Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Is Obama Good for Israel?

In a previous post (Three Elections,) I mentioned that, since Obama was dangerously inexperienced and had dubious associations, I was going to be voting for McCain. However, I also added a sort of disclaimer:

Of course, I remember, eight years ago, writing that G.W. Bush would be, like his father, a Country Club Republican, sneering and hostile to Israel. Boy did I have him pegged wrong! Maybe I've got Obama all wrong too, and he will completely break with the views of his friends and advisers to become a truly noble person.

In the 2000 presidential election, I voted Democrat, for fear of George W. Bush being as hostile to Israel as his father had been. But during the Second Intifada, when the Europe and much of the American left betrayed Israel and sided with terrorism, Bush's stalwart support stood out like a lone voice in the wilderness. After two years of mass murder in the streets of Jerusalem at the hands of Islamic predators, in 2002 his diplomatic support provided Israel the latitude to finally send in the tanks and crush the terror war. As terrorism continued to drop, despite almost unbearable European and Arab pressure to throw Israel to the wolves, he supported Israel's defensive measures, including the targeted assassinations of the terror gangsters, the construction of the security barrier, and the erection of life-saving checkpoints. I felt that despite Bush's having botched Iraq and reduced America's strength domestically and abroad, I could give him a bit of leeway.

I was gravely concerned when Obama won the election and took office, given the animosity of many of his associates to Israel and fear they would be moved into positions of influence. His recent overtures to Syria and the State Department's calling for Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (disarm) while simultaneously allowing Iran to build a bomb are causes for concern. Also disconcerting is his apparent support for the "Arab Peace Initiative," which calls for a complete withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice line, the destruction of the Jewish villages over the armistice line and the dispossession and destitution of their half-million inhabitants, and the unlimited immigration of hostile Arabs from neighboring countries into what would be left of Israel to vote this country into the grave.

But really, none of these threats, except Iran, have any teeth to them. Israel will never surrender its nuclear weapons, ever. Syria will not realign itself with the United States. Israel will not sign an Arab Peace Initiative which legalizes its own destruction, and will only accept a modified version in which Israel would somehow continue to exist. For a Muslim state to sign such a modified Arab Peace Initiative with a Jewish state guaranteeing its continued existence would imply some sort of shared humanity between Jews and Muslims. The Islamic political program enacted in neighboring Arab states legalizes an Apartheid system with Muslims on top and non-Muslims (Dhimmi) completely disenfranchised, so any Arab leader who signed a treaty would be branded a heretic.

As for Iran, well, both Clinton and Bush II also sat idly by and did nothing while they pursued their nuclear ambitions, so Obama is no better or worse. It's like watching the diabolical villain in a James Bond movie, except with no James Bond to stop him. On the other hand, I remember reading headlines back in 1998 that Iran was six months away from having the bomb.

As for Obama's anti-Israel advisors, it's important to remember back to the administration of Bush I. James Baker influenced George H. W. Bush to threaten to withhold foreign aid if Israel's conservative Shamir administration were to continue building in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (the "Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip") Shamir realized Bush I was so implacably hostile he had nothing to lose, and so he founded dozens of new settlements and authorized massive expansions in the others. It was the greatest flowering of the rebirth of Jewish life in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza in the last forty years. Even today, two decades later, homes are still being built based on permits he issued. As for Bush I's threats, congress stepped in and stopped him, so there were no negative consequences.

Is Obama good for Israel? No, but neither is he bad, merely indifferent. While Obama and Netanyahu may not share the lock-step relationship that Bush II and Sharon did, I don't sense much overt hostility from the Obama administration. The administration is staffed with savvy politicians and business people who have to fix their own country first, so why would they risk a fight with congress over an issue no president has ever been able to solve anyway? If Obama can somehow repair the economic disaster he inherited, it would be better for Israel to have a lukewarm but strong ally under Obama than an enthusastic but pitifully weak one as under Bush II.
The peace processors are returning to the region with their lingo about, "windows of opportunity," "peace partners," and "bolstering moderates." In the end it will prove impossible to reconcile the Arab objective to deprive the Middle East's non-Muslims of their freedom with Israel's objective to continue existing. The world will keep turning, the diplomats will keep yacking, the Arabs will stew in belligerent self-pity, and Israel will keep growing.
Next week... is Obama good for America?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"Messianic" Aliyah?

I've noticed the "Who is a Jew" question popping up in relation to "Messianic" Jews lately, and it seems to be morphing into more of a "What is Judaism" question.  As a people dispersed across the world for the last two millennia, constantly either assimilating into or being expelled from host cultures and nations, so much mixing of blood and ideas has occurred that it's very hard for the secular state of Israel to determine who is truly Jewish.  It should be mentioned here that according to traditional Judaism, a Jew is anyone either born of a Jewish mother or who underwent conversion under which he or she accepted the 613 commandments, underwent circumcision (if he is a "he"), and immersed in a mikvah.


The secular state of Israel's definition is rooted in its mission as a haven for persecuted Jews.  For Israel, a Jew is a person with one Jewish grandparent who has not opted to follow another religion.


