Minimum Wage Measures Pass Easily in Four Red States

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 5, 2014.
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A
s devastating as Tuesday night’s election was for Democrats—Republicans took control of the Senate and won a number of key governor racesit was actually an encouraging night for the progressive economic agenda. In four red states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota—minimum wage ballot initiatives all passed easily. In San Francisco, voters overwhelmingly passed a $15 minimum wage—with notably little opposition from the business community. And in Illinois, voters sent a clear message through a non-binding advisory initiative that they want lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, and fast.

Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 has been a major economic priority for President Barack Obama, part of his effort to curb the nation’s rising levels of inequality. (Under Obama’s plan, year-round, full-time minimum-wage workers would go from making $15,080 per year to $21,008.) Yet ever since April, when congressional Republicans mobilized to block wage-hike legislation, progress on the federal level has gone nowhere.

In light of this, it’s interesting to see a state like South Dakota—a state that hasn’t supported a Democrat for president in decades—vote to raise the wage by a 53 percent margin. The initiative will result in 62,000 South Dakotans taking home higher paychecks. In an email to The American Prospect, Zach Crago, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said, “It’s about rewarding hard work with an honest wage. That message resonates with South Dakotans. Republican candidates oppose it at their own peril.”

Minimum wage initiatives were so popular among voters leading up to the election that even Republican candidates like Alaska gubernatorial candidate Dan Sullivan had to say they’d vote for a minimum wage increase. Sullivan did just that, despite his having opposed it before the primary. Alaska’s minimum wage initiative passed with nearly 69 percent of the vote. Ed Flanagan, a leader of the Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage campaign, told The American Prospect that while the campaign faced no real organized opposition, the conservative state legislature could still try and repeal the law in two years—a move they pulled on Alaskan voters back in 2002. But given the high percentage of Alaskans who voted to raise the wage, Flanagan hopes state lawmakers “will think twice about messing with the will of the people.”

In Arkansas, Republican U.S. Representative Tom Cotton, during his campaign for U.S. Senate, stayed mum for months on a potential minimum wage increase until it became so popular with Arkansas voters that he finally felt compelled to come out in September to back it. Cotton won his Senate race last night, but so did the minimum wage—with 65% of Arkansas voters supporting the ballot initiative.

Exit polls for states where minimum wage initiatives weren’t on the ballot also showed high levels of support for future increases. In Wisconsin, although Scott Walker was re-elected, and has consistently opposed increasing the minimum wage, a solid majority of Wisconsin voters said they’d like to see it raised higher than $7.25.

Undoubtedly, it was a damning night for the Democratic Party, but the picture isn’t entirely bleak for progressives. Exit polls reveal that 63 percent of voters believe the U.S. economic system favors the rich; this highlights a much larger national frustration for politicians to organize around. Arun Ivatury, a senior strategist with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, told The American Prospect that, going forward, politicians who embrace economic populism “will run away from the pack in 2016, when the electorate looks much more like America. Those who don’t will be bypassed. It’s our job to make sure people know who is who.”

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Pass the Violence Against Women Act

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on 2/13/13.

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act has done tremendous good in stepping up prosecution of domestic violence, aiding victims and increasing awareness of a too-often silent threat to our society. But the act was allowed to lapse in 2011 amid partisan bickering. On Tuesday, the Senate sent a strong signal by voting to reauthorize the law by an overwhelming 78-22 vote, but its survival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is, sadly, far from certain.

VAWA, as the law is called, aids in the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and allows for civil redress in cases that prosecutors choose to leave unprosecuted. The act also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. The reauthorization approved by the Senate would provide $659 million over the next five years for VAWA programs.

This legislation has been important for women since the time of its enactment. After a large push in the late 1980s and early 1990s from advocates concerned with domestic and sexual violence, VAWA has been instrumental in helping to make crimes against women a priority for prosecutors. Over the years, VAWA has expanded its focus from solely domestic violence to also include dating violence and stalking. The bill includes funding for services to protect adult and teen victims, to support training on these issues, and to ensure official responses to violence across the country.

Additionally, VAWA has been vitally important to Native American women — one in three of them is a sexual violence survivor, and the murder rate for Native American women is a stunning 10 times higher than the national average.

