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Orthodox in Israel struggle with allegations of sexual abuse by Rabbi Elon

February 16, 2010 2 comments
By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–An Orthodox rabbi appeared on a prime time television news program to explain his rationale as one of numerous rabbis who signed a statement reiterating that sexual relations between men was a violation of the Torah, but indicating that homosexuals should be welcome in the community of believers. They should be allowed to read from the Torah and practice other commandments. Relations should be as with Jews who do not honor the Sabbath. A religious person should know that they are violating God’s law, but may still include them within the circle of loved ones if a member of the family, or within the circle of friendship. The rabbi indicated that he felt efforts to reform homosexuals were likely to be more harmful than beneficial, but noted that some of his colleagues that signed the statement support programs of reform.

A day later there began a story that has preoccupied news and discussion programs, and has caused profound soul searching among the Orthodox. Rabbi Mordechai (Motti) Elon, one of the most prominent rabbis of the Religious Zionist movement (closely identified with settlers in the West Bank and formerly those in Gaza), was revealed to have been ordered some time ago by a forum of rabbis and other distinguished individuals to abstain from teaching and providing one-on-one counseling.

The forum calls itself Takana (תקנה), which can be translated as remedy, regulation, or reform, and deals with allegations of sexual misconduct.

When it became clear that Rabbi Elon had violated its prohibitions, the forum reported publicly that he had been accused of sexually harassing a number of his students. It “warned that he was dangerous to the public, and demanded he step down from all rabbinical, educational, and community responsibilities.” http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=168846

The organization referred to its actions as “painful and sad,” but said the issue must be brought to a resolution.

Rabbi Elon has been prominent as a teacher, creator of curricula for teaching religious materials, and honored for his spiritual and political leadership. His father is a retired justice of the Supreme Court, one brother was elected four times to the Knesset as a member of right wing parties supported by Religious Zionists, and another brother is a regional court judge and was a candidate for the Supreme Court.

The attorney general, with responsibility for initiating judicial proceedings, was aware of allegations about Rabbi Elon as early as 2006. He refereed the matter to the police, but did not order an investigation in the absence of a formal complaint. The forum that banned the rabbi from teaching and counseling said that it urged those reporting sexual contacts to submit their details to the police, but may not have employed all the persuasive weight associated with its status. The forum has been assiduous in not detailing the complaints, or the infractions involved. We hear of improper contacts with students. The Hebrew indicates that the students were men, but does not exclude the possibility that some were women.

One man appeared on prime time television, pictured from the back with his voice disguised. He described a number of meetings that he had initiated some years ago at the age of 19 to gain the rabbi’s help with what he sensed were improper feelings of attractions to men. He told how the meetings progressed to the point where the rabbi asked him to remove his clothes and touched him intimately. However, he persisted in viewing the rabbi in positive terms, as someone who was trying to help him deal with complex feelings.

The day after the first public revelations, the rabbi was pictured explaining his situation to a group of 50 or so present and former students. Several embraced the rabbi in what seemed like genuine expressions of support. The rabbi said that he must remain silent about the allegations, and avoided any denial.

The next day the forum announced that other former students had come forward to complain about sexual abuse.

A web site includes painful commentary on Elon by individuals who appear to be Orthodox Jews.
http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2010/02/rabbi-motty-elon-removed-from-public-life-234.html

Some of the comments seek room to avoid condemnation. They note that the language of the forum does not mention sexual misconduct, but activities in contrast to holy values and morality.

So far there has been no prominent condemnation from the ultra-Orthodox. Generally it is the Orthodox segment of Judaism closest to them, and most relevant as a competitor, that comes in for their most serious criticism. The ultra-Orthodox are more likely to attack Orthodox rabbis than secular Jews for their lack of piety. (Conservative and Reform rabbis are not recognized as rabbis by the ultra-Orthodox or the Orthodox, and sometimes not even as Jews.) The issue of homosexuality may be too sensitive for the ultra-Orthodox, and too familiar under the cover of their own secrecy, for any exploitation of this embarrassment.