Recent years have seen the invention of "Messianic Judaism," primarily in the United States.  In the previous generation, these would have been "Jews for Jesus," i.e., Christians of Jewish descent, most of whom believe that Jesus was the Jewish Moshiach as prophesized in the writings of the Prophets.  In recent years, a new brand of Jews for Jesus, "Messianic Judaism," has sprung up.  In this religion, adherents set up "Synagogues," observe their Sabbath on Saturdays, and acknowledge Jewish holidays, although concepts like "Halachah," (Jewish law) are unknown.  Some of the adherents are of Jewish descent and some are not.


The traditional Jewish perspective is that the Moshiach must complete three tasks to be considered authentic:

1.       Ingather all the exiled Jews from around the world.

2.       Rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

3.       Bring peace.


Because Jesus, as well as dozens of others throughout history claiming to be Moshiach, failed to do so, he obviously does not qualify and Jewish texts do not spend much ink refuting Christianity.  It's assumed that anyone who was raised with even a rudimentary Jewish education would never go for such a thing. Indeed I have never met a "Messianic" Jew who could quote a single Gemarah.


Most Israelis, and many traditional or "Orthodox" Jews to whom I mention "Messianic Judaism," are genuinely confused.  After all, don't all Jews believe in the imminent arrival of Moshiach?  It's one of the thirteen basic principles of the Jewish faith.  It is only when they begin to understand that, "Messianic Judaism," is just Christianity by subterfuge that they begin to feel offended.  It would be as if one were to rebuild the holy temple in Jerusalem to exactly the dimensions and layout as defined in the Torah, and then place an idol to the Roman god Pan in the Holy of Holies.


The question then arises, what about a Messianic Jew who wants to make aliyah? 


The Jerusalem Post's aliyah expert answered:


Q: We are Messianic Jews and would like to make Aliyah. How difficult would this be?

A: From the inquiries that I have received, I have come to the conclusion that there seems to be 2 different interpretations of the meaning of "Messianic Jews." One seems to be people born Jewish who have embraced Jesus as the Messiah and follow the New and Old testament. The other appears to be people, not of Jewish birth who support the Jewish religion and who believe in both testaments. If the questioner is the former then it would appear that s/he is entitled to make Aliyah in accordance with the Law of Return. If the latter is the case then the questioner does not qualify for Aliyah.

So by his interpretation, Messianic Judaism still passes the bar.  But then this morning I read a story in Yediot Achronot:


Three Messianic Jews residing in Britain filed a petition with the High Court of Justice Wednesday in an effort to convince Interior Minister Eli Yishai to grant them citizenship…


..They claim they have appealed to the Interior Ministry a number of times but were rejected because they are Messianic Jews. They say the ministry sees members of their faith as missionaries and has denied their appeals for this reason.


The courts, which determine who is a Jew, are controlled by the liberal-secular ruling class, but the Interior Ministry is controlled by the Hareidi ("Ultra-Orthox") Shas party and the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.  Of course I too would oppose allowing them to make aliyah.  I have respect for Christians who want to practice as they choose if they leave me alone, but to allow these people to spread their beliefs through deceit and subterfuge is too great a risk to the spiritual health of the state.  Such are the conflicts in a state which defines itself as both secular and Jewish, but not all-the-way Jewish.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Student Loan Scam

In the last month, I have been introduced to an issue which I think I should call to the attention of anyone who reads this blog: the Student Loan Scam. I have spent the last several weeks reading online message boards and chatrooms with people suffering through various stages of this scam. This is probably one of the greatest frauds perpetrated in American history by a special interest group against American, and I would strongly urge anyone who is considering taking out a private student loan to think long and hard about the ramifications.

Back when I entered college in 1996, I used federal Direct Loans as a way of bridging the gap between how much college cost and how much my "wealthy" parents would be expected to contribute to my education. Of course, there were some who declared bankruptcy to avoid paying back their loans, so in 1997 congress and the Clinton administration made student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy and retroactively eliminated the statute of limitations. While my own payments were rather high, the federal government, with its main motive being to get its money back to loan to the next student, was willing to work with me to refinance at a lower rate and help me find a payment plan I could afford. After five years of hard work in America, I was out of debt and could continue with my life.

But as college costs have continued to rise at double the rate of inflation, a new type of loan, the federally-backed private loan, became more popular as the Direct Loans were no longer able to cover the costs of tuition. In this loan scheme, private lenders, such as Sallie Mae, are encouraged to extend credit to student borrowers by a guarantee that, should the borrower default, the federal government would reimburse the lender for the loss. It seemed like a reasonable system, except for one critical flaw: the lender now no longer had any profit incentive to keep loans out of default since they would get their money back either from the student or the federal government.

But that was only the beginning. Over the past decade, Sallie Mae, Citibank, and other private lenders have begun taking over all aspects of the student loan business, from kickbacks to universities, to lubricating Congress and the Bush administration into passing the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005 removing all consumer protections from student lending, to purchasing all the debt collection companies tasked with pursuing delinquent student loans.

