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entries tagged with: Nathan Diament


Christian student group case poses dilemmas for Jewish groups

WASHINGTON – Is it discriminatory for government to fund some forms of discrimination and not others? And what does “funding” mean?

These questions are at the center of a case concerning the right of a Christian student group to recognition on its campus.

The Christian Legal Society’s quest for official status at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law has wound its way through the courts and now is under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court took up the case in December; it has yet to set a date for hearings.

On the Orthodox side, Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union have filed separate briefs friendly to the Christian Legal Society. So has the National Council of Young Israel, joining a brief that includes Muslim, Christian, and Sikh groups.

Orthodox Jewish groups say a Supreme Court case dealing with a campus ban on an exclusively Christian society would adversely affect Hillel — some of its participants are shown meeting on campus — and other Jewish student organizations. Max Orenstein

The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are planning to file separate briefs friendly to the university. The American Jewish Congress chose not to file a brief.

The Orthodox vs. secular alignment is not unusual in such church-state cases. However, subtle differences over the case’s ramifications and over strategy have emerged between groups on the same side.

The crux of the dilemma for Jewish groups is whether the greater threat to Jews is posed by groups that exclude — or by marginalizing groups that exclude. The Christian Legal Society requires a signed commitment to what it defines as Christian principles, including proscribing premarital sex and defining marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. The society wants Hastings, which receives state and federal funds, to allocate it the same funding due other on-campus groups and it wants equal access to campus facilities.

The Orthodox Union’s brief emphasizes the threat that the law school’s lower court victories pose to the ability of OU’s student affiliates, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth and the Jewish Student Union, as well as other Jewish student associations, to control membership and leadership.

“A Jewish campus organization such as Hillel would be compelled to admit adherents of Jews for Jesus into its membership,” the OU brief says. “Not only would such requirements redefine the group, they would likely drive away members who wish to congregate with co-religionists, free from proselytizing.”

Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director and its counsel in this case, said the school’s refusal to recognize the Christian society violated the group’s constitutional rights.

“They are excluding this group because of a viewpoint,” he said. “This is a state university, and the state is not entitled under the First Amendment, under the free exercise of religion or freedom of association, to say these are the conditions under which to exercise your rights.”

For the ADL, the danger lies in the prospect of federal funding for a group that not only requires Christian commitment but the exclusion of gays.

“We really see this is as a discrimination case,” said Deborah Lauter, ADL’s civil rights director. “What if a club formed that said no Jews? Any organization that says they’re opposed to Jews, women, blacks, gays — if CLS succeeds, public-funded universities will have to fund it.”

The ADL and Agudah, from opposing sides, see far-reaching consequences for funding for faith groups in general. The Orthodox Union and the American Jewish Committee see the case more narrowly affecting student activities.

Lauter says the case has ramifications for the efforts by Jewish civil rights groups to get the Obama administration to make good on promises to restrict faith-based funding for social activism to groups that do not proselytize or discriminate in their hiring.

“This would open the door up for federal funds to be used to discriminate in the hiring and firing of people,” Lauter said. “It’s antithetical to democracy.”

The AJC joined the ADL in its letter this month to the White House regarding faith-based funding, but Richard Foltin, the AJC’s legislative director, said the Hastings case was unrelated.

“I wouldn’t say one motivates the other,” he said.

In fact, Foltin said, AJC was driven to file an amicus brief because the Christian society insists on receiving the same direct funding from the university that other groups receive. Had the society simply asked for the same on-campus status of other groups — access to space and facilities, Foltin said — AJC might not have joined the case.

Lauter says ADL sees any university sanction of the group as crossing a line.

“There’s no distinction — once you open the door up, it’s open,” she said, adding that the Christian society was free to meet off-campus.

Similarly, whereas the Orthodox Union’s brief focuses principally on the ramifications for student groups, Agudah tells the Supreme Court in its brief that upholding lower courts’ decisions favoring Hastings would have dire consequences for expression of faith generally.

“Applying these laws to Orthodox Jewish schools and synagogues, federal, state, or local governments could relegate Orthodox Jews and our institutions to second-class status, ineligible to participate equally in society,” the Agudah brief says. “Such a result cannot be reconciled with our nation’s foundational concept of religious freedom.”

Abba Cohen, Agudah’s Washington director, counted off the programs that could be adversely affected, including state and federal assistance for disabled students, remedial teaching, disaster relief, and homeland security assistance for securing Jewish institutions.

“So much of our religious life involves separation between the genders and services and activities that are exclusive to the Jewish faith,” he said. “This really hits at the hearts of our religious practice.”

Hastings’ inclination to protect gays from discrimination — a key factor cited repeatedly in the university’s brief — is a matter of “contemporary mores” and not law, Cohen argues.

“One would need a much, much higher level of state interest to infringe upon” the rights of religious groups, he said. “You’re dealing with association rights, free speech rights, you’re dealing with the very things which make religion what it is.”

The AJCongress’ board debated whether to file a brief, but found itself torn between the dangers each side sees and decided against, said Marc Stern, the group’s legal counsel and acting executive director.

Stern says the dilemma reflects broader Jewish community tensions.

“Does Jewish security lie in eliminating any vestige of discrimination in a public space?” he asked, “or does it lie in people drawing lines for ideological reasons to meet privately?”



Obama spreads the love, keeping Jewish leaders happy — for now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is projecting a new attitude when it comes to Israel, and is selling it hard: unbreakable, unshakeable bond going forward, whatever happens.

