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The frightening rebirth of anti-Semitism

An interview with a foremost authority on an ancient scourge that won’t go away

The disease known as anti-Semitism has been dormant in Western culture for thousands of years; sometimes it becomes an epidemic. This seems to be such a time. Anti-Semitic incidents have been increasing throughout the world.

Meanwhile, at universities throughout the world scholars are intensively investigating the causes of anti-Semitism and seeking possible antidotes.

In this series of articles, we report on the latest thinking about anti-Semitism — and what good people can do to at least reduce it to being just endemic again and not epidemic.

People, including the Jewish people, are really in massive denial,” warns Robert S. Wistrich, a foremost authority on anti-Semitism.

First in a series

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Wistrich points out, has repeatedly vowed to annihilate Israel. It follows that “it would be an act of suicide to permit Iran to have the bomb.”

Wistrich is the author of a magisterial new book, “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad” (Random House, 2010, $40). His book, which has 941 pages of text (and which he wrote in longhand), has won unstinting praise from reviewers. Jonathan Israel of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton has called it a “masterpiece.” It certainly is.

In person Wistrich is self-possessed and courteous, a marvelous conversationalist with a remarkable knowledge of history and a keen mind.

Since 1982 he has been Neuberger professor of modern European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he lives.

Below are excerpts from a recent interview, held in New York City.

Combatting anti-Semitism

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Robert Wistrich, author of “A Lethal Obsession,” argues that Holocaust education is not a magical antidote for anti-Semitism. Douglas Guthrie

Jewish Standard: What can be done to reduce anti-Semitism? After World War II, when I was growing up in New Jersey, there were school programs to foster tolerance — including student essay contests. A notable book of the time was “Protestant-Catholic-Jew,” by Will Herberg, about our country as a healthy “triple melting pot.” Are educational programs one answer?

Wistrich: Before answering that, I think I have to issue a warning, a “health” warning. People always ask this and it’s natural: “OK, there’s a problem. How are we going to fix it?”

Americans in particular love this — it’s part of the national psyche. But this is not the kind of problem that lends itself to that approach — as has been proven in over 2,000 years of history. It hasn’t been fixed up to now, so surely it’s an act of almost hubristic naïveté to think that suddenly somebody is going to shout “Eureka! This is how we’ll fix it.” That’s not gonna happen. Plenty of people have had their minds focused on this, even if they haven’t had much success in seeking to find short- or medium-term solutions.

I’ve attended many conferences, spoken to government officials, been involved in the practical side of this, but I’ve never come out with a feeling that any of the measures taken are more than very short-term palliatives.

For instance, I’ve attended meetings of organizations in Europe, been a guest of and adviser to the State Department and the British Parliament, Canadian Parliament, French government officials, Polish government officials, and so on and so forth. They express good will, and have in some cases — such as Britain and Canada — instituted parliamentary inquiries of their own. They do seek to monitor the extent of the phenomenon more seriously than most other countries, which don’t monitor anti-Semitism properly or at all, and are not even prepared to put any resources into this.

These governments show good will, but what do we see, just looking at the statistics? The curve of anti-Semitism during the same period when they began to focus more on intensive countermeasures has risen. It’s not their fault, but it’s been unaffected.

Another example: Many people throw out a rather superficial and, as it turns out, quite unsound remedy. They say the answer is more Holocaust education.

In my chapter on France, I bring this out. For the last 20 years there’s been a tremendous advance in the scale and extent of Holocaust education in French schools. They came to it late, but once they began it became an integral part of the curriculum — and during this very period anti-Semitism intensified. And I can tell you that it is becoming extremely difficult to even teach the Holocaust there — mainly due to large Muslim influx. Those children do not want to hear about it, and they can become extremely abusive — and even take the Holocaust as an example of what they would like to implement.

A report to the French ministry of education recorded a North African Muslim teenager shouting to the teacher of one of these lessons, in French, “Hitler would have been a good Muslim!” Why? “He sought to wipe out all the Jews.”

So, let’s not be naïve. In some countries, handled sensitively, intelligently, Holocaust education may be useful. But it’s not an antidote. It can actually serve to inflame, as this example showed. So it’s not black and white.

Lethal & non–lethal anti-Semitism

J.S.: Isn’t it depressing — the history of anti-Semitism? One realizes that, 50 or 100 years from now, a much lengthier history of anti-Semitism probably can be written.

Wistrich: One message of my book is that in just 15 years the size of the book might have to be doubled. Anti-Semitism is certainly not going to go away.

The question is, how do you ensure that anti-Semitism doesn’t become truly lethal? Through different phases of history, sometimes anti-Semitism has been dormant and sometimes it explodes. The scale of the catastrophe varies enormously.

And to some extent what will happen is in our hands. I don’t see this as decreed by some inscrutable fate. It may indeed have a purpose and a design beyond our comprehension. If you are a religious person, you may well believe that it is the hand of divine providence. I don’t exclude anything.

But I think that a deeper understanding can enable us to take measures to prevent anti-Semitism, even though it is part of the human condition, from becoming lethal.

And that would be achievement enough. Believe me, if we can neutralize it to the point where we can live with it, that is more than enough. Any other notion is pie in the sky — the historical record proves this beyond any doubt.

The terrible decade

J.S.: How does your new book differ from other books on anti-Semitism, including your own previous study?

Wistrich: There are a number of striking differences. The other books usually stop in 1945, while most of my book deals with post-Shoah. Books that do deal with post-1945 have tended to be, to a great extent, quickly written books responding to a particular trigger event — often written by journalists — without any sense of the history of the phenomenon — and they are as transient as the event that triggered it. I wrote a book in 1990 on the subject, and I think it was an important work, “The Longest Hatred,” a term I coined. But this new book describes the last 20 years, which witnessed explosions of anti-Semitism across the world. It outweighs the years between 1945 and 1989 in terms of intensity and global scope.

Countries without anti-Semitism

J.S.: Pre-Nazi Germany was a discontented country. Are countries whose people are relatively contented less likely to harbor anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: An interesting hypothesis, worth exploring.

I’m well aware that at least two major civilizations, Indian and Chinese, have not within their own culture produced any of the varieties of anti-Semitism I analyze in my book. To some degree you may find pockets of it, but it’s purely a result of tensions that existed during the Cold War between India and Israel, or China and Israel. During the Maoist period, there was unconditional Chinese support for the popular liberation struggle of Palestinians. But even that was without any notable anti-Semitic lining — unlike Soviet communism, which was quite different. The Russian culture produced anti-Semitism, but the Chinese culture did not.

So yes, India and China are exceptions, and those two exceptions account for 40 percent of humanity — so that’s an encouraging thought. But not a great consolation, because the other side of that coin is they don’t really understand anti-Semitism. They’re not wired to this problem at all.

Why the Chinese admire the Jews

Wistrich: Three years ago, I was invited to the University of Nanking to speak before an international conference. They wanted to compare the Holocaust with the Nanking massacre of 1937, when the Japanese army conquered large chunks of China and entered into Nanking, which was then the capital. And they massacred 300,000 Chinese civilians — very deliberately —the most horrific kind of slaughter.

One of the reasons I was invited to this conference was that the Chinese loathe the Japanese — who, by the way, never really apologized for that atrocity in any meaningful way.

At the lunchtime break I was sitting with a Chinese professor, and someone asked me to compare the Holocaust with that massacre. I said there’s no comparison, and secondly I wasn’t an expert on what happened in China. We had an interesting conversation, and they are really free, as far as I can see, of any suggestion of anti-Semitism and have difficulty understanding it.

But they admire the Jewish people, they think Jews are very smart and that they have a great deal to learn from them. They admire Israel, too — even though politically they are careful about what they say.

And I asked the Chinese professor, what do you think really lies behind this conference? Why have you chosen this theme? He said that “some Chinese experts are tremendously impressed by the fact that you Israelis and Jews only amount to100 million people, and we are 1.5 billion, and yet the whole world knows about the Holocaust and nobody knows about the Nanking massacre! We want to learn from you how to do it.”

I had to correct him. “We’re not 100 million people, we are more like 13.5 million.” And he was totally flabbergasted.

It’s interesting as an exercise in perception because, in Europe, even though publicly the Holocaust is memorialized and political leaders will say it was a most awful event, do their mea culpas, and say a few words of mourning for the dead Jews of Europe, then they will launch their very own one-sided criticism of the State of Israel, sometimes amounting to outright vilification.

Jews in Israel, who actually defend themselves against attack, are another matter entirely, and Europe has not come to terms with that. Unlike the United States, though under the Obama administration this is becoming a little blurred.

