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Englewood prepares for arrival of Libyan ambassador

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Libya owns this East Palisade Avenue mansion in Englewood, which may soon house that country’s United Nations ambassador.

The City of Englewood is again preparing for a Libyan presence as Libya’s U.N. ambassador, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, is reportedly making plans to move, at least temporarily, to a mansion it has owned since the 1980s.

The mansion remained empty until renovations began this summer ahead of a possible visit from Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi during the U.N.’s opening session.

A 1983 agreement between the United States and Libya limits use of the Englewood property to the Libyan ambassador and his family, and Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) said the Libyan and American governments acknowledged that agreement when Kaddafi decided not to stay in New Jersey. The amount of time the ambassador may spend at the property is unclear under the agreement, according to Rothman, who was mayor of Englewood at the time.

“The George W. Bush administration re-established diplomatic relations with the Libyan government and removed Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” Rothman said. “And up until this moment the Englewood police chief has advised me he sees no problem in allowing the ambassador and his wife and children to occupy the residence. And so, I hope everyone will be appropriately good neighbors.”

The police chief, Arthur O’ Keefe, said his department has been in touch with the State Department and is equipped to handle the situation.

“We are taking an active part in securing the safety of the ambassador and his family,” he said.

Security has been an issue for the property’s neighbors. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who lives next door, held a protest at his home in August when rumors surfaced of Kaddafi’s visit. In addition, The Moriah School is located near the mansion.

“There should be no impact on [the neighbors],” O’Keefe said. “When we’re providing security for the ambassador and his family, we’re aware of the neighbors and the factors involved in the area.”

The department has increased its presence in the area, he said, but is in discussions with the State Department about its covering additional security costs, but that, as well as whether security may be reassigned to a federal agency, remains in preliminary stages, O’Keefe said.

“My intention is there is no cost or tax burden to the people of Englewood,” he added.

In a statement sent to The Jewish Standard last week, Boteach, a columnist for this paper, expressed outrage at reports that the Libyan ambassador planned to take up residence next door.

“That Kaddafi, an international sponsor of terror, will have his personal representative living next door to me with all the very serious security implications for me and my family, as well as all other residents of Englewood, is shocking and troubling in the extreme,” Boteach said in the statement. “I am dumbfounded that the State Department and our city is allowing this and if we the residents of Englewood, N.J., along with our esteemed Mayor Michael Wildes, are forced to once again come out publicly and oppose this outrage, we pledge do so by every legal means necessary.”

Boteach was on a humanitarian mission in Africa, but spoke briefly with the Standard Tuesday morning.

“These are not the kind of people who should be in a residential community,” he said of the Libyan security detail that would be required for the ambassador.

Boteach filed a lawsuit against Libya in August in protest of what he said was damage to his property caused by the renovations next door. Eric Herschmann, Boteach’s lawyer, said Tuesday that the case has moved to federal court but the Libyan government has not yet answered the complaint. As a result, he plans to file for a default judgment “in the near future.”

Wildes echoed Boteach’s anger.

“It’s upsetting that a financier of terrorism would have his ambassador sleep in the city limits and offensive that they wouldn’t pay a nickel in taxes for the last 20 years and insulting to the those who lost their loved ones,” Wildes told the Standard.

In addition to his role as mayor, Wildes works as an immigration attorney in New York City. In that capacity he has had dealings with the State Department before and he believes the department should block the ambassador from the city. Englewood, he said, could become “ground zero” for anti-Libyan activity, which would place a burden on the city’s law enforcement. City officials opened a criminal mischief investigation in October after a small fire at the mansion on Sept. 23.

“It’s unpatriotic for the State Department to put the interest of foreign nationals before our own,” Wildes added.

 
 

They made the news in 2009

Fifteen years ago, facing the usual slow week at the first of the secular year, The Jewish Standard created what has turned into an enduring feature: Naming the newsmakers of the year just past.

Particularly because of the recession (and Bernard Madoff), it was a very rough year. People lost their savings and their jobs. Some even lost their homes. Charities suffered and were hard-pressed to continue their good works. But the year called forth the best in us. We helped each other. We used our seichel and invented new ways of dealing with difficulty. Some of them even bridged age-old divisions.

We continue in what has become a tradition by stating our standards:

What makes a newsmaker? Philanthropy? Maybe, but also creative use of resources. Tragedy? Yes, but also survival? Personal accomplishments? Yes, but also efforts on behalf of others. Scholarship? Yes, but also originality. Political daring? Yes, but also political dealing.

The Standard, all those years ago, seeking not to judge but to inform, established a set of criteria, any one of which might land someone on the list.

• First, newsmakers must come from or have links to this region and have done something newsworthy, for good or ill.

• Second, they may have strongly stirred the community’s interest and/or emotions.

• Third, they may have brought an issue to the public’s attention.

• Fourth, they may have compelled or challenged the public to re-examine its beliefs and/or behavior.

• Fifth, they may have prompted a course of action.

This year, we name two people to the top of our list: State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Rabbi Ephraim Simon.

In December of 2008, we reported that Weinberg had lost her life savings in the Bernard Madoff scam. Instead of retreating to nurse her financial wounds, Weinberg — who by her own account has a tough skin — went on to run for lieutenant governor in November.

Tough indeed.

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State Sen. Loretta Weinberg continues to champion laws that benefit families, fairness, and ethics.

