesser-known workers’ rights leaders quietly slipped away in a Jerusalem hospital: Rabbi Avraham Verdiger, the last Knesset representative of the erstwhile Haredi-progressive party Poalei Agudat Yisrael.
Verdiger was born in May 1921 to a prominent Ger Hasidic family in Lodz, Poland, and died on November 27 at age 92. In between he obtained rabbinic ordination at the Mir yeshiva, the Harvard of anti-Hasidic, Lithuanian-style academies; organized ultra-Orthodox refugee aid in postwar Paris; settled in Israel in 1947 and fought in Jewish state’s 1948 war of independence; studied political science in Jerusalem; worked to encourage ultra-Orthodox participation in the military and the workforce; and served the Poalei Agudat Yisrael party as general secretary, Knesset leader and deputy minister from 1951 until 1996, when the party was swept away, a victim of the growing extremism of Haredi politics.
Poalei Agudat Yisrael (“Agudath Israel Workers’ Party”) was formed in Lodz in 1922 to defend the rights of ultra-Orthodox textile and garment workers facing discrimination and harassment from Orthodox Jewish business owners. The party began organizing Orthodox workers in Palestine beginning in 1923. Starting in the the 1930s, under the leadership of Verdiger’s cousin Binyamin Mintz, it built its own network of agricultural communities, including the ultra-Orthodox kibbutzim Hafetz Haim and Shaalavim, to pursue farming according to biblical rules. Its trade union division became an autonomous unit within the Histadrut labor federation in the mid-1950s.
The party won seats in every Knesset election from 1948 to 1992, sometimes independently, sometimes in a joint bloc with the larger Agudat Yisrael party. Its electoral base was about half the size of Agudat Yisrael’s—that is, it represented about one-third of the Haredi voter base. The two factions, Agudat Yisrael and Poalei Agudat Yisrael, were bitterly divided over the decision by Poalei Agudat Yisrael in 1960 to join the Labor-led coalition under David Ben-Gurion and accept a Cabinet ministry for party leader Mintz, in defiance of Agudat Yisrael’s ruling Council of Torah Sages, which has since 1949 forbidden Haredi lawmakers under its control from sitting around the Cabinet table of the Zionist government. To this day the Haredi party’s leaders accept only deputy ministerships, which permit them to run ministries without voting in the Cabinet.
Einat Wilf and Ehud Barak announce defection from Labor Party, January 17, 2011 / Wikimedia Commons
A former Labor Party Knesset member, Einat Wilf, is complaining that she’s been dropped from the program of the third annual Conference of the Israeli Left, sponsored Peace Now, because of her pro-Israel views.
In a Facebook post announcing her exclusion, the result of a vote by the Peace Now leadership, Wilf protests “the inability of those who preach tolerance to hear a point of view that is not their own.”
She reports that she’s been blackballed because she’s on the International Advisory Council of an Israeli organization, NGO Monitor, that combats left-wing “delegitimization” of Israel. This apparently raised a red flag, so to speak, among her leftist hosts. And she warns:
If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country.
I know. It sounds awful. That is, unless you realize that the organization in question, NGO Monitor, devotes much of its energy and resources to attacking and seeking to defund many of the very organizations that will make up the Friday conference, including Peace Now itself.
President Obama and Haim Saban, Washington, D.C., December 7 / Getty Images
Tempers are wearing thin both in Washington and Jerusalem over continuing disagreements on the Iran nuclear talks and the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. And the situation wasn’t helped by last weekend’s Saban Forum in Washington. The three-day forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, featured talks by President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, all taking the opportunity to stick fingers in each others’ eyes.
Both Obama, who spoke Saturday afternoon (video, transcript), and Kerry, who spoke Saturday evening (video, transcript), strongly defended the agreement with Iran signed November 24. And both took digs at Netanyahu’s sharp criticisms of the agreement, Obama in a jesting, almost mocking tone, Kerry in sharper tones. Kerry went through the agreement point by point, occasionally raising his voice in anger as he noted concessions won from Iran that reflected what Netanyahu had been calling for.
