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Record delegation from NORPAC advocates for Israel in D.C.

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Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) meets with a delegation from NORPAC.

At 4:30 a.m. last Wednesday, while most people were still dreaming in bed, 1,040 people were getting ready to join the NORPAC Mission to Washington. The non-partisan North Jersey political action committee supports the U.S.-Israel relationship by advocating on key issues, including foreign aid, Palestinian incitement, the Middle East peace process, and Iran sanctions.

Twenty-four buses pulled up to the Washington Convention Center in the late morning to be greeted by a lineup of speakers from Congress as well as a keynote speaker. The participants flooded two ballrooms and began the program by singing The Star Spangled Banner, Hatikvah, and in recognition of Yom Yerushalayim, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”

After an introduction by Dr. Richard Schlussel, the mission chair, speakers included Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), and Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) Dr. Mort Fridman, NORPAC vice president, introduced the keynote speaker, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

Following the speeches, 450 members of Congress — including 95 senators — held private meetings with NORPAC participants, who advocated on four issues.

The first issue was the 2011 foreign aid request for Israel, which is expected to be $3 billion. Of that aid, 70 percent is in the form of credits to be spent in the United States, supporting high-tech defense jobs.

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Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren addresses the group.

“This aid is more of an investment than an expense,” said Dr, Ben Chouake, NORPAC president. “Given Israel’s strategic location on the Mediterranean with access to the Red Sea, and other vital shipping lanes, it is imperative that Israel continues to serve as a port of call for our military and intelligence operations,”

Participants noted to members of Congress that the United States is slated to provide a $550 million aid package to the Palestinians in the disputed territories and Gaza. They wanted assurances that the Palestinian Authority would be held accountable for the allocation of the funds, inasmuch as more than $7 billion of aid to the Palestinians cannot be accounted for. NORPAC members also advocated that U.S. aid be conditional on ending anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in Palestinian news broadcasts, publications, and schools.

The participants urged the lawmakers to support the U.S.-led peace process, under which Arab states and the Palestinians must accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel. According to Chouake, “Although the current Israeli government has accepted the concept of a two-state solution and has made countless other concessions, Arabs and Palestinians refuse to even recognize a Jewish state. Peace cannot possibly be achieved when one of the parties is unwilling to recognize the other.”

The last item on the NORPAC agenda called for urging legislators to encourage the process to proceed and to support the final version of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2009.

Different versions of this bill have been passed by the Senate and House and are now in reconciliation. Mission members stressed the importance of the bill’s passage in order to send a clear message to Teheran that its current course toward nuclear armament cannot stand.

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Rep. Eric Cantor was one of the speakers

According to Chouake, who said that NORPAC put the Iran Sanctions bill on the map three years ago, it is critically close to passage. He added that members of Congress from both parties agreed that time is running out to address this existential threat to the world and, in consensus fashion, pledged to resist attempts to weaken or delay the bill.

The group heard concluding addresses by Reps. Eric Cantor (R-W.V.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), and Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

Schlussel said of the mission, “We were all gratified at seeing so many of our members being received so graciously by our nation’s leaders.”

For more information on NORPAC and the mission, go to www.norpac.net or call (201) 788-5733.

 
 

Why was J Street so scared of Soros?

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George Soros, shown at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, “never made any secret about his contributions to J Street,” his spokesman said. Courtesy World Economic Forum

WASHINGTON – George Soros has been a top funder in recent years of liberal political advocacy groups, and Jews have still been voting for Democrats at a 75 to 80 percent clip. J Street, meanwhile, has built relations with lawmakers, lined up support from liberal rabbis and communal leaders, and found itself on the White House invite list, even while issuing controversial criticisms of Israel and establishment Jewish groups on several occasions.

So why exactly did J Street and its director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, risk the organization’s reputation and undermine its credibility by misleading the world about the donations it received from the financier and philanthropist?

News Analysis

The question has some establishment Jewish leaders and Democratic politicians scratching their heads this week — and predicting that Ben-Ami’s deception would cause the group much greater damage than any association with Soros. It’s especially perplexing given J Street’s insistence that it wanted Soros’ money.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, when asked about J Street’s earlier denials about receiving funding from Soros.

Foxman noted that Soros and J Street share the same posture on Middle East peace: an aggressive U.S. role, including pressure on all sides and opposition to settlement building — not to mention an openness to talks with Hamas.

“It’s the most appropriate thing, it fits, it makes sense — there’s nothing wrong with it,” Foxman said of the relationship.

A senior staffer for a Democratic congressman who has accepted J Street’s endorsement agreed, saying that Soros’ support for J Street would not have been “a major factor” in deciding whether to accept the organization’s endorsement.

“People have to know first who George Soros is and, second, why it would be bad for a pro-Israel group — in some circles — to be associated with him,” the staffer said. “There are a lot of people like that in the Jewish macherocracy — but not in our district.”

The Washington Times revealed in a Sept. 17 story that Soros and his children had given J Street $245,000 in 2008. The lobby confirmed the amount and said the Soros family since then had contributed another $500,000 — 7 percent of the $11 million J Street says it has received in donations since its launch.

Ben-Ami and spokesmen for Soros said the feint arose from the controversy that was sparked in 2006 when it was revealed — by JTA and other agencies — that Soros was a likely funder for the then-unnamed lobby Ben-Ami hoped to establish.

“It was his view that the attacks against him from certain parts of the community would undercut support for us,” Ben-Ami said. “He was concerned that his involvement would be used by others to attack the effort.”

Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Soros, confirmed that outlook, adding that Soros would not have objected to making his role public once he and his family started funneling money to J Street six months after its founding in early 2008.

“He knew that had he given the money at the beginning, media outlets would have tried to claim that the organization is a Soros-funded organization,” Vachon said.

That may have made sense in 2006, Foxman said, when Soros was associated with MoveOn.org, the provocative organization at the forefront of the opposition to the Bush administration, particularly its Iraq war.

“People who liked Bush because of Israel were upset because of MoveOn,” Foxman said.

It didn’t help that MoveOn was erroneously associated with a Web advertisement that likened Bush to Hitler, and that Soros himself said the times reminded him of aspects of his Nazi-era childhood in Hungary.