The disappearing anti-Semite

J.S.: It has dawned on me that nobody admits being anti-Semitic anymore. But by an amazing coincidence, the number of anti-Semites who have disappeared is just about equal to the number of people existing today who are thoroughly and implacably anti-Israel.

Wistrich: I think that’s probably fairly accurate, even though we don’t have to take it literally, in statistical form. The way we formulate it is this: People always ask, what is the relationship between antagonism to Israel and anti-Semitism? Can’t there just be criticism of Israel?

In the last 40 years, people have discovered a socially acceptable, polite way of expressing sentiments that are no longer politically correct. Anti-Zionism in practice has become a legitimate substitute for anti-Semitism.

Anybody who has any resentment, any grudge, any issue with the Jews will tend to express it in an anti-Israel form. That is almost an iron rule today.

J.S.: But aren’t some people innocent dupes? Taken in by the propaganda?

Wistrich: There always are dupes in every time and place. Lenin, who had an astute nose for this, even though he was at the end of the day a mass murderer though not an anti-Semite — Lenin said he believed that the capitalist world would ultimately go down to defeat for two reasons:

1. The Soviet Union would give the capitalists enough rope to hang themselves. America in particular extended aid to the Soviet Union during its early years, to save the Soviets from starvation! That did not prevent the Cold War later on.

2. Lenin counted on all the fellow travelers of communism around the world — the “useful idiots,” he called them — and there are millions of useful idiots around the world, especially today.

These idiots, on the issue of radical Islam, do not understand the nature of the threat, even when it is coming closer and closer to their doorstep. And that is not just a Jewish matter, even though Jews happen to be on the front line of that struggle. But Jews — or even Israel — are by no means the primary target or victim of Islamists.

Prejudice vs. anti-Semitism

J.S.: I overheard a couple of women talking recently, and one said of someone else, “She doesn’t like Jews.” Isn’t one key cause of anti-Semitism the fact that people are too prone to generalize? This woman has met one or two Jews she didn’t like, and decided that Jews are all the same.

Wistrich: It’s absolutely fundamental to draw a line, but not an absolute dividing line, between prejudice — ethnic, national, social, racial, religious, whatever — and anti-Semitism.

Prejudice is usually a component of anti-Semitism, but at the lowest rung of the ladder. Prejudice is universal. I have never yet met a person, and I include myself, without prejudice. If you think about the world, you will pre-judge. Sometimes you have no choice. We have to pre-judge to presume things that may or may not be true — because we don’t have the time or the resources to investigate everything in all its aspects. So we jump to conclusions, we make snap judgments, we generalize — and we discriminate when we do it. That is unfortunate at times but inevitable.

But discrimination has several meanings, and not all of them are negative. In the negative sense, to discriminate is to unjustly or arbitrarily exercise a judgment that is unfavorable to certain groups. But discrimination also has a positive sense. “He’s very discriminating” means he can distinguish between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, good taste and bad taste. There’s nothing wrong with that. People make judgments and that is a necessary part of the mental process.

Prejudice will never be eradicated but it can be contained. We can palliate it through education, greater knowledge — all these things are valuable and important. We don’t want to encourage prejudice in the negative sense. But anti-Semitism — and that’s really at the heart of my book — is several stages beyond that. Anti-Semitism is already a crystallization of all kinds of antipathies, fears, hostilities, resentments — which may indeed be based on prejudicial positions, but could even have some kind of rational kernel to them. They crystallize into a view of the world, into an ideology, into political or social action — which may have very unpleasant consequences. They permeate institutions, may be reflected in laws, or boycotts, all kinds of actions that are damaging to Jews. That is anti-Semitism. Mere prejudice, Jews have lived with throughout history and will continue to live with, and we shouldn’t be too scared of that. In actuality, some other groups suffer even more. In American society, we all know black people suffered greater levels of prejudice — and outright racism. It’s been partially corrected, but it took a long time and it is not yet a thing of the past.

Responding to anti-Semitism

J.S.: I’ve been the victim of overt anti-Semitism several times in my life, and never knew how to respond. A drunk once sat next to me on a bus when I was a kid, and nonstop disparaged Jews — while I remained embarrassed and silent. Today I would respond. Why aren’t Jews in general more assertive in responding to instances of anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: The social reality that existed through centuries of Jewish exile was that Jews were a particularly vulnerable minority and suffered from discriminatory laws. They were ghettoized. They didn’t have much choice but to be extremely careful in the way that they would respond to avoid provocation and hope that the storm would pass.

Once Jews became citizens of democratic countries, where they were granted equal rights, this behavior pattern slowly began to change. It’s only in the 20th century, I think, that Jews became more assertive, as indeed they had every right to be — to defend their interests, their rights as citizens, just like any other citizens — and not to tolerate insult, damage, and threats. I think that this is one of the more striking characteristics of American Jewry taken as a whole when you compare it to most other Jewish communities in the diaspora. I know of other Jewish communities that are also assertive, and often they’re English-speaking democracies like Canada, Australia, and so on. And in France, too, the behavior pattern has changed. And I think that this is a healthy sign — and that one of the reasons why post-1945 in the United States anti-Semitism gradually diminished, without ever disappearing. American Jewish organizations began to be more active in the steps that they took to counteract manifestations of hostility or discrimination in the wider society, both toward them and others. So that the organizations like the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Wiesenthal Center, and so on — made an important contribution. They’ve acted politically — make no mistake about it, politics is important — and in America we see that the results have been beneficial because Jews have created for themselves some modicum of countervailing power — a sort of shield — just as Israel acts as a shield for the Jewish people since the creation of the State of Israel. This undoubtedly contributed to a greater feeling of self-confidence of Jews being able to stand up for themselves — to give back as good as they get — to defend themselves when attacked or when threatened. It’s come with serious problems, which I explain in my book.

Israel itself has become the major target of anti-Semitism around the world, and its legitimacy is contested. A vast enterprise of delegitimization is taking place on so many fronts. But it’s extremely important to the Jewish world and for all people who wish Israel well and understand its vital importance in the international community and what it stands for — it’s vitally important that a strong right hand is preserved to fight off these efforts. Because if, God forbid, these efforts were to succeed, the consequences for Jews in the diaspora as well as for what would happen in Israel itself would be felt very quickly.

It’s one thing we should disabuse ourselves of. We live in a predatory world — every day in our newspapers we see further confirmation of that. So you have to have deterrence — one of the hardest lessons that the Jewish people learned in the 20th century. Believe in God, trust in the Almighty, but keep your powder dry — this is what Oliver Cromwell so rightly said in the 17th century when he led the Puritan revolution to overthrow the English monarchy. Both are equally necessary — belief in providence, and arms for self-defense.

On Jews against Israel

J.S.: Reading your chapter on anti-Israel Jews, I reached one incontestable conclusion: A lot of people are crazy. Absolute nutcases.

Wistrich: Well, many anti-Zionist Jews are intellectuals and academics.

You know, when I think of the more pathological examples of anti-Israel Jews, one could write an entire book just on that theme — and I have enough material to do it. But this may be a golden opportunity for psychoanalysis to finally produce something useful!

I’m reminded of something that was said by an English journalist in the 1930s, George Orwell. He was reacting to that section of the English intelligentsia that was unconditionally pro-Soviet — and although he was a socialist, Orwell could not abide the hypocrisy and the doubletalk of these intellectuals. He then made a remark that I would apply to some of the anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals. He said that there are some things in this world that only intellectuals would be stupid enough to believe!

And this is how I feel about some of the vilifications and lies about Israel and the Palestinians or the “Jewish question” in general. How can one be stupid enough to believe this propaganda?

Thinking the unthinkable

J.S.: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the situation in the Mideast? Do you think Iran might attack Israel with nuclear weapons?

Wistrich: Think about Haman the Wicked, grand vizier of the Persian empire. I know it’s a legend, but it’s remarkably prescient. It is there for a purpose even if we cannot fully decode it. This Purim story is about what? A man rises to power in Persia and embarks upon a project to exterminate all the Jewish people in one day — all the Jewish men, women, and children of the Persian empire. And he plots and conspires and convinces the emperor to do that, to strip the Jews of everything they have and then wipe them out.

That is also Ahmadinejad’s goal. Of course the bomb is the key to that; that is the only way Iran could carry out such a project, and Iran is feverishly working in that direction.

Come what may, irrespective of what the international community may say, what the United States might claim, Obama stretched out his hand and it was symbolically chopped off by the Iranian leader. I don’t know whether Obama even noticed. But he is still holding it out while manufacturing crises with Israel over minor settlement issues that are like tiny pebbles in the mighty ocean.

