Controversy and record participation reflect renewed US Jewish interest in Zionist Congress

Originally published by JTA
October 26, 2020
By Larry Luxner

(JTA) — A virus forced the World Zionist Congress to go virtual for the first time since its founding in 1897.

But that didn’t stop last week’s gathering, held once every five years, from being any less crucial — or less contentious — for the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

Nor did it dampen enthusiasm for the event among the American delegation, which hailed from 28 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., after an election last winter that saw record voter participation. Of the 750 delegates to the 38th World Zionist Congress, which held its virtual meeting Oct. 20-22, roughly one-third were from the United States.

“The work of Zionism — supporting Israel and connecting world Jewry to our national homeland — must continue despite the global pandemic,” said Richard Heideman, president of the American Zionist Movement, which organized the U.S. delegation and last winter’s election. “This crisis has, however, given us a special opportunity to enable more delegates and alternates than ever before to participate in a World Zionist Congress.”

More than 123,000 American Jews from all 50 states voted in the Zionist elections that concluded in March – more than double the number that participated in the previous vote, in 2015. In all, 15 slates comprised of nearly 1,800 candidates vied for 152 American seats in the Congress, with the number of delegates per slate apportioned using a formula devised by the American Zionist Movement. The votes represented the highest number cast since open Zionist elections were adopted in the American Jewish community 30 years ago.

The high rate of participation may be a sign of the growing importance with which American Jews view the World Zionist Congress, which determines the leadership of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet LeIsrael and Keren Hayesod. Together, these four institutions allocate roughly $1 billion annually.

“In broad terms, this is the parliament of the Jewish people. It’s the world’s most democratic gathering of the Jewish community,” said Kenneth Bob, president of Ameinu and head of the Hatikvah slate, which represents 11 different progressive Jewish organizations, including the National Council for Jewish Women, the New Israel Fund and J Street. “Even with Zoom, it’s still very participatory.”

In fact, the three-day virtual conference included some unusually intense wrangling among the delegations. Right-wing and Orthodox parties, which represented a majority at the Congress, surprised many with a bid to install their own picks in key leadership positions at international Zionist institutions rather than agreeing to consensus choices, which had been the custom at past conferences. Such a move would have neutralized any potential power of the left-wing parties.

Pesach Lerner, the New York rabbi who heads Eretz HaKodesh, an Orthodox party that was part of that right-wing effort, said the move was justified because of the political positions leftist groups have taken.

“When President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, these movements came out against it,” he said. “My people travel to Israel, they buy apartments in Israel, and they send their kids to learn in Israel. We’re anti-BDS, we’re pro-Israel and we lobby on behalf of those who fight for Israel in Washington.”

Sheila Katz, the NCJW’s chief executive and a first-time delegate on the Hatikvah slate, bristled at the attempt to silence the voices of groups like hers.

“The whole reason I was excited about this was to live out Herzl’s vision that there would be diverse views. But I didn’t run for this congress just to have my power taken away,” said Katz, 37. “The key issue of this conference has really emerged around pluralism and who gets to have this power.”

At the same time, Katz said of the U.S. delegation, “It’s very exciting to see so many younger people at the table. They’re infusing a lot of energy into this process, and the AZM has done an excellent job in working to diversify the type of people who show up at this Congress.”

In the end, the effort to limit the influence of the left-wing parties failed. A compromise was reached after delegates to the Congress from certain centrist delegations, who traditionally don’t cast votes because they are appointed rather than elected, threatened to break with precedent and vote against the right-wing parties unless they agreed to some concessions.

Some on the right, such as the Zionist Organization of America, hailed the outcome as a victory.

“The center-right wing bloc, of which ZOA Coalition is a substantial and vital part, prevailed in the World Zionist Congress elections earlier this year, and thus was entitled to prevail in allocation of National Institution positions,” said Morton Klein, ZOA’s national president.

Groups on the left nonetheless also expressed satisfaction.

