Tag Archives: Politics

Jewish Senators Oppose “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

By Steven Philp

Despite significant party shifts within the United States legislature, repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy may be addressed by the Senate as soon as mid-December. In a press conference held on Thursday, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) explained that repeal of the policy – included in the National Defense Authorization Act – is no longer contingent on gathering enough votes, but in finding time for full and open debate. According to The Advocate, Sen. Lieberman told reporters, “I am confident that we have more than 60 votes prepared to take up the defense authorization with the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ if only there will be a guarantee of a fair and open amendment process, in other words, whether we’ll take enough time to do it.” He was joined by twelve other senators, including fellow Jewish politicians Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Al Franken (D-MN).

It is striking that half of the senators present at the press conference were Jewish.  Indeed, Jewish senators have been at the forefront of fighting DADT from early on.  Both Feinstein and Boxer were present in the Senate when “don’t ask, don’t tell” came to the floor in 1993, with the latter sponsoring the “Boxer amendment” to remove the policy from the parent Defense Authorization bill. Both voted against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At the press conference, Boxer touched on her long-standing support for the LGBT community, saying that the vote for repeal is “a no-brainer.” Wyden has more recently added his voice to the debate. In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he asked that the National Defense Authorization Act come to the floor with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” included. “This law has resulted in a waste of military talent and resources,” Wyden explained. “It is time for the Senate to repeal it.” Cardin expressed his support for repeal early in the year, releasing a statement on his Web site explaining that the policy “runs contrary to the core American belief of equality.” Franken has been a vocal opponent of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” famously coming close to tears on the Senate floor after Republicans filibustered an initial attempt at repeal of the policy in September.

But can the movement to repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” count on support from every Jew in the Senate?  Jewish senators absent from the press conference include Carl Levin (D-MI), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Levin, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been an important ally in the fight to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In a opinion piece authored February, Levin criticized the policy stating, “I did not find the arguments used to justify ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ convincing when it took effect in 1993, and they are less so now.” Lautenberg has also come out against the policy, tweeting his support for repeal after being targeted by pop singer Lady Gaga in September. With Lautenberg, Kohl voted for the initial repeal that failed to pass that same month. Schumer was an early supporter for repeal; at the Empire State Pride Agenda in October 2009 he expressed his desire to be one of the first co-sponsors for an amendment overturning DADT. Like his colleagues from California, Sanders also voted against “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it was originally proposed in 1993. On his Web site he expresses his support for LGBT service people stating, “As a nation, we owe those who desire to dedicate their lives to service an equal chance to do so.” Bennet also went to the Internet to express his support for repeal, uploading a Youtube response to two students from the University of Colorado who had posted a video urging their senator to come out against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Blumenthal has been less vocal about his opinion on the policy, prompting a student at George Washington University to solicit a position from the former Attorney General when he was running for Senate this past November. The student related his conversation with Blumenthal on his blog, conveying the senator’s opposition to “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Considering the divisiveness of issues concerning the LGBT community, it’s remarkable that the Jewish presence in the Senate is not only unanimously opposed to “don’t ask, don’t tell” but includes many of the most vocal advocates for repeal of the policy. Reading the arguments presented by each senator, there is a strong appeal to tzedek, or justice. Not only does “don’t ask, don’t tell” come with significant costs to the military budget and personnel, it prevents the realization of justice within the body that was designed to protect that very American – and Jewish – value (see Moment‘s column on Israel’s example on DADT). This support is not insignificant for their LGBT constituents; unlike the House, there has never been an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender member of the Senate. Although “don’t ask, don’t tell’s” repeal remains uncertain for this congress, it is comforting to know that Jewish senators will continue to fight for what’s right.

The Narrow Line Between Expression and Insult

By Merav Levkowitz

A number of Israeli artists have signed a letter proposing to boycott a cultural center set to open shortly in Ariel, a Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line. The boycott has sparked much controversy among the artist community and in Knesset. Some Knesset members have expressed disappointment with these Israeli artists who have received government funding and have used their public platform to criticize and, in some cases, de-legitimize Israel. Members like Yariv Levin and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat have recommended that restrictions be extended to government-funded artists and cultural institutions.