But, several observers said, the fraught politics of just a few years ago — when Soros was seen as an unhinged provocateur baiting the Bush administration and Republicans — were a thing of the past, with Democrats now controlling the White House and the U.S. Congress.

“His reputation is fine, he’s pro-peace,” Foxman said of the Soros of 2010.

For better or worse, insiders said, J Street’s very success has mainstreamed the very beliefs that had once occasioned anger against Soros.

The views espoused by J Street and Soros are now part of the mix, said Shai Franklin, a veteran of an array of mainstream groups like the World Jewish Congress and NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. (See page 15.)

“It was unnecessary, and that’s what makes it a tragedy,” Franklin, now a senior fellow with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said of Ben-Ami’s deception. “People like me were willing to accept J Street as the new kid on the block, but this disfigures J Street.”

A source associated with J Street dismissed predictions that the controversy would turn J Street into a pariah, noting that 80 of the group’s leaders met separately Tuesday with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, and U.S. State Department officials.

To be sure, many Jewish conservatives, including U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip, continue to cast Soros as a bogeyman and are seeking to make an issue out of his support for J Street.

They point to a piece on Israel and the pro-Israel lobby Soros wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2007.

“I am not a Zionist, nor am I am a practicing Jew,” he wrote. But, Soros added immediately, “I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.”

He also sought to clarify 2003 comments that had led some critics to accuse him of blaming Jews and Israel for anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitism predates the birth of Israel. Neither Israel’s policies nor the critics of those policies should be held responsible for anti-Semitism,” Soros wrote. “At the same time, I do believe that attitudes toward Israel are influenced by Israel’s policies, and attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby’s success in suppressing divergent views.”

Soros called for increased U.S. engagement in the Middle East peace process, asserted that Israeli governments have overemphasized the military option, argued against unilateralism and sought a way to include Hamas in negotiations.

While the article stirred much controversy at the time, it now reads like a blueprint for J Street’s agenda. So even without the Soros funding, Jewish hard-liners would have plenty of reasons to bash the organization. And several prominent and wealthy liberal pro-Israel activists have made a point of steering clear of J Street following the revelation in 2006 about Soros being a likely funder for the intended lobby.

J Street since its founding has attracted support in many liberal circles, so just how many Jewish doves are there who would back an organization that shares Soros’ positions and openly says it wants him as a financial supporter — but not if the organization actually takes his money?

In recent weeks, conservatives and other critics of Soros have noted the recent $100 million donation to Human Rights Watch, a group that is seen by Israel and many of the country’s supporters as biased in its treatment of abuses in the Middle East.

The donation “makes it a fine fit for George Soros, whose own biases are well established,” Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor’s director, wrote in a New York Post op-ed before the J Street controversy broke. “In the Middle East, for example, his Open Society Institute exclusively supports advocacy groups that campaign internationally to undermine the elected governments of Israel — organizations such as Adalah, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, Gisha, and Yesh Din.”

But J Street had openly associated with most of those groups, so news of the Soros funding was not needed to make the link.

One insider who monitors Human Rights Watch for bias told JTA that the group’s ties to Soros would not affect J Street’s image.

Soros, who made his billions in the hedge fund market, first became known for aggressively backing democratic movements in the former communist world. He also developed a reputation for micromanaging how his charitable money is spent and unabashedly using it to political ends.

Such an approach may have once been considered outsized, vulgar behavior for a philanthropist, but these days it is commonplace.

In the pro-Israel world, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson unashamedly wears his right-wing politics on his sleeve, and none of the many pro-Israel groups he funds is turning away his money.

Soros’ J Street role signifies a Jewish involvement that is always welcome from the very rich, according to some insiders — especially for someone who in the 1990s was known for his pronounced lack of interest in Jewish causes.

“He played an active role in different pro-democracy movements” in the former Soviet Union, said Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ. “I don’t think he ever really had an interest in dealing with the Jewish communities in those countries.”

Ultimately, much of the fury this week was directed at Ben-Ami instead of Soros — for misleading the public in the first place. Even in an apology posted on J Street’s blog, Ben-Ami appeared defensive.

“Those who attack J Street over the sources of its funding are not good government watchdogs concerned about the state of non-profit financing in the United States,” Ben-Ami wrote. “Our critics are really so concerned with transparency of funding, then I challenge them to reveal the sources of funds for the organizations with which they agree.”

“Legalisms,” sputtered Rabbi Steve Gutow, who directs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups and has defended J Street on many occasions.

Gutow noted that a number of the JCPA’s constituent network of local community relations councils have praised J Street for helping to suck the wind out of anti-Israel divestment efforts by presenting a credible left-wing, pro-Israel alternative.

The potential loss of that voice was worrisome, he said.

“I am not happy that the Soros money was not explicitly admitted to all along by J Street,” Gutow said.

JTA

 
 

Israel, Iran, court, entitlements — what would a GOP Congress mean?

Cantor could help GOP take the House, but can he win over the Jews?

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U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, shown speaking at the 2009 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, hopes to shepherd the GOP to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Robert A. Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

WASHINGTON – Eric Cantor has spent a lifetime having fun wearing the other hat.

Among Jews, the Republican congressional whip from Richmond, Va., likes to play the genteel Southern conservative, the posture that won over his wife, a socially liberal banker from New York.

Among southerners, he’s the nice Jewish boy who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and graduated from Columbia University but who has an easy familiarity with NASCAR, country music, and evangelical beliefs.

Profile

It’s an approach that has Cantor poised to become the highest-ranking Jewish member in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Republicans take the House, as the pundits and polls are predicting, he is expected to rise to the position of majority leader.

Maybe even House speaker, as the buzz goes, if the new wave of Republican lawmakers decides to dump Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom some conservatives see as too close to lobbyists and establishment interests. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican lawmaker in the Congress, denies that talk.

At the same time that Cantor, 47, stands on the verge of what could be his greatest victory in his young career, he faces what also might be his greatest test: reconciling the liberal tendencies of the smaller, Jewish community in which he grew up with the sharp swing right in the larger, conservative community he has embraced.

He insists it’s not such a big deal.

“The American Jewish community is not unlike others in this country,” Cantor told JTA this week in a quick phone interview from the campaign trail, where he was been spending a frenetic summer and fall in hopes of helping his party win as many as 90 seats from the Democrats. “Jews are frustrated at their own economic circumstance.”

