Kohelet Yeshiva: Torah and Academics

Shim Dicker performing at Kohelet Cafe— By Sharon Reiss Baker

Housed in a Merion Station mansion just 15 minutes from Center City, Kohelet Yeshiva High School hums with talent and activity. In the span of just a couple of weeks in March, the Modern Orthodox high school, which serves boys and girls from the Delaware Valley region, hosted a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Day with panels of speakers and hands-on activities; welcomed Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of England who spoke to students and then to 450 community members; and opened doors to one of their popular Café evenings featuring student musicians, slam poets, and visual artists. The school also brought in musician and composer Forrest Kinney — the sought after teacher who is the personal pianist for Bill and Melinda Gates — to run workshops on creativity and improvisation. All that was in addition to an ongoing series of evening classes for the community in the school’s spacious Beit Midrash, where by day students pray, study Talmud, and gather for Town Hall meetings to discuss moral dilemmas and current events.

Kohelet students seem to know they are fortunate to have this array of programming. “Kohelet is really unique in that it provides a wide variety of opportunities for our development in areas from personal religious growth to arts and athletics,” says junior Miryl Hilibrand, the captain of the girls softball team and a visual artist.

What’s hard to understand is how they have time to take advantage of it all, given their demanding course loads, including not only college preparatory classes in English, math, history, and science but also a full Judaic Studies curriculum, encompassing serious Torah and Talmud study using primary sources, Jewish history, and Hebrew language. Students seem to to thrive on the opportunities, though, and develop skills to manage their busy lives.

“I make schedules and prioritize,” says junior Tali Weg, who is involved in the school’s Model UN team, the Israel Advocacy club, and student government. Like quite a few other students, Weg crosses the river every morning from Cherry Hill, New Jersey to attend the school. “I like everything I do, so it’s worth it!”

This rich programming in both religious and secular areas grew from the school’s commitment to Torah U’Madda, the concept that Jewish life and Torah knowledge are enriched by a full understanding of sciences, humanities, and arts — and vice versa. The programming also responds to the interests of the talented and diverse student body. This year, for example, Kohelet junior Noah Notis qualified as a finalist in the national Chidon HaTanach (Bible knowledge competition), senior Justin Joffe became an EMT, and student musicians and artists were invited to perform and exhibit in local venues. Seniors were also accepted at an impressive array of colleges including Columbia, Princeton, Yeshiva University, Brandeis, University of Pennsylvania, NYU, University of Maryland, and Barnard. Equally important to the school, top Israeli yeshiva and midrasha programs offered spots to Kohelet students for a year of post-graduate study.

In reflecting on his peers, senior Shimshon Dicker comments, “I think the crazy thing is we have so many talented kids in such a small school. Plus, it’s a really warm, welcoming environment. Even when I was a freshman, I was friends with people from all grades.”

Head of School Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl, who holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, a doctorate in near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University, and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, is new to Kohelet this year. He agrees with Dicker’s assessment of the student body. When he first arrived at Kohelet, what struck him most was the exceptional quality of the students and the different ways they had been given to shine. “From Ivy-League caliber budding scholars to Torah learners of remarkable distinction, breathtaking artists to musical virtuosos, athletes and poets, actors and activists, the school was brimming with talent in a way that I’d never quite seen before.”

That talent comes from diverse communities in the region, including Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Lower Merion, and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. While local students walk to school, those coming from further board buses, some riding for more than an hour in each direction. Thanks to a generous financial aid policy, the school never turns away a family for economic reasons and works to assist its students find support to attend yeshiva and midrasha programs in Israel as well as North American universities.

As for future plans, Rabbi Perl is not content to let the school rest on its laurels. He outlines an ambitious agenda, including seeking dual accreditation from both the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools and introducing some changes to the scope and sequence of the curriculum. Most importantly, though, he talks about the things that are the essence of the school. “The initiatives we introduced this year regarding the creation of school-wide culture of respect and a faculty-wide culture of reflective growth-oriented practice, are among the elements we anticipate expanding and enhancing next year. Most significantly, though, we hope to place our students, their voices, and their passion at the very center of plans to grow and strengthen this most unique place of learning.” Given those students, it promises to be quite a place indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romney: “Any President Would Have Done That”

Mitt Romney, quoted by Reuters in 2008, on the United States entering Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden:

“I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours… I don’t think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort.”

Romney on MSNBC yesterday, downplaying credit for Obama for ordering the raid in Pakistan that finally killed Osama bin Laden:

“I think other presidents and other candidates like myself would do exactly the same thing.”

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates Awarded Liberty Medal


Liberty Medal award-winner Secretary Robert Gates and David Eisner, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center

Presenting the Liberty Medal to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were SFC Dana Graham of the Liberty USO, Anthony Odierno, representing the Wounded Warrior Project, and David Eisner, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center.

After a lifetme of public service, in the CIA, and ending with serving as Secretary of Defense, the Honorable Robert Gates was awarded the Liberty Medal on September 22 at the National Constitution Center.  The word “liberty” took on added meaning as David Eisner, the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, had invited Iraq war veteran Anthony Odierno, representing the Wounded Warrior Project, and SFC Dana Graham of the Pennsyvalnia Army National Guard, representing the USO of Pennslvania and Southern New Jersey (Liberty USO), to present the actual Liberty Medal to Dr. Gates.

More after the jump.


Jim Gardner, of Channel 6 ABC, hosted the television broadcast of the Liberty Medal ceremony.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of the dignitaries who appeared by video to congratulate Secretary Gates and sing his praises.

