Speaking Out for the Voiceless

The Honorable Irwin Cotler was the Keynote Speaker at the American Jewish Committees’s Murray Friedman annual lecture. Murray Friedman was a passionate advocate for human rights and this program honored his memory. Professor Cotler is the Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, an Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and longtime Member of Parliament, and an international human rights lawyer.

Mr. Cotler is passionate about the struggle for human rights of minorites all over the world. He has worked tirelessly for the protection of human rights internationally. His mission is to give a voice to the voiceless. Mr. Cotler discussed the human rights abuses occurring in Venezuela, Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia. He decried the world’s indifference to the suffering of political prisoners and genocides of persecuted minorities.

Mr. Cotler described the laundering of the delegitimization of Israel under the guise of human rights. He described the selective use of words and images to present Israel as a human rights abusing nation that should not exist. According to Mr. Cotler, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council is populated by human rights violators. There is a culture of impunity, in which only Israel is condemned internationally, while other countries are ignored. With the passage of time, this condemnation becomes internalized, accepted, and adopted by journalists, academics, and politicians around the world.

What is to be done? Mr. Cotler believes that it is our individual and collective responsibility to speak on behalf of the voiceless. We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of indifference to suffering just because it is occurring far away from us.

Photo credit: Christopher Brown.

What a Conservative Court means for America

Empty Chair at Supreme Court. Photo: OneNewsPage.com

Empty Chair at Supreme Court. Photo: One News Page.

I’ve been struggling to collect my thoughts on this. All I can come up with is how heartbreaking it is. The Supreme Court has often (clearly not always, see e.g. Dred Scott) been a beacon of hope for political minorities asking for validation of their rights and acknowledgement of their humanity.

The legislature and the executive are elected offices. They are there to express the will of the majority. But the genius of our founders was in their recognition that protecting the rights of the minority, even in the face of popular opinion, was critical.

So, in cases from Brown, to Roe and Griswold, Plyler, Engel, Atkins, Gideon, VMI and Obergefell, racial, ethnic and religious minorities were protected, as were women, sexual minorities and the accused. Discrimination and mistreatment, no matter how popular, was forbidden.

I have always been moved by this wondrous check on tyranny embedded into our system, and accepted by all, even those who disagreed with a particular decision. My wife and I named our daughter Brennan after my favorite Supreme Court Justice, and almost named our son Marshall after my runner-up.

I’ve traveled to DC for dozens of important Supreme Court arguments (most recently Gill v. Whitford), always feeling as if I was truly entering a sacred Temple of Justice.

Now, it appears that for the time-being, and possibly for decades, the Supreme Court will no longer be a source of comfort to the oppressed. It will instead be the stern ally of the oppressors, even bigots, vote-suppressors, polluters, misogynists and wealth’s indifference to the suffering of the poor.

It seems that each day of this administration, we see a small part of what actually makes America great die. Now we will see a major pillar of our greatness pass away. I imagine I will personally be fine. I possess almost every privilege it is possible to have in our society. But for so many, this will be devastating. And to those who care about the great experiment this country represents, it will be profoundly sad.

Colonial American Food

Sally Lunn Bread - A large sponge cake-like bread, more like a bread than a cake that is either yeast or baking powder based.

Sally Lunn Bread – A large sponge cake-like bread, more like a bread than a cake that is either yeast or baking powder based.

Philadelphia, the city of almonds, pomegranates, olive oil, chick peas, lentils, dates, grapes, and fava beans? Thanks to the Jews who first settled the North American colonies, Philadelphia was blessed with the introduction of these Mediterranean foods. It is fun to recreate colonial recipes today in order to experience the flavors and aromas of those times and connect with an often overlooked period of the Philadelphia Jewish experience. [Read more…]

A Tale of Two Spies

67733d36eec86afae4b215c780fb74d2Editor’s Note: The National Security Advisor does not require confirmation, so Gen. Flynn will not have to pass muster with the U.S. Senate.

Nearly all of Donald Trump’s early picks for positions within his administration have infuriated Democrats. One of the most worrisome for the blue team is Michael Flynn, a hawkish sort who is overtly Islamophobic, for National Security Adviser. Most of The Donald’s selections will sail through the appointment process, regardless of Democratic objections, but Flynn could prove to be the exception. As an article from The New Yorker‘s Dana Priest reminds us, he’s got some serious black marks on his record.

