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White House charm offensive pays off:  Wiesel says tension ‘gone’

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – When Elie Wiesel says it’s all kosher, it’s good.

For now, anyway.

President Obama capped an intensive two weeks of administration make-nice with Israeli officials and the American Jewish community by hosting Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist, for lunch at the White House.

News Analysis

“It was a good kosher lunch,” was the first thing Wiesel pronounced, emerging from the White House to a gaggle of reporters.

And not just the food.

“There were moments of tension,” Wiesel said. “But the tension I think is gone, which is good.”

That echoed Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, who a few days earlier told leaders of the American Jewish Committee that the “slight disagreements are behind us.”

The tension and the “slight” disagreements, of course, were between the United States and Israel — and by extension, the mainstream pro-Israel community — and started March 8, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden rebuked Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Next came an extended phoned-in dressing down from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims by Clinton and other U.S. officials that Israel had “insulted” Biden.

Then, when Netanyahu arrived in Washington to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Obama all but snubbed the Israeli leader, agreeing to meet him only without photo ops.

The pro-Israel community was virtually unified in its reaction: Yes, Netanyahu had screwed up, but this was piling on.

As the recriminations grew more pronounced, so did concerns about the relationship: Did this portend a major shake-up? Was Obama distancing himself from Israel?

In private, Jewish organizational leaders reached out to White House friends and said, whatever you’re selling, you need to explain it before “tensions” become a full-fledged “crisis.”

There were signs of that, with messages — some blunt, some oblique — about the dangers of pressing Israel on Jerusalem. The author of one of the messages, in the form of a full-page New York Times ad, was Wiesel.

In response to such rumblings — around the time of Israel Independence Day, mid-to-late April — the Obama administration launched its love assault. If you were a Jewish organization, no matter how particularized, you would get administration face time from Clinton (the American Jewish Committee) through Attorney General Eric Holder (the Anti-Defamation League) down to Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (American Friends of Hebrew University.)

Clearly there was a checklist for the speakers:

• Mention that there is “no gap — no gap” (and say it like that) between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. (Jim Jones, the national security advisor, to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his deputy, Daniel Shapiro, to the ADL.)

• Repeat, ad infinitum, the administration’s “commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Clinton to the AJC; Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran policy, to the ADL and just about everyone else.

• Make it clear that while resolving the conflict would make it easier to address an array of other issues, the notion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region is a calumny. (Robert Gates, the defense secretary, at a news conference with Barak: “No one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.” Shapiro to the ADL: “We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”)

• Resolve to resolve differences “as allies” and don’t forget to criticize the Palestinians as well, for incitement and for recalcitrance in refusing to come to direct talks (proximity talks are resuming this week).

• And explain the fundaments of what is good about the relationship: defense cooperation.

The most pronounced evidence of this approach was in the ADL’s double whammy: The civil rights group got two speeches from two officials, Ross and Shapiro, who had not spoken publicly since taking their jobs in the administration. Each was in a position to go into detail about the details of the defense relationship, Ross handling the Iran perspective and Shapiro handling Israel and its neighbors.

“We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. service members who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall,” Shapiro said. “We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel — in political, military, and intelligence channels — on regional security issues and counterterrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible.

“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, was impressed, saying this was more than just rhetoric.

“We’ve heard all kinds of phraseology in the last few weeks, but this is an inventory,” he said.

Tom Neumann, who heads the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that the defense relationship remains strong — but wondered whether the rhetoric did not portend more substantive changes.

“On a soldier-to-soldier basis it remains solid,” Neumann said. “But much of the defense relationship is ultimately dictated by the administration. Obama may yet put pressure on Israel through the transfer of arms through how to confront Iran.”

JTA

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 
 

Jewish groups welcome Iran sanctions but want more

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 21 May 2010

WASHINGTON – U.S. Jewish groups welcomed the announcement of the unified front by major world powers on Iran sanctions.