With Governor Tom Corbett and Mrs. Lisa Nutter joining other diginitaries on stage, the program included video tributes from Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mayor Michael Nutter.  Gates is unique in having served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, which made his remarks of concern for the condition of public discourse in the country and in the nation’s capital today even more pertinent.

The VIP audience included a representation of the area’s Jewish community, some of which are pictured here.

(photos by Bonnie Squires)


Harold and Lynn Honickman

Joan Specter awaits Senator Arlen Specter, who was teaching a class before attending the Liberty Medal event.

Eugene and Roz Chaikin

A new twist on this year’s Liberty Medal ceremony was the introduction of the official timepiece by Hublot, presented to Secretary Gates at the gala which followed  the award ceremony.

Steve and Sandy Sheller

Ross to ADL: U.S. Commitment to Israel “Iron-Clad and Unshakable”

— David Streeter

Dennis Ross, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, addressed the Anti-Defamation League’s national conference and conveyed to the audience that the Obama Administration is standing squarely with Israel amid the changes taking place in the Middle East. Ross also outlined the Obama Administration’s priorities for the Middle East and emphasized that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible with the current regional changes taking place.

Ross reiterated America’s commitment and expressed similar sentiment as Defense Secretary Robert Gates regarding the current state of U.S.-Israel relations:

Our relationship with Israel becomes more important during a time of change and upheaval in the Middle East. Israel is an enduring partner whose stability can be counted on. We are bound by shared values and interests, and our commitment to Israel’s security is iron-clad and unshakable. For the Obama Administration, those are not just words.  Many of you may have heard what Secretary Gates recently said in Israel: ‘I cannot recall a time during my public life when our two countries have had a closer defense relationship. The U.S. and Israel are cooperating closely in areas such as missile defense technology, the Joint Strike Fighter, and in training exercises such as Juniper Stallion-cooperation and support that ensures that Israel will continue to maintain its qualitative military edge.’ Our cooperation contributes to Israel’s security every day, signified by Israel’s recent deployment of the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system, which we helped fund with more than $200 million in support this year. I too cannot recall a time when security cooperation between our two countries has ever been as intense or focused.

Ross also had strong words regarding Iran’s recent provocative behavior:

Iran, in particular is trying to exploit the political changes in the Arab world, and using its proxy Hezbollah to enflame sectarian tensions in countries like Bahrain at precisely a moment when sectarian differences and legitimate grievances need to be overcome politically and not exacerbated. Iran has also been quick to criticize Arab governments for using the very repressive tactics it continues to employ against its own people. Indeed, it is the height of irony that at a time when Arab publics throughout the Middle East are finding their voice, the Iranian leadership seeks to quash the voice of Iranians who are asking only for their rights.

The Iranians are fooling no one. And, they are also fooling no one as they continue to pursue their nuclear program in defiance of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions.  As National Security Advisor Tom Donilon stressed last week, ‘Even with all the events unfolding in the Middle East, we remain focused on the strategic imperative of ensuring that Iran does acquire not nuclear weapons.’ On our own and with others, we will continue to increase the pressure on the Iranian regime. On March 24, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution appointing a special rapporteur charged with investigating and monitoring human rights abuses in Iran – a move that the ADL praised. Iran continues to contend with sanctions that are far more comprehensive than ever before, and as a result, it finds it hard to do business with any reputable bank internationally; to conduct transactions in Euros or dollars; to acquire insurance for its shipping; to gain new capital investment or technology infusions in its antiquated oil and natural gas infrastructure-and it has found in that critical sector, alone, close to $60 billion in projects have been put on hold or discontinued. Other sectors are clearly being affected as well as leading multinational corporations understand the risk of doing business with Iran and are no longer doing so.

Unless and until Iran complies with its obligations under the NPT and all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, we will continue to ratchet up the pressure.  

 

In addition, Ross outlined the potential for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to flourish with the backdrop of a changing Middle East:

For too long, illegitimate governments have looked to blame others for their problems, to deflect attention from their own shortcomings by stoking hostilities toward the United States or Israel.

One of the most remarkable features of the peaceful protests movements across the region has been their focus on domestic issues – the abuses of security forces, government corruption, and the limited opportunities to participate in government decisions. I fully expect that when these populations are empowered and responsible for shaping the future of their countries, they will also see the importance of pursuing peace and cooperation as essential to their own political futures. The more that countries are able to invest their resources in their own future and the less they invest in conflict, the more they will be able to address the needs of their people that prompted the revolts of the Arab Spring.

Many of you will remember how Shimon Peres – who is having lunch with President Obama tomorrow – spoke about the New Middle East in 1993 that would be built on the foundations of peace, cooperation, and trade. Unfortunately, Peres’s vision was not realized two decades ago, because such a future could not be built on an authoritarian foundation. The Middle East today has very little internal trade and investment. The region also has very few domestic or transnational institutions when compared to other parts of the world. All that needs to change, and the democratic movements today offer the prospect of a truly new Middle East – a vision that we must strive to realize. The United States can help support this process by facilitating the work of civil society and non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and private-public partnerships to help countries in transition secure the resources and knowledge needed for a better future.

