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Amid rancorous debate, JCPA pushes civility

WASHINGTON – When disagreement among American Jews on Israel-related issues runs deep, how does an organization that bills itself as the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community formulate policies and priorities?

By emphasizing civility in public discourse, for starters.

That was one of the main areas of focus at this week’s annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which drew delegates from Jewish community relations councils and national advocacy groups across the United States to talk about American Jewish public policy priorities.

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Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addresses the annual Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum in Washington on Sunday. Courtesy JCPA

Plenum organizers said the goal was to show that while differences within the Jewish community factions are substantive, particularly when it comes to Israel, it’s possible to discuss them without rancor.

“Civility is not avoiding uncomfortable conversations — it’s our respect for the dignity of other people and careful listening,” said Ethan Felson, the JCPA’s vice president.

That approach led to sessions featuring polar opposites: Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a doyen of liberalism, joined James Woolsey, a neoconservative icon and former CIA director, in a discussion on energy independence.

The liveliest session, delegates said, was when Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, faced off against author Peter Beinart, who argued in a controversial essay last year that reflective defense of Israel in the public sphere is alienating Jewish youngsters.

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addressed the widening gap between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. Young Jews in Israel, he said, have more in common with the Druze and Bedouin with whom they serve in the army than with American Jewish college students.

Oren said it was critical to overcome what can seem like “unbridgeable schisms” between Israelis and Americans.

“We are united at the heart, a rambunctious, often fractious people,” he said. “While the experiences of American Jews have made them more liberal and progressive, impelled by our traumas and our disappointments, Israelis have become somewhat skeptical of peace.”

Despite his plea for dialogue, Oren was among those who boycotted the J Street conference last month after a campaign by mainstream and right-wing pro-Israel groups to keep centrist and Israeli figures away from the conference.

In a separate appearance at the JCPA plenum, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and a J Street favorite, told a questioner who urged him to denounce those who describe Israel as an “apartheid” state that such rote statements are besides the point.

“We don’t need more cheerleaders for both sides,” he said. “We need more peacemakers for both sides.”

The applause for Ellison underscored the continued liberal bearings of a large segment of the Jewish community. So did the warm reception accorded Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, who revealed in her address that her great-grandfather was Jewish.

Jarrett went out of her way to suggest that tensions over Israel between organized Jewish groups and the Obama administration were overstated.

She referred to the March 1 meeting between Obama and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, saying that the president “made clear that while the region will evolve, some things will never change. Among them is his unshakeable support for Israel’s security; his opposition to any effort to delegitimize Israel, or single her out for criticism; and his commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.”

The Presidents Conference participants described that meeting as friendly, but some were rankled by Obama’s remark that they and Israeli leaders should “search their souls” about whether Israel is serious about peace.

Most of Jarrett’s speech was devoted to the president’s domestic agenda and his efforts to push back against plans by the Republican-led House of Representatives to slash spending on education and infrastructure and assisting struggling families. She pitched legislative efforts to close the income gap between men and women.

“Now that two-thirds of all families depend on two working parents, when women make less than men for the same work, or when women go into low-paying jobs, it affects the entire family,” she said.

Jarrett’s message of sustaining the social net resonated with a JCPA agenda that focused, in resolutions and in Hill lobbying, on alleviating poverty.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the conference’s most senior Republican speaker, recognized the community’s Democratic tilt in his address Tuesday morning, before delegates lobbied their representatives. Glancing through the JCPA’s agenda, Kirk noted that as a moderate Republican he supported much of it, including two initiatives against discrimination against gays.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Do hearings on Muslim radicalization leave room for nuance?

WASHINGTON – Are the congressional hearings on radicalization among American Muslims an instance of McCarthyism, or is the opposition to them political correctness run amok?

Jewish groups may disagree on why, but there appears to be wide consensus that the congressional hearings led by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, are off on the wrong foot.

The differences are over whether hearings, which began March 10, are needed at all — and if they are, what they should address.

The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee agree that examining Muslim extremism is a proper issue for Congress, and AJC went a step further by saying that lawmakers should not bend to political pressures.