This tense situation brings forth a variety of important issues. On one hand, the outrage of some Knesset members towards these government-funded artists makes perfect sense. A venture capitalist who supports a fledging start-up would not be pleased to find the start-up defaming him publicly. Likewise, Israeli taxpayers have a right to express concern about where their funding goes and to disapprove supporting bodies that criticize or even threaten them. Ironically, the residents of Ariel themselves pay the taxes that support many of the artists boycotting their cultural center and the settlement itself. As Knesset member Otniel Schneller stated, “The artists’ apartheid letter, which boycotts Israeli citizens, not only does not promote national willingness to achieve peace, but also pushes it away.  Ariel, as a settlement bloc, will be included in any peace agreement within the borders of the state. Every big party leader must stress to artists who receive the Israel Prize [a government-awarded prize for excellence in four different fields] where the peaceful borders of the State of Israel are to pass.”

On the other hand, the fact that government-funded artists are free to do as they please with their sponsorship is a sign that Israel remains a vibrant democracy. Diverse opinions among citizens and the freedom to express them distinguish Israel from many of her neighbors. Tighter restrictions on artists and cultural institutions could challenge some of this openness. Furthermore, such constraints risk narrowing Israel’s vibrant public art scene. While denying artists funding does not stop them from creating art in protest of the country—and may even encourage them to further do so—it can impede them.  In so doing, it limits the creative face Israel shows to the world, exposing only a small part of its diverse mosaic, its beliefs and expressions.

This controversy is not limited to the world of art, but rather can be extended to any government-sponsored public figures and images. It seems reasonable for sponsors to demand certain criteria of those they support, but it is difficult to know where to draw the line on such criteria.   Politically motivated restrictions risk stifling art and even the democratic freedom Israel prides itself on.

Israel’s McCarthy?

By Gabriel Weinstein

When Avigdor Lieberman arrived in Israel from Moldova and began working as an airport porter he probably never imagined he would become Minister of Foreign Affairs and one of the world’s most reviled political figures. Since taking the post, Lieberman has staunchly advocated for a Loyalty Oath, which would require non-Jewish Israelis to declare their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state on penalty of having their citizenship revoked, told the U.N. that Palestinian peace talks could take decades and insisted that Israel will not accept “any additional [settlement building] freeze – not for three months, not for a month, and not for a day.” Lieberman is part of a greater international trend, particularly in Europe, of far right politicians vaulting into the political limelight on ultra nationalist, anti-Muslim rhetorical platforms.  In an American context, Lieberman’s strategies, rhetoric and ideology evoke memories of past demagogues such as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. But the most apt comparison is with Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthy and Lieberman both burst onto the political scene by questioning the loyalty of citizens.  McCarthy’s crusade against communism began in a famous address on February 9, 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he spoke of the “swiftness of the tempo of Communist victories and American defeats in the cold war” and portrayed Russia as a looming and menacing enemy.  McCarthy told his audience that America’s greatest threat was not Soviet communists but American sympathizers. He warned his audience that “When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be because of enemies from without but rather because of enemies from within.”

Like McCarthy, Lieberman has directed inflammatory rhetoric and abrasive tactics toward an isolated and ostracized minority–Israel’s Arab community. During the 2009 Knesset election campaign, Lieberman quipped he “understood Arabic” in campaign ads, suggesting that his tough stance was the only way to make progress with Arab leaders.  He crafted his election campaign around promoting the loyalty oath, the first step of which has already taken form in a bill that would require new Israeli citizens to make the pledge.  Baruch College Political Science Professor Dov Waxman explained in The Forward that the loyalty oath’s definition of Israel as a Jewish state “is controversial because many Arab citizens of Israel believe that as long as Israel defines itself in this manner, they are doomed to remain effectively second-class citizens.” The loyalty oath has caused furor throughout the Israeli and Jewish world. On October 20th over 1,500 Israelis marched in Jerusalem protesting the measure. Knesset Opposition leaer Tzipi Livni has voiced her displeasure stating the bill does not strengthen Israel “as a Jewish state with equality for all.”

