Discussions of Wealth in America

If a man has an apartment stacked to the ceiling with newspapers, we call him crazy. If a woman has a trailer house full of cats, we call her nuts. But when people pathologically hoard so much cash that they impoverish the entire nation, we put them on the cover of Fortune magazine and pretend that they are role models.

Class warfare or simply paying your fair share?

Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) last night on CNN actually said:

I’m not concerned about the very poor.

to which conservative writer Jonah Goldberg (National Review) asks “What is wrong with this guy?” and Michelle Malkin quips “Let them eat food stamps.”

Meanwhile, Romney has not addressed the questions raised by Brian Beutler about possible offshore tax avoidance scheme raised on his on-the-record press call last week.

The briefing cleared up several questions, but left others unanswered – including one from TPM that will either exculpate Romney from allegations that he’s used investments in offshore entities to avoid U.S. taxes, or reveal that his campaign has not fully addressed those allegations.

On the call, Romney’s trustee pledged get back to us with this information. But despite multiple inquiries in the days since the conference call, the Romney camp has not set the record straight one way or another….

An IRA can’t finance investments with debt, and, in the United States, it can’t invest in entities that lever up, without being hit by the UBIT.

But if an IRA invests in an offshore fund, and that fund levers up, it can avoid the UBIT altogether. And at 35 percent that’s no small tax to get around, according to multiple tax experts.

When first questioned about this on the call, Romney’s trustee noted, “Governor Romeny’s IRA is not structured in the Caymans, it’s not located in the Cayman’s. It’s tax deferred just like your IRA, and my IRA.”

But in a followup, I asked if his IRA had invested in any offshore entities that would have made it subject to the UBIT if those entities were located on U.S. soil. Romney’s staff has yet to provide the answer.

They talk about class warfare - the fact of the matter is there has been class warfare for the last thirty years. It's a handful of billionaires taking on the entire middle-class and working-class of this country. And the result is you now have in America the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth and the worst inequality in America since 1928. How could anybody defend the top 400 richest people in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people? The other reason Romney pays a lower tax rate than most of us is that so-called “carried interest” (the commission charged by hedge fund managers) is treated as long-term capital gains and taxed at 15%. According to Mother Jones, Bain Capital

spent $300,000 between August 2007 and April 2008 lobbying the House and Senate on bills that threatened the carried interest loophole. Along with other private equity titans like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Apollo Management, Bain and its ilk paid lobbying shops, public relations firms, and trade groups like Ogilvy and the Private Equity Growth Capital Council an estimated $15 million between January 2009 and April 2010 to convince lawmakers to keep the loophole alive. The force of those combined lobbying efforts kept the carried interest loophole wedged open, denying the federal government some $10 billion in revenues.

Surrogate John Sununu: Romney’s No-No In The Jewish Community

John H. Sununu, right, with Mitt Romney. — by David Streeter

The Forward‘s J.J. Goldberg wrote about the problems posed for leading Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney by his use of former New Hampshire Governor and President George H.W. Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu as a major surrogate. Goldberg wrote:

In the end, of course, it’s presidents that make foreign policy. A Romney White House would reflect the personal convictions of Mitt Romney. Whatever those turn out to be.

This is what made primary night television coverage so unsettling: the reminders that we don’t really know what Romney believes, and he may have no intention of telling us until he’s inaugurated.

Of all those reminders, the most chilling was the appearance of former New Hampshire governor John Sununu as a Romney spokesman. For those with long memories, it harkened back to the 1988 election, when Sununu was Republican candidate George H.W. Bush’s national campaign manager.

…  Sununu was also the only one of the 50 governors who refused to sign a 1987 proclamation saluting the 90th anniversary of Zionism and calling on the United Nations to rescind its Zionism-racism resolution. His reasoning was that governors shouldn’t dabble in foreign affairs – though he’d issued proclamations honoring Bastille Day and saluting Polish freedom on Pulaski Day. In 1988 he issued a proclamation honoring the veterans of the U.S.S. Liberty, an American naval vessel mistakenly attacked by Israeli jets in June 1967, causing 34 deaths. Sununu called the attack ‘vicious and unprovoked.’

Bush’s Jewish supporters insisted Sununu’s views didn’t reflect Bush’s. When word came out that Sununu was to be White House chief of staff, they said he wouldn’t be involved in Middle East policy. They said Bush was a devoted friend of Israel. Then we found out he wasn’t.

We hadn’t seen much of Sununu lately, until Romney went and found him. Or they found each other.

