Thursday, October 28, 2004

Boston v. New York

The subject of this piece isn't baseball, although it is worth pondering whether our intense interest in the sport - as spectators, with occasional exceptions like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax - is the result of the powerful acculturative forces that have shaped the American Jewish experience ever since Abner Doubleday's time. It's surprising that, as yet, none of our mega-rich have dedicated a pavilion at Cooperstown.

My subject is more parochial, to be precise Jewish parochial schools or day schools, as they are now called. Boston and New York are not in the same day school league. Including its suburbs, Boston has fourteen day schools with about 2,500 students. Enrollment in New York City alone comes to 82,500 or just 7,000 students shy of all U.S. day schoolers outside of New York State. In the larger New York metropolitan area, day school enrollment is about 125,000.

They aren't in the same day school league in another way. Thanks largely to the local Federation, three philanthropists are giving $45 million to Boston area day schools, the announcement coming not long after the Fund for Jewish Education (FJE) which is dominated by the Federation here decided to terminate basic grants to yeshivas and day schools. This astonishing betrayal of a trust was accompanied by a barrage of public relations sophistry, including - to be generous - the strange assertion that the grants which amounted to about $3,000-$20,000 per participating school were being cut out because the amount given was so low.

One reason why this wrong and harmful decision was made is that in dollar terms alone it is a challenge to figure out how to help New York's day schools. In a sense, there are too many of them and too many students for the local philanthropic sector to digest. This scarcely justifies taking away the little that had been given. Besides, there is the noble example of Mr. Joseph Gruss of blessed memory who was American Jewry's greatest Jewish philanthropist. The FJE came into being because he figured out how to assist New York's day schools.

At FJE as elsewhere, there are people who talk a good game about Jewish education but who fail or refuse to understand that education takes place in schools and classrooms, not in offices or meaningless conferences or outside projects and training programs. I believe that the fact that 97% of New York's day school enrollment is Orthodox, the lion's share of this in chassidic and yeshiva-world schools, did not increase the inclination to provide direct help to day schools.

The betrayal of our most valuable and vulnerable institutions would not have occurred had Orthodox leaders fulfilled their responsibility. The picture is not pretty. When the Orthodox were far weaker a generation and more ago, yeshiva deans sanctioned public pressure on Federations to support day school education. Much of this effort was channeled through the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools or Torah Umesorah which then championed basic religious education in communities throughout North America.

The recent record is far different. Federation and FJE signaled in advance their intent to terminate basic grants, yet neither Torah Umesorah or yeshiva deans said anything in protest of a decision that would clearly harm schools for which they have responsibility. This silence served as a signal to those who were bent on harming day schools that they had a free hand to proceed. Even now, as there are indications that those of us who have protested have had an impact, there is silence from Torah Umesorah and the deans. This is shocking and it should be unacceptable.

Many in the yeshiva-world are yielding to the pernicious notion that except for special situations such as immigrant and outreach schools - interestingly, their enrollment has declined - basic religious education at the elementary and secondary levels is a consumer product and like all other consumer products it should be paid for by those who benefit directly, namely parents, irrespective of their financial situation. It is telling and disheartening that at least for a decade, yeshiva deans have not issued even one statement declaring that basic religious education is a communal responsibility, in line with the way our religious life has been conducted for more than 2,000 years.

As a consequence, the betrayal of day schools has been inadvertently abetted by those who should be in the forefront of day school advocacy. The further upshot is that our schools now face even greater hardship. Many cannot meet their payroll, this despite severely underpaying their faculty and staff and skimping on maintenance and nearly everything else. The financial stability of these institutions seem shakier than it has been in a long while. The fundraising environment is not good because day schools are not favored by most donors and those who might provide support are besieged by requests for help, too many of them warmly endorsed by those who should be calling for support of basic Torah education.

The burden has shifted to parents and this imposes a severe hardship on most Orthodox families, both financially and emotionally. Hard working parents - often both work - with a houseful of children are not able to make ends meet and they are increasingly being told by yeshiva and day school officials that the school needs full tuition, irrespective of parental ability to pay.

There is another cost, one that is scarcely seen or felt. In the New York metropolitan area there are thousands of marginally involved Jewish families that would choose day school education if decent and affordable schools were available where they live. Unfortunately, there are few such schools. What can be accomplished was driven home by Lev Levayev who came to Israel from the Former Soviet Union. He had the vision to establish in Queens a school for FSU children. In its third year, enrollment is above 600. Apparently, he does not accept the notion that a Jewish education is a consumer product.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Leaving Gaza

Making wrenchingly difficult decisions is a key part of the job description for Israel's prime ministers, a circumstance that has not resulted in a shortage of aspirants for the position. Ariel Sharon's predecessors could not have known before they acted how their decisions would turn out, whether Israel's security would be helped or harmed by what they were about to do. If we look at the record over a span of fifty-six years, while there have been mistakes, by a large margin they have been on target.

