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AIPAC decision a victory—with qualifiers

 
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WASHINGTON – Baruch Weiss, the young lawyer who helped cripple the government’s case against two former AIPAC staffers, says the prosecution’s loss is a “great victory” for free speech and for Israel’s friends.

He’s not wrong, but like any legal document, the government’s motion Friday to dismiss classified information charges against Steve Rosen, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s former foreign policy chief, and Keith Weissman, its former Iran analyst, begs for footnotes and qualifiers.

News Analysis

The decision upholds as a matter of law the right of lobbyists to relay information to allies such as Israel. The drawn-out case, however, unquestionably wounded the pro-Israel community’s reputation as unassailable. It also defers a looming crisis for one of the fundamentals of reporting: the right of a reporter or lobbyist or anyone to listen to a source without running to tell the feds.

Rosen and Weissman had been awaiting trial ever since an FBI raid in August 2004 on AIPAC offices resulted in charges that they had obtained and relayed information relating to Iran’s threat against Israel. In the past three years, the government’s case suffered numerous setbacks in various pre-trial court rulings.

In a statement Friday, Dana Boente, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said that “Given the diminished likelihood the government will prevail at trial under the additional intent requirements imposed by the court and the inevitable disclosure of classified information that would occur at any trial in this matter, we have asked the court to dismiss the indictment.”

Weiss, Weissman’s attorney, said Friday’s move by the government to drop the case represented a “great victory for the First Amendment and for the pro-Israel community.”

But Boente made it clear that while Rosen and Weissman are free, the government likes the tool it unearthed in an obscure section of the 1917 Espionage Act -- the ability to charge civilians with dealing in classified information -- and it’s going to keep it.

The 1917 statute criminalizes information that “could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

The problem for the government came in a pre-trial ruling in August 2006, when trial judge T.S. Ellis III interpreted that line to mean that prosecutors had to show that U.S. interests were harmed, and not just that Rosen and Weissman relayed secrets to a foreign power: Israel.

Relaying secrets to friends of the United States, Ellis suggested, was not in and of itself criminal. For a crime to be committed, he said, the accused must have sought both benefit to another nation as well as harm to the United States.

Boente said that ruling went too far.

“The district court potentially imposed an additional burden on the prosecution not mandated by statute,” he complained.

The core of the indictment against Weissman and Rosen was that as part of an FBI sting operation, they were told -- falsely, it turns out -- that Iranian agents were plotting to kill Israelis and Americans in northern Iraq. They allegedly relayed the information to Israeli diplomats, media and colleagues.

“Relaying information to a friendly power” describes the essence of what AIPAC and a roster of other Jewish groups do -- and what any number of ethnic lobbies do.

With his 2006 ruling, Ellis enshrined that as legal, so long as it doesn’t harm the United States.

That might prove a relief to the pro-Israel community, but also raises questions for AIPAC on the eve of its annual policy conference about why it was so quick to throw Rosen and Weissman to the prosecutorial wolves.

AIPAC fired the two seven months after the charges were announced, saying their practices didn’t comport with AIPAC standards without ever elaborating what they were.

With the notable exceptions of Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, prominent organizations and communal leaders took years to weigh in -- if they did at all.

How does such behavior square with AIPAC’s carefully cultivated reputation for standing tall and tough?

Allowing Ellis’ decision to stand also upholds the part of the statute that alarmed free-speech advocates when Rosen and Weissman were first charged in 2005: The idea that anyone who even hears information that could harm the United States is liable to face 10 years behind bars if he or she doesn’t immediately call the authorities.

Boente’s statement Friday suggested that the government may rely on that statute in the future when it comes to prosecutions.

In movie parlance, that leaves a hole big enough for a sequel.

JTA

 
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Israel eases conversion procedures

Orthodox rabbinic group Tzohar claims victory

On Monday morning, Rabbi David Stav’s inbox was overflowing.

During an interview at a Teaneck cafe, he apologized for looking at his phone as the messages came pouring in. (He was in the area after spending Shabbat at Manhattan synagogues; he is scheduled to be scholar in residence at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah in February.)

But that morning — well, afternoon, Israel time — the Sephardi chief rabbi of the State of Israel — Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef — had denounced Rabbi Stav by name in a radio interview, and his friends were letting him know.

Rabbi Stav heads Tzohar, an organization of Israeli Orthodox rabbis that tries to bridge the gaps between Israel’s established Orthodox rabbinate — which regulates marriage and divorce in the country — and the secular public.

 

Masa-ing English in Israel

Local grads teach and learn from their enthusiastic students

When Benjamin Winik of Haworth finished his bachelor’s degree in political science at McGill University in Montreal, he considered teaching English in France for a year. Then he received an email from Taglit-Birthright Israel — he’d participated in a free Birthright tour of Israel in 2010 — informing him of the possibility of teaching English in Israel through Masa Israel Teaching Fellows.

“I liked how the program in Israel sounded; they give you a lot more support,” said Mr. Winik, now 24. “Moving to a foreign country is never easy, so you need that support system.”

 

NCJW immigration panel decries “broken system”

Participants praise President Obama’s executive action

President Obama’s recent speech on immigration — and his decision not to deport some 5 million people — most likely was driven, at least in part, by the advocacy efforts of groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Bergen County section, which held a forum on immigration reform last Tuesday, was in the process of sending a letter to the president when his formal statement was issued.

“It was a packed house,” Bea Podorefsky of Teaneck said of the forum, which drew 300 attendees. She and fellow NCJW member Joyce Kalman chaired the event.

“We prepared a letter for attendees to sign urging the president to take some action,” she said, joking that one of the program’s panelists, Rabbi Greg Litcovsky, said she must have had a “connection” to a higher power, given the president’s subsequent action.

Ms. Podorefsky said that the forum’s goals were “to educate ourselves, to educate the community at large, and to work together with our coalition partners.” The coalition, created around last year’s NCJW forum on human trafficking, consists of 24 organizations, ranging from Project Sarah to the Palisades Park Senior Center.

 

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Did heated rhetoric play role in shooting of Giffords?

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