AIPAC discouraged Rouhani overture, Rabbi Wolpe says

The pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC “actively discouraged” an effort by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to reach out to Iranian-American Jews in Los Angeles, according to Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe.

During Shabbat services on Sept. 21, Wolpe informed his congregation, which has a sizable population of Iranian-American Jews, that Rouhani had extended a request to meet with several members of L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community, but that AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) had discouraged such a meeting.

“AIPAC was concerned that a meeting would be used for propaganda purposes,” Wolpe told the Journal on Sep. 25. “I was happy to announce that as AIPAC’s position, though I myself didn't take a position.”

AIPAC’s West Coast office declined to comment. As of press time, the group’s spokesman in its Washington, D.C. headquarters had not returned the Journal’s telephone call or e-mail.

Sam Kermanian, senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in Los Angeles, told the Journal that when Rouhani’s office reached out to the IAJF about two weeks ago, “We respectfully declined the invitation.”

“It looked like under the current circumstances any such meeting would easily be misinterpreted,” Kermanian said.

When asked whether IAJF consulted with AIPAC, Kermanian said that his group always consults with AIPAC and other national pro-Israel organizations on major issues, but that IAJF’s refusal of Rouhani was its own decision.

Kermanian added that even after IAJF turned down Rouhani’s offer, “The Iranian mission in New York was still inviting individual Jews to a dinner that the Iranians were hosting for the president.” Kermanian said that as far as he knows, nobody from Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community accepted the invitation.

Wolpe told his congregation that although he was ambivalent about discussing politics from the pulpit and would not give his personal opinion, he “trust[s] the judgment of AIPAC.” Wolpe added that he believed AIPAC was channeling the view of the Israeli government, and in particular Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who regarded Rouhani’s invitation as a public relations stunt.

According to The Guardian, Rouhani was accompanied to New York by Iran's only Jewish MP, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, as part of his efforts to revamp the country's image.

Although Rouhani’s election last June was welcomed as a potentially moderating force in the Iranian regime, he has not refuted the Holocaust denial of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Last week, during an interview in Tehran, NBC news anchor Ann Curry asked Rouhani whether he believed the Holocaust was a “myth.” Rouhani replied: “I'm not a historian. I'm a politician.”

Wolpe told his congregation that Rouhani’s pronouncement on the Holocaust was dubious, at best, and reminded them of Netanyahu’s response: “It does not take a historian to recognize the existence of the Holocaust — it just requires being a human being.”

Netanyahu is clearly skeptical of any sincere political shift in Iran — he has referred to Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”   

Earlier this week, Rouhani used the occasion of attending the U.N. General Assembly to express a more detailed opinion of the Holocaust, telling a group of U.S. reporters that “the Nazis carried out a massacre that cannot be denied, especially against the Jewish people.”

“The massacre by the Nazis was condemnable,” Rouhani said, according to NBC News. “We never want to sit by side with the Nazis. They committed a crime against Jews — which is a crime against Christians, against Muslims, against all of humanity.”

Netanyahu called Rouhani’s speech a “cynical PR charade.”

Knesset hearings on J Street up ante in debate about ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ lobby

Is turnabout fair play when Israel examines the critics who would examine its actions?

Groups on the Jewish left expressed outrage last week after the Knesset subcommittee on public diplomacy voted to convene hearings on J Street, the Washington-based lobby that calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace.”

The hearing is set to take place next week, and J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami and Davidi Gilo, an American Israeli who is a major funder of the group, have agreed to testify.

“We believe such a Knesset discussion is unprecedented in the history of Israel,” J Street said in a statement. “It appears to be one more regrettable step by a small but growing group of anti-democratic forces in Israeli politics to limit debate and to intimidate those with whom they disagree.”

The reference to “one more regrettable step” was to Knesset hearings that would have targeted Israeli nongovernmental organizations tracking Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quashed those hearings after complaints by mainstream pro-Israel groups that targeting human rights watchers undercut Israeli democracy.