I believe that Ahmadinejad’s fate will be like that of Haman. In other words, the tree that he has prepared, metaphorically, to hang the Jews of Persia, to wipe out the State of Israel in our time, is the one on which he himself will be hanged. How that will come about I don’t know. I am not a prophet, and neither the Israeli government nor the intelligence service has told me what their plans are. Realistically, Iran is a great danger, as is radical Islam in general. How do you frustrate such an evil design? It’s not a simple matter. We all know that there are dispersed nuclear sites, but we don’t know where all of them are. I certainly hope that Israel knows where they are, because it will be left largely alone to fight this battle.

Anybody who says that Israelis can live with an Iranian bomb under the regime of the ayatollahs doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s the nature of this regime — its fanatical, messianic, apocalyptic ideology, its vicious anti-Semitism, its declared intention, brazenly repeated, to wipe out the Jewish state — that is at issue. In these conditions, it would be an act of suicide to permit Iran to have the bomb. The rest is just commentary.

J.S.: You were born in Russia in 1945 and grew up in England, attending schools there. As a child, did you experience any anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: I was subjected to less abuse than others. If you were athletic, as I was, you became half a gentile. Another reason was, I was the best pupil in the class, and teachers do like to have a few pupils who can actually answer their questions. Anti-Semitism was part of my social experience. It seemed normal; we lived with it, we dealt with it. It was certainly long before such things as the race relations act.

The p.c. of today makes that impossible — which is almost the only good thing about political correctness. It has put an end to that kind of open, blatant racism.

But on the other hand, modern anti-Semitism may be character-building — making you want to prove yourself. I felt the way many of my school friends felt. You know, this is the way they look at us; OK, we’re going to prove them wrong just by being better than anybody else.

And maybe that’s one of the reasons why Jews have been overachievers.

J.S.: That’s a good thought to end this interview. Thank you.

 
 

NORPAC plans mission to make the case for Israel

Ben ChouakeOp-Ed
Published: 16 April 2010
(tags): norpac, ben chouake, iran
 
 

Poll: Obama struggling with Jews, but not on Israel

WASHINGTON – A new survey shows President Obama struggling with American Jews — but not on Israel-related matters.

The American Jewish Committee poll of U.S. Jews found that Obama’s approval rating is at 57 percent, with 38 percent disapproving. That’s down from the stratospheric 79 percent approval rating among Jews that Obama enjoyed about a year ago, in May 2009. The AJC poll was conducted March 2 to 23 and surveyed 800 self-identifying Jewish respondents selected from a consumer mail panel.

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This question, in the American Jewish Committee’s new survey, asked: “Do you approve or disapprove of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue?” AJC

Obama’s advantage among Jews versus the rest of the population appears to be eroding. The latest Gallup polling shows Obama with a national approval rating of 48, nine points below Jewish polling. Last May, general polling earned him 63 percent approval, 16 points below Jewish polling.

Despite the drop — and weeks of tensions with the Netanyahu government — Obama still polls solidly on foreign policy, with a steady majority backing his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, according to the AJC poll.

It is on domestic issues that the president appears to be facing more unhappiness.

Jewish voters are statistically split on how Obama has handled health-care reform, with 50 percent approving and 48 disapproving. On the economy he fares slightly better. Jewish voters who favor his policies stand at 55 percent, while 42 percent disapprove.

The last AJC poll on the views of American Jews, released in September, did not address domestic issues, so there’s no measure to assess any change in support on the specific issues of health and the economy. Indeed, this is the first poll in at least 10 years in which the AJC has attempted to assess views on the economy and health care. However, Jewish voters in solid majorities describe themselves as Democrats and as liberal to moderate in their views, and traditionally list the economy and health care as their two top concerns in the voting booth.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the relatively low score on domestic issues underscored what he said was a steady decline in Democratic support among Jewish voters.

“This indicates a serious erosion of support,” he said. “It’s a huge drop. There’s no silver lining” for Democrats.

Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, countered that the poll did not account for Jewish voters who might be disappointed with Obama from a more liberal perspective — for instance, over his dropping from the reform bill of the so-called public option, which would have allowed for government-run health care.

Additionally, much of the AJC polling took place before Obama’s come-from-behind victory on March 21, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed health-care reform, Forman said. Since then, Democrats have said they see a turnaround in the president’s political fortunes. “The narrative was the president was in the tank,” Forman said. “This was when it was thought his initiative was dead.”

Obama fares strongly with Jews on homeland security, with 62 percent approving and 33 percent disapproving — a sign that Republican attempts to cast Obama as weak on protecting the nation have had little impact in the Jewish community.

He also scores 55 percent approval on how he handles U.S.-Israel relations, which is virtually unchanged since last September, when his handling of the relationship scored 54 percent approval. At that juncture, the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem were kept at a low bubble and were confined to U.S. insistence on a total freeze of Israeli settlement and the Netanyahu administration’s reluctance to concede.

The latest questions, however, coincided almost exactly with the period when U.S. officials accused the Netanyahu government of “insulting” the United States by announcing a new building start in eastern Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, and when the president refused to make public gestures of friendship during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s subsequent visit to Washington.

A question on Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear capability showed a statistical dead heat on the approval side between last September — 49 percent — and now, at 47 percent. However, disapproval ratings rose moderately, apparently borrowing from the “uncertain” column: Back in September 35 percent disapproved; now 42 percent give a thumbs down.

The marks compared favorably, however, with Bush administration figures. Bush scored 33 percent approval ratings on Iran in 2006, the most recent year that AJC asked the question.

Support for U.S. and Israeli attacks on Iran to keep it from making a nuclear bomb appeared to drop slightly. Asked about a U.S. strike, 53 percent said they would support one and 42 percent were opposed, as opposed to 56 percent and 36 percent in September. On an Israeli strike, 62 percent supported and 33 percent opposed, as opposed to 66 and 28 percent in September.

The only other question in the most recent survey directly addressing Obama’s foreign policy also showed strong support for the president: 62 percent of respondents agreed with Obama’s decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This contrasts with the consistently negative Jewish assessments of Bush’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, except in the period immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Approval of Obama’s foreign policies contrasts with increasing uneasiness in the Jewish establishment with the administration’s approach. Several influential pro-Israel organizations have spent months, to little avail, pleading with the administration to confine its disagreements to back rooms.

A handful of prominent Jewish backers of candidate Obama also appear to have had second thoughts. Most pointedly, in a New York Daily News column Monday, Ed Koch, the former New York City mayor and a supporter of Obama during the 2008 general election, said he was “weeping” because the president had “abandoned” Israel.

And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most influential member of the Senate’s Jewish caucus, on Sunday pointedly avoided answering a question on ABC’s “This Week” about whether he agreed with a Netanyahu confidante who said Obama was a “strategic disaster” for Israel. Brooks, the Republican, predicted a tide of defections. “You’ll have a number of candidates” in areas with a strong Jewish presence “asking him not to campaign for them,” he said.

David Harris, AJC’s executive director, cautioned that low approval ratings did not necessarily translate into electoral losses.

Brooks said that he would advise GOP candidates to hammer Democrats hard on foreign policy, particularly in tight races in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where Jewish voters trended less liberal than on the coasts. “If Republican candidates are smart, they will make Democratic candidates in these races answerable to whether they support Obama’s policies of pressuring Israel,” the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition said.

Jewish Democrats are already preparing a response strategy of arguing that the relationship remains close on defense cooperation and other matters, despite heightened rhetoric on settlement differences.

Harris suggested that the polling showed that the American Jewish public would prefer to imagine a closeness rather than deal with tensions. Obama and Netanyahu scored similar solid majorities — 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively — on how they handled the relationship.

American Jews “don’t want to be forced to choose,” Harris said. “They would rather say a blessing on both your houses than a plague on both your houses.”

According to the survey, 64 percent of Jews think Israel should, as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, be willing to remove at least some of the settlements in the west bank. But 61 percent rejected the idea that Israel should be willing to “compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction.”

The poll had a margin of error of plus/minus 3 percentage points. Interviews were conducted by the firm Synovate, formerly Market Facts.

 
 

Jewish leaders caught between criticizing, defending Obama

WASHINGTON – With anxiety over the White House’s Middle East policy mounting in some pro-Israel circles, several Jewish organizational leaders have found themselves in a discomfiting position: criticizing the Obama administration in public while stridently defending the president in private against the most extreme attacks.

It’s an upside-down version of what pro-Israel groups usually do: lavishing praise on the U.S. government of the day for sustaining the “unbreakable bond” while making their criticisms known quietly, behind closed doors.

News Analysis

The criticism has come in the form of mostly polite statements and newspaper ads questioning Obama administration pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, particularly regarding building in eastern Jerusalem. Such criticisms are voiced as well in private meetings with administration officials.

