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entries tagged with: Michael Oren


J Street parley attracting big names, but will Israel’s ambassador attend?

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 18 October 2009

WASHINGTON – J Street has lined up plenty of high-profile speakers for its first major conference. But the new and controversial self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby is looking to add one more prominent name to the guest list.

The organization — which has backed U.S. pressure on Israel (and the Palestinians), criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and criticized more established pro-Israel groups — wants Michael Oren, the U.S.-born and raised Israeli ambassador to Washington, to attend and address its first major conference at the end of this month.

Oren is undecided. “A decision about his participation or the embassy’s participation will be taken soon.” Jonathan Peled, his spokesman, told JTA. “We will have to deliberate this week.”

Peled said that what he told The Jerusalem Post last week still stands: Some of J Street’s positions “impair” Israel’s interests. He would not elaborate further, except to say that this has been conveyed to J Street officials in private conversations.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and executive director, is not taking no for an answer. “Your attendance — even to clarify some of our areas of disagreement — will be respectfully welcomed, and we promise you an open hearing as we hope and expect you will welcome us at the Embassy one day to present our views and opinions in that same spirit,” Ben-Ami wrote in an open letter released this week. J Street sent its original, private, invitation to Oren on July 13.

Oren’s presence would lend an official Israeli imprimatur at a time when J Street’s harshest critics are painting the group as undermining Jewish unity and working in tandem with Israel’s enemies. Most recently, some critics have played up the fact that a handful of J Street’s donors — out of thousands — have ties with Arab countries and Iranian expatriates opposed to sanctions against Tehran.

Such efforts to delegitimize the organization appear to have failed. J Street’s upcoming conference has been endorsed by 160 congressional lawmakers. The slate of scheduled speakers includes several former top Israeli officials. In addition, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who leads the country’s largest synagogue movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, is co-chairing the conference’s main event, a town hall meeting on Israel’s relationship with U.S. Jews. U.S. Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), leaders in Congress’ unofficial Jewish caucus and close to Obama, are taking part in a panel that examines how one to expand the definition of “pro-Israel” on the Hill.

Most notable, perhaps, is the participation of Yoffie, who tussled earlier this year with J Street over its equivocation over naming Hamas as the villain in Israel’s Gaza war. He told JTA that J Street’s views deserve a hearing in the wider Jewish community, and praised it for doing more than many more established groups to promote the Israeli position of a two-state solution. Yoffie said he would not refrain from criticizing some of J Street’s positions, particularly on Iran. “This is not an area for passivity or indifference; the stakes are too high,” he said.

Beyond securing Yoffie’s participation, J Street has made significant headway in forging an increasing level of cooperation and coordination among U.S. Jews associated with Israel’s dovish camp.

Along with these successes, the organization has been growing. Eighteen months ago it had no budget and no office. Now J Street has a staff of 30, offices in Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor, and an annual budget of $3 million.

That’s what drew Hadar Susskind, 36, to the organization. Susskind, until last month the wunderkind Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, told JTA he crossed over when he determined that J Street was here to stay.

“They are speaking for a tremendous constituency in America,” said Susskind, not yet settled into using “we” in his new role as J Street’s director of policy and strategy. Susskind, who has served in the Israeli army, said J Street attracted him in part because of its major policy goal: aggressively seeking American intervention in the peace process toward a two-state solution. “For me going to J Street is really about doing what is best for Israel.”

Susskind said he was drawn to J Street, in part, because he had endured for so many years establishment discussions about how to draw younger Jews into the pro-Israel community; J Street was doing just that, he said. The expected 1,000 conference-goers will be split into two lobbying groups, one for university students, and one for everyone else.

Susskind is an establishment “get” for a group that until recently has been depicted as an outlier by officials at more established groups, with some speaking on the record, others preferring to distribute potentially damaging information behind the scenes.

William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, sparked a tweet war last month with J Street and its defenders when he accused the group of “standing with the Mullahs” by opposing tough Iran sanctions.

J Street says it does not oppose the sanctions that would further isolate Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program, but thinks implementation of such measures at this time would be “counterproductive.”

Daroff told JTA that the J Street has developed better PR tactics — condemning, for instance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and opposing an organized effort to shame the Toronto International Film Festival for celebrating Tel Aviv’s centennial. Still, he added, these were easy calls. J Street, he said, has not yet defended Israel when it is unpopular to do so.

“I think that J Street’s voice has some resonance on the Hill because to a large degree” it is “in sync with the Obama administration” on pressing for renewed talks and a robust U.S. peacemaking role. “The question is when and if the Obama administration shifts direction, would J Street still be relevant?”

