by Frances Novack
Mel Brooks set the tone, as President Obama quoted him telling his writers: “Write anything you want, because we will never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie” (“Blazing Saddles”). The President then awarded him and 21 others the National Medal for the Arts or Humanities Medal at a laughter-filled ceremony at the White House. [Read more…]
It was surprising how hard last night’s speakers went after Donald Trump. I had thought they would all stay positive, in diametric opposition to the RNC’s no-ideas-only-hatefest last week. But the main speeches were intertwined with condemnation of Trump, and positiveness of we Americans, democracy, the Democratic Party, and Hillary Clinton. It’s hard to pick a favorite between Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden. It really is. For different reasons, both were masterful. Mike, for being a billionaire and an Independent talking honestly about what a con artist Trump is, and for showing all of us how the rich really act. Uncle Joe, for reminding us what it means to be proud, patriotic Americans with liberal values. [Read more…]
Often opinions are abstract legal documents full of arcane language spanning dozens or hundreds of pages. Accordingly, many Americans do not feel directly connected to the workings of our land’s highest court.
The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.
This case concerned President Obama’s policy of deferring deportation and allowing employment for four million undocumented immigrants. These include immigrants with American children and the so-called “Dreamers” who were brought to the United States as children and attended school here.
Since Antonin Scalia passed away in February, the Supreme Court has been left with only eight justices on the bench. While the ruling in United States v. Texas is unsigned, it can be assumed that the four liberal justices (Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) wanted to overrule the lower court, while the four conservative justices (Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito) wanted to affirm its ruling that Obama’s deferred action policy constituted an unconstitutional expansion of presidential authority.
Today, the Supreme Court was unable to reach a decision. This is part of the consequence of the Republican failure so far to give a fair hearing to Mr. Merrick Garland, my nominee to the Supreme Court. It means that the expanded set of common-sense deferred action policies — the ones that I announced two years ago — can’t go forward at this stage, until there is a ninth justice on the Court to break the tie.
Republicans refuse to even consider any possible replacement for Scalia until January when the next president takes office.
While many Americans seemed unconcerned that our country’s highest court will be short-handed for an unprecedented length of time, while this split decision sets no legal precedent, and while (according to the United States Circuit Court for the Fifth Circuit’s earlier ruling) the secretary of Homeland Security’s ability to marshal and deploy department resources is not enjoined or impaired, it is painfully obvious that the ruling in this case will have enormous consequences: Millions of families are now in an uncertain legal situation; they may fear deportation if picked up on an unrelated matter; and they will have difficulty obtaining legal employment.One does not have to be a legal scholar or a political pundit to intuit how this 4-4 split would have been avoided had the Senate filled its constitutional duty to provide its “advice and consent” and consider the president’s judicial nominees.
This election provides a stark contrast that will be easily understood by voters, especially those with friends or family at risk of being deported or forcefully separated from a loved one.
On one side, we have a party whose senators refuse to meet Obama’s nominee, Justice Merrick Garland; whose representatives refused to consider “Dreamer” legislation; and whose presidential nominee wants to build a wall on our borders, doubts the qualifications of Hispanic judges and advocates banning immigrants of certain faiths.
While on the other side, we have a presidential candidate who stands up for “Dreamers.”
I’m going to do everything I can so you don’t have to be scared. And you don’t have to worry about what happens to your mom or your dad or anyone else. I feel really, really strongly, but you’re being very brave and you have to be brave for them too. Because they want you to be happy. Let me do the worrying. I’ll do all the worrying. Is that a deal? I’ll do everything I can to help, OK?
As president, who would these candidates appoint to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court? And how would their judicial nominees break this deadlock when this issue is inevitably re-litigated before the Supreme Court?
If anyone doubted that the fate of the Supreme Court would weigh heavily on the presidential and congressional elections this November, I think this 4-4 non-decision puts the case to rest.
Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
The Executive Order signed by President Obama is such an example of Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching. We cannot eliminate all acts of gun violence, but we must do what we can to advance the cause. Regardless of one’s stance on the Second Amendment or the effectiveness of these Executive Orders, we cannot turn a blind eye to the horrifying levels of violence and death that occur in our country. These limited executive actions seek to better enforce existing laws. The idea that criminals and emotionally disturbed people will find it harder to gain access to weapons of death is a good one.