The defense comes up in dealings with irate donors and constituents, in phone calls, e-mails, addresses to small Jewish groups, shul talk. The theme of the complaints is consistent, and shocking, said multiple leaders, who all spoke off the record, and reflect the subterranean rumblings about the president heard during the campaign: His sympathy lies with the Muslims, he doesn’t care about Israel, he’s an anti-Semite.

The Jewish Federations of North America is sufficiently concerned about the phenomenon to have convened a “fly-in” of Jewish organizational leaders to Washington for an as yet unannounced date in May. The leaders will meet with White House, State Department, and congressional officials, in part to “to convey concerns about U.S.-Israel relations” — but also, insiders say, to allay those concerns.

One recent flood of anxious queries followed the Obama administration’s announcement earlier this month of its long-awaited nuclear policy. The reality of the policy was a pledge not to threaten with nuclear weapons those nations that provably disavow their nuclear weapons capability. Nations that continued to maintain a threatening nuclear posture, the policy made clear, would still face the prospect of a U.S. nuclear response should they attack the United States or its allies.

Obama named Iran as such a nation.

Yet instead of being reassured, donors and members of national Jewish groups flooded Jewish leaders with anxious queries about a posture that they interpreted as being aimed at embracing a nuclear Iran and forcing Israel to abandon its own reported nuclear capability.

Another persistent — and unfounded — rumor has it that Obama removed the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” from the White House seder in March.

“Where the ____ are they getting this?” asked a senior official at an organization that has been publicly critical of Obama since last summer.

Angst was stoked, too, when Obama spoke last week of peacemaking throughout the world necessitated by the cost of “American blood and treasure” through involvement in conflicts. It didn’t help that a New York Times analysis suggested the president had said that the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace threatened U.S. troops in other parts of the globe — even though the transcript of Obama’s remarks did not bear out any such linkage and Obama administration officials flatly denied one existed.

Jewish officials said a share of the blame lay with the Obama administration, partly for not adequately reaching out to Jews and to Israel, and partly because of the emergence of what appears to be internecine policy wars.

“The real story of The New York Times story is not that he’s changing Israel policy,” said another leader of an organization that has not been shy about criticizing the Obama administration. “The real story is, why are officials leaking” misrepresentations of his policy “to The New York Times?”

On the other side, one leader blamed the Netanyahu government for sending mixed signals on how to handle the tensions between Israel and the United States over settlement policy.

“Some are saying quiet is the best answer and others are saying loud noise is the best answer,” the Jewish organizational official said.

The official cited reports that Netanyahu personally approved public letters — from Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and Elie Wiesel, the internationally known Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate — criticizing Obama’s demand for a halt in Jerusalem building.

Despite mounting criticism by some Jewish leaders, polls show that Obama’s support among Jews in general remains strong. His backing has dropped from astronomical highs after he was elected, but remains about 10 points stronger than in the general population. Moreover, to the degree that it has eroded, the dissatisfaction with Obama appears to have more to do with unhappiness over his handling of health care and the economy than it does Israel.

Those who are expressing their concerns, however, are among the most active members of the pro-Israel community and help set the tone for the trilateral U.S.-Israel-Jewish leadership ties. Some are acquiring their information from anti-Obama e-mail blasts and consistently partisan critics of Obama.

Richard Baehr, writing in the conservative online magazine The American Thinker, cited The New York Times’ misreading of Obama’s remarks in arguing that “this president is the greatest threat to the strategic alliance of the U.S. and Israel since the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948.”

McLaughlin & Associates, a GOP polling firm, touted signs last week that Jewish support for Obama was eroding, but the survey questions were premised on shaky assertions. One question posited that Obama would support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence, although U.S. officials have consistently said they would oppose such a move. Another suggested that Obama was ready to force Israel to give up the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, although there has been no such pressure.

Administration defenders cite signs suggesting that beyond the settlement rhetoric, the relationship is improving: Obama has increased defense cooperation, for instance, and strategic consultations between officials of both nations are more frequent than they have been in a decade.

“Our bond with Israel is unshakable and unbreakable both as it relates to security, as it relates to a common set of values and also as a common strategic vision because the threats to Israel are similar to some of the threats the United States faces,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, said Monday on Bloomberg TV.

Jewish leaders welcome such reassurances but say they are made defensively, and repeatedly call on the Obama administration to become proactive.

Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s chief Jewish proxy during the election and now heads the Center for Middle East Peace, suggested a more proactive posture was in the offing.

“Actions in the next several months will begin to reflect it,” he told JTA.

Notably, Emanuel held a behind-closed-doors meeting Tuesday with a group of leading Orthodox rabbis.

Meantime, Jewish leaders are walking a tightrope trying to balance traditional deference to the administration with concerns over the tensions. They also object to what they see as the unwarranted pressure on Netanyahu as opposed to relatively little pressure on the Palestinians to join talks that Israel has embraced with enthusiasm. Israel, they hasten to argue, remains America’s best friend in the region.

Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, made the Israel-is-our-best-friend case last week at Israel Independence Day celebrations, sharing the stage with Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod.

“Israel stood by America in spirit and in action after the tragic events of 9/11,” Rosenberg said. “As both our great nations fight the same scourge of terrorism and Islamic extremism, it is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world.”

The Wiesel and Lauder letters offered a suggestive contrast over how to handle the tensions.

Wiesel’s critique was oblique, not naming Obama, and deferred to U.S. orthodoxy that a final-status agreement must accommodate Palestinian claims to the city.

“What is the solution?” Wiesel asked. “Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be.”

Lauder, by contrast, directly addressed Obama and suggested that the president was sacrificing Israel to improve relations with the Muslim world.

“The administration’s desire to improve relations with the Muslim world is well known,” said Lauder, an active Republican. “But is friction with Israel part of this new strategy? Is it assumed worsening relations with Israel can improve relations with Muslims?”

One of the Jewish leaders said the contrast was instructive.

“For all intents and purposes, the WJC’s relationship with the White House ended last week,” he said of the group Lauder heads. “That’s not a relationship that pro-Israel groups can afford to have over the next couple of years.”

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has publicly criticized the administration on several Israel-related fronts. Still, he said, Jewish leaders have a responsibility to defend the president “when talking to those who accuse him of being an enemy of Israel or a Muslim.”

“For many years, you had a lot of Jews who didn’t vote for President Bush who would say, ‘I don’t like Bush but I love what he’s doing on Israel,’” Foxman said.

“Now the paradigm is changing. A lot of Jews are saying, ‘I like Obama, but I don’t like what he is doing on Israel.”

Foxman added that the most frequent question he hears when speaking to Jewish audiences is whether Obama is a friend of Israel.

“I say yes — but what’s wrong is the implementation of what he promised. What’s flawed is the strategy, not the goal,” Foxman said.

The ADL leader quickly added that despite promises to learn from past mistakes, the administration’s handling of Israel-related issues is “going from bad to worse.”

JTA

 
 

‘To be pessimistic would be wrong’

Paramus native turned pundit weighs in on Iran

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The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Lisa Daftari is an award-winning freelance journalist who has made a career out of following the political and social scene in Iran.

Daftari grew up in Paramus, where she attended the JCC of Paramus with her parents, Sion and Simin Daftari, and her three siblings, Bobby, Danny, and Diana.

She first gained national attention in 2006, when, as a graduate student in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California, she presented a documentary she made on an Iranian political youth movement to a subcommittee of Congress. After the presentation she went on to write a report for the Pentagon on Iranian youth movements and since then has appeared on Voice of America and PBS. Last year she became a regular guest contributor on Iran for Fox News Channel.

Daftari spoke with The Jewish Standard from her Los Angeles home about her career, her life, and Iran.

Jewish Standard: Had you always planned on going into journalism?

Daftari: I pretty much had my mind set on going to law school. After I graduated it was a combination of things. [The events of] 9/11 had a huge impact on influencing me and inspiring me to become a journalist. At the time we had family friends who unfortunately passed away. It was a hard time for the entire community and anybody living in the New York metro area. Watching the coverage and watching the stories of the aftermath, I felt so many important stories were missing from the coverage — stories that would put into context why we were being attacked, stories that would put into context who these fundamentalist groups are.

It left Americans very scared and vulnerable. I think at that point I realized there was so much more out there. Journalism combined a lot of what I liked about going into law — the analytical reasoning and the writing, putting into perspective for others important stories that will affect their lives.

J.S.: How did your career shift to a focus on the Middle East and Iran?