To start with, there are some pretty significant personality issues. Although generally well-liked by his colleagues, Flynn has a very bad temper, tends to change priorities on a whim, and has a habit of inventing “facts” out of whole cloth. That may sound familiar, but there’s a difference between winning an election and passing muster with the U.S. Senate. Most significantly, Flynn makes a point of ignoring rules that he finds “stupid.” So, for example, he set up a private computer and Internet connection in his Pentagon office, even when he was told it was against the rules. He also shared classified information with NATO allies that he thought that they should have, even though he was explicitly ordered not to do so. If those two offenses ring a bell, they should, because those are almost exactly the same crimes that Hillary Clinton was accused of committing. Well, except that she may have allowed classified information to fall into the hands of those who should not have it, while Flynn definitely and knowingly gave out such information. As we and others have pointed out ad infinitum this election season, intent is the bright, red line between breaking the law and not breaking the law, and Flynn definitely had intent. Right now, for example, Jonathan Pollard is serving a life sentence for sharing classified information with Israel, a country that—while not a member of NATO—is one of America’s closest allies. Flynn, by contrast, was given only a warning.

Ultimately, some GOP Senators may object to Flynn’s actual record. Or, they may decide they don’t like the optics of calling for Hillary Clinton’s head, and then turning around and approving a National Security Adviser who was guilty of the same (and worse). Then again, they may see no incongruity there—after all, one of the loudest voices calling for Clinton to be indicted was… Michael Flynn. We are currently living in a world where it’s impossible to predict what might happen next. Still, if you had to bet on any one of Trump’s appointees being rejected, bet on Flynn.

Vote for Presidential Debate Question: Torture

The Commission on Presidential Debates is asking people to vote on questions to ask Clinton and Trump. We have proposed a question relating to the limits on the kinds of orders which a president can issue as commander-in-chief.

When should the generals refuse a direct order from the president?
Can the military disobey an order from the president if they believed a preemptive strike requires Congressional authorization or an interrogation technique violates the Geneva convention?

Vote here.

We believe this question is especially relevant since Donald Trump insisted at the Fox News Debate last March that he can bully the generals into following illegal orders.

FOX HOST BRET BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.

So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

DONALD TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.

BAIER: But they’re illegal.

TRUMP: Let me just tell you, you look at the Middle East. They’re chopping off heads. They’re chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way. They’re drowning people in steel cages. And he — now we’re talking about waterboarding.

This really started with Ted, a question was asked of Ted last — two debates ago about waterboarding. And Ted was, you know, having a hard time with that question, to be totally honest with you. They then came to me, what do you think of waterboarding? I said it’s fine. And if we want to go stronger, I’d go stronger, too, because, frankly that’s the way I feel. Can you imagine — can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East, that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we’re having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That’s my opinion.

BAIER: But targeting terrorists’ families?

TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

Similarly, Trump promised to attack the Iranian navy if their soldiers make rude gestures.

And, by the way, with Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats, and they make gestures at our people, that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.

Perhaps a reasoned discussion of the limits of presidential authority are in order before we get to a constitutional crisis where our military leaders have to choose to follow their commander-in-chief or the law. Heaven help us if they disagree on what to choose.

The moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz have agreed to consider the most popular questions, so please vote. Consider it practice for November 8.

Reagan’s Speechwriter Speaks out Against Trump

President Reagan famously said, “Tear down that wall!” Donald Trump says, “Build that wall!!!”

Doug Elmets, a staunch Republican who worked in the White House with former President Ronald Reagan, spoke to the Democratic National Convention audience on Thursday to share his thoughts about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump  — and it wasn’t pretty. Elmets speech ends with a glorious surprise. Here is the video followed by the video transcript: [Read more…]

Two New Jerseyans To Join IDF

Lod, Israel – Two young central New Jersey residents are among 15 soon-to-be IDF lone soldiers scheduled to have landed in Israel on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group Aliyah flight, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah & Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel, JNF-USA, Friends of the IDF (FIDF) and Tzofim-Garin Tzabar.

The total of 51 Olim landing at Ben Gurion Airport join more than 45,000 immigrants who arrived in Israel with the assistance of Nefesh B’Nefesh since being founded in 2002.

Ben Kravis, 22, of Lambertville and Rina Mischel, 17, of Highland Park are among the 15 future lone soldiers who went directly to a special ulpan to learn Hebrew before drafting to the IDF.