Obama, by contrast, had a smile on his face through most of his 47-minute dialogue with forum backer Haim Saban. He drew frequent audience laughter, sometimes at Netanyahu’s expense, as when he referred to Netanyahu’s demand that Iran give up all enrichment capabilities. Reaching an agreement that sharply limited and monitored Iran’s enrichment capabilities is far preferable to not reaching an agreement and seeing Iran continue its progress toward a bomb, he said. In order to reach an agreement, he said, Iran would have to be:
Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the prime minister, that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation. And this takes me back to the point I made earlier. One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone. I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful.
And both American leaders argued strongly for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that meets Palestinian as well as Israel needs. At the same time, they indicated clearly that the agreement would be in stages, with full Palestinian statehood coming only at the end, after Israeli security concerns have been satisfied. Palestinians have rejected a staged settlement up to now.
Nelson Mandela with wife Winnie Mandela and Jewish comrade-in-arms Joe Slovo, May 1990 / Getty Images
When I heard on Thursday afternoon about the death of Nelson Mandela at age 95, my mind was a jumble of complicated thoughts. I thought about the day I first learned about the South African freedom struggle, in the summer of 1960. I thought about my first sight of Mandela, when he visited New York in June 1990. I thought about another hero who died just a few days ago on a Negev kibbutz. It was all a single thought, a flash of images, there and gone in an instant. It took me hours to sort it all out. It’s beginning to make sense.
First of all, there’s Yehuda Paz. Founder and chairman of a Negev institute for Bedouin rights, he died November 28 at his home on Kibbutz Kissufim, at age 83. He’s probably best remembered, though, for the decades he served as director of the Afro-Asian Institute of the Histadrut. It was once world-renowned as a training school for trade unionists, anti-colonialists and anti-apartheid activists from throughout the Third World, beginning long before the Israeli government allied itself with the apartheid regime and continuing long after.
To be honest, I didn’t know Yehuda well, though several of my closest friends worked with him at the Negev institute and revered him. But I have very vivid memories of his Afro-Asian Institute. In fact, I remember the day I first learned about it. It was in August 1960, my first summer at Camp Habonim, the Labor Zionist summer camp (later renamed Camp Na’aleh). I was 10. I was sitting with my kvutza, my bunkmates, on a grassy hill under a big tree having Sicha, our daily lesson about Zionism, Jewish history and social justice.
The topic that day was freedom fighters. We learned about the one-armed Zionist hero Yosef Trumpeldor, and about the Haganah and Palmach and Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin (yes, even then). And we learned about South Africa, where Jews and blacks were fighting together for freedom in something called the African National Congress. Ever since, I haven’t been able to think about the ANC without thinking of Trumpeldor.
Over the next few days we learned more: about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the illegal immigration boats of Aliya Bet. About the Sharpeville Massacre, which had happened just a few months earlier in South Africa and which taught us, we were told, that even today you have to be brave and fight for what’s right, as Trumpeldor did.
And we learned about the Afro-Asian Institute, founded that winter in Tel Aviv. Which sounds dull when retold, granted, but was rather thrilling at the time—one of our counselors had been at the Histadrut convention that voted to create it, had met African activists there and was full of stories about the freedom struggle. Over the next few days we learned about the anti-colonial movement. We learned about Ghana, the first African colony to win independence. Just before Shabbat, during Shirah, the daily song-learning time before lunch, the whole camp learned the Ghanaian national anthem. (I can still sing it.)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and the man who could replace them / Getty Images
With midterm elections 11 months away and control of the Senate a toss-up, pressure is mounting on the two oldest liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 80, and Stephen Breyer, 75, to retire and let President Obama name their successors.
You can tell the pressure is on because Ginsburg, at 80 the oldest justice and a two-time cancer survivor, keeps giving interviews and saying she’s not going anywhere. Supreme Court justices don’t usually speak to the press. In the last few months Ginsburg has spoken to Reuters on July 2, the Associated Press on July 26, the New York Times on August 25 and to the Washington Post magazine during a leisurely visit at her New Mexico vacation home in late September, for a lengthy profile published October 4. And the answer was the same every time: Nuh-uh. No way. As they say in her native Brooklyn, fuggedabout it.
“My answer is, as long as I can do the job full steam, I will,” she told AP’s Mark Sherman in July. “At my age, you can’t say, you have to go year by year.”
