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July 16, 2004

A Politician by Intent, A Jew by Accident

Forgive me for asking, but just what kind of a Jew is Ken Mehlman (“Bush Campaign Manager Sees Virtue in Taking No Prisoners,” July 9)? If the Forward were making an issue of the Jewishness of some ballplayer, that’s one thing. But when it’s someone in a position to shape public policy and to attract the “Jewish vote,” that’s quite another. Then, it’s important to recognize just what kind of Jew we’re talking about. By this I don’t mean Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist — but rather biological, annual, situational and ideological. Each would have a bearing on the Mehlman story.

The biological Jew is a Jew by accident, having been born into a family that identifies itself that way. From then on, it’s a matter of personal commitment. One can become an annual Jew, who checks in once a year during the High Holy Days. Or there is the situational Jew, who dons a yarmulke on the way to his trial for embezzlement, reminding the court of his philanthropy. And then there is the ideological Jew, dedicated to the idea of tikkun olam, of repairing the world.

That’s what Mehlman’s mother was doing when, on behalf of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, she went to the airport to meet the refuseniks. That’s what my wife and I were doing during the years we volunteered at the New York Association of New Americans.

What was the Reagan administration doing? I’ll skip the pressures to limit the number of Eastern European Jews allowed into the

United States, the months of holding them in camps in Italy and elsewhere, the unrealistic demand that these uprooted people be mainstreamed in a matter of months and cut to the role of Reagan’s Immigration and Naturalization Services.

To get out of the former Soviet Union, the scientists to whom Mehlman refers had to divorce their wives — on paper. Despite this “paper divorce,” they continued to live together and have children until the day permission came through to leave — for the father. The family had to remain behind, subject to all manner of harassment, until the miniscule quota for nonrefugees might, some day, reunite them.

But that’s past history, and Mehlman was a youngster. Today, as a thinking adult, he serves the party whose philosophy it is to starve the beast of government in order to limit the funds available to protect the less fortunate.

Whatever it is in terms of policy, tikkun olam it isn’t. This leads me to the sad conclusion that Mehlman, for all his love of moral clarity, is a politician by intent and a Jew by accident.

Irv Zuckerman

Larchmont, N.Y.

No Fear Down Under

Although I live in Sydney, I have the luxury of being able to — if necessary — allay the fears reportedly held by Australian Jews by claiming the precedence of my Scottish origin over my fiercely proud and overt Jewishness (“Terror Plots Strike Fear in Community Down Under,” June 25).

While some may feel the “fear” described in the Forward’s story, it is not shared by the vast majority of Jewish Australians.

Of course our synagogues and Jewish schools are protected by security. It is a worldwide phenomenon. But if Australian Jews live in fear — and I do not know one who does — then I am truly troubled about the quality of life our Jewish brothers and sisters must be experiencing throughout the Diaspora. Indeed, in spite of the fact that Jack Roche has been convicted for conspiring to blow up the Israeli embassy in Canberra, Australian Jews enjoy a wonderful life in this paradisiacal continent Down Under.

Jeremy Jones, the head of the Australian community quoted by the Forward, has said on numerous occasions that there is a gulf of a difference between taking sensible steps to protect our lifestyle and living in fear.

Yes, we do experience antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents — but certainly no more than other countries in the Galut, and I suspect a great deal fewer.

The South is most certainly Pacific.

Henry Benjamin

Sydney, Australia

History of Bias Led to Campus Stole Scandal

The uproar over the stoles worn at the recent graduation ceremony at the University of California, Irvine, was the culmination of a long history of anti-Zionist and antisemitic events that have taken place over the last three years by the Muslim Student Union and their supporters, which have resulted in the intimidation of Jewish students (“Muslim Students Get Apology in a Tiff Over ‘Shahada’ Scarf,” July 2).

“Anti-Zionism Week,” which is now called “Zionist Awareness Week,” has taken place over the last years with increasing hate speech such as “Death to the Jews” and “Hitler did not finish the job,” body bags representing Palestinian children, and various posters showing traditional and new antisemitic caricatures.

While we realize this is constitutionally protected speech, it reached the level where even I was threatened personally during last year’s events when a student at the demonstration told me that Hitler should have finished me off. This was a direct threat and not protected speech, but when I confronted them they backed down, so I dropped the matter so as not to exacerbate the situation on campus.

One month prior to the graduation, the Muslim Student Union sponsored speakers such as Imam Malik Ali, who proudly praised Hamas and encouraged the Muslim students to participate in a prolonged intifada and as troops in helping to convert the United States to Islam.

These kind of events — coming on the heels of the beheading of Nick Berg, Paul Johnston and others by terrorists who also wore green stoles displaying the words “shahada” — greatly concerned the Jewish students that graduation might result in violence at worst, and make what was supposed to be a joyous occasion one of fear at best.

The American Jewish Congress, at the request of students, met with the administration of the University of California, Irvine, to try to educate them as to the dual meaning of shahada and to raise our concerns over past events. At the meeting, AJCongress proposed other solutions to the graduation than to let the stoles be worn and misunderstood on all sides.

When the administration allowed the stoles to be worn, AJCongress accepted it as protected speech. However, we still were concerned about violence and disruption at the graduation. That is why, at the request of Jewish students, a delegation of AJCongress staff and board members from the Los Angeles office attended the graduation to ensure Jewish students’ protection.

Hopefully, the controversy will help bring about a dialogue between Jewish and Muslim students on campus, something on which the AJCongress is already working with the administration at University of California, Irvine.

Gary Ratner

Executive Director, Western Region

American Jewish Congress

Santa Monica, Calif.

Crisis at N.J. Academy Was Brewing for Years

Having lived in Margate, N.J., for 31 years, and having been active in the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties for more than 20 years, the current situation at the Trocki Hebrew Academy is a subject about which I am fairly knowledgeable (“School Fights Local Federation,” June 25). To understand the situation, a little history of the school and the community is needed.

The financial crisis at the school is nothing new. The long history of support of the school by the Jewish federation is well documented. The federation, over the years, has granted the school millions of dollars in allocations. It has assisted in sending the students on trips to Israel to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and has purchased items such as an electronic scoreboard for the school’s basketball program when no one else would.

The federation asked for very little in return. For more than 20 years, the federation’s budget/allocation committee requested an honest budget. For more than 20 years, all they got was smoke and mirrors. It was only when Ron Lewkowitz became president of the academy’s board of directors that an audit was completed and shared with the federation. That audit showed gross mismanagement of the school’s finances, including the nonpayment of months of payroll taxes — a federal offense. The taxes were collected from the employees and then used for “other things.”

I was present at meetings with Rabbi Mordechai Weiss when he was asked how they were going to balance their school’s budget. His response was: “God will provide.” On a spiritual level it is a beautiful thought, but on the business of running a school it just doesn’t work.

For years, the quiet battle of trying to rescue the school financially went on. Angry major donors to the federation either walked away from the annual campaign, or reduced their gifts because of the federation’s continued support of the Trocki Hebrew Academy. Joint committees and blue-ribbon panels were convened, only to make recommendations that were given lip service but never followed.

It was only during this past year that talk of opening another day school began. Only after a substantial number of the student body left the school did the parents of those students, the synagogues and their rabbis come to the federation asking for help in opening a new school.

The leadership of the academy always has said that this was about the children and Jewish education. If that were true, the principal of the school would have resigned a long time ago.

David Ira Schultz

Pompton Lakes, N.J.

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