Israel must now decide what to do about Gaza, specifically what to do about the parcels of land settled by the small number of Israelis who came there with the advice and consent, as well as support, of successive Israeli governments. It's hard to imagine a tougher decision, but not because of security considerations. Having Israelis in or out of Gaza scarcely changes the security equation.

What's tough about leaving Gaza is the pain of those who will be forced to leave, good people whose love for Israel is pure. The case against withdrawal was made repeatedly by Ariel Sharon when he did not sit where he now sits and when he did not know what he now knows. The Israelis in Gaza are not fanatics, although there is a strong tinge of fanaticism and extremism among some who advocate their cause. Israelis in Gaza have worked hard and honorably. In Gaza, Jewish children have been born and in Gaza Jews have buried their dead, including victims of terrorism.

Those who advocate withdrawal, as I do, need to be respectful of these Israelis whose emotional wounds are now open. Mr. Sharon has been respectful, certainly last week in a major address before the Knesset. A powerful argument can be made in support of Benjamin Netanyahu's call for a referendum on withdrawal. Isn't that the democratic thing to do? Yet, there are compelling reasons why that path should be avoided. In democracies, leaders are elected to lead and they are held responsible for the decisions they make. Mr. Sharon has steadfastly resisted the referendum gambit, perhaps because his understanding with the Bush Administration requires him to move forward. Because of the psychological support and diplomatic cover given to Israel, little attention has been paid to the pressure the U.S. has put on the Sharon government to make territorial concessions. Interestingly, one question that hasn't been discussed is how Israel would react if Mr. Bush is defeated. Would this be a signal or excuse to reverse course in Gaza?

Why withdraw? One reason is that staying in Gaza adds nothing to Israel's security, but it exacts a high human and financial cost. Israel has overwhelming force and as has been just demonstrated, it can severely punish Palestinians in Gaza for any terrorist attacks.

Ariel Sharon has earned Israeli and Jewish support and we should have faith in him and the impressive number of Israel's military and intelligence leaders who endorse withdrawal. In Gaza, the security fence and other actions, the Prime Minister has shown a fierce and creative determination to do what is necessary to protect Israelis. The hardliners in the anti-withdrawal camp have undermined their cause by charging that Sharon is selling out Israel, that he is a traitor.

I care not about what titles or offices they hold. Those who in veiled and sometimes not so veiled language say that Israel's Prime Minister can be killed because he wants to withdraw from Gaza or other territory should be arrested and put on trial.

While opponents of withdrawal say that under certain conditions they might accept giving up territory, they have never spelled out what these conditions might be. Their position always is, "not now." They have opposed every negotiation that entails giving up any territory. Their idea of negotiations is for Israel to unilaterally set the terms for Palestinians and to yield no land. Diplomacy is not a game called solitaire. Those who oppose negotiations are giving us a formula for a state of permanent war.

In opting for a Gaza withdrawal, Mr. Sharon clearly is mindful of even more daunting problems confronting Israel. The threat coming from Iran is one of the most serious that Israel has faced. The war in Iraq has further destabilized the Middle East and clearly this is to Israel's detriment. The Islamic world is aboil and while the wounds suffered by adherents of Islam are nearly all self-inflicted, this reality scarcely provides any respite or solace for Israel.

All told, what is compelling about staying in Gaza is the human dimension, not the military or diplomatic or security dimensions.

It is necessary to know what happens after the Israelis leave. Much will depend on the actions of Hamas and other Palestinians. But there are question marks about Israeli policy. Dov Weisglass, Mr. Sharon's close confidant who negotiated on his behalf in Washington, said in a recent interview that a primary aim of a Gaza withdrawal is to scotch, at least for now, the notion of a Palestinian state. If that is the intention, Israel is making a huge mistake. The one thing that Israelis should unite on is that while there are no guarantees, a Palestinian state has a better prospect for contributing to Israel's security than the current status quo. States have responsibilities and while, of course, they often are violated, as long as the Palestinians are stateless there is an enhanced prospect for continued terrorism.

Yasir Arafat has done his best - and since he is outstanding in the treachery league, he has been quite good in this regard - to deter the establishment of a state for the people he purports to lead, even as he has lined his pockets and Palestinians have sunk into greater misery. It is paradoxical and yet telling that some who are most antagonistic to him give him aid and comfort on this score.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Politics of Orthodox Jews

Like bees to honey, the media are attracted to Orthodox Jews, paying more attention to them than to the ninety percent of American Jews who aren't Orthodox. Where the media tread, politicians who are always on the prowl for support are sure to follow. Thus, we have had a spate of stories reporting on how the Orthodox are being wooed this election season.

