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N.J.-Israel Commission funds slashed

The New Jersey-Israel Commission lost its director, Andrea Yonah, to budget cuts last week as it officially became part of a new initiative in the State Department to boost business in New Jersey.

The commission has been rolled into the Partnership for Public Action, which, under the auspices of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, is charged with attracting new businesses, retaining businesses, and making the state more business-friendly, said Sean Connor, Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy press secretary. Other programs joining the Israel Commission will be announced in coming weeks, he added.

“The New Jersey-Israel Commission will be focusing on how to bring more economic development to the state of New Jersey,” he said. “We are excited about that. The New Jersey-Israel Commission has and will continue to play an important role in helping to attract, retain, and grow our relationships with global businesses.”

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who had chaired the commission, expressed optimism that its focus on business development and cooperation, cultural exchange, and educational exchange would remain

“We’ve been reassured by the lieutenant governor that the commission itself is now a valued part of [her] portfolio,” he said. “We’re going to make this work.”

Kurtzer tendered his resignation after the shake-up announcement just before Passover. The move was a courtesy to Christie who, Kurtzer said, should be allowed to choose his own chair. Kurtzer is hopeful, however, that the governor will see fit to reappoint him as a member of the commission.

Since the commission was already housed within the State Department, it was easier to roll it into the partnership than other programs, Connor said. The changes to the commission, he emphasized, were administrative and there would be no changes to its mission or membership make-up. The commission had been operating with an annual budget of $130,000, almost $120,000 of which went toward salaries for Yonah and another employee, he said.

April 9 marked the last day of Yonah’s eight-year tenure with the commission.

“She’s a powerhouse,” said commission member Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. “She has been able to attract excellent leadership on the commission, bring business from Israel to New Jersey, and develop cultural, scientific, and trade relationships that have helped both New Jersey and Israel.”

“We’re not saying goodbye to Andrea,” said commission member Mark Levenson. “She will be working with us on lots of issues and ventures in terms of trying to help Israel and I can’t wait until she lands her next position because she is just a dynamo.”

Yonah remained upbeat during a phone interview with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday.

“To be able to bring the best of Israel and match it with the best of New Jersey was a dream,” Yonah said. “Both of our states have so much in common and so much to collaborate on and so much opportunity for the future.”

Her future remained uncertain, but, she said, she looked forward to spending time in Israel and continuing to help bridge the Jewish state and the Garden State.

As members praised Yonah’s leadership they also expressed outrage at Christie for cutting the commission’s funding.

“This is an affront to the people who volunteered to be on this commission,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), a longtime member. “This is an affront to an employee who had served so well for eight years. It’s an affront to the Jewish community.”

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) had harsher words for Christie.

“The governor’s budget sold the commission out with any number of other groups,” he said. “The New Jersey-Israel Commission was one of the first of its kind. It has been shown and proven that the commission is instrumental in creating jobs for New Jersey.”

Schaer, a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, also lashed out at Christie’s budget proposals.

“There are so many areas of real concern that so many of us have regarding seniors, education, colleges, and universities,” he said.

Christie has the option to veto any changes the Assembly or Senate budget committees make and, according to Schaer, he has pledged to do so. Despite the Christie administration’s explanations, Schaer doubted the benefits achieved by the change.

“With New Jersey-Israel Commission we see the cost was ridiculously small compared to the deficit and the very real benefit — the close relationship with the State of Israel,” he said. “In that case, the governor’s proposal doesn’t make financial sense and doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The New Jersey-Israel Commission was created in 1989 to foster business ties as part of a sister-state agreement. More than 700 New Jersey companies do business with Israel, 65 Israeli companies maintain operations in New Jersey, and 18 New Jersey companies have operations in Israel.

 
 

Do diaspora Jews have a role in making peace?

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Members of the Jewish People Policy Institute at its annual conference in Jerusalem on Oct. 21: Glen Lewy, left, a board member and past board chairman of the Anti-Defamation League; Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council; and Ami Ayalon, retired Israeli general and former government minister. Shamayim Productions

JERUSALEM – Cloistered away in a snug meeting room with stone-faced walls and arched doorways across from Jerusalem’s Old City, some of the most important Jewish communal leaders in the world came together recently to wrestle with a question: Is there a role for the diaspora in Israel’s decision-making on peace?

The answer: Yes and no.

The forum was part of the annual conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a think tank organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel that identifies and evaluates challenges facing Jewish communities around the world. The consensus of the participants was that while ultimately it is up to the Israeli government and the Israeli public to decide the outlines of a peace deal, input from the rest of the Jewish world should be considered. In particular, several participants said, the issue of whether or not to divide Jerusalem requires input from the diaspora.