Last week Lieberman emulated McCarthy’s suspicion of his fellow countrymen when he condemned Israeli actors who signed a petition pledging to not perform at a new cultural center in the West Bank settlement Ariel. Lieberman vowed that he would attempt to stifle future government funding for the actors.

As their tactics gained them national and international recognition, McCarthy and Lieberman both sparred with their nation’s chief executives. President Dwight Eisenhower became infuriated with McCarthy because of his allegations of communist activity in the army. McCarthy’s congressional cronies shared Eisenhower’s sentiments and issued a censure motion for his conduct. Benyamin Netanyahu has reduced Lieberman’s diplomatic role in peace talks over the past few months as Netanyahu tries to rekindle serious discussions with the Palestinians. Lieberman seethed when Trade Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was dispatched in his stead on a diplomatic mission to Turkey in the wake of the Gaza Flotilla incident. He is also critical of Netanyahu’s attempt at renewing the Palestinian peace talks. A former Lieberman peer said in an October New York Times article that a major factor in the rift between the two was that Netanyahu’s attempts at peace undermined Lieberman’s goal of demonstrating that peace with the Palestinians is unattainable.

As the peace talks and settlement issue develop, Lieberman’s political clout may wane. Perhaps Lieberman’s antics, like McCarthy’s, will become too grating on his political peers and promote public opposition. Netanyahu’s renewed enthusiasm for Palestinian peace talks, expressed during his discussion with Hilary Clinton yesterday, coupled with the international community’s growing frustration with Lieberman suggest, that Lieberman might be heading in the direction of his polarizing predecessor.

The Limits of Political Protest

By Doni Kandel

In 21st century American culture, political correctness has become a mainstay of the national discourse.  While the idea of political correctness is honorable, the practical implications of its virtue are tainted by political interests and subjectivity.   While the battle over what is considered politically correct continues to be waged, one specific usage of terminology should be established as strictly taboo. This is the blatant and unconscionable usage of Nazi and Hitler comparisons. While this phenomenon is prevalent in many societies, Israel included, there has been a dramatic and troubling rise in its usage in the modern American political dialogue.

While the 1st amendment protects the free speech of all people, and taking issue with what every single citizen says in the privacy of their own homes is futile, the alarming rise in Nazi and Hitler desensitization on a national political level should not be tolerated and must be combated.

The constant linking of political parties, movements, and policies to Nazi practices is an insult to every soul tortured and slaughtered in the camps. There is no comparison to the heinous actions of the Hitler regime, yet it is shamelessly used to get a rise out of people whenever the political climate darkens. It is egregious for anyone to compare President Obama’s healthcare bill to Nazi policy in a political forum, as it was by a woman who attended a townhall meeting with Barney Frank, who discredited the rhetoric with aplomb). This woman, and others like her, must be reminded that her unfortunate word choice may hold water at a Klan meeting, but certainly not a townhall meeting. Similarly, while one may vehemently oppose the policies of a particular Israeli government, in no rational reality does Zionism equal Nazism. This is exactly the type of unsubstantial delegitimization Israel’s enemies have attempted to achieve in the international community, with worrisome results.

More disconcerting than a pedestrian Obama objector or a pro-Palestinian protestor playing the Nazi match game is the utilization of this tactic by American academia. Noam Chomsky, lauded hero of the American Left and a Jew himself, dared to compare the right-wing media in America to Nazi Germany. Chomsky has a responsibility as a public figure whose opinions shape countless others, to be far more judicious with his words. Using such appalling rhetoric to emphasize a point is wrong no matter how passionately he may believe in his argument. He effectively transforms himself from well respected intellectual to a radical nut who seeks to equate Nazism with any person or group they might disagree with.