Weinberg, who described herself during the gubernatorial campaign as a “feisty grandmother,” is a former Bergen County assistant administrator (1975 to 1985), member of the Teaneck Township Council (1990-1994), and New Jersey assemblywoman (1992-2005). Now, as state senator, she continues to pioneer important state legislation while mentoring young women new to the political arena.

Challenge is nothing new for the New Jersey leader, a Teaneck resident since the mid-1960s. When she entered the N.J. Assembly in 1992, she was the only woman in the group’s Democratic caucus. Today, she is in the forefront of the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage.

That issue, Weinberg told The Jewish Standard last month, basically comes down to separation of church and state.

“It is about what the state sanctions and not what religion sanctions,” she said. “It is a civil rights issue.”

Born in New York in 1935, Weinberg graduated from the University of California with a bachelor of arts degree in history and political science, subsequently completing all coursework for a master of arts degree in public administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Throughout her legislative career, she has introduced and supported dozens of measures targeted primarily to families.

Among her other achievements, she sponsored a law to require health insurance companies to pay for at least 48 hours of hospital care for new mothers and their babies; helped establish New Jersey’s Child-Proof Handgun Bill; shaped the autism research funding bill that gives $1 from every New Jersey traffic violation to autism research; fought to enact a law lowering the legal alcohol level to .08 in New Jersey; and sponsored the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which prohibits smoking in indoor public places and workplaces.

She has also been active in the community, in both Jewish and secular organizations. A longtime member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, she is a life member of the National Council of Jewish Women and a founding member of Shelter Our Sisters, which helps victims of domestic violence.

Known for her outspoken approach to government corruption, she was a valuable addition to the Corzine team in November.

“If we don’t clean up politics, we can’t address anything else in a fair, open way,” she said, noting that she has had some “ugly first-hand experience.”

Weinberg’s politics and Jewishness are inextricably linked. Telling the Standard that she doesn’t want to sound “chauvinistic,” she pointed out that “the values imparted through our religious background are wonderful for being office-holders,” citing Jewish teachings on repairing the world, reaching out to help others less fortunate, and philanthropy.

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Rabbi Ephraim Simon literally gave of himself to save a stranger’s life.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon saved a stranger’s life last year by giving him his kidney. But in effect the Teaneck Chabad rabbi saved an entire family: The recipient was a desperately ill 51-year-old father of 10 who is now healthy enough to give his children the care they need.

Simon’s selfless act did much to clear the noxious air of the summer’s allegations of money-laundering by respected rabbis in Deal and Brooklyn and of illegal brokering of organs by an observant Brooklyn man.

It also spread the news that organ donation is halachically permissible — and it likely inspired many people to get an organ donor card.

There is, in fact, no way to know how many lives it will save over the years.

As the Rabbis tell us, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.”

Simon was among the top 20 candidates in the Jewish Community Heroes competition of the Jewish Federations of North America, and he’s certainly one of our heroes.

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Ari Teman, founder of JCorps, became the first JFNA Jewish Community Hero.

As it turned out, the award stayed in our community: JFNA named Teaneck native Ari Teman its first Jewish Community Hero, awarding him $25,000.

Teman, a standup comedian and the founder in 2007 of JCorps — which matches young Jews with volunteer opportunities in nine cities over three continents — beat out some 400 competitors, winning a contest that was part of the federation system’s new effort to broaden its base of support.

During a press conference after he was declared the winner, Teman, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County, paid tribute to Chabad, which, he said, has influenced him in his outreach efforts.

“Chabad is way ahead of us,” he said. “If you’re traveling somewhere in the world, in some far remote village, there’s a Chabad guy willing to let you in no matter what. We’ve been able to borrow from them [the philosophy of] ‘a Jew is a Jew’ and not get into the conversation of what kind of Jew are you. We got that from Chabad.”

JCorps has already enlisted some 10,000 volunteers for local community service projects in the United States, Canada, and Israel — all with virtually no budget.

The award money “will enable us to take in a lot more volunteers rapidly without having to worry, ‘Do we have to slow it down because we can’t afford to bring more people in?’” Teman said.

The 27-year-old also rated an invite to the White House Chanukah party on the fifth night of Chanukah. According to JTA, he “e-mailed friends that he earned a presidential laugh and a hug with a joke: ‘They’re calling Obama a Nazi ... which I think is fantastic ... because if you thought the presidency was a tough job for a black guy to get — Nazi? We have overcome! Mr. President, you are breaking down color barriers!’”

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) was a powerful voice in Washington in 2009.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rothman has been involved with several resolutions that have awarded funding to New Jersey and area institutions. He has also played a large role in forwarding U.S.-Israel relations and local Jewish causes.

In January, he introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives calling for increased transparency in the operation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Rothman demanded an overhaul of UNRWA, starting with its educational materials, because, “[w]e certainly want to make sure that United States taxpayer dollars are not being passed along from UNRWA to Hamas or any other terrorist groups,” he told The Jewish Standard at the time. Rothman began the struggle to revamp UNRWA in 2004.

After a meeting in November with John Ging, UNRWA’s director of operations in Gaza, Rothman said, “While there is still much work to be done, we have come a long way in a small number of years.… UNRWA has stepped up its compliance with U.S. law stating that no United States taxpayer dollars will go to fund terrorists.”