I wish we could do more, but that is not a reason to do nothing. Progress comes in small steps, an incremental march toward what should be from what is. We measure a great civilization not by its great monuments but by its ability to protect the weak within its society. The victims of mass shootings, the victims of urban gun violence, the victims of suicide are all testimony to how much more we have to do to protect ourselves and lift everyone to a better place.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” says the Chinese philosopher Laozi (Tao Te Ching). We have a long way to go before the work is complete, but at least we are started on the path.
Obama announced a package of Executive Actions aimed at fighting gun violence by strengthening and expanding the background check system to cover more sales, ensuring the the system has good records, and implementing new regulations and procedures to curtail trafficking and the illegal gun trade.
Complete transcript follows the video below.
Ezra Schwartz was murdered by Palestinian terrorists on Thursday, November 19, while en route to deliver food to Israeli soldiers. He was an 18-year old American citizen just out of high school and on a gap program in Israel.
All terrorist victims tug at our hearts, but Ezra’s murder hit home hard. Even those of us who did not know him personally know kids just like him who participate in similar programs, including our own kids.
At times like these, we expect solace and recognition from our own government. Within days, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, State Department Spokesman John Kirby, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro had all condemned the attack, specifically mentioning Ezra. President Obama and Secretary Kerry personally called the family to convey their condolences.
Yet even before Shabbat ended on November 21, some of us were expressing outrage — not at the terrorists who murdered Ezra, but at the administration, even though Dan Shapiro condemned the attack almost immediately and even though the State Department (which is run by John Kerry, who reports to President Obama) condemned it on November 20.
Maybe some of us were not aware of the condemnations, but before we criticize the administration’s response to such an awful tragedy, do we not owe it to ourselves and our friends to verify before posting? It is not that hard with Google. Maybe some of us did not know that the ambassador to Israel (the official U.S. representative in Israel) and the State Department both report up to the President and speak for him. The President uses spokespeople of necessity because there are so many pressing issues and so little time.
On Monday, November 23, the day after Ezra’s funeral, Kerry spoke to the family and condemned the attack. Kerry mentioned Ezra again the following day, adding that “Israel has every right in the world to defend itself and it has an obligation to defend itself.”
President Obama also called the family on Monday and condemned the attack in the strongest terms.
Is the day after his funeral, the second day of shiva, really too late?
Perhaps we should reserve our anger for the terrorists and acknowledge that the administration’s response to this tragedy was more than sufficient. And to the extent we have questions, let us get answers before assuming the worst.
Should our first instinct be to wonder whether the President condemned a self-evidently horrific attack? Should our first priority be to look at our watches to see if he spoke out in time? My guess is that those who were concerned–whose sincerity I do not doubt and to whom this would never have otherwise occurred–were prompted by social media that ultimately came from the usual suspects, that small but vocal segment of our community for whom nothing President Obama does is good enough.
It’s an easy game to play, straight out of Negative Politics 101: Accuse any politician of not responding, then of not responding fast enough (because it will never be fast enough), and then of issuing a response that was not strong or thorough enough (because more can always be said). And when it is the president, complain that the person speaking for the president was not at a high enough level (it will never be high enough).
Those who shared this misleading information were the victims of yet another partisan Internet hoax. The blame rests with the people who started these rumors and petitions in the first place, making them look as official and legitimate as possible, knowing that they would be shared and recirculated by people who were genuinely grieving for Ezra Schwartz. The purveyors of these falsehoods knew all too well that Mark Twain was right: A lie can travel half way around the world before the truth can put its pants on.
President Obama has earned the benefit of the doubt. Neither his personal differences with Prime Minister Netanyahu nor the steady stream of invective from some quarters of the American Jewish community has prevented him from strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.
President Obama supported record levels of aid to Israel and raised military and intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Israel to unprecedented levels. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama enthusiastically supported and funded Iron Dome, which has saved countless Israeli lives. President Obama, at Bibi’s request, immediately intervened to save the lives of the Israeli diplomats trapped in the Israeli embassy in Egypt (do you know their names? Probably not — because Obama saved them). Also at Bibi’s request, President Obama immediately ensured fast U.S. help with the Carmel forest fires. And now we are complaining that a phone call to Ezra’s family the day after his funeral was not fast enough?
Unlike his predecessors, President Obama’s record of support for Israel at the U.N. is 100%. He even vetoed a Security Council resolution on settlements deliberately worded to match long-standing U.S. policy on settlements (to make it harder for the U.S. to veto) just to affirm the principle that the conflict must be resolved by the parties to the conflict, not one-sided international pressure on Israel.