But they want to know the details — and they’re still pressing for unilateral sanctions by the U.S. Congress.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council had agreed on “strong” Iran sanctions.

The announcement came partly in response to Iran’s attempt this week to defang international efforts to monitor its nuclear development by agreeing to a nuclear exchange with Turkey and Brazil.

“We have been working closely with our P 5+1 partners for several weeks on the draft of a new sanctions resolution on Iran,” Clinton said, referring to the five Security Council members and Germany. “Today, I am pleased to announce to this committee we have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China.”

Those two countries have been the most reluctant to expand existing U.N. sanctions on Iran.

The American Jewish Committee, one of the groups at the forefront of efforts to galvanize international support for multilateral sanctions against Iran, welcomed the announcement.

“Secretary Clinton’s announcement is very encouraging,” said David Harris, AJC’s executive director. “We hope the U.N. Security Council will accelerate its deliberations and adopt a new resolution to significantly tighten the sanctions regime to thwart Iran’s ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons capability.”

Clinton did not outline the proposed sanctions, noting that the draft resolution must circulate among all 15 members of the Security Council. Reports in recent months have suggested that the sanctions under consideration would expand the list of individuals and entities already sanctioned in earlier resolutions and also target Iran’s financial sector.

The U.S. Congress is considering its own set of expanded and tougher unilateral sanctions that would target third-party entities — companies, individuals, and countries — that deal with Iran’s energy sector.

The Obama administration is wary of the package, fearing it would drive away partners from multilateral sanctions.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee called on the Obama administration to embrace the congressional package — likely to pass within weeks — as a complement to the multilateral sanctions.

“American and international sanctions on Iran must be overwhelming to change the dynamic within Iran and to alter the policies of Iranian leaders,” AIPAC said in an analysis it distributed after Clinton’s announcement. “Sanctions should target Iran’s finance, insurance, shipping, transportation, natural gas, and manufacturing industries in addition to Tehran’s dependence on refined petroleum.”

Clinton drew a direct link between her announcement and Iran’s attempt this week to head off additional sanctions by agreeing to a diluted version of an earlier U.S.-initiated proposal to enrich some uranium to medical research levels in exchange for transparency. Under the agreement, Iran would export half its low-enriched uranium to Turkey and Brazil for enrichment to medical research levels.

The Obama administration has rejected the deal as inadequate. U.S. officials noted that under the original U.S. proposal, Iran would have had to relinquish its entire existing store of uranium and make its program more transparent. Under the Brazil-Turkey deal, Iran would retain enough low-enriched uranium to manufacture a single nuclear bomb should it obtain the means to further enrich it.

AIPAC called the deal a “stalling tactic.”

“The Iran-Brazil-Turkey deal fails all counts,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said. “It leaves them with enough material to make a bomb, Iran has said it plans to continue enriching nuclear fuel, and there is no indication that Iran is even willing to talk about suspending enrichment as called for by four U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

Clinton said the administration’s announcement of an agreement on Security Council sanctions against Iran “is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide.”

JTA

 
 

White House meets with rabbis to assuage concerns on Israel

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 21 May 2010

WASHINGTON – If you tell the rabbis, they will spread the word.

That was the thinking behind two intimate White House meetings — the second of which took place on May 13 — with a carefully selected slate of 15 rabbis from across the country and representing the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative streams.

Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi at Cong. Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., initiated the meetings after a talk he had with his friend Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, about the Obama administration’s perceived lack of friendliness toward Israel.

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White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, seen here at the national menorah lighting on Dec. 13, 2009, arranged two White House meetings in recent weeks for a select group of rabbis. Creative Commons

The two meetings, the first of which was held last month, were part of a “charm offensive” after relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments hit a low in early March, when Israel announced a major building start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. The Obama administration wants Israel to freeze settlement in the west bank and building in the eastern part of Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War and subsequently annexed.

In recent weeks, several high-profile Jewish communal figures have slammed the Obama administration over the intensity and public nature of its criticisms of Israeli actions on these fronts. Some of the critics accused the White House of exerting much more pressure on Israel than the Palestinian Authority.