But it is a provision dealing with the prosecution of abuse on Indian reservations that has proved one of the biggest obstacles to reauthorization. The Senate bill says that non-Native Americans accused of abusing Native American women on reservations can be tried in tribal courts; under current law, such cases are rarely prosecuted at all. But some Republicans have complained that those courts offer insufficient protections for the defendants’ constitutional rights. If that is the true complaint, the answer is to provide more resources for those courts, not to allow non-Native Americans to abuse Native American women with impunity.

The other objections to the bill are similarly hollow. Some Republicans are opposed to a provision that allows immigrant victims of abuse to gain permanent residency, on the assumption that some could manipulate the law to find a way to stay in this country. But the opposite risk — that an immigrant woman would stay in an abusive relationship to avoid the chance that she could be deported — is much greater. Some also oppose the bill’s nondiscrimination clause for gay, lesbian and transgender victims of abuse, but why should they be any less worthy of protection?

The bipartisan support for reauthorization in the Senate should give the bill momentum in the House, but we have been down this road before. In April, the Senate voted to reauthorize VAWA, and the House subsequently passed its own version that omitted provisions to protect gays and lesbians, Native Americans on reservations and immigrants. The White House threatened to veto the House bill, and both the House and Senate decided to restart when the 113th Congress convened.

The lead sponsor of the 2011 House legislation is no longer in office, and now Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, is working on a new version of the bill. There are some signs that Republicans are at least concerned with the politics of opposing this legislation. All 22 no votes in the Senate were cast by Republican men, which surely doesn’t help a party that was damaged last year by two Senate candidates’ retrograde views about rape and pregnancy — and which lost the women’s vote to President Barack Obama by 11 points in November. Indeed, a bloc of House Republicans has urged their leaders to bring the legislation to a vote.

But this should not be a partisan issue. As Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski said in arguing for the bill on the Senate floor, the Violence Against Women Act works. It protects the least powerful in society from crimes that, as Ms. Mikulski points out, often involve not just physical harm but also “deep emotional pain and fear.” The House needs to overcome its divisions and send this bill to the president to sign into law.

Re: The “History” of Marriage

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he supports same-sex marriages, quite a few reactions have flooded the opinion pages, cable networks and blog sites. Of course, people are entitled to their differing views on the subject; and President Obama’s announcement certainly can be seen as a divisive one. It angers not only many conservatives, but also groups that are considered at the base of the Democratic Party, specifically African-Americans and Latinos. However, at a time when Gallup polls report that 50% of all Americans support same-sex marriage, this public affirmation from the President of the United States marks an important moment in history.

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photo credit: msnbc.com

And yet, I almost refrain from using the word “history”, a term that opponents of same-sex marriage have so regularly abused and exploited. The word itself faces the threat of being rendered meaningless.

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared in 2003, “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.” Recently Romney spoke at Liberty University, where he reaffirmed his position of nine years ago. He spoke of the “enduring institution of marriage,” one that defines itself as “a relationship between one man and one woman.”

He has other conservative supporters, of course. In January, Newt Gingrich boldly associated gay marriage with Paganism. Gingrich said, “It’s pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament…the effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.”

Conservative blogger, Erick Erickson writes, “In the past few decades, many people have decided that several thousand years of human history can be ignored in favor of unproven claims of happiness, fairness, progress, and an expanded notion of equality.”

It is imperative to do some fact checking of these ‘historical’ claims.

When Newt Gingrich invokes marriages from the Old and New Testament, is he counting the one where Jacob had two wives? Or where King David had eight wives? Or where King Solomon had 700 wives?

When Mitt Romney speaks about the “enduring institution” of marriage, does he mean the marriages of ancient Egypt where royal siblings would legally marry one another in order to keep their royal bloodlines pure? Or the marriages of the ancient Romans where daughters were human forms of currency, used to help form strategic alliances and strengthen the military position of the family?

Marriage is an evolving institution. It is both deceptive and manipulative to speak of the history of marriage as a stable, un-changing tradition. To be against gay-marriage is one thing; to depict marriage as a fixed institution is another.

Wedding vows, as we know them today certainly have not been around for “thousands” of years. The vows with the well known “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer” come from a man named Thomas Cranmer in 1549.

Society did not really even make the switch to marrying for love, a period known in sociology as “affective individualism”, until the Victorian Era. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria became the revered icons for a loving marriage. People began to grow distasteful of arranged marriages for economic purposes, and began to seek new meaning, namely love, in the institution of marriage.

