U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on April 25. Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Nikki Haley’s chutzpah

Nikki Haley has served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for only a few months, but she’s already achieved something virtually no other political figure in recent years has done: She’s united the Jewish community.

That’s saying a lot for someone appointed by a controversial president who managed to alienate 70 percent of the Jewish vote even as he claimed staunch support for Israel and his Jewish grandkids.

Haley’s willingness to buck the status quo and adopt moral stances is bold, and her confident stand at her Congressional confirmation hearing worked like an elixir on the Jewish psyche: “Nowhere has the U.N.’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than in its bias against our close ally Israel.” She was confirmed 96-4, even as other Trump appointees were stonewalled, grilled and flayed.

At a time when fractious political divisions have split many Jews, Haley has emerged as a unifying figure. If there’s anything both progressive and conservative Jews can agree on these days — and there isn’t much — it is the longstanding hypocrisy of the U.N. Security Council, which routinely “condemns,” “deplores” and “censures” Israel for its actions while ignoring more egregious abuses of power elsewhere.

“It was a bit strange,” Haley said of her first Security Council meeting in February. “The [Security Council] is supposed to discuss how to maintain international peace and security. But at our meeting on the Middle East, the discussion was not about Hezbollah’s illegal buildup of rockets in Lebanon … not about the money and weapons Iran provides to terrorists … not about how we defeat ISIS … not about how we hold [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad accountable for the slaughter of hundreds and thousands of civilians. No, instead, the meeting focused on criticizing Israel, the one true democracy in the Middle East.”

That speech sealed broad Jewish support for Haley — and affirmed the conviction of right-leaning Jews that Trump would be a stalwart defender of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded Haley’s “unequivocal support” and praised her agenda to put to rout the U.N.’s anti-Israel bias. “It’s time to put an end to the absurdity in the United Nations,” he wrote on Facebook.

At the AIPAC policy conference in March, Haley received a hero’s welcome, with a standing ovation that lasted long enough for her to bow, sit, then stand up again.

But even as Haley’s message was widely celebrated, I wondered whether they really were her words. Does her stance on Israel reflect her own personal values and commitments, or is she just one voice among many in an administration that often puts forth opposing views? How much freedom does Haley have to speak her mind?   

Apparently, too much.

Last week, The New York Times reported that Haley’s assertive voice is beginning to rankle those who outrank her in the White House.

As one of the few women in Trump’s cabinet and that rare non-white appointee, she is often “the first, most outspoken member of the Trump administration to weigh in on key foreign policy issues,” the Times said. Her strong criticisms of Syria and Russia (sometimes at odds with her bosses) and her prescient observations about the link between human rights abuses and the eventuality of violent conflict have swelled her status as a voice of conscience. But they’ve also overshadowed her superior, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Now, the State Department is trying to rein her in. According to an email the Times cited, Haley was encouraged to use predetermined “building blocks” when issuing public remarks and was reminded to “re-clear” her comments with Washington “if they are substantively different from the building blocks, or if they are on a high-profile issue such as Syria, Iran, Israel-Palestine, or [North Korea].”

Haley’s willingness to buck the status quo and adopt moral stances is bold, and her confident stand at her Congressional confirmation hearing worked like an elixir on the Jewish psyche.

How ironic that an administration led by the reigning king of running his mouth, a president who disavows formalities and prides himself on speaking freely, openly and often coarsely, would seek to silence one of its most eloquent spokespeople. How ironic that the target of this hushing is a woman, descended from immigrants.

Perhaps this is all part of Trump’s foreign policy plan to remain unpredictable. Better to beam out mixed messages and retain the element of surprise so that provocative foreign powers like Russia and North Korea are kept in the dark, guessing. But another read on his plan is this: A predominantly white male administration needs to remind the world who the real masters are by diminishing the star of its most promising woman (sorry, Ivanka).

The climate of fear and anxiety Trump wants to cultivate abroad, he cultivates at home.

Last week, when Haley accompanied 14 members of the U.N. Security Council to the White House, Trump put her out on the ledge.

“Does everybody like Nikki?” the president asked his guests, knowing they were the ones she had criticized. “Because if you don’t, she can easily be replaced.”

The council members laughed.

“No, we won’t do that, I promise,” Trump said. “We won’t do that. She’s doing a fantastic job.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Tough love for David Suissa

This past week, David Suissa penned an article that misrepresented our movement, as well as the American Jewish community.

We, IfNotNow, compose a community that is motivated by Jewish traditions of fearless questioning and an uncompromising pursuit of tikkun olam. It is not, as Mr. Suissa articulated, the desire to “look like an anti-establishment rebel,” that motivates us; rather, it is the values of love and justice that inform our movement.

Our upbringings, grounded deeply in Jewish ethics, have prepared us for this moment in history, as the first year of a Trump presidency converges with the fiftieth year of an Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

In what one might term “tough love” for Suissa’s piece, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman correctly declares that, “the occupation has twisted our communal soul.” Now, especially, is the time for bold opposition to hate-filled politics. Yet so many of our communal institutions, including AIPAC, have demonstrated the ease with which the pro-Israel establishment can be swayed by fearmongering tactics and Islamophobic sentiments. At last year’s AIPAC policy conference, Donald Trump’s speech – characterizing Palestinian society as bloodthirsty and anti-Semitic – was given a standing ovation by the majority of those in the room. Since then, AIPAC has continually failed to condemn the policies and rhetoric of Trump and his administration – policies that encourage racism, sexism, and even anti-Semitism – in the name of unconditionally rewarding those who promote the right-wing, pro-Israel party line.

Just as importantly, an unquestioning antipathy towards communities who criticize Israel is placing our communal institutions on the wrong side of history. Their pro-Israel criterion has not only prompted hostility towards disapproving members in the Jewish community, but also of other marginalized communities. One need not look farther than Mr. Suissa’s own track record to see this trend. Long before he appealed to the Jewish community to give IfNotNow a dose of “tough love,” Suissa called for, among others, “Tough Love for Islam,” “Tough Love for Black Lives Matter,” and “Tough Love for Obama.”

Not only do Suissa’s calls for “tough love” mischaracterize and dismiss communities, movements, and figures, but they also indulge in blatant bigotry. They minimize the struggle of communities who experience daily mistreatment by illustrating a world in which the oppressed are coddled. Suissa’s article advocating that the Jewish community “offer [Black Lives Matter] some tough love and constructive criticism,” for example, completely diminishes the often-violent sacrifices protesters make in order to bring attention to a dire reality. He also suggests that the difficulties faced by the Jewish community are equivalent to those faced by the black community — they are not.

Suissa asserts that Jewish organizations, out of fear of “losing” young Jews critical of Israel, are handling them with “kid gloves.” But one must ask: who is, in fact, doing this? Hillel at Ohio State has disbanded its Jewish LGBT support group because it participated in an event alongside Jewish Voice for Peace. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations refused to admit J Street, an explicitly pro-Israel organization that supports a two-state solution.

In Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, AIPAC ensured the arrest of seven IfNotNow members for occupying its lobby. Many IfNotNow members have family who will not speak to them because of their work in our movement. Each of our members – many of whom love the country deeply and have family there –  risks a refusal of entry into Israel. We are regularly shouted at, told that we aren’t Jewish, or that we’re kapos. With such rhetoric, it is no surprise that the Jewish Defense League, a right-wing terrorist organization, attacked IfNotNow demonstrators and a Palestinian man during a peaceful action at AIPAC last week. So, we must ask again: who is handling us with “kid gloves?”

Suissa argued that our last action in Los Angeles simplified the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He will get no argument from us when he says that it is complicated. Even now, Israel just approved the first settlement construction in the West Bank in over twenty years.

Every day that Israel denies Palestinians basic rights and freedoms is another day it cannot hope for any sort of security or an improvement in international standing. And, even more importantly, the chance of reaching a just and peaceful resolution grows increasingly slim.

We are under no illusions that ending the occupation will be easy. It is not “social justice on demand”; it will involve considerable risk. But the current methods by which alleged security is held in place are unacceptable, and we, as American Jews who are implicated in this violence, must work to end it.

In the face of this issue’s complexity, we ask a simple question – a question that our communal institutions have failed to answer for too long: Do we, as a community, believe that all peoples deserve freedom and dignity?

If the answer is yes, then we can no longer afford to advocate solely for ourselves. We cannot accept the vindication of a bigoted, xenophobic, and delusional leader based solely on his proclaimed support for Israeli policies. It is engrained in our Jewish heritage to stand with people in need. Will our communal institutions use their power to stand with those most targeted by a Trump administration? By a Netanyahu administration?

We reimagine an American Jewish community that fights for dignity and freedom for all, even if it goes against the policies of a particular Israeli government. We are building a community that is no longer complicit in upholding a system of violence against Palestinians. Mr. Suissa, join us!

The authors are members of IfNotNow.

David Suissa responds:

I stand by every word I wrote. By blaming only Israel for the absence of peace, the movement IfNotNow (INN) hurts peace. By ignoring Palestinian refusals to end the occupation, Palestinian teaching of Jew-hatred and Palestinian glorifying of terrorism, INN hurts Palestinians. And by ignoring the reality that Hamas and ISIS are likely to swoop in and massacre Palestinians after Israel leaves the West Bank, INN is dumbing down a complicated conflict. The community conversation is much healthier when everyone is challenged. Just as INN is free to challenge AIPAC and other groups, they should have no problem getting the same treatment. As they write, it’s the “Jewish tradition of fearless questioning.”

IfNotNow protesters outside the 2017 AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C. Photo by Ron Kampeas

IfNotNow and AIPAC

It’s amazing to me that the Jewish community is making all the same mistakes with IfNotNow that it made 30 years ago with Peace Now.

Castigation, isolation, repudiation, denigration — all the same tropes and techniques, from leaders who should know better.

The no-longer-young mainstream critics of IfNotNow should know by now that their attacks, like those of the establishment on Peace Now, will produce only more youthful opposition and could very well incite violence.  It all happened before. It’s all happening again.

Last week, the campaign against IfNotNow reached a fever pitch when the group held a sit-in, first at the Los Angeles offices of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), then at the AIPAC’s national conference in Washington, D.C.

IfNotNow is a group organized in 2014 by American-Jewish 20-somethings to oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its policies toward Gaza. 

Here’s how IfNotNow describes its origin story on its website: “[Y]oung Jews angered by the overwhelmingly hawkish response of American Jewish institutions came together under the banner of IfNotNow to demonstrate their resistance through the beauty of Jewish ritual. Moved to act by moral anguish and inspired by Hillel’s three questions, they organized Mourner’s Kaddish actions in nearly a dozen cities across the country and lamented the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian life. They had three demands: Stop the War on Gaza, End the Occupation, and Freedom and Dignity for All.”

What this description should tell us is that IfNotNow, like Peace Now, is very much a movement from within the Jewish community.  It is not outsiders trying to tear down Israel; it is our kids trying to save us.

Simone Zimmerman, one of the movement’s founders, made this clear in an interview with Jewish Journal reporter Eitan Arom. 

“They attack us so much because they know that we are not a minority and that we are a growing voice in the community,” said Zimmerman, who is 26. “If they didn’t see us as a growing threat, they wouldn’t feel the need to attack us. I think they know that as the occupation hits its 50th anniversary, as the Israeli government moves more and more to the right, American Jews are moving left, a lot of us, and we’re not willing to check our values at the door to maintain this pro-Israel consensus. True safety and liberation for Jews in the U.S. and in Israel actually depends not on supporting the occupation but fighting for freedom for all people.”

Thirty years ago, Peace Now entered the American-Jewish scene with a similar point of view. One difference, not incidental, is that Peace Now was founded by reserve Israeli military officers who foresaw, based on bitter experience, what moral, security, political and demographic disasters awaited Israel if it didn’t work to make a two-state solution more likely. IfNotNow is mostly American voices saying the same, but has the logic really changed?

Perhaps because Peace Now began as an Israeli movement, it didn’t feel comfortable in publicly confronting the American-Jewish establishment. IfNotNow members are energized, not intimidated, by throwing all they’ve learned in day schools, Jewish camps and Birthright trips into the faces of the folks who paid for it all.

Those folks are reacting by supporting a law in Israel that would ban activists from entering the country and by calling them names. Last week, in a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Rabbi Daniel Gordis actually singled out Zimmerman as an “enemy of the state.”  His logic was that because Zimmerman sees the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a “legitimate, non-violent tactic” she must be a traitor.

It doesn’t matter to Gordis that Zimmerman herself, like IfNotNow, doesn’t subscribe to the BDS movement. She merely refuses to share Gordis’ exact view of it. And so — she’s out.