As mayor of Englewood in 1984, Rothman lobbied the U.S. Department of State to block Libya from buying a mansion in the city. As a result of his efforts, the State Department and Libya signed an agreement limiting Libya’s use of the property. That agreement was the basis for preventing Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi from taking up residence at the house this summer during the opening session of the United Nations. Rothman joined Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who lives next door to the Libyan property, and current Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes in protesting the expected visit. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, moved into the house in November, which is permitted under the 1984 agreement.

As one of the original sponsors of the Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, Rothman has also been an important voice in pushing for tougher sanctions against Iran.

When the Mock Trial team at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck could not take part in the national competition in 2005 because it conflicted with Shabbat, Rothman went to bat, advocating that the national organization make an exception for TABC. Eventually an accommodation was made so the team could compete.

The House passed a Rothman-sponsored resolution in 2007 calling on the board of directors of the National High School Mock Trial Championships to accommodate students of all faiths to allow them to participate in the annual competition without violating the practices of their religion. History repeated itself last year, however, when it looked like the Maimonides School in Boston would be left out of the national competition because of a Shabbat conflict.

Last month, the Mock Trial board of directors adopted a formal procedure for a possible modification of the competition schedule due to religious beliefs and practices held by a team’s members.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was ubiquitous last year. A columnist for The Jewish Standard and The Jerusalem Post, Boteach released new books, filed an international lawsuit, and become a spiritual adviser to reality TV stars.

First the books. This year Boteach penned “The Kosher Sutra,” a guide to Jewish romantic passion, and “The Michael Jackson Tapes,” about his relationship with the late pop star and Jackson’s desire to see families focus more on their children.

That desire sparked the “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” campaign by Boteach’s This World: The Values Network. The campaign kicked off with a series of public service announcements featuring a slew of celebrities urging families to spend Friday nights together.

In November, The Values Network and Yeshiva University hosted An International Symposium on Jewish Values, which featured Boteach with such notable guests as law professor and author Alan Dershowitz, Birthright cofounder Michael Steinhardt, radio host Dennis Prager, and YU president Richard Joel.

When reality TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin, of TLC’s “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” split earlier this year, Jon Gosselin sought spiritual counseling from Boteach for a short while. TLC airs Boteach’s reality show, “Shalom in the Home,” in which he attempts to heal family discord.

The Boteach brand also grew a little more recently, with the release of “I’m a Rabbi Shmuley Groupie” T-shirts and mugs through his Website.

Most recently, though, Boteach has been making headlines as an outspoken critic of his next-door neighbor, the country of Libya. In August, Boteach led a protest against reports that Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi would stay at a Libya-owned mansion next door to Boteach’s home in Englewood. (See page 7.) In the end, Kaddafi stayed elsewhere during his visit to the United Nations, but Boteach filed a lawsuit against the country alleging damage to his property caused during renovations on the Libyans’.

In Late November, while Boteach was on a humanitarian mission in Africa, Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, moved into the mansion, sparking protests from Boteach and the city’s mayor, Michael Wildes. The rabbi’s lawsuit against Libya is continuing and the court is waiting on a response from the country, according to Boteach’s lawyer.

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Under Jerry Nathan’s stewardship, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey has collected 150 years’ worth of local Jewish history.

Jerry Nathans is a man with a mission. Just as the Jews have moved from country to country throughout our long history, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey has moved from place to place, coming to rest (at least for the present) at the Barnert Medical Arts Complex in Paterson.

From Yiddish books printed in Paterson to wall hangings found on the streets of that city, the collection offers a unique look at local Jewish history, says Nathans, president of the group and the man who has virtually single-handedly shepherded northern New Jersey’s Jewish history for more than 20 years.

But the society is in trouble, says Nathans, 81, who doesn’t have the help he needs to keep it going and is seeking not only a board of directors but skilled professionals, including an archivist, to help preserve the treasures he has collected.

As the caretaker of 150 years of history — packed into some 300 boxes containing paintings, banners, and boxes filled with photographs and documents, detailing events from synagogue groundbreakings to synagogue closings, as well as everything in between — he says the long-range goal of the group is to establish a local Jewish heritage center for exhibits and research open to students, scholars, and other interested persons.

For information or to volunteer, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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UJA President Alan Scharfstein oversaw a transformative year for UJA-NNJ.

This was a transformative year for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. It had been planning major changes for two years, according to its president, Alan Scharfstein, changes designed “not only to manage funds but to engage the next generation.” The crisis caused by the recession acted as a catalyst.

In addition to trimming its budget and staff, it expanded donors’ options, allowing what it called “a new, personalized approach to philanthropy.” Thus, in addition to its annual campaign and its customary allocations to Jewish causes locally, in Israel, and worldwide, it advised donors that “supplemental projects can be created anywhere there is a need you want to help meet. From northern New Jersey or New Orleans to Nahariya or North Ossetia, UJA Federation has the partners in place to create and implement a project for you. And once your project is up and running, we’ll … report measurable outcomes so that you can be directly connected to the impact of your philanthropy.”

The federation also restructured itself into what it called “four centers of service”: the Center for Leadership and Volunteer Development; the Center for Philanthropy; the Center for Community Development and Innovation; and the Center for Israel Engagement.”

As Scharfstein told the Standard in June, “We want to be … nimble, responsive, fast…. We’re doing what needs to be done.”

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Rabbi Noam Marans, coordinator of the Kehillah Partnership, told delegates at the General Assembly why the program has worked so well.

The Kehillah Partnership — a Northern New Jersey program created in 2006 and linking the YJCC of Bergen County, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and local synagogues — garnered some well-deserved praise in November at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Washington, D.C. Promoting cost- and resource-sharing initiatives as well as joint programs, the venture is coordinated by Rabbi Noam Marans, associate director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee.