And what about Iran? If Congress had blocked the Iran deal, we might be at war with Iran or preparing for the imminent possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. I still do not know whether to be amused or saddened by claims that we could have held the sanctions regime together, even though all of our allies said it would fall apart and even though the same people who accuse President Obama of failing to lead somehow expected him to use his Jedi mind control techniques to hold it all together.
I still marvel that the same people who accused President Obama of undue reluctance to use force (even though he killed Osama bin Laden and has ordered over 6,000 airstrikes against ISIL) said out of the other side of their mouths that if Congress blocked the deal, we could stop Iran with force. Who did they think would authorize it? The Iran deal removed the biggest threat to Israel and world peace and is already emerging as one of our greatest foreign policy achievements. With all that is going on in the world today, imagine where we would be if President Obama had not taken Iran off the table.
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The U.S. condemned Israeli missile strikes that killed civilians, saying that “this heavy-handed action does not contribute to peace.” Yet the White House rejected comparisons to U.S. attacks in Afghanistan that killed hundreds of civilians.
These statements were made by the Bush administration in 2002. And now in 2015, the U.S. once again killed civilians in Afghanistan and once again refuses to apply the same standard to Israel that it applies to itself.
So should we harshly condemn both countries for committing what in hindsight were grievous errors, or should we shrug our shoulders in both cases and say “stuff happens”?
We have to ask ourselves why two administrations as dissimilar as the Bush and Obama administrations behave similarly in these situations. Maybe both administrations were especially sensitive to the misuse of American-supplied weapons by an ally that the U.S. consistently defends in international forums, especially when it creates difficulties with our other allies. That might be the real reason, but it is still troubling, even though neither administration took any concrete action against Israel and remained supportive of Israel. We should rather be harder on ourselves and more understanding of Israel. American parents do not have to worry about rockets fired from Afghanistan hitting their kids in playgrounds. Israeli parents worry every day about rockets fired from Gaza.
(We might also ask ourselves why the Bush and Obama administrations, sometimes using identical language, consistently urge both side to refrain from violence when it is so clear to us that the Palestinians are more to blame, but that is a subject for another article.)
Former Ambassador Dennis Ross says he does not know if the final result of the negotiations with Iran was the best deal possible, but he believes it will go forward. At the same time, Ross recommends steps he wants from the administration to address the agreement’s shortcomings.
Ross spoke on July 28 about the agreement negotiated by the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany (the P5+1), and now pending review by the Congress. The talk held at Har Zion Congregation in Wynnewood, PA, and sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia was also simulcast downtown and webcast over the internet. The video is still available online. (Skip ahead 100 minutes to avoid the recording taken while the room was being set up.)
There is no easy answer to the question what to do with the Iran agreement, according to Ross. If the U.S. refuses to approve the agreement, it is likely that international sanctions against Iran will collapse anyway, and we will have no bargaining power sufficient to achieve any better deal. Thus Ross concludes that the agreement, despite its “vulnerabilities,” needs to be considered.
Ross laid out the favorable elements of the agreement: For 15 years Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. The amount of fissionable material allowed under the agreement, 300 k.g., is inadequate to manufacture even one bomb. By comparison, Iran has approximately 10,000 k.g. of fissionable material in its stockpile today.
Moreover, the supply chain for the development of fissionable material will be monitored for 25 years. Ross explained the two paths to secure fissionable material:
- enrichment of uranium through cascades of centrifuges, or
- development of plutonium in a heavy water reactor.
Either process requires extensive equipment and operations. Based on the successful experience of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in identifying past Iranian nuclear development, Ross is optimistic as to the effectiveness of the inspection regime under the new agreement.
Other positive elements of the Agreement were pointed out:
- In addition to disposing of most of its fissionable material, Iran must remove and destroy the core from its heavy water plutonium reactor.
- Its modern centrifuges must be removed for 10 years.
- The inspection rights of the U.S. under the agreement are stricter than any international program ever instituted, other than the program we operated in Iraq after we took over that country.
Ross also provided his opinion of the “bad news”: Iran does not have to entirely dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and can produce highly enriched uranium, although at a much lower pace than at present. Iran will be free after 15 years to move into weapons-grade uranium development as rapidly as it wishes.
Sanctions relief for Iran will arrive as soon as it has completed dismantling facilities and reducing its stockpile. This might occur in as little as six months although Ross believes it is more likely to take a year. Although sanctions may snap back if Iran violates its agreement in whole or in part, if that occurs there is language indicating that Iran is not obligated to obey the limits on its nuclear program.