Sound familiar?  In the days of Peace Now, the red line was not BDS, but PLO. The establishment delegitimized Peace Now members because they dared advocate negotiating with the Palestinians. That was the establishment’s red line — talking to a terrorist who killed Jewish children and wheeled Jewish invalids into the sea. Now, mainstream Jewish leaders display photos of their visit with Yasser Arafat’s protégé, while calling anyone who refuses to condemn the boycott of Dead Sea body lotion a traitor.

Haven’t we learned that harsh language can paint a target on the backs of these protesters? It was just that rhetoric that resulted in the murder of Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig at a Jerusalem rally in 1983. In court, the man who tossed a grenade at Grunzweig argued that right-wing activists had convinced him Peace Now followers were “traitors.” 

It’s a sign of how the occupation has twisted our communal soul that our mainstream leaders are using words once consigned to the violent extreme.

I wasn’t at the AIPAC conference, where some in the crowd jeered at the IfNotNow protesters. But I remember vividly being jeered at decades ago at Peace Now rallies. I can tell you that being spat on doesn’t make you any less wedded to your convictions.   

I’m that strange Jew who believes we are a stronger community — and Israel is stronger — because IfNotNow, Peace Now, AIPAC and organizations on the right, such as the Zionist Organization of America, thrive. The truth doesn’t reside with any single one of them, and even those ideas we once thought of as fixed shift and evolve. What if instead of constantly looking for ways to march people out, we worked just as hard on bringing them in?

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

AIPAC and the meaning of love

How do we show our love for the things we hold dear?

How do we express this love when things get complicated?

Israel is a complicated country. Despite all of its amazing accomplishments in the face of relentless hostility, despite its courage, its resiliency, its vibrant culture, it still manages to attract serious opposition and even anger among many American Jews who claim to love the Jewish state. The key reason for this anger is well-known: Israel’s inability to make peace with the Palestinians.

Over the past 48 hours, I’ve seen two radically different approaches to loving Israel.

The first is the love I felt at the AIPAC Policy Conference, where 18,000 people came to network, listen to speeches, learn more about Israel, present their ideas, lobby Congress, and, essentially, find a safe space to show their love for the Jewish state.

Outside the main conference hall, I saw a whole other approach –demonstrators on the street, many of them angry, protesting AIPAC’s support of Israel.

In an ideal world, I’m sure these demonstrators would like nothing better than to see AIPAC join their protest against Israel. In fact, I’m sure they’d love to see all Jewish organizations follow their approach and bash Israel for failing to make peace with the Palestinians.

For the protestors, this failure is all-consuming. Yes, the conflict is complicated. Yes, the Palestinians have refused several offers in the past to end the occupation. Yes, Israel has made its share of mistakes. Yes, right now, with the region in violent turmoil, it could be disastrous for everybody — including the Palestinians — if Israel abandoned the West Bank and terror groups would walk in and wreak more havoc.

Yes, but.

A failure is still a failure. The bottom line for these anti-AIPAC demonstrators is that Israel has failed to make peace with the Palestinians, and that is simply unacceptable.

My question for the demonstrators, then, is this: Since you claim to be pro-Israel, how else do you show your love for Israel besides protest?

I get the tough love thing. I get that you want Israel to do as you wish, because it would be better for Israel and the Palestinians. I get that you’re tired of waiting. I get all that, and I also get that protest is a great Jewish value and that it’s part of the Jewish tradition.

I’m just curious: Is this your only way of engaging with Israel?

I’m especially interested because, when I love someone who does something I think is wrong, I always make sure to remind them how much I love them, how I value the things they do right, and how I value our relationship. For their own good, I will show some “tough,” but I always show some “love.”

I’ve seen your “tough” on Israel, but where are you hiding the love?

Are you looking for a safe space?

Panel at AIPAC Blasts Trump’s Proposed Foreign Aid Cuts

WASHINGTON – At an AIPAC panel on Sunday, the highlighted speakers assailed the Trump Administration for its massive reductions in the proposed foreign aid budget. Retired General Charles Walk asserted, “I have never heard of a general officer” who doesn’t support foreign assistance.

The speakers also noted that American aid to Israel’s neighbors who have maintained peace treaties with the Jewish state such as Jordan and Egypt significantly benefits Jerusalem. “The assistance we give to others for instance Jordan is in Israel’s interest as well,” noted Lindsay Plack, Director of Government Relations at the US Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). The US assistance to Amman following the refugee spillover from the Syrian war “ensures that the Jordanian economy doesn’t crumble under the stress of all those refugees coming in,” she added.

Speaking in Tokyo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on March 16, “The level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking in the past.. is simply not sustainable.” The top US diplomat added, “We are going to construct a way forward that allows us to be much more effective, much more efficient, and be able to do a lot with fewer dollars.”

“I guarantee it, if we were to cut half of this foreign aid budget it would probably translate into some huge number of US engagements around the world,” Walk noted at one of the few hundred breakout sessions AIPAC has organized at its annual Policy Conference.

Last month, over 120 retired generals signed a letter pushing back against the White House’s plan to slash aid to USAID and the State Department as “critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

“The threats that we face, frankly it became most clear after 9/11, they can’t be solved with the military alone,” Plack said. “When America leads, it’s good for Israel. When we pull back, that is not good for Israel.”  

AIPAC has stressed the importance of maintaining the State Department’s budget by showcasing Defense Secretary General Mattis’ remarks on video screens throughout the convention center: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

As assistance to the UN viewed controversially in some circles, Plask pointed to the important work of UNHCR, the international organization’s refugee agency. “They are on the front lines of the refugee crisis and Syrian civil war, so our small investment allows them to be on the front lines instead of us.”

With dramatic reductions to foreign aid across the world while maintaining $3.8 billion annually to Israel, some pro-Israel advocates worry about the perception of foreign aid to the Jewish state among the American public. When USGLC was established 20 years ago, AIPAC was a founding member.

“The foreign aid bill has long been one of AIPAC’s highest priorities and it helps ensure that the country has the resources to lead in the world,” noted AIPAC official Dan Granot at the end of the panel urging the attendees to preserve a robust global foreign assistance and implicitly lobby against the Trump Administration’s cuts. “Tuesday morning, when you all go to the Hill, remember you are not only advocating for Israel’s aid but also to ensure US leadership around the world.”

The crowd at last year’s AIPAC conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

Why I’m skipping AIPAC this year

This weekend is the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington. Many of you will be there, and for a long time, I thought about going myself. DC, lobbying, Israel, and good friends: it sounds like a weekend I couldn’t pass up.

But this year, the thought of attending AIPAC just didn’t sit well with me. I tried to get to the bottom of why, and I realized it wasn’t because of Israel or any of my disagreements with its internal politics or policies. I knew it was deeper than that, but like any good Jew, the more I tried to dig at my internal frustration, the further I got from any concrete answer.

Then I went home to Oakland last weekend. I walked into a lecture at my temple titled “Power, Privilege, & BDS,” not expecting to enter a talk that would culminate in a discussion about UCLA student government.

“Today, American Jews face an internal conflict,” Professor Mark Dollinger of SFSU said. “On one side, we enjoy power and privilege. On the other, we maintain a Holocaust-driven fear of being marginalized and oppressed.”

I resonated with this. Since beginning at UCLA, I’ve felt incredibly lucky: I was one of just four students in my high school graduating class of 500 to become a Bruin, and I knew that it wasn’t just my intelligence that got me here but the strong support network I had growing up. At the same time, in college I’ve felt the heat of anti-Semitism beyond what I could have ever imagined: I was once told by another student that eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream was akin to supporting an institution as oppressive as the American slave trade — because Ben and Jerry are Jewish.

Then came the talk about student government. I listened eagerly to what he would say, not telling anyone I myself sit on the student government of UCLA.

“When Rachel Beyda was questioned for being Jewish, we all jumped so quickly to do whatever it is we could to defend her,” Professor Dollinger said. “We sent UCLA pages and pages full of suggested protective measures for Jewish students and threatened to pull our donations if they didn’t change.”

The response he described to the Rachel Beyda incident was not surprising. For a Jew to do anything he possibly could to defend his Jewish community is an imperative ingrained in the Jewish DNA: after what our parents and grandparents went through a generation ago, who can say this is a wrong thing?

But, as the lecturer suggested, today is not 1930. Jews have made it in this country. In America, we are not alone. We have politicians, law enforcement officers, and university administrators to stand up for us. Anti-Semitism has not gone away, but we’ve got new ways to fight it. That’s a big deal.

I’ve come to understand that that is what Jewish privilege looks like today. It’s a good thing we have it: after thousands of years of persecution, it’s the least we could ask for. But I think that with that privilege comes a sense of responsibility and engagement, an imperative to help those who don’t have it.

As a leader on campus through my position on student government over the past year, I’ve been asked by a number of Jewish students why I’m not more involved with pro-Israel groups, why I don’t speak passionately about the cause, and why, in the midst of a national wave of anti-Semitism, I’m not doing more to stand up for my community.

It’s taken me a long time to write this because at UCLA, I’ve felt uneasy talking about my Jewish identity – and not only because I’ve faced hostility as a Jew, but because of the the power and privilege I’ve been blessed to have all my life. Today I’m ready to share.

I believe that until the Jewish community recognizes that we must use our privilege to help others, we will not be able both to defend our Jewish identities and have meaningful and necessary relationships with those with whom may disagree.

I know by now some of you may be rolling your eyes. I get it. Privilege, oppression, power, and inequity. These are words thrown around college campuses all the time nowadays, and it can be hard to find real meaning in them anymore. Let me try and ground this a bit.

I mean to say that we should be using our close relationships with administrators and lawmakers to help those who don’t have the privilege and access that we do, not just to protect ourselves when we feel hurt. Our privilege must be used for more than just ourselves.

I challenge myself and other Jews in the community to question the institutions of power we rely on. Are these institutions fulfilling this broader vision of Jewish privilege not just by protecting Jews from oppression, but by standing up to support those who don’t have the same power?

This is where AIPAC comes in.

This weekend, thousands of Jews will gather in a huge hall to hear Mike Pence, our Vice President, speak at AIPAC. They will cheer and clap, and when asked why they are cheering for Mike Pence, they will respond, “I support him because he fights for Israel.”

And Jewish institutions across America, while perhaps not outwardly promoting President Trump or his administration, will in fact do so by failing to oppose it. They will mute their opposition to his Muslim ban, or his border wall proposals, or his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. They will do this because they don’t want to risk losing his support for Israel.

I won’t be there. I won’t be there because it hurts me inside to see an institution justifiably founded to support the continued existence of the Jewish people abusing our privilege – my privilege – to support an administration that violates norms of decency and fairness to so many in this country.

I refuse to support an organization that adopts an “Israel-at-all-costs” attitude, an organization that has become a fellow traveler of the alt-right, an organization that today is the epitome of Jewish power and privilege without responsibility and morality.

I think It’s time for AIPAC to do a little soul searching and re-think its approach. We’ve got to remember why Israel was founded, and we’ve got to think deeply about how best to fight for its future.

And to all of you reading this, to my friends who have taught me what Jewish community means and who have filled my days at UCLA with Jewish learning and exploration, I ask you to join me on a mission.

Let us begin to ask: what are our values as Jews? How can we use our privilege to protect our own rights while also standing up to support those who need protection?

And to those who tell us we cannot support Israel while also supporting marginalized communities at home, I say that’s a load of crap. No one can say that I cannot support Israel while also standing up against police brutality in America. That’s not how justice works.

Let’s stop compromising our values. Let’s begin to use our privilege, as our rabbis and teachers have always instructed us to: let us love our neighbors as ourselves and do for them what we hope they would do for us.

I hope you will join me on this mission. It won’t be easy at the start, but I believe that once we stand up for what we believe is right, other people and other institutions will follow.

Until then, I don’t need your support, Mr. Pence.

Rafi Sands studies Business Economics & Political Science at UCLA and is External Vice President of the Undergraduate Students Association

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York speaking at a news conference held by Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee criticizing the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to foreign spending, March 16, 2017. Engel is joined by Reps. Albio Sires, left, of New Jersey, and William Keating of Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of HFAC-Democrats.

Jewish groups, politicians deem Trump budget bad for Israel, other U.S. interests

Citing the importance to Israel of a robust U.S. posture abroad, Jewish groups decried drastic proposed cuts in foreign assistance funding in President Donald Trump’s budget, despite assurances that aid to Israel would be unaffected.

Israel’s guaranteed $3.1 billion defense assistance next year is a “cutout” and not subject to proposed drastic cuts to foreign funding, the Trump administration said.

“Our assistance to Israel is, if I could say, a cutout on the budget, and that’s guaranteed, and that reflects, obviously, our strong commitment to one of our strongest partners and allies,” State Department spokesman Marc Toner said March 16 in a call with reporters.

The reassurance came as an array of Jewish groups and Democratic Jewish lawmakers expressed alarm at proposed 31 percent cuts to foreign spending, saying it would undercut U.S. influence abroad and noting that it currently constitutes just 1 percent of the budget.