Daftari: I was a Middle Eastern studies major. I was doing a lot of independent study on Iran and the Middle East. My family’s from Iran so it was always an area of interest for me — how a revolution 30 years ago changed the entire fate of my community and my family, for an Iranian girl to be raised in Paramus, N.J. I always had an interest, and when I started researching the Middle East and Iran it wasn’t the hot topic at the time, but it was definitely a hot topic for me. You could scrape away the layers and get to all these questions about why things are a certain way right now.

J.S.: Why has the Middle East become such a hot topic?

Daftari: It is the most sensitive region of the world. We’ll always need people to put into context — and [provide] perspective [on] — what’s going on over there, whether it’s Israel and the Palestinians or Iran or Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 9/11, Americans want to know more about this area. For me it’s been very exciting to be able to tell the stories of the Middle Eastern people and to share their experience.

J.S.: How often are you in touch with people on the ground in Iran?

Daftari: It depends on what’s going on. Sometimes every day. Sometimes I set up different interviews with different people of specific interests — someone who just recently got out of jail or recently experienced something with the government. Something like that or an artist who’s doing something unique, or a rock star. I did an interview with a girl who’s a heavy metal artist in Iran.

It depends on what I’m working on or whether I just want to keep in touch with what people are doing over there on a daily basis.

And when the post-election demonstrations broke out, it was more often multiple times per day, just keeping up with all the things going on and staying on top of all the excitement and all the developments.

J.S.: The post-election protests in Iran have been out of the headlines for some time now. Is the opposition still protesting at the same levels as after the elections? What is happening that we’re not seeing?

Daftari: On a daily basis you see small groups of Iranians gather, whether it’s on a college campus, outside a government building, on rooftops at night.

This is very similar to what happened right before the revolution in ’79. What the American media and American public have to understand is sometimes these movements are very gradual. Nothing is done overnight.

The Iranian people realize if they’re out every day in large-scale demonstrations it doesn’t have the same effect. They’re coming out during holidays, especially holidays that signify something for the Islamic republic.

They wait for those types of opportunities in order to get their voices heard and in order to get the media coverage as well.

J.S.: Do you think that the American public is still as interested in what’s happening on the ground in Iran or has the focus shifted to the nuclear standoff?

Daftari: It’s definitely shifted to the nuclear standoff. In terms of national security, we have to be worried about the nuclear standoff. If you’re part of the Jewish community you’re going to be worried about Israel. If you’re living in America you’re going to be worried. I think every single person on Earth should be worried. It’s not just an America thing or an Israel thing.

Of course, that’s going to overshadow human rights violations in Iran. But at the same time, because of the nuclear issue, people are going to be more cognizant of the human rights issues that people are protesting about. It’s a clear indication of what type of government we’re dealing with. It’s the Islamic republic on one hand and Iran on the other.

And now for the first time in 30 years the American public is becoming aware of this difference. I think that’s the one big thing the Iranian population and the demonstrators were successful in doing in June: bringing [the difference] to the attention of the international community and more so the Americans.

The Iranian people came out and they came on the news. The coverage was pretty good — international coverage is always lacking in this country and it’s gotten much, much better. The Iran coverage was pretty good. It raised awareness and curiosity in the international community.

J.S.: What is the public perception of what is happening in Iran?

Daftari: The American public — you have to give them more credit. Because of the whole nuclear issue.... It’s not the first time we’re seeing a tyrant government that’s so different from its people. We’ve seen it in so many different circumstances and in so many different countries.

The American people are finally seeing that discrepancy and maybe feeling a little bit more for the Iranian people because their government is so rogue and so in the hard line. I think the American people have begun to see the differences there.

J.S.: What kind of impact has the nuclear standoff had on the opposition in Iran? Is there a danger of the country uniting in the face of a perceived “us vs. them” mentality?

Daftari: If you ask an Iranian plain and simple, “Do you think your country should have nuclear arms?,” it’s a very, very touchy subject. It almost comes out to a patriotic issue: “Why shouldn’t our country have nuclear arms?” Just like “Why shouldn’t our country have a great education system?” Our country should have this and our country should have that.

The difference in this case is the Iranian people don’t consider their government an Iranian government. They consider it an Islamic government that doesn’t have their best interests in mind.

The Iranian people don’t really trust their government to have these weapons. In this internal strife, why wouldn’t the government use their nuclear weapons on their own people? They hang their people, they beat and torture their people just for coming out in demonstration, so what would stop them from using nuclear weapons on their own people?
To say that the nuclear arms issue is going to unite the Iranian people is a little out there. It’s not going to happen and it’s not going to be a simple black-and-white answer. I don’t think the Iranian people are that naïve or have that much faith in their government.

J.S.: What can we do as Americans to support the people of Iran?

Daftari: Educating ourselves is probably the best thing we can do at this point — asking for Iran stories in the news and keeping up with what’s going on there. There’s an Iranian saying, “I didn’t ask for your help, but I didn’t want you to get in my way either.” It’s a very loose translation but what it means is the Iranian people weren’t asking our government or our people to help them in the outbreak of the post-election demonstrations but at the same time they didn’t want us to stand in the way. They feel like sometimes the American government has a way of just taking the attention to where they want.

With regards to the government, I think they’d want to see more support and with regards to the American people they’d want to see the same support. Knowing that the Iranian Americans and mainstream Americans are all standing behind them and wishing them well in their endeavor.

J.S.: How are the Iranian relationships with Hezbollah and Hamas viewed by the Iranian people?

Daftari: It used to be in ’79 and up to about this past year it was always “Death to America,” “Death to Israel.”

A lot of the slogans that we’re seeing on the street during the post-elections say something along the lines of, “We don’t care about Palestinians, we don’t care about Gaza. We are purely Iranian and we care about the Iranian people.”

I think the Iranian people are finally turning on their government — in the sense that they’re calling them out on this: “Why are we worried about the Palestinians? Why are we worried about helping the people in Gaza? Why are we giving money to these terrorists? Why are we giving money to children in the Palestinian territories when we should be supporting poor children in our own country?”

This government has gone so far and has become so radicalized that it’s pushing the Iranian people in the opposite direction and making them so secular, and so Iranian in their views and less Islamic in their views. And so patriotic in the sense that they want things for their own country and not for other countries.

The Palestinian issue has always been something the Islamic republic emphasized. Finally the Iranians are basically questioning that: “Why should we stand with the Palestinians? We should stand with ourselves. We have a rich culture that dates back thousands of years” — and they’re romanticizing that.

J.S.: Would the people want to re-establish relations with Israel?

Daftari: We’re a bit away from that. I think the people want to establish good ties with their government first. Everything is local for the Iranian people right now. They don’t care about America. They don’t care about Israel. They don’t care about the Palestinians. They just really want their human rights. They want unemployment to go down — it’s so high in that country. They want pollution to go down. They want jobs. They want to be able to get a divorce. Wives want to be able to complain against their husbands if they’re being beaten.

They want rights.

Israel and the United States are much farther off; they’re not on their minds as much as we think. The Iranian people think Israel’s going to help them get to their goals; they’re all for it. They think America’s going to help them; they’re all for it too. The Iranian people have become less polarized.

J.S.: Is the West using the right strategy with Iran?

Daftari: From the time President Obama was campaigning, he was very much set on negotiating with Iran. To give him credit, he has definitely mentioned Iran a number of times, but there hasn’t been as much action.

I think we haven’t seen the results. He’s using negotiating measures that don’t work and he’s repeating measures that don’t work. We’ve had three rounds of weak sanctions. It’s not going to work.

Unless we get crippling, crippling sanctions, serious sanctions — gasoline sanctions — that are going to choke off this regime, then we’re not going to get anywhere. Everybody pretty much agrees with that. If we can get China on board — which is probably a very slim to zero chance — then we’ll be on the right track to choking off this regime. Otherwise, we’re just embarrassing ourselves and making empty offers and gestures to a president and a government that’s so radicalized and so set in — they pretty much pride themselves in being outlandish. Every time President Obama is going to extend a hand, they’re going to ridicule [the gesture], and it’s just going to be another media fiasco.

Sanctions are definitely what we need right now.

J.S.: If we push for crippling sanctions, couldn’t that push the people into an extremist corner?

Daftari: That argument could be made, but at this point the Iranian people are coming out on those streets and watching their young children being shot at and watching their children hanged because of a simple demonstration. I think [imposing] sanctions — an economic pinch to an already suffering economy — is not going to be the worst option. I think the Iranian people are willing to brave that if it means they’re going to have the freedoms that they’ve been yearning for.

J.S.: What do you see happening if Israel or the United States moves forward with a military option?

