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Iman trip to Nazi camps spurs project to fight religious hate speech

Just weeks after returning from unprecedented investigation of Nazi-era death camps, American Jewish and Muslim interfaith activists have announced their intent to form a national organization aimed at combating religious hate speech in all of its forms.

During a Capitol Hill briefing on Sept. 22 — in which several D.C.-area Muslim leaders reported to lawmakers about the recent educational trip they took to Auschwitz and Dachau — the Muslim and Jewish activists vowed to join forces in an effort to battle anti-Semitic and Islamaphobic rhetoric that they say too often imbues contentious national political debates.

The yet-to-be-named project will “set up a structure that would give” moderate Muslim leaders “a megaphone” from which to denounce extremism, said Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Carlstadt-based Center for Interreligious Understanding. A lead organizer of the group, he also helped plan the August trip to Auschwitz and Dachau.

The interfaith activists also will work to prevent the proliferation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic tract that is easily procured in the Muslim world and many Muslim American communities.

The group’s other core organizers — who also were present at the Capitol Hill briefing — include Marshall Breger, an Orthodox Jew who is a law professor at Catholic University in Washington; Sayyid Syeed, national director for the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances; and Mohamed Magid, imam and executive director of the ADAMS Center (All Dulles Area Muslim Society).

Members of the group were scheduled to gather in the District for their first formal meeting on Tuesday, and, following that, to hold a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington. Organizers said they eventually aim to bring Christian leaders into the project as well.

The effort comes as Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement, have independently stepped up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry.

Syeed said the group represents a natural evolution in the growing relationship between the American Muslim and Jewish communities.

Syeed also recalled that after returning to America following the trip to Auschwitz, he was greeted by a vitriolic national debate surrounding the proposed Muslim community center located several blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.

“This has been a difficult time” for Muslims, as many Americans are gripped by Islamaphobia, Syeed said, adding that as the mosque debate intensified, “we noticed that the Jewish community has come forward and been the most public supporters of the mosque.”

The new interfaith effort, he added, is a byproduct of this relationship.

Bemporad noted that the seeds of the group were sown as debate around the Muslim community center intensified.

“I see similar patterns in the way Muslims are being treated to the way Jews and even Catholics” have been treated at earlier times in America’s history, he said.

Added Suhail Khan, another lead organizer of the group and senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement: “Rather than holding hands and singing Kumbaya,” the group will “bring people together to be the responsible adults in the room” by addressing controversial issues that can adequately be addressed by the religious community.

Washington Jewish Week

 
 

Who killed Libya’s U.S. influence?

 

Case of Capitol caption has Israel activists aflutter

_JStandardWorld
Published: 19 August 2011
image
The White House deleted the reference to Israel in a photo caption on its website of Vice President Joe Biden having breakfast with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem in March 2010. It said it did so to reflect a longstanding U.S. policy on the city’s status. Courtesy David Lienemann, The White House

JERUSALEM–To be or not to be part of Israel. That is the question that White House administrations have tiptoed around for decades.

The State Department does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital. It also does not accept that the eastern part of the city — captured from Jordan in the June 1967 Six-Day War and subsequently annexed — is part of Israel. Congress, on the other hand, has effectively recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and left all sections of the city under Israeli control.

Presidents have been caught in the middle, cautiously balancing their pro-Israel rhetoric against longstanding U.S. policy.

That is exactly where the Obama administration found itself earlier in August after news reports revealed that the White House quietly had removed all references to Jerusalem as being part of Israel from a collection of photos on its website.

The Weekly Standard reported Aug. 9 about a set of White House photos from Jerusalem that had been scrubbed of all explicit references to Israel. Whereas a caption for a shot of Vice President Joe Biden once said that he was dining at the “David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel,” for instance, the photo was altered to read just “Jerusalem.”

Some pro-Israel activists were incensed by the change, charging a White House whitewash and claiming definitive proof that President Obama disdains Israel. To others, it appeared that the president was kowtowing to pressure from the State Department, which recently reiterated its policy against recognizing Jerusalem as part of Israel.

The White House, however, upon discovering the captions referring to “Jerusalem, Israel” — and with the Obama administration’s policy on Jerusalem being no different from those of all his predecessors in the Oval Office who have faced this issue — corrected them to reflect the longstanding U.S. policy.

“U.S. policy for more than 40 years has been that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in final-status negotiations between the parties,” a White House official said last week in response to an inquiry about the matter. “As in prior administrations, the White House photo captions should reflect that policy.”

For the White House, Jerusalem is just Jerusalem until the Israelis and Palestinians sign a peace deal.

A virtual tour of the White House’s online archives shows that President George W. Bush had a similar photo rule: pictures of him in Jerusalem do not denote that the city is located in Israel. During one such trip to the Jewish state in 2008, for instance, Bush visited “Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, in Jerusalem,” according to the caption written by the Bush administration.

“The status of Jerusalem will be ultimately determined by the interested parties,” Bush said in 2001.

If nothing substantial had changed from Bush to Obama, why did the photo snafu receive so much attention?

First there was the public relations gaffe: Jerusalem’s status is a highly charged political issue, and the Obama administration was caught red-handed fixing an embarrassing mistake.

Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that the error came after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to examine the constitutionality of the State Department’s policy on Jerusalem. The litigants in a case scheduled to be heard by the court in the fall session want their Jerusalem-born son to have his birthplace listed as “Jerusalem, Israel” on his passport, as is permitted by a 2002 federal law.

The State Department, however, has not implemented that law (under either Obama or Bush) because, it says, it violates the department’s ability to set foreign policy. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is so sensitive, the State Department maintains, that it is critical that U.S. passports only say “Jerusalem.”