“Our consistent position has been that, along with security assistance to Israel, we have always supported a robust overall foreign aid budget in order to ensure America’s strong leadership position in the world,” an official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee stated in an email.

Rep. Lois Frenkel (D-Fla.) argued that foreign aid helps stem the unrest that threatens security interests.

“I wish the president would spend more time talking to the generals because they would tell you that pencils can be as persuasive as cannons and food can be as powerful as a tank,” she said at a news conference Thursday.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) said national security interests are at stake.

“The proposed draconian cuts in areas vital to executing U.S. foreign policy could adversely affect our national security interests by potentially creating more pressure on the American military while essential diplomacy is being undermined,” David Harris, the AJC CEO, said in a statement. “Deep cuts to the State Department, including in key educational and cultural exchange programs, will severely harm America’s ability to assert our interests and values abroad.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, decried what it said was the budget’s isolationism.

“Over the years, many pro-Israel organizations — including J Street — have argued that Israel cannot be treated as a special case, exempted from cuts to foreign aid while programs affecting the rest of the world are slashed wholesale,” the group said in a statement. “Ultimately, weakening US foreign aid, which is already far below the contributions of other advanced economies in percentage GDP terms, undermines Israeli security as well.”

Next year is the launch of a 10-year agreement that would see Israel receiving an average of $3.8 billion a year in defense assistance.

Centrist and left-wing pro-Israel groups have long argued that overall robust foreign assistance is healthy for the United States and Israel because it sustains U.S. influence.

Toner, the State Department spokesman, fielded a question from a reporter about whether the cuts would affect funding for U.S. defense assistance to Egypt and Jordan — policies that were written into Israeli peace deals with those countries and seen for years as critical to sustaining the peace. Toner deflected the question.

“With respect to other assistance levels, foreign military assistance levels, those are still being evaluated and decisions are going to be made going forward,” he said. “So we’re still at the very beginning of the budget process, and in the coming months, these are all going to be figures that we evaluate and look at hard, obviously bearing in mind some of our — or not some of our — our treaty obligations going forward. But we’ll have more details, obviously, when the final budget rolls out in May, I believe.”

Trump administration officials have said programs targeted by the cuts have not proven their efficiency or efficacy, a claim sharply disputed by Democratic Jewish lawmakers and some Jewish groups.

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), wrote a letter to House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), urging him to reject the cuts.

“We cede the role as the world’s champion of democracy, freedom and justice. And what happens then?” Engel said at a news conference March 16 unveiling the letter. “Who steps into the void? Probably a country that doesn’t share our values or priorities. Think Russia or some other country like that.”

Other Jewish Democrats lambasting the cuts included Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).

B’nai B’rith International, which advocates for international assistance and also focuses on assistance to the elderly in the United States, decried the budgets cuts in both areas. The organization noted a proposed 13.2 percent cut to the Housing Department, which would adversely affect the 38 buildings with 8,000 residents in the B’nai B’rith network.

“Lack of access to safe and affordable housing for all older Americans has deep ramifications for the health and welfare of so many,” it said in a statement.

Let’s stop patronizing the new generation

In the Jewish world today, if you’re young and cool and love to criticize Israel, community leaders will treat you with kid gloves, because they’re afraid of “losing” you. They’re afraid, among other things, that you might join one of those anti-Zionist movements like BDS or Jewish Voices for Peace, or just abandon Israel altogether.

Fear of loss can make people overly timid and deferential.

Take the case of IfNotNow (INN), a young and trendy Jewish activist group that regularly demonstrates against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. These activists are proponents of “Jewish values” who care about Palestinians and are giving Israel a dose of tough love.

Evidently, they believe that the best way to fight the occupation is to demand that it end now, and to demand that other Jewish organizations demand the same. It’s social justice on demand.

Because it’s never too cool to take on young activists who represent the revered “new generation,” there’s a general reluctance in our community and in the Jewish media to criticize INN and its demonstrations. But putting that reluctance aside, I think their PR spectacles can use some criticism. For one thing, they distort the reality of a complicated conflict.

To attract media attention, INN activists like to target high-profile Jewish groups and make an effort to get arrested, as happened last week in front of the AIPAC offices in Los Angeles and last year in the lobby of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) building in New York City. Their message is conveyed in cocky slogans such as, “Moral Jews must resist AIPAC” and “Dayenu—End the Occupation.”

It hardly helps peace to make Israel look like the only bad guy in the conflict.

Now, if I’m a typical Israeli voter who’d love to end the occupation but believes that, at this moment, it will lead to war rather than peace, I might look at such scenes and ask myself: What do these American kids know that I don’t?

To its credit, the ADL called them out last year in a statement from national director Jonathan Greenblatt: “It is unfortunate that INN seems to be more interested in spectacles and ultimatums than in discussion and dialogue grappling with the difficult issues involved in achieving peace. Nevertheless, our doors are open, and our invitation to speak with INN still stands.”

They never took him up on the offer. Indeed, for young activists looking for action and attention, the notion of dialogue must seem dull and tedious. How do you compare a discussion of complex issues with an Instagram photo that makes you look like an anti-establishment rebel?

If there’s one thing rebels don’t like, it’s complications. When I meet with INN sympathizers, I try to offer at least one annoying wrinkle: After Israel leaves the West Bank, I tell them, it’s highly likely that terror groups like Hamas and ISIS will swoop in and start murdering Palestinians, as happened in Gaza. The ensuing chaos and violence would be a disaster for the Palestinians, significantly worse than anything they’re facing now.

That simple point alone gives them pause. It also challenges the delusion that Israel can just snap its fingers and end the occupation, as INN slogans demand.

It takes little courage to yell on a street corner and make demands on the most criticized country on earth. It takes even less courage to go after other Jewish groups because they don’t do things your way. Let’s see if INN activists will ever take on the biggest enemies of peace, those evil forces that make a living delegitimizing the Jewish state and promoting genocidal Jew-hatred.

Maybe one day, we’ll see some Jewish rebels protest outside INN offices and give them a taste of their own medicine. Here’s one idea for a pro-peace sign they can hold up: “Fight Jew-hatred: Are you INN or out?”

It should be clear by now that it hardly helps peace to make Israel look like the only bad guy in the conflict. If INN really wanted to work for peace, it would wrestle with the many difficult issues surrounding the conflict, as Greenblatt invited them to do. Last time I checked, wrestling with difficult issues is also a great Jewish value.

Of course, it’s always easier to just protest and make demands on the Jews, especially if you sense the Jewish establishment is walking on eggshells around you, because it’s so afraid to lose you. But from where I sit, I think we’ll lose the new generation a lot faster if we continue to patronize them and treat them with kid gloves.

Just like INN, I much prefer tough love.

Oak Loeb, a protester with IfNotNow, is arrested at the Century City office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on March 17.

WATCH: Seven Jewish protesters arrested at AIPAC L.A. office

Seven Jewish protesters were arrested March 17 in the lobby of the Century City office tower that houses the Los Angeles office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The protesters, who were affiliated with IfNotNow, a progressive network of millennial Jews opposed to Israeli policy, were chanting and stomping their feet when they were arrested on suspicion of trespassing, according to Capt. Tina Nieto, area commanding officer for West L.A. for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

“We are here to say that we’ll occupy this building until AIPAC is ready to stop supporting the endless occupation in Israel-Palestine,” said Michal David, 26, an organizer for IfNotNow, while a small group of protesters marched in a circle and chanted on the sidewalk behind her.

According to David, the protesters arrived at 9 a.m. at the building and blocked off entrances for about 40 minutes, encouraging AIPAC employees to go home, “for a day of reflection.” By 10 a.m., those who were not prepared to be arrested had moved to the sidewalk.

“Shabbat shalom! AIPAC go home!” the seven protesters chanted inside, seated against a marble wall facing the entrance.

Outside, the protesters, who numbered fewer than 10, responded with chants and statements of their own, denouncing AIPAC’s role in “propping up military occupation” and “cozying up to David Friedman,” President Donald Trump’s controversial pick for ambassador to Israel.

David said they had not contacted AIPAC before the protest. “There’s no more room for conversations behind closed doors,” she said.

More than a dozen uniformed LAPD officers and six police cruisers were on hand for the arrests. Nieto said the building’s management called in a private person’s arrest, also known as a citizen’s arrest.

The activists inside the lobby continued chanting until police led them away in handcuffs around 11 a.m., while the protesters outside continued to sing and look on. From there, they were taken to LAPD’s West L.A. Community Police Station, where anybody without an outstanding warrant would be cited and released, Nieto said.

The protesters ranged in age from 20 to 31 and hailed from L.A. and the Bay Area, according to IfNotNow.

On Sunday, IfNotNow is planning another, larger protest at AIPAC’s Century City office, to coincide with the L.A. Marathon, whose route passes AIPAC’s office.

AIPAC declined to comment for this story.

ZOA opposes AIPAC giving platform to anti-Israel group “Breaking the Silence”

It is appalling that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) organized and conducted a panel discussion event for visiting rabbis in Jerusalem last month that gave a platform to the vicious anti-Israel propaganda group “Breaking the Silence” (“BtS”).

Breaking the Silence is notorious for inventing and publishing throughout the world (and providing to the already biased-against-Israel UN investigators) false, unverifiable, anonymous “testimonies” defaming and demonizing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as war criminals who deliberately target, shoot, and beat up Palestinian and Gazan civilians (See NGO Monitor report).  BtS also defames Jews living in Judea and Samaria with blood libels (that are then propagated throughout the world), such as falsely accusing Jews living in Judea/Samaria of “poisoning the entire water supply” of a Palestinian Arab village” and causing the “entire village being evacuated for a period of several years” – neither of which ever happened.

BtS also lectures and displays its false “photo exhibits” and “testimonies” demonizing Israel, and participates in anti-Israel, pro-BDS events in Scotland, Switzerland, the EU Parliament, South Africa, U.S. college campuses and numerous other international locales.   

The UN Report of the “Independent” Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza War quoted extensively from BtS’s false, anonymous “testimonies.” A Hamas press release complained that even more BtS falsehoods should have been included – namely, “explicit confessions” by “many soldiers affiliated to the Israeli organization of ‘Breaking the Silence’’’ of Israeli soldiers’ and officers’ “war crimes” and “direct instructions to target civilians.”

An Israeli Channel 10 study found that in a sample of ten Breaking the Silence testimonies, two claims of beating detainees and shooting innocents were complete lies, two were exaggerated and four were impossible to verify.  Mr. Admit Deri, the head of Israeli Reservists on the Front, said that the study affirmed what Reservists on the Front had been saying for months, and noted: “This is very serious research that was conducted by journalists who previously stated their support for Breaking the Silence, like Raviv Drucker. In the end it came out that the group does lie. . . . We need to exclude this organization [Breaking the Silence] from all forums and not invite them to speak.” (“More proof of Breaking the Silence’s lies,” Israel National News, July 15, 2016).

NGO Monitor estimates that Breaking the Silence receives 65% of its funding from anti-Israel European groups. BtS also receives funding from the extremist left-wing New Israel Fund (which has funded several groups that malign Israel and promote anti-Israel boycotts) and George Soros’s Open Society Institute (Soros is a notorious self-avowed anti-Zionist.)

Moreover, documents obtained by NGO Monitor (from the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profits) show that several BtS funders (including the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, ICCO (primarily funded by the Dutch government), and Oxfam Great Britain) conditioned their grants to BtS on BtS obtaining a minimum number of negative (anti-Israel, anti-IDF) “testimonies.”  See “Europe to Breaking the Silence: Bring Us As Many Incriminating Testimonies As Possible,” NGO Monitor,May 04, 2015.

The Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky (who was a prisoner of conscience in the ex-USSR) wrote: “Breaking the Silence Is No Human Rights Organization – and I Should Know.”

Interestingly, a video clip from the AIPAC/BtS event reveals that BtS knows full well that it is maligning the IDF to promote BtS’s political agenda.  In other words, their “human rights” label is a cover to hide BtS’s true purpose.  In the video clip, founding BtS member Yehuda Shaul admitted:  “Very deep inside, at Breaking the Silence, we don’t believe the IDF is the problem.  We believe the political mission the IDF was sent to carry out is the problem.”    (BtS Facebook page, July 14, 2016 10:37 a.m.) 

Breaking the Silence may also be engaging in anti-Israel espionage.  Israel’sChannel 2 news recently broadcast a video showing Breaking the Silence questioning ex-IDF soldiers (who were undercover agents) to obtain sensitive intelligence information about IDF security operations, equipment, tactical maneuvers, special forces deployed, and tunnel detection methods used along the border with Gaza – all of which had nothing to do with BtS’s supposed interest in exposing immoral IDF activities.   After the video was aired, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated: “Breaking the Silence has crossed another red line.  The investigative security forces are looking into the matter.” See Are Breaking the Silence Traitors?, Israel National News, Mar. 23, 2016.  Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin denounced and accused BtS of treason and espionage after the video aired.  See Breaking the Silence guilty of ‘treason, espionage,’ Likud minister says,” Jerusalem Post, Mar. 18, 2016.