J Street has yet to get a toehold among Republicans — the GOPers appearing at the conference are in the “exception proves the rule” category. Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) is an Arab American; former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel left Congress in part because he was disillusioned with his party’s foreign policy, including on the Middle East.

And despite its success in lining up former Israeli officials, J Street was turned down by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli opposition leader. She declined to address the event, even by video message.

J Street critics say the organization muddies the waters by presenting multiple, conflicting voices on important topics — when a unified voice is needed, at least in Washington.

“Those Jewish Americans, who share a deep concern for Israel’s trials and travails, have the right, even the duty, to express their criticism within the Jewish community, the public at large, pretty much anywhere — except before the administration and Congress,” Chuck Froelich, a former deputy national security adviser to Israel’s government, wrote this week in The Jerusalem Post. “There, we have to present one voice — not ‘pro’ every Israeli policy, but united, unswerving support for Israel and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

AIPAC may have made mistakes in the past, but is still the pre-eminent pro-Israel voice, he wrote, adding, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Behind the scenes, some AIPAC backers are said to be exercised about J Street — although with AIPAC boasting a budget of more than $60 million, J Street hardly poses a major threat.

Any establishment anxieties about J Street are unjustified, Susskind said.

“I have tremendous respect for AIPAC, they have done wonderful work strengthening” the U.S.-Israel relationship, he said. “We need that and more, and J Street is more.”



U.S. Jews join pluralism fight

Conservative Jewish women wear prayer shawls and carry Torah scrollsat the Western Wall on Dec. 18. The right of women to pray aloud at the holy site is one of several issues exacerbating tensions between Israeli Orthodox authorities and non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90/JTA

WASHINGTON – A string of controversies has reignited the pluralism wars, prompting a loose alliance of American and Israeli Jews to wage a renewed campaign against Orthodox control in the Jewish state.

Among the litany of developments making headlines: The arrest of a woman for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall; protests by fervently Orthodox, or haredim, against a parking lot open on the Sabbath and against the Intel branch in Jerusalem for working through the Sabbath; a battle over gender-segregated public buses; and the burial in Spain of a child converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbi in a corner of a cemetery reserved for non-Jews.

In response, activists have organized protests in Israel and the United States against the perceived hegemony in Israel of haredi-aligned rabbis. Organizers say that their goal is to keep Jews caring about Judaism and Israel, despite what they describe as the increasingly alienating behavior of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities and members of the country’s haredi population.

“People are saying enough is enough,” said Andrew Sacks, director of the Israel branch of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “You have a segment of the American Jewish community that cares deeply enough to want to change it, but you have a second less desirable effect, among younger people especially, that says if that’s what Israel is all about, I don’t want any part of it.”

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who directs the Women’s Rabbinic Network, helped organize a day of solidarity and support of Women of the Wall on Dec. 17 that encouraged Jewish women across the United States to hold meetings, read from the Torah, or pray in support of women who choose to pray at the Western Wall, including those who wear religious vestments. Separately, another group is organizing a similar protest in San Francisco on Jan. 10.

“My intent was to give people a way to support people in Israel, and to support Israel around an issue women and men feel strongly about,” Ellenson told JTA. “It is not ‘Love Israel, right or wrong,’ or ‘I can’t be connected,’” she said. “We need to look at the complexities of this country that we love, we can’t reject it, nor can we be silent when there are issues that require our involvement.”

Activists on both sides see the Western Wall as something of a battlefront. In recent years, the site’s government-funded Orthodox rabbinate has banned mixed groups from singing, an action that precludes Israeli and American Jewish youth groups from a tradition of bursting into Hatikvah to celebrate the wall’s return to Jewish control in 1967.

One protest against the Orthodox monopoly took place in Jerusalem on the evening of Nov. 28. Protesters marched from Paris Square to Zion Square in Jerusalem’s city center, carrying signs that read “Iran is here — we’re sick of haredi violence,” “Jerusalem will not fall,” and “We are sick of [religious] coercion.”

Nofrat Frenkel, whose arrest at the Western Wall a couple of weeks before helped spur the recent demonstration, delivered a message that explicitly addressed the threat of the alienation of diaspora Jews from Israel and religion.

“The crowd gathered here today proves to the Jewish people everywhere, in Israel and in the diaspora, that ‘offense against public sensitivity’ is not the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox,” the medical student and gay rights activist reportedly said. “We are also the public, the public who pays taxes and serve our country, in the IDF and National Service.”

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told an audience of Conservative movement leaders that Frenkel was “led away” from the Wall, not arrested, the Forward reported. He later issued a statement correcting the misimpression and confirming that Frenkel was, indeed, arrested. Oren said he has asked his government to investigate why he was misled. However it is resolved, the incident illustrates the sensitivity of Israeli officials explaining the practices of their country’s rabbis to American Jews.