Moline said the rabbis, all of whom attended both of the meetings, were selected because of the high profiles they have in their communities, and because they had concerns about how the Obama administration was conducting Middle East policy — but they had not displayed outright hostility to the president.

“The rabbis who were in this group were chosen because they’re in touch with their different congregations in different parts of the country,” Moline said.

Not all the rabbis came away entirely mollified, but nonetheless they were impressed by the seriousness of the outreach.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida said he left the meeting still wondering if the administration is on the right track, but still “cautiously optimistic” because of the depth of commitment to Israel he heard.

“I left with a clear impression that these individuals have a real passion about Israel,” even if he did not agree with them on tactics, Goldberg said. Their interlocutors at the two meetings were high level: Dennis Ross, who runs Obama’s Iran policy; Dan Shapiro, the deputy national security adviser who supervises policy for Israel and its neighbors; Susan Sher, the chief White House liaison to the Jewish community; and Emanuel.

“Among the rabbis there was a diversity of those who support the administration policies and feel the message hasn’t trickled down, and those who have problems with some of the policies,” Goldberg said. “But the universal message was you need to show more love; this is not how you treat family.”

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative congregation in suburban Potomac, Md., said he felt it was especially incumbent upon the administration to explain its actions, given the misgivings about Obama that had circulated in the Jewish community prior to his election in a rumor campaign driven by e-mail that described him as anti-Israel and sympathetic to Muslims.

“I even mentioned hesitantly the flurry of e-mails prior to the election that were widely circulated in the Jewish community,” he said. “This was one of the reasons there was concern, and this was why the concerns had to be allayed. The potential for that perception is out there already, and the recent actions didn’t contribute to dispelling that approach.”

The rabbis put questions to the group that ranged from the substantive to repetitions of rumors about the president and how he was perceived to have treated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poorly during a visit to Washington in March.

The White House staffers answered the questions politely and with equanimity, Moline said.

“There was a lot of highlighting of the actual activities and policies of the administration,” Moline said — “and some frustration that” what the Obama administration has done for Israel “has not been comprehensively and accurately reported. They emphasized that whatever the messaging has been over the past year and a half, the policies have been in place.”

The officials emphasized, for instance, the closeness of the defense relationship. On May 13, as the rabbis were meeting with the staffers, for instance, the Obama administration authorized $205 million on top of the annual $3 billion in defense assistance for Israel to complete its Iron Dome short-range missile defense system.

The administration officials “spent a considerable amount of time emphasizing that the United States is addressing Israel’s security concerns in a manner that [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak called better than at any previous time,” Moline reported.

The rabbis in attendance — whose congregations ranged from Florida, the Midwest, Las Vegas, the Northeast, and the South — seemed receptive and took the message home.

“Our president is every bit as committed to Israel’s safety and security as any previous administration,” Rabbi Aaron Rubinger said in a May 8 Shabbat morning sermon at Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Orlando, Fla. “I do not believe the president is abandoning Israel or has any intention of abandoning Israel.”

Rubinger seemed even more upbeat in an extensive interview with the Heritage Florida Jewish News after the second meeting.

The rabbi said he had gone into the first meeting “with grave concern that even the public perception of too much space between Israel and the U.S. might give a signal to Iran that the U.S. was not as committed to Israel’s security as previous administrations were.”

Now, Rubinger said, he was assuaged.

“We are mending and moving beyond this controversy,” he said.

Rubinger’s fellow Floridian Goldberg said his congregants needed to know more.

Goldberg said some rabbis accepted the White House staffers’ argument that until recently they had not communicated their message effectively. Others, including Goldberg, thought that put too much weight on the message and not the substance of the policy.

