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Freedom and lies: The Swedish newspaper affair

Abraham H. FoxmanOp-Ed
Published: 11 September 2009
 
 

U.S. Jews join pluralism fight

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Conservative Jewish women wear prayer shawls and carry Torah scrollsat the Western Wall on Dec. 18. The right of women to pray aloud at the holy site is one of several issues exacerbating tensions between Israeli Orthodox authorities and non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90/JTA

WASHINGTON – A string of controversies has reignited the pluralism wars, prompting a loose alliance of American and Israeli Jews to wage a renewed campaign against Orthodox control in the Jewish state.

Among the litany of developments making headlines: The arrest of a woman for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall; protests by fervently Orthodox, or haredim, against a parking lot open on the Sabbath and against the Intel branch in Jerusalem for working through the Sabbath; a battle over gender-segregated public buses; and the burial in Spain of a child converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbi in a corner of a cemetery reserved for non-Jews.

In response, activists have organized protests in Israel and the United States against the perceived hegemony in Israel of haredi-aligned rabbis. Organizers say that their goal is to keep Jews caring about Judaism and Israel, despite what they describe as the increasingly alienating behavior of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities and members of the country’s haredi population.

“People are saying enough is enough,” said Andrew Sacks, director of the Israel branch of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “You have a segment of the American Jewish community that cares deeply enough to want to change it, but you have a second less desirable effect, among younger people especially, that says if that’s what Israel is all about, I don’t want any part of it.”

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who directs the Women’s Rabbinic Network, helped organize a day of solidarity and support of Women of the Wall on Dec. 17 that encouraged Jewish women across the United States to hold meetings, read from the Torah, or pray in support of women who choose to pray at the Western Wall, including those who wear religious vestments. Separately, another group is organizing a similar protest in San Francisco on Jan. 10.

“My intent was to give people a way to support people in Israel, and to support Israel around an issue women and men feel strongly about,” Ellenson told JTA. “It is not ‘Love Israel, right or wrong,’ or ‘I can’t be connected,’” she said. “We need to look at the complexities of this country that we love, we can’t reject it, nor can we be silent when there are issues that require our involvement.”

Activists on both sides see the Western Wall as something of a battlefront. In recent years, the site’s government-funded Orthodox rabbinate has banned mixed groups from singing, an action that precludes Israeli and American Jewish youth groups from a tradition of bursting into Hatikvah to celebrate the wall’s return to Jewish control in 1967.

One protest against the Orthodox monopoly took place in Jerusalem on the evening of Nov. 28. Protesters marched from Paris Square to Zion Square in Jerusalem’s city center, carrying signs that read “Iran is here — we’re sick of haredi violence,” “Jerusalem will not fall,” and “We are sick of [religious] coercion.”

Nofrat Frenkel, whose arrest at the Western Wall a couple of weeks before helped spur the recent demonstration, delivered a message that explicitly addressed the threat of the alienation of diaspora Jews from Israel and religion.

“The crowd gathered here today proves to the Jewish people everywhere, in Israel and in the diaspora, that ‘offense against public sensitivity’ is not the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox,” the medical student and gay rights activist reportedly said. “We are also the public, the public who pays taxes and serve our country, in the IDF and National Service.”

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told an audience of Conservative movement leaders that Frenkel was “led away” from the Wall, not arrested, the Forward reported. He later issued a statement correcting the misimpression and confirming that Frenkel was, indeed, arrested. Oren said he has asked his government to investigate why he was misled. However it is resolved, the incident illustrates the sensitivity of Israeli officials explaining the practices of their country’s rabbis to American Jews.

Oren, who was in Israel, could not be reached for comment.

The flurry of controversies in Israel comes at a time when American Jewish pluralism has become more expansive than ever. Guests at the White House Chanukah party ranged from Chabad rabbis to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads Beth Simchat Torah, a gay synagogue in New York. Some groups, particularly among the Orthodox, reject the activism as Americans imposing their mores on Israel.

Israel “is a country that has a functioned with a certain understanding among its religious and not-religious Jews,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. “If the activists don’t want to alienate Jews, they shouldn’t thumb their noses at the traditional Jews in Israel.”

