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Malcolm Hoenlein on viral e-mails and the Jewish world

The e-mail came from a news source in Europe, who got it from a guy in New York, who got it from a couple in Los Angeles, who got it from a guy who “just received this from my friend in Israel, who moves in high circles, who heard it from a consultant to the United States who meets once a month with the president in the White House. He is in the know. This is what actually has happened with the relationship with Israel and the U.S.A. and it is not pretty.”

What followed was a litany of “crimes” by the U.S. administration against Israel. Some of them were based on kernels of truth that had been convoluted into “reports” designed to galvanize people into action by injecting them with the fear factor. One accusation was exaggerated truth. Others were patently ridiculous, some were oversimplifications of complicated diplomatic matters that are not controlled by anyone in the United States, and some were outright lies.

How to find out the truth behind these viral e-mails? One way is to check with Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He gets his news firsthand from newsmakers and reporters — and he gets many inquiries about politically charged e-mails from the left and the right.

“Jewish organizations,” he told this reporter in a telephone interview last Wednesday, “by and large have still not learned to use the new media effectively, but it’s changed how we do our work in many ways, because there is no longer a news cycle. Information is now transmitted instantly to huge numbers of people, and disinformation needs to be responded to immediately — because the more sensational the disinformation is, the faster it goes viral. Then, before you can correct it, in a matter of moments, people are on to the next issue. (Viral e-mails were reportedly a topic at last Monday’s closed Presidents Conference meeting.)

“When I started in organizational life,” Hoenlein continued, “there was a 24-hour news cycle for newspapers. Then cable TV changed that to a 12-hour and then an eight-hour cycle, and now, because of the ‘net, we are down to a matter of minutes. It also becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is true and what is not, and there’s no time to adequately check allegations and reports before they have been widely circulated.”

How do these viral e-mails affect the American Jewish community’s relationships with other communities, politicians, and administrations?

“I see lots of energy and time wasted when false allegations are made about Israel, about the U.S.. and the relationship between them, as well as myriad other subjects that affect what people think and do. Sometimes these reports are ludicrous. For example, before Passover, someone sent out a fake press release to say President Obama asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to ask the Jewish people not to say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at the Seder, but to say ‘Next year in Israel or elsewhere.’

“It was an attempt at humor, and when I got [the release], I told our chairman, ‘Wait a few days, and you will see this transformed into a news story that people believe.’ Three days later we started getting e-mails asking us how we could let this happen.

“There are other examples as well. Reports that new policies have been instituted that deny Israeli scientists access to the U.S. or that Israeli access to U.S. bases has been restricted, or that 20,000 people are coming from Gaza to the U.S., or that the Obama administration does not oppose Syria re-arming Hezbollah, are just not the case.

“The problem is compounded when the ‘authors’ ascribe these allegations to a legitimate source that is close to the situation and knows what’s going on. This gives pernicious people the ability to write whatever they want and make charges without any accountability, while they hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.

“For example,” Hoenlein said, “the accusation about arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah detracts from our serious discussions about American policy toward Syria. The same is true of allegations leveled against Israel and its government for harvesting Palestinian organs or poisoning water provided to the Palestinians. Spending time responding to reactions to this disinformation interferes with our ability to respond to real challenges and concerns that we need to address.

“And as far as Iran and terrorism are concerned, Jews should be prepared for anything, whether or not Israel attacks Iran. Jews and Jewish institutions should always take precautions to protect our constituents and our communities. There have been numerous attacks on Jewish communities, including the shootings in Seattle and in Los Angeles. These and other attempted assaults should raise our awareness and keep us on constant alert. But you don’t need viral e-mails to tell you that.”

Will the spam problem get worse as time goes on?

“The closer we get to the mid-term elections this year, the hotter it will get,” he predicted, “and the more intense it will become. As we move toward 2012, it will get even worse. The community should not allow itself to be dragged into the excesses of the political silly seasons — which will be exceptionally tense this year, considering the charged atmosphere of fiercely contested races.”

 
 

Beinart pins his thesis to the synagogue door

WASHINGTON – Peter Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue, once edited The New Republic (the closest thing to a smicha for Jewish policy wonks) and backed Sen. Joe Lieberman’s quixotic 2004 bid to become the first Jewish president.