“While the new agreement gives power to one side of the political spectrum, we remain confident that the changes preserve the national and pluralistic character of our Zionist Institutions,” MERCAZ USA, which with 18 delegates represents Conservative Judaism within the Zionist movement, said in a statement. “MERCAZ, the Masorti/Conservative Movement, along with a coalition of Zionist parties in Israel and the Reform Movement, and the support of the Zionist organizations (Hadassah, B’nai B’rith International, Maccabi World Union, WIZO and NAAMAT/USA), succeeded in blocking a divisive agreement and reached an agreement incorporating significant changes, which ensures checks and balances and inclusion of all the Jewish People in the leadership of our Zionist Institutions.”

For Sarrae Crane, the executive director of MERCAZ USA, this was her sixth World Zionist Congress — and, of course, her first virtual one.

“It’s so much better than nothing, but it’s not the same as being in a hall with people and talking with delegations from around the world,” she said. “That’s really missing.”

Religious pluralism in Israel is top of mind for Crane.

“We’re a halachic movement and we believe there’s more than one legitimate way to be Jewish, yet in Israel there’s a chief rabbi who doesn’t recognize us,” she said. “We want them to recognize our rabbis as rabbis and our conversions as conversions, and allow olim [new immigrants] who have been converted by Conservative rabbis. We’re a very strong believer in pluralism — and we want to work with the other groups to create a more pluralistic, welcoming Jewish community.”

Ultimately, said Herbert Block, the executive director of the American Zionist Movement, the passions that ran high at last week’s gathering bode well for American Zionism.

“This unique World Zionist Congress session that just ended saw intense involvement by a broad and diverse array of Zionist groups from America,” Block said. “We expect this active involvement in promoting Zionism will continue — in a spirit of unity and a commitment to respectful dialogue.”

As for the next World Zionist Congress, Block said he hopes for “Next year in Jerusalem – in person!” (A global conference in Israel to make up for the deferral of this year’s in-person congress is being planned for late 2021 or early 2022.)

This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with the American Zionist Movement, which works across a broad ideological, political and religious spectrum linking the American Jewish community together in support of Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.

Hadassah and other groups block right-wing takeover of top World Zionist Congress positions

Originally published in JTA
By Ron Kampeas
October 20, 2020

A coalition of Jewish groups including the likes of Hadassah and B’nai B’rith International has temporarily blocked a plan by Orthodox and right-wing parties to take over top positions throughout the World Zionist Congress, the Jewish National Fund and other crucial groups that spend $1 billion annually on international Jewish causes.

Under the plan reported this week in Israeli media, the Likud and Orthodox parties of the World Zionist Congress would have reserved for themselves top positions at these groups, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal.

On Tuesday, Sheila Katz, the National Council of Jewish Women CEO and a member of the Hatikvah slate in the Congress, said on Twitter that legacy groups including Hadassah, Naamat, Maccabi, B’nai B’rith International, the Women’s International Zionist Organization and Emunah stepped in to delay the vote on the right-wing plan until Thursday to renegotiate how the professional leadership will be selected.

The top positions have until now been filled in consultation with all constituent bodies, allowing liberal groups a say on spending related to religious pluralism in Israel, minority communities in the country and settlement activity in the West Bank.

The right-wing coalition believed it had a chance to take sole control of WZO spending because of its strong showing in this year’s election of the U.S. portion of the World Zionist Congress.

The liberal groups who stood to be disenfranchised include affiliates of left-leaning Israeli parties, the Reform and Conservative movements, and Hatikvah, a slate of prominent U.S. liberal Zionists.

They pressed a cadre of legacy Zionist groups that rarely participate in the partisan political fray to step up and vote to keep the takeover from taking place. Many of these groups share donors and members with the liberal groups.

This year’s World Zionist Congress is taking place online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Registration, lawyers and patience: How Jewish groups are protecting voting access in 2020

October 14, 2020
Originally posted in the Jewish News of Northern California

If you’re in Arizona or Florida and a 585 area code pops up on your phone, you might want to answer: It could be a Jewish volunteer in Rochester, New York, whose mission it is to help you vote.

The Greater Rochester Jewish Federation is one of a number of local and national Jewish organizations endeavoring to make sure eligible voters — Jewish and not — get to the polls.

The organizations are for the most part tax-exempt and by necessity nonpartisan, but the virtual thumbtacks on their maps coincide with battlegrounds where Democrats have pushed back against what they say are Republican efforts to diminish minority turnout.

