It was a Sunday afternoon, and the offices of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., usually a madhouse of ringing phones and scurrying legislative assistants, were strangely silent. Rabbi David Saperstein was stretching and eating his lunch during an interview, cooling down after a six-mile run from his home. All that activity had no appreciable effect on the rapid-fire flow of words.
Most of the more than 900 Jews who boarded the St. Louis in Hamburg in 1939 hoped the German luxury liner would take them to safety in the United States. Instead, the “ship of the damned,” turned back by Cuba and the United States, became an agonizing symbol of the indifference of the world to Jews fleeing the Nazi killing machine.
Russian Firms Get Sanctions
Jewish groups welcomed last week’s imposition of sanctions on three Russian companies accused of supplying military technology to Syria, but expressed concern about the impact of the worsening U.S.-Russian relationship on Jews in the former Soviet Union and on the Middle East peace process.
The sanctions decision set off alarm bells in Jerusalem, where officials fear that their recent diplomatic efforts to press Russia on the proliferation question could be compromised by the new U.S. action.
The administration action touched off an angry blast from the foreign ministry in Moscow, which described the move as “illegal from the point of view of the international law,” and warned that it represented one more blow to relations strained by differences over the NATO campaign against Serbia.
Jewish groups generally welcomed the move — the first time officials here have imposed sanctions based on dealings with Syria.
“My feeling is that the United States is trying to find a credible approach to the problem of proliferation,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
But other observers warned that sinking U.S.-Russian relations will reduce this country’s leverage in the battle against the new epidemic of Russian anti-Semitism.
“Historically, U.S. leverage on issues like anti-Semitism is greatest when the relationship is good. When relations cool, it declines,” said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University. “And relations are definitely cooling.”
Last week’s sanctions decision “confirm the rumors we’ve heard for a long time about major arms deals between Russian and Syria,” he said. “This is one more effort by [Prime Minister Yevgeny] Primakov to reintroduce the Russians into the Middle East.”
Mark N. Katz, an expert in U.S.-Russian relations at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., agreed that the Primakov factor is troubling. He cited recent reports that Primakov, an old Mideast hand with close ties to Saddam Hussein, received an $800,000 payment from the Iraqi government in 1997.
Katz warned that sanctions alone will not be enough to slow Russia’s dealings with countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria.
“The Clinton people keep saying we have to treat them gently or we lose leverage,” he said. “But we never seem to get what we want, anyway. We need to talk more openly about more sweeping measures.”
Nightmare Budget Awaits Legislators
Lawmakers come back from their spring recess on Tuesday, and waiting for them will be an explosive budget debate that Jewish leaders fear may result in big cuts to domestic programs and new problems for Israel’s foreign aid.
The first confrontation will come as legislators resume bickering over the administration’s supplemental aid request that includes money for hurricane disaster relief in Central America and a special appropriation for Jordan.
That measure has been loaded down with special appropriations for a number of business interests, increasing the chances of a presidential veto.
And congressional Republicans have insisted that the supplemental money must be “offset” by cuts in already-strapped domestic spending programs. That could be a troubling precedent when Israel’s supplemental aid comes up for review later in the year.
Before they left town, both Houses passed budget resolutions providing a rough blueprint for Fiscal Year 2000 spending. The Republican-crafted proposals are based on the 1997 deficit-reduction agreement, with stringent spending caps that leave little maneuvering room.
At the same time, GOP leaders are insisting on significant tax cuts and increases in military spending. The war in Kosovo will add even more pressure on congressional budgeters.
“Basically we’re in the third year of a five-year deficit-reduction process,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“Congress backloaded the cuts because nobody wanted to admit up front how difficult the process would be. As a result, this year’s budget is turning into a nightmare.”
Jerusalem Embassy Deadline Approaching — Again
Next week could produce some dramatic news in the fight to force the Clinton administration to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
by Lawrence Cohler-Esses
Taking its complaints about biased reporting to a new level, a pro-Israel media monitoring group is urging Congress to investigate public radio’s Mideast coverage. In an April 2 ad on The New York Times opinion page, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, skewered National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” news program for “distortion,” “error” and “endemic bias” against Israel.
Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat came to town this week seeking Washington’s blessing for Palestinian statehood in return for postponing a unilateral declaration on May 4, when the interim Oslo period expires. Despite the fears of some Jewish leaders, he didn’t get it.
The first time Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald visited Lori Berenson in her bare and frigid prison cell on a Peruvian mountaintop, he brought her a dozen New York bagels.
In his latest visit to the 29-year-old New York woman, serving a life sentence for treason for terrorist acts, Rabbi Greenwald brought her a book on Jewish thought.
He believes that shows progress, both in Berenson’s attitude, and her circumstances.
The details of Rabbi Greenwald’s trip emerge as Berenson’s case has gained support and publicity.