Israel’s YouTube Rorschach for American Jewry

— by Ilan Chaim

Ordinary Israelis living in Israel can ask aloud what Israeli prime ministers and diplomats cannot: Why did so many American Jews react with such hysteria over some ads encouraging Israelis to come home?

Was it the atrocious, inaccurate hype in the headline of Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic kvetch? There was no statement in his blog that backed up the sensationalist head, “Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews.” The word marriage was not mentioned in the ads.

I can only speculate as to why my former Jerusalem Post colleague was so hypersensitive to the topic and reacted so vehemently. “These government-sponsored ads suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America.” Not at all, Jeff-they argue that it is impossible for Israelis to remain Israeli in America.

The only YouTube clip that featured a couple, the one above about Israel’s Memorial Day, did not say anything about intermarriage between Israelis and Americans. It was deliberately unclear whether the relationship was between a married couple or boyfriend and girlfriend. The Hebrew tag at the end referred to “partner.”

This is because the point was not intermarriage, but Israeli identity. Not that an Israeli risks losing his or her Jewish identity by marrying an American, but losing Israeli identity by living in America, no matter what the ethnic identity of the spouse. This point was perhaps made more clearly in the other videos: the danger of losing one’s Israeli identity-or that of one’s children-by assimilation.

The more subtle message in this example from a series of unsubtle messages is that a non-Israeli spouse, by definition, cannot understand what it means to be an Israeli. There is nothing insulting in this fact of life, nothing to take offense at. The male partner is presented as clueless-but neither American Jew clueless nor goy clueless, just non-Israeli clueless.

Memorial Day in Israel is coupled with Independence Day. A day of national mourning segues into a day of national celebration: The terrible cost of independence and freedom is inextricably linked to its joy in a dramatic, nationally observed cathartic transition. No American partner in a relationship with an Israeli can possibly fathom this while living in a country whose Memorial Day has long ago lost its memory. The chasm between drivers at the Indianapolis 500 and drivers stopping their cars and standing at attention at the sound of sirens throughout Israel is a fact.

Leaving aside the issue of inter-religious intermarriage, can an American Jew, even one who participates in an Israeli memorial ceremony at the local JCC, have anything but a vicarious understanding of what an Israeli feels?

The message in this clip is a rather brutal statement of the fact that, despite all the feel-good Zionist propaganda, we are not one. Our experience is not your experience; our understanding is direct and empirical-yours may be of the best intentions, but is theoretical. No American Jew should take offense if I point out the fact that I and my four children have served in the Israel Defense Forces.

More after the jump.
A word on journalistic integrity. Aside from the inaccurate headline, Goldberg’s lament begins with a rather unfortunate, snarky slant. It’s not “the Netanyahu government’s Immigration Absorption Ministry.” It’s not Netanyahu’s IDF, either. But if he makes this association because he assumes that Netanyahu knows what’s going on in all his bloated coalition government’s ministries, he’s obviously forgotten Shas minister Eli Yishai’s gift of housing developments to Vice President Joe Biden.

The Absorption Ministry is not making a statement on intermarriage, but on Israelis living in the Diaspora. The little girl who Skypes her grandparents in the homeland about Christmas in the video on the right is not engaged to marry an American. She is being raised by parents who apparently want to fit in with the majority culture, not by one of the many Israeli families who discover and benefit greatly from the rich variety of Jewish life in America.

You’ve heard of the brain drain? That’s what happens when lots of Israelis who start out studying or looking to strike it rich in America end up never coming home. We need Israelis in Israel, not in Palo Alto.

As crude and/or heavy handed as the videos may be, they reflect a sad reality: Israelis, particularly their young children, risk losing their identity surrounded by the American culture. A non-hypothetical example: A sabra couple I know are living in New Jersey, where the husband works for a hi-tech company. They are secular, but in their native Rehovot they wouldn’t think of driving, working, or going to school on Yom Kippur, because to do so would violate the norms of the majority culture. In New Jersey on Yom Kippur, the kids went to public school, the husband to work, and they have a Christmas tree to fit in with the neighbors.

Israel is trying, albeit in a rather clumsy way, to encourage its citizens to return home. It is not out to insult Americans or show contempt for American Jewry.

“The idea communicated in these ads,” Goldberg writes, “that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik.” Wrong again: The campaign was not aimed at American Jews, but at expatriate Israelis.

Classic, not archaic, Zionism argues that Jews truly concerned about the Jewish national future should live in Israel. American Jews can live full and meaningful Jewish lives in America; Israelis cannot live full and meaningful Israeli lives in America. The difference is being part of the majority culture. Secular or religious, Israel is, at least for the time being, a majority Jewish state.