Oren, who was in Israel, could not be reached for comment.

The flurry of controversies in Israel comes at a time when American Jewish pluralism has become more expansive than ever. Guests at the White House Chanukah party ranged from Chabad rabbis to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads Beth Simchat Torah, a gay synagogue in New York. Some groups, particularly among the Orthodox, reject the activism as Americans imposing their mores on Israel.

Israel “is a country that has a functioned with a certain understanding among its religious and not-religious Jews,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. “If the activists don’t want to alienate Jews, they shouldn’t thumb their noses at the traditional Jews in Israel.”

Shafran also noted that the most vocal haredi protesters were minorities within their own communities. Much has been made of the continued protests outside Intel’s offices, but these were sharply reduced in number after a compromise last month that allowed non-Jewish workers to work through the Sabbath. But this has gone unnoticed, Shafran said. “The main haredi groups were in favor of the compromise, but there are always holdouts,” Shafran said.

Other American Orthodox leaders, however, fret about the possibility of alienation from Israel. They note that alienation could extend even to the modern Orthodox because of a recent crisis in conversion policy that has threatened to discredit the majority of Orthodox converts.Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Amcha activism group and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Modern Orthodox seminary, called for dialogue. “The greatest threat facing us, more than external enemy, is a divisiveness within our people that is so dangerous, God forbid, it could lead to calamity,” he said.

Weiss noted that Orthodox authorities defend their actions by citing “humra” — the strict application of Jewish law. “In a world of humra, there’s got to be a stress on the humra of Ahavat Yisrael,” the love of the Jewish people, Weiss said.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Israel was suffering periodic social pangs that arise when there is relative peace, and suggested that these needed to be addressed indigenously, and not by U.S. Jewish pressure.

“Every time there’s a lull in daily threats of terrorist acts, normal life brings to the fore many of these unresolved social tensions,” he said. “Some of them impact on relations with diaspora Jews, but it’s more important for Israelis to deal with them because of their own need of religious tolerance, than because of the Americans’ need.”

The New Israel Fund, a group that has long advocated for a role for diaspora Jews in making the case for pluralism, welcomed the attention on the issues, said its spokeswoman, Naomi Paiss.

“The whole premise of the New Israel Fund is that you can love Israel and you can fix it,” she said. “The Israeli government has a special responsibility — what is made law in Israel signifies the closest we have to a religious ruling, even for those of us who don’t live in Israel. We American Jews do take this personally and we should.”

An example was the 13-year-old boy who died last month in Madrid. The order to bury him in a segregated corner of the Jewish cemetery came from Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi.

NIF is currently organizing a petition drive among Jews in Israel and the diaspora urging Yisrael Katz, Israel’s transportation minister, to ban publicly funded buses from segregating male and female passengers.



Questioning of Women of Wall leader sparks protests

An open letter to Ambassador Oren

I have been following the recent events in Israel concerning the Women of the Wall.

I was shocked by the Nov. 18 arrest in Jerusalem of Nofrat Frenkel for asserting her religious right to pray at a designated area near the Kotel. Forbidding women to express themselves by singing and reading Torah in what should be a public holy space is deplorable.

Then I read that Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was brought in for interrogation and fingerprinting on Jan. 5 and could be charged with violating laws because she was holding a Torah near the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

Rabbi Debra R. Hachen

I am a rabbi. I hold a Torah every week. I read from it freely in our congregation here in the United States. I respect differences among Jews on issues of women’s participation in worship and will defend the right of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel to follow their version of Jewish law in their private spaces. Sadly, they will not respect my rights and go so far as to take a public space — the Kotel — and have it designated as an Orthodox synagogue.

I love Israel, have family there, and visit often. I have prayed in the past with the Women of the Wall.

I am angered and appalled that other Jews are allowed to taunt, bully, spit at, swear at, and throw objects at women who are praying at the Kotel. The protection of the religious needs of Orthodox Jews at the expense of other Jews is intolerable in a modern democratic country. It would never be tolerated here in the United States.

Israel is not the United States. I know that. I therefore hold Israel to a higher standard. We Jews have had our religious rights suppressed down the centuries throughout the diaspora. Israel should be the one place where every Jew is respected. The area of the Kotel belongs to the entire Jewish people, not to one stream of Judaism. Sadly, the way the control of the Kotel has been given over to the ultra-Orthodox has caused me to stop praying there on my visits to Jerusalem. When I bring groups from my congregation to Israel to the Kotel, it is often a depressing and confusing experience for them instead of an uplifting spiritual one.

Please, Ambassador Oren, do something. I heard you speak eloquently at the Union for Reform Judaisms’s biennial just a few months ago. I know you are a serious Jew. I have read that you were also surprised that you were not given the full facts when the Frenkel incident unfolded.