Pro Israel, with questions

Which is why he’s always been counted among the Washington pundits who defend Israel, Zionism, and the right of American Jews to lobby for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Beinart also frets about how Jewish his kids will be.

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Peter Beinart has pundits and Jewish officials debating about his recent essay asserting an increasing American Jewish alienation from Israel.

Which is why he worries about how Israel behaves, how it is perceived, and what it means for American Jewry. And why, he says, he published a lengthy essay in last week’s New York Review of Books arguing that American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel and blaming U.S. Jewish groups for refusing to criticize the Israeli government’s perceived rightward shift.

“Having kids makes you react differently to things,” Beinart told JTA, speaking of what brought about his 5,000-word (not counting several subsequent rebuttals to rebuttals) piece.

“It made me think more, not about my own Zionist identity, but about what Zionism was going to be available to them,” Beinart said. “I began to grow more and more concerned about the choice they would make, which would have been agonizing for me to watch unfold” — between an American universalism stripped of Zionism or an “anti-universalistic Zionism that has strong elements in Israel, and in the Orthodox community for which I have strong affection.”

Beinart’s essay has had an impact, unleashing a stream of responses. It is being examined as well in the uppermost precincts of organized U.S. Jewry, and has become fodder for lunchtime chats, insiders say.

“Everyone’s read it and everyone is talking about it,” said Marc Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

The essay comes as dovish and leftist groups in Israel and the United States are beginning to push back against the conventional wisdoms that define organizational American Jewish attitudes about Israel. The most prominent case is the rise in recent years of J Street, but there are other examples: B’Tselem, the human rights group, recently exported an Israeli staffer to direct its Capitol Hill operation.

Officials of Ir Amim, a group that counsels accommodating some Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem as a means of keeping the peace in the city, are touring the United States this week. They are sounding out Jewish leaders about how to make the case for a shared city to an American Jewish polity where dividing the city is something of a third rail.

For the most part, the debate has assumed something of the tone of an earnest, friendly exchange, with the combatants avoiding the sort of dueling take-no-prisoners charges of dual loyalty and anti-Semitism that sometimes marks such exchanges.

In large part that’s because of Beinart’s biography and standing. Even his critics admit that Beinart — unlike other critics of U.S. Jewish support for Israel who have cast it as an anomaly at best and dual loyalty at worst — cannot be shooed away.

James Kirchick, like Beinart an alumnus of The New Republic, said in a critique published on Foreign Policy’s Website that Beinart’s arguments could not be dismissed.

“Beinart has never been part of American Jewry’s leftist faction; up until recently, he was a prominent spokesperson for the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party,” Kirchick said.

Beinart’s synagogue-door declaration of independence from what he says is establishment Jewish orthodoxy (small o) is framed in the politest of terms, although he names names: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism,” he writes. “On its Website, AIPAC celebrates Israel’s commitment to ‘free speech and minority rights.’”

Beinart says the Conference of Presidents declares that “‘Israel and the United States share political, moral, and intellectual values including democracy, freedom, security, and peace.’ These groups would never say, as do some in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Israeli Arabs don’t deserve full citizenship and west bank Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. But in practice, by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does, they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”

The response, on the record from the pro-Israel commentariat and off the record from some of Beinart’s targets: He’s moved on. Once an Iraq war supporter, he is now affiliated with the New American Foundation, the liberal-realist think tank that is home to a number of pronounced critics of traditional American pro-Israel orthodoxies.

Shmuel Rosner, a blogger for The Jerusalem Post whose focus for years has been on relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry, wondered whether Beinart hadn’t made it a little too personal.

“It is a story worthy of telling, with careful attention to detail, with open mind,” Rosner wrote. “A story more interesting than the personal misgivings one Jewish liberal is trying to impose on the community as a whole.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent at The Atlantic, and Leon Wieseltier, Beinart’s former colleague at The New Republic, chided Beinart for publishing his essay in The New York Review of Books, which has published material questioning the validity of a Jewish state. In response, Beinart has noted that it also has published tough defenses of Israel — and that it is an apt forum for a writer trying not only to reconcile Zionism with liberals, but liberals with Zionism.