Lobby for us in Washington, marry our sons and daughters, but live in Israel. Maybe that’s the key to this overreaction: Could American Jews be insulted at being reminded that Israel wants its citizens to come home-and feel guilty at not availing themselves of the same opportunity?

The Jewish Federations of North America joined the indignant misunderstanding:

While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel. We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

Not to be left out, Abe Foxman pronounced the ADL’s verdict:

We find these videos heavy-handed, and even demeaning…we are concerned that some may be offended by what the video implies about American Jewry.

I’m still at a loss to understand the ferocity of the reaction to this campaign. Is it the intermarriage thing? Is it because people who are divorced (no pun intended) from their Jewish identity to begin with feel some kind of guilt at being reminded of there being a much stronger Jewish identity in Israel? Is it people who are perhaps proud of being among the less than 15 percent of American Jews who have ever visited Israel, but nevertheless feel uncomfortable that we want to live here, and by implication, want them to also?

It’s instructive to note that Israeli wags have instantly responded to the bloggish hullaballoo by producing matching satirical takeoffs on the three insulting videos. Their treatment on YouTube for Hebrew speakers shows why the ministry’s heavy handed, mawkish approach actually insults Israelis — not American Jews. The counter-videos shown on the right, featuring caricatures of familiar obnoxious Israeli behavior, are produced by the fictitious “Ministry of Escape.” Their message: These Israelis should stay abroad. The real ministry’s message should extol the joys of living in Israel, where Jews whether secular or religious are part of the majority culture.

No secular Jewish Israeli child fails to know when each Jewish holiday is, just as no secular Jewish American child could possibly fail to know when Christmas is; but does that secular Jewish American child know the Jewish holidays?

Are American Jews really insulted by what they perceive as Israeli ethno-centricity and chutzpa, or are they having an allergic reaction to the strength of a dearly purchased Israeli Jewish identity that they, despite their celebrated free birthright, don’t have?

For that matter, we Israelis have noticed that the much (self-)touted communal answer to the failure of America’s Jewish educational system and its over-50 percent intermarriage rate is a program called “Birthright Israel” — not “Birthright New York.”

This deal is not about American Jews. It’s about Israeli expatriates. It’s not about you, it’s about us. It’s not about us not being able to maintain a sense of Jewish identity in America; it’s about us not being able to maintain an Israeli identity in America. It should not be insulting to you if I want to be me.

The writer is a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post and consultant to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com

Jewish Leaders Denounce Right-Wing Smear of Occupy Wall Street

We are publicly engaged American Jews who support both Israel and the ideas behind Occupy Wall Street and who also strongly oppose right-wing attempts to smear that movement with false charges of anti-Semitism.

It’s an old, discredited tactic: find a couple of unrepresentative people in a large movement and then conflate the oddity with the cause. One black swan means that all swans are black.

One particularly vile example was a television ad during Sunday talk shows paid for by something called the Emergency Committee for Israel that is organized by William Kristol and Gary Bauer.

It is disingenuous to raise the canard about Jews and Wall Street in order to denounce it.

Occupy Wall Street is a mass protest against rising inequality in America, a fact documented last week by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. Anyone who visits Zuccotti Park understands that it has nothing to do with religion and everything to do “with liberty and justice for all.”

All of us irrespective of party or position should expose and denounce anti-Semitism where ever it occurs, but not tar hundreds of thousands of protestors nationwide because a handful of hateful people show up with offensive signs that can’t be taken down in a public park open to all.

We are pleased that the Anti-Defamation League agrees that some random signs “are not representative of the larger views of the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

List of co-signers follows after the jump.

  • Stuart Appelbaum, President, RWDSU*
  • Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and President, J Street
  • Richard Brodsky, former Assemblyman, New York
  • Richard Cohen, Washington Post
  • Danny Goldberg, President, Goldve Entertainment
  • Mark Green, former Public Advocate for New York City
  • Elizabeth Holtzman, former Congresswoman and District Attorney (Brooklyn)
  • Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder, Progressive Faith Foundation
  • Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America
  • Madeleine Kunin, former Governor, Vermont
  • Jo-ann Mort, CEO, ChangeCommunicaitons
  • Eliot Spitzer, former Governor, New York State
  • Andy Stern, President Emeritus, Service Employees International Union
  • Hadar Susskind, Vice President, Tides Foundation
  • Margery Tabankin, President, Margery Tabankin Assoc.
  • Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

*Institutions for identification purposes only.