Please do what you can to help your government understand that these actions against women not only reflect poorly on Israel’s image in the world, but they drive a wedge between American Jews and eretz Yisrael. Do it for the sake of k’lal Yisrael. Do it for the sake of ahavat Yisrael. Do it for the sake of Jewish women who love God, Israel, and Judaism. Do it for the sake of our daughters and granddaughters, who should not have to beg for the right to pray at the Kotel. Do it because it is a chillul haShem, a desecration of God’s name, when women like Nofrat and Anat are disgraced for reaching out to God and claiming their rightful place in Judaism. Do it because religious extremism in Israel is a growing issue that threatens the moral center of our beloved homeland.


Questioning of Women of Wall leader sparks protests

A haredi boy throws garbage at Jewish women as they come to pray at the Western Wall on Dec. 18, 2009. Women of the Wall organizes a monthly prayer session. Miriam Alster/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – The Conservative synagogue movement is launching a campaign to protest the recent questioning and possible prosecution of a leader of the group Women of the Wall.

For more than two decades, the group has been organizing regular women’s prayer services at the Western Wall and pressing for expanded worship rights at Judaism’s holiest pilgrimage site. Last week its chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, was summoned to a Jerusalem police station for questioning.

According to Hoffman, also director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and a former member of the Jerusalem City Council, she was questioned by police about her role in Women of the Wall, fingerprinted, and told that her case was being referred to the attorney general for prosecution.

“I think it was a meeting of intimidation,” Hoffman told JTA.

Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israel Police, confirmed the basics of Hoffman’s account. But Shmulik Ben-Ruby, a spokesman for the Jerusalem police, denied that the matter has been referred to prosecutors. He said that Hoffman and her group are suspected of having acted to “hurt the feelings” of worshippers at the wall. “We are still checking and will see what will be the end in the investigation,” Ben-Ruby added.

Hoffman’s questioning threatens to further exacerbate tensions between American Jewish groups and more conservative elements within Israel’s Orthodox-controlled religious establishment.

She told JTA that she hopes to “wake the American Jewish giant” in an effort to prevent the attorney general from moving ahead with prosecution. If convicted, Hoffman said, she faces prison time or a fine of about $3,000.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, issued a statement declaring that Hoffman’s arrest and fingerprinting, “opens a new and ominous chapter in intra-Jewish relations in Israel.”

The group urged members to send a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, to inform him of “the gravity of this issue” and press his government to “take immediate steps to end the harassment of women seeking to pray with dignity at the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy place.” (See the open letter to Oren, facing page, from Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter.)

Hoffman’s questioning comes nearly two months after another Women of the Wall member, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested after she and other women began reading from a Torah scroll in the course of the group’s regular prayer session at the wall, timed to coincide with the start of the new Hebrew month.

Frenkel and Hoffman were informed that they were in violation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that, citing concerns about public safety, denied women the right to read from the Torah in the regular women’s section of the wall. The ruling resulted in the designation of a nearby site, known as Robinson’s Arch, as the place for women to pray as a group with a Torah scroll.

Hoffman scoffs at the solution, calling it “separate, but it’s not equal.” A Torah scroll the group uses was damaged by rain at the site, which lacks a covered space like the men’s section at the wall.

“It is not a place of prayer,” she said. “It is a place where we are praying, and a tour guide is walking with a tour, showing them the different archeological artifacts. And most important, we can’t read Torah there in safety because it rains on our head.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, defended the limitations on women’s prayer groups.

“People of all faiths, after all, are welcome at the Kotel — as they should be,” he wrote in an essay distributed via e-mail. “Out of respect, though, for the Jewish historical and spiritual connection to the place, public services there should respect a single standard of decorum. And that standard should be, as it has been, millennia-old Jewish religious tradition.”

Promoting a “particular view of feminism,” Shafran added, “should not compel them to act in ways that they know will offend others, to seek to turn a holy place into a political arena.”



‘Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties’

Leonard A. ColeOp-Ed
Published: 19 February 2010

The death of academic discourse


J Street, Oren mending fences — but wariness lingers

WASHINGTON – After months of high-profile feuding, the breakout dovish lobbying group J Street and Israel’s ambassador to Washington appear to be reconciling.

The two sides have been talking — through the media and directly in private — with the goal of ending the hot-cold feud that dominated much professional Jewish chatter in the latter part of last year.

Both sides say that while there have been strides in the rapprochement, much needs to be bridged — underscored by a persistent Israeli government wariness of the group.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador, dropped J Street a bouquet in a Feb. 10 interview with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in which he said that the organization had moved “much more into the mainstream.” It marked a sharp turn from his characterization of the group late last year as having positions dangerous to Israeli interests.