More substantive complaints had to do with Beinart’s omissions: He mentions only in passing the Palestinian responsibility — through the failure to contain terrorism and incitement — for frustrating the peace talks, and also does not substantially treat the existential threat implied by Iran’s current rulers. He also focuses on Netanyahu’s 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations,” which severs the Palestinians from his vision of a peaceful Middle East instead of the prime minister’s more recent pronouncements acceding to a two-state solution.

Beinart, in follow-up essays in the online Daily Beast, another of his employers, argues that he glances by the Palestinians because he is writing about and for Jews.

“My piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict,” he writes. “Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians.”

As for Netanyahu, Beinart argues that his acceptance of Palestinian statehood was only grudging and came under intense American pressure.

Rosner also picks over Beinart’s statistical analyses, wondering if they hold up. The research, Rosner says, shows that American Jews who believe in trading land for peace — and who conceivably would be at odds with its current government — nonetheless describe themselves as attached to Israel, whatever its current political posture. Kirchick notes that attachment to Israel has traditionally increased with age.

Steven M. Cohen, one of the sociologists whose work Beinart cites in his essay, thinks Beinart is right to say younger Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel, but wrong to blame it on politics. Instead, he argued in a response published by Foreign Policy, the main factor is intermarriage — more specifically, the “departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic ‘groupiness,’ of which Israel attachment is part.”

That said, Cohen added, “Jewishly engaged young adults” are turned off by their perception that debate over Israel is not welcomed in Jewish communal circles.

“If Israel is to retain the engagement of the coming (and present) generation of American Jews,” he wrote, “organized American Jewry will need to provide a third alternative — one that combines love of Israel with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics.”

Whatever the dimensions of the threat, even some of Beinart’s named targets — speaking off the record — agreed that a crisis was imminent and that he raised worthwhile issues.

“Is my diagnosis as dour as his is? No, I’m probably not as pessimistic as Beinart is,” said one official. “But anybody’s who’s not worried about” disaffection among younger Jews, “whether they believe his thesis or not, is fooling themselves.”

Beinart’s best point, this official said, is that young Jews are not as prone to see themselves as victims as the establishment is.

“The most correct part of his analysis, the challenge for us, is a Jewish community that is changing,” the official said. “We have viewed ourselves as having been powerless and weak, but we have evolved into a community that is powerful and strong.”

Plenty of previous debates over Israel and the pro-Israel lobby have descended into name-calling and generated plenty of hostility. Not this time, according to Beinart.

“In all honesty, the thing I worried about most was the reaction of some of our friends because a lot of the people whose friendship I really value are significantly to my right, which isn’t surprising at an Orthodox synagogue. But I mostly worried for nothing,” Beinart wrote in an exchange with Goldberg. “There’s been a lot of disagreement, but nothing the least bit malicious. It’s made me realize how remarkable and unusual a community we live in, in fact. I think I may even have smoked out one or two hidden doves.”

JTA

 
 

Welcome to Obama’s Jewish America

WASHINGTON – The athletes, the astronauts, the alternative music, the black rabbi, the white dress uniforms, and, above all, the left-handed baseball immortal: Welcome to Barack Obama’s Jewish America.

The inaugural Jewish America Heritage Month celebration at the White House, held May 27, underscored the Obama administration’s determination not to be locked into Washington’s conventional notions of Jewish leadership.

News Analysis

President Obama did not exactly snub the usual suspects who have peopled similar events for decades. Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, were on hand. Both also happen to have been major fund-raisers for Obama’s campaign, as were several others among the 250 or so in attendance.

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Baseball legend Sandy Koufax attracted plenty of attention at the Jewish American Heritage Month celebration at the White House, May 27. The Jewish Channel

But the image that the White House sought to convey was of a Jewish America not necessarily bound to the alphabet soup of the Jewish organizational world and of pro-Israelism. Instead, Obama presented an array of Jewish heroes and celebrities who pronouncedly defied Jewish stereotypes. In addition to the major givers, the entrepreneurs, and the communal leaders, guests included sports heroes such as Sandy Koufax, veterans, nonprofit innovators, journalists, actors, and organizers.