Unlike the NGO hearings, the J Street hearings do not appear aimed at placing legal limits on the group’s activities in Israel. Rather, suggested Israeli Knesset member Otniel Schneller of Kadima, they are about clearing up whether or not J Street is misrepresenting itself when it calls itself pro-Israel.

“I asked for the hearing not because of the content of J Street’s beliefs, but because I want to look into the commitment of Jewish love and support for Israel,” Schneller told The Jerusalem Post. “If they don’t love and support Israel, then they should not present themselves as pro-Israel.”

Likud’s Danny Danon, the chairman of the Knesset subcommittee that will be holding the hearings, plans on asking Kadima Knesset members who attended J Street’s conference last month about their participation in the event.

“During the midterms, we saw congressional candidates lose elections partially because of their support for J Street,” Commentary magazine blogger Alana Goodman wrote. “But is this a sign that J Street is now starting to hurt politicians on an international level?”

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said the hearings on J Street are a bad idea.

“I would hope that the Israeli Knesset had better things to do than hold hearings on American Jewish organizations or American organizations,” he told JTA. “It’s inappropriate, it’s counterproductive—it’s beyond their purview and jurisdiction. There’s nothing positive that could be achieved from any of it.”

But Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said the hearings could be clarifying. He referred to revelations last year that J Street got a big chunk of its funding from George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who has been harshly critical of successive Israeli governments.

“It’s fine for Israel to determine who is behind this organization, who is funding it, for people to know,” Klein said.

The goal of the hearings seems to be to create an atmosphere that would discourage any Israeli affiliation with the group, J Street backers warn.

“After aggressively attacking dissenting voices in Israel and trying to suppress diversity at home, some Israeli legislators are now extending their intimidation campaign across the ocean,” said Debra DeLee, the president of Americans for Peace Now. “The attempt to delegitimize an American organization that supports Israel and works tirelessly to engage tens of thousands of Americans in pro-Israel activity is bad for Israel.”

New lobby launches tougher love for Israel campaign

The new European Jewish lobby JCall launched a campaign calling for tougher love for Israel.

The European Jewish Congress sharply criticized the campaign, called “European Call for Reason,” saying it represents a minority view.

In releasing a petition with nearly 4,000 signatures, JCall founders urged Zionists around the world to press for a two-state solution. The organization repeated its call at a news conference Monday at the European Parliament, pushing for critical support for Israel along the lines of the U.S.-based J Street “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby.

Several prominent Israelis lent their support during the news conference, including historian and peace activist Ze’ev Sternhell; Avi Primor, former Israeli ambassador to Germany; and Elie Barnavi, former Israeli ambassador to France.

Moshe Kantor, head of the European Jewish Congress, said in a statement issued Monday that it was “clear that this petition represent[s] a small minority opinion of European Jewry, while the great majority, as represented by the democratically-elected body representing European Jewry, the EJC, strongly believes that now is the time to place pressure on the Palestinian side to negotiate directly with Israel in a meaningful way, and to combat the existential threats in the Middle East.”

JCall supporters told JTA that they thought many more interested Jews would make themselves known.

“We voice what many think and feel privately,” Rabbi Tuvia Ben-Chorin of Berlin told JTA.

Following the news conference, JCall offered workshops in which its supporters discussed concrete plans for future activities in Europe, according to founding member Michele Szwarcburt of Brussels.

Biden and the Jews: Strong ties and friendly disagreements

DENVER (JTA)—Before he announced his vice presidential pick on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said he wanted someone to spar with but who ultimately would be loyal enough to create a comfortable working relationship.

No one knew then that he had picked U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), 65, but his ISO ad fit Biden’s relationship with the Jewish community perfectly.

The loquacious Biden, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1973, has sparred frequently with the pro-Israel community and with Israelis, particularly on the issue of settlements. But he has a sterling voting record on pro-Israel issues, and has as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee helped shepherd through key pro-Israel legislation.

His straightforwardness is considered an asset, even among those supporters who have disagreed with him.