International Jewish Funders Network Convenes in Philadelphia

Al Berger and Carol Auerbach, husband and wife, each heads up a private family foundation.  The Auerbach Agency at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia was founded by Auerbach when she lived in Philadelphia.  Now, as a board member of the Jewish Funders Network, she divides her time between New York City, Seattle, and Jupiter, Florida.

For the twenty-first year, the Jewish Funders Network convened its annual international conference, this time in Philadelphia at Loews Hotel.  The theme this year: What’s Your Story?  The Power of Narrative to Drive Change.

Andy Goodman, the keynote speaker, entertained the audience while transmitting very important points, about how to inspire others to support the various philanthropies represented by the 315 attendees.  

Dorit Straus shared the story of her chance encounter on a New York subway with the famous violist Joshua Bell, learning that Bell was the proud owner of a Stradivarius violin which had once belongs to an earlier generation’s highly regarded violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, who had a dream of creating an orchestra in Palestine.  Huberman managed to collect hundreds of professional musicians, saving them from the Nazis, and eventually establishing the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

More after the jump.

(left to right) Haim Emil Dahan, of Israel, greets Michael and Kristin Karp at the JFN conference at Loews Hotel in Philadelphia.  The conference attracted 315 individual donors, founders and staff members of private Jewish foundations.

Straus enlisted Academy-award-nominated filmmaker Josh Aronson to make a documentary film about the life of this almost forgotten hero, the violinist she credited with having saved her entire family.  Straus is serving as the executive producer of Aronson’s film, which they hope will be completed for a premiere in December 2011 for the 75th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic.

Straus illustrated the way in which a story motivated the philanthropy.

Carol Auerbach, founder of The Auerbach Family Foundation, and the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia, spoke to the plenary session about the new technology and means of communicating with a larger audience and with the naxt generation of donors and philanthropists.

The afternoon workshops on Sunday included the well attended Strategic Investment in the New Media Space, moderated by Joshua Miller of the Jim Joseph Foundation, who explained a grant process aimed at 18 to 40-year-olds which involved a collaboration of three funders.

Gwen Borowsky, of the National Liberty Museum, and Eunice Miller, founder of the nonprofit Linkages, enjoyed the sessions at the JFN conference.

Miller introduced a panel, consisting of Lucy Bernholz, president of Blueprint Research and Design;  John Bracken of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; and David Bryfman, of The Jewish Education Project, focusing on engaging teenagers.
   The seesion alerted the funders to the existence of  the new on-line charity engine, “Kickstart,” which helps all kinds of projects and charities raise funds in a short period of time on the internet.
   There was a lively session on Jewish education with the interesting title, “Nor Your Zade’s (and Bubbe’s) Hebrew School.”
   Another added benefit, besides the quality of sessions and speakers, and the line-up of visits to the National Museum of American Jewish History, as well as the Barnes Museum beofre it re-locates to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, was the opportunity for philanthropists and representatives of foundations from across the country, even from across the globe, to network and share experiences.

Josh Aronson, filmmaker, and Dorit Straus, executive producer of Aronson’s film, inspired by Straus’ encounter on a New York subway with the famous violinist Joshua Bell.  Bell was carrying a Stradivarius once owned by a Jewish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, who pioneered the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, gathering Jewish musicians who had fled the Nazis and saving 1000 lives in the process.  The film in progress, for which they showed clips, is entitled, “The Orchestra of Exile.”

Martin Lautman, Ph.D., and Betsy Sheerr were delighted to pose with the incoming president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, Andreas Spokarniy.

Among the hundreds of Jewish philanthropists gathered in Philadelphia for a three-day conference of the Jewish Funders Network, are (seated) Mark Solomon and Carol Auerbach, and (standing left to right) Paul Silberberg, Robin Batoff, and Morey Goldberg.  The three men are all part of CMS Industries in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, which was a main sponsor of the JFN conference.

Philanthropist Charles Bronfman (right) receives a special award at the Jewish Funders Network from JNF past presidents Murray Galinson and Mark Cherendorff.  Video tributes included one from Shimon Peres.

Charles Bronfman’s 80th birthday happened to fall on the day he was honored in Philadelphia by the Jewish Funders Network.  Representing a group of students who had benefited from Birthright, the Bronfman-supported program which provides the gift of first time educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults  to strenthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people, are Penn students Elayna Zach and Adam Levinson, alumni of the Birthright program.