“The goal is really to register disenfranchised voters, specifically minority communities where access to proper information on voting access, to voter education, all the stuff that you need to be informed, and really to vote in general is really at an all-time low,” said Sarah Walters, the federation’s community relations director.

Volunteers are trained to explain how to safely mail-in votes, where President Donald Trump and his associates have sowed distrust in the method through false claims of fraud. Where Trump is asking acolytes to watch polls, Jewish groups are training volunteers to de-escalate confrontation at polls. Where Trump says he wants the election called Nov. 3, Jewish organizations are telling voters that a wait is likely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for public policy groups, has helped Jewish Community Relations Councils in eight states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — partner with “All Voting is Local,” a voter registration project run by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“We’re committed to the protection of people and the right to vote,” she said. “But it’s a fine line to walk this year because of the extreme partisan nature of the landscape.”

Here are some of the protective measures Jewish groups are taking ahead of Election Day.

Registering de-registered voters
Republican-led states have in recent years removed from the rolls voters who have not voted for several successive elections. Democrats and voting rights activists say that because turnout is traditionally lower among minorities and people living in poverty, the action amounts to disenfranchisement.

National and local Jewish organizations are partnering with voting rights groups to tell voters in states who may have been stricken off the rolls how to get back on.

“You’ve got a script right in front of you that is county-specific and person-specific with all the information they need to figure out if they’re registered,” Walters said. “If they believe that they are registered — in many cases people have registered before but have been removed from voter rolls for not voting enough — you’re making sure that they know how to check that and if they aren’t registered, you’re making sure they have the resources they need to find out that they’re eligible to register.”

Mitigating suppression by increasing turnout
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism wants an “overwhelming” turnout, said its director, Rabbi Jonah Pesner.

“It erodes the possibility of the attempts to either delegitimize” the election “or targeted suppression,” Pesner said. “If there is an overwhelming turnout of lower-income communities and communities of color, then that will mitigate against a lot of what will be attempts at voter suppression, like if you close polling places.”

The pandemic means door-knocking is not the option it was in past elections, so Reform volunteers have used electronic means to reach voters, through texting and apps. “We had originally set as our goal 250,000 voter engagements,” Pesner said. “We’ve engaged 350,000 and we’re on track to get to half a million by Election Day.”

The outreach is strategic, Pesner said, citing as an example the RAC chapter in Chicago. Illinois, solidly Democratic, does not pose a disenfranchisement threat, so the local Reform Jewish activists consulted with longtime allies in Black churches. They joined efforts to reach voters in neighboring Wisconsin, which is a critical swing state, and where Republican legislators have sought to inhibit mail-in voting and have limited polling places.

“Knowing that there would be attacks on enfranchisement in the inner city of Milwaukee in particular, this kind of interesting intersectional effort was born between the relationships that pre-existed in Chicago,” he said.

Bringing out the lawyers
Pesner’s RAC is also recruiting lawyers to join a project run by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to be on call until Election Day to report attempts at voter suppression.

“The hotline has already become almost overwhelmed with calls,” said Pesner. “And obviously the Reform community is uniquely positioned to deliver lawyers.”

Sheila Katz, who directs the National Council of Jewish Women, is also recruiting lawyers and others to watch polls.

“We’re working to get people to polling locations that have a particular level of expertise and training to be able to advise people on their rights,” she said. “Lawyers are definitely highly preferred as people we want on the ground. But we have training that will be available to any person who wants to make sure that they’re available to be able to let people know what their rights are.”

Lawyers for the Anti-Defamation League have joined an effort led by Common Cause in Texas to overturn an order by Gov. Greg Abbott to limit ballot drops to one station per county. “Limiting the number of drop-off sites available to absentee voters reduces the options Texans have to participate in the 2020 election without risking their health,” Cheryl Drazin, the vice president of ADL’s central division, said in a statement.

Encouraging Election Day volunteering
The Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah is encouraging Jewish organizations to let staffers take Election Day off to volunteer as poll workers, and providing training for de-escalation should they encounter attempts to disrupt voting. It launched its program, called Free and Fair: Our Duty to Democracy, on Tuesday.