Jewish leaders have kicked the tires and they’re buying — although anxious still at what happens when the rubber hits the road.

News Analysis

“It’s a positive development,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the recent Jewish outreach blitz by the administration. “There are two questions, though, that will only be answered over time: Will the outreach be sustained, and will the policy be consistent with the positions being expressed in the outreach?”

Tensions between the administration and Israel were sparked in the first week of March, when Israel announced a major new building initiative in eastern Jerusalem during what was meant to be a fence-mending visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip was followed by a 45-minute phone berating by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then statements by senior administration officials that the announcement had been an affront.

That in turn spurred howls of protest by top Jewish figures saying that while Netanyahu indeed had blown it, the backlash should have ended with Biden’s rebuke. Worse, opinion-makers in Washington had seized on a paragraph in 56 pages of Senate testimony last month by Gen. David Petraeus in which the Central Command chief said that one of many elements frustrating his mission in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace freeze.

The turning point, Solow said, was the letter he received April 20 from President Obama.

“Let me be very clear: We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed,” Obama wrote. “Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.”

Obama suggested that the letter was prompted by the “concerns” Solow had expressed to White House staff. Solow said the letter was a surprise.

Whatever the case, the letter was only one element in a blast of Israel love from the administration, including speeches by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities, and to the National Jewish Democratic Council; Clinton to the Center for Middle East Peace last week and to the American Jewish Committee this week; Petraeus, keynoting last week’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s commemoration at the U.S. Capitol; Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, meeting recently with a group of 20 rabbis; Jim Jones, the national security adviser, last week at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Jones’ deputy, Daniel Shapiro, addressing the Anti-Defamation League next month.

The main theme of the remarks is, as Jones put it, “no space — no space — between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

Petraeus especially seems to have developed a second career keynoting Jewish events. He also spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is addressing a Commentary magazine dinner in June.

Much of his Holocaust address, naturally, concerned itself with events of 65 years ago, but he couldn’t help wrenching the speech back into the present tense to heap praise on Israel.

Speaking of the survivors, he said, “They have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies.”

The blitz also has assumed at times the shape of a call and response. After the initial “crisis,” a number of Jewish groups wondered why the administration was making an issue of Israeli settlement and not of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to renew talks until Israel completely froze settlement-building and of continued incitement under Abbas’ watch.

In fact, the administration repeatedly warns against any preconditions and has made a consistent issue of Palestinian incitement, but Clinton appeared to get the message that the message hasn’t been forceful enough.

“We strongly urge President Abbas and his government to join negotiations with Israel now,” she told the Center for Middle East Peace on April 15. She also called on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

Jewish leaders also were wounded by what they saw as a dismissive attitude to Israel’s contributions to the alliance.

“It is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world,” Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee president, said April 14 at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. “Israel’s military expertise and the intelligence they share with us help the United States remain on the offense against those who seek America’s destruction in some of the darkest and most difficult places on the planet.”

Cue Jim Jones, addressing the Washington Institute exactly a week later.

“I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America,” Jones said. “Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

The feel-the-love show extends to Israelis as well, a marked change from the no-photos snub Netanyahu received when he met at the White House with Obama in late March.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the red carpet for his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, on Tuesday, a signal that the sides are coordinating closely on Iran containment policy. And when the Israeli defense minister met at the White House with Jones, Obama dropped by Jones’ office to chat informally — a signal that presidents have traditionally used to underscore the closeness of a relationship.

Furthermore, the administration is not limiting its message to Jewish audiences. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke last week to the Arab American Institute and made points that essentially were the same as Clinton’s when she addressed the Center for Middle East Peace.

“Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Arab American group. “Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority should continue to make every effort to ensure security, to reform its institutions of governance, and to take strong, consistent action to end all forms of incitement.”

Differences remain — like Rice, Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration is not about to let the settlements issue go. More subtly, Obama is not going to concede in his overarching thesis of a “linkage” that has been repudiated by Israel and its defenders here: that Arab-Israeli peace will make it much easier to secure U.S. interests in the region.

“For over 60 years, American presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said.

That’s essentially true — Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, made the same point multiple times, but not with the doggedness and emphasis of Obama.

Jewish leaders said they would closely watch the aftermath of next month’s visit to Washington by Abbas, when the sides are expected to announce the resumption of talks. The nitty-gritty of the talks may yet derail the new good feelings; how that works depends on communications, said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This charm offensive is part of a prefatory way of setting up the communications so that when we get to proximity talks we will all move forward instead,” he said.

Critical to that success was listening, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union’s Washington office.

“Too many of the tensions of the past months have been generated by a lack of communication,” Diament said. “But just as important is for the administration to talk with, not just at, the community. The president benefits from having more input inform his policy choices.”



Elena Kagan seen as brilliant and affable — and a mystery

WASHINGTON – Rabbi David Saperstein runs through a shopping list of superlatives on Elena Kagan — “self-evidently brilliant” and “steady, strategic, and tactical” — before acknowledging that he doesn’t have much of a handle on what President Obama’s choice to fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat actually believes.

In the Jewish community Saperstein, the head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, apparently is not alone.

Community reaction to Obama’s selection of Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, is enthusiastic until officials consider what it is, exactly, she stands for.

Kagan, 50, has never been a judge — she would be the first Supreme Court justice without bench experience since 1974. It’s a biography the White House touts as refreshing, but also has the convenience of lacking a paper trail of opinions that could embarrass a nominee in Senate hearings.

