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‘America deserves better’: A call for health-care reform

 

Jewish environmental group increasing efforts as climate debate heats up

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Sybil Sanchez, the new COEJL director, says the group’s focus will be on its Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign seeking increased activism on environmental issues. Courtesy Sybil Sanchez

WASHINGTON – As the debate over how to combat climate change heats up in Copenhagen, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life is ramping up its efforts to help make the Jewish community a key player in the discussion.

Without a full-time director since early 2006, COEJL has secured a half-million dollars in funding for the next two years and hired Sybil Sanchez, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, to be its new director.

Sanchez said she sees COEJL helping the Jewish environmental movement transition into a new phase.

For a long time, she said, the goal was to get people to understand such things like “climate change is real” and the negative impact of carbon emissions. But now that “all but the hard core” in the Jewish community are convinced of that, Sanchez said, the question is “how do we integrate that into action as Jewish individuals and activists — move it to the next level and start to be the change we want to see in the world.”

“It’s a challenging and inspiring time,” she said.

Sanchez, who was officially to take over at COEJL on Wednesday, said that while specific plans for the future are still being discussed, the group would likely be hiring a representative in Washington. But the primary focus of the environmental organization’s efforts right now is the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. The initiative asks American Jews to pledge that they will act to conserve on the individual level, be part of Jewish communal actions on the environment, and advocate for environmental issues with elected officials and in the media.

She also sees COEJL becoming a clearinghouse of information for synagogues and Jewish organizations, providing best practices and products to help sustainability, providing advice, and making connections between groups working on similar issues. COEJL sponsored a “sustainability” conference earlier this year for representatives of Jewish organizations.

Sanchez said the environment sparks multi-generational interest among Jews because it encompasses a number of different issues — from concern about dependence on foreign oil to protection of nature to worries about the state of the planet for future generations. And Sanchez argues that Judaism is connected to the environment in a number of ways. Major Jewish holidays are timed to the seasons of Israel, she points out, and working “in community and collectively are part of the Jewish and environmental lifestyle.” For example, the requirement to pray in a minyan, she notes, is one example of the “idea that we need each other” in Judaism.

In the absence of a full-time leader in the last few years, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have stepped in to help out with COEJL, which is a project of JCPA. The Reform center worked on legislative advocacy in Washington, while JCPA — an advocacy umbrella organization bringing together the synagogue movements, national organizations, and local Jewish ommunities — organized grass-roots support and activism throughout the country.

The Reform center’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, said it was good to have both organizations “more engaged than they might have been otherwise” in the issue and he hopes that intensity continues, but added that COEJL’s re-emergence will help to mobilize further the consciousness of the Jewish community.

“It is crucially important at this moment in history to play a role in the climate change debate,” he said.

“I feel it’s back in the nick of time,” said JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, who hopes to see COEJL become successful enough to eventually spin off into an independent group.

Gutow said the Jewish community has been a “very important leader” on a number of other issues in recent years — from Darfur to Iran to anti-discrimination issues — but has not done the same on energy and the environment.

“I think people look to us for leadership on certain issues,” he said, and “if we decide to lead, I do think we have a particular niche that we are able to help move it forward.”

JTA

 
 

Poll: Jews more conflicted on immigration than leadership

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WASHINGTON – A new poll suggests that American Jews are more conflicted about the challenges of immigration than their communal leaders — but that’s to be expected, the Jewish leaders say.

The poll, commissioned by the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies, shows that Jews who support “enforcing the law and causing (illegal immigrants) to return home over time” are statistically tied with Jews who favor “granting legal status and a pathway to citizenship to most illegal immigrants.”

That virtually dead heat — 43 percent for enforcement and 40 percent for the “legal” path — reflects conventional wisdom about Jews trending more liberal than other Americans. Among Roman Catholics and Protestants, substantial majorities favored the enforcement option.

Still, the figure — along with other answers in the poll — also suggests that rank-and-file Jews are not as monolithic as their leaders in supporting immigration reform that encompasses a path to legal immigration.

Another question outlining proposed conditions for the “legal path,” including fines, learning the English language, and background checks, had 60 percent of Jews supporting and 35 percent opposing.

“It captures division in the community,” said Steven Camarota, the CIS director of research. “Yet that diversity of opinion is in no way reflected in what the leadership is pushing.”

