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The Danger of a Prisoner Swap

July 5, 2010 Leave a comment

By Gary Rotto

Gary Rotto

SAN DIEGO — I attended a service at Temple Emanu-El a few weeks ago and Gilad Shalit was one of the guests of the Bat Mizvah and the congregation.  At least in spirit.  Up front to the left of the bimah was a picture of Shalit.  A reminder of his captivity.  It reminded me of the work our community did decades ago on behalf of Soviet Jews.  We made sure to remember Refusniks as people, keeping them alive and hope for their freedom alive by remembering them as individuals.

But in the case of Shalit, no one from the international community has been able to visit Shalit – even the International Red Cross.  And there is a potential heavy price to pay for his freedom in the terms of who is swapped for his freedom.  

In an interview posted on Time.com, Rami Igra, who served as head of the Mossad’s Prisoners and MIAs department, notes that a swap is necessary to preserve morale in the Israeli military and so that the soldiers will know that the nation will do everything possible for them as they do everything possible for their country. Igra is quoted as saying” We have to show the people that fight with us and for us that we as a community will do the utmost to bring them back home. It’s a battlefield value. It’s a very important value, and it has a lot of weight in our national security.” 

Time reporter Karl Vick goes on to write that “Igra argues that without the 1985 ‘Jabril swap’ that released Palestinians who went on to found Hamas, the Gaza Strip would today be under control of the moderate Fatah faction that Israel regards as a suitable partner for peace.”  Amazing that one deal can alter the balance of power in the region and dramatically change the formula for reaching peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  Think about what the next deal releasing 1000 prisoners could bring.

I cannot fathom the psychological and emotional ordeal that Aviva and Noam Shalit have been through and continue to endure.  In my mind, only one who has served in the IDF or has a child in the IDF can begin to understand their situation.

But I am concerned that a potential deal also brings on a slippery slope for the future.  Despite what seems like a strong plurality if not a majority of those in Israel to make a deal for Shalit, there are limits.  As Prime Minister Netanyahu said, he is not willing to pay “any price”.  What a potential swap means is a possible escalation of kidnappings.  Hamas might intensify its activities to seize additional Israeli soldiers to extract more prisoners held in Israeli jails.

 But Israel could increase its seizures of “security prisoners” who may not have participated in terrorist activities – those who may not have blood on their hands – but could be held for any number reasons.  Thereby, Israel could increase the number of prisoners that could be traded.  It’s an escalation in seizing human lives that could be precipitated by Hamas’ success in this potential deal and their potential strategy to seize other IDF personnel. 

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Rotto is a freelance writer based in San Diego

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No doubt about it: Netanyahu is inept as a leader

June 7, 2010 Leave a comment

By Gary Rotto

Gary Rotto

SAN DIEGO– Sixteen months since he created a coalition government, I can come to only one conclusion about Benyamin Netanyahu:  He is inept.

To be successful, a leader must have a grasp of three things: Time, a firm grasp on the levers of power and the ability to lead.  This is different than just maintaining a coalition, which is all that Netanyahu seems capable of doing. 

With two significant international incidents in a matter of months, the Netanyahu Administration seems  incompetent.  This is not a matter of policy, but whether Netanyahu has real control of his government.

First, the Prime Minister not only had no idea that his own Housing Minister Eli Yishai, was about to announce the development of new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo settlement during the visit of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.  Sure the Prime Minister admitted embarrassment, but why had he not controlled how and when policy announcements are made and sacked the minister who so undermined his authority? True, Yishai is from the Shas Party, not Netanyahu’s Likud.  But you either run the government or you don’t.  At the very least, you make Yishai wait until the visiting US Vice President leaves the country.  Why keep someone in a position of power who you can’t trust?

Next problem was the fiasco with the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in the flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza.  The Israeli government has termed the attack on its soldiers premeditated and termed the passengers terrorists.  If so, Israeli intelligence was gravely deficient and put its own soldiers in a situation for which they were unprepared.  How do you put so few soldiers into a group of terrorists with the wrong equipment for the situation?  Or maybe this was not a case of encountering terrorists but rather terrorist sympathizers who were ready for a street fight.  Either way, the Defense Department got it wrong.  And the Israeli public is picking apart the operation.    

Again, the question of timing arises. After his embarrassment with Biden, why did  Netanyahu plan a military operation the same day he was meeting with Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and a day prior to his scheduled meeting with US President Barack Obama?  The risk of another embarrassment was too great. 

Luckily, the US response was  muted, from the cancellation of the meeting to the botched episode on the high seas.  Don’t get me wrong – I support the blockade as long as Hamas is in control of Gaza.  But you have to question the timing of the military operation and the intelligence behind the engagement.