Daftari: It’s going to be awful. It’s basically going to be utter chaos in the Middle East. That would obviously be the last, last, last option. If you’re worried about hurting the Iranian people with sanctions, the military option is the most unfair option for the Iranian people. It’s going to be the innocent Iranians that are going to be losing their lives.

Everything at this point should be targeted toward this regime. I think that’s a unanimous point of view in the case of Iran. I think everything — whether it’s sanctions, whether it’s negotiations, any sort of choke or pinch — should be targeted toward this regime and we should basically stay away from hurting the people of Iran as much as we can.

J.S.: What is your sense of the situation from the Iranian communities within America?

Daftari: The Iranians are very much politically cynical people. When the demonstrations broke out, it wasn’t just political, it was also highly emotional.

A lot of Iranians [in America] were just staying by the phone, by the computer, by the television, waiting for reports, waiting to find out where their loved ones were.

Here in Los Angeles, which has such a large enclave of Iranians, you couldn’t even step into a coffee shop without hearing multiple conversations about what’s going on and whether it was in the general scheme or talking about specific cousins and friends who went out to the protests. There was a huge solidarity. There were demonstrations here at the Federal Building and at the United Nations in New York.

It’s as if a 30-year-old pot had finally boiled over. Iranians of all different denominations and religions came together because it was a purely secular and Iranian patriotic fight for democracy and for human rights. It was a movement to go back to the Iranian culture that’s so fundamental in all Iranian families.

Since then, with the nuclear issue, people have become more cynical and a little bit more questioning of where America stands, where Europe stands. I think Iranians are always concerned about what the allies want because that’s what’s going to happen. They feel as though the ‘79 revolution was organized not by Iranians but by foreign powers. They’re applying that same formula to what’s going on right now.

A lot of Iranians believe nothing’s going to happen unless the foreign powers would want something to change.

J.S.: How optimistic are you about the situation?

Daftari: To be pessimistic would be wrong. We’ve seen movements that begin even slower and on a less steady course and ultimately reach some sort of development.

There’s such a discrepancy between [the government and] the people, who have become so secularized and modernized. One of the biggest problems for them is that Yahoo and Google were shut down during the demonstrations. They blog, they use Twitter. This is not a people who want to be represented by this type of government.

On the other hand, you have a government that’s embezzling millions and millions of dollars and is not going to go anywhere anytime soon without the proper pressure.

We have to be optimistic in the case of Iran. We have to for the sake of the Iranians and for the sake of the entire world.

We’re all at risk here. We’re not the ones suffering the daily consequences of the regime.

If and when Iran does become a nuclear power — and that’s one to maximum two years — we’re all going to be at risk. I don’t think we should wait till that point to be dealing with the situation.

I think the Iranian predicament is something the Iranian people and the entire world have to shoulder at this point. We have to be optimistic because something will happen.

J.S.: What brought your parents to the U.S.?

Daftari: My father came to New York to study about 45 years ago. He came before the revolution. He went back to Iran and met my mother — it was a year before the revolution. They got married and came to the States in hopes of basically organizing my father’s life and moving back to Iran. So my mother basically came out of Iran with about two suitcases. And then the revolution happened and they were forced to stay; they couldn’t go back.

At that point, my grandparents and uncles were all still in Iran. By 1980 they were all in New York.

J.S.: What role did Iran play for you growing up?

Daftari: My mother was very nostalgic about Iran, from the way she would buy corn on the cob on the street to her school memories and her friends and how everybody was so warm and hospitable and kind. It left us with this idea of a utopian society that I would give anything to visit.

I remember thinking [Iranian revolutionary leader] Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini was the only reason I was living in New Jersey instead of Iran, living the life my mother had always described to me. I remember watching TV when Ayatollah Khomeini passed away. I looked at my mother and said, “Does that mean we’re moving back to Iran?” I remember that, thinking he was the reason we were here and if things were better we’d be living in Iran.

It was always looked upon so positively; everybody was so kind and warm.

J.S.: What was it like growing up in a predominantly Ashkenazi community?

Daftari: I was pretty much raised with the Ashkenazi culture. Sephardi/Mizrachi culture was what I had at home. I didn’t think there was a divide, really. I felt I had a bonus at home, this bedazzled version of Judaism where we can have rice on Passover.

The wonderful thing about Jews is no matter where anyone’s from you can go to Israel and have Friday night dinner and just feel at home in anyone’s home. It’s a wonderful uniting characteristic about Judaism. I always felt it was an additional side of Judaism I got to explore.

J.S.: Have you traveled to Iran at all?

Daftari: No. I’ve traveled to the Middle East, to Israel and Turkey. I travel under my own name so I don’t think it’d be safe for me to travel to Iran.

J.S.: Would you eventually like to go?

Daftari: Absolutely. If I knew that it was safe I would go at any point. My mother always tells me she wouldn’t want me to go now because of all the wonderful pictures she’s painted in my mind about what Iran is. She wants them to stay that way and not [have me] see what it’s become. Pre-revolution Iran was competing [globally] — now it’s definitely not as it used to be.

J.S.: Thank for sharing your ideas with Jewish Standard readers.

 
 

A sorry day at the U.N.

 

Unhappy with Obama’s Israel policy, some Jews turn to Palin

At the height of the 2008 electoral battle, readers sent heated letters to this newspaper either blasting or embracing the Republican ticket consisting of John McCain and Sarah Palin. It was Palin, in particular, who drew the most impassioned prose.

“The thought that Sarah Palin is but a ‘heartbeat’ away from the presidency fills us with dread,” wrote Sandy Dermon of Fort Lee.

On the other hand, David Robin of Fair Lawn pointed out that Palin “delivered a captivating speech at the Republican convention, [creating] quite a lot of excitement and even received grudgingly admitted praise from many Democrats.”

Since the election, Palin has remained squarely in the public eye, drawing support not only from the Tea Party movement but from unexpected quarters as well.

While Jewish support for Palin has been extremely thin, Benyamin Korn, former editor of the Jewish Exponent, recently came down firmly in Palin’s corner, joining Jewish conservative commentators such as Norman Podhoretz — one-time editor of Commentary, who has compared Palin to President Ronald Reagan — and William Kristol, editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard.

To herald the launch of the national organization Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, together with the Website Jewsfor Sarah.com, Korn has circulated an op-ed entitled “Palin’s policies reflect Americans’ spirit on Israel,” in which he said the new organization was “dedicated to promoting consideration of Palin’s policy positions in the wider American Jewish community.”

“We find Palin’s positions on Israel, Iran, national security, fiscal responsibility, energy, and social policy — as well as her record on these issues as governor of Alaska and candidate for vice president of the United States — to be serious, substantive and politically mainstream,” he wrote. “Though not at present a candidate for any office, Palin’s track record in public office has been exemplary and has withstood the test of the most demanding scrutiny of investigative news media.”

He maintained, as well, that JASP is made up of “academic, religious, and community leaders,” though these leaders were not identified in the piece.

Seeking to take the current pulse of the Jewish community, this newspaper called some of the 2008 letter-writers for an update on their views.

David Teman of Teaneck said that “people are still very much animated by Palin; she’s quite relevant.” He pointed out, however, that he has experienced a “total disconnect” with friends who oppose her vigorously.

“They would ask, ‘Who would vote for Sarah Palin?’ as if it was such a silly concept.”

“We would,” Teman said he answered, asking in turn, “Are you happy with how Obama is treating the Israeli government?”

Learning about the group, Fort Lee resident Edith Sobel, former editor of the Jewish Community News, said, “I can’t tell you how distressed I am. It’s bad enough when ignorant people fall for her, but when intellectuals [do], that troubles me.”

Calling Palin “a font of misinformation,” Sobel said “she gets away with it because no one challenges her on the truth. To think that people of merit, quality, and intelligence see in her a potential candidate is shocking and appalling.”

Sobel, who had just returned from one of her many trips to Israel, added that the people she knows there are nervous about President Obama’s recent behavior, “but some of them are terrified by Palin.” They’re very anxious to see peace talks, she said, “and they feel that her attitude is against them.”

Dr. Sylvia Riskin, founder of The Samuel F. and Sylvia S. Riskin Children’s Center — established in memory of her husband and run by the Jewish Family Service of Clifton/Passaic — was also surprised to hear that there was Jewish support for Palin.

“Contrary to all biblical virtues, Sarah Palin talks about but does not practice honesty, compassion, and tolerance for others,” she said. “Her behavior encourages violence. She is anti-government and distorts what the government can provide, such as Medicare and Social Security.”

Alan M. Schwartz of Teaneck took another approach, noting that while he considers Palin a viable candidate, “there are several other potential Republican alternatives who would be worth the attention and consideration of our community and others.”

