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J Street parley attracting big names, but will Israel’s ambassador attend?

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 18 October 2009

WASHINGTON – J Street has lined up plenty of high-profile speakers for its first major conference. But the new and controversial self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby is looking to add one more prominent name to the guest list.

The organization — which has backed U.S. pressure on Israel (and the Palestinians), criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and criticized more established pro-Israel groups — wants Michael Oren, the U.S.-born and raised Israeli ambassador to Washington, to attend and address its first major conference at the end of this month.

Oren is undecided. “A decision about his participation or the embassy’s participation will be taken soon.” Jonathan Peled, his spokesman, told JTA. “We will have to deliberate this week.”

Peled said that what he told The Jerusalem Post last week still stands: Some of J Street’s positions “impair” Israel’s interests. He would not elaborate further, except to say that this has been conveyed to J Street officials in private conversations.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and executive director, is not taking no for an answer. “Your attendance — even to clarify some of our areas of disagreement — will be respectfully welcomed, and we promise you an open hearing as we hope and expect you will welcome us at the Embassy one day to present our views and opinions in that same spirit,” Ben-Ami wrote in an open letter released this week. J Street sent its original, private, invitation to Oren on July 13.

Oren’s presence would lend an official Israeli imprimatur at a time when J Street’s harshest critics are painting the group as undermining Jewish unity and working in tandem with Israel’s enemies. Most recently, some critics have played up the fact that a handful of J Street’s donors — out of thousands — have ties with Arab countries and Iranian expatriates opposed to sanctions against Tehran.

Such efforts to delegitimize the organization appear to have failed. J Street’s upcoming conference has been endorsed by 160 congressional lawmakers. The slate of scheduled speakers includes several former top Israeli officials. In addition, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who leads the country’s largest synagogue movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, is co-chairing the conference’s main event, a town hall meeting on Israel’s relationship with U.S. Jews. U.S. Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), leaders in Congress’ unofficial Jewish caucus and close to Obama, are taking part in a panel that examines how one to expand the definition of “pro-Israel” on the Hill.

Most notable, perhaps, is the participation of Yoffie, who tussled earlier this year with J Street over its equivocation over naming Hamas as the villain in Israel’s Gaza war. He told JTA that J Street’s views deserve a hearing in the wider Jewish community, and praised it for doing more than many more established groups to promote the Israeli position of a two-state solution. Yoffie said he would not refrain from criticizing some of J Street’s positions, particularly on Iran. “This is not an area for passivity or indifference; the stakes are too high,” he said.

Beyond securing Yoffie’s participation, J Street has made significant headway in forging an increasing level of cooperation and coordination among U.S. Jews associated with Israel’s dovish camp.

Along with these successes, the organization has been growing. Eighteen months ago it had no budget and no office. Now J Street has a staff of 30, offices in Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor, and an annual budget of $3 million.

That’s what drew Hadar Susskind, 36, to the organization. Susskind, until last month the wunderkind Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, told JTA he crossed over when he determined that J Street was here to stay.

“They are speaking for a tremendous constituency in America,” said Susskind, not yet settled into using “we” in his new role as J Street’s director of policy and strategy. Susskind, who has served in the Israeli army, said J Street attracted him in part because of its major policy goal: aggressively seeking American intervention in the peace process toward a two-state solution. “For me going to J Street is really about doing what is best for Israel.”

Susskind said he was drawn to J Street, in part, because he had endured for so many years establishment discussions about how to draw younger Jews into the pro-Israel community; J Street was doing just that, he said. The expected 1,000 conference-goers will be split into two lobbying groups, one for university students, and one for everyone else.

Susskind is an establishment “get” for a group that until recently has been depicted as an outlier by officials at more established groups, with some speaking on the record, others preferring to distribute potentially damaging information behind the scenes.

William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, sparked a tweet war last month with J Street and its defenders when he accused the group of “standing with the Mullahs” by opposing tough Iran sanctions.

J Street says it does not oppose the sanctions that would further isolate Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program, but thinks implementation of such measures at this time would be “counterproductive.”

Daroff told JTA that the J Street has developed better PR tactics — condemning, for instance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and opposing an organized effort to shame the Toronto International Film Festival for celebrating Tel Aviv’s centennial. Still, he added, these were easy calls. J Street, he said, has not yet defended Israel when it is unpopular to do so.

“I think that J Street’s voice has some resonance on the Hill because to a large degree” it is “in sync with the Obama administration” on pressing for renewed talks and a robust U.S. peacemaking role. “The question is when and if the Obama administration shifts direction, would J Street still be relevant?”

J Street has yet to get a toehold among Republicans — the GOPers appearing at the conference are in the “exception proves the rule” category. Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) is an Arab American; former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel left Congress in part because he was disillusioned with his party’s foreign policy, including on the Middle East.

And despite its success in lining up former Israeli officials, J Street was turned down by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli opposition leader. She declined to address the event, even by video message.

J Street critics say the organization muddies the waters by presenting multiple, conflicting voices on important topics — when a unified voice is needed, at least in Washington.

