Friday, October 31, 2008

But Is It Kosher? Part II

A few weeks ago, I referred blog readers (all two of you!) to look at my recent article "The Postville Raid" published in the current edition of Religion in the News, edited by colleague Mark Silk.

Well, yesterday there was a major break in the case: Sholom Rubashkin, former manager of operations at Agriprocessors, Inc., and son of former CEO Aaron Rubashkin, was arrested by federal authorities at his home in Postville and charged with conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants for financial gain, aiding and abetting document fraud and aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft. This comes one day after Agriprocessors was hit with a $10 million fine by the state of Iowa for labor law violations. Rubashkin appeared in federal court in Cedar Rapids yesterday afternoonand had to surrender his passport, file a $1 million appearance bond, and agree to wear a GPS ankle bracelet (and not leave northeastern Iowa). The case now goes to a federal grand jury. Here's a link to the story at The Des Moines Register (with perp walk picture included). Apparently, the Agriprocessors facility is collapsing: meat processing has stopped, and workers are being dismissed. Looks like this story is rapidly changing with each passing hour. So, keep up with the story by looking at Scott Rosenberg's fantastic blog Nobody covers this story better.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Obama, the L.A. Times, and the PLO

OK, this campaign is getting into pure silliness and stupidity. Back in May, I wrote a piece for Religion in the News entitled "Obama and the Jews" in which I touched on what I thought was a very important L.A. Times article published in the spring, a singular article amongst all those which looked at Obama's Chicago past in determing his stance on the Israeli-Arab conflict. I wrote then:

In an April 10 story, Los Angeles Times national political reporter Peter Wallsten described Obama as having a close social relationship with Chicago-area supporters of the Palestinian cause going back to the late 1990s, while at the same time pursuing a pro-Israel policy when he ran first for a seat in Congress and then for the U.S. Senate...
Critics of Obama also pointed to his long-standing friendship with academic Rashid Khalidi as evidence of a secret anti-Israel agenda. Supporters responded that he was a classic “pro-Israel” Democrat—that his acceptance of friends and associates with whom he disagreed was merely an indication of his “new style” inclusive politics.

Now this story has been catapulted into a last-week and desperate campaign trope. Republican candidate John McCain complained today that the Times has refused to release a videotape it posseses of a 2003 party thrown in Khalidi's honor in which Obama participated, as if this is some kind of nefarious thing. Sarah Palin today absolutely mangled Khalidi's name, called "Khaladi" a spokesman of the "Palestinian (sic) Liberation Organization," and said to supporters: "It must be nice for a candidate to have major news organizations looking out for their best interests like that. Politicians would love to have a pet newspaper of their very own."

All of this is pure bullshit, plain and simple. I've never met Khalidi, but I've read 3 of his books, and assigned one of his books to my students. He is one of the leading lights of the Palestinian-American intellectual scene, an honest historian who in his most recent book, The Iron Cage, gives an impassioned and persuasive account of the failures of Palestinian leadership and policies. Of course Khalidi is critical of Israel, and American policy towards Israel and Palestine. So what? I have heard from Jewish colleagues that he has been a fair doctoral advisor, and I know he works with credible Israeli and Palestinian figures. At a time when the PLO was being engaged diplomatically by both Israel and the US (essentially the last 15 years, after both the US and Israel had come to regard the PLO as a legitimate party, and not a terrorist organization) he has apparently consulted with that organization during the Oslo and beyond years. In no conceivable way could his participation with Palestinian diplomacy these last two decades be regarded as engaging in terrorism. Let's be very clear -- the Palestine Liberation Organization has many problems, but it has been more than 15 years since it has been defined by any responsible entity as a terrorist organization.

And let's not forget that Khalidi was a participant in the now defunct Center for Palestine Research and Studies (which conducted polls of Palestinian public opinion), and which, according to the AP, received in 1998 a half-million dollar grant from the International Republican Institute (an organization supporting the advance of democracy throughout the world). Who was the chair of the IRI in 1998? Senator John McCain.