“The Partnership is a place where local community agencies and institutions … work together to foster innovation and connectedness, doing together what no agency can do alone,” said Marans at the GA. “Institutions maintain individual identities and allegiances but embrace the benefit of working together with others.”

Among its other programs, the Partnership developed a curriculum for sixth-grade Hebrew school teachers that integrates the arts. In addition, the group recently brought the national PJ Library — geared toward getting young children and their families to read Jewish books — to the area.

Marans said that the program, which at present embraces 10 congregations, will eventually expand not only to more synagogues but to more Jewish institutions as well.

“We have learned,” he said, “that if one creates an environment of trust between institutions, the institutions and their lead players will work together on projects for the betterment of the entire community.”

Beginning in late 2008, letters and columns filled the pages of The Jewish Standard about the rising costs of day-school tuition, comparing those costs to a form of Jewish birth control. America’s economic downturn had shoved the problem of escalating day-school tuition to the forefront of the battle for Jewish continuity.

In January 2009, the Orthodox Union convened a host of rabbis and day-school administrators to discuss the growing problem of high day-school tuition. The Standard fostered the wider discussion by launching an occasional column, contributed by readers, it called “Continuing the Conversation.”

The OU, the world’s largest Orthodox umbrella group began exploring a series of nation-wide cost-saving programs, but that wasn’t enough. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood soon began gathering local day-school leaders, parents, and rabbis to tackle the problem.

The result was Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, NNJKIDS. It is the main project of Jewish Education For Generations, an organization launched in June to explore various options to solve what many have deemed a tuition crisis.

According to the organization’s leaders, NNJKIDS’ mission is to change the communal mindset by shifting the burden of tuition from the parents to the entire community.

Goldin, who was our first Newsmaker of the Year 15 years ago, previously told the Standard that, “We’re trying to move away from the tuition-based model alone to a model of broad-based support.”

With the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, NNJKIDS has reached out to every Orthodox synagogue in the county, as well as a growing number of Conservative synagogues. Perhaps the organization’s greatest accomplishment in its short history has been its ability to bring people together from across the denominational spectrum to support the area’s Orthodox day schools as well as its two Solomon Schechter schools, which are affiliated with the Conservative movement.

In November, NNJKIDS awarded more than $180,000 — the first of what it hopes will be quarterly distributions — to eight elementary day schools.

They are: Ben Porat Yosef, Paramus; Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey, Oakland; The Moriah School, Englewood; The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, River Edge; Sinai Schools; Solomon Schechter of North Jersey, New Milford; Yavneh Academy, Paramus; and Yeshivat Noam, Paramus.

For more information on the fund, visit http://www.nnjkids.org.

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Congregant Debbie Zlotowitz working with schoolchildren in Uganda as part of Barnert Temple’s Africa Initiative.

Responding to the tremendous needs of people in war-torn and impoverished African nations, Barnert Temple — which for several years has sponsored relief projects in that region — this year significantly expanded its outreach efforts.

The congregation’s Africa Initiative, unveiled in mid-October, includes a youth program to raise relief funds and awareness for victims in Darfur as well as projects linking the Franklin Lakes congregation with schools in Uganda and helping nascent women’s cooperatives expand their effectiveness in Rwanda.

Among other activities, the congregation will help fund a well in a Ugandan village so that girls charged with drawing water will have time to go to school.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman told The Jewish Standard that factors such as colonialism have worsened the situation in Africa, “a part of the world so rich in heritage and wisdom, yet so challenged by poverty and lack of opportunity.”

“We see our [Jewish] mandate to help as universal,” she said. “We bring all the gifts that have been granted us to bear upon the condition of others.”

She said that about 30 percent of Barnert’s members are involved in projects of social action.

The Barnert religious school is involved as well through its solar cooking project, which helps families of Darfur refugees in camps by relieving women of the need to scavenge for wood, making them vulnerable to attack.

For more information, visit the synagogue’s Website, barnerttemple.org, and follow the link to the social action committee.

Threatened with loss of funding for the school’s successful Music Discovery Partnership, the JCC Thurnauer School of Music in Tenafly appealed to the community — and won.

According to the school’s director, Dorothy Roffman, the initiative — which has brought musical enrichment to more than 1,000 students in the Englewood public schools over the past 10 years — was able to survive the expiration of the Englewood District’s federal and state program grants. Recognizing the importance of the program, the district decided to use federal stimulus money to support the program as part of a comprehensive plan to raise student achievement.

Ironically, in August the Thurnauer school had announced that it was designated a Major Arts Institution by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State and had been awarded $18,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Learning in the Arts Program — for the very program later threatened.

Roffman said the Music Discovery Partnership benefits both the students and the community as a whole.

“A rewarding and extensive artistic experience can have an enormous impact on individuals, their families, and peers, including learning to focus, gaining self-confidence, and developing sensitivity to other points of view,” she said. In addition, “Consistent exposure to the arts has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to stimulate long-term, systemic change in the way that the arts are perceived and valued by our society.”