BtS’s Facebook posting (July 14, 2016, 10:37 a.m.) boasted that “we [Breaking the Silence] took part in a panel discussion organized by AIPAC – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Jerusalem, conducted by the director of AIPAC in Israel.”

By organizing and conducting this event, AIPAC gave unwarranted aid, comfort, legitimacy and credibility to a vicious immoral group that invents and purveys lies that damage Israel and weaken the IDF’s ability to protect Israel and the Jewish people.  

Both personally and on behalf of the Zionist Organization of America, I thus urge AIPAC to publicly apologize and disassociate itself from “Breaking the Silence” and to publicly resolve not to organize and conduct events with BtS in the future. 

Morton Klein is the President of the Zionist Organization of America.

David Siegel leaves impressive legacy as his diplomatic tenure in L.A. ends

Later this summer, David Siegel will return home to Israel after five years serving as Israeli consul general for the southwestern United States from his base in Los Angeles. So, what has he been doing during that time?

At the request of the Journal, Siegel’s office compiled a rundown of the diplo-mat’s public activities, which include the following:

• Some 1,500 speaking engagements, mostly in the evenings, at times logging three speeches on the same day.

• Appearances at least once, sometimes more frequently, at every major synagogue in the Los Angeles area.

• Meetings with the principals of nearly all Jewish day schools throughout his jurisdiction, which stretches westward from Colorado and Wyoming to Southern California and Hawaii.

• Seventeen regional town halls, mostly for audiences that generally have had little contact with Israel.

• Attendance at nearly every regional dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the annual galas of other Jewish organizations.

In truth, this list skims only the surface, but it gives a picture that Siegel, now 54, did not accept the Los Angeles post in 2011 for surfing and cocktail parties.

In addition to his public appearances, Siegel worked mainly behind the scenes on many of his key accomplishments. These include a landmark accord for joint entrepreneurial collaboration between Israel and California, working with rabbis to promote religious pluralism in Israel, and bringing the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition to Los Angeles.

It is a given that Israeli diplomats around the world often face international crises of one sort of another on a regular basis.

For Siegel, a few months after his arrival in Los Angeles, he saw as his overriding task to impress upon the nearly 40 million Americans in his region that Iran’s nuclear program was a threat not only to Israel’s
existence, but also to the entire Middle East and beyond.

A seasoned diplomat, Siegel had previously been stationed at Israel’s Foreign Service headquarters in Jerusalem, as well as at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was involved in formulating and implementing Israel’s foreign policy during parts of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

Nevertheless, five years ago, given the choice of returning to a senior position at the Israeli embassy in Washington or becoming consul general in Los Angeles, the Siegel family unanimously chose the latter option.

“Los Angeles is considered one of the most important assignments in our foreign service, as a world communication center whose movie and television studios impact every country,” Siegel said during a recent interview in his West Los Angeles office, which is lined with award plaques and citations, alternating with photos of his family.

During Siegel’s first day after arriving in Los Angeles, he met with the editorial staff of the Journal and, in short order, laid out a list of his goals and priorities. Asked to review this wish list five years later, Siegel cited the Israel-California Partnership Agreement as his most important achievement and a real “game changer.”

After two years of laying the groundwork, in March 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an agreement that provides for a working partnership in such areas as water conservation — in which Israel is a world leader — cybersecurity, biotechnology, agricultural technology and cultural/educational exchanges.

This master treaty has since been buttressed by additional agreements between Israel and the cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, Los Angeles County, the Southern California Association of Government and others.

Siegel gives credit for achieving the agreement to the backing of Jewish community organizations, as well as Brown, state legislators including Assemblymen Bob Blumenfield and John Perez, and L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, among many others.

On the priority list of just about every Israeli diplomat, since the opening of L.A.’s first consulate in 1948, has been to channel some of Hollywood’s worldwide clout to the benefit of Israel.

While past consuls general have often focused primarily on enlisting big-name celebrities to speak out in defense of Israel against propaganda attacks, Siegel has focused more on actual productions.

He has met with stars and studio heads, but also worked with production and location executives on movie and TV projects. Thus, he counts as signs of the “prospering relationship” between Israel and Hollywood the shooting of the TV series “Tyrant” and “Big” in Israel, and the openings of offices for Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency in Tel Aviv and Israel’s Keshet mass media company in Los Angeles.

A major event in bridging the 8,000 miles between Hollywood and Tel Aviv was a visit by Israel’s then-president, elder statesman Shimon Peres, to the DreamWorks studio in 2012, where Peres addressed 1,000 Hollywood executives and actors.

Like all of his predecessors, Siegel has been fascinated by the vibrancy and diversity of Los Angeles and its Jewish community, despite the latter’s occasional fractious infighting.

Siegel takes considerable pride that the Israeli consulate has frequently served as a kind of neutral ground, bringing together rabbis of different denominations and organizational heads who, at least, can all join together in their support of Israel.

Born in Burlington, Vt., and the son of a rabbi who was a founder of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, Siegel was educated in a Chabad school and in an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel, and later taught at a Reform school. His background enables Siegel to comfortably move among the denominations, and he was able to pull together a task force of rabbis who otherwise rarely interact.

Another of his priorities has been to facilitate trips to Israel by present and future leaders, Jewish and gentile, among them some 7,000 college students. 

Nothing, Siegel said, is more important for Americans, who may know Israel only through newspaper headlines or brief TV news segments, than to see the Jewish state “with their own eyes, in order to understand the complexity and gravity” of the Middle East situation.

“Israel, now a country of close to 9 million people, with 7 million of them Jews, is the culmination of 4,000 years of Jewish history, and we need to show what we have achieved in two generations, especially in one of the most difficult regions in the world,” he said.

While David Siegel has warm words for Los Angeles, his wife, Myra, strikes a positively exuberant note.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we came here,” she said. “The warmth, the commitment, the can-do attitude of the people from every walk of life are beyond everything I have ever seen,” she said. “It has been an enormous privilege to represent Israel here and to meet so many amazing people.”

Quite amazing, too, were Myra Siegel’s commitments during her stay. She continued working full time at her job with the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, while also assuming the social responsibilities of a diplomat’s spouse and shepherding three kids, currently ages 9, 13 and 16, through three separate Jewish day schools.

Asked what aspect of his job has been most frustrating, the consul general first maintained a diplomatic silence, then allowed that the American media, with their emphasis on crises and occasional violence in Israel, rather than on the country’s many accomplishments, can be tremendously frustrating.

He followed up with a shrug, “That’s the nature of the media.” 

The Siegel family arrived in L.A. in September 2011 as the 2012 United States presidential election was beginning to crank up, and they are leaving just as the 2016 election promises a full display of fireworks.

Asked for a comment on the ongoing political campaign and candidates, Siegel raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “God forbid,” adding “Israel must stay above the fray and must never be seen as a partisan.”

Siegel said he was surprised by how many young men and women from the L.A. region are volunteering to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and he helped launch an organization to support the so-called “lone soldiers” while in Israel, as well as to provide moral encouragement to their parents and grandparents back home.

Upon his arrival, Siegel also inherited the long-festering problem of anti-Israel agitation and hostility on college campuses, especially, in his early days, at the Irvine campus of the University of California.

Over the past five years, the situation on the UC campuses has improved considerably, with visits to Israel by UC chancellors to meet their Israeli counterparts, and UC Irvine has now signed 12 agreements for joint research projects with Israeli universities in agriculture, water conservation and stem cell research.

Siegel and his family will return to Israel at the end of July, but before doing so, they are first embarking on the traditional round of farewell parties, with 15 scheduled so far.

In May, the first of these took place at the Skirball Cultural Center at a celebration marking Israel’s Independence Day, where Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a string of public officials heaped praise on Siegel, citing his impact on L.A.’s general populace as well as its Jewish communities.

Other farewells are being hosted at L.A. City Hall as well as by a group of Hollywood friends, AIPAC and by San Diego’s Jewish community, among others.

Asked about future plans, Siegel said he is “looking at various possibilities,” but whatever he does, he said, will be in line with his commitment to Israel.

Sam Grundwerg, a native of Miami Beach, Fla., will succeed him in August. Coincidence or not, the two are the first American-born envoys to serve as Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles.

In addition, Israel’s current ambassador in Washington is Ron Dermer, who was born in Miami, and the two have been friends since their childhood days in Miami Beach.

Asked what advice Siegel might pass on to his successor, he mentioned the importance of the continuing fight against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. He also urged creation of a long-range program to engage the energy and idealism of the millennial generation in the Diaspora. Noting that some 30,000 civic organizations currently exist in Israel, including some focused on Jewish-Arab ties, Siegel said a ready connection is available for any overseas volunteers or immigrants interested in strengthening and improving Israeli society.

Netanyahu rejects ‘expressions of panic’ over missile defense aid

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Cornel West: Democratic party beholden to AIPAC

Addressing the issue of settlements in the Democratic Party’s platform or calling Israel’s presence in the West Bank as “occupation” would only undermine the “common objective” of reaching a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Hillary Clinton’s representatives on the platform drafting committee said on Thursday.

“I would not support and would, in fact, oppose, the use of the word ‘occupation’ for the very reason that it undermines our common objective – your objective, my objective, and more importantly the objective of Secretary Clinton, of President Obama, of the Democratic Party – to achieve a negotiated two-state outcome,” Robert Wexler, a former Congressman and president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told Dr. Cornel West during a hearing of the Democratic platform drafting committee. “A negotiated two-state outcome will result in an agreement on borders. And one you have borders, the issue that propels your concern regarding what you refer to as ‘occupation’ will be resolved. We have to consistently keep with behavior that promotes and encourages a two-state outcome. That should be the focus of the Democratic platform.”

Wexler also clashed with James Zogby, a pro-Palestinian activist and a Democratic Party insider, over the issue of settlements. “It has been recognized by every U.S. administration that there is an occupation,” Zogby stressed. “Would you not feel that it is more important to include the word ‘occupation’ which our president, this current president has mentioned and every previous president has mentioned, as a way simply of clarifying that to get to two states an occupation has to end.”

Wexler admitted that the Democratic platform’s position on settlements shouldn’t be more or less than the position held by all presidents going back to Johnson. However, by focusing just on settlements, “you undermine the whole equation that supports a negotiated two-state outcome.”

According to Wexler, just like nobody has suggested that the platform should include a solution to the issues of Jerusalem, refugees and security, the party should not litigate the issue of settlement. Instead, he suggested, the platform should outline a blueprint “to bring the two sides to a conclusion where our shared objectives are met – the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic state of Israel.”

Former Congressman Howard Berman, appointed by Hillary Clinton as a member of the drafting committee, echoed the same sentiments. “I could come up with a list – if we want this platform to get into it – of issues like incitement, the failure of the Palestinian Authority leadership to say yes, or yes but, to rewarding the families of [terrorists]. I could go through all of this,” he said. “I don’t want that to be what this platform does.”

“Our differences are really with the Republican Party in how we prosecute peace, not war, in the Middle East,” added Wendy Sherman, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. “We are all in agreement that there needs to be a two-state solution… And getting there is really something that should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.”

During the hearing, Dr. West said, “For too long the Democratic Party has been beholden to AIPAC” and “for so long the U.S. has been so biased toward Israeli security.” He also questioned whether the Democratic Party would respond in the same way if there was “a Palestinian occupation of our precious Jewish brothers and sisters.”

“I support the BDS, not because I think it’s anti-Semitic,” he added. “We have got to fight anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish hatred – it goes hand in hand with every Christian civilization and many Islamic civilizations. It’s wrong, it’s unjust – but that cannot be the excuse of in any way downplaying the unbelievable misery that we see in Gaza, in the West Bank and other places.”

Ted Cruz in, Bernie Sanders out on senators’ letter urging more ‘robust’ defense package for Israel

An AIPAC-backed letter to President Barack Obama urging a more “robust” defense package for Israel reportedly has garnered the signatures of 83 senators, including Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz but not Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Reuters reported Monday that 51 Republicans and 32 Democrats, more than four-fifths of the Senate, had signed on to the document.

The letter, initiated by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., was one of the lobbying day requests during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference last month.

Reuters said Cruz, of Texas, had signed and Sanders, an Independent of Vermont, did not. Sanders is the first Jewish candidate to win major party nominating contests.

Israel and the United States are negotiating a 10-year defense assistance package, or Memorandum of Understanding, to follow the package set to expire next year that guarantees $3 billion annually. The new agreement is widely expected to be significantly larger.

AIPAC praised the letter.