Arguably, Netanyahu once was an excellent spokesperson for Israel and a fine Ambassador to the United Nations..  But as demonstrated by his second go-round as Prime Minister, he is in over his head trying to lead his nation.

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Rotto is a freelance writer based in San Diego

President Obama continues new White House seder tradition

March 30, 2010 Leave a comment

By Gary Rotto

SAN DIEGO–I picked up my brisket for my Seder and little didn’t realize that I would be in good company.  While the White House chef was not in the Kosher section at Ralphs, apparently the First Cook had a brisket ordered for the first night of Passover.  According to the White House, brisket will be the main course for the now annual Seder.

This is the third year in a row that the Obamas have hosted or participated in a seder.  As widely reported, the tradition began in 2008 in the basement of a Pennsylvania hotel, during the time of the Democratic Primary election.  As the story goes, after the “Next Year in Jerusalem” phrase was said, Senator Obama added, “Next Year in the White House!”  And while not a true promise, now President Obama kept this wish by hosting the first White House Seder on record.

The tradition continues this year with what the New York Times calls, “one of the newest, most intimate and least likely of White House traditions”.  According to Shin Inouye with the White House Press Office, the President and the First Lady hosted the event for key staffers.   And the official menu included:

Gelfilte Fish

Charoses

Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls

Braised Beef Brisket

Chicken Roast

Sweet Potato-Carrot Tzimmes

Carrot Soufflé

Kugel

Spring Asparagus

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Golden Apricot Cake

Brown Sugar Macaroons

 It is impressive that heads of state, machers of the Jewish community or even Jewish congressional representatives were not on the guest list.  Rather, an intimate collection of the First Family and close staff – Jews and Gentiles, Anglos and African-Americans participated. Other than the fact that the Maxwell House Haggadah was the guide of choice and that the Seder took place in the Old Family Dining Room, the White House did not release very much information.  And that is because this was a private and very intimate function.   As much as a President’s life is very public, this private event has to have a public component – that being the confirmation of the event by the White House and the official photo.  Do the guests bring a special tradition from their own past Seders?  What about a unique prayer for freedom like those added during the age of the Soviet Refusnik movement?  We do not know.

There have been a few conservative critics who question Obama’s motives because the seder is not kosher.  But as I checked around town, I found many seders, such as the Urban Seder at the Urban Solace Restaurant that are kosher “style” rather than kosher.  Some have said that this insensitive, not serving a kosher meal.  But I don’t know that any of the guests kept kosher or wanted to do so.  Rather, they were delighted to continue their legitimate practice with close colleagues as a way to celebrate freedom as Jews and as Americans. 

Inasmuch as I do keep kosher, I guess I can wait until I’m invited to the seder at some future date to worry about the level of kashrut in the White House.  Oh, Mr. President, can you save one of those brown sugar macaroons for me? 

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Rotto is a freelance writer and political activist in San Diego.

This Jewish single dad wonders what to do on Christmas Eve

December 21, 2009 Leave a comment

By Gary Rotto

SAN DIEGO-I did my neighborly duty and helped my neighbors celebrate Christmas on Sunday night.  For our immediate neighborhood, we have an annual “Holiday Lights” judging party, in which families get together for an hour, roam the neighborhood together and judge the light displays.  Yes, holiday lights as several neighbors tried to make the event more inclusive, thinking that maybe I would put up blue and white lights.  I would have put my menorah in the window, but the timing of the holidays did not overlap the judging event this year.  It was very thoughtful and I thanked them, but I think it’s okay to call them Christmas lights.  So for those who participate, the top three displays receive a sign recognizing their accomplishment.  Especially because I don’t have a display, they like me or one of our other “impartial” neighbors to serve as a judge. Deed done, Christmas done in my mind. 

But then there is the question of what to do on Christmas Eve.  I’m part of a nascent, informal group of Jewish single parents centered in North County.  We get together for Shabbat dinners or an occasional family event like our campfire Havdallah last month.  Many of us don’t have our kids on Christmas Eve and would like to get together.  I remember attending one of the first “What do Jewish Singles have to Do on Christmas Eve” parties at the JCC a number of years ago.  At that time, our group of 15 young adults – called Hands on San Diego – decided to start a community service-focused group but also decided to start the Christmas Eve party.  And the event has grown over the years leaving the JCC years ago for digs downtown.  It has matured into a very upscale event at a posh club downtown.  And has grown so much so, that a private organization has taken over the planning of the “Let My People Go” party.  This year, they have a strict age restriction – no one over 39.  Which is probably a good thing so that us 40-something guys will stop trying to hit on the 20-something gals who really would like to meet the almost-30-something guys.  