Male homosexuality appears to be a clear violation of God’s law. “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable; they must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” (Leviticus 20:13) Problematic, however, is David’s declaration at the death of his friend Jonathan: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.”
(2 Samuel 1:26) Religious scholars interpret this passage as an expression of love among friends similar to the love of brothers. Yet a simple reading renders the story one of numerous indications that “Biblical law” is anything but simple and straightforward.

Although the New Testament claims that it was Jesus who brought humane values to the world in contrast with Judaism, more than two centuries earlier the rabbis interpreted biblical law in a way to transform capital and corporal punishments into payments of monetary compensation. Except in unusual cases, they ruled that death was a punishment to be meted out in Heaven by the Almighty, and not on earth by humans.

The Torah does not make it easy for religious organizations do deal with homosexuality or other sexual behaviors that occur among their followers and leaders. Efforts of Orthodox Jews to isolate Rabbi Elon resemble those of other communities. We see a disinclination to turn over violators to the criminal procedures of the secular state, along with comments revealing pain for the violator as well as concern for those violated. It all appears to be part of tension and change between what has been forbidden in doctrine for 2,500 years, and what is accepted increasingly in western societies by both religious and secular circles.    

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.

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Schmooze and News of San Diego-area Jews

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

By Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO–Emails, phone calls and snail mail–an editor never knows what the day will bring.  Here’s the most recent sampling:

MIDDLE EAST & SAN DIEGO — Congressman Bob Filner (Democrat-San Diego), on a  J-Street sponsored tour of the Middle East with other members of Congress, met on Monday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prime Minister Samir Rafai.  A statement from the delegation reported: “The King shared with us his deep concern over the critical need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before we cross the line beyond which a two-state resolution is no longer feasible.  He expressed real concern that the region cannot stand the impact of another cycle of violence.  The King reiterated Jordan’s firm commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative and urged the United States to intensify its efforts toward a comprehensive peace based on the Arab Peace Initiative and other relevant terms of reference.We expressed appreciation to the King for the constructive role that he personally and Jordan nationally have played in advancing peace and security for the region. …” …. The Zionist Organization of America, a longtime critic of the University of California at Irvine chancellor Michael Drake for what it contends is inaction in the face of on-campus Muslim student bigotry, has called upon students to not apply for enrollment at the campus and contributors not to donate any funds to UC Irvine. The statement was prompted by heckling of Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren during an on-campus appearance.  Given that Oren was received courteously at UC San Diego that same week, perhaps ZOA will launch a fundraising appeal for UCSD?? …

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Congregants from Congregation Beth Israel and Temple Emanu-El participated on Monday in an interfaith day to clean up Balboa Park.  Leonel Sanchez told the story in the San Diego Union-Tribune.….Dr. Michael Musicant, who sponsored a ‘happiness initiative’ when he as chief of staff at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, has died.  Anne Krueger wrote the obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune. … City Heights has been the beneficiary of numerous philanthropic donations, most notably from the Price Charities created by the late Sol Price.  Now the community wonders if it is equipped to handle more largesse from philanthropies.  Adrian Florido reports in the Voice of San Diego.Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

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Mideast negotiations now would be waste of time

February 16, 2010 1 comment

By J. Zel Lurie
 
DELRAY BEACH, Florida (Press Release)–One might think Israel and the Arabs fought wars so that someone could be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize at its conclusion.  Between 1950 and 1994, seven men received the Peace Prize for making peace in the Middle East.
 
To this startling number Barack Obama might be added. He received the prize as a potential for peace maker Meanwhile he has  added 30,000 men and women to the war in Afghanistan and the promised withdrawal from Iraq is yet to be fulfilled.
 
Despite the plethora of peace prizes and Obama’s wishes there won’t even be peace negotiations for many a month.

There is no peace between Palestine and Israel but there are lots of articles and reports and think tank studies and demands that Obama take action.
 
What can Obama do?  Nothing between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.  The two parties decided long ago that negotiations now would be a complete waste of  time.
 