“Those Jewish Americans, who share a deep concern for Israel’s trials and travails, have the right, even the duty, to express their criticism within the Jewish community, the public at large, pretty much anywhere — except before the administration and Congress,” Chuck Froelich, a former deputy national security adviser to Israel’s government, wrote this week in The Jerusalem Post. “There, we have to present one voice — not ‘pro’ every Israeli policy, but united, unswerving support for Israel and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

AIPAC may have made mistakes in the past, but is still the pre-eminent pro-Israel voice, he wrote, adding, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Behind the scenes, some AIPAC backers are said to be exercised about J Street — although with AIPAC boasting a budget of more than $60 million, J Street hardly poses a major threat.

Any establishment anxieties about J Street are unjustified, Susskind said.

“I have tremendous respect for AIPAC, they have done wonderful work strengthening” the U.S.-Israel relationship, he said. “We need that and more, and J Street is more.”

JTA

 
 

‘Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core’

 

J Street confab shows generational divide on Israel

Eric FingerhutWorld
Published: 30 October 2009
(tags): j street
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Young delegates to the J Street conference in Washington enjoying the Rocking the Status Quo party on Monday. J Street

WASHINGTON – After all the arguing in recent weeks over J Street, one thing was clear at the inaugural conference of the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group: Even among the 1,500 delegates who attended the parley, there are crucial disagreements over what’s best for Middle East peace.

On some issues, judging from interviews with conference delegates and assessments by J Street officials of participants’ viewpoints, there appeared to be broad consensus, like the belief that the Palestinians deserve national rights or the United States needs to do more to push the Israelis and Palestinians toward negotiations.

On other issues, however, a stark generation gap was apparent.

Older conference-goers appeared to be virtually unanimous in expressing support for a two-state solution, calling themselves Zionists and saying that while they back more U.S. pressure on the parties, they reject cutting aid to Israel if it does not accede to U.S. demands.

But a number of delegates under 40, especially college students and recent graduates, appeared to be much more equivocal on the idea of two states for two peoples. Some were hesitant about identifying as Zionists, and some were open to the idea of making U.S. aid to Israel conditional on progress in the peace process.

The divide, which J Street officials acknowledged, raises the question of how an organization that strongly endorses a two-state solution can succeed when many of its supporters question its core position.

J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami said he hoped that by engaging younger activists to come and debate the issue, the organization could convince them to back a two-state solution.

“Let them question it here under the tent of a pro-Israel organization” rather than among those who don’t have Israel’s best interests at heart, he said.

The key to winning over such young people, J Street officials have argued, is opening up the debate, even on the most fundamental issues. Critics of the organization counter that some of J Street’s positions undercut Jewish unity and could harm Israel’s interests, such as the group’s opposition to Israel’s Gaza operation last winter and its reluctance to endorse harsher sanctions against Iran at this time.

Oberlin College senior Danielle Gershkoff and junior Rachel Beck — neither of whom is convinced of the efficacy of a two-state solution — said they were glad J Street encouraged them to participate and ask questions at the conference rather than telling them they were too left-wing.

“We don’t want old people telling us what to do and what to think,” Beck said.

Ben Margarik, 25, of Washington, said the conference was an excellent way to engage young people in the Jewish community, allowing them to question what others might consider the orthodoxies of pro-Israel activism.

“There’s a need to be critical of Israel’s policies when they don’t lead to a two-state solution,” Margarik said. “That’s what love is, real care and concern — not solely supportive but willing to criticize.”

Both young and old at the conference were united on some issues. References to the creation of a Palestinian state frequently garnered loud applause at sessions, though talk of a Jewish homeland received little crowd reaction. And participants seemed united on the need to keep pushing Israelis and Palestinians toward a solution.

Wendy Kenin, 37, of Berkeley, Calif., a member of the Green Party, said she was less interested in staking out her own views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than in the process of “bringing all different perspectives together.” She called the views of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, J Street, and Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports a one-state solution to the conflict, all worthy of consideration.

Rachel Nadelman, 32, of Washington, who works in international development, said she supports the idea of two states for two peoples but demurred when asked whether she considered herself a Zionist.

“It’s a loaded word,” she said. “It’s a word I’ve not been real comfortable with.”

Nadelman added that if Israel didn’t go along with U.S. requests in the peace process, she thought it was reasonable to reconsider aid to Israel. Israel needs to be “accountable,” she said.

Meanwhile, older delegates — many with years of Israel activism under their belt — were less ambivalent about being called Zionists.

“The moral heart of Judaism and Zionism is justice and fair treatment for all people,” said Michael Peshkin, 52, a Northwestern University engineering professor.

A proponent of the two-state solution, Peshkin has been a Chicago-area leader of the left-wing group B’rit Tzedek v’Shalom, which this week merged with J Street.

Kay Elfant, 64, of Silver Spring, Md., said she is a proud Zionist who longs for a settlement of the conflict because she is troubled that “my people could be in any way abusive” and “make life so hard for other people.”

While she wants pressure on the two sides, she has a red line, she said: no cut-off of aid to Israel.

“Never aid, I can’t go there,” Elfant said. “That feels anti-Israel.”

Sally Gottesman, 45, of New York, said thinking about aid possibly being cut off to Israel is like “worrying about a meteor striking Earth.”

“It could happen,” she said, “but it is so unlikely that it’s silly to worry about.”