The leaders do not disagree.

“We know that the Jewish community is not monolithic on this subject,” said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s legislative director and counsel. “To the extent that it’s a fair representation, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done in the community.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said the leadership and the rank and file occasionally outpace one another on issues.

“It’s not unusual for leadership to take a more assertive position on the issues than the amcha,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the rank and file. “Sometimes the leadership is ahead, sometimes the grass roots is ahead — it usually averages out.”

Stephen Steinlight, a senior analyst with CIS who for six years has preached enforcement to Jewish audiences, said he couldn’t help experiencing a degree of Schadenfreude at the results.

“I feel vindicated,” he said. “The survey signals a massive rejection against the worldview of the American Jewish establishment, which is monolithic. There’s not a single organization represented in the JCPA,” the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for public policy groups, “that reflects these views.”

The poll, carried out by Zogby International in December, was conducted through online panels. Such panels are controversial because respondents are self-selected, but as “cold calling” has become more expensive and more and more Americans are making themselves available online, pollsters have increasingly used the method, particularly in assessing the views of small demographic subgroups.

Zogby reached 1,647 Jewish respondents, which it said represented a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Saperstein said that he was reassured to see that Jewish respondents were more likely than members of other religious communities to embrace the “legal path” option.

“I’m not surprised the difference is smaller than in the general community,” he said. “We’re the immigrant community, the quintessential community of those fleeing deprivation and seeking freedom.”

That model no longer held, Steinlight said.

Jews “want an immigration policy based on not ‘what was good for my grandparents’ but ‘what’s good for my grandchildren,’” he said. “This country is the safest country for Jews outside of Israel, and anything that threatens to change the nature of this country is a risk.”

Steinlight said he expected Jewish percentages of those favoring enforcement and opposed to a “legal path” to catch up with non-Jewish percentages over time. The lower numbers, he said, were a result of pressures from Jewish leaders.

Jews “need permission to say, ‘You know, I don’t like this very much’” when it comes to current immigration policy, he said.

Saperstein and Foltin rejected notions that the leadership was dictating policy; longstanding positions in both organizations were the result of extensive consultations with the grass roots, they said. Current Reform policy on a legal path to immigration passed by a 9-1 margin in a poll of the movement’s 2,000 leaders on the grass-roots level, Saperstein said.

The Jewish groups backing comprehensive immigration reform also questioned how the questions were calibrated. For instance, the first question cited “38 million legal and illegal immigrants” living in the country, conflating both groups into a huge number. That question, asking whether immigration was too high, had a plurality of Jews answering yes: 50 percent against 5 percent who thought it was too low and 22 percent who answered “just right.” The next question notes that the number of illegal immigrants is estimated at 11 million to 12 million.

The survey also asks respondents to endorse one of two propositions: “Past efforts to enforce immigration have been grossly inadequate and the government has never made a real effort to enforce the law” and “We have made a real effort to enforce our immigration laws, but we have failed because we are not allowing in enough immigrants legally.”

Jews favored the first statement over the second, 60 percent to 21 percent. However, missing from such a formulation were two options: one combining both propositions, and one that did not frame U.S. policy as necessarily a failure.

Past polls, by Benenson and Pew Research, showed that voters favor enforcement combined with a path to legal immigrant status.

“It sets up false choices about legalization vs. enforcing the law,” said Melanie Nezer, who heads the Washington office of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. “It doesn’t make distinctions among people who are here. There’s no distinction made between someone who came over the border yesterday and someone who’s married to someone who’s fighting with our soldiers in Iraq.”

JTA

 
 

Gush evacuees still waiting for permanent homes

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Dror Vanunu, international coordinator of the Friends of Gush Katif, in a field designated to house a community of Gaza Strip evacuees. Construction on new homes has yet to begin. Ben Harris

NITZAN, Israel – More than four years after her family was ejected from their home in the Gaza Strip, Karen Sarfaty lives with her husband and four of their children in a small pre-fab house in this small town located about midway between the southern Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Neither she nor her husband have found adequate employment. The compensation she received from the government is running out. Her daughter is only now beginning to overcome the trauma of their forced removal from Gaza. And while the lots allocated to them to build permanent houses are nearly ready, Sarfati says she lacks the money for construction.