“We applaud this statement from the Senate of overwhelming bipartisan support for a robust, new Memorandum of Understanding with Israel that increases aid while retaining the current terms of the existing program,” the prominent Israel lobby’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, said in a statement.

The letter does not specify an amount to increase the overall defense assistance package, but notes that Congress is already considering increasing the nearly $500 million annually it budgets for missile defense cooperation, which until now has been considered separately from the defense package.

It cites a series of what it depicts as enhanced threats in the region, including a missile buildup by Hezbollah in Lebanon; Syria becoming a battleground for an array of forces hostile to Israel, including Iran and militant Sunni Islamist groups, and an increase in terrorism in the Sinai.

The letter also notes what it says is the influx of weapons into the region and the possibility that Iran will abrogate the recent nuclear deal and seek nuclear weapons.

“The nature and breadth of the current threats mean that the United States must enhance its investment in the long-term security requirements of our closest Middle East ally,” the letter said. “We urge you to conclude an agreement for a robust MOU that increases aid while retaining the current terms of our existing aid program.”

Hillary Clinton invited to speak at Golda Meir exhibition

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has landed a possible speaking role at a local New Jersey conference, which will feature a special photographic exhibition about the life of the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir after she expressed her admiration of Meir during her address at AIPAC’s annual policy conference on Monday.

Limmud FSU officials confirmed that they have invited Hillary Clinton to be an honorary speaker at its New York area conference, April 1-3, following her remarks at AIPAC.

During her speech at AIPAC, Clinton – aspiring to become the first female U.S. president – recalled, “Some of us remember a woman, Golda Meir, who led the Israeli government decades ago and wonder what’s taking us so long here in America.”

The Limmud FSU photo exhibition, “Where are all the women leaders? A tribute to Golda Meir,” will celebrate Meir as history’s only woman Mideast leader and will be followed by a special panel discussing the scarcity of women political leaders and its impact.

Limmud FSU New York is a volunteer-driven and pluralistic Jewish festival of culture, creativity.

Jeffrey Goldberg recently 

Trump at AIPAC: Is the pro-Israel lobby going astray?

I watched Donald Trump speak to AIPAC from my office, 3,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., staring at C-SPAN on my laptop while eating hummus.

So why was it that afterward, I still felt I needed a shower?

I cringe as I write this, but it wasn’t Donald who made me feel kind of yucky. It was AIPAC.

I cringe, because a big part of me has the utmost respect for the important work of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I am grateful such a lobbying group exists. Although you wouldn’t know it from watching the coverage of AIPAC’s annual convention, Jews are actually a minority in the world, even in America.

And somehow, to a degree almost as miraculous as Israel’s own creation, a small group of American Jews built an organization that can amplify the pro-Israel cause within the halls of power. Many of us take their work for granted, and even more of us pick at every misstep such a large lobbying group is bound to make.

Given AIPAC’s current size and influence, it is easy to forget the forces that were arrayed against Israel when AIPAC came into existence in 1951: far, far more powerful oil and gas interests with ties to the Arab world, a subtly anti-Semitic Harry Truman administration and State Department, knee-jerk anti-Western reactionaries, arms dealers eager to cash in on the Middle East conflict, numerous nations actively seeking to destroy Israel. Would Israel have survived without the U.S. support garnered through AIPAC’s influence? Probably. Would it have thrived? Unlikely.

And it’s not as if today’s world makes AIPAC any less necessary. Israel is powerful, but it’s hardly a superpower. Big Oil, with its deep ties to OPEC, spends more on lobbying than any other group. I can’t help but wonder if the progressives who constantly slam AIPAC feel so much better letting Saudi and Gulf State emirs have their way on Capitol Hill. In the real world, where powerful financial, political and ideological forces are arrayed against Israel and where politicians are not known for their unwavering moral stands, it’s a good thing AIPAC is good at what it does.

And that’s exactly why Monday’s speeches left me feeling unsettled, if not unclean. Precisely because AIPAC’s mission is so important, I worry that it is going astray.

The world is not privy to the serious policy work, sincere bipartisan outreach and thoughtful analysis that make up so much of AIPAC’s behind-the-scenes success.

What the world saw was one presidential candidate after another throwing red meat to the crowd.

The world heard the crowd cheer when Republican front-runner Donald Trump derided President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. The world heard the crowd applaud Sen. Ted Cruz’s empty promise to “rip this catastrophic Iran deal to shreds.” The world watched as AIPAC’s carefully built reputation for seriousness and bipartisanship was drowned by blind ovations.

You could make the case that forcing one candidate after another to pander to the crowd and make empty promises on the record was, in its way, a show of power, a signal to Israel’s opponents that Washington belongs to AIPAC.

But if that’s the strategy, it’s time to rethink the strategy.

Inside the Verizon Center, there must have been a feeling of power and unity. Outside the Verizon Center, it read differently.

Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy has energized and mobilized the very college students whom AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups say they are most worried about, wasn’t allowed to speak at all. AIPAC said its rules prohibited candidates from making video addresses, though four years ago, the same rules allowed Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to do just that. College students have a word for that: BS.

Though Clinton received enthusiastic applause, her pre-dawn (by Pacific Daylight Time) speech was a distant memory by the time Trump stepped to the podium. The pro-Israel crowd spent prime time cheering the most hard-line and partisan pronouncements.

As I wrote last week, the fact that AIPAC gave Trump a platform without clearly condemning his attacks against Muslims and Mexicans, and his calls to violence only weakened the organization’s own standing among the minorities, moderates and liberals whose support Israel will certainly need in the future. Only Clinton and GOP candidate John Kasich alluded to the low road Trump has taken. Before the speech, AIPAC remained mum.

Its defenders argued that AIPAC is solely a pro-Israel advocacy group, and it shouldn’t be expected to weigh in on anything that doesn’t have to do with defending Israel.

But as I watched Trump speak to frequent ovations, I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t more American Jews like me, who don’t believe you have to check in your Jewish ethics to support a Jewish state.

On Tuesday, AIPAC leaders apparently woke up to the fact that Trump had put his foot in their mouths.  The organization's president, Lillian Pinkus, issued a statement  condemning Trump’s anti-Obama remarks and the (thousands of) audience members who applauded them.

“We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone,” Pinkus wrote.

Of course by then, the cameras were off. And the damage was done.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Getting the story at AIPAC: The forgotten 56 million

So much of life depends on who you bump into. I bumped into a lot of people at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, a gathering of 18,000 highly caffeinated Jews in Washington, D.C., where the sport of choice is the handing out of business cards within 15 seconds of meeting someone, and the subjects of choice are politics, Israel and, this year, Donald Trump.

So, after two days of intense schmoozing about these hot issues, I was glad to bump into an old acquaintance, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who had a whole other issue on her mind. I bumped into her while meeting with local PR impresario Steve Rabinowitz in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel, one of several hotels near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center, the two giant venues where the main activities took place.

I knew Mizrahi from her days as head of The Israel Project, and I knew she had started a nonprofit venture, RespectAbility, to help people who have disabilities. So, just like that, my AIPAC journey took an unexpected turn, and I ended up spending a good hour immersed in something hardly anyone is talking about during this election season: People with disabilities, and, more specifically, the millions of working-age Americans with disabilities who would love nothing more than to find work and become productive citizens.

Mizrahi is saddened that while the media have been so focused on Trump mania, and the candidates so focused on the usual hot-ticket items such as the economy, national security and immigration, the issue closest to her heart has been virtually forgotten.

“We’re spending so much time obsessing over Donald Trump,” she told me, “but we’re forgetting about things that can really improve people’s lives. The issue of dealing with people with disabilities and helping millions of them find work should be part of every stump speech.”

Considering the scope of the problem, it’s disappointing that it isn’t.

Mizrahi quoted data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that shows 1 in 5 Americans — that’s 56 million Americans — has some form of disability. Of those, about 22 million are working age (18 to 64), but only 34 percent are employed, some only part time and many others earning sub-par wages.

“Every year,” she said, “300,000 young people with disabilities enter the workforce, and most of them end up living on their parents’ couch and living on $14,000 a year in federal benefits. If we can do a better job of integrating them into the workforce, we won’t just save their dignity, we’ll save a lot of tax money.”

To put the issue on the national radar, RespectAbility has asked all of the presidential candidates to complete a questionnaire to help people with disabilities know where candidates stand on the issues.

To give you a sense of the thoroughness of the questionnaire, here’s the first of 16 question areas:

“Do you have a clear and transparent process for making decisions on disability issues? For example, how do you know/learn about disability issues and make decisions on the many policies that impact the one in five of Americans who have a disability? Have you studied the issues? Do you have a disability or a family member with a disability? Have you done meetings with disability leaders or citizens with disabilities? Do you have a disability advisor and/or advisory committee?”

So far, of the presidential candidates still in the running, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have completed the questionnaire, while John Kasich (who Mizrahi lauded for his work in this area as governor of Ohio) filled out parts of it, and the campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have yet to submit their answers (details are on therespectabilityreport.com).

For Mizrahi, what’s even more important than their responses to the questionnaire is whether candidates make the issue part of their stump speeches, something no candidate has done. “That’s the true test of how seriously they take the issue,” she said.

It’s also a test of a candidate’s heart: Will you care for people in need even if they don’t carry a lot of political clout? Will you care for an issue that rarely makes it to the front pages or the evening news? And if you’re in the media business, will you feature an issue that will get significantly lower ratings than the latest Trump explosion?

That’s the advantage of going to conferences. All too often, it’s not the stuff happening on the main stage that moves the heart. It’s the stuff on the side, the issues you bump into when you meet someone with fire in her heart.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Joe Biden to AIPAC: Israeli, Palestinian apathy ‘incredibly disappointing’

Israelis and Palestinians must revive their will for peace, Vice President Joe Biden told AIPAC in a speech that earned thunderous applause for emotional expressions of affection for Israel and scattered boos for criticism of settlements.

Biden’s speech Sunday night to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference will be his last as a public official to the Israel lobby, and the cheers he earned throughout reflect his status as the Obama administration official most loved by the pro-Israel community.

“There is a lack of political will among Israelis and Palestinians to move forward,” Biden said he concluded from his talks with both sides during his trip to Israel earlier this month. “And that’s incredibly disappointing.”

U.S.-brokered talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down on June 14, just months before war erupted between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

In describing the conditions behind the loss of will for peacemaking, Biden emphasized repeatedly the need for Palestinians and others in the Arab world to end incitement.

“No matter what the disagreements the Palestinian people may have with Israel, there is no excuse for killing innocents or remaining silent in the face of terrorism,” Biden said at the Verizon Center, a Washington, D.C., sports arena being used for the first time by AIPAC to accommodate the record-breaking 18,000 activists in attendance.

He said he delivered that message to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, earning the conference’s first standing ovation.

“The terrorism has to stop, the incitement … it must stop,” said Biden, who at 73 jogged onto the stage, but whose voice was hoarse.

A good portion of his speech was devoted to condemning terrorism and incitement, and to warning the Palestinians not to seek statehood unilaterally. But Biden also said Israel also should refrain from acts that would scuttle a peace plan.

He cited “steady and systematic” settlement expansion and the sanctioning of illegal settlement outposts under the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The remarks earned Biden a scattering of boos from across the cavernous hall.

Biden tied anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, to the “seemingly organized” effort to delegitimize Israel, condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the country to the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

“No nation is immune from criticism, but it should not be singled out,” he said.

Biden defended last year’s nuclear accord between Iran and six major powers that was bitterly opposed by AIPAC and the Netanyahu government.

“I hope you are as happy as I am that they [Iran] are further and further away from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said of the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal.

Biden stridently defended President Barack Obama’s Israel record.

“Israel is stronger and more secure today because of the Obama and Biden administration, period,” he said, alluding to the tensions that have beset the relationship with the president, the lobby and Netanyahu. “Not despite it, but because of it.”

Of the current round of talks between Israel and the United States over expanding defense assistance for Israel, he said, “Israel may not get everything it asks for, but it will get everything it needs.”

Biden told of meeting Golda Meir in 1973, a story he has repeated often to explain the visceral attachment he feels to the Jewish state. But he added a more recent experience — of finding out that his wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren were dining just half a mile away from a stabbing spree in Tel Aviv earlier this month that killed an American tourist.

“It’s not imagined, it’s real,” he said of the anxieties Israelis feel. Biden said people asked him why he brought his grandchildren to Israel, considering the risks, and he said for the same reason he brought them to Dachau to understand the Holocaust.

“They need to know what happened, why Israel is so essential,” he said, choking up for a moment. “Israel is a place that creeps into your soul.”

The vice president has visited the country many times since his first trip in 1973, when he was a freshman Democratic senator from Delaware.

The AIPAC conference will host four out of five of the presidential contenders, including Donald Trump. Biden took a veiled shot at the real estate magnate and Republican presidential front-runner, alluding to Trump’s call to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and his broadsides against Muslims.