President Barack Obama meets with Solicitor General Elena Kagan in the Oval Office last month. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“When someone’s a solicitor general, it is really difficult to know what is their own position and what is the position of the state they are charged to represent,” Saperstein said.

A similar murkiness haunts how Kagan handles her Jewishness — she has alluded to it, but has not explicitly stated it since her nomination.

Her interlocutors in the Jewish community say Kagan is Jewish-savvy, but they are hard pressed to come up with her own beliefs.

The White House strategy going into Senate hearings appears to be blame whatever controversy trails her on her employer, on her client — on anyone but Kagan herself.

The first such controversy to emerge since Obama announced the nomination Monday was Kagan’s defense, as dean of Harvard University’s Law School, of the campus practice of banning military recruitment through the main career office (veterans were allowed to recruit independently) because of the military’s discriminatory hiring policies on gays.

Kagan inherited the policy when she became dean in 2003, but she was not shy about agreeing with it. When the Bush administration in 2004 threatened to withdraw funding, she rescinded the ban, but wrote to the student body, according to the authoritative SCOTUS Blog, of “how much I regret making this exception to our anti-discrimination policy. I believe the military’s discriminatory employment policy is deeply wrong — both unwise and unjust. And this wrong tears at the fabric of our own community by denying an opportunity to some of our students that other of our students have.”

Such stirring defenses are absent from White House materials that have emerged on the matter. Instead, the Obama administration is distributing an opinion piece that appeared Tuesday in the conservative Wall Street Journal by her predecessor at Harvard Law, Robert Clark.

“As dean, Ms. Kagan basically followed a strategy toward military recruiting that was already in place,” Clark wrote, not mentioning her stated ideological investment in the matter.

Another debate pertains more closely to an issue that divides the Jewish community: federal funding for faith-based initiatives.

Kagan clerked for Thurgood Marshall in the late 1980s, and in a memorandum to the Supreme Court justice, she said there was no place for such funding.

In her Senate hearings last year for the solicitor general post, Kagan outright repudiated the position she had forcefully advanced in 1987.

It was “the dumbest thing I ever read,” she said. “I was a 27-year-old pipsqueak and I was working for an 80-year-old giant in the law and a person who — let us be frank — had very strong jurisprudential and legal views.”

Her defense was convenient — Marshall, of course, is long dead and unable to defend himself — and troubling to Saperstein, whose group joins the majority of Jewish organizations in opposing such funding.

“People aren’t quite sure what to make of that,” he said.

The Orthodox Union’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, on the other hand, knows just what to make of it — hay.

“As strong proponents of the ‘faith-based initiative,’ and appropriate government support for the work of religious organizations, we at the Orthodox Union find Ms. Kagan’s review and revision of her views encouraging,” he wrote on his blog Tuesday.

Saperstein noted that the Religious Action Center — along with other Jewish civil liberties groups, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — is preparing questions for Kagan to be submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. RAC is soliciting questions from the public as well at a Website,

These groups have welcomed the nomination; the National Council of Jewish Women has endorsed it. NCJW President Nancy Ratzan cited Kagan’s affirmation during her solicitor general confirmation hearings of Roe v. Wade as established law protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, and her defense of federal campaign funding restrictions as solicitor general before the Supreme Court — a case the government lost.

“She gave us clarity as a champion for civil rights,” Ratzan said of Kagan. “We think she’s going to be a stellar justice.”

Other groups say that whatever she argued as solicitor general — or whatever she said in seeking the job representing the U.S. government before the high court — might be seen more as reflecting the will of her boss, Obama, and is not necessarily a sign of how she would function as one of the nine most unfettered deciders in the land.

“There’s a lot we have to learn,” said Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of national and legislative affairs, even after 15 years of interacting with Kagan dating to her days as a Clinton White House counsel on domestic policy.

Foltin and others who have dealt with Kagan say she is affable and easy to get along with, simultaneously self-deprecating and brimming with confidence. She accepts with equanimity the nickname “Shorty” that Marshall conferred upon her, and charmed her Senate interlocutors at her solicitor general confirmation hearings when she said that her strengths include “the communications skills that have made me — I’m just going to say it — a famously excellent teacher.”

In addition to his interactions with Kagan during her Clinton years, Foltin — a Harvard Law alumnus — was impressed as well by her ability as dean of the school to bring conservatives and liberals together.

“This is an incredibly smart attorney who is able to reach out to people, take in diverse perspectives, and bring people together,” he said.

Obama cited Kagan’s outreach in announcing her nomination.

“At a time when many believed that the Harvard faculty had gotten a little one-sided in its viewpoint, she sought to recruit prominent conservative scholars and spur a healthy debate on campus,” he said.

Saperstein, who also recalls Kagan from her Clinton White House days, says she brings the same deep understanding of all sides of a debate to the Jewish community.

“She was quite aware of where there were differences — aid to education, government funding of religious institutions,” he said.

Kagan, whose nomination is believed to be secure — Republicans have said they are not likely to filibuster over it — would bring the number of Jews and women on the highest bench in the United States to three. That’s unprecedented in both cases. She would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer as Jewish justices. Sonia Sotomayor, like Kagan a native New Yorker, is the third female justice.

Stephen Pease, whose book “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement” chronicles disproportionate Jewish representation in the law, in academe, and in the arts, said a third Jewish justice was not remarkable. Kagan would be seen as getting the job on her merits: clerking to two famous judges, teaching at the University of Chicago, advising the Clinton White House, heading Harvard Law, and then as the administration’s second most important lawyer, all by the age of 50.