Cantor said that American Jews have nothing to fear from the Tea Party, the disparate conservative insurgency that appears ready to propel the Republicans to victory.

“Tea Party individuals are focused on three things: One, limited, constitutional government; two, cutting spending; and three, a return to free markets,” he said. “Most Americans are about that, and the American Jewish community is like that.”

In the same interview, Cantor laid out a proposal on funding for Israel that could test exactly how “like that” is the American Jewish community — or at least its organizational leadership.

Cantor said he wanted to pull the $3 billion Israel receives in funding from the foreign operations budget so that GOP lawmakers — who in recent years have been voting in increasing numbers against the foreign funding bill — may vote their conscience: for Israel on one bill, against countries perceived as anti-American on another.

“Part of the dilemma is that Israel has been put in the overall foreign aid looping,” he said. “I’m hoping we can see some kind of separation in terms of tax dollars going to Israel.”

Other Republicans have suggested putting the Israel funding in the defense budget, noting that most of the money is for defense assistance.

Prior to that statement, a number of pro-Israel officials had told JTA on background that they feared exactly such an initiative. However, the expectation was that it would come from Tea Partiers and not the GOP leadership, whom the pro-Israel officials expected to be an ally in making the case for foreign funding in January when the new Congress is inaugurated.

Repeated attempts by JTA in the wake of Cantor’s comments to reach the same figures — among them, some of the most voluble pro-Israel advocates — went unanswered.

The silence itself was not unusual — no one in a non-partisan role wants to stand directly against an entire party a week before Election Day. But it signaled the chasm with Republicans that pro-Israel groups may be looking at come January.

Democrats and their allies were not so shy in reminding Cantor of the traditional pro-Israel argument for wrapping spending on Israel into the broader foreign aid budget.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, called Cantor’s proposal “outrageous.”

“Manipulating aid to Israel in this way would dangerously threaten continued bipartisan agreement on national security policy and programs other than direct assistance to Israel that aid in its security,” she said in a news release.

The funding, Lowey said, promotes diplomacy and alleviates the factors that create a fertile ground for terrorist recruiters.

“Because it is inextricably linked with broader U.S. national security goals, separating assistance for Israel in order to make it easier for Republican members to vote against the foreign aid bill would be counterproductive,” she said in her statement.

Cantor outlined a much different view: Israel was not like other nations, he said.

“Israel’s survival is directly connected to America’s survival,” he said. “Israel’s security is synonymous with our own.”

Bridging divides is not new to Cantor. His conservative posture on social issues — he is against gay marriage and abortion — place him on the opposite side of most Jewish voters. And Jewish advocates for the elderly strongly oppose several proposals in his new book “Young Guns,” co-authored with two other youthful conservatives, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The Republican trio calls for opening up Social Security and Medicare to private companies and raising the eligibility age for both plans. In addition, the book extols the GOP leadership’s voluntary freeze last March on earmarks, which Cantor wants to make permanent — and extend to Democrats, should the GOP win the House.

Jewish groups have relied on earmarks, the funds lawmakers set aside for their districts, to fund programs for the elderly.

Still, Cantor is always a welcome presence at Jewish communal events, associates say.

“He always has gotten community support, even though the Jewish community is mostly Democratic,” said Jay Ipson, a retired auto parts dealer who has known Cantor since he was a boy.

Cantor, who has a reputation for tirelessness, makes himself available to the Richmond Jewish community when he is home, Ipson says — visiting its institutions and working on its behalf. Cantor’s intervention on the state level helped Ipson establish the city’s Holocaust museum, which opened in 2003.

Richard November, a former president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said Cantor was typical of a younger generation of Southern Jews who refused to be circumspect about their Jewishness and would wear their identity with pride even as they ventured into the broader community.

November recalled tracking Cantor, who was the same age as his daughter, Debra, as he grew up.

“In my day — I graduated high school in 1956 — it was more isolated if you would, the Jewish kids stuck together,” he said. “During my daughters’ high school years, there was a greater acceptance of the Jewish students, the Jewish students were more aggressive in becoming involved in things that were not just Jewish.”

Cantor was well-turned-out early, he recalled.

“He always had a certain demeanor that most people don’t have at that age,” he said.

It helped win over his wife, Diana, six years his senior and a Goldman Sachs employee when he courted her while he was at Columbia.

“I said, ‘I thought you were Jewish?’ I’d never met someone who was Jewish and Republican,” she told The Washington Post in 2008.

In Washington, Cantor has made the Jewish community’s case to the Republican leadership, particularly as it applies to funding for safety net programs, said William Daroff, who heads the Jewish Federations of North America Washington office.

“He’s been helpful with legislative matters where there have been funding issues, issues around regulations, particularly with Jewish family service agencies,” Daroff said.

Some Jewish Democrats see Cantor as a friend and appreciate his outreach on Israel.

“We disagree on domestic issues, but when it comes to Israel there are no disagreements,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “His heart is in the right place when it comes to Israel.”

Cantor’s Jewish profile has, if anything, heightened as he ascended to the leadership. While his family remains Conservative, he now attends Orthodox services and, when his busy schedule allows, takes classes with a rabbi.

In “Young Guns,” his new book, he makes no bones about the Jewish values he brings to the GOP.

“I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent,” he said. “Paul and Kevin,” his co-authors, “go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their gs.”

That’s an outlook appreciated by a professional Jewish class that has been stymied at times in reaching out to Jewish lawmakers.

“The Jewish community has unfortunately had its fair share of members who shy away from their identity as they embrace public life and build their careers,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch. “Eric has done the exact opposite.”

JTA

 
 

Israel, Iran, court, entitlements — what would a GOP Congress mean?

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The likely prospect of Republican control of at least one chamber of Congress has triggered broad speculation about the remainder of President Obama’s time in the White House, Republican bids for the presidency in 2012 — and the very course of the nation, if not the West.

The issues that preoccupy Jewish voters and groups have a narrower cast. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, along with the more remote possibility of a Republican Senate, could mean sharp turns in foreign policy and domestic spending. Here’s a glance.