Shafran also noted that the most vocal haredi protesters were minorities within their own communities. Much has been made of the continued protests outside Intel’s offices, but these were sharply reduced in number after a compromise last month that allowed non-Jewish workers to work through the Sabbath. But this has gone unnoticed, Shafran said. “The main haredi groups were in favor of the compromise, but there are always holdouts,” Shafran said.

Other American Orthodox leaders, however, fret about the possibility of alienation from Israel. They note that alienation could extend even to the modern Orthodox because of a recent crisis in conversion policy that has threatened to discredit the majority of Orthodox converts.Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Amcha activism group and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Modern Orthodox seminary, called for dialogue. “The greatest threat facing us, more than external enemy, is a divisiveness within our people that is so dangerous, God forbid, it could lead to calamity,” he said.

Weiss noted that Orthodox authorities defend their actions by citing “humra” — the strict application of Jewish law. “In a world of humra, there’s got to be a stress on the humra of Ahavat Yisrael,” the love of the Jewish people, Weiss said.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Israel was suffering periodic social pangs that arise when there is relative peace, and suggested that these needed to be addressed indigenously, and not by U.S. Jewish pressure.

“Every time there’s a lull in daily threats of terrorist acts, normal life brings to the fore many of these unresolved social tensions,” he said. “Some of them impact on relations with diaspora Jews, but it’s more important for Israelis to deal with them because of their own need of religious tolerance, than because of the Americans’ need.”

The New Israel Fund, a group that has long advocated for a role for diaspora Jews in making the case for pluralism, welcomed the attention on the issues, said its spokeswoman, Naomi Paiss.

“The whole premise of the New Israel Fund is that you can love Israel and you can fix it,” she said. “The Israeli government has a special responsibility — what is made law in Israel signifies the closest we have to a religious ruling, even for those of us who don’t live in Israel. We American Jews do take this personally and we should.”

An example was the 13-year-old boy who died last month in Madrid. The order to bury him in a segregated corner of the Jewish cemetery came from Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi.

NIF is currently organizing a petition drive among Jews in Israel and the diaspora urging Yisrael Katz, Israel’s transportation minister, to ban publicly funded buses from segregating male and female passengers.

JTA

 
 

Hate speech ‘a perversion of Judaism’

 

Greece silent on anti-Semitism

Until recently, Greece had gone a long time without violent anti-Semitism.

The few manifestations of anti-Semitism here appeared mostly in the form of graffiti, racist screeds in marginal, neo-fascist publications, or the occasional verbal epithet leveled against a Greek Jew.

But then came the Gaza war a year ago, inflaming passions against Jews and setting off a series of anti-Semitic incidents.

News Analysis

The latest was the torching this month of the Etz Hayim synagogue on the Greek island of Crete. Thanks to two Albanians and a Palestinian immigrant that live across the street, the synagogue’s destruction was avoided.

Even more disturbing to Jews here than the attack itself was the lack of government condemnation. Not only the government but the press, political parties, and the Greek Orthodox Church were silent.

It took until last Friday, a week after a second arson attack on the synagogue and following a rebuke by the Anti-Defamation League, for the Greek government to respond.

“It is disappointing that the Greek government has so far failed to condemn the shocking arson attack targeting a synagogue on the island of Crete,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman wrote on Jan. 14. “The previous government remained silent when synagogues were attacked and Jewish cemeteries desecrated, sending a message of insecurity to the Jewish community and of impunity to those who perpetrated the attacks. We hope your government will change that policy and declare that anti-Semitism has no place in Greece.”

“The attack on the Etz Hayyim Synagogue not only constitutes an attack on one of the remaining Jewish monuments in the island of Crete, but also an attack against the history and the cultural heritage of our homeland, Greece,” Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou wrote to the ADL. “The Government, I personally, as well as the entire Greek nation condemn this abominable act in the strongest possible terms.”

It’s been an unsettling year for Greek Jews. Until the upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks beginning more than a year ago, 1982 marked the last time there was a violent attack against a Jewish establishment. That was during Israel’s war in Lebanon, when a crude bomb was placed at the entrance of a Jewish-owned travel agency. Police sappers dismantled the bomb.