The reason is fairly simple. Abbas represents only half of Palestine. The other half, the Gaza Strip, is ruled by  force by an Islamic terrorist group named Hamas. Abbas would lose his bare majority on the West Bank if he tried to negotiate on behalf of both the the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
 
Netanyahu has reluctantly accepted the world consensus that eventually there will be a Palestine State on the 22 percent of Palestine left to them after the War of Independence. The settlement blocs, which are actually suburbs and exurbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, will be swapped for barren territory elsewhere.
 
The postponement of negotiations to some future date gives Netanyahu time to consolidate the area he intends to hold and to rein in the more radical settlers who will be forced to move in the final status agreement.
 
Hamas is enjoying the status quo. It pays its large government  staff  with funds supplied by Iran. The Gaza people, more than a million, are hungry but not starving. They are being fed by the humanitarian aid which Israel allows to pass through the gates,
 
Meanwhile the majority of West Bankers who live in the cities are prospering. Law and order is maintained by an efficient new American-trained Palestine police force. The Israel Army enters the cities only after midnight to arrest or kill individuals pinpointed by intelligence as past or potential terrorists.
 
But Palestinian farmers and shepherds continue to be harassed by Jewish settlers assisted by the Army.
 
Obama  has directed his special Mideast envoy George Mitchell to devote his attention towards Israel making peace with Syria. Bashir Assad has been making peaceful noises. An arrangement for the Golan Heights is a distinct possibility. Bashir and Binyamin are slated to  add to the plethora of Nobel Peace awardees.
 
I am indebted to my colleague, Rachel Patron, for reminding me that my friend, Ralph Bunche, had won the Nobel Peace Prize sixty years ago in 1950 for mediating the armistice agreements with the four Arab states surrounding Israel. First with Egypt, which announced its agreement in January 1949. It was followed by Lebanon, then Jordan and finally Syria. All four were signed, sealed and delivered before the end of 1949.
 
The rapidity of the successful four negotiations conducted by Dr. Bunche have never been repeated in the sixty years of wars and negotiations.
 
General Moshe Dayan, who was Israel’s military expert at the armistice talks in Rhodes wrote in a memoir that the most significant breakthroughs occurred while shooting pool with the black American.
 
Dr. Bunche was the son of a barber who died at an early age. He was brought up by his grandmother who looked white but had been born in slave quarters. He had graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, which he had attended on an athletic scholarship.
 
He had done a doctorate at Harvard and had gone on to a successful career at the State Department, In 1947 President Truman appointed him Assistant Secretary of State but he turned it down because of discriminatory housing in Washington. He was seconded to the United Nations in New York.
 
I ran into him at the UN on November 29 1947 just after the the Jews had won a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and other members of the Jewish Agency executive were celebrating victory by drinking a lehayim. I was handling publicity under Sy Kenan for the Agency and covering the Assembly for the Palestine Post.
 
Dr. Bunche was not smiling. “We won a Jewish state,” I said, “Yes you did,” he acknowledged and he looked at me soberly before passing on.
 
Now the trouble begins, he must have been thinking, but he couldn’t have imagined that the troubles would be followed by Nobel Peace Prizes.
 
First to Dr. Bunche in 1950. Then to Lester Pearson of Canada in 1957 for mediating the 1956 war over Suez. Henry Kissinger who mediated the 1973 Yom Kippur war was ignored by the Nobel peace committee but after Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty in 1977, the two heads of state were awarded the prize in 1978. The Nobel committee  should have included the American head of state, Jimmy Carter, who had visited the Middle East several times to knock their heads together.
 
Last but not least were the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians signed in 1993  on the White House lawn with Bill Clinton by Yassir Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
 
None of them had been to Oslo to negotiate the agreement. But all three showed up in 1994 to receive the Nobel prize for peace.

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Lurie is a freelance writer based in Delray Beach, Florida

The imperfections of that ‘perfect’ recording

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

By David Amos

SAN DIEGO — During one of my recording sessions at the CBS Studios in London in the 1990’s, the recording engineer warned me and the musicians of the Philharmonia Orchestra to be sure to “not make any extraneous noises.” We were recording Alan Hovhaness’ The Shepherd of Israel, with San Diego’s own Cantor Sheldon Merel.