Israel

The biggest Israel headlines of Barack Obama’s presidency have had to do with the renewed direct talks with the Palestinians and with the Obama-Netanyahu administrations’ tensions that preceded them.

Such tensions have informed tight congressional races, where an array of Republican candidates have pledged to stand closer by Israel and painted their opponents as pawns of a president who is cool, if not outright hostile, to Israel.

In reality, the peace talks are not likely to be affected by a switch of congressional leadership. Obama’s opposition to Israel’s settlement policy has been expressed through rhetoric and not any action. In fact, Obama’s main substantive shift has been to increase funding for Israel’s defense and enhance defense cooperation as an incentive to make concessions to the Palestinians — intensifications of the relationship a Republican Congress would likely embrace.

If there is a change, it might have more to do with politics than policy. An adversarial Congress may force the White House to tamp down public criticism of Israel ahead of 2012 presidential elections.

The single substantive policy a GOP House might influence is the massive increase in funding for the Palestinian Authority launched in the last years of the George W. Bush administration, from occasional spurts of $20 million in the early part of the decade to today’s $500 million annual expenditure, including half in direct funding.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the GOP whip, has suggested that continued funding could be contingent on PA recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. (See related story.)

Theoretically, putting a stop on such funding could threaten U.S.-backed programs, especially training for Palestinian security services.

In fact, such foreign policy funding confrontations in the past have rarely led to defunding. Instead the executive branch — under Democratic and Republican presidents — has dipped into approved funds to keep programs going while it works out new arrangements with Congress.

Congress also is less likely to defund programs favored by Israel. The Israeli defense establishment, while not as gung-ho as the Obama administration in praising PA nation-building, nonetheless appreciates the increase in stability in recent years brought about in part by U.S.-led financial backing for the moderate west bank government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Still, even the congressional threat of a U.S. cutoff of funds can inhibit growth and investment.

The more substantive possibility for change on Israel is in Cantor’s pledge to remove defense funding for the nation from the overall foreign aid package and place it elsewhere — perhaps in the defense budget.

In the short run, all this means is that Israel will continue to receive $3 billion in aid annually while the Republicans attempt to gut backing for nations they do not consider reliable allies.

Pro-Israel officials, speaking on background, have said they would work hard to beat back such a proposal because of possible long-term consequences. They see aid for Israel as inextricably bound with the broader interest of countering isolationism.

These officials are concerned, too, that elevating Israel above other nations might be counterproductive in an American electorate still made up of diverse ethnic groups. They also believe that such a designation would make Israel more beholden to U.S. policy and erode its independence.

Iran

Republicans have sharply criticized Obama’s outreach to Iran and said he was too slow to apply sanctions.

Over the summer, however, Obama dialed back the outreach to the Islamic Republic and signed a sanctions bill. His Treasury Department already has intensified sanctions, particularly against Iran’s financial sector. U.S. and Israeli officials say Iran is feeling the bite.

The principal U.S.-Israel difference remains timing, or what to do when: When does Iran get the bomb — and what happens then?

Cantor, in his interview with JTA, emphasized that Obama must make it clear that a military option is on the table.

Congress, however, cannot declare war by itself, and while a flurry of resolutions and amendments pressing for greater confrontation with Iran may be in the offing, they will not affect policy — except perhaps to sharpen Obama’s rhetoric ahead of 2012.

Should Obama, however, return to a posture of engagement — this depends on the less than likely prospect of the Iranian theocracy consistently embracing diplomacy — a GOP-led Congress could inhibit the process through adversarial hearings.

Social issues: abortion,
church and state

The two Supreme Court justices more likely than not to uphold liberal social outlooks who were itching for a Democrat in the White House so they could retire — David Souter and John Paul Stevens — have done so. Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan replaced them following smooth confirmation processes.

No other such resignations are imminent. However, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also tilts liberal in her decisions, is 77 and has battled cancer; Antonin Scalia, a reliable conservative, is 74; and so is Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote who tilts right more often than not.

In case one of them retires, don’t expect the smooth transitions that characterized Obama’s first two appointments. Republicans may not control the Senate, but they will likely have a stronger filibuster in January.

Republicans now control 41 seats — one more than is needed to keep a nomination from advancing to a full vote. After Nov. 2, more among their numbers are likely to be diehard conservatives and less likely to cross the floor to break a filibuster.

They will want Obama to tailor a judge more to conservative likings under those circumstances, especially if he is replacing Scalia or Kennedy.

Earmarks

The House’s GOP caucus imposed a yearlong moratorium on its own earmarks last March. An extension is likely, Cantor said, and a GOP majority will be able to enforce a moratorium on Democrats.

That prospect concerns federations and Jewish groups that care for the elderly and infirm. Earmarks, less lovingly known as “pork,” are the funds lawmakers attach to bills in order to help their districts. Such funds have helped spur forward the Jewish Federations of North America crown project, naturally occurring retirement homes, among other programs for the elderly.

Medicare, Medicaid, and health care

No matter who wins next week, both parties have pledged cuts to entitlements like Medicare, the program that funds medical assistance for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides medical care for the poor. Jewish groups draw on both programs to help fund assistance for the elderly and provide the Jewish poor with kosher meals.

Targeting entitlements misses the point, say Jewish professionals whose expertise is elderly care. They say the real savings come from addressing burgeoning health care costs overall and not just entitlements.

“Let’s go after health-care spending and health-care costs and see how we can make the system more effective,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, the largest Jewish sponsor of senior housing in the United States.

The Republican leader in the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), has said he will lead an effort to repeal the Obama health-care reforms passed this year by the Democratic Congress. It’s not clear that Boehner has broad party support, and he likely would not be able to override Obama’s veto of such a bill.

JTA

 
 

GOP sweep makes one Jew a star, unseats and disempowers many others

WASHINGTON – A historic Republican sweep of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday has propelled Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, to the verge of becoming the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in U.S. political history.

“We are excited for Eric Cantor to become the next House Majority leader,” said Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “The highest-ranking Jew to ever serve in the House!”

Cantor, however, remains the exception: The fortunes of Jewish politicians in the United States for decades have risen and fallen with the Democrats, and Tuesday night was no exception.