When Erick Erickson argues that we’re ignoring “thousands of years of human history” I think the real question is which history is he referring to? Which marriage structure is he claiming we should fight to preserve? Arranged-marriages between a man and a woman? Polygamic marriages?

And if Erickson does mean marriages for love between a man and a woman—well, that is one of the most recent historical phenomena of them all.

‘Apolitical’ Israel Fairs? No Such thing

Below is an an op-ed I had published in New Voices Magazine about the troubling trend that exists on many college campuses in America when celebrating or discussing Israel. Full article can be read here: http://www.newvoices.org/opinion?id=0160

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Two weeks ago we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s birthday. It’s an exciting time of year for those of us who care and advocate for the state of Israel. Celebrations commemorating Israel’s Independence Day happened on college campuses all over the country. And yet I observed two troubling trends surrounding many of these events that do injustice to Israel, to pro-Israel advocacy, and to the intelligence of college students.

Many of these fairs are framed as “cultural events” – an effort to create an apolitical space for the discussion of Israel. This goal is impossible. Whether the organizers realize it or not, Israeli society and the American Jewish conception of it is so heavily politicized that it is incredibly difficult to have, do or say anything about Israel that is totally apolitical. As a result, the organizers of these events end up presenting political opinions disguised as facts.

In January I read a powerful op-ed by Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli. She wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘not political.’ Everything is political. Economics, culture, the media, fashion, consumerism – they are all political. The statement ‘I am not political’ is in itself political. It is a politics that accepts the existing order and reinforces it. It is the politics of not taking responsibility.”

Even though she was talking about Israeli citizens, her sentiments ring true for American Jews as well.

At Johns Hopkins University we recently held our annual Israel Fair, a large campus-wide event. The event was advertised as a day to “learn about the history of Israel and all the amazing accomplishments that have been achieved over the past 64 years.” The event was fun. The falafel tasted delicious. The music was happy and familiar. And yet, something about the event was disconcerting.

I am the leader of our chapter of J Street U – the college arm of J Street, the American pro-Israel pro-peace group. As a co-sponsor of the event, we were told explicitly that this event was intended to be apolitical. Meaning, in effect, that there should be no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process in general. The goal of the organizers was to avoid creating an environment that could potentially elicit “anti-Israel sentiment.”

This type of event happens at campuses all across the country.

At the University of Michigan every year they have Israel Birthday Bash where the mainstream pro-Israel group sets up a big moon-bounce in the center of campus and distributes falafel and cake – along with facts about Israel’s achievements and history. Recently at the University of Maryland they celebrated Israel Fest, pitched as “a celebration of Israeli culture with free food, camel rides, inflatable activities, face painting, and more!”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Israel’s successes, but doing so is only one part of the broader picture of how we should engage with Israel, and the way these successes are presented inevitably carries with it political implications.

All too often, events that are framed as “cultural” partner with national organizations that have explicit political agendas. I watched as pamphlets were distributed at our Israel Fair that reported on Israel’s human rights record, Israeli LGBT tolerance and Arab voting rights. Maps of Israel were disseminated. Fact sheets were passed out about the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s humanitarian aid to other countries. I do not oppose these topics being discussed, however I reject the claim that these are somehow “not political.” They are.

One popular handout used on college campuses, including mine, is the StandWithUs “Pocket Facts” booklet.  Some “facts” from this booklet:

  • “Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 War when they were expelled.”
  • “Iranian leaders are racing to build nuclear weapons.”

When the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, says that Iran is likely not building a weapon, it is not a fact to say Iran is “racing to build nuclear weapons.” It might be a mainstream opinion, but it is certainly not a settled fact. When the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, in accordance with the law, that numerous settlements in the West Bank are built on Palestinian land, or land with contested ownership because it was not farmed by anyone for a certain number of years, it is not a fact to say that settlements are categorically built on land once owned by Jews, as implied by the StandWithUs literature. Let us be intellectually honest. These statements are opinions.

Israel fairs are great. We should have them. But they should also directly address the political situation Israel faces. And if they opt not to, we must acknowledge that these fairs are still political. Even when we engage in discussions about Israel’s technological achievements or their treatment of the LGBT community, we must be open about the political nature of these things. Politics does not have to be a dirty word.

More importantly, we’re not doing Israel any good by avoiding the peace process. We should be talking about the two-state solution, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements, and rocket attacks. All of these are crucial elements in envisioning and understanding Israel and its future. We should embrace the complexity, and give people actual answers instead of pretending that these issues don’t exist. This is how we can do justice to Israel, get more people involved in pro-Israel activism and show students that we trust them to be smart people.