What a load of crap.

Florida Jews Update

The Quinnipiac Polling Institute issued another poll (taken Oct. 22-26) for Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Florida remains "too close to call," and the poll reportedly produces a 75-20 pro-Obama split amongst Florida's Jews (though for the life of me I don't see the data in their press release). In any event, maybe all the anti-Obama efforts amongst Jewish voters is paying off, because this whopping 75-20 lead is nevertheless a 2 point drop in Obama's performance amongst FL Jews as compared to last week. Sure, this is well within the margin of error. But I am hoping for a dramatic Election Night full of entertainment and nail-biting. I will be bitterly disappointed if this election ends in an electoral landslide and is over before midnight. Give me my infotainment! I wanna see dueling network projections! Let's see Sean Hannity twitching, Rachel Maddow sputtering! Sadly, we won't have Tim Russert's low-tech white board this time around.

Update, 2pm: It looks like the race is truly tightening. Both Rasmussen and Gallup show that Obama's October lead is beginning to dry up. Obama doesn't seem to be able to cross above 50%, and McCain keeps creeping up. The race might be an electoral blow-out for Obama even as the national balloting is close, but there is so much "wrong" in the models being used by pollsters (no one knows what the turnout will be, no one knows how many voters are outright dissembling to pollsters, no one knows how to model first-time voters) that I am prepared psychologically for any outcome.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Livni Fails

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the current leader of the political party Kadima, met with Israeli President Shimon Peres to inform him she failed to form a new Israeli government. This represents a bitter and humiliating defeat for Livni, and she has spent the day in a desperate attempt to avoid this constitutionally mandated meeting with the president, already postponed once today. The religious party Shas demanded over half a billion dollars of funding for its pet projects, and a commitment to "defend Jerusalem" in any future negotiations with the Palestinians, and she refused to accede to this blackmail. It is still possible, even with this announcement, that a last minute deal will be struck, but it seems unlikely.

Livni's inability to construct a coalition will probably -- though not necessarily -- trigger "snap" elections in Israel in 90 or so days, probably February 2009. When I last wrote about Israel on the day Ehud Olmert announced his resignation as Prime Minister (July 30, 2008), I did not explicitly predict this outcome, but I sure hinted at it insofar that I expected that elections would be the likely outcome of Olmert's resignation. Back in July, I wasn't sure whether Livni or Shaul Mofaz would emerge as leader of Kadima, but in any event I was fairly certain neither would be able to create a coalition out of the current crop of political parties, and I predicted that after the mandatory coalition building efforts, it would be the case that Israel would go to elections. And so it has transpired...

What this means is that Olmert will continue as caretaker PM until elections and a new coalition are formed -- at least another 4 months. There is a chance Olmert might personally resign the PM job to clear the way for the new Kadima standard bearer, whoever that might be (Livni may not survive another internal Kadima campaign for its leadership). I've predicted the rapid demise of Kadima, a party that was created 3 years ago on the personal whim of Ariel Sharon, and has lost its raison d'etre. I still maintain that there is a very high probability that many Kadima party members will simply abandon this failed party to return to their former political homes. Thus, the main contenders for the upcoming election will be former PM Ehud Barak, the head of venerable Labor, and former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of venerable Likud, and maybe Livni, head of newcomer Kadima. The two former PMs were each seperately run out of office on a rail; whoever represents Kadima will be similarly tainted. In other words, this new election will be a very divided vote, with the mainstream voter looking at three eviscerated principal parties and their respective leaders. Smaller boutique parties (catering to the religious vote, the retiree vote, the ecological vote, the leftist vote, the Arab vote, the "clean government" vote) will do quite well. The outcome of this election will be a muddled and indecisive disaster, and whatever government emerges will be made up of a weak lead party and a number of contentious coalition partners. As is the case with Olmert's interim government, at least two of these 3 parties will constitute some future Israeli government. The early hypothetical polling suggests Benjamin Netanyahu has the early lead, but not by a decisive margin. President Obama or President McCain will thus confront a festering Israel-Palestinian conflict in which the political leadership of the two sides will be weak and constrained by bitter internal division, unable to respond to American prodding to advance a peace process. Not good.