An AJC official, Yehudit Barsky, director of the organization’s division on the Middle East and International Terrorism, submitted written testimony to the hearings, which officially are called “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response.”

In her testimony, Barsky said it was “essential that we all tread carefully so as to avoid rhetoric that smacks of stereotyping members of a particular faith and similarly avoid actions that amount to discrimination against, much less persecution of, members of a faith group based on their identity or beliefs, as opposed to their actions.”

In a statement, the ADL echoed that sentiment.

“Homegrown Muslim extremists pose a real threat to the United States, but the issue is one that may be difficult to explore seriously in a hearing that has engendered an unfortunate atmosphere of blame and suspicion of the broader American Muslim community,” the ADL said. “We need to be careful not to single out an entire community for special scrutiny or suspicion.”

The Reform movement called on congressional Democrats to expand the hearings to encompass all forms of terrorism.

The National Jewish Democratic Council and J Street said the hearings are indelibly tainted.

Critics of the hearings say King seeks to smear American Muslims. They note that in the lead-up to the hearings, King said there are “too many mosques” in America. King also has suggested that Muslim leaders do not cooperate with authorities and that the vast majority of clerics are radicalized.

The Republican Jewish Coalition said King was fulfilling his proper mission.

“The hearings have met with strong resistance from the left, but they are critically needed,” the RJC said in its newsletter.

King was unrepentant as the hearings began last week.

“To combat this threat, moderate leadership must emerge from the Muslim-American community,” he said.

Yet King failed to invite to the hearings major Muslim-American groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to defend themselves against charges that they coddle terrorist sympathizers. The council criticized the King hearings as tainting all American Muslims.

But the hearings also did not invite those who maintain that much if not all of the Islamic world has been radicalized.

If anything, the hearings provided an opportunity to hear a range of voices, including both those who praised the American Muslim community’s stance against radicalism and parents of American Muslims lured into terrorism. There were also a number of Muslims who have criticized insularity among Muslim Americans.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, testified before the committee. So did Leroy Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff who praised the Council on American-Islamic Relations as cooperative.

In her testimony, Barsky, who listed recent planned attacks by Muslim extremists on U.S. Jewish targets, cautioned against viewing the hearings as an assault on all Muslims.

“Some Muslim organizations, joined by well-meaning supporters, have reacted to the idea of discussing the threat posed by Islamic extremist terrorists by raising the specter of McCarthyism,” Barsky said. “They and others have demanded that any discussion or investigation of this national security threat be broadened to include all extremists in all communities.

“Logic and experience, however, dictate that any meaningful inquiry focus on particular organizations and extremists that currently pose a national security threat.”

The Reform movement said the failure to broaden the inquiry unfairly singled out Muslims.

“A wide-ranging exploration of radicalism writ-large is necessary, and we would welcome it,” Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the movement’s Religious Action Center, said in testimony submitted to the committee. “But today’s hearing is not that exploration. It is a narrow, myopic investigation into the American Muslim community which unfairly targets one group of citizens in congressional proceedings.”

Pelavin joined a Capitol Hill protest that included representatives of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim bodies and described the hearings as “anti-Muslim.” Also appearing at that event were a prominent Conservative rabbi, Jack Moline, who has advised the Obama White House, and Marc Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi and co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Steve Emerson, who heads the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a research organization that has consulted with a number of pro-Israel groups, said the concerns were overblown.

“Those involved in terrorism are a tiny sliver of the overall Muslim-American population,” he wrote in a New York Daily News Op-Ed. “But one ought to be able to focus on a very real problem — homegrown terrorism fueled by Muslim extremism — without being accused of painting the entire U.S. Muslim population with a broad brush.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), perhaps the most passionately pro-Israel lawmaker in Congress, said in a statement that King’s tone mitigated against a sober assessment of domestic Muslim extremism.

“Instead of singling out this particular community for investigation, our focus should remain on the many sources of terrorism and violence that threaten our nation and its residents,” she said, noting her concerns about the “tone and substance” of the hearings.

“I ask,” she said, “if this hearing were focused on the Jewish community, Japanese community, or the African-American community, or any other community, would we not be justifiably outraged?”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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