For further information about the Thurnauer school or the Music Discovery Partnership, call the school, (201) 408-1465, or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Why Kaddafi never made it to Englewood and the Libyan ambassador’s 27-year presence there

 

Why our congressman is wrong about the Libyan mission in Englewood

 

Squabbles dogging U.S. ‘big picture’ in Middle East

imagePalestinian Islamic Jihad supporters in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip rally on Feb. 26 against an Israeli plan to renovate two Jewish holy sites in the west bank. Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90

WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama’s big-picture guy, is set to draw it for the Israelis next week in a major address: Confront Iran internationally, talk peace regionally. (See also page 18.)

Bold strokes, but already Biden’s initiative is being dogged by scribbly little details — timing on Iran, building in Jerusalem, restoration in the west bank, and just how far apart will Israelis and the Palestinians sit.

Biden was set to meet Tuesday afternoon with pro-Israel leaders and the White House’s top Middle East staffers, evidently in a bid to see how he can smooth the picture’s corners before heading to Israel. The meeting, at the vice president’s home, is hush-hush — a sign of how vexing some of the problems have been.

Among them:

• Plans by Jerusalem’s mayor to level some Palestinian dwellings and move the families elsewhere;

• Israeli government earmarks for preserving Jewish holy sites in predominately Palestinian areas in the west bank;

• A Palestinian reluctance to return to direct talks, resulting in awkward “proximity” talks, where the parties communicate only through a U.S. interlocutor;

• Israeli anxieties about the Obama administration’s reluctance to go for the jugular ASAP in confronting Iran.

The decision causing the greatest waves this week has perhaps the smallest bore: Netanyahu announced plans to include the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem among 150 heritage sites entitled to about $100 million in renovation funds.

Both sites are in heavily Palestinian areas. U.S. officials reportedly have blasted their Israeli counterparts for the decision, and the Palestinian cabinet held its most recent meeting in Hebron to protest. Palestinian protests in Hebron last week spilled over into Friday afternoon rioting at the ultra-sensitive patch of Jerusalem land where two mosques abut the Western Wall.

Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip, called for the launch of a new intifada, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fretted that the Israeli decision could lead to religious war.

“These sites are in occupied Palestinian territory and are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well,” said Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

True enough, Israeli officials say — and they have facilitated renovations to the Muslim part of the Patriarchs’ cave in the recent past, undercutting arguments that this is part of an attempt to “Judaize” the sites.

“This is not in any way changing the status quo,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told JTA. “This is about renovating important historical and religious sites of the Jewish people.”

Settler leaders said the Palestinian reaction underscored how important it is to remind the world of the Jewish stake in the sites.

“The reaction of the Palestinians shows how important it was,” Danny Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip told JTA. “They erroneously thought the Jewish people had abandoned” the sites.

Netanyahu is not insensitive to the appearances of such initiatives.

On Tuesday, his government talked Jerusalem’s hard-nosed mayor, Nir Barkat, into delaying a scheduled rollout of his plan to move out Palestinians living in Silwan, neighboring the Old City, and to raze their homes for a park. The mayor would offer the Palestinians the opportunity to build elsewhere.

But the prime minister leads a government that is predominantly right-wing, and that includes parties that draw support from west bank Jewish settlers and their sympathizers. In a bid to simultaneously please the United States, Israel’s best and closest ally, and his hardest-line constituents, he ends up veering both ways.

Still, the Obama administration “appreciated” Netanyahu’s intervention into Barkat’s plan, with State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley saying later Tuesday that the U.S. government “welcomed the intervention.”

In meetings last week, top Israeli officials dropped their demand for direct talks with the Palestinians and agreed to “proximity” talks, the cumbersome process where every back-and-forth runs through U.S. diplomats.

That was a “get” for the Obama administration, but it was followed this week by Israel’s announcement of building starts in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood Pisgat Ze’ev. And that earned a rebuke.

“We have relayed our strong concerns to the Government of Israel that this kind of activity, particularly as we try to relaunch meaningful negotiations, is counterproductive and undermines trust between the parties,” Crowley said in a statement Monday.

The Obama administration advocates a holistic approach to tamping down Middle East tensions. Its officials want to see Israeli-Arab talks moving while rallying international efforts to isolate Iran as long as it fails to make transparent its nuclear plans.

Again, the Israelis are happy with any effort to push Iran back from the nuclear brink — but the devil is in the details. The Obama administration is still operating on assumptions that the Iranians are several years away from weaponization, while the Israelis are convinced that it will happen before 2010 is out.

That has led Israel to press the Obama administration to adopt unilateral and punishing sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector immediately. Such sanctions are written into bills that have passed both chambers of the U.S. Congress and are backed by almost every pro-Israel group.

The Obama administration will not count out the so-called crippling sanctions, but prefers for now to focus on getting the U.N. Security Council to adopt more narrow sanctions targeting the Iranian leadership.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made his country’s case last week in Washington in meetings with top U.S. officials. He emerged confident that the relationship was as sound as ever, but nonetheless noted differences on Iran in an address Feb. 26 to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There is, of course, a certain difference in perspective and difference in judgment, difference in the internal clocks, and difference in capabilities,” he said. “And I don’t think that there is a need to coordinate in this regard. That should be understood; it should be exchange of views — we do not need to coordinate every step. We clearly support the attempt to solve it through diplomacy.”

Barak, however, could not resist a subtle jab at Americans who do not have the same stake in protecting the region from Iranian hegemony.

“We clearly think that in spite of the fact that from America, when you look at a nuclear Iran, you already have, just besides allies like France and UK, you have a nuclear Russia, nuclear China, nuclear India, nuclear Pakistan, North Korea is going toward turning nuclear,” Barak said. “So probably from this corner of the world, it doesn’t change the scene dramatically.