So as one political campaign winds up, another begins.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Surprising Numbers from Florida

Quinnipiac University released a poll today for battleground states Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. The poll suggests that McCain is gaining some ground in Florida, holding steady (losing, but within the error margin) in Pennsylvania, but slipping in Ohio. With less than 2 weeks to go, and with these states still in play, it was interesting to see that among Florida Jews, Obama is leading by a wide 77-20 margin over McCain. I expect Obama to win the Jewish vote -- nationally and in Florida -- but not by this much. I'm looking more towards a 65-35 spread, which would underperform Clinton, Gore, and Kerry by a significant amount. Surprisingly, 64-35 is what Dukakis got in 1988 against Bush 41. I don't think Obama will do better than Dukakis.

Update (6:00 pm): A new Gallup poll released today of Jewish voters nationwide seems to confirm the Quinnipiac trendline, doubly confirming that my guess will be wrong. In this survey, taken by producing monthly averages of daily tracking polls, and based on a survey which interviews 500 Jewish voters each month, Obama is showing increased support amongst Jews, from 61% in July to 74% in October. Simultaneously, McCain has lost ground (the Palin effect?) -- from 34% in July to 22% in October. Astoundingly, older Jews show stronger support for Obama than younger Jews. Jews 55 and older are supporting Obama 74-19; the 35 to 54 age group are going for Obama 68-28, and young Jews (18-34) are 67-29 Obama. Such numbers completely fly in the face of the conventional narrative (reinforced by The Great Schlep brouhaha) that older Jews are the most resistant to Obama's candidacy.

If Gallup is right, Obama stands to do as well with Jews as Kerry did in 2004. If that happens, I'll eat my kippa.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What is in the Water in Minnesota?

OK, first there was a former wrestler for a governor. Then more recently there was the famous gay bathroom at the Minneapolis Airport. Then there was the old lady at a McCain rally in Minnesota stating that Obama "is an Arab." Then last week there was dunderhead Michelle Bachmann, another semi-MILF right-wing nut job (proof that there are actually dumber right-wing neophyte politicians than Sarah Palin). Then we find out that the bulk of Sarah Palin's new Barbie collection of clothes were bought mainly on the plain (Neiman-Marcus in downtown Minneapolis). All this I could tolerate. But then we have this story from Rochester, MN, about just how stupid Minnesotans can be:

Rochester woman caught up in Nigerian scam
10/20/2008 11:10:38 PM
By Janice Gregorson, Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

A Rochester woman, allegedly caught up in a Nigerian scam operation, now faces criminal charges for stealing from her employer to send advance payments to the scam artists in order to get a promised $10 million.
Jalaine Noella Holtan, 53, 1313 Marion Road S.E., No. 20, is charged with one count of felony theft. A summons has been issued for her to be in Olmsted District Court on Nov. 17.
Police were called July 10 by the area manager for Casey's General Store after learning from the bank that several deposit bags had not been deposited from one of the stores.
The complaint said Holtan told the manager that she had kept the cash because she owed people money. She said she took about $10,000 to $15,000.
Holtan later told police she had been investing for several years. Holtan said she got an e-mail in early July from an attorney named Morgan Smith, who said Holtan is to receive $10 million from investments she had made in diamonds and oil in Nigeria.
Diplomats from Nigeria allegedly were in Rochester in June with the money, but they needed a "certificate" to transfer the money to her. Holtan told police the diplomats needed her to front the money to them to pay for the "certificate."
Holtan didn't have the money available, so the diplomats returned to Nigeria and put her in touch with Smith. Holtan was told that Smith would arrive in Rochester on July 9. She said she waited for him at the airport until 10 p.m., but he never arrived.
She said she received a message from Smith that night in which he said he needed $2,500 from her in order to get to Rochester with the $10 million, but she didn't have it for him.
Holtan said she had sent over $12,507 to these people since July 7. She told police she had gotten the majority of the money by "borrowing" it from her employer. She said she took it with the intention of repaying the money upon receipt of her $10 million. She admitted taking the money out of the daily bank deposit at Casey's, the complaint said. She said that on July 9 she took $4,000 in cash from the deposit and wired it to Nigeria. She also said she had taken money from the safe four times during the week of July 6.