“The J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving,” Oren said in the interview. “The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now come and supported Cong. [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; it has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream.”

Oren’s comments come as some pro-Israel activists continue their efforts to marginalize Jewish groups on the left, including J Street, that they see as being hostile to Israel.

The comments were no slip of the lip, said sources close to the ambassador. They were a quid pro quo arising out of recent statements J Street has released, including an admonishment to the United Nations to treat Israel fairly and an endorsement of immediate passage of new U.S. sanctions against Iran.

For its part J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state deal, has endeavored in some recent statements to cast the embassy and the Israeli establishment as a friend and an intimate. At a time when some voices on the left were criticizing Israel’s rescue mission in Haiti as a cynical ploy to distract attention from continued opprobrium arising from last year’s Gaza war, J Street was effusive in its praise.

“Israel’s swift response to another nation’s needs speaks to the very best of the values underpinning the Jewish tradition and the best of what that country represents as the national home of the Jewish people,” J Street said. “It did, in this instance, serve as a real model for the international community. We urge those who might otherwise disagree with Israeli policy and action to commend Israel for reacting so swiftly and making a positive contribution at this time of urgent international need.”

And this month, when Oren came under verbal assault when he delivered a speech at University of California, Irvine — a hotbed of anti-Israel activism — J Street was calling for civility. (See pages 15, 17, and 20.)

“We believe that universities should be a place for an honest discussion about tough issues,” the group said. “While appropriate and respectful protests are a legitimate and important part of the conversation on campus, anti-Semitic, racist, disruptive, and inflammatory actions and language are simply unacceptable.”

Hadar Susskind, the J Street policy director, said such statements arose out of recent efforts to reconcile after a tense 2009.

“We’ve been having ongoing discussions with the embassy making clear our different positions,” Susskind said. “We’ve said all along we would welcome a good productive relationship with them.”

Officials close to the Israeli Embassy confirmed the conversations.

J Street was established in early 2008. What little relationship it had developed with the embassy was shattered in early 2009 when the organization issued a statement that seemed to blame Israel and Hamas equally for the Gaza war.

Worsening the situation was J Street’s position until December that the time was not right yet for sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector, even as many Jewish groups were pushing for such measures. Israel considers containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions its signature issue, beyond how it deals with the Palestinians.

Oren, who assumed his post last summer, launched his tenure with a stated policy of reaching out to Jewish groups across the spectrum — and then he pointedly avoided J Street. He declined to attend the group’s inaugural conference in October, and in December told a group of Conservative rabbis that J Street’s views are dangerous for Israel.

Neither side needed the tension. Oren’s description of the group as “dangerous” earned a rebuke from Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy — an official with whom he would in theory work closely. Centrist and right-wing Jewish groups closed ranks behind Oren, but the Obama administration made it clear it was not unhappy with Rosenthal’s remarks.

J Street has a dependable cadre of 40 to 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives ready to heed its voting recommendations. Congressional insiders say J Street’s green light in December for Iran sanctions nudged the bill from the super majority that traditional lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee usually turns out to officially “overwhelming”: 412-12. That sent the Obama administration a clear message to hurry it on up, the insiders say.

And J Street, however much its reputation is made on a willingness to take Israel to task, also needs to work with the leadership in Israel in order to maintain any credible claim that its critiques will have an impact. Its first congressional delegation visiting the region this week met with top Palestinian and Jordanian leaders — but in Israel, its top interlocutor was Dan Meridor, one of five deputy prime ministers.

There’s a way to go, both sides acknowledge: J Street is not yet on the “must call” list for the embassy when the ambassador calls a meeting of the Jewish leadership.

Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups also are watching the developments. J Street earned much pro-Israel resentment at its outset by “punching up” — issuing blistering attacks on groups that were larger and better known such as AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, and The Israel Project.

CUFI spokesmen said they welcomed J Street’s recent efforts to pull back from such attacks, but noted that as recently as last week, J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami maintained that the Christian group hoped to “precipitate” an Armageddon through support for right-wing Israeli policies. CUFI says its pro-Israel work is informed by political, not theological, sympathies for Israel — and in any case, says its theology has no place for sparking the end of the world. (See page 15.)

“J Street seems to employ a strategy of publicity through controversy without considering the harm that policy does to the pro-Israel community,” CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern said.



Free speech at issue in campus Israel wars

A protestor is removed by campus police after disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, on Feb. 8.