Specifically, Ross emphasized that any peace agreement take into account Israel’s security:

Peace is essential in the region not only to enhance the prospect of trade and cooperation, but to ensure that as a new generation of leaders emerge, they recognize the prospect that Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs can coexist in their own states without the ever-present prospect of renewed hostilities. New leaders need to see that peace is possible and not impossible. They need to see that negotiations can take place and actually produce. And, Israelis and Palestinians need to feel that their respective requirements for peace are understood clearly by each other and will actually be addressed. Israelis, particularly during a time of change with inherent uncertainty, must see that their security will be addressed meaningfully, and in a way that does not leave them vulnerable to the uncertainties of the future. Palestinians must know that they will have an independent state that is contiguous and viable. For Palestinians, that prospect is certainly made more credible when tangible steps are taken to show that the occupation is receding.

Ross concluded by summarizing the United States’ priorities in the Middle East:

We clearly have a full plate of challenges in the Middle East today. But our agenda is clear: support coalition forces in their mission to protect the civilians of Libya and support a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic transition there; help Egypt and Tunisia to conduct a successful, orderly, and credible transition; encourage others in the region undertake meaningful reform now before they too face destabilizing unrest; work to expand economic opportunities; continue the push for peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors; and build the pressure on Iran. This is a complex and demanding agenda, but it has the complete attention of the President and his full national security team.

Full transcript follows the jump.

Remarks by Ambassador Dennis Ross (as prepared), Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region to the Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Conference 2011

Washington, D.C., April 4, 2011

To say that a lot has changed in the Middle East since I had the opportunity to speak to you last spring would be an understatement.  Indeed, the Middle East has not experienced such political upheaval for as long as I’ve been working on the region — and unfortunately that has been a very long time.  If you had asked me last year about the chances that a popular revolt would drive Mubarak from Cairo and Ben Ali from Tunisia, that what is going on in Libya now, and that large-scale protests would be breaking out in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen on a regular basis, I probably would have placed the odds as slightly lower than Virginia Commonwealth’s run to the Final Four.

But it is happening, and in all seriousness, what we are seeing today in the Middle East represents a truly dramatic upheaval that carries with it both tremendous opportunities and significant risks:  opportunities for real freedoms, economic development, truly representative and legitimate governments, and the kind of interdependence that can produce genuine peace.  There is, however, also the risk of potential violence, instability, and the empowerment of radical actors hostile to the United States and our interests, if these transitions are not managed carefully.

I would like to talk to you this morning about how the Obama administration views the dramatic changes happening in the Middle East and what we are doing to try to seize this opportunity to advance a more peaceful, stable, free, and prosperous region.

Why did Middle East experts in the government and the academic world not foresee the changes that have occurred in 2011?  For many years, the analysis of the Middle East generally tended to be based on a set of assumptions:

  • regimes were too strong and ready to deploy their pervasive security apparatuses to instill fear and use force if necessary;
  • publics were simply to fearful with too little hope to challenge these systems, and  the more liberal actors in civil society were too weak and internally divided to bring about meaningful change;
  • the so-called Arab street cared more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their own domestic needs, and governments would always be quick to exploit these emotions  to divert attention away from their own failings;
  • and that regimes and people across the Middle East preferred stability to chaos and were willing to tolerate the status quo in order to avoid uncertainty.

But those traditional assumptions clearly don’t stand up to the realities we now see sweeping the region and that began with the revolt in Tunisia and moved onto Tahrir Square in Egypt.  What accounted for this dramatic change?  Perhaps, more than anything else, the loss of fear helped launch what is now referred to as the Arab Spring.  It has been the youth of the region, the “Facebook generation” that has led the way.  Demographically, there is a youth bulge in the region.  And, the level of frustration in the younger generation has been building and for good reason.   In far too many places, governments have provided for a select few, creating little economic opportunity and no promise of a better future, much less the possibility of inclusion and participation in shaping the future for the many.  Greater exposure to the outside through widely available satellite television, the internet, and more recently, social media platforms, showed this young generation the enormous gap between their limited opportunities and the prospects for participating fully in the 21st century world.  Lacking hope for a better future and faced with daily humiliation from insensitive, often brutal regimes, a few brave souls who had enough decided to defy the state.

In Tunisia, it was Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor who was the catalyst for revolutionary change.  He set himself on fire in front of a government building after an official inspector sought to confiscate his fruit and slapped him in public when he tried to take back the goods that provided him a meager livelihood.

And in Egypt, it was the thousands of people who signed up to a Facebook page honoring the memory of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessmen brutally murdered by police after posting evidence of police brutality on the internet.  Those who joined the “We Are All Khaled Said” page knew they were signing up to be watched by state security services, but more than half a million people joined anyway.  And it was one of the creators of that page, the young Google executive Wael Ghonim, who himself became a powerful symbol of the opposition and galvanized thousands of protesters to join the movement in Tahrir Square after he emerged from 12 days in detention as defiant as ever.  The young people were not driven by any ideologies of religion or nationalism, but by the simple instinct to demand dignity in the face of humiliation.

In the face of the growing demands for change, how has the Obama administration responded?  Recognizing that we are neither the cause of what is happening in the region nor can we be the driver of these developments, we have established a set of basic principles to guide action:

  • First, we oppose the use of violence by governments and protesters alike.  Political change should emerge peacefully, not through force.
  • Second, we have insisted that governments must protect certain universal rights, such as the right for people to gather and express themselves peacefully and have access to information.
  • And third, the President emphasized from the beginning that governments should respond to inevitable change by instituting meaningful and credible reforms. As President Obama said very early on, “The world is changing; you have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change.  You can’t be behind the curve.”