Presidents often have found themselves at odds with Congress over Jerusalem. President Truman favored an “international regime for Jerusalem,” which is what the 1947 U.N. resolution establishing Israel also called for. Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Clinton all believed that negotiation should resolve the status of Jerusalem.

Congress has been more hawkish on the issue. In 1995, it overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandated the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from its current location in Tel Aviv. JTA/Washington Jewish Week

 
 

‘Just the right medicine’

Ira Forman, veteran communal insider, named Obama ‘12 Jewish point man

_JStandardWorld
Published: 26 August 2011

WASHINGTON – The fight for the Jewish vote in 2012 is expected to be a tough one.

So the Obama campaign is turning to the quintessential insider.

On Aug. 16, the Obama campaign tapped Ira Forman to be its Jewish outreach director. Forman is the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the co-editor of the 2001 book “Jews in American Politics.”

A former Clinton administration official known for what some say is a near-encyclopedic knowledge of all politics Jewish, Forman is tasked with selling a president whose confrontations with the Israeli government have strained his relations with the Jewish community.

image
Ira Forman, longtime head of the National Jewish Democratic Council,
has been chosen to be the point man in President Obama’s efforts to woo Jewish voters in 2012 Courtesy Ira Forman

“For those who believe that President Obama is in trouble with the Jewish community, Ira Forman is just the right medicine,” said William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America’s chief lobbyist and a former official at the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).

Democratic insiders readily admit that Forman’s job will not be easy.

“Ira is going to have a consistently tough road ahead of him,” said a Democratic Capitol Hill staffer who insisted on anonymity. “Someone had described this job as a punching bag job, that people are going to be having their screaming fits first before signing-up for Team Obama.”

Obama took 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008 elections, according to exit polls. Currently, the president’s approval rating among Jews stands at around 60 percent, according to several recent polls. Jewish support for Obama has fallen in proportion to his declining poll numbers generally.

“I don’t think the administration has articulated the depth and breadth of its support for Israel as well as it needs to,” said Mel Levine, a former Democratic congressman from California who campaigned for Obama in 2008 and hopes to do so again next year. “Our biggest challenge is to essentially explain the facts and get the record out.”

Forman, a onetime legislative liaison at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is expected to play a key role in the effort. During his 14-year stint at the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), he did battle with the RJC every election cycle.

“The most seasoned hand-to-hand combat Jewish issues guy out there is Ira,” said Amy Rutkin, a self-described Forman fan who serves as the chief of staff for New York Democrat Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

Forman’s longtime counterpart at the RJC, however, questioned how much of a difference Forman could make.

“The feelings of the Jewish community are baked in the cake already,” said Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director. From the country’s struggling economy to what he characterized as the president’s perceived unfriendliness toward Israel, Brooks said that “Barack Obama owns it all and not a lot can change” between now and Election Day 2012.

Forman was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. An Obama campaign spokesperson, however, said that Forman “will coordinate our outreach to and dialogue with the Jewish community during the campaign with a focus on expanding our grassroots support across the country.”

In 2008, the Obama campaign turned to Middle East expert and former Capitol Hill staffer Daniel Shapiro to serve as its point person for the Jewish community. Today, Shapiro is the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Since 2008, some observers say that the administration has dropped the ball when it comes to Jewish outreach. “In the three years of the administration, there’s not been a serious attempt at having a full-time Jewish liaison with connectivity and knowledge of the Jewish community,” said a Jewish communal official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Susan Sher, the White House’s first Jewish liaison, is not closely tied to the Jewish community, and Danielle Borrin, the administration’s current liaison, “has great Jewish know-how and knowledge, but is only in her 20s and has no real influence in the administration,” the official said.

Forman, by contrast, is a veteran of the world of Jewish politics.

“He hits the ground running and doesn’t need to have to figure out who the players are in this crazy game we call politics,” said Susan Turnbull, a former vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “In the past, not only the Obama campaign, but frequently campaigns have had much more junior people for this role, but Ira is a senior, seasoned operative.”

Forman’s selection did not draw universal praise.

“I just don’t know if he’s someone who can craft a message that will resonate with the average Joe Sixpackowitz,” said a former Democratic congressional staffer who would speak on background only. “I don’t know if he’s the messaging guru” who is capable of shifting the tides in favor of the president.

The Democrat, who spent a decade on Capitol Hill, said that under Forman’s reign, the NJDC was seen as irrelevant by many lawmakers.

“I never saw the NJDC when he was at the helm having that national role, carrying the Democratic message,” said the staffer, who worked for a Jewish member of Congress. “If you didn’t do it at the organization, how are you going to do it from the campaign? Obama has a problem on Israel issues, but I don’t know if [Forman] is the guy to combat it.”

Still, Jews do not vote based solely on Israel. Domestic issues consistently rank higher, research shows.

“The economy is going to be a critical issue across the board to all constituencies,” said former Levine, the former congressman. “On this, we obviously have our challenges.”

Democrats, however, are hoping that the Republicans will do some of their work for them. They say the current right-leaning Republican presidential field is out of step with Jewish voters on social and other domestic issues.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said the Obama campaign needs to highlight the “huge difference” between Democrats and Republicans on social issues. The best defense, Cardin said, is a strong offense.

Forman will need to “be out there in an affirmative way,” Cardin said. The campaign needs “someone to go after the Jewish vote, not just defend the Jewish vote. To sit back and be defensive will be the wrong strategy.”

“This is going to be a very competitive campaign within the Jewish community,” Cardin said, “and the Obama administration is making a wise political judgment to put someone like Ira Forman in the forefront. He knows what the Republicans will be throwing at him.”

JTA/Washington Jewish Week

 
 
 
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