“From a closer distance, in Israel it looks like a tipping point of the whole regional order with a quite assured, quite certain consequences to the wider world, global world order.”

JTA

 
 

Rothman meeting examines U.S.-Israeli missile defense

When Rep. Steve Rothman met late last month with the head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, the two discussed state-of-the-art defense programs that will protect the Jewish state from regional threats while providing the United States with access to superior technology.

Rothman (D-9) sits on the powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, which allocates all funding for U.S. military and joint U.S.-Israel defense projects. The Feb. 23 meeting with Arieh Herzog focused specifically on three missile defense programs: David’s Sling, a short-range ballistic missile defense system; the Aarow 2, an anti-tactical ballistic missile system; and the Arrow 3, an upper-tier system capable of stopping longer range missiles. (See With Murtha gone, what are ramifications for Israel?)

“The joint projects I discussed with director Herzog — and have discussed with the highest level of military and intelligence personnel at the highest level of the U.S. government — will not only provide Israel with superior missile defense systems but will also provide the United States with access to that technology at every stage of development for use by American forces and other American allies,” Rothman told The Jewish Standard earlier this week.

David’s Sling, which Rothman said has almost completed full testing, is designed to protect against Kassam rockets from Gaza and Katyushas from Lebanon. Israeli defense contractor Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. and the American defense contractor Raytheon are jointly developing the system. The first live-fire test of the system is expected sometime this year.

Asked about Israel’s Iron Dome system, which the Jewish state developed on its own to protect against Kassam rockets, Rothman said it provides a larger defense radius than David’s Sling, but both would contribute to “Israel’s defensive umbrella.”

The Arrow 2 system is already operational. It is designed to protect against lethal short- to medium-range ballistic missiles, such as those currently located in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

The Arrow 3 system is designed to intercept a future Iranian or other long-range missile that achieves its range by leaving Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike the Arrow 2 warhead, which can explode without directly hitting its target, the Arrow 3 needs to directly strike the offensive missile. This, Rothman said, makes the Arrow 3 a less expensive system than its predecessor since it requires fewer explosives and thus has a smaller payload to carry.

“One of the benefits of the Arrow 3 is it will be cheaper to make and more can be acquired in Israel’s and America’s defensive arsenal for less money, yet [they will] get the job done,” Rothman said.

Israel and the United States have worked on the Arrow project since the late 1980s, and Israel deployed the first Arrow battery in October 2000. The system is a project of Israel Aerospace Industries and Boeing. Developers hope the Arrow 3 will be operational sometime between 2012 and 2014, Rothman said.

Rothman and Herzog discussed “every potential threat to Israel’s security, including the Iranian threat,” Rothman said, without going into further detail. The meeting was not a response to any specific threat, Rothman noted, but rather was part of a regular series of meetings he holds with the IMDO.

Israel advocates have criticized President Obama’s policies toward Israel, specifically regarding pressure on the Jewish state to make concessions in the Palestinian peace process. Rothman, however, said that military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries has never been higher than under Obama.

 
 

Area pols and agencies weigh in on health-care bill

Democratic members of Congress and Jewish organizations around the region lauded the health-care bill signed into law earlier this week, even as Republicans prepared to launch legal challenges.

After watching President Obama sign the legislation into law on Tuesday morning, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8), one of the bill’s sponsors, told this paper that the legislation is “a big step forward.”

“The benefits are just outstanding,” he said.

The bill, he said, guarantees that no one can be denied health coverage because of pre-existing conditions. He also cited tax credits to 116,000 families and 15,200 small businesses in his district.

The congressman summed up the bill in a single phrase: “Health security.”

“Those left out [of coverage] with preconditions will no longer be denied,” he said. “That’s a huge change.”

Pascrell lashed out at the bill’s critics who have repeatedly warned that the legislation would lead to health-care rationing or that those satisfied with their current coverage would be forced to abandon it.

“Existing plans are grandfathered under this bill,” he said. “I am tired of the lies and misrepresentations and prejudicial statements.”

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5), a critic of the bill who was one of 212 to vote against it in Sunday’s House vote, did not return calls or e-mail requests for comment. A statement on his Website blasted the health bill.

“While I appreciate the efforts of the majority to reform our health-care system, it is hard to underestimate what a grave mistake it would be to enact this bill,” he said in the statement. “It would fundamentally alter our citizens’ relationship with their government. It would seriously jeopardize our nation’s long-term prosperity. It would dampen the vitality of our nation’s health-care innovators. It would restrict choice and access to medical care for millions of our nation’s elderly and poor. It would tax hundreds of billions of dollars out of the economy in the midst of one of the most serious economic downturns in our nation’s history. And for all this — for all of these thousands of pages and hundreds of new bureaus, boards, and bureaucracies — it won’t make America any healthier.”

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), one of 219 “yes” votes from the House, said in a statement sent to this paper, “This legislation will make a marked improvement in the lives of my constituents and will be a great step forward beyond the present system now causing so much cost, heartache, and tragedy to so many throughout my congressional district, New Jersey, and our entire country.”

The bill also earned praise from area Jewish organizations, including Jewish Family Services, which frequently serve clients without any insurance coverage.

“We work with a lot of people who have no insurance whatsoever,” said Lisa Fedder, executive director of JFS of Bergen and North Hudson in Teaneck. “The fact that more people will be able to be insured and get the services they need is a great opportunity.”