We have committed to working closely with governments who have undertaken a meaningful effort to reform, and when governments have chosen the wrong approach and tried to preserve the status quo through their traditional but outdated modes of violence and coercion, we have spoken out.  On Friday, following another day of violence against demonstrators in Syria, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement saying: “We condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens demonstrating in Syria, and applaud the courage and dignity of the Syrian people.  Violence is not the answer to the grievances of the Syrian people.  What is needed now is a credible path to a future of greater freedom, democracy, opportunity, and justice.”  Over the past few months, we have spoken out when violence has occurred against peaceful protesters in Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, and we will continue to do so, because if governments in the region should learn anything over the past few months, it should be that they cannot prevent dissent and seek to stifle legitimate grievances through force and coercion.   The Government of Bahrain, for example, should also recognize that restricting freedom of expression by shutting down newspapers or arresting bloggers is not the way to produce a political dialogue or make a political outcome more likely.

But the Obama administration’s approach is not just guided by what we say, but what we have done.  Nowhere has our commitment to preventing violence been demonstrated more clearly than in our response to the Qadhafi regime’s brutal efforts to quell internal opposition.  As Qadhafi’s troops advanced toward the city of Benghazi and he promised “no mercy” on his own population, we helped to mobilize a broad international coalition committed to preventing what would surely have been a humanitarian catastrophe — a human slaughter and a moral disaster that could easily have led to chaos, instability, and potentially enormous refugees flows into neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, precisely at a time these countries are attempting to navigate their own political transitions peacefully.

Having helped produce two UN Security Council Resolutions, we joined a broad international consensus that included Arab contributions from the UAE and Qatar to enforce the UN-authorized no-fly zone and to protect the civilians of Libya.  From the outset of this conflict, the President made clear that the American contribution to this effort would be largely on the front end and we would use our unique capabilities to create an environment in which others would be able to take the lead in carrying out the No Fly Zone and civilian protection mission.  That transition happened last week when NATO assumed full operational command for all missions in Libya.  We will continue to support the NATO mission with electronic jamming capabilities, aerial refueling, and intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance.   Now that the international coalitions has created space and time for the Libyan people, we hope to see a democratic transition in Libya through a broadly inclusive process that reflects the will and protects the rights of the Libyan people.

Elsewhere in the region, we are actively supporting transitions and supporting governments seeking to undertake peaceful transitions, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia.  In Egypt, we have been in a regular dialogue with the Egyptian military and the new government since the transition as well as with a diverse range of nongovernmental and civil society actors, making it clear that we support principles, processes, and institutions — not personalities.  Egypt has made remarkable strides in just a short period.  On March 19, more than 18 million people turned out to vote in a referendum on proposed constitutional amendments.  They did so peacefully and orderly in a process fully supervised by Egypt’s respected judiciary.  Egypt faces many challenges ahead, including a struggling economy and the management of a complicated transition that will involve parliamentary and presidential elections this year as well as the drafting of a new constitution.

We have made a number of suggestions as to how this process can unfold freely, fairly, and peacefully, and we have committed to helping this transition in whatever way we can, because we understand what is at stake. We have reassigned $150 million in assistance to support Egypt’s transition, and we are working to establish a much needed Enterprise Fund that will stimulate private sector investment, support competitive markets, and provide business with access to low-cost capital — and we are working closely with our allies on the steps that can be taken to ensure economic stabilization over time.  If the Tahrir movement and the March referendum are any indication, there is reason to be optimistic that the Egyptian people will become increasingly invested in their government, establishing a degree of legitimacy that was missing for so many years.

Renewed legitimacy of governments in the Middle East will not only improve the stability of these countries internally, but will provide new opportunities for regional cooperation, and ultimately peace.  For too long, illegitimate governments have looked to blame others for their problems, to deflect attention from their own shortcomings by stoking hostilities toward the United States or Israel.

One of the most remarkable features of the peaceful protests movements across the region has been their focus on domestic issues — the abuses of security forces, government corruption, and the limited opportunities to participate in government decisions.  I fully expect that when these populations are empowered and responsible for shaping the future of their countries, they will also see the importance of pursuing peace and cooperation as essential to their own political futures.  The more that countries are able to invest their resources in their own future and the less they invest in conflict, the more they will be able to address the needs of their people that prompted the revolts of the Arab Spring.

Many of you will remember how Shimon Peres — who is having lunch with President Obama tomorrow — spoke about the New Middle East in 1993 that would be built on the foundations of peace, cooperation, and trade.  Unfortunately, Peres’s vision was not realized two decades ago, because such a future could not be built on an authoritarian foundation.  The Middle East today has very little internal trade and investment.  The region also has very few domestic or transnational institutions when compared to other parts of the world.  All that needs to change, and the democratic movements today offer the prospect of a truly new Middle East — a vision that we must strive to realize.  The United States can help support this process by facilitating the work of civil society and non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and private-public partnerships to help countries in transition secure the resources and knowledge needed for a better future.

Peace is essential in the region not only to enhance the prospect of trade and cooperation, but to ensure that as a new generation of leaders emerge, they recognize the prospect that Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs can coexist in their own states without the ever-present prospect of renewed hostilities.  New leaders need to see that peace is possible and not impossible.  They need to see that negotiations can take place and actually produce.  And, Israelis and Palestinians need to feel that their respective requirements for peace are understood clearly by each other and will actually be addressed.  Israelis, particularly during a time of change with inherent uncertainty, must see that their security will be addressed meaningfully, and in a way that does not leave them vulnerable to the uncertainties of the future.  Palestinians must know that they will have an independent state that is contiguous and viable.  For Palestinians, that prospect is certainly made more credible when tangible steps are taken to show that the occupation is receding.

