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5765: a Year of Politics and Promise for U.S. Jews, 5765 Was Year of Aipac Probe and Political Clout

September 22, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Looking back, it seems fitting that during the year in which Deep Throat was at last unmasked, events in the American Jewish world would unfold like a top-notch political thriller. All the elements were there in 5765:

A president who is heir to a powerful political dynasty ardently courted the Jewish vote as he sought a second term in the midst of a controversial war in the Mideast;

America’s top pro-Israel lobbying group was roiled by allegations of espionage by its officials;

the U.S. Supreme Court’s first female justice resigned, spurring Jewish groups into action to help ensure that their concerns are taken into account in the selection of a replacement;

the leader of the free world, ready to spend the hard-earned political capital of his re-election, worked to spread democracy worldwide, guided by principles set forth in a new book by a former Soviet refusenik who now is a maverick hard-line politician in Israel.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina devastated portions of the Gulf Coast, leaving hundreds dead and many thousands more homeless. Southern Jews were among those affected, with thousands evacuating their homes and heading for Houston; Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Dallas; cities in Florida; and elsewhere.

In some places, Jewish populations doubled and tripled almost overnight as evacuees poured in. Across the country, Jews stepped up to aid the victims, as day schools opened their doors to evacuees, families welcomed strangers into their homes, Jewish rescue squads searched through storm wreckage, and national and local Jewish organizations raised millions of dollars for those whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by the storm. Volunteers also rescued Torah scrolls from synagogues savaged by the hurricane.

Individual Jews also took part in their own creative philanthropic efforts, collecting stuffed animals for children affected by the storm; gathering school supplies for students entering new schools; and earmarking proceeds from a Rosh Hashanah honey-pot sale for hurricane relief.

Elsewhere, as Jews celebrated 350 years of Jewish life in America, the role of religion in the public sphere shifted to the forefront as several prominent cases sparked heated debate over the relationship of church and state.

The theory of evolution’s place in American classrooms again took center stage as lawsuits were filed in two cases where public schools elected to teach evolution as just one among several theories of human development — the most prominent alternative being intelligent design, which posits that the universe is so complex that its existence must be the product of some superintelligence.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a split ruling over the propriety of the public display of the Ten Commandments. The bitterly divided court ruled that some such monuments are religious in their message and therefore are unconstitutional but others simply pay homage to the Decalogue as a formative element in American legal history and therefore are acceptable.

In a related story, scandal erupted after the release of a report on the religious climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, in which Jewish cadets said the school’s overtly Christian atmosphere was incompatible with their religious needs.

The origins of the human race. The Ten Commandments. Religious freedom. All important issues to be sure.

Still, some Jewish minds spent the year focused on — well, on Jewish minds. Spurred by curiosity about Ashkenazi Jews’ higher-than-average IQ scores and disproportionate representation among Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, a team of researchers in Utah released a study in June suggesting that because medieval Jews were restricted to jobs in finance, money lending and long-distance trade, their genetic codes over the course of generations selected genes for enhanced intellectual ability.

This intelligence boost, they hypothesized, could be linked to a series of potentially debilitating diseases to which Ashkenazi Jews are particularly susceptible, from Tay-Sachs to Gaucher’s to Niemann-Pick.

The study, coming as the world marked 60 years since the Allied liberation of the Nazi death camps, rang bells that some Jews — unnerved by the specter of eugenics — would rather not hear.

But the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust’s end sounded bells at the United Nations that some Jews thought were long overdue: In January, the General Assembly held a session commemorating the camps’ liberation. The gathering — which U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan lobbied for following a request from Israel — marked the first time that the world body had convened to commemorate the Holocaust and the first time that the General Assembly met at Israel’s initiative.

“The tragedy of the Jewish people was unique,” Annan said. “We must be on the watch for any revival of anti-Semitism and ready to act against the new forms of it that are happening today.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community responded strongly to a growing number of Protestant churches considering economic sanctions against Israel, with some Jewish groups even threatening a retreat from interfaith dialogue.

Last summer, the Presbyterian Church USA passed a resolution considering “selective, phased divestment” from companies that do business with Israel. In November 2004, the board of the Episcopal Church voted to consider corporate actions against certain companies that do business with Israel. Episcopalians in New York and Massachusetts, though, opposed divestment measures.

In April, the board of the United Methodist Church voted to conduct a year-long study to consider divestment. In August, the Presbyterian Church said it had selected Caterpillar, Motorola, ITT Industries and United Technologies for possible divestment if the companies refuse to stop doing business with Israel. The Presbyterians also voted to pressure Citigroup because of its alleged connection to an Arab bank believed to have ties to suicide bombers.

Anti-Israel sentiment was also at the center of a scandal at Columbia University, as the release of “Columbia Unbecoming” — a film in which pro-Israel students allege they were bullied because of their views by professors in the Mideast studies department — engendered heated campus debate about Israeli policy and academic freedom.

In late March a committee appointed by Columbia’s president to investigate the charges finally issued its findings, citing just one incident where a faculty member “exceeded commonly accepted bounds.” The group found no evidence of statements by faculty that “could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic” — although, indeed, that had never been the charge.