“It’s easy to repeat the phrases ‘unbreakable bond’ and ‘shared values,’” he said. “We want to hear in no uncertain terms that Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, that it’s great that the proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians “have started, but inevitably there will be an impasse, and when that happens, will they only apply pressure Israel, or have they learned something? My community in Palm Beach County is confused and has questions but is seeking answers.”

Weinblatt also pressed his interlocutors on the perceived imbalance in U.S. criticism of Israel.

“In many respects, I think there was a recognition on their part that the mistakes had been made in regard to the way Israel had been singled out so strongly,” he said.

Rubinger listed what he called “significant” administration talking points: The refusal to participate in the U.N.’s Durban Review Conference against racism last year in Geneva because the president believed Israel would be unfairly criticized; the rejection of Richard Goldstone’s U.N. report on Israel’s actions during last year’s war in Gaza, which pro-Israel advocates called inaccurate and biased; the refusal to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey when Ankara said it would withdraw if Israel were included; the ongoing cooperation between the United States and Israel on missile defense issues; and numerous recent visits to Washington by Barak, Israel’s defense minister.

Rubinger said he believes these actions far outweigh the negativity surrounding the housing “flap.”

JTA

 
 

Is Netanyahu alienating Israel’s friends in Europe?

JERUSALEM – On the day last week that Israel gained admission to the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel’s continued control over the Palestinians was eroding its global standing.

Whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Israel’s joining of the OECD as an economic and diplomatic coup, Barak warned of a growing tide of international isolation unless Israel comes out with a major peace initiative of its own, irrespective of the OECD membership.

News Analysis

The differences between Netanyahu and Barak lie at the heart of the debate over how central the Israeli-Palestinian process is to Israel’s diplomatic efforts worldwide.

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Angel Gurria, right, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, congratulates Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 10 after Israel’s admission into the OECD. Moshe Milner/GPO

Some believe Israel can safely ride out the storm of international pressure for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But many others argue that a credible peacemaking orientation is an essential component of Israel’s standing in the world, and that Netanyahu is alienating Israel’s few friends.

Barak, the Labor Party leader, makes no secret of his concern at the way differences over peacemaking have embroiled the Netanyahu government not only with the Obama administration, but also with some of its closest allies in Europe.

Israel long has had a rough ride in European public opinion, but since Netanyahu came to power in March 2009, there have been growing signs of tensions with friendly European leaders and governments, particularly Britain, Germany, and France.

Part of Netanyahu’s image problem has been his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is widely perceived in Europe as a crude anti-Arab bulldozer against peace. But mainly it is skepticism over Netanyahu’s own seriousness about peacemaking that is hurting Israel. European leaders are not convinced of the genuineness of his commitment to the two-state solution, and they also see his declarations about continued construction of Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem as unnecessarily provocative.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s oscillation between peace commitments to satisfy President Obama and construction promises to appease his right wing have led to a loss of credibility on the international stage.

Britain, for example, has been one of Israel’s staunchest allies in Europe. On a visit to Israel in July 2008, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown underlined the intimacy of the relationship by addressing the Knesset and launching a new Britain-Israel partnership for research and academic exchange. Brown also was one of six European heads of government who made a solidarity visit to Israel at the height of the war with Hamas in Gaza in January 2009.

But after Netanyahu came to power two months later, the Brown government’s policies quickly took an anti-Israel turn. In July, Britain decided not to renew five military export licenses, all for spare parts for naval guns, to protest Israel’s alleged use of disproportionate force in Gaza.

“We do not grant licenses where there is a clear risk that arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression,” a British Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv declared.

In December, the British Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs ruled that produce from west bank settlements could no longer be labeled “produced in Israel,” but must be tagged “product of the west bank.” An optional additional label could clarify whether the origin was an Israeli settlement or Palestinian — a move Israel saw as encouraging a boycott of settler produce.

Also in December, much to Israel’s consternation, Britain backed an abortive Swedish move to have the European Union recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

Relations were strained further by the British government’s failure to take promised action against legislation enabling anti-Israeli groups to bring war crimes charges against Israeli leaders and generals.