If anything, our relationship with Israel becomes more important during a time of change and upheaval in the Middle East.  Israel is an enduring partner whose stability can be counted on.  We are bound by shared values and interests, and our commitment to Israel’s security is iron-clad and unshakable.  For the Obama Administration, those are not just words.  Many of you may have heard what Secretary Gates recently said  in Israel:  “I cannot recall a time during my public life when our two countries have had a closer defense relationship.  The U.S. and Israel are cooperating closely in areas such as missile defense technology, the Joint Strike Fighter, and in training exercises such as Juniper Stallion — cooperation and support that ensures that Israel will continue to maintain its qualitative military edge.”  Our cooperation contributes to Israel’s security every day, signified by Israel’s recent deployment of the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system, which we helped fund with more than $200 million in support this year.  I too cannot recall a time when security cooperation between our two countries has ever been as intense or focused.

All this is important because, as I noted earlier, political change in the Middle East does not come without risk, and it is occurring under the backdrop of ongoing threats.  Iran, in particular is trying to exploit the political changes in the Arab world, and using its proxy Hezbollah to enflame sectarian tensions in countries like Bahrain at precisely a moment when sectarian differences and legitimate grievances need to be overcome politically and not exacerbated.  Iran has also been quick to criticize Arab governments for using the very repressive tactics it continues to employ against its own people.  Indeed, it is the height of irony that at a time when Arab publics throughout the Middle East are finding their voice, the Iranian leadership seeks to quash the voice of Iranians who are asking only for their rights.

The Iranians are fooling no one.  And, they are also fooling no one as they continue to pursue their nuclear program in defiance of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions.  As National Security Advisor Tom Donilon stressed last week, “Even with all the events unfolding in the Middle East, we remain focused on the strategic imperative of ensuring that Iran does acquire not nuclear weapons.”  On our own and with others, we will continue to increase the pressure on the Iranian regime.  On March 24, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution appointing a special rapporteur charged with investigating and monitoring human rights abuses in Iran — a move that the ADL praised.   Iran continues to contend with sanctions that are far more comprehensive than ever before, and as a result, it finds it hard to do business with any reputable bank internationally; to conduct transactions in Euros or dollars; to acquire insurance for its shipping; to gain new capital investment or technology infusions in its antiquated oil and natural gas infrastructure — and it has found in that critical sector, alone, close to $60 billion in projects have been put on hold or discontinued.   Other sectors are clearly being affected as well as leading multinational corporations understand the risk of doing business with Iran and are no longer doing so.

Unless and until Iran complies with its obligations under the NPT and all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, we will continue to ratchet up the pressure.    

We clearly have a full plate of challenges in the Middle East today.  But our agenda is clear: support coalition forces in their mission to protect the civilians of Libya and support a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic transition there; help Egypt and Tunisia to conduct a successful, orderly, and credible transition; encourage others in the region undertake meaningful reform now before they too face destabilizing unrest; work to expand economic opportunities; continue the push for peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors; and build the pressure on Iran.  This is a complex and demanding agenda, but it has the complete attention of the President and his full national security team.

Thank you very much.

Sec’y of Defense Robert Gates on Strength of US-Israel Relationship

— David Streeter

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to Israel and held a high level meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The two have met multiple times over the last two years and their latest meeting underscores the Obama Administration’s commitment to Israel’s security in the face of a changing Middle East.

During the post-meeting press conference, Barak praises Gates’ personal commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship:

I would like to welcome Secretary Gates in his visit here to Israel, and a leading American and a leading friend of the whole region and of Israel as well.  I would like to draw our attention once again to the pivotal role of the relationship and the unique relation between the United States and Israel in shaping our security, the qualitative military edge of Israel, and the stability of the whole region.

I would like to thank you, Secretary Gates, for your friendship, for your personal and institutional contribution to making our security-related exchanges more profound, more substantial than ever in the past.  We highly appreciate this, and we wish you all the best in this visit all around the region and back home.  Thank you.

Gates spoke on the current state of U.S.-Israel relations during his prepared remarks:

I would start by joining President Obama in condemning yesterday’s terrorist bomb attack in Jerusalem, as well as the rockets and mortars fired into Israel from Gaza in recent days and even today.  The thoughts and condolences of the American government and the American people are with the victims and their families.  We underscore that Israel, like all nations, has the right to self-defense and to bring justice to the perpetrators of these repugnant acts.

In my meeting today with Minister Barak, in addition to discussing these attacks, we discussed a range of important defense issues both in our bilateral relationship and across the region, including the dramatic political shifts taking place in the Middle East and the implications those changes hold for the future; Iran’s nuclear program; the security environment on Israel’s borders, including southern Lebanon and the Palestinian territories; and the ongoing military operation over Libya.

Our bilateral relationship and this dialogue is so critical because, as Minister Barak once said, Israel lives at the focal point of some of the biggest security challenges facing the free world:  violent extremism, the proliferation of nuclear technologies, and the dilemmas posed by adversarial and failed states.  And I think it important, especially at a time of such dramatic change in the region, to reaffirm once more America’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.

Indeed, I cannot recall a time during my public life when our two countries have had a closer defense relationship.  The U.S. and Israel are cooperating closely in areas such as missile defense technology, the Joint Strike Fighter, and in training exercises such as Juniper Stallion-cooperation and support that ensures that Israel will continue to maintain its qualitative military edge.