At the time, any major incidents of anti-Semitism were condemned by the government and dealt with swiftly.

Greek Jews point to the 2008 trial of a well-known lawyer and anti-Semite, Kostas Plevris, as a sign that things had reached a turning point.

Plevris was sued by the Greek Chapter of the Helsinki Human Rights Monitor and the Anti Nazi Initiative, a Greek organization combating Nazism, for incitement to violence against the Jews with his 1,400-page book “Jews: The Whole Truth.”

After a year-and-a-half and two trials, Plevris was acquitted unanimously of any wrongdoing by a five-judge panel in a court of appeals. In one trial, the prosecutor called the anti-Semitic tome a “scientific work.”

Anti-Semitic incidents surged in 2009, with nine cities reporting attacks. The Jewish cemetery in the city of Ioannina was vandalized four times. Graves and a Holocaust memorial were destroyed, and bones and bodies were unearthed, including the remains of the mother of the current president of the city’s 50-person Jewish community, Moisis Elliasaf.

Greek Jews protested that authorities did little to find the perpetrators. Jewish outrage grew when a high-ranking police officer caught in the cemetery immediately after one of the incidents was not questioned by authorities. Neither the mayor, the governor nor the Metropolite Theoklitos — the highest-ranking priest in every Greek city — condemned the incident.

George Karatzaferis, the leader of the far-right political party LAOS, which has 15 seats in Parliament, wrote an article in his weekly newspaper A1 calling the Jews “Christ killers” and saying that the “blood of the Jews stinks.”

No one responded when the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece asked the speaker of parliament and political leaders to condemn the article. And with the exception of one highly respected Greek columnist, Pashos Mandraveli in the daily Kathimerini, the Greek media stayed silent, too.

Left-wing leaders who harshly condemned Israel for its actions in Gaza refused to condemn the anti-Semitic incidents or even join Greece’s commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day in late January.

“There are no good Jews,” Jimmy Panousis, a well-known liberal radio personality and comedian, said on his radio show. “Jews are pigs and murderers, but fortunately their days are numbered.”

The newspaper Avriani, which blamed American Jews for causing the global economic crisis, warned that American Jews were plotting to set off World War III.

Piraeus Serafim of the Greek Orthodox Church warned of “Zionist monsters with sharp claws.” Salonica Anthimos, another church official known for his anti-Jewish statements, said Jews were being punished for killing Christ.

After the arson attacks in Crete, Greek Jews are increasingly anxious. While Jews in Western Europe have suffered worse in recent years, Greece stands virtually alone for its lack of condemnation of attacks against Jews.

JTA

 
 

Yom HaShoah marked in area

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Survivors, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren stand in silence during Kaddish after lighting candles in Teaneck. From left are Hanka Lew, Jerry Stein, Gaby Erdfarb, Sharon Schild, Adele Rozenes Wertheimer, Ilana Erdfarb, Yakov Schindel, Tzipora Schindel, Norbert Strauss, Talia Aronoff, and Esther Perl. Steve Fox

The community marked Yom HaShoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust, at various sites this week.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey held its observance, which also marked the 67th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, at the Frisch School in Paramus on Sunday. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was the keynote speaker. (See also page 36.) Foxman, who had been a hidden child, told the audience of some 500 people, “The world knew about the Holocaust, but did nothing about it. Only Bulgaria saved all of its 50,000 Jews, and Albania saved its 20,000 Jews. They did what they could. Today, we stand up and say no to hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism.”

The Frisch choir led the audience in the Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikvah, as well as accompanying a children’s candlelighting procession.

Rosalind Melzer and Allyn Michaelson chaired the event.

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Suvivor Mordechai Nitka, 91, of Fair Lawn, is honored in Paramus as he lights the third candle in memory of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Other survivors honored included Richard Klepfisz, 89, Glen Rock; Jeanette Berman, 89, Saddle River; Emmi Apfel, 95, Elmwood Park; Harry Zansberg, 84, Fort Lee; and Doris Kirschberg, 83, Hackensack. KEN HILFMAN

The Teaneck Jewish Community Council held its observance at Teaneck High School on Monday. More than 1,000 people heard testimony by Margrit Wreschner Rustow, who survived three concentration camps before being liberated from Theresienstadt and eventually returning to her native Holland. Rustow later became a psychoanalyst researching and working with child survivors of the Holocaust in Switzerland and Israel.