The Republican sweep, picking up at least 60 House seats — the greatest swing since 1938 — and sharply reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate, drove at least six Jewish lawmakers out of office, with one of them a congressman losing his bid for the Senate.

The night’s Jewish losers included Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the Senate’s most dogged civil libertarian, beloved by liberals for his steadfast opposition to the Iraq War and expansion of government powers of interrogation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Feingold, in his concession, quoted another Great Plains Jew, Bob Dylan, who contemplated in “Mississippi” a difficult life well spent: “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.” Feingold then punctuated the lyric with, “On to the next fight!” to cheers from his supporters.

All told, Jewish representation in Congress dropped from 44 to 40, with 27 Jews in the House and 12 in the Senate. One loss in the Senate was Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who had been defeated in the primaries. Additionally, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who by Wednesday morning appeared to be on the cusp of a narrow re-election victory, does not list a religion but notes that his mother is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor.

The defeat of five Jewish incumbents, however, just hints at what this election could mean for Jewish access in Washington.

Since a sweep by Democrats in 2006, lawmakers with strong ties to the Jewish community had chaired some of the most powerful committees in the House. Committee chairmen, by determining agendas, hold almost unchallengeable power to advance or kill legislation.

With Republicans having taken the house, those lawmakers, all Democrats, lose their chairmanships. They include Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who heads the Banking Committee; Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Commerce and Energy committee; Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

Furthermore, Jewish groups — most but not all of which are bound up with Washington’s liberal-Democratic establishment — will see several veteran lawmakers with whom they have built years-long relationships exiting Congress. The most pronounced example is Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), who chaired the Budget Committee, which works with the White House to set spending priorities. Spratt’s office had an open door for Jewish social service lobbyists.

The benefit of such access often is subtle but valuable. Berman, for example, was a loyal Democrat who kept Iran sanctions at bay for as long as the White House hoped to coax Tehran into dialogue. As soon as the White House gave the green light, however, Berman was ready with a far-reaching bill that targeted Iran’s energy and banking sectors, and that was shaped in part with counsel from the pro-Israel community.

Such access will hardly disappear in a GOP Congress. Berman is likely to be replaced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who has cultivated close ties with the pro-Israel community and was a leader in advancing pro-Israel legislation when Republicans previously controlled the House. Jewish social-service officials say Cantor has been a sympathetic ear on their issues. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the minority leader poised to become speaker, has deep ties with his state’s active Jewish community.

The certainty of such access, however, is less clear in a Congress shaped to a great degree by the Tea Party movement and its agenda of across-the-board budget-cutting. Cantor already has said he intends to end earmarks, the discretionary funding derided as “pork” but favored by Jewish groups as a conduit for funding programs for the elderly.

Cantor and Boehner also have vowed to repeal the health-care reform enacted this year.

“I believe that when we take majority in January, I hope that we’re able to put a repeal bill on the floor right away because that’s what the American people want,” Cantor told CBS News after the victory.

Republicans are not likely to overcome a presidential veto, but the threat is bound to make uneasy a Jewish social-service establishment that sees in the legislation, however cumbersome, reforms critical to bringing down health-care costs.

Cantor and Boehner are now set to ride a conservative tiger energized by the greatest midterm victory in decades, and spurred by leaders like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who already on election night was urging the new lawmakers to challenge the Republican “establishment.”

“These Republicans know one thing,” DeMint told supporters at his victory party in Greenville, S.C. “If they don’t do what they say this time, not only are they out, but the Republican Party is dead, and it should be.”

In the face of such sentiment, it is unclear to what degree the GOP leadership will be willing to countenance Jewish organizational urgings to tread softly on budget matters.

A bright spot for the Jewish community was the election in Illinois of Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to the open U.S. Senate seat. Kirk not only has been a leader on pro-Israel issues, he is an increasing rarity, and one beloved by Jewish donors who hanker for bipartisanship: a Republican moderate on social issues.

Pro-Israel officials already have fretted about Cantor’s proposal to pull Israel’s $3 billion in defense assistance from the foreign operations package. Such a separation, the officials fear, will make Israel vulnerable to charges of special treatment and could make the generous package a matter of debate. Rand Paul, a Tea Party Republican elected Kentucky’s senator, already has said he will seek cuts in defense spending.

It has yet to be seen how a GOP-led Congress will affect the peace process or efforts to get Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Foreign policy traditionally has been the prerogative of the president, but Congress is able to play an obstructionist role by exacting tough oversight on foreign spending.

Cantor in a pre-election interview told JTA that $500 million in spending for the Palestinian Authority would be subject to new scrutiny, and could depend on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

In the House, four Jewish Democrats were defeated: Reps. Alan Grayson and Ron Klein of Florida, Steve Kagen of Wisconsin, and John Adler of New Jersey. Grayson, who won in 2008 against an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, represents a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican. Since his election he had emerged as one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the Republicans, accusing the party of wanting the uninsured to die. Outside groups poured money into negative campaign ads taking aim at Grayson.

Klein, swept in with the Democratic majority in 2006, lost a swing seat to Allen West, an Iraq War veteran. Klein was a leader on pro-Israel issues, particularly related to Iran sanctions.

Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) lost his bid to win his state’s open U.S. Senate seat; so did another Jewish Democrat, Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.

Jews did pick up a few seats. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general and a Democrat, won the Senate race to succeed retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Democrat David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., won the House race to succeed Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who also is retiring. Cicilline brings to three the number of openly gay Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill, joining Frank and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) appeared set to keep her Tucson area seat. Giffords, married to Mark Kelly, the first astronaut to join his twin, Scott, on a space station, beat back a challenge in part by distancing herself from Obama’s more liberal immigration policies.

Pro-Israel money helped incumbent friends of Israel pull off narrow victories. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, rallied against tough challenges, and by Wednesday morning it appeared that Bennet and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) were on their way to winning as well. All four had been targeted for assistance by pro-Israel fund-raisers.

So had Democrat Jack Conway, who faced Paul in Kentucky in a race so bitter that Paul refused to mention Conway in his victory speech. Paul, whose father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is a noted isolationist, kept pro-Israel groups at arm’s length during his campaign.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ousted by Tea Partier Joe Miller, appeared to be on her way to keeping her seat in a historic write-in campaign — one backed by NORPAC, one of the largest pro-Israel political action committees, in a last-minute fund-raising appeal.