Granted, this is good advice that should be followed; you always strive for the cleanest possible sound. But, it opens a series of interesting questions.

 For starters, upon hearing this request from the engineer, the orchestra’s concertmaster (or leader, as they call them in the U.K.) the veteran and legendary violinist, the late Hugh Bean, commented to me, “How do these engineers expect us to be so absolutely quiet? The production of music requires a certain amount of noise; we are people, not machines!”

The concept of nearly perfect digital recordings is both good and bad news. The advantages are obvious: The sound quality is so pure and clean, that it is a pleasure to hear a well recorded compact disc, totally free of noise and no audible distortion. The softs are clear and pure, and the louds are thundering and exciting.

But, there is a down side to this. During the recording process every little sound, intended or not, is picked up by the microphones, recorded and reproduced. Every breath, click of an instrument’s key or valve, the fingers sliding across the string or fingerboard, or even a page turn is faithfully reproduced. The accidental tapping of a music stand by a violinist’s bow translates to the sound of a gunshot in the engineer’s control booth. They become touchy about these matters. I have been frequently requested to empty my pockets of any coins or keys, because their jiggling sounds could end up on the finished product.

Musicians involved in recordings have innumerable stories of the pain and anguish experienced during sessions in the efforts to avoid unwanted sounds.

Two incidents come to mind: I was told the silly but true story that at the start of a recording session of a London orchestra at an acoustically wonderful church, it was virtually impossible to have absolute silence during the hushed beginning of the Bruch Violin Concerto in G Minor. The solo violinist is someone you would readily recognize. This famous and beloved concerto starts with a solemn murmur of a timpani roll on a low G. Soft passages in the music are obviously perfect victims to outside noises, and on this particular day, the London subway system was on a fast track, and every time the conductor started the concerto, the “tube” underneath the church began to rumble and growl uncontrollably. After a lost half hour of miscues and false starts, the recording crew, producer, conductor and soloist decided to salvage the situation. The least harmful option was to proceed with the recording, regardless of the annoying rumble. They started, and to no one’s surprise, another subway rolled under them, but this one emitted a perfectly pitched low G! The final result is that the subway became part of recorded history, and if you did not know the “inside story”, you would only comment on how deep and rich was the sound of the timpani.

The other story happened to me. I was conducting a recording at St. Barnabas Church, in Mitcham, Surrey, just outside London. We were playing an especially delicate passage for the strings. Outside the church, one truck after another kept sabotaging our work. We were running out of recording time, and no matter how many times we repeated those particular measures, putting our souls to playing them musically well, a delivery truck or bus wanted to be part of the show. It was a most desperate and helpless feeling. What finally happened is that the heavenly sounds of the strings ended up augmented for four seconds with the sound of a six cylinder hot rod, without a muffler. Where in the recording will we find this? When you see me in person, ask me.

Some unwanted sounds can be eliminated in the editing process, but some can not. To digitally edit out the tap of a cellist’s bow could be possible to do, but it may require a whole hour of work after the recording sessions are finished, and this may translate into hundreds of additional dollars per transgression. Sometimes, the debate as to what to do may become a real puzzle: Do you choose a “take” that is musically just right, with all the artistic elements where they should be, but containing a bad sound which could not be edited out, or instead, you choose a take of lesser artistic value that is sonically perfect? The decisions are not as direct and simple as you may first imagine, especially if you consider the input of all parties involved, in particular the soloist, who may be totally focused on his or her performance, at the sacrifice of other factors.

The conclusion of this brief dissertation is that we have grown accustomed to expect our recordings to be absolutely perfect, sonically, musically, and technically. This frequently robs the recording process of certain spontaneity and excitement, because the editing choices invariably lean toward “the safe options”. The final products are sonically clear, but result in so many pedestrian recorded performances. Critics can name you hundreds of commercial recordings by world class artists that are lackluster and downright dull. 