He said that, like many others, he is “troubled by the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel and of Netanyahu and about the corresponding lack of urgency about dealing effectively with Iran’s growing nuclear threat. The contrast between the two is very disturbing.”

Schwartz pointed out that while he might not agree with Palin on all the issues, this would not make him feel “hostile” to her. While she appeared to have been inadequately prepared for some of her election season interviews, he said, “a certain disdainful attitude on the part of the media toward her was carried to an extreme,” even in this newspaper. “She should have been given a more respectful hearing rather than challenged on superficial things,” he said. “She’s not the perfect candidate, but there was a politically motivated double standard.”

Naomi Sternberg of New Milford said she was very much in favor of Palin becoming the Republican candidate because then “we Democrats will get in much more easily.”

She said, however, that she doesn’t doubt that some Jews have been motivated to support Palin because of the situation with Israel.

“A lot of my co-religionists will support whatever Israel does without any questions whatsoever,” she said. “I’m a fantastic supporter of Israel, but I don’t believe that any country does everything 100 percent correctly.”

Sternberg pointed out that she is still troubled by the same issues that bothered her during the 2008 election.

“[Palin] has become very adept at making money,” she added. “She’s very skilled, and she knows how to incite people.”

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who wrote in a September 2008 column in this newspaper that “Our daughters need more women like Sarah Palin … who balance being mothers and succeeding in their careers,” said he believes the American Jewish community “must work hard to defeat Obama in 2012.”

“He betrayed the trust of the American Jewish community. He misled us all,” he said.

“Whether or not it will be Palin or some other candidate is far less important,” he said, adding that he opposes an emphasis on a particular candidate.

Jews should focus not on candidates but on policies, he said, supporting those who endorse select issues.

As regards those issues, “I never believed that abortion should be one of the Jewish community’s leading issues. We’re not as stalwart on abortion as Christianity is.” Nor, he said, should gun control be one of our “foremost issues.”

He noted, however, that he strongly believes in Palin’s fiscal policies.

“I believe in empowering the individual,” he said. “ I would venture to say that our religion strongly emphasizes earning a living with dignity.”

 
 

Former Sharon adviser Gissin tells what it takes to make Mideast peace — and it will surprise you

Iran’s influence in the Middle East must be curbed before Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, according to Raanan Gissin, former senior adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Whether the Israelis and Palestinians like it or not, he said, the Iranian regime holds the key to Middle East peace.

Gissin spoke twice at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week about the Iranian threat, first to the general public on May 6 and again in a special Hebrew-only session with the local Israeli community on May 8. Gissin, who has a more than 30-year career in Israeli government and strategic affairs, shared his insights with The Jewish Standard at a private Teaneck home late last week.

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Iran is the key to the Middle East, says Raanan Gissin. Jerry Szubin

When Sharon would visit with President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, Gissin related, he would always say that Iraq is the immediate threat in the Middle East, but Iran is the long-term threat.

“Today the Iranian threat is like global warming,” Gissin said. “Everybody talks about it. Everybody is concerned about. It affects everyone, but nobody knows what to do about it. With global warming you still have some time. With the Iranian threat, time is running out.”

The Obama administration has renewed its focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is pushing his own plan to unilaterally declare a state in 2012. Neither of these paths, however, will succeed in bringing about full peace, Gissin said, because terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah take their marching orders from Tehran, which is comfortably brushing off the West’s demands to curb its nuclear program and has an interest in keeping global attention focused on Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

“Without Iran being weakened or contained, there’s no prospect for these developments to take place,” he said. “If Iran wants to change its policy, Hamas and Hezbollah will also have to change. It all comes back to Iran right now.”

The nuclear issue

The Iranian threat is not just its burgeoning nuclear program or the concern that a nuclear Iran might hand off an atomic bomb to one of its terrorist proxies. According to Gissin, the Iranian regime has designs on redrawing the map of the Middle East, and then the West, into a Muslim empire with Tehran at the helm. Israel would be first on its chopping block, but Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan stand to lose a great deal as well.

“Iran is trying to relentlessly push for its ultimate goal and achieve hegemony of its brand of Islam over the rest of the world,” Gissin said.

The Sunni Islamic world is frightened that Shi’ite Islam, led by Iran, is gaining a stronger foothold, according to Gissin. The response, he said, has so far been appeasement. Turkey, for example, has been hedging its bets and moving closer to Iran’s extremist corner.

Israel, however, is “the one joker in the card deck.”

“They’re afraid of [Israel],” Gissin said. “They fear it because Israel has in its hands the capability to really spoil their plan.”

But Gissin doesn’t recommend military action against Iran. That, he said, would lead to a regional war with Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as traditional armies such as Syria’s.

U.S.-led negotiations with Iran are not the answer to the nuclear problem either, according to Gissin. Iran’s negotiations with the West are meant only to buy the regime more time, according to Gissin, and the regime is very patient.

“If they are set out to achieve Islamic domination, then there is no way to negotiate,” he said. “They can negotiate the terms of your surrender. You can’t have any kind of meaningful negotiation.”

What America needs to do, he said, is change the behavior of the regime by threatening what it values most: its power. By instilling a sense of fear within the government hierarchy that it could be overthrown, the government will be forced to focus on its own survival instead of regional domination. For example, if the regime is forced to spend its resources on its own security because of increased threats from Iranian dissidents, then there are fewer resources for its nuclear program or global terrorist organizations.

“The only way you can prevent Iran from taking action is if they’re concentrated on their own lives inside Iran,” he said.

The West, therefore, needs to work from within Iran to cultivate fear in its leaders that their power could be taken away, Gissin said. That means supporting the growing protests in the streets and increasing pressure on the government. At present, the Iranian government doesn’t have a sense that it is being pursued and therefore can comfortably delay negotiations with the West while stoking the fires in regional conflicts.

Gissin projected that the West has a deadline of maybe two years before Iran completes its nuclear work. He proposed that Western powers spend that time in a concerted effort to operate inside Iran to create an atmosphere of fear within the government,

“Iran is creating fear among Arab countries,” he said. “I don’t think there is any Arab leader today who doesn’t think about what will be Iran’s next move. They don’t sleep well at night in their beds. You have to create a situation where [the Iranian leadership] can’t sleep peacefully in their beds.”

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process

Analysts who believe solving the Israel-Palestinian problem is the first step to peace in the Middle East and then taming the Iranian threat are mistaken, he said. It’s the other way around.

“If the United States will take action to contain Iran, then there will be peace,” he said.

Only after the Iranian issue is resolved — or the regime is at least preoccupied with its own survival — can the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians move forward, Gissin said.

Israelis and Palestinians this month revived stalled peace negotiations with proximity talks featuring shuttle diplomacy from U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said in The Jerusalem Post last week that peace talks are doomed to fail because no Palestinian leader can accept less than what the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was offered in 2000, and no Jewish Israeli leader can offer more. Gissin agreed, and shared Shalom’s pessimism about the success of the talks, but said that the appearance of movement is still better than allowing the entire process to fall apart.

Gissin was witness to Israel’s last major concession for peace: the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank, orchestrated by the Sharon government. The plan, which resulted in the removal of thousands of Jewish settlers and eventually paved the way for Hamas’ takeover of the strip, achieved partial success, Gissin said. Israel gained certain security guarantees from the United States as a result of the move, as well as relative freedom from international pressure to carry out its wars against Iranian proxies Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008-09.

“It didn’t succeed in being a corridor to peace,” he said. “The reason is not because of good will in Israel or [from] the Palestinians. It has to do with Hamas and Iran. These two definitely don’t want to see a peace process under way.”

Turning his attention to regional peace in the Middle East, Gissin said that the Arabs are not ready for peace with Israel, nor has Israel succeeded in arguing its case to them.

Israelis do not want peace as much as they want peace of mind, Gissin said. Peace of mind, he continued, means acknowledging that Israel has problems, but continuing to run the country, send kids to school, and have a thriving economy.

“It’s carving some security out of chaos,” he said. “That’s what most Israelis want. If you have strong leadership, you can do it.”

Israel-Arab relations

The Arab world is not ready for peace with Israel, according to Gissin, and part of that is Israel’s fault. The country has failed to explain its position to its neighbors, he explained. The Jewish state has focused too much on its security needs and not its right to be there in the first place. Aside from Egypt, he said, Israel is the only country in the region with historical boundaries.

“It’s the power of our rights and not our right to use power,” he said. “Everybody knows that we’re powerful. In order to have normal relations between Israel and the Arab world, they must realize we also have the right to self-determination.”