J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobbying group, scored 0 for 3 in its Senate endorsements but appeared to do relatively well in its 58 House endorsements. The question is whether those successes will help push back a full-frontal campaign by groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition to depict J Street associations as poison at the polls.

J Street’s endorsee in the signature race for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, Democrat Joe Sestak, lost to Republican Pat Toomey — but by a razor-thin margin.

Jewish groups also are watching closely how this election will impact social issues. For example, the Reform movement, among other groups, supports a repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay members of the military. With conservatives in Iowa ousting three judges who ruled gay marriage constitutional in a rare recall election, such initiatives may be headed for deep freeze.

Jews won a number of statewide races. Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and Democratic Party chairman, and Josh Mandel, a Republican state legislator, Orthodox Jew, and Iraq War veteran, won their races for Massachusetts and Ohio state treasurer, respectively. Also, Sam Olens, a Republican, was elected Georgia’s attorney general.

JTA

 
 

First sign of the new U.S. political reality — Bibi’s swagger

image
Randy Altschuler, right, a Republican who holds a slim lead in his suburban New York congressional district, campaigned this summer with Rep. Eric Cantor, at present the only GOP Jewish lawmaker in Congress. Courtesy Randy Altschuler for Congress

WASHINGTON – The sharpest signal of what last week’s elections meant for Jews came not from Washington but from New Orleans, Nova Scotia, and Australia.

In New Orleans, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech Monday calling for moving beyond sanctions to mounting a “credible military threat” against Iran as a means of avoiding war.

News Analysis

“Containment will not work,” Netanyahu said in his address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

The prime minister’s remarks echoed the precise terminology used by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in Nova Scotia two days earlier, when he told the Halifax International Security Forum that “containment is off the table.” The likely new majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), referred to a “credible military threat” in the days before the election.

It was a clear sign that Netanyahu feels empowered by the Republican sweep last week of the House of Representatives to trump the Obama administration’s emphasis on peacemaking with the Palestinians with his own priority: confronting Iran.

The emerging gap between Israel and its Republican friends on one side and the White House on the other could presage a repeat of tensions in the late 1990s between Netanyahu, in his first term, and President Clinton — tensions that pro-Israel officials found themselves brokering, often to their discomfiture.

Obama administration officials have indicated that they will not be taking cues from anyone in setting foreign policy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking Monday in Melbourne, Australia, where he is on an official visit with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered a rejoinder to Netanyahu’s remarks.

“We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we taking is in fact having an impact in Iran,” Gates said.

Gates’ response implicitly rejected not only an escalation but Netanyahu’s claim that sanctions are not working. It also signaled that the Obama administration was going to protect its foreign policy turf — the traditional White House posture when opponents take one of the houses of Congress.

That was clear already last week when Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s top aides, told sympathetic nongovernmental groups in an off-the-record phone call that the White House would be unwavering — even after losing the House majority — in pressing Israel and the Palestinians to return to the peace talks.

“The president has made it very clear that he is committed to doing whatever he can to foster talks in the Middle East,” said Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser for public engagement. “That’s not a partisan issue; his commitment to that is unwavering.”

But Netanyahu, speaking at the federations’ General Assembly, expressed confidence that he had U.S. backing in resisting Palestinian demands. He listed a number of items the Palestinian Authority is seeking, including a freeze on Jewish west bank settlement activity and a final-status deal that would remove Israeli forces from the west bank.

Netanyahu, however, told the crowd in New Orleans that Israel would stay in the Jordan Valley, the eastern part of the west bank, “for the foreseeable future.” The audience applauded.

“The Palestinians may think they can avoid negotiations,” Netanyahu said. “They may think that the world will dictate Palestinian demands to Israel. I firmly believe that will not happen because I am confident that friends of Israel, led by the United States, will not let that happen.”

GOP love for Israel

Beyond the ramping up of Iran rhetoric, the first signal that new Republican members who swept into office last week were going to make Israel a priority came from Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed candidate in Florida who romped to victory in the race for that state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Rubio, 39, the son of Cuban exiles, punctuated five days of celebrations with a trip to Israel with his wife. He left Sunday on the private trip, which will include holy sites. Rubio, who converted from Roman Catholicism to Southern Baptist, plans an official visit after assuming his seat, a campaign official told the French news agency AFP.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which for decades has managed to secure the support of the leadership of both parties, responded to last week’s elections with a positive message.

“It is abundantly clear that the 112th Congress will continue America’s long tradition of staunch support for a strong, safe, and secure Israel and an abiding friendship between the United States and our most reliable ally in the Middle East,” AIPAC said in a statement. “Many of the strongest friends and supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship were re-elected on Tuesday.”

The statement named Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the once and future Senate majority leader, and Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio), likely to become the House speaker; Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is losing the speakership and is vying to become minority leader along with Steny Hoyer (D-Md.); and Cantor, who is vying for majority leader. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, also is a staunch Israel supporter but was not up for re-election last week.

Backing Democrats, growing unease with Obama

Exit polls showed Jewish support for Democrats remained strong, although commensurate with other recent polling showing increased misgivings about President Obama over his economic policies.

J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group, conducted the only national exit poll. It showed that 66 percent of Jews supported Democrats in congressional elections, compared with 31 percent for Republicans. An American Jewish Committee poll conducted in September and October showed 57 percent of Jewish respondents supporting Democrats vs. 33 percent for Republicans. The numbers are sharply down from the 78 percent of Jews who voted for Obama in 2008, according to exit polling.

The J Street poll was conducted by Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications on Election Day, Nov. 2, and surveyed 1,000 voters who identified as Jews as part of a broader consumer panel. It had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Jim Gerstein, the pollster, is on J Street’s advisory council.

J Street and Gerstein also conducted an Election Day statewide poll in Pennsylvania, where conservative groups targeted Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) as anti-Israel in part because he was backed by J Street. The J Street poll showed 76 percent of Jews favoring Sestak to 19 percent for the winner, Republican Pat Toomey. The Republican Jewish Coalition also conducted a statewide poll of Jews the same day showing the break favoring Sestak 62 percent to 30 percent.