“She’s done some pretty incredible stuff fairly quickly in her career,” Pease said.

Despite Kagan’s familiarity with the Jewish community, there are few clues as to her Jewish preferences. Her late father was on the board of West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist shul in Manhattan, where she grew up on the Upper West Side. She had a bat mitzvah at the synagogue and, according to a New York Times profile, argued with the rabbi — over what it’s not clear.

Like Obama, she is close to Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and a law professor at the University of Chicago. It’s not clear, however, whether she shared Mikva’s deep involvement in the Jewish community. During her years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, from 1991 to 1995, she was not involved with the local federation.

The White House did not shy away from Kagan’s Jewishness in making the announcement, nor did it make her faith explicit. Invitees to the announcement included the usual array of representatives from Washington offices of national Jewish groups: the AJC, ADL, NCJW, and RAC, along with the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“Elena is the granddaughter of immigrants whose mother was, for 20 years, a beloved public schoolteacher — as are her two brothers, who are here today,” Obama said.

Kagan added that “My parents’ lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.”



Ambivalence on Ground Zero mosque

More often than not, Jewish and Muslim groups come down on the same side of battles over religious liberties.

Jewish organizations often file amicus briefs supporting Muslim religious rights in cases where zoning boards try to block the construction of houses of worship or bar the right of a Muslim to grow his beard.

“There are a lot of commonalities of interest,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Washington office of the Orthodox Union.

That made last week’s announcement by the Anti-Defamation League opposing the construction of a planned mosque near the Ground Zero site all the more remarkable. It was a rare instance of a Jewish establishment organization explicitly opposing a Muslim project or distancing itself from the role of upholding liberties for all. The $100 million mosque center was proposed by the Cordoba Initiative, a group that promotes interfaith dialogue.

Despite their common interests, however, Jews and Muslims have forged few formal alliances, mostly due to their deep differences on Middle East policy and Jewish concerns over Muslim organizations’ ties to radical groups. This has made Jewish groups ambivalent, supporting Muslim rights in principle but reluctant in practice to endorse specific Muslim organizations or programs.

This ambivalence was reflected in an American Jewish Committee statement supporting the Ground Zero mosque — with caveats and demands.

The AJC “urged the leaders of the proposed center to fully reveal their sources of funding and to unconditionally condemn terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology. If these concerns can be addressed, we will join in welcoming the Cordoba Center to New York. In doing so, we would wish to reaffirm the noble values for which our country stands — the very values so detested by the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks.”

Defenders of the proposed Ground Zero mosque suggested that such calls are insulting, noting that the Cordoba Initiative and its directors, Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Kahn, have a long history of pressing for a moderate, engaged Islam.

“One of the ways to prevent future Ground Zeroes is to encourage moderation within Islam, and to treat Muslim moderates differently than we treat Muslim extremists,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on his blog. “The campaign against this mosque treats all Muslims as perpetrators.”

On Tuesday, the mosque project at Ground Zero cleared what may have been its final hurdle before construction could begin. New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Committee declined to landmark a building on the site where the mosque would be built.

In recent years, Jewish organizations have defended Muslim interests in a variety of cases.

In 1999, Jewish groups defended the right of Muslim police officers in Newark to wear beards. This year, Orthodox Jewish groups and conservative Muslim organizations both were on the losing side of a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of the University of California Hastings Law School, which receives federal funding, to reject official status for a group that discriminates on a religious basis.

In Scottsdale, Ariz., the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix reported last week that Rabbi Charles Herring joined local Muslim groups in protesting against a course called “Islam 101” run by the local Board of Jewish Education. The class, taught by Carl Goldberg, included literature titled “Troubling Passages in the Koran.”

Herring, who leads a Jewish-Muslim interfaith group, noted that the Torah could similarly be misconstrued.

In Jacksonville, Fla., last May, a Jewish men’s club offered to help repair a mosque damaged in a firebomb attack. “We have a group of guys who like to do carpentry, painting, or whatever we can to help out,” Ken Organes of the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s Men’s Club told the local ABC affiliate.

“That’s a commonality that comes up again and again between Orthodox Jews and religious Muslims,” Diament said, “whether it’s scheduling issues for holidays for prayer time or wearing religious clothing or grooming.”

When the issues touch on the Middle East, however, the differences emerge clearly.

In 2007, when Debbie Almontaser, the principal of the Kahlil Gibran Arabic-language school in New York, came under fire for allegedly radical views, the ADL strongly defended Almontaser until she told a New York Post interviewer that the word “intifada” meant “shaking off.”

The newspaper cast the quote as defending T-shirts that read “Intifada NYC,” and the ADL subsequently fell silent. Almontaser eventually was forced to resign after critics said she should have explained the word in the context of the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vindicated Almontaser, saying that her views were mischaracterized and that she had no connection with the offending T-shirts.

The Jewish hesitancy to ally formally with Muslim groups is grounded in alarms raised in the past about the supposedly radical origins and alliances of groups claiming to speak for moderate Islam.

The Council on American Islamic Relations, often cited in media reports as the Muslim equivalent of Jewish civil rights groups, had relations in the 1990s with groups and individuals subsequently identified as close to Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

The council in recent years has issued statements distancing itself from such groups, but mainstream Jewish organizations still keep away in part because of the council’s vigorous criticism of Israeli actions. After Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish aid flotilla attempting to breach Israel’s embargo on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the council charged Israel with a “blatant disregard for international law” and called for a reduction in military assistance to Israel.