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Moshe and Rachel Saperstein, seen here outside their temporary home in Nitzan, are still waiting to move into their home in the new community of Bnei Dekalim. Ben Harris

“I have a lot of anger inside of me,” Sarfaty told JTA. “If [the evacuation] had to be, then it had to be. But at least if it had to be, it should have been done the right way.”

More than four years since the August 2005 removal of some 9,000 Israelis from Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, the national trauma of the forced evacuation is firmly in the past. But for the majority of evacuees, who still do not live in permanent homes, the trauma has not ended.

According to a report last November by Friends of Gush Katif, the American arm of the former Gaza residents’ official representative in Israel, unemployment among the evacuees is 21 percent, and only 12 percent have begun construction on permanent homes. Housing construction has begun at only seven of the 23 sites where the evacuees are to be resettled. At about half the sites, work on permanent infrastructure — the prerequisite for housing construction — has not begun.

The situation is so bad that the Knesset has established a commission of inquiry to look into the matter. In an interim report issued in September, the commission said the government basically had failed in its handling of the evacuees, though it also noted that a lack of cooperation from some in the settler community contributed to the delays.

According to government data cited in the report, only about half the 1,800 or so families had been allocated plots of land to build new homes. Of those, only about 250 families had begun to build as of last August.

Several evacuees noted with disgust that while the government managed to speedily carry out the evacuation — also known as the disengagement — from conception to execution, the rehabilitation has dragged on without any sense of official urgency.

“There was terrible foot-dragging,” says Dror Vanunu, the international coordinator for Friends of Gush Katif.

Evacuees were supposed to be housed in temporary quarters and then moved to permanent dwellings. But in Nitzan, which is home to the largest concentration of former Gaza residents in the country, the community has all the trappings of a permanent neighborhood.

The community has schools and groceries, playgrounds, and hair salons. Many families have upgraded the small, pre-fab housing units known as caravillas with additional rooms and elaborate gardens.

About a mile to the south, where permanent dwellings are to be built, roads have been paved and sewage and electricity lines installed, but construction on housing has not begun. According to Vanunu, the paved roads and absence of pedestrians have made the area a popular destination for high-speed motorcycle racing — so much so that the authorities have broken up parts of the pavement to discourage the practice.

“Look around,” Vanunu says. “Not even one single house was built.”

A spokesperson for the commission of government inquiry said the infrastructure is in place and the onus is now on the evacuees to begin construction of their homes. But Sarfaty says that after more than four years with minimal income, the family lacks money to begin construction and may be forced to sell part of their plot to finance a new home.

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Karen Sarfaty, in the garden of her temporary home in Nitzan, says her family lacks money to build a permanent house. Ben Harris

Rachel and Moshe Saperstein also have not begun construction on a new home. The Sapersteins, who moved to Neve Dekalim, Gaza, in the 1990s in protest of the Oslo accords — or, as Rachel likes to say, to “put our bodies where our mouths were” — live a few blocks from the Sarfaty family in a caravilla with a small garden where Moshe, who lost an arm in the 1973 war and several fingers in a terrorist attack, likes to smoke cigars.

Their future home will be in Bnei Dekalim, a community being built in the eastern part of Israel’s Lachish region. The town eventually is supposed to include a luxury hotel, cottages for rabbis on sabbatical, and a health spa. Infrastructure is being built in the area, but it will be many months before the Sapersteins move into their new home.

“I wish I were 39 so I could build a town, watch it grow, and still have a few years left,” Rachel says. “When you’re 69 going on 70, you should theoretically be living in a place that is built. But I’m excited. I’m going to build a town at 69.”

That sort of optimism isn’t always easy to muster among the evacuees, but Sarfaty says her faith helps her to cope.

“We’re people that believe. We believe that everything is for the best,” she says. “Maybe right now we can’t see it. Maybe in another couple years we will see it.”

JTA

 
 

Jewish groups step up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry

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Rabbis Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer and David Saperstein taking part in an interfaith summit in Washington on Sept. 7. Vince Isner

Jewish groups have stepped up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry, with several national initiatives announced this week and supporting statements coming in from a range of Jewish voices.

In Washington, officials from several Jewish organizations took part Tuesday in an emergency summit of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders that denounced anti-Muslim bigotry and called for a united effort by believers of all faiths to reach out to Muslim Americans.