JTA

 
 

White House to J Street: We have your back

Ron Kampeas and Eric FingerhutWorld
Published: 30 October 2009
(tags): j street
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J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks in Washington on Monday at the group’s first conference, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie looks on. J Street

WASHINGTON – Israel’s ambassador turned down an invitation to speak this week at the inaugural J Street conference shortly after his spokesman was quoted as saying that some of the group’s positions would “impair” Israel’s interest. The Obama administration seemed to have a different message for the group: We have your back.

On Sunday, before the official launch of the conference, the White House’s top outreach official urged Jewish and Arab leaders to change their communities’ “hearts and minds” about President Obama’s peace push at a joint session convened by J Street and the Arab American Institute.

“We need to build support” for Obama’s efforts to restart Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, Tina Tchen said. “There are hearts and minds in the United States that need to be changed.”

On Tuesday, another Obama administration official — James Jones, the White House national security adviser — hammered home the point to the 1,500-plus attendees at the Grand Hyatt Washington. His message from the White House to the J Street conference was one of inevitability: of peace, of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship — and of J Street.

“You can be sure this administration will be represented at all future conferences,” Jones said.

Jones’ message was otherwise boilerplate — Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states need to do more to achieve peace, President Obama is committed to a two-state solution, Iran must stop enriching uranium. He did, however, add a new wrinkle to the Iran equation, making it clear that the United States expects Iran to give up all, not just some, of its low-enriched uranium.

But the “I’ll be back” assurance earned an extended round of applause and meant a great deal to an organization that struggled to attract mainstream and right-wing speakers. A behind-the-scenes campaign from some other pro-Israel groups and conservative pundits had warned away establishment figures. (Among the critics’ complaints: J Street backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians, it slammed Israel’s invasion of Gaza and it has criticized other Jewish groups.)

Jones’ message was echoed by U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who introduced the Obama administration official. Until his recent announcement that he was quitting Congress to head a Middle East peace think tank, Wexler was about as mainstream as it gets in Congress’ unofficial Jewish caucus. He is very strongly pro-Israel, and his wife works for the American Jewish Committee.

Wexler, who was candidate Obama’s lead Jewish outreach, remains loyal to the president’s insistence on broadening the dialogue.

“As Americans, we are among the most fortunate people in the world,” he told the crowd. “I applaud your political energy; we need more of it.”

Boos, cheers for Yoffie

Rabbi Eric Yoffie drew cheers from the crowd on Monday during a discussion with J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami when he said that too many Jewish communal leaders have their “heads in the sand” when it comes to Israeli settlements.

“You cannot convince Americans that it makes sense for an Israel that supports a Palestinian state to maintain a large settler population in the heart of the west bank where that state must come into being,” said Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “The simple fact is that it makes no sense at all and Americans, being a sensible people, know that.”

Later, however, Yoffie was booed when he criticized Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who chaired the United Nations commission that issued a report stating that Israel and Hamas might be guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself,” Yoffie said, “for working under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Council.”

Yoffie, a longtime backer of a two-state solution and critic of Israeli settlement expansion, welcomed the creation of J Street. But he ended up harshly condemning the organization for criticizing Israel’s invasion of Gaza. (For an abridged version of his talk, see page 18; for the complete text, go to jstandard.com.)

Debating pro-Israel money

It’s not every day that two Jewish congressmen politely debate whether Jewish political contributions control U.S. policy in the Middle East. Or one of those members gets a major applause after saying he voted against a resolution that condemned a Nation of Islam leader.

But that’s what happened Monday afternoon at the J Street conference.

It all started when Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) told of voting against a 1994 resolution condemning the hateful and anti-Semitic speech of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, at the time a top lieutenant of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Filner said he couldn’t condemn the speech because of the First Amendment — “How can Jews survive without the First Amendment?” he asked — and was the only Jewish member of Congress to vote against it.

Filner said the vote hurt him among Jewish supporters, costing him $250,000 in contributions per election cycle.

“That kind of money is an intimidating factor. I raised a lot less money in succeeding years, but my conscience was cleared,” he said to huge applause.

As the discussion among Filner and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), and Charles Boustany (R-La.) continued, Polis cautioned that “we need to be careful to not give cover” to those “who think there is a Jewish conspiracy” to control U.S. foreign policy. Filner retorted by citing two members of the Congressional Black Caucus — Earl Hilliard of Alabama and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia — who were defeated with the help of pro-Israel donors.

“That intimidates people,” Filner said.

Polis responded by saying that the pro-Israel lobby is no different from any other single-issue interest group in American politics, from labor unions to low-tax proponents like the Club for Growth to supporters of gun rights.

“This is not unique to American politics,” Polis said about the pro-Israel lobby. “Nor is this even one of the most influential groups in either of the parties.”

But Filner persisted, arguing as an example that labor unions were at least providing health benefits for the members — but on Israel, members of Congress “are taking positions that can lead to war” based only on how it affects their campaign coffers.

“The Republican Party doesn’t give a damn about Israel,” he said, but only support it on political grounds.

That finally led Boustany to chime in, suggesting that Filner not “generalize about Republicans.”

JTA

 
 

Jewish and non-Jewish doves unite to press for U.S. diplomacy

WASHINGTON – A funny thing happened on the way to modifying punitive legislation targeting Palestinians — Jewish and non-Jewish groups backing aggressive peacemaking established a coalition.