So where does that leave our group of youthful singles.  The Chinese dinner is scheduled for the next day, so what can we do on Thursday night?  The North Coast Rep is dark that evening, same for the National Comedy Theater.  Maybe we could meet for a deli dinner?  But Elijah’s closes at 4pm and Milton’s even earlier.    I’m struggling here … even the Karl Strauss Brewing company in Carlsbad closes at 9pm.  So any good suggestions?    I guess next year, we could move the display judging to the 24th and have a truly impartial group providing the tally. 

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Rotto is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  He may be contacted at rottog@sandiegojewishworld.com, or you can leave a comment below

Climate Change Summit long on rhetoric, short on action

December 21, 2009 Leave a comment

By Gary Rotto

SAN DIEGO–The Guardian of Great Britain called the recently completed Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, “the biggest environmental meeting in history.”  But the final result is an agreement that calls for monitoring emissions but neither sets a target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and no deadline for reaching a formal international climate treaty.  The agreement also provides for an aid fund, estimated to reach $100 billion by 2020, to help poor nations adapt to changing climate and increase the use of low-emissions fuels.   

The Washington Post quoted Ian Fry, a climate-change representative for Tuvalu, as responding, “To use a Biblical allusion, it looks like we’re being offered 30 pieces of silver to bargain away our future. Mr. President, our future is not for sale.” Tuvalu is midway between Hawaii and Australia and may be submerged by rising seas in a matter of decades.  But no matter how imperfect, an agreement was reached despite opposition.

As widely reported, one key focus is on the new economic dynamos of India and China, two countries whose greenhouse gas emissions have risen as dramatically as their economies have boomed.  Their concerns are that the newly developing world would be held to similar standards of the maturing economies of Europe and the US.  It’s about the money and the economic power that their countries exert by virtue of their new position in the world economy. 

And one player with money is Saudi Arabia. As reported by the Associated Press back in October “Saudi Arabia has led a quiet campaign during these and other negotiations — demanding behind closed doors that oil-producing nations get special financial assistance if a new climate pact calls for substantial reductions in the use of fossil fuels.  That campaign comes despite an International Energy Agency report released this week showing that OPEC revenues would still increase $23 trillion between 2008 and 2030 — a fourfold increase compared to the period from 1985 to 2007 — if countries agree to significantly slash emissions and thereby cut their use of oil.”

 Maybe it was the Saudis who came up with the definition Chutzpah and not our Eastern European ancestors?  And it may be that the average Saudi has much to lose economically, but why doesn’t the monarchy redistribute more of its oil-produced wealth to its own people?   Could it be that the Saudi government is more willing to spend its petro-dollars as “foreign aid” to undeveloped countries that are willing to play an obstructionist role to any accord?

The British government has called the Saudis and others out on the subject.  On the eve of the conference, Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated in an interview with The Guardian, “With only days to go before Copenhagen we mustn’t be distracted by the behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-earth climate skeptics.  We know the science. We know what we must do. We must now act and close the 5bn-tonne gap. That will seal the deal.”

By contrast, Israel fully accepts the concept of climate change.  But according to a governmental report issued days before the Copenhagen Summit, is not prepared to properly track its emissions.  As reported by Haaretz, Israel has not implemented the basic actions necessary for dealing with climate change and lacks the professional capability to monitor climate change, according to a State Comptroller’s report released Sunday ahead of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. According to a report Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, the meteorological service responsible for observing climate change is not equipped for long-term monitoring, due to a lack of professional manpower and challenges in maintaining the network of meteorological centers.”  The Netanyahu Government has work to do in order to implement even the basic, compromise language of the new accord.  But at least it acknowledges a role in tracking and reducing emissions.

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Rotto is a freelance writer based in San Diego

Soccer match was pre-Chanukah present for this dad

December 14, 2009 Leave a comment

By Gary Rotto

EL CAJON, California–Hanukkah came a day early for me.  On Thursday, I had the pleasure of watching the first San Diego Jewish Academy  Middle School Girls Soccer game of the year.  I’ve coached soccer for 8 years.

Soon after embarking on my coaching “career”, SDJA decided to initiate a Sports Booster Club.  As the parent of a then-elementary school student, I was seen as a neutral party – someone who did not have a child on any school sports team and therefore, did not have a favorite team.  So I became the first President of the Lions Athletic Sports Booster Club.