Also Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League announced the creation of an Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, which will monitor and respond to instances of anti-Muslim bias surrounding attempts to build new mosques in the United States. (A preview of the announcement ran in The Jewish Standard.)

Meanwhile, six rabbis and scholars representing the Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox streams have launched an online campaign urging rabbis to devote part of their sermons this Shabbat to educating their congregations about Islam.

The efforts come in response to what organizers describe as a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment resulting from the impending ninth anniversary of 9/11 and the controversy surrounding efforts to build a Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Jewish bloggers and pundits, mostly on the right, have become more vocal in opposing the center and calling for greater scrutiny of American mosques.

Among the Jewish leaders at the emergency summit was Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“As Jews, we could be nowhere else today,” said Saperstein, whose organization co-sponsored Tuesday’s interfaith summit with the Islamic Society of North America.

“We have been the quintessential victims of religious persecution … and we know what happens when people are silent,” he said, explaining why clergy and believers of all faiths need to be more forceful in speaking out against anti-Muslim bigotry. “We have to speak more directly to the anti-Muslim bigotry in America today.”

Leaders of the mainstream Protestant, evangelical Christian, Baptist, and Catholic churches, Muslim organizations, and several Jewish streams issued a joint statement Tuesday after their summit “to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation, and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community.”

In addition to the Religious Action Center, representatives from the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of more than 125 Jewish community relations councils and the four major Jewish streams, also attended the summit.

The National Council of Jewish Women released a statement Tuesday denouncing Islamaphobia, decrying anti-Muslim bigotry, and noting that “extremists who use Islam as a justification for their heinous acts of terrorism should not be allowed to dictate the character of the entire religion.”

The group of interfaith leaders met later in the day with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to coordinate parallel efforts with the government to combat anti-Islam sentiment.

The joint statement calls upon clergy of all faiths to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry and hate violence from their pulpits, and asserts that “leaders of local congregations have a special responsibility to teach with accuracy, fairness, and respect about other faith traditions.”

In a similar vein, Jewish interfaith leaders in an online letter called upon pulpit rabbis to use part of their sermons on Saturday to address the need for understanding Islam and perhaps to read from the Koran. Professors and deans of the rabbinical seminaries of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, as well as the independent Hebrew College, signed the letter.

“The proposal for the ‘mosque at Ground Zero’ that turns out not to be a mosque and not at Ground Zero has brought to light this simple fact: We Americans need to know a whole lot more about Muslims and their religion,” said Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, director of multifaith studies and initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a main organizer of the appeal.

Organizers say a number of rabbis from various streams have indicated they will take part.

The ADL’s initiative underscores the shifting tide within the organized Jewish community.

Several weeks ago the organization generated national headlines when its national director, Abraham Foxman, came out against placing the Islamic center so close to Ground Zero. Foxman said the sensitivities of families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks should be respected.

Its new coalition is focused on helping Muslim communities that face bigotry when they attempt to build local mosques.

Foxman told JTA that within two weeks, the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques will begin its work collecting details of incidents in which mosques are being challenged, determining whether bigotry is involved and, if so, whether public or legal responses are warranted. Mosques that are opposed due to zoning problems will be outside its purview.

The coalition’s charter members, the ADL said, will include a diverse collection of religious scholars and leaders, including representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church.

Despite creating the coalition, the ADL has not changed its position on the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Foxman told JTA.

“Our position is very clear: They have a legal right, but the location is not sensitive to the victims,” he said, noting that not everyone in the coalition agrees with the ADL position.

One Jewish observer who questions the need for special outreach to Muslims is Steve Emerson, who directs the Investigative Project on Terrorism that tracks radical Islamist groups.

Noting that the most recent FBI list of hate crimes includes many more attacks against Jews than against Muslims, he suggests that talk of anti-Muslim hatred plays into the hands of anti-American radicals.

“Given this significant disparity in real world hate crime incidents, is there truly a ‘surge of Islamaphobia’ occurring, or is it more perception generated in and by certain media in cahoots with the Islamists?” he asked.

Foxman said that defending the rights of Muslims to build mosques “does not obviate” the need to continue to monitor mosques and churches for instances in which they preach hatred.

“We have to do that as well,” he said.

JTA

 
 
 
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