Aaron Dorfman, the foundation’s president, said it was working with Over Zero, a group that combats “identity-based violence.” The training involves connecting volunteers from faith communities and establishing lines of communication if there is a threat, which is increasingly understood as a potential outcome during this election.

“If there are instances of violence on around Election Day they’re prepared to connect with local law enforcement of elected officials and other faith leaders,” he said. “They can think and strategize together and respond collectively.”

The ADL has published a guide for state and local officials to identify possible sources of extremist violence ahead of time. “It’s a toolkit or reference for state and local officials who are confronting the challenge of the potential for threats motivated by extremism,” said Steve Freeman, the ADL’s vice president for civil rights.

Sending wish-you-were-voting postcards
The Jewish federation in Buffalo, New York, is getting volunteers to write postcards to the voters in the states designated by the Reclaim our Vote project, which cites studies that have found that handwritten appeals on the back of colorful postcards spur 25% of recipients to reregister.

“Every county has specific texts that you’re allowed to use and they handwrite postcards, and they’re given an address to send,” said Mara Koven-Gelman, the federation’s community relations director.

Deborah Cohen, a retired psychiatric nurse who is a congregant at Buffalo’s Congregation Shir Shalom, initiated the postcard writing, drawing in 50 of her fellow congregants. Koven-Gelman said the effort has spread throughout the community and has reached “students and grandparents, people trying to make a difference.”

Addressing challenges facing the young and old
Hillel, the international organization that works with college students and young adults, has revamped its MitzVote campaign for the pandemic era, launching a website that helps students homebound by the pandemic figure out how and where to register to vote.

Two years ago, “West Wing” star and Jewish Twitter celebrity Josh Malina starred in a MitzVote get-out-the-vote video. This year, he’s joined by several other prominent (but youth-oriented) Jews in promoting MitzVote’s “Schmear Campaign,” which aims to convince college-aged voters that casting a ballot during the pandemic is as easy as toasting a bagel.

Hillel is not alone in targeting college students, who may face unique challenges in being able to vote because many are not living where they expected. Pesner said students in the Reform movement are amping up the student-to-student texting network they established after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018.

“We’ve got this massive text to text campaign of students holding their peers accountable,” he said.

At the same time, Jewish groups are giving special attention to elderly voters, as well, who may also face unique obstacles in casting their ballots.

“I’m especially concerned that Jews who are sitting at home, who plan on voting, don’t become intimidated because they think there’s going to be rowdy people at the polling sites, that it makes them stay home,” said Ronald Halber, who directs Greater Washington’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

Getting out the party vote
Not all of this year’s election efforts are about safeguarding the vote. Partisan Jewish organizations are doing what they do every cycle: focusing on getting the vote out, especially in swing states where the margin between the winner and loser is likely to be narrow and Jewish voters could potentially influence the result.

As the contours of the election have become clearer, Democrats are laboring in more states than Republicans.

Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition director, said his organization had reached over 410,000 “likely Trump and persuadable” voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, all swing states where Jewish voters could make a difference.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Democratic Council of America has made 100,000 calls and sent 120,000 texts to Jewish voters in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The hope, said spokeswoman Sarah Garfinkel, is to reach 500,000 voters by Election Day.

People hold placards after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addressed supporters at a Latinos for Trump campaign rally at Central Christian University in Orlando, Florida, Oct. 10, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Paul Hennessy-NurPhoto via Getty Images)
People hold placards after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addressed supporters at a Latinos for Trump campaign rally at Central Christian University in Orlando, Florida, Oct. 10, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Paul Hennessy-NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Bend the Arc, the Jewish social justice movement that has endorsed Joe Biden and other Democrats have exceeded its target of reaching 250,000 Jewish voters and is now extending its phone and text campaign to non-Jews in swing states, reaching 725,000 so far, said CEO Stosh Cotler. The targeted states include Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the hope is to reach 1.5 million voters by Election Day.

“We have moved into really targeting moderate voters in swing states who we believe Jews are very good messengers to reach,” Cotler said.

Another target for Bend the Arc are left-wing Jews disillusioned by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ loss in the primaries to Biden. “There are a set of Jewish voters who are way more progressive than the Biden-Harris ticket is, and we were concerned that those voters would potentially sit this race out,” she said.