Ross accepts the probability that sanction relief will permit Iran to raise the levels of financial support it presently provides to Hamas and other terrorist activities. But he reiterates the prospect that sanctions will disappear, whether Congress approves the agreement or not.
Ross suggests that the U.S. add teeth to the agreement by announcing that it will resume the use of sanctions if there is any cheating by Iran. He urges that we develop specific further agreements with our European allies as to when and how their sanctions would be automatically reimposed in case of a breach, especially in the likely case of minor breaches.
After year 15, Iran would be a nuclear threshold state and could acquire a bomb quickly enough that sanctions would not be a sufficient deterrent. Accordingly, Ross recommends that we immediately clarify that even after 15 years we would not tolerate the development of nuclear weapons by Iran and that we would apply force if we saw that happening. Of course, even if we say we will do this, Iran might not believe us. In that case, to ensure that Iran is deterred from weaponizing their nuclear material, Ross recommends that we arm Israel with the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator along with the B-52 bombers necessary to carry them. This 30,000-pound “bunker buster” bomb is really a “mountain buster bomb” and no one doubts that Israel would be willing to use these weapons if need be.
Audience members asked about the strain in Israel’s relations with the U.S. Noting that fully 70% of Israelis are unhappy with the agreement, Ross pointed to the very real threat they face from Iran and its support of Hamas. Although relations between the Netanyahu government and Washington are strained, Ross predicts no permanent impairment, noting our shared values and the democratic qualities of the State of Israel that are unique in the Middle East.
When questioner asked whether Israel remains free to attack Iran despite the agreement, Ross noted that entering the agreement implies that the U.S. will support, not sabotage the negotiated program. But this does not mean the U.S. is required to prevent action by Israel that is not a signatory to the P5+1 agreement with Iran.
Overall, Ross emphasizes the favorable aspects of the terms reached with Iran and concludes that the negotiated agreement, like the title of his book on the U.S.-Israel relationship, is “doomed to succeed.”
What Position Should We Take On The Iran Nuclear Deal?
I received the above question from The Peace Team along with a retelling of why Alan Grayson, described as a bona fide progressive (His recent failure to back higher taxes on the top 0.01% not withstanding.), is strongly against the talks that led to the agreement. I have respected Grayson’s outspokenness in the past, but very much disagree with him on the Iran Nuclear Deal.
As an American Jew with relatives in Israel, I support the agreement as by far the best alternative. Absent implementation of this agreement would have two likely outcomes: war or a nuclear armed Iran. I am not the least bit interested in either.
A Military Solution?
Legions of the same people who cheer-lead the disastrous invasion of Iraq have for years been touting military action as the “best option” but they fail, as they did before, to take into account any of the likely corollary ramifications. In a Washington Post Op-ed, Hans Binnendijk ably relayed that it would be no easy task to degrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities via air strikes, and the prospect of hostilities expanding beyond “surgical” strikes looms large.
Binnendijk also pointed out the fact that Iran is effectively our ally in the fight against ISIL, and has a close relationship with Russia: one of our negotiating partners, with whom we have a host of significant diplomatic challenges.
Meanwhile, what will our “solid” allies do? Will Britain join with the U.S. as it did in Iraq? How about Germany? Or France? Or, will we be on an island with Israel, who would be targeted by Iran’s ballistic missiles? Iran is far from a toothless enemy, with clear capacity to create havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and the potential to cause significant damage to U.S. Naval forces.
If Congress upends the agreement and we do not go to war, then what? The sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table will dissolve, Russia will move forward with providing Iran with more advanced weapons and we will have no leverage, no inspections, and almost certainly drive to nuclear weapons capability on Iran’s side. Meanwhile, the already badly strained U.S. relationship with Russia over the Ukraine, a powder keg of international disaster should it blow, would worsen, and the very same people arguing vociferously against this agreement will be agitating for tougher action against Russia. The level of risk of a widening conflict in the region and direct conflict with Russia is already far too great.
With the agreement in place it is possible Iran will try to take steps toward a nuclear weapon. But it will also be far more likely that they will get caught with inspectors actively working to detect cheating, even if they cannot get into each and every possible facility (and really, what government would permit unfettered access to all of their military installations?).
A perfect deal was never going to be struck with Iran. The reality of what has been agreed to is probably better than could be realistically expected. It should be supported.
In the end, it is in the best interest of the U.S. and Israel to implement the negotiated agreement and work vigorously to ensure that its implementation is as effective as possible.