Alarmed by a move to press war crimes charges against Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, British leaders in December again vowed to repeal the offending legislation — but so far to no avail.

Tension between the two countries came to a head in February when it became apparent that suspected Israeli Mossad agents allegedly used forged British passports, among others, for the assassination in Dubai of a leading Hamas operative. The British responded by expelling an unnamed Israeli diplomat from London.

Things may be worse with Germany, where Netanyahu got into a spat with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who probably has been Israel’s best and most influential friend on the continent. It happened in a telephone conversation in mid-March.

According to the German version, Merkel called Netanyahu at Obama’s request to urge no further building in eastern Jerusalem. She asked that the call be kept secret and promised to refrain from public criticism of Israel’s construction policies.

Netanyahu, however, immediately arranged for a briefing of Israeli journalists and told them he had called Merkel to inform her of Israel’s building plans in eastern Jerusalem.

Merkel felt Netanyahu had betrayed her trust, according to senior German sources. The Germans then released their version of the conversation and, during a news conference the next day, Merkel publicly criticized Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem.

Netanyahu apparently also is on the outs with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, once a close friend. In mid-April, Sarkozy told Israeli President Shimon Peres that he was disappointed in Netanyahu and found it hard to understand the prime minister’s political thinking.

“I don’t understand where Netanyahu is going or what he wants,” the French president was quoted as saying.

Sarkozy also has been outspoken about Lieberman’s presence in the government. In a meeting with Netanyahu in Paris last June, he urged Netanyahu to replace Lieberman as foreign minister with Livni and “make history.”

“You must get rid of that man,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

The fact that Israel has strained relations with its three most important backers in Europe has yet to translate into dramatic change in EU policy. Israel’s requested upgrading of ties with the European Union remains on hold, but that was the case before Netanyahu came to power. And Israel’s acceptance to the OECD was unanimous by the group’s members.

However, if there is a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians over the peace process, Europe could well be more supportive of the Palestinians. As with the Obama administration, the major European powers make the distinction between fundamental support for Israel’s security and right to exist, and criticism of the policies of the current government.

That same distinction is also being made by Jews on the left in Europe, following the lead of J Street in America. In early May European Jews, backed by notable intellectuals such as Bernard Henri Levi and Alain Finkielkraut, formed JCall, a new Jewish organization “committed to the state of Israel and critical of the current choices of its government.”

The friction with Obama and Europe and the loss of automatic Jewish support in both Europe and America are causing concern among many in Jerusalem.

“For first time we have a government that is succeeding … in causing the rest of the world to hate us,” Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s most respected political scientists, wrote recently in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The conclusion of politicians on the center left, from Livni to Barak, is the same: Israel under Netanyahu needs credible peace policies to turn around in its diplomatic fortunes.

Some of Netanyahu’s defenders say the perception that he isn’t serious about peacemaking is not fair. The question is, does Netanyahu believe his policies are alienating Israel’s friends, and what will he do about it?

JTA

 
 

Welcome to Obama’s Jewish America

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

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

News Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JTA

 
 

Groups want stronger U.S. defense of Israel; Obama not obliging

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration appears to be rebuffing calls from some Jewish groups for the United States to be more assertive and public in defending Israel regarding the flotilla incident.

The bluntest appeal for a more pronounced pro-Israel posture came from Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, who is in Israel meeting with the Israeli leadership. (See The biased rush to judgment in the flotilla affair).

“The U.S. should reiterate its support and understanding for Israel, that as a sovereign and democratic nation it has the right to act on behalf of its national security and express its confidence that Israel can conduct its own investigation into the matter without the intrusion of international bodies,” Foxman told JTA.

Israeli commandoes seizing control of the main boat in a Gaza aid flotilla clashed Monday before dawn with some of its passengers, and killed nine, among them at least four Turkish nationals. Six Israeli soldiers were wounded in the melee. Commandoes seized control of five smaller boats without incident.