The groups succeeded in toning down the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. In the process they forged an unofficial coalition of so-called “pro-peace” groups that now routinely consults on issues ranging from Israel-Palestinian matters to how best to deal with Iran — most participants oppose new sanctions.

Participants say the Jewish groups in the new coalition include Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, as well as two groups in the process of merging: J Street and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom. Officials with the groups unabashedly defend their growing ties with their non-Jewish partners, insisting that the non-Jewish groups back a two-state solution and favor other policies that will help Israel by improving chances for peace in the region.

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Jeremy Ben Ami, the director of J Street, addresses a session J Street held jointly on Oct. 25 with the Arab American Institute while Jim Zogby, center, the institute’s president, and J Street political director Hadar Susskind look on. Arab American Institute

The list of organizations from outside the Jewish community includes narrow-interest groups such as the Arab American Institute, the American Task Force on Palestine, Churches for Middle East Peace, and, more recently, the National Iranian American Council. At times the informal coalition also has included liberal think tanks such as the New America Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Center for American Progress.

The loose-knit coalition has persisted and even expanded since the election of President Obama, who is friendly to its goals of active engagement. Many of the organizations had an active role, or even helped sponsor, J Street’s inaugural national conference in October. Participants attend each other’s strategy meetings and, during intense periods — for instance, in crafting the modifications to the 2006 Palestinian legislation — speak routinely in conference calls.

“It’s informal and it’s based on personal relationships that we’ve developed over the months and years,” said Warren Clark, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, an umbrella body for mainstream church groups from Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox streams.

For years, liberal activists — including some associated with the budding coalition — have protested the willingness of establishment Jewish organizations to embrace pro-Israel Evangelical Christians, citing their conservative views on domestic social issues and hawkish foreign policy positions. In recent weeks, however, Conservative journalists and bloggers have criticized the willingness of dovish Jewish groups to work with non-Jewish groups that have been critical of Israeli policies and oppose Iran sanctions.

Many pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, have made sanctions a top priority, portraying them as a means of leveraging Iran into abandoning its suspected nuclear weapons program. Several members of the informal dovish coalition oppose such steps, with the National Iranian American Council leading the way.

Conservative critics have focused on alleged links between J Street and the Iranian group, lumping together the two organizations. Yet J Street officials have always stopped short of publicly ruling out sanctions, arguing that the time was not right for tougher measures, but might be in the future to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And, indeed, J Street this week came out in favor of proposed sanctions legislation being considered in the U.S. Congress.

Americans for Peace Now, on the other hand, has joined the Iranian group, known by the acronym NIAC, in portraying the sanctions as inhumane and likely to reinforce support for the regime. In at least one mass e-mail, Americans for Peace Now directed readers to NIAC’s talking points outlining the case for opposing sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector.

In the wake of Obama’s election, NIAC called a meeting to strategize among like minds on Iran sanctions.

Lara Friedman, an Americans for Peace Now lobbyist, attended the meeting. So did Joel Rubin, then a staffer at J Street, though participants say he took part in a personal capacity.

In any case, the proposed language that emerged from the Nov. 12, 2008 meeting is broad to the point of meaninglessness, underlining the difficulties of pleasing all parties in such coalitions.

“Obviously with such a diverse group, it will be difficult to coalesce behind any specific position,” the minutes of the meeting stated. “But we all share a view that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, opposes military action against Iran, and agrees that sanctions are no substitute for diplomatic engagement.” (See page 26.)

Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said Friedman’s presence was unexceptional.

“We seek advice and guidance, including those that don’t share the views of NIAC — including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which we are a member,” he said. “Lara participated in this meeting and other meetings that included NIAC and other meetings of groups that have an interest in Iran policy.”

JTA

 
 

After Oren flap, Rosenthal focuses on anti-Semitism — for now

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 01 January 2010

WASHINGTON – Critics have a simple message for Israel’s top diplomat and the Obama administration’s envoy on anti-Semitism: Reread your job descriptions.

Every Israeli ambassador to Washington launches his tenure by assembling the Israeli and Jewish press and listing what he sees as his priorities: High among them, always, is outreach to U.S. Jews. But less than a year into his tenure, Ambassador Michael Oren — who started his job with a speech stressing that priority — is being criticized by some left-wing organizations, such as Americans for Peace now and Ameinu, for saying that the lobbying group J Street was “fooling around with the lives of 7 million people.”

The position of U.S. Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism is a more recent invention, but its mandate is self-evident: Defend Jews, everywhere. But Hannah Rosenthal’s first media foray in her new role as envoy took the shape of an attack on Oren, a fellow diplomat. In a Dec. 24 interview, Rosenthal told Haaretz that it was “most unfortunate” that Oren had accused J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel group, of endangering Israel. Her comments prompted a sharp rebuke from Alan Solow, a longtime Obama backer and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The flap was the latest revelation of fissures between the Obama administration (backed by some left-wing Jewish groups) on the one hand, and Israel and its establishment U.S. Jewish defenders on the other.

The sniping is in abeyance for now: Rosenthal told JTA she is focused on combating what she sees as increasing anti-Semitism in Europe and the Arab world, and would prefer not to go over the recent back-and-forth.

Oren is in Israel and his embassy staff did not return requests for comment.

Solow, a staunch defender of Oren and Rosenthal’s most prominent critic, says he, too, sees the matter as now resolved.