Meir Fox sang the national anthems and Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene, and his son Avram gave a presentation of Yiddish songs and poetry. All are from Teaneck.

Survivors and their families took part in a candlelighting ceremony while the names of township families who lost relatives during the Holocaust were read by Rabbi John Krug and Arline Duker.

Blanche Hampel Silver, Amy Elfman, and Mashy Oppenheim chaired the event.

Observances were held as well in Englewood and Teaneck.

 
 

Jewish leaders caught between criticizing, defending Obama

WASHINGTON – With anxiety over the White House’s Middle East policy mounting in some pro-Israel circles, several Jewish organizational leaders have found themselves in a discomfiting position: criticizing the Obama administration in public while stridently defending the president in private against the most extreme attacks.

It’s an upside-down version of what pro-Israel groups usually do: lavishing praise on the U.S. government of the day for sustaining the “unbreakable bond” while making their criticisms known quietly, behind closed doors.

News Analysis

The criticism has come in the form of mostly polite statements and newspaper ads questioning Obama administration pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, particularly regarding building in eastern Jerusalem. Such criticisms are voiced as well in private meetings with administration officials.

The defense comes up in dealings with irate donors and constituents, in phone calls, e-mails, addresses to small Jewish groups, shul talk. The theme of the complaints is consistent, and shocking, said multiple leaders, who all spoke off the record, and reflect the subterranean rumblings about the president heard during the campaign: His sympathy lies with the Muslims, he doesn’t care about Israel, he’s an anti-Semite.

The Jewish Federations of North America is sufficiently concerned about the phenomenon to have convened a “fly-in” of Jewish organizational leaders to Washington for an as yet unannounced date in May. The leaders will meet with White House, State Department, and congressional officials, in part to “to convey concerns about U.S.-Israel relations” — but also, insiders say, to allay those concerns.

One recent flood of anxious queries followed the Obama administration’s announcement earlier this month of its long-awaited nuclear policy. The reality of the policy was a pledge not to threaten with nuclear weapons those nations that provably disavow their nuclear weapons capability. Nations that continued to maintain a threatening nuclear posture, the policy made clear, would still face the prospect of a U.S. nuclear response should they attack the United States or its allies.

Obama named Iran as such a nation.

Yet instead of being reassured, donors and members of national Jewish groups flooded Jewish leaders with anxious queries about a posture that they interpreted as being aimed at embracing a nuclear Iran and forcing Israel to abandon its own reported nuclear capability.

Another persistent — and unfounded — rumor has it that Obama removed the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” from the White House seder in March.

“Where the ____ are they getting this?” asked a senior official at an organization that has been publicly critical of Obama since last summer.

Angst was stoked, too, when Obama spoke last week of peacemaking throughout the world necessitated by the cost of “American blood and treasure” through involvement in conflicts. It didn’t help that a New York Times analysis suggested the president had said that the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace threatened U.S. troops in other parts of the globe — even though the transcript of Obama’s remarks did not bear out any such linkage and Obama administration officials flatly denied one existed.

Jewish officials said a share of the blame lay with the Obama administration, partly for not adequately reaching out to Jews and to Israel, and partly because of the emergence of what appears to be internecine policy wars.

“The real story of The New York Times story is not that he’s changing Israel policy,” said another leader of an organization that has not been shy about criticizing the Obama administration. “The real story is, why are officials leaking” misrepresentations of his policy “to The New York Times?”

On the other side, one leader blamed the Netanyahu government for sending mixed signals on how to handle the tensions between Israel and the United States over settlement policy.

“Some are saying quiet is the best answer and others are saying loud noise is the best answer,” the Jewish organizational official said.

The official cited reports that Netanyahu personally approved public letters — from Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and Elie Wiesel, the internationally known Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate — criticizing Obama’s demand for a halt in Jerusalem building.

