Wednesday, July 29, 2015

DEAR MEMBER OF CONGRESS: THE VIEW FROM HERE


Today American citizens are exercising a cherished American right. Many members of AIPAC are flying into D.C. to lobby their members of Congress to vote against the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran. I applaud them. They are engaging in an activity at the heart of America’s greatness: the right of any citizen to directly speak to and to try to persuade their representatives.
From both my former profession as a lobbyist in California and from my many years as a pro-Israel activist, I have known some members of Congress for many years. Even though I could not be there in person, I decided to join my fellow American citizens in lobbying members of Congress. I thought I could provide a personal perspective of an American now living in Israel, someone with a foot in each country.
And so I wrote personal letters to a few Democratic Congressional members and I asked my colleagues in the U.S. to deliver the letters when they visit the members. Of course, like any professional, I ignored much of the advice I gave clients for 30 years: be brief, stick to the talking points. I did follow some of my advice: I am polite, and I am clear about what I am asking for: A NO vote.
With some brief introductory, personal sentences omitted, here’s my letter:
Dear :
My wife Dana and I have the privilege of being citizens of both the United States and Israel, and we live part of each year in Sacramento and Jerusalem. I am writing to you from Jerusalem, where I can tell you that the Iranian nuclear deal is on the minds of many if not most people.
Firstly, I would like to say just how much we appreciate your longtime friendship with, and support of, the Jewish community and Israel. You have been a true and loyal friend, and I know your feelings are heartfelt. I know that asking you to vote against a major foreign policy initiative of President Obama is a huge request, and I know that you will very seriously consider the impact of the agreement on the safety and the future of Israelis and Americans.
I know several associates of mine who are your constituents will be visiting with you or your staff to explain their opposition to the agreement. I know from my communications with them that I share the reasons they will express for opposing the agreement. I wanted to add or emphasize a few points that are especially concerning or upsetting to me, perhaps because of the perspective I have gained from living a good part of the last five years in Israel.
Ironically, my first major concern has little or nothing to do with Israel, Iran, or nuclear arms. It is a concern borne out of my being a lawyer and out of having watched the erosion of Congressional power vis-à-vis Presidential power over the last 45 years. It has to do with the Constitution and checks-and-balances.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

MY LITTLE TRIP TO HAIFA

Our friend Shimon Re’em was being honored last Wednesday night by the City of Haifa for his contributions over a lifetime to the city and the area.  An educator by profession, Shimon has spent a very active retirement educating citizens, particularly young people, about the Haifa area prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the early years, with an emphasis on the resistance to the British. 

I wasn’t looking forward to the traffic and to driving up to Haifa and back to Jerusalem in one evening.  But it isn’t often that a family friend of 25-plus years is honored, so off we went.  We left Jerusalem about 3:15, planning to beat some traffic and to arrive early enough to grab dinner on the Carmel in Haifa.

About 5:00, we drove into one of the rest stop/gas station/coffee shop places along  Highway  6.  It’s Israel’s version of the Eastern U.S.’ old Howard Johnson stops.   No one will mistake them for a desert oasis.  Not looking forward to my usual frustration using a U.S. credit card at an Israeli gas pump, I treated myself to the full service pumps. 

A young man strolled over, took my card, and went to work.  “Where you from?” he asked in decent accented English. 

Sensing he was not really interested in my usual “We live part of the year in Jerusalem, part in Sacramento, I sold my business early so that I could pursue Herzl’s dream,” I simply replied, “California.” 

To which he inquired “You Jewish?”

Not totally surprised by the question, I replied  “Yes.”  Then I got a little surprise.  His answer:  “Well, then, this is your home.  Welcome.” 

Feeling I knew the answer but sensing a door had been opened a bit, I asked: “Thank you.  And you?”

“I’m Arab.”  Then, looking like he felt I might need some clarification, he added “I am an Israeli Arab.”

Me:  “So this is your home too?”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

DEAR MR. PRESIDENT

I've been having an exchange of letters with President Rivlin and his representative about the recent controversy related to the proposed B'nai Mitzvah service, which was originally supposed to be led by a Conservative rabbi.  Here is the correspondence:

Dear President Rivlin:

In 2010 my wife and I made Aliyah from Sacramento, California.  We now live on Rehov Harlap, within 100 meters of Beit HaNasi.  I gave up a highly successful business in Sacramento, and we left our family and friends in California to live in our homeland, Israel.  Our youngest child, our daughter, also made Aliyah around the same time.   We sold our 300 meter suburban home and the three of us now live in a 50 meter apartment that is three flights up with no elevator.