The United States has beaten back the sharpest condemnations. It watered down a U.N. Security Council statement so that it condemned the “acts” that led to the deaths, making ambiguous whether the Israelis or the passengers escalated the conflict into violence.

On Wednesday, it joined the Netherlands in registering two lonely votes against a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution condemning Israel. It has also in its statements supporting an inquiry into the matter said that Israel should conduct it, implicitly rebuffing demands elsewhere for an international inquiry.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee acknowledged the Obama administration’s bulwark against the tougher demands for Israel’s isolation, but made clear it wanted more.

“It would have been preferable if the U.N. and Obama administration had blocked any action implying criticism of Israel for defending itself,” AIPAC said in a memo. “Nonetheless, intervention by the United States prevented passage of a Security Council resolution condemning Israel. The administration continues to express its confidence in Israel’s ability to conduct its own investigation of the incident despite calls for an international inquiry.”

AIPAC also insisted that “the United States must now maintain its longstanding position not to allow the Security Council and other U.N. organs such as the U.N. Human Rights Council to exploit unfortunate incidents by passing biased, anti-Israel resolutions that obscure the truth and accomplish nothing.”

Were AIPAC certain that the United States was committed to blocking such resolutions further down the line, it would likely not have made the recommendation.

No such certainty appears in the offing: Statements from Obama administration officials suggest that they are holding judgment until the facts become clearer, and that meanwhile, the White House wants to see the blockade that triggered the aid flotilla eased.

A White House statement describing Obama’s call with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan said the U.S. president “affirmed the United States position in support of a credible, impartial, and transparent investigation of the facts surrounding this tragedy. The president affirmed the importance of finding better ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel’s security.”

Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip partly to keep the Hamas terrorist organization, which controls the strip, from receiving arms (an effort Hamas has junked by running weapons through tunnels into Egypt); but another aim was to weaken Hamas politically among Palestinians.

Top White House officials met for hours on Tuesday with Uzi Arad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top security adviser, and Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, and made clear to them that the United States sees the blockade as unsustainable.

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s spokesman, said that the administration was in wait and see mode. “The Security Council, the statement that I read, calls for an investigation that is prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent, conforming to international standards of exactly what happened,” he said after several prompts at Tuesday’s briefing. “And we’re obviously supportive of that.”

Foxman told JTA that considerations of an investigation and of the wisdom of using commandoes to carry out a police action — keeping the flotilla from docking in Gaza — were beside the point.

“Was there a better way to do this? That’s all interesting, but that’s not what this is about,” he said. “There is bloodshed all over the world, there are people killing people all over the world in deliberate hatred and nobody is calling for investigations. At the very least the United States should stand with Israel.”

Such statements of solidarity have been pouring out of Congress, from Republicans and Democrats. GOP figures are already firing at Obama for not pronouncing himself more firmly on Israel’s side.

“Would the U.S. in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s memorable phrase, ‘join the jackals?’” at the United Nations, Elliott Abrams wrote on the Weekly Standard’s Website, referring to the steadfastly pro-Israel Reagan-era ambassador to the United Nations.

“This week the Obama administration answered the question: Yes we would, and Israel would stand alone,” continued Abrams, who, as deputy national security adviser, helped lead the second Bush administration’s failed efforts to arrive at a peace agreement. “It is simple to block the kind of attack issued as a ‘President’s Statement’ on behalf of the Council, for such a statement requires unanimity. The United States can just say ‘No,’ and make it clear that orders have come from the White House and will not be changed.”

Hadar Susskind, the policy and strategy director for J Street, which has called for an independent Israeli inquiry into the incident, said such a posture would be counterproductive.

“It’s the same question, ‘How can you make the Israelis the bad guys or say that the people on the ship were good guys?’” he said. “It’s not a comic book, they were not good guys, they attacked Israeli soldiers with a pipe and tried to killed them — but that doesn’t mean the Israeli government made good decisions. It’s not our role to decide each time the good guys and bad guys.”