Urging patience, despite possible delays
Efforts to ensure a smooth Election Day and weeks leading up to it may not be enough to safeguard this year’s vote. Jewish groups will join public information campaigns counseling patience in the face of Trump’s stated intention to see the vote as done on the evening of Nov. 3. (Prognosticators have suggested that the count might initially favor Trump and then swing to Biden once mail-in votes are counted.)

“We know that many of the votes won’t be counted on Nov. 3, and perhaps a decision will not be made and we need people to be patient, to let the process happen, we want people to be peaceful,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Everything ‘potentially up for grabs’: What Jewish groups are watching for in this unusual Supreme Court session

October 7, 2020
Originally published in JTA

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The uncertainty surrounding the makeup of the Supreme Court led to a quieter-than-normal kickoff for the court’s 2021 decision-making season. But even with the little known about what the country’s highest court will consider, it’s clear that multiple issues of interest to Jewish advocates will be on the docket.

A challenge to a 1990 ruling that has galvanized religious freedom advocates for years is before the court, as is a voting rights case. And if Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg, is confirmed, the list could quickly grow. The same could happen if Trump is elected to a second term next month.

For one thing, cases that draw a 4-4 tie automatically revert to the lower court’s ruling, making them a waste of the court’s time. The court is currently configured five conservatives to three liberals, but Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, occasionally swings to join the liberals.

“At this point, anything they haven’t taken could mean the court is not sure that they’re going to be able to get a majority until the ninth justice is confirmed,” said Marc Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s legal counsel, and a veteran court watcher.

Because four justices must agree to hear a case, Barrett’s confirmation would also make it easier for some kinds of cases to be taken up.

“We know it only takes four justices to say, ‘Yea’ to take a case, and we know from Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s background that she’s hostile to the Affordable Care Act, certainly, and to Roe v. Wade, and precedent is definitely, she has stated, not a priority for her and so everything that we care about is potentially up for grabs,” said Jody Rabhan, the policy chief for the National Council of Jewish Women.

Here’s a glance at what Jewish groups are watching out for this coming session.

Adoption agencies and prospective foster parents face off in Philly

The rights of agencies that foster children versus the rights of their would-be parents also pits the American Jewish community’s Orthodox bodies against its civil rights groups.

In Fulton v. the City of Philadelphia, an adoption agency is challenging the city for cutting off funding because the agency would not place foster children with same-sex parents. The court will hear oral arguments on Nov. 4, the day after the election.

The Anti-Defamation League filed a friend of the court brief arguing that requiring Philadelphia to exempt religious agencies would roll back hard-fought discrimination protections.

“Requiring such an exception for Petitioners, in this case, would cause a flood of demands for similar exemptions, undermining the efficacy of those laws in safeguarding vulnerable members of the population, including religious minorities and members of other marginalized communities,” said the amicus brief, which cited cases in which Jewish parents have been denied the opportunity to foster children.

Joining the ADL on the amicus brief are an array of groups favoring church-state separations, including a who’s who of the liberal Jewish establishment: Bend the Arc, Jewish Women International, Keshet, the National Council of Jewish Women, and T’ruah.

Steve Freeman, the ADL’s vice president of civil rights, said the adoption agency in the case was using religious freedom as a “sword and not a shield” to blunt the freedoms of others.

“‘Because we have our religious views, we can use taxpayer dollars to refuse to allow gay couples to adopt a foster child’ to me should be a non-starter,” he said.

Jewish groups lined up on the other side include the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America. Both groups have signed onto amicus briefs on the side of the adoption agency, but not necessarily because they oppose placing foster children with same-sex couples.

“It’s not about what is the right or wrong approach for foster care and adoption in particular, it’s more about defending the longstanding principle that in American society and under the First Amendment, we should find ways to accommodate different religious groups and religious minorities and religious practices,” said Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Washington director.

Instead, an array of conservative religious groups see the Philadelphia case as a way into overturning a decision they have despised since it was made in 1990, Employment Division v. Smith, that upheld a drug rehabilitation clinic’s right to fire two Native American employees who smoked peyote as part of a religious ritual.

“As everybody said back in the early 90s, this was the Dred Scott case of religious freedom and it continues to be,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Washington director, referring to the notorious 19th-century decision that upheld slavery.