And during an exchange with a reporter Gates said:

President Obama is the eighth American president I’ve worked for.  And I don’t believe that the security relationship between the United States and Israel has ever been stronger than it is right now.  And the steps that we have taken in the last two years in terms of, just as one example, collaborating together on missile defense, I think are without precedent.  I see no change in prospect for that relationship.

Gates concluded his prepared remarks by affirming the U.S.-Israel relationship:

Every time I visit Israel, I’m reminded of the extraordinary challenges the Jewish people have overcome throughout their history, the tremendous accomplishment that the state of Israel represents and the importance of our alliance to ensuring Israel’s security.

Full transcript follows the jump.
Joint Press Conference with Secretary Gates and Minister Barak from Tel Aviv, Israel

MIN. BARAK:  Good afternoon.  I will make a short statement in English, then a few words in Hebrew and then will yield to the secretary.  And then we’ll answer one question on each side, with your permission.

           I would like to welcome Secretary Gates in his visit here to Israel, and a leading American and a leading friend of the whole region and of Israel as well.  I would like to draw our attention once again to the pivotal role of the relationship and the unique relation between the United States and Israel in shaping our security, the qualitative military edge of Israel, and the stability of the whole region.

           We share with the United States a common set of values, and the main topic that we discussed is the developments in the region and the need to keep fighting against terror and the sources of radical behavior.

           Just in the recent hour, once again a rocket hit Ashdod and probably another one even north of Ashdod, and that’s part of an escalation which takes part in the last several days.  I would like to reemphasize that Israel will not tolerate these terror attacks, and we will not allow terror to rise once again.

           The Israel Defense Forces are our main guarantee for deterrence, consultation and even for the backing of our efforts to pursue peace in the region, which we continuously keep doing.

           And once again, I would like to thank you, Secretary Gates, for your friendship, for your personal and institutional contribution to making our security-related exchanges more profound, more substantial than ever in the past.  We highly appreciate this, and we wish you all the best in this visit all around the region and back home.  Thank you.

           (Continues in Hebrew.)

           SEC. GATES:  It’s a pleasure to be back in Israel and to have this opportunity to visit with my friend Ehud Barak, a true warrior-statesman and someone I’ve known and respected and worked with for over 20 years.

           I would start by joining President Obama in condemning yesterday’s terrorist bomb attack in Jerusalem, as well as the rockets and mortars fired into Israel from Gaza in recent days and even today.  The thoughts and condolences of the American government and the American people are with the victims and their families.  We underscore that Israel, like all nations, has the right to self-defense and to bring justice to the perpetrators of these repugnant acts.

           In my meeting today with Minister Barak, in addition to discussing these attacks, we discussed a range of important defense issues both in our bilateral relationship and across the region, including the dramatic political shifts taking place in the Middle East and the implications those changes hold for the future; Iran’s nuclear program; the security environment on Israel’s borders, including southern Lebanon and the Palestinian territories; and the ongoing military operation over Libya.

           Our bilateral relationship and this dialogue is so critical because, as Minister Barak once said, Israel lives at the focal point of some of the biggest security challenges facing the free world:  violent extremism, the proliferation of nuclear technologies, and the dilemmas posed by adversarial and failed states.  And I think it important, especially at a time of such dramatic change in the region, to reaffirm once more America’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.

           Indeed, I cannot recall a time during my public life when our two countries have had a closer defense relationship.  The U.S. and Israel are cooperating closely in areas such as missile defense technology, the Joint Strike Fighter, and in training exercises such as Juniper Stallion — cooperation and support that ensures that Israel will continue to maintain its qualitative military edge.

           As you know, I have a full agenda here during my visit.  Later today, I will see President Peres.  Tomorrow, I will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss our defense relationship and the prospects for a two-state solution, and I will then have discussions with Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad.

           I know there may be a temptation during this time of great uncertainty in the region to be more cautious about pursuing the peace process, but in my meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, I carry a different message:  that there is a need and an opportunity for bold action to move toward a two-state solution.  And as the parties move forward, the United States stands ready to support them in any way we can.

           In closing, every time I visit Israel, I’m reminded of the extraordinary challenges the Jewish people have overcome throughout their history, the tremendous accomplishment that the state of Israel represents and the importance of our alliance to ensuring Israel’s security.

           Thank you, Ehud, for hosting us, and I look forward to seeing you again at dinnertime.

           STAFF:  Thank you.  Thank you both.

           Now two questions.  We start with an American question, then an Israeli question.

           STAFF:  (Off mic.)

           Q:  Thank you very much.  Good afternoon.  This is a question for both Minister Barak and Secretary Gates.  What is your opinion of the upheaval that has now reached Syria by all accounts?  Is this something that Israel’s encouraged by?  Perhaps not, given calls by yourself at times to approach the Assad government for peace.  I’d also like to deepen that question and ask whether Israel sees potentially a Syrian connection to the flare-up in Gaza.  It’s no secret that Islamic Jihad, Hamas have their headquarters in Syria.  Perhaps there’s an outside interest in opening up that front?

           SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is, in fact, the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people, in some of these countries — Libya is an example, Syria is another example — where authoritarian regimes have suppressed their people and have been willing to use violence against them. Of course, the other example is the Iranian government prepared to use force against its own people.

           And so I think that what we see is the opening to the future that’s occurring in virtually all of these countries.  Some of them are dealing with it better than others.  I’ve just come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate, and in fact, empowered a revolution.  The Syrians might take a lesson from that.