In the wake of the arrests of 11 University of California, Irvine students for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Shalom Elcott, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Calif., threw down the gauntlet. (See The death of academic discourse and ‘Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties.’‘ )

UC-Irvine has long been caught in the thicket of the Israel wars, its campus notorious in the pro-Israel community for the intensity and often confrontational quality of discourse on the Middle East. But while some Jewish groups have pushed the administration to condemn inflammatory speakers sponsored by Muslim students, the university previously had been willing only to issue generic condemnations of hate speech on campus.

News Analysis

This time, the Jewish community will “intensely monitor” the response of the university, Elcott told JTA.

“While it’s nice to condemn hate speech in general, we expect a very specific response from the University of California leadership based on what transpired in that room,” he said.

In addition to prosecuting the students “to the fullest extent of the law,” Elcott told JTA he expects future activities of the Muslim Students Union to be closely scrutinized and would like to see their programming stripped of public funding.

Civil discourse on college campuses, or the lack thereof, has been a source of concern for some time. But two distinct strategies are now taking shape, seemingly informed by the recourse available to both sides.

Jewish groups increasingly are pressing their case directly with universities and relevant government agencies, serving notice to university leaders and major donors that they expect strict enforcement of campus codes of conduct. Some even have sought to have speakers disinvited whose views are deemed beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Israel’s critics have stepped up efforts to actively disrupt speakers defending the Jewish state.

The differing tactics in many ways reflect the methods that Israelis and Palestinians, by virtue of their power differential, have been led to adopt in their own confrontations.

Jewish groups, possessed of greater political and financial strength, have sought to exert pressure on an institutional level, seeking governmental investigations and leveraging relationships with university officials and their deep-pocketed supporters. Pro-Palestinian groups, generally outmatched at that game, have employed methods more reminiscent of guerrilla politics — disrupting speeches, creating political theater on campuses, and being arrested.

On Tuesday, the Zionist Organization of America called for donors to stop supporting UC-Irvine and for Jewish students not to apply there.

Such tactics have surfaced at other campuses as well.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement protesting an appearance scheduled for Tuesday night at New York University by Richard Goldstone, the South African Jewish jurist whose report on Israel’s conduct of the 2008 Gaza war sparked vitriolic condemnations. In Philadelphia, several pro-Israel activists protested the decision by the Hillel chapter at the University of Pennsylvania to host an event organized by the group J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. And across the state, in Pittsburgh, the roles were reversed: Local J Street supporters initiated a campaign to stop the Hillel chapter from hosting a speech by Israeli hard-liner Effi Eitam.

“There was a tremendous amount of pressure put on this organization, on a variety of levels, in an attempt to force us to cancel the event,” said Aaron Weil, the local Hillel director in Pittsburgh.

For their part, pro-Palestinian students have repeatedly disrupted speeches by Israeli speakers, including one last week by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, at Oxford University. At UCLA, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student groups affixed duct tape to their mouths and disrupted a lecture by another Israeli official on the same night as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was nearly shouted down at Irvine. And at the University of Chicago, hecklers made it exceedingly difficult for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak in October, interrupting his talk repeatedly with cries of “war criminal.”

Even as they seek to disrupt Israeli speakers, the pro-Palestinian students are being cast, by themselves and by some supporters, as representing the cause of free speech.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council has called for an investigation into the arrests at the UC-Irvine campus of the students who disrupted Oren’s talk. A spokesperson for the group, Edina Lekovic, told JTA it was unclear exactly what law the students broke and that there appeared to be a “selected application” of university policy.

Lekovic declined to comment directly on the acceptability of disrupting a public university lecture. But the Muslim Council’s executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, seemed to defend those arrested, saying in a statement that the students “had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression.”

The students, Al-Marayati said, were exercising their First Amendment rights.

UC-Irvine’s Muslim Student Union has maintained publicly that notwithstanding that its president, Mohamed Abdelgany, was among those arrested, the group did not orchestrate the disruptions. The MSU, however, has not condemned the disruptions either, even though it has long been a target of the ZOA — a campaign the student group has described as an effort to obstruct its right to free expression.

“It is ironic that the university would honor the representative of a country that brazenly stands ‘above the law’ and punish the students who would rightfully protest his presence as a representative of Israel’s illegal and inhumane policies, including documented war crimes,” Hadeer Soliman, the MSU spokesperson, said in an e-mail.

Hillel President Wayne Firestone joined the Ocean County federation in its call for a harsh reaction from the university.

Firestone, who in 2008 presided over a discussion in Washington about civil discourse that featured UC-Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, said he has been satisfied generally with the administrative response to such incidents. But he would like UC-Irvine to “come down hard” to send a message about the importance of civility on campus.

“I do believe that strong disciplinary procedures by the university, whether or not they’re prosecuted criminally, is in order here,” Firestone said.

Firestone also condemned efforts within the Jewish community to disinvite or disrupt speakers, saying it makes it harder for the community to press the importance of free speech.