Some of this attention is the inevitable consequence of Orthodox distinctiveness, notably the charedim with their particular look and dress. Other Jews are mainly faces in the crowd of nearly 300 million Americans. The Orthodox tend to cluster in neighborhoods which makes it easier to send messages to them. This characteristic plus other clannish features add to the feeling that they vote in a bloc and therefore efforts to garner their support can bring a significant pay-off.

It is the case as well that the Orthodox - again, especially charedim - actively seek political attention and involvement, not so much because they care about who gets elected as they care about what benefits they can get from those who are in office. This isn't a new phenomenon, as there are critical antecedents in the Jewish experience in pre-Holocaust Europe. Little heed is apparently paid to the admonition in Ethics of Our Fathers: "Do not become overly familiar with the government." (Chapter 1, 10)

Whatever the motives of the Orthodox who eagerly enter the political thicket, it is hard to figure out the calculation of those in politics who eagerly covet their support. The Bush campaign has sent high level Republicans to meet with the Orthodox and the Kerry people have reciprocated, albeit with less fire power. The obvious inference is that this is a group whose votes may be crucial to the election, an inference that is scarcely supported by experience or an understanding of Jewish demographics. In Williamsburg and Crown Heights, two chassidic strongholds, the locals cannot get anybody elected and they have to hope, at times in vain, that those who are elected will not be hostile to their interests. I would imagine that the clout of these religious Jews is not greater when the stakes are presidential.

The way to make sense of what is occurring is to understand that in electoral politics the importance of prospective voters - whether they materialize or not is another matter - who can be visualized in group terms is invariably exaggerated. What is true of labor unions or other ethnics is true of the political approach to Orthodox Jews. Their group nature enhances the attention they get irrespective of whether they can deliver votes.

Even if the demographers are wrong and the Orthodox comprise more than ten percent of American Jews, as I believe they do, their proportion of the American Jewish electorate is clearly below ten percent, if only because a great number are not yet eighteen and cannot vote. Among those who are of voting age, for a variety of reasons there is a heightened tendency for chassidic and other very Orthodox Jews not to register.

Orthodox Jews are overwhelmingly concentrated in New York and this is another factor that vitiates their importance in presidential elections, at least in the one that is about to be held. Most analysts assume that New York will go for Kerry, in which case inroads Republicans may make among the Orthodox will not affect the outcome. Admittedly, there is evidence that New York is still up for grabs and if Mr. Bush prevails here, the state's electoral votes will not be of much consequence because he will win in a landslide.

Doubtlessly, some of my Orthodox buddies will not be thrilled that one of their own is saying that the Orthodox political role is substantially exaggerated. I would hope that a dose of reality does not hurt. Perhaps it might even result in scarce communal resources, including leadership resources, being devoted to communal needs and not to political pursuits.

What is more important these days than illusions about Orthodox political clout is the movement of this sector toward political conservatism. A good case, based on his support for Israel, can be made for American Jewish support of President Bush. Even his harshest critics concede this point. For the Orthodox - or at least most of them - there is congruence between Orthodox traditionalism and Republican conservatism that is evident in an array of social issues, including gay rights and marriage and abortion.

While most American Jews have an intense dislike of social conservatism, they should be able to recognize that for the Orthodox social conservatism is a powerful magnet. Liberal Jews should not expect the Orthodox to vote liberal and Democratic because, after all, that has been the "Jewish" thing to do.

What troubles me about the embrace of conservatism is that it comes with an enthusiastic identification with right-wing ideology. Shouldn't there be some red lights, some caution signals? Shouldn't Orthodox Jews be deeply concerned about the fascisti of the National Rifle Association and the many clusters of anti-Semites who for decades have nested comfortably in the Republican right-wing? Shouldn't heed be paid to history's lessons that the right-wing is no friend of Jews?

I am not asking for an embrace of liberal ideology. There are question marks there as well. My point is that we religious Jews should spurn political ideologies, that we should be wary of both the left and the right. There is a powerful need to take stock about what the right-wing stands for. It is terrifying that there are Orthodox who believe that right-wing positions are a code word for Judaism. I cannot find this in any Code of Jewish Law. I would rather stick with Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch's great admonition uttered 150 years ago and doubtlessly not reproduced here with full accuracy, "Juden haben nicht kein rechts." Translated this means both that Jews have no rights and they have no right-wing.