           MIN. BARAK:  First of all, I do not pretend to know exactly what happens now in Syria.  We learn it through a low-visibility kind of filters.  But if our — and I’m — I think that we are lucky enough to be at the center or the focal point of this internal (inaudible) Syria.  But if I would have to advise them, I would join the advice of the secretary, saying that we prefer the Egyptian model of behavior rather than the Libyan one to be adopted by our neighbors.

           In regard to the peace opportunities, once again, we cannot — we cannot pass a judgment right now whether it’s good or not, whether the situation really is right or not.  But in time, the Syrian government will decide that they are open to consider negotiating with us.  We will be open.  But it’s up to them.  It’s their decision.  We cannot pass a judgment.  I think that this difficult situation creates not just sweat and challenges but also opportunities.  And we have be — have to be alert to be able to see those opportunities the moment they emerge rather than let them slip out of our fingers and face the uncertainties of a deeper chaos in the Middle East.

           SEC. GATES:  Phil.

           Q:  Thank you.  And this is a question for both of you.  Do you believe a heavy-handed Israeli response to yesterday’s bombing and today’s rocket attacks would play into the hands of those in the region who want to sever peace talks?  And what path should Israel pursue in regards to peace?

           MIN. BARAK:  Can you repeat the question?  I’m not (inaudible).

           Q:  Sure.  Do you believe a heavy-handed Israeli response to yesterday’s bombing and today’s rocket attacks would play into the hands of those in the region who want to sever peace talks?  And what path should Israel pursue in regards to peace?

           MIN. BARAK:  I think that’s it not about giving a name or description to this response, though is a need to respond.  Every sovereign would have responded when its citizenry is — became a target for indiscriminate launching of rockets.  I do not know any government that would sit idle.  So we have to respond.

           Now, we do not want to become the — kind of the — kind of the victims of our own (inaudible).  So we keep the right to pass a judgment about how, when and in what kind of amount of firepower or ammunition to respond.  But we will respond.  We have to respond.  And we are determined to bring back tranquility to the region.  And unfortunately, this tough neighborhood, it cannot be done without the readiness and practice of using, from time to time, force.

           SEC. GATES:  I think the Israelis will have to make their own decision in terms of how to respond.  No sovereign state can tolerate having rockets fired at its — at its — at its people.

           I think one of the — one of the significant features of what is going on across the region is that as diverse as the countries are, where there is — where there are demonstrations and unrest, in virtually every case, the theme of those demonstrations has been directed inward at problems in those countries.  And I think we all just need to be mindful to keep that we don’t want to do anything that allows extremists or others to divert the narrative of reform that is going on in virtually all of the countries of the region.

           MIN. BARAK:  Please, last question for an Israeli reporter.

           Q:  Mr. Secretary, you’ve just emphasized the special relationship between the United States and Israel.  In light of the recent events in the Middle East, could you comment on Minister Barak’s suggestion that the United States will expand its military aid to Israel by $20 billion?  And Mr. Barak, regarding the shootings from Gaza, do you see Hamas as the only — only Hamas as responsible for this situation, or do you make a distinction between Hamas and Islamic Jihad?

           MIN. BARAK:  I would like to answer, sir, with your permission.  I raised the issue of 20 billion [dollars] as a part of a wider development; will Israel sign a peace agreement with a major neighbor, be it the Palestinians or the whole region or Syria or whatever.  It’s only within this context when we are taking extra mile of risks in order to stabilize the whole region that we can afford turning to the United States and ask them, in spite of all the circumstances therein, to try to help us to upgrade the security of Israel for the next generation.

           In fact, that’s nothing new.  I talked about it 10 years ago with Clinton.  I talked about it five years ago with President Bush.  I already talked to him about it more than once at the Pentagon and the (inaudible) Americans.

           So it’s nothing new about it.  In order to make peace in this tough neighborhood where there is no mercy for the weak, no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves, Israel has to take further security risks for all potential development that could happen, as we see around there from time to time.  And that’s where we ask the United States to help us to upgrade our security capabilities by systems that sometimes they are the only one who produces (inaudible).  And we’ve sent in support for us in systems that only we know how to build and develop.

           In regarding to your other question, we see the Hamas as responsible because Hamas is basically not just a terrorist group.  It’s also the regime in Gaza.  And they have to enforce or impose their will upon — be it the Islamic Jihad or other dissident groups.  We cannot make this fine differentiation between different sources of rockets.  When the rockets come on the head of a family somewhere in Ashkelon or in Beersheba or in a small village or city around the Gaza Strip, it doesn’t matter for them whether it came from the — this gang or the other gang or from the Islamic Jihad or from the Hamas.  For us, Hamas is responsible for whatever comes from Gaza.

           SEC. GATES:  First of all, I understood the minister’s comment and in precisely the context that he described it.  And I would just restate what I said in my opening statement, that President Obama is the eighth American president I’ve worked for.  And I don’t believe that the security relationship between the United States and Israel has ever been stronger than it is right now.  And the steps that we have taken in the last two years in terms of, just as one example, collaborating together on missile defense, I think are without precedent.  I see no change in prospect for that relationship.

           David.

           Q:  Mr. Secretary, you’ve just come from Egypt.  And I wonder whether in your conversations with Field Marshal Tantawi and others you had any chance to think about whether Egypt will be as strong a partner as it has been in security issues — for example, in preventing smuggling of weapons to Gaza — and if you had any other questions or concerns after your visit.

           And Minister Barak, I’d be interested in your views about the new Egypt.  And also, as this revolution spreads, it seems now, to Syria, to lemon — to Yemen, to other countries, do you sometimes think —

           MIN. BARAK:  Well, not Iran.