Jewish groups have differed over associations with another Islamic American group, the Islamic Society of North America. The American Jewish Committee has refused to work with the group, citing government investigations of its alleged associations with radical Muslims, although the society was never charged with any crime. The ADL and the Reform movement have worked with the society, noting its overtures to Jewish groups and the Holocaust education it has promoted for its membership.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said he rejected the bigotry of some of the critics of the Ground Zero mosque but that the sensibilities of the families of the Sept. 11 victims should be paramount. The Philadelphia-based Shalom Center organized a statement from 29 Jewish lay leaders and clerics urging American Jews to press the ADL to reverse its decision.

In an interview with JTA, Foxman likened the sensibilities regarding the mosque project to those that led the Jewish establishment to oppose a Carmelite nunnery at Auschwitz in the 1980s. The nuns had good intentions, but Auschwitz wasn’t the right place for a nunnery. The Vatican ordered the nuns to leave, and they did in 1993.

“We’ve been out there as often as we can, as vociferous as we can, when signs of Islamaphobia are on the rise,” Foxman said. “And we’ll continue to be.”


Plans for a mosque at the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks have generated ambivalence among some Jewish groups. Creative Commons/SpecialKRB

With Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod gone, will the Jews have access to Obama?

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates in November 2009 at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington. Robert A. Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

WASHINGTON – They were two Jewish aides who had offices within shouting distance of the Oval Office.

But the resignation last week of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff and the imminent departure of David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, is raising the question of what the disappearance of the president’s top two Jewish aides will mean for the Jewish community

Top Jewish Democrats and leaders of Jewish organizations say there will be an absence — of optics, not substance.

“It’s not every day that a White House chief of staff has his kid’s bar mitzvah in a Conservative shul and takes the family to Israel,” said Matt Dorf, the managing partner at Rabinowitz-Dorf, a communications firm that represents liberal and Jewish groups.

“That gave a human face to this White House to many in the Jewish community,” Dorf said. “In terms of policy and the Jewish community’s relationship with the White House, I don’t expect any change in that relationship.”

The visuals are not unimportant, a top Jewish aide to a senior congressman told JTA.

“People like to have someone who looks like them near power,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You say ‘Shanah Tovah,’ their faces light up.”

Nathan Diament, who directs the Washington office of the Orthodox Union, said that even the visuals wouldn’t suffer.

He noted that Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew who likes to regale audiences with tales of the difficulties of reconciling observance with the 24/7 schedule of senior public service, is set to take over the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB director — essentially the administration’s numbers cruncher — is a cabinet-level position, one Lew also held toward the end of the Clinton administration. He is leaving his position as deputy secretary of state to take the job.

“If you’re measuring Jewish prominence, there will be prominent Jews in the administration,” Diament said.

With Emanuel in Chicago running for mayor and Axelrod set to leave early next year to run Obama’s re-election campaign, access won’t otherwise change, Jewish organizational officials across the board said.

“Axelrod’s role for being a key conduit for taking advice from Jewish leaders will presumably continue when he has a political hat, not a government hat,” said William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Additionally, Obama’s official liaison to the community, Susan Sher, is still on the job — as chief of staff to Michelle Obama, the first lady, she occupies a fairly senior post.

Emanuel’s replacement, Peter Rouse, is seasoned at dealing with constituencies, including among the pro-Israel and Jewish communities, having worked as chief of staff to Obama when he was in the U.S. Senate and previously for Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader.

“It’s more important that that person have a positive disposition to issues of concern in the Jewish community than be Jewish,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch.

Privately, Jewish officials said Emanuel’s departure could smooth relations between Obama and the Jewish community for two reasons: Emanuel had earned a reputation in Israel as anti-Israel, and his overall style had alienated core constituencies, among them the Jews.

One Jewish organizational official said Emanuel’s brusque “just listen to me” style had severely hampered Obama’s agenda, leading not only to tensions with the pro-Israel community but with gays, liberals, and groups seeking health-care reform.

“Part of the reason he got into the trouble he got into were relationship issues,” the official said.

Additionally, Emanuel’s departure means that on Israel policy, Obama no longer will be able to say, as he did in an infamous meeting with Jewish leadership in the summer of 2009, that he has Emanuel to check his policies and does not need to consult with the wider community.

It was a blinkered “If Rahm and Axe are Jewish and they think this is OK, it’s OK” policy, is how the Jewish organizational official put it.

The problem with that view, some Jewish observers said, is that White House staffers — even at that senior level — are likely to defer to the boss, whereas Jewish leaders would be blunter in their assessments. But with two Jewish staffers, Obama mistakenly thought he didn’t need to consult with the Jews, these observers said. They blamed that insularity in part for tensions over west bank settlement-building that dogged the first year of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship.

Despite those troubles, some Jewish organizational leaders were baffled by a view prevalent in the Netanyahu government that Emanuel somehow had guided Obama down a path that was hostile to Netanyahu.

Emanuel, in fact, had little to nothing to do with formulating Middle East policy, although he did take a role in selling it — most recently when he met with Netanyahu over the summer on his son’s bar mitzvah trip.

Furthermore, the two individuals now running the policy in the White House — National Security Council staffers Daniel Shapiro and Dennis Ross — are sensitive to Jewish concerns.

“Rahm was not running Middle East policy,” Diament said. “Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro are still there.”