A month later, the Times’ Adam Liptak asked her whether she worried that a Republican president might name her successor and tip the court sharply to the right. Her reply: “There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.”
“I love my job,” she added. “I thought last year I did as well as in past terms.”
She was pressed harder during her long conversation in September with the Washington Post’s Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes. Here’s what he wrote:
Ginsburg understands politics but does not feel she faces a deadline to leave so that Obama, whom she admires, can choose her successor.
“I think it’s going to be another Democratic president” after Obama, Ginsburg said. “The Democrats do fine in presidential elections; their problem is they can’t get out the vote in the midterm elections
Things are getting hot, though. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, who writes a widely read blog on politics at the Washington Post, published a much-discussed article in Salon.com last March that was bluntly titled “Ruth Bader Ginsburg must go.”
Sebastiano Conca: ‘Alexander the Great in the Temple of Jerusalem’ (1737) / Wikimedia Commons
What follows is a Forward editorial in celebration of Hanukkah from back in December 2004, when I was editor. I was rather proud of it then, and I think the message holds up pretty well. Down at the bottom is an extra treat: a cover version of “The Many and the Few,” Woody Guthrie’s epic retelling of the Hanukkah story, ending with the words “Thank God we’re the seed of the Jews.” Don’t miss it.
Hanukkah, Forever New
December 10, 2004
In trying, as we do every year on this page, to understand Hanukkah’s magical hold on the American Jewish imagination, it’s worth examining the holiday’s marvelous malleability, its Zelig-like capacity for embodying the very values that each generation needs it to uphold.
Yes, drowning out Bing Crosby is part of the holiday’s appeal, but only part. There is so much more to celebrate: national independence, religious freedom, rebellion against tyranny and — fast gaining in popularity — the battle of piety against assimilation. But which to teach first?
It wasn’t always so complicated. When the festival was first proclaimed by the victorious Maccabee warriors in the year 165 before the current era, it was a straightforward celebration of a military victory over a foreign occupier, a sort of early-model ticker-tape parade. That was coupled, of course, with a religious message: the rededication of the ruined Temple in Jerusalem, marking the restoration of the Jews’ freedom to practice their religion after a decade of Syrian-Greek oppression under the mad king Antiochus IV. In a combined display of triumphalism and pragmatism, the victors extended the festivities for eight days in order, so the contemporary narratives say, to make up for the eight-day Temple pilgrimage of Sukkot that should have been held two months earlier but was canceled that year by the war.
By the time the rabbinic oral law was codified in the Talmud 500 years later, Hanukkah had become something else. Having again lost their sovereignty, and plainly fearing that their new masters might take a celebration of guerrilla warfare the wrong way, the rabbis recast Hanukkah as a pacific festival of light-giving spirituality. They even discovered a miracle that the Maccabees’ contemporary accounts somehow hadn’t noticed: that little jar of oil that lasted eight days. Thus they prudently emphasized that God, not man, is the author of historical upheavals.
During the long night of oppression in medieval Christian Europe, Hanukkah effectively went underground. With no freedom to celebrate, Judah Maccabee became a children’s myth. The message of liberation was transcribed in code onto the dreidel, a gambling toy that subversively mocked the pious Christmas season all around.
In modern times, Jews living in freedom in Israel and America have managed, almost miraculously, to recapture much of Hanukkah’s original spirit. For Israelis, it celebrates the Maccabees’ military victory over foreign occupation. For Americans, it celebrates the eternal battle for freedom of conscience. As we do so often, each of our two great Jewish communities manages to capture the very half of the tradition that the other one misses.
It’s tough picking out the best, the most representative and my own favorites, so I went with my favorites and then narrowed it down. If you want a few more, try this selection from Haaretz or, if you don’t need translation, just check out YouTube (though if you don’t need translation there’s a pretty good chance you know the stuff anyway). Anyhow, here are my top eight:
Ani ve-Ata (You and I will change the world)
Words: Arik Einstein / Music: Miki Gavrielov
You and I will change the world / You and I, and then they’ll all follow / They’ve said it before, but that doesn’t matter / You and I will change the world.