Yes, there is actually someone somewhere (well, actually, Minnesota) who still believes in those e-mails from Nigerian diamond dealers, finance ministers, and oil executives. Don't forget - people like that get to vote, too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Let Obama be Bartlet

Okay, to get this blog entry you need to be fan of the great Aaron Sorkin series The West Wing, which ran on NBC between 1999-2006. Much has been made of the close comparison between the seasons 6 and 7 character Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) and Barack Obama -- their biographies are similar, and their rhetoric is quite parallel. The writers of this story arc clearly admit they were looking to Obama's senate race in Illinois in 2004 for inspiration. They even had a moderate "maverick" Republican senator, Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda), who was Santos' venerable opponent for the presidency. Rumor has it that the writers of TWW were set to have Vinick win the election, but when the actor John Spencer (who played Santos' running mate, and who was the beloved Bartlet consigliere Leo McGarry) died mid-season 7, the writers felt it would be too much of a downer to lose McGarry and also have Santos lose. See this amazing video from February 2008, and this piece from the Guardian UK.

But it seems to me that President Jed Bartlet is closer in spirit to Obama. Bartlet, you might remember, was a Nobel prize winning economist who was an academic teaching at Dartmouth College before being encouraged to run for congress from New Hampshire. He then went on to be governor. And Bartlet was a thoughtful, inclusive, executive leader -- a liberal's wet dream for President. Thus it all played out in the alternate universe that once a week kept liberals therapeutically soothed during the dark years of W.'s presidency.

Now back to the real world: we have a brilliant, thoughtful, apparently dispassionate and unflappable candidate against an irrascible and moderate maverick. My greatest concern is the absence of the political and executive experience which Bartlet possessed. Other than deftly running the contentious Harvard Law Review (no small task), I just don't know what an Obama presidency might look like. I can only hope that if Obama wins, he will take to heart Leo McGarry's famous line, written on a legal pad to his soulmate Bartlet at a low point in Bartlet's presidency: "Let Bartlet be Bartlet."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I'm Still Voting for Him, But...

In a mini-version of Sarah Silverman's Great Schlep, I promised my daughter Sara I'll vote for Obama. I'm trying so hard to get comfortable with my intended choice. Really I am. is a piece from Haaretz:

Jesse Jackson: Obama will rid United States of 'Zionist' controlBy Haaretz service

The New York Post reported Tuesday that the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the United States will rid itself of years of "Zionist" control under an administration headed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The daily quoted the veteran civil rights leader on Tuesday as having said that although "Zionists who have controlled American policy for decades" remain strong, they will lose a much of their clout when Obama enters the White House. Speaking at the first World Policy Forum event in Evian, France, Jackson promised "fundamental changes" in U.S. foreign policy. He said the most important change would occur in the Middle East, where "decades of putting Israel's interests first" would end.

Jackson said that Obama "wants an aggressive and dynamic diplomacy." He went on to criticize the Bush administration's handling of Middle East diplomacy, telling the Post, "Bush was so afraid of a snafu and of upsetting Israel that he gave the whole thing a miss. Barack will change that," because, as long as the Palestinians haven't seen justice, the Middle East will "remain a source of danger to us all."

Here is the original article from the Post.

Oy, Sara, you better be right!