Some Jewish students said the report was a whitewash aimed at protecting Columbia’s reputation and vowed to fight on.

While Columbia students debated the findings, many more American Jews jumped into another debate: orange versus blue, withdrawal versus staying put in the Gaza Strip. The arguments were emotional and intense, but they didn’t deter an estimated 3,200 North American Jews who were forecast to make aliyah by the end of 2005, which would mark the first time since 1983 that the annual figure tops 3,000.

At the same time, the Conservative movement, once American Jewry’s dominant religious stream, found itself at a crossroads in 5765, with some of its rabbis asking whether the stream is in fact a united movement or more of a coalition of varying approaches to Jewish observance.

In June, Ismar Schorsch, the longtime chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, announced his retirement. The search for his successor is seen as an indicator of the future direction of the movement, which faces dwindling numbers of American Jews identifying as Conservative, internal debate over the place of gays and non-Jewish spouses, and difficulties speaking in a unified voice.

But the year’s most-watched stories on the American Jewish front came from the nation’s capital.

As the 2004 presidential election approached, a contest some considered the most important in decades, Jewish voters got unprecedented attention from candidates hoping to garner support in several key battleground states. While domestic issues play a role in how many Jews decide which candidate to vote for, the presidential hopefuls’ pitches to Jews focused almost solely on Israel.

That approach initially was thought to favor President Bush, who is widely viewed among American Jews as a staunch ally of the Jewish state. But when it came to election night, Jewish voters pretty much kept their Democratic pedigree: Bush garnered about 24 percent of the Jewish vote, while about 76 percent went to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Having secured a second presidential term, Bush — in the midst of ongoing military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan — seized on a new book by former Israeli Cabinet minister and Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky to support his own vision of reform in the Arab world, inviting Sharanksy to the White House and instructing White House staff to read Sharansky’s book.

Sharansky’s revived international prominence was reason for pride among many Jews, but the July 1 news that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would be stepping down was cause for some concern. Many observers, who had been girding for the expected retirement of ailing conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist, were taken by surprise when O’Connor announced her retirement.

Concerned with issues of reproductive rights and church-state separation, some Jewish groups viewed O’Connor’s forthcoming departure with trepidation and began working to ensure that the balance of the court — on which she served as a decisive swing vote on many issues — does not change with her exit.

Bush’s choice of Judge John Roberts to succeed O’Connor met, at least initially, with little resistance from American Jewish officials.

The death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, though, again changed the landscape of the court. Roberts’ nomination was vaulted to the chief justice position, and Bush was expected to name a replacement for O’Connor later in the fall.

Roberts — a two-year veteran of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — was seen as likely to win Senate approval, but the next Supreme Court nomination could spark a more vigorous fight.

Moving from the Supreme Court to a lower court — and also to the court of public opinion — the prosecution of two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was further cause for agitation among U.S. Jews, raising many questions for the Jewish community about its work advocating for Israel and other policy issues.

Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman were fired from AIPAC in April, months after stories broke that the pair allegedly received classified information from Larry Franklin, an Iran analyst at the Pentagon, and passed it along to officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and journalists. Franklin pleaded not guilty in June to communicating classified information; Rosen and Weissman pleaded not guilty in August.

Rosen, the former longtime director of foreign policy issues for AIPAC, and Weissman, a former Iran specialist, are accused of receiving sensitive material from three U.S. government officials — another reportedly was David Satterfield, at the time the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, while the third has not been named — since 1999. They’re accused of passing details to a political officer at the Israeli Embassy who recently returned to Israel and two other embassy officials who have not been identified.

The indictments may force Jewish groups and their peers to analyze the methods they use to receive information from government sources, as well as their information-sharing with Israeli counterparts.

AIPAC already has launched a campaign to re-brand itself, highlighting its American grass-roots ties instead of its cooperation with Israelis. The group also has hired outside lawyers to review its practices.

But when it comes to political influence, said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, the AIPAC story ought not to worry American Jews unduly. Indeed, he said, Jews would do better to look at the attention paid to them in the recent presidential election as an indicator of their persistent clout.

“You have to screen out the background noise and see whether the basics have changed,” he said. “Jewish Americans have a pretty good position. When Democrats are in charge, they automatically have a lot of influence. And when Republicans are in charge, they have a lot of influence because Republicans have to be responsive to their fundamentalist Christian constituency. In that ideology, Israel is very important.

“It’s kind of win-win” for U.S. Jews, Sabato said. “A lot of groups don’t have that.”

Another thing a lot of groups didn’t have this year was kosher salami. As high political drama unfolded in American halls of power, kosher restaurants and food distributors across the country were suffering under the weight of a Hebrew National salami shortage, forcing some to fill the gap with other meat products.

The shortage, which also put the squeeze on luncheon meats such as turkey, hurt sales at U.S. eateries as customers blanched at the prospect of consuming what one kosher deli’s counterman called “inferior product.”

As the stuff of political intrigue, though, 5765 — luncheon meats aside — was anything but inferior product. It all goes to show, as the old saying goes, that politics are a lot like sausage: watching how either is made is no picnic.

Now, please pass the mustard.

(JTA Washington correspondent Matthew E. Berger contributed to this report)

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