Despite mounting criticism by some Jewish leaders, polls show that Obama’s support among Jews in general remains strong. His backing has dropped from astronomical highs after he was elected, but remains about 10 points stronger than in the general population. Moreover, to the degree that it has eroded, the dissatisfaction with Obama appears to have more to do with unhappiness over his handling of health care and the economy than it does Israel.

Those who are expressing their concerns, however, are among the most active members of the pro-Israel community and help set the tone for the trilateral U.S.-Israel-Jewish leadership ties. Some are acquiring their information from anti-Obama e-mail blasts and consistently partisan critics of Obama.

Richard Baehr, writing in the conservative online magazine The American Thinker, cited The New York Times’ misreading of Obama’s remarks in arguing that “this president is the greatest threat to the strategic alliance of the U.S. and Israel since the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948.”

McLaughlin & Associates, a GOP polling firm, touted signs last week that Jewish support for Obama was eroding, but the survey questions were premised on shaky assertions. One question posited that Obama would support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence, although U.S. officials have consistently said they would oppose such a move. Another suggested that Obama was ready to force Israel to give up the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, although there has been no such pressure.

Administration defenders cite signs suggesting that beyond the settlement rhetoric, the relationship is improving: Obama has increased defense cooperation, for instance, and strategic consultations between officials of both nations are more frequent than they have been in a decade.

“Our bond with Israel is unshakable and unbreakable both as it relates to security, as it relates to a common set of values and also as a common strategic vision because the threats to Israel are similar to some of the threats the United States faces,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, said Monday on Bloomberg TV.

Jewish leaders welcome such reassurances but say they are made defensively, and repeatedly call on the Obama administration to become proactive.

Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s chief Jewish proxy during the election and now heads the Center for Middle East Peace, suggested a more proactive posture was in the offing.

“Actions in the next several months will begin to reflect it,” he told JTA.

Notably, Emanuel held a behind-closed-doors meeting Tuesday with a group of leading Orthodox rabbis.

Meantime, Jewish leaders are walking a tightrope trying to balance traditional deference to the administration with concerns over the tensions. They also object to what they see as the unwarranted pressure on Netanyahu as opposed to relatively little pressure on the Palestinians to join talks that Israel has embraced with enthusiasm. Israel, they hasten to argue, remains America’s best friend in the region.

Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, made the Israel-is-our-best-friend case last week at Israel Independence Day celebrations, sharing the stage with Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod.

“Israel stood by America in spirit and in action after the tragic events of 9/11,” Rosenberg said. “As both our great nations fight the same scourge of terrorism and Islamic extremism, it is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world.”

The Wiesel and Lauder letters offered a suggestive contrast over how to handle the tensions.

Wiesel’s critique was oblique, not naming Obama, and deferred to U.S. orthodoxy that a final-status agreement must accommodate Palestinian claims to the city.

“What is the solution?” Wiesel asked. “Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be.”

Lauder, by contrast, directly addressed Obama and suggested that the president was sacrificing Israel to improve relations with the Muslim world.

“The administration’s desire to improve relations with the Muslim world is well known,” said Lauder, an active Republican. “But is friction with Israel part of this new strategy? Is it assumed worsening relations with Israel can improve relations with Muslims?”

One of the Jewish leaders said the contrast was instructive.

“For all intents and purposes, the WJC’s relationship with the White House ended last week,” he said of the group Lauder heads. “That’s not a relationship that pro-Israel groups can afford to have over the next couple of years.”

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has publicly criticized the administration on several Israel-related fronts. Still, he said, Jewish leaders have a responsibility to defend the president “when talking to those who accuse him of being an enemy of Israel or a Muslim.”

“For many years, you had a lot of Jews who didn’t vote for President Bush who would say, ‘I don’t like Bush but I love what he’s doing on Israel,’” Foxman said.

“Now the paradigm is changing. A lot of Jews are saying, ‘I like Obama, but I don’t like what he is doing on Israel.”

Foxman added that the most frequent question he hears when speaking to Jewish audiences is whether Obama is a friend of Israel.

“I say yes — but what’s wrong is the implementation of what he promised. What’s flawed is the strategy, not the goal,” Foxman said.

