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5748 in Review: the Big Crash and a New Clash Between Blacks and Jews in U.S.

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In America, 5748 was a year of economic uncertainty, political scandal and renewed tension between blacks and Jews. And as the rift between the movements of Judaism variously widened and narrowed, Conservative Jews struggled to reach a consensus on such divisive issues as the status of women as cantors.

The Jewish year got off to a rocky start with the stock market crash of Oct. 19. In the days and weeks after “Black Monday,” when Wall Street suffered its greatest plunge in history, leaders of American Jewish organizations fretted over how the collapse would impact their fundraising efforts and endowment funds.

There was particular concern in New York, where the stock market is not only an indicator of the state of the economy, but the work place of some of the Jewish community’s biggest givers. The year closed, however, with both the market and Jewish philanthropy on relatively stable footing.

Two American corporations suffered economic setbacks of their own, when they agreed to pay fines imposed for alleged violations of the 10-year-old Export Administration Act. The law, enforced by the U.S. Department of Commerce, bars corporations from complying in any way with the Arab boycott of Israel.

LARGEST FINE IN HISTORY

In March, the Oakland-based Safeway supermarket chain paid a $995,000 penalty, the largest in history, rather than face more than $4 million in fines in connection with its supply of product lists to supermarkets in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In August, the Sara Lee Corporation of Chicago agreed to pay a $725,000 penalty for supplying boycott-related information in an effort to register its L’eggs trademark in Kuwait.

There were embarrassments in the political world, as well. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a longtime friend of Israel, became the center of controversy for introducing a last-minute appropriations amendment in late December to funnel $8 million to yeshivas in France. He withdrew the bill in February, conceding an error in judgment.

Political scandal mired the Republicans, too, as allegations surfaced in January that an aide and close friend of Attorney General Edwin Meese had proposed making payments to Israel’s Labor Party in exchange for promises that Israel would not destroy a planned oil pipeline from Iraq to Jordan.

Meese, who later resigned, was cleared of any wrongdoing. The friend, Jewish financier E. Robert Wallach of San Francisco, is still facing charges. The pipeline was never built.

Meese’s Justice Department was also preoccupied during the year with trying to shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s observer mission to the United Nations, as mandated by the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987.

The battle, which some Jewish organizations supported and others sidestepped, was ultimately lost, after both the World Court and a U.S. district court ruled that closing the mission would be a violation of America’s obligations as host country to the United Nations.

TENSIONS OVER KOCH REMARK

Of course, the biggest American political story of the year was the presidential election campaign — and Kitty Dukakis’ Yiddishkeit was not the only issue that made Jewish news.

The hotly contested New York primary campaign deteriorated into ethnic mudslinging after Mayor Ed Koch said Jews “would be crazy” to vote for Jesse Jackson, the living symbol of black aspirations.

Black-Jewish relations also received a tremendous setback in Chicago, where an aide to Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer made a series of wildly anti-Semitic charges. The aide, Steve Cokely, was quoted in April as saying that Jewish doctors inject black babies with the virus that causes AIDS. What outraged Jews was the black leaders’ reluctance to repudiate Cokely and the mayor’s delay in firing him.

Then in Los Angeles, a series of racist memos calling for a Jewish-financed campaign to unseat Mayor Tom Bradley, who is black, threatened to shake up one of the strongest black-Jewish alliances of any American city. The memos, written by consultants to Bradley’s Jewish challenger, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, were repudiated by the candidate himself, who apologized.

In religious life, the three major institutions of the Conservative movement achieved something of a milestone by issuing the first common statement of principles in the movement’s 143-year history. The statement outlined Conservative Judaism’s stands on such issues as belief in God, religious pluralism and the role of women in Judaism.

But it became clear that the document did not end the ongoing battle between progressive leaders in the Conservative mainstream and the so-called traditionalists. In May, the latter scored a victory, when the Cantors Assembly, the world’s largest professional body of chazanim, voted to reject a proposal to admit qualified women members.

The Lubavitchers also had cause for celebration in 5748, when a federal district court judge awarded a library of rare religious texts to the Brooklyn-based Hasidic movement. But the community also suffered a tragic loss, with the death of the rebbe’s wife, Chaya Moussia Schneerson.

Other celebrated Jews to die in 5748 included violinist Jascha Heifetz, Nobel laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi, theologian Seymour Siegel, philanthropist Martin Citrin, journalist David Schoenbrun and former Congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman.

The JTA Daily News Bulletin will not be published on Simchat Torah, Tuesday, Oct. 4.

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