Obama referred also to “the countless names that we don’t know — the teachers, the small-business owners, the doctors and nurses, the people who seek only to live honestly and faithfully and to give their children more than they had.”

The reception was in the works for months, and planning predated the tensions between Israel and the United States precipitated in early March when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit there by Vice President Joe Biden, who also was at the reception.

Still, the White House’s pro-Jewish and pro-Israel messages were timely — coming in the wake of a weeks-long “charm offensive” launched by the White House to help allay anxieties over the recent tensions with Jerusalem. And luckily for those seeking an unadulterated feel-good moment, the event took place days before the international furor over Israel’s raid on the flotilla headed toward Gaza.

The reception included a traditional reference to the “unbreakable” Israel-U.S. alliance dating back to within minutes of Israel’s establishment.

Jewish values, Obama said, “helped lead America to recognize and support Israel as a Jewish homeland and a beacon for democratic values — beginning mere minutes after its independence was declared. In fact, we have the original statement by President Harry Truman on display here today.”

Obama also made it clear, however, that he sees the alliance as part of America’s strategy of global outreach.

“My administration is renewing American leadership around the world — strengthening old alliances and forging new ones, defending universal values while ensuring that we uphold our values here at home,” he said. “In fact, it’s our common values that leads us to stand with allies and friends, including the State of Israel.”

Overall, the festivities amounted to a bald emotional appeal to Jewish soft spots: The National Archives ran a session on stereotype-defying Jews in the military during the Civil War. The Library of Congress celebrated Jewish comediennes.

Nowhere were the emotions more in evident — yet more controlled — than at the White House reception.

The Heritage Month was established after legislation passed in 2006 by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), then a freshman in Congress. In subsequent years, Jewish Democrats fumed that President George W. Bush did nothing more to mark the month than issue a proclamation.

After such griping, it raised eyebrows last year when Obama did not mark the month, so the May 27 reception was seen as inevitable. When Obama pronounced this the “first-ever” such reception, Wasserman Schultz leaned back in her chair and beamed at her congressional colleagues.

Rabbi Alyssa Stanton of Greenville, N.C., the first black female rabbi, read the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. When she smiled and raised her arm to pronounce, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” there was a gasp: A descendant of immigrants brought to America in chains was celebrating those who fled bondage and sought its freedom.

Regina Spektor, the “anti-folk” singer who performed on a grand piano, presented a similar contrast: An alternative music favorite of New York cosmopolitans who refuses to shake off her provincial roots as the little 9-year-old refusenik who came here in 1989 and who famously told New York magazine when her career was taking off: “The Jewish question — it still exists.”

Spektor had to breathe deep before starting. Prodded by a nod and a grin from Michelle Obama, she attacked her first song, “Us,” with lyrics suggestive of Jewish frustration at coping with how others define Jews: “They made a statue of us and put it on a mountaintop/ Now tourists come and stare at us, blow bubbles with their gum, take photograph, have fun.”

The military veterans were guided to their seats by service personnel in white dress uniforms. Among the athletes was Dara Torres, the five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer whose son snapped a photo of her with Obama. (“Can you beat your mom yet?” Obama shouted at the strapping teenager, who murmured, “No.”)

Jewish astronauts were invited, a White House official said, but none could make it — although one, Garrett Reisman, carried Obama’s proclamation into space aboard the last mission of space shuttle Atlantis, which returned to Earth last week.

There were establishment journalists, like Roger Cohen and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, but there was also Heeb publisher Josh Newman and Doug Bloomfield, an irreverent Democrat who for years has been excoriating conservatives in Jewish weeklies. There was Michael Adler, the Florida philanthropist and vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America, but there also was Eli Winkelman, the college student who founded Challah for Hunger, which brings together students to bake challahs that are sold to raise funds for Darfur.

But the star of the afternoon was Koufax, the legendary Dodgers’ southpaw who made baseball history by pitching four no-hitters and Jewish history by bailing on a World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur.

“We’ve got senators and representatives, we’ve got Supreme Court justices and successful entrepreneurs, rabbinical scholars, Olympic athletes — and Sandy Koufax,” Obama said. “Sandy and I actually have something in common — we are both lefties. He can’t pitch on Yom Kippur; I can’t pitch.”

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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