Prior to making Aliyah I was President of Sacramento’s Conservative (Masorti) synagogue.  My wife had been President of the local Jewish Federation.  We were both active supporters of AIPAC and were active in many other ways in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities.  No one in either the Jewish or the general community ever questioned our Jewishness.  No one ever considered us other than first-class and full Jews.

But here in Israel, because I am a Conservative/Masorti Jew, I am treated as less than a first-class, full Jew.  My movement is treated differently than the Orthodox movement.  My rabbi cannot preside at the wedding of my daughter.  I am constantly told that I am less of Jew.  Despite my commitment and my sacrifice, my Judaism is questioned.

Your recent refusal to host a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony with a Conservative/Masorti rabbi is a painful, bitter disappointment to me.  Since you became President, I have admired your work to reach out to Israeli minority citizens and to encourage all Israelis to feel equal and included.  But to me, a committed Jew, you joined the rest of the established powers and said “No, you are not completely included as part of the Jewish people in Israel.  Because you are a Conservative Jew, you are not equal.”  Your message is a terrible blow.  When you should have continued to lead toward an inclusive, equal, tolerant Israel, you instead reinforced an unequal, exclusive, painful Judaism in Israel.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

DEAR MR. SARGEANT

Yesterday I received a letter via e-mail from Michael Sargeant, the Executive Director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Mr. Sargeant explained to me how important, indeed, “critical,” it is to elect Democrats in the 2016 election, and he asked me to sign up to support the effort.
Here is the response I sent to Mr. Sargeant:
Dear Mr. Sargeant:
I am writing in response to your e-mail on behalf of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, in which you asked me to sign up to join the fight to elect Democrats in 2016. Unfortunately, I must decline at this time. I would like to explain why.
I voted for President Obama in the 2008 California primaries and in the general election. I was a lifelong Democrat until a few years ago. At that time I re-registered as a Decline-to-State. I did so in protest of President Obama’s actions and policies toward Israel. I felt that he had misrepresented that he would be a strong supporter of Israel. Here is the letter I wrote to the President at the time.
I acknowledge and appreciate the fact that the Administration has supplied key military equipment to Israel (other than when it briefly suspended such shipments in last summer’s war) and that he has been a backstop at the UN and other world bodies. However, in the general diplomatic sphere and in public statements and positions, he has been terrible, blaming Israel and its leadership at every turn. Moreover, his positions have hurt rather than helped advance a process toward a two-state solution, something I have long-favored.
Despite the fact that I re-registered as a Decline-to-State as a protest, I continued to vote and to support mostly Democrats for office. That is now in question, however.
I am deeply disturbed about recent events relating to Iran, U.S. post-war foreign policy, and the behavior and attitude of the Obama Administration and some Democrats. Regarding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech, Speaker Boehner reportedly breached protocol in extending the invitation. The Israeli Ambassador may have participated. It was wrong. Express your displeasure and move on.
Instead, the Administration has made a major issue out of it and is basically promoting a boycott of the Prime Minister’s speech. The Administration is using the breach of protocol as a way to discredit the Prime Minister, undermine his efforts to call attention to the threat of a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran, and to stop debate. I find this conduct outrageous.
Any breach of protocol pales in comparison to the issues at stake here: Iran getting a nuclear weapon, Iran becoming a regional and perhaps world power, and, if you believe recent essays, a radical change in the post-war approach to American foreign policy.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

MUCH ADO ABOUT AN INVITATION?

It seems that the controversy over the invitation extended by Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak before a Joint Session of Congress simply will not diminish.
Yes, it appears that Speaker Boehner breached traditional protocol in not consulting with the White House. Yes, it appears that the Prime Minister may have been wrong in not asking Speaker Boehner whether he had followed tradition. And, yes, Israeli Ambassador Dermer was totally off base if he was the mastermind of a plot to circumvent and embarrass the President.
I used the words “appears” and “may” because it has now been revealed that Speaker Boehner’s invitation stated that this would be a bipartisan event, and because, in a correction of a prior report, the New York Times revealed that the White House was, in fact, informed about the invitation. So, while tradition may have been violated in some respects, it seems that the breach of protocol and the asserted disrespect may not have been quite as egregious as originally characterized.
In any event, the controversy will not die. It appears that we could be approaching “gate” status. As in “Invitegate.”
All of this is bad. Bad for Israel. Bad for the United States. Bad for the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And, most importantly, it is good for Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
The head of a foreign legislature invites you to speak. Do you have every right to expect that the head of the legislature has followed the proper protocol? Is it the invitee’s responsibility to pick up the phone and say something like: “Your counterpart in the other branch of your government has invited me. Did he check with you? Are you o.k. with it?”
Obviously, it is ridiculous to expect the invitee to ask such questions. But that does not mean that this is a good situation. That’s why it would be a great idea for the Prime Minister to plan on coming down with the flu around March 1st.