The ADL leader quickly added that despite promises to learn from past mistakes, the administration’s handling of Israel-related issues is “going from bad to worse.”

JTA

 
 

White House charm offensive pays off:  Wiesel says tension ‘gone’

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – When Elie Wiesel says it’s all kosher, it’s good.

For now, anyway.

President Obama capped an intensive two weeks of administration make-nice with Israeli officials and the American Jewish community by hosting Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist, for lunch at the White House.

News Analysis

“It was a good kosher lunch,” was the first thing Wiesel pronounced, emerging from the White House to a gaggle of reporters.

And not just the food.

“There were moments of tension,” Wiesel said. “But the tension I think is gone, which is good.”

That echoed Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, who a few days earlier told leaders of the American Jewish Committee that the “slight disagreements are behind us.”

The tension and the “slight” disagreements, of course, were between the United States and Israel — and by extension, the mainstream pro-Israel community — and started March 8, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden rebuked Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Next came an extended phoned-in dressing down from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims by Clinton and other U.S. officials that Israel had “insulted” Biden.

Then, when Netanyahu arrived in Washington to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Obama all but snubbed the Israeli leader, agreeing to meet him only without photo ops.

The pro-Israel community was virtually unified in its reaction: Yes, Netanyahu had screwed up, but this was piling on.

As the recriminations grew more pronounced, so did concerns about the relationship: Did this portend a major shake-up? Was Obama distancing himself from Israel?

In private, Jewish organizational leaders reached out to White House friends and said, whatever you’re selling, you need to explain it before “tensions” become a full-fledged “crisis.”

There were signs of that, with messages — some blunt, some oblique — about the dangers of pressing Israel on Jerusalem. The author of one of the messages, in the form of a full-page New York Times ad, was Wiesel.

In response to such rumblings — around the time of Israel Independence Day, mid-to-late April — the Obama administration launched its love assault. If you were a Jewish organization, no matter how particularized, you would get administration face time from Clinton (the American Jewish Committee) through Attorney General Eric Holder (the Anti-Defamation League) down to Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (American Friends of Hebrew University.)

Clearly there was a checklist for the speakers:

• Mention that there is “no gap — no gap” (and say it like that) between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. (Jim Jones, the national security advisor, to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his deputy, Daniel Shapiro, to the ADL.)

• Repeat, ad infinitum, the administration’s “commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Clinton to the AJC; Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran policy, to the ADL and just about everyone else.

• Make it clear that while resolving the conflict would make it easier to address an array of other issues, the notion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region is a calumny. (Robert Gates, the defense secretary, at a news conference with Barak: “No one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.” Shapiro to the ADL: “We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”)

• Resolve to resolve differences “as allies” and don’t forget to criticize the Palestinians as well, for incitement and for recalcitrance in refusing to come to direct talks (proximity talks are resuming this week).

• And explain the fundaments of what is good about the relationship: defense cooperation.

The most pronounced evidence of this approach was in the ADL’s double whammy: The civil rights group got two speeches from two officials, Ross and Shapiro, who had not spoken publicly since taking their jobs in the administration. Each was in a position to go into detail about the details of the defense relationship, Ross handling the Iran perspective and Shapiro handling Israel and its neighbors.

“We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. service members who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall,” Shapiro said. “We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel — in political, military, and intelligence channels — on regional security issues and counterterrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible.

“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, was impressed, saying this was more than just rhetoric.

“We’ve heard all kinds of phraseology in the last few weeks, but this is an inventory,” he said.

Tom Neumann, who heads the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that the defense relationship remains strong — but wondered whether the rhetoric did not portend more substantive changes.

“On a soldier-to-soldier basis it remains solid,” Neumann said. “But much of the defense relationship is ultimately dictated by the administration. Obama may yet put pressure on Israel through the transfer of arms through how to confront Iran.”

JTA

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 
 

Jewish groups call for civility

WASHINGTON – Americans have witnessed racist epithets, homophobic slurs, and spitting on a congressman in the realm of public discourse. Now a number of Jewish groups are saying enough is enough.

Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League issued a call for civility.

The “Statement on Civility in National Public Discourse” was unveiled during a panel discussion on “Restoring Civility to Passionate, Partisan, Political Debate” at the ADL’s National Leadership conference in Washington.