The bill will have a large impact on people who lost their jobs during the economic crisis and are still struggling to make ends meet, as well as those working for small businesses that had begun to stop paying for their employees’ health care, Fedder said.

“It’s not a perfect bill, but I think it’s a great beginning,” said Leah Kaufman, executive director of JFS of North Jersey in Wayne.

Kaufman has seen many clients who have no insurance and no steady income put off doctor’s visits to avoid racking up bills. This legislation, she said, would provide them with the coverage they need. She also praised the bill’s inclusion of children up to age 26 on their parents’ policies as helpful, since many recent college graduates are struggling to find work.

“There are so many people out there who can’t get medical care because they don’t have coverage and can now get that kind of care,” she said.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, spiritual leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, called the new legislation the best possible for now.

“I don’t think it answers all of the issues facing us, but it’s an improvement,” he said. “To me, we can’t aim for perfection. We have to always try to look for the best possible solution. This health-care bill is the best possible that could be achieved at this moment in time.”

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents in Trenton the Garden State’s 12 federations, praised the bill’s inclusion of the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act.

“From that perspective,” Toporek said, the bill is “a major plus for the Jewish community.”

The CLASS Act is a provision that would create a voluntary disability insurance program for adults with long-term needs and alleviate pressure on the Medicaid program. According to the legislation, eligible enrollees who need assistance performing common daily activities — such as dressing, bathing, and eating — would receive cash benefits to pay for support services in a community setting. The Jewish Federations of North America had lobbied for the act’s inclusion in the health bill.

“How better to practice tikkun olam than by providing these people who are in need with the ability to get mended?” Toporek said.

“Clearly it pleases all of us as professionals that more people will be covered under health-care coverage,” said Charles Berkowitz, executive vice president of The Jewish Home at Rockleigh. “There are people who will be able to get great coverage now that couldn’t before.”

For more about the bill see Groups pushed health reform, but some keeping quiet on bill.

 
 

AIPAC, congressmen seek to add teeth to Iran sanctions

WASHINGTON – Rules without enforcement don’t mean much.

That’s the new tone the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its supporters on Capitol Hill are taking when it comes to Iran sanctions.

Last week, congressional appropriators close to AIPAC moved to introduce enforcement language that would penalize federal agencies that contract with companies doing business with the Islamic Republic.

“If the existing lock on the door was not doing the job, this is a much more powerful lock we’re placing on the door of companies who would want to do business with Iran,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who is pushing the language with fellow U.S. House of Representatives appropriators, Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). All three are known for close ties to the Jewish state.

Setting the wheels in motion for the new legislation was the revelation in The New York Times on March 6 that sanctions busters had garnered $107 billion in U.S. government money for procurement business, grants, and loans.

In a rare move for a lobby best known for its behind-the-scenes profile, AIPAC sent letters to every member of Congress expressing its outrage over the sanctions violations.

“These ongoing financial dealings undermine longstanding American efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” the letter said. “While Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama may have discouraged some investment in Iran through their rhetoric, the United States has sent the American and international business community a contradictory message by failing to enforce the law.”

AIPAC’s letter has had an effect.

Rothman said he already was planning action as soon as he read the story, but the calls and e-mails he received made it a must-do. “My Blackberry was burning,” he said.

Rep. Israel raised the issue with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on March 25 in a hearing of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Geithner was receptive.

“We would be open to any effective means for bringing greater pressure to bear on this government,” he said. “We share your commitment to this and we’ll work with you to explore any feasible means to bring greater pressure to bear on this government.”

Rep. Israel later said he was satisfied.

“The administration clearly got the message,” he said, noting that Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, had not enforced the sanctions for both of his terms. “I don’t want to proclaim victory yet; we still have work to do.”

The legislation would attach “limiting” amendments to all 12 budget bills that Congress must pass, preventing funds from going to companies that engage in activity eligible for sanctions or own or control any party that engages in such activity. This latter practice was a common dodge by U.S.-owned companies to enable foreign-owned subsidiaries to deal with Iran.

The legislation came the same week that AIPAC drew nearly 8,000 attendees to its annual policy conference. AIPAC activists lobbied March 23 for final passage of bills to enhance sanctions in existence since the mid-1990s. Bills have passed in the House and Senate and are now undergoing “reconciliation.”

The existing sanctions banned most U.S. business dealings with Iran. Yet the Times found in its March 6 report that 49 U.S. companies were doing business with Iran, and those doing business with Iran’s energy sector had gotten $15 billion.

The existing sanctions restrict access to U.S. markets for foreign entities doing business with Iran’s energy sector. The enhanced sanctions would outright ban U.S. business with any entity doing business with Iran’s energy sector and would also target Iran’s financial sector. The sanctions also would reduce the $20 million ceiling for overseas companies doing such business to $1 million. The idea is to force overseas markets into a choice between trading with the United States or with Iran.

The Times revelations were a bitter pill for AIPAC’s activists. The flagrant violation of the 1996 bill that AIPAC had been instrumental in supporting was a damper for AIPAC activists famous for their enthusiasm.

“It’s frustrating, a dead end,” said Debbie Farnoush, 26, from Los Angeles and a founder of the Iranian-American group 30 Years After. “I feel like we’re not going anywhere.” Still, she said, she wasn’t going to give up. The United States needs to be “more aggressive,” she said.