In his initial, formal statement, Solow had said that some people were suggesting that Rosenthal’s comments “could threaten to limit her effectiveness in the area for which she is actually responsible.” But in his subsequent interview with JTA this week, Solow denied that he had been calling for Rosenthal’s professional head.

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Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, and Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s top official monitoring anti-Semitism, are at the center of the propriety of criticism of Israel and of groups that criticize Israeli policy. Oren photo: Public Domain. Rosenthal photo: Courtesy Hannah Rosenthal

Rosenthal, without prompting, had almost the same message about keeping focused on her mandate. “It’s very important that people gather to talk about the anti-Semitism they’re fearing,” she said. “That’s my job — monitoring — but my job also says ‘combating.’ It’s important to expand the conversation to talk to other ethnic and religious groups.”

At the same time, Rosenthal was unapologetic about her comments on Oren’s slam of J Street — an organization she helped guide as a board member until her appointment last month to the government job.

“The reporter asked me about Oren’s comments, and I said that saying J Street threatens 7 million Jews was ‘most unfortunate,’” she said.

Rosenthal said that she was untroubled that in the wake of her interview Jeffrey Feltman, an assistant secretary of state, issued a statement praising Oren for his role “in maintaining and strengthening [the Israeli-U.S.] relationship through his day-to-day interaction with the administration and Congress on issues of vital importance to both countries and his vigorous outreach to Americans of all origins and points of view.”

The release of the Feltman statement was in itself unusual: It went out to two publications, Haaretz and Politico, and while officials at both the State Department and the White House confirmed its content to JTA, neither would provide the entire statement.

In her Haaretz interview, Rosenthal also veered off the topic of anti-Semitism to discuss Israel’s peace prospects, and she repeated the Obama administration’s mantra about urgent engagement. Her discussion of that subject raised as many official Jewish eyebrows behind the scenes as did her comments about Oren.

Rosenthal said Mideast peace issues are not unrelated to anti-Semitism, because one must know how to separate legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism.

Solow said he would continue to defend Oren because he was confident there was a consensus among the Conference of Presidents’ 50-plus member organizations that that Oren was making strides in improving U.S.-Israel relations, and that it was inappropriate for Rosenthal, an Obama administration official, to criticize him. Solow also said the Conference of Presidents did not have a view on Oren’s criticisms of J Street. Oren made his most recent anti-J Street remark to a conference of leaders of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Behind the scenes, leaders of many Jewish organizations see J Street as fair game: Soon after it was created nearly two years ago, J Street drew attention by lobbing rhetorical bombs at establishment Jewish groups and figures, accusing them of impeding peace by withholding support for vigorous U.S. engagement in the Middle East.

J Street, whose officials were unavailable for comment on this story because of the holiday break, more recently has largely refrained from sharp attacks on other groups.

The flap over Rosenthal and Oren’s comments appears to be part of a larger battle between the Jewish establishment, which still seeks the marginalization of J Street for its views on Israel, and the Democratic establishment, which embraces J Street’s pro-Obama approach to engagement.

One of the jarring aspects of this debate is that the sparring is coming from two figures not known for fighting. Prior to his appointment, Oren had a reputation as an affable scholar; in 2004, at a State Department conference on Israel’s intentions in its deadly attack during the 1967 Six Day War on the USS Liberty, he refused to be baited into name-calling by those who insisted that Israel was targeting the ship and stuck to his prodigious research. And early on, after his appointment to the Washington post, Oren spoke of the need to reach out to U.S. Jewish groups that are critical of his government’s policies but are committed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Rosenthal, who served for years as the director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, was known as a consensus-builder for an umbrella group whose bottom line is consensus.

Perhaps not any longer. Asked if she was ready to put this behind her, she said yes, but added: “I don’t forget anything.”

JTA

 
 

J Street, Oren mending fences — but wariness lingers

WASHINGTON – After months of high-profile feuding, the breakout dovish lobbying group J Street and Israel’s ambassador to Washington appear to be reconciling.

The two sides have been talking — through the media and directly in private — with the goal of ending the hot-cold feud that dominated much professional Jewish chatter in the latter part of last year.

Both sides say that while there have been strides in the rapprochement, much needs to be bridged — underscored by a persistent Israeli government wariness of the group.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador, dropped J Street a bouquet in a Feb. 10 interview with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in which he said that the organization had moved “much more into the mainstream.” It marked a sharp turn from his characterization of the group late last year as having positions dangerous to Israeli interests.

“The J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving,” Oren said in the interview. “The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now come and supported Cong. [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; it has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream.”

Oren’s comments come as some pro-Israel activists continue their efforts to marginalize Jewish groups on the left, including J Street, that they see as being hostile to Israel.

The comments were no slip of the lip, said sources close to the ambassador. They were a quid pro quo arising out of recent statements J Street has released, including an admonishment to the United Nations to treat Israel fairly and an endorsement of immediate passage of new U.S. sanctions against Iran.

For its part J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state deal, has endeavored in some recent statements to cast the embassy and the Israeli establishment as a friend and an intimate. At a time when some voices on the left were criticizing Israel’s rescue mission in Haiti as a cynical ploy to distract attention from continued opprobrium arising from last year’s Gaza war, J Street was effusive in its praise.