Avid internet forum debaters may be familiar with the term Godwin’s Law. Godwin’s Law is an internet decree that states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1,” and when this occurs, “the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically ‘lost’ whatever debate was in progress.” The American political lexicon needs to adopt Godwin’s Law. It must be regularly recognized that the use of Hitler and Nazi terms in relation to anything else is an inexcusable method of debate. While there is a social stigma in regard to the usage of Nazi lingo, it needs to be acted upon. A ban on this type of language, while effective (as Germany itself has demonstrated), would violate the Constitution.  However, the most effective way to stand up to a politician or pundit is with a checkbook and at the polls. Public figures who irresponsibly engage in Nazi and Hitler comparisons, or even abstain from denouncing them, must be shown that their constituency will not stand for it. Letter must be written, funds must be withheld, and votes must be cast elsewhere.

My Grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, had made a habit of going to sleep with the radio on full blast, always listening with one ear for the news of an approaching tragedy. Sleeping just one floor above her, I was blessed to instead fall asleep to the sounds of a sitcom on my television and a smile of ignorance on my face. In today’s world we are lucky enough to not have to know anything close to the misery our ancestors suffered at the hands of the Third Reich. The difference between my grandmother’s bed-time habits and my own illustrate the absurdity of comparing today’s political situations to the Holocaust.

At Sanity Rally, Sense Through Satire

By Symi Rom-Rymer

In the weeks leading up to last Saturday’s Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, the media world was practically falling over itself trying to analyze, explain, and dissect the event before it even happened.  Pundits were asking each other, what it will it mean for the midterm elections, what did it mean about the state of centrist politics, is Jon Stewart preparing for a political campaign, will it draw more crowds than Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor, and most importantly, will it be a success?  Today, having almost fully recovered from being crushed morning ‘til night by 214,000 of my closest friends, I can unequivocally answer, I don’t know, I don’t know, I certainly hope so, and it seems that way.  As for the rally’s success, the answer is yes.

Initially, it was a bit of a letdown.  The musical guests, ranging from Cat Stevens to Tony Bennett, while eclectic, didn’t translate well to the crowds.  At one point during the performance of gospel singer Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy, leader of the band Wilco, the people around me were less excited about the singers than watching someone trying to climb a tree for a better view.  And some of the Stewart/Colbert shtick like the “sanity” and “fear” award ceremony or the mock debate between Stewart and Colbert soon lost steam to a mixture of painful silliness of some of the content, the enormity of the crowds, the poor sound, and too few jumbotrons.

And yet what did translate across the Mall, despite the technical difficulties and general goofiness, was the core impetus for the rally: to demonstrate frustration, but sanely.   People came from California to Maine to Alaska and willingly stood jammed shoulder to shoulder for three hours, to not just have a few laughs, listen to some nice music and go home.  They came to support the idea that despite shouting voices that too often dominate the political and journalistic landscape, there truly is more that brings us together than pushes us apart.  This spirit was best exemplified during Father Guido Sarducci’s benediction when he asks God to name his favorite religion and Sarducci’s suggestion that “someone could say to [Jews and Muslims], ‘They don’t eat pork, you don’t eat pork.  Let’s build on that” drew the loudest cheers and shouts from the crowd.

Perhaps some pundits have declared the rally a failure because it did not sufficiently energize the democratic or even centrist base to vote or because it was unclear what the ralliers were rallying for.  Indeed, the apolitical nature of the rally was almost shocking given that both Stewart’s and Colbert’s show seem to lean left both in audience and in content.  But standing there, in the midst of the crowd, there seemed to be little doubt as to the message that the hosts wanted to impart.  This was not a rally to whip people up, but rather to calm them down.  In echoes of President Obama’s post-partisan campaign, Stewart, in his closing speech, acknowledged the legitimacy of both the Tea Party-ers and Progressives and separated their rhetoric from those of real bigots.  “There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned! You must have the resume!” he declared.  “Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Party-ers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult–not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate. “