“Any action that marginalizes a religious group imperils us all,” he said. “The future belongs to the bridge builders, not the wall builders.” The hall erupted into cheers.

Earlier, six Christian and Jewish clergy warned activists not to disrupt any speaker during the conference. A number of activists, including leading rabbis, have plans to walk out or otherwise show displeasure with Trump.

Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, alluded to the anxiety that Trump’s rhetoric has sowed throughout much of the Jewish community.

“At a time when American politics can be divisive, when it is easy to be consumed by rhetoric that divide us, we are united,” Kohr said. Israelis and Americans, he said, are “two peoples who embrace tolerance and inclusion of all nations, all religions and people from all walks of life.”

AIPAC turns Trump into politician

How powerful is AIPAC? It did what no one else in America has come close to doing: It tamed the wild verbal beast of Trump. For nearly thirty minutes Monday night in front of close to 18,000 raving Israel fans at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., the Donald showed that he, too, can play politician – he read from a prepared speech. Sure, there was the odd ad lib, but compared to his usual rambunctious rambling, his performance Monday night was worthy of a High Holiday sermon delivered by a meticulous rabbi.

It was a speech perfectly crafted for the audience. A speech, in other words, full of red meat for Israel lovers deeply worried about the security of the Jewish state. He threw it all in – crushing Iran, pressuring the Palestinians, moving the embassy, taking on the UN, if it was good for Israel, he said it. There was a rumor in the press gallery that the Trumpster got smart and hired a decent speechwriter. Well, maybe the next Trump-related media obsession will be: Who was the mystery speechwriter?

After hearing for days that people were planning to protest his speech by booing or walking out, unless I missed something from the press row, I saw none of that. Of course, when you have thousands of people listening to what they want to hear, and cheering accordingly, good luck trying to get your high-minded boos in. It reminds me of when rabid Lakers fans were cheering wildly for Kobe Bryant while he was on trial for attempted rape. Being accused of a sexual crime is as bad as it gets, but hey, business is business: Lakers fans want their team to win!

Israel fans want Israel to win, too. I'm sure the great majority of people at the Verizon Center are repulsed by Trump's deeply offensive and unacceptable comments regarding Muslims, women, Mexicans and all the others he has offended during his wild ride to the top of the Republican nomination. I'm sure they realize that this behavior violates the profound Jewish values they cherish.

But at an AIPAC event, you see first hand that Israel trumps everything – even Trump, even Jewish values, even people planning to boo.

Clearly, Trump's speechwriter figured that out.

When the Donald said at the beginning of his speech, “I'm not going to pander because that's what politicians do,” he was the consummate politician. 

He lied, or he exaggerated. You never know with politicians.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Trump to AIPAC: ‘I love the people in this room. I love Israel.’

Some people sat silently. A small group walked out silently. And most stood and applauded as Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump took the stage on the evening of March 21 at a packed Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., one of two venues for this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference.

Rare for Trump, he had prepared his speech in advance and even used teleprompters in an attempt to stay measured and allay some of Israel supporters’ biggest concerns — that he’s not knowledgeable about or interested in foreign policy and, most worrisome, that he will be “neutral” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he said in February at a town hall and repeated at a subsequent debate. Trump said before the speech that his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was one of the people who helped him write it.

“I didn’t come to you tonight to pander about Israel,” Trump said near the beginning of his address. “That’s what politicians do.” 

He went on to enumerate a list of concerns about the Barack Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with the Iranian government, explaining how the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles could eventually put the United States within striking distance.

And he reassured the crowd that he has “studied this issue in great detail.”

“I would say, actually, greater by far than everybody else,” Trump boasted, prompting many in the crowd to laugh. “Believe me!”

The conference, which AIPAC officials said drew a record 18,000 attendees, many of whom were from Los Angeles, including delegations of 250 from Sinai Temple, 150 from Valley Beth Shalom and 93 from Beth Jacob Congregation. It was AIPAC’s first policy conference since the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran was approved by the U.S. Senate in September, dealing a major blow to AIPAC, which had attempted unsuccessfully to derail the deal in the Senate. The annual conference began March 20 and ended March 22, and took place at the Verizon Center and the nearby Walter E. Washington Convention Center, a sign of the Policy Conference’s remarkable year-to-year growth.

Although AIPAC’s role as a presidential campaign stop overshadowed the rest of the conference, Iran and fear of Islamist terrorism certainly were not absent from its agenda.

The Iranian nuclear deal and ISIS’ global terror reach were topics of several breakout sessions. “Stop a Nuclear Capable Iran” was one of four items on AIPAC’s lobbying agenda when members went to Capitol Hill on March 22; and AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr said in his address on the evening of March 20 at the Verizon Center, “We have every reason to be proud of our work, to have fought the right fight, and to raise the concerns that continue to this day.”

On the morning of March 21, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton was the first of the presidential candidates to address the conference. She was received very well, particularly considering she had supported the Iran deal and, in 2012, arranged secret meetings with Iranian diplomats. She hammered Trump without explicitly naming him, saying, “We need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable.” Clinton used the word “neutral” or “neutrality” six times during her address, and exclaimed, to loud applause, and in clear reference to Trump: “If you see bigotry, oppose it. If you see violence, condemn it. If you see a bully, stand up to him.”

One of Clinton’s biggest applause lines came when she called out Palestinian leadership, not just Hamas but also Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for inciting violence — something that supporters of Israel want Obama and the State Department to do more forcefully. “Palestinian leaders need to stop inciting violence, stop celebrating terrorists as martyrs and stop paying rewards to their families!” she said to a cheering crowd.

Despite a blockbuster lineup of speeches by Clinton and Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich, seemingly nothing at this year’s conference could have overshadowed Trump’s appearance, which came amid an improbably successful campaign that has seen him denigrate and insult Mexican immigrants, Muslims, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and nearly every one of his opponents in the Republican primary. He has called for violence against people who disrupt his rallies and offered up grandiose, often-changing policy positions, including plans to deport all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, levy a 45 percent tariff on imported Chinese goods, temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the U.S. and make the Mexican government pay the U.S. government to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

Trump’s position on Israel has been nearly as big an open question as his other core positions. He often cites his role, to the dismay and amusement of some Israel supporters, as the grand marshal in the 2004 Salute to Israel Parade in New York City as proof that he loves Israel. During his speech March 21, he added to that talking point when he said assuming that role in 2004 was dangerous.

“It was a very dangerous time for Israel and frankly for anyone supporting Israel,” Trump said. “Many people turned down this honor. I did not. I took the risk, and I’m glad I did.” 

But his comments in a February town hall that he would be a “neutral guy” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have raised questions as to how much a friend of Israel he would be if elected.

He has made attempts to ease those concerns, with little success, such as by saying at a recent Republican debate that the only way to get a good peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians is by making the Palestinians think he’s neutral. “I think making a deal would be in Israel’s interests,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview on March 20. “I’ll tell you what, I don’t know one Jewish person that doesn’t want to have a deal, a good deal, a proper deal, but a really good deal.”

And just a few hours before his speech at AIPAC, Trump told reporters Israel should pay back the U.S. government for its defense aid, which amounts to billions of dollars a year. His answer came in response to a question about whether his stated policy to make U.S. allies pay back military aid would include Israel — as he has called for South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia to do.

“I think Israel will do that also, yeah, I think Israel do — there are many countries that can pay, and they can pay big league,” Trump said.

At AIPAC, Trump ended his speech by indirectly addressing concerns about his previous “neutral” comment, saying the Palestinians “must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States [and Israel] is unbreakable.”

He also said he wants to see a peace deal, but only one Israel wants, and not one imposed upon the Jewish state by foreign powers — a position he surely knew is popular among AIPAC attendees.

“It’s really the parties that must negotiate a resolution themselves,” Trump said, to cheers. “The United States can be useful as a facilitator at negotiations, but no one should be telling Israel that it must abide by some agreement made by others thousands of miles away.”

Trump, like Kasich and Cruz, also said that as president he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. And one of Trump’s bigger applause lines came when he exclaimed, “Yay!” and smiled, after saying, “With President Obama in his final year … ” 

On March 22, AIPAC condemned that line and also Trump’s comment that Obama “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me.” AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus took the stage at the conference’s final general session to say, “We do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied at the president of the United States of America from our stage.”

Flanked by CEO Howard Kohr and two other AIPAC leaders, she even criticized those in the crowd who applauded Trump’s criticism of Obama, which certainly sounded like a majority. “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that, we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus said. “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.”

Cruz, the day’s final speaker, directly followed Trump, and opened his speech with an emotional, “God bless AIPAC!” then immediately proceeded to attack the Republican front-runner. “Let me say at the outset, perhaps to the surprise of the previous speaker, Palestine has not existed since 1948,” Cruz said, referring to the two times Trump referred to “Israel and Palestine,” instead of “Israel and the Palestinians.”

The Texas senator, who is Trump’s main competitor, covered some of the leading issues on AIPAC members’ minds, including the Iran deal (which he said, as he has before, he will “rip to shreds” on his first day in office), the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (university administrations who endorse it should lose federal funding, Cruz said) and the U.S. embassy. He ended his speech by saying “Am Israel Chai!” to a standing ovation.

The prior evening, Vice President Joe Biden addressed a crowd largely dubious of the White House’s commitment to Israel’s security and Obama’s commitment to good relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden drew mostly applause from the crowd, particularly for his strong condemnation of Palestinian Authority leader Abbas for failing to condemn the recent wave of Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis. Biden also said “there is no political will” among Israelis or Palestinians to pursue any sort of peace deal at the moment.

However, he also drew some boos and jeers along with the cheers, despite AIPAC’s annual plea for respect toward all speakers, when he praised the Iran deal and criticized Netanyahu’s settlement policy.

“Israel’s government’s steady and systematic process of expanding settlements, legalizing outposts, seizing land, is eroding, in my view, the prospect of a two-state solution,” Biden told the crowd, which included Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. “Bibi thinks it can be accommodated, and I believe he believes it. I don’t.”

On March 21, at the day’s final session, Netanyahu gave a live video address to AIPAC from Israel, in which he responded to Biden’s charge that Israel doesn’t have the political will for a peace deal. Netanyahu told the crowd he will negotiate with Abbas without preconditions. “There is political will here in Jerusalem,” the prime minister said. “There’s no political will there in Ramallah.” 

Since March 11, when AIPAC confirmed Trump as a speaker, the Republican front-runner’s appearance had been not only highly anticipated, but also condemned, in particular by a group that called itself “Come Together Against Hate” (a play off “Come Together,” AIPAC’s theme for this year’s conference). The group organized a silent walkout during Trump’s appearance, as well as a protest outside the Verizon Center. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Reform movement’s umbrella organization, also announced soon after AIPAC confirmed Trump that it would stage a silent walkout before he took the stage, and would study Torah in the lobby and watch Trump’s speech on television screens in the arena’s corridor.

“I am very curious to know what he will say about Israel,” URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said in an interview the day before Trump’s appearance. “But before he starts talking about Israel, we have months and months of his hateful speech about Muslims, about immigrants, about women and people with disabilities, and, frankly, he’s accountable for all of that.”

AIPAC, though, made media coverage of any walkouts during Trump’s appearance difficult.Reporters inside the Verizon Center were forbidden from interviewing attendees, and reporters could leave the media area only if accompanied by a conference staffer. As of the Journal’s press time, AIPAC’s media team did not respond to a question from the Journal about the severity of the restrictions placed on the media at this year’s conference, which were stricter than at past policy conferences, which have always included barring media from most breakout sessions.

By all available accounts, though, it seems the anticipation in advance of the walkouts was far greater than their actual impact. Only a small handful of audience members could be seen walking out as Trump approached the stage, although Jacobs, Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and some other people tweeted photos of themselves learning Torah and watching Trump’s speech from the corridor, as promised. Just after Trump’s address, Jacobs released a short statement that said Trump addressing the U.S.-Israel relationship was “important,” but that it “seems that he does not share our values of equality, pluralism, and humility.”

“We were disappointed but not surprised that Mr. Trump did nothing tonight to allay our deep concerns about his campaign,” Jacobs said.

As happens every year at AIPAC, journalists and observers tried to draw conclusions from the level of audience applause for each speaker and each major point in every speech. This year, that endeavor seemed particularly difficult. There were few boos for any of the four presidential candidates, and each received raucous applause at various points — some during the introduction, some at the end, and all during portions of their speeches designed to address key sticking points for many AIPAC members, such as when Clinton said, “One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House” — an implicit but clear acknowledgement of the cool relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. 

Perhaps telling, or maybe not, the audience’s applause for Trump’s “Yay!” comment about Obama’s term expiring sounded louder than the loudest applauses for Clinton, maybe indicating how ready the conference’s attendees — who are divided between Democrats and Republicans — are for a new president who might have warmer relations with Israel’s current government.