 And this is another reason why live music, with all distractions and uncorrected human flaws, is still the best way to listen to music.

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Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and guest conductor of professional orchestras around the globe

San Diego Jewish Film Festival Preview: ‘The Wave’

February 16, 2010 2 comments

By Jack Forman

LA JOLLA, California–The Wave, a feature-length film made in Germany in 2008 and scheduled to be screened at 8 p.m. tonight (Wednesday)  the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, dramatizes the events of a real Palo Alto high school teaching experiment conducted in 1969.  The events were first featured in a 1981 American young adult novel of the same title by Morton Rhue (a pseudonym for prolific YA author Todd Strasser).

The film, to be shown at the AMC La Jolla, takes great liberties in changing the setting, characters and messages of the 1981 novel. Rhue’s original novel depicts an American teacher named Ben Ross struggling to find a way to teach his students what it was like to live in Nazi Germany. He decides to replicate the social environment of the Third Reich by creating a rule-dominated class sub-culture he calls “The Wave” marked by extreme formality (the teacher had to be addressed in a certain way), a class salute, slogans (e.g., “strength through discipline”), a dress code, prohibitions on individual expression and total obedience to the dictates of the teacher. The students in the class find they are attracted to this new society that eliminates individuals’ differences, and most develop a feeling of importance they never felt before the experiment began, even as they lose their individual freedoms. However, a couple of students protest. When a boy friend of a girl who protests becomes so upset with her that he slams her to the ground in anger, he is so appalled at what he has done that he gets the teacher to re-examine the wisdom of the experiment. In an assembly open only to members of ‘The Wave”, the teacher one by one knocks down the pillars of the authoritarian society he so carefully created showing the students how they have started to act like Nazis. The story ends with the teacher consoling one student who had bought totally into the ethic of this new order and who feels personally devastated by the dismantling of “The Wave”.

Set in contemporary Germany and imaginatively directed by Dennis Gansel, the film constructs a riveting story that incorporates the instructive events from the original novel into a new story whose climax results not in simple lessons learned but in unrelenting and shocking tragedy.

The German high school teacher, Rainer Wenger, can’t use Nazism to teach the dangers of autocracy because contemporary Germany has been saturated with collective responsibility for the Holocaust to the point where his students are bored with the subject. So, he creates a new class order, detached from Nazism although similar in some respects to the one created in the novel.

But in the film, everything is much more calculating on the teacher’s part. He seats poor students next to good ones, so they’ll be able to cheat and thus become socially equal, making all students feel more important as part of the whole and destroying individual incentive to be better academically than others. He insists on all students giving short, abrupt answers to questions he asks instead of encouraging class discussion of issues and asking students to make subtle distinctions. He orchestrates his students to bully the class below by stomping their feet. He creates a strict, simple dress code to eliminate social class differences. He stresses the importance of excluding others in the school from social contact with students in his class.

As in the novel, his students fall into line quickly. One student named Tim, alienated from his family and shunned by his fellow students, even burns his old clothes, so he can be re-born in this new order, and he shows up uninvited at Wenger’s house one evening purportedly to be his bodyguard.

But there are also a couple of holdouts from this rush to be accepted in ‘The Wave”. Similar to what happens in the novel, when one of the dissenters approaches her boyfriend for help, he slaps her and pushes her to the ground in anger. Then, ashamed of what he did, he meets with his teacher to get him to call off the experiment.

The teacher, now frightened by the hostile reactions of his wife and his colleagues to the experiment, the weird behavior of Tim, and vigilante graffiti attacks conducted by his students at night against public buildings, decides to put an end to his experiment. But he wants do it in a dramatic way by calling attention to what “The Wave” has become – a fascist society. He calls his students to an assembly, locks the doors, and sets up a public confrontation with a dissenting student to demonstrate the consequences of the autocratic society they have all so easily accepted. Unfortunately, Tim who has brought a loaded gun to the meeting, inserts himself in this confrontation – and the result is tragedy. With film viewers in a state of numbing shock, the film ends with Herr Wenger arrested by police and led away in handcuffs.