“Israel’s swift response to another nation’s needs speaks to the very best of the values underpinning the Jewish tradition and the best of what that country represents as the national home of the Jewish people,” J Street said. “It did, in this instance, serve as a real model for the international community. We urge those who might otherwise disagree with Israeli policy and action to commend Israel for reacting so swiftly and making a positive contribution at this time of urgent international need.”

And this month, when Oren came under verbal assault when he delivered a speech at University of California, Irvine — a hotbed of anti-Israel activism — J Street was calling for civility. (See pages 15, 17, and 20.)

“We believe that universities should be a place for an honest discussion about tough issues,” the group said. “While appropriate and respectful protests are a legitimate and important part of the conversation on campus, anti-Semitic, racist, disruptive, and inflammatory actions and language are simply unacceptable.”

Hadar Susskind, the J Street policy director, said such statements arose out of recent efforts to reconcile after a tense 2009.

“We’ve been having ongoing discussions with the embassy making clear our different positions,” Susskind said. “We’ve said all along we would welcome a good productive relationship with them.”

Officials close to the Israeli Embassy confirmed the conversations.

J Street was established in early 2008. What little relationship it had developed with the embassy was shattered in early 2009 when the organization issued a statement that seemed to blame Israel and Hamas equally for the Gaza war.

Worsening the situation was J Street’s position until December that the time was not right yet for sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector, even as many Jewish groups were pushing for such measures. Israel considers containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions its signature issue, beyond how it deals with the Palestinians.

Oren, who assumed his post last summer, launched his tenure with a stated policy of reaching out to Jewish groups across the spectrum — and then he pointedly avoided J Street. He declined to attend the group’s inaugural conference in October, and in December told a group of Conservative rabbis that J Street’s views are dangerous for Israel.

Neither side needed the tension. Oren’s description of the group as “dangerous” earned a rebuke from Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy — an official with whom he would in theory work closely. Centrist and right-wing Jewish groups closed ranks behind Oren, but the Obama administration made it clear it was not unhappy with Rosenthal’s remarks.

J Street has a dependable cadre of 40 to 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives ready to heed its voting recommendations. Congressional insiders say J Street’s green light in December for Iran sanctions nudged the bill from the super majority that traditional lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee usually turns out to officially “overwhelming”: 412-12. That sent the Obama administration a clear message to hurry it on up, the insiders say.

And J Street, however much its reputation is made on a willingness to take Israel to task, also needs to work with the leadership in Israel in order to maintain any credible claim that its critiques will have an impact. Its first congressional delegation visiting the region this week met with top Palestinian and Jordanian leaders — but in Israel, its top interlocutor was Dan Meridor, one of five deputy prime ministers.

There’s a way to go, both sides acknowledge: J Street is not yet on the “must call” list for the embassy when the ambassador calls a meeting of the Jewish leadership.

Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups also are watching the developments. J Street earned much pro-Israel resentment at its outset by “punching up” — issuing blistering attacks on groups that were larger and better known such as AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, and The Israel Project.

CUFI spokesmen said they welcomed J Street’s recent efforts to pull back from such attacks, but noted that as recently as last week, J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami maintained that the Christian group hoped to “precipitate” an Armageddon through support for right-wing Israeli policies. CUFI says its pro-Israel work is informed by political, not theological, sympathies for Israel — and in any case, says its theology has no place for sparking the end of the world. (See page 15.)

“J Street seems to employ a strategy of publicity through controversy without considering the harm that policy does to the pro-Israel community,” CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern said.

JTA

 
 

Free speech at issue in campus Israel wars

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A protestor is removed by campus police after disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, on Feb. 8.

In the wake of the arrests of 11 University of California, Irvine students for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Shalom Elcott, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Calif., threw down the gauntlet. (See The death of academic discourse and ‘Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties.’‘ )

UC-Irvine has long been caught in the thicket of the Israel wars, its campus notorious in the pro-Israel community for the intensity and often confrontational quality of discourse on the Middle East. But while some Jewish groups have pushed the administration to condemn inflammatory speakers sponsored by Muslim students, the university previously had been willing only to issue generic condemnations of hate speech on campus.

News Analysis

This time, the Jewish community will “intensely monitor” the response of the university, Elcott told JTA.

“While it’s nice to condemn hate speech in general, we expect a very specific response from the University of California leadership based on what transpired in that room,” he said.

In addition to prosecuting the students “to the fullest extent of the law,” Elcott told JTA he expects future activities of the Muslim Students Union to be closely scrutinized and would like to see their programming stripped of public funding.

Civil discourse on college campuses, or the lack thereof, has been a source of concern for some time. But two distinct strategies are now taking shape, seemingly informed by the recourse available to both sides.

Jewish groups increasingly are pressing their case directly with universities and relevant government agencies, serving notice to university leaders and major donors that they expect strict enforcement of campus codes of conduct. Some even have sought to have speakers disinvited whose views are deemed beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Israel’s critics have stepped up efforts to actively disrupt speakers defending the Jewish state.

The differing tactics in many ways reflect the methods that Israelis and Palestinians, by virtue of their power differential, have been led to adopt in their own confrontations.