“He’s open minded, he votes his own conscience,” said Gary Erlbaum, a Philadelphia-based real estate developer who has backed Biden among other politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. “I don’t always agree with him” but “he does not try to sugarcoat.”

Biden has been especially sharp in criticizing the U.S. and Israeli failure to support Mahmoud Abbas in 2003, when he was the Palestinian Authority prime minister attempting to establish a power base to challenge then-president Yasser Arafat. Abbas was eventually sidelined by Arafat, allowing the Palestinian leader to continue his policies of corruption and stasis until his death—and creating a vacuum ultimately filled in large part by Hamas terrorists.

Biden’s longstanding relationship with the Jewish community should reassure Jews who still feel anxious about Obama, who has deep ties to the Chicago Jewish community but who has been on the national stage barely four years, said Cameron Kerry.

“I’ve seen the enormous respect he commands in the pro-Israel community,” said Kerry, himself a convert to Judaism and a senior adviser to the 2004 presidential campaign of his brother, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).“He has a well-established record, he knows the issues, and he can talk the talk. He’s may be the best goyische surrogate I’ve seen in the Jewish community.”

Biden’s son married into a Jewish family, but his keen interest in the region dates back to his first visit as a U.S. senator, not long before the 1973 Yom Kippur. He met Israel’s then-prime minister, Golda Meir.

He came away from that meeting understanding that “there is this inextricable tie between culture, religion, ethnicity that most people don’t fully understand—that is unique and so strong with Jews worldwide,” Biden said in an interview with Shalom TV last year, when he launched his own presidential bid. “When I was a young senator, I used to say, ‘If I were a Jew I’d be a Zionist.’ I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.’”

Mark Gittenstein, who worked for Biden from 1976-1989, said no one matched his breadth of knowledge on Israel—not even his Jewish staffers. “He was much more knowledgeable about Israel and its problems than I was.”

Biden has a keen understanding of the Holocaust, partly because of his relationship with Tom Lantos, the late California Democratic congressman who was the only Holocaust survivor elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Biden hired Lantos as an adviser in the late 1970s, a leap into politics that led the Hungarian-born economist to consider a political career.

At a memorial service for Lantos in February, Biden cracked up the somber crowd recalling how Lantos marveled at his son-in-laws very Middle American names. “My daughters married Aryans,” Biden recalled Lantos as saying.

More substantively, his tutoring by Lantos led Biden to take the lead on genocide issues, and he is currently a champion on efforts to isolate Sudan over the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians in its restive Darfur province.
“Any country that engages in genocide forfeits their sovereignty,” he said to applause at a National Jewish Democratic Council presidential candidate forum last year.

Obama, who has been outspoken in opposing the Iraq war, had considered a number of centrist and conservative Democrats as running mates to balance his own dovishness. Picking Biden, also a war critic, allows Republicans to describe the Democratic ticket as much of a muchness.

Among Republican Jews, that means scoring both men for opposing some of the tougher anti-Iran measures embraced by the Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and some Democrats, including Obama’s chief primaries rival, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)

“With the selection of Senator Joe Biden as Senator Obama’s vice president, the Democrats’ ticket has now become an even greater gamble for the Jewish community,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement Saturday, hours after Obama made his announcement. “Biden has failed to recognize the serious threat that Iran poses to Israel and the US and its allies in the Middle East.”

In response, Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that focusing on recent differences over nuances regarding Iran policy missed the larger point of Biden’s long years of commitment to Israel.

“The RJC would criticize the Democratic pick for vice president if it was Ben Gurion,” Forman said. “There is no one you could possibly pick who knows the issues, who is committed to Israel’s security and knows Israeli leaders as much as Joe Biden.”

Congress OKs bill barring military chaplains from mentioning Jesus in official prayers

Congress OKs bill barring military chaplains from mentioning Jesus in official prayers
The U.S. Congress rescinded language in Pentagon orders that allowed military chaplains to mention Jesus in official prayers. Controversy over including similar language in the Defense Authorization Act, a critical spending bill, dogged attempts to pull the bill out of a Senate-House conference committee before Congress recessed for midterm elections.
The conferees ultimately decided to strike the language and order the Pentagon to rescind its earlier instructions. Mikey Weinstein, a former U.S. Air Force officer who led the battle to remove the language, applauded the decision.”We welcome the opportunity Congress has afforded to discuss the appropriate role of religion and chaplains in the military,” Weinstein, who is Jewish, said last week in a statement issued by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which he founded. “The passage of this bill will be a victory for those of us who have been fighting so assiduously to protect both the rights of the men and women in our armed forces and the United States Constitution.”

Austrian extremists gain in elections
Two far-right parties with a history of anti-Jewish rhetoric made gains in Austrian elections. National elections held over the weekend saw a 50 percent rise since 2002 elections in the percentage of votes for the Freedom Party and the Alliance for Austria’s Future. Members of both parties have expressed antipathy toward Israel and are known for their campaigns against Muslims living in Austria.
The left-leaning Social Democrats won the election with nearly 36 percent of the vote, followed by the center-right People’s Party with 34 percent. The Freedom Party came in third with 11 percent, and the Alliance for Austria’s Future, run by right-wing extremist Jorg Haider, received 4 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats and People’s Party are expected to form a governing coalition.
Federal legislation Includes grant for Federation model elderly care program
A Jewish federation model to facilitate care for the elderly in their home communities will be included in federal grant legislation. The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for North American federations, launched the “Aging in Place” initiative in 2002, helping 40 communities in 25 states obtain federal dollars for naturally occurring retirement communities.The model was featured in a U.S. Senate hearing this year to consider re-authorization of the Older Americans Act. As a result, a federal grant program for the retirement communities is included in language agreed to by House-Senate conferees.
Swiss stage pro-Israel rally
Approximately 3,000 demonstrators held a pro-Israel rally in the Swiss capital. Saturday’s rally in Bern called for the Swiss government to support Israel’s right to exist and show solidarity with the Jewish state’s fight against terrorism. Twenty organizations signed a resolution urging the government to refuse negotiations with terrorist groups that reject the existence of the Israeli state.

British House of Lords member faces probe by party over Israel lobby remarks
A member of Britain’s House of Lords will be investigated by her party for comments about the “pro-Israel lobby.” Liberal Democrat Party members have announced that Baroness Jenny Tonge’s position in the party will be reviewed in response to her public remarks.
In a speech that recently aired on BBC Radio, Tonge said, “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its [financial] grips on the Western world. I think they’ve probably got a certain grip on our party.”
More than 20 of her peers in the House of Lords wrote a letter to the Times condemning Tonge’s comments, stating, “Baroness Tonge evoked a classic anti-Jewish conspiracy theory,” and that her language “as a member of the House of Lords, was irresponsible and inappropriate.”
In early 2004, she was fired from her position as Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on international development for saying she could understand why a Palestinian would become a suicide bomber and also that she would consider becoming one were she a Palestinian.
Remains of Czech Jewish graveyard found
Evidence of a medieval Jewish cemetery was discovered in the Czech Republic.Researchers from a preservationist organization in the city of Pilsen say they found documents in the city archive revealing details of what they believe was one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Czech lands in the 14th century.
The cemetery’s existence was already known, said archaeologist Radek Siroky of the West Bohemian Institute for Heritage Conservation and Documentation, but the new documents reveal more specifics about its location.
He said that only excavations, approved by religious authorities, could provide more details about the cemetery’s size and the nature of the Jewish community there.
Briefs courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Memoirs From the Orthodox ‘Minefield’

A quick surf on or a stroll through the local bookstore suggests that we are living in the era of the political memoir. Anyone with enough time to wade through at least a sampling of the abundant “I was there” autobiographies from Beltway vets will end up not only with a better understanding of how the American policy sausage is made, but also with a more intimate portrait of the public servants who do the actual grinding.

Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of an editor at a Jewish newspaper, our communal leaders traditionally don’t do memoirs. The result is an incomplete record of a community that operates a multibillion-dollar charity network, has helped frame the debate on domestic issues from civil rights to church-state separation and wields increasing power on the international stage.

The ideal choices to rectify this dearth of insider memoirs would be juicy tell-alls from Abraham Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein. But for now, Dr. Mandell “Mendy” Ganchrow’s recent “Journey Through The Minefields: From Vietnam to Washington, an Orthodox Surgeon’s Odyssey” (Eshel Books) serves as a good first step.

A retired colon-rectal surgeon, Ganchrow arguably has done as much as anyone else to transform the Orthodox community into a growing political force in American and Jewish communal life. From his base in Monsey, N.Y., Ganchrow founded the pro-Israel Hudson Valley PAC, which, under his leadership, became for a time the country’s 100th-largest political action committee. He also helped open the door to significant Orthodox participation in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington. During his six-year stint as president of the Orthodox Union (OU), from 1994 to 2000, he put the organization on the national political map by opening its Washington office and increasing its profile on a range of public-policy issues.

All this, of course, is fleshed out in Ganchrow’s book, as is his role as a leading American Orthodox opponent of efforts by Reform and Conservative rabbis to secure government recognition in Israel. (Of particular interest is his account of a top-secret meeting between representatives of all the denominations and the Israeli chief rabbis, apparently the only meeting in 20 years in which Ganchrow had nothing to say.)

The book’s most dramatic sections come at the beginning and end, with the opening pages recounting Ganchrow’s tour of duty in Vietnam and the second-to-last chapter outlining how he led the OU as it was engulfed by a sexual abuse scandal not of his making.

In Vietnam, in 1969, Ganchrow, then a U.S. Army surgeon stationed at the American base at Long Binh, found himself leading a Passover seder for 400 GIs. Suddenly, in the middle of the meal, enemy rocket fire hit just 500-1,000 yards away. It stopped just as quickly, but no one could be sure what would happen next.

After thinking for a few seconds, Maj. Ganchrow jumped up onto the table and shouted: “Men, I am the ranking officer in this room. I give you my solemn word that God will allow no harm to befall you if you now perform the mitzvah of sitting back down and finishing the seder.”

Ganchrow would execute a similar maneuver almost a quarter-century later, with the OU reeling from an article in the New York Jewish Week alleging that union officials had spent two decades ignoring credible sexual assault allegations against Rabbi Baruch Lanner, its top youth group leader. With some other prominent OU board members advocating a closing of the ranks, Ganchrow, who to this day insists he learned of the allegations against Lanner from the Jewish Week article, argued that such a step amounted to organizational suicide. Instead, he successfully pushed for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the scandal and to issue a report.

The ensuing investigation led to the resignation of the organization’s top professional, Rabbi Raphael Butler, and the commission’s scathing report appears to have gone a long way toward rehabilitating the OU’s public profile. Still, according to some unofficial estimates, the commission ended up costing $1 million; and some critics on the board still believe that the whole mess could have been settled had Ganchrow simply fallen on his sword and resigned (though this strikes me as a case of wishful thinking). Today, according to Ganchrow, he is essentially a persona non grata in OU circles (and the feeling is apparently mutual, judging from his critique of the direction taken by the organization since the end of his two-term stint as president).

Whether one looks at Ganchrow and sees an endearing streak of spunk or a grating case of stubbornness, he has often proved himself an effective Jewish activist and organizational leader. In addition, it is hard to dispute that the OU appears to be recovering from the Lanner scandal in large part because of Ganchrow’s decision to create the commission and appoint Richard Joel, now president of Yeshiva University, to be its chair.

Of course, this last point probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to any of the American boys sitting at the Passover table in Southeast Asia in 1969, when the Ganchrow gambit was attempted for the first time.

All the soldiers stayed till the end of the seder; no casualties were reported.

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.

Ami Eden is national editor of The Forward.