           Q:  Well —

           MIN. BARAK:  We wish together that it will jump directly to Tehran, yeah.

           Q:  Include that in your answer.  But my question is whether you ever wonder whether the United States is — has been so supportive of change that perhaps it should think a bit more about stability in addition?

           SEC. GATES:  First of all, I was quite reassured by my conversations in Egypt, and in particular with Field Marshal Tantawi, about their commitment to the treaty with Israel and to their commitment to continuing a high-level dialogue on a routine basis between Israeli and Egyptian leaders.  They, too, are concerned about the smuggling problem.  And I offered our assistance to them, technical and otherwise, in terms of getting a handle on this.  But I came away persuaded that they take it seriously, and that they also take the relationship with Israel seriously.

           MIN. BARAK:  I think that the historic aspect that we see on the — all over — all around the Arab world is something unprecedented — we didn’t see such phenomena since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire some hundred years ago, almost hundred years ago, or the — or the demise of the French colonial empire some 60 or 50 — it depends how you count — years ago.

           And it’s really — historically speaking, it’s moving and inspiring phenomena; clearly promising for the future of the Arab people, for the young generation in the Arab world, for the right of women, for the right to self — express themselves and so on.

           But unfortunately, we are experienced (inaudible).  As the secretary mentioned today, you know, an optimist in the Middle East is a — a pessimist in the Middle East is an optimist with experience.  We have to follow historic experiences of similar revolutions.  Usually after a short period of elation from the romanticism and the idealism that spreads around the streets, there might come, and came in the past, a determined group, however small, who is ready to kill and be killed if necessary in order to come to power, and they come to power.

           So we have to look around us and make whatever we can.  We are extremely limited in our capacity to influence.  United States has more influence.  But the rest of the world should support the elements that provides or ensures stability in the short range and try to minimize the chances of extremist group to come to power.

           I believe that the basic process is good.  It’s true that the moderate (inaudible) leaders in the region, and I don’t count neither Libya or Iran among them, but the others who are extremely sensitive and responsible regarding to the stability issue and extremely sensitive to international commitments, including the Israeli-Egyptian peace.  So I feel that we have to be careful and open-eyed in the short term to minimize negative developments and minimize risk for stability, but in the long run it’s — it is an extremely positive phenomena.

           In regard to the Egyptian leadership, I know Field Marshal Tantawi for many years.  In fact, 35 years or so — 30 years ago, we fought each other.  We were both (inaudible) battalion commanders in the same — in the same sector when we crossed the Suez Canal.  He was protecting the Eastern Bank with his infantry battalion.  I came with my tank battalion.  When I talked to him after he took power, I told him we have an utmost responsibility to make sure that our younger generation will not find themselves in the same experiences we had been through.

           And I cannot quote him of course, but I have a reason to believe that as long as the Egyptian armed forces are in power, they’re a major pillar of stability within Egypt.  The peace agreement, as well as other Egyptian international commitments, will be respected and kept.

           Thank you once again, my friend, Bob Gates, and have a good stay here.  Thank you all.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak Comes to Washington

National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met jointly today with Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak at the White House today.  They stressed the United States’ unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, including through our continued support for Israel’s military, and the unprecedented security cooperation between our two governments.  Mr. Donilon, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Gates discussed with Minister Barak the latest developments in Egypt, the need to move forward on Middle East peace, our efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and other regional and bilateral issues.  They agreed that the U.S. and Israel would continue to consult closely on common challenges and issues across our shared agenda.

Open Letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Dear Secretary Gates,

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis, we write to express our support for repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. We find disappointing the position espoused that ministering to gays and lesbians would violate religious freedom. We strongly believe that such a repeal need not compromise religious freedom within our armed services, but instead will lead to a stronger, more fair and effective military.

While respecting the complexity and seriousness of the issue, the White House and many current and retired military leaders have recognized the urgency of repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and General Colin Powell, among others, have expressed their view that the policy should be abandoned.  These views reflect the fact that since its inception, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has forced gay and lesbian service members to live their lives in secret, always at risk of losing their ability to serve our country. Almost 14,000 soldiers and sailors have been expelled under the policy. It has been estimated by the GAO that the cost of replacing these service members exceeds $200 million, with a follow up study by an expert commission placing the figure even higher, at $363 million.  Particularly in a time of war and recession, these are human and financial resources we cannot afford to squander.

More after the jump.
We know, however, that some in the religious community have expressed support for maintaining “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  We strongly hold the opposite view.  Communities of faith across the country believe in the importance of ensuring the rights of gay and lesbian Americans and repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As Reform Jews, we are guided by the understanding that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim, in the Divine image. Regardless of context, discrimination against any person is inconsistent with this fundamental belief, for the stamp of the Divine is present in each and every one of us. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a crucial step toward creating a more just and compassionate military. We must no longer allow prejudice to deprive our nation of the skills and commitment of talented and patriotic men and women.

More than two-dozen countries allow homosexuals to serve openly in their militaries without negative impact on unit cohesion or efficiency. In fact, as you know, among NATO countries, only the United States and Turkey continue to have such bans. In Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops serve side by side with openly gay allied service members. In addition, 75 percent of Americans, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, believe gays and lesbians should have the right to serve openly.

The time has come to repeal this harmful law. We urge you to do so expeditiously and with the interests of justice held paramount.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Steven A. Fox          
Chief Executive, Central Conference of American Rabbis    

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism