Boycott, divestment and sanctions put allies at odds

As a long-time advocate for peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am pained that frustration over failure to achieve a just and lasting peace has led allies in the struggle to end up at odds over tactics like boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

Two years ago, the organization I head, J Street, was honored with an invitation to speak at a breakfast hosted by a Presbyterian Church (USA) peacemaking group—a long-time ally in the struggle for Middle East peace. But we attended with heavy hearts.

A PCUSA committee had just offered an alarming and problematic Middle East study report referencing J Street as a source of inspiration. We explained then, and have reiterated ever since, that, in our view, the one-sided, extreme rhetoric that accompanies the Global BDS Movement makes a mutually agreeable solution more difficult to achieve, not less. Thankfully, at that time, the Church heard our arguments and rejected the divestment resolutions.

[Related: PCUSA could mean end of Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue]

Now, two years later, PCUSA is poised again to consider divestment this week at its General Assembly. As an activist, as an ally and as someone to whom the future of Israel and Palestine matters enormously, I’m hoping they will once again avoid this unproductive path.

As the Presbyterian Church knows, the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been clear for decades: the establishment of two states, living side by side in peace and security; a mutually acceptable resolution of the refugee issue; and a shared Jerusalem. For years, the PCUSA has supported a two-state solution on this basis.

I would say to the Church’s leaders as they again consider joining forces with the BDS Movement, that the Movement’s rhetoric and tactics are not only a distraction, but a genuine threat to conflict resolution. Even the limited divestment approach under consideration by PCUSA falls under the rubric of larger BDS efforts to place blame entirely on one side of the conflict. Such an approach encourages not reconciliation, but polarization. Further, too many in and around the BDS movement refuse to acknowledge either the legitimacy of Israel or the right of the Jewish people as well as the Palestinian people to a state.

Pro-peace, pro-Israel advocacy has gained traction in the American Jewish community by embracing the mutuality inherent in the two-state solution. We reject a zero-sum approach, which says that to be pro-Israel means one must be anti-Palestinian—or vice versa. We seek a win-win solution.

We want to see Israel thrive as a Jewish homeland and a democracy, and we want to see a Palestinian state established, because Palestinians deserve to live in dignity in their own state too.

Thus, the Jewish pro-peace, pro-Israel community calls for an end to settlement expansion, the promotion of human rights, securing Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy and establishing a thriving Palestine. We call for bold American and international diplomatic initiatives, starting with a push to define mutually-agreed borders.

But turning to tactics like BDS deepens divisions and fails to promote reconciliation.

I understand that frustration is rising over diplomatic stagnation, and I know that advocates for peace are attracted to tactics like BDS that create the impression of action. But, to date, pursuit of these tactics has promoted little more than debate and division—and done nothing to facilitate movement toward reconciliation.

Advocates for peace and two states are fighting an uphill and increasingly urgent battle. Just as the opportunity to achieve a two-state peace grows narrower, the debate over BDS is sapping the resources of those working for peace by creating new and deep divisions among those who should be allies working together for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

If PCUSA disregards the voices of its Jewish allies in the quest for a two-state solution and votes to support divestment, it won’t bring a just peace any closer. It will merely lose the good will of many American Jews and further dissipate the energies we so desperately need to apply to the task at hand.

At base we share a common goal: to see the establishment of a two-state resolution of the conflict. Everything we do needs to be geared toward that goal. Several American Christian organizations have made the choice to continue the fight for two states by advocating for bold American leadership in achieving a two-state solution on Capitol Hill and embracing positive steps, including economic development, programs that foster reconciliation and other constructive work, for the shared benefit of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

I call on PCUSA to do likewise—to not move away from its natural allies, but to stick with us. Reject divestment, and embrace full-on pursuit of the diplomatic efforts necessary to create genuine and lasting peace for Israel and the Palestinian people.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president of J Street, the political home of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.

Clooney to chase Nazis in new film

George Clooney is expected to star in a film about U.S. and British art experts who tracked down Nazi-looted artworks, mainly from Jewish owners.

Clooney, hot off his highly praised “The Descendants” and “The Ides of March,” has optioned the book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” by Robert Edsel, which is based on a real story, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He most likely will star in the film.

The same events were explored in the 2006 documentary, “The Rape of Europa.”

Meanwhile, after a rash of Hollywood adaptations of Israeli television hits, Paramount Studios is preparing an American version of the 2009 Israeli comedy film “A Matter of Size,” the magazine reported.

The main characters are four fat guys who turn themselves into fearsome sumo wrestlers under the tutelage of a Japanese restaurant owner in Israel. David Permut will produce and Jon Turteltaub will direct the U.S. adaptation.

The Israeli original starred Itzik Cohen and was directed by Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor.

Why Obama is better than McCain for Israel

I wouldn’t gamble with Israel’s future. Why would you?

Most arguments in favor of Sen. John McCain and his approach to Israel rest on his greater experience and knowledge. Yet, put simply, McCain is a gambler — in practice, in personality and in judgment.

No supporter of Israel should want Israel’s future placed in the hands of an unpredictable and temperamental gambler, whose actions and phrases cannot be anticipated. And why would a supporter of Israel want to place the Jewish state’s future in the hands of an inexperienced, ideological, unpredictable, unknowledgeable and barely known President Sarah Palin in the event of a tragedy that would elevate her to the presidency?

With a reputation for fiery verbal outbursts against associates at home and abroad, McCain’s fundamental approach to policy-making is based on snap decisions and quick, emotional judgments. Some examples include picking Palin in the first place, rushing back to Washington to “help” in the bailout and flip-flopping on regulation, Bush and his tax policy.

While both candidates have strong records backing Israel, there are differences. McCain benefits from having been in public life longer than Sen. Barack Obama, but his global policies are more likely to harm the Jewish state. He stresses a belligerent confrontationalism even more stark than President Bush’s, seemingly closer to Palin’s.

When McCain doesn’t approve of another country’s policies, he sees its government as an actual or potential foe, as in the case of Russia or even apparently NATO member Spain. He follows in the Bush tradition of unilateralism and an America going its own way.

He celebrates Iraq as central to the war on terror, which differs radically from the views of most of our allies. His policy on Iran is similar to the failed approach of Bush — talk loudly but without a clear policy, only drifting. Regarding Russia, McCain has been clear in his determined opposition to the Putin regime, but Israeli leaders are asking for U.S. consultations with Moscow over Iran. How can McCain’s Cold War-style Moscow policy possibly produce that kind of dialogue?

Take a look at Israel’s security today and compare it to eight years ago. Is Israel better off now than when Bush assumed office in 2001?

Eight years ago, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria were all weaker, and the Palestinians were less divided, more stable and more capable of dialogue with Israel. As well, Jordan, critical to Israel’s security, is now threatened from within and without.

Although Bush has been seemingly friendly in his attitude toward Israel, his policies, or lack thereof, have consistently eroded Israel’s defensive strength. If McCain continues to pursue these same policies that have already failed, as he claims to be prepared to do, then the situation Israel confronts will only deteriorate further.

In the Middle East — on Iraq, on Iran and on Arab-Israeli relations — McCain offers more of the same policy that has led to Bush’s repeated failures in the region. Indeed, in recent months even Bush has come close to accepting Obama’s policies on an Iraq timetable, on promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on Pakistan and Afghanistan and even on the idea of possibly talking to Iran. Lately, it seems McCain is often more Bush than Bush.

Israel’s security would be enhanced with a fresh post-Sept. 11 approach by a new leader with a better pro-Israel perspective. It is not words but actions that will make the difference for Israel.

The policy framework Obama offers has a much better likelihood of producing positive results than McCain’s. For example, on Iran, Obama would talk to lower-level officials and increase dialogue as Iran demonstrates its seriousness to make concessions. On the contrary, McCain is opposed to dealing directly with leaders in Tehran until they stop enriching uranium — the classic, unproductive Bush policy.

Both campaigns, particularly Obama’s, have been vociferous in advocating intensified sanctions against Iran and maintaining the military option on the table.

Obama envisions a regional policy that takes into account America’s competing challenges, first and foremost with the complexities of the Iraq-Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan quadrangle, yet also addresses simultaneously Israel and its neighbors, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Hezbollah. (It is worth noting that Obama has consistently said he will explore talking to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria but not to nongovernmental threats like Hamas and Hezbollah). Of course in the tough Mideast, Obama’s policy may not completely succeed, but we already know that McCain’s will definitely fail.

America’s financial crisis also strengthens the argument for Obama. As the stark events of late September have made only too clear, it is the Democrat, with a fresh, experienced and savvy team, who is far more likely to reverse the U.S. economic meltdown.

For an Israel integrally tied to America and its fortunes, a continued U.S. economic decline will only affect its military security and economic standing adversely and dangerously. The candidate who can better fix the economy must be seen as a stronger advocate of Israel than his opponent, no matter how long the latter has made friendly statements toward the Jewish state.

McCain has admitted that he sometimes makes quick and unexpected decisions and then has to live with the consequences. But one wonders why any American should want to live with these kinds of outcomes, but more importantly, why should any supporter of an embattled Israel want to risk the future of the Jewish State on a president known for the temperamental, quixotic and unpredictable whims that guide his decision making?

The Jewish state would be far better off for the next four years with the cool, careful, considered decisions of a strong supporter — Obama.

Steven L. Spiegel is Director of the Center for Middle East Development and a professor of political science at UCLA.

Why I support Barack Obama

It is highly unusual for me to be speaking out politically.

I have worked for Republican and Democratic presidents alike. I was a political appointee during the Reagan administration, serving on the National Security Council staff in the White House. I held a senior position in the

State Department during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. And, I was Bill Clinton’s Middle East peace negotiator — also a senior appointee position.

I have been largely nonpartisan, living the ideal that politics stopped at the water’s edge, and foreign policy should somehow be above politics. So why am I now speaking out and calling on others to support Sen. Barack Obama?

Put simply, because the stakes are so high. For one thing, the financial meltdown has huge implications for our place in the world. We cannot be strong internationally if we are weak at home, with an economy in crisis. Our next president must understand the global economy and financial markets — and be able to inspire confidence at home and abroad. But he must do so at a time when our standing in the world has, at least in my memory, never been lower.

While we must never rely on anyone else to do for us what we must do for ourselves in national security, there are multiple threats today that we cannot resolve without the cooperation of others. In fact, when it comes to preventing the worst weapons from falling into the worst hands or defeating apocalyptic terror groups or coping with global health challenges or stopping global warming or avoiding an international depression, we cannot do everything on our own. We need others internationally to accept our objectives and be prepared to join their means to ours.

When I was with Obama in Berlin and more than 200,000 people turned out in the heart of Europe to wave American flags, this was an extraordinary development. It reminded us that an American leader who is admired can lead not only our country but also make it easier for others to follow our lead. And, when I look at the Middle East — where we face our greatest threats today — we need others to follow our lead in stopping Iran from going nuclear and discrediting radical Islamists.

Today, we are in trouble in the Middle East. Everywhere we look — whether in the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza and the West Bank — we see Iran challenging American interests and allies. Iran uses coercion and intimidation — using groups like Hezbollah and Hamas — to weaken existing regimes and to employ terror. It is Iran that arms these groups and threatens Israel on a daily basis.

Consider what has happened to Israel’s strategic position during the course of the Bush administration. In 2001, Iran was not a nuclear power, but it is today. It could not enrich uranium then but it does so now and has already stockpiled several-hundred kilos of low-enriched uranium — about half of what it would need for its first nuclear bomb. The Bush policy on Iran has failed, and unless the next president can change Iranian behavior, Israel will face an existential threat. It already faces a dramatically different threat from what it faced seven years ago from both Hezbollah and Hamas.

Hezbollah now has a veto power over any decision the Lebanese government can make and possesses 40,000 rockets — and those rockets are not only three times as many as it had only two years ago but are more accurate and have longer range than the ones that hit Israel in the summer of 2006. Hamas has taken over Gaza, creating a miniterror state there and today has over 2,000 rockets.

Israel cannot afford four more years of seeing the threats grow against it. It cannot afford four more years of U.S. policies that are tough rhetorically but soft practically. It cannot afford four more years of America being on the sidelines diplomatically.

When I was in Israel a few weeks ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Sheikh Hamid of Qatar were all visiting Damascus, and Israelis asked me who was there watching out for Israel’s interests? Similarly, who was there to watch out for Israel’s interests when Qatar brokered the understanding that gave Hezbollah a veto over any Lebanese decision after the fighting in May? Israel can surely watch out for its own interests in the indirect negotiations that Turkey is mediating between Israel and Syria, but will Turkey be as concerned for Israel’s interests as America would be?

It should come as no surprise that when America sits on the sidelines in the Middle East, it creates a diplomatic vacuum, and others invariably fill it. Since the Bush administration would not engage Iran, the Europeans have taken the lead on the diplomacy. While their efforts have been serious and genuine, it is clear that they have not generated the pressure that America in the lead might have produced — and absent that pressure and absent the Iranians being forced to make a choice, Iran will not change its behavior.

I was with Obama in Israel and in Europe, and I saw how he focused on the urgency of the Iranian threat. I saw how he used his discussions in Israel to remind the European leaders that Israelis are justified in seeing Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat — and that for Israel’s sake and our own we must put far more pressure on Iran if we are to stop it from going nuclear.

Obama understands that weak sticks and weak carrots — the current policy — can’t work. We need strong sticks to concentrate the Iranian mind on what they stand to lose, and we need strong carrots, conveyed directly, to show the Iranians they have something to gain by giving up their nuclear weapon pursuit. And, if in the end diplomacy fails, the fact that we engaged directly and Iran was unwilling to alter its behavior creates a very different context for tougher options.

Engaging without illusions might be one way to describe how diplomacy would be conducted in an Obama administration. Just like with Iran, he would engage on Arab-Israeli peace. Not because he knows it will produce peace, but because he again understands the consequences of disengagement. Who gained when the Bush administration walked away from peace making for more than six years and then in its last years pursued it incompetently? Hamas, because like all radical Islamists, they gain when there is hopelessness and frustration. Who lost? Those in the Arab and Palestinian world who favor a two-state solution but need the possibility of peace to make their case and to have the political space to build their authority.

It is my Middle Eastern hat and my attachment to Israel that ultimately inspires my support for Obama. I saw first hand his appreciation for Israel’s predicament, its needs and his instinctive and emotional commitment to the relationship. But more than this, I know he understands that neither Israel nor America can afford four more years of Iran and the radical Islamists gaining strategic leverage in the Middle East. Slogans won’t prevent that. A fixation on Iraq won’t prevent that. But a leader who understands how to use all the elements of American power, revitalize that power and influence and get others to follow us in order to ensure we win the battle for hearts and minds will be able to do so.

In this election, it is clear to me that Obama is that leader.

Dennis Ross served as President Bill Clinton’s Middle East negotiator and President George H.W. Bush’s head of policy planning in the State Department. He gives advice to the Barack Obama presidential campaign and recently accompanied Sen. Obama on his trip to the Middle East and Europe.


Truth About France

I have been reading for quite some time now the articles published in various papers (such as the Russian weekly, Panorama) by Richard Chesnoff about France and Europe.

The recent presentation of his new book about French-American relations in The Jewish Journal confirms once again that Chesnoff unfortunately enjoys using the same clichés that have been used to discredit our longstanding relation with the United States (“Q&A With Richard Z. Chesnoff,” Sept 9).

I would like to highlight three points:

1) France and the United States have been friends for more than 230 years. France still is and remains among America’s best friends and allies as illustrated today by our exemplary cooperation in intelligence sharing to fight terrorism, by the strength of our economic relations ($1 billion each day, according to a recent study by Congress), by our common involvement in the resolution of important regional crisis (Afghanistan, Lebanon, Haiti, just to name a few recent examples) and by the solidarity shown by the French people and the French government after the Hurricane Katrina disaster;

2) France, home of the third-largest Jewish community in the world, after Israel and the United States, is not an anti-Semitic country. During his visit to Paris last July, Prime Minister Sharon thanked President Chirac “for his staunch fight against anti-Semitism” and expressed “his full and entire faith in the strengthening of the deep friendship between Israel and France.” France is indeed firmly committed to eradicate all forms of anti-Semitism and racism, wherever they arise, beginning on its own soil. This fight translates into repression and education. Israeli authorities as well as all major American Jewish organizations have praised our strong resolve. Locally, this consulate has developed very constructive relations with the Jewish community and its leaders;

3) And last, France does not intend to be a counterbalance to the United States. President Bush during his trip to Europe in February expressed his support for a strong European Union because such a strong partner is not only in the interest of Europe itself but also in the American interest. Along with the United States, France aims at solving the pressing issues of this world that no country can face alone. For this reason, it is an active and responsible member of the United Nations, of NATO and of the G8.

Philippe Larrieu
Consul General of France
Los Angeles

L.A.’s Katrina Help

Thank you for Marc Ballon’s article on the communal response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (“Groups Pitch In With Housing, Tuition,” Sept. 16). The most impressive feature of the collection program referenced by Ballon is the fact that it transcends boundaries of synagogues, movements, agencies and institutions. The project, known as Jacobs’ Ladder, is a collaborative effort initiated by the Union for Reform Judaism and its Camp Henry S. Jacobs in Utica, Miss., with local endorsement and assistance from the Board of Rabbis, The Jewish Federation and area congregations. We are especially appreciative of the leadership of Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea and Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple, who have opened their synagogues as central collection sites for this relief effort.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Evacuees All Around

How sad to see the images on TV of the havoc wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast leaving hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. People being forced to leave their homes losing all their possessions (“Going in After Katrina,” Sept 16). People having to relocate in distant cities, communities broken up, livelihoods gone, synagogues and churches destroyed, friends and relatives scattered — 9,000 of our fellow Jews amongst them — all homeless refugees. How our hearts go out to these poor souls.

Our Jewish federations immediately responded by calling emergency meetings to organize much needed relief programs for all the victims of the New Orleans disaster.

How good it is to see that the refugees of an American tragedy draw such an outpouring of concern and action from our Jewish “leadership” — but how sad it is that another 9,000 refugees, our Jewish brothers and sisters from Gush Katif and the Northern Shomron, draw only a deafening silence. No matter where one stood on the disengagement issue — note that the current state of the New Orleans refugees is the same as that of the Israeli refugees. They are all homeless. Our fellow Jews in Israel desperately need our help, too.

Leibel Estrin
Donna Katz
Rochel Shlomo
Helene Wishnev
Pittsburgh, Pa

Rav Ovadiah

In my column last week on Rav Ovadiah Yosef, The Journal dropped his honorific “Rav” and he was referred to merely as “Ovadiah,” which is a discourtesy I would never commit (“We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge,” Sept. 16). Please let your readers know that in the original article I referred to him throughout as “Rav Ovadiah.”

Rabbi David Wolpe
Sinai Temple

Ed Note: The Journal regrets the error. A correct version is online at

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Apparent Allies Might Not Be Our Friends

This week’s Israel Christian Nexus gathering at Stephen S. Wise Temple was intended to rally support for Israel. Its advertised list of speakers included John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and a fair number of prominent local rabbis.

While we share these speakers’ deep concern for the well-being of Israel, we are astonished that our Jewish colleagues have not inquired more carefully into the words and deeds of their Christian co-sponsors.

Are Jews or Israel really well-served, as James Besser asked in these pages this month, by joining forces with the likes of the Rev. Pat Robertson, who not only called disengagement from the occupied territories “Satan’s plan” but had the audacity to urge Jews to accept Jesus as their messiah on his recent trip to Jerusalem?

Before addressing this question in our local Los Angeles setting, we must make clear that we are not blind to attempts by Christians of a different political persuasion to harm Israel by calling for divestment. The Middle East conflict is complex, and both Israelis and Palestinians bear a measure of responsibility for the current dire state of affairs.

Despite the obvious power imbalance between the two sides, the Palestinian reliance on terror, stoked by irresponsible leadership, makes it unfair to hold only Israel accountable in this conflict. We also reject the notion that Israel, in a world tragically full of bad state actors, is the only one worthy of the kind of sanctions being proposed by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and some Anglicans.

Finally, we doubt the efficacy of the tactic of divestment, which we fear will only serve to force most Israelis, including the millions who support a peaceful, two-state resolution to the conflict, into a defensive posture that encourages stasis rather than change.

But our concern over divestment does not and cannot lead us into the arms of those who embrace Jews in order to eradicate Judaism. Our community leaders must wake up and realize that their apparent allies may not, at the end of the day, be their friends.

One need go no further for evidence than the Israel Christian Nexus event, which, remarkably enough, was funded in part by the Jewish Community Foundation. This meeting featured, among others, Christian dispensationalist fundamentalists whose view of Jews, Judaism and Israel causes us great concern.

For example, the event’s honorary co-chair and a featured speaker was Dr. Jack Hayford, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Earlier this month, Hayford served as the co-chairman of the International Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem. It was at that event that Robertson offered his unique view of territorial compromise as “Satan’s plan.”

We wonder if Hayford shares Robertson’s view that decisions of Israel’s elected governments — and the state’s very democratic character — are violations of a grand divine plan that will end with the Second Coming of Jesus.

Would that this were our only question about Hayford. In fact, he and other Israel Christian Nexus leaders are unabashed advocates of converting Jews. This is not wild speculation.

As J. Shawn Landres, a research fellow at the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute and expert on American Protestantism, reported, Hayford has endorsed Jews for Jesus materials, one of which “guides Christians to the heart of the issues that keep Jewish people from accepting Jesus as their messiah, and shows how to develop a faithful, effective and loving witness to them.” Hayford, who founded King’s College & Seminary, lists Jews for Jesus as one of the organizations at which it places its graduates.

But this is not our sole concern about the Christian sponsors of the Israel Christian Nexus. We are also disturbed by the following:


• Simi Hills Christian Church and its pastor, Israel Christian Nexus featured speaker Kevin Dieckilman, were profiled in an October 2003 Ventura County Star article describing Dieckilman’s controversial Yom Kippur service, whose purpose, he admitted, was to “reveal” Jesus to Jews.


• Faith Christian Church’s Web site includes both Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries (a self-described “ministry of evangelism to the Jewish people”) among the missions it supports.


• Shepherd of the Hills Church supports a ministry that targeted vulnerable Russian Jewish refugees for conversion as they migrated through Italy to Israel. It now supports Jewish converts to Christianity in Israel.


• Together for Israel links directly to sites that target Jews for evangelism, including one called Supernatural Ministries to the Jew.

We cannot prevent Christians from actively seeking converts. But we can oppose Christian groups that actively target Jews for conversion. We are disappointed, but not surprised, that the Jewish organizers behind the Israel Christian Nexus project would be willing to work with Christian partners who profess strong support for Israel, but who can hardly be described as pro-Jewish.

Accordingly, we think it is inadvisable and irresponsible for our Jewish community leaders to embrace precisely those Christian groups who not only spin theological fantasies about our disappearance as Jews in the future but actively seek it in the present.

We call upon our esteemed rabbis and community leaders, including our Federation president, to look more carefully at their Christian partners in the Israel Christian Nexus and repudiate their dangerous views.

We count as friends and work closely with Christian leaders who reject the extremes of divestment on the one hand and apocalyptic visions of Jews and Israel on the other. We believe, along with these Christian friends, that there is a middle path, one in which a secure Israel exists along side a viable Palestinian state, and in which American Jews and Christians of good will walk together in peace and respect.

Professor David N. Myers is a member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance board.
Daniel Sokatch is the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Solidarity Makes for Strange Bedfellows

"Anybody who supports Israel will be my friend, even though they may be Christian fundamentalists." — Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air

As Israel enters the third year of the Al-Aksa Intifada, L.A. Jews are reaching out to pro-Israel Christians to express solidarity for Israel.

On Oct. 2, an estimated 1,500 Jews and Christians are expected to attend an evening "solidarity gathering" of The Israel-Christian Nexus, a Jewish community-supported outreach to evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

"I never thought there would be a time when I’d see Christians and Jews hugging each other," said the Rev. George Otis of the Assembly of God in Simi Valley and a longtime Christian broadcaster in the Middle East. "That’s what motivates me — the opportunity to help people in real trouble."

Otis’ Kingworld Ministries is one of 21 Christian ministry sponsors of the Oct. 2 event, which will feature speeches plus music from a combined Jewish/Christian choir.

Long known as a bulwark of Israel’s religious tourism industry, evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants have, in the past three years, become stalwart political allies supporting the besieged nation.

Though politics makes strange bedfellows, and there are those in the Jewish community opposed to the alliance with the Christian right, calling it shortsighted and exploitive, given that these groups ultimately believe that Jews will have to convert in the End of Days.

The last alliance between Jews and Christians in the 1960s was forged from common social goals, when Jews, Catholics and Protestants marched arm in arm during the civil rights movement. But today’s coalition starkly differs, because the very evangelical and fundamentalist Christians that pro-Israel Jews are reaching out to often have very different social values; this is particularly true with Reform Jews who are political opponents of the Christian right when it comes to social issues such as gay rights or affirmative action.

"Jewish coalitions in the United States are formed with other communities on specific issues," said Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple. "People that we work with on social issues are liberal Christians. The people that we work with on Israel issues are fundamentalist Christians. And in these times, when even American Jews don’t visit Israel as tourists, the fundamentalist Christians do, so more power to them."

The Israel-Christian Nexus is being coordinated by two Jewish groups — the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and retired Israel Gen. Shimon Erem’s Promoting Israel Publicity and Education Fund — which currently share a 2002 $50,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. That money is being used to reach out to Southern California’s large but largely unnoticed evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities, according to Lewis Groner, the foundation’s marketing and communications director.

The 28 Jewish sponsors of the gathering include all facets of local Jewish life including 10 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, The Jewish Federation, plus Persian, Russian, Democratic and Republican Jewish groups, the American Jewish Congress and UCLA’s Bruins for Israel. At Thursday’s event, the Rev. Jack Hayford will speak as will Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis such as Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, plus Ambassador Yuval Rotem of the Israel Consul-General in Los Angeles.

Beyond this gathering, the $50,000 grant for the "nexus" work supports a pro-Israel speakers bureau and educational materials about Israel for churches, schools and media. About 20 local, private evangelical and fundamentalist schools will have workshops on Zionist history and the Middle East conflict. The foundation this year also is funding the Holy Land Democracy project, brining awareness of Israel to Catholic high school students and speakers.

"We need to build coalitions where the opportunities present themselves," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

But to Steven Jacobs of Reform Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, the danger of any gathering to create unabashed support for Israel stems partly from how Jews view their new Christian allies.

"There’s a patronizing attitude toward us as God’s children that they [Christians] stand up for us," he said.

To some conservative, pro-Israel Christians, Jacobs said, "Nothing that Israel does is wrong — they’re entitled to do anything they want. There’s a difference between an anti-Semite and a philo-Semite. A philo-Semite is one who loves Jews categorically, and that’s dangerous to me."

Erem, who also has met with Lutheran congregations in Minnesota and Michigan, spoke at pro-Israel evening rallies in Sacramento on Sept. 18-19, supported by Christians and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"We reached the conclusion that it has to be done on a broader base and it cannot rely on a once-in-a-blue-moon appearing in a church," said Erem, who lives in Beverly Hills. "I found out that once the meeting is on a one-to-one basis with pastors and priests, you break the ice and mobilize friendships."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "promised that when he comes again to Los Angeles, he’ll find the time to meet again with Christian pastors," Erem said.

Outreach also is occurring with some Mormons and Eastern Orthodox churches, but Erem said that because the Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal continues to "occupy their attention, for the time I don’t think it would be beneficial to get in touch with them."

But are Jewish members of this alliance being shortsighted, as critics both here and in Israel have claimed? How do they justify the fact that evangelical and fundamentalist support for Israel is based on Christians’ deep hope that a Book of Revelations-predicted, end-of-times future will bring forth a Christianized Israel, with some Jews there, but mostly Christians witnessing the return of Jesus?

"I couldn’t care less what are the ulterior motives of the evangelical community," Erem said. "For the time being, they are a meaningful supporter for the State of Israel."

Many Christians downplay their eschatological plans. Otis, of Kingsworld Ministries, said Christian end-of-time views or even some Christian desires to convert non-Christians, including Jews, are not central to current support for Israel.

"It doesn’t have that as its bullseye — the conversion of Jews but rather the helping of Jews, and Israel, in this hour."

Fishel said he likes his new Christian allies because, "They’ve been very strong advocates on behalf of the State of Israel. They have a very strong sentiment for our Jewish State…. One does not necessarily have to agree with all of their ideological beliefs to work together."

And despite Jacobs’ wariness of Christians who gush over Israel, he has a natural, less politically driven relationship with Church on the Way in Van Nuys — an Israel-Christian Nexus event sponsor.

"We hold High Holiday services at Church on the Way," said Jacobs, who noted he has been traveling recently and was not alerted to the Oct. 2 event. "Had I been asked, I probably would have joined because of my respect for the people at the Church on the Way."

Erem said this will not be the first odd couple sitting together for Israel. He noted that in 1947, "I went to Czechoslovakia for arms. They had probably their own motives, why to provide the arms, but I couldn’t care less because it saved us, it absolutely saved us. We did not look what are the motives of those who supported us. We should not look at what are the motives of those who support us now."

Forging a Common Future

Allies or adversaries? That is the question confronting Jewish and Latino political leaders as they assess the current and future relations of their communities.

Some legislators, such as Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, disagree that Jews and Latinos are at cross purposes politically. Hertzberg points to elected officials such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, a Latino who drew substantial support from the Jewish community.

“The issues that mean so much to Jews, such as education, resonate with Latinos,” Hertzberg said. “I think they see we have a common heritage as immigrants and in places like Boyle Heights, although we don’t live and work and socialize together as much as we have in the past.”

According to statistics from the Los Angeles County Children’s Planning Council, Latinos make up more than one-third of the population of the San Fernando Valley, versus 20 percent of the Westside area (including Santa Monica and West Los Angeles). Most Valley Latinos reside in the area’s northeastern region, including San Fernando and Pacoima, while the Valley Jewish population continues its shift westward.

On the economic front, statistics from the recent Jewish Federation demographic study show a median household income of $52,000 for Jewish families, while the median household income for Latinos as of 1990 was just more than $27,000 (according to a county profile). The county profile also shows 53.5 percent of Latinos employed either in sales/clerical positions or as operators or laborers, with about 11 percent employed in the professions; more than half of Los Angeles Jews hold professional occupations.

Then there is the language disparity. For many Latino immigrants, such as Mary Ballesteros of La Opinion newspaper (who moved to the Southland just eight years ago), Spanish remains their primary language. Thus, Jews — at least those who cannot speak Spanish — and Latinos find themselves communicating at a basic level, if at all.

A few organizations, such as VOICE (an immigration assistance and citizen education group) and the Valley Interfaith Council (VIC), have long worked at bridging the communication gap between Jews, Latinos and other minorities.

“Jews have successfully transitioned from being outsiders to being leaders in government and business,” said Scott Svonkin, a member of the VIC and chair of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). “We have a wealth of experience to share, and it is in our best interest as a minority to help the Latino community succeed by forging a genuine partnership with them.”

“The relationship [between Jews and Latinos] is relatively new, and it doesn’t come from the same place, historically, as black-Jewish relations,” said Barbara Creme, director of the Valley JCRC. “We need to approach this from a different perspective and realize it takes time. The black-Jewish relationship took time to evolve, too, and I think the biggest problem we face is people’s lack of patience.”

To help develop and nurture the Jewish-Latino relationship, Creme last year created the Hispanic Jewish Women’s Task Force with the assistance of Margaret Pontius, community services coordinator of the Guadalupe Center in Canoga Park; Virginia Rafelson of Los Angeles BASE (Basic Adult Spanish Education); and Rayna Gabin, field deputy for City Councilwoman Laura Chick.

Pontius, who supervises a wide range of social-service programs at the Guadalupe Center, said that she found it interesting to compare the different perceptions each group has of the other.

“In the Hispanic community, everything depends on class; they tend to see everyone who is not black or Hispanic as rich and, therefore, don’t want to have anything to do with us,” she said. “I don’t think Jews have an accurate picture, either; they think all Latinos are like their cleaning lady, that they don’t have degrees or are professionals, they don’t care about their kids going to good schools or about art or travel. Both sides tend to lump people together unfairly.

“This group [the task force] has been a real eye-opener for all of us. After a time, each side sees we have the same problems with teen-agers or aging parents or even domestic violence. At that point, it begins to be about women sharing, not Jewish women or Hispanic women or Asian women, but just women.”