The Wave is a very well-made film, with superb acting, creative cinematography and professional direction. But the messages of the film are 180 degrees different from the messages of the book. The book’s message is related to what the students learn from the experiment – the seductive appeal of a world order that makes everyone the same, taking away individual responsibility and differences and accentuating the power of a member of a mass movement. Even though the experiment was cut short, the students who leave Mr. Ross’s class have learned its intended lessons about the dangers of autocracy and dictatorship. And so do the teenage readers of this novel. But Mr. Wenger’s students – and many film viewers, I fear – will take away with them not lessons related to the dangers of autocracy, but “lessons” related to the dangers of a misguided, overambitious teacher who initiated a class experiment that was a mistake. The unintended lesson of the film is that the experiment should not have been done.

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Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego

Full-length documentary needs to be encyclopedic in length to cover Greenspun’s span

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

 QUESTION PERIOD—Brian Greenspun and Scott Goldstein listen to a question
posed by an audience member at San Diego Jewish Film Festival Tuesday, Feb. 16, at Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, California
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By Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO — Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story introduced to attendees of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival a man who in Las Vegas and among influential people in Israel had been a legend during his lifetime.  Publisher of the Las Vegas Sun until his death in 1989, Greenspun seemed to interact with 20th century American history the way the fictional movie character Forrest Gump did—although with a big difference.  Events somehow just happened to Gump, bringing him into contact with the rich and famous.   The real-life Herman “Hank” Greenspun, on the other hand, made events happen. 

Greenspun was a larger-than-life figure in Las Vegas, a public relations man with a talent for recognizing opportunity and a man who perceived a wide gap between the “law” and “justice.”  While he sometimes violated the former, he risked his life and reputation in pursuit of the latter.

That, at least, is the take on his life by film maker Scott Goldstein, who won a pair of Emmy’s as the producer of television’s “L.A. Law” Series.  But while Goldstein’s film, financed by the late publisher’s family, provides good material for the historical record, it is far from the last objective word on Greenspun’s life.  Far more digging is required.

Although the documentary covers numerous chapters in Greenspun’s life, none resonated more with the Jewish film festival  crowd than the extensive coverage of Greenspun’s efforts—in violation of American law—to obtain and smuggle arms to the Haganah during Israel’s Independence War of 1948. 

Working under future Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and with future Israel Aircraft Industries founder Al Schwimmer, Greenspun stole machine guns and tons of other weapons from a poorly-guarded military depot in Hawaii, shipped them first to Los Angeles and later to Mexico, and in the process threatened to kill an American and a Mexican boat captain who balked at smuggling the contraband.  He did not have to follow through, no doubt not only to their relief, but his as well.

So soon after the murder of the Six Million in the Holocaust, Greenspun fervently believed that the cause of Israel was just, even if support of the beleaguered Jews in the newly declared nation violated America’s neutrality law. Eventually, the FBI and the Justice Department decided to make an example of him and Schwimmer, bringing charges against them while dropping charges against lesser figures in the illegal gun-running operation. 

Schwimmer, a former American military officer who based his airplane-smuggling operations in Czechoslovakia and later moved to Israel, remained out of reach of the FBI, but Greenspun was put on trial and convicted.   However, the judge decided not to give Greenspun any prison time, opting instead to fine him $10,000 and to strip him of his citizenship rights.  As much as he loved politics, as a convicted felon Greenspun could not vote until he was pardoned for his actions by President John F. Kennedy.

This wasn’t in the documentary, but Schwimmer, interestingly, never wanted a pardon, arguing that to ask for one would suggest that he believed he had done something wrong.  Greenspun’s son, Brian, helped obtain one for Schwimmer anyway by appealing to President Bill Clinton, who had been the younger Greenspun’s classmate at Georgetown University.  