JTA

 
 

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Jewish groups exhale after Congress extends Medicaid program

Jacob BerkmanWorld
Published: 20 August 2010

Jewish groups are breathing a sigh of relief after Congress passed a law that saved them $150 million to $200 million.

President Obama on Aug. 10 signed into law a bill that extends relief provided by the federal government to individual states as part of the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, a part of the 2008 Federal Recovery economic stimulus package. The measure will pump billions of dollars into organizations that rely on payment from Medicaid.

The FMAP extension, which had been the top priority of the Jewish Federations of North America, is particularly important for Jewish federations and their partner agencies, as nearly $6 billion per year in government aid goes through Medicaid to Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, Jewish Family Services outposts, and other social service agencies.

“Without these funds, states would have certainly cut back on their Medicaid programs, which would have had an adverse impact on how Jewish communal providers deliver needed care to their respective communities,” said William Daroff, the vice president for public policy and director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office.

As part of the package, states received some $87 billion in aid to help them pay their portions of the total cost for Medicaid. According to the Recovery Act, the money had to be spent by Jan 1, 2011, which posed a problem for states, whose fiscal years run from July 1 through June 30.

If the money ran out on Jan. 1, 2010, states would have been left with gaping holes in their budgets for the second half of the fiscal year. The law enacted Aug. 10 will extend FMAP until June 30, 2011, and pump another $26 billion into the program, of which $16 billion will be used for Medicaid.

The Jewish Federations of North America, which lobbies for more than $10 billion for Jewish causes each year from the federal government, was among the largest supporters of the FMAP extension. But the extension was particularly critical for groups such as the New York-based Jewish Home Life Care.

Over the past three years Jewish Home Life Care, which provides skilled in-home care to 9,000 New Yorkers, has had to cut its budget nine times, forcing the $300 million per year operation to excise more than 110 jobs and close two of its outpatient day-care facilities.

Until last week it was facing another $1.7 million in cuts and would have been among hundreds of Jewish organizations and institutions that would have lost up to $200 million in aggregate, according to JFNA estimates.

“It’s a sigh of relief,” said Jewish Home Life Care CEO Audrey Weinn, even though she still faces $400,000 in cuts from other shortfalls.

Federation officials say the JFNA was one of the 10 major groups, secular and faith-based, that lobbied Congress for the FMAP extension. Among them were Families USA, AFSCME, the First Focus children’s advocacy group, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, and the Catholic Health Association, according to the JFNA’s assistant director for legislative affairs, Jonathan Westin.

The extension was a lesson in how federation advocacy can work.

The JFNA, which started its fight for the FMAP extension in January, created background materials and talking points that it distributed to local federations and Jewish community-relations councils, which then lobbied their own local congressional representatives. And in June, some 30 lay and professional leaders of the federation system flew into Washington from across the country for intense lobbying with government officials with whom they had strong connections.

“It showed a synergy between our lay and professional leaders,” Westin said. “You had this common bond, and whether you were from a large or small community, it wasn’t just about fighting for Medicaid needs but about delivering needed services for those in need. That is our core mission.”

In Ohio, social service groups would have lost an estimated $513 million without the FMAP extension, according to Joyce Garver, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, the state’s Jewish advocacy group. Jewish groups would have lost about $2 million — a significant amount for a population of about 150,000 Jews.

Garver spent the past several months working with Ohio groups to help them understand what the cuts might mean, and also worked with the state’s leaders to lobby their representatives for the extension.

“It’s a huge victory, and it is wonderful to work on something and have it end in success,” she said.

The federations are not completely happy with the extension, as Congress is slated to divert funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps for millions of Americans.

The reduction to the food stamp program, however, is not set to go into effect until 2014. Federation officials are gearing up already to fight the reduction.

“That is four years out, and we will work hard to try to restore those funds,” Westin said. “This was an immediate issue, and this was the combination, for better or for worse, that got the vote.”

JTA

 
 
 
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