“We stand together today to call for civility in our national public discourse,” the statement says. “Let our debate on the issues of the moment be thoughtful and reasoned. Let us look to our elected leaders for leadership, whether or not we support their policies. Let all of us, across the political spectrum, encourage advocacy that is vigorous; pointed but not personal or hostile. We reject appeals to bigotry, racism, and prejudice. We reject calls to violence. In our national discourse in 2010, let us cast American democracy in the best possible light.”

The ADL call for civility comes on the heels of a similar measure adopted in February focused on combating incivility among Jewish groups, particularly those with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. It was passed in Dallas as part of a resolution at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group bringing together the synagogue movements, local Jewish communities, and several national organizations, including the ADL.

The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, recounted the events that led to his organization’s declaration.

“The level of incivility and debate relating first to the health-care bill and now the immigration debate, the Arizona legislation — it has been a crescendo, a back-and-forth of not discussing things civilly,” he said.

The ADL plans to reach out to its 30 regional offices to bring the pledge to elected leaders to sign in an effort to “lessen hostility in the language of debates,” Foxman said.

The first to sign were Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and Matt Brooks, his counterpart at the Republican Jewish Coalition — two groups that have not enjoyed the most cordial of relationships.

The groups even argued as to the wording of the pledge, with Forman not entirely pleased with what he described as the final “watered-down” version. Brooks requested the removal of “mean-spirited” before he would sign, Forman said. Brooks replied that neither the ADL nor the NJDC pushed back over the changes and that his edits “made for a tighter, cleaner, neater document.”

Foxman brushed off the quibble saying, “Yes, people gave input, but ultimately they were signing on to our statement.”

Forman also was willing to shift into a conciliatory mode.

“Congratulations are due to the ADL, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, for we start with this minimal statement and build on it,” he said. “It’s in the best interest of the health of democracy and Judaism that we bring back civility in discourse.”

Brooks agreed, saying, “I believe very strongly that we need to vigorously debate issues of the day, but in a way that’s respectful of the political process, that doesn’t engage in racial or religious or ad hominem attacks.”

With most forms of incivility happening in the public eye — at town hall meetings, on the Senate floor — the ADL believes that the media and the public are the best-positioned to police the matter.

Foxman said, “People can argue strongly and passionately about what they believe, and when they realize being uncivil is counterproductive to them and their cause, there will be a positive response.”

The JCPA has particularly focused on the increased heat in recent years among Jewish groups when dealing with Israel, with the rise of pro-Israel groups like J Street that perform open criticism of the Jewish state.

J Street has taken shots at Jews who associate with right-wing Christian evangelicals, saying that they are abetting a movement that imagines Israel’s destruction. More conservative groups have accused J Street of consorting with Israel’s mortal enemies.

“We are experiencing a level of incivility, particularly over issues pertaining to Israel, that has not been witnessed in recent memory,” the JCPA resolution said. “Where such polarization occurs within the Jewish community, it tears at the fabric of Klal Yisrael —our very sense of peoplehood — and is a cause for profound concern.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of JCPA, said that though the details are not yet firm, a committee representing Jews from “left to right” will be put in place by June and will be charged with designing a multi-year plan to combat incivility and teach proper discourse.

“We need to know how to show respect when we agree,” Gutow said, “and when we do not.”

JTA

 
 

Groups want stronger U.S. defense of Israel; Obama not obliging

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration appears to be rebuffing calls from some Jewish groups for the United States to be more assertive and public in defending Israel regarding the flotilla incident.

The bluntest appeal for a more pronounced pro-Israel posture came from Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, who is in Israel meeting with the Israeli leadership. (See The biased rush to judgment in the flotilla affair).

“The U.S. should reiterate its support and understanding for Israel, that as a sovereign and democratic nation it has the right to act on behalf of its national security and express its confidence that Israel can conduct its own investigation into the matter without the intrusion of international bodies,” Foxman told JTA.

Israeli commandoes seizing control of the main boat in a Gaza aid flotilla clashed Monday before dawn with some of its passengers, and killed nine, among them at least four Turkish nationals. Six Israeli soldiers were wounded in the melee. Commandoes seized control of five smaller boats without incident.