You and I will try from the beginning / We’ll have it rough / But that doesn’t matter. It’s not so bad / Others have said it before, but that doesn’t matter / You and I will change the world.
x x x x x
Yachol Lihiyot Shezeh Nigmar (It could be it’s all over)
Yehonatan Gefen / Shem Tov Levy
They say things were happy here before I was born / And everything was wonderful until I arrived / A Hebrew watchman on a white horse in darkest night / On the shores of Lake Kinneret, Trumpeldor was a hero.
Little Tel-Aviv, red sands, one Bialik / Two sycamores, / Beautiful people / Full of dreams.
We came to the Land / To build and to be built, / Because this land is for us, for us, for us.
Here, where you see the grass, / It used to be only mosquitoes and swamps. / Once, they say, there was a wonderful dream here / But when I came to look, I didn’t find a thing.
It could be that it’s all over / It could be that it’s all over.
They say things were happy here before I was born / And everything was marvelous until I arrived / Palmach, campfire, black coffee and stars / The English, the underground and ‘The Palmach Pack of Tall Tales’ / A mustache and wild curls, a kafiyah ’round the neck, The Tales of Yaron Zahavi / (Natan) Alterman, The Adventures of Tamar, beautiful girls and short pants,
They had a reason to get up in the morning / Because this land is for us, for us, for us.
Here, where you see the grass, / It used to be only mosquitoes and swamps. / Once, they say, there was a wonderful dream here / But when I came to look, I didn’t find a thing.
It could be that it’s all over / It could be that it’s all over.
That bombshell Associated Press report on Sunday about the months of secret U.S.-Iranian talks that led up to the Geneva agreement has added whole new layers of mystery and intrigue, not to mention venom, to the news of the nuclear agreement itself.
What’s fascinating is how much isn’t being said. The story was first broken not by the AP but by Israeli investigative reporter Raviv Drucker in a Channel 10 TV News report on November 17, seven days before the AP story. According to Drucker, the secret talks began not in March 2013, as most outlets are reporting, but more than a year ago. And the American side was led not by relatively obscure mid-level officials but by President Obama’s close friend and top adviser Valerie Jarrett.
The White House at first flatly dismissed the entire report as “absolutely 100% false.” Then on November 24, hours after the Saturday night Geneva deal signing, it gave its version to the AP, which said it had caught wind of the talks in March but didn’t report them because it couldn’t confirm. The official version, the one now making the rounds, says Kerry was at the center of the process, which was led by his deputy William Burns and vice-presidential national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The talks took place mainly in Muscat, the capital of the Gulf emirate of Oman, and were brokered by Oman’s chief, Sultan Qaboos.
Drucker replied Sunday evening with a report stating that the White House was intensely eager to keep the full story secret because Obama wants to keep the secret channel open for further negotiations. Channel 10’s respected foreign news editor Nadav Eyal, in an in-studio commentary following Drucker’s report, said Obama is aiming for a wide-ranging agreement, involving America, Iran, Russia and “perhaps Saudi Arabia,” that would address regional issues like Syria.
We’ve noted before that the assessments of Israel’s security needs we hear from Israel’s elected leadership, starting with the prime minister, are not always identical — to put in mildly — to the assessments the leadership gets from its own intelligence and security professionals. On the surface, that dissonance appears to be recurring in spades today as Israeli leaders react to the interim Iranian nuclear agreement signed last night in Geneva. But things this time aren’t entirely what they seem.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling the deal a “historic mistake” and promises that Israel “won’t be bound by it.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says the result of the deal is that the regional nuclear arms race has now begun.
By contrast, the word from the intelligence community, both publicly and in private conversations, is that the deal is “a pretty good one as far as it goes,” as several sources told me independently. This isn’t an agreement over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, and doesn’t pretend to be. Rather, it’s an agreement to begin negotiating in earnest over the program, with (mostly) verifiable guarantees that Iran won’t use the interim period to continue galloping toward a bomb.
This is something Tehran has never agreed to before, and it comes at a manageable cost—minor, easily reversible measures relaxing the economic sanctions. The real test, therefore, is what comes out of those negotiations.
One key question Israel’s security establishment is asking itself right now is how wisely Netanyahu is behaving as he protests the agreement.