Smith, as it is commonly known, gave states wide — some would say total — latitude to reject religious exemptions to laws. The decision spurred the passage in 1993 of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but the Supreme Court subsequently ruled the law held only for the federal government and was unconstitutional when other entities were accused of not granting exemptions for religious beliefs.

Rabhan of NCJW said the particulars of the Philadelphia case were germane to why Jewish groups should uphold the city’s right to defund the adoption agency.

“Placing children in foster homes and using religion as a way in which to accept or reject otherwise qualified placements, based on religious beliefs, is core to who we are as an organization,” she said.

Cases about days off work for religious reasons could make the cut

Orthodox Jewish and other religiously conservative groups would like to see discarded a 1977 decision that upheld the right of the now defunct Trans World Airlines to fire a man whose Christian sect forbade work on Saturday.

There are an array of cases in the lower courts that they hope the court will seize upon to overturn TWA v. Hardison, a decision written so broadly that Cohen says he advises people not to file lawsuits challenging employers who will not allow time off for the Jewish Sabbath or holy days.

“I tell people, your rights have been violated and you have a case but, you know, the law is so weak that to invest all that time and resources aggravation on a case that you don’t have much of a chance to win, I just can’t advise you with a clear conscience,” he said.

Considered most likely to rise to the Supremes’ docket is Dalberiste V. GLE Associates, the case of a Seventh Day Adventist who sought sabbaths off from his power plant employer.

Growing attention to voting rights

Jewish civil liberties groups are pouring energy into voting access this year. They are also closely watching an Arizona voting rights case the court will consider this session in which the state has restricted what Trump and Republicans call “ballot harvesting,” collecting early ballots from voters.

Another voting rights case the court may take up is a law passed by Florida’s Republican-led legislature and enacted by its Republican governor that guts a 2018 ballot measure that allowed most former felons to vote. The law requires the former felons to pay outstanding fines and court fees, and critics have argued it amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax.

Religious liberty issues could get a hearing

The court this week heard oral arguments in Tanzin v. Tanvir, the case of three Muslim men who would not act as federal informants in their own community. The federal government, they allege, retaliated by placing them on no-fly lists. They are suing for damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Orthodox Jewish groups are paying attention to the case to see whether the beleaguered law they once hoped would ensure their freedoms will take another beating.

Stern said to also watch out for challenges to state orders enforcing coronavirus pandemic restrictions on houses of worship. The court has before this session twice rejected appeals from churches against the restrictions, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s forceful dissent in a Nevada case suggests that the court’s conservatives are itching to again take on the pandemic restrictions.

The potential for precedent-overturning cases is high

Perhaps the most prominent case that could be overturned if Barrett is confirmed is Roe. V. Wade, the 1973 decision that enshrined the right to abortion. Rabhan said there were at least 17 challenges to Roe v. Wade in lower courts that the Supreme Court could consider, and both she and the AJC’s Stern said they were certain that abortion would come up this session, and in a way that could once and for all overturn Roe v. Wade.

Already, the court has indicated an interest in revisiting the issue of marriage equality, enshrined only in 2015 by Obergefell v. Hodges and another case that upheld the right to same-sex marriage.

The justices this week allowed to proceed a lawsuit two gay couples brought against Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk who refused to grant them marriage licenses. Davis wanted the lawsuit quashed. However, two of the court’s most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, suggested that the court could soon consider a more appropriate case that would overturn Obergefell v. Hodges.

“This petition provides a stark reminder of the consequences of Oberfegell,” Thomas wrote. “By choosing to privilege a novel constitutional right over the religious liberty interests explicitly protected in the First Amendment, and by doing so undemocratically, the Court has created a problem that only it can fix.”

Rabhan said she heard a warning in Thomas’s statement.

“It was almost as if it was a dog whistle, to the Senate and certainly to Judge Barrett, that they too don’t prioritize precedent, and it’s frightening to think about rights that we have being taken away and it’s as easy as filling one seat to make that happen,” Rabhan said.

Liberal Americans mourn passing of icon Ginsburg, prepare for political battle

September 19, 2020
Originally published in Reuters:
By Andy Sullivan, Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Grief-stricken Americans gathered at makeshift memorials around the country on Saturday to mourn the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, feminist icon, as President Donald Trump signaled his intention to fill the vacancy weeks before a heated election.