Pro-Israel advocates cannot shield college students from the conflict. Students will read about it in newspapers. They will watch documentaries they find on Netflix. It is unavoidable. But let’s be proactive and embrace the challenges head on, precisely at a campus-wide event created to learn about Israel. We can provide people with the opportunity to develop a real, deep relationship with Israel, not just one that’s based on a universal love of falafel.

North Carolina’s Amendment One

Tomorrow, a shameful amendment will be voted on by the state of North Carolina–and will likely pass according to all the latest polls. This amendment effectively alters the state’s constitution and will not only make it illegal for same-sex couples to be recognized in the state of North Carolina, but due to the wording of the legislation, will also ban any other type of “domestic legal partnerships” such civil unions and domestic partnerships.

This is the official language on the ballot:
Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

I have friends at UNC who have been doing some amazing work to protest this amendment. But the fact is, that while universities like UNC and Duke tend to be socially liberal, the majority of the state is full of voters with religious and conservative beliefs that make them support laws like this.

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Josh Orol, a sophomore at UNC protesting the amendment on campus

Proponents of the amendment point to states like New York and Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is legal and argue that if those couples then moved to North Carolina expecting certain legal rights, complicated issues would arise. By banning same-sex couples, they no longer have to deal with such hypothetical issues. As Representative Paul Starn said, “They’re going to bring with them their same-sex marriages. They’re going to want to get divorced” and have custody issues decided, he said. “We’re not equipped to handle that.”

Supporters also say that because this issue is so sensitive, it should be decided by the voters themselves, not by a handful of legislators.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of N.C. Values Coalition, argues that a popular vote on the amendment is the “right thing to do” and it is more democratic when it allows everybody to vote. Fitzgerald adds, “The people of North Carolina want to determine for themselves how they want to define marriage. They don’t want activist judges doing it for them.”

In fact, this is entirely misguided and incorrect.  It is no wonder the NAACP is so involved in this issue and opposed to this amendment. You don’t leave minority rights up to majority vote. Schools were not de-segregated because of a popular vote. Constitutionally enshrined protections are supposed to be immune to this type of thing. These people will receive different benefits and privileges because others voted that to be OK. Think about the implications and the precedents this sets for our country.


Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have come out against the amendment.
Obama’s statement said, “While the president does not weigh in on every single ballot measure in every state, the record is clear that the President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same sex couples.”
Clinton argued, “The real effect of the law will be to hurt families and drive away jobs.”

People are insisting that this ban will hurt businesses. Many people will no longer be able to receive the work benefits from the state that they once were able to, so it might dissuade people from working there. They also believe it will hurt all sorts of families, including heterosexual couples, by threatening insurance and benefits for unmarried couples and their children.

A high number of voters are expected to vote tomorrow because this issue invokes faith and religion, two historically major motivations in voter turnout. There have been 30 marriage amendments already in place in the United States, and only one, in Arizona has been defeated. However, that was in 2006, and then in 2008 it was reworded and passed.

This is increasing evidence of a growing polarization and ideological divide in our country as more and more nationally report support for same-sex marriage. In 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent. Today, 47 percent are in favor and 43 percent opposed, according to a new Pew Research poll.

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Social media activism from a friend’s facebook at UNC

The best thing at this point we can hope for is for enough people to become educated on this issue, and then work together to strongly oppose it. We should not allow for such important issues like human rights and freedoms to be left up to a popular vote.

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photo credit: blog.pflag.org

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photo credit: pamshouseblend.firedoglake.com/

Military Controversies Must be Reported On

Here is an article I had published this week, 4/30/12, in our weekly political publication, the JHU Politik. 
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On April 18, the Los Angeles Times did the right thing when it released several photographs of U.S soldiers posing inappropriately with the remains of Taliban suicide bombers in the Zabol province of Afghanistan. The photos, taken in February of 2010, were purportedly of members from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta criticized the newspaper’s decision, arguing that it put innocent U.S. solders at risk and was a matter that should have been handled internally.

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Photo Credit: LA Times

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Photo Credit: LA Times

It is true that this is a particularly delicate time for U.S-Afghan relations. In January, a video went viral on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. The following month, several copies of the Koran were accidentally burned at a U.S base, which resulted in riots and deaths for both Afghan citizens and U.S troops. Then in March, a U.S Army sergeant massacred two Afghan villages, killing 17 people in a nighttime raid.