Jewish groups, possessed of greater political and financial strength, have sought to exert pressure on an institutional level, seeking governmental investigations and leveraging relationships with university officials and their deep-pocketed supporters. Pro-Palestinian groups, generally outmatched at that game, have employed methods more reminiscent of guerrilla politics — disrupting speeches, creating political theater on campuses, and being arrested.

On Tuesday, the Zionist Organization of America called for donors to stop supporting UC-Irvine and for Jewish students not to apply there.

Such tactics have surfaced at other campuses as well.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement protesting an appearance scheduled for Tuesday night at New York University by Richard Goldstone, the South African Jewish jurist whose report on Israel’s conduct of the 2008 Gaza war sparked vitriolic condemnations. In Philadelphia, several pro-Israel activists protested the decision by the Hillel chapter at the University of Pennsylvania to host an event organized by the group J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. And across the state, in Pittsburgh, the roles were reversed: Local J Street supporters initiated a campaign to stop the Hillel chapter from hosting a speech by Israeli hard-liner Effi Eitam.

“There was a tremendous amount of pressure put on this organization, on a variety of levels, in an attempt to force us to cancel the event,” said Aaron Weil, the local Hillel director in Pittsburgh.

For their part, pro-Palestinian students have repeatedly disrupted speeches by Israeli speakers, including one last week by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, at Oxford University. At UCLA, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student groups affixed duct tape to their mouths and disrupted a lecture by another Israeli official on the same night as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was nearly shouted down at Irvine. And at the University of Chicago, hecklers made it exceedingly difficult for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak in October, interrupting his talk repeatedly with cries of “war criminal.”

Even as they seek to disrupt Israeli speakers, the pro-Palestinian students are being cast, by themselves and by some supporters, as representing the cause of free speech.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council has called for an investigation into the arrests at the UC-Irvine campus of the students who disrupted Oren’s talk. A spokesperson for the group, Edina Lekovic, told JTA it was unclear exactly what law the students broke and that there appeared to be a “selected application” of university policy.

Lekovic declined to comment directly on the acceptability of disrupting a public university lecture. But the Muslim Council’s executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, seemed to defend those arrested, saying in a statement that the students “had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression.”

The students, Al-Marayati said, were exercising their First Amendment rights.

UC-Irvine’s Muslim Student Union has maintained publicly that notwithstanding that its president, Mohamed Abdelgany, was among those arrested, the group did not orchestrate the disruptions. The MSU, however, has not condemned the disruptions either, even though it has long been a target of the ZOA — a campaign the student group has described as an effort to obstruct its right to free expression.

“It is ironic that the university would honor the representative of a country that brazenly stands ‘above the law’ and punish the students who would rightfully protest his presence as a representative of Israel’s illegal and inhumane policies, including documented war crimes,” Hadeer Soliman, the MSU spokesperson, said in an e-mail.

Hillel President Wayne Firestone joined the Ocean County federation in its call for a harsh reaction from the university.

Firestone, who in 2008 presided over a discussion in Washington about civil discourse that featured UC-Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, said he has been satisfied generally with the administrative response to such incidents. But he would like UC-Irvine to “come down hard” to send a message about the importance of civility on campus.

“I do believe that strong disciplinary procedures by the university, whether or not they’re prosecuted criminally, is in order here,” Firestone said.

Firestone also condemned efforts within the Jewish community to disinvite or disrupt speakers, saying it makes it harder for the community to press the importance of free speech.

JTA

 
 

Pro-Israel groups set to counter campus apartheid claims

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An “apartheid” wall erected during the last week of February at UCLA features information critical of, if not hostile, to Israel. StandWithUs

At universities across the globe, the annual springtime ritual known as Israel Apartheid Week is kicking off, and Jewish students and pro-Israel groups have been readying themselves to respond in force.

Unlike past years, when intense pro-Palestinian activity in the wake of Israel’s offensives in Gaza and Lebanon caught many Jewish students off guard, this year the pro-Israel community is ready with initiatives of its own.

The largest effort, Israel Peace Week, is helping to coordinate responses at 28 campuses and counting. StandWithUs, the Los-Angeles based pro-Israel group, is promoting a U.S. speaking tour by Israeli soldiers to counter claims that the Israel Defense Forces engaged in widespread misconduct during 2009 offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The David Project, the Anti-Defamation League, and CAMERA all have made material available online to counter the apartheid charge and help students disseminate pro-Israel literature.

Hasbara Fellowships, a campus Israel group affiliated with the outreach group Aish Hatorah, is promoting a film about anti-Semitism on campus through the Website Campus Intifada. And in Canada, where Israel Apartheid Week activity is often far more intense than in the United States, a pro-Israel initiative called Size Doesn’t Matter enjoyed a brief spell of notoriety when it released a sexually suggestive video that spoofed Israel’s smallness.

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In advance of Israel Apartheid Week, the pro-Israel public relations house BlueStarPR released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — anti-Israel fixation syndrome.

Continuing the below-the-belt theme, the pro-Israel PR house BlueStar released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — Anti-Israel Fixation Syndrome.

“On the pro-Israel side, I think there’s much more of a focus on this week than I’ve ever seen before,” said Eliot Mathias, the director of Hasbara Fellowships. “So many different organizations and groups. There is more of an awareness of what’s happening.”

Now in its sixth year, Israel Apartheid Week is actually two weeks, running March 1 to 14. Mainly confined to university campuses, the internationally coordinated series of events aims to reinforce the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa and strengthen the activist tools that helped bring that regime to its knees.