Kravis, who plans to serve in the IDF as a combat paramedic in one of Israel’s elite units, said, “When I visited Poland during high school and toured the concentration camps, I completely understood and appreciated why the State of Israel is so important and necessary for the Jewish people. I wanted to be a part of protecting it. It’s awesome to support Israel from my community at home but I really wanted to be here and do the work myself.”

Mischel, who wants to serve in the IDF’s canine unit, Oketz, noted, “I come from a long line of soldiers. My grandfather fought in the Etzel, my brother served in the paratroopers during Operation Protective Edge and my uncle served in the IDF as well. On May 1st, hundreds of high school seniors across the country woke up and put on shirts that said Rutgers, UCLA, Penn, and Yale. Each proudly displaying their home for the next 4+ years of their life. That day, I proudly walked into school wearing an olive green T-shirt with yellow olive branches and the word Tzahal on it.”

“This flight is the kickoff of our summer Aliyah season during which we are expecting close to 2,000 Olim to arrive from North America,” said Executive VP of Nefesh B’Nefesh, Zev Gershinsky. “The summer season is our busiest time of year as we work day and night to assist Olim throughout their Aliyah process as well as with their acclimation into Israeli society. We are especially proud to have the privilege of helping the brave young men & women who make Aliyah and later on volunteer to serve in the IDF.”

Founded in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh in cooperation with the Israeli government and The Jewish Agency for Israel, is dedicated to revitalizing Aliyah from North America and the UK by removing or minimizing the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles of Aliyah. The support and comprehensive social services provided by Nefesh B’Nefesh to its over 45,000 newcomers has ensured that over 90% of its Olim have remained in Israel.


Jake Sharfman, Co-Founder: J Cubed Communications

The Christians at the Wilma Theatre: Going to Hell or Heaven?

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians directed by Timothy Bond is a juvenile undramatic portrait of a mega church and its Pastor. Playing at the Wilma Theatre through May 29th, the play tells the story of Pastor Paul, the founder of a successful super church who delivers a sermon (perhaps not incidentally on the day the church, after 10 years, is debt-free) wherein he changes his theological belief on the existence of hell.

After telling a story about a young boy, not a Christian, who heroically saves his own sister by running into a burning building, Pastor Paul concludes from this parable, that this boy will live on in heaven. Hell, Pastor Paul teaches, from the original Greek, is a dumping ground, not an actual place of eternal damnation.

This sermon, delivered by actor Paul Deboy, to his chorus, his congregants (the audience), his wife, (Erika LaVonn) and assistant Pastor Joshua (Delance Minefee), catalyzes his downfall as church membership declines and Pastor Joshua starts his own successful church. The rest of the play vaguely explores this theological controversy in a decidedly dilettantish manner, throwing around biblical verses in a cursory way that does not reflect deeply on the issues Hnath raises.

During the play’s opening sequence, we are entertained by a chorus of 19 singers (all local Philadelphians under the direction of Michael Keck) who sing evangelical songs (indeed I saw one audience member sing along clearly comforted by the play so far) with lyrics such as “build your hopes on things eternal/hold his hand, God’s unchanging hand.” The set, artfully designed by Matt Saunders, reproduces the super church environment.

But Hnath’s investigation of the theological concepts of hell, heaven, belief and faith fall short, lacking much substance. There is little, if any genuine drama in the play – Pastor Paul knows exactly what he wants and seems fearless and even arrogant in his manner. His tone and voice are reminiscent of Garrison Keillor from the Lake Wobegon live radio show – a preternaturally calm tone with a sing-songy cadence that does not suggest any struggle with his new belief on sin and the after-life. Pastor Paul seems almost too sure of his theological beliefs and feels talk-show-hosty and condescending to his parishioners.

Hnath too easily settles for a high concept to the detriment of much substance in this undramatic portrayal of a minister and his church. When his wife leaves him at the end of the play, because she does indeed believe in hell and finds his beliefs anathema, there is no pathos, the characters remain hollow, not even rising to the level of ideological talking heads.

The play is more often than not manipulative in its use of music and religion and relies too heavily on them to achieve some higher emotional effect. Nothing seems to be at stake for Pastor Paul who seems at peace in his newfound theological convictions, willing to pay the price (his church, his family) for his beliefs. When he repeats the line “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable” it sounds more like an advertising slogan or something easily blurbed by a reviewer than a deeply felt piece of writing.

“The Christians.” Through May 29 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets $10 and $25. Information: 215-546-7824. www.wilmatheater.org.