Time to assert Jerusalem’s Jewish heritage

Published: 03 June 2011

Supreme Court to consider Jerusalem passport question, minister exception cases

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court term ends next week, but cases of Jewish interest are already jockeying for space on the docket when the high court reconvenes in October. High on that list is whether an American born in Jerusalem may list his birthplace as Israel in his passport.

That case probably will garner the most Jewish attention in a fall docket that includes several cases of interest to the Jewish community, court watchers say. Another is a case involving church-state issues that already have divided Jewish organizations.

This week the court announced a few of the cases it will hear in the fall session.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) the court will consider the breadth of how religious institutions apply the “ministerial exception” from discrimination laws in hiring decisions.

A federal appeals court ruled that a teacher dismissed from the Michigan school was not subject to the exception, which allows institutions deciding whether to hire or fire ministers to ignore laws like those protecting the disabled, for instance.

So far, Jewish groups are split three different ways and already are preparing briefs, although the case will not be heard until October at the earliest. The Orthodox Union is joining Mormon, Roman Catholic, and Episcopalian bodies in a brief that argues “the right of religious institutions to select their ‘ministers’ extends to all who perform religious functions, and this right is not limited to those who exercise purely or primarily religious duties.”

The teacher in the Hosana-Tabor case was able to show that her secular instruction occupied a majority of her work time.

“This is a crucial issue for the liberty and autonomy of religious institutions — including synagogues and parochial schools — in the United States,” Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director, said in a statement. “Religious institutions must be able to determine and abide by their religious principles and be able to select who will lead and teach their members without second-guessing or interference by secular courts. “

A similar brief filed on behalf of Agudath Israel of America and a number of other Orthodox groups cites Jewish law in arguing that Jewish religious courts are the proper venue for considering employment-related disputes in Jewish religious institutions.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the American Jewish Committee are joining in a brief that upholds the EEOC’s determination of whether some employees are subject to the ministerial exception but objects to the quantitative standard applied in the Hosanna-Tabor case. Instead, the AJC and the RAC want the EEOC to consider whether religious duties are essential to the job, however minimal they may be in terms of time consumed.

“We’ve taken the position that the quantitative test is wrong,” said Marc Stern, the associate general counsel to the AJC. “The important issue is whether it is integral to the job.”

The Anti-Defamation League is not taking a position on the underlying case but is instead arguing that the burden of proof should be on the employer, not the employee, in assessing the ministerial exception, said Steve Freeman, ADL’s director of legal affairs. “The question is whether she gets to make her case, or whether she gets thrown out the door,” he said.

The Supreme Court has not yet announced all the cases it will hear when it reconvenes, but two other church-state cases considered recently by appellate courts may make it in, according to Stern. Both involve crosses as symbols of service — one involving a cross that dominates a war memorial in San Diego and another involving Utah’s practice of memorializing state troopers killed in the line of duty with massive roadside crosses.

The lead litigant in the San Diego case is the group Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.

Aside from the church-state issues involved, Jewish groups will be paying close attention because such cases will test what has become an overarching theme of the John Roberts court: denying standing to those not directly involved in an issue. The court routinely has dismissed cases that once were considered simply because a litigant’s claim to standing in a case was as a taxpayer.

The denial of standing favored by the court’s conservative majority allowed Arizona, in a landmark case last year, to continue to offer tax breaks to parochial schools because the litigants were not directly affected by the practice. In the Utah case, for example, the atheists group that is objecting to the crosses would not have standing unless it represented the family of a memorialized trooper — an extremely unlikely eventuality, because the state checks first with the late trooper’s family.

Simply taking offense because one drives by the cross may not be sufficient, under this standard — and it is an issue Jewish organizations are watching closely because it would negate much of their work.

“Even on Establishment Clause issues where the Jewish community is not united, groups agree you should have easy access to the courts,” Stern noted.

The case on the docket likeliest to attract the greatest Jewish attention is that of 9-year-old Menachem Zivotofsky, whose parents Ari and Naomi want his birth country listed as Israel on his passport — a right according to a law passed by Congress in 2002. Zivotofsky was born in Jerusalem, which the State Department has yet to recognize as sovereign to Israel.

The State Department, which issues passports, argues that Congress has no role in what is a foreign policy matter. A case pitting Congress against the executive branch, the State Department said in one of its briefs, is not a matter for the courts, “particularly where, as here, the case involves an exceedingly sensitive foreign policy concern.”

The case has been bouncing back and forth between the courts for years. In May, the Supreme Court said it wanted to consider whether Congress has the authority to pass such a law.

That has set off a panic among some Jewish organizational officials who are worried that a broad ruling by the Supreme Court against congressional authority effectively would nix the pro-Israel community’s most effective leverage: Passing laws in Congress that push back against White House policies seen as unfavorable to Israel. In recent years, such laws have helped stiffen sanctions against Iran and have required greater controls over how Arab recipients of U.S. aid spend their money.

Alyza Lewin, Zivotofsky’s lawyer, told JTA that such fears are misplaced.

“I believe we will win, but if we don’t, it will be on narrow grounds,” she said, having strictly to do with which branch of government authorizes what appears in passports. “This is not going to prevent AIPAC from passing whatever.”

In a brief, the ADL will argue that the law, narrowly defined, does not impinge on executive branch privilege because it applies only at the request of the petitioner, Freeman said. It will further argue that the court should not consider Jerusalem’s status in its decision.