The business model of Sallie Mae and other private lenders now works as follows:

1. A prospective college student speaks with a financial aid officer who directs them to accept a loan from Sallie Mae. The then 18 year old student is told that payments on the loan will be $350 per year when he or she graduates from college. Unbeknownst to the student, the financial aid officer and the university receive kickbacks from Sallie Mae for each loan issued, and thus often steer students away from loans which would have a lower interest rate or longer term. This also benefits the university in that the availability of easy credit drives up the price of tuition, much as happened in the housing market.

2. The student graduates from college and is shocked to receive his or her first bill, not for $350 but for $800. The student aid officials and loan officers are not accountable because the bankruptcy reform act of 2005 exempts them from all honesty in lending laws.

3. The student goes into forebearance until he or she can find a job which will pay for this loan. At this stage, sometimes Sallie Mae pretends not to have received the students' paperwork and throws the loan immediately into default. Sometimes the student pays for a while until Sallie Mae can tack on enough "late fees" and interest to finally make the total bill unpayable. Sallie Mae does not offer flexible repayment plans like the federal government, since their profit motive is to push the lender into default. The 2005 Bankrupcy Reform Act makes refinancing or consolidating private student loans impossible. Either way, many students end up in default and Sallie Mae is reimbursed for the entire value of the loan by the federal government.

4. A credit collection agency purchases the delinquent debt back from the federal government for pennies on the dollar. After a few calls or letters, often to previous addresses from which the credit agency knows the lender has moved, a $20,000 legal fee is slapped onto the total amount. This is permitted by the Bankruptcy Reform act of 2005.

5. The credit collection agency sells the debt to another credit collection agency which slaps another $20,000 onto the debt. This process continues several times, until the total amount on a $40,000 loan can reach $200,000 or $300,000, or any number which is clearly beyond the student's ability to pay. Astronomical interest rates apply. Of course, all of these collection agencies are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Sallie Mae Corporation.

6. The credit agencies then sue the defaulted borrower. The borrower is of course unable to pay, or pay for a legal defense, due to the shortage of money that caused the default in the first place. The court passes judgment and the credit agencies garnish 25% of the student's salary and intercept all tax returns. The garnishment often results in the new employee being fired. The 2005 Bankrutpcy Reform Act also allows the collection agency to sue and revoke any professional licenses (medical, legal, engineering etc). Because there is no longer a statute of limitations on the debt, and the amount is far beyond the borrower's ability to repay, and this continues for the borrower's entire working career. When the borrower retires, Social Security is also garnished.

7. For borrowers who are sick or disabled, the debts can also not be discharged because the standards for disabled discharge of debts were set so high in the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act as to be impossible. Disability payments are also garnished.

Garnishment is actually a worst case scenario. Usually debt collection agencies will accept a payment plan from the student. The payment plan continues over five or six years, when suddenly the credit agency goes out of business and the debt is resold to another credit agency and the lawsuit-garnishment-settlement process begins again. The new credit agency often claims none of the debt has been paid, and the borrower will have a very hard time getting payment reports from a shady credit agency which has gone out of business.

So who benefits from this, besides, of course, Sallie Mae investors who's stock increased 1600% in a decade, Sallie Mae Executives, and the financial accounts of politicians who sign onto legislation like the Bankruptcy Reform Act?


In all the message boards I've read through, the only people who have successfully broken out of "Student Loan Hell," as they call it, are those who have left the country. While I have seen a few posts calling people who pay back their loans "suckers," most of the defaulted borrowers are burdened with an enormous sense of guilt and fear. It's only after having suffered through broken marriages, lost jobs, and having usually paid back several times the original loan value, before they give up and decide to pack their bags and escape the dominion of Sallie Mae. As one message puts it:

Posted By Jennifer Peoria, IL: October 25, 2008 2:04 pm

I work in a small, Canadian technical recruiting agency in their immigration profile division. Almost every applicant we get now is from the US and all running from student loan debacles. We gladly here them and assist in immigration if they meet the qualifications which include high skill sets, particularly in software development and engineering. It is definitely a brain drain towards Canada. When they do arrive they love our health care and social services and our retention rate is over 90% measured for a 5 year span. As Canada has a lower birth rate than the US, our program will double in the next year due to the overwhelming number of applicants. Furthermore, the cost of pursuing a student debtor here would cost about $40k CAN. It's simply not worth the return as a Canadian court would be far more lenient, blaming the lender as much for the predicament. Since a Canadian Social insurance Number will allow a new credit profile, many of our applicants are able to start over up North. We have terrific feedback from our clients, the companies that do the hiring and pay us for recruiting.

So America's northern neighbor inherits a generation of highly-trained professionals at no cost to itself whatsoever. You have to wonder what future a country has when its predatory lending laws drive a significant percentage of its best and brightest into exile.

Addendum: If you have been caught up in this scam, there is a political action committee, Student Loan Justice, which is dedicated to taking action on this issue. Of course, since this system was set up with government collusion, there is as of yet no legal escape from Sallie Mae (at least as long as you are alive.) But you can at least meet others in a similar situation and learn from their experiences how