AIPAC’s conference has taken on a larger-than-life feel in recent years, particularly since 2009, when Netanyahu began appearing in person. The combination of the prime minister’s uneasy relationship with Obama, the crumbling of peace negotiations with Abbas, the spread of Islamist terrorism, the threat of an Iranian nuclear program, the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, and the conference’s location near Capitol Hill has made the annual event a spectacle in both the Jewish and mainstream media, as evidenced by the fact that the major cable news networks televised the speeches of all four presidential candidates.

This year, the candidates’ addresses came just before another set of primaries, in which voters from both parties in Arizona and Utah — and Democrats in the Idaho caucus — were preparing to either push Trump and Clinton closer to their nomination or give hope to their challengers, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who declined AIPAC’s invitation to speak, and then was turned down by the group when he offered to speak remotely from the campaign trail. 

The absence of Sanders, too, put AIPAC at the center of an increasingly obvious split within the Democratic Party between younger, more liberal voters who overwhelmingly support Sanders and tend to sympathize with the Palestinians, and older, more traditional pro-Israel Democrats who support Clinton. And in what could have been a shot at Sanders, Obama, Trump or all three, Clinton said in her speech, “Candidates for president who think the United States can outsource Middle East security to dictators, or that America no longer has vital national interests at stake in this region are dangerously wrong” — a possible critique of Sanders’ statement in January that Iranian troops could help defeat ISIS and that America should try to normalize diplomatic relations with the Iranian government.

The most obvious point to come out of the conference is this: The strength of America’s pro-Israel voice is undiminished. The AIPAC 2017 Policy Conference is already scheduled for March 26-28, and anyone who thought the group’s loss on the Iran nuclear deal might stem the Jewish and pro-Israel community’s excitement for this year’s conference, just had to witness the 18,000 people in a packed convention center and sports arena put that idea to rest.

Hillary Clinton to AIPAC: Donald Trump’s foreign policy ‘dangerously wrong’

Hillary Clinton derided Donald Trump as a feckless negotiator and told AIPAC that “walking away” from the Middle East was not an option for the United States, a broadside against the Republican front-runner that signaled her general election strategy.

“We need steady hands, not a president who says he is neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday,” the former secretary of state and front-runner for the Democratic presidential nod said Monday addressing the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security and survival,” Clinton said, to repeated cheers and applause. “Some things aren’t negotiable and anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business in being our president.”

Trump, a real estate magnate, has staked much of his candidacy on his skills as a negotiator, and has made that the centerpiece of his pledge to seek Israeli-Palestinian peace. He also has said he would be neutral when brokering peace.

Clinton’s speech, running more than 30 minutes, made clear she would cast her experience, as chief diplomat, senator from New York and first lady, against Trump’s bid to stake his claim to the presidency based on his success as a businessman.

Clinton’s campaign has in recent days pivoted toward a strategy of challenging Trump’s self-presentation, as the candidates have emerged as their party’s likely candidates in the general election.

Clinton also took aim at calls to decrease American involvement in the region. “Candidates for president who thinks the United States of America can outsource Israel’s security to dictators or that America no longer has vital interests in this region are dangerously wrong,” she said.

Two of the Republican candidates, Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as well as Clinton’s Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have called for a decreased American profile in the region and greater reliance on regional armies.

Clinton listed Trump’s more controversial calls, including a ban on Muslim entry into the United States and the violence he has at times encouraged at his rallies.

“Tonight, you will get a glimpse of a potential U.S. foreign policy that would insult our allies, not engage with them and embolden our adversaries, not defeat them,” she said, referring to Trump’s AIPAC speech scheduled for Monday night.

She recalled the U.S. failure to take in Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied Europe and noted the forthcoming Purim holiday, when Esther risked her life to speak up against oppression of Jews.

“If you see bigotry oppose it if you see violence condemn it, if you see a bully stand up to him,” she said to a standing ovation. “Let us never be neutral or silent in the face of bigotry.”

Sanders declines AIPAC invitation

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Friday declined an invitation to speak at AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., next week, citing a scheduling conflict. 

In a letter to Bob Cohen, AIPAC’s president, Sanders said his campaign schedule next week will prevent him from attending the largest pro-Israel annual gathering. 

“I would very much have enjoyed speaking at the AIPAC conference,” Sanders wrote. “Obviously, issues impacting Israel and the Middle East are of the utmost importance to me, to our country and to the world. Unfortunately, I am going to be traveling throughout the West and the campaign schedule that we have prevents me from attending.”

“Since AIPAC has chosen not to permit candidates to address the conference remotely, the best that I can do is to send you a copy of the remarks that I would have given if I was able to attend.”

AIPAC extended invitations to all of the current presidential candidates. “Our Policy Conference is also likely to be one of the few venues that these candidates will have to speak to a bipartisan audience between now and Election Day,” AIPAC said in a statement. “We are delighted for AIPAC to serve as the venue for presidential candidates to share their perspectives, and we look forward to welcoming them.”

Hillary Clinton is expected to address AIPAC during the Monday morning session, while Republican candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich will speak in the evening. 

Sanders is the only candidate who expects his remarks to be distributed or somehow be read aloud to the 18,000 attendees.

Netanyahu cancels DC trip, AIPAC appearance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled initial plans to travel to Washington, D.C., for AIPAC’s Police Conference later this month, Channel 10 reported on Monday.

According to the Channel 10′s Moav Vardi, Netanyahu was not able to arrange a meeting with President Barack Obama ahead of his upcoming trip to Cuba on March 21 and 22.

The 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference is scheduled for March 20-22. Last month, Israel Hayom reportedthat the Israeli Prime Minister was going to speak at the annual gathering, as he has done the past years. 

Netanyahu and Obama were expected to meet in the Oval Office to finalize the details on a 10-year MOU between the U.S. and Israel. But outstanding disagreements over the U.S. aid package has made it difficult to arrange a meeting so close to the President’s trip to Cuba and Mexico.

Vice President Joe Biden is expected to meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday on his first trip to Israel in six years. At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said that the visit is a testament to the strong ties between the two countries. “There have been those who have already predicted the collapse of this relationship – but that is not the case,” he said. “The ties are strong at all levels, and also with regards to the challenges that we share in our region. I will, of course, discuss this with the vice president during his visit.”

Obama to visit Cuba during AIPAC’s Policy Conference

President Barack Obama may not be attending AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington D.C. in the last year of his presidency.

The White House announced on Thursday that the President will travel to Cuba to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, entrepreneurs, and “Cubans from different walks of life” on March 21 and 22.

The 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference is also scheduled for March 20-22. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit DC to address the annual gathering. 

As of now, no meeting has been scheduled between Netanyahu and Obama, Israel Hayom reported. Following the announcement of the President’s Cuba trip, it is now unclear whether the two leaders will even meet while the Israeli Prime Minister is in town. 

This will mark the second consecutive year that Netanyahu is in town for AIPAC’s conference and is not being invited to the White House. Last year, Netanyahu came to address a joint session of Congress against the President’s will. But after the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and the ongoing negotiations over an increased security package, it was expected that Netanyahu and Obama would meet in March to finalize the details on a 10-year MOU between the U.S. and Israel. Though, a meeting may still take place when the President returns from Cuba on the 22nd. 

Obama and Netanyahu last met in November. 

A week and a half before Netanyahu travels to Washington, Vice President Joe Biden will visit Israel, Netanyahu announced on Sunday.

AIPAC: Obama administration peddling ‘inaccuracies’ about lobby

AIPAC said the Obama administration is peddling inaccuracies about the pro-Israel lobby’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

AIPAC President Robert Cohen emailed the organization’s activists on Monday, linking to a New York Times article published last week about tensions arising between the lobby and the administration, and said it reflects “multiple inaccuracies stemming from claims by the administration.”

AIPAC’s facts, Cohen said “are well-substantiated and accurate.” President Barack Obama has said that opponents to the deal have peddled arguments distorting or omitting elements of the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal reached July 14 between Iran and six major powers.

An AIPAC affiliate, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, has run a TV ad addressing the substance of the deal.

“This ad does not single out the president in any way,” Cohen said. According to the Times article, Obama in a meeting last week with Jewish leaders conflated the CNFI ad with others attacking Obama personally.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee treated administration speakers who addressed about 700 activists who flew in last month to lobby against the deal “with courtesy and respect,” Cohen said. Administration officials have said that the speakers, among them top negotiators on the deal, were not permitted to take questions. AIPAC said the officials were free to use the 30 minutes allocated them as they pleased.

Cohen noted that AIPAC took no position on the Iraq War. Obama has said that some of the opponents of the Iran nuclear deal backed that conflict, but has been careful to distinguish these from those who oppose the deal out of concern for Israel. Some defenders of the deal have made the link between AIPAC and the Iraq War on social media.

Congress has until mid-to-late September to consider whether or not to reject the deal.

What if there’s no Iran nuclear deal?

If you oppose the Iran deal, you have to ask yourself one question: So then what?

Saying the deal stinks without offering an alternative is not a thoughtful position, it’s an empty slogan.

Until now, the debate has really just been a piling-on against the deal.  Supporters are against the ropes and opponents, Ronda Rousey-like, are throwing everything they have against it. And make no mistake, they have a lot.  

But as August recess begins and the countdown to the congressional vote draws closer, it is time to push deal opponents on the hard reality of their preferred alternative. What might happen if Congress is able to override the president’s veto? How will Iran react? What will our partners in this deal do? In short, what happens if you get what you want?

Case in point: AIPAC. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee plans to devote millions of dollars and much of its political capital to defeating the deal. Its website offers thousands of words dissecting every weakness in the deal.  What is AIPAC offering instead? It all boils down to three sentences. This is how AIPAC describes the world we will face the day the deal collapses:

“We strongly believe that the alternative to this bad deal is a better deal. Congress should reject this agreement, and urge the administration to work with our allies to maintain economic pressure on Iran while offering to negotiate a better deal that will truly close off all Iranian paths to a nuclear weapon. Congress should insist on a better deal.”

Let me summarize: Instead of the current deal, America will keep sanctions and negotiate a better one. That’s the plan. So, my question is, is that a good plan? And how does it compare to the current deal?

I spent a good part of my week researching this question. Here’s what I found: AIPAC’s alternative lies somewhere between unlikely and impossible.  

For one thing, it is unlikely that the United States can maintain economic pressure. Iran could agree to comply with the deal in accordance with our partners, thus isolating the United States and making it difficult for the U.S. to convince the world to re-impose sanctions. By removing its centrifuges, sealing over its plutonium reactor and allowing inspectors, Iran would trigger the unfreezing of assets, only a small portion of which is held by the United States.  We would end up with an Iran with money and no constraints.

It’s unclear at that point whether the United States could wield its enormous economic leverage to get other countries to continue sanctions. Even if, say, France went along, would Russia? Would China? Or would these countries find ways to get around sanctions, including developing their own alternative to the SWIFT banking network that Iran had been successfully excluded from?

Rep. Adam Schiff, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat from Los Angeles who announced he would support the deal this week, addressed in some detail what the deal’s opponents have thus far avoided.  

“It is only prudent to expect that if Congress rejects a deal agreed to by the Administration and much of the world,” Schiff wrote in a position paper, “the sanctions regime will — if not collapse — almost certainly erode. Even if we could miraculously keep Europe on board with sanctions, it is hard to imagine Russia, China, India or other nations starved for oil or commerce, agreeing to cut off business with Iran. The use of American financial sanctions is a powerful and coercive force, but relies upon at least the tacit acceptance of our objectives, something that would be lacking if we reject a deal agreed to by the other major powers.”  

If maintaining sanctions is not a given, what about AIPAC’s call to renegotiate “a better deal”? Back in mid-July, Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote what is still the only extended think piece on the alternative to the deal and, with varying degrees, the experts I spoke with seem to share his opinion. 

“We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can just go back to square one with negotiations,” Satloff concluded,  “or that we can keep the current sanctions regime in place as if the past two years of diplomacy never happened. We will be in a different place, much grayer than before.”

Into this murky future, let’s consider what will happen in Iran itself.    

“Iran’s pyromania-style foreign policy will only deepen, internal repression will grow, and the role of Russia and China in entrenching the crisis vis-à-vis the West will become clearer,” Iranian journalist Ahmad Rafat wrote in the Israeli paper Local Call. “It would be safe to assume that the Iranian regime will become Russia’s main ally and form a new bloc against the West and the United States.”

Opponents of this deal raise many good points. President Barack Obama would be wise, if he wants to sell it, to come up with firm proposals to mitigate the deal’s downsides.   

But let’s stop pretending that the deal’s opponents are offering a way forward that is any more certain, or any less dangerous.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

White House briefing of AIPAC activists ends in communication breakdown

Got questions about the Iran nuclear deal? Too bad, if you were an AIPAC activist at a briefing this week with top Obama administration officials.