JTA Wire Service


OU’s Nathan Diament bestrides Orthodox, Washington worlds

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 13 July 2012
(tags): nathan diament

WASHINGTON – Nathan Diament learned two things 22 years ago, watching Barack Obama play pickup basketball at the Harvard Law School gym.

“He was a generous passer,” he said of the school’s Law Review editor — and the United States’ future president. “He was competitive, but at an appropriate level of competitiveness. He didn’t get in your face.”

It’s an acquaintance that continues to serve Diament to this day, as he represents a minority within a minority — he has headed the Orthodox Union’s Washington office since it opened in 1998.

President Obama and Nathan Diament

Most recently, it culminated in a high-profile exchange between Orthodox leaders and Obama at the White House. Paving the way to such access is Diament, a respected veteran of the Jewish professional cadre in the nation’s capital.

“Nathan was one of the folks who said that direct dialogue between the Orthodox community and senior administration officials could lead us to common ground,” Jarrod Bernstein, the White House liaison to the Jewish community, said. “He has novel approaches to vexing policy questions.”

It’s a skill that is valued by his bosses in New York.

Rabbi Steven Weil, OU’s executive vice president, said Diament managed to reconcile a dilemma for the group: its advocacy for state funding of schools, despite adamant resistance to such funding among Democrats. Diament was able to help win bipartisan support for Homeland Security grants aimed at shoring up security at nonprofit institutions, which includes Jewish day schools.

“Because he has been in D.C. as long as he has, he has serious relationships not only with key legislators but with staff as well,” Weil said.

Jewish Federations of North America and Agudath Israel of America also led the push for the Homeland Security grants. William Daroff, the JFNA’s Washington director, called Diament the team’s “critical thinker” in working out strategies to build alliances in Congress.

Diament started out with the OU in New York in the mid-1990s, helping to make its case to the national government. Then he had to convince skeptical superiors that he had to be in Washington on a full-time basis.

An unexpected boost came in 1998, when U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, then a Democrat, wondered aloud at an OU centennial event why the group had no representation in Washington. In an email, Lieberman said that Diament had made the OU a “significant presence” in the capital by forging “creative coalitions.”

Chabad-Lubavitch has reached out to leaders here since the late 1970s, and Agudath Israel of America opened its office in the 1980s. But representatives of both those groups say that Diament’s added value for the Orthodox and general Jewish community is his enthusiastic understanding of the sometimes arcane workings of government.

“There is strength in numbers,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, the director of Agudah’s office, said. “Nathan is knowledgeable, capable, and dedicated, and by skillfully using these assets has been a boon to Orthodox advocacy on the federal level.”

Policymakers say Diament — and by extension the Orthodox Union — bring nuance to the table in a town that otherwise is flooded with the perspective of Jews as liberals who tend to vote Democratic.

Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, recalled one such encounter he had in late 2007 with an OU delegation led by Diament and the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. Hadley had been apprised of Israel’s national and security case for its claim to all of Jerusalem, but something was missing: the religious claim.

“Most of the discussions of all this are conducted among secular Jews, and they are political rather than religious,” Abrams said. “This was bringing some new light to the situation for Steve Hadley.”

The OU’s tough posture on Jerusalem at the time earned the group a rebuke from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who bristled at the notion of a diaspora organization staking a claim about how Israel should deal with Jerusalem.

Abrams said the OU perspective adds something else to Washington as well.

“On religious freedom and domestic policy issues, you have an additional Jewish perspective and it is not always the same” as the prevalent voice among more liberal Jews, he said.

That “Jewish perspective” — favoring fewer restrictions on government-church interactions — is likelier to find resonance with Republicans, as is the OU’s generally skeptical stand on peace talks with the Palestinians.

That made Diament’s job easier when George W. Bush was president and Republicans, with their similar outlook, led Congress. As Democrats rose to prominence, first by taking Congress in 2006 and then with Obama’s election in 2008, Diament found himself making the case to the Orthodox community, which tends to favor Republicans, that it was worth reaching out to Democrats.

“There’s definitely people in the community who think Obama’s terrible on Israel and who would like to see us play a more partisan role than we could,” he said.

So at meetings in synagogues and to audiences across America, he tries to tweak apart the myth from the facts, noting the real differences between the Obama administration and the Israeli government on settlements, for instance, but also the closeness in the defense alliance.

Diament’s ability to walk that line is a result of an upbringing less inclined to the insularity of some in the Orthodox community, said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

Diament’s father was an Orthodox rabbi at a Conservative shul in Lynbrook, N.Y., where Saperstein’s father helmed a Reform synagogue.

“He works well with people that disagree with him,” said Saperstein, who served with Diament on a White House advisory council on faith-based initiatives.

In recent years, Diament’s relationship with Obama certainly has helped. Diament was one of the few to recognize Obama when the candidate for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois attended an American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy forum in 2004. He relieved Obama from the awkwardness of standing alone in the conference hall.

Obama returned the favor on his first day in the Senate, recognizing Diament as he strode through the Senate office buildings and hugging him.

Sources close to both men emphasize that the relationship is one of friendly acquaintances.

Still, some in the Orthodox community have suggested that Diament is too close to Democrats. Congressional Democrats, in turn, wonder why Diament holds back on advocating on issues in which liberal and Orthodox interests unite, like federal money for the poor.

Diament did campaign against Obama’s mandate to extend contraceptive coverage to employees of religiously-run institutions like orphanages and hospitals. The stance baffled some Democrats — the Orthodox, in most cases, allow contraceptive use — but Diament said it was a principled policy against government interference with religious institutions.