The difference apparently was that the RJC canvassed only Jews who were affiliated with synagogues. When unaffiliated Jews were polled — as they were in the J Street poll and as they are in AJC’s polls — the gap between Democratic and Republican support widened considerably.

By the numbers

JTA reported last week that Congress lost seven Jews in both houses, and gained two. The gain might be three.

In New York’s 1st Congressional District, a recanvassing of the voting machines erased Republican Randy Altschuler’s 3,400-vote deficit, propelling him to a lead of 392 votes over incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), who represents eastern Long Island.

Neither party was set to declare victory, as counting had yet to begin on 9,000 absentee ballots, but Bishop said Monday that he would demand a hand recount.

Altschuler, who owns a recycling company, would become the second Jewish GOP congressman, joining Cantor. His win would bring the number of Jews to 28 in the House, along with the 12 in the Senate.

A little farther upstate, GOP candidate Nan Hayworth, a physician, ousted Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) from the 19th District. Hayworth is a Lutheran but belongs to a synagogue with her Jewish husband and her two sons, whom she has raised as Jewish. That makes her the mirror image of Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who was elected from his Baltimore-area district in 2006. He is Greek Orthodox but belongs to a synagogue, and with his Jewish wife has raised his children as Jews.

JTA projected a win for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and that became official last Friday night. The victory means a third term for Giffords, who was first elected in the GOP-leaning district in the Democratic sweep of 2006. She embraced tough immigration policies as part of her campaign this year, distancing herself from national Democrats.

Welcoming Blumenthal, Cicilline

The other two new Jewish congressmen are New Englanders: Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), until now the state’s longtime attorney general, and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the mayor of Providence.

Cicilline is the first Jewish Rhode Islander elected to national office, the Providence Journal quoted David Goodwin, a historian of the island’s community, as saying. The state has elected a number of Jews to statewide offices, however, including governors.

Cicilline, whose mother is Jewish and a congregant of Temple Beth-El in Providence, also is the third openly gay male in Congress — and the third openly gay Jewish male in Congress, joining Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). The only openly gay woman in Congress, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), is not Jewish.

Success in the states

As Blumenthal’s election demonstrates, election to statewide office often is a steppingstone to federal office. Count four more such steppingstones on Nov. 2: Jews won statewide races in Massachusetts, Arizona, Georgia, and Ohio.

Republicans Tom Horne in Arizona and Sam Olens in Georgia were elected attorney generals. Both are active in their communities and with the Republican Jewish Coalition.

So is Josh Mandel, a Republican state lawmaker and former Marine who was elected treasurer in Ohio. In Massachusetts, Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also won the treasurer spot.

Pro-Israel insiders in Washington noted that, in different ways, Mandel and Grossman both have been leaders in the effort to sanction Iran and now are positioned to make sure that their states enforce such sanctions. As a lawmaker, Mandel led the effort to divest Ohio from Iran. Grossman, as AIPAC president in the mid-1990s, lobbied for the Iran sanctions passed by Congress at that time.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Hate Osama, do not rejoice in his death

_JStandardColumns
Published: 05 May 2011
 
 

Jewish Values Institute kickoff hosts House majority leader Cantor

Boteach says he seeks to inspire new generation of leaders

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 13 May 2011

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and others welcomed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Sunday at the launch for Boteach’s latest brainchild, a soon-to-be established Jewish Values Institute based in Englewood.

The institute, for which Sunday’s event was a fundraiser, will seek to immerse professionals in discussion and learning about ways to bring Jewish values into American culture, according to Boteach, a columnist for this newspaper.

“It is our hope to inspire more Jewish men and women in politics, media, commerce, and the arts to celebrate their Jewish heritage and be experts in, and exponents of, Jewish values, not just in their personal lives within the Jewish community but in every aspect of public endeavor,” he told The Jewish Standard. “The time has come to inspire Jewish youth to marry their professional careers with a spiritual calling.”

The goal of the institute, he continued, will be not to provide technical skills but to inspire and teach Jewish values using traditional texts. The focus would be on five areas: marriage and relationships; parenting and child-rearing; media and culture; politics and foreign policy; and finance and materialism. It would help established professionals incorporate Jewish values into their messages to the world, Boteach said.

“It will be, ‘How do they present this in the form of a TV pitch with values content, or how do they write movie scripts that can incorporate Jewish values?’” Boteach said.

As an example, Boteach cited the traditional Jewish value of struggle, as compared to the value of perfection, which he believes is more celebrated in the mainstream, Christian culture of the United States.

“I think our Christian brothers and sisters and Hollywood stars value perfection,” Boteach said. “When a Christian asks, ‘What would Jesus do?’ they compare their lives to a standard of perfection. Judaism believes righteousness is found not in perfection, but in struggle.”

Conceding that some feel, in his opinion reasonably, that modern Jewish-American society sometimes overvalues conventional success or success at all costs, Boteach said, “That is just what we are talking about. The push for success at all costs, is that a Jewish value?”

The importance of time and relationships over objects is another value Boteach hopes the institute will promote.

“We are in a culture that’s addicted to things,” he said. “Judaism places time above property. We work hard to have Shabbos, and work on our relationships. Relationships are the source of real happiness.”

Boteach said he was especially honored to have Cantor, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history, attend along with his wife Diana and speak at the kickoff event.

“Eric is an amazing person,” said Boteach. “How often do you have someone who reaches so high in the U.S. government who proudly affirms his identity and has a values-based agenda and is a staunch supporter of Israel?”

Other attendees included Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, worldwide head of Chabad, and Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut department and religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood.

The suggested contribution to attend the event, which took place at a private home in Alpine, was $1,000.

 
 

Reform Judaism in transition

The right in sight at Reform biennial

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 23 December 2011
Voices from both sides of political spectrum featured

WASHINGTON — At the opening plenary of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial, Rabbi Eric Yoffie asked for the help of nearly 6,000 attendees “in one particular area.”

Of the speakers to follow him in Washington, from Dec. 14-18, Yoffie said: “None of these individuals is without controversy, they each have their supporters and their critics in the broader community, in the synagogue world, and in this room.”

“I hope and trust that we can all agree on this — each and every speaker is a guest in our home,” the outgoing URJ president continued. “We should try to treat our speakers and our other guests as we would [treat] guests in our own living room.”