At the briefing Wednesday, Howard Kohr, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee director, stopped his activists from asking questions. The question is why? And what does the leak of the story mean?

Did the Obama administration bigfoot AIPAC and muscle into the pro-Israel group’s lobbying session only to disingenuously complain when administration officials ran out of their allotted time? Or was AIPAC not sufficiently accommodating when administration officials asked to make their case to pro-Israel activists?

Here’s what happened, as confirmed by four people close to the top Obama officials who spoke anonymously, as well as an AIPAC spokesman, who spoke on the record.

AIPAC flew between 600 and 700 activists in this week from around the country to lobby against the sanctions-relief-for-nuclear-restrictions deal reached July 14 between the major powers and Iran.

AIPAC opposes the deal, saying it endangers Israel and U.S. interests, and wants Congress to exercise its power to kill the deal within two months – by the end of September or thereabouts.

Hence the fly-in, just before Congress’ August break.

President Barack Obama, who backs the deal, got wind of the fly-in and asked his staff to offer to give the AIPAC activists a briefing on the deal from the administration’s perspective.

It was all very last-minute, AIPAC said, but the pro-Israel lobby budgeted half an hour Wednesday morning for the officials.

At 8 a.m., the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough; the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, who led the Iran talks, and Adam Szubin, the director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions, were set to speak at a hotel to the activists.

The three gave presentations, splitting the 30 minutes between them, and then asked for questions. Kohr stepped in and said no questions.

This is where the accounts of the Obama administration officials differ from AIPAC’s version of events.

The officials said they were told there would be no questions when they scheduled the meeting, but called for them anyway, and were shut down.

AIPAC said the officials could have taken as many questions as they liked within the allotted 30 minutes, but chose not to and ran out of time.

Here’s the administration account, relayed to me by a source close to all three speakers, who asked to remain anonymous.

“The administration asked to come meet with the AIPAC members in town to talk to members of Congress, which AIPAC agreed to, but the audience was told that the administration officials would not be allowed to take audience questions,” the source said.

“White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and acting Under Secretary of Treasury Adam Szubin addressed the 600-plus AIPAC members in town this week. They were only given 30 minutes to speak where they made the case for this deal, and all three offered the audience the opportunity to ask questions given how important this topic is. But the AIPAC moderator ended the session before they could take any.”

On the other hand, AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told me the format was entirely up to the speakers – they could have launched straight into questions if they chose to.

“It is absolutely not true that administration officials were denied an opportunity to take questions and answers at our event,” Wittman told me in an email.

“At the last minute, the administration requested to address our seven hundred activists who were in Washington to lobby against the flawed Iran nuclear deal. We granted their request and afforded them thirty minutes to make their case in any way they chose. In fact, we actually suggested that they take questions from the audience. Instead, the administration sent three officials and used more than their allotted time with their remarks rather than devoting any of their time for questions.”

So who’s right? It’s hard to say. But sometimes the fact that a side, in this case, supporters of the deal, is trying to get out a story is more important than the story.

Administration officials are worried that their message is not getting through unfiltered to the Jewish community. The officials badly wanted to banter with the activists.

The frustration explains Obama’s angry tone last night when he asked liberal activists to speak more loudly than an AIPAC-affiliated group dumping millions into anti-deal TV ads.

It also explains why Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, gave a private briefing this morning to top Jewish organizational leaders.

Don’t expect the briefings to stop.

Israel’s lesson for a Latina

I’d been to Israel before as a CBS news correspondent covering Saddam Hussein lobbing Scuds into Tel Aviv. I marveled at Israel’s spirit and saw firsthand how critical America’s alliance is to Israel’s security. But my last trip was very different. 

I was part of an elite delegation of multi-faith Latino leaders, invited by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that brings influential leaders of diverse communities to visit Israel with the hope we will return and use our influence on Congress to champion strong bipartisan U.S.-Israeli relations. 

I’m Jewish by birth but did not grow up Jewish. I returned to my faith when I adopted my child and had my bat mitzvah at 50. I was hungry for more understanding, and the intensive education promised on this visit compelled me to go.

Our travels gave us such intimate windows into the hearts of many in Israel, but what stood out for me are the Israelis who transcend the politics in ways that change lives. 

One of them was the “Save a Child’s Heart” program at the Wolfson Hospital. At this most remarkable pediatric hospital, children who have heart problems come from all over to be saved with specialty surgeries at no cost to the families. Kids come from all over Africa and, most remarkably, from enemy Arab states. One child from Gaza was here with his mom, who clearly understood he would have died without Israeli intervention to care for him. As a mother myself, I reached out to this boy’s mom, who was wearing a hijab, standing by her son’s bedside. For a moment I held her hand in mine and looked into her eyes with an understanding without words between mothers. I felt her deep emotion but also the inherent paradox of having to turn to her enemy to save her son.

When I asked the lead surgeon, who runs this program and operates on these kids, how it’s possible to receive these children from enemy territories, he said it happens all the time — that he does not see the ethnicity, race, religion or politics of a child in need; he sees a beating heart in need of saving. Even the daughter of a top leader of Hamas in Gaza is also said to have been admitted into an Israeli hospital for emergency treatment. In fact, Ismail Haniyeh, one of the most senior leaders of the Islamist group in Gaza, is said to have had several family members who have sought treatment from Israeli doctors. The head of the recovery home for these kids described it best when she said, “In some ways, we are our own United Nations at work every day.”

Later, we visited the Yemin Orde Youth Village, an innovative educational and spiritual approach to restoring wholeness for children in need. It’s a home for broken and abused kids who are received from all over the world. Whatever war, abuse or breakdown that sent them here, this was not just an institutionalized facility to house damaged souls; this was a home to heal them.  The founder’s core philosophy is restoring wholeness of being. He’s made it his life’s mission. There are no throw-away children here, and this home does not turn them away at 18. All are welcome for life: They can get married here, stay on and work, return to visit with their children and remain connected if they wish, like family forever.

Our tour guide was one of those children who arrived with a huge wave of immigrants from Ethiopia as a young child. How I marveled at her story and those of millions of immigrants from more than 100 countries who’ve been received in Israel.

Since its founding, this tiny Jewish state with limited resources has absorbed millions and serves as a safe haven for Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and those still today fleeing persecution, whether from Yemen, Africa or, now, more from France and other European nations as dangerous anti-Semitism rages anew.

As a Latina American, passionate about immigration reform in our country, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by Israel’s embrace of so many who seek refuge here. It’s no panacea — there are many challenges here, I am told, especially with new arrivals from Darfur. But still, Israel has been a beacon of sanctuary for so many and, despite all its challenges, she has opened her doors. I couldn’t help but feel ashamed to have just sent back all those thousands of women and children who arrived at our own doorstep last summer, fleeing for their lives from the perils of Central America. Many never receive even the fair hearings for asylum that is our promise, and instead experience something called “rocket docket” court cases that spin mothers and children back as fast as they arrived, without a legitimate hearing to assess their claims. God knows what they returned to.

I couldn’t help but feel their plight more powerfully as a consequence of all I was seeing here. Our Latino delegation couldn’t help but see parallels in our shared challenges, not just on immigration, but on a shared understanding that Latino issues are America’s issues in much the same way Israel’s concerns must be America’s concerns.

I must be honest: When I first embarked on this educational mission, I questioned the importance of Israel being included in our national Latino agenda. We have so much that needs to be addressed regarding an alarming lack of access to education in our community, much-needed capital to grow our businesses and desperate need for leadership roles to represent our many interests. I couldn’t imagine where Israel fits into our conversation. I had to come to Israel to understand it. What I witnessed in Israel reminded me of a Mayan greeting I learned long ago during my Mayan studies: In Lak’ech Ala K’in. It’s the Maya’s living code of the heart that means, “I am you and you are me.” It’s a statement of unity and oneness. That’s how I felt each day in Israel. 

In fact, as I write this, I find myself reaching often to touch my necklace, which I had such fun haggling for in the Arab Quarter. It depicts the Old City in silver. It holds such memory and meaning for me, this place that is a light unto all nations — and is now a light that shines within me. 

Shalom and In Lak’ech Ala K’in.

For a full account of Fernandez's trip to Israel, click here.

Giselle Fernandez is a five-time Emmy Award-winning journalist, producer, filmmaker and Latin media marketing entrepreneur.

Obama, Netanyahu clash over Iran diplomacy

United States President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clashed over Iran nuclear diplomacy on Monday on the eve of Bibi’s hotly disputed address to Congress, underscoring the severity of U.S.-Israeli strains over the issue.

Even as the two leaders professed their commitment to a strong partnership and sought to play down the diplomatic row, they delivered dueling messages – Netanyahu in a speech to pro-Israeli supporters and Obama in an interview with Reuters – that hammered home their differences on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Neither gave any ground ahead of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday when he plans to detail his objections to ongoing talks between Iran and world powers that he says will inevitably allow Tehran to become a nuclear-armed state.

Netanyahu opened his high-profile visit to Washington on Monday with a stark warning to the Obama administration that the deal being negotiated with Tehran could threaten Israel’s survival, saying he had a “moral obligation” to sound the alarm about the dangers.

He insisted he meant no disrespect for Obama, with whom he has a history of testy encounters, and appreciated U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel. 

Just hours after Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC, the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobby, Obama told Reuters that Iran should commit to a verifiable freeze of at least 10 years on its most sensitive nuclear activity for a landmark atomic deal to be reached. But with negotiators facing an end-of-March deadline for a framework accord, he said the odds were still against sealing a final agreement.

The Reuters interview gave Obama a chance to try to preemptively blunt the impact of Netanyahu’s closely watched address to Congress.

Previewing his coming appearance on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu told a cheering audience at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “As prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them.”

At the same time, Netanyahu said the relationship between his country and the United States was “stronger than ever” and not in crisis.


Obama also sought to lower the temperature by describing Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress as a distraction that would not be “permanently destructive” to U.S.-Israeli ties and by saying the rift was not personal.

Obama refused to meet Netanyahu during the visit, on the grounds that doing so could be seen as interference on the cusp of Israel’s March 17 elections when the prime minister is seeking re-election against a tough center-left challenger. On Monday, the president said he would be willing to meet Netanyahu if the Israeli leader wins re-election.

But he said Netanyahu's U.S. visit gave the impression of “politicizing” the two countries’ normally close partnership and of going outside the normal channels of U.S. foreign policy in which the president holds greatest sway. Netanyahu's planned speech has driven a wedge between Israel and congressional Democrats. Forty two of them plan to boycott the address, according to The Hill, a political newspaper.

Netanyahu, who was given rousing bipartisan welcomes in his two previous addresses to Congress, is expected to press U.S. lawmakers to block a deal with Iran that he contends would endanger Israel’s existence but which Obama’s aides believe could be a signature foreign policy achievement.

The invitation to Netanyahu was orchestrated by Republican congressional leaders with the Israeli ambassador without advance word to the White House, a breach of protocol that infuriated the Obama administration and the president's fellow Democrats.

The partisan nature of this dispute has turned it into the worst rift in decades between the United States and Israel, which normally navigates carefully between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

Netanyahu wants Iran to be completely barred from enriching uranium, which puts him at odds with Obama's view that a deal should allow Tehran to engage in limited enrichment for peaceful purposes but under close international inspection.

Obama said a final deal must create a one-year “breakout period” for Iran, which means it would take at least a year for Tehran to get a nuclear weapon if it decides to develop one, thereby giving time for military action to prevent it.

Netanyahu has said such a deal would allow Iran to become a “threshold” nuclear weapons state, that it would inevitably cheat on any agreement and that the lifting of nuclear restrictions in as little of 10 years would be an untenable risk to Israel. He has hinted at the prospect for Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities as a last resort, though he made no such threat in his AIPAC speech on Monday.

U.S. ambassador to UN says U.S.-Israel relationship transcends politics

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told the main U.S. pro-Israeli lobbying group AIPAC on Monday that the U.S.-Israel relationship transcends politics “and it always will.”

Ambassador Samantha Power addressed the group shortly before a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose fierce criticism of President Barack Obama's drive to reach an Iran nuclear deal has created tensions in U.S.-Israel ties.

Senior U.S. officials have said the politics surrounding a speech by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress scheduled for Tuesday threaten to damage the U.S.-Israel relationship, one of the United States' closest alliances.

Power drew a distinction, however, between politics and U.S. policy.

“We believe firmly that Israel's security and the U.S-Israel partnership transcends politics, and it always will,” she said, adding that the United States would take whatever steps were needed to protect its allies.

She repeated Obama's frequent statement that the United States would not allow a nuclear-armed Iran. Netanyahu, and Republican U.S. politicians who control Congress, have expressed deep skepticism that the deal the Obama administration is now negotiating with Iran will stop Tehran from obtaining the bomb.