Friday, December 19, 2014

THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AND BDS AGAINST MEXICO--UNTHINKABLE



The world has been shocked by the discovery of the dead bodies of about 50 Mexican university students.  The students were killed because they were protesting some government policies.  A mayor and his wife, as well as numerous police officials, have been implicated in the slaughter.  Alleged initial government inaction in response to the murders has prompted outrage and protest throughout Mexico.

In solidarity with the Mexican protests, and in outrage over the government’s inadequate response, the United Auto Workers Local 2865, the union representing the University of California’s graduate student instructors (or, as they were called in prior times, teaching assistants or TA’s) voted in favor of participating in a Boycott, Discrimination, and Sanctions (BDS)  campaign against Mexico. 

With 2,168 union members voting, 1,411 of them, or 65%, voted in favor of the resolution.  (The local has a total membership of about 12,000.)  In addition to the vote, 1,136 of the graduate student instructors pledged to personally adhere to a discriminatory boycott of Mexican universities and scholars. 

Regardless of the revulsion one feels for the Mexican government’s apparent complicity in the alleged actions, the vote raises serious questions regarding the fitness for their positions and their ability to fulfill the requirements of the job of those who voted in favor of the resolution, particularly of those who signed a personal pledge to boycott Mexican universities and scholars. 

For example, one assumes that pledging to boycott Mexican universities means that if a supervising faculty member directs a student instructor to work with a colleague from a Mexican university on a research question, the student instructor will refuse.  One also assumes that if a Mexican student is in the classroom listening to the student instructor’s explanation of a subject of the class, the student instructor will either stop lecturing or will direct the Mexican student to leave the classroom. 

One would further assume from the vote and particularly from those who took the personal pledge that they will not grade papers of students who are Mexican nationals, and will not meet with them to discuss subjects under study.  One also assumes that they will not consult with Mexican scholars or reference academic papers produced by any Mexican university or scholar, thus potentially omitting important information in their own work. 

One assumes that conduct such as that described above, directed at students holding Mexican citizenship, will contribute to the creation of a hostile academic environment for students holding Mexican citizenship, and arguably will do the same for American students of Mexican descent.  Similarly, such conduct will contribute to the creation of a hostile work environment for fellow employees holding Mexican citizen, and arguably will do the same for American workers of Mexican descent. 
  

Monday, December 15, 2014

TRAVELOGUE


My wife and I returned about a week ago from a terrific month-long trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  I was very proud of myself for planning the entire trip.  We were on our own, hooking up with a couple of mini-cruises on the Mekong River and personal guides along the way.

My nominations for the three greatest inventions of our times:  1) Penicillin. 2)  Airplane mileage.  3) Trip Advisor.  Penicillin is an easy one, of course.  We all--that is we all that were born in the 1950's--learned that it saved millions of lives a year.

The other two because it is just hard to imagine planning and executing a great trip on a reasonable budget without those two items.  OK, so I had to knock the atom out of the top three in order to fit airline mileage on the list.  I will admit it's close.

Overall impressions and reactions from the trip:  Beautiful part of the world.  Wonderful, welcoming people.  Grand, tragic histories.  Particularly tragic for Cambodia.  Unfortunately corrupt governments.

After 30 days in Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, and the Mekong Delta, in Phnom Phen and Ankgor Wat, in Pakse and the Four Thousand Islands, in remote villages of the Laotian north, and in the beautiful city of Luang Prabang, the question that kept going through my head:  why exactly did we Americans see these people as a tremendous threat and feel the need to bomb the living daylights out of them?

They, particularly the Vietnamese, seem to be the most industrious, capitalistic people one can imagine. They appear to have the same deal with their government as the Chinese have:  We'll let you one-party Communists have the power and generally run things, and you'll leave us alone and let us make money and try to improve our lives.

They certainly did not seem intent on knocking dominoes down and spreading Communism throughout the world.  Which does make you wonder:  how do you know when the threat is real enough and requires standing up to it?  We thought the dominoes would fall.  The Red Scare or Red Menace was real.  The Communists wanted to take over the world.  Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Ho Chi Minh.  They were the bad guys.  We had to stand up to them.