The United States has beaten back the sharpest condemnations. It watered down a U.N. Security Council statement so that it condemned the “acts” that led to the deaths, making ambiguous whether the Israelis or the passengers escalated the conflict into violence.

On Wednesday, it joined the Netherlands in registering two lonely votes against a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution condemning Israel. It has also in its statements supporting an inquiry into the matter said that Israel should conduct it, implicitly rebuffing demands elsewhere for an international inquiry.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee acknowledged the Obama administration’s bulwark against the tougher demands for Israel’s isolation, but made clear it wanted more.

“It would have been preferable if the U.N. and Obama administration had blocked any action implying criticism of Israel for defending itself,” AIPAC said in a memo. “Nonetheless, intervention by the United States prevented passage of a Security Council resolution condemning Israel. The administration continues to express its confidence in Israel’s ability to conduct its own investigation of the incident despite calls for an international inquiry.”

AIPAC also insisted that “the United States must now maintain its longstanding position not to allow the Security Council and other U.N. organs such as the U.N. Human Rights Council to exploit unfortunate incidents by passing biased, anti-Israel resolutions that obscure the truth and accomplish nothing.”

Were AIPAC certain that the United States was committed to blocking such resolutions further down the line, it would likely not have made the recommendation.

No such certainty appears in the offing: Statements from Obama administration officials suggest that they are holding judgment until the facts become clearer, and that meanwhile, the White House wants to see the blockade that triggered the aid flotilla eased.

A White House statement describing Obama’s call with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan said the U.S. president “affirmed the United States position in support of a credible, impartial, and transparent investigation of the facts surrounding this tragedy. The president affirmed the importance of finding better ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel’s security.”

Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip partly to keep the Hamas terrorist organization, which controls the strip, from receiving arms (an effort Hamas has junked by running weapons through tunnels into Egypt); but another aim was to weaken Hamas politically among Palestinians.

Top White House officials met for hours on Tuesday with Uzi Arad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top security adviser, and Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, and made clear to them that the United States sees the blockade as unsustainable.

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s spokesman, said that the administration was in wait and see mode. “The Security Council, the statement that I read, calls for an investigation that is prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent, conforming to international standards of exactly what happened,” he said after several prompts at Tuesday’s briefing. “And we’re obviously supportive of that.”

Foxman told JTA that considerations of an investigation and of the wisdom of using commandoes to carry out a police action — keeping the flotilla from docking in Gaza — were beside the point.

“Was there a better way to do this? That’s all interesting, but that’s not what this is about,” he said. “There is bloodshed all over the world, there are people killing people all over the world in deliberate hatred and nobody is calling for investigations. At the very least the United States should stand with Israel.”

Such statements of solidarity have been pouring out of Congress, from Republicans and Democrats. GOP figures are already firing at Obama for not pronouncing himself more firmly on Israel’s side.

“Would the U.S. in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s memorable phrase, ‘join the jackals?’” at the United Nations, Elliott Abrams wrote on the Weekly Standard’s Website, referring to the steadfastly pro-Israel Reagan-era ambassador to the United Nations.

“This week the Obama administration answered the question: Yes we would, and Israel would stand alone,” continued Abrams, who, as deputy national security adviser, helped lead the second Bush administration’s failed efforts to arrive at a peace agreement. “It is simple to block the kind of attack issued as a ‘President’s Statement’ on behalf of the Council, for such a statement requires unanimity. The United States can just say ‘No,’ and make it clear that orders have come from the White House and will not be changed.”

Hadar Susskind, the policy and strategy director for J Street, which has called for an independent Israeli inquiry into the incident, said such a posture would be counterproductive.

“It’s the same question, ‘How can you make the Israelis the bad guys or say that the people on the ship were good guys?’” he said. “It’s not a comic book, they were not good guys, they attacked Israeli soldiers with a pipe and tried to killed them — but that doesn’t mean the Israeli government made good decisions. It’s not our role to decide each time the good guys and bad guys.”

JTA

 
 

The swastika and the migration of symbols

 
 
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