In describing the invaluable service that Greenspun had provided to the brand new state of Israel, its President Shimon Peres  practically choked up with gratitude during an interview in the documentary.  Hundreds if not thousands of Israeli soldiers would have died, had it not been for the weapons that Greenspun had helped obtain for Israel, Peres asserted,

Two years before Greenspun died, the American Jew  Jonathan Pollard was arrested for transferring classified secrets to Israel.  Many felt the former U.S. intelligence agent had done nothing more than deliver to Israel the kind of information that was rightly due to an American ally.  Others cast Pollard as nothing more than a profit-seeking opportunist, one who was ready to sell U.S. secrets not only to Israel but to other countries as well.  Although there was a plea bargain with prosecutors, Pollard was meted out a life sentence by the judge.

As moderator of the film festival presentation on Tuesday, February 16, of  Where I Stand, I was able to alternate with audience members in posing some questions to the younger Greenspun—who has succeeded his father as publisher of the Las Vegas Sun and director of a large Nevada media and real estate empire—as well as to Scott Goldstein, the movie maker. 

Given that both Pollard and the elder Greenspun had put their concern for Israel ahead of the laws of the United States, I asked what position Hank Greenspun had taken on the Pollard case. Brian Greenspun responded that he didn’t recall for certain, but suspected that his father believed people who break the law in pursuit of a moral  principle have to do so with a willingness to pay the price.  

Brian Greenspun related that during the time of the Vietnam War, when some protesters fled to Canada rather than be drafted, his father accompanied him to a college campus where there were recruiting stations for both the Army and Air Force reserve officers training corps.   The father told the son that it was likely he would have to serve in the military, and if he did, it was better to be an officer.  But if Brian couldn’t bring himself to do that, he should be willing to go to jail rather than to Canada.  He should stand up for what he believed, in other words.

Another chapter in the film dealt with Greenspun’s abortive efforts in the 1970s to be a peacemaker.  When Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was in the midst of his historic negotiations with Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin for an Israeli-Egyptian peace, Greenspun tried through Adnan Khashoggi (who later became familiar to Americans who followed the Iran-Contra affair) to influence the Saudi Royal Family to give Mideast peace their blessing.  According to an interview with Hank Greenspun  included in the documentary, the Saudi family agreed, provided that Saudi Arabia be given sovereignty over the Temple Mount, where both the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque are located.  As Hank Greenspun told the story, the deal would have gone through—save for Saddam Hussein of Iraq raising such a fuss about it that the Saudi Royal Family backed away. Other, published, accounts say it wasn’t Hussein, it was  Prime Minister Begin who scuttled the deal: He reportedly was opposed to giving up Israel’s sovereignty over the place revered by Jews as the location of the first and second Temple.

As the documentary’s two chapters on Israel are exciting, and yet, are far from definitive history, so too are other chapters in the documentary not much more than slices of intriguing information that really need to be fleshed out by historians.   I don’t fault filmmaker Goldstein for this, he would need to do a many-part series of documentaries to cover these various chapters in depth.  He deserves credit for opening up the mine and showing us the veins of historical gold.

There are stories needing to be elaborated  in the documentary about the  mob’s impact on Las Vegas, and Greenspun’s relationship with some of the most notorious underworld figures.    We see him, a young, ambitious former Broadway New York public relations man, coming to Las Vegas, publishing a small magazine about Las Vegas entertainment, and encountering Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel on a stairway.  Pleased that Greenspun never called him “Bugsy” in print, instead identifying him by his given name of “Benjamin,” Siegel eventually offered Greenspun a job as public relations director for the Flamingo Hotel.  Greenspun knew whom he was getting into bed with, but decided to take the job anyway.

Siegel subsequently was murdered, the documentary explaining that the mob didn’t take kindly to all the money Siegel had lost on the Flamingo.  Later, during the Israel gun-running episode, when Longshoremen in New York threatened to reveal what cargo they really were loading, they were persuaded by members of the mob from Detroit that it would be better to load the material without extra pay, then to not load it with broken knee caps.  That this is included in the documentary at all hints that Greenspun had something to do with the mob connection.  Greenspun, meanwhile, as a part owner of the Desert Inn, found himself on the outs when a new owner – mobster Moe Dalitz—took it over.  Becoming publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, Greenspun campaigned against mobbed-up hotels, but according to Brian Greenspun, the mob tolerated him—at least most of the time.