Mourners heralded Ginsburg’s groundbreaking legal career and expressed dark worries about the country’s direction. Democratic Party vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, joined crowds outside the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Saturday morning.

Ginsburg was “a titan – a relentless defender of justice and a legal mind for the ages,” Harris wrote in a tweet here with a photo of the visit. “The stakes of this election couldn’t be higher,” she added.

Visitors to the Supreme Court left flowers and signs during the day, many with young children in tow. By Saturday evening the crowd swelled to fill the street in front of the courthouse. Mourners listened to an a capella group sing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the civil rights era anthem, and to speakers including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Amanda Dym, an 18-year old college student, she’d known about the “notorious RBG,” was when she was younger but didn’t realize how much work she’d done for women’s rights until she saw a documentary about the judge’s life. “I don’t know where the country would be without her,” she said, adding that she was “scared for the future of our democracy.”

Ginsburg, 87, died on Friday night from pancreatic cancer. Trump now has a chance to expand the U.S. top court’s conservative majority as a presidential election looms at a time of deep divisions in America.

Candlelight tributes to Ginsburg started Friday evening and are expected to continue through the weekend. Hundreds also protested outside Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home in Louisville, Kentucky, on Saturday.

On Friday, McConnell said the Senate would vote on any replacement nominated by Trump. The Republican president now has a chance to appoint his third justice and give the court a 6-3 conservative majority.

Protesters noted that in 2016, McConnell refused to act on Democratic President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, after conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died 10 months before a presidential election, saying it was too close to voting day.

“Don’t be a hypocrite,” said protestor Steve Tonnemacher.

Republicans narrowly control the Senate with 53 of 100 members, and Democrats need a simple majority vote to stop any Supreme Court nominee.

Demonstrators chanted “Ruth sent us,” and “Ditch Mitch.” Protester Carol Edelen blasted McConnell saying “He will not advocate for any of our issues and to use this occasion to push his agenda, his power forward, is just unacceptable, just totally unacceptable.”


Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women in Washington, said she was moved to hear the blowing of many shofars – the traditional ram’s horn used to herald the start of the new year – at a vigil for Ginsburg at the Supreme Court on Friday evening.

“It’s a literal wake-up call to the Jewish people that we need to work together, and better ourselves,” said Katz. “We cannot simply mourn Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We must take action to honor her legacy, to fight for a fair court, and to continue to protect women’s rights.”

Feminist activists fear that a third justice picked by Trump would give the court’s conservative majority a better chance of overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark decision holding that a woman has a constitutional right to abortion.

Hollywood celebrities paid tribute online. “I am heartbroken,” actor Jennifer Lopez wrote on Instagram. “She was a true champion of gender equality and was a strong woman for me and all the little girls of the world to look up to.”

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cynthia Enloe channeled her grief by making a poster encouraging motorists to honk in honor of the pioneer of women’s rights, and stood at a busy intersection on Saturday morning.

“When I heard the terrible news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last night, my first thoughts and all my friends on email and text was, ‘This is horrible, it cannot get worse,’” Enloe told Reuters. “But then I thought, they want us to get depressed, and I thought I will do the opposite of being depressed. I will go out and make a poster and stand at the intersection and let people honk their support.”

A trailblazing women’s rights lawyer before she joined the court in 1993, Ginsburg – popularly known by her initials RBG – emerged as an unlikely pop icon in recent years, her image emblazoned on coffee mugs, T-shirts and children’s books.

In New York, an image of Ginsburg and the alternating messages “thank you” and “rest in power” were projected on the front of the New York State Civil Supreme Court building in Manhattan. Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled plans Saturday to erect a statue of Ginsburg in New York City’s Brooklyn borough where she was born.

More than 200 mourners held a candlelight vigil in San Francisco on Friday night and marched through the city’s Castro district. They carried a large sign that said “We won’t let you down RBG.”

Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Lucia Mutikani in Washington, Brian Snyder in Boston, Bryan Woolston in Louisville and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Heather Timmons, Matthew Lewis, David Gregorio and Michael Perry


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