U. of Calif. addresses campus hate, but some draw line on Oren incident

A protestor is removed by campus police after disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, on Feb. 8.

SAN FRANCISCO – The University of California Board of Regents addressed the recent spate of hate, violence, and racist vandalism at its campuses by announcing a series of measures designed to monitor and prevent such incidents in the university system.

Among the incidents that provoked a March 24 three-hour meeting devoted to the violence was the heckling of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during a speech at UC Irvine several weeks ago. At UC Davis, a swastika was carved into a freshman student’s dorm door; five more were scrawled on walls and bulletin boards. At UC San Diego, a noose was found hanging in the university library and a Ku Klux Klan-style hood was draped on a statue.

Acknowledging that bigotry and prejudice “won’t go away immediately,” University of California President Mark Yudof apologized to students at last week’s meeting, which was streamed live.

“What we have witnessed in the past few weeks are the worst acts of racism and intolerance I’ve seen in 20 years,” Yudof told the hundreds who attended the open meeting at the San Francisco campus.

“As a university, we have to recognize we have a problem,” he said. “We must address a campus climate that leaves students feeling marginalized — class by class, department by department.”

Chancellors from UC Davis, Irvine, and San Diego — the three campuses hardest hit by the incidents — appeared before the regents to outline their action plans.

Among the measures announced was the appointment of a special adviser on racial issues at San Diego. The school was thrown into an uproar recently by a racially charged off-campus party where participants were asked to dress and act according to offensive African-American stereotypes.

At Irvine, 11 students were arrested Feb. 8 for heckling Israel’s ambassador; charges are pending. The students have taken to calling themselves the Irvine 11.

At Davis, offensive words were spray-painted on the walls of the center for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders.

“Whether it’s a swastika or a noose, the intent is the same — to hurt, to wound,” said regent Eddie Island. “I want to extend a personal apology to every African-American, Latino, and Jewish student.”

Despite the heartfelt apologies and announcements of new measures, a subtle line was drawn between the “ghetto” parties and swastikas soundly deplored by students, chancellors, and regents, and the heckling of Oren, which some speakers said fell into the category of protected free speech.

“We stand in solidarity with the Irvine 11,” declared Victor Sanchez, president of the University of California Student Association in his opening words to the regents during the meeting.

Regent Sherry Lansing challenged Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake on the topic, asking whether Oren had been permitted to finish his speech — he had, Drake said — and noting the history of Muslim-Jewish tensions at the university.

Pointing to UCLA, which recently inaugurated an Israeli studies program “to educate people about the Middle East in a fair and balanced way,” Lansing urged Drake to visit the Los Angeles school and learn about the program.

“It’s only an hour away,” noted Lansing, a former film studio executive.

The heckling incident drew fire nationwide, with a handful of Jewish organizations, led by the Zionist Organization of America, calling for Jewish students and funders to boycott UC Irvine.

Most Jewish groups opposed the boycott call, as did all five Jewish student organizations on campus. But several groups joined the Anti-Defamation League in calling upon Drake to step up efforts to deal with anti-Semitic intimidation on campus and to monitor anti-Semitic speakers.

Irvine is investigating charges that a British speaker brought to campus last year by the Muslim Student Union may have violated federal anti-terrorism law by his alleged involvement in raising money for Hamas.

In his address to the regents, Drake underlined his deep dismay at the heckling of Oren, saying it crossed the line from free speech into “intolerable behavior.”

The eight arrested students from Irvine — three others were from UC Riverside — are under investigation, he said, and if found in contempt of university behavior codes will be punished.

University administrations must draw clear distinctions between the free exchange of political opinions and behavior aimed at silencing others, Drake said.

“Issues related to the Middle East conflict play themselves out on our campuses,” Drake said. “No matter which side you’re on, people benefit from learning tolerance and listening respectfully.”

Students addressed the Board of Regents during a 40-minute public session before the meeting, urging greater protection for gay, Jewish, Latino, and African-American students in particular.

“We’re trying to mitigate race riots here,” warned Jesse Cheng, this year’s student representative on the Board of Regents.

All three chancellors described extensive plans already in motion to mitigate the problem at their schools.

Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi said her administration is cooperating fully with the FBI investigation into the hate incidents, creating a campus diversity committee including Hillel and black student organizations, and launching a year of speakers and events to “affirm our principles of community,” she said, referring to the school’s code of values.

Davis also is exploring ways to incorporate the values of tolerance and diversity into the required curriculum.

San Diego Chancellor Marye Fox vowed active prosecution of the perpetrators at her school, along with curriculum changes and a new “campus climate commission” tasked with enhancing the school’s system of bias reporting and expanding opportunities for students to take part in cross-cultural initiatives.