To understand why Shelly Yachimovich was booted out as head of the Israel Labor Party after just two years on the job, it helps to note that Labor has had a bad habit, ever since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, of changing leaders every time it holds a primary.
But this time was different. Previous primaries were held after a general election, and leaders were dumped because they’d lost. Yachimovich, by contrast, did fairly well in the 2013 Knesset elections. She nearly doubled the party’s Knesset share, from eight seats to 15. What she lost was the trust — indeed, the patience — of her colleagues and the party membership. This time it wasn’t about Labor, but about Yachimovich. Virtually every senior figure in the party complained bitterly of her high-handedness, her inability to work in a team, her refusal to share decision-making. The poison finally filtered down to the rank and file.
Labor’s new leader, Isaac “Buzhi” Herzog, steps into an unusual situation. He’s well liked by his colleagues and popular among the members in the party branches. He was effective as a government minister, particularly in his 2007-11 stint heading welfare and social services. As the son of ex-president Chaim Herzog, grandson of longtime chief rabbi (and namesake) Yitzhak Herzog and nephew of Abba Eban, he has a Kennedy-like aura of aristocracy, something like what Likud “princes” Bibi Netanyahu, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert all had. Unlike Likud, Labor has never chosen a “prince” before.
And, in stark contrast to Yachimovich, those who know Buzhi agree that he’s a genuinely nice guy, a rarity in Israeli politics. The question is whether he has it in him to capture the public’s trust as the leader of the troubled, threatened nation.
The United Nations marked today, November 19, as the first-ever World Toilet Day. The event was organized by the government of Singapore.
It is a subject that quickly invites jokes, as near every news report on the event has seen fit to emphasize. The New Zealand ambassador, who is speaking right now on U.N. TV as I write, told colleagues that her government insisted the topic should not be “wiped away” or “papered over.”
But it’s very serious. As PBS notes,
Of the world’s 7 billion people, about 6 billion have mobile phones, but only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines, according to the United Nations. That leaves about 2.5 billion people without basic sanitation, making them vulnerable to disease.
The event comes at the initiative of the World Toilet Organization, founded in England in 2009. Its main sponsors are the consumer products giant Unilever (Dove, Lux, Vaseline, Lifebuoy, Ben & Jerry’s), the global NGO WaterAid and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Their newly produced background report on the crisis of global sanitation, “We Can’t Wait,” places particular emphasis on the impact on women’s and girls’ safety and health during menstruation, childbirth and when lacking privacy for basic hygiene activities.
Here are some key facts from the U.N. about worldwide lack of sanitation and clean water, as reported by CNN:
The good people at Pew Research have come up with a brief, fascinating addendum to their recent survey of Jewish Americans, aiming to clear up some of the furor the survey touched off over the closely related questions of intermarriage, religious identity and overall Jewish population numbers.
Some quick background, in case you just got back from Mars and missed it: Pew released a survey on October 1 titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” It’s the first comprehensive look at Jewish population and behavior in more than a decade, and was launched at the initiative of Forward editor Jane Eisner. Its most noticed findings: First, 22% of American Jews say they have no religion—that is, they’re Jewish by culture or ancestry.
Second, the current intermarriage rate (the percentage of Jews currently entering wedlock who marry non-Jews) is 58%. Among non-Orthodox Jews it’s 71%. These numbers have touched off a veritable Johnstown Flood of doomsday predictions of the impending disappearance of American Jews, or at least of the non-Orthodox variety. (See here, here, here, here and here, for example.)
Now comes Pew’s update. Digging deeper into their survey’s computerized statistics, Pew religious life researchers Greg Smith and Alan Cooperman say that intermarriage is resulting in two different, essentially contradictory trends. On one hand, children of intermarriage are much less likely than people with two Jewish parents to identify with the Jewish religion. On the other hand, there’s been a dramatic increase in recent decades in the tendency of children of intermarriage to consider themselves Jewish—non-religious, but Jewish by identity—in adulthood. As Pew puts it,
the survey shows that the offspring of intermarriages — Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent — are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America.
Yet the survey also suggests that a rising percentage of the children of intermarriages are Jewish in adulthood. Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59% are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.