The media battle is Israel’s new war, Gissin said, and to win it, Israel needs to turn to its strongest advocates, especially non-government organizations. The college campus, he said, is one area where Israel is losing the battle. Israel advocates are intimidated, he said, because the level of animosity toward the Jewish state is so high, and Israel should be sending its best representatives to the campuses.

Gissin recalled that Abba Eban once said there are three elements to being a good spokesperson for Israel: speaking with conviction about your rights, speaking with compassion toward your enemies, and speaking with passion to your people.

“We excelled at fighting terrorism,” Gissin said. “We excelled at fighting suicide bombers. There’s no reason we can’t excel at changing the war on the media battlefield and win,” he said.

 
 

JCRC to host legislative gathering

State and national officials will gather in Paramus next week to hear the concerns of the local Jewish community at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual legislative gathering.

Sponsored by the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, the legislative gathering is an opportunity for New Jersey officials to talk directly to Jewish communal leaders and vice versa, said JCRC director Joy Kurland.

“It’s keeping the dialogue and communication open,” she said. “It’s part of our government affairs and public policy work, enhancing relationships with government officials.”

This year’s meeting, to be held at UJA-NNJ’s Paramus headquarters Tuesday evening, will address the New Jersey fiscal year 2011 budget, Iran divestment efforts in the state, U.S.-Israel relations, economic recovery, and health-care reform.

“We want to hear about the effects of the state budget and what impact it might have on our communities,” Kurland said. “It’s things like that, that are helpful to our Jewish community leadership to be able to become educated and knowledgeable.”

New Jersey began divesting its pension funds from Iran in 2008 and Kurland would like to hear the legislators address where that process stands. With regard to health-care reform, Kurland would like an update on how President Obama’s health-care legislation is being implemented in New Jersey and what effects it will have on UJA’s constituents. As for the budget, Gov. Christie’s fiscal proposals for 2011 included cuts to several school programs and other initiatives that could affect the work of the federation or its subsidiary agencies.

The meeting, which is closed to the public, will include members of JCRC boards and committees, the federation’s executive boards, and rabbinical leaders. Expected to attend from the state arena are Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Sen. Bob Gordon (D-38), Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37), Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), Assemblyman Robert Schroeder (D-39), Assemblywoman Elease Evans (D-35), Sen. Gerald Cardinale (D-39), and Bergen County Freeholder Elizabeth Calabrese. U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett’s director of outreach, Matthew Barnes, is also expected.

U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Gov. Christie do not plan to attend, while JCRC is still reaching out to Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), a former JCRC chair, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8).

Weinberg has attended the gathering every year since its inception.

“It’s educating. It’s enlightening,” she said. “We’re able to tell UJA [what we’re doing] and they’re in turn able to tell us [what they’re focusing on].”

Schaer has also attended the meetings since the beginning.

“Legislative gatherings — and specifically the UJA gathering — provide a formalized and necessary framework for communication so that in this case, legislators representing their various districts can work closely to understand the priorities and concerns of the Jewish community,” he said. “As the coordinating body for many Jewish institutions, the UJA is a vital institution in terms of reflecting those concerns to the legislators.”

The Jewish Council for Special Needs held a meeting with legislators on May 4 and JCSN chair Sharyn Gallatin credited last year’s legislative gathering for creating connections with area officials.

Gallatin presented her cause at last year’s legislative gathering and caught Weinberg’s attention. They arranged a follow-up meeting, which resulted in Weinberg’s participation in a legislative meeting earlier this month addressing the need for a Department of Disabilities in Bergen County.

“This was a result of this meeting last year where Sharyn was able to see what we did, make the contacts, and see JCRC as the facilitator of going to a deeper level,” Kurland said. “It was really highly successful.”

Kurland is head of the regional Community Relations Council, an agency of UJA-NNJ, United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in Essex and Morris counties, and Central Federation in Union and Warren Counties. While CRCs across the country hold legislative gatherings, the federations in the regional group don’t have similar meetings of the magnitude of UJA-NNJ’s.

“We would like to replicate it,” Kurland said.

 
 

Obama, Jewish lawmakers discuss Israel, Iran

Amid perceptions that U.S.-Israel relations are at an all-time low, President Obama met with Jewish members of Congress last week and reportedly assured them that the relationship between the two countries is as strong as ever.

“It was a meeting of friends designed to talk about a very serious and important subject to all, namely, the safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), one of the 37 members of the House and Senate who attended the hour and a half White House meeting on May 18.

A White House statement called the meeting “a wide-ranging and productive exchange about their shared commitment to peace and security in Israel and the Middle East.”

Obama, Rothman said, has been more supportive of military cooperation with Israel than any other American president. He pointed to $3 billion in military aid in Obama’s budget and an additional $205 million the president earmarked for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

The congressional delegation thanked the president for that support, according to Rothman, and for Obama’s role in Israel’s entry earlier this month into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which Rothman said would not have happened without the president’s intervention.

Rothman pointed to the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, jointly developed by Israel and the United States to intercept long-range rockets from Iran, as well as David’s Sling, jointly developed to intercept short-range missiles and Kassam rockets from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. He also noted last October’s Operation Juniper Cobra, which showcased American and Israeli defensive technology.

“The president thanked us for recognizing his military and intelligence efforts,” said Rothman. He noted also that he pressed the president on Iran, emphasizing that stopping the Islamic regime from obtaining nuclear weapons was separate from the issue of forging Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president agreed, Rothman said. According to the congressman, Obama reiterated that a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran was unacceptable and all options — including a military strike — remained on the table.

The level of Obama’s support for Israel has been questioned lately as the two countries squabbled over East Jerusalem construction and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived snub during a recent White House visit. Some Israeli pundits have suggested that the Obama administration has purposely given Netanyahu the cold shoulder, while rolling out the red carpet for Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Rothman dismissed such accusations.

The president, Rothman said, acknowledged and “was pained by” what the congressman called mistakes by his administration and Netanyahu’s during the recent row. Many at last week’s meeting thought the United States overreacted following the announcement of new construction during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel earlier this year, Rothman said.

“The president thought both parties should have done a better job in managing that situation, that the Netanyahu government felt the same way, and that both sides had learned lessons from that incident, and now put that dispute behind them,” Rothman said.

Turning their attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president told the delegation that no one could or should impose a solution on the Israelis and Palestinians, dismissing rumors in Israeli media that he was preparing his own plan. Obama said a solution could only come from the Israelis and Palestinians, Rothman said.

“It was clear to me that the president wants to get beyond the issue of settlements and have the parties begin direct negotiations to resolve their differences and come to an agreement,” Rothman said.

Rothman said he warned the president that the Palestinians have historically rejected opportunities for statehood and may do so again. Obama told him that he would do all he could to encourage both sides not to miss the opportunity for peace and to move quickly to direct negotiations, Rothman said.

“The president also went into some details as to how he had privately and publicly communicated to the Palestinians that their acceptance and participation in acts of incitement of hatred toward Israel and Jews — in the Palestinian Authority media for example and in actions by Fatah — were completely unacceptable and in violation of the Road Map,” Rothman said.

Many of the congressmen encouraged Obama to publicly condemn Palestinian demonization of Israel and the Jewish people more frequently, Rothman said.

Finally, the congressional contingent encouraged Obama to make a trip to Israel and directly express to the Israeli people what Rothman called Obama’s “unwavering, heartfelt, and unshakable commitment to the survival and prosperity of the Jewish State of Israel.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, was the only non-Democrat at the meeting. Other attendees included New Jersey’s Sen. Frank Lautenberg, New York’s Rep. Anthony Weiner, Wisconsin’s Rep. Russ Feingold, New York’s Rep. Eliot Engel, Massachusetts’ Rep. Barney Frank, and New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer.

Sen. Arlen Specter, who lost last week’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, did not attend.

Lautenberg released a statement ahead of his meeting with the president, shortly after meeting with a contingent of local Jewish leaders last Monday about U.S.-Israel relations.

“Israel is a critical ally of the United States, and we must not forget our shared values and shared security interests,” the statement said. “I look forward to emphasizing this important strategic relationship in my meeting with President Obama and to continuing an open dialogue with members of the Jewish community.”

The president was “receptive” and “genuinely interested” in the advice of the congressional delegation, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler said in a statement issued after the meeting.

“We stressed that the U.S. must not in any way seek to impose a settlement on Israel, and the president agreed, stating that he would not do so, and that any agreement had to be negotiated between the parties,” he said. “We also urged him to make clear to the Palestinians that the U.S. will not do their work for them.”

Engel released a statement before the meeting about moving past the recent disagreements between the United States and Israel.

“Through quiet dialogue, we will overcome differences and learn from each other, and, in turn, our nations will become stronger and our relationship deeper,” he said.

 
 
 
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