Furthermore, most in the forum of about 25 people agreed that the creation of a Palestinian state is not only Israel’s best hope of one day emerging from the conflict, it would be a boon for diaspora communities as well.

“The achievement of a peace agreement would be tremendously liberating for the global Jewish people,” said Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

“It would allow us to devote our energy to other major priorities facing the Jewish people and the liberation of resources would be quite powerful,” Rosenberg said. “It would also come with significant risks and potential trauma, like the withdrawing from some territory.”

The challenge remains for the JPPI to move away from being an A-list talk shop to affecting policy on the ground. To that end, one of recommendations that emerged from the two days of talks was for the creation of a small forum of diaspora figures to discuss final status issues with the Israeli government — a “go-to” team that the government could consult with, as the institute’s founding director, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, described it.

But Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, pointed out the difficulties of forming such a group.

“Who do you call? Who represents the diaspora? Who represents even American Jews ideologically? Politically?” Abrams asked.

Rosenberg echoed that view: “The overwhelming feeling is that there is a role for the diaspora, but how?”

Indeed, consensus was often elusive among the 120 participants, who represented academia and Jewish organizational and Israeli political leadership. In addition, some of those attending criticized the absence of women and participants under the age of 50 at the conference — something organizers said they were working to improve.

The challenges are not dampening the ambitious vision of the JPPI’s chairman, Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. diplomat who assumed the post after Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East peace envoy, stepped down in order to work for the Obama administration. Eizenstat said a key goal of his was for the think tank to have “more of a policy impact” on peace issues and other topics affecting the future of the Jewish people.

One move in that direction was the institute’s decision to summarize the various teams’ findings on several issues into pithy, action-minded policy position papers for use by both the Israeli government and Jewish organizations. Among the issues dealt with at the conference: peace efforts, the delegitimization of Israel, conversion, European Jewry, and Israel-diaspora relations.

“What’s important is the effort to come to grips with the potential impact of the peace process on diaspora Jewry,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who has served in the past as U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. “There was lots of talking, lots of discussion … and at some point it needs to be translated into something more concrete. Is there action? An agenda to bridge the gaps and find specific ideas?”

For example, during discussions about the future of Jewish settlements in the west bank, sharp divisions emerged, with Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella leadership of the settler movement, saying that it is a Jewish imperative to keep the settlements in place.

Others in the room suggested that Israel already has decided which settlements would stay and which would be relinquished in the event of a peace deal by virtue of having built the security barrier between Israel and the west bank. Most of the major settlement areas are on the Israeli side of the fence and, with the exception of Ariel, the smaller, more geographically remote ones are on the other side.

Institute officials said that the subject of Jerusalem has created two camps: those who say that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel and those who suggest some sort of shared control or sovereignty over the eastern part of Jerusalem, where 28 Arab villages and refugee camps are also included inside the municipal lines.

“The people coming to the conference know how important Jerusalem is, but our discussion was how one differentiates between areas like the Temple Mount and [predominately Palestinian areas] like [the] Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and Shuafat Refugee Camp,” Kurtzer said. “Once you start to draw distinctions, you can define things better. The group did not say give up ‘X’ or keep ‘Y,’ but were heading in that direction.”

Rami Tal, a fellow at JPPI, tried to put the institute’s work in context.

“Think tanks, by definition, first explore an issue in an intellectual way using all methodology available to define problems … and then get to some intelligently reasoned analysis,” Tal said. “Here is where the discussions and opinions are heard and then the institute does the work of making conclusions that can be passed on to the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, and Jewish organizations.”

Abrams said there is value in the very act of talking about theses issues.

“The value of the JPPI is that nowhere else do you have these kinds of discussions,” he said.

The forum on the delegitimizaton of Israel garnered particular interest, especially regarding how Israeli policy and actions, especially military ones such as the recent Gaza flotilla incident, play out — both for Israel on the international stage and for diaspora Jews.

Noting the rise of anti-Israel sentiment in the world, Eizenstat spoke of the ripple effect a negative image of Israel can have on diaspora Jews, particularly the younger generation.

“Jewish identity is increasingly tied to Israel, and as Israel’s status improves, it will be easier for younger Jews to identify not only with Israel but Judaism,” Eizenstat said. “When its image is negative, it undercuts that.”

The gathering supported the notion that one of the best ways to fight delegitimization — described as a “battle of ideas” by Eizenstat — was for Israel and the diaspora to do a better job of promoting the Israeli narrative. (See page 24.)

To that end, conference leaders announced that Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was among the top-level speakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was considering a tour of several college campuses in the United States.

JTA

 
 
 
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