Bruce Wiener, another activist, was optimistic about the prospect of tougher enforcement. “Most members of Congress are sympathetic,” he said. “It’s not a matter of convincing; it’s a matter of implementing.”

Keith Weissman, who headed AIPAC’s Iran desk until 2005, said that Clinton administration officials made it clear to him from the beginning that the bill was never going to be enforced because it crimped U.S. trade with foreign businesses. Clinton’s 1995 executive order banning business with Iran’s energy sector had been enforced for a short period and had spooked the oil industry enough that the 1996 bill was used as leverage — but never in deed.

Part of the problem, Weissman said, was that after years of threatening and not implementing, the U.S. government was perceived as crying wolf by companies that wanted to deal with Iran.

“Once it was clear they weren’t going to enforce it, it wasn’t going to work any more,” Weissman said.

Weissman and his boss, Steve Rosen, were fired by AIPAC in 2005 under pressure from prosecutors seeking an indictment against the men for relaying national security information to journalists, colleagues, and Israeli diplomats. The prosecution dropped the case a year ago after the presiding judge ruled that much of the government’s case violated constitutional principles, including free speech rights.

Weissman, who no longer believes sanctions to be effective, said the amendments now under consideration would create a cumbersome bureaucracy, with multiple U.S. agencies vetting hundreds of businesses.

“What, are you going to vet the company that provides food to soldiers, that helps export oil from Iraq, that caters parties at the Baghdad embassy?” he asked.

Rep. Israel dismisses the idea that the amendments are unworkable.

“There can be no argument that once a law is passed and signed by the president that it’s too complicated to enforce,” he said. “Whether it’s a contract, a grant, or a loan, whether it’s a penny, a dime, or a dollar, we will not allow them to spend the money.”

JTA

Eric Fingerhut and Melissa Apter contributed to this story.

 
 

Obama and the deafening silence of American Jewry

 

Environmental leaders roiled by oil plan

President Obama’s announcement last week that he intends to allow drilling for oil off the Atlantic Coast drew swift condemnation from area political, environmental, and Jewish communal leaders.

Oil is “like coal, it’s not good from square one,” said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, a Teaneck resident who has worked with a number of Jewish environmental organizations. “They can’t guarantee there aren’t going to be oil spills and other things that won’t devastate the shore.”

Obama’s energy strategy called for the exploration off the Atlantic coastline from the coast of Florida up to Delaware. Obama also announced a series of car and truck fuel and emissions standards, and the purchase of 100 plug-in electric cars for federal agencies.

Troster called the oil exploration announcement “a calculated move,” a concession, to create leverage for Obama to tackle larger issues such as climate change.

The president “has some Democrats who are not on board on some of the climate change issues; this is a way of balancing some of the interests,” Troster said. “On environmental issues this particular administration is doing a much better job than the previous administration.”

He noted that it would be several years before offshore drilling became operational and even if the U.S. were to drill all of its domestic oil resources, it still would not be enough.

U.S. energy independence, he said, would not come from domestic oil drilling, but rather from pursuing sustainable alternative sources such as wind and solar energy.

“It’s really important in the 21st century and today’s economy to focus on modern techniques,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

COEJL condemned Obama’s drilling announcement but praised other parts of the president’s strategy, such as improving fuel efficiency standards and regulating automobile greenhouse gas emissions.

“This administration is looking to take a comprehensive approach and we hope it will accomplish that,” Sanchez told the Standard. “We’re concerned when we see offshore exploration for oil drilling. We want to see more of a focus on clean technology.”

Reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a matter of national security, Sanchez continued, but reducing fossil fuel dependence in general is also a national concern.

Obama emphasized in his speech that the emissions caps and domestic exploration are “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

The Gulf of Mexico contains 36 billion to 41.5 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil and 161 trillion to 207 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, recoverable natural gas, according to the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service.

The Interior Department intends to hold two lease sales — one 50 miles off the coast of Virginia and the other in Alaska — by 2012. It is the Virginia plan that has drawn the ire of New Jersey’s politicians from within the president’s own Democratic party and the Republican party, despite its past support for domestic oil exploration.

“Even though the president’s draft plan does not propose drilling off the Jersey shore, it does allow oil and gas exploration just south of Cape May. That concerns me a great deal,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) in a statement to the Standard. “Furthermore, any oil spills resulting from drilling operations further south could easily follow northerly currents and end up washing onto our beaches.”

The United States cannot drill its way out of its foreign oil dependence, Rothman said. The country needs to focus on the development of new, alternative energy and on conservation.

“Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in a statement sent to this paper. “Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters is really a Kill, Baby, Kill policy: it threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life, and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars. Offshore drilling isn’t the solution to our energy problems.”

The Garden State’s new Republican governor, Chris Christie, also condemned the plan.

“I oppose the idea of drilling off the coast of New Jersey,” Christie said in a statement. “New Jersey’s coastline is one of our economic engines and I would have to be really convinced of both the economic viability and environmental safety of oil and gas exploration off our coast. At this point, I’m not convinced of either.’’

According to Christie, Obama’s proposal so far includes areas off Virginia and the northern tip of Delaware near Cape May in the Delaware Bay. Though New Jersey’s coast is not included in the plan, an oil spill could have serious ramifications for the Jersey shore.

“That’s a reasonable fear,” Troster said. “When I hear there’s going to be more environmentally sensitive oil drilling, [I consider it] an oxymoron. It’s a very dirty form of energy production and I don’t think you can change that in any significant way.”

 
 
 
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