In the wake of the rally, many people are suggesting that Stewart run for office; including Washington Post On Leadership columnist Jena McGregor who wrote that Stewart’s leadership skills outstrip those of real politicians.  But we don’t need another politician.  What we do need is a 21st century jester who is not afraid to poke fun at the theatrical pompousness of political leaders and media personalities all the while demonstrating a cunning mastery of the issues.  We need someone whose job it is not to pander or bloviate, but rather who can effectively take on the aptly dubbed, “24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator.”  So far, neither political leaders nor media commentators seem up to the task.  So we have no choice but to turn to comedians and satirists, as people often do in times of crises, to help us make sense of our situation and offer us the opportunity to laugh at our struggles.   And as the throngs on the Mall demonstrate, I am not alone.

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.

Post-Obama Fix: Jerusalem’s Mayoral Election

A "smoking" election in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem: a "smoking" election?

In a haze of post-Obamania deflation this week, I turned for a political fix to Jerusalem and the hotly contested mayoral election taking place tomorrow. For a city beset by race wars, poverty and a middle class exodus, it can be a grim business, but not without flashes of color. Today’s Washington Post offers a sober rundown of how the contest reflects the city’s ortho-secular culture wars. But, for more local analysis and also a whiff of fringe politics circa 1973, inhale the latest on Jerusalemite.net.

If London can elect offbeat politicos like “Red Ken” Livingstone and blustering Boris Johnson, why shouldn’t Jerusalem enjoy its rainbow-hued candidates? Jerusalemite offers a Q&A with Dan Birron, long-locked pub owner and Green Leaf Party candidate (you read that right: not “Green,” but “Green Leaf“)—sort of Ralph Nader meets Richard Branson meets Jerry Brown.

Birron’s not the only candidate with noteworthy hair. A front-runner, the extremely bearded Meir Porush, a Knesset member from the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, recently assured followers that it will take only 10 years to eliminate secular candidates from all Israeli mayoral contests, not just Jerusalem’s. When questioned about it afterward, Porush at first denied the remarks, which had been delivered in Yiddishand secretly tapedat a black-hat rally, reports Jpost. For me, the story evoked flashbacks to Obama’s notoriously riffing about bitter Pennsylvania gun lovers at a private fundraiser in San Francisco. But, when it comes to “clinging” to religion, even the most conservative Pennsylvanians take a back pew to Jerusalemites.  Continue reading

Livni Wins Kadima Primaries

Tzipi Livni has won the Kadima party primaries (Moment columnist Gershom Gorenberg explains how they work, or don’t work, here) with nearly 50% of the vote, according to Israeli exit polls.

Livni, 50, will replace beleaguered Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as the party Chairwoman. Her next task will be to assemble a coalition. If she succeeds, she will become Israel’s first female Prime Minister since Golda Meir was elected in 1969.

Runner up Shaul Mofaz, a 55 year-old Iranian born military-man reputed to be a curmudgeon had been “hoping for a low turnout rate,” according to Ynet. Exit polls predicted he would take about 37% of the vote.

More on Livni soon.

–Jeremy Gillick

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Rabbis for Obama

Over 300 American rabbis publicly announced their support for Barack Obama yesterday with the launch of a “Rabbis for Obama” website.

The movement was founded by Rabbis Sam Gordon and Steve Bob of Illinois in response to what they call the “smear campaign against Obama” that “has been waged in the Jewish community.”

“The smears and lies are specifically targeted to the fears and prejudices of Jews,” Gordon said in a phone interview this morning. “The kind of attacks and criticisms of him are totally unwarranted and caused me and others to respond in a way unprecedented in the history of Jewish rabbis.”

While Gordon and Bob both belong to the Union for Reform Judaism, they say rabbinical support for Obama—and for their movement—comes from across the spectrum. Continue reading