Our board sought to stimulate attendance at the high school football games, raise a little money for sports equipment such as weight room equipment, a batting cage and other non-budgeted athletic needs.  My goal was to make sure that both boys and girls sports programs would be treated equally – from encouraging attendance at the football games to rallying support for the girls’ volleyball team.  The weight room was a non-issue as the equipment would be available to all SDJA athletes.

When growing up in New Jersey, I don’t recall a girls’ sports program – or at least it was an afterthought.  I have a vague recollection of the high school girls’ basketball team playing with six players on the court, but only two players could move out of the defensive zone.  I recall my cousin Amy, the best jumper shooter I ever saw having to play on a “club” team at the University of Texas because the school did not have an official women’s basketball team.  I couldn’t understand why young women didn’t have the same opportunity as me and my friends.

So for the time in which my daughter attended the SDJA elementary school, I made no secret of my desire to assure that not only would the boys’ sports thrive, but that the school would pay attention to the girls sports.  If the program would develop and thrive during these years, a strong program – both boys and girls – would be in place for when my daughter and her classmates entered the Middle School years.

So several years after stepping aside,  after many times attending SDJA girl volleyball, boys soccer, girls soccer and boys football games, here I was on the visitors’ side of the field in El Cajon.  And there was my daughter in on the field for the first time representing SDJA at an away game.  And she was asked to start in goal.  And the boys watched on the sidelines, supporting the girls.  And some of the boys asked if we would stay for the second game to cheer them on when they would take the field.

I could think of no greater gift – to see the two teams support each other, travel together to other schools and compete on an equal footing.  And I felt as though I had received a bonus gift with my daughter playing in goal.

Go Lions and Chag Sameach!

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Rotto is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  He may be contacted at rottog@sandiegojewishworld.com

Fury over Goldstone report reflects Jewish community disillusionment with one-sided United Nations

November 24, 2009 1 comment

By Gary Rotto

SAN DIEGO–The tensions around the Goldstone Report ( Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict) have died down for the moment.  But hard feelings still remain in the community regarding the report and the resulting resolution in Congress.  Congressman Filner clearly communicated his feelings and his thinking around the resolution.  He has “mishpachah” in Israel with whom he consulted.  His response to SDJW questions were fair and well thought out.   And may be factually based.  But politics is – especially geopolitical – are based on perception.

The Jewish community reaction to the Goldstone Report may not be so much about the actual information in the report, but the visceral feeling that the United Nations seems fixated on the Middle East, and in particular, the Arab-Israeli, or Palestinian-Israel conflict.

Back on October 2, 2006, as Kofi Annan’s term as the Secretary General of the United Nations was coming to a close, Human Rights Watch reflected on the tasks ahead for his successor.  While praising Annan’s dedication to human rights and the creation of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), Human Rights Watch openly criticized the HRC. “The Human Rights Council has so far stumbled because of its relative fixation on Israel, while failing to take concrete steps to address other serious human rights situations as well. It has yet to show that it is willing to take firm, collective action against intransigent governments engaged in systemic rights violations.”  The article on its website goes on to say that “The incoming secretary-general must work to ensure that the Human Rights Council is both more credible and more effective than its predecessor.”

One of the giants in the world of Human Rights monitoring, Felice Gaer, severely criticized the Goldstone Report.  Her career in the human rights community has included membership on the Council on Foreign Relations, serving as chair of the steering committee for the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as a member of the Carter Center’s International Human Rights Council since 1994.  As reported in the New Jersey Jewish News, Gaer called the report “a biased mandate by a biased group of people.”  The biased group of people is the HRC.

Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Post noted after the HRC’s first year that “Genocide in Sudan, child slavery and religious persecution in China, mass repression in Zimbabwe and Burma, state-sponsored murder in Syria and Russia — and, for that matter, suicide bombings by Arab terrorist movements — will not receive systematic attention from the world body charged with monitoring human rights. That is reserved only for Israel, a democratic country that has been guilty of human rights violations but also has been under sustained assault from terrorists and governments openly committed to its extinction.”  In that first year, Israel and Israel alone was the only government criticized by name – and to the tune of 11 resolutions.

Freedom House, one of the preeminent “peace and democracy” institutions since 1941, in its 2009 Worst of the Worst report, which cites  the World’s Most Repressive Societies, lists Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

While Israel is imperfect, clearly, other nations and hot spots around the world deserve far greater attention from the HRC.  Only once a track record of tackling ongoing, regimented, government sponsored human rights violations in the areas around the world, will the Jewish community will feel that a Goldstone Report maybe even handed and fair and maybe justified.

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Rotto is a freelance writer based in San Diego