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Jewish groups call for civility

WASHINGTON – Americans have witnessed racist epithets, homophobic slurs, and spitting on a congressman in the realm of public discourse. Now a number of Jewish groups are saying enough is enough.

Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League issued a call for civility.

The “Statement on Civility in National Public Discourse” was unveiled during a panel discussion on “Restoring Civility to Passionate, Partisan, Political Debate” at the ADL’s National Leadership conference in Washington.

“We stand together today to call for civility in our national public discourse,” the statement says. “Let our debate on the issues of the moment be thoughtful and reasoned. Let us look to our elected leaders for leadership, whether or not we support their policies. Let all of us, across the political spectrum, encourage advocacy that is vigorous; pointed but not personal or hostile. We reject appeals to bigotry, racism, and prejudice. We reject calls to violence. In our national discourse in 2010, let us cast American democracy in the best possible light.”

The ADL call for civility comes on the heels of a similar measure adopted in February focused on combating incivility among Jewish groups, particularly those with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. It was passed in Dallas as part of a resolution at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group bringing together the synagogue movements, local Jewish communities, and several national organizations, including the ADL.

The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, recounted the events that led to his organization’s declaration.

“The level of incivility and debate relating first to the health-care bill and now the immigration debate, the Arizona legislation — it has been a crescendo, a back-and-forth of not discussing things civilly,” he said.

The ADL plans to reach out to its 30 regional offices to bring the pledge to elected leaders to sign in an effort to “lessen hostility in the language of debates,” Foxman said.

The first to sign were Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and Matt Brooks, his counterpart at the Republican Jewish Coalition — two groups that have not enjoyed the most cordial of relationships.

The groups even argued as to the wording of the pledge, with Forman not entirely pleased with what he described as the final “watered-down” version. Brooks requested the removal of “mean-spirited” before he would sign, Forman said. Brooks replied that neither the ADL nor the NJDC pushed back over the changes and that his edits “made for a tighter, cleaner, neater document.”

Foxman brushed off the quibble saying, “Yes, people gave input, but ultimately they were signing on to our statement.”

Forman also was willing to shift into a conciliatory mode.

“Congratulations are due to the ADL, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, for we start with this minimal statement and build on it,” he said. “It’s in the best interest of the health of democracy and Judaism that we bring back civility in discourse.”

Brooks agreed, saying, “I believe very strongly that we need to vigorously debate issues of the day, but in a way that’s respectful of the political process, that doesn’t engage in racial or religious or ad hominem attacks.”

With most forms of incivility happening in the public eye — at town hall meetings, on the Senate floor — the ADL believes that the media and the public are the best-positioned to police the matter.

Foxman said, “People can argue strongly and passionately about what they believe, and when they realize being uncivil is counterproductive to them and their cause, there will be a positive response.”

The JCPA has particularly focused on the increased heat in recent years among Jewish groups when dealing with Israel, with the rise of pro-Israel groups like J Street that perform open criticism of the Jewish state.

J Street has taken shots at Jews who associate with right-wing Christian evangelicals, saying that they are abetting a movement that imagines Israel’s destruction. More conservative groups have accused J Street of consorting with Israel’s mortal enemies.

“We are experiencing a level of incivility, particularly over issues pertaining to Israel, that has not been witnessed in recent memory,” the JCPA resolution said. “Where such polarization occurs within the Jewish community, it tears at the fabric of Klal Yisrael —our very sense of peoplehood — and is a cause for profound concern.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of JCPA, said that though the details are not yet firm, a committee representing Jews from “left to right” will be put in place by June and will be charged with designing a multi-year plan to combat incivility and teach proper discourse.

“We need to know how to show respect when we agree,” Gutow said, “and when we do not.”

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

GOP takes aim at North Jersey

Convincing their own first

Ron KampeasCover Story
Published: 16 September 2011
(tags): ron kampeas, njdc
Jewish Democrats begin Obama ’12 bid by targeting party insiders

WASHINGTON — The Democratic Party’s outreach to Jewish voters is beginning with inreach. Pep talks have been scheduled in recent and coming weeks for top donors and Jewish lawmakers.

Insiders acknowledge that they have to explain Obama’s record on Israel to the very foot soldiers who are expected to push the president’s message out to the community.

“We’ve got a lot of work on these things to do,” said a top campaign official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of how sensitive Jewish outreach has become. “On Israel, we have to get our message out.”

To that end, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the Democratic National Committee (DNC), arranged a meeting last week for about a dozen Jewish lawmakers with Vice President Joe Biden.

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) last week flew in activists to meet with top congressional officials, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the U.S. House of Representatives minority leader, and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader.

This week, the Obama campaign is planning its third call this summer to Jewish party activists and sympathizers, and the DNC is planning to release an informational sheet on Obama’s Israel record in advance of Rosh Hashanah.

“A lot of people have said we were not aggressive enough in the past,” said a party activist who is familiar with the informational sheet, which was discussed at a recent meeting of the DNC’s finance committee in Chicago.

Last week’s meeting with Biden and a dozen or so Jewish lawmakers from both the House and the Senate was part of the effort to chart a new course. The meeting was so sensitive that participants would speak of it only in the most general terms, and only one, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who himself has been critical of aspects of Obama’s approach to Israel, agreed to be identified.

Biden was chosen to make the pitch in part because of his long record of closeness to Israel, meeting participants said.

“He’s a special person, he’s smart and hardworking, he knows the issues, he’s a very good friend of Israel,” Engel told JTA. “It’s always an honor to talk with him.”

Choosing Biden to make the pitch, however, underscored the president’s problem: The vice president has the better reputation on Israel.

“His knowledge is encyclopedic, his passion is genuine, his kishkes are real when it comes to fighting for Israel,” said a congressman who was at the meeting but asked not to be identified.

Asked if he would use the same descriptors for Obama, the congressman laughed.

“Let me put it this way: In all of his abilities and reputation, Biden adds to what the president brings to the table,” the unnamed congressman said. “The team of Biden and Obama are truly an extremely intelligent, sophisticated, and committed duo confronting Israel’s enemies and Israel’s challenges as her most important and dearest friend.”

Breaking through the perception that Obama, unlike Biden, does not have a feeling in his “kishkes” — or guts — for Israel is a sign of the uphill battle facing Democrats, insiders said.

Republicans say the emphasis on Jewish outreach underscores the president’s problems in the community.

“The fact that they have to spend time and resources shoring up what is normally a solid Democratic core constituency underscores the challenges they are facing,” Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) director Matt Brooks was quoted in The New York Times as having said.

The NJDC distributed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s praise of Obama for intervening to save the lives of Israeli diplomats besieged in Cairo over the weekend. The group also is noting Obama’s pledge to veto any Palestinian attempt to secure statehood recognition this month through the United Nations.

It is touting, too, what Israeli and American officials have described as unprecedented closeness on missile defense and intelligence sharing, as well as maintaining promised levels of defense assistance to Israel in the face of a budget crunch.

Republicans counter that such assistance should be par for the course for any president.

In addition to defending Obama’s Israel record, the Democrats’ pushback strategy involves emphasizing the president’s stance on social and economic issues. There was a largely successful White House push to get the Jewish groups that deal with social issues to endorse much of the jobs creation plan Obama presented to a skeptical Republican-led House last week.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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