The Spy That Wasn't

After reading not a single coherent article in the Times or elsewhere about the Lawrence Franklin/AIPAC affair, I have concluded that the incoherence arises not so much from journalistic defects as from the equally familiar circumstance that those who are doing the leaking are spewing out tons of misinformation. First we were breathlessly told that Franklin, a mid-level Pentagon analyst, had spied for Israel. That quickly changed to the tale that he had just passed classified information. Before long, the news was that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is the FBI's real target and Franklin is cooperating with the investigation.

We are not likely to get the full story. What we already know is unsettling and not because Israel or its advocates on these shores may have done anything wrong. What is unsettling is the prospect that our government has been spying on some of its citizens whose alleged crime is their association with Israel.

Ever since Jonathan Pollard was caught red-handed, American Jews have been uptight about the kind of charges initially leveled against Franklin. After all, what shocked us once could happen again and this possibility purchased the silence of most of us, though not of the ADL's Abe Foxman or several others who quickly smelled a rat and aggressively challenged what soon was revealed to be bogus.

We now know that for at least two years the FBI - an overstaffed and underperforming bureaucracy whose record against terrorism is dreadful - has had AIPAC high on its most wanted list, tailing several of its officials and tapping their phones. Apparently, in certain quarters Israel advocacy is regarded as anti-American, maybe also illegal.

There are suggestions that the anti-AIPAC crusade is a rogue operation organized by officials who do not like the neo-cons and others who are well-connected with both Israel and high echelons in the Pentagon. It's more likely that the White House and Justice Department have been in on the act, authorizing the wiretaps and investigatory tactics that we may have thought were reserved for Al Quaeda.

It is also unlikely that the FBI's targeting of AIPAC has been limited to the two staffers who have been named. There is evidence that routine contacts between pro-Israel Americans and Israeli officials are grounds for suspicion, that when someone from the Israel Embassy meets a Pentagon analyst in a Washington restaurant, it's not only the food that isn't kosher.

I fret whether Malcolm Hoenlein's phone calls are being intercepted. If they are, those who do this dirty work have been privy to conversations between the Presidents Conference leader and me that invariably begin with Malcolm asking, "How are you?" followed by my response, "Lousy." Is it a crime to be a kvetch?

Before we yield to paranoiac musings and start thinking that Jews have been singled out for mistreatment, let us acknowledge that John Ashcroft's Justice Department is an equal opportunity violator of constitutional rights. This is not a boon period for those who continue to believe that accused persons have the right to counsel and other protections and that the Bill of Rights guaranty of the right to assemble is on its face a prohibition against preventive detention of the kind practiced recently in New York. Irrespective of how we feel about Bush v Kerry, what took place during the Republican Convention is a stain on New York, a stain that is made more reprehensible by Mayor Bloomberg's arrogance. It is no comfort that the old Guinness Book record of arrested bicycles was smashed by New York's finest.

Back to the sins being conducted against AIPAC: This is a story that deserves our continued attention and also a communal response because what our government has done is wrong and not because AIPAC is vital to either Israel's security or the interests of American Jewry. For all of the organization's posturing and self-importance, its impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East is, at most, negligible. AIPAC exists and thrives because checkbook Zionism provides some succor to some American Jews who feel ardently about Israel and who need to find outlets for this faith. It is comforting for them to go to big bang and big buck conferences and to listen to politicians and officials tell them how important they are.

From Camp David onward - and certainly previously - there has not been a single critical development relating to Israel's security that has been significantly affected by AIPAC. If the organization had not existed, there still would have been a Camp David, the nastiness toward Israel of the first President Bush, President Clinton's peace proposals and the favorable policies toward Israel of the second President Bush.

AIPAC has done a good job convincing itself, its coterie of supporters and some who hate Israel that it wields influence in the making of U.S. Mid East policy. Among those who have been convinced is Pat Buchanan whose soft-core anti-Semitism is routinely featured by the media.

In short, AIPAC's success as an organization but not in policy matters arises from American Jewish anxiety over Israel. It also benefits from our people's obsession with the notion that the more organizations we have, the stronger we are. I do not begrudge those who indulge this fantasy. In a sense, it is pretty benign, although we ought to wonder what would happen if we got rid of nearly all of our expensive organizations and somehow - admittedly this is a pipe dream - the funds that were saved through the cessation of so much sterile activity would go to good Jewish causes, including education and direct support for Israel.

I know that few will agree with my assessment of AIPAC. Just the same, I hope that there will be concern about what our government has done through its surveillance of this organization. The fact that the Bush Administration has been good to Israel is no justification for its being bad to AIPAC.