Events often employ an element of political street theater — obstructing campus byways, for instance, with mock Israeli checkpoints or an “apartheid wall” — in addition to more conventional lectures and film screenings. Israel Apartheid Week is closely aligned with the so-called BDS movement — an acronym for boycott, divestment, and sanctions — and calls for an end to Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and the right to return of Palestinian refugees.

Given the harsh rhetoric and strident anti-Israel policies encouraged by the events, Israel Apartheid Week has united a broad spectrum of Jewish groups that while often agreeing on few other Middle East questions, have all condemned the Israel-South Africa analogy as illegitimate and anti-peace.

Joining StandWithUs, the David Project, and Hasbara Fellowships in their condemnation of Israel Apartheid Week are J Street and its campus arm, J Street U, and the liberal Zionist group Ameinu.

J Street has taken a slightly different tack from the other groups, largely eschewing on-campus fliers in favor of a campaign it calls Invest Don’t Divest, which aims to promote fund-raising for cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians that “help set the context for a sustainable peace.” A spokesperson for J Street told JTA the group did not want its “nuanced pragmatic” approach to get lost in the “shouting match” that some groups engage in during Israel Apartheid Week.

And inevitably, the shouting does happen. Israel Apartheid Week reliably brings at least a few speakers each year who shock the campus Jewish community by tiptoeing ever so close to the line separating ant-Zionism from outright anti-Semitism — and arguably marching right over it.

Even so, the wider significance of Israel Apartheid Week is a matter of some dispute in the pro-Israel community. At many, if not most, American schools, little or nothing is done for Israel Apartheid Week, whose official Website lists events in 45 locations, only about a quarter of them in the United States. Anti-Israel activists at some schools — like the much-discussed University of California, Irvine — run apartheid activities other weeks that are not listed on the official site.

“In the U.S., I’m aware of some isolated pockets of activity, but in five years that IAW has been running, we haven’t seen it catch on in the mainstream campus community,” said Stephen Kuperberg, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group comprising 30 groups.

Still, virtually everyone in the pro-Israel campus community agrees that the frequency and intensity of apartheid/BDS activity is growing. And some even link it to a spike in anti-Semitic activity on campuses. At the University of California, Davis last week, a Jewish student found a swastika carved into her dorm door.

“I think it’s absolutely a big deal,” said Lawrence Muscant, the acting executive director of the David Project. “The fallacious lie of Israeli apartheid is seeping into the maintream. It’s extremely disturbing.”

JTA

 
 

Groups weigh in on flotilla confrontation

NEW YORK – The main U.S. Jewish umbrella organization is defending Israel’s raid of the flotilla heading to Gaza, but several left-wing groups are blaming the incident on officials in Jerusalem and calling for an investigation.

“We regret the loss of life and the injuries. But the responsibility for these tragic events lies primarily with those who organized and carried out this extremist mission and those that aided and abetted them,” said the heads of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the main pro-Israel umbrella group in the United States.

Several members of the Presidents Conference and other pro-Israel groups issued similar statements, including the American Jewish Committee, which accused the pro-Hamas Free Gaza movement and its supporters of deliberately provoking a violent confrontation with the Israeli navy early Monday morning.

But several U.S. Jewish groups on the left — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu — are pointing the finger at Israel.

Nine activists were killed and several dozen protesters injured aboard a flotilla of ships bound for Gaza during rioting after Israeli naval forces boarded the ships to redirect them to an Israeli port. The flotilla was attempting to break the Israeli navy’s blockade of the strip. Seven Israeli soldiers were injured.

Israel has circulated videos showing that their troops were attacked as they boarded the ships.

J Street and Ameinu called for independent investigations and cautioned observers against making any judgments before all the facts are known. At the same time, both organizations blamed the confrontation on Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza — a policy adopted in order to isolate and weaken Gaza’s Hamas rulers, help bring home captured soldier Gilad Shalit, end Hamas rocket fire on Israel, and halt the flow of weapons into Gaza.

Ameinu said that such incidents play into the hands of Israel’s enemies. J Street argued that there are “better ways to ensure Israel’s security and to prevent weapons smuggling than a complete closure of the Gaza Strip.”

In addition to slamming the blockade, Americans for Peace Now also sought to portray the flotilla incident as part of an ongoing Israeli government effort to stifle dissent. It called for “an end to the radicalization of the Israeli government’s language and policy” and endorsed the idea that Israel is increasingly earning “the brutal and violent image it acquired in the last years.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest synagogue movement in the country and an organization that has backed robust U.S. peacemaking efforts, issued a statement that defended Israel’s actions and called for stepped-up efforts to “examine” any humanitarian needs in Gaza.

“We note that the Hamas government, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and which has long been responsible for attacks against Israeli forces and civilian centers, cannot expect to have open borders,” said the URJ’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. “We also note that humanitarian aid sent to Gaza in the past has often been used as a cover for delivering weapons and military supplies.”

Yoffie added that in addition to working to address Jerusalem’s security need, the U.S. government and Israel needed to examine “the plight of those living in Gaza who require additional humanitarian assistance.”

“Recent events underscore the urgent need for real progress in addressing both sets of concerns,” Yoffie said.

JTA

 
 
 
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