Yoffie likely was not worried about the crowd treating with respect last Friday’s keynote speaker and the convention’s main attraction, President Barack Obama. Rather, his request was more fitting for House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Bill Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and Fox News commentator.

Cantor and Kristol, with their conservative political orientations, break the mold as far as presenters go for the historically left-leaning Reform movement. Yoffie said at a Dec. 14 press session that there “absolutely was an effort” to include “all views” at the biennial.

“We looked at kind of a spectrum of points of view, we invited people from across that spectrum, and generally speaking, I think it has been welcome in the [Reform] movement,” Yoffie told reporters.

Big tent movement

“I think people understand that we are a big tent movement,” he said.

Biennial participant Bob Rich, of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Md., said that contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of people within the Reform movement “who are very concerned about aspects of the left-wing that really are inconsistent with the Jewish values that we espouse together, and I think we need to talk about these things and we need to be tolerant of each other.”

Rich was among the attendees at a biennial session titled, “A Conversation Among Politically Conservative Reform Jews.” The session — which drew about 75 people (including Kristol) — was closed to reporters, but Jadwiga Brown of North County Reform Temple-Ner Tamid in Glen Cove, N.Y., described the feeling in the room in an interview afterward.

“It was an open discussion, people discussing their views, some of them liberal, [but] mostly conservative people who feel they don’t have a voice in their own community, including the rabbinical viewpoint,” Brown said. “So this gave us an opportunity to say how we felt.”

Steve Mindlin of Temple Israel of Tallahassee, Fla., said that some at the session expressed concerns about “being the minority within their own temples and not really being able to discuss the conservative view of the problems in our country.”

Mindlin said attendees also discussed the need “for there to be some opportunity, within the Reform Jewish community, to have people of different political backgrounds…to be able to have civil and frank discussions among each other, as opposed to doing a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ with conservatives, where they need to hide.”

‘Repair’ something all can embrace

Brown, who identified herself as fiscally conservative but supportive of a number of liberal issues, said she thinks members of the Reform movement should “reach across the aisle like Congress does and be able to work together.” Mindlin addressed what he called a misconception in the community that many believe being concerned about social action — what the movement calls “tikkun olam,” translated as repairing the world — is a liberal value. Rather, social action can be “something that all Jews should be able to find ways to agree upon,” Mindlin said.

Rich said that his synagogue in Maryland has “had speakers from diverse perspectives come in,” and said the community should be careful not to assume “that all Reform Jews believe in high taxation and expansion of social welfare programs.”

“You could make the argument that these things are not consistent with Jewish values, although a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, how dare you say that!’” Rich said.

In his remarks the morning of Dec. 15, Cantor—speaking to a ballroom that was about half full—thanked the Reform movement multiple times for its commitment to tikkun olam and offered a “special salute” to the Religious Action Center (RAC), the movement’s left-leaning political arm that celebrated its 50th anniversary at the biennial.

“When I look at gatherings like this, this is the reason why our people were able to survive over the thousands of years,” Cantor said. “There’s no question that the URJ has become part of the moral fabric of our country and our community.”

Cantor said Israel “fights the same war” that America does against the spread of radicalism and hatred, and provides a “more hospitable Middle East for U.S. interests,” but also “cherishes the values we do.” He noted Israel’s earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Haiti and Japan, respectively, as examples of the country’s commitment to “save lives and help repair the world” — another reference to tikkun olam.

Raps envoy’s remarks

Today, however, he said, the 2,000-year-old dream of the State of Israel “is in jeopardy” due to the isolation of Israel at the United Nations, the specter of a nuclear Iran, and the Arab Spring’s placement of Egypt’s radical Muslim Brotherhood in a powerful position. Cantor also called out the recent remarks of U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, who said Muslim hatred for Jews stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be construed as anti-Semitism.

“I say to you, any justification of any form of anti-Semitism must not be tolerated or condoned,” Cantor said, adding, “Now is the time to send a signal to Washington that it is not okay to vilify Israel, and it is not okay to demonize Jews.”

“In order for us to win this great struggle, all leaders in Washington must have the courage not to see the world how we wish it to be, but as it truly is,” he said.

The Palestinian “culture of resentment and hatred” is “the root of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” and the Palestinians must prove they are deserving of a state before getting one, Cantor said.

On the range of Israel-related political issues, Cantor called for a bipartisan attitude.

“We must not let our political differences get in the way of recognizing that there is just one lone and consistent voice for freedom and equality in the Middle East,” he said.

In his introduction of Cantor, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the RAC, also called for bipartisanship. The RAC, he said, works from “both sides of the [political] aisle” to an extent that “may surprise some.”

“We will always seek to find common ground across political and ideological lines,” he said. Saperstein also noted that in Jewish tradition, “minority opinions are recorded on every page of the Talmud alongside majority opinions.”

Saperstein debated Kristol, chairman of the Emergency Committee for Israel, in a biennial forum titled “Liberalism, Conservatism: Which Better Furthers Jewish Values and Jewish Interests?” He admitted that it is “no secret to our [Reform] movement, that the consensus views of our movement correspond with a generally liberal or progressive view of many of the public policy issues that America faces, that Israel faces.”

No safety without solutions

“We can probe the tradition to find moral wisdom in it, but in order to make it relevant in America, we have to make it available in moral forms…that match up with human reason,” he said.

The Jewish view of the government in talmudic times was a liberal one, Saperstein said, “of, for, and by the people.” He cited community money funds, clothing funds, and the fact that tzedakah was enforced by the beit din as examples that supported the RAC’s commitment to “economic justice” in America.

Jews will “never be safe or secure” until they help solve the country’s “endemic problems” using legislative avenues, Saperstein said. You cannot worry about the environment without worrying about energy policy, worry about Israel without worrying about U.S. military policy, or worry about anti-Semitism without worrying about public education policy in America, he said.

Kristol said the question of whether to embrace liberal or conservative values is a matter of “what is practical” and what works, and in his opinion, the conservative policies of last 30-40 years have been more successful than liberal ones. In India and China, people have been saved from poverty not through social action, but by the implementation of free-market economies, he said.

JointMedia News Service

 
 
 
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