It would have been tempting for the LA Times to not publish these photos.  They might have argued that  from a national security standpoint, the timing was not right for such public knowledge. However, the newspaper took the brave route, and did its job.

In response to criticism, the LA Times released a statement that said, “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

The Army launched a criminal investigation after the LA Times showed them official copies of the photos, which were given to the paper by a soldier from the involved division. The Army strongly condemned the actions in the photographs.

“It is a violation of Army standards to pose with corpses for photographs outside of officially sanctioned purposes,” said George Wright, an Army spokesman. “Such actions fall short of what we expect of our uniformed service members in deployed areas.”

The role of the press, is not in the job of doing PR. While of course editors will always have to make hard choices about what does and does not go to print, they do have an obligation to the American people to inform them of the truth, even if it is ugly or shameful.

Some alleged that the Times could have written about the event without publishing the photos. But  it is much harder for the government to dismiss such military abuses as abstractions when citizens are exposed to actual images of the crime.  The reactions to images of the My Lai massacre and the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prove as much.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “we’re disappointed” that the pictures were published. But criticism should be kept to the culprits of the abuse, not the journalists who shed light on it. The Obama Administration’s “disappointment” for the choices of the free press is troubling. The American people are paying for these wars and have the right to review evidence of abuse. They have a right to see these photographs, even if they are, as we’re told, exceptions to normal conduct.

It’s unclear how these photographs will impact US-Afghan relations or change future military training.  But what we do know is this: the American people should work to resist the increasing militarization of our American government, and continue to firmly advocate for our democratic free press.

Günter Grass’s Bad Poem. Israel’s Troubling Response.

On April 4th, German Nobel Laureate Günter Grass published a controversial 69-line poem entitled “What Must Be Said.” It has since sparked world-wide debate.

Some quick background on Grass:
He is one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century; he has written a series of internationally acclaimed novels that explored both the origins and the implications of the crimes of the Third Reich. For a long time he was viewed as a thoughtful conscience of the German nation. In 2006, at 78 years old, (after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999) he confessed that at 17, he served in the Waffen-SS at the end of World War II. This confession made many see Grass as a hypocrite, where they had once seen an important moral voice.

ImageGrass’s poem was published in the Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.  The poem accused Israel of endangering “the already fragile world peace” by its warnings to Iran that it might strike their nuclear facilities. Mr. Grass contended that by supplying weapons to Israel, Germany risked being complicit in “a foreseeable crime.”

Two days after the poem was published, Grass clarified in an interview that he did not mean to vilify Israel as a whole, but to attack the policies of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The international community’s condemnation of this poem was immediate and strong.

Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman issued a statement saying that Grass’ poem is an example of, “egoism of so-called Western intellectuals, who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the alter of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.”

German leaders from across the political spectrum denounced the poem’s message, ranging from “ill-informed” to “outrageous” to “Anti-Semitic.” Many artists said it was simply a “bad poem.”

However, while Grass’s poem was cringe-worthy and deeply misguided, some responses to the poem have been seriously troubling.

Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai has declared Grass a “persona non grata”, (which literally means an “unwelcome person”) thus barring Grass’s future entry into the state of Israel. He justified this by saying that Grass was making an, “attempt to inflame hatred against the State of Israel and people of Israel, and thus to advance the idea to which he was publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform.”

This response is worrisome. This type of measure sets a very dangerous precedent for Israel’s democracy. To ban individuals who say things that are critical or offensive from entering the state has raised serious concerns about the future of free speech.

“It’s dangerous when one politician can decide a poem is grounds for banning people. I’m sure there are quite a few short stories of mine that Yishai doesn’t like. I wouldn’t want him to prevent me from returning home next time I’m abroad,” said  Etgar Keret, an Israeli short-story writer.

Famous novelist and essayist, Salman Rushdie tweeted in response to all of this, “OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.”

Even Alan Dershowitz, one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the United States called the move, “foolish and self-defeating.”

Dershowitz wrote in the Huffington Post last week that, “By misusing border controls to make a symbolic gesture of contempt against a writer, Israel’s Minister of the Interior weakens his nation’s otherwise strong case for excluding individuals who pose genuine threats to the physical security of Israeli citizens. Border controls should be reserved for real security threats.”

In other words, terrorists should be barred from Israel. Not poets.