Specter, Sestak woo Jewish voters in Pa.

Bryan Schwartzman World
Published: 14 May 2010

ELKINS PARK, Pa. – With polls showing a tight race in the final weeks of Pennsylvania’s Democratic senatorial primary, incumbent Arlen Specter and challenger Joe Sestak are pressing for Jewish support.

In the case of Specter, the five-term Republican-turned-Democratic senator, that has meant taking the rare step of rebuking President Obama — over public criticism of Israel.

Both candidates spoke at a recent local event for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a candidates’ forum at the state’s largest synagogue, Reform Cong. Keneseth Israel, in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park.

Sestak, in the U.S. House of Representatives, also sought and recently received a closed-door meeting with officials of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other communal leaders.

At stake in the May 18 election is the career of one of the longest-serving Jewish members of the Senate.

Regardless of the outcome, Specter’s decision last year to leave the GOP and run for re-election as a Democrat left the Senate without a Jewish Republican. More specifically, it also marked the first time in decades that a moderate GOP Jewish voice — embodied over the years not only by Specter but also Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, and the late Jacob Javits of New York — was absent from the Senate.

Specter switched parties in the wake of his vote in favor of the federal stimulus package and poll numbers that showed he couldn’t win another GOP primary. He instantly received endorsements from top local and national Democrats, including key Jewish figures in the party.

Even during his decades as a Republican, Specter received support from Jewish backers who typically reserved their donations and votes for Democrats. In large part that was due to his liberal positions on a host of domestic issues — including abortion, church-state separation, and civil liberties — that often put him to the left of conservative Democrats from outside of his home turf of Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs.

At the same time, Specter managed to command the support of the state’s Jewish Republicans and foreign policy hard-liners with his pro-Israel positions and support for stringent restrictions on U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority.

And, of course, Specter always knew how to work a Jewish crowd.

Specter can likely count on the support of many of the Jewish community’s movers and shakers, and he had his backers at Sunday’s May 2 event at Keneseth Israel, attended largely by senior citizens.

Still, Sestak, a retired admiral, has been working the Jewish community hard. Unwilling to cede any ground on that front, he has been reaching out to Jews publicly and behind the scenes throughout the campaign.

Polls of Democratic voters show Sestak gaining on Specter, with at least one survey showing the challenger with a slight lead.

When Specter switched parties last spring to run as a Democrat — in part to avoid the GOP primary against challenger Pat Toomey — he portrayed himself as a staunch ally of the president. And in an interview with the Jewish Exponent in November — before the latest flare-up over settlements between the United States and Israel but after tension between Jerusalem and Washington had been simmering over the issue — Specter was reluctant to criticize Obama directly.

In a March speech on the Senate floor, he urged both Jerusalem and Washington to cool down their rhetoric, but refrained from outright criticism of the president.

In remarks at Keneseth Israel, however, Specter took direct aim at Obama. The senator told the crowd that the president’s “heart is in the right place” on Israel, but that Obama needed more information and experience when it comes to the Middle East.

“I say publicly: You are wrong, Mr. President,” Specter said, referring to the administration’s call for Israel to cease building in eastern Jerusalem and news reports of Obama’s private chastising of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Jerusalem is where we Jews have built for thousands of years. It is different from the rest of the west bank,” he said to the crowd of 60 people.

About twice that number were on hand to listen to Sestak, who spoke before the incumbent. In contrast to their televised debate the night before, Specter and Sestak were not in the room at the same time.

Specter added that in the wake of diplomatic tension that arose when Israel announced building plans as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, Israel’s ambassador to the United States sought his advice almost immediately. Specter recalled that he cautioned the ambassador, Michael Oren, to avoid using the word “crisis” in describing U.S.-Israeli relations.

Oren confirmed the exchange, saying that Specter was one of the legislators he approached to clarify Israel’s position on Jerusalem.

“The senator’s advice and insights were much appreciated,” Oren told the Exponent.

Sestak used most of his appearance at Keneseth Israel to focus on domestic issues such as health care. But when asked about Israel, Sestak — who has taken flak for, among other things, signing a congressional letter in January urging Israel to lift its economic blockade of Gaza — spoke about his meetings with Israeli security officials, including his efforts to help Israel gain access to an American-made combat ship.

He also offered his own assessment that could be considered an indirect criticism of the administration’s approach, although his campaign spokesman said it was more about moving forward than criticizing the president.

“Israel will be less willing to take risks for peace if it doesn’t feel the U.S. is 100 percent behind it,” Sestak said. “I strongly believe that Israel is our vital ally, but I honestly do believe that we and Israel are both more secure when there is peace.”

Jewish Exponent

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