Update, 1 pm: Now let's not forget who owns the New York Post, and what it's readership is like. It's the Fox News of the print world. And here is the fully appropriate and calming response from the Obama campaign, released just a few minutes ago:

"Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is not an adviser to the Obama campaign and is therefore in no position to interpret or share Barack Obama's views on Israel and foreign policy. As he has made clear throughout his career and throughout this campaign, Barack Obama has a fundamental commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and he is advised by people like Dennis Ross, Daniel Kurtzer, Rep. Robert Wexler, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Senator Joe Biden who share that commitment. As President, he will ensure that Israel can defend itself from every threat it faces, stand with Israel in its quest for a secure peace with its neighbors, and use all elements of American power to end Iran’s illicit nuclear program. No false charges can change Barack Obama’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security."

As I wrote in my original piece on Obama and the Jews 4 months ago for Religion in the News, there is information in Obama's history and record that can be interpreted either way. I'd like to believe he is going to be a great president, and good for Israel (whatever that means). But it sure is a hard belief to come to.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

But is it Kosher?

I wrote the cover story in this quarter's Religion in the News about how the media treated the Postville, Iowa kosher slaughterhouse immigration raid and the ensuing scandal. The article came out tonight on the web, with hard copies due out later this week. Here is how it begins...

"On May 12, 2008, a large contingent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents descended upon the northeastern Iowa town of Postville, home of the kosher meat processing facility Agriprocessors Inc., armed with 697 criminal complaints and arrest warrants involving illegal workers, identity theft, and the fraudulent use of social security numbers. Using helicopters, a makeshift processing center on a converted county fairground, and dozens of buses, the federal ICE agents, directed by the regional office in Bloomington, Minnesota, carried out two federal search warrants on the Agriprocessors site and arrested almost 400 workers..." Read more

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Palin & the Jews

Now that the presidential campaign is going negative, with personal attacks on character streaming forth from Sarah Palin and John McCain, and responses in kind coming forth from the Democrats, it's time to take stock.

First, we have Sarah Silverman's absolutely hilarious video on behalf of, an effort to convince Jewish grandchildren to bribe bubbes and zaides in Florida to vote for Obama. There is also Jackie Mason's unfunny response. There is also a viral video out on YouTube quoting a bunch of Israeli leftists (insignificant figures like Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a one-hit-wonder Labor PM candidate from the 1990s who has virtually disappeared from Israeli politics after his ignoble defeat) who opine that Obama will be a fine choice for Israel. Palin and McCain have gone to great lengths in the first two debates to champion the cause of Israel -- and while Senator Joe Biden certainly trumped Palin with pro-Israel rhetoric, Obama wasn't nearly as forceful when he had the chance. Thus, the fight for the Jewish vote in Florida is in full swing.

In a Monday New York Times column, Bill Kristol asked Sarah Palin whether it might be fair game to remind people of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial pastor. Wrote Kristol:

She didn’t hesitate: “To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that — with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave — to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.” 
So let's spend a minute looking into Palin's church-going. We could start with the video from 2005 at her church from visiting Kenyan preacher Thomas Muthee a "blessing," in which he beseeches God to protect her, as she stands at the front of the church with palms raised towards heaven, from "witchcraft." We also now have more video of Muthee (check beginning the 1:20 time mark) at the same service (so we know Palin was there), condemning "Israelite" bankers and businessmen. "It's high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity running the economics of our nations," opined the Kenyan, before he later blessed Sarah.
About 3 weeks before she was chosen as VP candidate, Palin’s church gave its pulpit over to a figure viewed with deep hostility by many Jewish organizations: David Brickner, the executive director of Jews for Jesus. At that service, Brickner described terrorist attacks on Israelis as God's "judgment of unbelief" of Jews who haven't embraced Christianity. "Judgment is very real," said Brickner, "and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television. It's very real. When [Brickner's son] was in Jerusalem he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment — you can't miss it."
Palin was in church that day.
So if we hear more of Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ, I suggest we hear bit more about Palin's Wasilla Assembly of God church.