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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

 
 

Palestinians gain ground in PR, diplomatic war

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, hosting a luncheon for Israelis in the west bank city of Ramallah, on Dec. 19. Issam Rimawi/FLASH90/JTA

In the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict, score some recent victories for the Palestinians.

It’s not that Israel has given an inch in the territorial dispute over the west bank, or that the Palestinians in Gaza have achieved new military victories against the Israelis, despite increased rocket and mortar fire from the coastal strip in recent weeks.

Rather, the Palestinians have scored a series of diplomatic and public-relations successes against a Jewish state weakened by fraying relationships and a declining reputation internationally.

On the diplomatic front, Palestinian leaders announced this week that 10 European Union countries were upgrading their ties with the PLO. Earlier this month, three Latin American countries — Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia — issued formal recognitions of the state of Palestine.

On Sunday was the much-publicized lunch hosted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for Israeli politicians and activists in Ramallah. Numerous Op-Eds followed in the Israeli media and overseas, saying that there is a Palestinian partner for peace even if there isn’t an Israeli one.

Then there was the early December decision by the Obama administration to drop its effort to persuade Israel to agree to an additional 90-day freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the west bank. Commentators cited Israeli intransigence as the primary reason.

“Israel,” columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a Dec. 11 Op-Ed in The New York Times, “when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not ‘How much?’ It is: ‘Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.’”

Over the last few months, Israel’s declining international reputation has given the Palestinians and their allies an opening they have exploited by effectively casting Israel as the bully and the unyielding party in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It is a message that is promoted relentlessly by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to make Israel an international pariah, and it is reinforced by negative assessments of Israeli actions such as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza two years ago, the deadly Turkish flotilla incident of May 31, and Israel’s daily treatment of west bank Palestinians.

If the goal is to increase pressure on Israel to accede to the creation of a Palestinian state, a strategy that focuses on diplomacy and PR appears to have a greater chance of success right now than the Palestinians’ decades-long strategy of terrorism and war.

That strategy — call it the violent one — was snuffed out in recent years by Israeli military operations, Israel’s erection of the west bank security fence, and a recognition by leading Palestinian figures that the violence was doing more harm to the Palestinian national cause than good.

“We tried the intifada, and it caused us a lot of damage,” Abbas told an interviewer with the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat in September.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would not revert to violent uprising even if peace talks collapsed.

With relative moderates like Abbas in charge of the Palestinian Authority in the west bank — the primary public face of the Palestinians — there is a greater understanding that to achieve statehood the Palestinians must win the world to their side. That, after all, paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel, after the United Nations voted in November 1947 to recognize a Jewish state in Palestine.

Now the Palestinians are setting their sights on a similar goal.

U.N. recognition would shift the conflict from one over “occupied Palestinian territories” to a conflict over an “occupied state with defined borders,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “We urge the international community to salvage the two-state solution by recognizing a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.”

While U.N. recognition of Palestine might make a diplomatic end run around Israel, it hardly would result in an immediate Palestinian state. The United Nations would have no way of enforcing its decision, and Israeli troops and settlers would remain in the west bank.

What it would do, however, is significantly ratchet up the pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians.

“Widespread international recognition of Palestine’s legitimacy and existence has very significant consequences,” Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, wrote on his blog earlier this month.

That pressure isn’t just coming from outside Israel.

“The Palestinians will declare a state. Virtually the whole world will recognize it. And we will be left without security arrangements,” Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer warned in October.

There is pressure even from inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. Likud veteran and cabinet minister Michael Eitan has proposed moving settlers willing to accept compensation and relocation out of the west bank and into Israel proper to signal to the world that Israel is serious about wanting peace with the Palestinians.

This week, Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar wrote that Israel needs to be saved from itself.

“Almost no day goes by without some other country recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders,” Eldar wrote. “According to the WikiLeaks documents, even the Germans, Israel’s steadfast supporters in Europe, have lost their faith in the peaceful intentions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.”

Whatever criticism there is inside Israel about the Israeli government’s approach toward the Palestinians, the criticism outside Israel is sharper.

The main holdout is the United States, where recent polls show that the American people overwhelmingly favor Israel over the Palestinians, and Congress remains steadfastly pro-Israel.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is aiming to change that. Using everything from campus activism to boycotts of stores that sell Israeli food products to bus ads promoting pro-Palestinian messages, the movement is hoping to sway public opinion.

Starting Dec. 27, the two-year anniversary of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, a group called the Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign will be running ads on the sides of Seattle buses featuring photos of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli War Crimes: Your tax dollars at work.”

At Princeton University in New Jersey, DePaul University in Chicago, and on the streets of Philadelphia, pro-Palestinian activists have campaigned to have Israeli brands of hummus removed from campus cafeterias or store shelves. In New York, boycott supporters demonstrated outside a store belonging to the Israeli chocolatier Max Brenner.

“The relics of the past boycotts — from Nuremberg to Damascus — are back,” Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in a JTA Op-Ed. “Its proponents seek to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into every sphere of American life.”

In the zero-sum game that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that’s good news for the Palestinians.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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