At the June meeting of Obama and Orthodox leaders, Diament elicited laughter by saying that the stand also was a quid pro quo for Roman Catholics who joined the OU last year in successfully pushing back San Francisco’s proposed ban on circumcision.

But the meeting also had tense moments, such as when some participants felt that Obama appeared dismissive of the desire for large families. Others worried that the president seemed to condescend when he said he was more knowledgeable about Jewish matters than his predecessors.

At meeting’s end, Obama and the Orthodox leaders were still entrenched with their differing views. But Diament had brought them together to at least address mutual suspicions.

Diament speaks of congregation rabbis who attended the White House meeting.

“They told me they went back to congregants who were fiercely anti-Obama — and they were proud and happy the meeting took place,” he said.

JTA Wire Service


OU beefs up lobbying efforts

Targets day school funding in New Jersey

The Orthodox Union is ramping up its New Jersey political activism, hoping to influence legislators to increase state funding for Jewish day schools and alleviate what it calls a crisis of tuition affordability.

“The OU sees the government funding piece as an opportunity to build and support schools,” Maury Litwack, director of political affairs for the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, said.

A year ago, the OU hired Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky away from Agudath Israel of America to lobby in Trenton and direct the New Jersey division of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Now it is hiring two new staffers to raise the Orthodox community’s political profile at a grassroots level. Arielle Frankston-Morris will help local rabbis and congregants develop relationships with their local elected officials, and Eric Kaplan will focus on increasing voter turnout in November and beyond.

Pruzansky said that in the last legislative elections, which were in 2011, Orthodox neighborhoods in Teaneck and Englewood saw voter turnout of around 25 percent, roughly the same percentage that voted throughout the state, in what was a record low turnout statewide.

“While those numbers might be around the state average, the potential to make a statement that our community is involved can be made by simply having more people come out to vote,” Pruzansky said. “If we were able to get a 50 percent turnout, you can bet that the elected leadership will take notice.”

Last month, Pruzansky heralded the inclusion of a $20 per capita technology grant for the state’s private schools in the state budget. But another measure, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, now seems dormant until after the November election, following Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver’s refusal to advance it for a vote.

As the bill now is drafted, it would provide scholarships for private schools to up to 20,000 students, a quarter of them now enrolled in private schools, in specified school districts that include the heavily Orthodox districts of Lakewood and Passaic, but not the richer Jewish communities in Bergen County.

Elsewhere across the country, the OU has been involved in successful legislative efforts that are bringing money into day school coffers.

In April, the OU joined in helping to pass what has been described as the nation’s largest voucher program, in Louisiana. It was introduced and promoted by the state’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. The measure gained the support of the state’s non-Orthodox Jewish community, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans.

The OU also has set up offices in Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania in the last six months. According to Litwak, this reflects the priorities of the OU’s president, Dr. Simcha Katz of Teaneck.

“This is a primary part of his presidency,” Litwak said.

While the OU is making this a signature issue, Pruzansky said that state aid to day schools, and the increased voter participation that would make it happen, is not “simply an Orthodox issue. Every community that has a day school should feel the need to get out and vote. Achieving our goals will help all non-public schools and their families better afford an education that we feel best suits the needs of our children.”

‘Community Federation’ partners with OU

The new New Jersey hires are being underwritten in part by a group of Monmouth County Jews calling themselves the Community Federation of New Jersey, supporters of Jewish education from the Syrian Jewish community of Ocean Township and Deal.

“We’re really just a group of individuals who came together and are trying to influence politicians, let them know that Jews vote, that education is something close to our heart,” Michael Arking, the federation’s liaison with the OU, said.

“This idea of an affordable yeshivah education is close to my heart on a personal level. I feel that Jews are disappearing, and I feel that education is the answer to that,” he said. “It’s a real challenge to young families. The cost ofeducation is just a tremendous burden on communities and families. It drives people to take their children out of yeshivah and put them in secular schools. I don’t see how this burden can continue on.”

In March, the community federation convened a meeting of representatives of day schools statewide to discuss political action. Subsequently, at least some area schools sent out emails to their parent bodies highlighting the importance of voting in local elections.

Outside the Orthodox world, the American Jewish community traditionally has opposed government funding of religious schools. This can be seen in the 2012 policy compendium of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group made up of local Jewish community relations councils and national Jewish organizations.

“The JCPA reiterates its long-standing belief that publicly funded vouchers used for sectarian school tuition costs seriously undermine the fundamental principles of separation of church and state,” the statement reads. A dissent from the OU in the compendium says its members “believe that the Jewish community has traditionally been committed to principles that should lead it to support school choice initiatives.”

This statement reflects discussions on the issue held in 1998. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have upheld the legality of voucher programs and have led to their spread. The JCPA has established a committee to reexamine the issue.

In northern New Jersey, the issue was last raised by the Jewish Community Relations Council before the 1998 JCPA discussion, Joy Kurland, the council’s director, said. After an in-depth discussion at the time, the group concluded that it could not support public funding for private schools.

Across the state, the New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations has supported aid to day schools for such things as technology assistance, but because of a lack of consensus among its member federations it has no position on the larger and more contentious issue of vouchers.

Also this summer, the OU has launched another effort touching on day school affordability. In conjunction with the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, it has started the Day School Affordability Knowledge Center to spread information about existing affordability initiatives.

“Our concept is to gather information and provide analysis to the community in a very understandable and usable form,” Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the OU, said. “We’re now well underway on our first project.”

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