At the awards luncheon at the JFN international conference at Loews Hotel in Philadelphia, Bonnie Roche-Bronfman, a nationally recognized architect, was very proud of her husband, the honoree Charles Bronfman, head of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.  Roche-Bronfman had recently organized and served as set designer for a New York theatrical production, “From the Fire,” commemorating the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and tragedy.

Photos: Bonnie Squires.

Payroll Tax Holiday Imperils Social Security

— Sharon Bender

As Congress and the White House hold increasingly contentious conversations about a package of tax cuts, B’nai B’rith International expresses its deep concern about the impact some of the proposed changes could have on the vital senior safety net, Social Security.

The White House and Congressional Republicans are working on a tax plan that could include reducing Social Security payroll taxes-which are worker Social Security contributions-for one year, undermining the steady and reliable worker contribution as a Social Security funding source. This system has worked well-experts agree Social Security is solvent until at least 2039.

“Removing a dedicated funding source for Social Security puts the future of the program in grave jeopardy,” B’nai B’rith International President Dennis W. Glick said. “Once the dedicated funding source is slashed, and people are used to lower taxes, they could easily blame Social Security for any changes. This could endanger future benefits and recreate the severe elderly poverty the system was created to address.”  

More after the jump.
The idea behind this payroll tax holiday is to stimulate the economy-people could use the extra money they bring home each paycheck to make big purchases.  

The Social Security payroll tax may be a convenient way to provide this stimulus, but jump-starting the economy has nothing to do with Social Security and will create an unacceptable risk to an essential program.

As we learn over and over, Congressional “temporary” fixes have a way of becoming permanent. And the real possibility of losing forever part of this dedicated funding is not a risk we can afford Social Security to take.

Once the tax holiday year expires, long-time opponents of Social Security could cast the return to normal payroll tax rates as a major tax hike, instead of the restoration it truly would be. This in turn could lead to unnecessary resentment of a program that millions of older Americans rely on as their only source of income. Social Security could be portrayed as a deficit-buster that we have to tame, when in reality the program does not contribute to the deficit and has nothing more to do with this rate change than being a convenient vehicle for implementing a temporary stimulus.

“Social Security does not add to the deficit, period.” B’nai B’rith Director of Aging Policy Rachel Goldberg, Ph.D., said. “We have very real deficit problems and a stalled economic recovery to tackle, but tampering with this program is not the way to address them. We cannot afford to get used to this tax rebate, and we cannot afford to let the tax holiday threaten the future of Social Security.”

B’nai Brith Encouraged as Deficit Commission Rejects Flawed Plan

— Sharon Bender

The deficit commission failed to get the necessary votes to report recommendations to Congress for a plan which if passed, would have included deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security according to a Chairman’s report introduced in November and finalized this week.  The plan would have left American seniors at a great disadvantage in the wake of a slow economic recovery and continued high health care costs.  Especially troubling aspects were suggested caps on Medicare spending and increased premiums, combined with Social Security cuts that placed vital care and services for older adults out of their reach.

More after the jump.
The Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform had delayed voting until Dec. 3 in hopes of securing the 14 votes needed to send the recommendations to Congress for a vote.  B’nai B’rith is encouraged that the proposal lacked widespread endorsement, as these draconian cuts imperil the health and welfare of millions of Americans who rely on Social Security and Medicare benefits for the income support and fundamental health services they need. However, it is likely that many severe cuts to health and senior services will emerge in future plans to reduce the deficit.

B’nai B’rith International has long been invested in the welfare and concerns of aging adults, and is concerned about continuing efforts to place the burden of repairing America’s growing deficit on those who can least afford to pay by targeting  Social Security and Medicare benefits for unrealistic cuts.

“We are encouraged that they couldn’t get the votes for these harmful proposals,” B’nai B’rith International President Dennis W. Glick said. “Seniors depend on Medicare and Social Security; we should be protecting these programs, not gutting them.”

B’nai B’rith shares President Obama’s concern about the deficit, but firmly believes the approach of the Commission was inequitable, and its focus on Social Security and Medicare was inappropriate.  On the surface, some of the proposals look plausible. But digging deeper, it’s apparent the plan would drastically reduce benefits over time.

“I have no illusions that the failure to get the votes means that these attacks on Medicare and Social Security will go away,” B’nai B’rith Director of Aging Policy Rachel Goldberg, Ph.D., said. “We will remain vigilant and prepared to protect these programs during the next Congress.”

We support the effort to achieve fiscal responsibility and we recognize that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve that goal without shared sacrifice. However, we do not believe it can or should come at the expense of the most vulnerable Americans.