The update seems to have been motivated at least in part by annoyance and pique at the reactions their survey stirred up. Cooperman and Smith are among the most respected researchers of religious behavior in America today, but they don’t spend a lot of time arguing over Kiddush on Saturday mornings about the fate of the Jews.
Nobody warned them when they took on the project that they were walking into a s—storm. “American Jews have been debating the impact of intermarriage for decades,” they begin. So give us a break —
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed some 1,500 leaders of the top North American Jewish philanthropies to Jerusalem for their annual assembly with an angry denunciation of the Iranian nuclear negotiations that their government is leading in Geneva.
In a rambling, repetitive, hour-long speech that was by turns impassioned, sarcastic and bitter, Netanyahu attacked the deal that he said had been reached between Iran and the six Western powers that are negotiating over Iran’s nuclear program. He said the international community had imposed crippling sanctions on Iran in order to force an end to its uranium enrichment, a surrender of its enriched nuclear material and dismantling its centrifuges, but “now there is a deal” that eases the sanctions in return for virtually no Iranian concessions.
“Iran does not give up anything,” he said. “None of the demands that the Security Council adopted are met.”
The Sunday evening speech came a day after the negotiators in Geneva announced that no deal had been reached and the talks had been suspended after coming to an impasse. It was Netanyahu’s third major appearance of the day in which he denounced the nuclear negotiations, though in his earlier appearances—an interview on CBS News “Face the Nation” and remarks at his weekly Cabinet meeting—he acknowledged more clearly that a deal had in fact not been reached.
He has been denouncing the direction of the Geneva negotiations in extreme terms several times a day for the better part of a week. The campaign began just in time to greet Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit, his sixth visit to the region since taking office, to push Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward. The Kerry visit came at a moment of crisis, as the secretary of state appeared to have been caught by surprise by Netanyahu’s hardline stance on the Palestinian issue when the two met in Rome in mid-October. Kerry came to Israel last week prepared to push hard for new flexibility. Netanyahu’s pushback on both issues, Iran and Palestine, is said to be causing severe strain in relations between the two countries.
Netanyahu repeatedly described the Iran deal in present-tense terms, though it had collapsed very publicly just the day before. His speech was framed to give the effect of depicting the allies’ proposal as a done deal and exaggerating its imbalance, saying Iran was giving away “nothing” when in fact it is called on to destroy its most highly fissile material, stop certain enrichment and idle its fastest centrifuges. His evident intention was to get Jewish activists to put pressure on Washington to harden its terms in advance of renewed talks later in the month.
Washington’s challenge, by contrast, is to pursue a strategy that can maximize pressure on Iran while minimizing the odds that the extraordinary coalition President Obama has carefully assembled, which includes China and Russia along with the traditional Western European allies, will collapse.
Faced with front-page news reports that countered his exaggerated message, Netanyahu implied that he was giving inside information: “What is being offered now—and I am being constantly updated in detail—is a deal in which Iran retains all of that capacity” (to prepare bomb-making materials).
Those who read my Friday blog post about the Israel-Diaspora deliberations going on in Jerusalem this week might have noticed that I mentioned a paradox in the way the discussions are going, but I never detailed the substance of the paradox. The sun was setting over the Mediterranean before I had a chance to finish my thought. So let’s try it again.
There are two main topics on minds of delegates attending the governing council meetings of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Federations of North America. One is Jewish religious pluralism in Israel—the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate over Jewish religious life and the limits and hurdles placed before non-Orthodox denominations. The other is the Pew survey of Jewish Americans released October 1, with its stark intimations of a steady dilution in the strength of non-Orthodox Judaism. News summary], full survey report.
The first, religious pluralism, tops the agenda of Reform, Conservative and other liberal delegates to the various meetings. They make up a majority of the American delegations at all the major gatherings. True, Americans aren’t a majority at these events; Americans make up about 40% of world Jewry, Israelis another 40% and the rest of the world about 20%, and the non-Orthodox denominations are weak outside America. But the liberal denominations have formed an alliance with the left-wing Zionist delegations from Labor and Meretz, partly to counter the longstanding alliance between Likud and Orthodox. The result is that the liberals dominate wherever you look.
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.