In the documentary, Greenspun’s children tell of growing up with friends who were the children of mobsters, making them think that everyone’s father, except their own, had “the” as a middle name – as in “___ the lip” or “___the blade.”  One time, a gentleman who came to the door—and who was let into the house by the kids—turned out to be a mob hit man with a contract on Greenspun.  The publisher recognized him, and ascertaining that he was a family man, told the mobster he shouldn’t kill him in front of his children, but should wait until the following morning.  The hit man agreed, Greenspun made some phone calls, and the matter went away.  In Tuesday’s question and answer session, Brian Greenspun elaborated that the hit was due to a misunderstanding between different branches of the mob—apparently a dispute in which Greenspun wasn’t an essential ingredient.   Obviously there is more digging to do into this chapter, as there are in other chapters.

We see in the documentary stories about Greenspun’s clash against red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy; Greenspun’s successful backing for racial integration of Las Vegas casinos;  and Greenspun’s luring of Howard Hughes to Las Vegas, where the eccentric aircraft pioneer purchased a half dozen hotels from the mob as playthings.  

There is also a  bizarre chapter which played out in the Watergate hearings leading up to the resignation of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, in which the “plumbers” who broke into Democratic National Headquarters also planned to break into a safe Greenspun had in his office.

The Nixon operatives were concerned that papers in the safe  may have dealt with the question of whether Howard Hughes had funneled cash directly to Nixon and his family.  In Tuesday’s question and answer session, Brian Greenspun said actually the Hughes papers had to do with far more mundane matters, but that because Nixon had been embarrassed by a Hughes loan in the 1962 California governor’s race, his operatives feared history might repeat itself.  He said that Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt shared that information with him and his father after Hunt was released from prison.

In its effort to cover so much ground, the documentary had to gloss over many issues – including  how Greenspun had amassed his fortune in real estate by buying up Paradise Valley and his early approval, and later opposition, to nuclear testing in Nevada.  Members of the publisher’s family believe that exposure to above-ground testing may have triggered the cancer to which Greenspun succumbed.

While the documentary is far from complete – it skipped over entirely, for example, Greenspun’s unsuccessful run in 1962 for the Republican nomination for governor of Nevada – it is stirring, imaginative, and eye-opening—not the end , perhaps, but a significant beginning in the measurement of the impact one man can have on a society.

Goldstein said he hoped that the 2008 documentary, now making the rounds of Jewish film festivals, eventually will be seen by a larger television or cable audience,  although he said outfits such as the “History Channel” now seem to prefer “reality-style” programming rather than serious documentaries.  To my eyes, the documentary seems tailor-made for airing over the Public Broadcasting System. 

It deserves to be seen … and discussed.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

U.S. Admiral Mullen praises Israel’s humanitarian efforts in Haiti

February 16, 2010 2 comments

TEL AVIV (WJC)–Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and as such the highest military official in the United States, met in Tel Aviv with members of the IDF’s humanitarian delegation to Haiti.

He told the Israeli soldiers: “The important work you did with your delegation will not be forgotten, not by us and not by the residents of Haiti.” Mullen had requested the meeting during his three-day visit to Israel.

“I want to express my admiration for you. You represent the hope within the heavy tragedy the residents of Haiti had to live through. You created hope and a future for those people, and humanity is proud of you,” Mullen said.

His Israeli counterpart, IDF Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said that Israel’s rescue effort “would not have succeeded as [it] did without the preparations by the US Army in Haiti. We know who will continue to assist in the long-term rehabilitation of Haiti. Now all we can do is to finish the treatment and prepare for the next operation.”

Later on Monday, Mullen and Ashkenazi visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. “We, all of us, must make sure that such terrible events will never happen again,” Mullen said there, adding: “We ask for hope, a better future for coming generations.”

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress